by Hope Madden and George Wolf, MaddWolf.com
The end is nigh, so let’s celebrate: celebrate the bold visions, surprise hits, underseen gems, beautiful storytelling, social commentary, scares, thrills and love the films of 2017 held in store for us. It was an amazing year for movies, from big budget to micro, horror to rom-com, comic book blockbuster to indie absurdity. Let’s revel. Here are the best of the year, as well as thoughts on nooks and crannies around the movie world.
25. War for the Planet of the Apes The rebooted Apes trilogy concludes with a thrilling, deeply felt and visually stunning rumination on the boundaries of humanity and the levels of sacrifice, where the wages of brutality are driven home in equal measure by both sweeping set pieces and stark intimacy. Ultimately, we’re left with a bridge to the original 1968 film in sight, and a completely satisfying conclusion to a stellar group of prequels.
24. Mudbound Director/co-writer Dee Rees layers this tale expertly, as the fates of two families come together in 1940s Mississippi. We’re drawn in through finely- crafted characters and excellent performances, as the film gradually builds our investment toward an emotional payoff at times hopeful, devastating, and profound.
23. Baby Driver Baby Driver is as tasty a feast for the eyes as it is the ears. The game cast never drops a beat, playing characters with the right mix of goofiness and malice to be as fun or as terrifying as they need to be. For all its danceability, Edgar Wright’s film offers plenty of tension, too. Like much of the filmmaker’s work, Baby Driver boasts a contagious pop mentality, intelligent wit and a sweet heart.
22. Spider-Man: Homecoming As solid as the Marvel universe has been, it’s not hard to find moments (especially in Civil War) when the push for a hip chuckle undercuts the action. The humor in Homecoming hits early and often, but only to reinforce that the film’s worldview is sprung from the teenaged Peter Parker (Tom Holland). In this way, it feels more true to its comic origins than most in the entire film genre. Best of all, Holland re-sets the character to a place where its growth seems both unburdened and unpredictable. That’s exciting, and not just for Pete.
Best Fresh Perspective:
1. Get Out
2. The Big Sick
3. Wonder Woman
21. Raw In a very obvious way, Raw is a metaphor for what can and often does happen to a sheltered girl when she leaves home for college. But as writer/director Julia Ducournau looks at those excesses committed on the cusp of adulthood, she creates opportunities to explore and comment on so many upsetting realities, and does so with absolute fidelity to her core metaphor. She immediately joins the ranks of Jennifer Kent (Babadook) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) – all recent, first time horror filmmakers whose premier features predict boundless talent.
20. The Square Writer/director Ruben Ostlund continues to bring visionary scope to his writing and direction. Nearly every frame becomes a lavishly fascinating microscope, probing deep into the inner impulses and outward pressures that are constantly forming our actions and reactions. The humor is dark and droll, often awkward and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but The Square (winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes) is also alternatively weird and occasionally freakish.Regardless of whether you’re able to make sense of it all, it’s a visceral, thoroughly rewarding experience.
19. Whose Streets? Moving like a living, breathing monument to revolution, Whose Streets? captures a flashpoint in history with gripping vibrancy, as it bursts with an outrage both righteous and palpable. Activists Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis share directing duties on their film debut, bringing precise, insightful storytelling instincts to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Together, they provide a new and sharp focus to the events surrounding the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.
18. Hounds of Love Driven by three fiercely invested performances, Hounds of Love makes a subtle shift from horrific torture tale to psychological character study. In 108 grueling minutes, writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut marks him as a filmmaker with confident vision and exciting potential.
Best Nobody Saw It:
2. The Survivalist
3. Brigsby Bear
17. Call Me By Your Name Awash in sensuality, Luca Guadagnino’s love story is unafraid to explore, circling Oliver (a terrific Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothee Chalamet-astonishing) as they irritate each other, then test each other, and finally submit to and fully embrace their feelings for one another. Theirs is a remarkable dance, intimately told and flawlessly performed.
