The Best Films of 2017

Everyone talks about how 2016 was the year that sanity and reason finally collapsed. 2017 existed to prove us wrong. There were literal Nazi protests that saw someone standing up against hate murdered, there is a “president” who is barely able to function as a human being and is so completely deranged that I found myself fearing a nuclear war for the first time in my life, there were the revelations that several people I once respected are not worthy of respect due to the way they treated people around them. Finally, there were the continuing losses of legendary figures in the film world. George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Harry Dean Stanton, Martin Landau, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Adam West, Mary Tyler Moore, Powers Boothe, Michael Parks, Johnathan Demme, John Hurt, Bill Paxton, Miguel Ferrer,  Roger Moore, Robert Osborne…these people made a tremendous impact on our culture that is not likely to be seen again.

Also, Hollywood still has not chosen which direction it will take at the crossroads it finds itself. Studios are becoming larger while streaming services, which are how most people view films, are becoming unnecessarily fractured. And instead of facing reality, everyone seems to be sticking their fingers in their ears. We have an FCC chairman with the IQ of celery who’s been advocating for an internet that resembles France before the revolution. We should be living in an exciting era, but too many shortsighted people with too much power claim to know what’s best for everyone else.

There was one good moment in my 2017 – films finally became more accessible.

In an era where practically everything you want to watch is available with a click of a button, some people are finally starting to understand that media needs to be more accessible to the general population. That’s why I’m a proud owner of a MoviePass, which exists to be a Netflix for theaters. It’s amazing – I pay one price and can go watch whatever films I wish in theaters.

This means that for the first time in a long time, I had to cut some movies from my top ten list. I really liked Lucky, Logan Lucky, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they liked the necessary gravitas to be permanently enshrined as the best the year had to offer. I even found myself contemplating placing Atomic Blonde, my favorite action film of the year, on the my list of the best overall films. Sure, it has plot holes the size of Connecticut but I admired the skill behind it and was pleased that filmmakers are bothering to take risks with genre films.  I even considered placing Darren Aronofsky’s mother! on my list because it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen a filmmaker go for broke. Aronofsky had a vision that he wanted to tell in the way he told and was brave about that vision. It didn’t work from an emotional standpoint, but I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I wish more films could be as confident as mother!, even as they crash and burn.  

As a reminder, films I have not personally seen do not make the list. I unfortunately missed Get Out in theaters and have no reason to doubt that its rave reviews are well deserved. I intend to check it out as soon as possible. Additionally, like all rewards season movies, some things have not been released where I live, like Phantom Thread. I will hopefully be catching up on films I missed in time. But I still think that, no matter what I missed, I had enough films to make a very good list.

But before I begin my proper list, I wanted to give special mention to one particular item that shows how blurred media is becoming. More people depend on streaming services to watch things and, finally, there was one streaming service/channel that had some of the most exciting moments of 2017 for me.

HONORABLE MENTION

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir: David Lynch) – I can’t put Twin Peaks on my list because it’s a TV show at heart. It requires knowledge of the preceding chapters, is episodic, and (surprise) aired on TV.

But in the same way that the original Twin Peaks run changed TV forever, the new run also kick started a revolution and showed how much television has evolved.

Most auteurs have migrated to TV, from David Fincher to Martin Scorsese as the film industry grows unwilling to invest in risks. Lynch himself has not directed a film eleven years. TV has also become the uniting cultural force in our landscape. In my experience, people are far more likely to have an opinion on this year’s season of Stranger Things and Game of Thrones than Thor: Ragnarök.

Lynch’s Twin Peaks takes full advantage of that changing landscape. In 18 hours, he crams in enough story that will leave people thinking for years. And he did it without compromising his vision. There are entire episodes that have practically no dialogue, there are scenes of graphic violence that most show runners would never dare attempt, and there is enough of a pause to allow for Lynch’s bizarre sense of humor to shine through.

Also, Lynch shattered our expectations. Characters who come back are clouds of their former selves (Kyle MacLachlan spends most of his scenes repeating what everyone just said to him), major guest stars (like Michael Cera) appear for only a scene and then vanish, forgotten actors like Matthew Lillard are given a major presence that shows their range, and the show is not afraid to acknowledge the passage of time or pretend like the cast has to be young.

