Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Taken as a whole, 2017 was a bit of a tough year. From the shocking election of Donald Trump and the political turmoil that followed to the burgeoning #metoo movement that caught fire after the Weinstein scandal broke, there has been no shortage of bad, or depressing news in the world. On a personal note, it was a year filled with equal parts spectacular highs and crushing lows (in other words, a year like any other).
Having said that, there was a lot to celebrate, too. At the risk of being too maudlin (hey, it is the holiday season) many of us have plenty to be thankful for, both in life and at the movies. Undoubtedly, 2017 sucked at a lot of things, but there was no shortage of truly terrific and diverse films released. From fresh, dynamic voices like Jordan Peele and Sean Baker, to brainy blockbusters from auteurs like Nolan and Villeneuve, there has been a little something for everyone. Of nearly 200 films this writer watched this year, just over half of them were new releases. Whittling that number down has been a source of both joy and hand-wringing, as there was so much to choose from.
It is important to note that everyone has their own subjective (and admittedly arbitrary) rules in conducting a year end list, and this writer is certainly no different. For starters, all of the films on this list had to be accessible in some way to the general public. So, while The Endless (2017) and Tragedy Girls (2017) would have undoubtedly fought for a spot on this list, they were disqualified from contention since they screened at a film festival. Similarly, while it is tempting to go on a tear and recognize everything, this writer has always held the line at limiting the list to ten films, with a space for honorable mentions. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that this list is wholly personal, and is in no way intended to be indicative of the Best or Most Important films of the year. This “Best Of” represents one writer’s tastes and tendencies, and what unifies them all is that they left a mark for one reason or another, whether it was by inspiring fear, laughter, compassion, or wonder.
David Lowery’s experimental meditation on time, death, and memory is undoubtedly one of the year’s best (and most unique) films. After an accident takes the life of C (Casey Affleck) his spirit returns to the home he shared with his wife, M (Rooney Mara) and the things he is unable to leave behind. The film makes the bold choice to place Affleck under a plain white bed sheet with two wide eyes cut out, but the risk more than pays off, as it allows the viewer a blank canvass with which to paint their own emotional experience. The film largely eschews a traditional narrative, and that will make the film a hard sell for many potential viewers, but for those who are able to open up to its style, it is a deeply affecting look at the enormity of time and what it means to live. Hours after the film ended, this writer was unable to shake the experience. Nearly six months later, the haunting final scene is enough to make it one of the most satisfying (and devastating) stories of the year.
The Big Sick
Loosely based on their real-life romance, comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon penned the script for one of the year’s best surprises. While romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, what makes this one stand out is its wit and warmth, and the effortless way in which it pivots from hysterical to heartbreaking and back, over and over again. Nanjiani has never had such a stellar showcase for his many talents, and director Michael Showalter gets stellar stand-out work from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as well, while Kazan wrings every bit of charm and pathos from a role that holds it all together. It is a deeply funny film, which makes it all the more impressive that it manages to have so much to say on subjects ranging from cultural barriers, to healthcare, to family and with such sharp insight. Not only one of this year’s best, The Big Sick is the best romantic comedy to come along in some time.
When a sequel to the cult classic (and notorious box office failure) was announced over 30 years after the original ‘82 release, this writer was first in line to raise an eyebrow about the wisdom of even attempting such a feat. It feels like nothing short of a miracle that the film is not only a wildly successful exercise in brainy science fiction, but also transcends any baggage from its predecessor by building something so singular and satisfying. The most beautifully shot film of the year (by the inimitable Roger Deakins, please give this man his Oscar already) is a sprawling, existential sci-fi noir that thrills and challenges in equal measure. At a run-time of nearly three hours, it is sure to test the patience of some viewers with its slow, purposeful stride, but the journey is one this writer looks forward to making again many times. If 2049 was destined to follow in its predecessor’s box office failure, this writer will venture to argue that it will have the same kind of cultural staying power, too.
When Christopher Nolan announced that his latest project would be about the Battle of Dunkirk, a notorious piece of British WWII lore, this writer could not help but express some knee-jerk disappointment. One of the most original and exciting auteurs in modern cinema (and a guy with enough clout to get done seemingly anything he wants) making a war film felt a little too conventional. After seeing the film twice (the second time in glorious IMAX) it is clear just how wrong that instinct was. In many ways, Dunkirk feels like Nolan placing an explanation mark on his previous works which obsessively explore time and POV. Taking place in three different phases of the battle: land, sea, and air, the film toys with perspective to brilliant effect amidst thrilling sequences of battle. The cast is mostly made up of unknowns save for a few notable faces and Nolan regulars, the best of whom is Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot who manages to deliver a devastating performance primarily through his poetic, expressive eyes. Nolan proves once again why he remains one of the greatest filmmakers we have.
