Just in time for Sunday’s Oscars comes staff contributor Kevin’s picks for the best films of 2017.
2017 was another year full of political disorder, social in-fighting and endless anxiety, and sure enough, it even found its way into the film industry with the Harvey Weinstein scandals. It goes without mentioning the business aspect of the field: Netflix is rising to the point where it can buy a questionable product from a studio, ergo robbing audiences of experiencing said product in a theater, the efforts of MoviePass to prolong the movie-going experience, and the Disney-Fox merger that puts the Mouse Ears closer to building an unsettling monopoly. But no matter how the market changes in the coming years, movies will always be around in some form to give audiences a place to escape from all the turmoil, and this year was host to a plethora of great films which provided entertainment, catharsis, laughter, ideas and comfort for people of all ages. So without further ado, from artsy horror films and dystopian sci-fi to endearing comedies and compelling dramas, these are the ten films I consider to be the best movies of 2017:
Honorable Mentions: Ingrid Goes West, The Breadwinner, War For The Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, It: Chapter One
10. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
The romantic comedy subgenre isn’t always accessible to every demographic, but The Big Sick broke its mold from how it was advertised, functioning in context as a drama with comedic elements. Based on the events that brought co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon together as husband and wife, The Big Sick goes to places most movies haven’t by capturing the initial awkwardness of first dates incredibly well, and containing emotional beats that hit hard with their authenticity and naturalism. It also has well-written characters that feel real and genuinely affecting thanks to phenomenal performances from its entire ensemble, with Kumail’s endearing lead performance standing out in what should be a breakout role. Add genuinely hilarious moments as well as an insightful look into the high standards of Pakistani culture, and you have one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory.
9. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
In 2017, both Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart gave their best lead performances since going their separate ways from the Twilight saga, and while Good Time was a tremendous film in its own right, the better film between the two was Personal Shopper, an arthouse thriller where Stewart played Maureen Cartwright, a young personal assistant to a celebrity by day, and medium by night longing to communicate with the spirit of her recently deceased brother in hopes of learning the existence of an afterlife, but things get complicated when she receives mysterious texts from an unknown entity. Stewart brings a career-best performance, conveying her character’s cynicism about her health, her anxieties about her own significance, and terrifying fears as she struggles to comprehend the man or spirit cyberstalking her. What could have been poorly handled by a lesser director, this intriguing story was impeccably directed by Olivier Assayas, who constantly builds tension throughout the mystery with a hypnotic tone and a commitment to naturalism, complete with its reliance on diegetic sound, sparing but effective use of dark shadows and constant atmospheric dread. Personal Shopper is a unique horror film that uses the artistic techniques at play to make the grieving process appear genuinely terrifying.
8. Logan (James Mangold)
The X-Men franchise and the superhero genre as a whole received a much-needed breath of fresh air in 2017 with Logan, the third and final solo Wolverine spinoff film for franchise mainstays Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. Loosely based on the one-off comic Old Man Logan, the film’s narrative takes place in a dystopian future where mutants are all but extinct, and Logan lives in hiding with a now-senile Charles Xavier, who suffers from an unknown form of dementia. They intend to escape to a life of solitude on the ocean until a young mutant named Laura arrives on their doorstep, and soon Logan and Charles defend her as they go on the run from a villainous team of scientists who wish to turn her into a weapon. Logan helped take superheroes in a new direction by grounding them into not only gritty realism, but also the western itself; complete with character tropes that are mainstays to the particular genre, with Logan filling the role of a retired outlaw, and Charles as an ailing wasteland elder. It also succeeded by allowing for a singular vision from co-writer/director James Mangold, who parallels Logan’s inner turmoil to that of the literary cowboy Shane, and tells the story of Charles and Logan’s eternal pain through the scars on their bruised bodies, withered facial expressions and thrilling action sequences unrelenting with their graphic violence. Even Jackman and Stewart go all out with their final performances in the roles they’ve made iconic, as Logan appears jaded with rage while Charles conveys the same hope he always had for him, this time through the veils of anguish and exhaustion as the result of long and tragic lives. Despite its bleak tone, Mangold and Twentieth Century Fox gave comic book fans the R-rated Wolverine film they were asking for, and entire audiences a sad but emotionally satisfying conclusion to Hugh Jackman’s time as the iconic anti-hero. No matter where the X-Men and Wolverine go from here, Logan will go down as the rare superhero film that will be hard to top.
