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The Dissenter’s Top Films Of 2017

Editor's Note

It’s that time again to engage in the annual ritual of listing off top films from the past year. These are films that made an impression and/or pushed boundaries. Some may carry social importance. Others are purely entertaining.

I have compiled an annual list since I started publishing “The Dissenter” column in 2011. As with previous lists, the films are not ranked in any order.

If I introduce a few readers to one great movie they never heard of or remind them of a film they did not get to see from this year, then this list was worth putting together.

—Kevin Gosztola

Blade Runner 2049

The sequel to one of the best science fiction films of all time gloriously expands the universe of the 1982 original. Thirty years later, K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer and blade runner, is tasked with an investigation that may unravel everything he knows about the decaying and dilapidated world.

One of the more powerful images is of a dead tree held up by wires because most natural life has been lost to capitalism. Cinematographer Roger Deakins brilliantly captures this environment. The sound design and score are multi-layered and marvelously amp up the intensity of key action sequences. And director Denis Villeneuve crafts a slow-burning dystopian film that is every bit as intense and provocative as the first film.

Florida Project

Sean Baker’s film is an affecting and warm portrayal of life in a motel project. Baker uses real locations and fluid shots to viscerally capture the struggle of Halley, a single working class mother (Bria Vinaite), to pay rent and keep her children from going hungry. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Halley’s daughter, and the other children add a level of playfulness that disrupts the misery of each day. They also help build empathy for Halley, as the film slowly builds to one of the more infuriating climaxes in cinema from this year.

Get Out

“I wanted to make a movie that was for a very loyal black horror fan base. We go to see horror movies, and we don’t get represented,” director Jordan Peele said. Out of that simple motive came a film that was one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the year.

Peele made the protagonist black and crafted a scenario that would be terrifying for black audiences, in particular. There are elements that audiences of all colors have come to expect from classic horror movies. But its punch comes from learning the white family of the film isn’t to be feared because they are possessed by supernatural or paranormal beings. They are your typical middle or upper class garden variety racist, who any black person should tread carefully around.

I, Daniel Blake

Set in the United Kingdom, an elderly man has a heart-related episode and can no longer work so he must collect unemployment benefits. But one does not simply go and collect benefits from the system. One has to be approved, and if they aren’t, they are tossed into a tortuous limbo.

Director Ken Loach seamlessly captures the coldness of government bureaucracy, as Daniel fights for what he rightfully deserves. In our age of austerity, Blake’s struggle is a lyrical tale for working people trapped in the margins of Western society trying to survive.

Mudbound

Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel, this film set before, during, and immediately after World War II follows characters from two families on a Mississippi delta farm—one white, one black. It brings into sharp focus the brutality of black life in Mississippi through the relationship between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Both were deployed in the war, and Ronsel, in particular, experienced what it was like to be greeted as a liberator only to return and find his country had not changed one bit.

Poverty is vividly depicted. All the characters are poor. The racism and subjugation of black people is a way for white people to better manage their survival. Nevertheless, that does not justify the violence and callousness that those living in Mississippi allow to be perpetrated against black bodies.

Shadow World

With President Donald Trump eagerly acting as the salesman-in-chief for United States arms manufacturers, this documentary based on Andrew Feinstein’s book about the global arms trade is essential viewing. It screened in very few places in 2016, when it was technically released. However, PBS’s Independent Lens picked it up, and it premiered in November.

The film plumbs the dark depths of the arms trade indicting world superpowers for choosing militarism over investing in the well-being of people. As journalist Vijay Prashad puts it, Western countries make policy on the “assumption of greed.” He eloquently argues superpowers made war more inevitable by crushing efforts in the Global South (e.g. Latin America) to imagine an alternative way of organizing institutions. The potential of successfully contesting the global arms trade is extraordinarily bleak, and yet, with all the destruction it causes, the film expertly shows challenging the trade should be a moral imperative for the global population.

Shape Of Water

Director Guillermo Del Toro crafted a gorgeous love story with splendid production design. Set during Cold War, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are janitors at a research facility that has captured the Creature. Both the Americans and Russians care little about the life of the Creature. They only want to squeeze what they can out of the Creature so their power can be maximized, even if that means the Creature dies.

But Hawkins, who gives a very heart-rending and heartwarming performance as a mute, falls in love with the Creature. She attempts to protect and save the Creature from the brutality of the research facility, and the blend of fantasy and humanity of it all is utterly captivating.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Younger generations of fans embraced director Rian Johnson’s bold decisions in the Star Wars universe. The film, the second in a sequel trilogy, moves away from legacy characters known from the classic trilogy, which were a central focus initially. It opens up many possibilities for discovery and exploration, to see who else is out there in the galaxy and what nobodies might be the next spark that lights the fire that will bring the First Order down. Not only does that enrich the story for Episode IX, but it plants seeds for future films.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director Martin McDonagh’s satire set in a fictional rural town in Missouri is both dark and scathing. As a working class woman with limited resources available, Mildred (Frances McDormand) takes drastic action to call attention to the police’s failure to investigate her daughter’s murder case. The police are, of course, the bedrock of the town. They see it as an attack on police, but she believes maybe if the cops did less torturing and beating of black people they would find the murderer.

What separates this film from other standard murder mysteries is McDonagh’s commitment to raising the stakes constantly to see what happens between the characters which populate the town. In the end, the simpletons of Ebbing, Missouri, are far more absurd and interesting than catching a murderer.

Whose Streets?

Grassroots voices from the movement in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, tell the story of a rebellion that became the national liberation struggle, Black Lives Matter. It provides a critical context for why black people in Ferguson would riot. Archive footage vividly cut together shows how police responded to angry black residents with dogs, then riot gear, then tanks, and then military forces (e.g. the Missouri National Guard).

All the hopes and frustrations of a movement are crystallized, and the scale of unfinished business is clear. Seeds of justice were planted, but the St. Louis area is still a place, where car dealerships will proudly hang “Blue Lives Matter” flags alongside their American flags.

Films I Wish I Had Seen Before the Year Ended:

Coco • Human Flow • Okja • The Post

Photo by mikespeaks on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."