2017 was a strange year, both for film and reality. It was the year of more intelligent, subversive blockbusters and beautifully created independent fare. However, due to the surreal nature of contemporary culture, it seemed like every film had a political subtext just aching for discourse. If you’re a conservative film viewer, it may have felt like further examples of liberal-elite Hollywood continuing to be at odds with traditional American values. If you’re more left-leaning, it may have felt elating that moviemakers were so willing to make political statements in films created to be mainstream hits. They were more than just entertaining trifles, with viewpoints and substance stitched into their very fabrics. Movies became commentaries on race, class, and/ or gender, and every stance taken seemed to be a response to the increasingly-toxic Trump administration and the dregs of humanity that crawled out of the woodwork in the wake of his election.
My writing partner, Kelly, gave his list of his twenty favorite films. I prefer a top ten list for the simple reason that the Oscars have the potential for ten Best Picture nominees. Therefore, my list is what I would pick if I got to pick the nominees. It must also be noted that I live in Nowhere, Kansas. This means my countdown is missing films like The Florida Project, Call Me By Your Name, I, Tonya and The Phantom Thread, because they haven’t been made available for me. Also, I love Twin Peaks: The Return, and I think it’s the most breathtaking cinematic experiment ever allowed on television, but it’s still a television series with weekly airing episodes. It’s brilliant and would be part of my top television shows of 2017, but I can’t put it in with movies that don’t have double-digit hours to weave their narrative spells. With that in mind, I give you the list of the ten best films I saw in 2017.
10) A Ghost Story
Both philosophical and melancholic, David Lowery’s supernaturally-tinged drama exists as a meditation on the nature of life and loss, as observed by a sheet-draped spirit. The fact that that inherently absurd image never once feels comedic speaks to the film’s emotional power. Spanning decades of time, as seen through the eyes of mostly inert spectral form, A Ghost Story defies easy categorization and discussing its plot is an exercise in futility. However, it’s philosophical discussions are deeper and more introspective than most films dare go, and its ending feels both lovely and profound. I went into the film not knowing what to expect, and as the credits rolled, I sat there, realizing I’d seen a masterpiece.
9) The Disaster Artist
If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s films about filmmaking. I’m certain there’s a joke to be made about Hollywood’s vanity there, but why complain when films like The Disaster Artist are the result? Recounting the making of the “Citizen Kane’’ of bad movies, The Room, with shadings of Ed Wood and Sunset Boulevard, the film celebrates creating your own art and forging your own path, even if obstacles such as a complete lack of talent stand in your way. The film is frequently laugh out loud funny, complete with a fantastic performance from James Franco that would feel broad if one wasn’t familiar with the real individual. The story of someone trying to make a masterpiece but instead creating a train wreck could easily feel mocking or scornful. Instead, it’s that disconnect between expectation and reality that provides the film with a poignant undercurrent.
8) Blade Runner: 2049
If there was some sort of prize that could be given for 2017’s most criminally underseen cinematic undertaking, I wouldn’t hesitate to bestow it upon Denis Villeneuve’s masterful sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic. The film is visually stunning, narratively compelling, and features strong performances from its leads and supporting players, exploring what it means to be human in a society in which you are viewed as less than those who maintain control. It also feels like a fitting companion to Blade Runner by both expanding upon and feeling part of the world Ridley Scott created from Phillip K. Dick’s short story. Most importantly, I never checked my watch during its nearly-three hour running time. It had me from scene one and didn’t let me go until its closing credits.
Superhero movies have a certain homogeneity. They have similar looks, similar narratives, and similar humorous touches. I don’t mean that as a knock on the genre. I like superhero films, but it’s hard for me to argue with someone who doesn’t care for the genre that it has much to offer them. Yet, James Mangold’s Logan is closer in spirit to a Western than typical Marvel fare. It even pays homage to Shane. It’s a film about mortality and the burden of a life lived in violence. Featuring stellar performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, bidding farewell roles they began playing nearly two decades ago, and a ferocious debut from newcomer Dafne Keen, Logan is at once a heartbreaking character study and a reminder of how the superhero genre can be stretched when you have a filmmaker willing to test it.
6) Last Jedi
Perhaps my most controversial pick, like Logan, Riann Johnson’s The Last Jedi is about subverting expectations and stretching the narrative and characters of an established franchise. It’s action-packed and loaded with truly glorious battle scenes, but what makes the film stand out are the journeys through which the film takes its central characters. The Last Jedi is a film about growing up, moving beyond reckless instincts and selfish pursuits in the hopes of preserving a larger cause. It’s also about learning to accept the mistakes of the past and taking action to preserve the future. That it’s capable of exploring these dynamics in an emotionally rich, expectation-defying, humor-tinged fashion is even more impressive. It also gives its female characters the ability to stand-alone and emerge as the heroes of their own personal stories. I’ve seen the film twice and loved it each time. It’s a reminder that a Blockbuster film created by a massive cooperation can still take chances and have them pay off, creating one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the decade.
5) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is about many things. It’s about the desire to escape one’s circumstances, the embarrassment of being of a lower socioeconomic status, and the need to establish one’s sense of identity, often at the expense of those around you. However, it’s about all of those things because it’s about the emotional journey of a teenage girl. Every moment, from the titular moniker she gives herself to the out-of-state colleges she wishes to attend, the film’s central character desperately trying to find herself and create distance from her meager beginnings. Much like last year’s Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird has no issue with presenting a character who can feel both relatable and completely insufferable, because that inherent contradiction exists so easily in every teenager.
Maybe this film speaks to me because the main character is graduating from high school in the same year I graduated. It may also be because I so remember that impulse to say something biting without thought for the consequences, just because it might get a laugh. I also remember the need to belong and be a part of the upper tier of high school life and how you could both love and resent your parents so strongly. Featuring standout performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as her loving, exasperated mother, Ladybird feels alive and important because it gets the emotional beats of teenage life so right, and creates one of the most believable mother-daughter relationships ever committed to film.
I think Christopher Nolan is a cinematic genius, who respects his audience enough to assume they’re as intelligent as he is. With Dunkirk, he takes the well-established “war movie” genre and creates a film that is an exercise in sustained tension. Featuring three narratives, all taking place over different amounts of time, Dunkirk is an intimate drama that has few characters that emerge from the background, refusing to make the argument that anyone’s journey is wartime is more important another’s. It’s a film about all the various efforts that rallied to defend the beaches of Dunkirk, France, but it’s as much about the power of film to transport an audience to any setting and capture their attention for as long as a visionary director wishes to do so.
Whenever Pixar releases another Cars sequel or unremarkable works like The Good Dinosaur, I start to wonder if the glory days of Pixar masterpieces are of the past. Of course, then they’ll put out something like Inside/ Out or Coco, and I’ll remember how many near-flawless films they have to their name. Coco is visually stunning and features strong vocal performances from its culturally appropriate cast. However, what gives the film its staying power is its emotional resonance. Any film that features a lead interacting with long-past ancestors will have a tendency to linger in heartbreak, but anyone who emerges from Coco dry-eyed might want to make an appointment with an optometrist. It’s heartbreaking, but it earns its tears through genuine character development and some truly fantastic songs. Children’s movies have a way of sneaking past your emotional defenses, and anyone who has ever lost someone might find themselves a blubbering mess when Coco’s credits roll.
2) Get Out
Jordan Peele’s horror-satire/ social commentary masterpiece was filmed while President Obama was still in office, but if any film feels like a statement about the casual racism that has reemerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, it’s Get Out. Ostensibly about a white woman taking her African-American boyfriend home to meet her parents in their rural home, the film is a mixture of Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Guess Who’s Coming to Stepford?). What Get Out does so well is examine the toxic racism that can exist behind a sea of smiling civility. Full credit goes to Bradley Whitford and Katherine Keener for creating truly despicable villains and to Daniel Kaluuya as the protagonist who tries to go along with the increasingly sinister scenes unfolding before him until he can no longer ignore that there’s something truly terrible going on in that lovely country house.
The fact that this is a directorial debut is astonishing. It feels too accomplished and competent for that to be the case. You’ll find no rookie mistakes here. Also, despite the cutting social commentary and thematic darkness, the movie is completely entertaining. I’ve gone back to it multiple times, and every time I do, I can’t quite believe what Peele was able to accomplish. For the first time since George Romero used zombies to show that horror films could go as thematically deep as the director was capable of taking it, we have a horror film that truly defines its era. If it doesn’t score a Best Picture nod, it will be a travesty.
1) The Shape of Water
Both a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in an era that stressed cultural assimilation and a love letter to cinema, Guillermo del Torro’s The Shape of Water is as weird and wonderful as any film I’ve seen this year. Featuring protagonists that exist as the forgotten and disenfranchised (an Africa-American woman, a woman who cannot speak, and a closeted homosexual male) risking everything to save a creature who is being abused and exploited by an American government agency, it’s another film that feels like a reaction to the culture Donald Trump’s election has allowed to rear its ugly head.
Beyond the film’s sumptuous loveliness, it’s a story about the power of seeing past the surface to the soul beneath. It’s a film about finding humanity and monstrousness in unexpected circumstances, and in Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins, features two gloriously moving, wordless performances. The film is a condemnation of what the way in which we label others as “monster,” and the film sparkles with del Toro’s passion for the project. It’s a reminder, after more mainstream works like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, what a pure-hearted visionary he truly is. Of all the films on this list, it’s the one I most want to see again, because it left me elated and optimistic for a world that can produce such films. After a year of having my will to live crushed by the horrors of our current political and cultural climates, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
What about you? How do your top 10 picks differ from mine? How are they the same? Let me know in the comments.