The year of 2017 is long over now. Thank goodness. It’s was a 12-month march marked by historic division and acrimony in the West, and more stories of a beleaguering quality than any amount of Ridley Scott techno-dystopia. With social upheaval cropping up in everything from the long bloodied arena of politics to the supposedly saintlier realm of sports, it has left many bitter and warily despondent toward their neighbors.
However, things were never quite so bleak as they first appear. For instance, the revolt at the monstrosities committed in the shadows of the entertainment industry has given way to a therapeutic and cultural purge heard around the world. As the #MeTo movement cleanses industries from coast to coast, and of every economic background, already 2017 is offering a promise for a better tomorrow. And within the confines of entertainment alone, we’ve witnessed a series of phenomenal films. Whatever issues the biggest franchises and blockbusters might’ve faced in 2017, smaller and more intelligent fare has been rewarded at the speciality box office—and by breaking into the mainstream like a thunder crack. More importantly still though, many of the movies are good. Like really good.
In that vein, our two top critics, film section editor David Crow and associate editor Don Kaye, took to compiling separate lists for the 10 Best Movies of 2017. Their conclusions are quite different, but among the variety of movies you can read about below, you’ll find a testament to the Better Angels of the year that was.
David Crow’s Top 10 List
Honorable Mention: The Post
More so than most years, whittling 2017 down to only 10 movies was a challenge. From the glorious sight of Gal Gadot crossing a battlefield in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman to the stunningly nigh-silent climax that envisioned Ryan Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks gasping for artificial life among the waves of Blade Runner 2049, 2017 has seen potent images burned into cinema. Some could even be as simple as a woman and fish-man finding love. And yet, one that crosses over into our reality with little need for allegorical artifice is The Post.
Steven Spielberg’s thinly veiled communion with our national conscience uses the not-so-distant historical past to envision a press under siege by an overreaching White House. In the process, the legendary auteur finds a way to both extol the virtue of the fourth estate and to create a grippingly prescient drama that might as well be ripped from our current headlines. There are no superpowers or fist fights in The Post, but the scene where Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham makes the choice to publish a report on the Pentagon Papers is one of the most suspenseful and extraordinary set-pieces of the year.
How far Netflix has come, and quickly too. While a zeitgeist-grabbing crowd pleaser that will break their original film content into the mainstream remains elusive, the streaming service is already producing high quality content every year. And none has reached a higher altitude than Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s eccentric and devastating adventure fantasy about the horrors of the meat industry. Ever surprising and subverting expectations, this bizarre marriage of Eastern and Western sensibilities by the Korean filmmaker is hilarious… until it’s not.
Using a supporting cast of deliciously hammy American and European performers, who make a meal out of this tale of capitalists feasting on the innocent, it is still the central relationship between a young girl (Ahn Seo-hyun) and a computer generated super-pig that grounds Okja in a merciless reality. That Seo-hun’s best friend never looks entirely real doesn’t even matter in this fable for adults that will mince your tears into at least a sincere contemplation of veganism.
9. I, Tonya
Biopics are inescapable in the holiday snowfall of end-of-year movies. With award voters generally predisposed to enjoy “true story” dramas, their presence in December is as unavoidable as Christmas Trees. Hence the welcome cleverness of I, Tonya, a film that satires its own genre trappings as much as it does its subject matter, the Olympian figure skater turned infamous punchline, Tonya Harding. It then punches back hard.
Unapologetically channeling Martin Scorsese circa 1990 in its use of contradictory (and combative) voiceover narration, director Craig Gillespie welds together the differing accounts of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) about just how Tonya’s rival Nancy Kerrigan got kneecapped in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics. The picture initially wallows in its sordid tale of rural white trashiness, but with blunt force precision, I, Tonya becomes an even more fanged indictment of the class warfare and privileged snobbery that boxed Robbie’s ferocious anti-heroine into a tragic life. It also features a crackerjack of a performance by Allison Janney as Tonya’s monstrous mama.
8. Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut proved to be every bit as swift in its ratatattat pacing as Sorkin’s well-worn dialogue. By intentionally tackling a story less flashy than, say, the cloak and dagger betrayals that gave the world Facebook, Sorkin and a powerhouse turn by Jessica Chastain transform the shady drama around a pseudo-legal (and then illegal-illegal) poker game for the rich and famous into a high-stakes cinematic gambit.
It’s a film that revels in the allure of dialogue, as Molly’s Game uses playful misdirection and more than a few verbal bluffs to chronicle the journey of an Olympic class athlete to an unquestioned poker empress worth millions of dollars. Of course that kind of action attracts the attention of self-righteous men of every stripe—whether they carry brass knuckles or FBI warrants appears moot. Still, Sorkin’s movie never loses sight of its razor-focus on a woman who alternates between subtle and grandiose reinventions while ever pivoting from one man’s world to another. She also beats the house at its own game, even as they change the rules mid-deal.
7. Get Out
While technically a genre release from early in the year, this ostensible horror movie has seen few contemporaries before or since dig that deep into the current state of race in 21st century America. And fewer still have so bluntly impacted the culture this perfectly. Making his point as sharply as a scalpel, writer-director Jordan Peele transitions to his first feature with acute awareness by retrofitting the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? yarn into Pod Person paranoia.
Pulling liberally from Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Peele turns the disconnect between a young black man and prospective white parent-in-laws on its head. And with equal measures comedy and dread, the movie deconstructs the shifting forms that racism, white privilege, and class patronization will take among liberal and supposedly “woke” suburban conclaves. It is thus through that irony that Get Out illuminates how heinous (and ubiquitous) the continued commodification of blackness can be. Once that sinks in, it’s chillier than any amount of jump scares or lingering deep-focused pans around WASPy homes.
Logan is not the most socially important superhero movie of 2017, but it’s still the best one. This is in large part due to the movie’s defiant refusal to be lumped in with the cinematic vernacular associated with most movies involving masks. Indeed, director James Mangold succeeds with fierce dividends at turning Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine swan song into a gritty modern Western—a bloody great one too.
Cast in the glaring contrast of open skies and real locations devoid of numbing computer effects, Logan earns its adult status for more than just gore or cursing. By jumping to the end of several grizzled superheroes’ lives, Mangold, Jackman, and a haunting Patrick Stewart unpack the mythology of their genre and reveal the many glories and fallacies hidden away within. Drawing a straight-line between itself and the 1970s Westerns about faded dreams that died of exposure, Logan is the most evocative action movie of the year and lingers with its own timeliness thanks to a star-making turn by Dafne Keen as Logan’s daughter. She also happens to be a Mexican immigrant trying to cross a border while being chased by white men with guns, which goes to show that even in Jackman’s final ride, the mutant allegory has never been more relevant.
5. Call Me by Your Name
Romance and the need for love are as universal a theme for cinema as it is for any other art form…. including life itself. With Call Me by Your Name, however, director Luca Guadagnino imbues what feels like genuine breath into this tender and heart-rending tale of first love and hidden pain. Set in a remote corner of Italy during the early ‘80s, the gradual and slowly engrossing intimacy between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the older Oliver (Armie Hammer) also slowly seduces viewers by not drawing heavy emphasis to the social importance of a love between two men—that is simply an unfortunate social rationale for why each party must be so careful and tortured, even when enshrined in the world of liberal academia ruled over by Elio’s professorial father (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Quietly enthralling, Call Me by Your Name patiently draws the viewer into both perspectives of a romance that is destined to be bookended by the rosy days of summer, but still never lets itself swoon into the pure ecstasy of screenwriter James Ivory’s other period piece bodice-rippers. Guadagnino luxuriates in the silence of characters and their unspoken thoughts. It is a profound simmer that eventually boils over into moments of transcendence, such as Stahlberg’s parting third act speech, and an unforgettable final shot of beautified loneliness.
4. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig has proven time and again to be one of the most enjoyable actors and screenwriters of her generation. But with her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, she announces herself as one of the sharpest cinematic voices currently working, bar none. Finding at least inspiration from her own childhood of growing up in Sacramento, California (or as the title character of the film shivers, “The Midwest of the West Coast”), Gerwig crafts a tale that is both acutely drawn from the millennial experience and yet somehow universal.
This is likely due to the fact that Gerwig’s coming of age story is as much about a mother coming to terms with a daughter growing up as it is the child. Featuring another flawless performance from Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird crystalizes just who its heroine is when she reveals her real name is Christine, but she is going by “Lady Bird” during her senior year of high school. Surrounded by a pitch perfect supporting cast of warm empathetic actors playing genuinely good people, the struggle between a daughter who wants to spread her wings and the mother she constantly tries to jerk away from is an eternal story, even in its early 2000s, post-9/11 context. Coupled with the best supporting performance of the year by Laurie Metcalf, and it’s easy to see why Lady Bird has become a breakout sensation for mothers and daughters alike.
Showing a level of craft and dedication to the art of showmanship that has been primarily forgotten, Christopher Nolan is perhaps the only filmmaker who can still open a challenging war epic for adults in the blockbuster-laden heart of July. That he did this with a movie about a battle whose name is as foreign to American moviegoers as its location on the map is all the more impressive.
Stripped of the expectation and limits that accompanies all other mainstream Hollywood moviemaking, Dunkirk is a staggering achievement that defies what is marketable storytelling. It also presents a claustrophobic experience that often verges on being a silent horror with a touch of heightened experimentation, even with a cast of thousands on a beach. By embracing the old ways, be it actual replicas of 1940s Spitfires over digital recreations of the British RAF aircraft or the stunning use of 65mm IMAX cameras, this passion project finds a nerve-shattering way to tell one of the most familiar lessons of British identity: the “miracle of Dunkirk.” Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved in an evacuation that defended British morale during the nation’s lowest moment in World War II. And with a vast canvas, Nolan’s Dunkirk recreates that fight on the land, that fight on the sea, and that fight in the air, and all while fighting the industry impulse that is turning spectacle cinema into little more than theme park maintenance. As it turns out, this kind of big budget moviemaking can also be an experience like no other.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Whether from sorrow or laughter, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will bring tears to the eyes until it hurts. A dense and supremely rewarding work of layered anger, Martin McDonagh has found his masterpiece in a film so bleak that it proves comedy and tragedy are fairly interchangeable in the face of impending violence. By meticulously consolidating that idea into a sprawling narrative, McDonagh gives voice to the impotency of middle, “deplorable” America that so often feels left behind. And it sounds like a scream.
Ostensibly about one woman (a superbly uncouth Frances McDormand) who is demanding justice for the unsolved murder and rape of her daughter, Three Billboards ultimately transforms into something far more total for its characters. After McDormand’s Mildred rents billboard space to taunt her terminally ill sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his incompetency, she earns the attention of every member of her small town, from Sam Rockwell’s racist cop who could be more than his worst sins to Mildred’s abusive ex-husband and his 19-year-old girlfriend. Every person in this abandoned community plays a role, and none will escape judgement from the red-faced reckoning that is to come.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit so fearlessly wades into the subject of race and police brutality in America that it seems misguided to call the movie a period piece. While technically set in 1967, its tale is one that still bleeds on the front page of daily newspapers, although rarely with as much detached documentarian cool in the face of rage-inducing horror.
Recalling the often obscured events of the Algiers Motel during one of the Detroit riots, this film resurrects a still hot-to-the-touch nightmare of a group of black men being detained, interrogated, tortured, and worse by local police. While not a critique of all or even most law enforcement, the film cuts to the distrust and paranoia that can give way to hate and violence at the drop of the hat. There is a panorama of blood-boiling performances in this film from the likes of John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, and Will Poulter, the latter of whom personifies the vilest kind of self-righteous bigotry. It is all blended into an epic portrait of pain and sorrow with no answer to its screaming questions. Still, it is the humanity of all parties, the wicked and the needlessly condemned alike, that makes this the most visceral film of the year, and one that, like its subject matter, will linger well past the holidays.
