As one year-end list after another came rushing onto the sites of various publications, I found myself in a conversation with another Stranger veteran about the days when this paper refused to publish such articles.
Part of the reason was that lists were too obvious, and the idea that readers might have been trained to want such countdowns because other outlets ran them was another argument not to participate. But the real issue was that the very existence of The Stranger was predicated on celebrating a non-canon (or “alternative” as we used to be forced to call it) reality.
The idea that critics could throw a lasso around 10 or 20 or even 50 films and say this was what the past year meant seemed absurd—an industry/consumption/consensus-based model of cultural observation, borne out by how easy it is to predict Oscar nominations and how similar so many of these lists tend to be.
But then something (let’s call it the internet, and phones, and social media) happened. Time became impossible to manage, and everything that had ever happened or ever would happen became instantly available for free—or for $10 a month if you have scruples. Life became less a process of balancing the responsibilities of work and the rewards of leisure, and more a process of sitting down in front of a fire hydrant every morning, and turning a wrench to make the full deluge explode into your face until the day was over.
Though cinema hasn’t suffered anywhere near as badly as book-reading, it does seem to be the art form that has suffered the greatest decline in terms of its cultural dominance over the past 20 years. For one thing, the world’s vision has come to accommodate smaller and smaller surface areas. The phone screen is the default surface, and the video player embedded within it is even smaller.
And the on-demandness of online entertainment culture has made a mockery of films being shown at a certain time, or in a certain place. Collective escapism is an antiquated idea to many people, and many more simply can’t make time to go to a theater and pay a now exorbitant sum to watch something they may or may not like. And they can’t even text during it. And it’ll be on a streaming service within a couple of months if it isn’t already, and if they even remember what the hell it was in the first place.
It’s easier to find 12 hours to watch a whole season of a TV show in one day than it is to budget 100 minutes to go to the movies.
It’s also hard to make time to read a book, but there are many more bookstores in Seattle than there are movie theaters.
We’ve seen almost the entire Landmark/Seven Gables chain—once a definitive, sacramental Seattle film institution—go under in the past five years. The Metro, Varsity, and Egyptian have new owners. The Harvard Exit, Guild 45th, and Seven Gables are defunct. Only the Crest, way up in Shoreline, is still operating, but as a second run, discount house.
And this, in a city that once made moviegoing a central part of its identity. The city that made weird, independent films like The Stunt Man and The Gods Must Be Crazy into regional hits because people could not stop going to see them.
(On a more positive note, the Meridian now has excellent, reclining seats.)
That’s why we do the Top 20 lists now, despite the fact that we used to believe it was better not to. The world is sufficiently different now that it seems possible a list like this might actually prove useful to someone trying to make a decision about what to do with their actually precious time and their genuinely hard-earned money.
And on a selfish level, it’s a good way for us to remember how we spent our viewing, writing, and thinking time in the year gone by, when we weren’t busy ruing our birth, or the births of others.
We really encourage people to go to the movies. Not Netflix. Not Hulu. Not Amazon Prime. The movies. In a theater. With other people.
Some of these are still playing in one. SEAN NELSON
dir. Rodrigo Grande
As Americans, we have completely forgotten how to make great crime thrillers. And this is exactly what we find in every scene, moment, and line of the Argentinian film At the End of the Tunnel: a superb crime thriller. Directed by Rodrigo Grande, the film concerns an elaborate bank heist, a broken man and his traumatized dog, and a nosy stripper and her traumatized daughter. The timing of the plot’s many twists and surprises is just perfect, and its interior spaces (living room, kitchen, bedroom, basement, tunnel) and exteriors (overgrown garden, city streets) are filled with shadows. This film is the only great thriller I watched this year. CHARLES MUDEDE
Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
A breathtakingly disturbing dystopian vision—all the more horrifying for its plausibility in the American present. The Bad Batch, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, creator of the ominous revisionist vampire western noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is the first vision any artist has offered of what life might look like at the end of Donald Trump's second term.
The film opens when a female prisoner, Arlen, is dropped off at an open-air prison colony separated from America by a chain-link fence with a sign that reads "WARNING: Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. That hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized, or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck."
But Arlen's bad luck has only just begun. Within moments she’s up against grotesque violence, body mutilation, a vacuous messiah figure, murder for sport, murder for survival, and, oh yeah, actual cannibalism.
