Top 10 Movies of 2017

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If Moonlight showed last year that independent cinema can grow into something larger than itself, then 2017’s best offerings proved that big, crowd-pleasing films have also still got it. There are of course small independents on this list, but more than ever I found myself falling for big special effects blockbusters that were made with a purpose beyond money (or even a big studio taking a huge risk in releasing the year’s most divisive film as a wide release). For all its spectacle, big, small, intimate, and loud, this was a great year for movies for everyone from the urban cinephile to those simply trying to escape the heat in the summer. In the best cases, cinema at large came a lot closer to marrying the two.

 

10. I, Tonya

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Celebrity culture in America has been unkind to women for decades. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a revisionist take on the story of Tonya Harding, expertly played here by Margot Robbie in arguably the best performance on the big screen this year. Much like how the modern television classic The People vs. O.J. Simpson retold Marcia Clarke’s story through a feminist lens, Gillespie’s approach to one of America’s most notorious Olympic athletes puts her first, as shown through powerful flashbacks to her childhood, largely under the rule of her tough-as-nails mother (the brilliant Allison Janney), and the camera confessionals peppered throughout—not to mention some clever fourth wall breaking. But Harding’s downfall, as Robbie stares into the camera and tells us, is as much our fault as it is hers, as the tabloids refused to approach her side and late-night comedians dragged her through the ringer. The film of course doesn’t condone all of the skater’s actions, but it puts us in her headspace enough that we understand them. And as 2017 expertly showed us, hearing the woman’s side of the story has never been more vital.

 

9. Logan

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With no less than six superhero movies released this year, it’s amazing how few of them actually attempted something different. That wasn’t the case for Logan, James Mangold’s solemn, quiet action film about an aging and deteriorating Wolverine (Hugh Jackman at his best) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart in the most legitimately Oscar-worthy superhero performance since Heath Ledger) that doubles as a family road-trip film, once they bring on the young Wolverine-clone Laura (Dafne Keen with a scene-stealing introduction). More than ever before—and despite being on the run—these mutants feel like part of our world. Logan has to care for a dementia-addled Xavier, while also dealing with his own violent legacy and doing his best not to pass it on to the next generation. A simple scene where the three sit at a dinner table with a family they just met and this superhero learns “what life looks like” is the best in the film, showing that these characters can be almost as human as we are.

 

8. Good Time

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There was a while over the summer before all the major festivals hit that Robert Pattinson was one of the leading contenders for Best Actor this year. And with good reason: the young actor has never been better in his short but expansive career. As for the film itself, the Safdie brothers—following up their harrowing 2014 indie Heaven Knows What—constructed this gut-wrenching dark comedy much in the same vein as that film. Good Time looks at the lives of the people you avoid eye contact with on public transit, making them into human figures that deserve the same amount of compassion and understanding as everyone else. Of course, the characters’ actions throughout are more than a little questionable, but the film layers itself with an unspoken history between these two brothers that extends beyond pure selfishness. The result is a small film that builds tension and comedy out of really complex moral issues with characters who refuse to acknowledge that complexity, whether by their own choice or by the hand they were dealt.

 

7. War for the Planet of the Apes

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We’re in a period of cinema where it sort of feels like special effects have plateaued—or that so much CGI is being used that it all blends together and looks fake (oh, hey Marvel). Then you watch War for the Planet of the Apes, the third and best of an already great trilogy, and we get full-blown movie magic. A lot of that is to do with Andy Serkis, who, through performance capture, brings Caesar to life with an almost alarming realism. His gifts as an actor, whether as Gollum or as an ape, shine through his ability to let humanity peak through these digitally rendered characters. But what Matt Reeves accomplishes in the film is a coming together of VFX wizardry and a compelling arc about the final days of humanity, and why the world might be better off that way. This film is more timely and emotional than its two predecessors, showcasing the human flaws that bring on the horrors of war as clearly as the best war films of yesteryear. Rich with emotion and genuine surprises, War was the least predictable blockbuster of the summer, one that also makes you root against yourself.

 

6. The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro somehow made this rich, romantic, indie passion project under a $20 million budget. Looking at the special effects surrounding the mysterious creature (the great Doug Jones) front and center of the film, that’s a pretty amazing feat, as they’re quite good. But The Shape of Water‘s most enchanting aspect is its boundless take on love. Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing as a mute custodian at a government facility who’s affection for the creature just grows as the film dances toward its conclusion. With great supporting players abound (Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins immediately stir the emotions), the film lovingly twists the classic Beauty and the Beast tale to its will, creating something at once dark, nostalgic, and utterly sweet. There’s not a better looking film this year, as del Toro poured his unique vision of love and his signature aesthetic into every orifice, ensuring that the film is unmistakably his. In the process, he ascends himself to rich new heights I can’t wait for him to return to.

 

5. The Post

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With The Post, Steven Spielberg has seemingly done the impossible: made a warmly patriotic film that fights Trump’s America. Of course, the release of the Pentagon Papers happened decades ago, but there’s a reason that when the script first crossed the legendary director’s eyes just last March (yes, he made the film in nine months, that’s just what legends do), he stopped everything to make it. This film, starring the glorious Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, is a story that marries attacks on both free press and womanhood. But with all these facets from its current cultural resonance to Streep’s powerful performance, it would be easy to mistake The Post as a film that panders to awards voters. Instead, the film has an easy flow to it—or maybe it’s just that classic, warm Spielberg touch—that feels like an artist reaching out to the people of a hurting country and reminding them that patriots do still exist, they just don’t wear the same uniform here as Hollywood has often dressed them up in.

