2017 was a good time to hide somewhere dark where you can’t check Twitter. What better place than a movie theater? Here’s the 10 best films I saw all year—and if this list seem bleaker than past Top Tens that got celebrated slapstick and romance and Rose Byrne, so be it. Each of these flicks is so good, I’ll want to rewind them in better times, too. Pass the popcorn.
Eleven months after Bryan Fogel’s steroids documentary premiered at Sundance, Russia was suspended from the Winter Olympics — again. It’s prescient in more ways than one. Fogel, an amateur cyclist, intended to shoot a playful experiment to turn himself into Lance Armstrong. But when he asks scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, longtime head of the Soviet’s anti-doping lab, for injection advice, his film takes a high dive into international intrigue. After Rodchenkov admits that Putin pressures his athletes to succeed by any means necessary, so the president can trade gold medals for the civilian goodwill to invade Crimea, the doctor’s associates start to turn up dead. Icarus isn’t just a story about sports. It’s about everything.
Sorry, The Shape of Water. Nacho Vigalondo made the monster movie of the year, in part because he populated it with real people instead of polarized heroines and villains. Here, the two archetypes are one and the same in Anne Hathaway’s Gloria, a drunken mess who stomps all over her life and anyone to tries to save her. Halfway around the globe, a 700-foot behemoth is smashing up Seoul. The tie binding them together is a neat screenwriting trick, but the best thing about the screenplay is Vigalondo’s cool gaze at clumsy destruction and morning-after guilt. Colossal sees the fun in late nights swilling beer — this is no sober screed. Instead, it’s a toast to the Hathaway we’ve always wanted to see, a charming, selfish schemer who’s mainly fooling herself.
Let’s stick with South Korea a little longer to talk about Bong Joon-ho’s latest creature. Bong’s spent a decade celebrating all sorts of deformed things, from The Host‘s toxic sewer lizard to Tilda’s Swinton’s ghastly Snowpiercer false teeth. Yet in Okja, he makes his beast the hero, a mutated super pig raised in the mountains for meat. Neither Okja nor her young caretaker knows she’s headed for the slaughterhouse. We do, but that doesn’t make what’s coming any easier. Still, the film is more complex than an animal rights lecture (though it did make of my several friends cut down on their bacon consumption). Okja’s billionaire breeder Lucy is convinced she’s helping save the planet, and the giant pig’s would-be rescuers, the ALF, headed by a manipulative Paul Dano aren’t exactly good guys, either — though they’re easier to respect than Jake Gyllenhaal’s whiny TV host, who spends the whole film sweating and screaming to make us feel like it’s okay to laugh before we cry.
7) Rat Film
Most humans hate rats. In Theo Anthony’s experimental documentary, set over a century of slum life in Baltimore, residents poison rats, trap rats, hook them on fishing lines, and shoot them with rifles and blow darts. Meanwhile, the people themselves are hurt by filthy streets, neglectful city officials, and redlined real estate laws that prevent them from getting bank loans. Humans have invented dozens of ways to battle rats, one of the most famous symptoms of poverty. But what if we’re fighting the wrong enemy? Anthony’s ambitious mix of history, comedy, science, and economics speaks volumes about modern inequality without ever announcing its thesis. Like rodents themselves, his ideas scurry just outside of view — and stubbornly refuse to leave. “Do rats dream?” he asks. Good question. Can humans dream bigger?
6) The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is a humid fairy tale that sticks to your skin long after it ends. Or, at least, Florida seems like a fairy tale to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives just outside Disney World in a jumbo landscape of giant oranges and rockets and wizards and soft serve ice cream cones, all made of monumental concrete. Her mother (a combustible Bria Vinaite), all seafoam hair and pink angel wings, looks like a princess, and even the motel they live in is called The Magic Castle. When Moonee is an adult, her childhood will look much different. She’ll know then that her mom was a prostitute who might have permanently hooked her daughter on violence and anger. But for this summer, and maybe only this summer, the child still lives in fantasy. And in lieu of pity, Baker insists we see her big, bright home through her eyes, too.
The first time I saw Raw, I was distracted by the two — yes, two — ambulances that had to be called for audience members triggered by Julia Ducournau’s bloody coming-of-age story about a teen vegetarian-turned-cannibal attending a veterinary school of that’s two parts frat kegger to one part Boschian nightmare. On the second watch, now steeled for the shocks, I could fully appreciate Raw‘s level-eyed, predatory fascination with hunger, both carnivorous and erotic, and sometimes both at once, like when 18-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) drools over her shirtless male roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella). The film is full of shame and lust and unhinged abandon — an emotional churn recognizable to anyone who’s ever been young, even if they haven’t, say, sampled a human finger. I’m ready for thirds.
