Favourites of 2017: Film

January 8, 2018

This was another year in which I made an effort to get to know older films. The nice thing about older films is that there are so many of them, and, among the many, many good. But my tastes continued to skew recent, and the 10 films I’ve selected as my favourites from among those I saw this year are, mostly, of relatively recent vintage.

For want of a better method, I shall proceed alphabetically.


A highlight of my year was undoubtedly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie. I loved the slow, atmospheric pacing, and how the film used familiar film conventions to surprise us with an unexpected story. I’m giving my personal Best Actress award to Amy Adams.

As usual with science fiction movies, there were some not quite coherent ideas at play, but by the time that become clear the film had become so rich and moving that it hardly mattered. My wife and I talked about it for a long time afterwards, and our conversation eventually came around to a discussion of the inner life of the Blessed Virgin. Any alien invasion flick that can do that earns top marks from me.


Some years ago I was at the National Gallery in Ottawa, wandering through the modern art section, looking at a pile of carefully laid out Cheezies, and at boards of plywood propped against the wall, and entertaining sobering thoughts about the end of civilization. For a respite I ducked into a small room in which a film was showing. There was one chair; I sat down. I watched some cows grazing in a field. I stayed about twenty minutes, until the film looped, and when I left that little room I was restored, and my faith in the continuance of civilization was revived. Indeed, more than that, I felt I was seeing the world with new eyes. That film of cows grazing in a field did it.

I was reminded of this experience as I watched Fog Line, a short film made by Larry Gottheim in 1970. It’s about 11 minutes long, and consists of one unbroken static shot of a valley in which fog is slowly drifting. At first one doesn’t see much, but almost imperceptibly the view changes. Trees are revealed and then concealed again. One sees grass, and notices, in time, a little shrub in the foreground. After a few minutes of this one’s thoughts begin to fasten on firmer fare than merely drifting fog. The world is a beautiful place, is it not? This valley scene has unfolded countless times before, without my knowing about it, and is no doubt unfolding still, and it’s all wonderfully, stupefyingly real, and new every morning. And bit by bit one’s mind trips up the ladder of being until it runs headlong into the gratuitous, unfathomable mystery of being itself. And that same mystery confronts us everywhere.

And all this on the strength of a simple, admittedly not very cinematic, just barely moving picture. Even so, I am grateful for the experience. Oh look, here it comes again:


Last year I praised La Sapienza, from director Eugène Green, as one of my favourites of the year. I liked it so much that this year I set about tracking down as many of his other films as I could. He had a new film in 2016, Le Fils de Joseph, and I also contrived to see Toutes les Nuits (2001), Le Pont des Arts (2004), and La Religieuse portugaise (2009). These are not yet all of his films, but they have given me, I think, a better idea of what he does.

I have had to revise, for instance, my interpretation of La Sapienza to some extent. In my reflections on that film, I placed particular thematic significance on the oddly unnatural acting style characterized by flat affect and muted intonation. It turns out that this same acting style is common to all of Green’s films, and so is probably not meant to convey all of the meaning I ascribed to it — unless the same significance is intended in all the films, which seems unlikely. In fact I’ve discovered that many of the directorial peculiarities I encountered in La Sapienza recur in his other films: symmetric compositions; a reliance on the gaze directly into the camera; an interest in architecture; patient filming of actors’ feet, which strikes me as a wry jest (and, perhaps, a self-depreciating reference to the comparisons made by critics between Green and Bresson, who showed a particular interest in hands); a cameo by the director; a musical flourish at the film’s opening and closing.

I’ve selected two of his films for this year-end discussion. Since they are not alphabetically adjacent, I would here run afoul of my alphabetical ordering, were I not cunningly grouping them together under G, for Green.


St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. We can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in La Religieuse portugaise (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine. Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of encounters, mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but also, crucially, a conversation with one woman; these encounters first chart her spiritual topography, and then help her find her way out of the dark wood in which she has been lost.

In Lisbon she is drawn at night to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly through the night before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness.

