2017 will go down as a year that felt deeply divided on a cultural level; when those who shouted the loudest often got heard and other voices got drowned out, even amidst a great wave of change. That divide found its way into movies as increasingly topical films made waves while the industry itself faced a reckoning on a variety of levels. But whether you turn to movies to have reality mirrored back to you or for pure escapism, for thoughtful indies or tentpole blockbusters, this year had enough quality to satiate even the hungriest film fan. Roger Ebert called movies “empathy machines” – they were meant to show other points of view and provide a greater understanding of human nature – here are my favourites from 2017:
20. Wind River
With Wind River writer Taylor Sheridan has penned another hard-bitten neo-Western in the vein of previous efforts like Sicario and Hell or High Water. He takes the directing reins here in the service of a mystery about a Native woman’s untimely death at the titular reservation during the harsh Wyoming winter. The story is sparse which allows for characters to shine through, while the film plays with structure and timelines in ways that yield spectacular tension. Sheridan’s gift for dialogue and naturalism continue to evolve in this sad and vital story about people on the fringes.
19. The Disaster Artist
Advance knowledge of The Room – the supposed worst movie ever made – helps give context to The Disaster Artist but is by no means necessary. James Franco’s film is fleet and funny enough to stand on its own, with layers of pathos to suggest the darker currents beneath The Room’s notorious mastermind Tommy Wiseau without fully giving over to them. Less of an indictment of The Room’s ineptitude and more a celebration of outsider art and the creative spirit (however wrongheaded it may sometimes be), The Disaster Artist suggests that anyone can make a Hollywood movie and host a glitzy premiere, provided you have at least $6 Million USD (unadjusted for inflation) and a dangerous lack of self-awareness.
18. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
As Netflix struggles to release movies that rival its television successes in quality, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore stands out as a notable exception. Written and directed by frequent Jeremy Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair, I Don’t Feel is a comedy of errors about the small indignities of life and how they grind away at people until they snap, forcing them to take action into their own hands. Melanie Lynskey is great as the lead, a woman who at first seems hapless but later finds inner strength with the help of a deranged ninja star-wielding neighbour played by Elijah Wood. Satisfying and deeply weird, this is one Netflix recommendation worth taking.
An extended allegory about the Biblical story of creation, a primal scream about the rape of mother nature, or an exorcism of personal demons surrounding the director’s divorce? One thing for sure is that Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! isn’t the simple home invasion tale starring Jennifer Lawrence that it was marketed as, leading most audiences to reject it wholly (earning it a notorious ‘F’ CinemaScore). It’s one of those rare movie oddities whose mere existence serves as a victory, but Aronofsky made the most of the opportunity and churned out an affecting vision that’s ripe for interpretation and will be talked about for many years to come. Lawrence is fearless in the lead role and her character’s descent into hell features some truly disturbing imagery, as Aronofsky revisits many of the disparate themes that have been staples of his career.
16. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Who knew that Vince Vaughn could play a laconic, bald-headed badass with such purpose and intensity? S. Craig Zahler gives him pulpy dialogue and a long leash in the bruising and brutal grindhouse-esque Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Vaughn responds by turning in maybe his best performance ever. As hard-luck drug runner Bradley Thomas, Vaughn gets to display decency and fortitude as he kicks ass through various prisons in a scheme to ensure his pregnant wife’s safety (don’t worry, it makes sense with context). Backed up by strong character actors (like Udo Kier at his creepy best) Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes it time getting to the fireworks factory but when it does the explosions are well worth the wait.
15. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos continues his fruitful director-actor collaboration with an energized Colin Farrell in the macabre The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Laced with the director’s trademark deadpan dialogue and heightened reality, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is even darker and deadlier than 2015’s absurd The Lobster, but still finds ways to wring sardonic humour from its twisted premise. Much of the fun (and nightmarish horror) evolves from seeing how far Lanthimos is willing to take his characters, and as his increasingly idiosyncratic movies continue to prove the answer is up to the line of good taste and then gleefully beyond it.
14. War For the Planet of The Apes
In an age of endless sequels and interconnected film worlds, the resurgent and excellent new Planet of the Apes films have been given a rare chance at a proper ending with their third entry. As the series continues to deliberately background its human characters (here led by a vicious Woody Harrelson in full Colonel Kurtz mode), the saga of ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan comes to a climactic close. Full of wrenching drama and thrilling action that cycles through many genres (most notably prison and escape films in its final third), the new Apes films have carried on their forebears’ tradition of layering social commentary into movies about talking apes. And will someone please give Andy Serkis an Oscar for his moving motion-captured portrayal of Caesar? He’s well overdue.
