clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Critics roundtable: the movies that transported and troubled us in 2017

Five writers across Vox Media talk about a turbulent and terrific year in film.

A Ghost Story, Get Out, and Lady Bird are among our critics’ most memorable films of 2017.
A24; Universal Pictures

Throughout the final week of 2017, culture writers from across Vox Media will be chatting about the best works of the year. In this installment, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, Alissa Wilkinson, and Genevieve Koski; The Verge’s Tasha Robinson; and Polygon’s Julia Alexander talk about the movies of 2017.

Todd VanDerWerff: My favorite movies in 2017 weren’t escapism, not precisely, but they did take me so thoroughly out of my own point of view that reentering reality afterward could feel a little like resurfacing after a deep-sea dive. From the intimate details of Lady Bird to the bleakly comedic terror of Get Out, from the cat’s-eye-view shots of Kedi to the sudden plunge into the vastness of infinity in A Ghost Story, movies often felt like a great way to remove myself, for a little while, from life as I was living it.

That might sound like political commentary, and it sort of is. My friend Steven Santos tweeted just last week about seeing The Shape of Water and feeling utterly transported, only to reemerge into a world that still felt like the early stages of a post-apocalyptic movie. But it’s also a commentary on the movies themselves.

It’s rare that I’ve seen as stark a divide between the smaller movies I really loved and the big blockbusters that drive much of movies as a business. And I say this as someone who loved a lot of blockbusters, from Logan to War for the Planet of the Apes to The Last Jedi! But out of all of them, only Wonder Woman captured that sense of being transported out of yourself and into somebody else’s shoes, and then only briefly (during the justly acclaimed No Man’s Land sequence).

I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with this. Blockbusters are always going to feel a little more like product, assembled by committee. But I think it’s a little weird that they’ve gotten so bad at raw escapism, when that’s their reason to exist, ostensibly. So many are so sweaty (to borrow a term from my friends over at the podcast Blank Check), overexerting themselves to cram in as much ENTERTAINMENT as possible, that watching them feels a little like work. And I say that even about movies I really liked, such as, say, Thor: Ragnarok.

So I toss this over to you, much smarter film writers: Did you feel this same divide in your lives this year? What were the movies that let you forget it was 2017 for a few hours? And what were the movies you wish had done so, only to leave you disappointed in the end?

Tasha Robinson: I’m definitely not feeling the work in watching movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and Thor: Ragnarok, except to the degree that seeing and writing about these films literally is my actual work. For the most part, I found 2017’s most overtly escapist blockbuster films pretty easy to watch, no matter how loud and busy they got. Dropping into the MCU at this point is like catching up on a soap opera. It’s mindless, relaxing, and comforting. I largely feel like I’m in good hands with an MCU movie, because I mostly know the plot patterns, and only the exact details of the banter and the exact shape of the fights really vary from film to film.

The films that really stuck with me this year weren't generally the fun fantasies, the wish fulfillment action-comedies. I was consistently more drawn to the discomfiting films, the ones with more political and personal edge. My top 15 for the year is heavy on emotional, personal drama — Get Out is a particular standout because of the way it seamlessly brings in specific, up-to-the-moment concerns about racial tension and bigotry in policing, but makes them just one sideline in a horror story that’s scary for a lot of other reasons. But smaller domestic dramas like Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and The Breadwinner were also powerful for me, and so were metaphor-loaded movies like I, Tonya and Mother!

My favorite movies of 2017 fell into a pretty predictable pattern for me: I love movies that keep me guessing and make me feel strong emotions along the way. Something like A Ghost Story, which is completely unpredictable, but follows its own natural, internal logic, is absolutely my jam, and that’s the kind of film I gravitated toward in 2017.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.
Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson: More than specific movies this year, I find myself thinking about moviegoing experiences that stuck with me — which I guess speaks to that cliché the “power of cinema.” The best of all of them was going to an unplanned midnight screening of The Disaster Artist at the Toronto International Film Festival; as a movie, it's pretty lightweight, but the experience of being in a packed, delighted theater made it one of my all-timers.

Seeing Get Out was another, since most of us had no idea what to expect going in. It only takes about 10 minutes to realize you're watching something confident, visually interesting, funny, and smart, and the growing excitement in the theater was something to experience. Squealing with an audience through Mother! at TIFF (in the unbraced sink scene in particular), and then rushing out to everyone's conversations, is also something I'll never forget. And I saw Lady Bird three times before I wrote about it and completely lost track of time and space all three times; that movie means more to me than I really understand.

