In 2017, the most important event in the world of movies was the revelation, in the Times and The New Yorker, of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, and the resulting liberation of the long-stifled voices of the women and men who had been abused by him or other powerful men in the movie business, and, for that matter, in other arts and industries, too. The prevalence of sexual abuse, and the network of complicity that prevented Weinstein’s abuses from coming to light, and which inflicted additional emotional and professional abuses on the victims, have legal, moral, and political implications that are inseparable from aesthetic ones—from the art of movies.
It’s true every year, but all the more conspicuous now, that any list of the year’s best movies has gaps—of the movies, performances, and other creations that are missing because they are unrealized, unrealized because the women (and, yes, also some men) who were working their way up to directing, producing, or other notable activities in the world of movies, who were already acting or writing or fulfilling other creative positions, had their careers derailed when they were threatened, intimidated, silenced, or otherwise detached from the industry by powerful men abusing their power for their own pleasure and advantage.
It has always been so for women in the movie industry, and it is all the more so for women of color, who have faced, both in the corridors of the business and in the columns of critical consideration, a double dose of indifference, neglect, and dismissal. The most important repertory series of the year, “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991,” programmed for bamCinématek by Nellie Killian and Michelle Materre, included films by Julie Dash, Fronza Woods, Kathleen Collins, Monona Wali, and others. These filmmakers, among the best of the time, responsible for masterworks in their youth, haven’t had the careers that their early work promised—or haven’t had careers at all. (The trouble they faced in the industry is pointedly dramatized in one of the films in the series, Dash’s 1982 featurette “Illusions,” a historical fantasy-drama about a black woman producer in Hollywood during the Second World War—and about sexual harassment.)
In the same period as the one that’s covered in the bam series, most of the best white women filmmakers (such as Claudia Weill and, of course, Barbara Loden and Elaine May, and many whose work I’m late to discovering, such as Rachel Amodeo, whose film “What About Me,” from 1993, is playing at moma later this month) haven’t had the careers that their great films heralded. Neither have most of the best male filmmakers of color, such as Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima, and Wendell B. Harris, Jr. Even Charles Burnett, who won an honorary Oscar this year, has had a much slighter career than his artistry merits. This neglect is being reproduced today among some of the most notable directorial talents of the time—to name one, Terence Nance, whose startlingly and joyfully original first feature, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” from 2012, hasn’t yet been followed by a second feature (only by some daring and exquisite short films). Miranda July hasn’t made a feature since “The Future,” which was the best film of 2011.
What’s missing from the year-end list, and from the era in movies, isn’t only the unmade work by these filmmakers but the artistry and the careers of cast and crew members who would have been in their unrealized films. Great directors discover the talent and develop the artistry of great actors, directors of photography, editors, and others, whose absences now scar the industry. The mentoring, collaborating, and inspiration they could have provided for others to follow in their footsteps have all been permanently lost, too.
It is no coincidence that Hollywood and its tributaries have rarely seemed as empty as they do now, the films rarely as hollow as the ones that have been on display recently. The world of Hollywood and off-Hollywood (i.e., films produced independently but featuring actors and directors who have worked on studio films) has been artificially thinned out, diminished both in human and artistic terms, by the absence of women and people of color, whose artistry (like all artistry) is inseparable from and indicative of a particular and personal range of experience.
Hollywood has always run on its exclusions, whether of race or gender or ethnicity or even politics, and the very notion of a mainstream—and a mainstream style—depends on those exclusions. To work in Hollywood, whether now or in the classic studio era, is to know what has been going on in Hollywood—or to pretend not to know. Not only has the sheer indecency and brazen inhumanity of daily life in the movie business seeped into the fabric of the movies themselves, so has the willed ignorance, the calculated head-in-the-sand obliviousness regarding the milieu’s ubiquitous and endemic abuses. That cynical silence has inflected and distorted the substance of movies, largely by distorting their form. The very notion of storytelling that keeps some things out and puts others in—that trims out disputing, disturbing, distracting voices on the grounds that they’re extraneous, superfluous, or unnecessary—is a political notion, and a regressive one. The industrial narrative efficiency of classic Hollywood movies is still frequently invoked with an air of nostalgia as good, clear storytelling, held up as a model of movie craft to be followed evennow, and reflected in the popular films of the current day.
