The 30 Best Films of 2017
From the small indies to the big blockbusters, it turned out to be a delightful year at the movies.
Like Matt Zoller Seits said, there really isn’t such a thing as a “bad year for movies”, not if you know where to look. Fortunately you didn’t have to look far in 2017 as there was always something worthwhile playing at your local theater or on Netflix. It also seems that overall there was less awful movies we had to endure, or at least they were easier to ignore thanks to all the better options. We got a good DC movie this year, and if that doesn’t sell you on how worthwhile this year was for film, I don’t know what will.
It’s time to spread the love by looking at the best films 2017. I determine the size of my year end list based on how many films I thought were worth seeing overall, and there was just too much I enjoyed so a paltry Top 10 just wasn’t going to cut it.
My rules are anything goes. If I saw it in theaters it counts, even if it only had a festival run or won’t see a wide release until next year. Consequently this also means indie/foreign films some of you saw this year (like Raw or Your Name) are on my list from last year since I saw them at festivals then and won’t be ranked this time around. Of course even I can’t see everything, but I hope this list will suffice.
Films I have yet to see and may be added later:The Post, Phantom Thread, A Quiet Passion, The Work, Loveless, On the Beach at Night Alone, Mudbound, The Meyerowitz Stories, After the Storm, The Little Hours, Personal Shopper, Girl’s Trip and All These Sleepless Nights among others.
Honorable Mentions: Brigsby Bear, Good Time, It, Gerald’s Game, Lady Macbeth, Molly’s Game and Wonder Woman.
James Gray never stood out as a director of epics, but with The Lost City of Z he has proved more than capable of creating an engrossing tale of obsession on an epic scale. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name, Z follows the real life exploits of Percy Fawcett, who led numerous expeditions to uncover a lost city he believed was hidden in the Amazons. Gray’s film captures the destructive force of Fawcett’s obsession while exploring what that meant in the context of the early 20th Century, specifically in regards to colonialism and sexism. It digs deep into what drives us and where that drive can take you, and the final destination of which may be beyond one’s grasp. The film also contains beautiful cinematography from Darius Khondji who’s color pallet perfectly captures the Amazon and creates the feeling of an old portrait you’d find in an attic. It’s a film just waiting to be discovered like the titular lost city.
Martin McDonagh is no stranger to making uncomfortable yet funny films, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might just take the cake. It’s not a film that expects you to forgive terrible people, but it does expect you to show empathy to your fellow man no matter how detestable they are. It also positions that violent ends do see results, but at some point it only will beget more violence. It’s a film that teeters the line between being cruel and insensitive, but it ultimately comes to the conclusion that you need to take that walk regardless and there is no easy answer how to solve problems like this. It’s a moral playground that forces you to confront what you expect and what to think of these characters. It might leave you feeling cold, it might not even fully work (there is reasonable debate as to whether McDonagh shows too much forgiveness to a particular character and his view as a white filmmaker limits his views on certain racial elements), but I feel the film ultimately earns its spot on this list for willing to take that plunge when most would shy away.
I’ve admittedly not been a fan of the Thor movies up until now. They always had great concepts but poor execution. However, with What We Do in the Shadows director Taika Waititi at the helm, Thor: Ragnarok easily nails what the other films have been missing. The refocus on Asgard as a utopia built off colonialism is a stroke of genius that allows Waititi to both comment on colonialism in general but also to probe Thor’s own priorities and to get at the heart at what makes him tick as a character. Waititi also adds a good dose of his own weird humor, which makes for some of the best jokes in any Marvel movie to date (I will always laugh at, “Piss off ghost!”). Chris Hemsworth is allowed to finally ham it up to his heart’s desire and there are excellent performances from Tessa Thompson and Mark Ruffalo to boot. There’s always the fear that superhero movies will grow stale, but if Marvel can keep surprising us with films like this then we can rest assured we won’t get bored of them for some time.
