Songs From a Sunken Place: The Best Films of 2017

Bilge Ebiri’s Top 25 Movies of 2017


Among other things, Jordan Peele’s Get Out provided us with one of the most beautifully articulated cinematic metaphors of the year. In the context of the film itself, the “Sunken Place” is of course not a metaphor at all, but a very real paranormal dimension: the place where our African American hero’s self (along with those of the unfortunate souls preceding him) goes before he’s robbed entirely of his identity by his wealthy, aging captors, who want to install their own minds inside his younger, healthier body. It’s not just an original, politically charged horror movie conceit, but a well-executed one, too — poetically filmed, smartly conceived, and perfectly named.

Can we apply the concept elsewhere, too? A truly poetic idea reaches outside of its specific milieu and gathers a life of its own. And the notion of a liminal beyond from which you can only watch helplessly as your very sense of self, your consciousness, sinks further away from you certainly has its applications. Cinema represents a kind of dream life to begin with, but very often what’s reflected back is not just our dreams but our worst nightmares. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about sunken places — both this specific one, as well as others — as the film year has unfolded.

What to make of the fact that so many of the movies that stuck with me concerned helpless children — from Loung Ung, the nine-year-old protagonist of Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian genocide drama First They Killed My Father; to the lost son in Loveless, whose absence consumes the movie; to the child prisoners of Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams; to the deaf young wanderers of Wonderstruck; to the denizens of The Florida Project, whose life on the margins doesn’t stop them from exploring their awesome powers of destruction and creation. These movies are wildly different, but all these kids find themselves submerged, in some way — unable (at least initially) to shape, or even comprehend, their own destinies. Some give in. Some lash out. Some find solidarity in others. And some disappear forever.

Even when they weren’t about children, all too often the films I loved this year concerned families brought to the breaking point. Sometimes it was the result of a bitter divorce, as in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm; sometimes, the broader dysfunction of society, as in Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation; or a terror attack, as in Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s In the Fade.

And then of course there’s the quiet desperation of Manana, the middle-aged protagonist of Nana and Simon’s My Happy Family, who simply wants some peace and quiet, some solitude — and discovers that this is the most catastrophic thing she could have ever asked for. (The movie is in a sunken place of its own: Netflix. I’m including it on this list even though, technically speaking, it wasn’t released to theaters this year, which means it’s not eligible for many year-end awards — and probably won’t be next year either. And the fact that Netflix has pretty much refused to promote My Happy Family means that, despite the platform’s massive, international reach, few viewers are likely to find this film.)

And in 2017, the year in movies was, of course, more than about mere movies. I certainly couldn’t help thinking about sunken places as we heard the stories of women — actresses, producers, and many others — who had to carry on working with the likes of Harvey Weinstein even after they’d been assaulted, for fear of losing their livelihoods or worse. And no, I couldn’t help thinking about sunken places as a nation that had voted against the monsters in charge were forced to sit and watch as the very things it had voted for were gleefully, gloatingly dismantled.

I want to say that 2017 was the year of helplessness. But then again, in these dark days, what year isn’t?

25. Hissen Habré: A Chadian Tragedy (directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

“Over the course of its simple, unadorned 82 minutes, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy wrecks you in ways you might not have known were possible. Habré, the paranoid and brutal strongman who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, confined vast numbers of people in his prisons, where 40,000 perished; even more were left scarred for life after years of torture and starvation.… I cannot imagine a more effective way to convey the horror of these experiences than to simply have these people recount them.” — from my review

24. Kedi (directed by Ceyda Torun)

“By showing the citizens of this troubled city at their most generous, it suggests that a social fabric that often seems like it’s rapidly fraying — at least to many of us now on the outside — endures.… [I]n its own pleasantly dreamy and lilting way, the film embodies what it preaches: As life gets rougher, people endure not by hardening themselves even further, but by continuing to find the freedom to be kind. In Istanbul, the chaos never really stops. Kedi slyly reminds us that the humanity, too, has always been there.” — from my review

23. Phantom Thread (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

“Most tales of people finding love present hard, angular worlds and allow romance to soften the edges. Phantom Thread does the opposite: It presents a soft, even sensuous world, and shows us how sometimes love can come in the cuts and the tears.” — from my review

22. In the Fade (directed by Fatih Akin)

“The last shot of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s In the Fade might be its most important — a key to unlocking the film. I’m not giving too much away to say that it’s an image of an upside-down sea, mirroring in some ways the seaside setting of the final scene. It calls into question the perspective we’ve been given, and thus undercuts — albeit subtly — what at first seemed to have been the more conventional elements of this movie about a woman’s quest for justice after the deaths of her husband and son. It dares to tell us that all along, we might have been watching an upside-down world.” — from my review

