Current events may have rendered 2017 a waking nightmare, but it was among the strongest cinematic years of my (admittedly short) lifetime. Despite large-scale blockbusters hitting dismal lows last year, this year offered quality escapism at every budget. Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (praise be to Disney©, our new overlords) delivered the spectacle those previous blockbusters failed to provide, while independent filmmaking continued to flourish with a diverse and consistent breadth of stories.
Below you’ll find my top 10 films of the year. These are merely a representation of my own tastes, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge lean towards the unconventional. In their own specific ways, each of these selections resonated with me. I hope you enjoy reading about them. Maybe you’ll find something special, too.
It’s easy to see why a filmmaker would choose to start his or her career working in horror. The genre’s extreme nature allows one to explore thematic territory (be it gender, sexuality, family dynamics or whatever you care to name) with a freedom that might be restricted elsewhere. Julia Ducournau’s hypnotic debut is a coming-of-age story unlike any other. Centered around Justine, a born-and-raised vegetarian who begins to acquire a taste for an atypical form of meat, Raw has plenty to say about the female college experience and how family upbringings shape our emergence into adulthood. The narrative is set within decidedly unfamiliar territory: French veterinary college. Regardless, Justine’s conflicting instincts as she enters her freshman year are ones with which many can identify. Minus the cannibalism, of course.
No other trip to the theatre this year gave me quite the sensation mother! did, which was something akin to an impending, stress-related aneurysm. While that may not sound like a pleasant time to the majority, I walked out knowing I had just beheld a precious commodity. Darren Aronofsky’s latest brain-smasher is the boldest studio release of 2017 (check out that F Cinemascore) and a return to form after 2014’s simultaneously ambitious and unwatchable Noah. Look, if you’re coming into mother! hoping for a straightforward thriller, walk away now. This is what might happen if the Polanski of Repulsion was given a budget, then decided to throw away the script halfway through and descend into a Buñuel nightmare. You could spend hours dissecting the abundant allegories here — some more obvious than others — but that’s secondary to the pure, visceral insanity on display.
8. T2 Trainspotting
If you’ve read MWFJ’s staff roundtable, then you’re already aware that I declared Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting the year’s most underrated film. T2, though suspiciously lacking in any Arnold Schwarzenegger appearances, is a vivid and melancholy vision of fading youth. You may find yourself surprised by the lasting attachment you have toward these characters, all reprised in deft fashion by the original cast. A deep sense of melancholy permeates this belated reunion and visual references to the original feel like a mournful nudge from ghosts of the past instead of shoehorned callbacks. Renton, Spud and Sick Boy are tormented by mistakes they made twenty years ago, and it’s a minor miracle Boyle brought them back out to produce a sequel that’s not only a worthy follow-up, but ranks alongside his best work.
7. Lady Bird
Not often does a movie’s hype match my eventual reaction to it, so I was delighted to fall in love with Lady Bird. On its surface, Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut appears to check all the boxes of your standard coming-of-age dramedy out of Sundance: a sarcastic outsider protagonist, the start of college anxiously looming and parents who just don’t get it, man. And still, Lady Bird hits those tropes with such earnestness and empathy; it all manages to seem fresh. Much of this is due to Gerwig’s screenplay presumably coming from a place of truth, and further credit is due to Saoirse Ronan who, at only 23, pulls off a remarkably lived-in and natural performance. After decades of films focused on the turbulence of being a high school boy, it’s nice to have a Lady Bird in the spotlight.
When creating these top 10 lists, it’s best to go with your gut in the ranking process. As someone who immersed himself in comic books at a young age, Logan was heaven. This is the first superhero film since The Dark Knight to function as high art. Though Marvel Studios remains consistent with its engaging, if not entirely memorable, hero extravaganzas, they have no interest in leaving viewers challenged as the credits roll. No doubt my dismissal of a popular franchise in favor of a Western about a man with metal claws may come off as silly or pretentious; nevertheless, Logan is the rare example of a thoughtful, intimate superhero fable that doesn’t assault the audience with overblown CG mayhem in its third act. The mayhem to be found within is gruesome yet not gratuitous: director James Mangold really wants you to ponder its implications. In a genre growing more overstuffed by the season, it’s inspiring to witness a studio attempt such a serious-minded tribute to an iconic role.
