2017 was a great year that took us everywhere from Sacramento and Florida to the land of the dead and a galaxy far, far away.
What a good year for movies!
This time last year I was desperately searching for movies to fill out this list in a year that was incredibly top-heavy, but lacked a large number of films that I loved. That wasn’t a problem in 2017 which produced over a dozen films I loved that didn’t even get honorable mentions here.
This list is quite long, so let’s skip the preamble and get into it.
Dud of the Year: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Directed by Martin McDonagh
I hated this movie. I HATED this movie. McDonagh’s debut film In Bruges is a delightful black comedy with excellent performances from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, so I was prepared to love Three Billboards. Instead, I was baffled by the film’s wide-ranging praise. Three Billboards skips right past black comedy and is just a downright mean film about grief and misplaced anger. Frances McDormand’s performance is painfully one-note as her character fails to make any meaningful change over the course of a film that hand-waves domestic abuse, racism, and violence to make way for humor that never shows up. The film’s lone redemption arc belongs to a character who falls massively short of deserving it as the script trips over itself to assert he’s a “good cop” a half-hour after he threw an innocent man out a second story window without any misgivings. Perhaps these aren’t the scenes the audience is supposed to find funny, but they’re huge problems that they have to ignore to get to the “humor.” This film is gross, and I find it’s positive critical reception disturbing.
The Disaster Artist, Directed by James Franco
I’m an unabashed fan of Tommy Wiseau’s devastatingly terribly film The Room and its cult following. Whereas Wiseau once dreamed of creating a work of art and ended up making a hilarious pile of trash instead, director James Franco has made the real thing. In telling the story behind the making of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” The Disaster Artist reveals a tale of friendship, brotherhood, and following your dreams while also being gut-bustingly funny. Franco’s oddball tendencies are the perfect match for the material, and he pulls double duty as both director and star. It would have been easy for Franco’s Wiseau to slip into mere caricature, but he manages to find depth and complexity in what easily could have been a one-note performance. Dave Franco does his career-best work as Wiseau’s best frenemy Greg Sestero, another of the film’s numerous hilarious performances (shoutout to Zac Efron’s cameo as “Chris-R” actor Dan Janjigian). The Disaster Artist asks its audience to consider when self-confidence gives way to narcissism, a tiny pill to swallow with the accompanying ladle-full of sugar. (David’s Review)
Wonder Woman, Directed by Sally Jenkins
Wonder Woman is the film that shows the way forward for the DC cinematic universe after the critical drubbings that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League took for their dark, brooding, punch-fest. Gal Gadot is a flat-out star, and her joyous performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a delight to watch. The “girl power” narrative of the first comic book film about a female character also being directed by a woman is just the cultural narrative cherry on top of a film that stands with among the handful of best comic book films, period. No Man’s Land was the best action sequence of the year this side of a throne room lightsaber duel, the gender of director be damned. Save your qualifiers. Patty Jenkins’ film is great in its own right, and the sequel can’t get here soon enough. (Manu’s Review)
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Directed by Rian Johnson
Speaking of throne room lightsaber duels, that’s just one of the jaw-dropping visual sequences that comprised The Last Jedi as Rian Johnson cast aside fan service in favor of pushing the Star Wars franchise into the future, and simultaneously pushing a cadre of fanboys over the edge. Johnson understands that drama requires character complexity, and we’ve already seen emotionless Jedi train students to our unending boredom. In this writer/director’s capable hands Star Wars has what every franchise longs for, but so few have been able to cultivate: a great villain. The dramatic tension between Kylo Ren and Rey is rich and electric as the pair essentially become friends across the ideologies that divide them. Even if you disliked The Force Awakens, you have to hand it to J.J. Abrams for his casting abilities: Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are great. When The Force Awakens came out my take was that it wasn’t a perfect film, but it laid the groundwork for other directors to take the franchise to new heights, and The Last Jedi bears that out. (David’s Review)
10. Blade Runner 2049, Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve is the current master of adult-oriented science fiction films, so when Warner Bros. began shopping a possible sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner it only made sense to put him at the helm. They were not wrong. A lesser talent might have been cowed by the burden of following up a film with Blade Runner’s cultural and critical acclaim, but Villeneuve is evidently immune to pressure, delivering a film that’s every bit as visually interesting and philosophical as its predecessor. Every frame of the film could be hung on a wall in a museum — it’s that pretty, and there’s a real chance famed cinematographer Roger Deakins may finally earn his first Oscar after thirteen(!) unrealized nominations. Blade Runner 2049’s secret weapon is star Ryan Gosling, who has an incredible talent for drawing engaging performances out of aging actors who have long-since gone on autopilot (think Russel Crowe in The Nice Guys and Albert Brooks in Drive), and he does so again here with Harrison Ford. Even the film’s most favorable reviews will admit that it’s too long, but that’s only because screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have so much interesting ground to cover. Despite its lackluster blockbuster performance, Blade Runner 2049 is a winner, and now it has the chance to become a cult classic in its own right. (My review)
