2017 was a year of uncomfortable confrontations. Outside of movie theaters, we’ve witnessed a head-on collision between political and social ideologies growing ever more vastly opposed and aggressive in that opposition. In the film industry and the larger media, ugly truths that have lurked in the shadows for decades have come to light, sparking a movement in the direction of justice and healing for the victims. A lot of unpleasantness, hostility and outright hatred has risen to the surface across our culture, and it’s no surprise then that the movies that defined the year have reflected these aggressive clashes. Grand blockbusters such as Wonder Woman and Dunkirk lit up the box office with depictions of courage and strength in the face of great adversity and darkness, while movies like Mudbound, Detroit and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shined an uncompromising light on how little progress our society has made.
Yet this year we also embraced movies that reflected not our darkest fears and most urgent battles, but our inextinguishable hopefulness, compassion and joy. The Florida Project and Lady Bird captured the magic of growing up at its most vibrant and emotionally in-tune. The Disaster Artist provided an encouraging take on the value of unbridled creative freedom and collaboration. And Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming and John Wick: Chapter 2 reminded us that there’s still space for escapism when we need it most. So make no mistake: though a lot of the year’s emblematic films tackled the most painful issues of the day (and often in equally painful ways), silver linings were in no short supply. My top 10 movies list starkly demonstrates this balance, with a mixture of the unrelenting ugliness that lies before us, and the intense persistence that keeps us striving for a lovelier and stronger tomorrow.
Every year sees the release of numerous superhero flicks all vying for box office supremacy (to recap this year’s offerings: The Lego Batman Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League), but Logan stands apart from the rest. Director James Mangold, who previously made the breezy but brainless The Wolverine, is no longer content with churning out mindless, violent spectacle that will inevitably be lost in an endless current of identical product. Instead, he turns his attention inwards and explores what makes the genre tick and why these types of movies so often seem stuck on autopilot. This is a dark, gory and surprisingly self-aware Western-inspired story anchored by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, who each give career-best performances in roles they originally took on seventeen years ago. With a haunting score by Marco Beltrami and desolate landscapes worthy of Cinemascope, Mangold has made something at once familiar and yet completely foreign.
Logan can be read in quite a few different ways. It’s most obviously a swan song for the generation of X-Men films that helped kickstart the world’s most popular movie genre at the turn of the millennium, and two of the great acting talents who made this possible. It’s an introspective breakdown of the superhero genre itself in the tradition of the revisionist Western, commenting not only on its own cursed existence to a cycle of violent conflict, but our wider society’s. It’s a character study of a broken man who must come to terms with his own aging and the inevitable deterioration of himself and those around him. It can even be seen as an allegory for demographic shifts in the United States, especially in the second half. Any one of these themes would be enough to elevate the film above any other superhero film of recent years, but the staggering amount of depth and nuance Mangold sneaks in, all while maintaining a breathless action-packed narrative, is a true accomplishment in blockbuster reverse-engineering.
9. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Director Noah Baumbach is known for his dry, acerbic wit, his films often featuring deeply unlikeable characters and themes of misanthropy, self-loathing or both. While his girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig kickstarted her own directing career in a big way this year, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) shows little has changed in terms of Baumbach’s main creative interests. His newest film revolves around two estranged brothers played impeccably by Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, both screwed up in differing ways after growing up under the vice of their pretentious, narcissistic artist-patriarch Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman (himself embroiled this year in accusations of repugnant and callous behavior). Harold Meyerowitz may be one of Baumbach’s most impenetrable, detestable creations, but the way in which Sandler and Stiller’s vulnerabilities reflect years of dispassionate parenting and obvious favoritism allows for easy audience empathy, and makes for the writer-director’s greatest achievement in character building.
As usual with Baumbach’s work, this is a talky movie, but dialogue remains energetic and propulsive throughout. Hilarious, searingly truthful lines fly like bullets, respecting the audience’s intelligence to catch what they can. The film subsists on awkward, ego-deflating humor milked out of constant flareups of passive aggression and insecurity from across the Meyerowitz clan. However, more now than ever Baumbach reveals a softer side that imbues the film with moments of striking beauty and warmth. Whereas his similarly-themed The Squid and the Whale provided only the faintest glimmer of hope that its young protagonist could escape or learn to grow beyond his father’s poor example, here the director envisions an almost naively optimistic way out in the form of the next generation of Meyerowitz: Eliza. Played by relative newcomer Grace Van Patton, Eliza feels different from any other character Baumbach has written, even the flighty Gerwig ones. She serves as a ray of originality and hopefulness, positing that even from the wreckage of a deeply dysfunctional family can grow something new and wonderful.
