I have the same reaction every time I see someone post their yearly top 10 list. I click on it almost instantly, see the first few entries, and think to myself, “What an idiot,” then shake my head ruefully about all the ignorance in the world and continue on with my day. I imagine most people read them this way. Thus yearly top 10 lists are mostly an act of trading credibility for clicks. “You guys need a reason to curse me? Here ya go!”
Despite all this, our compulsion to make semi-arbitrary rankings is almost as strong as our compulsion to read and judge others based on them. Not making one feels like an act of cowardice. At some point, you just have to shut up and put your name on it, regardless of what reservations you may have. “But I didn’t see every single movie! Maybe I only liked that one thing because I was in a good mood! Art isn’t meant to be quantified!”
Sure, sure, sure, but also QUIT YOUR SNIVELING! It’s the holidays! The holidays aren’t a time for logic and careful reasoning! The holidays are a time to just shut up and do that thing because mom says so! Now is the time for lists! Rank your opinions and defend staunchly! Now pull out your knives and fight your dad!
Okay, all that being said, I have a quick note on methodology. You might notice that some movies on this list might be higher or lower than the original review I gave them. That’s because part of the methodology for a year-end list is that you have a bit of distance from the viewing. You base the rankings in part not on your initial reaction, but on how much the film stayed with you.
There are some films I loved on the way out of the theater that I haven’t thought about since (Dunkirk comes to mind). Others I was initially a little lukewarm on, I found myself thinking about a lot (Raw). Staying power is an important consideration. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I had to see a film more than once. I saw Eternal Sunshine once and it stayed with me for a full decade. Though I did see a few of these more than once. Some benefit from multiple viewings (Raw, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West), others don’t (The Post).
Another consideration is that an initial review is fundamentally different from a year-end list. The first time I watch something, I’m trying my best to see the film the filmmakers wanted me to see. In a review, a film gets a certain amount of credit just for fulfilling whatever the initial promise seems to be. Whereas by the end of the year I’m trying to evaluate that promise itself. Which means films that tried to do something interesting and maybe didn’t quite succeed rank higher in my mind than the ones that were perfectly successful at being a thing that the world didn’t need as much.
Okay, okay, enough unnecessary prefacing (wasn’t I the one who said quit sniveling? Jesus.).
In America, we like our metaphors overt, where any film with allegorical overtones with subtext that doesn’t come with a transparent one-to-one translation gets deemed “messy.” In Europe you’re allowed a little more ambiguity, more freedom to say “it’s kind of like….”
Rarely has a filmmaker so taken that ball and run with it like Julia DuCournau in Raw. Raw uses the uncontrollable taste for human flesh as a sort of ambiguous analog for coming of age and burgeoning sexuality. It’s strange and over the top and a little abstract.
In fact, the first time I saw it I didn’t fully “get” it. But I saw it again, and it got a little better, and moreover, I found myself thinking about it afterwards a lot more than I did other movies that I initially thought were “better” (Dunkirk, Guardians 2, Lemon, Good Time, The Big Sick, Downsizing, Okja, Wonderstruck, Atomic Blonde, A Ghost Story, Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name — just to name a few that only narrowly didn’t make this list). That’s probably partly because it’s so bizarre. Who knew European veterinary colleges were such dens of sexual intrigue and vice? But bizarre and unforgettable are worthwhile qualities. I think the most French thing that happened in Raw was when the protagonist’s doctor lit up a cigarette in the examination room to smoke while she delivered a heart-to-heart.
Raw is, essentially, a body horror movie about body horror. It shares much with Thelma, in that they both deal with young female protagonists trying to come to terms with their peculiar powers and both use the fantastic as a metaphor for coming of age and alienation. But where Thelma is tasteful and mannered and intellectual and a little cold (“Norwegian,” in other words), Raw is schlocky and visceral and kind of gross. Guess which I prefer.
9) War Machine
Why hasn’t War Machine shown up on more year-end lists? Too goofy? Bad title? Netflix movies don’t count? For my money it was the year’s most insightful war movie, not to mention one of the best feature adaptations of narrative non-fiction (far more successful than tin-eared, inexplicable cult darling Lost City of Z, for instance).
Brad Pitt plays “Glen,” a stand-in for General Stanley McChrystal in Michael Hastings’ The Operators. Pitt’s portrayal is a little slapstick, sort of a cross between Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds and Chad Feldhiemer in Burn After Reading (and yes, I wish they would’ve used McChrystal’s real name). But War Machine’s Three Stooges/Foghorn Leghorn qualities are just the sugar to make its incisive critique go down.
