2017. What a unique and surprising year for film. As I write this, it’s New Year’s Eve, and this year alone I saw 51 movies at the multiplex. That’s more than any previous year and almost one film a week. More than any year in recent memory, 2017 was when so many talented filmmakers and groundbreaking stories entered the limelight. It seemed like every week an emerging talent or a picture that would capture the cultural zeitgeist had arrived. I believe this selection of 10 films are a reflection of that.
Before I divulge my picks for the best movies of 2017, here are a list of some films that didn’t quite make the cut. 2017 was just so good in terms of variety and quality that I briefly considered expanding the list to 15 movies. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all of these movies, and I highly recommend each one.
Honorable mentions: Wonder Woman, IT, Colossal, Split, The Big Sick, The LEGO Batman Movie, War for the Planet of the Apes, Stronger, Coco, It Comes at Night, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Okja, Wind River, John Wick: Chapter 2, Logan Lucky, A Ghost Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
10.) The Disaster Artist: It was only a matter of time before someone made a movie about the production of “The Room”, known in many film circles as the greatest bad movie ever made. Luckily, that someone was James Franco, who directs and gives one of the best performances of his career as Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic and equally-bizarre figure behind one of cinema’s most fascinating blunders. Franco never makes light of Wiseau for his ambitions nor exonerates him for his unprofessional behavior, instead opting to straddle that fine line, which in turn reveals a deeply lonely and displaced man aching for friendship and acceptance from a world he is clueless to navigate. Though the reception to “The Room” wasn’t what Wiseau intended, it carved out its own unique space in pop culture and is now celebrated worldwide. Not many people can claim such a thing. “The Disaster Artist” is a hilariously poignant story about outsiders finding friendship and living out your wildest dreams, no matter how oblivious or unqualified you are.
9.) Mudbound: Racism is unfortunately still alive in America. It’s a disease so thoroughly ingrained into the DNA of this country that it feels nearly impossible to eradicate. Co-writer and director Dee Rees’ film may take place in the early 1940’s, but it shows the ways in which America has yet to evolve in terms of race relations. Focusing on two families, one white (the McAllens), and one black (the Jacksons) occupying the same farm in deep Mississippi. When the United States enters World War II, the Jacksons’ eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), brother of the McAllen’s patriarch, both head off to war. After returning home, they both struggle to reintegrate into society what with Jamie dealing with PTSD and Ronsel confronted with a bigoted community that refuses to respect him despite his service. Yet in spite of the brewing racial tensions, a friendship between Ronsel and Jamie forms.
I wish that Mitchell and Hedlund had more screen time together since the two have such delightful chemistry. As such, their friendship is one built on respect and empathy for each other. Unfortunately, it’s a bond doomed to end in tragedy as Rees’ film shows how discrimination benefits absolutely nobody. Those on the receiving end of bigotry suffer needlessly and those who act on it live hateful, pathetic lives. “Mudbound” is a powerful, moving drama that often proves difficult to watch, but is essential viewing. It is a tale of how little has changed since the Jim Crow era, but hope and freedom are real ideals worth fighting for. I only wish this could’ve been released in theaters instead of on Netflix.
8.) mother!: When you walk into a Darren Aronofsky film, the one thing you are never going to be walking out is bored. That is most certainly true of his latest effort, “mother!.” Quite possibly the most polarizing and controversial film of 2017, “mother!” is the product of a filmmaker firing on all cylinders. It’s about religion, mankind’s rape and pillage of the environment, misogyny, the toxicity of fandom, the egotism of artists, and the futility of sacrifice.
Unfolding specifically from the point of view of Jennifer Lawrence’s title character, the film builds the tension slowly and precisely until it reaches one of the most insane, audacious, mind-boggling third acts ever produced for a studio film. One that also contains two acts of brutal violence so distressing that I, someone generally unfazed by movie violence, was shaking in my theater seat.
All we can do is watch as mother, played with such vulnerability and empathy by Lawrence, is helpless to stop fans of her egocentric poet-writing husband (Javier Bardem) from entering her home and upending her peaceful existence. Whether or not you like this film (many of you will outright hate it), it’s commendable a studio gave the greenlight to such a thing, let alone release it in theaters. In “mother!,” hell is literally other people.
7.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “Never meet your heroes.” We’ve all heard that adage before. While tales of our idols are built atop the wonders they accomplished, they often wash over their shortcomings and mistakes. “The Last Jedi” finds Rey (Daisy Ridley) locating the legendary Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (in what is also Mark Hamill’s best performance in his iconic role), who has turned his back on the Jedi religion, the Force, and the galaxy at large. Not out of hatred, but out of failure and the fear of failing again.