What could this writer possibly say about Get Out that has not already been said? Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is blistering, wickedly smart, and satisfying. It would have simply been enough for a guy most known for comedy to deliver a fun horror film, but instead Peele delivered an instant classic. In a post-Obama world where the makeup of our racial politics seems to have radically changed overnight, the film is a searing insight into the African-American experience. Following in the footsteps of socially-conscious horror films like Night of The Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992) the scares pull double duty, as the onscreen horror is an allegorical and wildly entertaining way to kick start a much more uncomfortable, but necessary conversation. This is a horror film that has transcended every boundary and will remain a high water mark in any genre. No other film captured so singularly what it was like to live through 2017.
An absurdist crime comedy that would fit comfortably in the Coen Brothers filmography, I Don’t Feel At Home is the best Netflix original film of the year (and there were some good ones). Melanie Lynskey is given the kind of role that Tarantino excels at handing out to character actors of her caliber, and she carries the movie with aplomb. As a woman who is fed up with her mediocre life and decides to do something about it, Lynskey is equal parts outraged and in way over her head. Aided by an incredibly weird and delightful performance from genre-stalwart Elijah Wood, the film changes gears from pitch black comedy to credible crime caper with startling ease. First time director Macon Blair (best known for his work in Blue Ruin ) makes it all look easy, and proves that he ought to have a long career both in front (of) and behind the lens.
Adapted from one of Stephen King’s most popular novels (and one of this writer’s personal favorite novels, period) and released during a particularly rough personal time, there is really no way to understate how important it was that this film stuck the landing. Thank god for writer-director Andy Muschietti, then, for delivering one of the most thoroughly satisfying films of the year in any genre. Equal parts hilarious, heartfelt, and utterly terrifying, the film captures all of the magic of what makes IT so special to so many of us. Anchored by truly terrific child performances from the Loser’s Club, and a reinvented Pennywise (played with relish by Bill Skarsgård) on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker, the first half of a planned two part story proves that even the losers get lucky sometimes. Believe the hype, folks.
This writer’s top ten lists are traditionally not ranked, but if they were, Lady Bird would be a serious contender for the top spot. Greta Gerwig’s (solo) directorial debut is nothing short of pure delight. The best written script of the year has an ensemble to match, as the whole thing is filled with so many little details that make its world feel universal, yet immediately recognizable: this could have been your hometown, your friends, your family. The central relationship between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is spectacular and nuanced, featuring some of the best work of each’s career. Coming-of-age stories are rarely are this good, or true to life. This writer is comfortable placing Lady Bird alongside classics like Stand By Me (1986) or Dazed and Confused (1993). It will make you want to call your mom, but do one better, and watch it with her.
Noah Baumbach’s episodic, bittersweet examination of adult children trying to escape their artist father’s shadow is less concerned with plotting as much as exploring its character dynamics. The film plays less like a two hour film than a selection of vignettes surrounding these people. With a stellar cast, led by the likes of Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Ben Stiller, can you blame it? Come for the laughs, but stay for the surprising, thoughtful work from Adam Sandler, doing his best work since Punch Drunk Love (2005). Bound to invite the inevitable comparisons to early Woody Allen, it remains an impressive next step for Baumbach, a hilarious and emotional look at the way our family dynamics enrich and wreck our lives, in equal measure.
If Get Out is one end of the spectrum of 2017, then Wonder Woman must be the other. The first truly successful DC film is a pure triumph on every level. In a year when a long-overdue sea change began to swell in Hollywood, Gal Gadot delivered a vision of the hero we need right now. As Diana Prince, Gadot is fierce and feminine, compassionate and complex, and truly worth of ascent to the A-list. The supporting cast is a delight, with Chris Pine delivering the best work of his career as Steve Trevor, Diana’s love interest. Pine and Gadot make magic in their scenes together, as they have firework chemistry, and imbue the film with a warm, delightful sense of humor. While not immune to a slow start, and a final battle that is mired in a bit too much CGI (in fairness: nearly all superhero films have this problem), the action is muscular and satisfying, and once things get rolling, it is nearly impossible to wipe the grin from your face. Perhaps no other image this year was more powerful (and instantly iconic) than Diana facing down a No Man’s Land battlefield (a scene that reduced this writer to tears). While Gadot is the star, equal credit must be given to director Patty Jenkins (shattering records and glass ceilings for female filmmakers everywhere) for crafting a rip-roaring adventure film that is both a genuine crowd pleaser and a battle cry for female empowerment.
Before wrapping things up, stick around long enough to check out five titles that are still worthy of mention (and very much worth seeing) that did not manage to quite crack the top ten.