16. The Post Spielberg. Streep. Hanks. It is official: The Post has it all, beginning with the almost-too-relevant true story of a newspaper casting off its personal associations to hold the government accountable by sharing actual news with citizens of the United States and the world. Spielberg’s passion and polish come together here as an expertly crafted rallying cry. He’s preaching to the choir, but he preaches so well.
15. Columbus In yet another of 2017’s stunning debuts, writer/director Kogonada unveils a dreamily detailed study of two people (John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson – both stellar) stuck in Columbus, Indiana for very different reasons. The film’s magic is gentle and steady, slowly enveloping you in a beautiful meditation on the mysteries of human connection.
14. The Big Sick The Big Sick is that rare breed seldom seen in the wilds of the multiplex. It’s a smart and incisive romantic comedy that has something new and vital to say while it’s being both romantic and comedic. It also feels incredibly authentic, probably because co-writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are telling much of their own story. At times hilarious, sweet, emotional and even heartbreaking, The Big Sick has a case of charming that will follow you home.
Best Let’s Fight About It:
1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
3. It Comes at Night
13. The Florida Project Co-writer/director Sean Baker follows up his ambitious 2015 film Tangerine with another tale set gleefully along the fringes of society. Baker’s many talents include an ear for authentic dialog, a knack for letting a story breathe and an eye for visual details that enrich a tale. But maybe what’s most striking is his ability to tell fresh but universal stories. The Florida Project certainly is one, reveling in the freedom and bravado of a young girl, but always aware of the dangerous edges when blurring childhood and adulthood.
12. The Beguiled The Beguiled marks a return to critical favor for writer/director Sofia Coppola, who won best directing honor at this year’s Cannes Fest Festival for her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel. Few frame delicate, ornate beauty quite like Coppola. She has found quite a palette with this film – the draping trees, columned porches, foggy woods, the tender grace of the inhabitants at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, The result is a bewitching film – beautifully acted, gloriously filmed and haunting.
11. Star Wars: The Last Jedi The Last Jedi makes any letdowns seem light years away. With a deft mix of character-driven emotion, high stakes action and mischievous fun, it waves a proud flag for the legacy of this cinematic universe while confidently taking big strides toward crafting a new one. Visionary talent Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) now has the con as both director and sole screenwriter. His affection for the franchise, coupled with an innovative sense of character arc and storyline, combine for a freshness that respects nostalgia even while priming you to move beyond it.
Best Foreign Language Feature:
1. The Square
10. A Ghost Story Writer/director David Lowery has crafted a poetic, moving testament to the certainty of time, the inevitability of death and the timeless search for connection. Our vehicle through this existential exercise is the white-sheeted ghost of childhood Halloween costumes. The irony of such a childlike image representing themes so vast and existential seems silly, but only for a few moments, until Lowery’s stationary camera and long, elegant takes wrap you in a strangely hypnotic trance.
9. Detroit Kathryn Bigelow’s return to the screen burns with a flame of ugliness, rage and shame that simmers well before it burrows deep into you. It is brutal, uncomfortable, even nauseating. And it is necessary. Together with writer and frequent collaborator Mark Boal she brings craft and commitment to the story of Detroit’s infamous Algiers Motel Incident. Brilliant supporting performances from Will Poulter, John Boyega and Jacob Latimore keep you riveted even as you cannot wait for the ordeal to end.
8. The Shape of Water Along with a likely Oscar contender in Sally Hawkins, writer/director/unabashed romantic Guillermo del Toro crafts a dreamy mash note to outsiders. An ensemble like none other includes Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins—not to mention Doug Jones, again in a wet suit. But del Toro’s imagination is the real star here, touching on social anxieties of the Cold War that more than transcend to modern times and putting all of it in a blue-green dream of romance.
7. It Comes at Night Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival. But what are the dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself? In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.
