It’s become a tired cliche to say “movies have been really good this year!”. Of course they have; any artistic medium will have at least some works of note produced in any given year (okay, maybe not 2004, I’ll have to double check). That being said, 2017 has been a year where the films have been not just good, but overwhelmingly great, as the tumultuous times we live in (not even just politically—socially and economically as well) have birthed some truly groundbreaking works and a handful of all-time classics. This list has 25 entries, but contains 33 films, and could have contained many more. It showcases an art form that, just a mere century old, still has a lot to say about humanity’s past, present, and future. Here, then, are my favorites of the year—ranked for the fun of having a countdown more than any judgement of merit. The real winners are us, the audience.
25. The Post
w: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer d: Steven Spielberg
The typical cycle of filmmaking these days means that the majority of movies that are released in a year were conceived, written, and shot the year prior, making each of them just the tiniest bit dated. Along comes our greatest living legend director Steven Spielberg to shatter that concept, producing, shooting, and releasing The Post in a matter of months. The resulting film has an urgency to it, a desire to shout from the bullpens about the need of a free press, and is as on the nose as any Spielberg film before it about that message. What’s so impressive, then, is how it not only evokes the tense paranoia and cloak & dagger feeling of the best ‘70s thrillers, but how each scene is staged and blocked for maximum effect. People talking in small, crowded rooms doesn’t sound cinematic, but Spielberg makes it sing. He’s helped immensely by the (first time!) pairing of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, bringing dignity, determination and class to the real life figures of the bullheaded editor who took risks and the brave publisher who broke new ground for women and journalism alike.
w&d: Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky has always been a filmmaker deeply interested in religious mythology, and even his non-Bible tinged works have a deep well of spirituality to them. mother! is simultaneously his most religious and most secular film, one that can be read as everything from a Biblical allegory to a pro-environment manifesto to a damning confession of Aronofsky‘ own failings in relationships. The director’s craft has never been better than here, taking the audience on a demented carnival ride that starts as a farce and ends as an apocalyptic scream into the void. Star Jennifer Lawrence makes what looks difficult (carrying such a wild movie as well as being Aronofsky’s partner) seem effortless.
23. Logan Lucky
w: “Rebecca Blunt” d: Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh has been a cinephile darling for arguably longer than he’s been a prolific filmmaker, and his “retirement” of the last few years has consisted mostly of directing prestige TV series and cutesy blog posts in which he re-edits 2001 or some such. All of that meaning that it was easy for me to forget that, when he makes a movie, he’s one of the best around, and Logan Lucky sees him come back to the heist subgenre that he’s mastered many times before. Only here, it’s the opposite of the Oceans films, as Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, playing it with a quiet dignity) and his family aren’t high class rollers but working class heroes taking on The System. The entire film is done with a minimum of snark (180 degrees from where the Coen Brothers would take such material) and a maximum of heart, resulting in a scene that may be the best use of a John Denver song in a year full of movies using Denver songs. Plus, Daniel Craig with bleached hair playing a demolitions expert named “Joe Bang”. Welcome back, Steven.
22. The Big Sick
w: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani d: Michael Showalter
The romantic comedy has been in a creative rut for decades now, and the movie to finally save it is neither constructed nor marketed as one. The Big Sick is a rom com, backstage biopic, true life drama, and charming indie film all rolled into one, transcending any rote genre and existing in its own special space. Nanjiani has quietly been a star as a supporting actor for some time now, but shines even brighter in the leading role here, playing himself. Zoe Kazan does smart work making a memorable character who’s on screen time is rather short, and her parents, as portrayed by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, are two of the best characters on screen this year. Director Showalter, who previously deconstructed the rom com in his film The Baxter (‘05) returns to perfect it. As someone who’s been in Emily’s place before, stuck in a hospital bed while loved ones wait for me to wake up, the film is especially moving for me. I guarantee that you’ll find something special in it for yourself, too.
21. Ingrid Goes West
w: David Branson Smith & Matt Spicer d: Matt Spicer
The ubiquitous influence of social media on all of our lives is a seismic social upheaval that we’ve only begun to process. Vanity, ego, an obsession with celebrity and a need to be validated are all human issues that are as old as time, but Smith, Spicer and producer/star Aubrey Plaza (in a career best performance) give their bitingly satiric take on them here, filtered through the bizarro world of Instagram, making the film a Taxi Driver (‘76) for the Internet age. Crucially, the film never judges nor praises its characters. They’re all shown to be phonies of one sort or another, but that doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of love. The question is, should they get it, or is that just making it all worse?