21. The House (directed by Andrew Jay Cohen)

20. The Square (directed by Ruben Östlund)

“When left to its own devices, does humanity find equilibrium or does it disintegrate into aggressors and subjects? And just what does it take for us to come to others’ aid? Where do we draw the line between the individual and society? The Square has a remarkably clearheaded and streamlined way of asking these many questions, but the answers it provides are always tantalizingly unclear.” — from my review

19. Logan (directed by James Mangold)

“More than any other superhero franchise, the X-Men movies play more with their characters’ vulnerabilities than their strengths. The mutants have amazing powers, but most of the time, they’re harried, hounded, and haunted. Seen from that perspective, Logan isn’t so different after all. From the doddering, invalid Professor X to the alcoholic, broken hero left to rot among his demons and the young girl unable to control her rage, the story takes three unwell people and shows us how they need each other. Ultimately, it is their growing bond that proves most fascinating and moving about this film.” — from my review

18. Faces Places (directed by Agnès Varda and JR)

“Something of a prank, a farewell, an art project, a buddy comedy, a vox populi tour of the French countryside, and an inquiry into memory and images and what it means to reveal our eyes to the world, Faces Places is a joyous lulu. It finds the great documentarian and photographer Agnès Varda, 88 at the time of filming, teaming up with the 33-year-old photographer JR to wander France, their itinerary set by their own whims, doing what they each have made a life doing.… The film is light, funny, alert, alive, the work of a great and her inspired collaborator who are forever happy to be looking.” — from Alan Scherstuhl’s review

17. Félicité (directed by Alain Gomis)

“Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, the Congolese singer turned actress making her screen debut in Alain Gomis’s tough-minded life-in-Kinshasa character study Félicité, can pierce your heart with her croon, rouse your soul with her shout, move you with her mien of cussed indomitability, cut you with her look of wary, weary appraisal.” — from Alan Scherstuhl’s review

16. BPM (directed by Robin Campillo)

“ ‘I think of the sex scene like a séance, where the ghosts of the other lovers are summoned. So at some point it’s almost like a threesome. There’s something very important to say about that. I lost my first boyfriend. And when I think of him, I miss him — not only because I would like to talk to him, but I miss his body, and I miss the moments when we were so intimate. I remember the first time we had sex, it was before the epidemic, and our bodies were unconscious of all that. I’m very nostalgic for that. Really, it was so great. And now it’s over forever. I will never go back to that moment.’ ” — Robin Campillo, in my interview with him and his two stars

15. Wonderstruck (directed by Todd Haynes)

“There are few directors better than [Todd] Haynes at adopting varied voices and vernaculars and then blending them to create something intoxicating and new.… Wonderstruck switches between the silent-film aesthetics and Seventies stylizations, but the intercutting isn’t clean — the styles sometimes mix and riff off each other, and there are moments when the film hops time periods not out of any narrative logic, but to pursue a gesture, an image, or idea. The result is as much musical as it is cinematic.” — from my review

14. The Florida Project (directed by Sean Baker)

“Through the rundown buildings where Moonee and her buds play, Baker captures the vibrancy of Florida. Wizard Gift Shop is shaped like a giant wizard. Orange World looks like a big, bright orange. And Twisted Treat is an ice cream stand resembling, you guessed it, a giant ice cream cone. This is a kitschy world built for tourists, but Moonee and her mom ain’t visitors. And Moonee, for all her churlishness, is a sophisticated thinker who seems to understand her station in life enough to adapt. She and her little buds aren’t simply precocious pranksters; they are full human beings with hopes and fears and coping mechanisms.” — from April Wolfe’s review

13. Oklahoma City (directed by Barak Goodman)

“[Director Barak] Goodman also doesn’t state overtly why the story of the Oklahoma City bombing is so relevant today. He doesn’t have to. His methodical recounting of the rise of white nationalism and fringe movements reverberates with today’s world, in which racist violence and conspiracist lunacy has been emboldened and brought troublingly into the mainstream. Oklahoma City, the movie, may end sometime around [Tim] McVeigh’s execution in 2001, but anyone with a brain knows that the ensuing chapters of this American horror story are being written as we speak.” — from my Sundance review

12. Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

“ ‘To me, it’s about the notion that to find the scariest monster we need look no further than the human demon. And when I talk about the human demon, I’m talking about the evil we’re capable of collectively. Society is capable of some beautiful things, but when we get together we’re also capable of the darkest atrocities. Get Out I would consider a “social thriller” — the horror is embedded in the way people interact, the way people think, the way people categorize. It’s a very difficult genre to pull off, but when done right, it’s my favorite thing in the world.’ ” — Jordan Peele, from my interview with him

11. Call Me by Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)

“Their relationship begins with stolen glances and glancing physical contact, soon developing into an erotically charged affair filled with discovery, joy, and eventual heartbreak. It plays not like a tale of love thwarted, but like a bittersweet memory — the kind of brief fling that defines a life.” — from my Sundance roundup

