You may be wondering (probably derisively) why in the world I put out a list of the best movies of 2017 four months into 2018, a full month after the Academy Awards are done, and when the world has generally moved on to other seemingly more important things? The most obvious reason is that due to my amateur critic status, I don’t get invited to press screenings or get screeners in the mail so I have to catch a ridiculous amount of movies the same way the rest of the public does which means it takes me longer to catch-up with the contenders for this list (this is compounded by having two kids under four who I wouldn’t trade the world but who understandably limit my ability to head to the theatres as much as I would like). But more importantly, I feel like if I don’t have to file my 2017 taxes until the end of April (up here in Canada) then I most certainly am well within my limits to put out my final edition of the best movies of 2017 before this Spring-ish month of April is out. As a bonus, every single one of these movies are now out on home media so there is absolutely no wait for you dear reader should you decide to check some of these out.
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 a movie is 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 “best of the year” 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.
Finally, a couple of notes:
- Though I have watched a whole chunk of movies that have populated other critics best-of-the-year lists, I have not been able to watch them all. The biggest hole in this list will be foreign movies because a good deal of them only got released in 2018 (I still desperately await A Fantastic Woman‘s arrival on home media). So just assume that if an obviously amazing foreign movie from 2017 has not made the list, the reason is that I haven’t seen it.
- Astute readers may notice that certain movies have risen or fallen relative to other movies on the list. That is not an oversight. It’s simply a clear example of the sheer impossibility it is trying to determine the best movies this close to their release. I have no doubt that this list is better than the earlier iteration of this list simply because four months has passed and the awards season chatter has died down. But I doubt the final rankings of this list will truly get solidified until at least a few years out – at which point I’m sure none of you will really care anywhere. So here we are at this happy compromise.
On with the list:
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order)
Battle of the Sexes – There are very few surprises to be had with this movie about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. But that hardly matters when the movie is this effortless to watch.
First They Killed My Father – In telling the harrowing story of one girl’s plight during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Angelina Jolie neither sensationalizes for entertainment purposes nor shies away to make it palatable for larger audiences either. The end result is a powerful tale about an oft-forgotten and dark chapter of human history.
John Wick Chapter 2 – The hyper-stylized action movie about the deadliest assassin in the world is a textbook example of how to make a sequel and the best pure action movie of the year.
Logan Lucky – Steven Soderbergh returns to the big screen after a premature retirement with what can be most easily described as a “Redneck Ocean’s Eleven” but is in fact so much more than that.
The Post – This procedural about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post is the first movie that was conceived and made entirely in Trump’s America, which both made it an automatic draw but suffers from being a little too on-the-nose for today’s climate.
Raw – It’s reputation is unfortunately tied to its premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival where some people apparently needed medical attention after watching this movie about cannibalism. This is a shame because it is the perfect allegory of the compromises women have to make to succeed on men’s terms and is especially timely given the rise of the “Me Too” movement.
Stronger – There are a plethora of ways that a movie about the real-life story of Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman could have descended into the maudlin. The fact that it doesn’t is a minor miracle and this is all thanks to the fantastic cast and director David Gordon Green.
Thor: Ragnarok – Part superhero movie, part apparent live-action remake of Yellow Submarine. The fact that Marvel felt confident enough to hand this movie to indie director Taika Waititi and give him free rein to do what he wanted shows just how strong a hand the comic-book powerhouse has.
Wind River – With this movie Taylor Sheridan creates an impromptu crime trilogy alongside the exceptional Sicario and Hell or High Water. While it doesn’t quite hit the highs of those two movies, it is is still a very worthy entry.
Wonder Woman – DC decided to lighten the mood for this movie, hand it to Patty Jenkins who is a director well-versed in knowing how to make a movie about women in a man’s world, knocked it out of the park in casting Gal Gadot in the titular role, and created the best movie in the DCEU.