It’s an amazing show that should cause studios to worry. After all, if television is going to be this brave and accommodating to artists, then what’s the point of films?

Also, I was just glad to finally get a conclusion to the story of Dale Cooper. At least, I think we did.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2017.

FIRST PLACE

Last year’s Moonlight reminded me of a what a film should be. I should enter a world that I normally wouldn’t see and live a life that is completely alien to me. Moonlight accomplished this task and just missed being my top pick because I felt it more appropriate to pick a bleaker film to represent that bleakness that was 2016.

But that message was not lost to me and I wanted to recognize a film that lets me live a new life. And this year’s top film did that. I was able to see the truly forgotten people of the world – people who try to put on a bright smile while they’re realize their lives have turned into an unrecognizable mess. This was emphasized by the fact that the main character was a child, who is largely oblivious to the petty crimes that her single mother commits just to keep their lives intact. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s writings, where the kids are often far wiser than the scheming adults who have long forgotten some important truths of the world. Only at the end do the kids realize how dark their world is, at which point the titular place seems like a cheap farce designed to hide the sadness of the world.

The Florida Project (dir: Sean Baker)

What really helped the film was the lack of professional actors in the cast. Yes, Willem Dafoe is present and deserves an Oscar for playing the motel manager that caters to poor people and their families. But the best thing about The Florida Project is its authentic feeling. All of the amateur actors give performances that rival their Oscar-winning counterparts, and I have a feeling that was only because they’ve lived similar lives where they have to make ends meet by prostituting themselves on Craigslist. Either way, the result is an incredible film that I won’t soon be forgetting.

SECOND PLACE

I struggled a bit with the placement of the next two films. I knew the nine remaining films I wanted to highlight, but I couldn’t decide what counted as “the best of the best.” So it really came down to a question of which films I’m most likely to see again. And then the choice became easy.

I’ve been a fan of this director’s work since 2004, when he moved from TV to film. He’s been consistently among the funniest filmmakers working today, but he also showcases a great talent for action and genre deconstruction. It takes a very smart person to take a Steve McQueen character and allow the audience to laugh at him while still admiring him. It also takes a smart person to cover so many different genres in one film and do them equally well.

Baby Driver (dir: Edgar Wright)

People are still obsessed with “coming of age” films, but I honestly think Baby Driver is the most emotionally honest one in a while. It plays like a fantasy that every young man has. Who doesn’t want to be the cool getaway driver, spending his days remixing music and seducing a beautiful diner waitress? But then the fantasy ends and we see the inevitable result and destruction such a life causes. Still, it’s a fantastic ride (that pun is completely intended) featuring some great performances and wonderful action scenes.

(On a side note, yes, I am not forgetting this is likely to be Kevin Spacey’s last major role. The film was released before the numerous scandals around him broke and I have no doubt he would not have been cast had Edgar Wright knew about his actions. Spacey is still a talented actor and plays his character well in the movie. It’s a shame he’s also a scumbag who has caused people a lot of pain.)

THIRD PLACE

For my final ranked pick, I thought about the experience that movies are supposed to provide. Most people still feel that pointing a camera at two people playing make-believe constitutes a film. Not many people take full advantage of the medium.

This film did. It put me in a time and place that I had never experienced before. And while most war epics are about understanding the conflict, this one focused on the civilians and soldiers who had no idea what was happening. They were fighting for their lives based on things far beyond their comprehending. The film makes you feel every moment of their tension and fear. Even at the moment of triumph, the film reminds you that these characters have a long way to go.

Dunkirk (dir: Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be the most creative technical director working today. His effects and scenes are as grand and lofty as anything Steven Spielberg used to do. And they’re put to a great purpose. I was not just enjoying the technical aspects of the air battles. I understood what the stakes were and why I should care that these characters succeed. And all of this was done without showing a single Nazi soldier until the very end of the film. I hope that everyone got a chance to see this on IMAX. It’s an experience I won’t soon be forgetting.