I almost never experience this in big blockbuster settings, because usually I'm concentrating too hard trying to track with the characters and the action. But twice this year I saw big-budget films that moved me far beyond what I expected. Once was this summer, with Dunkirk, and I hardly breathed through it. The other was just last week, watching The Last Jedi and understanding for the first time what makes Star Wars magical.

There were plenty of times I was disappointed — and that's normal for me. But something notable stands out: When we were at the Cannes Film Festival this May, many American critics found ourselves talking to one another about how strange it was to be living outside the American news cycle, especially since plenty of news was still happening both in the US and in Europe. I wound up writing about it because it struck me as a defining quality of being at a festival like Cannes: You're transported into another world, somewhat literally. That's wonderful, but it can be dangerous, because it can feel like escapism. Thankfully, at Cannes films like BPM (Beats Per Minute) kept our feet on the ground.

Genevieve Koski: The theme connecting many of my favorite films of 2017, blockbuster and otherwise, is surprise, the feeling of being taken off guard by a movie I wrongly assumed just wasn’t going to be “my thing.” Get Out is the best embodiment of this trend, a horror film that won over this horror-averse viewer with a strong, well-wrought conceit that put a new spin on what’s considered horrific.

I (foolishly) avoided Dunkirk in theaters based on my typical dislike of war movies, but when I eventually caught up with it on the small screen (sorry, Christopher Nolan), I was so enamored of its unusual structure and pristine filmmaking I couldn’t help be drawn into a story that, on paper, I couldn’t have been less interested in. Same goes for War For The Planet of the Apes, which applies a war-movie conceit to a franchise I’ve always been lukewarm on, with results that are deeper and more empathetic than I could have ever imagined from a blockbuster so wholly invested in CGI characters.

The unorthodox music-doc Contemporary Color made me believe in the emotional power of color guard, a phrase I never thought I’d write, ever. Even something like The Florida Project, which I suspected I’d at least admire based on Sean Baker’s last film, Tangerine, surprised me with its commitment to unearthing unexpected beauty in a setting and characters that don’t readily invite it.

Conversely, many of my other favorite films of the year surprised me by giving me exactly what I was expecting from them, and then so much more — including my top film of the year, Lady Bird. Based on how closely the title character’s personal experience mirrors my own, there was little chance I wouldn’t forge some sort of emotional connection with this film, but the inevitability of that connection allowed me to step back and appreciate just how well the film does what I was expecting it to do, with smart, nuanced characterization and performances tying together its vignette-based structure into something that feels so perfect and special I want to hold it in my hands and clutch it to my heart forever.

I, Tonya delighted me not for its story, which I am old enough to remember most of the narrative details around, but for its go-for-broke filmmaking style, which this story arguably doesn’t need but which brings a captivating new dimension to the film’s title character and her story. And while I was prepared to be devastated by BPM (Beats Per Minute)‘s tragic romance set among the early-’90s AIDS crisis, I was in no way prepared for how it told that story within a more expansive, purposeful, and thought-provoking framework about the personal side of social activism, with an energetic and restless style that carries all the way through to its sorrowful end.

Again and again in 2017, I was reminded how the cultural conversation can wrongly shape our assumptions about a piece of art, and how thrilling and gratifying it can be to have those assumptions proven wrong — or even proven right in a way you weren’t expecting.

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.

Julia Alexander: From Get Out at the beginning of the year to Star Wars: The Last Jedi just now, 2017 has been a year of surprising movies that circumvent their defining genre.

Get Out and A Ghost Story, two movies about radically different things, both left marks on me that carried throughout the year. Jordan Peele’s ability to subvert the audience with an honest conversation about race in America in 2017 couldn’t have felt more timely or necessary. A Ghost Story, a movie about a man’s inability to leave the past behind as he struggles to figure out what’s next for him when he has nothing left, haunted me for months — pun not intended.

It wasn’t just smaller movies that caught me off guard, but the big superhero blockbusters that I had come to view as recycled duplicates of the movie before it, changed. Spider-Man: Homecoming was one of the most genuinely fun superhero movies I’ve seen since The Avengers; Thor: Ragnarok turned the franchise on its head, recreating the superhero and giving the character a much-needed, refreshing change; Wonder Woman redefined what a DC/Warner Bros. superhero movie could be, giving me hope for what could come with different directors behind the camera.