The Bad Batch is about humankind at the point of either evolution or extinction, when empathy is not a character issue, but a biological imperative. It may seem comforting to think of the film as a wild, postapocalyptic sci-fi horror allegory, but the film's motor is startlingly literal, and it deserves a much bigger audience than it got. SEAN NELSON
dir. Nabwana I.G.G.
Bad Black is a perfect introduction to the Wakaliwood world. What is Wakaliwood? Films made in the slums of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, with little or no budget. And it is the raw action scenes and stunts, the super-cheap CGI special effects (the kind you find on an iPhone), the poor quality of the sound, the disorderly editing, the crazy mesh of English and Swahili, and the improbable plots are precisely what make Wakaliwood films so enjoyable. No other film this year (or even this decade) made a me laugh as much as Bad Black. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Jeff Orlowski
“Entire classes of organisms will go extinct,” says one scientist in Chasing Coral, a Netflix original documentary that’s as horrifying as it is gorgeous to behold. “The only question is whether it’s going to be bad or really bad,” says another. They’re talking about the consequences of the Third Global Coral Bleaching Event--a mass death of coral perpetuated by warming oceans--and what will happen if we ignore this ecological disaster we’re all currently living through. If the coral reefs go—and they are going; we’ve lost 50 percent of them in the last 30 years--the costal fishing industry collapses and poverty and hunger overtake the world. The problem is so large it’s paralyzing. And it’s particularly hard to address because it requires people to care about the loss of an animal that looks like a plant that looks like a rock. I have my doubts about our ability to reverse climate change at this stage in the game, but this collection of trippy coral videos and interviews with charmingly alarmed marine biologists did leave me in awe of a simple, jewel-like creature’s infinite complexities. RICH SMITH
A bizarrely fascinating, visually stunning, and subtly sensual tour of Columbus, Indiana’s modernist architecture. (Did you know there was a Columbus, Indiana? I didn’t, and I lived for a long time in neighboring Missouri and Ohio. Then again, I was drunk a lot.) Besides churches by Eero and Eliel Saarinen, libraries by I.M. Pei, and Will Miller’s enviable living room interior by Alexander Girard, Columbus concerns intersecting stories of familial responsibility.
Jin (played with authority by John Cho) is a middle-aged man who should care that his father is dying in a hospital, but he doesn’t. Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson, who turns in a phenomenally good, sophisticated performance) is a recent high-school grad who needs to cut the cord, but that’s complicated. The two shouldn’t like each other in any sort of romantic way, but that’s also complicated. Kogonada includes all the troubles Indianans face—meth problems, having to work two manual-labor jobs to pay rent, racial tension—but he smartly builds it into the characters’ motivations and backstory. Elisha Christian’s cinematography and Kogonada’s story reveal the deep relationship between architecture and people. RICH SMITH
dir. Kathryn Bigelow
The Detroit-based culture critic Steven Shaviro described Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, a crime drama set in the late 1960s, as one of the best films he has ever seen. That’s very high praise from a professor who teaches film theory and seems to have watched everything under the sun. I, however, do not agree. But I do think it is certainly the most gripping film I watched this year, not least because the events it describes—a violent, intense stalemate between police and black people—feel like they could just as easily have happened in 2017 as in 1968. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Sean Baker
Willem Dafoe has been lauded for showing his "softer side" as Bobby, a kind but no bullshit manager of a budget hotel, but the real reason everyone should see Sean Baker's indie gem is the rowdy, previously unknown 7-year-old actor Brooklynn Prince. She plays Moonee, a mischievous tyrant who spends her days terrorizing the Orlando hotel she calls home with a gang of kindergartners, harassing patrons and guilting tourists into buying them ice cream while the grown-ups carry out their prostitution, drugs, arson, assault, and whatever else they have going on. Prince’s performance resonates beyond the twee and cute, but could make even the surliest curmudgeon cry. CHASE BURNS
dir. Jordan Peele
Get Out was filmed in the final year of Obama’s presidency and arrived just in time for Trump, America’s first white president, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates. The film’s timing could not have been better. It hit the screens at the right moment with the right message about racism in the US. The handsome, upper-middle-class white family at the beginning of the film represents the Obama years; the monstrous and murderous white family at the film’s end represents the Trump years. But do not imagine that there is a break between the former and latter. Trump did not come out of nowhere. He was with us during and before the Obama years. Get Out is the first great race-based horror film in the history of American cinema. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Raoul Peck
