-A list of the year’s best!
We’re back! Is there a more perfect return article than talking about the very best of the year?
As I always say when making one of these lists, the rankings come with a disclaimer that it’s based partially on my personal preference for the movies, and partially on objective criteria like writing, directing, acting, visuals, etc. You’ll probably see some Oscar front-runners, and probably see movies more for fan service or for specific genre.
Also, I always like to start by giving a few films that I didn’t get to see. When you don’t live in New York or L.A., some independent films never get an expansion to the theaters in the suburbs and take forever to come to a home video release. So, take my rankings with the caveat that there are always things that I wanted to see and couldn’t get to. Every year, I get to about 150 movies, and there’s usually another 25-50 that I had to miss. I can’t see everything!
Movies I Missed:
You probably don’t watch SNL (and neither do I, really), but the occasional good sketch usually is one of the weirder, pre-recorded ones that show the more shocking or surreal style that good modern comedy has taken. The maestro of several of these shorts is Kyle Mooney, who stars and is involved in the production of Brigsby Bear, a story about a lonely man obsessed with a children’s television show. It premiered to good festival reviews and good statewide distribution from Sony Pictures Classics, but its odd tone prevented a wide release.
This movie was a darling at Sundance before getting a very small statewide release that only lasted a few weeks. Apparently mixing both drama and thriller elements, the film is set around a foggy town with old architecture and stars a rising actress who has become one of my favorites: Haley Lu Richardson, who had good supporting roles in Split and The Edge of Seventeen. This seemed like a visual drama that would be up my alley, but it wasn’t around long enough to catch in theaters.
God’s Own Country:
God’s Own Country is the most acclaimed British independent release of the year and fits solidly into the rise of LGBT dramas that have dominated the indie circuit in recent years. It didn’t have enough of a backing to get a big release in the U.S., but keep your eye out for it in the upcoming months on streaming services. It’s also a first-time director at the helm.
Some have described Hostiles, the most recent, gritty, real-world effort from Scott Cooper, as the best Western since Unforgiven. Others have been critical of its brutality and message. Either way, two powerhouse actors in Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike star in this film that plays on the stereotypical cowboy v. indian story-line. While the commentary on racism is surprisingly timely, Bale and Pike are two of my favorite actors and I’m desperate to see this movie. It’s just one of the late December releases that I won’t get until later in January.
The Little Hours:
There are two convent/nun movies that got some attention this year, and this is the first of them. The Little Hours stars Alison Brie, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, and Aubrey Plaza, and apparently is the most shockingly raunchy comedy of the year. It’s a riotous comedy that had good reviews, and I’m pretty desperate to see it just based on shock value.
Lucky marks one of the final on-screen appearances from long-time character actor Harry Dean Stanton, and is about a man struggling with old age. If that isn’t enough to draw you in, it also has eccentric director David Lynch as a co-star. You can also catch both of them in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Here’s the second movie about nuns! This one was more of a serious drama, dealing with the human emotions that would interfere with the act of joining a convent. Starring classic actress Melissa Leo and rising actress Margaret Qualley, the movie got some attention for its drama and performances after a successful Sundance run.
Phantom Thread is the newest movie from acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, and has gotten a ton of attention for the lead performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, allegedly in his final role as an actor. This is an excellent-looking movie, has gotten a ton of initial acclaim including Golden Globe attention, but is not expanding in theaters until late January. Because of its untimely release, I will not have seen it by the time this is published, but it deserves a mention.
Song to Song:
Although this is the only movie in this group of ten that got negative reviews, it’s the product of one of my favorite directors Terrence Malick and stars Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Michael Fassbender. It’s also shot by the prestigious Emmanuel Lubezki and could be worth eventually watching because of the sheer prestige behind the project.
Victoria & Abdul:
Famous British director Stephen Frears continued his late-career resurgence after the success of Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins with another Judi Dench-led project; this time the story of Queen Victoria and her Muslim servant Abdul. Dench has received some solid awards buzz for Lead Actress, and the movie looked whimsical, heart-warming, and fun.
Now, for the good movies I actually watched. Feel free to comment with ones you think deserve to be included. I’ll be happy to respond.
From the uncredited co-director of 2015’s surprise hit John Wick is its female-led counterpart Atomic Blonde, set as an action film during the dwindling years of the Cold War. The action is every bit as stylish, and Charlize Theron turns in a master class of stunt-work and sexuality that never gets old during the film’s pretty hefty run time. Some of the plot points don’t always make sense, and some of the twists don’t really pay off because of a script that gets lost somewhere in the shuffle, but in terms of pure entertainment value, Atomic Blonde stuck in my grouping of favorite films for most of the year. I was a huge fan of the first John Wick, and I got a lot of the same enjoyment out of this film. The time period is played for an additional layer of mystery around some of the characters’ unclear motives, but it’s really about the work done by Theron and the stunt-team. Rather than push boundaries with computer generated visuals, they decide to push the boundaries of stunt-work and camera tricks, and I just appreciate that way more than a more colorful or exotic environment. (Although Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets almost made this list, so sometimes colorful environments are fun!) It also is one of the rare movies that wonderfully adapts a graphic novel into a workable product, so it deserves to be commended for that.
