Call Me By Your Name; Phantom Thread; A Fantastic Woman; Wonderstruck; The Shape of Water; The Post; The Florida Project; Faces/Places; The Disaster Artist; I, Tonya; Downsizing; Thelma; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Darkest Hour; All The Money In The World; Molly’s Game; Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool; Loving Vincent; BPM: Beats Per Minute; Foxtrot; The Square; Brigsby Bear; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Stronger; The Breadwinner.
Above is a list of movies that I haven’t managed to see yet, which should be enough of a reason for why this post will NOT be my final word on what the best movies of 2017 are. Someone could make a list of the best films of the year using exclusively those movies above that I haven’t seen yet, and make a strong and valid argument for why they did so (I wouldn’t even be able to chime in at all if that argument is valid or not anyway). As an amateur film critic who doesn’t get film screeners in the mail or press screenings, I just don’t have the time to see them all. This is especially true of foreign films as my only possible access to seeing them currently lies in driving around 90 minutes both ways to get to the TIFF cinemas to see them (which as a father of two young children just isn’t going to happen). So this list, by definition is going to be incomplete.
(For all five of you that are interested, my final Best of 2017 list will show up in mid-April after the Academy Awards are done)
It has without a doubt been a fantastic time for movie fans, and this year was a fantastic year for the movies where the merely very good had absolutely no shot of breaking into my Top 10. And with the maturation of streaming and VOD platforms, our ability to watch them has never been better than before. This is the year Netflix emerged as an indie and documentary film powerhouse, making previously little-seen types of films instantly accessible to anyone with a subscription. It is the year when independent film studios, buoyed by the success of Spotlight and Moonlight in back-to-back years at the Oscars, broke out with small and personal films by exciting directors that audiences flocked to see (relatively speaking). It is the year when a woman (Patty Jenkins) finally got to make a superhero film (Wonder Woman) and more importantly succeeded in making a pretty good one, her succes capping off an encouraging year for women in film (even if there is a long way to go). And it is the year where it seems that even blockbuster entertainment finally figured out that the best way to get butts in seats is to actually make good movies, and those who did not heed that advice were summarily punished at the box-office.
All this to say that even if some of these movies mentioned below don’t make my final list, it shouldn’t diminish the fact that these movies are pretty darned good and worth checking out for any self-respecting film fan fan out there. With that, let’s get on with it!
A brief reminder of the rules (from my earlier list):
- The movie has to be released in 2017. Fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of additional caveats. First a movie that only had a limited release in 2016 (released in a few theatres) is eligible if it had a wide release in 2017. Second it’s also eligible if it was a foreign movie made before 2017 but was only available in North America in 2017 either through theatrical release or home video.
- A movie is only eligible to be included in one “year’s best” list. This means if I included a limited release movie from 2016 in a hypothetical best-of list from 2016, it is ineligible this year. Similarly all the movies that appear this year can’t show up next year.
(Note: Acute readers will realize that I’ve not included a “Worst of” list this time around. That’s because there’s so much good movies out there right now that I don’t want to waste my breath talking about 2017 cinematic low points. I’ll save that for the final list)
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order):
It – Easily the best Stephen King adaptation in years (if not decades), aided by a stellar “Loser’s Club” and an inspired Bill Skarsgard as the titular monster.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Noah Baumbach loses his muse Greta Gerwig for this movie, but gains the best Adam Sandler performance in years as he joins Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in this portrait of a famous artistic father and the estranged family that he has left behind in the wake of his work.
The Salesman – Asghar Farhadi officially moves into the “appointment viewing” category with his follow up to the brilliant A Separation. While it is not as good as that prior work, let there be no mistake that this movie, which follows a married acting couple who try to move on after the wife is assaulted, is still pretty excellent.
The Lure – A fever dream feast of visual and aural delight, this Polish horror musical retelling of “The Little Mermaid” certainly wins points for being the most original story I saw this year. But it helps that it is also a lot of fun to watch too.
War for the Planet of the Apes – The conclusion to arguably the best trilogy of the decade (not that there were many contenders) successfully has us rooting for the demise of our own species and to root for a future for the apes without our damaging involvement.