6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer What if God exists and he’s an awkward adolescent boy? That’s not exactly the point of Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it’s maybe as close a description as we can muster. The filmmaker’s unique tone finds its perfect vehicle in Barry Keoghan (also wonderful this year in Dunkirk). Unsettlingly serene as Martin, the teenage son of a patient killed on surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) Murphy’s table, he controls the film and its events. With Martin, Lanthimos is able to mine ideas of God, of the God complex, of the potentially ludicrous notion of cosmic justice. All the while he sends up social norms, dissecting the concept of the nuclear family and wondering at the lengths we will go to avoid accountability.
Best Animated Feature:
2. Loving Vincent
3. The Lego Batman Movie
5. Blade Runner 2049 With Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve returns us to the hulking, rain-streaked metropolis of another generation’s LA. We ride with K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner charged, as always, with tracking down rogue replicants and retiring them. Few if any have delivered the kind of crumbling, dilapidating futurescape Ridley Scott gave us with his original. But between the stunning visual experience and meticulous sound design, BR 2049 offers an immersive experience perfectly suited to its fantasy. Picking at ideas of love among the soulless, of souls among the manmade, of unicorns versus sheep, Villeneuve channels Philip K. Dick by way of Scott as well as a bit of James Cameron and more than a little Spike Jonze. There’s even a splash of Dickens in there. Sounds like a hot mess, but damn if it doesn’t work.
4. Get Out You want to know the fears and anxieties at work in any modern population? Just look at their horror films. You probably knew that. The stumper then, is what took so long for a film to manifest the fears of racial inequality as smartly as does Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation. It’s an audacious first feature that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Writer/director Martin McDonagh provides his stellar ensemble with smart, insightful dialog that crackles with bite, poignancy and scattershot hilarity. His tale is offbeat but urgent and welcome, speaking as it does to grief, compassion, and navigating the contrasts between the good and evil in our flawed selves. McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) compliments his usual knack for piercing wordplay with well-paced visual storytelling and some downright shocking tonal shifts. We are constantly engaged but never quite at ease, as McDonagh demands our attention through brutality and dark humor, holding the moments of humanity until they will be most deeply satisfying.
Best Documentary Feature:
1. Whose Streets?
2. An Inconvenient Sequel
3. Human Flow
2. Lady Bird Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird may be the most delightfully candid and refreshingly forgiving coming-of-age film we’ve seen. The plot and the comedy are less the point here than you might expect. They are really just a device Gerwig uses to explore adolescence and its characteristic stage of reinvention. Though Lady Bird’s landscape is littered with coming-of-age tropes, there is wisdom and sincerity in the delivery. Gerwig offers genuine insight rather than nostalgia or, worse yet, lessons to be learned. She’s aided by an awards-worthy ensemble. Literally everyone deserves an award, from the letter perfect lead Saoirse Ronan to sweetly tender Lucas Hedges, the downtrodden but loving Tracy Letts to certain Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf. Oscar or no, what a gift they’ve already gotten from Gerwig.
1. Dunkirk Christopher Nolan’s storytelling here is simultaneously grand and intimate. To do justice to the story of the truly amazing evacuation of 400,000 British troops from certain death on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, he approaches it from three different perspectives and creates, with a disjointed chronology, a lasting impression of the rescue that a more traditional structure might have missed. Solid performances abound without a single genuine flaw to point out, but the real star of Dunkirk is Nolan. He dials back the score – Hans Zimmer suggesting the constant tick of a time bomb or the incessant roar of a distant plane engine – to emphasize the urgency and peril, and generating almost unbearable tension. Visually, Nolan’s scope is breathtaking, oscillating between the gorgeous but terrifying open air of the RAF and the claustrophobic confines of a boat’s hull, with the threat of capsize and a watery grave constant. What the filmmaker has done with Dunkirk – and has not done with any of his previous efforts, however brilliant or flawed – is create a spare, quick and simple film that is equally epic.