Fifty Shades Darker:
Remember when I said above that I’d have some surprising/unobjective picks? Here it is! Fifty Shades Darker is among the worst movies of the whole year, is acted terribly, is terrifically cheesy, and is the perfect late-night drinking-game movie. Everyone tries to find the “so bad its good” movies to watch with friends, and everyone skips over these tepid, boring, poorly acted romance films. They’ll do the trick. Contained in this movie are: a CGI helicopter crash, a marriage proposal, a psycho ex-girlfriend with a handgun, Kim Basinger as a total cougar, Jamie Dornan on a pommel-horse, and Dakota Johnson sporting a haircut that looks like she did it herself. It’s the kind of movie where an entire scene will be built up just around one moment of sexual tension or one poorly delivered line (no, the delivery of “Well…generally, a key part of good communication is that both parties are…conscious” is not a punchline). It also doesn’t have a three-act structure. Stuff just kind of happens. It’s the example of how not to make a movie, and I love it! I laughed hysterically the entire time.
The break-out performance of the year is a cliche term, but it might actually belong to Robert Pattinson for Good Time. We know his past from Twilight, and we know a ton about his personal life, but we haven’t actually considered the fact that he might actually be a decent actor. He’s had some success in films directed by David Cronenberg, and completely carries this occasionally messy movie to the finish line. This movie is tense, fast-paced, and Pattinson is electric, and because of him, the film manages to overcome flaws in the screenplay and story-telling. If you enjoy gritty movies set in the impoverished underworld, this may be up your alley.
Finally, Margot Robbie will get recognized for a great performance after she went unnoticed in awards-season for The Wolf of Wall Street. Here, she gives a decently nuanced and animated performance as Tonya Harding, the disgraced former Olympic skater. She goes toe-to-toe with an excellent Allison Janney as her mother, and the film blends comedy and drama pretty well, even if some of the plot execution feels a little off. This is a movie carried by the actors: Robbie, Janney, and Sebastian Stan, but occasionally suffers from pacing issues and an unclear plot structure. When we get to the famous incident with co-skater Nancy Kerrigan, the movie doesn’t really play up the drama to a suitable amount. Even so, the great performances and actor-friendly rhythm of the movie make for a more than enjoyable watch. I also liked the fourth-wall breaking that the movie does intermittently. It reminded me of what made The Big Short so interesting.
You’re going to see a couple more horror/thriller movies on this list that may closer fit the “Best Horror Film of 2017” nomenclature, but it’s hard to debate that the scariest movie of 2017 was the remake of Stephen King’s It. (The only other truly spooky movie that comes to mind was A24-produced The Blackcoat’s Daughter). The movie used the child actors very successfully, and focused both on the lore and sheer terror of Pennywise the Clown haunting rural Maine. Some sequences were genuinely terrifying, while others gave the movie a heart and made us care about the children and the families. Whenever your heroes actually confront the scary villain at the end, the movie’s tone suffers because it de-masks the mysterious nature of the villain that made him scary, but the first two acts contain isolated sequences where you will feel a real chill and be afraid of what Bill Skarsgard does as Pennywise. I can’t wait for the sequel for when they recast the children as adults, because I truly think there’s enough of a story to tell over two installments.
The Meyerowitz Stories
I have been critical of director Noah Baumbach in the past after having issues with some of his movies like Mistress America or Greenberg, but his new film released right to Netflix The Meyerowitz Stories is a refreshing dramedy that totally captures an intimate family dynamic with powerful performances. Adam Sandler is perhaps a career best here, and you can add in excellent supporting performances by Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman as well. It’s the type of dramatic comedy where the writing feels so real that you almost feel intrusive as a viewer, spying on a real family’s life. That’s really the highest compliment to give a movie like this, especially when it’s filmed in such a personal way. It had a few good sources of drama, made me laugh throughout, and captured regular family topics like sibling rivalries and drifting apart with age with a biting sense of humor and observational storytelling. I would put this up with Baumbach’s best movies like The Squid and the Whale or Frances Ha.
The MCU reboot of Spider-Man actually ended up being a really nice addition to Spidey’s rather extensive film catalog. While I refuse to say that Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man ever, mainly because the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire films are unbeatable, he does bring a new energy to the character that was lacking in The Amazing Spider-Man series with Andrew Garfield. Those two movies have their own merit, for sure, but the sodden/serious style has been replaced by an upbeat, truly teenage Spider-Man who fits nicely into the MCU. The other movies play into the plot of this one, and we get a little bit of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, but there’s one piece of this film that elevates it above your normal superhero entry. This movie is great because the stakes actually feel real. If every superhero movie has a villain that wants to blow up the entire planet, there’d never be a sequel if the villain wins because there’d be no real setting for the sequel to take place in. Aries will never win. Loki will never win. Here, our villain, who’s an excellent Michael Keaton as The Vulture, just is trying to make a living by underground tech dealings. The stakes felt contained and real. This is the year’s best superhero film.
