While it may not have seemed so at the time, 2017 proved to be one of our most celebrated years, tying with 2014 with sixteen titles. If you look at the box office charts, they’re again dominated by franchises and blockbusters with the number one film being the only selection from the top 20 on our own list. It caused no end of consternation as a vocal minority complained loudly about its tone that said, explicitly, throw away your expectations come along for a new ride.
Other megaproductions didn’t fare quite as lucratively, but they made up for that in artistic merit. Villeneuve’s once again on this list with a work that, in this writer’s opinion, surpasses the celebrated original that it built upon. At Sundance came a sun-dappled film about young love that felt like a visit to the Riviera, while at Cannes a gritty and beautifully realized look at the urban poor was a stark contrast to the conspicuous wealth displayed on the Croisette.
A celebrated scribe showed that even late in career masterpieces could be generated, while a sketch comic upended genre cinema with his acerbic take on the Stepford Wives shtick. A couple brothers that spent their childhoods spread between Queens and Manhattan took an idolized actor and put him through hell. Lynne Ramsay did something not dissimilar with her own celebrated lead, and an indie darling set out on her own and flew with her solo directorial debut. A figure skating film was perhaps the year’s greatest wonder, mixing documentary and bleak, black comedy in ways that astonished.
Quebec showed that Canadian cinema still had plenty of bite, while a sequel involving a cuddly bear was even more delightful on revisit. A film about race and revenge divided audiences but proved to have lasting impact, while another iconoclastic director set forth a film whose tailoring draped as beautifully as any.
The top award at Cannes went to a wonder of metaphysics and mayhem set within the world of contemporary art, where the top Oscar went, preposterously enough, to a film about fish fucking, shot right here in Toronto and bringing just a dash of delicious GDT weirdness to the world stage. (JG)
Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner holds a special place in the hearts of many cinephiles, so when a sequel was announced, the news was understandably met with concern. Somehow, Blade Runner 2049 offered a thoughtful sequel that succeeds on its own. It’s the rare film that advances world-building without treading on what made the premise intriguing to begin with. The artistry on hand, ranging from the breath-taking production design to Roger Deakins’ cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s score creates a fully-realized Los Angeles of 2049. As pretty as the aesthetic are, BR2049 is on this list because it confronted bitter truths of the 21st Century where the hero doesn’t always win and fighting resembles crawling toward a finish line. A large battle looms against K (Ryan Gosling), but he recognizes that even if you don’t win the war, one small gesture can make a difference. Even in a cold, impersonal world. (CB)
Call Me by Your Name
This lyrical, bittersweet film about an intense first love between teenage Elio (Timothee Chalamet in his breakout role) and grad student Oliver over the course of a summer in Italy deserves to be on this list just for gifting us the Armie Hammer Dancing meme alone. But the real genius of this movie is the way director Luca Guadagnino keeps it light. It’s so important for LGBTQ people to get a love story that doesn’t end in tragedy, violence, or death, but instead offers representation without recrimination.
I can’t speak about this movie without noting that Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father, was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for his extremely affecting final speech to Elio, in which he delicately acknowledges what Elio is going through and gives him the gift of what every teenager dealing with grief over lost love needs to hear: it will get better. For me, that’s the best part of the movie and the thing I’ll never forget, even though I may never look at a peach the same way again. (JB)
If you took the entirety of Paul Schrader’s career and distilled it into one pagan scream, First Reformed would be it. Despair was at the forefront of most of 2018 and it was difficult to keep the darkness at bay. Climate change, disease, and famine are always present thanks to the ubiquity of social media and the internet. Ethan Hawke’s full-bodied turn as Reverend Toller is arguably the best work of his career. A man prone to long bouts of suffering is presented with the chance to make his mark, but given the distortion of religion in today’s age, is this truly what God would want of Toller, or a projection of his suffering? Schrader delves into the big questions for most of First Reformed’s running time right before he delivers an ending that leaves much to the imagination, but soothes like a balm on our frazzled nerves. In times like these, sometimes that’s all we really need. (CB)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out gets more chilling with each subsequent viewing. Though the comedic beats lull one into a false sense of security, this is a genre-bending horror film first and foremost. One ripe with social commentary that not only explores the way black bodies are exploited, but also exposes the hypocrisy of supposed liberal minded allies. What Peele achieves with Get Out is remarkable. His film taps into overt and subtle racism that black individuals encounter daily; and the genuine sense of dread that people of colour feel when in situations where they are clearly viewed as “the other.” It is why audiences audibly gasp when the cop car shows up at the end; they know how this situation usually plays out. Filled with tension and several nods to America’s turbulent legacy with racial injustice, Get Out is a brilliant conversation starter that satisfies regardless of whether one is a horror fan or not. (CS)
Chaos in the underbelly of crime has never felt more personal than in Good Time. The Safdie brothers’ take on incompetent criminals who are brothers as well takes dark turn after dark turn until there is no possibility for a happy ending. Though the broad description of the film may not seem exceptional, the beauty of Good Time is in the execution. You feel every mistake and misstep along with Connie (Robert Pattinson) and, best of all, you care what happens to him and his brother next. Sinking into their web of mismanagement leaves you feeling like you need to take a long hot shower, in the best way possible. (DC)
I -love- I, Tonya. It’s A wonderful hybrid between documentary truth and heightened fiction, a case study in how to delve deep into a story that the audience thinks they already know, peeling layer after layer away until the rawness of the narrative is exposed. A midnight-black comedy, Craig Gillespie’s film (based on a script by Steven Rogers) uses its two main weapons – Margot Robbie as the titular Tonya, and her driven, diabolical mother LaVonna (an Oscar-winning turn by Allison Janney) – in supreme ways. The story cuts through audience preconceptions with the sharpness of skate blades, going beyond the headlines and presenting a near mythic tale of hubris, fit for even the historic Olympians, resulting in a veritable ode to self-doubt, athletic prowess and human frailty. This is no milquetoast apology or hit job, but instead a film of astonishing nuance, providing a far more considered take than any news clip. Tonya helps one question their own prejudices that are brought to bear, and in so doing leaving us as unsettled and yet satisfied as only the best can do. The judges agree – Tonya takes 10/10 for both technical and artistic merit. (JG)
I was never a seventeen-year-old girl, but if I ever was, I would have been a lot like Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical sophomore feature Lady Bird is one of the decade’s best coming-of-age movies. Gerwig tells a highly specific tale about a teenage theatre kid living in Sacramento, but still touches on universal themes to which we can all relate: family, friendship, sex, and stumbling through life trying to figure out who we are.
