The DeFacto Film Reviews chief film critics, Robert Butler and Noah Damron share their favorite films of the year.
As the country continues to be more divisive and polarized everyday than it has in decades, people still went to the movies to escape and to maybe relish. The art house films released films felt like a call to action, while the bigger blockbusters while exuberant, felt more ambitious and sophisticated than before. 2017 was mainly a year of the masters, where we received new works from Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Davies, Sofia Coppola, Olivier Assayas, and Agnes Varga who all proved that they still have it. There were many stellar films in 2017, in fact there will probably many you will feel we left out. Whatever you feel we omitted, please seek these essential films out.
Robert Butler’s list
#1 – The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker)
The very best film of 2017, Willem Dafoe gives an authentic performance to a film that echoes the traditions of Italian Neorealism. The film is raw and honest, not to mention a very heartbreaking examination of a forgotten, or rather neglected part, of America. The film examines the harsh realities of poverty, even when it’s surrounded by commercialism of Disney World. The film is also critical of bureaucracy with it’s condemnation of the state attempting to stand in people’s personal choices that involve survival. The film left me crushed with it’s deep empathy and honesty. Writer-Director Sean Baker is a humanistic storyteller and this is the empathetic story audiences need right now.
#2 – Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
“Phantom Thread” provides a counterpoint to the idiosyncrasies and mystery of P.T. Anderson’s recent previous films like “Inherent Vice”, “The Master”, and “There Will Be Blood”. Although it retains the same majestic visual artistry of his earlier, more accessible work, “Phantom Thread” is his most controlled and personal work to date. It is also his most complex and a unique meditation on love as it examines the both constructive and destructive power of love, desire, passion and how it effects individuals who are either introverted or extroverted. This is a stunning cinematic achievement by one of America’s greatest modern filmmakers.
#3 – The Beguiled (d. Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola made history this year by being only the third female director to win the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and sadly her retelling didn’t get nearly as much Oscar attention as many of the other inferior Oscar titles, and this film is vastly more artful. A taut and engrossing 90 minute suspense thriller is filled with great performances from the primary cast of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, and Ell Fanning. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd does wonders with the 35 mm/ 1:66 ratio with diffused lighting, combined with ravishing candles and fog has created one of the most ravishing and aesthetically impressive films of the year. Sofia Coppola once again proves to be a master director and storyteller, and “The Beguiled” is easily one of her finest films to date.
#4 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos uses his distinctive style of surreal deadpan humor, isolation, and disturbing imagery and this times amps it up even more in forms of craft and execution, this time his direction is in the realms of Kubrick and Michael Haneke, and every bit as allegorical and ambiguous. The film is a dark fable about a heart surgeon (Colin Farrell) who gets cursed by a teenager (Barry Keoghan) for the revenge of his father after a heart surgery goes awry. The films allegory if focused around Greek mythology and the story of King Agamnon, who was cursed to sacrifice one of his daughters. The film has impeccable craft, brilliant directing, and a climactic finale that is difficult to shake off. This is one unforgettable film that’s a cult hit in the making.
#5 – Call Me By Your Name (d. Luca Guadagnino)
A masterful study of first love, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” is a lush and intimate love story that will blow you away. The exploration of Luca Guadagnino’s visionary romantic tale is so affectionate and warm, and so honest and real. Every moment in this film is honest and sincere, there isn’t one false move in this film. The Italian countryside here is luminous and the hot summer and sweaty faces and bodies is a great metaphor for the romantic tension the characters are enduring and discovering to unleash. The performances by Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are stellar, and Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a deeply engaging monologue on acceptance. Chamalet and Hammer have great onscreen chemistry, and the film has a beautiful blend of naturalism and style.