Jake Gyllenhaal will turn in at least one great performance every year. Whether the movie around him is enough to give him the credit he deserves is another story entirely. Like last year with Southpaw, some of Gyllenhaal’s powerful scenes are drowned out by a rickety remainder to the film outside of his lead. The actual story of Jeff Bauman is true and inspiring, and it paints him as a real guy with real flaws as opposed to a film version that pulls its punches. He wasn’t always positive during his recovery, but learned to embrace the media persona constructed around him. Gyllenhaal plays this perfectly, but his demanding family, and the occasional annoying backdrops to the film may be true to life, but feel exaggerated. It’s as if Gyllenhaal targeted a real, gritty drama, but the remainder of the movie around him is inspirational fodder that should be picked up by Lifetime Movies. This inconsistency is enough to take it out of the actual Top 25, even though it contains one of the best performances of the year. Credit Gyllenhaal, but maybe discredit director David Gordon Green, who has put out the occasional clunky “based on a true story” movie.
No one really saw this film, but Bryan Cranston turned in one of the best performances of the year in Wakefield, a movie about an upper-middle class man who leaves his life, job, and family, becoming a homeless hermit who lives in an abandoned house in his neighborhood. From here, he narrates his life, scavenges for food, and spies on his family, hoping to observe their grief about his disappearance. It’s always hard to strike the balance of creating an unlikable character but also have the audience care about the story, but this movie manages to do it. This is probably the reason why the movie only had film festival exposure and a (mostly) straight to VOD release, because even Bryan Cranston is not enough to make this movie fun to watch. Although I’ll never watch it again, the central performance is a power-house performance, and the movie really plays with the literal visuals of the always present doubt about “will this person miss me?” Considering it’s based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, why would anyone go in expecting it not to be a little eccentric? Either way, it’s unique and worth the watch.
Wonder Woman is a maddening movie. A majority of it is excellent, and has parts that are among the best scenes in a superhero movie since The Dark Knight Trilogy. However, an inconsistency in theme and plotting detract from a mostly positive experience. First thing’s first, Gal Gadot is incredible. She’s a complete revelation in this movie, and whatever positive introduction they gave her in Batman v. Superman is only compounded here. She is naive and does not know the true ways of the world when we start her journey. She takes her abilities into WWI and expects to end the war by killing “Aries,” the God of War who plagued her people (the Amazons) for centuries. The movie leads us to watch her mistakes as she could learn about the follies of men for herself, and become aware of greed and lust that lay outside some supernatural phenomena. Instead, we get a great two and a half acts that end with a big computer generated fight with an Aries that feels extremely unsatisfying. I enjoyed a lot about this movie, and commend Hollywood for giving us such a good Wonder Woman. I will never condone poor story-telling, however. I guess they decided that her journey and growth as a person was less important than having her and a CGI dude in armor fly around into concrete.
others deserving some love:
-Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II,
-My Cousin Rachel,
-It Comes at Night,
-The Blackcoat’s Daughter
-The Sense of an Ending,
#25. A Ghost Story
Now, this movie is really unique. It’s the second major collaboration between Casey Affleck (fresh off his much-deserved Oscar win for Manchester by the Sea), Rooney Mara, and director David Lowery after they made waves together with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints a few years ago. It’s a moody, depressing, supernatural drama that flirts with being a beautiful piece of film-making. Sometimes the pace is frustratingly slow to let the sadness really seep in, but other times, we are thrown into total helplessness and change without any warning. Rooney Mara is really the star of this film, as Affleck spends most of the movie underneath a dirty bedsheet, but it understands both the inability to let go of personal baggage and also the true grief following an important death. A few scenes of the movie are set to a really gorgeous alt-electronica song called “I Get Overwhelmed,” and I can’t really say much other than this movie had a really profound effect on me. It definitely won’t work that way for everyone, and I understand that outside of the film’s tone and mood, it really isn’t anything that special, but that was enough for me to really reflect internally after it was over.
#24. Logan Lucky:
Steven Soderbergh returns to directing after a three-year hiatus with Logan Lucky, a sordid but comical heist film set among an impoverished West Virginian family desperate for some quick cash. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are brothers, who recruit their sister (Riley Keough) and an eccentric safe-cracker (Daniel Craig) to rob the local NASCAR stadium through the tube system where vendors funnel cash. The characters have all very noticeable infirmities, from Driver’s missing hand to Tatum’s aggressive limp, and both of these actors continue pretty impressive runs post-2010. The rural feel to the movie is played partially for comedy, but partially for establishing an underdog rooting interest in our characters, and when zaniness ensues, we are along for the ride. It’s funny, it’s exceptionally touching during scenes with Tatum and his daughter, and it’s a movie that will slowly win you over with the occasional bit of tension or comedic relief. It’s understated, but it’s the type of movie that clearly deserves credit as one of the year’s best projects. It gave me a new love for the song “Take Me Home, Country Road.”