Also working in Lady Bird’s favour is its cast of breakout stars and Hollywood veterans. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are in top form (obviously), and Saoirse Ronan has never been better. But most impressive is Gerwig’s eye for casting up and coming talent. Don’t be surprised if ten years from now, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet become Hollywood royalty, Gerwig is the next PTA, and Ronan is the second coming of Meryl Streep. Long live Lady Bird. (VS)
Les affames / Ravenous
One could say that the safest place to hide from the zombie apocalypse would be a barren theatre screening Canadian cinema, but that implies that films like Les affamés get released at all. Despite being the best Canadian horror film in years and having Brigitte Poupart wield a machete like a mofo, this seemingly viable Québécois horror show couldn’t even get a theatrical release in Canada outside its native province. The film envisions zombie horror to spin regional representation on its head. The silence that once felt refreshing now sounds downright chilly, while the beautiful woods are haunting landscapes of death. This reinvigorating horror flick chills the blood with its disquieting ability to drop terror into familiar terrain. Aubert’s film is a chilling tale about the abandonment of regional communities. It’s also a bravura feat of small-scale filmmaking as the natural elements of the woodland landscape become canvasses of terror and dread.
Don’t forget to breathe while diving into this fable of cultural survival. Aubert’s use of zombie tropes and bucolic images create the perfect metaphor for rural Quebec in a divided Canada. Communities are abandoned and left for dead as the metropolitan centres consume without care. Perhaps our collective failure to take notice of Les affamés is telling. (PM)
The search for home and family may not be a universal experience, but it is a universal feeling. Longing to belong and to be loved is a yearning that every single person has had for at least one fleeting moment. This comfort is at the core of Paddington 2, though it is disguised in a silly little kids’ caper about a mildly competent bear.
The rise of Pixar has shown us that kids’ movies need not talk down to children nor be boring for adults, and this live-action tale of a bear and his acquired family is the most shining example of that. Paddington and his family get into all sorts of shenanigans as they look to find a stolen gift and apprehend the evil bad guy. The story is interesting and the characters charming, but Paddington 2 never even dares to think of itself as anything less than a cinematic expression of love and family, regardless of the intended age of the audience. It is unafraid of showing its glowing emotions and being a beacon of hope in a dark and gritty world. [DC]
Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. With these characters, Paul Thomas Anderson toyed with the role of dominants and submissives by focusing on conflicts between rigid men. Phantom Thread upended that dynamic by having Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma Woodcock (Vicky Krieps) occupy both roles interchangeably. The devotion that Reynolds, a dressmaker, gives his work does not allow for adjustments to his routine. Alma, undeterred by his monk-like existence, seeks to shape Reynolds just as he does her. In a riotous dinner that rivals Dodd’s vulgar lambasting of a journalist in The Master, Reynolds demands to know if Alma has been sent to ruin his life. Deep down, Woodcock knows that they truly deserve each other, even if they both bristle at the slightest attempt at provocation. “In his work,” Alma narrates, “I become perfect.” Reynolds needs someone who views his craft as instrumentally as he does. And the work is simply astounding. Phantom Thread may contain the most toxic relationship committed to film, but Anderson imbues it with an empathy one wouldn’t think possible in such a tale. (CB)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” With those words, uttered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), director Rian Johnson signaled that he was prepared to take the Star Wars universe into a completely new direction, internet fanboys be damned. The Last Jedi is the most racially diverse Star Wars film to date, and it prominently features more women in leadership roles than any other in the franchise. But more radical even than that is the squashing of fan theories around Rey’s lineage. For seven films, the mythology of the Skywalker line held. “Who were Rey’s parents?” The Force Awakens teases. “Who cares?” The Last Jedi answers. It explodes the mythos of inherited Jedi abilities and proposes the very Buffy-like theory that anyone, from anywhere, even a nobody from the most garbage planet in the galaxy, can be a Jedi. This controversial departure from (fan) canon revolutionizes the franchise and opens it up to entirely new possibilities.