20. The Bad Batch
w&d: Ana Lily Amirpour
With her second feature, Amirpour builds on the promise of her debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (‘14), proving herself to be an uncompromising artist exploring issues of race, gender and class as filtered through genre tropes. What starts as a grisly cannibal film quickly turns into a “party people” post-apocalyptic rave picture, with the denizens of an endless desert of social rejects either pissing their lives away or literally consuming each other. With a minimum of dialogue (except in the case of Keanu Reeves, clearly having a blast here as a skeevy wasteland demigod), Amirpour posits a better way to move society forward, rather than keep it in the decay it’s in.
19. The Disaster Artist
w: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber d: James Franco
The irony of a movie about the infamous cinematic disaster The Room (‘03) being one of the best movies of the year is delicious. The fact that it’s made by and stars Hollywood’s most bankable charismatic art weirdo James Franco is even better. Through Franco, The Disaster Artist, rather than just being a goofy trek through the history of a cult phenomenon, becomes a treatise on the relationship between art and artist. Achieving a longtime dream doesn’t always happen and yet having that dream isn’t something to be derided, no matter what bizarre creature happens to have one. One of the most hilarious movies of the year also happens to be the most kind.
18. Raw & Nocturama (tie)
w&d: Julia Ducournau (Raw), Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama)
Two of the most challenging and incisive films of the year hail from France, born in a film industry without the same social norms. How else do we get stories where the protagonists are murder-prone insatiable cannibals and disaffected young terrorists? When you get past the sensationalism of these films (which is admittedly pretty sensational), you’ll find some bold, vibrant filmmaking. Raw explores a young woman’s coming of age in an uncompromising light, with the girl’s (literal) appetites shown to not be an aberration but a natural phenomenon that must be reconciled. Nocturama’s youth in revolt aren’t radicalized monsters, but people without direction and even identity, a Dawn Of The Dead (‘78) in which the (metaphorical, this time) zombies are the protagonists. C’est bon.
17. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, & Logan (tie)
w: James Gunn (Guardians), John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna, Christopher Ford, Jon Watts (Spidey), Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost (Thor), James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green (Logan)
d: James Gunn (Guardians), Jon Watts (Spidey), Taika Waititi (Thor), James Mangold (Logan)
The superhero film is here to stay awhile, and just like the popular genres of previous eras, it’s being forced to evolve lest it die. Unlike the stagnation present in the DCEU films, the output of Marvel Studios (along with Fox’s Marvel properties) has grown bolder and more experimental, while still maintaining fidelity to the comic shop source material. All four of these films this year packed an emotional wallop. Gunn’s Guardians is not only a Technicolor space opera, but a story of escaping abuse in order to forge a new family. Watts’ Homecoming is the story of a young man making his first hard choices as to who he wants to be in his life, sacrificing his social life and even his reputation in order to save lives. Waititi’s Ragnarok is about the inevitability of change, and the positive and negative implications of that. Mangold’s Logan is about legacy, trying to leave the world behind a little better than you’d entered it. All the personal crises that these characters go through make these films feel fresh, new, and compelling, while still delivering on the crazy superhero fights. There’s seemingly no limit to where the genre can go now, and we have these films to thank for that.
16. Colossal & Lady Bird (tie)
w&d: Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Cinema needs more female characters who drive the story, and two of the most shining examples of that can be seen in these films. Both have a whimsical, giddy approach that allows their directors to expand into deeper themes and moments without sacrificing the element of fun. But as great as the music, editing, and direction in both are, neither film would get anywhere without their dynamic leads. Anne Hathaway’s Gloria in Colossal is a total mess of a person who uses her reluctant journey home to discover that she has an inner strength (that manifests itself as a giant Kaiju in South Korea) and that the men surrounding her are either holding her back and/or are literal monsters. Saorise Ronan’s Christine in Lady Bird is similarly a force of nature, boldly attempting to forge a path for her future while not being at all sure where it leads. With all of their imperfections, the two characters become some of the most iconic and inspiring of the year.
15. T2 Trainspotting
w: John Hodge d: Danny Boyle
There is a large amount of nostalgia in our culture, and a reason for that is that there’s a large amount of nostalgia in ourselves. Whether you moved away from your old home decades ago or are still living there, the times you spent with friends and family are gone forever, and everything has changed, most of all you. T2 is thrillingly, lovingly concerned with the proverbial chickens coming home to roost in the lives of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his old Edinburgh circle of addicts. The meta text comments on not only the huge leap in social change from the ‘90s to today, but to sequels in general, what they mean and why they exist. Youth can’t ever be recaptured, but that feeling, that rush, can be rediscovered.
14. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
w&d: Martin McDonagh
Throughout his career, Martin McDonagh has played one of the most challenging and difficult roles an artist can play, that of the uncompromising provocateur. It can be all to easy to tip over one side or the other, into kitschy shock value or careless offensiveness, and many argue that McDonagh has done it before, or even has now, with this film. I personally am of the mind that his work is vital precisely because it says with a blunt force what many kinder artists can not or will not, and yet does so with, I think, a large amount of nuance and intelligence. This film, about the anger and rage of people who have been oppressed (like Frances McDormand’s grieving mother, in a all timer performance) or (in the case of Sam Rockwell’s racist cop) merely feel oppressed, is an exploration of how to live, move on, and grow out of tragedy and injustice. It’s a film vital to our times, because, just as in real life, there are no easy answers, but there may be hope.
13. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
w: Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou d: Yorgos Lanthimos
And here is a story in which there is no hope, but the easiest answer possible. Loosely adapting a myth from the history of his native Greece, deadpan surrealist/satirist/sadist Lanthimos weaves the tale of a moderately happy surgeon (Colin Farrell, quickly become the perfect leading man for the directors tales of tragedy) who is visited by the son of an ex-patient (Barry Keoghan, redefining onscreen sociopathy) and given an ultimatum. This choice must be made, and there’s no escaping it. Lanthimos deals with the concepts of sin and poetic justice in so surreal and harrowing a manner that, if you’re like me, you’ll be literally breathless during the final scenes. Pure, powerful filmmaking.
12. It, Happy Death Day & Super Dark Times
w: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman (It), Scott Lobdell (Happy), Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski (Super)
d: Andy Muschietti (It), Christopher Landon (Happy), Kevin Philips (Super)
Horror had a fantastic year in 2017. Not that the genre has ever gone away, but it came roaring back into the mainstream this year, where the major choices for horror fans was no longer limited to some supernatural jump scare machine or some wacky indie throwback film. There are a wealth of great ones to choose from, but the three that I found so effective this year were these. Muschietti, his remarkable ensemble cast of young adults and a majorly chilling Bill Skarsgard completely nailed Stephen King in a way that hasn’t been done since the days of Frank Darabont, making the first legit mainstream horror hit that didn’t involve a ghost haunting a family in what feels like forever. Landon & Lobdell brought back the slasher movie with a Groundhog Day riff that, far from being tired, felt fresh and inspired, and contained a stellar lead performance from Jessica Rothe. Philips, Collins and Piotrowski’s film unquestionably got a smaller release than the other two, but in telling the tale of a group of young boys who make bad choices that lead to even worse choices, they managed to create a King-esque modern classic that will mesmerize people who discover it for years to come. Each of these movies are visually rich, thoughtful, and creepy, the best of what the horror genre can provide.
11. Good Time
w: Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie d: Benny & Josh Safdie
The Safdie brothers bring back a New York City that both hasn’t existed for a while and yet never left. It’s a place of great promise, but also traps at every turn, a place where you can possibly get away with breaking outside of the system, if you can deal with the fact that the system will be trying that much harder to close around you if you do. Robert Pattinson’s Connie is an iconic screen character from the first minutes of the film, a street punk who’s smarter than he seems and dumber than he should be. Co-director Benny Safdie is also a co-star, in which he plays Connie’s mentally handicapped brother Nick, who Connie spends one desperate night to save from incarceration. Safdie’s work is incredible, layered and observed. That goes for both Safdie’s, in fact, as they (helped in large part by a dream creep electronic score from Oneohtrix Point Never) take us into the underworld of the outer boroughs.
w & d: Christopher Nolan
Nolan is an artist who is taken to task fairly often these days, in large part due to the fact that, now 10 films into his career, his predilections, style, and interests can be easily quantified and parodied. There are no “dead wives” in Dunkirk, but there are certainly IMAX cameras shooting real 70mm film, and a structural conceit that recounts singular experiences within the titular retreat/battle from three different locales within three overlapping time periods. What Nolan is still able to do, and does here brilliantly, is marry his interest in overwhelmingly loud and large moments, structural tampering, and the like to the material at hand. Never before have I watched a war film where I felt inside the film, the sheer white knuckle tension and fear overtaking me with each tick of the clock. If movies are “empathy machines”, as Roger Ebert once said, than Nolan has done a masters job here of making me empathize with those who fight wars, making their eventual escape from Dunkirk one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had on screen this year.