It is notable that religion seems to be important to Green; I know nothing about his personal piety, but I think that all of his films (that I have seen) have at least one scene in a church, and Christian imagery and ideas permeate his work. This is particularly true of this film, in which the key scene takes place not only in a church, but actually at the altar, where a kind of spiritual marriage takes place between our actress and the nun. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” And how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour. The film in which Julie is acting is directed by a man played by Eugène Green himself, and though the film is clearly not the film we are watching (this is not Adaptation), it bears a sufficiently close resemblance to permit Green to make good-natured jests about his own films: that they are intellectual, and boring, for instance. In the film-within-the-film the characters hardly say anything to one another, which is a nice foil for Green’s rather talky pictures. And a disco scene in which Green’s attempts at hipness fall flat is hilarious. “It’s so tiring to be hip,” he says the morning after. This must be why he avoids it.


Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) is in some respects reminiscent of La Sapienza inasmuch as it explores relationships between older and younger people and is interested in the role of fathers, and father-figures, in the lives of young men. We follow a teenaged boy, Vincent, who lives with his mother but has only recently discovered the identity of his father, whom he then proceeds to try to meet. It’s a film in which Green’s peculiar combination of delightful wit, semi-metaphorical abstraction, and stylistic oddness come together in a particularly successful way.

Distinctive about this film are the Biblical motifs that pop up: the sacrifice of Isaac, the flight into Egypt, Mary and Joseph, the golden calf. Vincent finds himself, perhaps not quite entirely without his contrivance, enmeshed in a story saturated with Biblical typology. He is in the role of Issac, sacrificed by his father; in the role of Abraham, ready to sacrifice; as Moses, I suppose, observing the hedonism of those who are without God; and, finally, as the Christ-Child. What is going on? Is this a kind of metaphor for Providence, in which God reveals his presence in Vincent’s life using, as it were, tried and true signs? Is there something mystical at work in this film, which is stylistically so highly controlled and rational? Or, given Green’s penchant for whimsy, is it just that the director enjoyed dressing up an ordinary and sometimes tawdry tale in grand clothing? I admit I’m not sure; it is a film I’d definitely like to see again.

One last note: There is a scene in the middle of the film, of a performance of an early Italian opera in a church, that has a remarkably powerful numinous quality. It lasts maybe 5 or 10 minutes, and of course I cannot predict how it would affect anyone else, but for me it was like the rending of a veil, through which I caught a glimpse of an immense and powerful beauty. It was the best 5 or 10 minutes of cinema I saw this year, hands down. Eugène Green is a very good filmmaker.


My notes on La La Land were brief: “I need more films like this in my life.” It was the critical darling of 2016, and I think the plaudits were largely deserved. We can agree that it’s not in the same league as Swing Time, but it is refreshing to have a little song and dance in a big-time Hollywood picture.

The film has been criticized on the grounds that the protagonists, Sebastian and Mia, are both selfish and shallow. This is true, and is part of the point. The film’s epilogue, especially, is far from being a whimsical addendum, but is crucial to clarifying and completing the character arc of Sebastian, who sees, at last, what his selfishness cost him. I found the film quite touching, and I’m keen to see what Damien Chazelle does next.


With the possible exception of Chaplin’s City Lights — a very different film — I have never enjoyed a silent film more than F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), which has, for some reason, been given the English title The Last Laugh. It tells the story of an older man who loses his job as doorman at a luxury hotel, and thereby loses the one thing that, so he thinks, gives him dignity.

The film is remarkable because it has essentially no dialogue, and therefore none of the intertitles that normally appear in silent films. Instead, the story is told entirely through visuals, and so feels less like a technically-deficient movie (as silent films sometimes feel to me) and more like an avant-garde experiment, immersing the viewer completely in the visual medium — or nearly completely, because the film does have an incredibly beautiful score, one of the best I’ve ever heard, led by a warm cello, tragic and noble in the best late Romantic mode. I loved it. I have tried to discover the composer, and based on the IMDB page I believe it was probably (because, like many silent films, this has more than one score) Giuseppe Becce.

