The Best Films of 2017
I saw 75 movies that came out this year — here’s what I liked the most!
10. Coco (dirs. Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina)
Pixar’s latest original film does feel familiar — it’s not the first animated movie about the process of losing a loved one, and its structure borrows from a lot of other Pixar. Yet Coco still wears its heart on its sleeve and has a lot on its mind. The story follows a boy who learns the world’s greatest musician might be part of his family heritage, and goes off to find him once he is accidentally thrust into the Land of the Dead. From there Coco becomes a meditation on the legacy of family — that true death does not happen until you are forgotten by all of the living. It’s also the first film Pixar has made about the legacy of artists, and what you sacrifice to pursue a creative life. The notion Miguel’s idol gives him to seize his moment however he can grows into curse against his family. It’s an uncompromising blend of themes that affected me as much as any other Pixar story. It’s one of the studio’s best designed films: the Land of the Dead feels like stepping into an eternal blacklight party, and the detail of Miguel’s skeleton relatives reads more like stop-motion than CG. Like Moana last year, Coco feels like the work of a team that thought about every way to honestly reflect a culture and represent it in their art. In short, I’m glad Cars 3 wasn’t Pixar’s only movie this year.
9. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
It’s a wonderful thing to see a director evolve. I grew up with Nolan movies — The Dark Knight and Inception both felt like the biggest movies I’d ever see — and always marveled at how he could make his worlds feel both completely composed and simultaneously on the verge of imploding. Dunkirk feels like we’ve hit Peak Nolan: it’s his biggest, loudest, and second shortest film. He keeps every plane of the evacuation of Dunkirk as stressful as possible by designing three temporalities that all bleed into each other. There are few monologues, and zero dead wives: just the surreal intensity of trying to get these boys home. On paper it’s wildly ambitious, in practice it could only be told through one of our clearest and most kinetic visual storytellers. I love the structure of its screenplay. I love how the enemy is never shown but constantly present, as if they’re clawing in from the outskirts of Dunkirk’s IMAX-sized frame. I love how in a story where thousands are losing their lives, we’re centered on a death of a single boy accidentally pushed by a PTSD-ridden officer, and the film gives its violence personal consequences. I love how in a career as prolific as Nolan’s, Dunkirk feels like the film he was born to make.
8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Brigsby Bear (dir. Rian Johnson / dir. Dave McCary)
It’d be foolish to look at film culture without discussing its biggest monetary driver: fandom. The year’s biggest movies are all derived properties beloved for decades. Often this fandom scares producers out of making new creative choices with any property: Beauty and the Beast and Justice League exemplified this, both designed to placate their fans rather than inspire. But the year’s biggest movie (financially, anyway) divided its own fan culture just by telling them what came before is over. It challenged what we thought we knew about the world of Star Wars. This year also gave us a movie that highlighted fandom as a means of coping through trauma, building a community and starting a new life. Both starred Mark Hamill.
Composed with a precision and detail I forgot movies this big were capable of, Star Wars: The Last Jedi feels like a miracle. It’s a ton of fun, overflowing with jokes, weird creatures, lightsaber duels, space battles and character beats spread over a large ensemble. It’s also the first Star Wars movie that left me completely unsure of where the film and the film’s larger series was going to go. In a cinematic universe that had eaten itself alive — limited its endless scope to a line of Jedi, Sith, and family squabbles — writer/director Johnson reminds us how big Star Wars felt when we first met it. How endless the possibilities of its porg-laden galaxy could be. Every character arc Johnson juggles in The Last Jedi works towards the message of charting new journeys for oneself, a notion that feels revolutionary to preach to film’s most intense fanbase.
If you’ve never heard of McCary and Mooney’s film before reading this, you might wonder what the hell it has to do with Star Wars. If legends are overrated in The Last Jedi, they are life’s sole purpose in Brigsby Bear, where James (Kyle Mooney) is kidnapped by a family that happens to produce a long-running children’s series exclusively for his enjoyment. Brigsby Bear hones in on why people become obsessive fans — in James’ case it’s a distraction while he’s unknowingly kept hostage, and a coping mechanism once he is freed. Fandom helps us organize our world towards something manageable: James knows each detail of the Brigsby Bear Adventures mythology the same way some of us would watch the Star Wars TV shows or play the Star Wars games just to feel like a completist. The show was designed to control James, and it worked too well. Upon his entry back into society, he feels jettisoned — everyone wants to help him, but no one can find him the new episode of Brigsby.