#23. Molly’s Game
Writer-Director Aaron Sorkin certainly has his detractors, with constant, fast-paced, chirpy dialogue surrounded in non-linear plot structures. His movies are the kind you have to watch at the edge of your seat, less for tension, but more for just making sure you don’t miss anything because of the sheer pace. So with television shows like “The West Wing” or “The Newsroom” along with scripts for films like Moneyball, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, Sorkin has amassed several of these walk-and-talk, fast-paced projects. This, however, is his first directorial feature in addition to writing the script, and some of the loose plot threads and jumping around in time often feel disjointed, where having acclaimed directors like David Fincher or Danny Boyle direct his previous projects worked a little better. Despite its flaws, and my willingness to acknowledge that this style is not for everyone, I had a great time with Molly’s Game, the story about a woman who began running some of the largest underground poker games in the U.S., attracting movie stars, athletes, but also hardened criminals. This being in my Top 25 is way less about the script, but more about a fantastic Jessica Chastain, who turns in great performance after great performance. She’s entirely magnetic in this, just like with Miss Sloane last year, and she deserves a movie around her that deserves her performance. This movie, despite its flaws, rises to the occasion, and is damn good. Just go in with the warning that you really may not like Sorkin’s style.
#22. Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman gives arguably the best performance of the year as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The film’s central focus is his appointment as prime minister during the darkest part of WWII for Western Europe. As he attempts to stick to his guns and refuse to negotiate peace terms with Hitler, his advisers and other members of Parliament question his war-hawk attitude. With good supporting performances from Lily James as his assistant and Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Darkest Hour gets just enough of a support base to make the movie around Oldman’s performance worth it. It’s so easy to allow an entire movie to get swallowed up in one central performance, but this one does a good job in managing an overall picture that shows Churchill’s flaws and successes. The stakes of the war are surprisingly felt despite the contained narrative, and there’s enough political intrigue to get us to have other feelings about politicians outside of Churchill. Some of the CG in cutaway scenes from the war are spotty, but that’s because this movie is way more about the politics and the central performance.
#21. The Lost City of Z
The Lost City of Z is an early-year gem about the exploration of deep Amazonia. It’s a film that deals with obsession and the drive to accomplish a true sense of your “life’s work.” While Charlie Hunnam had never really given us a great performance in the movie industry, he really works as explorer Percy Fawcett in this movie. He takes a team of explorers (including Robert Pattinson, actually, who makes another appearance on this list) into the deep jungle, and learns about tribal culture while seeking to find the remnants of an ancient city in the Amazon. Many conspiracy theorists still believe that it existed, but the evidence has been largely inconclusive. There’s a palpable sense of danger while our characters peruse the jungle’s elements and territorial tribes, but it also shows the the family that Fawcett had at home (Sienna Miller makes a nice appearance as his wife, Tom Holland as his son), leaving them for years at a time to seek answers across the globe. It has a few cheesy moments that keep it away from being a true awards contender, but this is a really solid movie. It’s also set against very dreamy cinematography, which I love.
#20. The Big Sick
The real story of Kumail Nanjiani meeting his wife Emily is a rare romantic comedy that feels true to life. It’s the type of genre where schmaltz is acceptable and cornball writing is expected. Instead, we get a blend of dramatic comedy centering on an illness with Kumail meeting her parents for the first time under unfortunate circumstances, and the romantic comedy build-up to their relationship at the outset. Zoe Kazan is really good in this, as is Kumail in his first real movie lead, but the performances that make the movie are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. The movie also provides a nice group of scenes that act as inside baseball to the stand-up comedy scene, with cameo performances from people like Bo Burnham. (It reminds me of another decent movie from a few years ago called Don’t Think Twice.) So, while on one hand the film makes us laugh and we enjoy it being a traditional comedy, it also brings out some real drama when Emily gets sick and Kumail spends days on end with her parents. The movie feels real, and is really impressive for what it is. If there’s any complaint about the final product, it’s that the movie doesn’t really hold up as well upon repeat viewings because the unique comedic timing is freshest upon the initial watch. This type of movie normally kills at Sundance and then fizzles out, but there’s a level of unabashed realism that works here.
