Another year, another list.
As I’ve done for the past five years, I’ve spent most of December watching and rewatching films, trying to whittle down the vast range of films I’ve seen into a tidy list of ten films that encompass what I feel are the best representations of the year. This year, though, was more challenging than I would have expected 12 months ago. Part of that’s political in nature – we don’t live in a world where any of us can afford to truly be apolitical, as this year’s proven, and 2017’s certainly cast a new perspective on so many parts of life. Part of it’s personal – work outside of film criticism has become an increasingly large part of my life, and it’s limited what I’ve been able to see, as well as how much time I have to devote to this and other writing ventures.
I’ll admit, there have been a few points in the year where I considered stopping work on this site altogether, and I also admit that it’s slowed to the faintest of trickles as it is. With the holiday season and the end of the year upon us, that’s something I hope will change in the new year. While I haven’t been able to write about them, a number of films released this year have hit hard with me, and I’m glad that I have a chance to talk about them briefly now.
As always, I do have some qualifiers for what made my list. Any film up for consideration must first be released in the United States in this calendar year in either limited or wide theatrical release, or they must screen at a film festival. This year, I managed to get 128 films in before the end of the year, which is down a good bit from the previous few years.
Before I start, I want to be clear: like any Top 10 list, these are my selections. While someone could argue that a lower-ranked film is a better film than a higher-ranked film (and I could make a few of those arguments myself), I’m going with an order that feels right to me. First, the 10 films that narrowly missed out on the Top 10:
- The Big Sick
- John Wick: Chapter 2
- Lady Macbeth
- Land of Mine
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- War for the Planet of the Apes
- Wonder Woman
And now, here are my Top 10 Films of 2017:
Multiple films on my list have proven polarizing, but Darren Aronofsky’s latest may be the most polarizing among those who’ve seen it. mother! is, by no means, an easy film to take in. For me, mother! managed to hook me in pretty much from the start, and it proved to be one of the most batshit-insane rides I’ve ever taken with a film. There’s so much to dissect here, and that’s not even taking into consideration Aronofsky’s comments about what he believes the film represents. It’s a fever pitch that builds and builds. Maybe Paramount made a mistake promoting this as a more traditional horror film, or releasing it wide, but it was a ballsy move. And if nothing else, mother! gave Michelle Pfeiffer her best role in years.
9. Baby Driver
Being from Atlanta, it’s always fun to watch something that’s shot around town. While Baby Driver has more to offer than it’s location, though, it explored the city in a way I’ve never seen it used before. Just from the opening scene, where Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives around downtown Atlanta evading cops, Baby Driver moved with a pulse that not only felt authentic to Atlanta, but was a thoroughly enjoyable caper.
8. Lady Bird
While coming-of-age films may be prolific in cinema, there’s still the potential for one of these films to stand out from the pack. Lady Bird is the clearest representation of that idea this year. Greta Gerwig, already a tremendous force as a writer and actress, does a tremendous job moving behind the camera for her directorial debut. Here, she depicts the complexities of youth in a way that not only feels authentic, but refreshing. The relationship between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is the most notable, but watching how Lady Bird interacts with everyone around her captures just how much we can change based on those who come into our orbit.
7. I, Tonya
At one point during I, Tonya, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) faces the camera and calls out everyone in the audience. It’s a chilling and powerful moment in a film full of them. I, Tonya is a fascinating biopic because, while it manages to elicit sympathy for the controversial figure at its center, it does so while refusing to completely let her off the hook. There’s a clear acknowledgement that the version of events shown isn’t necessarily accurate, sometimes with actions depicted on screen called into question by the characters themselves. But it also shows just how much Harding’s life was shaped not only by those around her directly, but by the world at large, and how assumptions and beliefs managed to obscure the truly remarkable nature of Harding’s talent.
After spending the better part of two decades in the role of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final turn in the role was placed in a film where the character was finally unleashed to his full, violent, profane potential. Capitalizing on the success of Deadpool, Logan took the character in R-rated territory, and Logan doesn’t waste this opportunity by adding in elements blindly. Instead, Logan feels like a culmination of Jackman’s time in the role. There’s a level of world-weariness that’s present, but a fire that clearly still exists within Logan as well. It helps that Logan also doesn’t feel like a traditional superhero film. It’s far more akin to a Western, something the film underlines with references to Shane.
5. Get Out
The brilliance of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut lies in how it uses humor to draw in audiences for a film that’s more representative of real-life horror than anything else that’s hit theaters this year. Racism in America is still considered to look a particular way – with white hoods, or a Southern location, or from conservatives, and as Get Out demonstrates, the reality is that it permeates much broader swaths of society. Get Out uses this reality to tell a horror story that, while at times as removed from reality as most other horror films, hits a lot closer to home.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s films are smart and delightfully profane, but with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he outdoes himself. There’s a ferocity to Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) desire for justice in the case of her daughter’s death that’s completely understandable, and it’s easy to want to dismiss her main nemeses, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), as incompetent – at best. What makes Three Billboards so brilliant, though, is how it subverts expectations. Mildred’s reasoning for pursuing the case becomes more complex, as do the reasons for the failure to solve the case thus far. In one of the most controversial moves, the film even manages to give Dixon a purpose beyond his clearly violent and racist past. And it does it all with a dark and twisted sense of humor, to boot.
3. The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro is a brilliant filmmaker, but of the films he’s made in English, none come quite close enough to matching the magic of what he’s created with The Shape of Water. The film deftly mixes period elements with pure fantasy, while leaning into the adult nature of the story. Like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, The Shape of Water is essentially an adult fairy tale, bringing del Toro’s love of monster-like creations into different genres – both with its sweet love story and Cold War-era intrigue. The film’s cast also creates a unique world, where all of the characters save the antagonist represent different parts of society that were (and are) ostracized by society as a whole.
2. Call Me By Your Name
There’s a sustained sensuality to Call Me By Your Name that is rarely shown in film, let alone in a film with a queer romance at its center. The relationship between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) doesn’t play out through the usual tropes we see in queer cinema. There’s no easily identifiable antagonist, no real threat of being outed or thrown out on the street. There’s simply the passing of time, with Elio and Oliver’s relationship slowly blossoming over the course of one summer. The longing and questioning both Elio and Oliver feel about their clear attraction builds slowly, the tension between the two growing until Elio makes the bold decision to engage. Combined with the work of director Luca Guadagnino, who takes full advantage of shooting in the Italian countryside in the summer, and the result is a film that fully immerses itself in the range of emotions that come with meeting the right person.
1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“Failure is the greatest teacher.” Packed into that line is the biggest theme of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a film that presents a surprising new direction for the film series that helped create the modern-day blockbuster 40 years ago. Failure isn’t a new concept for characters in this series – The Empire Strikes Back is a series of failures, while the prequel trilogy is basically a long descent into the failures that led to the original trilogy. Where The Last Jedi stands apart is how it relies on common tropes that have trained audiences to expect certain outcomes, and undercuts them. A bold space fight by our outnumbered heroes? Not worth the cost it takes from the Resistance. A clandestine mission to save the Resistance? Thwarted. Stopping the villain’s descent into darkness? Try escalating things. But when the struggle seems all but over, one small flicker of hope emerges, providing the spark that’s needed to make it to another day. After the way 2017 has gone, that small flicker of hope is proving more necessary than ever.