It’s the midpoint of this delightfully unpredictable film where James shares his love for Brigsby and actually makes some friends. If the first half of Brigsby Bear plays like Room, the second plays like Ed Wood, where James’ community slowly comes into support of his crazy idea to finish the Brigsby story his fake father started. It’s an amazing tightrope walk of a movie — sweet without becoming sentimental, quietly disturbing without focusing too much on the trauma James hasn’t yet wrestled with. It’s my favorite comedy of 2017, anchored by a subtle and bizarre performance from Kyle Mooney, and works because its creators believe in Brigsby Bear for more than its dark and kitsch humor (though there’s plenty of that). They see it as a chance for a detective to become the actor he always wanted to be, for a high school film kid to find his passion project. James’ relationship with this strange TV show won’t exist the same way ever again — it’s now deeper, darker and happier. Strangely, watching The Last Jedi gave me that same feeling.
7. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
A man and a woman are torn apart when the guy dies, and the man hangs around the house for an eternity wearing a sheet over his head. In the hands of most filmmakers A Ghost Story would be bottom-barrel Malick garbage, tumbling over its Big Thoughts. It’s a testament to David Lowery as a humane filmmaker, and his love for his home — the same one Casey Affleck can’t give up long after Rooney Mara is gone — that each scene in this film hits a raw nerve. A Ghost Story feels larger than life, its narrative unspooling from an intimate two-hander into years and decades passing by a lost soul. But organizing the narrative around Affleck’s character retrieving a note Mara left for her late husband ensures A Ghost Story remains a meditation on acceptance. We’re going to die, then everybody is going to die. Films like Lowery’s help me understand this a little more than I did before.
(PS: I don’t enjoy seeing Casey Affleck in movies, and I’m no longer able to separate anyone’s creative work from the people I understand them to be. I still love this movie, and respond to his work as a part of Lowery’s vision. It helps me that I can’t see his face for 85% of the film.)
6. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
How could a coming-of-age movie be fucking better than Lady Bird? Watching it made me feel like Greta Gerwig is making the first one that has been made. Everything in the film feels etched out of fine memory, and every interaction between Christine (Lady Bird, her given name by her to her) and family and wavering group of high school friends feels new. The film is observational in rhythm, finding the big and small moments in one year of someone’s life and grounding them in new discoveries. The discoveries that hit me the most come from Laurie Metcalf, in one of the finest performances of the year as Lady Bird’s stubborn and flailing mother Marion. Her quietest moments feel worldly in their pain: a line that stays with me is when she tells Lady Bird in front of her completely stoned friends, “We missed you at Thanksgiving,” and walks away. It’s the only time we see Marion respond to Lady Bird’s absence at that event, but like the rest of Gerwig’s film, it makes this family feel real beyond the time we spend with them.
5. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)
Sean Baker’s filmmaking skills somehow improve from Tangerine (one of my favorite comedies of the decade) with a film that’s as funny as it is anxiety-driven, crushing and spiritual. On its surface The Florida Project sounds like a tearjerker, shining a light on the hidden homeless population living in motels on the outskirts of Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida. Baker’s film is certainly sad, and ends with a feat of magical realism that left me in the theater producing a strange happy-crying sound my friend didn’t understand. Yet its sun-kissed, purple-and-green-filled world feels as big and optimistic as Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, in the best child performance since Quvenzhané Wallis) and her friends see it. The film is told from the perspective of a spellbound kid, completely enamored with what the world three to ten blocks down might offer her. She helps Baker direct our attention towards the light even in the film’s most punishing moments, and the result feels kind and true to this community (the film is comprised of many non-actors, as is custom for Baker). Pushing Florida Project into Essential Cinema for me is Willem Dafoe as the motel manager Bobby: he finds a way to fit in seamlessly with Baker’s cinema verité style and also walk around this film like a motherfucking king.
4. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
A movie I haven’t seen in nine months but whose every scene is itched in my memory, Get Out became a cultural touchstone because we’ve never seen something like it. The films that talk to us about race have so often been stately Oscar bait: they’re not funny, they’re not weird, and they’re certainly not scary in the style of a Blumhouse movie. Jordan Peele takes the framework of Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner and turns it into a nightmare, a modern-day parable on subjugation. Much has been written on Get Out this year, and praise has thankfully been heaped on Daniel Kaluuya’s time bomb of a lead performance. Yet something a little lost in the conversation is how fucking incredibly this movie plays in a packed theater. Between two crowds I sat with — one college-aged, one a bunch of strangers — Get Out left both audiences wailing at the screen, in disbelief that a police car could show up at that moment and in existential joy that Lil Rel Howery would be the one to step out of it. It was a joy to experience this film that way.
3. Lost City of Z (dir. James Grey)
Percy Fawcett just wanted something more. Ashamed of his family legacy and his lot in life, he comes into the Amazon a hired surveyor but becomes convinced of a lost civilization somewhere in the jungle, potentially more advanced than any ancient society. This drive comes to consume him over James Grey’s enthralling film, as magnificent as the mustache Tom Holland grooms throughout the running time. Films as sweeping and emotional as this come across so infrequently that I felt transported to a 60s studio epic, cross-pollenated with a 21st-century awareness of cultural insensitivity and white savior narratives. Grey makes it clear Percy and his cohorts are invading a land they do not understand, and that Percy’s obsession borders on a religion that has increasingly less base in reality. Charlie Hunnam’s earlier performances drove me crazy in their stiltedness: as Percy he is perfectly cast, bringing an earnestness and genuine fascination in this culture necessary to bolster Percy’s ego. Lost City of Z might also be the prettiest film of the year: Percy’s repeated and increasingly arduous trips to the Amazon are so visually arresting, it’s a shame most viewers will be streaming it from their Prime accounts.
2. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’m surprised Paul Thomas Anderson keeps surprising me. I’ve loved every movie he’s made, and defended his last few more inscrutable projects to death. Yet for some reason I never expect what he’s going to do next — each of his projects takes the lyrical and precise way he sees the world and applies it to entirely unique worlds and stories. Phantom Thread, like almost everything else he’s made, is about a relationship that is worth the hell it takes to go through. But I had no idea how it would be like that until it was like that. As Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his funniest performance) breaks down as his house of work becomes dominated by a woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps, who looks at people better than anybody I’ve seen do in movies in years). Alma commits herself to the love he promised her, and amidst his tantrums still sees an earnest artist in him. It’s a subtle, small and weird movie — like Rebecca meets 50 Shades of Grey — made by someone who gets the pity and care that comes with tending to the person you love. It’s a film I can’t wait to let grow with me. A film composed so precisely my jaw would drop at a look or an insult, it got under my skin like a poisonous mushroom.
- Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
“I remember everything.”
I think some part of why we go to movies is to see stories that help crystalize and clarify who we are. Another is to be transported into the experiences of someone else: for film to become an empathy machine. My favorite movies create an experience that resonate with both of those sides. I’m not gay, I’ve never been to Italy, and Armie Hammer will never love me. But there’s a universal quality to a kid’s desire leading himself into something strange, unsure of who he’ll become on the other side. Timothee Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver glances toward each other — the sighs they give lying in a field next to each other — are effortlessly empathetic, as both men keep risking shame and embarrassment. Call Me By Your Name feels like watching your own memories project in front of you. You know this was just a summer, you know you used to feel a certain way, you know this was never going to last. It’s this knowledge that makes Luca Guadagnino’s film bitterly nostalgic, a champion for the emotions that make us hurt.
2017 was a brutal year for me, filled with personal disappointments. Late in this film, Michael Stuhlbarg’s father character encourages Elio to let himself feel the sorrow he’s wrestling with in Oliver’s absence. To not kill it. “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste.” Some part of me needed to see Call Me By Your Name at this point in my life. It knew I was here — that I had withdrawn in some way — and wanted me to feel something again.
Thank you for reading. If you like or dislike these choices — or just want to comment with your favorite SpongeBob episodes — I’d love to hear it. Here’s to another year of good movies.