I don’t know if 2017 was a good year for movies, but it’s one that changed my perspective on what filmmakers could do with the stories they’re given. Nowhere did this prove to be more true than in the case of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which saw director Rian Johnson deliver on his promise of a Star Wars movie unlike any we’ve seen before. In The Last Jedi, we got one of the best movie villains in recent years, Kylo Ren, and one of the most satisfying, shocking scenes.

Many of the films I watched this year surprised me in the most pleasant of ways (I’m looking at you, The Disaster Artist). Even movies that other critics ridiculed and lambasted, like The Boss Baby, for example, I wound up adoring.

2017 delivered surprising treat after surprising treat, which is more than I can say for 2016, and it’s an aspect of moviegoing that I appreciate.

Tasha: It does seem like personality mattered more than usual for directors in 2017, and like more of them visibly got the freedom to put their personalities into their films. A surprising number of actors made idiosyncratic, distinctive feature directorial debuts this year, including Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird is her first solo directing project), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Andy Serkis (Breathe), Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), Brie Larson (Unicorn Store), Jay Baruchel (Goon: Last of the Enforcers), Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid), Amber Tamblyn (Paint It Black), and Noël Wells (Mr. Roosevelt).

That speaks in part to the comparative ease of funding small, quirky, vision-driven indie movies right now, especially for people who already have connections in the film industry and might be able to get producers on board. But it also suggests an environment where voice and perspective matter for financial reasons, as well as artistic and aesthetic ones. 2017 gave us a lot of strong personalities in surprising films, but the fact that we’re seeing so many movies in that vein suggests that producers are banking on individuality — and possibly on existing fans for a given actor — to help a small movie find a release platform and an audience.

And it’s been fascinating to watch as the cinematic field splits more and more sharply between $350 million blockbusters and $1 million indies, between movies that are considered failures if they only earn $800 million and movies that are considered successes if Netflix is willing to pick them up. So many films these days feel as though they’re designed first and foremost for a streaming platform, where they can quietly, endlessly seek their audience through targeted marketing. One of the biggest surprises for me in 2017 was that these movies weren’t always bright spots — I had as much fun at the multiplex as I did at the arthouse in 2017. But another surprise is that it feels like audiences have gotten so polarized and specific, given all the movie-watching platforms available, that a much wider variety of types of films can get made, and they can all potentially find their fans.

A ghost stands behind Rooney Mara
Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story.

Julia: I agree, Tasha, that with the growing number of streaming services available, it feels like no matter how niche your taste, there's a platform willing to create movies along those lines. 2017 also felt like the year that directors started to air their grievances or strong support of streaming services; Christopher Nolan famously made his critique of Netflix's business model well-known, while also praising the way Amazon handles film distribution. I love that I can turn to Netflix, Amazon, or whomever and find a movie that the studio picked up to best serve its audience. With studios giving independent films less funding, and focusing on producing giant blockbusters (Warner Bros. giving more attention to its DC Cinematic Universe, for example), I'm glad streaming services are seeing the potential in smaller movies.

Todd: One interesting conundrum about 2017 was the slow realization of how many acclaimed, even beloved, movies have been made by terrible, terrible men. For as much as I love A Ghost Story, there's a part of me that hesitates to recommend it to people because of Casey Affleck's involvement (even if he's covered by a sheet for most of the movie). It definitely felt like 2017 was the year we started grappling with this in a much more real way, and I hope that attitude continues going forward. But how have you started to think about this question in your own writing and criticism?

Alissa: For sure. It's a thing that I thought about but didn't actively consider as part of my criticism prior to this year. I feel sad about that, but also as if it's a large cultural movement toward recognizing that the people who make a movie are part of how we think about the movie itself, and they have to be. They probably should have been all along. (I am looking directly at you, Woody Allen.)

That said, I'm still struggling with the place those involved in a movie have in a piece of criticism. The thing about movies is that they're a collaborative medium, and some people have much more creative control and input — and benefit a lot more — from one work of art than another.

I've been thinking a lot about the "legend" or "mythology" aspect of filmmaking, in particular, and when it makes sense to engage with (and maybe even enjoy) a work of art that was made with the involvement of predatory or abusive people, but not to perpetuate the hallowed myth of the creative, abusive genius. I think there is some kind of difference there. I'm not sure where it lies, yet, and I'm still struggling with how those of us who write about the works themselves are involved in that perpetuation and/or the dispelling of the mythology.