#19. The Post
In 2017-2018, a film about the right of the press to publish damaging truths about the federal government remains a hot button issue under the Trump Administration, to say the least. It’s surprising how easily comparisons can be made to modern day when watching Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a film detailing The Washington Post publishing a series of stories about what really happened in Vietnam. After The New York Times got shut down with a preliminary injunction upon publishing their version stemming from the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post decided to go ahead and do it anyway, leading to a huge Supreme Court battle about the freedom of the press. Tom Hanks plays editor Ben Bradlee, while Meryl Streep plays the widowed publisher of the paper, Kay Graham. As Kay begins to gain more confidence in her running of the paper, she decides to pivot away from her friendly relationships with the investors and politicians toward a more constructive friendship with Bradlee, investing in quality reporting. The supporting cast of rival papers, the board, significant others, etc., includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, and Michael Stuhlbarg. It’s a Spielberg cast, has a nice John Williams score, is fast paced, and has some of the best cinematography of the year by Janusz Kaminski. Some of the behind the doors stuff will involve names and characters that will be hard to remember, so the movie definitely has clunky sections, but it’s a solid prestige picture.
This is the second straight to Netflix film on this list, and is one of the most emotionally developed southern dramas of recent memory. The backbone of the film is race relations in 1940s rural Missouri, contained in familial relationships of two families: one white family (Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan as the parents, Garrett Hedlund as the brother, Jonathan Banks as the grandfather) owns the small farm and one black family (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige as the parents, Jason Mitchell as their eldest son) work on it. Despite the hugely racist tones of the surrounding town, the two families spend years together, eventually developing a bit of a relationship out of necessity. The tense build-up of the movie’s almost symbiotic relationship between the families culminates after Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie and Jason Mitchell’s Ronsel both return from active duty in WWII. As they both experience PTSD, their eventual common bond begins causing the town to stir. It’s a movie that feels often like it was set for a destined end, no matter how we feel that the characters have grown to respect each other. The movie is a very sorrowful one, set in against beautiful countryside in cinematography. It’s a really good pure drama.
M. Night’s return to quality film-making started with The Visit last year, but he hits a much higher level of excellence with Split. It requires an extremely dedicated performance from James McAvoy in playing a group of personalities contained in one person, but in terms of a pure thriller, this is some of the most fun you’ll have all year with the sheer absurdity of it all. The teenage victims are played by increasingly acclaimed actresses in Anya Taylor-Joy and Haley Lu Richardson, and most of the film is self-contained in a small underground apartment. The central character is so interesting, and I loved the movie portrayal of multiple personality disorder even if it isn’t as accurate as some people would like. To this point, I always point to the fact that this is supposed to be a work of fiction. I don’t think the supernatural elements to the movie, in terms of the other personalities inside McAvoy becoming subservient to a demon-being known as “The Beast” that wants to eat teenage girls, are meant to be taken seriously. This is exactly the type of late-night thriller that makes going to a movie in a crowded theater so worth it, regardless of whether it is always politically correct. It’s absurd, fun, intermittently scary and well directed throughout. I’m totally ready for the eventual crossover with Unbreakable, another M. Night hit.
#16. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This movie is a clear Oscar front-runner and has been since the cast was made public. Despite pretty high expectations going in, the movie essentially delivers on everything it meant to: a strong emotional core centered around loss, a great cast, intermittent comedic scenes, and an unpredictability that really works in Martin McDonagh’s movies. (He also did In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.) A pervasive black comedy element binds the film together, based in satire and eccentricity in its characters, but the central performance from a fantastic Frances McDormand is based around the rage and loss that only a parent can feel after the loss of a child. So while the film’s central plot structure is really about this grieving mother, other characters fill in with various stereotypes or satirical personalities. We get an overzealous cop figure (Sam Rockwell), as well as the lazy small town cop figure (Woody Harrelson) in the same film, but we also put a mother and son’s grief (Lucas Hedges) at odds with each other because they handle it differently. The score is solid, and there are some truly surprising plot points that you’d never expect. The film is okay with being zany despite such grounded subject matter, and it’s a refreshing tone that manages to stay consistent, walking that tightrope between success and failure on such a complex feeling to the movie. All of the performances are excellent, and this film could result in multiple awards. My only complaint was that the zany nature of the film does occasionally take away from the heavier drama, so I didn’t always feel exactly what the film was trying to make me feel. That’s why, despite some of the best performances and scenes of the year, this lands in the teens instead of easily in the Top 10 of the year.
#15. Personal Shopper
One of the year’s best horror movies, Personal Shopper makes for a very modern supernatural story that relies on the true build of tension instead of the awful jump-scare trend in big budget horror. Many of the film’s crippling scenes come from reading messages on a screen or from being in an openly public place. It’s not dark, it doesn’t openly rely on music. Instead, it uses an excellently understated Kristen Stewart performance, along with the always nuanced direction of French Director Olivier Assayas (see Clouds of Sils Maria as well). It’s a story that deals with loss and loneliness in a unique way, and embraces the supernatural in a more diminished way than a typical ghost movie. The costumes are gorgeous, and the tantalizing view of the elite is an interesting wrinkle that the film provides. Assayas did win Best Director at Cannes for this, and my guess is that it’s mostly due to the blend of genres and the increasingly acclaimed view of Kristen Stewart’s acting in the indie community. Just know that this isn’t the type of horror movie that make you shriek, it’s more of a tense, slow-building piece about the atmosphere. I’m much happier with such a mature take on a ghost story.