9. Atomic Blonde & John Wick Chapter Two (tie)
w: Kurt Johnstad (Atomic), Derek Kolstad (Wick) d: David Leitch (Atomic), Chad Stahelski (Wick)
In 2014, directors and longtime stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch blew up the action movie with John Wick, a no-nonsense ass kicker that showcased real actors and stuntmen really kicking ass. For the Wick sequel, Stahelski flies solo, and helps make Chapter Two a feast of not only action but visual spectacle as well, expanding the unique comic book-esque world of Wick into Italian catacombs, impossible lengthy subway battles, and a literal hall of mirrors. In a world where (seemingly) everyone is an assassin, Keanu Reeves’ Wick is a lone samurai type character who is the only possible person that could even hope to take on hundreds of challengers. Bringing things more down to Earth (but no less stylized), Leitch’s Atomic Blonde is a brutal tale of the death of spycraft, and one woman’s gambit to punch and scheme her way out of it. The film’s neon soaked Berlin locales look luscious and gritty all at once, and the greatest hits of the ‘80s pump on the soundtrack while each punch that Charlize Theron takes and dishes out looks and sounds like it stings. If you’re looking for a new mythic hero or a female James Bond, look no further.
8. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
w & d: Rian Johnson
In a lot of ways, The Last Jedi feels like the apotheosis of the trend of putting auteur writer-directors onto big budget franchise films. From the maker of Brick and Looper comes the friggin’ next chapter of the Star Wars saga?! After all, however, the original film released 40 years ago was a George Lucas joint through and through, and it’s that similar clarity of vision that allows The Last Jedi to be the most dynamic, progressive, and vital Star Wars film in decades. In making a movie about destroying cycles, systems, and the past, Johnson speaks not only in a meta sense about our entertainment but our times as well. At the end of a harrowing year, our foremost modern mythology is here to remind us to not fight what we hate, but save what we love. Star Wars was and is always going to be a popular phenomenon for all ages, but with this entry, it now belongs in the same breath as deeply thoughtful and nuanced works like those of Tolkien, an epic saga that can speak truth about and to any age.
7. I, Tonya
w: Steven Rogers d: Craig Gillespie
I, Tonya is one of the rare films I saw this year that I actually gasped in shock during. What you might think before watching the film is that it will be a Scorsese-tinged edgy recounting of the life and times of ex-Olympic skater and once upon a time media phenomenon Tonya Harding, and of course you wouldn’t be wholly wrong. What you might not be prepared for, as I wasn’t, is that the film is not only darkly funny (with the bumbling idiot criminals Jeff Gillooly and Shawn played perfectly by Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter-Hauser) but is a unflinching look at abuse in all its forms. Allison Janney and Margot Robbie do career best work here, playing people who can’t easily be filed away as foolish, monstrous, or victimized. By the time the film gets around to pointing out the cycle of abuse continues with you, the person watching, you just might gasp, too.
6. Phantom Thread
w & d: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson and his sometime muse, Daniel Day-Lewis, get a lot of mileage out of fostering their public personas as being inscrutable artistes. It gives them an air of class, a respectability, an austereness, not unlike the character Day-Lewis plays in this film, dress designer Reynolds Woodcock. So it’s a pleasant delight to see a film like Phantom Thread that reminds you that these guys are fucking weirdos at their core. Anderson shoots the story of Woodcock and his muse, Alma (played with a “holy crap who is she” fearlessness by Vicky Krieps) in a detached, impeccably composed manner that reveals itself to be incredibly fetishistic while sexless. The sex is brought to screen thanks to stalwart composer Johnny Greenwood, whose lush compositions hide endless secrets. In liquid-like 70mm film, Phantom Thread is a movie that hides more than it reveals, but what it eventually uncovers is a Gothic Hitchcockian romance that’s deliciously demented.
5. Alien Covenant
w: Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan & Dante Harper d: Ridley Scott
For a while, the Alien franchise was the playground in which emerging young auteur directors could come and play, building upon what had come before in the series but wildly changing the look and tone like a creature feature version of round robin. With 2012’s Prometheus, the original Alien director Ridley Scott took control of the series, steering it in a bizarre new direction involving a secular look at religious philosophy and mad scientist body horror. This year’s Alien Covenant doubled down on that direction while adding the titular Xenomorph back in, and the result is one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft that the prolific horror author never wrote. Actually, it’s more Lovecraft meets Shelley, as Michael Fassbender’s David (one of the best performances of the year) is both Frankenstein and his monster, a being that creates and destroys within a single thought. Covenant was not well received upon release, being too bleak, brutal, and cruel for most people. If “bleak, brutal and cruel” sounds like the perfect description of the Alien to you, as it does to me, then you’ll love Covenant, too.