Kedi – Besides an excuse to stare at cats for an hour or so, the documentary gives us a chance to look at an ancient city and the people that inhabit them through the perspective of cats, and the results are sometimes poignant, frequently funny, but always beautiful.
The Beguiled – Sofia Coppola explores the surface level gentility of the American psyche to reveal a more vicious streak underneath. A wounded Union soldier is taken in by an all-women’s seminary in the retreating South to ultimately explosive results. But as with most of Coppola’s movies, one can’t help but wonder if its admittedly beautiful exterior ultimately hides a shallowness beneath, keeping it out of the best of the year.
Good Time – Robert Pattinson’s best performance as a petty criminal who dives deep into the criminal underground of New York one night in a desperate quest to come up with enough bail money to get his mentally disabled brother out of jail (who he inadvertently got into jail in the first place). This assured movie from Ben and Josh Safdie ensures that they will probably be a fixture on these lists in the foreseeable future.
Icarus – A riveting documentary as director Brian Fogel set out originally to prove Supersize Me-style how easy it was to dope in sports and inadvertently found himself in the middle of the Russian doping scandal. While not the best documentary of the year, it was easily the most sensationally riveting.
Spider-Man: Homecoming – The Marvel-movie machine may not produce exceptional movies, but there is no denying that part of what has made it a box-office powerhouse is their ability to make churn out pretty-good to nearly-great movies. In this case, returning Peter Parker to high school and keeping him in Queens helps to ground the movie in an increasingly expansive cinematic universe and the results are the best Spider-Man movie since Tobey Maguire donned the suit.
25. YOUR NAME dir. Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai’s latest effort to establish himself as heir-apparent to Hayao Miyazaki comes perilously close to succeeding with this metaphysical romance about two teenagers who find themselves inhabiting the other’s bodies and living each other’s lives. The star-crossed lovers story does veer into the cheesy as most anime romances often do, but it does so in the most warm and charming way. Throw in some stunning visuals, and you have the best anime of the year.
24. BATTLE OF THE SEXES dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Clearly this movie, about an empowered woman going up against a boorish man and the patriarchy, was made with certain expectations about the 2016 U.S. presidential elections that did not necessarily pan out. Nonetheless, it remains a compelling story about a chapter in the long illustrious career of Billie Jean King, expertly portrayed by Emma Stone, as she does battle with Steve Carrell’s Bobby Riggs in the name of feminism. While there aren’t too many surprises in this biopic, it is competently told and effortless to watch.
23. THOR: RAGNAROK dir. Taika Waititi
It is something of a minor miracle that the typically dictatorial producer Kevin Feige, who had previously ejected auteurs like Edgar Wright from the Marvel Cinematic Universe for having too personal a vision, allowed Taika Waititi full reign on Thor: Ragnarok. But that is simply our gain, as Thor’s third solo outing is easily the most oddball and hilarious movie to ever grace the MCU. But besides being a comedic fest, it also manages to shoehorn a compelling norse story with a great villain while producing great performances from the cast (and unearthing the great comedic timing of Chris Hemsworth). In short a blast.
22. LOGAN LUCKY dir. Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s return to “traditional movies” after his successful stint in television feels more like a master getting back into the groove of things but such is the man’s talent that rusty Soderbergh is still better than most movies out there. To describe this movie as a “Redneck Ocean’s Eleven” is simultaneously accurate and a huge disservice to the movie because at the heart of this movie is a heart and charm for its central figures as they try desperately to gain back some dignity and control to their lives. And in so doing, the movie becomes a warm, hilarious, and gently exhilarating ride.
21. RAW dir. Julia Ducournau
Sure, the movie got most of its press (and interest) on the backs of the old reliable “too shocking for normal audiences” marketing strategy. But what that strategy fails to show is that the movie is much less interested in grossing the audience out by salacious hints of cannibalism, and is instead much more interested in exploring the depths to which women have to subjugate their own rights and wants in order to succeed in a man’s world. And that in turn makes the movie infinitely more compelling to watch.
