Movies

The Best Movies Of 2017

It’s always tempting to try to draw some State Of The Movies judgments when considering the best films of the year. But, honestly, 2017 was such a chaotic year — in the world and at the movies — that it might be best to stay away from that impulse. 2017 at the movies was all about superheroes and Jedi except when it was about coming of age stories in Sacramento or Northern Italy. Horror movies never get acclaim, except this year saw the release of one of an instant classic that also doubled as a comment on the state of race relations as the Obama era gave way to the age of Trump. And on and on. So let’s just say this: it’s probably too soon to draw any conclusions about 2017 beyond noting that it saw the release of some great movies. Here are our collective picks for the best movies of 2017, as chosen by Vince Mancini, Mike Ryan, Amy Nicholson, and Keith Phipps. (Some of us will be offering individual lists down the line as well.)

1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has written and directed a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento through the lens of just how much she hated it there before she left. Or, at least, how much she thought she hated it. Lady Bird is such a personal movie, but it’s filled with universal truths. We hate our hometowns until we leave. We fight with our parents until we realize their side of it all. Set in 2002 and based on Gerwig’s own experiences, the film follows a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). She’s not enjoying her senior year at her Catholic high school and is applying to colleges across the country in an effort to get as far away from home as she possibly can. But during the journey to that moment (it’s not a surprise that, yes, Gerwig did eventually leave Sacramento) Lady Bird starts to discover more about about who she is, where’s she’s from, and where she’s going. It’s the time a lot of people look back on and recognize as the moment they became who they were going to become – but of course it’s impossible to realize then. —Mike Ryan

2. The Florida Project

The last scene of this movie is devastating. If you’ve seen The Florida Project, then you know what this is referring to and are probably nodding your head in agreement. If you have seen this scene and are not nodding your head, there’s a good chance you are dead inside. (Actually, the last scene of The Florida Project could be used during medical studies to discover if someone still has emotions or not.) Set in Orlando, in the grimy shadow of Disney World, the film focuses on the lives of people staying at a downtrodden motel. Most are not guests, residing there on a somewhat permanent basis, often having to switch rooms every few weeks to skirt residency laws. The children there become friends, but often come and go due to the whole temporary aspect of everyone’s living conditions. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Hicks (Dafoe is so great) does the best he can as the motel manager, but everything is just a sad state of affairs – as the kids (led by hellraiser Moonee, played by Brooklyn Prince) just go on about their days like any kid would, oblivious to the scarred surroundings they live in. The Florida Project is one of the best movies made about America, circa 2017. — Mike Ryan

3. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

Don’t call Mildred Hayes an avenging angel. Martin McDonagh never writes characters that easy, not even when they’re the mother of a murdered girl. Frances McDormand’s Mildred is furious, sure. But she’s also flawed and maddening, isolated in her anger, and wrong even when she’s right. Her daughter deserves justice. The problem — or problems — is that no one in Ebbing agrees on what justice is: Attacking the police? Defending their boss? Protecting free speech? Or even just maintaining civility in a small town where people can’t help bumping into each other, making Mildred’s surviving son dread going to high school. As McDonagh’s quick-patter quips and zingers stack up like kindling, Mildred faces off against good ol’ boy cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and prepares to burn it all down. In most revenge flicks, the audience would cheer. But Three Billboards steadily, and bitterly, insists that life doesn’t offer movie-sized solutions. Instead, it gives us a confusing and wonderful mix of rage, empathy, and charred catharsis that feels very 2017, and at the end of all this pain, a cooling trickle of hope. — Amy Nicholson

4. Get Out

To watch a horror movie in the last few years usually meant experiencing 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. 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 defanged real fears with fake fangs, in a way. If Keanu was a little disappointing for Key & Peele fans, Jordan Peele’s Get Out felt like it finally came through on the promise of their more biting, social commentary-laced sketches. — Vince Mancini

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Walking out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens two years ago, it was easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of relief that, given how much could have gone wrong, they didn’t blow it. Instead, J.J. Abrams carefully reassembled the pieces of the Star Wars universe to continue the story beyond the events of Return of the Jedi. The movie that reunited viewers with old friends while introducing a new cast of memorable characters. It was also nicely done. It was also a little bit safe. With The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t so much smash those carefully reassembled pieces as arrange them into new configurations that no one had considered before, bringing in visual devices, moral ambiguity, and narrative zig-zags that bent Star Wars tradition without breaking it. As the old cast continued to take their last bows — including Mark Hammil in his best-ever performance as an aged, embittered Luke Skywalker — the new characters grew deeper and more conflicted, and the stakes mount as Johnson leaves our heroes in an even more desperate spot than they found themselves in at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson took chances, and has gotten some blowback from some quarters for it. But if Star Wars is going to continue to matter, it’s going to need to take just these sort of risks. — Keith Phipps

6. 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 that which was on the surface, or to lump Baby Driver in with all the things it references. 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. In fact, 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 in ways few imagined possible. He takes throwaway tropes and gives them soul. Baby Driver doesn’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. —Vince Mancini

7. Brigsby Bear

Yes, 2017 has been a pretty awful year in general, but on the bright side: there are two Mark Hamill movies in this “best of” list, so that’s nice. Here’s a movie that has “cult classic” written all over it, the question is just “when.” A Sundance favorite that later played at Cannes (forever, Kyle Mooney can say he stared in a movie that played at Cannes), Brigsby Bear just didn’t have the steam to find an audience in theaters. But there’s no doubt that will change. A lesser movie would have been mean to its protagonist, James (Mooney), a man whose whole life is upended when he finds out he was kidnapped as a child, told that the planet was inhabitable and couldn’t go outside, and that his favorite television show – everything he knows about the world – wasn’t real and was made only for him. Instead, it handles James with love and care and avoids the easy “fish out of water” jokes. Its premise might be a hard sell on paper, but Brigsby will still have its day, someday. — Mike Ryan

