The toggle-switch in most of the communications arts is between turning the real world off and turning it on more vividly. That’s a fancy way of saying that most people go to the movies to get away from reality while a sizable minority value confronting it. Pleasure vs. provocation; comfort vs. challenge — however you want to characterize the partisan split in popular culture, it has made itself at times violently vocal this year. The new “Star Wars” movie has positive reviews from a majority of professional critics and is hardly a “difficult” proposition, but an online mob of fans hates it with the fervor of true believers confronting an apostate. The gulf seems unbridgeable; as with every other aspect of American society 2017, two sides dig in, refusing to budge, unable to speak the same language.
And yet . . . the best movies of the year managed to pull off the neat trick of entertaining and elucidating, keeping audiences rapt while pulling the rug out from under their expectations and assumptions. They tickled us until the tickling grew uncomfortable and left us wondering in the silence that came after we cried uncle. One of the signal hits of 2017 was a fiendishly clever horror parody that put mainstream audiences in the mind of a black man uncovering the conspiracy theory of his life; even the thickest moviegoing Mr. Jones knew there was something happening here.
An updated “Our Gang” comedy with a delightful child star doubled as a steady, clear-eyed gaze at American poverty. An ecstatic cross-species love story between a girl and a fish fought against a metaphorical tide of Kennedy-era repression. A fantasy about a man who sticks around after he dies to keep an eye on his beloved — surely you’ve heard that one before — became a small existential epic about time and regret.
I’m resisting the notion of a ranked Top 10 this year because there are enough absurdities in the real world and in pop culture without saying that Good Film A is better than Good Film B. Every movie is a two-hour window onto an alien planet; the infinite differences are what make the medium remain vibrant and mysterious. So it’s apples and anvils, and yet there is one movie I could curl up with for a long, long time, in dark sybaritic contentment, and that’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” — a love story and a power play made with subtle but outrageously generous attention to craft, onscreen and behind the camera, in its performances and in the rich, hermetic world it creates. (It opens in Boston on Jan. 12.)
Daniel Day-Lewis plays a haute couture dressmaker in 1950s England; the actor has announced this will be his last film but in a spirit of genuine humility has allowed it to be stolen by Vicky Krieps, a little-known actress from Luxembourg who plays the dressmaker’s muse, progressing from a shy nonentity — a living mannequin — to his emotional equal and the keeper of his art and soul.
“Phantom Thread” takes its time and goes into some very shadowy places; it isn’t for everyone. A five-star meal in a world that prefers well-turned pub food, it’s a connoisseur’s delight that for the Anton Egos among us represents a plate of ratatouille surprisingly close to the Platonic ideal. The movie is — there is no other word for it — a pleasure, in part because it acknowledges the pain that attends both creativity and love.
So that’s the one that does the trick for me. But close behind is a jostling cohort of films, all nettlesome, all seductive. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is, again, a work of savvy craft that pulls an unsuspecting (white) viewer into a Sunken Place that other moviegoers know all too well; the movie works as a horror film, as a goof on horror films, as a working street-map of African-American anxieties, and, for a white liberal audience, as an endlessly reflective hall of mirrors that urges a hard, necessary look at oneself. (It’s the damning truth of “Get Out” — or it should be — that the girlfriend’s parents would love the movie.)
I loved the way escapist fantasy tangoed with brute consequence in “The Shape of Water” and “The Florida Project,” two films that have nothing in common other than heroines desperate to keep faith with innocence in a fallen world. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) in “Shape” is isolated by her inability to speak, while Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) in “Florida” is circumscribed by childhood, but both use fantasy in ways their respective directors (Guillermo del Toro and Sean Baker) understand as a survival tactic in a harsh world. (The spirit of Walt Disney and Disney endings hovers around both films with hopefulness and cruelty.)
It was a year in which genre, horror especially, was put to unorthodox uses. “Get Out” is the obvious example, but what to make of France’s “Raw,” a female coming-of-age movie that employed incestuous cannibalism to explore issues of lust, self-control, and sibling rivalry? Or “A Ghost Story,” in which Casey Affleck’s character hangs around after his death to look in on girlfriend Rooney Mara but then finds his stay on Earth extended into poetic loops of time? The first film, directed by newcomer Julia Ducournau, is a graphic but resonant freak-out; the second, the latest from the talented David Lowery, is hushed and suggestive, with moments that dare audiences to follow along and reward those who do.
For that matter, was there a crime film as risky yet as shambling as “Good Time,” from Benny and Josh Safdie, in which former “Twilight” sigh guy Robert Pattinson plays a hapless mook on one live-wire night of bad decisions? The character was reprehensible and the filmmaking electric; somewhere around the midpoint, you might start realizing this is a great bleak comedy and that everyone involved is walking a high wire you didn’t even know was there.
It was, as ever, a banner year for documentaries, and the ones I’m slotting into my Top 10 are almost — almost — randomly selected from a series of beauties. But Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a major work in any category, a historical spelunking expedition that dives into a long-buried trove of films discovered in a Canadian mining town and comes up with a conjoined history of the Gold Rush and American cinema. “Jane,” from director Brett Morgen, is another feat of archival derring-do, one that stitches together forgotten footage of the young primatologist Jane Goodall into a profound and engrossing biography of one of our living saints.
That leaves “The Work” as the last but hardly the least of my 2017 favorites. You probably didn’t see it; the documentary by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous ran through the festival circuit all year before a fall release in a handful of cities, but it’s now available on all major streaming platforms. Taking place in Folsom Prison over a four-day therapy retreat involving both prisoners and outsiders, “The Work” is emotionally cathartic in ways fictional films rarely even get to touch. It’s a film in which some very tough men methodically and movingly disassemble their own defenses and the toxic notions of masculinity that have defined and imprisoned them for years. As many of those notions continue to wrack American culture from top to bottom, online and in the real world, “The Work” offers something that almost seems too good to be true. It says there’s a way out of this.
Ty Burr’s top 10 films of 2017
In alphabetical order:
“Dawson City: Frozen Time”
“The Florida Project”
“A Ghost Story”
“The Shape of Water”
Runners-up (all of which might have ended up in my Top 10 if you’d asked me on a different day): “Baby Driver,” “The Big Sick,” “BPM (Beats per Minute),” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Colossal,” “Columbus,” “Dunkirk,” “Ex Libris,” “Faces Places,” “A Fantastic Woman,” “Graduation,” “Kedi,” “Lady Bird,” “Menashe,” “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” “Okja,” “Personal Shopper,” “The Post,” “A Quiet Passion,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Wonderstruck.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.