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of the film is also what makes it particularly relevant now, and elevates it to one of the best of the decade. Rather than just showing us a battle between good versus evil, as every other movie in the series does, it pulls back the curtain to reveal the banality of another kind of evil: those who profit from conflict and refuse to take a side. It’s a departure from the usual Star Wars: Bad vs. Good narrative, one that asks for a more mature and subtle interpretation from its audience: a Star Wars movie for grown-ups. (JB)
The Florida Project
Showing a child’s life through their eyes is an incredibly difficult needle to thread, but this film achieves just that without becoming maudlin or sentimental. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in a rundown motel near the Magic Kingdom and eke out an existence on the very fringes of society. For Moonee, summer break means endless days to fill with adventures alongside her friends, but the film doesn’t idealize this. Yet this is not a depressing tale. The children aren’t neglected; they’re loved and cared for by their primary guardians, and also watched over by the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe in possibly the greatest performance of his career). It’s a brilliant film from co-writer and director Sean Baker that not only shows us what it’s like on the margins of the US economy, but that the most important thing for a child is that they are loved. (JB)
The Shape of Water
Of all of the films to make this list, The Shape of Water is the most unabashed love letter to cinema. Director Guillermo del Toro has had a lifelong love for the silver screen, and every frame of this fantastical love story showcases his affection for the medium that loves him back. Sally Hawkins stars as the mute Elisa who works as a cleaner at some massive, shady organization. When that business acquires an aquatic humanoid (played by the always magical Doug Jones), the fishman and Elisa see something in each other that no one has ever seen. Their connection is sexual (which drew a touch of negative criticism at the time of release), but is also a deep, soulful attraction that defies words.
Layering atop this mythic love tale is del Toro’s unmatched skill for creating magical worlds. Sure, it looks like a slightly fictional version of our reality, but the beauty and lush surroundings of even the most pedestrian apartments and offices are a testament to the director’s attention to detail and commitment to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. (DC)
Making fun of art is an easy target, so it’s a testament to The Square that the true butt of the joke is not art or even artists, but rather the people who have turned art into a commodity. The story is straightforward and ridiculous: Christian (a wonderfully frazzled and eminently bangable Claes Bang) is the chief art curator at a prestigious Stockholm museum and his personal life is falling apart as he attempts to maintain his professional composure. He’s being interviewed by Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American journalist, in advance of the museum’s new high profile exhibit, which winds up being both hilariously on the nose and incredibly offensive.
The Square capitalizes on the perceived absurdity of the modern art world in a scathing, satirical way that is accessible and savvy. The humour is simultaneously low and high-brow; it is both obvious and subtle. One dialogue-free sequence features a cleaning woman vacuuming up a pile of refuse before realizing that it is actually part of an art piece. In another scene, Anne’s interview with Christian in the foreground is repeatedly undercut by a stack of chairs threatening to collapse in the background. And in the film’s most memorable sequence, an artist performs a sexually suggestive and aggressive spectacle that goes on for an uncomfortably long time for both the cinematic audience and the people watching in the theatre.
The Square is unapologetic and unafraid. It is confrontational, challenging, and bemusing in equal measure – the rare politically-charged film that truly offers something for everyone, even (or, perhaps, more specifically) if you hate art. (JL)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards might be a controversial pick, but that’s the Martin McDonagh way. The Irish writer-director goes dark – and I mean really dark – in the tragicomedy filled with taboo subjects and unlikable characters. McDonagh builds upon his dark comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, ditching the more outright elements of comedy (and Irishmen) for this oft bleak tightrope walk between grief and gallows humour. Is Sam Rockwell’s police officer Dixon a racist? You bet, but he’s written and portrayed in a very humane way. Frances McDormand’s bereaved mother Mildred is as unsympathetic as they come, but that’s what makes her performance, and Rockwell’s, so great. Throughout the course of the film, each of these inherently flawed people begin a journey, not to redemption, but to change and forgiveness, not so much of others, but for themselves. (RW)
You Were Never Really Here
A brief moment in You Were Never Really Here nearly captures the spirit of the entire film. Just as Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves a building and walks down an alley, we see a pile of dead rats against a wall. As soon as that the pile of death and decay is out of frame, Joe looks down at it and calls the audience’s to the unremarkable and unseeable. This is the power of director Lynne Ramsay’s control over what we see and what we do not see. There will be horrors that are not apparent to the audience, and perhaps unknown to Joe, but Ramsay is the conductor for her symphony of chaos. She has utter control of every frame and every shadow.
This spiral of trauma leads Joe along a somber and sobering journey to help reunite a young woman with her family. Just like those dead rats, the truth is always outside of the frame for Joe. No measure of brutality and sleuthing will let anyone escape this web unscathed. You Were Never Really Here breaks your heart in every possible way. (DC)