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
It’s no secret that society has been generally angry in recent years on both sides of the political aisle over all kinds of issues that have taken over current events, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri depicts that in compelling fashion as it centers around a grieving woman who rents out three billboards near her house to call out her local police chief for failing to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder to a negative and even hostile reaction from the population of her small Midwestern hometown, including racist police officer Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. The film comments on the over-analytical nature of local news media, and is accurate in its portrayal of rural Midwestern character types, helped by stellar performances from McDormand and Rockwell, who deserve all the awards season buzz they’ve received up to this point, as does the script for its darkly funny dialogue. But in the wake of recent backlash, Three Billboards has been described as wish fulfillment for a solution to our society’s dissension and criticized for a particular turn a prominent character takes in the second act. Despite this pivot, the social commentary at the heart of the film implies that despite their intentions by the end, Dixon and Mildred are irredeemable because they let their prejudices, anger and grief consume them to the point of violence, and the only solution to the conflict at hand hinges on whether or not both sides of any political argument can set aside their disagreements and talk their problems out before ultimately tearing themselves apart and losing themselves to vigilantism. It’s that kind of reflective power and moral ambiguity that makes Three Billboards an unsettling but thought-provoking dark comedy about how society should and should not move forward from the times we live in today.
6. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
Hollywood epics are a rarity in the film industry today, but when one comes out, it’s always something special, and despite being overlooked at multiplexes in 2017, The Lost City of Z is certainly a tremendous period epic, especially for how it stands out amongst others of its kind with its ethereal tone and concise script spanning twenty years of the life of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who after an assignment, becomes driven to discover the golden city of Z in the Amazonian jungle. The film chronicles how his obsession affects his relationship with his wife and eldest son, but Gray’s expert direction as a storyteller ensures it never feels melodramatic, thanks to nuanced performances from its ensemble cast led by Charlie Hunnam, gorgeous cinematography, immaculate sound design and a dreamy but grand score. The Lost City of Z is a long film, but one that’s worth your time and attention, as it’s the kind of period epic that should still exist in the medium.
5. The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
It’s hard to predict what’s next for James Franco following recent developments, but as an artist, he came into his own in the film adaptation of Greg Sestero’s book recalling the true story behind the making of the so-bad-it’s-good classic, The Room. What could have been a collection of references to the unique badness of the now-cult phenomenon turned out to be both a hilarious and ultimately touching depiction of its subject matter, thanks to Franco’s career-best lead performance. As an actor, he nails both the comedic timing as well as the eccentricities of Tommy Wiseau, and as the director, he created a grounded and realistic portrayal of Hollywood that captures the struggles of starving artists just trying to get their foot in the door. But where The Disaster Artist succeeds the most is the endearing friendship at its center between Tommy and Greg, zeroing on how they’re both Hollywood misfits from different planes of reality with relatable dreams of stardom. It’s that emotional center that ensures that The Disaster Artist certainly belongs with Ed Wood as the best movies of their subgenre.