13. Blade Runner 2049
Call it the Chris Nolan effect – Denis Villeneuve’s brainy follow up to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic relies heavily on a pounding and atmospheric score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, often eschewing synths for something a little less accessible. That’s Blade Runner 2049 as a whole as well – hiding its depths below literary allusions and obscuring deeper meaning behind its relatively straightforward plot. At nearly three hours it’s a lengthy journey, but Villeneuve has built on Scott’s neon-lit neo-noir in intriguing and astounding ways, making sure every moment is time well spent. This sequel hesitates to answer some of the original Blade Runner’s most pressing questions but builds on its themes, layering in characters like Ryan Gosling’s K and Ana De Armas’ Joi as it continues to ponder whether androids dream.
12. The Square
Following Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund continues his deconstruction of masculinity and social mores with his art-world satire The Square. There’s plenty of pretentiousness to pick apart and Östlund does so with laser precision, exposing the gulf between what people think of themselves and how they act. The centrepiece is an extended sequence of a man acting like an ape who crashes a black-tie affair; it reaches absurd heights of awkwardness and social pressure. It’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm on steroids, a feature-length finger wagging that gets by on sheer boldness of vision and jet black Scandinavian humour.
11. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand does her best swaggering John Wayne impression in Three Billboards as a fiery mother on a mission and her outspoken intensity is matched by Woody Harrelson’s decent lawman and Sam Rockwell’s unpredictable antagonist. Writer-director Martin McDonagh sidesteps easy answers with a story about the rape and murder of a young woman and how a small town survives in its aftermath, lending an uncomfortable timeliness to an unfortunately common tale of abuse. The characters pop in ways that make you believe they had lives before this movie and will continue to afterwards, and the questions Three Billboards raises – about revenge, anger and the limits of compassion – are posed thoughtfully.
10. Baby Driver
Edgar Wright’s movies have always displayed whiplash editing and clever dialogue and the long-gestating Baby Driver seems like a culmination of those strengths. Wright flips the heist film on its head and morphs it into a stylized musical where guns bark to the beat and tires squeal along with electric guitars. The cast ably portrays archetypes – the neophyte criminal, his innocent paramour, loose cannon(s) – but the true star of the show is Wright’s confident and assured directing that turns Atlanta into a playground for bank robbers. Whether escape vehicles are playing three card monte with a police helicopter on a busy highway or Baby’s simply making a sandwich, Baby Driver marries the songs in our heads with exuberant movement.
Logan had all the pieces in place to be watchable – Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine, Fox finally allowing an R-rated X-Men film, director James Mangold’s passion and commitment – but it exceeded expectations and ended up as one of the strongest superhero films yet. It serves as both a coda on Jackman’s 17-year run as the clawed mutant Wolverine/Logan and an Unforgiven-like deconstruction of the genre that both relies on the character’s lengthy film history while jettisoning unnecessary baggage. Stripped down, feral, yet full of humanity – this describes both the movie and Logan himself. The last-stand Western plot touches on fatherhood and redemption while slyly commenting on the possible future of America. When the claws come out Logan doesn’t shy away from the violence that’s always been a cornerstone of the genre as the movie grapples with its ramifications.
8. Get Out
Not just a movie but a full-blown cultural phenomenon, Jordan Peele’s incisive horror movie is thankfully good enough to withstand the scrutiny that comes with riding high atop the zeitgeist’s wave. Racially charged and featuring carefully orchestrated and mounting dread, Get Out tackles race relations, U.S. colonial history, gender politics and more without ever feeling heavy handed or devolving into a message movie. It can also be appreciated as straight up horror with the themes revealing new layers upon repeat viewings. And even though it’s got funny lines (mostly courtesy of breakout star Lil Rel Howery) it’s not a comedy, as Peele has likened it more to a historical bio-pic based on emotional truth. (full review here)
7. The Shape of Water
In his latest film Guillermo Del Toro returns to some of his favourite themes – outsiders, physical and emotional monsters, the oppression of systems – while applying his usual warmth, humour and skill. The Shape of Water is ostensibly a beauty and the beast riff featuring a mute janitor falling in love with a merman in 1960’s Baltimore, but beyond that it’s a lovely homage to classic movie musicals and horror films that just happens to have frank sexuality and often shocking violence. Only Del Toro could have made this material sing and the movie is a triumph from start to finish, transporting you to another world that’s still recognizably our own (and shot in Hamilton and Toronto!).
