They Didn’t Understand It: Lena’s Top Ten Films* of 2017

At the time I’m writing this, half my face is bashed and bruised from a random bike accident, flush with scars, stitches and abrasions. The injury is a nuisance. The forthcoming vehicle repair fees are a small impediment. Quite frankly, I couldn’t ask for a better visual allegory for what living in 2017 has felt like.

I know. It’s been a charming year. Our world’s suffered so many tragedies and outrageously evil actions that you’ve probably forgotten about most of them. The concept of the cinema as an outlet for escapism has become hollow, as it’s not particularly entertaining for studios to pretend that things aren’t as terrible as they actually are. Cinema as therapy, as righteous protest, as barbed indictment and as open, productive conversation; that’s what has lent me vitality and reason amidst the chaos. If the recurring theme across many of my favorite films of 2017 is “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE,” I’m at least unsure if that’s something to dread or patiently await.

Even outside my Top Ten, there are plenty of films shining a positive, or precautionary, path forward. We’ve seen both sumptuous (Professor Marston and the Wonder WomenLovesongBeach Rats) and tensely ambiguous (The BeguiledThe DemonsLady MacbethRawUna) wranglings with sexuality. Plenty of films have vividly depicted hard-luck life at the fringes lovingly (Logan Lucky) or unnervingly (Good TimeStarless DreamsWestern).

Grief, trauma and inextricable past pain have been consciously worked through onscreen (Casting JonBenetThe Meyerowitz StoriesHeal the LivingThe Work). Some works have just been committed, refreshing performance pieces (Contemporary ColorMaria Bamford: Old BabyPatton Oswalt: AnnihilationSnowy Bing Bongs and Paul Thomas Anderson’s HAIM collab Valentine).

A handful of TV shows delved bravely into sexuality (The Girlfriend ExperienceI Love Dick), hopelessness (Steven Universe), the rotting foundation of the nuclear family (Rick and Morty) and gender performance doubling as stage performance (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). And then there’s Lorde’s Perfect Places music video, as opulent and stained with melancholy as anything I’ve seen this year. Each of these at some point, in some element, to some degree, threatened to slip into my Top Ten.

And this *is* a Top Ten list. It contains seventeen titles, but it’s still a Top Ten list, I promise! More accurately, and honestly, it’s three Top Ten lists, melded together for the sake of… well, other peoples’ potential parameters. I know plenty of people who would gladly get into a shouting match over what is or isn’t film or TV, and I get that from a “we don’t try to steal your thing; stop trying to steal ours” perspective, but for me all audio-visual media feels of the same piece. Can I proclaim something is absolutely, unequivocally a TV show and still put it in my list with that asterisk?

Even by those parameters, though, I have at least one obvious cheat that simply felt too essential and personal to me to dispense with. Accounting for the surplus, I suspect some might be frustrated by a Top Ten consisting prominently of not just allegedly non-film works, but also some films that most won’t get a chance to weigh in on until next year, all the more so since there are notable releases from *this* year I still haven’t caught up to. So including my personal ten, three films I have to replace the non-big-screen picks, three U.S. releases to fill in for the unreleased, and one extra startling work of television, it all comes out to a tidy seventeen. You can see the breakdown of all three Top Tens at the bottom of the page.

Or it’s all just bullshit so I can bloat this to seventeen and not feel like I’m over-indulging, which I totally am. It’s my list, and I’ll cheat as ludicrously as I want to.

Wanted to See, But Missed:

  • The Breadwinner
  • A Fantastic Woman
  • Felicite
  • God’s Own Country
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Last Men in Aleppo
  • Loveless
  • Phantom Thread
  • Quest
  • The Wound

Lena’s Top Ten of 2017

17. Girls: American Bitch (Richard Shepard)
HBO | 26 min.

You can always rely on Lena Dunham to ruin her own standout year by saying something absolutely deplorable. Given her defense of an accused rapist on the show’s writing staff, I wasn’t sure if it was right or at all appropriate including anything from the final season of her acidic, transparently sardonic HBO show. In light of the accusations that have emerged over the past few months, though, I felt I had to include the bottle episode American Bitch, especially since every minute feels like a razor-tongued condemnation of the bullshit its star and writer has been spewing recently.

