In many ways, the past year was a tough one for Hollywood. Audiences felt sequel fatigue, as many would-be blockbusters tanked at the box office. And, who could forget the sexual harassment and abuse scandal that roared through the entertainment industry, taking down giants such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey (and inspiring the genuinely stirring “time’s up” movement across the industry).
And yet, look past the ugliness and disappointment and you’ll come to an irrefutable fact: 2017 was a fantastic year for quality films, ones that moved us, entertained us and pushed the art form forward in more ways than one. I, for one, prefer to focus on all the good things movies brought us over the year.
If there’s a theme to this year’s best films, it’s marginalization. Specifically, the way marginalized individuals and groups bond and find comfort and solace in one another when the world has left them behind. In a year so immensely divisive along so many different lines, the cinema was once again a place we could go to remind ourselves that we as a species have more in common with one another, then we think; all those things that touch the core of who we are: our dreams, our visions, our compassion and our ability to endure through the harshest of life’s struggles. And what a beautiful struggle it is. Without further ado, here are my favorite films released in 2017.
10. WONDER WOMAN/LOGAN
Finally! I’m a huge fan of comic based movies, and I’ve been itching to include one in my list for a few years now. This year, there were so many good ones I had to pick two. Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? All aces. But the best superhero movies are ones that went to some surprising places, pushing the sub-genre to new heights. Wonder Woman offered us a long-awaited great DC flick by finally giving one of the world’s best heroes her cinematic due. Part of what makes the movie great is its old-fashioned superb craftmanship. This is sold storytelling all around, from warrior Diana’s engaging origins to her incredibly compelling internal conflict as a god among mortals. Are humans, often so cruel to one another and riddled with sin, even worth saving? It’s a compelling conundrum, and one that’s given full weight. Such grand themes are bolstered by some truly jaw-dropping action sequences, along with fine supporting performances and a rich embodiment of the legendary hero courtesy of Gal Gadot. After decades of being relegated to supporting roles, young girls and women now have a leading big-screen hero that looks like them. That alone is enough for Wonder Woman to earn this spot; the fact that it’s the best superhero flick in years is the jewel in the crown. Long live the queen!
Logan, on the other hand, is anything but a traditional superhero flick. It’s right there in the title: Logan is no longer Wolverine, but a man who has seen too many lifetimes, broken and caring for an ailing Professor Xavier. This is ultimately a tale of redemption for the legendary hero, played for the supposed last time by Hugh Jackman, who embodies Logan with his trademark mix of deep existential sadness and feral rage. Tragic events lead Logan and Xavier on a road trip of sorts with a mysterious young mutant (a revelatory Dafne Keen), and immaculately staged (and incredibly bloody) chaos follows. Logan takes more than a few risks: it’s dark, violent and mostly devoid of hope. And yet, it’s a powerful tale of legacy and what it means to live a life worthy of being remembered for. Director James Mangold did an incredible job of framing Logan’s journey through the lens of the classic western Shane—the lonely gunslinger who blows into town, saves the day and disappears, never to be seen again. Connecting to such classic pedigree is a risky move in a film full of them, but Logan earns it every step of the way. And yet, it’s the performances that seal the deal here. Watch this film and tell me if Jackman or Patrick Stewart have ever been better. Certainly not in these roles, but these might be career best performances from both. Rarely are comic book flicks made with this much passion, energy and sheer ballsy storytelling.
9. BABY DRIVER
Like a bat out of hell, Edgar Wright’s funny, thrilling, completely charming and engrossing action film comes roaring down the tracks, offering some of the finest car chases ever put to film. Wright is an impeccably detailed craftsman, and every frame here oozes his trademark attention to detail and passion: specifically, his passion for music. Baby Driver has one of the most impressive soundtracks of all time, even more so because the music is more than background noise: it’s a central character in the film. Scenes are edited to work in tandem with the music, creating something that could be called as much a musical as it could a heist flick. And, giving getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) a hearing condition that draws him even closer to music, and you have a perfect fusion of sound and image. Thankfully, the story’s good too, as is the acting from a stellar cast (Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm and Lily James, to name a few). This is a fun, crazy ride from one of cinema’s most talented and distinct voices. It should not be missed.