20. WIND RIVER dir. Taylor Sheridan
After writing both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan completes his unofficial trilogy about crime in America by directing this gruesome tale of justice, or the lack of, on a Native American reservation. When Elizabeth Olsen’s green FBI agent is sent to rural Wyoming to investigate the death of a young Native American to determine if a murder has happened, she quickly finds herself out of her element and out of her depth as she struggles to navigate the unforgiving terrain and the minefield of cultural and political forces at play in this reservation land in a desperate quest for justice. But as with Sheridan’s other work, the most compelling takeaway from the movie is not the case itself, but rather the brutal realization that for this section of the world, the justice system has failed.
19. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 dir. Chad Stahelski
Admittedly I came into this gun-toting action movie with lowered expectations, but even then I was completely unprepared for how this movie (excuse the pun) blew me away. This hyper-stylized follow-up to the cult original does everything right in terms of being a sequel. It deepens the unique mythology of this underground world without resorting to lengthy explanations about how this world works. It ups the stakes for John Wick in a way that is completely organic to his story arc so far. It gets bigger in scope without losing its focus on Wick and his journey. And most importantly, it understands exactly why we come to see John Wick and that is for the insanely choreographed balletic dance of bullets fights. And in that department it delivers and in spades making it the best pure action movie in years.
18. WONDER WOMAN dir. Patty Jenkins
It goes without saying that the task facing Patty Jenkins, as the first female director directing the first major female superhero movie in the 21st century for a then-flagging DC Cinematic Universe, was a daunting one. And so one might be tempted to simply be elated that she successfully navigated that potential minefield to deliver a competent portrait of the most famous female superhero out there. But to do that would ignore the many ways this movie was a breath of fresh air to the increasingly stale superhero narrative and that she accomplished this not by making Wonder Woman a male superhero in disguise but by subtly and repeatedly undermining the conventions of superhero movies to create a movie more than worthy to bear Wonder Woman’s name.
17. PRINCESS CYD dir. Stephen Cone
The most remarkable thing about this little movie is that both of the central characters (Cyd and her aunt Miranda) are perfectly formed human beings, with their own faults, insecurities, strengths, and passions with the end result being a warm tale that approximates life and thus speaks truth into it. And the fact that both of these women (expertly played by Jessie Pinnick and Rebecca Spence) appear in a movie that is written and directed by a man just goes to show that the dearth of well-written female characters is not just because there is a lack of female writers (although that is true) but more damningly that it also a pathetic lack of effort from male writers and directors everywhere.
16. LADY MACBETH dir. William Oldroyd
Florence Pugh is a revelation as the glacial Katherine who finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience. Her performance is mesmerizing mostly because while her character never really changes throughout, our perception of her and her actions morphs as she struggles to take control of her life by first engaging in a steamy affair with her stablehand and then working to extricate both of them from their current predicament. It is a great performance and debut, even as she is aided by some extremely assured direction and stunning cinematography in this story of controlled rage that is as chilling a thriller as any other movie released this year.
15. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO dir. Raoul Peck
In this past year where the ugly spectre of racism reemerged from seeming stasis the general consensus amongst “proper” society has been of shock. I Am Not Your Negro, a fantastic explorations of the life and writings of James Baldwin, suggests that our shock is the height of naivety to think that America’s long and storied history with racism was ever over. And so this movie is the perfect slap in the face to polite liberalism and a primer to those who have never considered racisms incessant and systemic impact on North American life. It is also an unflinching reminder that racism will never be solved so long as we refuse the painful act of introspection, thus vaulting this movie to being the best and most vital documentary of the year.
14. FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER dir. Angelina Jolie
A white director telling the story about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which is has been largely forgotten and ignored in the West, is usually a cause for concern. There is either the tendency to glamorize the suffering as a form of grief porn or to sanitize the ugliness to make it more palatable and entertaining to a wider audience. Angelina Jolie succeeds by doing neither, instead choosing to tell this story through the eyes of Loung Un, a child who lived through it. As a result we have no time for moralizing as we are too busy seeing how this child, whose world is upended overnight, tries desperately to survive. The end result is a harrowing movie that shines a light on one of the darker chapters of recent history.
13. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dir. Rian Johnson
As much as some vocal segments of die-hard (male) Star Wars fans may feel, the best thing Rian Johnson could have done to transport a five decade-old franchise into the 21st century was to blow up its mythology. And that is exactly what he did, resulting in the best Star Wars movie since at least the original trilogy came out all those years ago. Like I imagine the Empire Strikes Back did all those years ago, I came out of The Last Jedi with truly no idea as to where the franchise heads next and that is an exhilarating feeling which cannot be anything other than a good thing. Also Porgs are awesome and I will personally engage in fisticuffs with anyone who says otherwise.
12. PERSONAL SHOPPER dir. Olivier Assayas
Personal Shopper cements Kristen Stewart as one of the best actors working today, which is a remarkable turnaround from her involvement with the mostly derided Twilight series. The movie does an elegant dance between atmospheric horror movie and a workplace drama and is anchored by Stewart’s magnetic performance as a medium and personal shopper who is haunted by the sudden death of her brother. This is her second collaboration with Olivier Assayas after the Clouds of Sils Maria, and on the basis of this movie one can hope that collaboration may long continue.
11. BABY DRIVER dir. Edgar Wright
The great visual humorist Edgar Wright takes his visual flair to more dramatic material, and the result is a highly kinetic and stylish thriller that echoes some of the best heist movies of the past but also feels thoroughly a movie of today. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver of a heist crew that desperately wants to get out and become respectable, but as is typical finds himself inextricably trapped in a life of crime. While the storyline is nothing original, the movie succeeds by being a sumptuous visual feast filled with breathtaking stunts and the hands-down best soundtrack (and best use of a soundtrack) in a movie this year.
10. MUDBOUND dir. Dee Rees
Borrowing a page from the playbook of such classics as The Grapes of Wrath, Dee Rees’ second feature is an old fashioned epic about the fates of two contrasting families, one black and one white, in the heart of post-War America. While the storytelling may be old-fashioned, the story itself is shockingly contemporary as Rees dives into the depths of the American psyche to explore both its strengths and more tellingly the skeletons buried beneath. But rather than settle for a simple morality tale, Mudbound is instead a complex tale filled with a host of complex characters able to inspire contempt and empathy, often in the same breath, brutal in its honesty but also capable of moments of beauty and grace.
9. COLUMBUS dir. Kogonada
In stark contrast to the hyper-kinetic editing style today, Columbus functions as a meditative invitation to stillness. Kogonada puts on his best Yasujiro Ozu impression as his camera almost completely does away with modern camera conveniences like panning or zooming and yet I doubt if I saw a more beautifully composed film this year. Of course beyond this gorgeously immersive setting lies a small but emotionally compelling story of two individuals (expertly played by Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho) who find themselves adrift in the architecturally significant town of Columbus, Indiana, each in their own way trying to take care of their parents, and find each other as a result.
8. LOGAN dir. James Mangold
Coming into 2017, the sentiment was that superhero movies were on their last legs. Into that world then came this R-Rated bloodfest of a movie that takes the notion of a superhero being on his last legs literally and by so doing infuses the genre with brand new life. The most refreshing and surprising thing about Logan is that it dares to take a character who has endured for close to two decades on screen (and faithfully represented by Hugh Jackman) and give him a proper sendoff that is every bit as bloody as it is shockingly final. In between the story also becomes a meditation on survival and the human cost of violence. And the fact that I could write that last sentence sincerely about a superhero movie speaks to what a remarkable breath of fresh air Logan turned out to be.
7. COCO dir. Lee Unkrich
Coco finds Pixar simultaneously going where it has never gone before by creating its first true musical and first portrayal of a non-white culture, and also being disarmingly familiar with a return to a commitment to high concept and disarmingly authentic storytelling that made it a mainstay on Best-Of lists during its heyday in the mid-2000s. The Land of the Dead that living boy Miguel Rivera finds himself stumbling into is a beautifully rendered and fully realized personification of Mexican culture that it breathes new life into what may seem to be a conventional story, and it is that same commitment to portraying Mexico’s culture that ultimately makes Pixar’s trademark emotional punch land poignantly. While we may never return to the hallowed days of Pixar’s golden years, Coco is a wonderful reminder that for brief moments we may still ascend its heady peaks.