The film may bill itself as Ocean’s 7/11, and yeah there is certainly some of that humor, but Logan Lucky is anything but a caricatured depiction of southern working class folk. Soderbergh, fresh off his retirement, shows he certainly hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to blending humor with pathos. The film follows a pair of down on their luck brothers who enlist the help of both family and criminals to help rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The usual heist shenanigans ensue, and that is fun, but what makes the film work is the heart at the center of the tale. This film has an emotional centerpiece built around a child’s talent show, a plot devise that’s usually rather hackneyed, that will move you to tears. Soderbergh takes characters most would dismiss as NASCAR trash (even the characters themselves would), and shows the parts of them you don’t get to see in your typical Hollywood movie. It’s a rush of fresh air that’s as fun as how much fun Daniel Craig looks like he’s having is having on screen.
I’m not fully convinced The Lure works as a movie. It’s perhaps too fragmented and all over the place both tonally and thematically, but no film this year had the raw presence and energy that Smoczynska’s film achieves. It’s hard to even describe what it is for starters. The best I can say is that it’s a goth-pop horror musical retelling of The Little Mermaid...on crack. Each scene throws something new at you that builds off less off of what is happening narratively from scene to scene, but more what’s occurring emotionally. A true plot doesn’t seem to emerge until the last third when the Little Mermaid story begins to become clearer, but by this point the film has already sunk its fangs into your heart (quite literally in the movie proper). It’s one demented fairy tail that’s worth getting lost in.
There is no better way Hugh Jackman could have retired his take on the Wolverine character than with Logan, which is to the Superhero genre what Unforgiven is to the Western. It’s a deconstruction which lays the genre bare and Jackman gets to go full Eastwood. It doesn’t leave the genre behind, it’s still very much a superhero movie and is more hopeful than at first glance, but that’s part of why the film works. Wolverine and the X-men may have failed, but there will always be those who come next, and if the film comments on anything about superhero media it’s that the old will die out but they will live on in spirit with new superheros (even the deconstruction knows they aren’t going anywhere soon). Jackman is also still great as Logan himself and Mangold, with an uninhibited R-rating, gets to do all that he pleases and all that he pleases is mighty fine by me.
If anything, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is just further proof Lanthimos’ approach to storytelling a extremely multifaceted. He shoots and directs similarly to his previous ventures, but whereas it made The Lobster funny, it makes this film unnerving. In true Greek fashion, Lanthimos’ film is a tragedy that doesn’t skimp on the pain it puts its characters through. Lessons will be learned, but that doesn’t mean things will change. It’s a dark and cynical look at modern day America with a terrific and scary performance from Barry Keoghan that you won’t soon forget.
There’s a saying that if you’re a great filmmaker, you can make anything interesting. Though it’s only his first film, it’s clear video essayist Kogonada’s Columbus possesses that talent and skill. Architecture can be a very dry subject to those not already interested, but Kogonada ties it intrinsically with these human spirits the film focuses on. The story concerns two people, one who needs to stay in Columbus but wants to leave and another who needs to leave but can’t help but stay, and follows them as they discuss architecture and life. Kogonada uses the architecture to create a sense of connection between the two, like two arches supporting each other. It’s also great to see John Cho get his dues with a great leading role, the man has been short changed for far too long. That would be reason enough to see Columbus, but the film is also endlessly engaging. The dialogue flows so naturally and few films have such a grasp on cinema’s functionality, those video essays ended up paying off in Kogonada’ case.
Dunkirk is subversive in ways that aren’t even apparent on first viewing. For one thing it’s a war film where the primary concern is not with winning, but surviving. It’s an important distinction that gives the film its tension despite the fact we barely get to know most of these characters. We know from the start that all hope is lost in the fight, it’s just a matter of working to save those who are the fray from total annihilation. Nolan puts restrictions on himself as a filmmaker, from constricting his length to creating a hardline structure for the film. It ends up bringing out the best in all his collaborators, especially composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith. Nolan continues to prove his mastery over his craft with probably his best directed movie to date.