#14. Before I Fall
Every year there’s a really good teen film that cracks the list, and this year’s is Before I Fall. It’s a story set against the familiar “live the same day over and over again” backdrop like in Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, but deals with a high school girl’s journey to self-awareness and compassion. It tells a good story about noticing the signs of depression and bullying, and features a star making performance from Zoey Deutch, who is very close to a big-movie blow-up. It also really benefits from a really solid setting in a lush, forested section of the State of Washington. It’s mostly a drama, but has the very pristine cinematography and tone of a thriller as well. In addition the great central performance from Zoey Deutch, the movie has a fantastic tone that’s sorrowful and introspective. Yeah, it’s just a teen movie, but it does so many things right.
#13. Get Out
There can’t really be a better horror film than Get Out, the most perfect racial and social satire that blends tongue-in-cheek humor with incredible horror visuals. The film is definitely eerie, featuring odd topics like hypnosis and brain transplants, but also implements a biting script from first-time director Jordan Peele that hits home on several issues relating to racism. Lines like “if I had this body, I’d be in the NBA” or “I would’ve voted for Obama a third term” are part of the overall, accurate observation of human behavior that really works here. (The plot is about an interracial couple now dating long enough for the white girlfriend to introduce the black boyfriend to her family.) It also is able to walk the line of this complicated tone without ever seeming disorganized or pretentious. A lot of people who asked me about this movie were concerned about it being too political or too one-sided in its outlook, and I totally disagreed with anyone who said it was. This is a smart, balanced movie, regardless of whether or not you consider it to be political. While Split and Personal Shopper are both really good in their own right, this easily takes the cake for best horror film of the year and features a star-making performance from Daniel Kaluuya. You also may never view the TSA in the same way.
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film was buried earlier in the year with an underachieving box office performance and a July release instead of being released during the awards season, but that is not indicative of its quality at all. While this isn’t a movie with a a true lead character and is instead a genre piece designed to put us into the time period, actors like newcomer Algee Smith and a transformative Will Poulter do an excellent job in selling the plot. We follow a few different plot threads that all lead up to the Algiers Hotel interrogation scene with a timely commentary on racism in the police force and improper procedures being used. While we can see this coming from the 1960s Civil Rights movement, there’s a timeliness to all of this (the same with Get Out) in modern film trying to push for an expansion of the progress that’s already been made. If The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were Bigelow’s Oscar-bait war films with great lead performances, this is her step back in embracing the issues surrounding an important topic, while still getting the most out of her actors. I really hope that the right people will see this down the line and spark a renewed interest in this film, because it didn’t garner the kind of rallying support it deserved.
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Memento, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and many more) takes on the Dunkirk evacuation in a powerfully unique way. He plays, like he does with many of his films, with the concept of time. The movie layers three separate story-arcs, one over the course of one week, one over one day, and one over one hour that eventually culminate in a climax together. This inventive story structure does not obey any traditional three-act expectation, and the story doesn’t really contain many characters, but instead throws us directly into the fire and has us absorb the peril of WWII firsthand. One story, over the course of the week, focuses on the soldiers and their evacuation. One story, over the course of the day, focuses on a citizen boat-owner who participates in the evacuation. One story, over the course of the hour, focuses on a fighter plane going against German bombers to protect the fleeing soldiers. The score by Hans Zimmer drives the film, and many of the stunts are entirely practical, using really old cars and planes to have a sound design filled with the real noise that one would experience if on sight. The dedication to not only practicality, but to realism, is what makes this film so great.
#10. The Florida Project
The Florida Project is probably the movie this year that affected me the most emotionally. It follows a group of young children who live in extreme poverty right outside of Orlando and Disney World. Many of the parents have drug problems, or go into prostitution to pay for a stingy motel room rented out weekly by Willem Dafoe, who acts as the motel’s repairman and guardian. While Dafoe’s watchful performance is excellent, the rest of the unknown cast is really good as well, with Bria Vinaite as Halley and Brooklynn Pence as her young daughter. There are scenes of heartbreak, pity, and true compassion for these people, and also a sense of dread at the next mistake they will make. The movie has a nice atmosphere, is colorful, and really soaks in the essence of Florida. While the entire experience ends up being a really painful and often uncomfortable one, these movies are what make the indie circuit so important. This story would never be told outside of A24 studios and a rising director.
