The annual top 10 list always requires a deft balancing act: In addition to the consensus choices that tend to appear on everybody’s list, am I paying enough attention to documentaries? Foreign films? To commercial Hollywood films?
Alas, there’s only one example of the latter in this list, but this has been an exceptionally robust year for cinema overall, from Hollywood product (“Wonder Woman,” “The Big Sick”) to captivating indies (“Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and powerful docs (“Ex Libris,” “Jane,” “Faces Places”). While I hope this list covers a lot of thematic ground, I noticed my subjective choices for the year’s best did address recurring topics: LGBTQ awareness, civil rights and racism, empowered or suffering women. These were films conceived during two years of reactionary politics, but the best manage to reflect on our times while echoing backward into film history and forward into an uncertain future. Some of them even make you feel good, in a cleansing, therapeutic sort of sense.
- Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s sublime coming-of-age drama, set on a country house somewhere in Northern Italy in 1983, initially bristles with the frustrations of an unscratched itch. On his summer break, a 17-year-old boy (a breakthrough performance from Timothee Chalamet) sees love bloom, first with a female neighbor roughly his age, then most significantly with an older male American student (a flawless Armie Hammer) boarding with his family. Fluidly traversing languages as much as sexual orientation, “Call Me By Your Name” is both carnally provocative and ethereally lovely, and its regret-soaked dénouement—spoken with tender humanity by Michael Stuhlbarg in an Oscar-worthy supporting performance—is impossible to forget.
- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
The latest feature from documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman spans three hours and 17 minutes, and somehow it’s not enough. That’s because his subject is the vast, many-tentacled New York Public Library, with its nearly 100 branches and 53 million items. Wiseman plants his agenda-free camera in many of them, observing celebrity Q&As and children’s programming, book clubs and dance classes, shareholder meetings and circulation assembly lines. It’s a revelatory portrait in fragments, and a pinnacle of curation, one that reinforces the necessity of a community library as more than a book depository. There is joy, edification, meditation or some combination of the three in each of its 197 minutes.
- The Square
This Machiavellian Swedish import’s leitmotif boils down to “nothing is as it seems.” Slippery deceptions are embedded in just about every scene in this ludic satire, becoming so commonplace that the material world we see and hear is perpetually called into question. That this radical experiment in perception and reality plays out in and around a modern art museum, where piles of gravel ask to be accepted as art, is no accident. But the movie doesn’t critique this world so much as present it, poker-faced, as a keen backdrop for the deconstruction of measurable truth. If modern art is a con, director Ruben Östlund seems to be saving, so is everything else. Intentionally or not, “The Square” is the movie that best reflects the troubling fake-news zeitgeist.
- I Am Not Your Negro
Drawing on the work and outsized influence of James Baldwin, Raoul Peck’s extraordinary and singular essay film “I Am Not Your Negro” is more than a movie. For white audiences willing to absorb it, it’s nothing less than an education. Perhaps most profound are Baldwin’s diagnoses of a nation culturally adrift and driven to distraction, taking solace in the fantasies and debasements offered by television. While it’s impossible for a Caucasian to experience life as an African-American, Peck’s alternately somber and incendiary collage places the majority race closer to the hearts, minds and souls of this long abused, aggrieved, stereotyped and profiled minority than any film in memory.
Writer-director Robin Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot drew on their own experiences with the activist AIDS organization ACT UP to script this stimulating and poignant portrait of a community under siege from a disease, an indifferent government and a profit-motivated pharmaceutical industry. It’s France’s version of The Normal Heart, shot through with an argumentative, intellectually roiling, documentary spirit. Intimate and deeply empathetic without devolving into sentimentality, BPM’s straight-shooting presentation extends to its depictions of soft-core sex and —the prior beautiful, natural and arousing, the latter painfully protracted and yet somehow sudden. Perhaps better than any movie I’ve seen, BPM depicts the agony and the ecstasy of being a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic, sometimes within the same sequence.
