Sonoma film critic's choice for 2017's best movies

Sean Baker's 'Florida Project' follows the plight of working-poor families living in a cheap motel on the outskirts of Disney World.


10. “Ingrid Goes West”

If not the greatest film of 2017, it’s among the most valuable reflections of Instagram’s dominion over our lives. In an apt update on “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Aubrey Plaza’s heroine changes her home, hair and personality not to assume another person’s identity, but to cannibalize her frenemy’s Insta followers. The trouble with these modern times is that we can’t even while away our days watching movies anymore — we must waste them looking at our phones instead.


9. “Lady Macbeth”

Skillfully directed by William Oldroyd from a screenplay by Alice Birch, “Lady Macbeth” is reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s recent version of “Wuthering Heights,” with a trapped woman at the center and cloud-choked English moors all around. In this withering but gorgeous isolation, Florence Pugh delivers a face-melting performance as a woman who responds to her bondage by burning through a husband, a father-in-law and a lover. Playing a mute servant, Naomi Ackie is tremendous as our co-witness to the dark goings-on.

8. “Coco”

Pixar does its finest world-building ever in “Coco”—the Land of the Dead is a marigold-drenched wonderland in which the skeletal spirits of your ancestors sing, dance and make art. It’s also happy news that, even without flesh, the dead can still drink tequila. When you (re)watch the film, remember to bring a box of tissues to the theater with you — as one character says, speaking to the afterlife or the best Pixar films: “This place runs on memories.”


7. “Dawson City: Frozen Time”

In this superlative documentary, Bill Morrison provides a meditative mélange of photographs, documentary footage, silent films and early talkies from Dawson City, a turn-of-the-century gold rush town in the Yukon that was the end of the line for thousands of reels of early movies. The doc includes amazing nuggets, like the reason Jack London turned back for home before reaching Dawson City (scurvy) and the origin of the Trump family fortune (brothels). By the end, you almost can’t imagine cinema history without this small town — if not for the future moguls who intersected there, we might never have had the chance to watch “Snatched,” 2017’s worst film.

6. “Wind River”

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan is among the best at leading us to the dark places in our society and this trip to the Wind River Indian reservation is no different. As a young man (and potential murder suspect) on the rez explains: “I wanna fight the whole world.” Despite the bracing violence in the film, it’s fascinating to watch Jeremy Renner’s tracker Cory as he moves from hunting mountain lions that prey on livestock to hunting death itself.


5. “Good Time”

Josh and Ben Safdie direct what is, for a few minutes at least, a straightforward picture about two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson, very good) and Nick (Ben Safdie, extraordinary) bumbling through a bank heist. From there straight through the end, the plot goes spectacularly off the rails — the hilarious, truly inconceivable twists are so uproarious that you run the risk of peeing your pants from the sheer giddiness. Future filmmakers must take notes on how to craft a proper thriller that never comes up for a breath.

4. “Get Out”

“Get Out” has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the “Best Musical or Comedy” category but, crucially, director Jordan Peele has called the film a documentary. The power of the piece is the utter believability of the ills that befall Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris, a black man trapped in the hell of a long weekend with his white girlfriend’s parents. While often very funny, Peele’s film is heavy on bitter truths. A cop car appears twice and both times you immediately fear for our hero — across the country, police have generated a well-earned, gut-level fear from their constituents in minority communities.


3. “Logan Lucky”

With little else to recommend it, 2017 can at least be remembered fondly for Steven Soderbergh’s return to filmmaking. Like “Good Time,” the criminals in this robbery picture are not overly bright but possess a desperate ingenuity. It’s so fun to watch country-fried narrative threads spread in many directions before being tied back together. “Logan Lucky” boasts a brilliant climax at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which Soderbergh photographs in popping bright colors to capture the rainbowed American glory of all those glittering stock cars.


2. “The Florida Project”

Sean Baker famously shot his debut feature “Tangerine” on an iPhone and returned to shoot “The Florida Project” on even more beautiful 35mm. This film, set in the strip mall and cheap motel squalor outside Disney World, is about people pushed too far in an unnatural, lavender-and-fuchsia landscape. Much has been made of performance from seven-year-old spitfire Brooklyn Decker as a free-roaming child but the startling, discomfiting acting by newcomer Bria Vinaite as her mother is indelible. As with Sasha Lane’s Star in last year’s “American Honey,” the finest recent acting has been done by untrained presences like Vinaite…and Kristen Stewart.

1. “Personal Shopper”

Any film is bound to be excellent when the best French director, Oliver Assayas, works with the best American actress, Kristen Stewart. Assayas wrote the film for Stewart when they were working together on the magisterial “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and the script addresses fashion, the supernatural, and the burden of being a talented personal assistant. Surrounded by jittering wraiths and glittering couture, Stewart moves through Paris and London with the radical coldness that sets her apart from her contemporaries. The cinematic sound from 2017 that will linger longest in the ears is the skittering of Stewarts’s fingers over her phone as she composes text messages to a ghost.