An ingeniously constructed documentary about one of the 20th century’s greatest, and more conflicted artist/polemicists, this film is built from the proposal for Remember This House, the book James Baldwin never finished. As Samuel Jackson’s voice-over mingles with archival footage of Baldwin laying waste to his intellectual opposition on TV—and by the way, let’s pause for a moment to consider a time when a figure as radically attuned, and as volcanically erudite, and as sexually non-conforming as James Baldwin could have appeared regularly on network television—director Peck conveys the sense of a writer who has come to understand an idea that is bigger than he has the mortal strength to convey, which would almost make the film a tragedy within the context of the larger systemic tragedy its subject yearned to articulate. But even a glimpse of Baldwin’s prose is such a feast for mind, body, and soul that a film like I Am Not Your Negro can only be received with joy, humility, and deepest admiration. SEAN NELSON
Dir. Damien Power
One of the most viscerally terrifying, slow burning films about powerlessness—which is, after all, the feeling that defines the age—I have ever seen. At first, it seems like the editing is unnecessarily tricksy about the chronology of events, but those tricks pay off in a really chilling way. By the time they do, you’re fully immersed in a nightmare that blossoms from a seed of dread that has been shadowing you through the whole film. The moral of this brutal, grueling, masterfully crafted tale is one that everyone would do well to take to heart: Never, ever, under any circumstances, go camping. SEAN NELSON
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
It’s difficult to say what Yorgos Lanthimos is on about. His compositions and rhythms are massively stylized and controlled in a way that recalls Kubrick, but they also depict behavior so unlikely that it begs to be read through the lens of mythos and allegory—but they’re plenty disturbing and funny in the literal dimension. This story of an incautious surgeon and the price he and his family must pay for his carelessness is modeled to some extent on the Greek myth of Iphigenia, but in fact, there’s so much going on with Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman’s weird sex games, and Farrell’s deeply dubious relationship with the teenage boy (Barry Keoghan) who comes to dominate his children, and even just the deeply messed up way that Keoghan slorps up his pasta that allegory is just a bonus. You come away from this film feeling like you’ve just seen a work with something deeply true, even important to say about class, about parents and children, about boomers and millennials (if you must). But even though you understand what you just saw, you’re hard pressed to articulate it. One thing The Killing of a Sacred Deer proves for certain, which The Lobster only suggested: Whatever Lanthimos does next is absolutely required viewing. SEAN NELSON
dir. Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts
It might seem like an odd pick in this list, but despite being a reboot in a seemingly endless parade of them, Kong: Skull Island is a perfectly executed monster film, but also a spectacular action movie with excellent special effects. And everything about it is well done, from the cinematography and exceptional imagery, and not just environmental shots but the overall deeply evocative feel and homage to Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon; to great casting and inventive ways of killing off characters; to a story that very generally follows the same theme of previous outings in the franchise, but still manages to surprise with its interesting twists and a more three-dimensional ape who possesses real motivations and a believable history, rather than the primitively angry chest-banging beast of Kong films of yore. LEILANI POLK
dir. Greta Gerwig
The great trick Gerwig pulls off in her debut feature as a writer/director is transferring the radiant, unruly inner life that enlivens her best on-screen work into a story that wraps profound insights about class in the sheep's clothing of a sweet, sad, funny coming-of-age story. The film owes a debt to Wes Anderson—but all the clean design and clever dialogue is in the service of heavy emotional inquiry. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, never better) is a teenage girl striving to find a self she can live in while stranded in moribund, lower-middle-class Sacramento, "the Midwest of California." She’ll perform for anyone, but the only audience she truly wants is her exasperated, judgmental, sharp-tongued mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, almost certainly the greatest living actress). Their verbal battles are hilarious, their stalemates wrenching, their tender moments intoxicating. It's an exquisitely observed portrait of a mother and daughter so intractably at war that they can't see how close they are. Their view is blocked because the entire landscape of their relationship is circumscribed by economic circumstance. SEAN NELSON
dir. SJ Chiro
Lane 1974 is a film directed by a new star in Seattle's film community, S.J. Chiro (and, yes, I’m related to her). It premiered at SXSW Film Festival 2017, and it also won the New American Cinema award at SIFF 2017. Though set in Northern California, it is very much a local film because, like a leaf on an evergreen, it's very sensitive to the effects and textures of natural light. Indeed, Pacific Northwest cinema can first be defined as just this kind of sensitivity. One other great thing about this film is its star, Sophia Mitri Schloss. Her portrayal of a teen who is watching her family and her era disintegrate is one of the best performances of the year. Also, Chiro's work has this as its deep understanding: the condition of a childhood, no matter how awful it be, is always the fairy tale. CHARLES MUDEDE