#9. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig, the critic-proclaimed queen of the “mumblecore” sub-genre of dramatic comedies, makes her directorial debut with a mix of two motifs: the teen coming-of-age story where the lead character slowly learns that the universe does not revolve around her and a love letter to a specific location, Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento. Gerwig’s muse is Saoirse Ronan’s Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a pseudo-intellectual high school senior who wants to move to the east coast to be with the real writers and thinkers despite not being the most motivated individual herself. Her tough love mother (an amazing Laurie Metcalf) and her tender loving father (Tracy Letts) try to help guide her life in the right direction as she traverses budding popularity, crumbling friendships, her first boyfriends, prom, and college applications. It’s the very essence of an indie movie, a dialogue driven look into a family’s life mixed with intentionally funny scenes. The movie has been so successful because of the love letter to a specific town, as well as honest writing that allows accomplished actors like Ronan, Metcalf, of even someone like Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea in the supporting cast to grow into their roles. This has one of the best scripts and pair of female performances of the year.
#8. Free Fire
This is a movie that no one saw, directed by Ben Wheatley and starring a pretty good cast including Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, and Cillian Murphy. While not a financial success, this is the one movie on my list that I implore you to rent and give a chance. The remaining movies on the list will be ones you’ve probably heard of because they have famous people or are prestige pictures, but this one is just a fun action movie that takes a Tarantino-esque visual style with violence and comical dialogue. I had stretches of this movie where it was so absurd that I was just laughing hysterically, and all of the action takes place in one confined setting, when a guns transaction between criminal organizations goes very wrong. Sharlto Copley is really great here, as is the screenplay and action. Sometimes, you just have to let a movie entertain you despite it being pretty wacky. This is that movie.
#7. Baby Driver
Hopefully, this movie will be nominated for Best Editing at the Oscars because it’s filmed in a style that beautifully mixes a song-heavy soundtrack into the actual film’s visual rhythm. The lead character (Ansel Elgort as Baby) listens to music throughout the entire run-time, and he walks and dances in beat to the music a lot of the time. He’s a teenager who just happens to be the world’s best getaway driver for hardened criminals played by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, and even Kevin Spacey. When Baby wants to get out of the criminal underworld and flee with his new girlfriend (Lily James), he gets sucked back in for one final project. Edgar Wright of comedy fame, after directing Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim v the World, and The World’s End, leads his best film to date that is so immensely stylish, action-packed, and funny that it totally deserves to be the movie that both sophisticated and average audiences need to see alike. Even if you’re not a movie person, this is fun and fast-paced enough for everyone, and contains solid performances by people like Jamie Foxx that deserve more attention. For a decent amount of time early in the year, this was the best movie I had seen, and it stayed toward the top of my list throughout the months.
#6. The Disaster Artist
First of all, before you even research The Disaster Artist, go rent The Room, a self-financed romantic thriller (?) written, produced, directed, and starring the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. No one knows where he’s from, where he got the money, or how old he is, but apparently, he was tired of years of rejection in casting calls and decided to make his own movie. He brought on his roommate and best friend Greg Sestero and made The Room, a story about Johnny, an every-man who experiences betrayal at the hands of his best friend and his girlfriend. Maybe Johnny is a vampire, we’re not sure. After the movie slowly became a cult hit because of a ton of inside jokes, terrible acting, and truly memorable lines, Sestero wrote a book about the making of The Room called “The Disaster Artist.” This movie takes “The Disaster Artist” book and puts it in the movie format, showing Wiseau and Sestero becoming friends and making the movie. Some of it is a shot-for-shot remake of The Room, while some of it shows the story behind what caused Wiseau to pursue the American Dream. It’s actually directed by James Franco, and his years in Hollywood allow him to get a ton of great cameo spots with other amazing actors who support such unabashed motivation in someone like Wiseau. I’m sure you’ve seen the memes of The Room, and I’m sure you’ve seen Franco pushing away Wiseau after accepting his Golden Globe, but the true story here about a dreamer who wants to fit into Hollywood is actually touching and well made. Also, Franco is a career best. Oh hai Mark!
#5. The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is quite a few movies put together into one, but it’s all handled excellently by director-writer Guillermo del Toro. The backdrop of the film is the Cold War in the 60s, where the Russians and Americans vie for information about this humanoid creature plucked from a river in South America. It was worshiped as a god, and is placed in a marine biology center for study. One doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) is actually a Russian agent, told to destroy the creature before the Americans can learn from it, but the U.S. Army’s security appointment to oversee the project (Michael Shannon) cares more about establishing dominance over the creature than learning from it. When it’s obvious that nothing good can come of the power struggle, leave it to our central character (a mute Sally Hawkins as Elisa) to actually discover how intelligent our creature is. Although she’s only a janitor, she develops a relationship with the creature, and along with her co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and misfit neighbor (Richard Jenkins) decides to stage a huge break-out. It contains commentaries about what it means to be human, about the god complex within powerful men, and also clearly contains subtext about the Russian-American intelligence conflict that continues to plague the world. It has one of the year’s best scores, is shot wonderfully, has a beautiful Del Toro production design, and mixes violence, sex, and great rhythm into a film that is easily one of the year’s best. It’s not perfect, as it occasionally has a clunky line or imperfect motivation from a character, but this could totally win Best Picture and I’d be satisfied.
