Even as the general box office continues to decline, the overall quality of films continued to impress in 2017. It was a great year for genre filmmaking in particular, with several comedies and horror films surfacing as a cut above the rest. This will be mostly [spoiler-free], with a few spoilers marked appropriately. Of the 53 films I saw in 2017, here were my favorites:
Blade Runner: 2049
Nothing about a Blade Runner sequel made 30 years after the original should work. This is just another obvious studio cash-grab, right? Somehow, Denis Villeneuve not only captured the tone and atmosphere of the original, but arguably did so with a story that is arguably more compelling than the original. The most incredible element of Blade Runner: 2049 is how contemplative it is. Every scene, even every shot, gives the audience an extended window into a disgustingly beautiful dystopian future. It’s the extremely deliberate pacing that makes this truly feel like a Blade Runner film.
It Comes at Night
In any other year, It Comes at Night would have snuck onto my list proper, but this year has so many strong horror entries that I just couldn’t fit a third onto the list. This movie got a lot of hate upon release, likely because the titular “it” is largely metaphorical. It Comes at Night is a movie that’s mostly about fear itself: fear of illness, fear of mortality, fear of losing your home or your loved ones. It’s also a movie about trust; the two families in the film form an uneasy bond of trust between one another, but nagging suspicions lurk below the surface and threaten everything they’ve built. Where this film best succeeds is in its atmosphere. Trey Edward Shults manages to imbue the entire film with a sense of dread that perfectly mirrors its themes, and makes for a superbly creepy experience from the first minute to the last.
The highest grossing anime of all time is also an instant date-night classic. It tells the story of a teenage boy living in Tokyo and a girl living in rural Japan, each bored with their current life. Due to a twist of fate, they periodically swap bodies, and are forced to learn how to live one another’s life. Your Name is a lovely story about empathy and literally walking a mile in another’s shoes. It is a sweet, charming, exciting, and frequently hilarious love story with a variety of twists and turns.
TOP TEN OF 2017
10. The Big Sick
You probably wouldn’t expect a movie about lovers separated by a medically-induced coma to be one of the funniest of the year, but that’s The Big Sick in a nutshell. Written by Emily Gordon and her husband Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick tells the (mostly) true story of how they met, dated, and in her case, almost died. I’ve heard The Big Sick described as a love story not only between Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan), but also between Kumail and Emily’s parents. It’s that extra layer that really puts this film over the top. Emily’s mom (Holly Hunter) and dad (Ray Romano) bring drama that can only come from a long-standing relationship that has survived years of trials and tribulations. The Big Sick also has a lot to say about the immigrant experience, and the difficulties in blending cultures across the generation gap.
9. Loving Vincent
Loving Vincent was one of the biggest film surprises I experienced in 2017. While I expected the film to be beautiful, what I didn’t expect was the noir story of Van Gogh’s final days to be so gripping. Every frame is hand-painted in the style of Van Gogh’s paintings, with different styles used in different moments. Broad, abstract brush strokes are used for landscape shots, while finer details can be seen during conversations. The director clearly uses different styles of filmmaking from various points of history as well. Much of the film is shot in a fairly contemporary way, but flashback sequences are shot in black and white and framed like dramas from the 1930s. So much love went into Loving Vincent, and you can feel it in literally every frame.
8. The Lost City of Z
Based on true events, The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer obsessed with finding an ancient city that he believes exists in South America. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed watching The Lost City of Z. For a film with such a modest budget, this story is big. It spans multiple decades, three or more trips across the Atlantic, a World War. The dangers of the story feel very real, the jungle extremely fierce, and it’s stunning to remember that there is at least a kernel of reality to the story. You can feel Fawcett’s obsession with exploring the Amazon, to the detriment of his fellow explorers, his reputation, and most importantly, his family. Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), is just as compelling as Percy’s. She wants so desperately to share in his passion, yet because of her gender and the time, she is forced to stay at home watch as her husband throws his life away to his obsession.
7. The Florida Project
You know how when you were a kid, you just accepted the home you were brought up in as “normal” without any outside context of how other people lived? This is the feeling that The Florida Project perfectly captures. Set at “The Magic Castle,” a cheesy motel in Orlando, FL, The Florida Project tells the story of six-year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) as she lives on the brink of homelessness with her negligent mother (Bria Vinaite). It is unbelievable the performances that Sean Baker is able to get out of his actors. Any scene with children feels so personal and real, and Bria Vinaite is just phenomenal in her first film performance.
I’m going to have to delve into [spoilers] a bit to talk about the ending. Eventually Child Protective Services comes to take Mooney away, at which point she runs away to find one of her friends. When she explains how scared she is, the two of them run away in a fantasy sequence through the previously unseen Disney World. While initially jarring, this ending perfectly mirrors what the rest of the film has done all along: showing a child-like perspective of a dire situation, while the adult audience is forced to confront the darker realities of the situation.
