As 2017 slips into the history books, take a look back at the year in culture—with the best new releases that drew from the past. Whatever medium your personal passion might be, these movies, books, TV shows and podcasts proved that what’s old can be new again.
Directors took a hard look at the past with films that explored war and race through pivotal moments in history.
Director Christopher Nolan proved that there are still new ways to frame a war epic, with Dunkirk, a retelling of an Allied evacuation from France during World War II from three different perspectives. Director Dee Rees looked at the war from a distinctly American point-of-view with Mudbound, the story of two families, one black and one white, in the rural Mississippi Delta during the Jim Crow era following World War II. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit examined the deadly 12th Street Riot of 1967 and provoked conversations about race relations and police brutality a half-century later. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a reinterpretation of a 1970s Civil War period piece, won high marks (and a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival) for the director’s cinematic approach, but raised serious questions for its all-white cast. In a year when journalism became a political weapon, director Steven Spielberg partnered with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in a dramatization of the story behind the Pentagon Papers in The Post.
The year’s best historically inflected fiction offered reflections on wars and family ties across generations.
In a year when the Syrian refugee crisis loomed large, Pulitzer Prize–winner Viet Nguyen gathered short stories of people linked by the experience of the Vietnam War and its legacy in the collection The Refugees (Grove Press). Against the backdrop of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie entered the liminal realm of ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House) in the latest from Man Booker Prize–winner George Saunders. In her second novel, Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing), Min Jin Lee traced the story of one Korean family through the 20th century, from Japanese-occupied Korea to 1980s Japan. Kamila Shamsie reworks the ancient story of Antigone in Home Fire (Riverhead Books), a family tale set in the time of ISIS. An Irish-Catholic enclave in Brooklyn became the setting for Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a story centered on a widow, her daughter and a convent of nuns. Rachel Seiffert explores the intertwined lives of a Ukrainian town in the days after the German invasion of 1941 in A Boy in Winter (Pantheon).
Archival footage and penetrating biographies offered stories from the past that say something about today’s world.
In Dawson City: Frozen Time, director Bill Morrison used uncovered footage to tell the story of early-20th-century Yukon territory through some 500 “lost” silent film reels, while Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin tapped archival footage to reexamine the 1992 Los Angeles riots 25 years later in the documentary LA 92. Few could have expected that some of the year’s most philosophical musings on the meaning of life would come from the guy who starred in Dumb & Dumber, but director Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond offered an intimate and surprising reflection from actor Jim Carrey centered around his transformation into comedian Andy Kaufman for the 1999 film Man on the Moon. In I Called Him Morgan, director Kasper Collin told the story of the tumultuous relationship between jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who fatally shot him in 1972. Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip was a nearly four-hour ode to The Grateful Dead. Other influential figures that got the documentary treatment this year include LGBTQ icon Marsha P. Johnson, the trans woman who helped sparked the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and whose death has remained a mystery for 25 years (David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson); primatologist and activist Jane Goodall (Brett Morgen’s Jane); and the dedicated people behind the New York City Public Library (Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library).
New biographies and topical studies offered fresh perspective on 21st-century issues.
In Leonardo di Vinci (Simon & Schuster), journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson examined one of history’s most fruitful minds. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ron Chernow’s Grant (Penguin Press) revisited the legacy of Ulysses S. Grant with a critical eye. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (One World), a collection of essays by National Book Award–winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, chronicled the presidency of Barack Obama. Alice Waters, the influential chef who championed the local food movement, shared her personal journey in Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter). Tina Brown opened her private journals in The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 (Henry Holt and Co.). In a year when facts seemed malleable, Kevin Young explored the meaning of truth in Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Graywolf Press). Yale history professor Tom Snyder offered warnings from the past in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Bodley Head). Bestselling author and New Yorker scribe David Grann chronicled a chilling string of murders of members of the Osage Indian nation in the true-crime tale of racial injustice Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday). Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar revealed one woman’s fight for freedom in America’s earliest days in Never Caught The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Simon & Schuster). In Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, author Sujatha Gidla, a New York City subway conductor, shared a personal slice of contemporary history in the stories of her family’s struggle (and successes) as members of India’s untouchable caste.
With the rise of the prestige series, television took a cinematic turn in 2017, with densely researched documentaries and imaginative reinterpretations of moments in history topping must-see lists.
In a tumultuous year for American politics, documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick took a deep dive into one of the most divisive periods in the past century with the 18-hour PBS series The Vietnam War. Documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) turned to the small screen with Wormwood, a six-part Netflix miniseries about the mysterious death of a CIA researcher in the 1950s that posed as many questions as it answers. Fiction also looked to the past in period pieces with costumes as transporting as the stories they tell. Knightfall, Don Handfield and Richard Rayner’s medieval drama for History took to the era of the Knights Templar for a swords-and-armor Holy Grail–seeking story. Modern master of the medium Ryan Murphy brought together an all-star cast for his latest, FX’s Feud, the first installment of which tells the story of the rivalry between Hollywood icons Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). Veteran crime storytellers David Simon and George Pelecanos tapped New York’s gritty past with the HBO series The Deuce, a dramatization of the rise of the pornography industry in the 1970s, that starred James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and touched on issues of gender and power that still resonate today.
The emerging storytelling format cast a spotlight on history, politics and the minutiae of everyday existence in episodic doses.
S-Town host Brian Reed investigated a rumored crime in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama, and set download records. Journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika offered a different type of Civil War story in the Uncivil series from Gimlet Media. Slate’s Slow Burn looked to the history of Watergate and the fall of president Richard Nixon. Scripted drama Bronzeville shed light on a thriving African-American neighborhood in 1940s Chicago in a 10-part series starring Laurence Fishburne and Larenz Tate. In How’s Your Day from Seattle’s KUOW, ordinary people reflected on major moments in history in these personal narratives of significant news stories from September 11, 2001, to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Scene on Radio, the podcast produced by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and hosted by John Biewen, focused its second season on an independent series, Seeing White, an investigation on race and the idea of “whiteness” in America. In OZY’s The Thread, host Sean Braswell linked major events in 20th century history starting with the murder of John Lennon and working back to the revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.