It’s no coincidence that Weinstein was nicknamed Harvey Scissorhands for his tendency to cut movies that he produced or distributed in order to slim them down, speed them up, or thin them out. His success was as a master of exclusions, eliminations, and suppressions. Although much of Hollywood’s explicit messaging is liberal (as Weinstein’s own, in movies and personally, has been), the industry’s sense of form is for the most part reactionary, stifling, hostile to difference.
Or, to put it the other way around, it’s why much of the so-called liberal cinema is intellectually backward and politically useless compared to much of the artistically original, expanded-form movies (mainly independent ones, but also the best of Hollywood and its byways), even ones without explicit political content. Representation in the ranks of the industry is crucial—not only for the practical impact of money, power, and prominence among those who have been wrongly, systematically, and intentionally denied it. It is vital not only for the change in institutional culture that will result but also for the expansion of opportunities for artists themselves who will broaden the art and change the paradigms of the cinema. The best movies aren’t only ones that include new voices; they’re also ones that include voices in new ways. Work of that sort is reflected on this year’s list, as on last year’s; it has always been the summit of the art.
1. “Get Out” (Jordan Peele)
In his horror comedy, Peele uses familiar devices to convey philosophically rich and politically potent ideas about the state of race relations in America. Read more.
2. “A Quiet Passion” (Terence Davies)
Davies’s Emily Dickinson bio-pic is an absolute, drop-dead masterwork. Read more.
3. “Good Time” (Josh and Benny Safdie)
“Good Time,” starring Robert Pattinson, streaks and smears and shreds the screen with a sense of furious subjectivity. Read more.
4. “A Ghost Story” (David Lowery)
The movie’s dramatic power is inseparable from its quiet, sensuous splendor. Read more.
5. “Slack Bay” (Bruno Dumont)
Dumont, who is from the region where the film was shot, fuses genre with his intimate knowledge of its mysteries and myths to create a cinematic universe of his own. Read more.
6. “Phantom Thread” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Strange, beautiful, absurd, and brilliant; a furious, tightly controlled, even violent love story done with a chill of decorum. Daniel Day-Lewis, for his last performance, is like a ballet dancer with his eyes and his voice. In wide release December 25, 2017.
7. “Beach Rats” (Eliza Hittman)
Hittman’s second feature makes talk and its absence among rough-and-tumble South Brooklyn teens the painful core of its story. Read more.
8. “Faces Places” (Agnès Varda and JR)
The directorial duo travels to small towns in France that are threatened by the economic and social forces of modern life. Read more.
9. “Song to Song” (Terrence Malick)
Within his story of a shifting romantic triangle, Malick develops an overwhelming, rapturous variety of visual experience. Read more.
10. “Sylvio” (Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney)
A generous, achingly tender comedy that offers some of the loopiest, most wondrously inventive humor this side of Jared Hess. Read more.
11. “Lady Bird” (Greta Gerwig)
Daring, distinctive, and personal in text and theme, the film is recognizably conventional in texture and style. Read more.
12. “Columbus” (Kogonada)
The film looks at a young architecture connoisseur, and considers the Indiana city’s buildings with as much analytical ardor as its protagonist does. Read more.
13. “Hermia & Helena” (Matías Piñeiro)
The fanciful twists of this romantic roundelay keep the Shakespearean promise of the title. Read more.
14. “On the Beach at Night Alone” (Hong Sang-soo)
There’s a dark romanticism powering this furious, tautly controlled, yet coolly comedic drama. Read more.
15. “Rat Film” (Theo Anthony)
The Baltimore-based filmmaker investigates the city’s rodent infestation and uncovers its surprising political roots and odd byways. Read more.
16. “Strong Island” (Yance Ford)
Ford’s extraordinarily dramatic documentary is both personal and investigative. Read more.
17. “The Meyerowitz Stories” (Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach’s latest film can be thought of as a remake of, a sequel to, and a drastic improvement upon “The Squid and the Whale.” Read more.
18. “The Son of Joseph” (Eugène Green)
The vast thematic scope and high moral purpose of Green’s film are joined to a cinematic vision that’s also mightily, incisively comedic. Read more.
19. “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy” (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
Haroun delves into his country’s history in this intimate, experiential, and impassioned documentary. Read more.
20. “The B-Side” (Errol Morris)
Morris’s portrait of Elsa Dorfman conveys a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride. It's also a magnificent tribute to photography itself. Read more.
