I watched more new releases during 2017 than I ever have during in any year in the past. It was a mania, driven by a desire to have a truly thorough list to share at the end of the year. There are only a handful of movies I never had access to that might be added to this list later (Phantom Thread is the primary one).
Next year I’ll watch fewer. I think I had to get this kind of cinematic gorging out of my system to understand precisely what film criticism means to me. I’m proud of the experience; I totaled 215 movies released during this year. I only regret about 60 of them. 2017 had few all-timers, but a lot of standout films that tried new things and largely succeeded.
This list includes:
- My 11 favorite movies alphabetically
- 5 honorable mentions
- A short list of other movies I recommend.
- 5 great documentaries,
- 5 disappointments (movies I had high hopes for and can appreciate, but with which I did not connect),
- then my “Top 10” ranking for tradition’s sake.
A Ghost Story
A Ghost Story pissed me off. Contemplation came later. It has stuck with me longer than any other movie this year. It could be David Lowery’s solid pacing — all empathy, no rush. It could also be Daniel Hart’s haunting score, which I have listened to all year. The movie has some glaring flaws (which I ranted about at length in my review, shared below), but the audacity of what Lowery wants to convey, and how, is astounding. My wife’s grandmother, whom I loved, died close to the release of this movie, and in the weeks that followed we spent a lot of time in her house, which is now owned by my in-laws. I’m not saying A Ghost Story perfectly captures that personal experience or anything, but I think it tried harder than most to create a language for conveying it.
Blade Runner 2049
I had a dream about Blade Runner 2049 this year, between my second and third theatrical viewings. The dream was simply a sequence from the movie. I was crying. It was early in the movie when Joi, an AI hologram “woman,” and K, a synthetic “man,” stand silently in the night rain. Drops of water ripple off her artificial form. She leans in to kiss. He tells her she doesn’t have to; she says she wants to. Does she want to? Does he want to? Are they programmed to feel attracted to each other? Does it matter? I cried in the theater, but to cry again in a dream? The original Blade Runner made its final statement about memory a rooftop in the rain, which is where 2049 starts questioning it. Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece is a multi-layered epic about what it means to be human, in a story experienced by beings whose agency as ‘human’ is fundamentally unclear. It harkens back to classic science-fiction novels of the 1950s and ’60s, but don’t fear not: It understands where those are found wanting by today’s standards and tackles those questions, too. This is my favorite movie of 2017.
Call Me By Your Name
You may remember those seductive clips of Armie Hammer dancing to “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs. That clip captures everything perfect about Call Me By Your Name, 2017’s finest erotic drama, particularly the close-up on Hammer’s shoes. I’m not a foot guy, but when you’re young and a teenager, everything feels sexual. The movie perfectly captures that immature, desperate experience. Timothée Chalamet is a standout performance this year, and Hammer (as his object of desire) and Michael Stuhlbarg (his father, who gives a speech at the end that is both emotionally devastating and almost too on-the-nose; I can’t decide) are awards-worthy as well. The real star, though, is director Luca Guadagnino, whose eye for sensuality is unmatched. Guadagnino has pitched revisiting these characters and this relationship a few years down the line in a Before Sunrise kind of series. I hope that comes to fruition.
Columbus is a meditation, a term I hate to use when describing a movie but can’t avoid here. I don’t like the term because meditation is such a personal, internalized act – why would you want to watch someone while they do it? It’s a descriptor that sounds boring. Frankly, I thought Columbus was kind of boring the first time I watched it, which is reflected in my review. Like meditation, though, I made actual time for Columbus a when wasn’t distracted taking notes or forming opinions. And I loved it, without reservation. The movie is about two star-crossed young people who find solace in each other as their lives intersect in Columbus, Indiana, a mecca for mid-century modern architecture. Writer-director Kogonada has an eye for composition, and his use of architecture as an externalization of his character’s internal states, as well as a point of mutual interest for them to bond over, is unparalleled. It’s a strikingly beautiful, heartfelt film.
Intense. Maybe one of the most intense I’ve ever watched. Dunkirk is like no other war film or, really, any other action film. It’s Christopher Nolan’s ultimate statement on cinema as a language in and of itself. Time, first and foremost, is the absolute question here, as Nolan juggles three narratives running three separate lengths of time, telling the story of the day the citizens of Britain brought their private boats to help evacuate the soldiers trapped between Germans and the sea in northern France. It’s both breathtaking and breathlessly told. A true rollercoaster ride, clocking in at a clean two hours, propelled by Hans Zimmer’s tick-tock score.
The Florida Project
Capturing the experience of a child without turning the story into a lesson for adults to lord over them is uncommon in movies. Depicting poverty without making it class-porn or finger-wagging is almost as rare. Sean Baker’s excellent The Florida Project manages to do both. I think it’s indisputably one of 2017’s most unique movies, with a final shot that feels both unnecessarily on the nose and utterly perfect. There’s not much I can write in this blurb as elegantly as Aly did in her review, so please open it in a new tab and be blown away.
This was the first standout movie of the year, and the fact that it continued standing is a testament to its quality. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is the year’s best black comedy / horror movie, using the trappings of genre to convey a sociopolitical message that feels even more relevant after the 2016 election. What makes it shine, though, is just how it slips its soul into a pretty formalist horror movie. It’s one thing to make a flawed experimental film and get credit for it, or another to make a good but mediocre movie that hits all the right beats. The most special thing about 2017, however, is how many movies redefined their respective genres with wholly unique, original takes that nonetheless fit precisely into their molds. If the key to great storytelling is creating a familiar emotional and structural context and then subverting it, well, Get Out is better than all the rest.