James Gunn surprised audiences back in 2014 with the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and in 2017 he pulled the rug out from under us again with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a superhero film centered around cycles of abuse and how we cope. Whether it’s the family dynamic of sisters who have grown to resent one another over the abuse of a father, resentment by those around you based on past mistakes, or even just the neglect of a parent; the depths of human emotion is explored in ways that many superhero movies only scratch the surface of. In the end it ends up being the best superhero movie of the year, with fun performances, great direction and a killer soundtrack to boot. It does what all great sequels do and instead of trying to one-up the original, it builds off the arcs and existing stories while also finally giving characters like Nebula and Yondu their due. It’s a blockbuster delight and I eagerly anticipate where Gunn continues to take the franchise.
Leave it to Edgar Wright to one-up James Gunn when it came to utilizing classic songs to structure his movie around. The soundtrack cuts for Baby Driver is sensational, from “Bellbottoms” to “Brighton Rock” there was no better film to listen to this year. But of course Wright has the directing chops to back his electric music with some of the best car chases on film since Walter Hill perfected the action set piece. Throw in some colorful characters and a classic romance and you have the makings of a great action movie. Not much to say other than it’s a rip roarin’ fun time that Wright never fails to deliver.
Darren Aronofsky sure knows how to polarize audiences, and mother! proved to be no exception, even more so perhaps than some of his more off-putting films. Most people I’ve discussed it with do so with seething teeth of rage, this film just puts people on end…and I sort of love it. Stylistically it’s unnerving, shot almost entirely in close-up for maximum effect. Sitting in the shoes of mother (played to dispiriting perfection by Jennifer Lawrence) is an emotional rollercoaster that always keeps you guessing. It’s not hard to understand Aronofsky’s thinly veiled metaphor for artistic creation, but it’s certainly communicated with such a vigor that you can’t look away for a second.
Who would of thought we’d eventually come around on Tonya Harding? But as I, Tonya points out, while Harding certainly could share some of the blame for what happened, she was a victim of abuse. First by her mother, then by her husband, and then by us. This whiplash in perception is reflected by the film’s style which supplies hardy laughs one second before devolving into an abusive fight between husband and wife the next. It may riff on Scorsese, but it’s point of view is of the character Scorsese would most certainly sideline in favor of the abuser. Add to that Margot Robbie’s Oscar worthy turn as Harding and a great supporting cast with Allison Janney doing God’s work, and you have the recipe for a great biopic.
War for the Planet of the Apes brings to a close the most unlikely trilogy in recent memory. No one expected we’d see more great Planet of the Apes movies, let alone a trilogy that include a film as good as War. It’s not just that the performance capture and the performances of the actors themselves are exceptional, which they are, or that the titular war is edge of your seat exciting. It’s that thematically what War says about humanity is shocking. It says that maybe humanity deserves to go if it can’t learn to grown and fix itself, that a planet of the apes is inevitable when we can’t change. The original Planet of the Apes simply showed we screwed up and ended ourselves, War has to justify why that sentiment was true to life, and Reeves does so with exceptional results.
I’ll never be more mystified than how a movie like The Room could eventually lead to an award winning film with serious discussions about a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. I couldn’t imagine that 10 years ago when I fell in love with Tommy Wiseau’s weird cult classic, I can barely imagine it after having seen James Franco’s loving tribute. But why Franco is able to stick the landing is because he realizes what’s most important to the story behind The Room is the relationship at the center of it, between Greg Sestero and Wiseau himself. It’s why the film isn’t just a fun thing for The Room fans to yuck about, it’s why the film can stand on its own as a reflection of what artistic endeavors can lead to when your heart is bigger than your head. The Disaster Artist is a knee-slapping good time that finds meaning underneath all the yuks and taps into that innate desire to create, no matter who you are.
The Big Sick is a true story, but you’d never notice from watching it. It plays like a normal romantic comedy, but the fact it’s a true story would only confirm how real these characters and their situation feels. It creates a rich world where facets that would usually be their own focus in any given movie are just part of the greater world. Kumail isn’t solely defined by his relationship with his family and history, though that is still important. The clash of ideals between cultures is not at the center of the tale, but it’s still important to understanding why things happen the way they do. Rom Coms get a bad rep, which is undeserved, but maybe it’s because so few get into why their characters act the way they do like in Showalter’s charming character study of people in ruts and how they deal with them.