Don Kaye’s Top 10 List
I, Tonya; The Shape of Water; Get Out, Colossal; Wonder Woman; A Ghost Story; The Girl with All the Gifts; War for the Planet of the Apes; Dunkirk, and John Wick: Chapter 2.
10. The Post
Like Detroit, The Post is very much a movie about today. In this case, Steven Spielberg and his superb cast make the argument for a strong, free and uncensored press at a time when the institution is under relentless attack from the ignorant coward in the White House and so many of his corrupt underlings and henchmen. Beginning almost languidly, The Post builds in quiet tension as the battle lines are drawn and the stakes made clear: shall the press—in the form of The Washington Post and The New York Time –be subservient to the agenda of the government or shall it speak unfettered truth to power at every opportunity and with no reservation?
Any true American knows there is only one right answer to that, and Spielberg’s movie makes the argument for it in stark terms. Aided by top-notch work from Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk and others, Spielberg tells the story of this crucial moment in the history of American journalism as only he can by framing it as a thriller, and the results are gripping and important.
One long, relentless, nearly unbroken howl of anguish and rage, Detroit was unfairly dismissed by some critics and largely ignored by the public when it popped up near the end of summer. Mixing actual historical footage and her own brand of handheld, documentary-like composition, director Kathryn Bigelow portrays one of the darkest moments in American history almost like a ‘70s horror movie. The long and unbearably intense central portion of the film—the nightmare inside the Algiers Motel in which three cops mercilessly torment a group of young black people, eventually killing three of them—captures the sheer terror that the victims must have felt with nauseating precision.
Detroit is not an easy watch at all, and it’s certainly a flawed one: the film has a weird, lopsided structure and never settles on a central character. But that may be the point: history is jagged and sloppy, and there are often no real heroes or villains; just unremarkable people who do the right or wrong thing when their moment comes. Sadly, these moments seem to keep coming.
8. Call Me by Your Name
Director Luca Guadagnino’s (A Bigger Splash) eye, ear, and feel for the sensual and the tactile serve this tale of unharnessed first love immaculately as he follows the slowly emerging, sun-baked romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothèe Chalamet) and 24-year-old doctorate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) over the course of a luscious summer in Northern Italy. The film gets great performances out of both, although the profoundly moving speech by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) near the end is worth the price of admission alone.
Guadagnino’s technique is less showy here than on his previous films; the director is instead content to observe the story with the same summery languor in which it unfolds. More than just a fine example of gay cinema, Call Me by Your Name is also a universal and aching intimate portrait of the experience that everyone can relate to.
The fifth feature film from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is yet another expertly crafted examination of moral decay and societal corruption, set of course in his native Romania and paced just deliberately enough to create a sense of impending dread. Mungiu focuses this time on a doctor who gets involved in bending the rules at his hospital as a quid pro quo for his daughter being allowed to pass her final exam and attend Cambridge. Slowly and inevitably, the doctor and his daughter are caught up in the escalating tide of lies and deceptions.
Mungiu is less concerned with big payoffs or resolutions, but rather how the moral compass of even a seemingly upright family man can slowly be grounded into the dirt. Mungiu’s visual style and actors play this out in almost documentary fashion, because Graduation is unsettlingly close to real life.
6. The Big Sick
I’m hardly a sucker for romantic comedies but this one drew me in right from the start. Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani– nd based largely on their real-life romance–it stars Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as a couple who meet, fall in love, fall apart, and are then drawn together again when she falls ill. It sounds simple, but the movie (directed by Michael Showalter) peels back its layers with both warmth and humor, exploring issues of cultural differences, commitment, maturity, and parenting.
Nanjiani and Kazan are charming and instantly lovable while Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are wonderful as Kazan’s headstrong mother and weary father, whose own rollercoaster marriage could make for its own movie. Heartfelt and appealing, The Big Sick imbues its genre with renewed substance.
