On more levels than I care to recount, 2017 was a roaring hellfire of a year. A year so bad that a beloved celebrity suddenly dying feels like the preferable alternative to finding out that they are secretly sex fiends. A year so bad that the President of the United States probably colluding with Russia to get elected isn’t even the fifth worst thing that can be said of him. A year so bad that it almost makes you nostalgic for the simpler time of 2016.
But the one arena in which the year of our Lord two-thousand seventeen was not an endless gauntlet of horror and agony was in movie theaters. This was such an astonishingly good year for film that fully one-third of the new movies I saw made the shortlist for my year end Top 10. I don’t do Bottom 10 lists because I think they’re mean spirited and boring both to read and to write, but if I did, I’m not even sure I could come up with 10 movies that I disliked enough to include on it. There were a lot of movies I absolutely adored that didn’t make the cut, and I’ll highlight a few runners up below, but for now let’s dig into my Top 10 most favorite movies of 2017. Don’t even think about @‘ing me.
Blade Runner 2049
It speaks to the sheer, unbelievable quality of 2017 as a whole that a film as singularly stunning as Blade Runner 2049 is coming in at the bottom of my list. I know that for some, admitting this is tantamount to sacrilege, but I’ve never loved the original Blade Runner the way I feel like I’m supposed to. While a great many people have found a great deal of meaning in it, to me it’s a film that feels almost like an empty vessel. It plays in the realm of big existential questions, but doesn’t seem to have any point of view of its own. That allows anyone so inclined to fill the gaps with their own personal philosophy, which is fine, but not terribly interesting to me. 2049, however, plays in that same space and does absolutely have something specific to say. Its meditations on the nature of life, the nature of love, and our own sense of individualism are deeply meaningful because they’re imbued with meaning by the film itself. Blade Runner 2049 is the movie I’ve always wanted Blade Runner to be, and in the myriad bad takes I’ve seen on the film I can now sympathize with everyone else who had to deal with dunces like me who just didn’t get the original.
Us boys (especially white boys) are positively swimming in coming of age movies that speak specifically to our experience of growing up. Some are great, some are not, but there’s so damn many of them that we’re almost guaranteed to find something that relates so specifically that it might as well have been a documentary. Girls aren’t so lucky. There are tragically few coming of age movies for young women, and the ones that do exist are often framed around romance. That’s not to say that romance and sexual awakening aren’t an important part of growing up, but there’s so much more than just that one thing. Lady Bird relishes every part of the experience of that exciting, frightening, uncomfortable point in time where you’re too old to be a kid, and you’re not quite old enough to be an adult. It’s a deeply personal (semi-autobiographical) story that speaks to strange way in which stories become more universal the more specific they are. In many ways my experience growing up was wildly different from Lady Bird’s, and yet there are few characters I related to as strongly this year as her.
The other Blade Runner follow-up this year probably isn’t as well rounded a film, but what it lacks in over all polish it more than makes up for in thematic heft and sheer gonzo storytelling. Alien: Covenant is both a prequel I didn’t want and a sequel I didn’t need and yet it’s maybe my second favorite movie in the whole Alien series. It doubles down on what worked in Prometheus (namely David, an android with the world’s worst daddy issues) and jettisons almost everything else all the while reframing the context of Scott, O’Bannon, and Giger’s original Star Beast. Under any normal circumstance that second part would be a borderline unforgivable offense, but in this case it feels like a reclamation. The unknowable horror of the Alien has been diminished every time it’s appeared on screen after 1979 and you can’t put that genie back into the bottle. Instead, Ridley Scott restores some of the weird psychosexual terror to the whole thing by making it the bastard offspring of a being obsessed with the only capability he does not possess: the ability to create life. David is almost literally the devil – trapped in a hell of his own creation, crafting monsters from what remains of the souls that haunt this world – and the movie asks us to sympathize with him. It doesn’t all work, and the last half-hour of it is almost a wash, but the rotted, twisted beating heart of the movie is the tragedy of a being who is more human than human, who holds a mirror to all our darkest impulses, and who is tortured by the knowledge that he’s an imperfect product of an imperfect creator.
