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The 10 Best Films of 2017

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2017 was a standout year for cinema, whereas last year there was no doubt in my mind what my top ten films would be, these past twelve months have played host a number of incredible big-screen experiences that were all worthy of consideration. I can’t tell you how many different permutations of this list I underwent, and really, I could have created a Twenty Best Films list this year I loved so many of them that I took in.

This was the rare year where a trifecta was hit: the indie fare was as inventive as always, quite a bit of the big budget entertainment was able to keep pace, and the Oscar bait was far more varied and daring than as is typical. In short, I loved going to the movies this year.

While not every film could make the cut for my final ten, there were a number of stand-outs well worth mentioning that could comprise a wholly different “Best of the year” list if I was feeling so inclined: Sofia Coppola’s return to form with The Beguiled, Kumail Nanjiani’s autobiographical scripting turn in The Big Sick, Kagonada’s stunning directorial debut in Columbus, Jordan Peele’s brilliant Get Out, the outsider fantasy-romance of The Shape of Water, the first great Netflix film in Mudbound, the gritty, neon-inflected on-the-run saga of Good Time, Marvel producing two of their strongest entries yet with the heavily Kirby-stylized Thor: Ragnarok and the bottle episode that comprised Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, and last but not least, the excellent capper to the Apes saga in War for the Planet of the Apes.

These were my ten favorite films of the year that was, in alphabetical order…

Blade Runner 2049 – The sequel I never needed, or wanted, and figured could never work. But to my surprise, Denis Villeneuve followed up his excellent Arrival with a gorgeous expansion on Blade Runner‘s iconic dystopian vision and mythos. Teaming again with his oft-collaborative DP Roger Deakins, there was no doubt that we’d be absorbing one of the best looking films of the year, but who would have expected we’d get a stunning look at the nature of reality as well? In many ways, Blade Runner 2049 takes the milieu of its predecessor one step further, through its themes, its environment, its eye-candy, even its protagonist, where the Sam Spade-like Deckard is replaced by the Kafka-inspired K. That WB approved a $150 million budget for such an existentialist blockbuster is a wonder in of itself. It was worth every penny.

Call Me By Your Name – Luca Gudagnino’s 80’s set story of first love in Italy holds a special place in my pantheon: it’s the first movie to make me cry more than once. I’ve seen it twice now and both times I found myself in tears by the end. It’s a film so nakedly raw in its emotions, with a palpable sense of affection between its leads as well as the family that surrounds them that it stokes something very deep within me. Recently, the Atlanta Film Critics Circle (the voting body I belong to) named Timothée Chalamet as this year’s Best Actor and it’s not difficult to see why. Chalamet’s Elio so expertly showcases the differing masks we try on as teens heading into adulthood, and the sexual identity that plays a role in defining us. And with additional performances both playful (Armie Hammer) and loving (Michael Stuhlbarg), this is the movie that most captured my heart.

The Disaster Artist – As someone who has hosted multiple viewings of The Room in his household to large crowds who have come away having a blast, James Franco’s effort to adapt Greg Sestaro’s book about the making of that disasterpiece was what I referred to playfully as “MY Star Wars”. That it culminated not only into the ultimate James Franco performance (eerily capturing Tommy Wiseau and also humanizing him in a way the real life figure’s facade has never really allowed for), but it’s also his best film behind the camera as well and finally establishes the star turned experimentalist as a creative force to be reckoned with. It’s incredibly funny as well, without thankfully ever resorting to making fun of its subject. It’s quite a feat, but somehow The Disaster Artist turned into 2017’s feel-good movie of the year and the finest film about Hollywood foibles since Ed Wood.

Dunkirk – As I said in my review earlier this year, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s best movie, full stop. I stand by that statement. A story of the fortitude of the anonymous, fighting for what is right in the face of the worst evil – all wrapped up in the filmmaker’s most audacious reworking of a narrative yet. An effort that will reward repeat viewings to get a fuller grasp of its intricacies, while also giving Interstellar a run for its money as his most expansive and beautiful-looking film – replacing Wally Pfister with Hoyte van Hoytema has paid off dividends. It’s the film that finally made me a believer in the idea there are more stories to actually tell in the worn to a nub World War II setting. If Dunkirk doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars this year, it’ll be unfortunate, if Nolan doesn’t win Best Director, it’ll be a crime. It’s the film by which every foundation of his career has been careening towards, and it’s a masterpiece.

The Florida Project – I really enjoyed Sean Baker’s “shot on an iPhone” effort Tangerine when I watched it two years ago, and his follow-up, a look at another portion of society we tend to ignore is even better. Set completely in a Orlando motel, The Florida Project focuses on a young, carefree, single mother and her rambunctious daughter trying her best to live life day to day in the middle of the world’s most popular tourist destination. From that description, you’d think this was a serious and depressing drama, but in truth, Baker infuses The Florida Project with the same liveliness that flowed throughout Tangerine. These down on their luck folks that inhabit this motel are often very funny, and the situations they find themselves in, despite how dire the circumstances, never really lose that sense of positivity, up till the closing minutes. In its way, Baker has pulled together his own look at delinquency and the harsh realities of the cycle of poverty in a very Truffaut-like fashion. Also, Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s manager, is outstanding.

