’Tis an annual (w)rite of passage for every film critic to force themselves into a pretzel declaring their top ten favorite films of the year. It’s a stressful, painful experience that almost always ends in regret. Looking back at Top Tens of years past, I always groan with certain inclusions – films that haven’t weathered quite so well – and lament other omissions – films that have grown on me like a fine wine or well-worn pair of slippers. But we toil on regardless, sure to churn out a list loaded with recency bias that we’ll look back on one, two, ten years from now, pockets loaded with exasperated groans. In short, it’s a pain rite of passage even though writing these passages is probably the most fundamental requirement for every critic and inevitably draw the most page views.
Where to start with 2017? From where I’m standing, it was a hell of a year. I pulled my hair out positioning and repositioning films throughout the year and would have been perfectly happy had I been able to hit publish on my work-in-progress list at the end of the summer season. And that’s always a good sign.
So, as tradition dictates, let us begin with those that just missed the cut. The honorable mentions. The almost diamonds in the rough.
There was Darren Aronofsky’s brave and bristly mother! which generally ticked off audiences in a deliciously dark take on Gaia and God but remained rich with metaphorical meaning and allusions aplenty. Michelle Pfeiffer in that film is worth the price of admission alone. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is probably the biggest surprise of the year, a no-holds-barred beat down that showcased a totally different (and totally incredible) side of star Vince Vaughn. Bloody and brutal, this crime epic missed by top ten by just a hair.
Another I hate leaving off is Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s visionary sequel to an all-timer. 2049 marveled me with its picturesque cinematography and dazzling production design, its unpredictable and wholly inspired narrative twists and turns made for a masterful finish and Ana de Armas gave one of my very favorite supporting actress performances of the year but 2049 remained a touch long in the tooth which kept it just outside the margins.
Logan got praise heaped on it from all directions and for good reason. It’s quite easily the best superhero film since The Dark Knight, (almost) always using its R-rating to pitch perfect effect. A weathered Hugh Jackman and ailing Patrick Stewart anchored this forlorn saga of regret and responsibility offering performances far above the caliber expected from the genre. Another I hate to omit but, hey, there’s only ten spots.
Good Time is a moral-less miasma of misadventure led by a never better Robert Pattinson and directed with unpredictable verve by the Safdie Brothers and I waffled it in and out of my top ten about a hundred times. Sadly, it got edged out by the tiniest fraction of a hair if only because it’s a challenging watch and a tough swallow.
In the interest of being a little less long winded, I’ll mention a handful of others a little further down the line including the excellent hip-hop dramedy Patti Cake$, David Lowery’s esoteric and meditative directorial masterstroke A Ghost Story, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s endlessly surreal and poetically moving autobiography Endless Poetry, the quite devastating and utterly unique animated feature (easily the finest of the year) Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, Edgar Wright’s explosively edited joy ride Baby Driver, Joe Swanberg’s warm and personal gambler comedy Win It All, and Sean Bryne’s totally metal and totally foreboding possession horror The Devil’s Candy.
Detroit, Last Flag Flying, Logan Lucky, Personal Shopper, The Meyerowitz Stories and A Dark Song also remained on the cusp. Each mesmerizing in its own way but still out of reach of those cherished top seats. It, Gerald’s Game, The Work, Thirst Street, Darkest Hour, Most Beautiful Island, A Cure for Wellness, God’s Own Country, Ingrid Goes West, Thelma – I could Energizer Bunny this shit and keeping going and going and going but for the interest of word count, let’s move onto the main attraction.
So with all the adieu out of the way, I present to you, my top ten films of 2017.