I’ve been recommending this movie to anyone that will listen ever since I saw it back in the first half of this year, and let me tell you what a challenge that has been. Colossal is movie that defies a simple explanation. It’s a deeply silly premise masterfully used to explore deeply meaningful themes ranging from alcoholism to the fragility of male ego to the way we can so casually cause so much devastation to other human beings through the distance and anonymity of modern communication. And that’s as far as I’m willing to go on this because half the joy of this movie is seeing how its absurd premise gradually unfolds over the course of the film to become something truly extraordinary. If you haven’t seen it yet, go seek this one out.
The Florida Project
This movie is beautiful. More beautiful than a movie about hopeless people living in a crummy motel down the freeway from Walt Disney World has any right to be. Some have characterized this film as “poverty porn,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This could have easily been a film that wallowed in despair, that rubbed your nose in the horrors of being poor and having no realistic way to change that, but it’s not. The Florida Project is just as much about finding beauty in bad situations as it is about the bad situations themselves. The movie doesn’t pull any punches or try to pretend that things aren’t incredibly bleak, but by allowing the focus to be set squarely on the children living in these conditions, the film is able to find joy in things as simple as sharing an ice cream cone before it melts in the Florida heat or putting a dead fish in a swimming pool to try to bring it back to life. It’s a film that insists people deserve common decency if for no other reason than that they are, in fact, people. This film about forgotten people living in the shadow of the Most Magical Place on Earth says nothing more or less than that these people matter too; that their lives and their stories are worth telling.
The Shape of Water
Recently, Guillermo del Toro admitted that several years back Universal approached him and offered the keys to the kingdom in regards to their classic monsters, but he turned them down, presumably because he was prepping to start making The Hobbit (as if that production couldn’t be any more frustrating). On one level, it’s tragic that the man who loves these monsters more than any other human being on Earth had to turn down the opportunity to play in that sandbox, but on the other hand, maybe we got something better out of it. The Shape of Water is a movie that could only be made by someone who loves monsters the way that del Toro does, and it’s a movie that Universal almost definitely would not have let him make if it was to be an official reboot of Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is a deeply romantic, deeply sensual love story between a mute woman and a fish person, a screed against ignorance and discrimination, and a scathing criticism of the superficial phoniness of mid-century American culture and the ugliness that lies at the heart of this era so romanticized by right wing politics. I’ve seen this one three times now, and there are so many little details that make this movie magical. It’s a masterpiece, through and through, and that it’s maybe not even del Toro’s best film speaks to what an incomparable talent he is.
It took me a couple viewings to get on the same wavelength as this movie. On the first go ‘round I think I was expecting something more narratively showy – more along the lines of what Wright brought to his Cornetto films. Instead, Baby Driver is a fairly straightforward story (albeit one that is impeccably well told) which allows Wright the leeway to really showcase his strengths as a director. Whether or not you think the movie counts as a literal musical, the action sequences in the film are choreographed with the same precision and attention to detail as any huge song and dance number. There’s an electricity that runs through every moment of the film, imbuing it with a raw kinetic energy that represents the Platonic ideal of what an action film should be. It’s the type of movie that makes you question why every action film isn’t this good, and it’s because every action film isn’t directed by one of our greatest living filmmakers.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The frustrating thing about the conversation surrounding Three Billboards is that people seem to be laser focused on one specific aspect of the film to the exclusion of everything else it’s trying to communicate. Despite prominently featuring a virulently racist character, Three Billboards isn’t actually about racism. Instead, racism is just one way in which the deeper sickness of humanity manifests. This is a film about the way we as people tend to lash out when we are hurt, the way it’s easier to rain down fire on everyone else rather than trying to accomplish anything that’s actually constructive. Every character here is justified in the pain they feel, but the way they choose to address that pain ends up only causing more hurt for the people that surround them. It’s a sickness, starting in one person and infecting everyone they come into contact with. This is a movie that doesn’t offer easy redemption for anyone (certainly not the stupidest, most vile character in the entire film), but rather shows how overwhelmingly difficult it is to try to break free of this cycle. It’s a movie that ends on an optimistic note only inasmuch as characters maybe having second thoughts about their disastrous plan to appease their own righteous anger can be considered optimistic. But the movie never lets us know for sure, it never gives us that out because this thirst for revenge and retribution is just as much an eternal part of what it means to be human as anything else.