#6 – A Quiet Passion (d. Terence Davies)
Working from an original screenplay about the life and the work of legendary poet Emily Dickinson, whose vast body of work was left mostly unpublished and undiscovered in her lifetime, Terence Davies “A Quiet Passion” is a shattering and heartbreaking exploration of an artists suffering that is shaped by rebellion and not conforming to societies standards and norms. Cynthia Nixon is wrenching as Emily Dickinson, her performance here is filled with a lot of raw emotion and repression, and British auteur Davies evokes a lyrical dreamy imagery and execution to the world of Dickinsons contradictions, internal conflicts, and vulnerabilities. It’s surprising that we never had a film before about Emily Dickinson, but Davies here does it with such balance, attention and care.
#7 – Personal Shopper (d. Olivier Assayas)
A film that only gets better upon repeat viewings, Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” has a unique and brilliant blend of Bergman and Hitchcock, while at the same time Assayas pulls it off as unique and fresh while maintaining a beautiful balance of suspense and characterizations. The staging of the scenes are masterful, how many films can pull you in with such suspense with just text messaging? The haunted house sequences are creepy, thanks to the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux who also shot Assaya’s 2015 masterpiece “Clouds of Sils Maria” which I named the best film that year. Kristen Stewart’s acting here is top-notch and her performance is filled with so much uncanny emotion and rendered with such courage and bravery. The film is a masterful study on many things, such as guilt, loneliness, and how ones loneliness gravitates them to technology that will only lead them to information on the forgotten, old world. This is a film that merges the horror with the art-house, and the way it unfolds is liberating and refreshing.
#8 – Nocturama (d. Bertrand Bonello)
A film about a group of teenage terrorists that plot an attack on Paris is a tough sell, yet this is one brilliant examination of youth decadence and self-destruction and also a allegorical tale about extremism. A griping film from start to finish, and not to mention very stylized with impressive visual techniques, with brilliant long takes, camera moves, and beautiful execution. The film is very influenced by George A. Romero’s, in which it takes place mostly in a mall, and the characters endure hardships and tension for rest of the story. All around this is one stunning achievement, and Bertrand Bonello could very well be an auteur in the making.
#9 – Blade Runner 2049 (d. Denis Villenueve)
Clocking in at over 163 stylish minutes, “Blade Runner 2049” is a visionary and a deeply philosophical film of visual boldness and rich artistry. This follow-up should have the staying power of the breakthrough original, but it’s clear that this film has no intentions of being a cash grab, or does it have any interest in being just another nostalgic fan boy film. While many reboots or long-spaced sequels mix familiar themes and characters from the originals to give the fans a comforting level of nostalgia, Denis Villeneuve and team instead gives the film greater ambitions and the final result is remarkable. This is one of the most ambitious, artful, and challenging big budget films of all time. A film that raises a lot of questions on what it means to be human.
#10 – The Lost City of Z (d. James Gray)
James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” is a film of deep ambition and scope. The film, which is based on real events is about a British explorer who attempted to discover a lost city in Bolivia that is hidden deep in the Amazon. The film feels very vivid and real, almost as if you are transported into a place of conquest and discovery. The Amazon jungle feels hot and exhausting, you can feel the bugs and discomfort. It certainly echoes the earlier work of Werner Herzog. The film has a high measure of class and deeply compelling emotion that captures the emotional complexity in Gray’s previous two masterworks “Two Lovers”, and “The Immigrant”. Gray crafts the film with a multi-layered spiritual existentialism that is very mature and euphoric. Gray’s vision impresses once again with boldness and grandeur.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
Faces Places (d. Agnes Varda & JR)
The great Agnes Varda is considered one of the greatest female directors of all time returns in documentary fashion. Now in her late 80’s, collaborates here with co-director JR together as they travel the French countryside, searching out the remains of a once-thriving working-class. Reflecting on her own sorrows of her regrets and guilt and the uncertainties that lay ahead of present day Europe, Vargas explores how the healing power of art can uphold human decency. Overall this is a very personal work.
A Fantastic Woman (d. Sebastian Lelio)
Chilean writer-director Sebastian Lelio deeply empathetic look at a transgender woman, Marina who is grieving the death of her boyfriend who faces prejudice from his family has a great mix of honesty and melodrama. In fact it echoes the mature melodrama of Pedro Almodovar’s greater work and the dreamy visual richness of Luis Bunuel. The film is very much a polemic on acceptance, and also a poetic exploration on individualism. All around the film is a fantastical and equally authentic film, and newcomer Daniela Vega screen presence is radiant and charming, she is a star in the making.