The latest installment in the “Star Wars” saga from writer and director Rian Johnson is the most challenging entry yet. It confronts each of the characters, their resolve, and their pre-conceived notions as well as those of the audience. Johnson, always the masterful storyteller, isn’t interested in empowering the characters rather than humanizing them. Their actions have consequences, and they must learn to recognize their weight and overcome them. As a result, the story is thematically richer and the characters are rendered more complex than they were in “The Force Awakens.”
“The Last Jedi” is a character-driven narrative. One that shatters expectations and takes the franchise into bold, new, exciting directions. More poignantly, it’s a lesson in letting go of the past, but only taking what you need from it in order to move forward. It’s a realization that heroes can come from all walks of life regardless of whether they are a prophesied “Chosen One” or descended from legends of history. It’s a plea to keep on waging the good fight in responsible and skillful manners. As Rose tells Finn during the story’s climax, “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”
6.) Logan: This is the culmination of nearly 20 years of a single actor giving it his all across multiple films as one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time. It also provides us something we don’t see nearly enough in our cinematic universe-dominated landscape: Resolution. Although the story is set in the superhero genre, its heart lies within the western. Centered on two aging men, Logan and Charles Xavier (played by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart both deliver their best performances as these characters ever) have been largely forgotten by the world they once defined. “Logan” is about the consequences of living a life of violence, no matter good one’s intentions might have been. Director James Mangold portrays violence as an act that you should hope to avoid at all costs. It’s a brutal film, one that neither shies away from nor relishes the inevitable bloodshed that follows our protagonists. It may already be too late for Logan, but not for him to guide the young Laura (as portrayed by Dafne Keen is her exceptional breakout role) onto the path of a peaceful life. “Logan” is an unflinchingly harsh picture from its opening to scene to its heartbreaking final shot, but it’s one that gives an appropriate and proper send-off to the Wolverine, a fighter, a friend, a father, and an X-Man.
5.) Lady Bird: Making a new coming of age story is hard. How many times can a premise such as “being a teenager isn’t easy” be reworked? Greta Gerwig, in her directorial debut, doesn’t try to reinvent the formula. Instead, what makes her film standout among others of its ilk is the refreshing honesty at the center. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior in the year 2002 trying to navigate the usual teenage girl dilemmas: Boys, failing grades, and a mother whom she is constantly at odds with. Her father is recently unemployed, leaving the family in financial straits. Lady Bird feels let down by a world that she has barely gotten a start in. She’s angry and full of self-pity. Yet despite her self-absorbed attitude, she never comes across like an awful person.
In fact, none of the characters are bad people. Even the girl who would be the bully in any other film is given extra shading. Gerwig never indulges Lady Bird, nor does she make the audience pick a side because nobody is inherently wrong. Their actions and motivations are completely understandable. Though I’m not a teenage girl, I found myself relating deeply to Lady Bird at times. Her relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is one of the best parent-child relationships in years. As someone who grew up with three sisters, “Lady Bird” took me back to the times when I was present during arguments between one of them and my mother.
“Lady Bird’s” structureless, character-centric nature and sardonic wit will resonate deeply with a new generation of teens. Even if your high school years are behind you, the film has an achingly personal touch that appeals to anyone of any age. A snapshot in history of teenage drama, frustration, romance, friendship, disappointment, and heartbreak. Lady Bird” may be set in 2002, but what it has to say will remain forever timeless.
4.) Baby Driver: This may not be the best film of 2017, but it is undeniably the coolest. That’s the word I would use to describe “Baby Driver”: Cool. It’s a movie that is as confident and hip as it appears. The killer soundtrack, electric characters, rapid-fire dialogue, stylish direction, and the exhilarating car chases all work together to create this highly entertaining, musically-inclined caper that finally catapulted writer and director Edgar Wright to his long overdue spot in mainstream pop culture. A film where the action is synchronized to the beat of the music would have come off as gimmicky in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. However, Wright imbues the music with genuine character pathos as it functions as both an aid for Baby to be the best at his job as a getaway driver and suppress his tinnitus, and as a shield to protect himself from the ugliness of the crime world he so desperately tries to flee. Funny, smart, and wickedly awesome, “Baby Driver” is a total blast from the introduction accompanied by “Bellbottoms” to its closing images set to a Simon & Garfunkel song I won’t spoil here. Sit back, relax, and watch as this story set once upon a pair of wheels gloriously explodes into your eyes and ears.