The film gradually moves toward its tragic finale, but it has a surprising epilogue in store. An intertitle appears, not to convey dialogue, but to inform us that though “the story should end here” it will instead take an implausible turn in order to provide the audience a happy ending. Our tragic hero suddenly inherits vast wealth and proceeds to indulge to excess, turning into a glutton and buffoon. The score follows suite, abandoning its solemn gravitas for superficial ditties. I don’t know why Murnau decided to include this epilogue — was it under pressure from the producers? If so, it’s a startlingly acerbic swipe at them, which, naturally, one can appreciate, but also at the audience, which one can tolerate, but also at his character, which flirts with misanthropy. It’s witty, in its way, but I think the film would have been better without it.


I’d not have thought that Bergman, who gave us this scene and this scene, would have the right temperament to direct a film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but I stand corrected. He brings out the joyful playfulness of the piece alongside its (also joyful) fearfulness, and the results is the best opera film known to me. The recognition scene with Pagageno and Pagagena, which was the only section I’d seen previously, is still my favourite part, but I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly, as did my kids (8 yo and 6 yo), who watched with me. Excellent singing throughout.


It is true that Manchester by the Sea was among the best films I saw this year, but it hits like a punch in the gut. The story is about Lee, a man crippled by grief and regret who is, nonetheless, haltingly and partially, trying to overcome them and live again. The troubles he faces are formidable and probably finally permanent, but still he labours to stay afloat. There are no easy answers, no easy roads back.

A reason to prize this film is Kenneth Lonergan’s direction; it was important that he find a way to tell this story without cheap emotional manipulation, and, given the nature of the story, the manipulation-meter had a hair-trigger. I expect he did it about as well as it could be done.

Something should be said about the music, which, for such a bleak story, is surprisingly warm and rich. Lonergan’s decision to use Handel’s “He shall feed his flock” at a crucial juncture struck me as a bold one, but it worked. The music said that all was not lost.


My liking for slow, quiet films brought me to Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 homage to the slow, quiet life. Paterson, who lives in Paterson, NJ, is a bus driver for Paterson public transit. He is husband to Laura, a quirky, earnest woman whom he loves with all his heart. And he is a poet, pausing each day, at bus stops or on breaks, to write poems in his notebook.

Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life.

The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At one point a calamity besets him; true, it might seem a small thing to an outsider — indeed, his wife is the only one to whom it would mean anything at all. (Bless her, she knows it.) But then he is visited by something very like providential grace, and a new beginning.

It’s a lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart, let down only by the rather poor poetry he writes. A formalist he is not. But it doesn’t really matter.


Good movies about religion are uncommon, and great ones are rare indeed. Werner Herzog’s little — at just 18 minutes long — and little-seen documentary Pilgrimage, from 2001, is somewhere in that range: not truly great cinema, for it makes limited use of cinematic resources, yet all the same it is one of the best films about religion that I’ve seen.

A mercy is that Herzog stays out of the way; we get no commentary or questions from behind the camera. Instead, the film consists entirely of shots of pilgrims at the tomb of St Sergei in Russia and at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. We see them at their devotions, praying, weeping, crawling on their knees; we see faith in its agony and ecstasy; we see humanity at its vulnerable, determined best, longing for the transcendent and willing to suffer and sacrifice just to touch the hem of that garment. The film showed me how very complacent and self-satisfied I am myself.

Of course the hazards of religious devotion are real and evident here, as a subtext, and why not? There is danger whenever we love something greatly.

There is a striking scene in which Herzog shows us pilgrims stopping, looking up, and making their devotions. Their faces are engrossing, their devotion beguiling. But he never shows us what they are looking at. (I have a guess.) Is it because he thinks it doesn’t matter? If so, we have here a notable and, I suppose, poignant example of a film about transcendence that is itself trapped in immanence.