Tasha: Todd, does it help to know that according to director David Lowery, half the time it isn't actually Casey Affleck under that sheet? It helps me a bit. It also helps that I don't see A Ghost Story as Casey Affleck's vision in any way. But any argument in that direction just opens up more cans of worms.

It's been fascinating to watch how different people in and around the industry have grappled with the question of culpability around abuse. Is every movie Harvey Weinstein ever made now tainted somehow, even though so many people put so much effort into realizing their personal visions through his company? Does it have to color Salma Hayek's achievement with Frida to know what he put her through on that movie? Is the Ridley Scott option of nuking an accused abuser from a film the most responsible option, or just the most extreme one?

No one has easy answers to these questions, and we're going to see a lot of fighting about them in the year to come — but I'm just happy that 2017 was a year where we started asking them.

Julia: I have to echo what Alissa said. The number of allegations coming out is disturbing and saddening, but it hasn't impacted how I approach my criticism. It feels like a weak cop-out to suggest separating art from artist, but because movies are such an elaborate team effort, it's easier to try to focus on the movie than trying to forget that Casey Affleck is gliding around under the white bed sheet in A Ghost Story.

Still, as someone who both critiques movies and reports on the film industry, there's no question that it's been harder and taken more of an effort to separate the art from the artist. What I struggle with, as a never-ending, twisting moral conflict, is applauding the performance of someone who's accused of predatory behavior. I can and have given credit where it's due, but I think it speaks to a larger conundrum of trying to focus attention on performances and blocking out the headlines we're bombarded with on a near-daily basis.

Genevieve: Tasha’s right that there are no easy answers, but I’d also argue that there are also no universal answers to these sticky questions about the separation of art and artist — which is why, as she says, we’re going to keep fighting about them. The concept of objective criticism was already a fallacy; adding a moral component to the equation only broadens the spectrum of personal reactions a viewer can have to a film, a spectrum that is already so much more complex than just thumbs up or down, or fresh or rotten.

So while Kevin Spacey’s presence in Baby Driver is something I’m personally able to compartmentalize outside of his personal history of shittiness — something that’s easier for me to do with performers, who are usually tools used to express a filmmaker’s vision, not their own — I would never, as a critic, try to convince another viewer it shouldn’t bother them. What I would try to convince them of is the value of all the other elements of a piece of art that haven’t been tainted, and raise the question of whether it’s worth forgoing all of that — and by extension, all of the work and vision expressed by the multitude of others involved in a film — for the sake of a moral line drawn in the sand. Perhaps it is, but that’s ultimately not a choice for me to make for other people.

Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver.
TriStar Pictures

Tasha: I mean, we don't have to block out those headlines, or ignore those stories, to be good critics. For decades, Woody Allen has made movies about younger women obsessed with older men, sometimes to the point of stalking them or pressuring them into relationships. Louis C.K. has entire routines about masturbation, and his new, hastily shelved film I Love You, Daddy has a masturbatory act in it that closely parallels things he was accused of. What people are like offscreen is often relevant to what they're like onscreen. If we can interview people about how their childhood experiences made them better equipped to play a character, or how their culture or interests or life experiences made them better equipped to write a story, it's just as relevant to consider how their toxic behavior might inform the art they create. It's all part of the continuum.

Julia: The Louis C.K. example is perfect. When art is imitating life, it's impossible to not block out the headlines. Criticism is often better because we can incorporate the realities of the person behind or in front of the camera as it relates to the story. For people venturing out to watch a movie, it comes down to a personal decision about how much the inclusion of a certain actor, for example, will hinder their enjoyment watching it. I wish there were an easy answer for it, but continuous debate, both among critics and friends, reiterates just how complex the discussion has always been and continues to be.

Todd: Before we conclude, I would love to hear your takes on some of the year's bigger movie debates, over everything from whether Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri was perceptive or schlocky to whether It was fun or overhyped. In short: What do you think 2017's most misunderstood movies were, in directions either positive or negative?

I'm going to open the discussion by talking about the just-opened The Post, which is, I think, a flawed movie, but certainly one that I find myself grinding my teeth about when it comes to the film's detractors. Is it a celebration of the freedom of the press? Sure. But while it has its Trumpian parallels (considering Steven Spielberg made it in nine months, it would have to), I think it's much more affecting as a movie about the powerful learning to voluntarily divest themselves of some of that power for the good of all of us.