A 26-minute conversation between Dunham’s self-obsessed conduit Hannah and an acclaimed author modeled conspicuously after beard-stage Casey Affleck – the episode hit pointedly just before his controversial Oscar win – American Bitch trots out many of the intense conversations had when someone revered is accused of sexual misconduct. Within the ethically ambiguous world of Girls, every heated exchange cuts with a double-edged blade, finding time for unsettling sympathy and queasy condemnation towards a monster. Richard Shepard’s tightly cloistered, amusingly narcissistic design perfectly captures that contorted feeling of reconciling someone you admire with their horrifying actions which we’ve all felt to some degree over the past several weeks. For better or worse, it’s the moment I’ll inevitably remember most from Dunham’s fascinating, retrospectively upsetting series, all the more so for how ironically she’s destroyed her own credibility, and damaged the lives of others in the process, since then.

16. Ma vie de courgette (Claude Barras & Celine Sciamma)
GKIDS | 70 min.

It’s been such a mild, safe year for animation that the best is inevitably a transplant from last year. Emotionally disarming with every deceptively simple detail, director Claude Barras and writer Celine Sciamma have a sharp, honest understanding of how children process and internalize trauma. “He did gross things to her,” troublemaker Simon says of one kid’s troubling past before cutting to an image of legs tangled in jump-rope. In a single image, the harrowing depths of psychological pain are bluntly, yet so carefully, explained. The children may have cartoonishly simplified ways of describing presumably adult concepts, exploding wieners and all, but Sciamma and Barras never condescend or imply they’re incapable of understanding what they’ve been through or the unspoken psychological or sexual confusion they’re going through.

15. Thelma (Joachim Trier)
The Orchard | 116 min.

At the heart of most queer romances to date is a sense of paranoia. Is this real, or just in my head? It’s a question Joachim Trier’s Thelma rather thrillingly refuses to answer, leaving us adrift in the terrifying ambiguity of not knowing how valid or rational our deepest, rawest desires are. The daughter of intensely imposing parents, Thelma is a frigidly blank slate. Her bookcase is empty. Her bed is spare. She has all the signs of someone whose aggressively critical parents never allowed her to discover her own personality. When she develops a crush on a fellow student, that ingrained shame deforms her fiercest desires into something violent and cruelly self-punishing. Like Blue is the Warmest Color crashed head-on into CarrieThelma shows us just how powerful and world-shaping queer desire can be and how self-defeating helicopter parenting can be when it refuses to let children grow and change on their own.

14. The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro)
Fox Searchlight | 123 min.

Systems of oppression have always been in the lush background of Guillermo Del Toro’s cinema. In Blade II and Hellboy II alike, his characters find themselves stifled by the systems ostensibly giving them sanctuary. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are much more expressly political depictions of fantastical resistance. In The Shape of Water, every character dances and grapples with the suffocating systems that surround them, crafting an exquisite ensemble study of how resistance takes both private and public forms.

It’s also a whimsically delightful fairy tale about a mute girl (an absolutely delightful Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a fish-man, her elderly gay roommate coming to terms with the loneliness he’ll likely have to live with the rest of his life, a Russian spy who finds himself caught between loyalty and his own strongly-held morals, and the American spy who finds himself torn to pieces by his unblinking fidelity to his own cold, artificial system. It’s Del Toro’s most loving, compassionate film to date, finally finding the ideal marriage between his grandiose design sensibilities, his ardent love of cinema, and his impishly macabre delights.

13. Good Luck (Ben Russell)
Undistributed | 143 min.

“I remember everything. The place of my birth, my childhood home. It is all gone, it is in the pit now.”