21. “Félicité” (Alain Gomis)
The movie is a virtual documentary of Kinshasa’s city sights and moods, and also a bitter exposé of a country without a social safety net. Read more.
22. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (Bill Morrison)
Morrison’s documentary links the gold rush with the rise of Hollywood. Read more.
23. “Colossal” (Nacho Vigalondo)
This genre mashup revels in the power of cinematic artifice to tell a story that confronts big questions about real life. Read more.
24. “I Called Him Morgan” (Kasper Collin)
A documentary about the life and tragic death of the great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan traces the relationship between Morgan and the woman who shot him dead. Read more.
25. “The Unknown Girl” (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
A young doctor’s investigation of a prostitute’s killing causes her to discover the moral failure of her entire life. Read more.
26. “Actor Martinez” (Nathan Silver and Mike Ott)
With their imaginative new film, Ott and Silver set themselves apart by daring to be dramatic. Read more.
27. “Whose Streets?” (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis)
This passionate, intimate, analytical documentary, centered on residents of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the killing by police of Michael Brown, considers the political conditions that led to it and efforts to seek change. Read more.
28. “Logan Lucky” (Steven Soderbergh)
With its combination of giddy narrative finesse and a delight in regional idiosyncrasies, Soderbergh’s new heist film may be his most Coen-esque. Read more.
29. “Planetarium” (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Natalie Portman gives a great bilingual performance in Zlotowski’s glossy historical fantasy about the French movie industry of the nineteen-thirties. Read more.
30. “Marshall” (Reginald Hudlin)
Hudlin brings an apt blend of vigor and empathy to this historical drama, set in 1941. Read more.
31. “The Lost City of Z” (James Gray)
The story of a search that doesn’t come to fruition, a series of missions that don’t achieve their goals, and that nonetheless reverberate powerfully and enduringly.Read more.
32. “Icaros: A Vision” (Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi)
The hallucinatory power of ayahuasca and the incantatory lure of rituals fuse with existential dread in this darkly hypnotic drama. Read more.
33. “Mimosas” (Oliver Laxe)
A metaphysical road movie about a group of travellers accompanying an ailing Moroccan sheik through mind-bending mountain and desert wilds to his home town, starring the visionary nonprofessional actor Shakib Ben Omar.
34. “Wait for Your Laugh” (Jason Wise)
A showcase of Rose Marie’s long career, from radio stardom to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Hollywood Squares,” paints a picture of her times—and dispels nostalgia for them. Read more.
35. “The Rape of Recy Taylor” (Nancy Buirski)
Essential viewing, not least for its emphasis on the crucial role of women in the civil-rights movement. Read more.
P.S.: The vagaries of release schedules distort best-of lists, this year in particular. Some of the best new movies I’ve seen—“Zama” (Lucrecia Martel), “Let the Sun Shine In” (Claire Denis), “Madame Hyde” (Serge Bozon), “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” (Travis Wilkerson), “Golden Exits” (Alex Ross Perry), “Werewolf” (Ashley McKenzie), “The Graduation” (“Le Concours”) (Claire Simon), and “The Four Sisters” (Claude Lanzmann)—won’t be released until next year or don’t have release dates yet at all. But if they were part of the 2017 slate, they’d all be on the list and crowding toward the top.
One of the most noteworthy movies of 2017 is a TV show, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” all eighteen episodes of which were directed by David Lynch and written by Lynch and Mark Frost. The series came in at the No. 1 spot on theCahiers du Cinéma list, and at No. 2 in the Sight & Sound poll. It’s not on my list, and not only because it’s not a movie but, rather, a TV show that shares some important traits with movies—most significantly, having one director throughout. Most of what’s good in “Twin Peaks: The Return” is good in movie-like ways—the pacing and framing, the space and time and tone that develop around, and are inseparable from, the realization of certain main characters (especially the ones played by Kyle MacLachlan and by Lynch himself) and some secondary ones. But most of its worst aspects, such as the jigsaw plotting, the episodic separations and anticipations and echoes, and the overblown fantasy (as in the excruciating eighth episode and the recurrences of the Red Room) are TV. The crucial inspiration of the series—the cosmic centrality of rape, incest, and the murder of a young woman, and the impossible quest for justice, the irresistible temptation to try to put the damaged world back into joint—spans both cinema and television; it’s the mark of Lynch’s over-all artistic greatness.