Lady Bird (d. Greta Gerwig)
Writer-director Greta Gerwig film “Lady Bird” is deeply personal and very autobiographical, and many who will watch it, especially women will relate. The film takes place in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California during the early 2000’s, where 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” (Saorise Ronan) has goals of leaving and moving out to New York City. Gerwig’s characters feel fresh and real, and the relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is complicated but honest. A film that could be easily be accused of being full of itself is rendered with sincerity and grace.
Loveless (d. Andrey Zvaginstev)
A follow-up to his 2014 masterpiece “Leviathan”, and in many ways a companion piece, or rather a trilogy that began with his 2012 brilliant “Elena”, Andrey Zvyaginstev once again declares criticism of the corruption of modern Russia’s government and society. Borrowing the tropes of Hitchcock, the film is about the disappearance of a child that becomes a procedural all done with astounding skill and artistry. Like “Leviathan” and “Elena”, the film is another ominous study at the politics and struggles between the classes and the authorities, and a deep empathetic look at societies cores. The films aesthetics are pleasing and it always powerfully delivers. It’s a mediation on guilt, negligence, and relationships. Overall the most devastating, yet one of the more important films of the year.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (d. Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s hilarious but equally angry film is his sharpest to date. While keeping the dark humor alive that made “In Bruges” so refreshing, this time has delivered a film with many great exchanges, payoffs, and arcs. A morality tale about grief and trying to find justice is very refreshing, and it’s frustrating that there are detractors out there criticizing McDonagh for building empathy for a racist idiot named Dixon (played to perfection by Sam Rockwell). Good films have character arcs and growth, and Dixon’s arc is one of redemptive balance and empathy.
Alternative Top 10 (Other strong titles of 2017–In Alphabetical Order)
Columbus (d. Kogonada)
Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan)
Get Out (d. Jordan Peele)
Graduation (d. Cristian Mungiu)
I, Tonya (d. Craig Gillespie)
The Meyorwitz Stories (New and Selected ) (d. Noah Baumbach)
Mudbound (d. Dee Rees)
Raw (d. Julia Ducournau)
The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo del Toro)
The Square (d. Ruben Ostlund)
Twin Peaks: The Return (d. David Lynch)
While I am not adding it into my official top 10, I just had to make a mention of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return”, which is more than a mini-series, it’s a triumphant cinematic piece of art. It’s been labeled a long 18-hour film that is meant to be watched, discussed, and processed in small doses instead of being binged. Anyone looking for concrete answers and conclusions will find it frustrating, others willing to go on the journey will find it hypnotic, rewarding, and profound. The last 2 episodes of the series explored the literal forces of good vs evil, yet Lynch opened up a lot of complex metaphors and fascinating questions on time, space, fate, and determinism for the series as a whole. Even if we’re liberated and spared from evil forces, are some of us doomed no matter what? Are some of us destined to be self-destructive? Reflecting back at much of the series, it explored how one tragedy or misstep can lead to much more suffering and agonies for many, and that humanity and communities are all connected by certain chain reactions for years and even decades after. While good triumphs over evil, and the awful realities that occurred are left reinvented, or rather remade and re-winded, David Lynch along with co-writer Mark Frost refuses to wrap everything up in a pretty bow. Lynch asks some fascinating and metaphysical questions that generate great after thoughts. Despite what anyone thinks of the conclusion, just look deep into these questions Lynch has raised. All around this is one ambitious work of art, a work of art that defies the label of being called “mini-series”, or “a long movie”. All around “Twin Peaks: The Return” is a towering artistic achievement that is the true cinematic achievement of 2017.