A Ghost Story – AKA “that movie where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie”. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story tells the tale of a man who dies, the wife he leaves behind, and what comes next for his spirit (covered in a white sheet with eye-holes for the most clever use of that oft-used ghost visual that I’ve ever seen) as he opts to not enter the afterlife. It’s mesmerizing in how it takes on a variety of themes such as love, grief, and how we perceive time. And just when you think it’s potentially heading into miserabilist territory, the film shifts suddenly into an exploration of chronology of one point in space that put me in mind of the excellent graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire. But at the same time, it never loses sight of its central thread and the emotional core that makes it such an emotional and engrossing experience.

Logan – This year’s best comic book-based film, which is incredible considering some of the dreck it followed out of Fox’s now dwindling X-Men franchise. But if X-Men: Apocalypse is the penance I must pay for such cinematic glory, I will take it…because Logan is a real movie, with real stakes and emotional beats, and literally no interest in attempting to further the tendrils of a franchise by setting up future installments. It’s basically James Mangold aiming to make a great western out of the iconography of Wolverine (a character who himself has increasingly been built from the western and samurai film tradition), and what he creates is a subversion of the tired superhero formula that not only gives both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart a rousing exit from this series, but it’s also the best effort in this vein since The Dark Knight. A movie of the spandex-set with a real ending, what a novelty!

Phantom Thread – Every Paul Thomas Anderson movie is its own unique experience, and as a filmmaker he’s thankfully never fallen into a trap of repeating himself thematically, tonally, or visually. Phantom Thread continues that tradition as it finds PTA playing with a sort of ghoulish romantic dramedy, set in 1950’s England’s fashion scene. Whereas Darren Aronofsky’s earlier mother! worked within the idea of “life with an artist” on a very broad and metaphorical scale, Phantom Thread does so in a much more real and tangible fashion, and the obsession that drives the creative mind counter-imposed with the obsession that can formulate in romantic entanglement. It’s an enthralling, absorbing picture that is keyed to the tune of Jonny Greenwood’s most lush score within their ongoing partnership, and features a wonderful final coda to Daniel Day-Lewis’ career while introducing the incredible Vicky Krieps to an American audience. In any other year, this would be the stand-out film…and yet…

The Square – This is 2017’s best film. The winner of the Palme at Cannes, The Square is the latest satirical effort from Ruben Östlund, the filmmaker behind 2014’s Force Majeure. The put it bluntly, The Square is hilarious and one of the few times a film this riotous has come away with the festival’s top prize. Centered on a curator for a modern art museum, it follows his journey as he is preparing to open a new piece eponymously sharing the film’s title. Before that happens, his wallet and cellphone are stolen by some crafty thieves. This begets an odyssey into his own and our collective fears and judgement of “the other” and class conflict simmering under the surface of a tremendous sending-up of the modern art world. And I don’t know where Claes Bang has been all my life, but he delivers one of the best, most nuanced performances of the year in the lead role.  Every scene he has with Elisabeth Moss, especially, are all-timers. I can’t wait to watch this again.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – I’ve never been hot on Martin McDonagh, even In Bruges, which up until last year’s The Lobster I pointed to as the “good Colin Farrell” movie, only made a tiny blip on my cinematic radar. Not so any more, as this Frances McDormand starring revenge tale bursts through as the best film of his career and another stark reminder about just how good both McDormand and Sam Rockwell are on a regular basis. It’s also a movie that defies your own expectations, starting off as bit of a darkly comic tale of one woman challenging a unconquerable small-town system, and then quickly evolving into something far more complex regarding the graying of morality and forgiveness. Once McDormand starts lobbing molotov cocktails, you know you’ve stepped onto a wild ride.

For those interested, my full ranked list (including all 65 films I saw this year, that are currently listed, from best to worst) can be found on my Letterboxd. If you’re looking specifically for the comic book related films I saw, you will find them in the below order, ranked as highly as #8 and as low as #59:

1. Logan
2. Thor: Ragnarok
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
4. Wonder Woman
5. Justice League
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
7. The Lego Batman Movie

Thank you for another wonderful year of cinematic bliss, I had a feeling 2017 would be one for the record books and it did not disappoint. Here’s to 2018 raising the bar even higher, it’s the year of Aquaman after all! Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year to one and all!

16 COMMENTS

  1. Of these I saw Blade Runner 2049 (which somehow managed to be boring and fascinating at the same time), Dunkirk (great technical achievement but I had trouble telling one young actor from another), Logan (the best Clint Eastwood movie that Clint never made), and 3 Billboards (not totally believable but an emotional powerhouse; expect Oscar nominations for McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell).