5. Good Time
The title is a tad misleading. With Good Time, the Safdie Brothers bring you degenerate criminal Connie Nikas (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, giving the year’s best performance) and his descent into oblivion over the course of one awful, desperate night. Though Pattinson dominates almost every frame, the Safdies pump this Abel Ferrara-throwback with frenetic pacing and hellish, neon lighting that recalls Gaspar Noé at his grimiest. It’s a stunning entry in small-time New York crime films ripped straight out of the ’70s with its unflinching portrayal of an amoral central character. Connie continually demonstrates there are few appalling acts he won’t commit in order to secure money for his brother’s bail; it’s a sickening and riveting time to watch this trainwreck of a night unravel.
4. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Well, I certainly didn’t predict the best exploitation flick of the decade would be led by Vince Vaughn. Brawl in Cell Block 99 fulfills the promise of writer / director S. Craig Zahler’s horror / western Bone Tomahawk. Films such as Planet Terror and Hobo with a Shotgun have tried to replicate the grindhouse formula to mixed results, but Brawl is the first in recent memory to confidently stand on its own while remaining firmly in that low-rent style of yesteryear. If Robert Rodriguez had been given this script, he would have nixed the methodically paced first half and turned it into a tongue-in-cheek, computer-generated bloodbath from start to finish. Luckily, Zahler has higher aspirations for his schlock. Before a drop of blood is spilled, we’ve already spent an hour getting to know exactly what sort of man Vince Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is: someone who’s steadfast in his morals and with whom no one should trifle. By the time bones start to crack and heads cave in, Brawl has done something exploitation cinema rarely succeeds in: making its violence matter.
Christopher Nolan continues being a better modern-day Spielberg than Spielberg with this nonlinear WWII tale that’s as notable for the usual filmmaking bravura as it is its unique theme of finding nobility in defeat. Even without the assistance of 70mm IMAX, Dunkirk is one of 2017’s most convincing arguments for the theatrical experience. This is the kind of war picture that only a boundary-pushing craftsman of Nolan’s caliber could make: wholly immersive, infused with grandiose spectacle and heightened emotions at an unrelenting pace. It makes you thankful that Hollywood still allows a director like this to follow his passions.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Exceptional playwright Martin McDonagh seemed to hit a road bump with 2012’s underwhelming Seven Psychopaths. Fortunately, he returns five years later with what is easily his best effort to date. Thematically rich and comically irreverent, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a woefully relevant morality tale about systemic abuses of power, while also having the distinction of being the year’s most enthralling crime thriller. Simply put, it’s exactly the film 2017 called for. Several people I know have dismissed Three Billboards as empty nihilism, but that’s missing the central message. Throughout the journeys of our leads (Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, both top-notch), McDonagh’s script insists hope bests anger every time. It’s fitting when we see a character reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, as the people in this small Missouri town share the same moral contradictions and complexities commonly found in her dark, Southern Gothic masterworks. Even without the subtext and literary allusions, however, this still works as an unpredictable, disturbing, hilarious and heartfelt thriller.
1. Blade Runner 2049
It feels nigh impossible that my two favorite filmic events of the year were sequels that not only seemed improbable but totally unwarranted. The first of these was David Lynch’s maddening and glorious return to television with Showtime’s third season of Twin Peaks. The final event was Denis Villeneuve’s expansion of Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision in Blade Runner 2049. How Villeneuve convinced Warner Bros. to release this nearly three-hour, massively budgeted art-house film is beyond me, but I’m grateful it exists.
Villeneuve, solidifying himself as one of today’s best filmmakers, improves upon Scott’s influential original by answering some of that film’s questions and raising even more fascinating ones. It’s longer and denser, with a powerful emotional undercurrent which lends a significance to protagonist K’s (Ryan Gosling) journey that was previously lost on Harrison Ford’s character. Most importantly, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the design team have created a science-fiction world that’s intoxicating and frightening in equal measure. Blade Runner 2049 was a financial disappointment, and it’s easy to see why: audiences as a whole aren’t accustomed to mysteries unfolding with this deliberate of a pace. For those willing to surrender themselves to the visual resplendence and palpable atmosphere, it’s nothing less than a marvel.
Honorable Mentions: The Florida Project, Okja, The Shape of Water, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Columbus, It Comes at Night, XxX: The Return of Xander Cage