10. THE DISASTER ARTIST (d. James Franco)
Being at the world premiere for The Disaster Artist was unlike any other theatrical experience I’ve had the privilege of witnessing. The energy was beyond palpable and for good reason – James Franco’s sardonic tribute to The Room is far and away the best comedy of the year. But what’s most striking about The Disaster Artist is just how sincere it is. A warm and empathic exploration on friendship and failure, The Disaster Artist relishes the almost alien peculiarities of Tommy Wiseau and the stunningly inept making of The Room without abjectly mocking it, which if you’ve seen the film in question is almost impossible to pull off. Franco is fantastic both in front of and behind the camera, eulogizing the spirit of creativity in all its many forms. Side-splittingly funny, The Disaster Artist ultimately found a place amongst my favorites of the year through its sheer rewatchablity and generous amounts of heart and humor. [Full review]
9. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
I loved The Killing of a Sacred and its dark deadpan approach to family, mysticism and vengeance but understand fully that this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is intentionally designed to make you uncomfortable, and may prompt many to turn it off with a scoff. Those who watch will laugh awkwardly before gawking in awkward abject horror. A divisive film to its core, this devilish drama from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is gawkish, otherworldly and deeply unsettling; hilarious until it’s utterly terrifying and unafraid to piss off unsuspecting audience members. Sanitized of all emotion, the camera perpetually closing in, eating away at the frame, Sacred Deer explores the fading power of the patriarch, using metaphors of pubescent maturation and the fears of one’s offspring’s lost innocence to tell a mysterious clash of medical science and mysticism. Even if you loved The Lobster, you probably aren’t ready for what Lanthimos serves up this time. [Full review]
8. LADY BIRD (d. Greta Gerwig)
There is a universality of youthful spirit emanating from the very core of Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento coming of age story that pierces all walks of life. Saoirse Ronan (who won Best Actress at our Seattle Film Critics Awards) embodies the titular Lady Bird wholly, a confused teen experimenting with adulthood. Lady Bird wants to experience culture but standing in her path remains mom (a perfectly subtle Laurie Metcalf), a well-meaning but often overly barbed matriarch. Lady Bird meaningfully explores the tectonic challenge that is a relationship with one’s parents during those impressionable teenage years, making that the heart and soul of this wanderlust spirit journey towards self-actualization. Gerwig’s script is a thing of tasteful wonder, the performances absolutely soar and Lady Bird manages to speak to that awkward, shoot-from-the-hip teenage that so many of us once were and does so with a rebellious glint placed firmly in its eye. A film that only improves with time, Lady Bird stormed this list upon my admiring revisit and it’s one I look forward to popping on over and over again. [Full review]
7. THE SHAPE OF WATER (d. Guillermo del Toro)
While you don’t quite witness full penetration in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, there is no shortage of observed sexual activity in this odd and oddly moving love story about a deaf janitor who falls for an aquatic government experiment. As the never better Sally Hawkins pacific rims her newfound fishy boyfriend, Guillermo del Toro cracks his fingers and gets to work doing what he does best – crafting meticulous fantasy worlds and loading them with real world implications. The backdrop this time is The Cold War but the conflict at the heart of this film is deeply personal and contained to its menagerie of expertly drawn characters. The cast is simply superb with Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones and Octavia Spencer all helping to elevate this wacky fantasia. Shuffling between a heart-fluttering, fireplace warmth and crackling edge-of-your-seatedness, The Shape of Water – like Pan’s Labyrinth before it – is the uncommon fairy tale for adults; bizarre but beautiful, mesmerizing and moving and easily my favorite love story of the year. [Full review]
6. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(d. Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh takes a page from the playbook of the Coen Brothers telling this topsy-turvy tale of an outraged mother of a murdered and mutilated daughter, a dying police chief and his seemingly irredeemable deputy. Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s ensemble is probably the best of the year – Frances McDormand holds nothing back as the fiery Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson is simply sublime throughout and Sam Rockwell does some serious heavy lifting playing with deep shades of moral gray area – but the way that the story shapes up – taking meaningful detours, all of which provide new avenues to explore the colorful collection of characters – is so wholly satisfying and so consistently sassily written (McDormand relishes every hateful lick dripping from Mildred) that I just couldn’t get enough of it. After In Bruges, I was willing to follow McDonagh anywhere and after a bit of a sophomoric lull, he has secured a place firmly back on top. [Full review]
5. DUNKIRK (d. Christopher Nolan)