8. BLADE RUNNER 2049/STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI/WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Man, this was a bangin’ year for science fiction. So great, in fact, that I had to call a three-way tie. Each of these films took established franchises we thought had seen their best days and injected new life into them, showing that the right mix of filmmaker and property can work wonders. Arrival director Denis Villeneuve has his second sci-fi classic for the second year in a row, as the gorgeous Blade Runner: 2049 more than lived up to its stellar pedigree, giving us a profound meditation on what it means to be human. This is one of the most stirring and visually stunning films I’ve seen on a big screen. Also, give Roger Deakins a damn Oscar already; his cinematography is so great here I feel like it should hardly be viewed with mortal eyes.
Rian Johnson did a similarly bang-up job with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, giving us a complex look at legacy and the temptations that power brings. This movie brings together the most profound themes of the storied franchise while never skipping on the crackling action and hearty humor that has always defined Star Wars. More importantly, Johnson took some huge creative risks by providing controversial answers to questions that have long plagued Star Wars fandom. Naturally, he received more than a little backlash, from many of the same folks who decried The Force Awakens for not taking enough risks. For those fans who aren’t impossible to please, this is the best film in the series since the original trilogy. While that’s not a particularly high hurdle to jump, The Last Jedi is more than that. Take a look at Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Here’s a man once filled with hope, broken by the evil he has seen and looking for a reason to care again. It’s a complex portrait, and Hamill’s best performance he’s ever given. Seeing Rey’s and Kylo’s journeys take some surprising turns is equally thrilling, as are the mind-blowing and beautifully shot action scenes, headlined by a lightsaber fight that will easily go down as a franchise great. The Last Jedi is tragic, thrilling, emotional, and completely engrossing for the majority of its lengthy 150-minute run time. The force is indeed strong with this one.
Another filmmaker who’s done an extraordinary job steering the ship of a newly revived franchise is Matt Reeves, who saved the best of this modern Apes trilogy for last. This is one of the most satisfying trilogies in sci-fi history, and War for the Planet of the Apes is a stirring conclusion. Anchored by a soulful performance from Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar, this is big-hearted blockbuster filmmaking, tackling themes like racism, poverty and war with an extremely deft hand. If that’s not the kind of finesse you’d expect from a series about talking monkeys, then you don’t know this franchise very well. Add in a great supporting cast of creatures (Steve Zahn’s “bad ape” is too damn adorable for words), groundbreaking visual effects and a sensational baddie (Woody Harrelson’s colonel) and you have yourself one heck of a capper to a pretty amazing trilogy. I’d be more than down for future films in this intriguing universe.
In a year filled with poignant studies of American race relations, Dee Rees’ sensitive, soulful drama stands out for its deeply felt characters, heartfelt emotional timbre and breathtaking visuals. Rees takes us deep inside the WWII-era south, where white and black farmers live next to each other, sharing land and socioeconomic status. This is, unsurprisingly, not always a harmonious arrangement. A standout ensemble cast breathes life into the project, including Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Jonathan Banks. But the most moving relationship is that between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), two soldiers of different skin color who return from the war and bond over their experiences, sparking a friendship that is unlikely to thrive in such racially divisive times. Rees’ work feels like a Terrence Malick film at times, as it jumps between character perspectives to give us a complex look at the American south, a place that hardly seems like it ever existed. But, like all essential history, Mudbound reminds us that yes, indeed, people and attitudes like this were here, and not so long ago. In some ways, we haven’t come as far as we think from those dark days, and that startling and necessary realization could not come in a stronger, more soulful package.
6. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
What a profound, moving, surprising film this is. Writer-director Martin McDonagh took a rather abrupt turn from the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths to bring us a complex dark satire that deftly tackles such volatile topics as racism, police brutality, grief and the power of forgiveness. Frances McDormand gives a powerful, career-best performance as Mildred, a grieving mother who resorts to drastic measures to spur the police over their perceived inaction to catch her daughter’s rapist and killer. She soon butts heads with police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and overtly racist officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, never better). Apart from its great cast and pitch-perfect script, the film soars thanks to the way it flips so many of our biases and prejudices on their heads. There are no villains here, but there are lots of broken people. Every character makes wrong decisions that hurt others, but they are also all sympathetic. The film’s ending is perhaps the best of any film released this year; it’s unexpected, and one of the most moving looks at the power of forgiveness and the limitations of revenge I’ve seen. These characters are people I enjoy spending time with, and I didn’t want the movie to end. Like a satisfying novel, there are so many more stories I’d love to see in this richly realized world.
5. GET OUT
Of all the films in 2017 that explicitly addressed modern race relations in America, none was more brilliantly conceived or timely than Jordan Peele’s sensational directorial debut. Through the trappings of a horror film, Peele paints an insightful picture of what the black experience might look like if taken to its extreme. Centered around Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her posh liberal parents at their lavish estate, Get Out is memorable not only because it’s a sterling example of its genre, but because Peele understands so acutely that racism is not always KKK rallies and prejudiced hiring practices. Often, it’s the little things that build to something larger, the casual asides, the small preconceived notions and misconceptions. The film’s climax is genuinely disturbing, and watching it again is a joyous opportunity to recognize how almost every conversation, every glance or casual chuckle points to the dark implications of its final moments. This is a flat-out great movie, the kind so adept at entertaining its audience they’re apt to overlook the fact that it’s one of the cleverest and most sneakily subtle morality tales in modern cinema. I can’t wait to see what Peele does next, but I’m certainly strapped in for the ride.
4. LADY BIRD
Greta Gerwig is another actor that made the jump to directing in 2017, and her wonderful, funny, relatable comedy Lady Bird puts many more seasoned filmmakers to shame. A semi-autobiographical tale about a smart but rebellious teen (an amazing Saoirse Ronan) growing up in Catholic school in early 2000’s Sacramento, the film is one of the most piercing, funny, tragic and insightful coming-of-age tales released this decade. You can tell Gerwig knows her subject: every moment rings true. There is not a single false note in the entire film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching the movie and not finding something they can relate to. Whether it’s Christine’s boy troubles, her college aspirations or her complicated relationship with her parents (a wonderful Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf), we’re treated to a complex and fully realized portrait of adolescence every step of the way. This movie makes me so extremely happy, and it will make you happy, too.
3. THE SHAPE OF WATER
Visionary director Guillermo del Toro has crafted, in both tone and spirit, a true follow-up to his undisputed masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a marvelous love letter not only to classic cinema, but to the outcast and marginalized who stand up for each other and find love in the most peculiar places. Sally Hawkins gives probably my favorite performance of the year as Elisa, a lonely mute woman working as a janitor at a top-secret research facility in Cold War-era Baltimore. Soon, a strange creature arrives, captured in South America by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who plans to extract secrets from the man-fish hybrid (played by Doug Jones) in hopes of using him against the Soviets. Elisa begins to sneak in to peek at the creature, and soon a friendship and eventual romance blooms between the two. She decides to break out the creature from his prison, enlisting a ragtag group of jail-breakers including her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her gay artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and aloof lab scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Its story is simple, but what makes The Shape of Water so memorable is its almost obsessive attention it pays to its visuals. Since the two main characters are incapable of speech, del Toro and cinematographer Dan Lausen tell the story through positively swoon-worthy visuals that nail both a vintage sci-fi aesthetic and a deeply romantic one. In fact, the film deftly juggles a variety of genres, including sci-fi, romance, Cold War thriller, even musical, and it never once drops the ball. But the movie is more than a beautiful oddity; it’s also a passionate cry for tolerance and compassion in a world that deeply needs more of both.
