The most memorable movies of the year celebrated empathy in a year where that came at a premium.
As you know, this is not a “Best Films” list. It’s not exactly a “Favorite Films” list, either, but more of a weird hybrid where I attempt to balance my affection for a film against critical objectivity. These are the films that define 2017 for me, a year that looked at the chaos and despair of 2016 and thought it could do worse. But that’s also what makes the hope present in many of the year’s best so important — from the grace notes of Three Billboards, to the galvanizing effect of The Post, to the “carry on” esprit of Dunkirk, to the incredible monologue delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg at the end of Call Me By Your Name,* and on and on, these films found a way to prioritize human connection in a time when we feel more distant from each other than ever.
And, as usual, there’s a lot I just haven’t gotten around to viewing: Phantom Thread. Foreign films like The Square and Foxtrot. Documentaries like Faces Places and Ex Libris. Most of Tyler’s list. My tastes tend to skew more populist, so there’s no telling as to whether these would have made mine, but I mention them because word is they are excellent, and worthy of your attention.
*Also not on my list, but still.
First up, the Honorable Mentions…
Best Return to Form: Coco
Pixar needed a win (especially in the wake of the Lasseter scandal), and Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina came up huge with Coco: a gorgeous, respectful, and imaginative story about family, loss, redemption, and Mexican culture. “Remember Me” is already wrenching tears out of the coldest of hearts in the real world, too. (My Review)
Most “Hug Your Kids” Ending: The Florida Project
It took me a while to really get into The Florida Project, but that’s somewhat by design. Sean Baker’s film feints by first prompting chuckles at Mooney and Friends’ antics, even as you worry for their well-being, then builds toward the inevitable tragedy of its final moments one scene at a time — a stunning, bittersweet ending that leaves you simultaneously heartbroken and transported. It’s a story that simply isn’t told very often, especially with this much humanity. That gives the film more weight than it may have had otherwise, but it’s darn good all the same. Willem Dafoe, here playing against type, especially. (Chase’s Review)
Most Transcendent Superhero Film: Wonder Woman
Comic book movies are a dime a dozen these days, and there were a few that I loved last year (including the hysterical Thor: Ragnarok, and the grimy pathos of Logan), but there may not have been a more indelible film moment in 2017 than of Diana Prince in No Man’s Land. Patty Jenkins’s entry to the superhero canon spoke to the current moment in ways DC could never have dreamed, and inspired girls everywhere to pick up their shields and fight for the things they care about. (Manu’s Review)
Best Biblical Epic, Chimpanzee Division: War for the Planet of the Apes
This magnificent trilogy-capper is many things: a western, a Great Escape-style prison camp film, and a crackling allegory about what makes us human. Most of all, though, it’s a Moses story, right to its poetic ending. Andy Serkis gives yet another award-worthy performance as Caesar. The effects from Weta Digital are mind-blowing. Matt Reeves, welcome to the Circle of Trust. (My Review)
Best Adaptation of a Musical Short I Made in College: The Shape of Water
Okay, I’m being silly. I’m obviously not accusing Guillermo del Toro of stealing my idea of the Creature from the Black Lagoon falling in love with a girl despite society’s prejudice. In any case, his is much better. I didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would (too-cartoony villains, some tonal issues), but it’s beautifully crafted, and Sally Hawkins would be my pick for Best Actress. Keep doing your thing, Guillermo! (Chase’s Review)
Dud of the Year: The Circle. My review was, in retrospect, actually too kind.
Anyway…the top 10.
10) World of Tomorrow 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
Directed by Don Hertzfeldt
I know I’m fudging things a bit by including a short, but if you’ve seen any of Don Hertzfeldt’s work (I discovered him in high school, with anarchic early work like Rejected), you know he’s one of the most creative artists working on animation’s fringe. And while his art style hasn’t changed much — his characters are still nothing more than thin, expressive, warbly lines — 2015’s World of Tomorrow (it’s on Netflix, it’s 16 minutes, watch it) was a major evolution, as much for its incorporation of computer effects as for its heady, melancholy ideas about a distant future at the end of the world. Episode 2 is just as poignant, just as funny, and looks inward rather than outward; this time, the adorable Emily Prime (Winona Mae) gets a visit from Emily 6 (Julia Potts), temporarily lost on a time-traveling sight-seeing tour of the former’s memories. It also takes on a distinctly allegorical flair; in the “Bog of Reality” that represents Emily Prime’s conscious mind, her older clone stops her from picking up a shiny object: “That is a glimmer of hope. Put it back.” In 22 minutes, Hertzfeldt’s trademark surrealism conjures staggering emotional depth. It’s unquestionably one of the year’s best films of any length.
9) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
I’m not here to be the big Three Billboards apologist. I don’t think I’d vote for it for a single Academy Award. Some of the criticism hurled against it (now reaching a fever pitch for its new frontrunner status) has merit. Nevertheless, Martin McDonagh’s anger-driven, Southern Grotesque, pitch-black “comedy” really worked for me in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. You can tell it was made by a lapsed Catholic because it is, at its heart, a story about the wages of sin, punctuated by shocking moments of grace. Frances McDormand’s Mildred is no feminist crusader, but a grieving mother who’s looking to rectify her own failings. Sam Rockwell’s racist cop is still a racist at the end, though he now for the first time has the hope of becoming something else. Disgust and pity aren’t mutually exclusive — McDonagh’s outsider perspective on American rot is most surprising in how it has empathy for everyone, without actually absolving anyone. That’s not irresponsible, but genuinely challenging. (Tyler’s Review)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Even more than Three Billboards, Mother! was the most Rorschach Test film of the year. I didn’t expect to even like it, considering what I’d heard. Instead, I loved it. It functions on multiple gonzo levels at once: Is it a nearly beat-for-beat Biblical retelling of creation, mankind’s fall, and inevitable apocalypse? Is it an environmental parable, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Gaia stand-in powerless to stop the destruction of everything she has made and loves? Is it an elaborate art-house apology letter from Difficult Artist Darren Aronofsky to ex-wife Rachel Weisz (hilariously complicated by how he started dating Lawrence while making this film)? Yes. It is, incredibly, all of those things. Mother! is not for everyone. There are uncounted images and moments that will be a bridge too far for many, and perhaps rightfully so. It’s so rare to see a filmmaker given this much rein (how? how?) to pour so much of himself onto the screen for our examination and interpretation. For that alone, the film is worthy of respect, even awe. Fortunately, I also think it’s a gobsmacking work of art. (Chase’s Review)
7) A Ghost Story
Directed by David Lowery
Wow, another art house film? I don’t know who I am anymore. Well, let’s not waste this opportunity: A Ghost Story, which I should have reviewed in full, is astonishing. David Lowery’s meditative experiment is worth seeing knowing as little as possible; suffice to say that it mostly features a silent Casey Affleck with a sheet over his head, and nine solid minutes of Rooney Mara eating a pie. Wait, not hooked yet? Let me try again: With beautiful, Spirited Away-inspired imagery (from cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo), and a Bergmanian eye for spirituality and sentiment, A Ghost Story is an entrancing journey through time, lurking in the corners of your mind just like Affleck haunts his former home. It’s a film to be felt, not watched. You might be bored. You might be annoyed. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be deeply moved. I want to write more, but trust me: go into this one cold.
6) The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The last 2017 film (technically) I got to see before hitting “Publish,” The Post is both a historical crowd-pleaser and a galvanizing call to action. Spielberg put everything on hold to make this film the moment he read Liz Hannah’s screenplay, and its urgency — prepped, shot, and edited in six months, the better to speak to Right Now — can be felt in every frame. Meryl Streep is exceptional as publisher Katherine Graham, who conquers her own nagging insecurities to become a trailblazer for feminism and voice for truth; Hanks is typically great as her irascible partner in potential crime; the parade of Peak TV All-Stars (Rhys! Odenkirk! Coon! Brie! Plemons! Paulson!) brings delight with each familiar face. But above all, it’s a clarion call in support of a free press, and in opposition to a presidential administration built on lies and maintained by bullying. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s the point, but it’s a necessary one. (My Review)
5) Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Directed by Rian Johnson
All things being equal, this is my favorite film of 2017. From breathtaking wide shots to mirror caves, from the dazzling colors to iconic silhouettes, Johnson makes bold choices every step of the way — including with the storytelling, which has made The Last Jedi not just the first film in the saga made by a true auteur, but the most polarizing. But for me, after a second viewing, absolutely everything worked. The action is incredible, the emotions are palpable, and the performances are deeply felt. Mark Hamill, quite simply, is magnificent, using Luke’s cynicism to mask deep, self-inflicted wounds. Daisy Ridley, as you already know, is a star. Most rewarding, however, is her yin-yang with Kylo Ren, and Adam Driver’s idiosyncratic line readings and gangly energy add up to what’s becoming a complex and iconic heavy. But they’re all a piece of the larger whole, a story about generations and cycles and “letting old things die” — a message for the diehards, perhaps — and, most of all, hope. As grand and thrilling as you could ever want from Star Wars. (My Review)