4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It was easy to fear that Paul Thomas Anderson could become another auteur on the decline following his ambitious but confusing Inherent Vice. Fortunately, Anderson returned to form with Phantom Thread, his second (and possibly final) collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis and crafted a stellar character study of an eccentric British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, who falls in love with his muse Alma, only for her to find his peculiarities and demands more insufferable as their relationship progresses. Day-Lewis is the tremendous actor he’s been throughout his career, making the character of Reynolds enigmatic in such a way that keeps the intrigue constant throughout the film’s runtime, while as Alma, relative newcomer Vicky Krieps holds her own and stands toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis in what should be a star-making performance as she tries to figure out what makes Reynolds tick along with the audience. Meanwhile, the narrative of Phantom Thread stands out amongst Anderson’s filmography for its authentic portrayal of the fashion designer lifestyle and its minimalism, staying for the most part in the lavish house of Woodcock. Anderson keeps the interest and suspicion going on a technical level through the use of slow push-ins, close-ups, breathtaking production design, and a score from Jonny Greenwood that makes this small love story feel grand in scale. If this is truly the end of Daniel Day-Lewis’s career as an actor, he went out with a phenomenal performance in a phenomenal film.
3. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Leave it to Darren Aronofsky to create a cinematic depiction of a nightmare. While it’s a cult film as advertised and employs the fast pace, dark shadows, impeccable sound design and feeling of claustrophobia like every great horror film, there’s so much more going on underneath the surface of mother! that transcends the film into a narrative that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It could be seen as a fable about the ordeals of living the artist’s life, or even an existential horror film about the true nature of the deities we believe in, and what that means for our place in the grand scheme of things. But those are only a fragment of theories anyone can apply to mother!, because it does what all great films of its kind should, which is invite discourse. The biblical allegories alone are powerful enough to warrant a conversation around them, as are the supernatural elements and the film’s second half that’s dominated by surreal chaos. Aronofsky’s bold direction fills mother! to the brim with outstanding lead performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, and themes around the nature of marriage, celebrity, nature and humanity itself. Despite taking a turn for the graphic, mother! is the kind of film that everyone has to experience for themselves, as its full of harrowing images and thought-provoking ideas that are impossible to forget.
2. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
Homosexual romances have for the most part been restricted to a particular niche in cinema, complete with a set of mostly tragic tropes. However, Call Me By Your Name is a film that breaks the mold of its genre as it zeroes in on lead character Elio, who finds himself infatuated with his father’s handsome research assistant Oliver, while experimenting in a heterosexual relationship at the same time. The beautiful soundtrack and hypnotizing cinematography make the film compelling from a visual and aural standpoint, but what propels Call Me By Your Name into something really special is how it uses the art-conscious aesthetics of classic European cinema from the 1950s and 60s to tell its story: the vibrant colors of its setting which dominated the French New Wave, a realistic handling of sound design prevalent in the days of Italian neorealism, and how references to art, literature and philosophy complement the love story at its core, which is beautiful in its naturalism and bolstered by the stellar performances by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, whose facial expressions tell the whole story, from Elio’s longing for Oliver, and conflict and anxieties over his sexual identity to Oliver’s fascination with Elio’s talents and the disappointment he feels by summer’s end. Director Luca Guadagnino crafted what should be a classic in Call Me By Your Name.
1. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villenueve)
It was easy to be skeptical about a sequel to the sci-fi classic Blade Runner when it was announced over two years ago, but as the right people signed onto it little by little, there was all the more reason to feel optimistic about a return to neo-noir Los Angeles, and sure enough, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that not only lives up to its predecessor, but also does everything a sequel should do by expanding upon the thesis and philosophies of the original, continuing to build upon its dystopian universe, and retaining the ambiguity that made it so compelling over thirty years ago. It also boasts a unique set of enigmatic characters headlined by Officer K, whose longing for a connection and drive to learn the truth about what he is are conveyed through every facial expression in another stellar visually-driven performance by Ryan Gosling. But it’s the direction of Denis Villeneuve that propels this sequel to classic status; the film is paced to the point where one can gawk at the amazing cinematography, feel the emotional weight of a moment and ponder over its ideas all at once. The original Blade Runner failed at the box office in its initial theatrical run before eventually becoming regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. There’s reason to believe Blade Runner 2049 will find similar success down the road, because it is packed with unforgettable images, ideas about how our desire for a connection makes us human, and theories about where society and technology will be in the future.