2017 was a trash fire of epic proportions for multiple reasons: Trump's first year in office, the endless Weinstein Scandal, George Romero and Tobe Hooper's deaths, Pottersville; it was a cavalcade of nonsense that never seemed to let up for five seconds. But the movies were pretty good. In fact, it was a downright sensational year for cinema, delivering numerous escapes into dark auditoriums that were far more rewarding than any dose of depressing reality could hope to be.
2017 was so stacked that I decided to have a little fun and use the gimmick of selecting seventeen pictures to make up my "Best Of" list*. Now, let's get two things out of the way up front. First off: these are more "favorites" than movies I think are the objective "best", because frankly that's just the more fun list to write. Secondly, as much squawking as I did throughout this calendar period about Twin Peaks: The Return being the "best film of 2017", I'd rather just celebrate a selection of traditional movies than beat that dead horse again.
Anyway, on with the show. May you find one (or three) titles here that you missed during the year and enjoy them as much as I did. Here's hoping 2018's reality is better than 2017's (though the films can remain this good, if they want to)...
#17. Logan Lucky (d. Steven Soderbergh, w. Rebecca Blunt)
It's amazing how easy Soderbergh makes this look, both the ease in which he's able to detail a heist, and the gentle grace he injects into each character. Many have described Logan Lucky as his "Coen movie", but it's far too purposefully loving, and lacks those filmmakers' acid-laced wit. In an age where every big tentpole production is about heroes rescuing the world from utter destruction, it was comforting to watch a bit of pulp where the stakes were simply a bunch of low rent goofs, desiring to better their situation in life. For me, Daniel Craig's Joe Bang is the oddly layered weirdo of '17.
#16. Blade of the Immortal (d. Takashi Miike, w. Tetsuya Oishi)
Takashi Miike's 100th film is a gory, overlong treat, filled with show-stopping 1 v. 100 sword fights, and centered around two heroes whose journey toward revenge and redemption bring them face-to-face with a rogue's gallery of murderous psychos, all looking to end the endless. Both the impish prankster and formalist samurai film student iterations of Miike are present in the movie's two-and-a-half hour runtime, and its fun to see him combine the modes he's minted throughout his long, audacious career into a milestone work that moves like a fucking rocket ship, despite its bloated length.
#15. Detroit (d. Kathryn Bigelow, w. Mark Boal)
Easily the most uncomfortable - not to mention the most uncomfortable to discuss, given individuals' heated opinions regarding Bigelow tackling this subject matter - movie of '17, Detroit is the second best social horror movie behind this year's other stand-out entry into the subgenre. The extended central set piece is a shattering docudrama transmutation of the home invasion film, and Bigelow never lets up, causing us to wince as she brutalizes innocent men and women onscreen. For the director and her frequent screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal, Detroit is in dialogue with their previous masterpiece (Zero Dark Thirty); a showcase of interrogation tactics continued, only here those exacting atrocity know they cannot gain anything from their actions but perverted pleasure.
#14. Okja (d. Bong Joon-ho, w. Jon Ronson & Bong Joon-ho)
We all wanted an Okja of our own to love after watching Bong Joon-ho's latest fantastical pleasure - a breathlessly tender allegory regarding the love and cruelty we show animals farmed for flesh. Joon-ho paints a portrait of a world where we should be kinder to the creatures we often callously consume, immersing us in another one of his modern fairy tales, critiquing the culture in which we currently exist while also thrilling us with a tangible, lived-in anti-reality that cartoonishly mirrors our own. Netflix has been a hot topic in cinephile circles all year, as they buy up and dump more movies than anyone can watch during a single calender period. But if they keep putting out pictures this good, they're still a welcome entity in the modern cinema landscape.
#13. Rat Film (d. & w. Theo Anthony)
Theo Anthony's shoestring budgeted experimental documentary about vermin in Baltimore, and how their existence correlates to the poor and downtrodden of that great American city, is a marvel of cinematic abstraction, using its titular subject as a jumping off point to examine infastructure, class divides, and the ways those in power exploit both to their advantage. It's a Herzogian approach to non-fiction filmmaking, scored by the ambient electro of Wham City mastermind Dan Deacon, and peaking with Anthony asking a rat catcher whether or not he believes the animals he exterminates end up in heaven; rodents becoming cosmic links to our understanding of the universe.
#12. Dunkirk (d. & w. Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan's time compressing/expanding war picture is a work of wondrous craft, operating on a detached cerebral level that worms its way to your heart through your brain. Gorgeously (and now somewhat infamously) shot and projected on large gauge celluloid, Nolan places you inside the frames and makes you feel the panic and terror those English boys on the beach are enduring, while a faceless Winston Churchill - whose struggles to coordinate Operation Dynamo are detailed in Joe Wright's superlative chamber piece Darkest Hour - rallies civilian ships to get these soldiers home safe. By making us care about the collective instead of individuals, Nolan forces us to project our own experiences with having loved ones in danger onto that mass, believing we know someone who's risked it all for their country.