Noah Damron’s List
#1 – Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan)
My favorite film of 2017 is without a doubt, “Dunkirk”. Christopher Nolan’s take on the heroic WW2 rescue mission is an absolute masterpiece in visual storytelling. Forgoing the traditional narrative, Nolan tells his story from three different perspectives; the land, the sea and the air, all while taking place in different time frames. It’s a $100 million experimental war film that ranks among the best the genre has ever seen. Nolan throws us right into the middle of the action and doesn’t let us go until the credits roll. Normally that would grow tiring, but Nolan balances moments of sheer terror with sequences of heroism that prove to be some of the most moving in Nolan’s filmography. With plenty of jaw-dropping practical action sequences— shot in brilliant 70mm IMAX— and some of the best filmmaking this century has seen so far, “Dunkirk” succeeds in electrifying both your heart and your mind.
#2 – A Ghost Story (d. David Lowery)
David Lowery’s mesmerizing tale of heartbreak and grief had me compelled from the very first scene. This meditative story of time, death, loss, heartbreak and legacy as told from the perspective of a ghost, is truly a one-of-a-kind film. “A Ghost Story” is the kind of film that requires you to sit and digest it once it’s over. One of the many relatable themes it touches is that of legacy and wanting to keep a part of you behind for future generations. The final moments of the film are so emotionally rewarding that it’s hard to remember the last time I walked out of a theater feeling like I completed a years worth of therapy in 90 minutes.
#3 – Get Out (d. Jordan Peele)
“Get Out” is genre filmmaking done to perfection. One of the most striking directorial debuts cinema has seen in quite some time, Jordan Peele crafts a tense, no-holds-barred satire on race in modern America. Peele’s writing is incredibly dense, with layers unfolding with every scene. It’s a film that requires more than one viewing. The ensemble cast, lead by Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, give flawless performances. “Get Out” is the film that had everyone in 2017 talking and actually has the power to change the way some people approach certain topics.
#4 – mother! (d. Darren Aronofsky)
Perhaps THE most divisive film of 2017 goes to my #4 pick. Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream, “mother!” is baffling, it’s crazy, it’s thrilling, it’s stomach-churning, it’s also a work of mad genius. Lead by Jennifer Lawrence, in what might be her best performance, “mother!” is a ferocious biblical allegory that also touches on the creative process and ego of acclaimed creators. This is also Aronofsky exercising his rage at our world’s current climate. I found myself thinking about this film long after I had seen it, and even though it’s not the easiest film to watch, something about it makes me want to go back and revisit it again and again.
#5 – It Comes At Night (d. Trey Edward Schults)
One of the more divisive films among critics and general audiences in 2017 was my #5 pick, “It Comes At Night”. Directed by Trey Edward Schults, “It Comes At Night” is a quietly chilling film that reflects on the human condition, as opposed to the blood-soaked horror film most audience members expected when they bought a ticket. Schults takes us — the audience— and drops us into a situation with practically no backstory and forces us to learn what we can right as the characters learn it. We know only as much as they do and this makes for a consistently gripping and horrific psychological thriller about the fear of the unknown and at what point do nightmares and reality begin to intertwine.
#6 – Call Me By Your Name (d. Luca Guadagnino)
Perhaps one of the more personal and absorbing films about first love to come along in quite awhile, “Call Me By Your Name” takes you on a journey of self-discovery in the summer of 1983. What begins as a subtle and graceful look at awakening desire, eventually becomes a tale of emotionally heartbreak. Director Luca Guadagnino takes you on a journey where you feel every emotion flowing through our lead, Elio— terrific newcomer Timothee Chalamet. The rest of the cast all do incredible work, not to mention a moving and powerful, third act monologue delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg.
#7 – Blade Runner 2049 (d. Denis Villeneuve)
What was at one point seemingly blasphemous to even consider making, is now one of cinema’s shining examples of smart, adult Science Fiction. “Blade Runner 2049” is what happens when you make a sequel that honors the original films legacy, while also furthering the mythology and telling its own unique story. Director Denis Villeneuve is at his best with a philosophical story that keeps you engaged throughout its large, 163-minute runtime, along with jaw-dropping cinematography from legend, Roger Deakins.