Dir. Pacho Velez, Sierra Pettengill
Ronald Reagan and his team changed the whole game of American politics by transforming the White House into a movie studio. These men understood that he wasn’t a president, but playing one in Hollywood. Without this understanding (make everything a movie), the new conservatives would not have finally and effectively defeated that five-decade truce between workers and capitalism called the New Deal. The Reagan revolution was indeed televised. The documentary also makes it clear that Donald Trump is a rank amateur and completely lacks Reagan’s art and discipline. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Ruben Östlund
One day, three con artists on a city Stockholm street lure Christian, the head curator of X-Royal, a huge modern art museum, into a clever trap and mug him. He loses his wallet and slick smartphone. Back at the office, and still in a state of shock from what happened to him in broad daylight, he locates his smartphone on the web. It is in a place that we in the US would call the projects. Encouraged by a friend, he decides to take matters into his own hands and does something that changes his life. The film, by the Swedish director Ruben Östlund, a rising star in European cinema, has scenes that are very funny and scenes that are very difficult to watch. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Rian Johnson
The thing we must ask is: How do we transform the revolutionary images of Stars Wars into tangible things and real-world events? As we paid millions upon millions to watch a casino of the galactic one percent exposed and destroyed, the one percent on Earth paid a whole major party to basically rob the wage-earning classes of the little they have with a tax scam. Will the images of radical social transformation be in the prison of the big screen forever? Are we condemned to pay capitalism to produce and profit from the image of liberation from capitalism every holiday? Clearly, Disney supplies us with these images because they are considered safe. The corporation is certain they will never leave this, our Plato's cave. CHARLES MUDEDE
Dir. Martin McDonagh
Mildred Hayes (masterfully played Frances McDormand), is an angry, grieving single mother in coveralls who rents three billboards outside town with a message to the local police: "Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Her motivation is murder: Her teenage daughter was raped and murdered seven months before. McDormand’s performance is matched by Woody Harrelson, who plays Chief Willoughby, the much-loved local sheriff with a secret all his own. Reconciling with the past may be impossible in circumstances like these, but Hayes and Willoughby do their damndest to find justice in an unjust world, and that’s what Three Billboards is about. Also featuring Sam Rockwell as a racist, redeemable cop and Peter Dinklange as a used car salesman and put-upon dwarf, Three Billboards is not a comedy, but it is darkly funny, with lines that make you sit up and think, “Did they really just say that?” Yes, indeed, they did. As an added personal bonus, the fictional Ebbing was played by Sylva, North Carolina, a tiny little hamlet nestled deep in the Appalachians, about 7 miles from the house where I grew up. The film made me miss the deep green hills of Appalachia, and reminded me exactly exactly why I left them. KATIE HERZOG
You wouldn’t immediately reckon Haynes, director of such brilliant transgressions as Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and Carol, as a likely source of a movie for kids (I guess if it were a book, and it is based on one, it would be YA). Nevertheless, he has delivered a bolt of pure magic, a ’70s period piece that combines the two essential dream-themes of movies for kids: the adventure of running away, and the miraculous destiny of being found. Wonderstruck operates on a parallel structure: One story is set in 1927, about a young deaf girl (the excellent Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her stern, rich father in Hoboken to find her favorite silent movie actress in New York City. Meanwhile, in 1977, circumstances lead young Ben—whose mother recently died— to make the same journey, but from Michigan. Along the way, there is friendship, self-reliance, and a ton of magical coincidences. But beyond all the stories and characters, the film observes the human impulse to leave some trace of ourselves, to tell stories—not merely to entertain, but to mark the fact of our having existed. And though Wonderstruck is about kids, it feels like it’s for former kids, which is to say adults. It combines elements of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (the NY Museum of Natural History plays a key role) and, oddly, Charlie Kaufman’s Synechoche, New York. It makes a world full of containers for smaller bits of the world, which is a way of telling its young main characters that the world may be big and daunting, but it is all there for them. And life is brief. SEAN NELSON
THE WOMAN WHO LEFT
dir. Lav Diaz
An achingly slow, 226-minute, black-and-white Tolstoy adaptation from the Philippines about a woman released from jail after serving 30 years for a murder she didn’t commit in search of revenge against the former lover who framed her. This indisputable masterpiece hovers somewhere near the cinematic intersection of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch, and Monte Hellman. It’s riveting both despite and because of its epic length and arcadian pace, breathtakingly photographed, and fascinatingly concerned with the central issues of our time: class, privilege, accountability, violence, and the quest for agency. SEAN NELSON