25. MOLLY’S GAME (dir. Aaron Sorkin)
I will readily admit that I am one of those insufferable people who is generally attracted to Aaron Sorkin’s work like a moth to a flame and Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, is basically catnip to me. The movie follows Molly Bloom who was the mastermind behind an enormous underground poker empire and finds herself under the crosshairs of the FBI as a result. Featuring every bit of kinetic and intelligent dialogue as you would expect from a Sorkin joint, this movie also serves as the definitive proof that Jessica Chastain is a force of nature, one of our greatest living actors, and is more than capable of anchoring a movie all by herself. Oh, and Idris Elba is pretty fantastic too.
24. LA 92 (dir. T. J. Martin & Daniel Lindsay)
In the last few years there has seemingly been a renewed interest in the events surrounding Los Angeles in the early 90s especially with respect to the O.J. Simpson murder case (which was best explored in the excellent docu-series O.J.: Made in America). LA 92 however shines a light on the events surrounding the Rodney King trial and riots in Los Angeles. Eschewing any conventional narrator or talking heads, the directors piece together the narrative exclusively using found footage and newsreel coverage which paints a stunningly visceral portrait of a shocking event in America’s history that, in typical American fashion, the country seemingly has collectively decided to forget.
23. PRINCESS CYD (dir. Stephen Cone)
The fact that this great little drama about two fully-formed female characters was written by a man is the ultimate proof that the dearth of well-written roles for women in film is entirely because of a pathetic lack of effort from male writers and directors and not a lack of ability. Both Jessie Pinnick and Rebecca Spence are fantastic as a niece and aunt who spend a few weeks together and thus explore each others passions, faults, insecurities, and hopes in a movie that approximates life and thus speaks truth to it.
22. LADY MACBETH (dir. William Oldroyd)
Florence Pugh is a revelation as Katherine, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience. The great thrill of this slow-burn revenge tale is that as Katherine takes more control of her life our perception of who she is and how much we root for her shifts in subtle ways, leaving us entirely unsure of our allegiances until the very end. It is a stunningly assured debut film by William Oldroyd in a year of stunning directorial debuts (more on those debuts in a second).
21. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (dir. Raoul Peck)
What is most remarkable about this portrait of James Baldwin’s life is just how prophetic his words turned out to be. His well articulated screeds against bigotry and injustice in America typically had a hostile reception especially as America moved into the “We’ve fixed racism!” period of the post-civil rights movement. But those words have remained presciently true. Raoul Peck adapts Baldwin’s last unpublished manuscript Remember This House to serve as one final warning to America of how its sins will repeat if we choose to keep insisting that racial inequality in America is not something that is ingrained in its foundation. And as with any great call to confession, it is also a sobering reminder to remember, to repent, and to resist America’s primordial sin.
20. BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) (dir. Robin Campillo)
A drama about a group of French LGBT and ally activists who are protesting the government and pharmaceutical companies for their inaction during the height of the AIDS crisis should be a demoralizing, if extremely important, slog. That it doesn’t has everything to do with the experience of director Robin Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot who were themselves on the frontlines of this struggle who provide the movie with an almost documentary feel that never descends to cheap sentimentality. Instead this movie that is very much surrounded by the deaths of the victims of the AIDS crisis is paradoxically a treatise to life as it celebrates love, the fight for justice, and the joy of friendship even amidst terrible suffering.
19. PERSONAL SHOPPER (dir. Olivier Assayas)
One of the greatest miracles in recent film history is the insane speed with which Kristen Stewart has managed to shed her tag as “the Twilight girl” to becoming a powerhouse in the indie film scene. Personal Shopper is simply yet another astounding chapter in her genesis as she plays a personal shopper cum medium who is haunted by the death of her brother from a congenital disease while dealing with her own sense of mortality. It is an elegant dance between workplace drama and atmospheric horror that simply cements Stewart as one of the greatest living actors today and a sign that she should continue her obviously fruitful collaboration Olivier Assayas (with her previous being The Clouds of Sils Maria).