8. The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is a fairytale of uncomfortable truths and a romance of immense sensitivity. The film’s picture-book narrative and art-deco style take the best elements from director Guillermo del Toro’s diverse array of past movies and pieces them together into his most complete and fulfilling work yet. The story focuses on a government facility that is (maybe not so secretly) housing a humanoid-reptilian creature found in the Amazon. The story is as much about all the different people working at the facility as it is about the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired monstrosity being held there. Exploring the lives of these human characters reveals a gorgeous and vaguely surreal 1950s-set world bogged down by the harsh reality of racial discrimination and constricting social norms. As usual, Del Toro uses fantasy and monster-movie tropes to pull apart troubling ideologies without becoming too preachy. In the process, he blends the elegance and emotionality of Pan’s Labyrinth with accessible humor and thrills.
Though the distinctive, evocative production design and convincing creature effects vie for the spotlight, the movie belongs to its cast, and specifically to Sally Hawkins as mute protagonist Elisa, who falls in love with the feared creature and eventually mounts a daring mission to release him from government captivity (making it a perfect companion piece to this year’s Okja). Populating Elisa’s world are friends (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, both immensely sympathetic and charming presences), foes (Michael Shannon gives the most vibrant and vicious villainous portrayal since Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa), and those whose intentions are less clear (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a conflicted Russian spy, adding a wrinkle of timeliness to the plot). Last but not least, Doug Jones (the actor, not the senator) gives del Toro another ethereal turn as the pivotal ‘monster’, who may or may not be an ancient God. Paired with Andy Serkis’ work in War for the Planet of the Apes, Jones’ helps make 2017 a poster year for motion-capture.
7. Get Out
The conversation over whether Get Out is a comedy, horror film or something else entirely is well beside the point for director Jordan Peele. His masterful, self-assured directorial debut is the year’s most striking and accessible indictment of modern racism, probing the more cerebral side of bigotry. While filmmakers like Detroit‘s Kathryn Bigelow were more concerned with showcasing brutal physical violence against African Americans, Peele’s more nuanced approach explores the existential dread that comes not from the muzzle of a gun, but from the lingering feeling of being perpetually unwelcome in one’s own country and in one’s own skin. In a year where racism has often been framed as belonging exclusively to those who defend statues of racist leaders or actively want to turn back the clock, Peele turns his attention to liberal racial bias. He confronts those who may say they “don’t see race,” but in the grab bag of identity politics end up other-ing people of color in similarly detrimental, though not always as overt, ways.
Peele’s background in sketch comedy means the heavy subject matter is always tempered with heavy doses of humor and pulpy horror tropes, which keeps it from drifting too far into intellectual territory and keeps it from becoming preachy. It’s a film made for blockbuster audiences (as its box office success proves), but with a meticulously calibrated message worthy of academic study. This balance is not achieved without some jarring tonal jumps (the comic relief scenes with Lil Rel Howery feel like they’re from a different movie), but Get Out‘s accomplished balancing act is hard to overstate, especially for a first-time director. Hilarious, visceral, cunning and consistently surprising, the movie also features several excellent performances, especially from lead Daniel Kaluuya as Chris (trapped at his white girlfriend’s family estate) and from Betty Gabriel as Georgina, ‘the help’. Fantastic sound design and evocative lighting round out the most unique and vital mainstream film of 2017.
6. T2 Trainspotting
Having been dumped into a few U.S. cities in the middle of March all but ensured T2 Trainspotting wouldn’t show up on many year-end lists. It was rejected by audiences, who likely assumed it was another shameless, unnecessary, nostalgia-baiting sequel to a classic that was fine on its own. But that right there is the genius of T2 Trainspotting: it is that shameless, unnecessary, nostalgia-baiting sequel… and it knows it, too. The film is about four middle-aged Scottish friends and former heroin junkies, who now live in the shadow of a glorious and responsibility-free past they (and director Danny Boyle) can’t possibly hope to recapture. Their story is no longer the wild odyssey the original was. Instead, they find themselves stuck in a darkly humorous, gloriously pathetic, deceptively stirring contemplation on nostalgia, addiction and the intersection between the two. You don’t need to know or care about the original 1996 Trainspotting, only that the story it tells is as revered by the characters who ‘lived’ it as by fans of the actual film.
