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.)