Meryl Streep's role as Katharine Graham is key to this. The movie has widely been interpreted as a kind of Spotlight in the '70s, but where the 2015 movie was much more about the process of reporting, The Post is much more interested in the ways those with the power to quash news that could crumble presidential administrations finally convince themselves, sometimes against their better judgment, that said news is in the public's best interest to know about. The Post is a valentine to newspaper journalism, to be sure, but it's less a call to arms for the press itself and much more for those who own the press. I was a little heartened to hear how much Jeff Bezos (the current owner of the Washington Post) liked it.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

Tasha: One of the biggest movie debates I ran into in 2017 was whether Darren Aronofsky's Mother! is brilliant filmmaking, an insulting exercise in empty imagistic nonsense, or (horrors!) something in between. A lot of people hated this movie passionately, and I understand why: They were told to expect a scary home-invasion thriller, and they got something else, something unpredictable and literally nightmarish that takes thought and time (and maybe some reading) to unpack.

There are a handful of things I'd like to see the movie industry learn based on how 2017 went. One of those things is: Marketing your movie deceptively to try to get butts in seats is a terrible plan. We saw it with Mother! and It Comes At Night this year, and a little ways back, we saw the same problem with Robert Eggers's The Witch. All three of these films were deliberately marketed as terrifying but mysterious horror stories, and all three had audiences walking out complaining about what they got instead.

Yes, it's hard to figure out how to market an idiosyncratic, unconventional film. But it's equally hard to survive toxic word of mouth when you advertise a movie as something it isn't, and get an audience in the door under false pretenses. A lot of the people who vocally hated Mother! probably wouldn't have seen it if it had been accurately advertised as a swoony arthouse psychodrama instead of a slasher movie. But that's just fine. It might have been better situated to find its appropriate audience too.

And speaking personally, I went into it without expectations, and came out deeply impressed with the filmmaking, the intensity of the performances, and the way the film unnerved me. But it took a few days for it to really sink in properly, to the point where I could process why I loved the experience. I'm hoping other people who came out of the movie angry eventually had a similar growing appreciation for the film.

Julia: Much in the same vein that I identify as a Kanye West apologist, I often feel the same push to do so with Martin McDonagh movies.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was one of my favorite movies this year, even though it was one of McDonagh’s more problematic. McDonagh explores hard themes like the protection of powerful men and racism exerted by white police officers, which can be hard to sit through, in order to focus on the story of one woman’s attempt to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer.

Three Billboards isn’t a perfect movie, but the rawness in Frances McDormand’s stunning performance as a mother who’s trying to get a group of small-town male police officers to take the case of a violent attack against a teenage girl seriously is hard to shake. There’s a timeliness to McDonagh’s movie, which can get lost in the abundance of glorified, Tarantino-esque violence but shouldn’t be ignored. Whereas a group of men in power would rather move on from the violent sexual assault case, choosing to file it away as another unfortunate circumstance that befell an innocent woman, McDormand’s character speaks for all women when she refuses to do so. Instead, her character forces these men to confront the violent realities facing women across the world, demanding they pay attention to this and seek out justice for her daughter.

I can see why critics took issue with Three Billboards, but I can’t help seeing the movie — and McDormand’s performance — as one we needed in 2017.

Alissa: Like Tasha, I felt like Mother! was misunderstood, though frankly I attribute much more of that to Darren Aronofsky's explanation tour of the film than the movie itself, which certainly can bear a bunch of different interpretations. Aronofsky persisted in telling us what it was "about," and I think that can stunt the viewing experience for many people, especially since the movie he made was so much more interesting than the movie he said he made.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!
Paramount Pictures

I had the same reaction to the critical chatter around The Beguiled, a film I persist in liking a ton but that seemed to suffer from discussions that had a lot to do with what people wished the film would do (explore the bigger Civil War-era context of the story) and not what it actually did, which was to be a vicious little romp. Some of those conversations are more thoughtful than others, but I think it diminished the film — which was never very heavyweight to begin with.

That reminds me of my biggest frustration with "misunderstood" films, which is how hard it can be to just take a movie on its own terms and write about it that way. I understand why, and I think that in many ways the broader cultural chatter around a movie can be beneficial to everyone. But when you watch every movie already knowing exactly what people will write about the film, and then what the backlash will be, it gets a little wearying.