Maybe it’s inevitable that we prefer war movies about heroes, like Finest Hour or Their Finest, but War Machine was a seething critique disguised as a comedic romp. It depicts Pitt’s Glen McMahon as a kind of tech CEO general, a guy whose irrepressible utopianism blinded him to some of the costs of trying to implement his “big ideas.” Best of all, David Michod doesn’t portray him as a villain or an outlier, but simply as the kind of guy a dysfunctional system tends to reward. It’s easy to just write a fire-breathing villain, but Michod is no hack; he has too much empathy. That makes his critique structural, not just something you could shunt aside as a wild story — just the way Hastings’ book intended. The fact that he managed to do it in the context of a comedy is nothing short of extraordinary.
8) Get Out
To watch a horror movie in the last few years, usually, was to experience a painful missed opportunity — the genre is simultaneously the last bastion of purely cinematic suspense-building of the kind Hitchcock popularized (where framing and composition count for more than anything else), while also being the most narratively confined (99% of the movies are about a haunted house or a creepy little kid, etc). It’s reminiscent of modern country music, where no matter how good the music is, the genre itself is basically defined by hack imagery. Like if the lyrics aren’t lame clichés it doesn’t count as country. A lot of horror fans seem to define “scary” by whether it literally made them jump out of their seat, almost transactionally, like asking whether a porn successfully brought you to climax. It’s a little weird.
Get Out masterfully explores horror’s possibilities, putting that suspense-building and creeping dread towards something real — a dawning recognition of racism. Horror movies are usually about escapism. You get to be pretend scared about ghosts and zombies to distract from your real existential fears of death and cosmic meaninglessness. Get Out is both real and not. The horror comes from real feelings and the escapism from the genre itself. It defangs real fears with fake fangs. Best of all, it’s social commentary that’s not so deadly self-serious. It takes a fun genre and has fun with it.
If Keanu was a little disappointing for Key & Peele fans, Jordan Peele’s Get Out delivers on the promise of their more biting, social commentary-laced sketches.
7) The Disaster Artist
The Disaster Artist takes a wonderful book that’s sweet and touching and strange and many-layered and adapts it into something that’s more like a pure comedic romp. That’s not always a good thing, and there are few critics harsher than those who loved the book.
The Disaster Artist is like a perfect snapshot, a fleeting, beautifully composed image for those new to the story, and a subtly revealing one to those already familiar. It’s easy to think of James Franco as a dilettante, a guy who takes on too many projects and ends up half-assing them, and plenty of his past work has the feel of a rough draft. But The Disaster Artist, in which Franco directs and stars, proves that he can be one of the best in the game when he commits himself. Casting his brother, Dave, as the co-lead is a decision that shouldn’t have worked — neither are the right look or age for the people they’re playing — but it does, for the same kind of undefinable reasons that The Room is so funny. They have chemistry and an ineffable freak charm. I’m generally not your guy when it comes to describing movies as “fun!,” but that’s really what The Disaster Artist is.
6) Brigsby Bear
Kyle Mooney is one of my favorite SNL cast members in years and Brigsby Bear only cements that. Mooney has created so many endlessly watchable characters over the years that he easily could’ve cashed in on a spin-off movie about any one of them. Instead, he made a concept film about a child raised in isolation by an apocalyptic cult driven to recreate the TV show that was created just for him.
If anything sums up the kind of person Mooney is, it’s the fact that in a movie about a kid getting kidnapped by cultists, stolen from his parents and raised in near total isolation, no one is the villain. No one has empathy for weirdos and oddballs like Mooney. Which in retrospect, is probably what makes his oddball weirdo characters so compelling.
Brigsby Bear is one of those movies I second-guess myself about recommending. I worry people go in expecting a belly laugh-filled romp. Which Brigsby, while pretty funny at points, is decidedly not. It’s a weird and sweet love letter to making stuff with your friends. It doesn’t make me laugh so much as give me hope for humanity. I don’t know if other people will like it as much as I do, but I know that any movie that makes me feel like the mushy sentimental one is a towering achievement.
5) Baby Driver
Baby Driver received arguably the greatest backlash of any of 2017’s most acclaimed films, mostly on the grounds of being a “glorified iPod commercial,” or some such nonsense. It’s not a surprising reaction for people to latch onto only the qualities on the surface, or to lump Baby Driver in with all the things it referenced.
Which is to say: it looks like a lot of other things because it‘s supposed to. Normally that’s a cop-out (it sucks because I wanted it to!), but Edgar Wright isn’t being ironic. He’s doing the opposite, adding earnestness where it didn’t exist before. He’s not copying, he’s sampling. He’s taking all those bits of familiar pop-culture detritus — the iPod guy, the diner waitress, the prodigy, the heavy — and setting them to his own groove. He gives so much unloved, unexamined imagery a reason to exist. Whereas Three Billboards made me retroactively take a critical eye towards earlier McDonagh movies I thought I loved, Baby Driver did the opposite, making me wonder if I was wrong to dismiss hokey characters or situations all those other times. Edgar Wright made me wonder if there was some humanity there that I’d missed.