    I would have replaced Logan with Wonder Woman, which I thought was the year’s best superhero movie.

  2. Film critic Glenn Kenny had a good comment about Logan (which made his best-of-the-year list): “There were stretches nearly twenty minutes long in which I completely forgot this was a movie about a superhero.”

    I wonder if such a thing will be allowed when Disney takes over. Director James Mangold doesn’t seem to think so.

  3. Honestly, I had a lot of trouble with Wonder Woman…thought the first act was both weirdly compressed and also dragged, and the final third was just messy all around. Great middle though, that indeed was the best superhero action of the year for sure.

    Sadly, I think your and Mangold’s instincts are right. Disney’s sense of quality control has kept them from dropping Green Lanterns or Suicide Squads on us, but they haven’t quite moved to that next level despite taking a whack at it for a decade. I might argue that Thor: Ragnarok is pretty darn close though…I really love that one.

  4. Yeah, the CGI battle in WW’s third act was a mess. This is also a plague of Marvel movies. I assume someone likes them, because they keep doing them.

    New Republic columnist and comics fan Jeet Heer wrote this article: “The Disney deal is a disaster for superhero movies.” He expects even more cookie-cutter movies with even less stylistic diversity.

    ttps://newrepublic.com/article/146312/disney-deal-disaster-superhero-movies

  5. Interesting… my top two comic-related movies were your bottom two (I’d say Spider-Man: Homecoming was my favorite, and Lego Batman was my 2nd favorite). Overall, my top film of the year that I’ve seen so far would be Blade Runner 2049, closely followed by The Big Sick and Lady Bird. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Florida Project, The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, and Three Billboards.

  6. Phantom Thread is finely made, but there is little there that stayed with me. I could not understand the point. It is a tale about obsession, which is fine, but there are far more compelling characters through which that theme could have been explored.

    There Will Be Blood is a perfect film about the same theme, but Phantom Thread is like a more focused exploration of obsession. And in limiting the gaze (and the visual scope), it failed to hold me. There is one big scene in the film–the, what New Year’s Party? And it is not shot big enough. There Will Be Blood was a huge canvas, and in Thread, PTA goes small.

    Good mention of Aronofsky in your piece. Both are very specific filmmakers. They are intent on getting a particular theme right. But such a focus can be too limiting. This is why I’m excited that Tarantino is considering collaborating on a high concept Star Trek film. Such a dream project has to find a producer (JJ) and a director (Sean Baker?).

  7. Get out was my favourite movie of the year. Agreed on Lego Batman with Peter Hohman, my second favourite as well, after Thor Ragnarok. I don’t love how Thor is handled in his trilogy, but Loki is a delight to see, for me, the most well developed MCU character after Steve an Tony. The Square looks interesting, I might try it. Thanks.

  8. Disaster Artist, Florida Project and Phantom Thread are all on my to-see list. So is The Post, which doesn’t open nationally until Jan. 12.

  9. Not quite sure how poop jokes in Guardians ranked higher than Wonder Woman or Spider-Man, but to each their own. That’s the beauty of life. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes.

  10. I saw 3 Billboards this week based on the strong reviews, and while I can see why it would receive high acclaim, but it didn’t really click with me. Kind of left me saying “and……..?” Maybe I’m just not a Sam Rockwell fan.

  11. “Disney’s sense of quality control has kept them from dropping Green Lanterns or Suicide Squads on us, but they haven’t quite moved to that next level despite taking a whack at it for a decade.”

    Does Disney get credit for all the MCU movies that were made since 2008, simply because they owned Marvel? I didn’t think Disney had any direct input.

  12. Gene, I should have said “taking a whack at it for NEARLY a decade” since they didn’t own Marvel until around the time Avengers was in production. But to your question, I tend to use Disney/Marvel Studios interchangeably since they’re all under the same umbrella now when you get down to the brass tacks of it. As for direct input, your guess is as good as mine, as that’s punching way above my weight class.

  13. I’ve seen some “agenda-driven” flicks that deserved to flop, including the female GHOSTBUSTERS, but STTLJ is not one of them.

    If anything, all of the “ordinary rebels” are treated even-handedly– that is, both males and females are placed in contrived situations of peril– while the super-people–Luke, Rey, and even Kylo– get the lion’s share of character development.

  14. I had no interest in a Ghostbusters revival, regardless of the stars’ gender. That franchise should have been left in the ’80s. But the fanboy tantrums, which began a year before the film’s release, were absurd. It’s just a movie, guys, not a religion.

    Nerds who are offended by having to look at so many women (and people of color) in the recent Star Wars movies can always console themselves by rewatching the first trilogy. It had one token non-white character (Lando) and only two women with speaking parts (Leia and, before she was killed off early in the first movie, Luke’s aunt).

    Rian Johnson is already getting death threats and demands that he kill himself. Just imagine the berserk tantrums when a SW character finally comes out as gay.

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