J.R. Jones picks the best films of 2017 | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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J.R. Jones picks the best films of 2017

The Reader’s film editor selects his favorite movies that premiered in Chicago this year.

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One thing you should know about the Reader's year-end film rankings is that, from time immemorial, we've limited the candidates to movies that premiered locally between January 1 and December 31—that's why Toni Erdmann, a big awards favorite in 2016, wasn't eligible until this year, and a handful of highly touted films premiering on the coasts now to qualify for the Oscars (such as Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and Michael Haneke's Happy End) won't be considered until 2018. Another thing you should know is that, for the first time, I and contributing writer Ben Sachs, whose year-end list appears on the Bleader, agreed on three whole films: Toni Erdmann, Nocturama, and Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. That gives them a coveted 100 percent rating on the Reader-meter, even more coveted because the only other possibilities are 50 percent or zero.

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1 The Lost City of Z Cinema still offers a combination of visual scope and narrative compression you can't get from TV, which is what makes this epic historical adventure by James Gray such an arresting experience. Running 141 minutes, it tells the true story of Percy Fawcett, an English explorer whose lifelong obsession with finding a legendary Amazonian city ended only with his mysterious disappearance in the Brazilian jungle in 1925. Like David Lean's classic Lawrence of Arabia, the film offers a dashing hero, played by Charlie Hunnam, and the powerful theme of British culture colliding with a brutal world it only dimly understands.

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2 I Am Not Your Negro Raoul Peck's stirring documentary portrait of James Baldwin draws on electrifying interview footage of the writer from the 1960s but places him at the center of today's national conversation on race. Baldwin never delivered his proposed novel Remember This House, which was meant to recount his friendships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. But Peck uses 30 pages of notes that Baldwin left behind as the jumping-off point for a vivid portrait, one that reminds us of his rhetorical power and devastating moral clarity.

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3 Toni Erdmann German writer-director Maren Ade filters screwball comedy through the sober aesthetic of the Romanian new wave—long takes, no score, epic running time—for this demented tale of a fractious father-and-daughter relationship. The father, played by Peter Simonischek, is a mischievous old hippie who's fond of disguises; the daughter, played with a deep sense of anger and unease by Sandra Hüller, has rebelled against him with her career as a perfectly pressed business consultant. When dad crashes her high-stakes business trip to Bucharest, the fur flies.

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4 Lady Bird Greta Gerwig has spoken warmly of her single-sex education at a Catholic girls' school in Sacramento, California, and Lady Bird, her solo writing and directing debut, is heavily informed by the experience, radiating sisterhood but without a hint of rancor. The gangly, 17-year-old heroine, played by Saoirse Ronan of Brooklyn, chafes against her lower-middle-class parents and dreams of ditching Sacramento for college in the east. Hoping to raise her social status, she tries out a couple of boyfriends, but they're peripheral to a story in which girls are allowed to be their own sweet and irritable selves.

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5 Nocturama This audacious French thriller by Bertrand Bonello begins with a topical premise—a crew of young radicals prepare to execute a coordinated terror attack across Paris—but Bonello's true agenda is socialist black comedy. After sowing chaos across the city, the conspirators hide in a chic department store, where the luxurious merchandise gets the better of them, and a foolhardy invitation extended to two street people to join in the bacchanalia triggers the terrorists' doom. Even after you realize you're watching a political parable, the suspense is unbearable.

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6 Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer A Jewish folktale set in modern-day Manhattan, this engrossing drama from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar (Footnote) features a career-topping performance from Richard Gere as a graying, fraying influence peddler whose generosity and opportunism are almost impossible to distinguish from each other. Attending a conference, Norman strikes up a friendship with a visiting Israeli politician, and three years later, when the man becomes prime minister, he taps Norman as his "ambassador to New York Jewry," a decision he'll live to regret.

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7 Loving Vincent Every Pixar animation ends with an endless scroll crediting the digital artists who contributed to the finished project—what if they gave all that cash to oil painters instead? Funded by the Polish Film Institute, Loving Vincent was created by a team of 115 artists who hand-painted all 65,000 of its frames, re-creating and elaborating on the canvases of Vincent van Gogh for a detective story that explores his last years in France and his mysterious, still-controversial death. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman wrote and directed this feast for the eyes and storm for the soul.

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8 Dawson City: Frozen Time Time melts away in this slow, stealthy historical documentary by Bill Morrison (Decasia). In 1978, a worker demolishing a gutted athletic center in Dawson City, Yukon, discovered more than 500 cans of film that had been discarded by local theaters in the 1910s and '20s and sealed inside a swimming pool. Using clips from these recovered films as well as historical photos and texts, Morrison reconstructs the town's glory days following the Yukon Gold Rush of 1897 and its sad descent over the years as the mining industry destroyed the surrounding countryside and the local economy collapsed.

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9 The Red Turtle A rebuke to the glibness of most children's entertainment, this enthralling debut feature by longtime Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit transpires without a word of dialogue, its human characters dwarfed by a majestic natural environment. Washed ashore on a deserted island, the hero is harassed by a giant turtle with a ruby-red shell; after it expires on the beach, it's reincarnated as a beautiful woman who becomes the man's emotional lifeline. This was the first European animation ever funded by Japan's Studio Ghibli and shares with that studio's films a sense of nature's mysterious power.

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10 Death in the Terminal If you blinked, you probably missed this gripping Israeli documentary by Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry, which screened as part of the excellent Doc10 Film Festival—but then, the film itself is about the vagaries of sight. In October 2015, a Bedouin gunman attacked a bus station in Beersheba and was shot dead by security forces; they also fatally wounded an innocent Eritrean immigrant whom they mistook for an accomplice, and the dying man was kicked and beaten by people inside the station. With video footage from two security cameras and interviews with eyewitnesses, Shemesh and Sudry reconstruct the 18 minutes of violence and confusion, crafting a Rashomon for the age of terror.

Runners-up:

11. Ruben Östlund's The Square
12. Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name
13. Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen's Last Men in Aleppo
14. Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime
15. Azazel Jacobs's The Lovers
16. Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake
17. Robert Eggers's The Witch
18. Bong Joon-ho's Okja
19. Vanessa Gould's Obit
20. William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth

Tied for Worst of 2017: Margaret Betts's Novitiate and Terrence Malick's Song to Song.  v

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