In many ways, Get Out was the movie of 2017. No other movie came out of nowhere and captured the zeitgeist in quite the same way. It was like a bolt out of the blue – a completely confident, assured work of pop art from a first time filmmaker that puts many, many seasoned veterans to shame. It’s equal parts Twilight Zone and George Romero, tackling racism not in the Trumpian form of the out-and-proud bigotry, but in the more insidious way people who are ostensibly supposed to be allies use black lives and the talents they carry as a disposable commodity. It’s a movie brimming with the sort of anger that subject deserves, but it never tips over into nihilism. Instead Peele effortlessly shifts between tones in a way that only absolute genius-level filmmakers can, delivering a biting satire that is at once funny, uncomfortable, cathartic, and genuinely scary.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Here is where the don’t @ me clause really applies. Yeah, I picked a Star Wars movie as my Number One movie of 2017 – the most populist of populist choices. I’m basic af. Now that that’s out of the way, 2017 was a great year for original films and new voices – films like Get Out and Lady Bird are vibrant and incredibly, incredibly exciting – but it was also a great year for franchise filmmaking. Maybe the best year I’ve ever seen. This was a year that saw several big, high-profile franchise films take big risks with huge, thematic swings for the fences in ways these movies rarely do. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 which dialed back the action to focus on a story about dealing with the faults of our parents and confronting the literal male ego. Movies like Alien: Covenant and its sympathy for the devil story completely upstaging almost 40 years of franchise storytelling. And, of course, The Last Jedi which was so effective at upending the series’ status quo that a bunch of complacent nerds are literally petitioning to have it be written out of the canon. These children will tell you the film betrays the spirit of what Star Wars is, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a film created by an artist deeply, intimately familiar with the sandbox he’s playing in, knowing its strengths and its shortcomings and using that knowledge to make really deliberate, really smart choices about where it needs to go in order to continue being viable. If J.J. Abrams made a movie that recaptures the feeling of watching your favorite Star Wars movie on video, Rian Johnson delivers a film that’s more akin to what it must have felt like to see Empire Strikes Back in theaters for the first time. The uncanny parallels to the so-called fan response to both films only serves to drive this point home.
The Last Jedi is a big, audacious film that knows exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be and takes immense pleasure in pulling the rug out from under those expectations at every opportunity. Not in the service of cheap shock value, but in order to tell a deeply meaningful, emotionally impactful story that – for my money – represents the best this series has ever offered. We live a the world of franchises now, that’s just the reality of it. Our cinematic landscape is dotted with sequels and adaptations, reboots and remakes, spin-offs and shared universes. The best we can hope for is filmmakers who are willing to upend those toy boxes and use the toys at their disposal to create real, meaningful art rather than just disposable pop entertainment. 2017 has proven that it can be done, and if it can be done for Star Wars of all things, no one else has an excuse.
Honorable Mentions: more than I have space to talk about. The Big Sick with its heartfelt, funny love story and really surprisingly good turns from Holly Hunter and stay Romano. xXx: Return of Xander Cage for being a better Fast & Furious movie than the actual Fast & Furious movie that came out this year. It for being probably the most fun I had in a movie theater in all of 2017. Coco for being a spectacular celebration of Mexican culture and a profoundly moving story about death and remembrance. And The Post for being an almost infuriatingly well made movie that uses the lens of the 1970s to directly address the failures of our president in 2017. This was a stupid good year for movies, and if you missed any of these, please go give ‘em a look.