I don’t want to explain the plot of A Ghost Story. If all you know is it’s about a dude who plays a ghost by actually wearing the classic white sheet over his head, then that’s all you need to know. Lowery’s film is an exploration of loss in what has best been described as a “post-horror movie”. It’s not a “scary” film, but it’s a hauntingly beautiful one if that makes sense. The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo is striking, and the costume design by Annell Brodeur manages to reclaim the classic white sheet ghost in a way I’ll never be abel to forget. A Ghost Story is a slow moving film, but it flashes by in an instant, like a moment trapped in time. It’s a moment I can’t wait to revisit.
With Get Out, Jordan Peele announced himself as the next big thing in film, and audiences responded with delight. They responded because Peele’s satire/horror debut understands how to communicate its idea in a way that digs into your skull and traps you like you’re in the sunken place. The title, Get Out, speaks to how a black audience member might react to a horror movie, and the opening scene sees a black man deciding to avoid the obvious horror a white character would walk towards with gleeful abandon in your average horror flick. This is Peele showcasing how sorely the black voice is missing from horror, and it’s why he’s able to expertly communicate his film’s message, its well thought out to the tenth degree and nothing is more scary than white people. This is a filmmaker who has a strong grasp on what he wants to say and how to communicate it. Few debut features make as big an impression, but if Get Out is indicative of what we can expect from him, Jordan Peele will be making great films for a long time.
Guadagnino taps into raw human emotion in Call Me By Your Name, adapted from the popular Andre Aciman novel. It’s a touching look at the coming of age of one Jewish American boy living in 1980's Italy as he comes to realize the importance of love and love lost. Guadagnino invites you to come in close to see how Elio and Oliver fall for one another, like you’re a secret admirer looking in from afar. This is aided by a touching soundtrack from Sufjan Stevens’ who’s music penetrates the soul, becoming a character in it of itself for two scenes. It’s an elegant film that’s not afraid to take you through pain, but it knows that heartbreak is worthwhile.
Netflix made a big splash this year with their original films. They had the awards buzz-worthy The Meyerowitz Stories and the unbearably boring blockbuster Bright, but the true highlight of what Netflix is capable of was Okja, the latest film from The Host and Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho. With a screenplay cowritten by Jon Ronson, Okja is an excellent commentary on our relationship with the animals we eat. On one hand we treat them inhumanly, but on the other hand we are human and eating meat is perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of. If the film is certain of anything is it’s never going to be pretty no matter what way you have it. Capitalism can’t be nice and Veganism can’t solve what happens to creatures like Okja, the adorable giant pig at the film’s center. It’s a film no studio would make, but Netflix was willing to give it life, and nothing looks better on them than allowing for such a film to exist.
The Last Jedi reminds me why I like Star Wars. After Rogue One and the deluge of bad news from the production of Solo, it was becoming hard to remember why I was ever excited for more Star Wars than I could ever imagine. But Rian Johnson knows things need to be shaken up, and his generational challenging 8th entree does just that. It’s a perfect example of a film giving you what you need and not what you want. Thematically it’s the richest the franchise has been since the original trilogy and makes you question the whole conceit of what Star Wars is and can be. It’s a blast from start to finish and I can easily see it being held up there with The Empire Strikes Back as time goes on.
I had refused to accept this could have been anything other than a mistake. You can’t make a sequel to Blade Runner work, the original film ends on an intentional ambiguous note. There is nothing left to tell. What Blade Runner 2049 does to remedy this is it doesn’t follow the story of Deckard. He’s there, but the film isn’t concerned with his fate. Instead it focuses on the replicant known as K and his place in the world. By refocusing the story from the oppressor to the oppressed, Villeneuve is able to build off the thematic foundation set by Ridley Scott decades ago and find more ways to explore what it even means to be human. Matched by Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography and a score that doesn’t try to recapture the original, but re-contextualize what that sound will become as the world gets more crowded and depressed, Blade Runner 2049 is a tour de force of exceptional filmmaking.
