There’s still a lot of good stuff I haven’t seen that it’s almost embarrassing to release this list. Yet, here are ten movies I really enjoyed in 2017 that I can feel proud to put here. I will update as I catch up over the next couple of months. UPDATED: 2/27/18 to include Nocturama + The Florida Project
One of the most gorgeously shot films of the year, Mudbound is almost novelistic in its approach to two different families in the World War II south. The very land they live on, tilling away for their livelihood should make them equals, yet the unjust power structures and hateful racism do not make it so. Even acts of war that should unite disparate parts of the country are divisive for some (the film focuses on the uniting of two characters based on this). Dee Rees’ film is utterly gorgeous, it unravels a bit at the end, but the first half is tight, some of the best storytelling of the year.
11. The Shape of Water
This movie shouldn’t work. The trailer was awful, riddled with cliches, and looked kind of lame. But what Guillermo del Toro ends up crafting is something far weirder than it ever should have been. Del Toro is willing to go for the hard ‘R’ in his tale of a woman falling in love with a strange swamp creature. Sally Hawkins is mute, Richard Jenkins is gay, and Octavia Spencer is a black woman in mid-civil rights America. These are the characters coming up against the system’s powers and if it takes a woman falling in love with a swamp monster to upend the powers that be, then so be it.
A film about terrorism in France that’s actually saying more about youth, rebellion, and consumerism. Nocturama starts slowly, skating along with little dialogue as a group of disparate teens enact an unknown plan. Slowly we see the execution of a terrorist act, one that we are given little insight into, why have these characters in their late teens and early 20s pulled of this stunt? It doesn’t really matter, instead the movie spends most of its time focusing on the aftermath, not in a Reservoir Dogs – like violent mystery of what went wrong, but by giving us a look at these passionate youth as they hang out in an expensive mall, waiting out the evening so they can make their escape. There’s no answers given, little motivation, but slowly layers are peeled back, and we see the desperate passion, regret, and immaturity at work in each of them. This is a masterclass in editing, pulling together plot strands while providing equal measures and clarity and ambiguity.
9. Logan Lucky
Steven Soderbergh’s return to directing is a heist movie as far removed from the white collar bank robbing of Ocean’s 11 as one can get. Set in the deep south and lead by a fantastic cast of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, and Riley Keough, Soderbergh again has crafted a charming, hilarious, and thrilling film. It’s littered with jokes, some obvious, some subtle, and the robbery, this time of a Nascar race, legitimately pays off. It didn’t get the hype of most of his other movies, but I loved it.
8. Blade Runner: 2049
This is what I wanted out of a Rian Johnson Star Wars a fully realized and unique point of view brought into an existing franchise. There are those who have argued that’s what Johnson does and certainly the situation was quite different, but what Denis Villeneuve brings here is on masterpiece level. Each scene is designed with an artist’s touch and there was perhaps no better cinematographic moment than the arrival into Las Vegas. It’s slow-paced and contemplative, everything I would want in a modern day sic-fi mystery.
7. Call Me By Your Name
A sensual and sultry coming of age story, set during an 80s Italian summer Call Me By Your Name follows Elio, a 17 year old boy, as he discovers who he is. To call it a “coming out” story is too shallow, the film explores every confused tendency of a 17 year old, allowing room for Elio to try things exuberantly, experimenting, and failing confusedly, until he finds what makes him alive. The film more subtly allows his amour, Oliver, one who seems to have confidently already come of age, to stumble over his insecurities and what he has previously been allowed to be or not be.
The film ends with something near a pep talk in which we get a hint of where Elio’s life will go, his, a life met with acceptance and understanding by those around him, will turn out much different than Oliver’s. We only get a small taste of it, but the final shot, a minutes long close up of Elio as he stares at the fire, contemplating his first romance, shows the disparate paths they will take. It’s sorrowful, yet hopeful, Elio will take the piece of this summer with him, building his life off of it in the ways we should move forward, not letting the past take away from the present, but using it to build something better and more beautiful.