4) Brad’s Status
What, you haven’t already watched the Ben Stiller movie with the worst mush-mouth title of the year? What if I called it the indie version of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie I also love? Get past those hurdles — please! — and Mike White has made a tender, maddening movie about a mid-life crisis that’s at once comically overblown and so close to the truth it makes you squirm. Ben Stiller is the best actor we have at channeling embarrassing human anxieties, an electricity that runs through this dramedy like tangled, frayed nerves. In college, Brad ran with an alpha crowd (Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen) who all graduated into power and money. He’s merely got a good wife in Sacramento, and a teen son he’s currently taking on a tour of Boston schools. White takes us inside Brad’s head as he fantasizes about getting his kid into Harvard — and then pulls back to watch the awkward favors he’s gotta ask from his former buddies to try to get his kid an admissions meeting. Brad’s Status is at once ambitious and small, a sprint through the lives Brad feels like he deserved to live, and an intimate look at neuroticism. And yes, thankfully, there’s a scene where an idealistic young girl asks Brad to wonder if his problems are even problems at all. (Even more thankfully, he’s such a narcissist he doesn’t listen — how dull and happy if he did.)
3) Three Billboards Outisde Ebbing, Missouri
In a time where a tweet could start nuclear war, it feels right to watch a trio of billboards set a small town a-flame. Mildred Hayes is mad at everything: her husband who dumped her for a teen, the rapist who killed her daughter, and the cops who haven’t prioritized catching him, at least, not as intensely as she feels like they should. In turn, Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and hot-headed Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) think Mildred should keep her cool. All this rage isn’t helping anyone, especially Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who’s forced to handle his grief alone while his mother makes him the school outcast. Writer/director and playwright Martin McDonagh is the king of messy murder stories where everyone’s screaming so loud at each other that no one listens. What good it does to talk about a death that can’t be undone? Besides therapy, which Robbie could use, perhaps not much. While McDonagh doesn’t believe in group hugs, he demands we hear every character out and realize for ourselves that some problems don’t have solutions — and some movies can’t give you an answer. We’re all just doing what we hope is right.
2) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut was like watching my own high school years onscreen. Pink hair, pretentious East Coast ambitions, Catholic uniform, bad taste in boys — check, check, check and check. Lady Bird felt as though Gerwig had made it just for me. How disorientating, and wonderful, to leave the theater and realize so many other people felt exactly the same way — it’s number one on Uproxx‘s list, and I’m pretty sure neither Keith, Vince nor Mike were snotty private school girls. Of course, neither was star Saoirse Ronan who spent her teen years studying with a tutor on film sets. At 23, she’s already been nominated for two Oscars. Lady Bird is guaranteed to be her third, and possibly her first win. She’s earned it, yet that wouldn’t be possible without Gerwig’s humane and hilarious script that gives its kid heroine the spotlight while keeping a tender eye on her estranged mother (Laurie Metcalf). Maybe another filmmaker could have written the opening scene where Lady Bird flings herself out of her mom’s car. But only Gerwig would insert a shot where, after yet another fight in a thrift store, Metcalf lovingly, and thanklessly, tailors her daughter’s vintage dress.
1) Casting JonBenét
Between Tonya Harding and OJ Simpson, it’s understandable if you’re tapped out of ’90s crime nostalgia. Luckily, Kitty Green has made something totally different, a heartbreaking documentary about the film behind those films where she interviews Boulder-area aspiring actors eager to play John and Patsy Ramsey in a movie about their daughter’s murder. Anyone who survived the ’90s knows that JonBenét was a six-year-old pageant queen found bludgeoned in her own basement the day after Christmas. And most people assume her parents did it, including several of the people auditioning to play them. Green gets them talking about the universal actor’s question — “What’s my motivation?” — and as these ordinary people start to empathize with the Ramseys, an old schlock tale as flat as a tabloid starts to pump real blood. Slowly, Patsy, who started the film being called “a royal bitch,” becomes a human being. Groans one, if strangers accused her of being so vain she killed her own kid out of jealousy, “I don’t know what shade of ballistic I would go.” That doesn’t mean she, or Green, are arguing Patsy is innocent. Just that maybe, we should all be a little less quick to judge. There’s an irony in that message when JonBenét spent her short life smiling pretty for points. But Green’s lovely, strange little film is my grand prize winner.
PS: Because there’s so little to be grateful for in 2017, here’s 20 runner-up films that added joy to this year: The Bad Batch, Beatrix at Dinner, The Big Sick, Coco, The Disaster Artist, Get Out, Ingrid Goes West, Jane, John Wick 2, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lady Macbeth, The Last Jedi, The Little Hours, mother!, Mudbound, Patti Cake$, The Post, Trophy, Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets, Wexford Plaza