This sorrowful Western written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) is almost as good as Unforgiven at kicking away the myths of the Old West and baring the ugliness, racism, and entitlement that lay beneath. Christian Bale plays an Army Captain who must escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their ancestral land despite his hatred for the Native Americans he’s fought for years. The journey is interrupted by the discovery of a woman (Rosamund Pike) who has lost her husband and children to an attack by Comanches. All must find a way to survive the trip while coming to terms with fear, loss, and bigotry.
Bracing performances from Bale and Pike, and a feel for detail and beautiful cinematography help elevate the movie past a somewhat repetitive structure until it becomes something both mournful and unremittingly bleak, with unmistakable echoes of today’s ongoing racial strife.
In a just world, Hugh Jackman would easily land an Oscar nomination for this, his final turn as the reluctant X-Man and tormented anti-hero Logan, a.k.a. the Wolverine. The movie itself, the second (and we presume last, at least for a while) Wolverine standalone directed by James Mangold, is one of the best superhero movies of recent years while being defiantly anti-genre in numerous ways. Jackman pours 17 years of playing the character into one last, genuinely compelling performance as a dying, embittered mutant who manages to find his humanity and soul one more time.
Patrick Stewart is also outstanding as a nearly senile Professor X, and the movie is poignant in the way it shows us that even superheroes must eventually face the stark reality of death. Fully earning its R rating for visceral violence and language, yet also unflaggingly adult in its tone and themes, Logan is a powerful send-off for a character that remain one of the genre’s standouts.
It seems like it’s been years since we’ve had a truly great Stephen King adaptation on the big screen, but director Andy Muschietti made up for all that lost time with this moving yet terrifying take on half of King’s epic 1987 novel. A coming-of-age story combined with a dark fable of ancient and unknowable evil, It is bolstered by its sense of humor, its genuine compassion for its characters (something so many King adaptations overlook) and sparking performances from its young, mostly unknown cast. It’s also got one hell of a monster in Bill Skarsgard’s chilling Pennywise the Clown.
Some of the scares in It are conventionally staged, but there’s nothing conventional about the movie’s desire to move the genre into larger, more ambitious territory. It’s rare that we get an “epic horror movie” these days but It fills that bill satisfyingly and even movingly.
2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ fifth feature film is at once both his most mainstream and his most unsettling to date, perhaps because it’s a full-on horror movie set in a recognizable (if sterile) suburban environment. Colin Farrell is the surgeon who seems to have it all–successful practice, beautiful and smart wife (Nicole Kidman), and bright, talented kids–but whose haunted past comes back with a vengeance in the form of a frightening young man (Barry Keoghan) whose power to destroy the fabric of Farrell’s life goes beyond anything rational.
Lanthimos’ clinical and eerily still aesthetic (think early Cronenberg and latter-day Kubrick), as well as his deliberately stilted dialogue, may be off-putting to some. But the way he allows the seemingly normal everyday world around us to slip sideways into a surreal and dark new reality makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer into a genuinely unnerving and even shattering experience.
1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s third feature film as writer-director is a flawlessly scripted meditation on grief, anger and love, set in a small American town that’s practically a microcosm of the sick, bitterly divided nation we live in today. There’s an anguished mother (Frances McDormand) who wants answers about her daughter’s brutal murder, a sheriff (Woody Harrelson), for whom the clock is ticking in more ways than one, and a deputy (Sam Rockwell) whose ignorance and hate is toxic to everything he touches… and none of them do exactly what you would expect them to.
That’s thanks to the beauty of McDonagh’s script, which never goes where any other conventional screenplay would go, and the majesty of its three lead performances, which may be career highs for the film’s trio of stars. McDormand and Harrelson are brilliant, their characters fully rounded, sympathetic and flawed, while Rockwell is revelatory–this excellent actor soars in a transcendent role that sits at the center of the story’s moral questions. This is poignant, infuriating human drama at its finest.
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