2017 was an impressively diverse and quality-rich year for film. Much like Shannon, I saw more new-release films this year than any year before, and I’d say at least three quarters of which I enjoyed to some degree. And while I think I could make arguments for a number of films to have made this list—say, The Big Sick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or Baby Driver amongst a multitude of others—the following ten were the ones that truly stuck with me; the ones that wormed into my mind and refused to let go.
So here it is, my top 10 films of 2017. Shall we?
10. Alien: Covenant
When I reviewed Alien: Covenant back in May, I gave it what would be charitably described as a lukewarm thumbs up. I loved some of the performances, the production design, and the fact that it was the meanest film in a series ostensibly about how humanity is all just meaningless “dust motes in the cosmos of infinite pain and suffering.” But I also had problems with the film’s plot, pacing, and felt that the film’s script was a mess.
I take almost all of my negativity back — I’m fully on #TeamCovenant. Director Ridley Scott made a $100 million blockbuster and spent the majority of the time utilizing Michael Fassbender’s dual performances as an actionless pondering of what it means to be a creator, a creation, and the legacy thereof. Covanent feels like Scott grappling with his late brother’s (the great Tony Scott) death and how, years from now, nothing will be remembered of either of them but their films. There’s a fire and an anger behind Scott’s direction, and the themes recontextualize the man’s entire five decade long career. It’s a film that benefits from multiple viewings and is a fascinating capstone on one of the most interesting careers in all of Hollywood.
9. A Ghost Story
Last year, Pete’s Dragon was David Lowery’s beautiful paen to the aesthetics and feel of Steven Spielberg. This year, Lowery wowed me again with A Ghost Story, seemingly his attempt to ape the style of the great Terrence Malick. A Ghost Story’s, well, story of life, death, grief, and the inevitable passing of time is genuinely haunting. It might not be a “scary” movie, but Lowery uses the supernatural to examine the almost painfully tangible life cycle of humanity. Lowery uses the film’s boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio, the minimal dialogue, restrained effects (the “ghost” is merely a sheet with two black dots for eyes), the lackadaisical editing and Daniel Hart’s wondrous score to emphasize the intimacy to an almost claustrophobic degree, with each frame bursting with emotional resonance.
If there were one film to sum up 2017, it would probably be Colossal. Maybe the quintessential #MeToo film, Colossal uses the Kaiju genre to tell not just one of the best monster films in decades, but also depict emotional and physical abuse by men against women in a way that cinema rarely illustrates. Anne Hathaway’s Gloria and Jason Sudekis’s Oscar aren’t your stereotypical abused and abusers, respectively. Hathaway and Sudekis anchor the film with two of the best performances of the year, allowing writer/director Nacho Vigalondo to literally and figuratively play in a kaiju-as-metaphor sandbox to stunningly impactful effect. What’s more, Vigalondo creates a fascinating and unmistakable monster design for Gloria’s Korean projection—this isn’t a Godzilla ripoff or anything of the like; he’s a wonderfully expressive creature that looks flawless even given the film’s relatively small budget. In merely his first English language feature film, Vigalondo has already created a near-masterpiece.
7. Wind River
I wasn’t the world’s biggest Sicario or Hell or High Water fan, though I respected much of what Taylor Sheridan brought to the table as a screenwriter. However, with his directorial debut, Wind River, I found myself enraptured by Sheridan’s unique outskirts sensibilities. A murder mystery about the death of a young Native American girl, Wind River feels like a true mid-point between the two, with the heart of Hell or High Water meshing with the thematic weight and darkness of Sicario. Sheridan is compassionate, but honest about the struggles of living on Indian Reservations while weaving in a vicious takedown of white-savior tropes—our white “hero” is a vigilante Fish and Wildlife Service agent pretending to seek revenge for the young woman’s father, but in reality is just doing this to calm his own conscience. Jeremy Renner proves to be an impeccable snowy western anti-hero, providing the mooring the film needs to work as both a work of tenderness and cruelty.
6. Get Out
Who would have thought a year ago that Jordan Peele, of Key & Peele fame, would become one of our most interesting and adept horror directors? Get Out has added to the lexicon—it’s hard not to think of someone like, say, Ben Carson without immediately conjuring up images of the Sunken Place—in a way no horror film has in decades. The Armitage family, including a never-better Bradley Whitford and a fiercely dark turn by Allison Williams, are instantly iconic villains representing the racism at the root of even white, upper class liberals—“I would have voted for Obama a third time.” Peele’s penchant for comedy is also on full display, though not in ways that will satisfy those expecting the stylings of his Comedy Central days, with the exception of Lil Rey Howery as Rod, the TSA agent best friend who is one of the breakout characters of 2017. Rather, Peele fills his film with a dark undercurrent of biting satire as well as well utilized black comedy, with images like a man being impaled with a taxidermied stag while a man lay on a table with his brain exposed showcasing Peele’s absolute mastery of every element of his craft.
5. The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro has long been one of my favorite directors, but his English language films have always felt too broad and lacking in the strong characterization and wondrous dialogue of his Spanish language features. Enter The Shape of Water, a visually luscious love story about a mute woman falling in love with a fish/frog-person. It’s an awe-inspiring fairy tale told that feels both incredibly personal—no one other than Guillermo del Toro would have the daring and determination to write a romance about a The Creature from the Black Lagoon analogue—and at the same time universally accessible. At its core, The Shape of Water is a tale of being othered; a film about a woman with a disability, a black woman, a gay man, an immigrant scientist and the Amphibian Man coming together to combat hate and fear with love; a splendidly resonant message in 2017. The Shape of Water is a work of pure, unabashed, joyous passion and of singular vision.