Everything that most film drama takes place outside – work, labor, the strive to keep one’s livelihood – is front and center in Ben Russell’s lightly experimental documentary about two mining colonies. In Serbia, men drill deep underground, dwarfed by cold darkness surrounding them, their machines lensed with the portent and immensity of the lifters from Aliens. In Suriname, men walk through open landscapes, feet wobbling against the vast swaths of mud they trudge across each day to operate machines manually, roughly. Ben Russell’s most immense feature works in the simplest, most elemental of details as he translates miners’ often exhausting physical labor into a kind of artistic self-expression all their own. This may not be their joy, it may pull them away from their families, but it’s their lives’ work. There must be some beauty in it.

12. Gemini (Aaron Katz)
Neon | 93 min.

The marketing for Aaron Katz’s L.A. neo-noir Gemini has captured the film’s somnambulant atmosphere and startlingly efficient thriller tension, the dreamy gloss Katz filters his story through. It struggles, though, conveying the screwball highs that accent its dreamy, contemplative lows. An almost heavenly genre film about a socially suffocated movie star (Zoe Kravitz) and her best friend/assistant (Lola Kirke), Gemini moves suddenly from a nourishing, woozily atmospheric hangout comedy into an electrifying murder mystery when the movie star winds up dead the next morning. At once in thrall to Los Angeles’ neon demons and wary of their destructive potential, Katz is able to craft a startlingly genuine, sharply entertaining modern noir classic.

11. 120 Beats Per Minute (Robin Campillo)
The Orchard | 140 min.

That 120 Beats Per Minute isn’t a massive sensation will never cease to dumbfound me. Perhaps the title is a bit schematic. Perhaps people just don’t want to be reminded of AIDS and the plight of gay people. To my mind, though, BPM is the most thrilling, exhilarating action film since Mad Max: Fury Road. An epic caught at the conflicted intersection of the personal and the political, no film about the AIDS crisis has so potently captured what it feels like to realize you may be just another casualty of a longer-term crusade; that you’ll never live receive the justice you’re fighting for, and struggling to find the resilience and passion to keep on fighting with that knowledge. It’s as profound a depiction of what loss feels like in a community as I’ve ever seen, because Campillo realizes that it’s never just one death. Each person has their intimate, specific, tightly held feelings, just as genuine as the last person. It’s a revisiting of heartbreak over and over again, and then utilizing that grief to keep on fighting; keep on dancing, in spite those left in the black.

10. Un beau soleil interieurs/Bright Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Sundance Selects | 94 min.

Leave it to Claire Denis to make a romantic comedy as devastating and formally severe as Trouble Every Day. A surprisingly episodic film about a nearly middle-aged woman’s sexual and romantic misadventures, you’d expect about 30 minutes in that it’d do what most rom-coms do and settle around a single suitor, perfectly matching the passion and vim of Juliette Binoche. I know, fat chance, right? What Denis settles into, instead, is an amusing circuitous journey through several different crude, indecisive or just suspiciously nice men.

It’s easy to see write off Isabelle’s travails as marred by universally mediocre men whose romantic advice unilaterally comes down to “You should be with someone with all my personality traits”. After a charming, melancholy tinged encounter with Denis’ eternal heartthrob Alex Descas, though, it becomes clear Isabelle’s own romantic indecision is its own existential crux. “Tend to what matters: Yourself,” a love mystic tells her at the close of a hysterically dismissive credits sequence. The ache of Bright Sunshine In comes from the knowledge that so few of us ever do.

9. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
Grasshopper Film | 130 min.

If Nocturama starts out as an electrifyingly efficient thriller, following the intricate, indulgently hyper-specific details of a terrorist attack, it ends as a profoundly bleak satire of terrorism. “It needed to happen, and now it has,” a surprisingly nonplussed bystander says of the chaos that grips Nocturama‘s Paris. That certainly doesn’t capture the solemn feeling of most living in the wake regular mass shootings, but it keys into the materialistic apathy and restlessness that compels such aimless individuals as our batch of teens to break through stasis in sometimes sickening ways. There’s something deliciously florid about how the wannabe terrorists very quickly undercut their own attempts to hunker down after the attack by cutting loose with lip-sync drag, Willow Smith and a rather poorly timed shopping spree. It’s at once bemusing and horrifying, and ends in an inevitable, but nonetheless brutal finale that amplifies the trivial nature of terrorism.

8. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion & Ariel Kleiman)
Sundance TV | 352 min.

A decade away from film has yielded two of Jane Campion’s most compelling works of cinema. With Top of the Lake: China Girl, Campion has yielded her embattled, traumatized heroine an iconically elliptical detective for the ages. Darker, sillier and more mordantly comic than the majestic first entry, the noir underworld Campion conjures with Kleiman finds fractious personal details amidst the seedy squalor of Sydney, Australia. The whole series walks a delicate tightrope of understanding and undermining its characters’ claims to legitimacy, be it the tight-lipped parental warfare between Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman, Alice Englert’s character’s naively altruistic handling of her own destiny, David Dencik’s by-turns monstrous and tortured brothel landlord, or Gwendoline Christie’s ostensibly dangerous, unconsidered handling of her own pregnancy. Sparks fly between all combatants, but Campion never tips the scales in any direction. Everyone’s convictions are rendered both important and petty as they struggle to find a toehold that keeps them from slipping into the depths of their own conflicted psyches.

7. MASSEDUCTION (St. Vincent)
41 min.

It’s not a film. It’s not even *remotely* film-like. Then why was St. Vincent’s latest album one of the richest cinematic experiences I had this year?

There’s something to be said for giving voice to a sense of hopelessness in a way that inspires hope and emotional catharsis. There’s an undeniable well of loss and depression in MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent’s most pop-infused, but also most melancholic album to date. Plenty of seemingly peppy tunes end on lyrics like “We’re not meant for this world,” “Everyone you love will all go away,” and defiant swells of “It’s not the end”. Hell, one of her songs is straight-up titled “Fear the Future”. Still she glides along, from dazzling electronica to somber piano, from “New York” to “Los Ageless” – one of the underpinning themes of the album may be the loneliness city life can engender – each song deepening Annie Clark’s overall tone of desperation and confusion about the future, about how cruelly, shockingly finite and sad our existence might be. “I try to write you a love song, but it comes out a lament,” she murmurs at the close of one song, perfectly capturing the conflicted tone of the album. That statement can describe a lot of works in 2017, aiming for enthusiasm before slipping into unavoidable sadness.

6. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
Wolfe Releasing | 96 min.

What does it mean for a film to be good? Not just qualitatively, but kind, considerate and nourishing towards both its audience and its rich characters. I don’t wanna keep dragging Luca Guadagnino with Cone’s mastery year-after-year, but just as Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party was the swimming pool thriller of last year, this is the blissful summer romance I wish were getting as much attention as Call Me By Your Name, all the more so for how the queer relationship isn’t even the central dynamic here. Not to undercut Malic White’s plucky, charismatic performance as an adorably turned-on barista the titular garden princess develops an instant, yet deepening, bond with. One particular scene shines a light on the kind of casual domestic abuse many women are pressured to endure in silence. In any other film it would be the powerhouse peak. In Princess Cyd, it’s one of many battles women often quietly fight in pursuit of joy.

Where Cone’s film surprisingly soars is in the relationship between sexually-fixated teen Cyd and her religious, novelist aunt Miranda (Jessie Pinnick and Rebecca Spence, respectively, turning in the carefully compassionate performances of the year). Their divergent interests offer plenty awkward attempts at bonding, as they tease and undercut each other in the small, naturalistic ways we all do. Tensions never considerably rise, but each is slowly compelled to respect each others’ joys without dismissing them as lesser. Both are given room to grow or not grow in certain directions, depending on how much they genuinely want to. By the ultra-silently heartbreaking final scene, you could see this lovely interlude becoming either the start of something very good, or just another encounter that changes us in small, incremental ways, but maybe not gravitational ones.

One thing’s for sure: I’ve never felt such a strong desire to Celine and Jesse a duo over the years as I did with Cyd and Miranda.

5. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
A24 Films | 115 min.

