The Best Films of 2017
Ten movies that defined the year, for better or for worse.
If 2016 was the rude awakening, 2017 is the drill sergeant screaming at you to get out of bed, choose a side, and move. Subtext is a bygone luxury, as underlying messages and threats have overthrown text and crashed to the surface this year, taking to the streets, revealing true motives, confirming suspicions that forces have conspired and worked against you. In a time of insults and injuries, the stories that arrive already packaged in survival mode stay close to mind; we synchronize our ticking clocks with our art’s. Life’s stressors collect and accumulate into a stifling weight and confusing haze, and as a result, 2017’s movies feel most like an escape when they’re about escapes, whether it’s a breakneck sprint from police, a breakout from a top-secret government facility, or breaking family ties to move cross-country.
In a year like this, Hollywood’s sweetest sleights-of-hand mutate in the face of real world disillusionment. When the news becomes more absurd than satire, the biggest belly-laughs and strongest punchlines stand woven into savage revenge fables and grim allegories about the nation’s racist backbone. Coming of age loses its luster within tales of stifling parental pressure and hand-to-mouth poverty; nostalgia over yesterday’s non-existent “golden years” rusts when observing cycles of addiction and the mind-numbing waiting game of the Greatest Generation’s wartime. Even the rosy lens of romance fractures and falters in 2017. Don’t trust the man waiting in the bedroom; if it’s a soul-deep connection you crave, look for the monsters.
Whether defying authority, questioning identity, or confronting expectations, these movies stand as disruptive instigators in an already-chaotic time. Once their final acts fade out in darkened theaters, the actions in the light of day are up to you. — Eric Stolze
10. T2 Trainspotting
The audacity to name your sequel “T2” is truly astounding—out of all the possible naming options (Trainspotting 2: Electric Boogaloo, Trainspotting 2: The Streets, etc.), Danny Boyle decided to go with one that called back arguably the best movie sequel of all time? Hell, they could have just named it Porno, if they wanted to, which is the name of Irvine Welsh’s own sequel to Trainspotting, upon which this movie was partially based. Needless to say, it was an uphill battle to accept that our return trip to Edinburgh was totally necessary—but, my, was it ever. The real trick of—ugh—T2 is that it’s a nostalgia-based sequel that’s specifically about the dangers of nostalgia. When Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home to take a stroll through his old life, the people, places, and memories that greet him don’t allow for a continuance of the charade he’s been living these past twenty years. Times change, but people mostly don’t—and sometimes it takes a real solid kick in the arse to be reminded of why you left somewhere in the first place. — Nate Rogers
9. The Shape of Water
Every film is a fish tank, no matter how deeply it draws you into its diorama. Celebrated writer/director Guillermo del Toro understands this enough to embrace cinema’s trappings with relish, dressing his frames with Golden Age Hollywood homages and steampunk craftsmanship while striking bolts of life into his beloved specimens. The Shape of Water, his sincere and daring fable about a mute loner (Sally Hawkins, in a performance so incredible it’s sure to be underrated) freeing and falling for a captive Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, bringing flesh-and-blood wonder back to creature effects), may be the finest culmination of his various obsessions yet, in part because it has obsession on the mind. But it’s also a love letter to curiosity itself; open hearts, ocean horizons, and the desperate need for knowledge are the sutures, carefully hand-stitched across multiple genre influences to hold this strange, beautiful creation together. — Eric Stolze
8. The Lost City of Z
With The Immigrant, director James Gray told a story of everyday cruelty and grace between three characters, broader sociopolitical concerns serving as the backdrop and elevating the dramatic stakes. With The Lost City of Z, he has realized his true epic—a story that spans continents and decades—yet kept his finger on the intimate pulse that’s always made his movies work: This is a great movie about ambition, colonization, and audacious dreaming, but even more than that it’s a moving (and tragic) story about fathers and sons.
In the lineage of big movies about conflicted men, it follows on the heels of There Will Be Blood and even Apocalypse Now—though it’s worth noting that Gray’s colonizing Englishman is the rarest of things: a colonist marked by true benevolence. The real tension comes between the loftiness of his dreams—his zeal to enter a whole new world—and the effect it has on his immediate family members. While he carries the vision, they bear the strain. — Josh Hurst
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Leave it to a foreigner to deliver a terminal diagnosis to America’s heartland. Irish writer/director Martin McDonagh has made a name as a playwright and filmmaker through comedies of crime and consequence that dare audiences to consider heavy themes amidst dark tones and cruel twists. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which gets its name from the eye-catching messages a grieving mother sends the local sheriff, is so nihilistic it makes suicide look like a diplomatic gesture, but there’s a billboard-sized message here carrying meaningful insight beyond simplistic shock. Sticks and stones and punches and bullets and Molotov cocktails may break Americans’ bones, McDonagh says, but words will always hurt us worst, whether it’s written with intent to provoke or spoken with intent to wound.