The movie is shot and cut with a naive, overeager confidence that mirrors our lovably flawed, over-the-hill anti-heroes as they vigorously chase their own tails. All four leads, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner, clearly knew exactly what kind of film they were making: not a cheap cash grab capitalizing on a beloved property, but a bracing inquiry into why beloved properties get capitalized on in the first place. At a time when western society is ravaged by an epidemic of nostalgia (be it the angry fervor of MAGA or the throwback escapism of Star Wars, It, Blade Runner 2049 and whatever comes next), it’s poetic that a film about former addicts coming to terms with their flaws encapsulates our collective addiction with all things “past”. Danny Boyle lets us have our drug but confiscates it too, not with the smarmy, uber-ironic attitude of all the retooled, rebooted meta-debris out there, but with a tenderness and sincerity that provides comfort as we slide toward pop-culture overdose.
5. A Ghost Story
Speaking of movies that are preoccupied with the unattainable past, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story provides a powerful and unique meditation on the emotional power physical spaces gain over years, decades, centuries, etc. Instead of tackling nostalgia, Lowery focuses on nostalgia’s cousin, sentimentality. The result is an entrancing, singular romance narrative in which the only obstacle between Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s lovers is the irrevocable passage of time. Lowery alternately widens and condenses the scope of the narrative to demonstrate how something, be it a relationship or a physical home, can at once be deeply personal and simultaneously much bigger than any one (or two) people. There’s a sense of awe to the fluidity with which the film flows, but the central romance is always just visible enough to keep audiences invested in something they can see and hear, in between the many intangibles that Lowery wishes to impart.
There’s a free-spiritedness (no pun intended) to the film’s sparse construction, which recalls the shoestring style of student filmmaking. For example, much of the film (which takes place mostly in a single house) features Casey Affleck as a ghost, not created using CGI wizardry but a simple white sheet with eye-holes cut out. Additionally, there’s a long, navel-gazing, existentialist monologue in the center of the film. And then there’s the several-minute-long sequence of Rooney Mara eating pie… and nothing else. If these and other qualities of the movie rightfully garner accusations of pretentiousness, they also unquestionably demonstrate the emotional heights a filmmaker can achieve when applying well-earned skills (in his case working on bigger films such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon) to the crazy ideas of an uninhibited creative force not yet jaded by the constricting forces of traditional Hollywood filmmaking and storytelling.
“Distressing,” is among the more euphemistic adjectives one could employ to sum up Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, an unambiguous biblical allegory and environmentalist plea starring Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as the long-suffering Earth. Alternatively, one could call the film “confrontational”, “disorienting”, “ferocious”, “infuriating” or perhaps in the context of a greater cultural movement of 2017, “abusive”. It’s a sledgehammer of a movie created to generate harsh emotions, but remember what Inside Out taught us: all emotions have value, even the dark, uncomfortable ones Aronofsky brings to the surface here. Many find the film flat-out loathsome from beginning to end, while others stay with it until various points that arguably go too far. There is no denying the validity of either experience, but for those who can stomach it, mother! reaches a place of raw truth and power that few films ever manage to articulate, weaponizing cinema to shake the audience to their collective core.
The film’s blunt and uncompromising approach to its message does away with traditional characterizations or subtext. In fact, there are no characters in the film, only symbols. While the actors and their behavior come across as unnatural as a result (comedically so at times), they are elemental in their construction and purpose within the story. More widely problematic are plot threads (such as a yellow medicine or slimy squid-monster) which remain a mystery even when looked at through the lens of straight-up biblical subtext. However, submit to Aronofsky’s oddities and you will find yourself whipped up in an anxiety-inducing whirlwind of pure filmmaking craft. This is as much a straight-up horror nightmare as a timely, incendiary commentary on cycles of violence, masculine egomania, and the pain and cruelty that can come out of the creative process. mother! is the most divisive and intense filmgoing experience of 2017 by far.
3. The Beguiled
Director Sofia Coppola has always been a strong visual filmmaker who often fails to provide an engaging enough narrative backbone to effectively prop up her reliably beautiful production design and understated performances. Luckily, she effortlessly, gracefully overcomes this former weakness with The Beguiled, a tense, lavish Southern Gothic set at a Virginia girls’ school during the Civil War. Based on a 1966 book which was adapted once before by Don Siegel, Coppola retains her usual affection for ornate costumes and set dressing while masterfully gifting her characters with an equal sense of vivid life and hidden darkness. Run by protective Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman at her most intense), the school’s students are played by the most talented actresses of various ages: Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon).