My favorite movie in 2014 was Boyhood. Lady Bird is an equal and opposite coming-of-age masterpiece. Saoirse Ronan brings such life and vitality to her teenage rebel, as does Laurie Metcalf as her strong-willed, under-appreciated mother. Most movies in this genre are about teenagers being celebrated even when they learn life lessons and grow. Lady Bird never feels like it’s idealizing its titular character’s adolescence. Her growth as a more empathetic, understanding person doesn’t come through outsized drama, but rather her interactions with the people in her life as they help her through the end of high school and the transition to college. Growing into adulthood isn’t just about the responsibilities we take on, it’s about understanding the people around you as equal participants in the world you share.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is packaged as a biopic about the creation of Wonder Woman, and it’s certainly that, but it’s also a more loving and nuanced romance than the tie-in advertising suggests. William Moulton Marston is credited as the creator of Wonder Woman; his wife, Elizabeth, and their lover, Olive Byrne, were tremendous influences on the character. Their polyamory has long been a hush-toned tidbit of trivia in comic book circles, as were the presence of BDSM, feminist politics and sexuality in early-era Wonder Woman. The character was sanitized for several decades during the 1950’s cultural contraction, and many these elements of the character remain missing or subdued in the PG-13 action movie released this past June (which is in itself excellent). Seeing them brought to life and celebrated in such a great movie the same year as the mainstream film is gratifying. Writer-director Angela Robinson understands that the power of the Wonder Woman character comes from what she represents to people — how describing her as a hero for “girls” is reductive, that what she represents transcends labels. I like it when a biopic plays its cards face-up, doesn’t pretend to be a straight-factual reading of history and lets the subjects express the retroactive influence of the myth that brought me to their story in the first place. There are elements of Professor Marston to which the subjects’ descendants have objected. It’s worth knowing and taking into account, but at the same time it only makes the heightened reality of the film even more special to me. Everything in Robinson’s film reflects what she sees in Wonder Woman, what many people I know see in Wonder Woman, what I see in Wonder Woman.
The Shape of Water
Once again, Aly has written a review that captures what makes The Shape of Water one of this year’s best movies, but I’ll try my best before linking you. I’ve always been fond of Guillermo del Toro (I had Crimson Peak on my 2015 list, which seemed to be controversial at the time), but for the length of his Hollywood career, he has always had difficulty matching his visual brilliance to an emotionally equivalent story. He finally succeeds. Sally Hawkins had two great performances this year, but her turn as Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who falls for a fish man, is definitive. 2017 saw many types of romance; gay, straight and poly are all on this list, but so are relationships between synthetics and AI, women and fish-men, mermaids and men. If anything defines 2017 and The Shape of Water, it is the depiction of love on the screen as something transcendent, a language all its own.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Probably the last great Star Wars movie we’ll ever see, The Last Jedi is a level of blockbuster all its own. The movie is long, yes, but it uses every second of screen time to tell three intersecting stories about rebellion, heroism and what we leave behind. There would always be a day when audiences had to say goodbye to the Skywalkers. That’s the price of new Star Wars movies. The question was how they would go, and allowing writer-director Rian Johnson to explore all of that within the text of his tale is an unforgettably brave corporate decision. Few movies this year left me in tears; even fewer left me in silent awe. Only two left me with both. Film historians will look back on this era of corporate franchise management and remember The Last Jedi as an island of gold in a river of pandering shit.
Five More You Should Definitely Watch
Brigbsy Bear is Kyle Mooney’s first significant jump from Saturday Night Live to the big screen, and his idiosyncratic style follows in full force. Describing the plot in any detail spoils the experience but it’s a fish-out-of-water movie for the ages, satirizing a generation who have learned to socialize around lesson-based TV programming. Shockingly heartfelt, consistently funny and all-around joyous.
Good Time is the grimiest, nastiest movie of the year. The sound design is oppressive and horrible, but Robert Pattinson is a goddamn delight. It’s the sort of unique film that needs to be seen, even if it’s not one almost anyone is likely to outright enjoy.
Lucky is a perfect goodbye to actor Harry Dean Stanton. Few performers have an immaculate curtain call. But if anyone could manage one, it was the ever-prolific Stanton. The movie plays out like an extended wake, with friends from throughout Stanton’s career showing up to chew scenery and try to impart their life lessons on Stanton’s curmudgeonly Lucky. You can read my full review here.
The Lure is about man-eating mermaids making their way as topless lounge club singers. It’s Polish. Oh, and it’s a musical. I’m not used to getting two fairytale movies about fish people in one year, much less two excellent musical fairytale movies about fish people, but here we are.
Thelma is like Carrie but with more empathy. You can read Aly’s full review here.
Baby Driver, Beach Rats, The Big Sick, Brawl in Cell Block 99, CoCo, Endless Poetry, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, John Wick: Chapter 2, Lady Macbeth, Logan, Logan Lucky, mother!, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mudbound, Patti Cake$, Personal Shopper, Rough Night, The Post, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman
Five Best Documentaries
The B-side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Dark Tower
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Top 10: An Obligatory List
10. A Ghost Story
9.The Florida Project
8. Get Out
7.The Shape of Water
6. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
3. Lady Bird
1. Blade Runner 2049
That’s all for 2017. Thanks for reading.