4. The Shape Of Water
w: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor d: Guillermo del Toro
Never let anyone tell you they love monsters more than Guillermo del Toro, who proves his monster-loving bonafides literally with this film. The Shape Of Water isn’t particularly deep, as it simply reverses the dynamic of the old monster movies of the ‘50s, where the square jawed white male hero is the true monster. But it is important, and incredibly moving, to see a story of heroes whom society would normally cast aside (because of disability, age, gender, color, country or even species). del Toro’s movies are impeccably designed, and as such the entire film looks and feels like a magical world that allows just these specific characters to live within it. It’s the year’s most swooningly romantic film, with a score by Alexandre Desplat that sounds transported from ‘30s Paris. As del Toro himself said in a recent Q + A, “emotion is the new punk”, and this beautiful movie is full of emotion.
3. A Ghost Story
w & d: David Lowery
Even for a indie movie studio like A24, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story sounds like box office poison. A film intentionally shot in the 1.33 ratio that contains maybe 2 minutes of dialogue, following the meandering journey of a dead man covered in a Halloween ghost sheet? A near 9 minute scene where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie? It’s a wonder that A Ghost Story got made at all, but an even bigger gift is that the movie is this beautiful and—yes—haunting. For anyone who’s laid awake at night contemplating what might lie after death, whether we as people make a lasting difference in the world, and even what happens to our old homes once we leave them, this is for you.
2. Baby Driver
w & d: Edgar Wright
In New York City, where I live, I’m never outside without a pair of headphones on. Walking everywhere, every day while listening to music can cause me, even unconsciously, to catch rhythms, to move to the beat, essentially, to have my life soundtracked. Music isn’t just incredibly important to me, it’s part of me, what I live on, and that is exactly true for Ansel Elgort’s Baby, and (I have to assume) Edgar Wright. Wright makes a film here that he’s been building to pretty much his whole career, a non-stop jukebox musical where every sound and movement is designed and choreographed to source music. It might sound easy, but get behind some editing software for a few minutes and you’ll start to realize what a massive undertaking this was. Baby Driver also functions as a driving stunt show, with real stunt drivers pulling off some crazy tricks. The characters are all archetypes; they have to be, since the real function of the film is to provide as much aesthetic pleasure as possible. Movies are, at their core, a kind of magic trick, and Wright has pulled off one hell of a good trick.
1: Blade Runner 2049
w: Hampton Fancher & Michael Green d: Denis Villeneuve
There have been many formative films in my life, but 1982’s Blade Runner found me at a relatively early age. It whisked me away to another world, one that I didn’t necessarily wish to visit but found myself dreaming about getting lost in anyway. Ridley Scott’s film was undeniably bleak, but spoke to the core of what it means to be human (or more than human) in a fashion that has stuck with me through my years. When it was announced that a sequel was being made, and that it would be released on my actual birthday, it felt like a kind of a cosmic joke. Fortunately, Blade Runner 2049 was a gift, a vision that I can’t believe exists, a film that I still can’t get out of my head. Villeneuve brings his trademark beguiling tension to the Philip K. Dickian universe of replicants, their makers, and their hunters. Roger Deakins shoots a world that both feels like an evolution of the original film and totally fresh, a world where the disaffection and loneliness we’re seeing now has been increased a million fold. Fancher and Green’s script attacks the concept of what it means to be human with a ferociousness even the original didn’t possess, as if they and we were in immediate danger of never having the question ever answered. Building on the film noir trappings of the original, characters here are revealed to be simple rubes, unimportant cogs in an unfeeling system, who nevertheless can find meaning and transcendence in as simple a thing as an introduction, or watching the snow fall. What does being human even mean? In such a cold, bleak, and dimly hopeful work of art, I found an answer to why I want to continue to ask the question.
Honorable Mentions: Split, The Great Wall, Get Out, The Girl With All The Gifts, Kong: Skull Island, The Devil’s Candy, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Ghost In The Shell, Free Fire, It Comes At Night, The Beguiled, The Little Hours, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, Detroit, Brigsby Bear, Wind River, Molly’s Game, Okja
Have Not Seen At Time Of Writing: Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Project, Mudbound, Darkest Hour, Downsizing, Personal Shopper
Happy New Year, everybody! Hope it’s a great one, and see you at the movies.