Todd: One final question for you all: People are looking for movies to watch this week, while it's cold outside and they don't want to leave the house and/or movie theater. What are two or three under-the-radar 2017 movies worth checking out, especially ones available for digital rental or streaming?

I'll start with these three: Kedi, a charming documentary about cats in Istanbul that’s one of those movies that starts out very small and ends up encompassing whole worlds, and it has lots and lots of cats; Your Name, a brilliantly twisty animated romance from Japan about two teenagers who start waking up as each other; and Princess Cyd, a small-scale story about a teenage girl awakening to herself and her identity during a summer spent with her aunt. (I know Alissa also loved Princess Cyd. Sorry to steal it, Alissa.)

Alissa: I’ll allow it, but only grudgingly.

Genevieve: I’ve already mentioned my beloved Contemporary Color, a visual concert experience masterminded by David Byrne and captured for film by the Ross brothers that’s more than worth the few bucks you’ll pay to rent it on Amazon. As a bonus for the holiday season, it’s quite family-friendly, provided your family is open to its slightly off-kilter premise: musicians like Bryne, St. Vincent, and Tune-Yards perform original songs while color guard teams from across the country perform accompanying dance routines.

In a similar but wildly different vein is Amanda Lipitz’s documentary Step, which also centers on a group of dancers, this one a step team from a Baltimore leadership academy for black girls, whose first senior class is about to graduate. Where Contemporary Color is pure escapist fantasy, Step contextualizes its dance routines within the personal struggles facing the young women performing them. It’s a film that’s nominally about the power of dance, especially for young women, but is far more compelling for the story it tells about the effort that goes into achieving excellence in the face of apathy, poverty, and violence.

Julia: As a diehard post-Twilight Robert Pattinson fan, Good Time is one of those movies that I can't recommend enough. Pattinson's performance as an anguished bank robber trying to help his mentally ill brother is beautiful. Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, the movie uses vibrant, neon lights and moments of periodic, monochromatic bleakness to help tell the story. It's one of my favorite movies this year.

One of the most heartwarming movies I watched this year was Brigsby Bear, which stars Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill in a Truman Show-like story. The movie follows Mooney's James as he sets out to find out why his favorite TV show, Brigsby Bear, has ended. It's a thoughtful look at parasocial relationships and stars Mooney in his best role yet.

Alissa: I'd definitely recommend Casting JonBenet it's technically a documentary about JonBenet Ramsey, but it's not like whatever you'd expect from that description. Kitty Green, the filmmaker, held "auditions" for a movie about the JonBenet Ramsey case in the area around where the family lived, then had the actors auditioning for the film talk about their perceptions of the family and of the story. It's a remarkable and often moving film about how sensational stories affect the communities they're in. I talked to Green about it for Vox.

Also, I cannot say enough about one of my top three films of the year, the documentary The Work. Twice a year at Folsom Prison, men from the outside are allowed to join some of the incarcerated men for a four-day intensive group therapy session. The filmmakers took a fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting the whole thing, and it is a stunner. It ends up exploring all kinds of important things — most importantly the toll that what gets called "toxic masculinity" can take on generations of men — and watching it is like participating in the group therapy sessions as well. It's so good. Don't miss it.

Tasha: Julia beat me to recommending Brigsby Bear, the 2017 film I most hope finds a wider audience. It's a charmer that's weird enough to keep the Netflix-addict generations involved, but positive and gentle enough to not completely alienate more conservative family members, which makes it pretty perfect for holiday viewing.

Michaël Dudok de Wit's wordless animated fantasy The Red Turtle is more specifically for audiences who can handle a low-key, quiet fable based on the sheer beauty and ambition of its animation. It's a dreamy, lulling story that's exceptionally well rendered, and it's on a lot of streaming services.

But for those who need a shot of extreme violence to counteract all the sweet comforts of those first two films, there's Brawl In Cell Block 99, from Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler. In description, it sounds like a pretty standard revenge drama. In practice … well, it starts with Vince Vaughn viciously beating a car to death with his hands. And instead of trying to top that, it drops into a reflective, even meditative place that stands in stark contrast to the shocking bouts of intense violence and the startling practical-effects grindhouse gore. Vaughn is surprisingly terrifying in the lead, but he's a sensitive, sympathetic Mad Max type as well. The entire film is a study in contrasts and surprises, both in the story and in how it's told.

Thanks for reading; find more movie coverage at Vox, The Verge, and Polygon.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.