18. BABY DRIVER (dir. Edgar Wright)
Critics may point out that Edgar Wright’s love-letter to the heist movie is all style with no substance, but what incredible style it is. The movie is filled with visually stunning set-pieces perfectly calibrated to a heart-thumping songs that cannot help but put a smile on your face. And yes, beyond these set-pieces and the undeniably cool-factor of this movie there is very little depth of plot. But that is to miss just how much Edgar Wright is a master at telling a story visually as he weaves together a balletic movie that is as close to being a crime musical without having the characters sing to us. There are most definitely better movies on this list, but none of them are close to being as fun as Baby Driver.
17. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (dir. Rian Johnson)
When I first encountered The Last Jedi the amount of ground that it shifted under what we had come to know about the Star Wars universe was so enormous that I found it extremely exhilarating (some other fanboys had shall we say, a different reaction). When I was finally able to catch up with the movie again recently, it struck me just how well Rian Johnson weaves this iconoclastic Star Wars movie so that it not only works within the larger canon that has been set up but also points the uber-franchise into a completely unknowable but exciting future. At this moment The Last Jedi it is fair to say that this is the first Star Wars movie since the original trilogy to maybe surpass some of those movies (for the record, I think it only just edges out Return of the Jedi so don’t send me too much hate mail).
16. MUDBOUND (dir. Dee Rees)
Mudbound is in some ways a very old-fashioned movie as it borrows a page from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in telling a dust-caked tale of two families in the heart of post-War America. And yet the old-fashioned nature of this story turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Rees to explore not just the strengths and hopes of the American dream but also the bodies, literal and metaphorical, that it leaves in its wakes. This is easily the best movie that Netflix has ever put out, and hopefully will be a precursor to more such acquisitions by the streaming powerhouse.
15. COLUMBUS (dir. Kogonada)
This gentle movie, in which two wandering strangers find each other in Columbus, Indiana amidst taking care of their respective parents is a meditative invitation to stillness. Kogonada has made a career filming video essays for the Criterion Collection and Sight and Sound magazine and his debut feature is a continuation of the deep thought he places in those essays. Columbus is possibly the most beautifully composed movie of the year as Kogonada seamlessly blends nature with the unique architecture of the town so that each shot is a masterpiece in its own right.
14. LOGAN (dir. James Mangold)
The problem with the modern superhero movie is that there is never a sense of finality to them as each instalment basically exists in order to build up hype and excitement for the next (and already in production) instalment. This is exactly what makes Logan so remarkable in that it literally depicts a superhero on his last legs and refuses to waver from its grim purpose. It is iconoclastically violent superhero movie that demystifies the aura surrounding its hero while being a meditation on the dehumanizing cost of violence. And yes, I am talking about a superhero movie, and easily the most revolutionary one since The Dark Knight.
13. THE BREADWINNER (dir. Nora Twomey)
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has very quietly established themselves as indie darlings with highly imaginative and evocative tales like The Secret of Kells and The Song of the South. The Breadwinner, their latest from director Nora Twomey, is different in that it trains its eyes on life under the Taliban. Yet like their previous movies, The Breadwinner is very much about the stories we tell to find our identity and meaning as we follow one girl disguise herself to try to support her family and make her way in a world in which her very personhood is a threat to her life.
12. COCO (dir. Lee Unkrich)
With Coco Pixar returned to its roots of telling high-concept but disarmingly authentic storytelling even as it broached new ground by portraying a non-white culture and telling a full-blown musical. The economics of film nowadays dictates that Pixar is going to have to keep making sequels to their already established franchises (coming up next: Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4!) and we will never have the incredible run of movies they put out in the 2000s. But Coco shows that when they want to, they can still put out a movie that rivals the best of the golden age of Pixar. And that is comforting to me.
