The year's best movies packed a sting of familiarity. Those that weren't ripped from the headlines still managed to engage in a conversation with the issues and anxieties of the times.
You had the perniciousness of racism that acts like it isn't (Get Out). You had sexual assault (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the First Amendment under attack (The Post). Even the delightful Lady Bird rode a barely repressed wave of social and economic anxiety. These aren't message movies. They're films that hit a nerve because they reflect the real world with a sense of imagination inherent to art.
And some of them were just joyous, brilliant fun. Because there's always room for that. Here are my top ten movies of 2017. Of local note: Kudos to the Dallas VideoFest for showing the two documentaries on my list.
1. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro) - Perhaps the most woke and romantic monster movie ever, full of magic and lyrical camera work and top-shelf performances from top to bottom, including Sally Hawkins as a lonely mute, Doug Jones as the amphibious man she loves, Michael Shannon as a pious tyrant and Octavia Spencer putting a fine sheen on her best-friend specialty. It's a glorious Cold War fable about love's power to triumph over conformity. (In theaters)
2. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) - The best horror has always been able to hold a mirror up to the world. Peele's gruesome satire is a perfect antidote for the post-Obama slumber, in which we either pretend racism no longer exists or ask what's so bad about it, anyway? It also happens to be wickedly funny and in firm command of the horror movie's visual grammar. It works on every level. Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives would be proud. (On HBO and DVD and Blu-ray).
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh) - Scratch a McDonagh film on the surface and you'll find a dark, scabrously funny take on the Western. This one stars Frances McDormand as a woman scorned by her town and furious with the police for failing to find her daughter's rapist and murderer. McDonagh has a Tarantino-like instinct for profane gallows humor. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson give stalwart support. (In theaters).
4. Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina) - One of those classic Pixar movies that takes hairpin turns between laughter and tears, all the while tickling the eyes with its bold and intricate visual design. The writing is what separates a good Pixar from a great one. This is a great one. (In theaters).
5. Ex Libris (dir. Frederick Wiseman) - Wiseman's late career has brought a series of intimately epic documentaries on cherished places and institutions. This time he trains his camera on the New York Public Library — the staff meetings, the live events, the random people studying and researching — and reveals a vital cog in the gears of democracy. He doesn't need a narrator; it's all in the instincts (of what to shoot) and the editing (how to put it all together).
6. mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky) - You may very well hate this movie. I did not. I had as much fun teasing out the layers of allegory — artist as God, God as artist, earth as mother — as I did gasping at the tension and release of the horrors that befall an expectant mom (Jennifer Lawrence). Cinematographer Matthew Libatique gets extra credit for harnessing the swirl of madness. (On DVD and Blu-ray)
7. Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison) - A Yukon Gold Rush Town was once the end of a film distribution line. From this simple fact comes this hypnotic documentary about ice, fire, film, time and rediscovery, set to a haunting score by Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers. You don't watch it so much as let it cast its spell. (Streaming on Amazon).
8. Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu) - A piercing, deliberative Romanian drama about a father, his daughter and the struggle to do the right thing in a society that stacks the deck and demands the use of back channels to get ahead. It's an impeccably acted study in ethics that should resonate just about anywhere despite its cultural specificity. (Streaming on Netflix)
9. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig) - In her first solo film as a director, Gerwig proves a master of tonal shifts, pace and transitions. It's not a comedy about what it means to be a teen, but what it means to a very specific, finely drawn teen, who longs for more than her native Sacramento can offer. It's also very funny, with great performances from Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts. (In theaters).
10. The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg) - List-making is a subjective activity, and the person making this list bleeds newspaper ink. So yes, I'm a sucker for a drama about the Washington Post's battle against the Nixon administration to join the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers. All sentimentality aside, with Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks onboard, you know the craft doesn't disappoint. (In theaters Jan. 5)
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Baby Driver; The Beguiled; The Big Sick; Blade Runner 2049; Brad's Status; Call Me by Your Name; Chasing Trane; Citizen Jane; Darkest Hour; Detroit; The Florida Project; A Ghost Story; Good Time; Hostiles; I Called Him Morgan; Jane; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Last Flag Flying; Logan; Marshall; Molly's Game; Mudbound; Personal Shopper; Phantom Thread; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; War for the Planet of the Apes; Whose Streets?; Wind River; Wonder Woman; Wonderstruck.