As for films actually showing in 2017, I saw only a handful. Among those, I liked Spider-Man: Homecoming the most; it had the rarest of rare things in superhero movies — a good villain — and, anyhow, I have a weakness for Spider-Man. David Lowery’s haunting fable A Ghost Story was a close second. I saw Get Out, which is emerging as the critical favourite of the year, but I didn’t much care for it. I was greatly disappointed by Malick’s Song to Song, and I wish somebody could take away my sorrow.


Concluding Trivia

Shortest films: The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979) [3m]; Father and Daughter (2000) [8m]; Begone Dull Care (1949) [8m].

Longest films: Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) [3h11m]; Toni Erdmann (2016) [2h42m]; Silence (2016) [2h41m].

Oldest films: The Phantom Carriage (1921); Girl Shy (1924); Der letzte Mann (1924).

Best re-visits: The Tree of Life (2011); In the Mood for Love (2000); There Will Be Blood (2007).

Favourite animated film: Your Name (2016).

Favourite literary adaptation: Coriolanus (2011).

Favourite feel-good movie: Queen of Katwe (2016).

Most films by the same director: 4 (Eugène Green); 3 (Malick, Kubrick, Bresson); 2 (Scorcese).

Watched, but not remembered: Sullivan’s Travels (1941); Ninotchka (1939); My Man Godfrey (1936).

Disappointments: Close-Up (1990); Dr Strangelove (1964); Blade Runner (1982); Song to Song (2017).

13 Responses to “Favourites of 2017: Film”

  1. dksgf Says:

    Looks like a good roster of weekend movies to check out. Thanks.

    Hope you’re judgment is good!

  2. “Arrival, a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie. ”

    That’s a perfect one-sentence description of it.

    I am disappointed by your disappointment with Dr. Strangelove. I wonder if it’s too much a creature of its time and only appeals to Older People.

    And I’m astonished that you could forget the wonderful Ninotchka (referring to the character as much as to the film).

  3. cburrell Says:

    This was the second time I tried Dr Strangelove. At least I made it through this time. I confess I really did not enjoy it. I don’t know if it is a creature of its time, or if there is some problem with me. My father-in-law likes it.

    I’d heard so many good things about Ninotchka! But I draw a blank when I try to remember what it was about, or even what she looked like. The good news is that I’ll be able to watch it again someday as though it were brand new.

  4. I remember my mother saying when she and my father were probably around 60 that one nice thing about getting older was that they could watch re-runs on tv and enjoy them just as much. Or at least have no more idea of how the story would turn out.

    Ninotchka is a trifle, but to my taste a completely delightful one, even though it’s a bit propagandistic. I think it’s the only Garbo film I’ve seen, which means I have a completely mistaken impression of her–this is reportedly her only non-glum role, and was advertised with “Garbo laughs!”

  5. cburrell Says:

    Even with these details to jog my memory, I cannot remember anything about the movie! How awful. I seem to have a problem, in general, remembering movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s odd.

  6. vvelocci Says:

    I just watched Arrival as a result of your recommendation. What a great film. However, I think I need a second viewing!

  7. Rob G Says:

    “I was greatly disappointed by Malick’s Song to Song, and I wish somebody could take away my sorrow.”

    I was disappointed too, until I went back and rewatched the last half-hour or so. It didn’t make me a total convert (I still think it’s his weakest film — note that I rewatched only the last half-hour, not the whole thing!) but I think I was able to get a better handle on what he was trying to do. Still a disappointment, but perhaps not the giant disappointment I initially felt it was.

  8. cburrell Says:

    I will re-watch it at some point; I always give Malick’s films at least two viewings before I feel comfortable making some firm judgments. I’m just not looking forward to it, and that is rare.

  9. I have watched many kinds of christian movies but out of all of them , these are my favourite films of 2017 ” The Case Of Christ”, ‘Let There Be Light”, and “All Saints”.

  10. cburrell Says:

    I’ve not seen any of those; thanks for the suggestions.

  11. Craig Says:

    I stumbled upon this rather nice video essay on the films of Eugene Green, on Youtube, and thought you might be interested. Ten minutes, not too short, not too long:
    Eugene Green – A Song Of Light

    Watching it makes me wish I was able to see more of his films.

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