#4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I refuse to allow the public criticism of this movie dissuade me in my love for the new direction Star Wars has taken. The critics loved this movie, as did I, because it was the most adult Star Wars movie we have ever gotten. It blurs the lines between good and evil, it deepens our characters and our lore. It points out the mistake of having a vain order of knights that refuses to acknowledge the Dark Side of the Force. After I first watched it, I was a little frustrated that the movie didn’t adhere to my own expectations or ideas for what I wanted to happen. I’m not the screenwriter, and neither are you. I respect the director’s vision, have now watched it multiple times, and am totally willing to conclude that this is a near-perfect movie. Outside of a second-act slowdown that extends the film by about twenty minutes, this movie is littered with wonderful scenes that are so memorable, tasteful, visually delightful, and also really well acted. Daisy Ridley as Rey is the best acted Star Wars character we’ve ever gotten, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is pretty damn close. This movie deepens the lore behind what the Force is capable of, it contains scenes where our characters go through confusion about their place in the world, and it’s completely stunning visually. It has an excellent score, as well. Please give this movie another shot if you didn’t like it. Just because it isn’t your father’s Luke Skywalker doesn’t mean his new direction isn’t planted with a ton of interesting developments. Allow yourself to be free of what you want to happen, and allow the movie to tell its story and sell its message. It’s like everyone wants Star Wars to only be fan fiction now. We have to push the boundaries if we want it to stay great.
#3. Wind River
This movie tells a story that not enough people know about, the lawlessness on Native American Reservations, where uninvestigated crimes run rampant. An FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) heads out to investigate the death of a teenage girl, who is found bleeding and frozen to death in the middle of a field. Because they cannot classify it as a murder, Elizabeth Olsen is then forced to use the limited resources on the reservation, a sheriff and his few deputies. To become familiar with the frozen tundra of a landscape, they partner with a wildlife and tracking expert (Jeremy Renner) who has suffered the death of one of his own daughters. The story is so personal, as we follow our two leads through this hauntingly cold and silent setting, hugely underfunded and alone. The suspense occasionally becomes overwhelming, and the movie is directed beautifully. It’s sad and powerfully isolated. When our characters begin to develop leads and get to the bottom of this, we discover the larger trends of the problem, and the movie pivots to telling a story that has more social implications than you would consider at first look. It’s directed by Taylor Sheridan, who had previously written Sicario and Hell or High Water, and his impeccably subtle style is very present in this movie. I love this movie, and it’s the year’s best thriller.
#2. Call Me By Your Name
This would be my personal pick for Best Picture out of the films that are getting the real attention, mainly because it’s among the best romance films I’ve ever seen. It completely owns a specific genre, and director Luca Guadagnino is at a career best with this LGBT romance film. It’s so tasteful that it makes the romance that develops between a 25 year old and a 17 year old seem completely natural, and you never once even consider that it carries with it the implication of being a “gay movie.” It never feels any different than any other romance film that could come out, and its subtlety needs to be commended. It contains amazing original songs by Sufjan Stevens, and also has the Guadagnino trope of getting the most out of a location, this time the Italian countryside. Timothee Chalamet’s Elio is in Italy for an extended period of time while his father (Michael Stuhlbarg, again in an acclaimed movie) works on some historical research. One of his students, probably a research assistant for the semester (Armie Hammer) stays with them for a multi-week period in the summer. A relationship starts between Elio and Hammer’s Oliver, and over time, they force each other to acknowledge new things about themselves. This is just a beautiful, beautiful movie.
#1. Blade Runner 2049
My favorite film from 2017 is Blade Runner 2049. I can’t really say it’s a surprise because it’s directed by Denis Villaneuve, who has directed one of my Top 5 favorite films now over 5 straight years. (2013-Prisoners, 2014-Enemy, 2015-Sicario, 2016-Arrival, 2017-Blade Runner 2049). His visual style and brooding tone is what makes Blade Runner 2049 so great, improving on the experimental outreach of Ridley Scott’s original and making the story more personal. It keeps the great science fiction ideas of the original, but develops the lore, the characters, and the style further. We question what it means to be human, and how we can tell whether someone is a replicant or not. Ryan Gosling’s K has a romance in the film, yes with an AI (Ana de Armas), but it’s a small piece of the film that really works. Harrison Ford makes an appearance and steals the show, and our visual style is the most memorable of the year except for arguably The Shape of Water. This movie was profound. It affected me emotionally. There was some great action and great visual style, and got the most out of great actors like Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Jared Leto. There’s also a twist in this movie that I totally didn’t see coming. This movie, like Star Wars or Wind River kept me guessing, but it had the perfect execution that I’m not sure any other movie this year really had.
Thanks for reading. See you in 2018!