 

 

4. Lady Bird

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To echo the sentiment of the countless daughters and, yes, sons who’ve watched Greta Gerwig’s endlessly confident, touching directorial debut, watching Lady Bird, I had never seen the relationship I had with my mother in high school with such clarity. A constant battle while I tried to find myself, and she simultaneously still tried to shape me, where the film beautifully ends itself is that moment you realize how much of both you get to be for the rest of your life. Everything within Lady Bird that isn’t about the mother-child dynamic is excellent too—such as its simple yet raw take on trying new substances and losing your virginity—but the film is never better than when Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are on screen together. Practically already a classic just over a month since its release, Gerwig’s film deservingly became one of the most universally loved films of the decade for how it reaches audiences of all ages with its joyful sense of humor and excruciatingly real take on the period between adolescence and adulthood.

 

3. Wonder Woman

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No matter who won the 2016 election, Wonder Woman would have had some added significance. But what could have been a victory lap became a beacon for all that is good in the world. Patty Jenkins’ film, the fourth in the larger DCEU, stands on its own while not only paying tribute to the classic superhero tropes, but reworking them in a way to maximize this crowd-pleaser’s emotional depth. Gal Gadot became the Christopher Reeve of our age, a source of unwavering strength and compassion at a time where the world just keeps seeming to get bleaker. Adorning lunch boxes and backpacks, it already feels like Wonder Woman has had a positive effect on society. But the film’s greatest trick isn’t how much it values Diana’s iconic status, it’s how it explores humanity from an outside perspective. A pivotal scene just before the slightly messy third act kicks in has Diana swearing she’s given up on humanity, after seeing how both sides of World War I have relentlessly destroyed each other. What makes her better than us is that after this emotional hurdle, she jumps right back into the fight.

 

2. The Florida Project

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After his excellent iPhone-shot LGBTQ+ film Tangerine, Sean Baker became a name to pay attention to. That sentiment more than paid off as the director outdid himself this year with The Florida Project, a film that so wonderfully captures a universal piece of childhood in a setting that is far less universal. Set almost entirely in a shady motel near Walt Disney’s Orlando Resort, the majority of the film’s adult characters are struggling with homelessness and worse, having taken refuge under the compassion of the motel’s manager (an outstanding Willem Dafoe). Baker tells their story from the perspective of a group of six-year-olds (led by the revelatory Brooklynn Prince) who see Florida’s grimy underbelly as a playground of wonders—even though an actual playground of wonders is right next door. Much like Good TimeThe Florida Project is about people society tries to ignore. But more so than that film, it’s a pure expression of humanity from a young perspective, proving that no matter your circumstances, the same basic hopes and desires are omnipresent.

 

1. mother!

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Darren Aronofsky’s bombastic, go-for-broke biblical allegory proved that the movies still have the power to stir. Given a wide release by Paramount, mother! would have had a much more natural opening at an art house theater, allowing steam to slowly build for it and word-of-mouth to give audiences a better sense of what it actually is. Instead, the film came at audiences across the nation like a brash tidal wave of ambition the trailers barely even hinted at, which viewers did not eat up (hence the highly publicized CinemaScore F grade). And yet, mother! is a masterpiece, something I thought I saw lurking in the shadows upon first viewing, and then confirmed on my second when its climax had me weeping for humanity’s soul. (While we’re on the topic, that climax is more visually impressive than anything in any superhero or Star Wars film this year.) mother! is the story of our species from start to finish, cheekily using the Bible for most of its slow burn only to unleash the hell of the modern era upon us and reach beyond in hopes of swaying our current trajectory—all carried on Jennifer Lawrence’s very capable shoulders. It’s also the story of the life cycle of a work of art, critical of both the artist and the audience to a degree that you feel Aronofsky might just hate himself half the time, which is just the most damn human thing projected on screen this year. Did I mention that it’s pretentious as all hell? But there’s also a wonderfully surprising sense of humor, which comes through the film’s intended camp value. So while it’s easy to say “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry,” both true in my case, it’s better for mother! to say “you’ll be angered, you’ll argue, you’ll be challenged.” Audiences willing to accept that challenge, perhaps through second and third viewings, will find a diamond in the rough, one that resembles the beating heart of this art form we love.

 

As for the Rest: 

I know, I know, but Get Out would be number twelve (because Coco is eleven). I just found myself respecting it more than actually enjoying it, which I did thoroughly, though not as much as the films above. I also am in the midst of falling in love with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it has some problems and my opinion hasn’t quite settled on it yet, so I’m ignoring it for this list for the time being. Some other films close to making this list include The BeguiledThe Big SickDetroit, Mudbound, and Phantom Thread.

But 2017’s most surprising development was its unusually strong output of great genre films, particularly horror. The Lure really kicked things off as a weird, mermaid musical slasher flick, but was really just the beginning. Prevenge, Hounds of Love, and A Ghost Story all played with the genre in exciting ways on small budgets. Some other strong genre offerings I really enjoyed this year include The Lego Batman MovieGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Alien: Covenant, Okja, and Blade Runner 2049. On the indie side of things, I really enjoyed The Disaster ArtistLast Flag FlyingBeach RatsBrigsby BearThe Little HoursCall Me By Your Name, and Their Finest, even if they didn’t quite measure up to the year’s best.

Now for some films I really didn’t like: Underworld: Blood WarsBeauty and the BeastGhost in the ShellThe SurvivalistKingsman: The Golden Circle, and Justice League.

 

By Matt Dougherty

 

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