THE REMAINING FILMS

The rest, as tradition dictates, are listed alphabetically

Blade Runner 2049 (dir: Denis Villeneuve) – This belated sequel to Blade Runner is far better than it has any right to be. It takes what could have been a disaster that sullied a classic and turns it into one of the greatest sequels ever made. The new Runner accomplishes this by taking the world of the original film and expanding upon it, showing how normal people would live their daily lives. Everything about this world has changed and we see how the people are reacting to a world that has become even worse in thirty years. And yes, the film brings back characters, but it’s a sequel that acknowledges what happened in the original and how eager they are to move on with their lives. It’s an equally fascinating world as its predecessor.

Detroit (dir: Kathryn Bigelow) – I’m genuinely surprised Detroit has not received more attention from critics. It’s a far better movie than Zero Dark Thirty that actually has a message that’s still (unfortunately) very relevant. Detroit is nominally about the 1967 race riots that gripped the Motor City, but focuses much of its run time on the Algiers Motel incident that saw police officers torturing suspects to extract a confession. It’s one of the tensest chamber dramas I’ve seen, helped by the amazing performances of the cast. I felt like I was in the motel right along with the characters and then realized that, unlike some of the people, I was able to walk out when it was all over. That is something that we as a society need to remember.

I, Tonya (dir: Craig Gillespe) – The Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story was a touch before my time. I only learned about it from a Weird Al song. But her biopic makes me feel sympathetic for an unsympathetic figure. Tonya Harding was a woman who literally tried to destroy the competition – something that few people would celebrate. But the film doesn’t try to repaint her actions. An opening crawl reveals that the interviews the filmmakers conducted with her were contradictory at best. Rather, it shows the broken home she came from, filled with abusive romantic partners and an unfeeling mother who literally put a knife in her bicep. It makes me realize just why people became so interested in the story. And it still takes time to condemn all us voyeurs in the audience who built Harding to be an international sensation. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s touching.

Lady Bird (dir: Greta Gerwig) – This film was something we still don’t see enough of at the multiplex. I was happy to see a talented female director get a chance to tell a really personal story. Lady Bird is a story of a millennial’s youth. Like all teenagers, she thinks the world revolves around her and thinks that adults only exist to crush her dreams. I know I remember a time when I felt that wayBut while most “coming of age” films think that audiences need to learn that lesson, Lady Bird only offers us a glimpse into Lady Bird’s life. We learn that she’s frustrated and makes a lot of mistakes but, deep down, she’s slowly recognizing there’s a lot she needs to learn. It’s a more honest message than you’ll get in a lot of award bait, coming of age movies.

Raw (dir: Julia Ducournau) – Raw is the best feminist horror film since Ginger Snaps. It focuses on the…messiness…of coming of age films by following a new, vegetarian university student who develops an insatiable lust for meat after being forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ritual. And when I saw “meat,” I don’t just mean the animal variety. Raw, like all great horror films, has so many layers to unpack that it forces you to watch its graphic violence and gore. Those moments of someone eating a severed human finger aren’t just there for shock. They actually mean something about society’s expectations of women and the feelings that young people go through when they discover what their bodies can do.

The Shape of Water (dir: Guillermo del Toro) – I’ll admit I found the idea behind the film very weird when I saw it. It was about a human woman, rendered mute by a childhood injury, falling in love with a literal water monster. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what del Toro was doing. The monster movies that del Toro loved in his youth were some of the most progressive films of their time. Women were allowed to be main characters and they at least acknowledged there were some people who didn’t conform to society’s expectations. The Shape of Water is a tribute to that feeling. The film is a buttoned-up 1960’s period piece that has a female protagonist and features gay and black characters who are depicted as the voice of reason. That shouldn’t sound rebellious or groundbreaking, but it’s still a message that we need to hear. Also, the film contains my favorite individual scene in any film this year, in which Fred Astaire is replaced by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir: Martin McDonagh) – Although this film does not explicitly mention social media, Three Billboards perfectly captures the level of discourse in our country. In order to get any attention to even the most horrible problems, you have to stand on a corner and constantly shout about how awful things are and how no one is doing anything to fix it. Then you have to wait for people to shout back about how your statement really inconveniences them and how it would be better if we just didn’t talk about problems at all. It’s a great satire wrapped up in a touching drama about a woman grieving the loss of her daughter. Frances McDormand also gives the best performance she has since Fargo. 

So thank you for these bright moments, 2017.

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