And the most, best, foulest words all belong to Frances McDormand, whose performance here as Mildred matches her previously career-defining work as the kindly cop Marge in Fargo by portraying essentially the exact opposite. Mildred is a force of nature, loss incarnate and unfiltered, ready to haunt a whole community by spreading her ghosts and regrets like a virus…or an ad campaign. Love this film or hate it, McDormand is perfectly sacred in her profanity. — Eric Stolze
Much of the limited negative reception Dunkirk received upon its release was related to the fact that the film marked Christopher Nolan’s departure from the complex narratives of Memento and Inception in favor of in-the-moment action generally necessary in a war movie carried out approximately in real time. But what this criticism fails to take into account is the visual finesse which often goes unheeded in Nolan’s filmography—while we’re trying to figure out what in the sweet name of Lumière is actually going on in Interstellar, we’re missing out on some of the most affecting imagery this side of 2001.
Dunkirk’s greatest asset is its subtle ability to deliver [*Tarantino sneer*] cinematic moments without relying on cheap thrills or emotional manipulation. The movie’s utter watchability despite its linearity—and its subjects’ dialogue being so inscrutable to Yankee ears—attests to Nolan’s ability to make his audience elicit the same extreme emotional reactions to, say, a scene of a few hundred anonymous soldiers slowly responding to the impending barrage of German bombers as they did to Astronaut McConaughey outliving his family on Earth. In a way, Dunkirk marks Nolan ditching his spoilers-wary training wheels and dive-bombing popular film with an arthouse agenda. — Mike LeSuer
5. Get Out
News broke recently that Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers of an upcoming Twilight Zone revival. This is perfect, because Peele wrote and directed Get Out, arguably the year’s most talked-about movie and, essentially, a feature-length episode of the classic sci-fi TV show for 2017 audiences. The Twilight Zone embraced social commentary; one classic episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” is a study of paranoia and mob mentality in the face of a potential alien invasion.
Get Out follows Chris, a young black photographer, and his girlfriend Rose, who’s white, as they prepare to introduce Chris to Rose’s family. It does not go well. The movie is satirical, but it’s also a horror film about systemic violence against black people, which led many to question its submission in the Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy category for consideration at next year’s Golden Globes. Peele, who contributed to its submission, was thrilled to see that so many people who saw the film are willing to defend its subject matter so fiercely. Get Out was the most fun you could have in a theater in 2017 while also being one of the most important films of the year—and yes, it can be both. — Lydia Pudzianowski
4. The Florida Project
Set in the shadow of the leisure empire, in a swampy scavenger ecosystem that thrives on the scraps and confusion left around the ripple effect of a theme park’s global footprint, life below the poverty line is at its ironic (or perhaps appropriate) best when you refuse to grow up, think happy thoughts, and keep your world small, after all.
Living semi-legally in a purple motel outside Orlando, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), barely make rent week-to-week to their “landlord,” the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee lives in a life of perpetual Lost Girl mischief amidst Halley’s increasingly reckless attempts to bring in money. Dafoe defies decades of typecasting as creeps and criminals in a fatherly role that exudes blue-collar warmth equally hobbled and fed by world-weariness, his protectiveness both sweet and seemingly compulsive. Vinaite and Prince, relative newcomers, give the film an arresting air of almost surveillance-camera-level verité that hearkens to writer/director Sean Baker’s previous indie hit Tangerine.
It almost feels odd to celebrate their performances—didn’t we just spy on actual lives like voyeuristic tourists, just passing through? Depending on how much you go along with their insistence on living carefree when their status suggests they should be starving, you’ll either feel a transcendent roller-coaster high or a tightening grip of anxiety like a safety harness strapped too tight. Either way, the film’s pull is so powerful, its illusion so fully convincing, Walt himself would take notes. — Eric Stolze
3. The Beguiled
In explaining her motivation to make The Beguiled—a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name—Sofia Coppola cited a desire to cleanse her palette after having spent too much time in the “tacky, ugly world” of The Bling Ring. Ah yes, the Civil War–era South: nothing ugly about it. In retrospect, of course Coppola wasn’t going to make a movie that glorified a time in which our country was ripping itself in half (relevant much?). Instead, the period drama plays out more like a horror film—one in which the limitations of a self-imposed high culture are tested by the primal emotions of passion, jealousy, and fear.
The plot itself is rather simple—the lingering residents of a war-torn girls’ school in Virginia take in an injured Union soldier—but the dimensions within that story are profound. To what extent are people willing to risk their own lives for a stranger in a time of war? And how much does that change when those people are getting a little bit desperate for some new company? Colin Farrell’s performance as John McBurney, the soldier, is a showcase of indeterminate trustworthiness, but Nicole Kidman’s simmering performance as Miss Farnsworth, the head teacher, steals the show, her character trying to gracefully keep control of a situation that is quickly spiralling into chaos.