6. Good Time
Good Time is a panic attack set to a synth score – a restless up-all-night New York thriller that leaves your nerves frayed and your guts knotted. I haven’t been this anxious during a movie since the Nazi-punk horrors of Green Room. Robert Pattinson continues his string of great post-Twilight roles as a fast-talking petty criminal doing his damnedest to free his brother after a bank heist goes sideways. Good Time’s savagely funny, full of left turns, and pulsing with life courtesy of writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie. In an increasingly sanitized film world full of mega-budget four quadrant blockbusters, it stands out as a movie that feels dangerous and real.
5. The Florida Project
It’s rare that a film actually captures the feeling of childhood, but Sean Baker’s done it with documentary-like realism in The Florida Project. Taking place in the shadow of Disney World and detailing the lives of itinerant residents and workers in the crumbling motels outside of the touristy parts of Florida, The Florida Project languidly follows the pace of a hot summer. The degradation and horrors of hard-living adults brush up against the carefree wonders of childhood as single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). The naturalistic acting and you-are-there immediacy makes you feel like you’re peeking in on the actual lives of these characters, with Willem Dafoe (in an awards-worthy performance) as the only recognizable actor. Full of empathy and hope even amidst darkness, The Florida Project may be the quintessential 2017 movie.
In a year when streaming services proliferated and audiences more than ever threatened to stay home, Christopher Nolan doubled-down on the big screen experience and gave us the masterful Dunkirk about the British forces’ evacuation from France in 1940. Featuring converging storylines that play out across three different time frames (and by land, sea, and air), Nolan created a ticking time bomb puzzle that manages to make the horror of war feel fresh (without resorting to gore) while celebrating the humanity of its often unwitting participants. This is Nolan at the top of his game, orchestrating massive battles while never losing sight of the people at ground level. Dunkirk serves as a keen reminder of why we go to the theatre.
3. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut seemingly came out of nowhere, though those that have been paying attention to her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (like Frances Ha and Mistress America) should have seen it coming. Set in Sacramento in 2002, Lady Bird has a sharp eye for period detail and its specificity helps its story take deep root. Funny, heartfelt, and fully aware of the stakes of youth, Gerwig’s film breathes new life into coming-of-age tropes and soars on the strength of performances like Saoirse Ronan in the lead as the titular 17-year-old and a never-better Laurie Metcalf as her hectoring but well-meaning mother. Thoughtful about the power of art and formative experiences, Lady Bird will strike a chord with anyone who’s been through high school or will go through it, so basically everyone.
2. The Lost City of Z
James Gray’s a displaced man, a master director whose full-screen epics harken back to the wild 70s when bonafide auteurs were taking chances and creating indelible classics. Consider it a miracle then that his films are still being made. The Lost City of Z is his most ambitious yet, tracing the real-life story of British explorer Percival Fawcett from the lush, verdant Amazon to the gray horrors of WWI-era England, and back again to the jungles that have taken root as Fawcett’s never-ending obsession over a span of decades. Charlie Hunnam lives up to his movie star billing as Fawcett and Robert Pattinson is great and unrecognizable as his right-hand man, while Sienna Miller gives maybe her best performance yet as the steadfast and headstrong Nina Fawcett. An obsessively detailed and moving tale about the lure of the unknown, The Lost City of Z is haunting filmmaking that inspires.
1. Call Me By Your Name
A romantic coming-of-age drama, a coming out story, an ode to European culture both past and present, and a stunning and heartfelt movie about teenage impulses and passions – Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me by Your Name is all of these and more. Set in Northern Italy in 1983, the film stars Timothée Chalamet as 17-year-old Elio, a withdrawn musician who falls into the orbit of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brash American grad student. Guadagnino’s patient direction doesn’t belabour their romance, but allows it to flourish amidst the villas and lakes of Crema, Italy as the lush setting serves as a sort of character unto itself. Small details like 80s music piping from cars, a character’s shoes, stolen glances, or words left said and unsaid all add up over the course of the film, leading to a stunning emotional climax that avoids trite conclusions while allowing for the wellspring of teenage emotion to flow. It’s about learning from heartbreak and not hardening yourself to the world, ensuring that a movie set over 30 years in the past holds timeless lessons.
(click here for the Best of 2016 list)
(click here for the Best of 2015 list)