4. War for the Planet of the Apes
I’m a huge Planet of the Apes fan, and War for the Planet of the Apes might just be my 2nd favorite film in the entire series, new or old. I’m in awe that a film as bold in its themes and as confident in its convictions could even exist in the blockbuster form. War for the Planet of the Apes is half personal revenge Western, half Biblical epic—all while wrapping up a trilogy that has both reinvigorated one of the greatest film franchises of all time, while also forging its own path of socially conscious science fiction. Think The Searchers meets The Ten Commandments but with Apes and that’s pretty spot on. Andy Serkis’s Caesar is one of the 21st Century’s great fictional protagonists, a motion captured chimpanzee whose broken soul and vengeful spirit contrasts with the Moses-like legend that has been built around him. Director Matt Reeves, despite only writing this final film of the new trilogy and directing the latter two, has melded this series into quite literally an Ape Torah—Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s Golden Gate Bridge sequence becomes Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and parting the red sea, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the 40 years in the desert, and the finale of War for the Planet of the Apes is, not even subtly, the final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy.
I don’t know how Reeves managed to convince a studio to make this film for $150 million, but I’m glad he did.
3. The Florida Project
I don’t think any film in 2017 was more beautiful than The Florida Project. Following up his gritty, iPhone shot, queer breakthrough 2015 film Tangerine, Sean Baker moves from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the heliotropic motels outside of Orlando, Florida. Baker’s lens is empathetic as ever, showcasing the lower class that lives on both the physical and economic outskirts of the “Happiest Place on Earth” that we tend to ignore out of convenience or a lack of compassion. But The Florida Project isn’t just about the struggles of poverty—it primarily serves as a look into the wonderful and imaginative mindset of childhood. Brooklyn Prince gives one of the all-time great child performances as Moonee, the film’s protagonist and Baker’s cinematography1 gives a childlike luster to the world around Moonee. Oh, and The Florida Project features a career-best performance from Willem Dafoe, utilizing his rarely tapped into kindness and grace. The Florida Project works as both escapism and harsh truth in an almost mystical way, ending on a visually dazzling and affectionately raw note that is jubilant while simultaneously sorrowful.
2. The Transfiguration
I’ve written about it, Vyce has written about it, Tanner has written about it, Ryan and Tanner have talked about it… The Transfiguration might just be Lewton Bus’s favorite film of the year! And for most of 2017, it was my personal favorite as well.
Horror isn’t usually my genre of choice, but The Transfiguration is one of the most thematically complex and visually striking horror films in years. Part Let the Right One In, part 70s and 80s grimy New York City exploitation film, and part the first two-thirds of Moonlight, The Transfiguration is an almost insanely ambitious film by first time director Michael O’Shea. The film follows Milo (Eric Ruffin in a remarkable portrayal of a broken and emotionally stunted youth) as he attempts to become a vampire, right down to murdering people and drinking their blood, until he meets another emotionally (and physically) beaten down girl named Sophie. The most impressive part of The Transfiguration is how sweet it is, despite its extremely dark subject matter. It’s a film ostensibly about a serial killer falling in love, yet it’s done in a sympathetic and downright loving way—the film doesn’t let Milo off the hook for his vile actions, but it isn’t out to condemn him either. O’Shea threads the tonal needle and balances the tension so that the audience never feels like the film cheats, leading to a climax that is both shocking, devastating, and inevitable. I went into The Transfiguration with zero expectations and a festival slot to fill, but walked out amazed at the film’s elegance and audacity.
1. Lady Bird
There’s a moment in Lady Bird where the titular character, played by Saorise Ronan, is trying on prom dresses with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, and finds the one she absolutely likes and is a perfect fit for her. Her mom, who is completely drained after working double shifts as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital after her husband lost her job, only responds to comment that it is too pink, causing Lady Bird to break down because of a life’s-worth of nagging criticisms and a lack of loving words of tenderness and affirmation. It was this moment where I personally broke down in my theater seat—I’ve been that vulnerable child seeking approval and affection only to be rebuked with criticism by a weary parent. I can’t remember the last film to emotionally impact me as hard as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
It’s a fairly straightforward, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a high school girl in Sacramento, but it’s obstinate sincerity in its portrayal of parent/child dynamics takes it from a well executed film to an all-time great film. Gerwig isn’t here to wow us with cinematographical flair or to solve world peace; rather, she recognizes a “coming-of-age” genre that is rife with mediocrity and pretenders and elevating it with a unique blend of humor, charm, and kindness without ignoring or glossing over the warts in that story. Lady Bird is kind of a bad person, rebelling against her parents and her school, treating her friends poorly, throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way, etc.
But Lady Bird is also every teenager who ever lived, and Gerwig recognizes that. Instead of going broad with the film’s characterizations, Gerwig drew from her personal past to increase the precision of her characters. Everyone in Lady Bird feels like a true, honest to God person, and the performances by our two leads (Ronan and Metcalf) as well as supporting performances by Lucas Hedges2, Tracy Letts, Timothée Chalamet, and Beanie Felstein bring the film to life. I don’t think any film, 2017 or otherwise, has captured the interconnectivity of adolescent angst and paternal disillusionment in a more flawless way than Lady Bird.
So there you have it, my personal top 10 of the year. I should note that there were a few omissions, primarily The Post and Phantom Thread, which haven’t screened anywhere near Phoenix yet, but I don’t think that’s an indication that any of the above films aren’t the best films of the year. Please comment about how right (or wrong, I guess) I am in the comments, and lets hope 2018 is as great a year for films as 2017 was.