#11. Blade Runner 2049 (d. Denis Villeneuve, w. Hampton Fancher & Michael Green)
2049 is the ostentatious commerical failure of 2017, full of portentous doom and existing in a meticulously detailed universe that's barely moved past the rainy hellscape that Ridley Scott painted with his lens thirty-five years ago. Denis Villeneuve has created something like a minor miracle - a movie born of our current addiction to Intellectual Property that uses its fan service to move the story forward in fascinating fashion. It's a crying shame this picture died the way it did at the box office, but the fact remains it's here for us to consume many times over, dissecting its themes regarding both physical and spiritual selves while being wowed by what a technical marvel it is. That's more rewarding than any sequel could hope to be.
#10. Personal Shopper (d. & w. Olivier Assayas)
"...or is it just me?" Olivier Assayas' ghost story is less a horror movie than it is a rumination on the staying power of loss, and how we seek out that which haunts us without sometimes even knowing it. Assayas and Kristen Stewart have now developed a creative partnership that's as impressive as any director/actor combo currently working, the filmmaker tapping into her torpid presentation and milking it for every emotive drop its worth. Yet beyond the depressive qualities of Personal Shopper, Assayas builds tension in unexpected ways, the film's central scare set piece centered around the everyday act of exchanging text messages. The French auteur has always been an idiosyncratic artist, but here he's crafted a picture that creeps into your soul, letting you feel every ounce of loss in your own life, only to decide how to channel those emotions once the final credits roll.
#9. Brawl In Cell Block 99 (d. & w. S. Craig Zahler)
Craig Zahler is onto something with his idiosyncratic methods of creating throwback pulp. His scripts are defined by their attention to character construction, before transitioning into full-blown brutality. Scenes are shot with a plain combination of angles - nothing jagged, his camera steady. But Brawl In Cell Block 99 blows them all away, becoming a hodgepodge of white male aggression, muddied problematic politics, and old school DIY auteurism. Zahler is in control of seemingly every aspect of the movie, for better or worse, right down to the soundtrack, which he co-wrote and then hired The O'Jays to perform. It's a movie where its blue collar everyman protagonist beats the shit out of a car with his bare hands, and there's still over two hours to go after that. Let Zahler keep making these hyper-violent diversions until the end of time, and I'll keep watching them.
#8. Get Out (d. & w. Jordan Peele)
To be completely honest, Get Out is the movie of 2017, it's just not my movie of 2017. Jordan Peele's slice of social horror is an utter masterpiece - a Twilight Zone episode for the Trump Era, where even the Left are Obama-voting racists, looking to possess black bodies for their own entitled betterment. Yet outside of being an expertly executed work of commentary, Peele never forgets that he's an entertainer first, delivering high-minded cheap thrills that totally kill with an audience. The fact that he's now one of our A-List filmmakers - producing projects for Spike Lee while developing his next horror show - is one of 2017's finest surprises. Here's hoping Get Out sparks a revolution, resurrecting monster movies that reflect the worst parts of ourselves, carrying on the legacy of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, the same year we lost those two masters of the macabre.
#7. The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker, w. Chris Bergoch & Sean Baker)
Let’s get something out of the way up front – The Florida Project is a movie about people living in poverty, but is in no way “poverty porn” (as some critics have irresponsibly labeled it). To become pornography, Baker would have to glorify or relish his characters’ meager existences. Instead, he’s merely providing us with a slice of life, and all the wonder that can be found on a Wednesday afternoon when you don’t have a dollar to your name or elementary classes to attend. There’s no embellishment for effect, nor does Baker rub our noses in any sort of nastiness that we’d find in a lesser picture. No, The Florida Project instead acts as the chronicle of some oddly creative kids, who will toss a dead fish into a pool in hopes of bringing it back to life, or start blurting noises into an oscillating fan because they like the way it distorts their voices. If Baker’s exploiting anything, it’s the sense of discovery that comes along with a lack of experience, and how the mundane can suddenly become magical, if you let it.
#6. Baby Driver (d. & w. Edgar Wright)
I saw Baby Driver at SXSW, then I watched it four more times in theaters. I usually don't even see movies twice in the same year. But Baby Driver is sexy – existing in a heightened world of fast cars and chic diners, where mere mortals can possess Jon Hamm’s lustrous head of hair. It’s a universe where romantic dances can be had in the middle of a laundromat, the colors of the clothes being cleaned in each tumbler coordinated so that a beautiful young couple seemingly exist inside the aughts equivalent of a '60s French pop operetta. A phone call can generate plans for these same young lovers to just jump in the car and head west, only the hum of an engine and the glory of song ushering them into oblivion. For anyone who enjoys cinema at its most elemental, Wright has boiled down the iconography of your favorite action pictures and then synced their daredevil set pieces to a playlist he’s been curating for twenty-two years. It's a fantastical adaptation of an entire genre, tapping its toes in time with a crashing “Bellbottoms” beat that will render your own car useless, because you’ll levitate out of the fucking theater.