Coco is like your usual Pixar film. It’s got the bright colors and fun characters that make it a delight for the whole family. Yet like most Pixar films, there’s also an underlying heart that puts it heads and tails above the rest. The film is named for protagonist’s Miguel’s grandmother. It isn’t named for the Day of the Dead or the music Miguel is obsessed with, it’s named for a character who barely appears onscreen. The importance of that character, however, and the importance of family at the center of the film is monumental and what makes it special. This is a film drenched in love and what it means to be part of a family and the greater legacy of that family within a culture. Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead is spellbinding in its execution and it’s commendable that Pixar is still able to wow with their animation when it seems you can’t push the medium any further. But I guess we can relax, because if they’re still making films as great as Coco then there’s nothing to worry about.
Great Gerwig’s Lady Bird captures the shifting emotions of life as a teenager on the cusp of getting out and being your own person. What separates it from most films in this genre is its refreshing honesty. Lady Bird faces hard lessons, but she doesn’t always learn, and sometimes she doesn’t know what she really wants until its passed her by. Teenagers have a strong idea of what’s important but can’t yet see the larger picture. Gerwig’s film renders that time in life to a 90 minute flash before your eyes that escapes you as youth does us all. The film contains excellent performances from both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf and allows them to explore the depth of their mother daughter relationship. Lady Bird’s mother isn’t always as caring as she might seem, but she does really care about her daughter, circumstances have just been unking. Lady Bird does love her mother, but her lot in life makes it tough for her to see why her mother does what she does. It’s emotionally devastating as the first time you leave home. Even if you handle situations like that well, there is always a significant change, and Lady Bird succeeds by tapping into what makes that change resonate.
Color me surprised, not only did I not expect Don Hertzfeldt to make a sequel to World of Tomorrow, easily one of the best films of the decade, but he made one that matches it in its existential exploration. That film is World of Tomorrow — Episode 2: the Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That title is a bit of a mouthful, but so are other people’s thoughts. Hertzfeld, via his unique sense of humor and minimalistic animation, is able to delve into the human psyche and explore how we live in the past and get hung up on our own memories and those of others. It’s not a film I can exactly explain plot-wise, it’s one you have to see…like 50 times. Hertzfeldt could make 30 World of Tomorrow films and I would watch them, if they’re even remotely as good as these two films they would be worthwhile.
Shaken to my core is how I can best describe the emotional centerpiece of this Norwegian thriller which evokes Carrie in more ways than one (it also tops mother! for most horrifying scene involving a baby). Thelma centers on a young college student who tries to come to terms with her religious upbringing as she falls in love with another woman. What she doesn’t realize, but what slowly becomes evident, is Thelma isn’t an ordinary woman. She fears god’s will because of her love, but to overcome it, she might just become a god herself. Trier’s film is tense in ways that few films can manage. It has a classic Hitchcock approach to building scenes but adds in an element of mystery. Take for instance a scene set in an opera house. Thelma’s desire grows stronger by the minute, but we aren’t fully clued into what she can do yet, but you can sense she can do something. As the show goes on you see the overhead ceiling begin to shake, and Thelma’s convulsions grow. What’s going to happen? Is the ceiling going to collapse? Is that something she can do? Trier wisely keeps his cards close to himself upfront to create wonderfully tense moments such as this, and few films were as enthralling as Thelma this year as a result.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a fascinating film to explain, but it’s even more so to watch. In 1978, 533 films were uncovered underground in Dawson City, Canada, many were though to be lost. Documentarian Bill Morrison takes those films to craft a narrative about the history of Dawson City itself, utilizing archival photos and the films uncovered tot ell the story. But the films uncovered wasn’t footage necessarily of the city itself. Dawson City was the last stop for film distribution when the film industry was beginning, with films arriving 3 to 4 years after they had premiered. What Morrison does is he uses these films to express the emotions over the course of decades (like having film scenes stand in for significant moments, matching for mood and tone), capturing both Dawson City’s ups and downs, but also the country’s. It’s a deeply moving film that works almost entirely because that frozen moment in time it uncovers is both significant and draining. Dawson City was the hub of the Alaskan Gold Rush, where fortunes were made but most were left penniless. This is further reflected by the nature of film itself. As the film states, film was born of an explosion, and old film stock often caught fire. While film brought revenue to Dawson City, the fires it caused more than cost them as much. Morrison’s film is an engrossing time capsule that can tell us a lot about our history and how some things never change.