11. A QUIET PASSION (dir. Terence Davies)
If there was any justice in the world Cynthia Nixon would be running for the governor of New York with a Best Actress statuette in tow for her stunning portrayal of the great American poet Emily Dickinson. Portraying perfectly both the steely determination that would lead Dickinson to publish fearlessly in a man’s world and her fragility that would keep her more or less homebound for her whole life, Nixon’s performance is one of pinpoint precision and poise. She more than adequately embodies the legendary poet and along with the claustrophobic direction of Terence Davies, provides the template of how to direct a biopic.
10. FACES PLACES (dir. Agnes Varda and JR)
The fact that Agnes Varda is 89, in her sixth decade of directing movies, and managed to put together a movie is enough to make even the most industrious among the rest of us feel like abject failures (and I am definitely not counted amongst you truly industrious ones out there). That this movie is as delightful, funny, moving, and spontaneous is a minor miracle and proof that Varda needs to be considered amongst the greatest directors ever. At once populist and intensely personal, her journey with graffiti artist through the French countryside is a pure celebration of life that is easily the best documentary of the year.
9. THE SHAPE OF WATER (dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
As is typical for a Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water’s win has brought with it added exposure and success as well as open musings as to whether it is a safe choice that is overrated and undeserving of the crown. And one might surmise that by placing it in 9th place that I fall into the crowd of people who find it overrated. And while I obviously agree that this movie is not the best of the year, it is by no means a bad film. In fact it is a fairly great one. Most of the talk surrounding this movie focuses on the unusual amorous relationship between the mute Elisa and the creature, but that is a horribly reductionistic take. This is because at the movie’s heart is a fantastically wound morality fable about a group of rag-tag individuals, one mute, one gay, and one black lady who encounter an enormous amount of cruelty and injustice inflicted upon the creature by the truly devious Michael Shannon and decide against their own personal safety to do something about it. It is certainly not the best film of the year, but in any other year than this we would not be talking about how safe this movie is and instead be marvelling at this, yet another fantastic tale by the master storyteller Guillermo Del Toro.
8. THE BIG SICK (dir. Michael Showalter)
As I have mentioned before, as a half-Asian immigrant married to my American wife it is impossible for me not to feel spiritually connected to this fantastic reimagining of the romantic comedy. Written by real-life couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars), the movie is filled with authentic relationship moments that only highlights the artificiality of many romantic comedies before them as Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) try to navigate the realities not only of developing a cross-cultural relationship but (as the title might suggest) while also dealing with a debilitating illness. It helps that the movie is also incredibly funny, warm, and intelligent. It makes a star out of Nanjiani whose comic-voice, previously confined to the stand-up circuit and HBO’s Silicon Valley, finally has a more public platform to be heard. And judging by this movie, it is clear that his voice will be an invaluable addition.
7. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
When news was first announced that they were going to make a sequel to the 1982 cult-hit Blade Runner, I was naturally quite perturbed. I assumed that this would mean an intentional dumbing down from the original in favour of something much more action-oriented. What I hadn’t counted on was that Denis Villeneuve would lean even harder into the philosophical musings of the original and use the technological advancements to create a visually meditative dirge on the nature of fate and hope. That this approach did not lend itself to phenomenal box-office success is hardly surprising, even as it provided one of the most rewarding film-viewing experiences for the few who sought it out. And thankfully it seems that the movie has deservedly found a second life on home media where it can be dissected and mused upon in perpetuity much like the original has been.
6. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagnino’s lush, melancholic, and extremely affecting portrait of first love is also a clear example Roger Ebert’s description of the movie as “a machine that generates empathy.” Set in the beautifully lush sun-kissed Italy, featuring gut-punchingly yearning Sufjan Stevens songs, and written by the legendary James Ivory, the movie is a fever dream that captures the elation of first love. And because this movie is set in 1983 and the couple in question is Oliver (Timotheé Chalamet) and Elio (Arnie Hammer), the movie is also a heartbreaking reflection on the destructive power of repression whether internally or externally while being a life-giving celebration of the small pockets of acceptance where its found.