Stirring is the first word that comes to mind when I think about Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus. But that word conjures images of manufactured uplift and fuzzy history that lionizes historical heroes for maximum emotional impact. This is an especially tricky pitfall when making a war picture. But Nolan avoids every cliche this genre could throw your way. First, it’s an inspiring movie about a military failure; specifically, the retreat of Allied soldiers from the Germans on the beach of Dunkirk. Why did Nolan choose to focus on a defeat? Simply, he wasn’t concerned with what we might traditionally consider victory. In the battle of Dunkirk, the world saw humanity at its very best, as dozens of civilian vessels braved dangerous waters to rescue the troops when the military ships couldn’t get close enough.
Nolan brilliantly constructs the film in three sections and timelines, jumping back and forth between land, air and sea. This kaleidoscopic perspective allows us to see the conflict from a variety of perspectives. There’s the young shell-shocked soldier (Fionn Whitehead), the headstrong commander (Kenneth Branagh), the hyper-focused pilot (Tom Hardy) and the fearless schooner captain (Mark Rylance). The structure is sweeping and epic, without calling attention to itself.
Another wise choice was the decision to cast so many non-actors and character actors in key roles. The most well-known actors in the film are probably Tom Hardy (who hides under a pilot mask for most of the film and singer Harry Styles (making his acting debut here; he’s quite good). This helps create the illusion that we’re watching real lives, not actors pretending.
More of the film’s many strokes of genius: the Oscar-worthy, puts-you-there cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, the revolutionary sound design and the incredible score from Hans Zimmer, whose nail-biting music becomes a character in the film, driving its intensity and action. It’s hard to believe Zimmer hasn’t won an Oscar since 1994, but he’s never deserved it more.
Dunkirk is a relentlessly intense viewing experience, but it’s also an innovative, technically astonishing and deeply moving one. Nolan has crafted another masterpiece, and one of the best war films ever made.
1.THE FLORIDA PROJECT
I’m a sucker for empathetic filmmaking, the kind that puts us in the shoes and perspectives of people who are not like us and perhaps people we will never meet. There are few filmmakers more empathetic than Sean Baker, whose underrated transgender romp Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone. Baker’s The Florida Project delivers on that film’s promise and then some, resulting in one of the best movies ever made about growing up in America.
Following the struggles of a young girl (the wonderful Brooklynn Prince) and her mother (Bria Vinaite) living out of a hotel near Disneyworld, the film feels beautifully spared down and lived in. There aren’t a ton of dramatic revelations or plot twists, simply small scenes of quite desperation and sometimes joy, as young Moonee plays with her friends, viewing her squalid circumstances through the colored lens of childhood innocence. Meanwhile, her mother struggles to hold a job and deals with the consequences of increasingly bad decisions that, while well-intentioned, put her and her daughter in danger and alienate them from their friends and family.
The only one who truly seems to be on their side is hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, giving the best supporting performance of the year). But he has a boss too, and his sympathy for the family’s situation can only stretch so far. There are no villains here, only broken people trying to live life the only way they know how. This in no way excuses their poor decisions, but it does help viewers like me, so removed from this desperate world, understand why people pushed to such limits would make them.
The Florida Project is 2017’s finest example of compassionate cinema, the kind of film that helps us understand the stranger among us, that helps us see a foreign world that lives on our doorstep. It’s a beautiful, valuable work of art, one I loved and will treasure for years to come.
Runner-ups: There were so many great films this year, I could easily have a separate list. Standouts include The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories, It, Gerald’s Game, Thor: Ragnarok, Wind River, Captain Underpants, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Case for Christ, The Big Sick, Logan Lucky, The Beguiled, Their Finest, Stronger, John Wick Chapter 2, First They Killed My Father
Blind spots: Call me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, Columbus, BPM, The Post, Marjorie Prime, Coco, It Comes at Night, The Disaster Artist, I Tonya, Darkest Hour, Detroit, Mother!, Novitiate, Only the Brave, Battle of the Sexes, Wonderstruck, Nocturama, Molly’s Game, Last Flag Flying, All the Money in the World, The Greatest Showman, Marshall