There isn’t a filmmaker as cool as Sean Baker. The man behind Tangerine knows how to capture both lighting in a bottle in terms of entertainment and how to dig beneath the surface to find real people. Maybe it’s because he intentionally shoots with no-name actors and aims for a sense of realism, but The Florida Project proves that even adding big-named actors and going for a more stylized production design, Sean Baker’s unique voice still comes through. The film is a view of life right outside the second happiest place on Earth (Disneyland is the happiest, Disneyworld is the second). If Disneyworld is the fantasy, then the Magic Castle Hotel is the reality. Though that doesn’t make the film any less magical as we see it all through they eyes of six year old Moonee, who is blissfuly unaware of her lot in life. She’s just a kid having fun. Her mom does things that would be seen as unbecoming of a mother, but she truly loves her daughter and often her choices are the best options available to her for helping Moonee. In the background is Bobby Hick, with Willem Dafoe giving a career best performance, watching out for them while also dealing with the hard fact that this life is rough and will catch up to them. There’s a desire to escape these tough realities, and The Florida Project is an exploration of how we try to do that, capped of with the most amazing last ditch rescue effort in film history. Matched by some truly beautiful production design and Alexis’ Zabe’s exceptional cinematography, Sean Baker has made a masterpiece. It’s a film you just have to see, and you’ll want to re-watch it immediately upon finishing it.
No one quite sees the world the way Guillermo Del Toro does, and as long as he is making movies there will always be something special in this world. His latest film, The Shape of Water, bridges the stylistic gap of his Mexican horror movies and his American blockbusters. It’s a fairy tale romance for adults told with a voice only Del Toro can speak. Take for instance a dream sequence which harkens back to old musicals where our protagonist dances with her man-fish lover (he has a nice butt after all). This sequence is utterly surreal and amazing, but it makes perfect sense in the frame of the story and the time period. You would have never been able to put those pieces together in your head if you were given this story to make yourself, but Del Toro did and that’s why this film is special. It depicts probably the most healthy relationship depicted onscreen in some years and delves into the real human villains that exist among us. Del Toro tells us so much about our world through navigating his own. Whether its the fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth or the American Dream in this film, Del Toro’s aim is always true. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale like no other, a beautiful piece of work only a true master of cinema can craft, and Del Toro proves, once again, he is the real deal.
This film doesn’t yet have distribution yet as I’m writing this. It has had a wonderful festival run, but no studio has been willing to touch it with a 10 foot pole. It seems now it will see some sort of release in 2018, and you should all see it because Joseph Kahn’s Bodied is one of the most explosive features in years. The film follows college aged Adam, who wants to write his thesis paper on battle rap. The rappers see him as some white boy who wants to say the N word, but are surprised to find he’s actually a pretty dope rapper in his own right. But at the end of the day, he’s probably still just a white boy who wants to say the N word. It would be simple to call Bodied a rebuke to PC culture, even though it’s touched upon. Bodied is a take no prisoners film that puts anyone and everyone on full blast. It’s an exploration as battle rap as a medium to challenge taboos and safe spaces, yet is also a safe space then in it of itself no? No other film can pull off having the apparent protagonist actually get worse as a human as he gets closer to his ultimate goal, but Kahn pulls it off with flying colors. The best film of the year I think should always reflect the times. It should speak to a greater whole and reflect the state of things. For example, a few years ago that was The Social Network, which cleverly looked at our interactions in the social media landscape by dissecting those who got us there. Bodied is that film for 2017, and it’s loud and proud. It’s a breath of fresh air which examines everything from whiteness to woke culture. It posits that boundaries are meant to be pushed, but boundaries do in fact exist and when you cross that line, you better be ready to get bodied. There are jaw dropping moments galore and no film was nearly as entertaining as Kahn’s opus. If you don’t at least question one aspect about how you talk to each other or think about your preconceptions on some of these subjects after you see it, then you’re lying to yourself. It’s uncomfortable, it’s funny, it’s sensational, but most of all it’s the best film of 2017.