Following the (unwelcome) arrival of Colin Farrell as an injured Confederate Corporal, each woman at the school responds to the exceedingly rare presence of a man in their lives in equally fascinating ways. Coppola does a fantastic job of revealing each of the characters’ goals at an organic and engaging pace, something she has struggled with in past films such as the hopelessly meandering Marie Antoinette and excessively ponderous Somewhere. Here, the ambiguity surrounding the Corporal’s intentions imbues the film with a paranoia that has gained additional effectiveness in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and ensuing domino chain. It all unravels into a violent, blackly comedic climax that builds beyond one-note ‘femme fatale’ tropes into something more complex, psychological and empowering. Coppola’s screenplay is the tightest of the year, and The Beguiled stands as both her most entertaining and substantial film since 2003’s Lost in Translation.
2. Good Time
Good Time is not just a movie you watch; it’s one you get caught up in. It’s all but impossible not to, thanks to the dynamic, propulsive direction of wunderkinds Benny and Josh Safdie (the former also plays a prominent supporting role in the film). With this film the Safdie brothers have made the swift leap into the upper echelons of up-and-coming auteurs who will hopefully be making movies for decades to come. Doused in alluring reds and peppered liberally with menacing shadow, the look of the film is as transfixing as it’s brilliant, lost-in-time score by musician Oneohtrix Point Never. And as if they needed any more ways to keep your eyes and ears hooked in, Robert Pattinson gives an unrecognizable, powerhouse performance as scumbag hustler Connie Nikas. His one-night crime odyssey leads to all sorts of wild chases and intense escapes, with New York City presented as a gigantic funhouse ride Connie’s been on more than a few times.
Look again and you’ll find something deeper than sheer spectacle. Without pointing it out — specifically because the main characters often take little notice of it — the Safdie brothers build a stealthy critique of white privilege into their thrilling crime-flick framework. Many of the characters Connie interacts with are people of color, such as an immigrant security guard played by Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi and an impressionable teen girl played by newcomer Taliah Webster. Connie callously manipulates these characters and disposes of them when he can no longer use them. He’s able to dodge trouble and evade suspicion through his whiteness, sometimes in a calculated manner and other times in bursts of spontaneity. The film would be an invigorating slam-dunk without the shrewd social commentary behind it, but the extra heft makes for a truly must-see crime movie for the current day, and an instant classic.
1. The Big Sick
Every movie on this list has dealt in some way with darker aspects of humanity: Logan and mother!‘s cyclical violence, The Shape of Water, Get Out and Good Time‘s racial injustices, the stuck-in-the-past melancholy of A Ghost Story and T2 Trainspotting and the dysfunctional, interpersonal dynamics found in The Meyerowitz Stories and The Beguiled. Luckily, the best film of the year also happens to be the most joyous. The Big Sick is a romantic comedy in a classical sense, but it feels fresh and new thanks to the buoyant, consistently funny autobiographical screenplay by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani also stars as himself (alongside Zoe Kazan in Gordon’s place), adding a sense of authenticity to the proceedings that would be difficult to replicate otherwise. Aided by solid direction from Michael Showalter and a perfect ensemble of supporting players, and The Big Sick makes for superb entertainment with sudden bursts of heartbreak and an overarching, universal emotional honesty that’s tough to beat.
On a conceptual level the film shouldn’t work at all, mashing two wildly different premises together with apparent abandon. Kumail struggles to keep his relationship with Emily (and his wider abandonment of Islam) a secret from his Pakistani parents, who want him to enter an arranged marriage. Just when this plotline seems to be heating up, an infection sends Emily into a medicated coma, where she remains for a bulk of the film. Instead of devolving into an unfocused mess in Emily’s absence, the story brilliantly shifts to a different kind of romance: one between Kumail and Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Romano in particular is the movie’s secret weapon, a beaten-down, mopey guy who manages to say something awkwardly hilarious every time he opens his mouth. Using Kumail’s relationship with these two as a stand-in for his unfinished emotional business with Emily results not only in one of the most interesting rom-coms ever, but one of the funniest and most charming comedies of the decade.
As usual, there are many more than 10 worthwhile movies that came out this year (after all, there are more than 300 to choose from). Among those that didn’t make my list, I’d like to draw special attention to The Disaster Artist by James Franco, The Florida Project by Sean Baker, Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson, Band-Aid by Zoe Lister-Jones, Stronger by David Gordon Green, Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig, Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino and Raw by Julia Ducournau.
Additionally, you can check out my full ranked list of all the movies I’ve seen that came out in 2017, as well as my own personal ‘awards’ for the year by clicking this link.
See you in 2018!