9. The Big Sick, Directed by Michael Showalter
The Big Sick was the sleeper hit of the summer, eventually grossing over ten times its $5 million budget on strong reviews and word of mouth. The film tells the fictionalized true story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, who fell into a coma while the pair were courting. It’s a bittersweet comedy about love across cultural divides and the importance of presence in life’s darkest moments. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are both phenomenal in supporting roles, but the film wouldn’t work without Nanjiani’s humor and heart (his 9/11 joke, quietly, being the best and most culturally playful joke of the year). We’re in the midst of big cultural changes in the races and faces we see in traditional roles at the movies, and The Big Sick was a big part of that in 2017. Kumail Nanjiani may not look like Hollywood’s typical leading man, but they may have to adjust to seeing him as such. Romantic comedies are a stale genre, but this breath of fresh air just delivered one of the best of the decade. (Rachel’s review)
8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
When I criticize Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s not that I don’t have a taste for dark comedy. Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film is blacker than pitch. The Greek director is a modern master in turning society on its ear and then examining the results. Here he reteams with The Lobster actor Colin Farrell for a look at a man with the perfect life and how he reacts when it’s upended by mysterious and unexplained forces. Barry Keoghan, also good in Dunkirk, is remarkable here as Martin, a teenager with a strange connection to Farrell’s Dr. Steven Murphy and is forced to reckon with Martin’s malevolence when his family is suddenly stricken with an unexplainable illness. Keoghan is astonishing, imbuing cold-hearted malice into his dead delivery and his innocent, doe-eyed acting. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not an easy film, and its cold-blooded humor may be too much for some viewers, but I was transfixed. Lanthimos is a dark absurdist, so don’t be surprised by nervous glances from other audience members as you cackle along in twisted delight. (My review)
7. It Comes at Night, Directed by Trey Edward Shultz
With all apologies to Get Out, this was my favorite horror film in a year that brought several great ones to the forefront. Trey Shultz’s film about a family attempting to survive at a cabin after an unexplained societal collapse is so tightly controlled and claustrophobically rendered that it has the audience begging for monsters to jump out of the darkness and relieve the tension. When I think of great actors who deserve better roles, Joel Edgerton is always near the top of the list (he’s currently starring under layers of prosthetics and makeup on whatever the hell Bright is supposed to be over on Netflix). Here he stars as a patriarch trying to balance the safety of his family with the desire to help others in a world gone wrong. It Comes at Night is the type of film that knows what your mind can imagine is more horrible than whatever the world has to offer, and that the true evil isn’t a cosmic monster in the woods, but the heart of darkness that dwells in every person. (My review)
6. Coco, Directed by Lee Unkrich
A large part of Pixar’s success stems from their refusal to talk down to the children they make movies for. From Toy Story 3 and the inevitability of growing up to Inside Out and the truth that sadness is part of a full life, Pixar’s best films don’t shy away from difficult subject matter. That has never been more true than in Coco, a film that takes place in the land of the dead. Lee Unkrich’s newest film openly acknowledges the inevitability of death, and the sad reality that some people are forgotten after they pass on, but that hardly means Coco is dour. Quite the opposite. Set during the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday, Coco is a beautiful celebration of music and family, and a showpiece for one of the most dazzling color palates any animated film has ever boasted. As the first Pixar film depicting a Mexican protagonist, Coco isn’t a mere diversity play. It’s just another example of what the studio does best: complex, emotional storytelling, but this time with an aim to be more inclusive. Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, and especially Gael García Bernal prove themselves excellent voice actors in this visual treat. Unkrich, who also helmed 2010’s heart-rending Toy Story 3, again proves himself to be one of Pixar’s brightest talents. I’m no stranger to getting misty-eyed at the movies, but Coco was the only 2017 picture the reduced me to open tears. (David’s review)
5. Phantom Thread, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
After stumbling a bit with 2014’s Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to lofty form with Phantom Thread which is a delectable feast for the senses. The film is as gorgeous as you would expect for a movie about fashion design as art, but Anderson’s camera is equally interested in the intimate tactile feel of measuring tape on a human body and the sounds and aromas of the breakfast table. Daniel Day-Lewis offers his latest dazzling performance as refined fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in this surprisingly funny portrait of artistic romance, where Woodcock’s love for his work is matched only by his muse’s (Vicky Krieps) adoration of him. Phantom Thread is hardly a swoony love affair, delving into the gamut of emotions that a relationship can bring. Anger, jealousy, boredom, and more are all on display in Krieps’ performance, and she never wilts under the pressure of matching her acclaimed costar. Anderson’s films always ask the audience to think, and Phantom Thread is no different, but any viewer willing to endure will discover a fantastic film as gorgeous as a designer dress and as savory as a warm mushroom omelette. (My review)