4) The Lost City of Z
Directed by James Gray
The Lost City of Z has more in common with Lawrence of Arabia than Aguirre. That comes down to style as well as their protagonists: both stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen who think ahead of their time and obsessively put themselves at risk to validate their ideas. Like David Lean, writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) doesn’t showboat with his camera or do anything that takes you out of the moment; Z is a work of both profound seriousness and studied curiosity. I didn’t think of the villages depicted as sets. I accepted their reality without a second thought because Gray never gives a reason not to. The jungle is evocative enough without his help, and every actor on screen is so naturalistic you’re not thinking about Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson seizing their chances to finally shine in a prestige project. If you’re Gray, you’d think all you have to do is place your camera in one incredible location after another and just let them play the scene. But if it were truly that easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing at all. (My Review)
3) Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
The triumph of Lady Bird, the quasi-autobiographical first major feature from acclaimed writer and indie actress Greta Gerwig, is in everything that fits around its too-easy synopsis of “restless girl comes of age.” It’s in how every moment of its fresh, impeccably constructed screenplay matters, from the first frame to the last. It’s in how the editing (from Nick Houy) keeps us gliding along, compressing a year in the life of our heroine to a brisk 94 minutes by showing us a series of loosely-connected vignettes, until those moments have steadily built on top of each other, layer by layer, and we can see the entire breathtaking mosaic. It’s in Gerwig’s attention to detail — not just the easy use of period music and fashions (God, 2002 is “period” now?), but the verbal shorthand between her characters; Gerwig conveys that these were real people before we dropped in to observe their lives, and will continue to be after the movie’s over. (My Review)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
For most directors, this would be a straightforward war film about heroic perseverance, certainly including some likable stock characters, a rousing score, and a feeling of history under glass. Christopher Nolan is not most directors. Dunkirk, with its unimpeachable in-camera elbow grease, blood pressure-raising score from Hans Zimmer, and Nolan’s customary shattering of the fourth dimension, is so absorbing, so harrowing, that it doesn’t take long before the sound of aircraft has you instinctively ducking, too. This is what an auteur like Nolan does when he has a blank check from a studio: have hundreds of extras stand in the frigid surf for hours at a time, feature painstakingly authentic recreations of ships and aircraft, and fire enough controlled detonations to subdue a small country. I was left goggle-eyed both by the spectacle, and by Nolan’s supreme confidence in his directorial powers, marshaling his own army in the service of a uniquely singular vision. (My Review)
1) Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
While accepting his Best Original Screenplay award from the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society (one of several longwindedly-named groups to bestow plaudits on his film this season), Jordan Peele quoted a tweet that said “Saying you love Get Out is now the replacement for saying you would have voted Obama for a third term.” And, for all intents and purposes, that’s correct. I did a lot of self-interrogation as to whether I was naming this the year’s top film because I genuinely believed it was, or because there was some performative woke-ness going on. We’ve all been guilty of that, consciously or not. The subversive brilliance of Get Out is in how it bares its fangs not at the baldly racist, but at those who say the right things while being all-too-eager to appropriate and exploit black culture — or, as in the film, their bodies. To the Armitage family, black lives only matter for how they can extend their own.
Get Out is a horror film, but not an especially gory one. Its terror is mostly psychological, refracted through the life experiences each individual viewer brings to it. It’s incredibly assured filmmaking that never once winks to the audience, instead forcing everyone to see the story through the eyes of the exceptional Daniel Kayluua; equally strong performances from Catherine Keener, Lakeith Stanfield, and Bradley Whitford provide uneasy dramatic weight. For all of these reasons and more besides, including the giddy, meme-generating screenings in every city across the country, Get Out will be remembered as not just a surefire genre classic, not just a phenomenon, but the year’s most vitally important film. It may have been intended as a clapback to the smug liberalism of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but now the film’s message rings loud and clear: virtue signaling about Get Out’s greatness isn’t enough. Time to get to work. (Chase’s Review)