2017 was dismal in every possible way, but if this year had one saving grace, it’s movies. Whittling down a list to twenty or fewer films was torturous, and there was no attempt at “objectivity,” if such a thing is possible when it comes to feelings about film. These are movies I couldn’t get out of my head, ones I wanted to see over and over again (and often did). Movies that were beautiful, bloody, pulpy, poignant, ambitious, subversive, mesmerizing, full of underdogs and outsiders, compelling heroes and antiheroes.
David Foster Wallace once defined good art as “art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” If there’s any unifying theme to this list, it’s that these movies felt healing, enlightening, enthralling, fun, transformative - but most of all, they helped revive or sustain some part of us that this year - and most years - seemed determined to ruin.
Who could have predicted Tonya Harding would be this year’s greatest antihero and tragic figure? Maybe Sufjan Stevens did. Craig Gillespie’s film deserves to be here based on the strength of Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s performances alone. And, of course, Sebastian Stan’s mustache. (Fun fact: screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote Janney’s role with her in mind.) This film gave us one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen: Tonya Harding putting out her cigarette with an ice skate blade.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
A space odyssey featuring Kurt Russell and Parliament couldn’t not make my list. If I’m being honest, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the movie I saw the most in theaters this year. Next to Logan, it’s possibly the best 2017 movie about family and abuse. As joyous as it is painful, it’s a vivid hallucination, a superhero film about the acceptance you find with the family you choose.
Colossal / The Big Sick
Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is a kaiju film masquerading as a rom-com, taking love story tropes and revealing them to be as toxic and creepy as they really are. Without giving too much away, Colossal undermines rom-com expectations and becomes a story about empowerment and growing up (and, interestingly, internet trolls), with a performance from Anne Hathaway that should make us all grateful to her, and for her. If Colossal is a subversion of the rom-com, then Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is the Platonic ideal. Based on the true story of how its screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon met and fell in love, The Big Sick is a sincere, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking film about family, illness, prejudice, and love.
John Wick: Chapter 2
John Wick’s soul is in play, and he’s still beholden to the rules of the Continental, to the rules of his old life as Baba Yaga. This Chad Stahelski-directed sequel is a soul-searching chapter in John Wick’s journey. Though it isn’t as lean or emotionally cathartic as the first film, Chapter 2 improves on its world-building, with bigger action sequences - its best set pieces include a chop-shop and an Enter the Dragon-inspired art installation, where spectators are invited to reflect on “the nature of self.” Other highlights: Keanu Reeves’s playful rivalry with Common, Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, and a mute Ruby Rose. Also, I would probably watch a feature-length film just about Lance Reddick petsitting John’s new dog.
One of the most misunderstood movies of the year, and the one seemingly nihilistic entry in this list (unless you love and sympathize with David, as I do). Alien: Covenant is bleak, beautiful poetry about colonists seeking a new planet who make the terrible mistake of discovering the one where David resides. It’s a love story about two Michael Fassbenders, David and new-model synthetic Walter. It solidifies David as the protagonist of the Alien prequels, and clarifies Prometheus. This is the next step in David’s terrible evolution from Frankenstein’s monster to Dr. Frankenstein, from synthetic servant to Lucifer. My review here.
Jon Bernthal might be the closest thing we have to a modern equivalent to Warren Oates. This year, I learned to use Bernthal’s filmography as a guide to find the good shit. This is how I discovered Jamie M. Dagg’s Jon Bernthal-starring Sweet Virginia, a film about a gentle motel-owner/pot-smoker/former rodeo champion who’s lost his mojo, and how he responds to the violence that’s visited upon his small town. Secrets, suspense, an unhinged hitman, slow-motion bull-riding flashbacks. This shit is catnip for my crime-loving ass. And it’s all made better and more beautiful with Jessica Lee Gagné’s cinematography. A film that may have felt trite in the hands of a lesser cast and crew, but ultimately feels tense and compelling.
Also recommended: Irish medieval thriller Pilgrimage starring Bernthal as a mysterious mute and Tom Holland as a monk delivering a holy relic to Rome.
Get Out is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a genre twist and vital, incisive social commentary. The Golden Globes recently classified Jordan Peele’s directorial debut as a “comedy,” and they were wrong. Though Get Out doesn’t fit easily into any single genre - Peele jokingly called it a documentary, and you could argue it’s horror, satire, thriller. What is certain, and more important, is that Get Out is a masterpiece, a gift of a film, the kind of movie you could describe, as Roger Ebert once did, as “a machine that generates empathy.”
It’s hard to top Guillermo del Toro’s review of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver: “This is An American In Paris on wheels and crack smoke.” The fairytale musical version of a Michael Mann film, as sinister as it is fun, Baby Driver reminds us that car chases and heists make for pure, euphoria-inducing cinema. My review here.
Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut is an elegiac western that grapples with grief and loss, white-savior complex, the violence of men. Sheridan himself has called it CSI: Wyoming. Jeremy Renner delivers his best performance yet as a man atoning for his failure to save his daughter who assists an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) in solving the murder of a local girl on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Gil Birmingham plays a grieving father and steals every scene he’s in. With its snowy landscapes and Nick Cave’s & Warren Ellis’s score - strings and a chorus of ghostly voices - make this the most haunting film I saw this year.
Important to note: Taylor Sheridan scrubbed this film’s ties with Weinstein Co., announcing that all future income that would have gone to The Weinstein Company will go to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, a charity for battered Native American women.
Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is a perfect and perfectly sweet heist film, more Robin Hood than film noir, where the system is the villain. It’s tempting to declare Adam Driver the MVP of this film, but Daniel Craig as explosives expert Joe Bang gives him a run for his money. This film wears its heart on its sleeve, with open affection for its downtrodden characters, featuring a beauty pageant scene featuring John Denver that might make you weep.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the antidote to the heartbreak of the prequels. Subversive, redemptive, funny, galvanizing, full of heart and sexual tension. It’s the best Star Wars entry since The Empire Strikes Back, and certainly the most beautiful, thanks to DP Steve Yedlin. The Last Jedi is about how we deal with trauma, our failures, and the past. It introduces newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, the heart of this film, who reminds us why we rebel - to save what we love, not to fight what we hate.
If he hadn’t already, 2017 was the year that John Cho showed us he should be in everything. In The Exorcist, Cho shined in a role totally unlike his character in Columbus, a delicate little movie that wields tremendous emotional power. Kogonada’s directorial debut feels like modern-day Ozu with notes of Linklater. It’s a love story and a coming-of-age story about time, the healing power of art, and the way two people (Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) meet and change each other for the better.
Mudbound is Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel about two American families, one white, one black, connected by history and land. Set during World War II and inspired by Rees’s own family’s stories and grandmother’s diary, Mudbound feels both deeply personal and not unlike a long-lost American epic. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography feels like Terence Malick, Andrew Wyeth, and Walker Evans. Mudbound is a powerful examination of racism, masculinity, and PTSD, boasting formidable performances from an ensemble cast that includes Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell.
The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro’s romantic, sensuous fairytale balances its violence and darkness with whimsy and emotion. The Shape of Water marries the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the color palette of Powell & Pressburger, and the euphoric fever dream of a Stanley Donen musical. Del Toro’s world reveres the Other, the outsider, the monster as a god. It’s a world where the real monsters are fascists: cruel, hard, and soulless men.
The Work is Jairus McLeary’s and Gethin Aldous’s documentary about a Folsom State Prison program that invites members of the public twice a year to join convicts for four days of intensive group therapy. This is one of the most powerful movies I saw this year. A bartender, a museum associate, and a teacher’s assistant meet with convicts to heal, and to discover what they all have in common. One of the program’s founders describes it as a “process of going down into the wound. We’re looking for something, and we’re bringing something back out of that descent.”
This is the second time James Mangold’s Logan has made my “best movies of the year” list. I saw the first forty minutes at the end of 2016, and I sensed then that I would love it, and I was right. Blending western, noir, and the road movie, Logan is like Unforgiven as a superhero film, or Paris, Texas as an action film. It introduces Dafne Keen as Laura who is, next to Wonder Woman, possibly the best-written female character in a superhero film. One of this year’s most affecting cinematic moments: Laura turning the cross into an X. My review here.
Blade of The Immortal
Holy shit. Takashi Miike’s 100th film was my most euphoric cinematic experience this year. It has everything you’d want in a movie: Takuya Kimura as an ageless samurai with a tragic past, a little girl seeking vengeance against the men who killed her parents, sinister swordsmen, period costumes, blood, bloodworms, an insane body count, and the secret ingredient in all the best action films: poignance.
P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite working directors, and I’m glad I got a chance to see this messed-up masterpiece before finishing my list. Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread is sexy, pretty, and perverse, a love story that is somehow both buttoned-up and completely unmoored, at times reminding me of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, The Duke of Burgundy, and the films of David Lean, Hitchcock, and Powell & Pressburger. The less you know about Phantom Thread before seeing it, the better, but it’s worth mentioning its sumptuous costumes and production design by Mark Bridges and Mark Tildesley, an exquisite score by Jonny Greenwood, and masterful performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps.
Blade Runner 2049
Martin Scorsese once said that a movie theater was “a magical world - the soft carpet, the smell of fresh popcorn, the darkness, the sense of safety, and, above all, sanctuary - much the same in my mind as entering a church. A place of dreams.” I saw Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi poem Blade Runner 2049 three times in a theater, and each time it felt as Scorsese described: hushed, holy, no one even spoke or touched their phone. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best sequels of all time, a mesmerizing meditation on the self and empathy and reality, on humanity and aspiring to be more, which blends Nabokov with noir, all shot beautifully by the brilliant Roger Deakins. My review here.
Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel not only exceeds the hype, it transcends it. In 1983, a teenager named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls in love with Oliver, the doctoral student (Armie Hammer) who works for his father (the magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s a simple but transformative story, a portrait of vulnerability, loss, the rarity of real connection, the sanctity of pain. A scene with a peach perfectly encapsulates intimacy: how uncomfortable, funny, weird, affecting, and sweet it is.
Elio’s father explains to him: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty.” His monologue about our emotional deaths echoes something John Cassavetes once said: “Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are. In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger. My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21. The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain.” Trying to save pain, to resist complacency and stay raw is maybe the point of film, and a revolutionary idea. And Call Me By Your Name does the thing all good art should: it revives powerful feelings that we may have thought died in us years ago.
Honorable mentions (i.e. other movies that belong on this list that I will likely regret not writing about later): A Ghost Story; Brigsby Bear; Dunkirk; First They Killed My Father; The Florida Project; Girls Trip; I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore; Lady Bird; The Lure; Pilgrimage; Prevenge; The Villainess; Wonder Woman; xXx: Return of Xander Cage; Thor: Ragnarok
A movie that hasn’t found distribution yet but will likely make next year’s list: Bodied
If television were movies: Twin Peaks: The Return and Godless
Movies I didn’t get to see before assembling this list: The Post, Molly’s Game, Lucky, A Fantastic Woman, BPM, lots more