A more powerful cinematic experience 2017 has yet to produce than Christopher Nolan’s show-stopping Dunkirk. A survival epic that redraws the lines of what a war movie ought to be, Dunkirk foregoes the blood and viscus of Hacksaw Ridge or the deeply sketched characters of Saving Private Ryan to hone in on the raw emotion of soldiers in terror, scrambling to survive against a faceless mass closing in from all sides. Nolan does an unbelievable job of sustaining tension, you’ll find yourself forgetting to breathe for entire sequences, and the technical craftsmanship – particularly the pitch perfect editing, Hans Zimmer’s immersive score and the stunning camera work – is beyond reproach. The only downside is that this is a film designed for a theater and the experience may be slighted just watching at home. But I’ll be damned if Dunkirk is not exactly why film cinema and the act of going to the movies will never die. [Full review]
4. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (d. Sean Baker)
The Florida Project is an effortlessly crushing drama masquerading as a casual slice of life movie, one rich with layers and multiple meaning, made sublime by a trio of knock-out performances. Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe and wee Brooklynn Prince are outstanding, embodying characters teetering on the fringes of society and the almost nonchalance complexity poured into each performance is laudable. Sean Baker is masterful behind the camera, capturing the daily adventures of a spunky rascal of a child as trauma worms its way unknowingly into her life in a wholly earnest and transportative way. Crushing and bleak but also full of hope, The Florida Project is a main vein shot of empathy and understanding, delivered with the ferocity of a maestro. [Full review] [Interview w/ director Sean Baker]
3. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (d. Matt Reeves)
Humanity has evolved past humans in the conclusion to the best trilogy of the 21st century (sorry Dark Knight fans.) In addition to its exquisitely crafted spectacle (artfully punctuated by Giancchino’s heart-string-tugging score) and hefty themes (War for the Planet of the Apes deals in humanity’s worst milestones, with allusions to the Holocaust and Slavery), War functions as a powerful vehicle for Andy Serkis, who redraws the lines of motion-capture performance’s potential once again. At one point, Woody Harrelson’s totalitarian antagonist aggressor looks at Caesar and marvels, “Almost human”. The thought transcends mere physicality, playing into the rich themes of what makes humans human that War dutifully explores. One part stripped down and grizzled Western, one part snow-capped internment survival struggle and 100% ape, this shockingly satisfying simian-on-a-mission trilogy topper has the audacity to be an effects driven blockbuster that’s spoken primarily in sign language. That is, it’s a rare marvel. War jostles between its darker themes and ideas of compassion and empathy perfectly, presenting a quiet and thoughtful rumination on morality in ways far more complex than any apes at war blockbuster could possibly ever suggest. [Full review]
2. GET OUT (d. Jordan Peele)
Peddling in social satire, Jordan Peele has made a career prodding and teasing racial stereotypes. Get Out takes the potential of his best Key & Peele skits and blows it up into a masterfully constructed, smartly written, consciously rewarding thriller. Get Out plays on the themes of idyllic subsocieties with dark secrets established in Stepford Wives and the racial discomfort of dramas like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and sets it to a thrumming Twilight Zone-esque anxiety attack, needling the idea of black culture and white privilege in potent, majorly poignant manners. Get Out managed to strike a deep nerve with the zeitgeist, resonating with themes of black excellence and white subjugation, exploring how American racial relations tick all the way back to the days of the slave traders and the traded. A primal scream of social injustices that delivers comeuppance in crowd-pleasing, stand-up-and-cheer manner, Get Out is also just entertaining as all hell. A social horror with a lot on its mind, one that works as a purely popcorn exploitation flick but is rife with deep-seated meaning, Get Out is a beefy conscience tickler that ticks all the boxes and then some and will deservedly remain in the best of modern horror conversation for years to come.
1. RAW (d. Julia Docournau)
But if we’re really going to get down to the best horror (and all around) film of the year, look no further. A college freshman and devoted vegetarian’s sexual revolution runs tangential to her discovery of cannibalism in Raw, the best coming of age story of the decade. Shot like an art film, Raw oscillates through many moods but remains a consistently thought-provoking miasma of coming-of-age drama, collegiate hazing satire and squeamish body horror. Justine’s sexual hunger parallels her budding hunger for human flesh, the vibrant dashes of gore parsed in functioning to develop and progress characters and their unique but wholly honest relationships to one another. The film manages to be sexy and horrifying, often in the same scene, every single moment proving utterly indispensable. Garance Marillier is extraordinary as Justine, proving a one-of-a-kind cipher for the familial rage the film explores so potently and deeply. Feral and beautiful, Raw is a powerful tribute to the fucked up tragicomedy that is family and, though sure to make a good chunk of people squeamish, it is the best movie of the year. [Full review]