Universal Pictures

The 25 Best Films of 2017
The 25 Best Films of 2017

15

I Am Not Your Negro

Except for some questions he’s asked by interviewers and a few puny would-be rebuttals by smug debaters, whom he swats away like so many intellectual gnats, James Baldwin’s diamantine words—sometimes spoken by the writer himself on video and sometimes read by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson—are the only ones heard in I Am Not Your Negro. Fueled by a perpetually simmering cauldron of grief and rage yet unfailingly compassionate and open-minded, the elegantly world-weary Baldwin traces the thick vein of racism that runs through the heart of U.S. history and culture, identifying it as the original sin the nation must come to terms with if it is ever going to become what it claims to be. “What white people have to do is find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he says, just before uttering the phrase that gives the film its title—though he doesn’t use the word “negro.” Raoul Peck borrows his film’s structure from an unfinished work in which Baldwin had planned to compare the lives of three black civil rights leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The film sketches out the differing approaches adopted by the three leaders only broadly, but Baldwin’s analysis shines through with brilliant clarity. While Jackson reads from both published and unpublished texts, archival video bleeds into recent news footage about travesties like the Trayon Martin killing, making it clear how distressingly urgent Baldwin’s words still are. Elise Nakhnikian

The 25 Best Films of 2017

14

The Death of Louis XIV

Following up on Story of my Death, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV again works an old story into a phantasmagoric pageant of somberly extravagant decay, unearthing more murky modern parallels in the twisted sagas of the past. Sumptuous and slow-paced, the film depicts the Sun King’s gradual demise from a gangrenous leg wound. Around the failing body of this once-potent demigod assembles a coterie of vultures, concealing their eagerness to attend to the transition of authority beneath fawning expressions of concern. Attempts to save his life are rendered as liturgical rites, conducted largely by a panel of feckless, squabbling charlatans, pushing one another aside to gain greater proximity to the fading flame. In the end, the ruler shrivels into the trappings of the throne, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s deflated performance finding intense poignancy in the sad spectacle of a man realizing that he isn’t omnipotent, only the measly mortal icon for the ethereal specter of state power. When a person dies there’s devastation and mourning. When a king dies, there’s only the stifling cloak of ceremony, the ritualistic passing down of control from one ceremonial vessel to another. Cataldo

The 25 Best Films of 2017

13

Faces Places

It isn’t hyperbole to say that Agnès Varda’s Faces Places, co-directed by street artist JR, is a road movie unlike any other: a documentary as journey through space (France’s countryside) and time (Varda’s past). Crammed into JR’s photo-booth truck, the filmmakers’ quaint aim to make life-sized portraits of working-class people across a nation rouses a surfeit of philosophical inquires. Varda and JR make their way across beaches, through fields, stopping at farms and small villages, their inviting personalities ensuring that every stop becomes a magnificent story. The lives of factory workers, a coalminer’s daughter, goats, even a mailman become not unlike fragments of parables depicted in a stained-glass window. In a register wholly and uniquely Vardan, the filmmaking straddles the line between the first, second, and third person. Humane is a word that’s batted around for just about every documentary, but how else can one describe a film whose subjects are simply, finely, connected by their shared sense of pride in their lives? Populist, though content not to invoke any particular brand of politics, Faces Places is a study in openness under the signs of a fire-hearted sense of personal dignity and glassy-eyed wonder. Peter Goldberg

The 25 Best Films of 2017

12

Get Out

Get Out’s central conceit, about a Stepford Wives-ish plot by blithely entitled suburban whites to colonize black people’s bodies, is a trenchant metaphor for white supremacy. The timing, character development, and gift for social satire that writer-director Jordan Peele honed as a sketch comedian all translate effortlessly to horror, allowing the first-time filmmaker to entrance his audience as deftly as Catherine Keener’s Missy mesmerizes Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris with that tapping teaspoon. The Sunken Place where Missy maroons Chris is the film’s most indelible image, a stomach-churning representation of how it feels to be stripped of your autonomy and personhood by a dominant culture that remains cruelly blind and deaf to your plight. In a world where almost no one is what they initially appear to be, Get Out anatomizes the evil lurking in the relatively benign-seeming prejudice that plays out as fetishization or envy, a form of racism that doesn’t see itself as racist at all. Elise Nakhnikian

The 25 Best Films of 2017

11

Ex-Libris: New York Public Library

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library plays as a natural extension of the inclusive humanist vision that the filmmaker articulated in 2015’s In Jackson Heights. Just as the startlingly diverse Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights became, under Wiseman’s inquisitive eye, a microcosm of America at its best in its openness to different cultures, the New York Public Library system is portrayed here as a vast network with the power to unite people from all walks of life in the eternal search for knowledge and enlightenment. But Wiseman, as ever, is hardly simple-minded in his perspective. Through many backroom scenes with members of the library’s board, Ex Libris reveals the economic difficulties of maintaining such a system, with the survival of an institution meant to benefit the commonwealth placed ironically in the hands of the wealthy. And yet, through the generous sprawl of three-plus hours, as Wiseman presents us with scenes and shots of intellectuals holding court, students being taught by instructors, and individuals soaking up knowledge on their own, Ex Libris constantly reminds us of the necessity of keeping libraries alive, exulting in the democratic ideal they represent. Kenji Fujishima

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