But this is a dignified chaos we’re talking about here, and a key element of the success of The Beguiled is its kitschy humor, with Coppola taking a stuffy setting like a boarding school and turning it into a playhouse for ’70s B-movie storytelling. Sex, violence, suspense: it’s all part of this highly strange and memorable adaptation, which may tell us more about the era of its source material than the Civil War itself. — Nate Rogers
2. Lady Bird
It’s exhausting to be a teenager, but exhilarating to relive the experience as poignantly as this. Lady Bird’s stakes feel as significant as if we time traveled through our own adolescences, where any false movement could upset everything to follow. As an in-demand indie actress, Greta Gerwig provides disarming authenticity and a casual screen presence that mask some incredible commitment and deep study; she makes it look easy.
Behind the camera in her solo writing/directing debut, Gerwig brings that same skill to capture what it feels like to endure the day-to-day humiliations of teenage years. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) navigates the crushing pressure of her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), her hormonal obsessions, and the demands of her college prep by trying on different identities with the same impatient urgency she exudes while shopping for vintage prom dresses. It’s telling that Gerwig sets this story, based on her own experiences attending Catholic high school in Sacramento, in 2002; this is the last minute before the Internet made reinvention so anticlimactic. Her core self, meanwhile, stems from embarrassment of her home and a desire to fly as far from it as possible, as evident by the name she gave herself.
We first meet her and her mother as they weep together to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath (seconds before a barrage of maternal button-pushing pushes Lady Bird to hurl herself from the moving car), but Lady Bird’s trajectory is ironically opposed to the Joads’: she wishes to simultaneously escape California and her tight-knit family bonds. She makes mistakes, tells lies, and acts selfishly. She also apologizes, stands up for her beliefs, and defends her friends. In short, she’s a real person, fully realized with dimension, flaws, virtues, and complexity. The hardest tests of high school are anything but standardized, and we laugh and cry along with her as she passes them one by one. Creating characters to control them is easy. Gerwig created the McPhersons to love them, a path so much harder to pursue, it’s damn near impossible. — Eric Stolze
1. Good Time
You could read the title of Josh and Ben Safdie’s latest grime-laden thriller as trendy irony (cc: Rick Alverson) based on its subject’s Sisyphean struggle to maintain control of his surroundings over the course of the film’s one-hundred minutes. But the way the Safdie Bros. present it, it’s easier to interpret “good time” as an earnest descriptor of the audience’s experience watching Robert Pattinson’s Connie maneuver the same Kafkaesque New York City Griffin Dunne wrestled with in After Hours thirty years ago, with an aesthetic considerably more 1985 than Scorsese’s anachronism ever permitted. In its profoundly synecdochal opening scene, we’re greeted with five minutes of dramatic shot/countershot dialogue between a therapist and his mentally handicapped patient before the door bursts open with a subsequent quick zoom on an incomprehensibly greasy Pattinson looking to retrieve his heteronomous brother and, thus, initiate our Good Time.
What makes this conceptually unpleasant experience enjoyable is Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein’s script’s ability to resist the urge of a Coenesque sadism: Despite the quickly-unfolding misery of the brothers’ botched bank robbery, miscarried jailbreak, and ill-fated Sprite bottle trafficking side-project, the Safdies never really play God to Connie’s misfortunate Job. Far from pious, Pattinson instead manifests the Greek-American amateur criminal as a streetsmart counterpart to Dunne’s bookish, relatable Paul. Where Scorsese throws his protagonist into the deep end, Connie never feels more at home than when he’s weaseling his way out of his next arrest, or working other authority figures for information. Good Time carries the appeal of a heist movie—an escapist fantasy into a criminal mind, playing up the “how” rather than the “if”—while doubling as an intimate character portrait of a second generation American putting what little he has on the table in hopes of scoring big, which is a scenario seemingly familiar to just about everyone he meets over the course of the night.
But above all, Good Time is just well-made entertainment. From its engaging performance by Pattinson—not to mention a stellar debut major role for Brother Ben and an incredibly Jennifer Jason Leigh turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh—to the pitch-perfect score by Oneohtrix Point Never, the film carries over the crasse verite style of the brothers’ Heaven Knows What to a big-budget screenplay flawlessly. Like Scorsese before them, the Safdies excel at the Promethean task of appropriating European arthouse (the Dardennes’s survivalism, Victoria’s relentless urgency) to mass American audiences weaned on the neons of Michael Mann through a story as New York as can possibly be conceived. As we’re ushered out of the theater to Iggy Pop’s baritone dirge, we may feel betrayed by the titular promise, but, if the year in memes has taught us anything, the movie’s really about the abetters we make along the way. — Mike LeSuer