8- The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo Del Toro)
Guillermo Del Toro’s loving homage to classic cinema is every bit as strange, absorbing and masterful as you would hope for. Sally Hawkins is irresistibly compelling as Elisa, a mute janitor at a top-secret government lab who falls in love with the lab’s captive sea creature. Mixing elements of 50’s Monster Movies, French New Wave, Heist films and even a beautiful black-and-white musical number, “The Shape of Water” is a film that shouldn’t work, but due to Del Toro’s impeccable craft, it astonishes.
#9 – I, Tonya (d. Craig Gillespie)
I was fortunate enough to see this film at the Toronto International Film Festival where I walked in completely blind and discovered one of 2017’s most unexpected gems. “I, Tonya” takes a story you think you know all about and challenges you to re-think it all. With a storytelling narrative similar to that of a Coen Brothers film or Scorsese epic, we— the audience— are given an abundance of narrators and view points that the film sorts out until we’re given the closest thing to the truth. Margot Robbie gives the performance of a lifetime as Tonya Harding and Allison Janney, who plays her hard-edged mother, is equally impressive. It’s a film with many emotions that has no desire to keep them at bay.
#10 – Raw (d. Julia Ducournau)
The feature film debut from writer/director Julia Ducournau, “Raw” is a French film about a young vegetarian girl who develops an appetite for human flesh after a college hazing ritual— if you’re going in expecting a violent horror film after that synopsis, you’re terribly mistaken. While there are some shocking gross-out moments, “Raw” is very much a coming-of-age story with elements of David Cronenberg-style body horror. Ducournau uses cannibalism as a sharp metaphor for sexuality and womanhood, as our lead heroine learns to cope with her new-found carnal desires. This a lurid, funny and smart debut from a director whose future endeavors are something to keep an eye on.
*Streaming on Netflix now*
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (d. James Gunn)
With an emphasis on character development as opposed to mindless action, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” builds upon the first film’s charm with an inventive sequel that features some great action sequences, trippy visuals, a fantastic supporting performance from Michael Rooker and a genuinely emotional finale.
Gerald’s Game (d. Mike Flanagan)
What could’ve been a simple thriller— a woman is left handcuffed to bed after her husband dies of a heart attack during their attempted sex game— is so much more with Mike Flanagan’s brilliant Stephen King adaptation. Carla Gugino gives one of 2017’s best performances as a woman who not only must attempt to escape her inevitable doom, but must finally empower herself in order to come to terms with her childhood abuse. Consider this the best Stephen King adaptation of 2017.
Novitiate (d. Margaret Betts)
Margaret Betts’ directorial debut, “Novitiate”, set in 1964 about a group of young women training to become nuns in a convent, somehow manages to be one of the most engaging films of 2017. Like “Full Metal Jacket” in a convent, “Novitiate” finds this small group of young women struggling with their faith, sexuality and femininity, all while doing their best to stay out of the wrath of the church’s Reverend Mother, played brilliantly by Melissa Leo.
Baby Driver (d. Edgar Wright)
Edgar Wright finally made his box-office smash with the incredibly original and wildly entertaining, “Baby Driver”. Uniquely set to a killer soundtrack that compliments the plot, the film delivers on all front. It’s funny, features incredible action, it’s suspenseful and even romantic. Wright solidifies himself as one of Hollywood’s most original and entertaining filmmakers.
Personal Shopper (d. Olivier Assayas)
Lead by a career-best performance from Kristen Stewart, “Personal Shopper” is a strange blend of several different tones, but ultimately comes together in a suspenseful and compelling film that defies description.
Robert Butler is an award-winning filmmaker whose most recent feature length movie, "Blood Immortal," won Best Horror Feature Film at the 24th annual Indie Gathering International Film Festival and is now available to own on DVD and on Digital platforms. His favorite films include Mulholland Dr., 2001: A Space Odyssey, Persona, Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Sunset Blvd., Lost in Translation, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Citizen Kane, Cries and Whispers, L'Aventura, Do the Right Thing, Fargo, Schindler's List, La Dolce Vita, Pickup on South Street, Nashville, There Will Be Blood, Vertigo, and Contempt.