What do we do to maintain childhood as a sanctuary? As a fantasy where chaos reigns, yet nothing bad happens. That’s one of the interests on Sean Baker’s mind in The Florida Project, a film that careens furiously with the bright, ebullient energy of its child leads, yet also feels considered and immaculate in every image. There are three significant “adults”, to varying degrees, in The Florida Project: Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager Bobby, whose rough exterior belies a guardian’s compassion for his youngest tenants, Mela Murder’s Ashley, a mother who takes her kid’s indiscretions as a cue to cut ties with toxic influences, and there’s Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose version of sanctuary is a childish wonderland where both mother and daughter are given free reign to be immature.

All the adult conflict rests on the periphery for Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), whose constant, often worrisome misadventures barely register as cause for punishment to her mom. Life may be carefree and spectacular, free from consequence, but damages always add up, even when crammed out of view. Some of the most beautiful moments of The Florida Project involve Moonee simply taking a bath, the scandalous events that may or may not be happening in the next room barely kept out of view. So much of The Florida Project‘s power comes from its final stretch, where all the built-up chaos comes crashing down to destroy the characters’ lives. In a single moment, a fantasy curdles into a horror story, before a denouement that struggles in vain to repair a shattered paradise.

4. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
A24 Films | 94 min.

I’m convinced the titular character of Lady Bird has no idea of the historical origins of her self-given name. I say this as a former teen girl who, to my massive, ongoing embarrassment, insisted my filmmaking class call me Wolf Blitzer, naively certain that the name couldn’t possibly belong to a boring, frustrating newscaster.

Greta Gerwig’s first solo-directorial effort is very much about the time we waste trying to warp our identity to fit our desires. Its main character is a mix of inextricable quirks and tendencies and every detail of class, sophistication and coolness she wears after each conflicting decision of who she wants to be. “I’m from the wrong side of the tracks.” “What I really want is to be on math Olympiad.” “I want to go where culture is, like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.” None of these is a formed or deeply considered direction; same as most detours our teen years take us down.

Gerwig’s films are always in thrall to their characters’ irresistible charisma and force of will, at least up to the point that life and class restrictions resist them. Beyond its title characters’ restless energy is an inescapable sense of melancholy underpinning so many of the characters. Her mother faces the financial burdens of her daughter’s ambition. Her father struggles with depression and unemployment. Her drama teacher, played by Stephen Henderson, deals with his own private existential crisis by staging an adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along. It doesn’t matter how far Lady Bird follows her flights of fancy, her class escalating schemes or her intricately self-curated identity. The wreckage of our lives is still left there waiting for us when we’re done pretending it’s not ours.

3. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Paramount Pictures | 121 min.

I saw mother! shortly after being asked to leave a living situation. I was staying with friends who were eager for me to leave. Even before that, I’d spent a year sleeping on couches while struggling in vain to find an affordable place to live in Boston. The idea of home has been an uneasy, aspirational one for me, and if any of mother!‘s flexible allegories stick most with me, it’s what it feels like to lose your home, as both physical and emotional sanctuary. And yeah, it’s also a fabulously demented horror spiral where a woman’s house is brutally fractured, pulped and dismantled in shockingly, yet somewhat hysterically, apocalyptic fashion, where Kristen Wiig’s disarming presence may be the most demented thing about it.

Darren Aronofsky’s bluntness as a filmmaker has often been a source of criticism. If mother! is his most polarizing film to date, that’s maybe because he’s never made a film so embarrassed of the oppressive ego of its maker. Forget Aronofsky’s insistence that it’s a metaphor for mother nature. The true terror of mother! isn’t simply how people keep invading Jennifer Lawrence’s privacy and humiliating her for not being a more gracious host to a party she didn’t agree on. It’s the critique of an unbalanced marriage, where the obsessive artist ignorantly thinks he can keep starting over without having to change himself, and where a woman has no stake in the house she built. Even in its most elaborate, ludicrous, overt hysterics, the focus remains on the intimate, personal conflict of a woman afraid of her husband’s capacity for careless destruction.

2. Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
Strand Releasing | 115 min.

I hope one day I can pair this with James Gray’s The Lost City of Z – one of last year’s absolute beauties, released early in 2017 – as both are feverish tales of men begrudgingly following their political and social systems’ bidding and necessities to their own destruction. For Gray’s film, though, there’s an honorable sense of devotion to an ideal its lead will ceaselessly search for, but never quite attain. In Zama, the colonialist system the titular corregidor serves has all but obliterated his hopes of returning home to his family, simply by him being a servant of it. Obviously there’s no equality to the ways the servants and victims of colonialism are punished by the toxic system. After all, Diego de Zama has a title, a position, be it a meager and ultimately draining one.

All are poisoned by it, though, as Zama gradually learns through the film’s rather immaculately stifling first half, as the conditions of Zama’s residency become all the more ludicrous. Llamas enter unnoticed into ostensibly serious political meetings, wooden crates seem to move on their own and ghosts wander in and out of rotting South American infrastructure. Such ludicrous travails become bewitchingly normal, mustily mundane, until Zama’s life spirals into one last desperate quest for a redemption lost when he pledged himself to a system that cares not for his name or his troubles, only about its violent supremacy. Looking at it now in a time of similarly inane political upheaval, its most nihilistic statement feels bitterly instructive to today. “I say ‘No’ to your hopes.”

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch)
Showtime | 1,014 min.

“What year is this?”

The dumbest conversation you can have about Twin Peaks: The Return is whether it’s TV or Film. By whatever name, nothing in 2017 has so viscerally captured the trauma, terror or delirium of this year. Reclaiming his iconic series after a emptily convoluted second season and a startling, but flawed feature, David Lynch not only gets back to the deformed process of grief that made the first season so bizarrely wrenching, but finesses and updates the lingering ideas, motifs and characters of Twin Peaks into a fitfully horrifying look at the decaying values and everyday tragedies of rural America. On top of everything, he’s also able to squeeze a blaring, cathartic concert film into his deranged framework.

The series may be anchored by an absolute powerhouse turn by Kyle MacLachlan – by-turns terrifyingly stilted, charismatically winning, adorably, yet morosely, oafish, and at times a rather chilling combination of the three modes – but everything that makes The Return such a startling, singular portrait involves all the smaller crises on the periphery. Paradise is shattered, if you’re naive enough to believe it existed in the first place, and each character is looking at the world aghast, as if it hasn’t had the same capacity for toxic masculinity, abhorrent violence and even more chilling apathy. Some of the interludes are hilariously inane, some shockingly brutal and disturbed, some even more disarmingly blissful and some simply heartbreaking as we look at the toll time has had on characters already warped by trauma.

And yeah, The Return does offer us a return of the characters we knew and loved, but almost always refuses to give them any reassuring sense of closure. There’s never any real closure from such immense, life-destroying personal and cultural trauma grief. You can imagine a sickly external evil that we can cartoonishly punch into shards with a Hulk-hand, but the real horror is what stays inside you. Lynch may offer us moments of bliss, of ludicrous climax, of delightful absurdity, but by the end he still forces us onto all fours, crawling across a crowded dance floor, music blaring, staring and screaming into a void of eternal displacement.

Personal Top Ten Films” Only Top Ten U.S. Release Top Ten
#10. Bright Sunshine In
#9. Nocturama
#8. Top of the Lake: China Girl
#6. Princess Cyd
#5. The Florida Project
#4. Lady Bird
#3. mother!
#2. Zama
#1. Twin Peaks: The Return
#10. Good Luck
#9. Gemini
#8. 120 Beats Per Minute
#7. Bright Sunshine In
#6. Nocturama
#5. Princess Cyd
#4. The Florida Project
#3. Lady Bird
#2. mother!
#1. Zama
#10. Ma vie de courgette
#9. Thelma
#8. The Shape of Water
#7. 120 Beats Per Minute
#6. Nocturama
#5. Princess Cyd
#4. The Florida Project
#3. The Lost City of Z
#2. Lady Bird
#1. mother!

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