He took throwaway tropes and gave them soul. Baby Driver didn’t use music as a crutch, it is music. There isn’t anyone combining proficiency in the cinematic language with innovative storytelling the way Edgar Wright is right now.
Inside Out was a film that told kids it was okay to be sad — a reasonable goal. Though the execution was lacking (a chase sequence inside the mind?) and the stakes were non-existent (the film hinged on a little girl briefly forgetting how to play hockey). Coco took on the weight of family tradition and sneakily, brilliantly became a film about memory and loss. Turns out, potentially erasing your great-grandpa from existence hits a lot harder than youth hockey. Even more impressively than that, Coco took a Dia De Los Muertos concept that spawned cultural appropriation worries throughout production and turned in a respectful, entertaining film that ended up being beloved most of all in the country it depicted (not to mention a hit with Latin audiences).
Coco proved that “cultural appropriation” isn’t really about whether we borrow (of course we do), it’s about whether you’re mocking or look like a poseur while doing so. It’s Pixar’s best in years.
3) Ingrid Goes West
Studio comedies these days suffer from an inability to commit to a concept. Most of them are just the skeleton of an old-fashioned sitcom story with enough legroom for famous comedians to dick around in. They’re not only dull, they degrade the entire act of comedy.
Ingrid Goes West is concept-first comedy. It doesn’t go for the big punchlines and banana peels and the actors all play their characters with no mugging. And while the usual prestige dramas will probably soak up all the acting awards, Ingrid Goes West has arguably the best ensemble cast this year. Aubrey Plaza plays the “Aubrey Plaza character” and few are as good at doing awkward, but the surprises are Elizabeth Olsen as a pretentious Instagram blogger, Wyatt Russell as her long-suffering husband, Billy Magnussen as the blogger’s unhinged brother, and above all, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed screenwriting landlord, Dan Pinto. Mother of God, I could watch Dan Pinto vape and get weirdly philosophic about Batman for at least two more hours. The whole movie would be worth it for him alone.
A lot of movies explored speech and privilege this year, but most of them were alternately self-serious, pedantic, or simply interminable. Bodied, which still doesn’t have a distributor, is none of those things. It proves that thought-provoking doesn’t have to mean dull and that a film can be both relevant and escapist simultaneously.
Did I mention it’s about rap battles? Bodied does what 8 Mile never did, which is explore what it means to have a white guy fronting a battle rap movie. Its nerdy protagonist is a college kid well schooled in the language of preferred pronouns and privilege checking who discovers that battle rap (not all that different from privilege checking, as it turns out) allows him to put all his most un-PC thoughts to words and be celebrated for it… sort of. What it’s not is a facile celebration of free speech as freedom from consequence, or another pedantic explanation of how privilege is real and words can hurt. It’s a necessary broadside against the idea that sensitivity is easy. Incredibly, it’s also a major crowd pleaser.
1) Lady Bird
Every year I go through a period of depression where I see so many bad or meh movies in a row that I start to wonder if maybe movies are no longer a worthwhile art form, or if maybe they’re just not for me. Every year there’s a movie that brings me back, that inspires me, that reminds me why I started writing about movies in the first place.
This year that movie was Lady Bird. Everything else on this list is debatable, subject to a “maybe that deserved to be higher” or “maybe this should’ve been on here instead of that.” Not Lady Bird. Lady Bird was the movie that made great filmmaking seem both effortless and necessary.
Granted, it’s a movie that Greta Gerwig made about growing up a few hours up the same highway from where I grew up in almost the same time period as I did. (A lot of people talk about the scenes with Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash,” not enough people talking about the scene set to Reel Big Fish.) But this feeling wasn’t limited to me. My group came out of the theater arguing about who the film truly “belonged” to. Obviously it belongs to Greta Gerwig. She just happened to be a good enough storyteller that we all found our own parallels in it.
It’s not like she reinvented the wheel either. Coming-of-age stories, strained mother-daughter relationships, the troubled less-cool best friend, the stifling Catholicism, the secretly-gay crush, the disastrously-douchey-in-retrospect crush — all of these elements are things we’ve seen, things that have been done. Greta Gerwig doesn’t avoid them, she just personalizes them. It’s not about growing up in the suburbs, it’s about growing up in Sacramento. It’s not about a strained mother-daughter relationship, it’s about a mother struggling through a depressive, out-of-work engineer husband who’s miffed by a daughter who acts ashamed of their poverty.
So many overpraised arthouse movies avoid clichés simply by being strange or not really making decisions. Gerwig didn’t write around clichés, she wrote through them. That’s why Lady Bird is about what it does do, not what it doesn’t. Storytelling is about making choices. Lady Bird shows that the way avoid being hokey or hacky isn’t to make fewer choices, but to make more. It’s an admonishment to tell your story, and don’t skimp on the details.