- Get Out
Though classified by some as a horror film, writer-director Jordan Peele’s justly praised debut draws not from slasher history but from the wincing sanctimony of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Rose Armitage and Chris Washington (Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya) are a picture-perfect biracial couple in a post-racial democracy. On the occasion of meeting Rose’s supposedly color-blind parents, Chris is soon to find out that her family isn’t what it seems. Dancing remarkably on the border between abject terror and uproarious comedy, and spiraling into absurdist “Twilight Zone” territory, “Get Out” never loses its central purpose—as a potent exposé of racial exploitation in a nation where black-and-white division is routinely stoked, and where the meaning of “political correctness” is a double-edged sword with an unforgiving blade.
- Faces Places
88-year-old Agnès Varda’s first film in nine years is rooted in her past, while also addressing her finite future. “Faces Places” is a stylized road movie co-directed with JR, a pseudonymous 33-year-old Parisian street artist. As in a buddy movie, “Faces Places” finds JR and Varda traversing the French countryside in the former’s camera truck, printing out large-scale black-and-white portraits on the spot and then pasting them onto public structures for maximum wit, provocation or pathos. This conceit brings the visual artist and filmmaker into the belly of working-class France, whose subjects are explored, and then photographed and displayed, with boundless curiosity. Invariably, the communities they enter become enriched by their presence. The word “inspiring” is fatally overused in the promotion of movies, but there’s no better superlative to describe the reactions of their subjects, whose lives are improved by their presence.
- Lady Bird
The awkwardness of adolescence, the pettiness of high school, the travails of dating, the temptations of sex: These are a few of the subjects swirling around Greta Gerwig’s enchanting and insightful first feature as a solo director. Capturing both the specificity of its protagonist and location—a Catholic high-school drama student in soul-sucking Sacramento, circa 2002—and a universality that will touch anyone with a capacity to feel, “Lady Bird” is the Catcher in the Rye for the 21st century female, crystallizing the moment when girlhood blossoms into womanhood. It’s also a nuanced portrait of the adults in the title character’s life, particularly her disproportionately tough mother, played by Laurie Metcalf in the performance of her lifetime.
- A Quiet Passion
Emily Dickinson’s biography is well established, but it takes an unflinching filmmaker like Terence Davies to dramatize its most difficult revelations. He rightfully detests sentiment and hagiography, and it’s fair to say he doesn’t take a point of view about his subject or her legacy. Rather, this challenging biopic serves as a compendium of weighty ideas carried, like a terrible burden, in the spectral form of his tormented protagonist. For much of its effervescent first hour, however, as this preternaturally insightful girl flowers into Cynthia Nixon’s naturally brilliant and caustic woman, “A Quiet Passion” is a voluminous comedy of manners. So the film’s most painful aspect may be bearing witness to Dickinson’s inexorable slide from clever rogue to morose spinster. It’s not always the case that Davies’ storytelling matches his bravura technique, but this time, content arguably eclipses form.
- The Florida Project
“The Florida Project,” writer-director Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s “Tangerine,” is no less extraordinary, and no less defined by its sense of place. It’s set in a sweltering Kissimmee summer, in a Disney-adjacent cluster of dead-end, extended-stay fleabags with irony-rich names like Futureland and Magic Castle. Adopting a loose, roving, seemingly plotless approach to narrative, Baker captures the interactions of a hustler/prostitute and her precocious daughter with an insatiable inquisitiveness and a keen eye for detail. His child actors, in particular, exhibit a lack of inhibitions and camera awareness so complete it’s almost miraculous. As Baker peels back layers of rambunctious humor, the movie’s subtle individual insights accumulate into a shattering whole, and a sense of innocence lost permeates this stirring and honest movie. As a treatise on a forgotten demo of the American experiment, “The Florida Project” is a social-problem film that doesn’t feel like one, culminating in an expression of anguish so true it will stick with you—probably forever.
Honorable mentions: “A Ghost Story,” “Lady Macbeth,” “Amnesia,” “The Other Side of Hope,” “The Salesman,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”