A gorgeous exploration of the heroics of survival. Nolan takes a step back from his characters, letting their looks and silences and gasps for air fill in for a traditional plot. It’s a breathtaking piece of cinema, one that captures the chaos of war, not just in battle, but in the confusing way it flips our morals, how we justify our actions, and who we consider to be heroic. Here the warrior flees and cowers, while the civilians march into battle and each is somehow justified for their actions. War can never be just for it causes a spectrum of human experience to arise in a muddled and grey ethical playground.
5. Get Out
Jordan Peele crafted a horror flick that uses racism, stereotyping, and white guilt to creepily subvert our society and the conventions of the genre. It subtly captures how horrifying it is to live within an unaccommodating white space before building to full on scary movie. All the horror tropes work well here, Peele invites you to think about larger social themes while slowly terrifying you. Peele was always excellent at creatively crafting comedy around the inequalities in our world while Key & Peele was on and here he’s found a way to amplify it across a feature length film, showing a keen ability behind the camera. It’s one that will be talked about for years to come.
4. The Florida Project
There’s perhaps no more of an empathetic filmmaker out there than Sean Baker. Both of his films tackle complex and often frowned upon areas of the world, from Tangerine, his story of two trans-prostitutes in inner city Los Angeles to his latest work, The Florida Project, a look at daily life in a Disney World adjacent hotel that illegally houses poor families. This is a heartbreaking story, but one that’s filled with so much life, carried by the mischievous and troublemaking Moonee, a young girl who spends unsupervised time running throughout the Florida swamps creating real trouble for those around her. Her situation and the situation of those she spends her time with is awful and Baker makes her mother’s actions almost forgivable even as she leads her daughter down an awful path. This is a movie that celebrates the lives of those who are forgotten, even as they make mistakes and hurt those around them, Baker is there to tell their story and he does it beautifully. (Oh and Willem Dafoe is as good as advertised, the movie is beautiful, and it might have the best ending of any film from 2017).
3. A Ghost Story
Nothing about David Lowery’s latest is conventional, despite this it constantly moves in a new direction, from its initial reflections on losing a loved one to its grander ambitions of meditating on all of life and what we leave behind. It’s gorgeous, mostly silent, and plays with the ghost convention, asking questions of what we contribute to the world and if it ends up being nothing more than ourselves are we okay with that?
2. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a heartwarming, heartfelt, and often funny coming of age story, telling of the battle for the teenage soul between the sincerity and carefree youth and the insecurity that comes with self-awareness in growing up. It’s completely lived-in, likely drawing from Gerwig’s own teenage experiences. Gerwig, who was already a proven talent in acting (Greenberg, 20th Century Women) and writing (Frances Ha, Mistress America), has now again shown an immense ability to direct, guiding along a pitch perfect picture that encapsulates growing up. She and Saiorse Ronan guide us along this journey across the highlights and pitfalls of youth. It also serves as a loving tribute to one’s hometown (in this case Sacramento), the place you’re forever inextricably attached to, but anxiously await to escape. Did I mention that I grew up in the greater Sacramento region? Yeah, this movie hits home.
1. The Big Sick
An almost perfect rom-com that justifies the existence of the oft-maligned genre. The Big Sick tells the true tale of comedian Kumail Nunjiani meeting and falling in love with his wife Emily (they co-wrote the script and he stars in it). To do so, he has to overcome the delicate balancing act of immigrant parental expectations against society’s, as well as a devastating sickness that puts Emily in a coma. Equal measures of laughing and sobbing fill this one and it’s remained my favorite all year even against more ambitious pictures. It’s strength rides on how charming it is and how it uses this charm to pull off the full gamut of emotions. Every single character’s story line produced an emotional reaction from me. When I look years down the road, I imagine this will be the movie I have returned to the most, throwing it on in almost every scenario, and having it fulfill whatever emotional void I’m feeling.