10. First They Killed My Father (directed by Angelina Jolie)

“It would have been easy for Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Cambodian genocide survivor Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir to go ruthlessly and repeatedly for the emotional jugular. First They Killed My Father is, after all, the story of a young girl hurled into one of the twentieth century’s most unthinkable nightmares. But Loung’s book was itself a work of tight, no-nonsense prose; the facts it presented were devastating enough. And the film is similarly tough and unyielding; it unspools with admirable discipline and verve. This is Jolie’s most accomplished work yet.” — from my review

9. Loveless (directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev)

“Two representative moments define Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless — and they are among the most devastating, harrowing things I’ve ever seen on a screen. I won’t spoil what they are, as one relies on the element of surprise and the other happens quite late. But their raw emotionalism both complicates and deepens Zvyagintsev’s film, which hovers between personal drama and deep political allegory.” — from my review

8. The Post (directed by Steven Spielberg)

The Post is a tale that weaponizes nostalgia. It depicts how this long-established system of chummy collusion between politicians and press…came to be shattered. And it shows us how a strong press was instrumental in that shattering. At the same time, the film presents us — pointedly — with another layer of nostalgia, with a vision of a vibrant world of newspapers and reporters and editors and independent owners that itself is now dying out. As a result, The Post becomes not a fond, hazy glance back, but a terrified, urgent look forward: Who will hold power to account, it asks, if there’s nobody left to do it?” — from my review

7. Starless Dreams (directed by Mehrdad Oskouei)

“Perhaps the biggest discovery at the [2016 True/False Film Festival] was Starless Dreams, Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary about a prison for teenage girls in Iran. In a setting that’s more rehab center than jailhouse, the girls — most of whom are there for drug-related offenses — gossip, pray, goof off, and argue. But the real emotional dynamite comes in Oskouei’s individual interviews with the young inmates, who reveal unfathomable depths of shame and self-loathing. The director doesn’t pretend to any kind of objectivity or remove: We hear his patient voice and see his interactions with the kids; he even buys things for them on occasion. By not hiding his empathy and concern, Oskouei subtly draws attention to the inherent imbalance of the viewer-subject exchange. Suddenly, we’re not just watching a movie, but reflecting on our own helplessness.” — from my 2016 True/False wrap-up

6. The Lost City of Z (directed by James Gray)

“Gray’s previous films were studies in New York’s tribal rituals; be they Russian émigrés in Brooklyn or officers of the NYPD, his characters have always been keenly aware of the unwritten, at times immoral rules by which they must abide. Now, the director has trained his anthropologist’s eye on British society in the war-torn decades between the Edwardian era and modernity. And what he finds is a world of institutionalized aggression where conflict and domination are built into the very fabric of life.” — from my review

5. Mudbound (directed by Dee Rees)

“Rees’s film unfolds via multiple perspectives and voiceovers.… This ruminative, poetic dimension stands in sharp contrast to the elemental forces onscreen: Visually, Rees foregrounds the physical cruelty of farm life, of disease and brutal weather, of dirt and grime that won’t wash off. Through these poles of physical struggle and lyrical reflection, we come to understand these people.” — from my Sundance review

4. Graduation (directed by Cristian Mungiu)

“Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about corruption. That’s true despite the fact that Mungiu underplays the typical elements found in tales about this subject: You won’t find many fast-talking crooks, sinister cops, or elaborate sting operations here. Or a looming sense of justice and judgment, or even tragedy. You’ll just find mostly good people doing what they think is right, and then the acute mess that they find themselves in.” — from my review

3. After the Storm (directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)

“It would be easy to shape such material into a tragedy, a judgmental look at a man’s agonizing downfall. It could also be turned into a simplistic tale of redemption. But for Kore-eda, it’s just a glimpse of ordinary people living their ordinary lives.… This love for people reflects back on the viewer. I walked out of After the Storm wanting to be a better person — and further convinced that Hirokazu Kore-eda isn’t just one of the world’s best filmmakers, but one of its most indispensable artists.” — from my review

2. Dunkirk (directed by Christopher Nolan)

“The nerve-racking war thriller Dunkirk is the movie Christopher Nolan’s entire career has been building up to, in ways that even he may not have realized.… [He] gives us one of the leanest, most ingenious studio films in quite a while: an intercutting montage of competing timelines that expand and contract and collide in ways both inevitable and surprising. And somehow, it’s also uncharacteristically intimate.” — from my review

1. My Happy Family (directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross)

My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s liberation. Nana and Simon astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of Manana’s decision in the lives of those who know her, and one of the great delights of this film is the way it charts the shifting waves of allegiances that can occur in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity.… It all goes on and on until you realize that what you’re watching isn’t a movie anymore. It is life itself, in all its messiness and horror and glory.” — from my review