4. Call Me by Your Name, Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s paean to first love is so delicate that it seems the film itself would fall apart if you handled it too roughly. It was a big year for Timothée Chalamet who stands a puncher’s chance of winning a Best Actor Oscar for his subtle performance as a teenager in the midst of a sexual awakening with his father’s assistant. I say only a puncher’s chance because the academy prefers showy physical performances, and Gary Oldman will be an easy pick for many as he chews scenery in a fat suit as Winston Churchill, but Chalamet delivers the type of performance I intrinsically connect with. His and co-star Armie Hammer’s work is quiet and piercing, nakedly honest in its revelations, and wholly naturalistic. That naturalism extends to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whose work with light and nature is a character in and of itself. There are some complaints that Call Me by Your Name isn’t explicit enough in its subject matter, but Guadagnino obviously made the gentle romance he intended. Explicitness would rob the film of its delicate magic, and, as Michael Stuhlbarg’s character points out in a moving final monologue, some things in life are only meaningful for the powerfully intense connections they provide. Call Me by Your Name is surely one of them. (Sean’s review)
3. The Florida Project, Directed by Sean Baker
“The Florida project” was Walt Disney’s name for the plan that eventually became Walt Disney World, but the title of Sean Baker’s film invites the viewer to consider the dual meanings of that final word. Baker’s film covers a summer in the life of a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives with her mother in the low-rent motels that border the “happiest place on Earth” as they try to make ends meet on the edge of the poverty cycle. The Florida Project is a sobering look at American life as Moonee and a cast of transient friends run wild over the Magic Castle motel while her mother turns a blind eye to their behavior, leaving it to the gruff property manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer the child’s only modicum of parenting. Dafoe’s empathetic portrayal as the tough-love hotel manager who gripes about Moonee, but keeps a watchful eye on her when predators or CPS come calling, is his best work in years, and it’s made him an awards favorite. There’s certainly humor in Moonee’s learned mischief and disrespect, but it clutches in your throat once you consider her future. A clichéd testament to the human spirit? No. This is an American tragedy. (My review)
2. The Lost City of Z, Directed by James Gray
I adore James Gray’s classically-styled film about explorer Percy Fawcett’s search to discover a lost city in the uncharted depths of the Amazon. Charlie Hunnam stars as the real-life British explorer whose pro-native methods and belief in an advanced non-European settlement in the heart of the jungle clash with many of his more imperialist-minded peers. Gray’s elegant film is a river movie in the tradition of Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, two other films that explore obsession and duty far from modern civilization where the thrill of discovery is matched only by dread of the unknown. More than either of those films, however, The Lost City of Z is an examination of the societies and people that men leave behind when they venture off into the unknown. Featuring excellent supporting work from Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, Gray’s film delves into all three classic elements of conflict; Man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self. As a native guide tells Fawcett during his first expedition, “I feel sorry for you, for you there is no escape from the jungle,” and no matter how he intended it, he’s exactly right. (David’s review)
1. Lady Bird, Directed by Greta Gerwig
I had heard that Lady Bird was good before I saw it, but I was not prepared for just how much Greta Gerwig’s hilarious and poignant debut feature would blow me away. I’ve seen the film three times now, and it only grows on me with every viewing. Gerwig spent over a decade as an actress in Hollywood before she got the chance to make a film of her own, and it’s obvious that she’s spent that time perfecting her craft in preparation for this opportunity. When her shot finally came, she did not miss. Lady Bird is a coming of age story about the self-fashioned Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her turbulent relationship with her mother played by Laurie Metcalf. Gerwig’s script is full of nuance, shading in these characters with details that define them over time. There’s so much to learn about someone’s personality from the way they unnecessarily make a hotel bed or share their tiny birthday cupcake, and the whole cast of fantastic actors including Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet bring even the supporting characters to life.
There’s not enough praise in the world to heap on Laurie Metcalf, who is going to win an Oscar for her funny and heartfelt performance as Lady Bird’s loving but oft-critical mother. Too many films about mother-child relationships boil them down to sensationalized revelations about teen pregnancy or tyrannical parenthood, but Gerwig’s script is too smart for that. Lady Bird remembers what it’s like to be a teenager on the edge of adulthood, pushing boundaries and fighting one minute only to find yourself hugging and laughing the next. Anyone who would dismiss the film because it isn’t about a “serious” subject like war or freedom of the press is missing the point. Life is about the relationships you make, and Lady Bird brings them beautifully to the forefront. (David’s review)
Let’s do it again in 2018!