5. GET OUT (dir. Jordan Peele)
When Jordan Peele accepted his Best Original Screenplay award for Get Out much was rightly made of Peele’s historic win as the first black screenwriter to win. But his win was no mere act of tokenism or correction of history as he thoroughly deserved it for this fantastic horror movie. The problem with most horror movies is that they tend to only work the first time around when the element of surprise is on the filmmaker’s side. But this is not so with Get Out as Peele packs in so many layers into his screenplay that every subsequent viewing I have made has been more rewarding than the last. The movie’s unexpected success not just commercially but also come awards seasons is a truly great underdog story and proof-positive that claims of the death of cinema are vastly premature.
4. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (dir. Sean Baker)
Let’s get this straight: The Academy Awards got a lot of things right, especially in the nominations. But they absolutely messed up in snubbing The Florida Project (apart from a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for Willem Dafoe). This movie, about the six-year old Moonee and her friends who live in the motels that sit right outside of Disney World, does the impossible thing of being an uplifting look at childhood that is still utterly and completely heartbreaking. Because living in a motel while her young mother scrapes by any way she can is the only reality Moonee knows, her innocence is unbroken as she and her friends get off to mischief and invent games while standing literally on the cusp of a place where dreams supposedly do come true. And because we are adults who see her, we can see the incredible gulf between her fantasy world and her reality. This movie is heartbreaking on a personal level and damning to the system that makes her life seem doomed. And it will absolutely wreck you in the best possible way.
3. PHANTOM THREAD (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie breaks new ground for him superficially in that for the first time he finds himself telling a story not based in the American Southwest and instead finds him in England. But it is also new ground in that Phantom Thread is a chamber piece, claustrophobically centred around the fantastic trio of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his ingenue Alma (Vicky Krieps), and his sister cum business partner Cyril (Leslie Manville). While the movie about the world of fashion is a lush production as expected it is the dynamics between the three principal actors that is the main draw as Krieps and Manville are more than equals to the typically excellent Day-Lewis in this twisted drama with more than a hint of macabre humour.
2. LADY BIRD (dir. Greta Gerwig)
The general “smallness” of this movie in terms of its storytelling and ambition can fool you into thinking that the movie is slight, but that would be a foolish mistake. The coming-of-age of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) stands out from other similar stories because it refuses to portray teenage life as anything but confusingly complex. Lady Bird gets revelations too late to be of any use to her, her relationship with her mother is a complex mixture of antagonism and deep love, for every good and mature decision she makes she has a regretfully bad one. It is this messiness that director Greta Gerwig portrays honestly that makes the movie not only heartfelt and funny, but incredibly profound. And it establishes that Gerwig’s next projects are going to be appointment viewings.
1. DUNKIRK (dir. Christopher Nolan)
When I put out my first iteration of this list in September, it was extremely easy for me to decide what movie was at the top of the list because there weren’t that many candidates, but I was also fairly sure that at some point some other movie would usurp its place. However Dunkirk has improbably beaten my own estimation and kept its top spot throughout. And here is why: this movie is the greatest war movie since Saving Private Ryan. And, for perhaps the first time since All Quiet on the Western Front, it is also the first war movie to tell a story in which nobility is found in heroic defeat and in saving the lives of the soldiers rather that in some sacrificial victory. And this is to say nothing of the incredible craft that Christopher Nolan displays not just in shooting this movie but also in developing its general narrative structure. In his previous films, his use of nonlinear storytelling is often a case of a smokes-and-mirrors virtuosity, but in Dunkirk it finally feels like Nolan uses a unique time structure to enhance the simple power of the fantastic rescue of half-a-million soldiers. Dunkirk is simply incredible filmmaking on display, and thus at least in my book, the year’s best.