6. A QUIET PASSION dir. Terence Davies
If Awards season was remotely objective and not just a political game we could easily declare the contest over and hand the Best Actress statuette to Cynthia Nixon for her stunning portrayal as arguably America’s most famous poet Emily Dickinson. In a movie that is very much about the words we use with one another, each word is delivered with pinpoint precision by Nixon to deliver maximal effect. She portrays both the steely determination that would propel Dickinson to dare to publish poetry in a patriarchal world and the fragility that would keep her from ever venturing far from her home, often in the same moment. Together with Terence Davies’ claustrophobic direction, A Quiet Passion is an example par excellence of how one should make a biopic.
5. THE BIG SICK dir. Michael Showalter
I will admit as a non-white immigrant married to a white American, this movie spoke to me on an extremely personal level. But let that not take away from The Big Sick’s marvellous accomplishment successfully creating the most compelling romantic comedy in years. Written by real life couple Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani and loosely based on their own romance, The Big Sick succeeds because it remains unflinchingly tethered to reality where the obstacles Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) face on the path to their “happy-ever-after” are not imagined but real, especially in the sickness Emily gets stricken with halfway through. This is also a perfect mainstream coming-out for the comic genius of Nanjiany whose unique voice is a welcome reflection of the changing times in America.
4. GET OUT dir. Jordan Peele
To be honest, the top four are so close to one another in my mind that they are almost interchangeable (but not quite). Much has been written about Jordan Peele’s debut film and how it uncannily reflects the times we’re in. And this is certainly true but what most of these articles fail to mention is that minus the social commentary, the movie still holds up as a well-crafted horror movie with a heavy dose of dark comedy. It is with not surprise that it was announced that Peele would be helming a reboot of The Twilight Zone as this movie is as perfect a backdoor pilot as there ever could be. Combined with the aforementioned social commentary, the movie is easily the most entertaining way to have a discussion about race in America today.
3. BLADE RUNNER 2049 dir. Denis Villeneuve
In a sense, no one should be surprised that a 20-year old sequel to a dense sci-fi classic that is beloved mostly by sci-fi cinephiles didn’t do as well as it did at the box office. What should be surprising is that this sequel is not total garbage, but is instead a remarkably faithful continuation in the legacy of the original Blade Runner that refuses to cater to more conventional blockbuster needs and instead is stubbornly and meditatively more concerned with exploring the nature of humanity in an increasingly intelligent and self-sufficient technological world. It is simply the most transcendentally exhilarating movie I’ve seen in a long time.
2. LADY BIRD dir. Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird’s strength is its refusal to portray life, and teenage life especially, as anything but confusingly messy. It is a movie where revelations sometimes happen too late to change the circumstances, where clarity comes in fits and starts, where good decisions often go hand-in-hand with bad ones, and the trivial mixes with the profound. And at the centre of it all is a masterful performance by Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson who has the ability to to look wise beyond her years and completely unsure of herself in the same instant. What is not decidedly unsure is the direction of Greta Gerwig in what must be one of the best directing debuts in years.
1. DUNKIRK dir. Christopher Nolan
The power of this movie lies in the fact that I can still feel the earth shattering pops of bullets and the explosions on the beaches all these months removed from when I saw it in the theatre. And yet, when I viewed it again a few weeks ago on a smaller screen it still maintained some of that visceral power, proving that is not merely a spectacle. In fact what comes across on the smaller screen is just how emotionally moving this film is, as we witness the desperate survival of soldiers whose refuge is mockingly within eye-sight and yet so impossibly far away, and as we see the selfless, heroic, and miraculous attempt to rescue them. And of course a second viewing of the film gave me a better chance to marvel at Nolan’s spectacular storytelling as he weaves timelines and storylines effortlessly in a completely non-linear way. This movie was number 1 at the halfway point, and truth be told, it is still going to be a daunting one to beat in this final stretch.