#5.The Transfiguration (d. & w. Michael O'Shea)
Freshman writer/director Michael O’Shea’s powerfully grimy entry into the NYC splatter canon doubles as a mournful treatise on loneliness and the haunting nature of grief. It’s a picture that doesn’t just proudly wear its influences on its sleeve, but also inserts them into the actual text, as a young Far Rockaway murderer hordes crudely labeled VHS tapes of vampire classics such as Near Dark and Fright Night. From those fuzzy, dubbed copies, he cobbles together a personalized mythology, which he uses to help define his own violent existence. O’Shea’s vision is based in the pre-restoration New York genre cinema of William Lustig and Larry Cohen – far away from the Wall Street Brokers who create capitalist-driven collapses, yet a few stories above groups of bullies who call this self-diagnosed vampire “freak” and take turns trying to pin the kid to the cracked concrete and piss on his plain grey tees. The Transfiguration is a Portrait of a Serial Killer riff on potential redemption, with Coney Island Ferris Wheels dotting the horizon as our central bloodsucker finds hope in another abused soul. But we know escaping himself won’t be that easy, as O’Shea creates a suffocating aura of impossibility, skyscrapers looming like reapers made of metal and glass.
#4. The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo del Toro, w. Vanessa Taylor & Guillermo del Toro)
The movie Guillermo del Toro’s been working toward his entire careeer. A pervy goth romance between a strong outsider and the Mexican auteur’s most beloved Creature, tinged with Jacques Demy-esque musical shades and Cold War ruminations regarding American fascism. I’ve never been 100% on board with GDT - he always struck me as Tim Burton for those who read Cahiers - but this is just exquisitely melodramatic and lovely. The world it lives inside dances toward beauty before dashing away from bondage, all told from the perspective of Richard Jenkins' gleefully shy artistic recluse. What else could you want from a modern fairy tale this meticulously designed?
#3. Good Time (d. The Safdie Brothers, w. Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie)
When you talk to the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What), they realize that their latest, Good Time, feels like a movie out of touch with modern filmmaking, while still being completely in sync with the times in which we live. Its central bank robbing brothers dash from their latest crime, get tripped up by the cops, and we end up spending one wild night trying to get the mentally handicapped sibling out of Rikers before the animals inside eat him alive. Good Time is as propulsive as motion pictures get – feeling like it was shot out of a fucking cannon, as we wheel, deal, steal, and almost get more than one person killed along the way. The naturalistic live-shooting style the Safdies employ is immersive, getting you into the parking lot of a Queens White Castle and the fluorescent, screeching bowels of shithead central, Adventureland. But there’s also a sociopolitical subtext injected into the proceedings. This is a world of where the lowest Caucasian male will still be passed over during a police stop for his black counterparts. That's what puts Good Time over the top, and marks it as the pinnacle of our current NYC Grime resurgence (which includes the aforementioned Transfiguration): it marries pulp aesthetics with a genuine POV regarding how cities treats their multicultural denizens.
#2. Call Me By Your Name (d. Luca Guadagnino, w. James Ivory)
I toyed with putting Call Me By Your Name at the #1 spot, and after a few more viewings it very well may sit there (these lists are forever adjustable, after all). In a short time, Luca Guadagnino has become one of the world's finest filmmakers, making movies in the vein of his Italian Neorealist forefathers that are graceful, elegant, and reflecting unquantifiable levels of truth about the times in which they're set, and the existential struggles of those folks existing in them. Call Me By Your Name is a summer romance - a blossoming bouquet of feelings between two men both discovering who they are, gentle and erotic and totally unafraid to experiment in ways we don't expect (you'll never look at a peach the same way again). But then Gudagnino (with the aid of legendary writer James Ivory) breaks your heart, as he understands that love and loss are intertwined in ways that often cannot be separated. "I have loved you for the last time," Sufjan Stevens sings during a climactic moment, and we realize that learning how to lose parts of ourselves is just as essential to the human experience as gaining them in the first place.
#1. John Wick: Chapter Two (d. Chad Stahelski, w. Derek Kolstad)
In twenty years, we're going to be talking about John Wick: Chapter Two the same way we discuss John Woo's Hard Boiled today. This is an action milestone - a phantasmagorical journey into an underworld's heart of darkness that finds Keanu's titular man of violence discovering that there may be less of his soul left intact from the first film than he thought. Wick 2 is double-barreled Dostoyevsky, aiming both its pistols directly at your own existential angst and pulling the trigger. It plays like Michael Mann adapting Greek mythology, delivering all that you loved about the first classic entry into the Wick franchise before leaving you on a note that changes everything about the universe Chad Stahleski and Derek Kolstad just expanded upon. But beyond all else, Chapter Two is a master class in action framing, staging and cutting, each set piece building on the last before climaxing with a mirror hall homage to Enter the Dragon that literally left me hyperventilating the first time I saw it. I can't wait for Chapter Three, but even if there weren't another Wick installment, I'd be perfectly fine, as this movie is damn near perfect.
*As of this writing, I have not seen Phantom Thread, Molly's Game, or The Post.