3.) Dunkirk: There is no denying Christopher Nolan is one of the defining filmmakers of our time. Especially since he seems to be the only director who can make original movies with blockbuster budgets nowadays. His latest film is his most technical and experimental one yet. Eschewing a traditional narrative structure, Nolan tells the story using a triptych. On the land for one week, on the sea for one day, and in the air for one hour. All of these stories are told non-linearly and intersect throughout the film. This all sounds convoluted, but Nolan is a master at nonlinear storytelling. Running at a brisk 106 minutes, “Dunkirk” does away with backstory and dialogue; becoming reliant on the visuals to tell the story. Nolan simply throws the characters into relentless desperation, and pushes down on them with each passing minute. Death can strike at any time from anywhere. The fact that we never see the Germans (only referred to as “the enemy”) makes the terror all the more palpable. Aside from being an immersive, intense, nerve-racking experience, “Dunkirk” is also a riveting epic about heroism and how we define it. Whether we retreat from battle or just attempt to perform simple acts of goodness, victories can still be achieved. The fight will go on, the people’s spirits will recover, and we shall never surrender.
2.) Get Out: “Get Out” became a pop culture phenomenon nearly a year ago and hasn’t slowed down since. Why shouldn’t it? It’s a daring, satirical, impeccably-written horror film about current race relations in America. Writer and director Jordan Peele himself has openly expressed his social anxiety of being the only black man at a gathering comprised only of white people, and he does good on making the audience feel that same sense of anxiety and dread when Chris (played superbly in the most underrated performance of the year by Daniel Kaluuya), a young African American man, goes up to his white girlfriend’s parents’ house for the weekend just when their annual party, attended by their white colleagues, is about to commence. From there, things get increasingly uncomfortable and terrifying.
Instead of satirizing conservative, redneck, Confederate-flag-waving bigots, Peele opts to tackle a different form of racism: Supposedly well-meaning, upper-class liberals. The people who claim to not be racist as they know several people of color or would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could, but still benefit from the same systems of power designed to subjugate minorities. This racism is far more insidious, which makes it suitable for a horror movie. On top of the razor-sharp racial commentary, this is an insanely great film. One that becomes more enriching on repeat viewing as you notice things you didn’t catch initially. This is the kind of debut feature most first-time directors would kill for. “Get Out” is the event film of 2017. A horror picture painted with the strokes minority viewers are all-too familiar with and one where white viewers are forced to confront themselves about their own possible complicity in racial discrimination. It’s a film that will continue to be analyzed and revered for many years to come. A year hasn’t even passed since its release yet “Get Out” is destined to become a new horror classic.
1.) The Shape of Water: In my time writing for the Agora, I’ve been asked one specific question repeatedly: “What is your favorite movie?” I’ve never been able to answer that. Even now I still can’t confidently cement a film as my favorite. I see so many wonderful movies every year that it would be like asking which child is my favorite. What I can say is that all my favorite movies or stories in general resonate with me on deeply personal levels. Almost as if the filmmakers made that film for me. The ones that shaped me into who I am and what I believe. Because I do believe stories, whether real or fiction, have the power to not only transport, but transform. That sentiment was no truer this year than in Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork “The Shape of Water.”
This feels like the film del Toro has been working towards his entire 25-year career. It’s his tenth picture and arguably his best. Every theme del Toro has touched upon in his previous work, and all the components of his and co-writer Vanessa Taylor’s script work together towards one goal: Craft a fairy tale for troubled times. Del Toro has frequently used monsters, ghosts, and fables to comment on our moment in history. This fairy tale is set during a time in America (1962) where society’s treatment of those who didn’t look the norm (race and gender) or love the norm (sexuality) was volatile.
At the center is Elisa (played with heart-aching sincerity by Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose life of loneliness is interrupted when she uncovers an amphibian man at the government facility she works at as a janitor. Although neither can speak, a connection is formed between them. One that begins out of empathy and inevitably becomes romantic love, for neither Elisa nor the creature see each other for how they are incomplete, but for who they are, as they are. It’s a “Beauty and the Beast” story, but with an imperfect beauty and a beast who doesn’t transform into a handsome prince at the end. In del Toro’s film, love is not about changing someone. Love is understanding and accepting someone for who they are. Either take them or leave them be.
“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful, heartfelt, romantic ode to all the outsiders, to those who are marginalized, and to those who find difficulty in expressing the words of their aching hearts. It’s story of healing where love triumphs over evil, for love is greatest thing in the universe. It is ultimately all we have, and those who seek to divide and destroy us through fear and hate will fail because of it. Our love for each other is malleable. It will heal us. It will bind us. It will envelop us until its tender embrace is all that surrounds us. Love, like water, is an ever-changing shape.