6. Get Out
Get Out is a brilliant blend of genres, tones, and original ideas, all to serve a thematic core about modern racial tensions in America. I’m a firm believer that Horror is a genre particularly well-suited as a metaphor for modern societal fears, and that’s exactly what Jordan Peele accomplishes in his inaugural film. Even before anything sinister has happened, you can feel how uncomfortable Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is meeting his girlfriend’s parents in a way that feels all too real. As successful as the movie is as allegory, its true strength is just how damn tense and entertaining the movie is from start to finish. Get Out got a lot of flak for being nominated as a Comedy at the Golden Globes, but I never understood why; for all of its thrills, this movie is also hilarious. I really hope this is just the beginning of Peele’s filmmaking career, because I cannot wait to see what he does next.
5. Lady Bird
Lady Bird is a deeply personal story from first(ish)-time director Greta Gerwig, and she knocks it out of the park. It tells the story of “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan), a self-named high-schooler who wants nothing more than to leave her Sacramento life behind. The real tension of the film comes from the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), who loves Lady Bird but doesn’t necessarily like her high-school self. The movie is told in a series of scenes reminiscent of 2014’s Boyhood, reflecting memories of individual moments rather than necessarily filling in every available narrative detail. Ronan is fantastic as Lady Bird, and mimics Gerwig so well that I frequently forgot who was on screen.
My favorite moment in Lady Bird comes from the end, so [spoilers] ahead. Lady Bird eventually does get accepted into college, and achieves her dream of moving to New York. There’s an emotional climax as she leaves the airport, and most films would end there. Instead, Lady Bird shows us the first few days of her college experience. She decides to go by her real name, and drinks way too much at a party – so much, that she ends up in the hospital. The next morning, she leaves a heartfelt message for her mother, as she realizes that she misses what she’s wanted to get away from for the whole film – her family and Sacramento home. It’s touches like this that make Lady Bird so relatable, and one of the best of 2017.
4. The Square
The Square is a Swedish dark comedy by Force Majeure director Ruben Östland. It tells the story of the curator of an art museum and his exploits to retrieve his stolen phone and wallet. This movie is basically scene after scene of cynical takes on human nature, from faux machismo giving way to deep-seeded insecurities, to how quickly power dynamics can change between one person and another and what reactions that can cause. There’s contemptuous subtext about modern art, and how the packaging may be more important than the actual meaning. The Square has so much on its mind, and arguably the biggest criticism is that it is lampooning too many things at once. I disagree; every moment of this film is just hysterical. While its individual scenes may seem disparate at first, each element comes back to a central, cynical theme: we’re all just frightened herd animals trying to believe we’re something more.
I would recommend any movie on this list to basically anyone. Any movie, that is, except for Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. Perhaps the most maligned movie of 2017, mother! is about as allegorical as a horror movie can get. Oh, but what an allegory it is. It’s amazing that there can be so many different readings on a film that seems so excessively blunt. Going in, I had heard the film was a metaphor of the relationship between God and Mother Nature, and that was my reading as well. Viewed through that lens, mother! tells the story of the Bible vis-à-vis a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) working hard to build a beautiful home as her husband (Javier Bardem) invites over a guest. Things escalate from there. Aronofsky is far from a subtle filmmaker, and his willingness to be so on-the-nose with his metaphors drives home his film’s message(s) with such brutal force. The commitment to the allegory is what made mother! really click with me, and why I believe it will be remembered decades from now. Warning: if you are at all squeamish, or want your movies to make sense on a purely narrative level, this film is not for you.
2. A Ghost Story
This could easily be my #1. Despite the name, A Ghost Story is not a horror film, but an extremely contemplative film about mortality and time. Casey Affleck plays a loving husband who dies in an accident and remains on Earth to be with his wife. Rather than echoing the Patrick Swayze film Ghost, however, Affleck is not able to communicate, and forced to merely observe. We see everything from the ghost’s eyes, watch his wife (Rooney Mara) fall through each stage of grief before finally accepting it and moving on with her life. We watch the world evolve as Affleck is eventually forgotten to time. A Ghost Story is a deeply moving film that examines the existential question of legacy, and the meaning of a single life in the grander scheme. It is available on Amazon Prime, and I can’t recommend enough: turn off the lights and phone, settle in with a loved one for 92 minutes, and watch what I found the most meaningful film of 2017.
The counterpart to A Ghost Story, Coco explores similar themes of death, legacy, and most importantly, family. Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) is a talented musician, but grew up in a family that, due to a family grudge, forbids music. When he takes his great-great-grandfather’s guitar during Día de los Muertos, he finds himself cursed to the Land of the Dead.
What can’t be said about Coco? From the opening frame, this film is gorgeous, with stunning 3D work. The scenes in the real world in particular are meticulously detailed, with every location feeling alive and lived in. The music is also stunning. One song, “Remember Me,” stands out in particular and somehow manages to evoke three completely different emotions based only on the tone in which it is sung.
It’s really in the story, however, that this movie shines brightest. The script is extremely tight, with emotions ebbing and flowing from beginning to end. All setups are paid off, and all payoffs are set up. And that ending…. I don’t have a good reason to spoil it, so I’ll only say that it is one of the best in recent memory. This is, in my opinion, one of Pixar’s best films to date, and simply a masterpiece of animation. Coco is a truly special film, and one that I believe will be remembered for generations.
And there they are, my picks for 2017! Let me know what you think in the comments below. If you want to read more about my 2017 movie thoughts, check out my Best Movie Stuff of 2017 post. Here’s hoping that 2018 is just as good!