8. Raw

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…,” and 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 — a movie you might have to watch twice. It 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. Some of us prefer the latter. — Vince Mancini

9. Mudbound

One school of thought holds that short stories make better fodders for movies than novels, that movies excel at telling tight, contained stories with one clear arc rather than complicated, crowded narratives. But in the right hands, a movie can capture all the best qualities of a novel, offering a strong sense of place, the people who live there, how their lives change over time, and how they reshape the world in which they live. With Mudbound, director and co-writer Dee Rees movingly adapts Hillary Jordan’s novel about two families — one white and one black — in the years just before World War II. Their lives entangle on the land they share in Mississippi, but their interactions are shaped by years of racist tradition that each generation reshapes a bit but seems incapable of fundamentally changing. It’s a film of stunning performances from a cast that includes Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan (currently best known for his work on Marvel’s Netflix shows), and Carey Mulligan. But the heart of the film belongs to Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, who bond over their shared experiences fighting the Nazis in World War II and receive much different greetings upon their return. Mudbound received a warm greeting at Sundance but hasn’t earned quite as much attention as it deserved thanks to a Netflix debut. (Netflix, making a push to be taken seriously as a source of great movies, has shown tremendous taste but has seemed unable to break into the cultural conversation.) But, on the plus side, for subscribers, one of the year’s best films is just a click away. — Keith Phipps

10. 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. But The Disaster Artist was like a perfect snapshot, a beautifully composed shot 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, proved that he can be one of the best in the game, both in front of and behind the camera. 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. Making it a family affair (his buddy Seth Rogen also produced and starred) was also a signal that Franco was taking this one seriously. It worked. More, please. — Vince Mancini

11. The Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson has revealed little about The Phantom Thread ahead of its release, but it’s hard to describe even once you’ve seen it. The plot is simple enough: a haute couture fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) falls into a relationship with a waitress (Vicky Krieps), which threatens to upend a carefully regimented life overseen by his sister (Lesley Manville). It’s a visual feast and sensual in other respects as well. It’s also a strange, darkly funny movie about love and power that never takes an expected turn, inviting viewers to sink into its mystery and get lost for a while. — Keith Phipps

12. Casting JonBenet

True crime thrillers and ’90s tabloid nostalgia have taken over everything from podcasts to mini-series, but Kitty Green’s documentary is unique. Instead of solving, or milking, the strangulation of a six-year-old beauty queen, she studies the infamous murder through the eyes of the actors imagining themselves as parents John and Patsy Ramsey. How does it feel to have your grief on the front page of People, and strangers whispering that you killed your own child? Wrenchingly relatable, which for audiences expecting a guilty pleasure turns out to be the most powerful shock of all. — Amy Nicholson

13. The Big Sick

It was a weird year for comedies, in the fact there just weren’t that many of them that made a dent. In the top 30 highest-grossing films of the year, the only true comedies are Girls Trip and Daddy’s Home 2. So not only is The Big Sick, arguably, the funniest movie of the year – it’s also one of the only truly hilarious movies this year. And what’s crazy about it, the true-life story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s early relationship reads much more like a drama than it does a comedy. (Someone could easily rework scenes from this movie and make a fake trailer that presents it as the saddest movie of the year.) Instead, The Big Sick became the breakout comedy and cemented Nanjiani as one of the most important voices in comedy right now. — Mike Ryan

14. Bodied

Is it the ultimate hipster move for us to include Joseph Kahn’s Bodied on this list when it still doesn’t have a distributor, and there’s no way you could argue it because you probably haven’t seen it? Maybe a little. But the fact that no one has bought this movie yet is downright criminal, and if we can move the needle in some way, it’s our duty to do so. This is a movie that deserves to be seen. Produced by Eminem, 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 also just a major crowd pleaser. This awards season is celebrating some seriously dull slogs and here’s a smart one that’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It’s proof that being challenging doesn’t have to be dull. Someone buy this damned movie, seriously. — Vince Mancini

15. 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. They hardly ever make the choices you’d expect, and incredibly, it all works. — Vince Mancini

16. Coco

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). It proves 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. — Vince Mancini

17. Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s sun-drenched coming-of-age story moves at the pace of a slow summer day, only eventually revealing itself as an emotionally intense film of tremendous power. Timothée Chalamet plays a precocious 17-year-old who falls in love with a visiting grad student (Armie Hammer). Beyond that, nothing much happens, yet everything happens. It’s a particular story about particular people living in a particular time and place, but it’s also the story of that summer, the one you look back on and realize made you who you are, and the one whose end can only be called with bittersweet feelings. — Keith Phipps

18. Brad’s Status

Hear ye, hear ye: It is finally time to give Ben Stiller’s dramatic acting long-overdue respect. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories is getting most of this year’s buzz, but this performance as a middle-class father resenting his life choices is even better. Stiller’s college friends are rich. He’s the loser left out. Writer-director Mike White chips away at what’s left of his ego, especially the small favors and brags and indignities that make him feel pathetic. When he’s done, Stiller has transformed into a monument of human hubris. Brad’s Status hurts to watch. But the agony is worth it. — Amy Nicholson

19. Wonder Woman

It’s amazing just how a little bit of pure hope and earnestly can go right now. What makes Wonder Woman feel like such a breath of fresh air is just how “old fashioned” it really is. She doesn’t really make jokes. She’s not dark and disturbed. And she really likes ice cream. Modeled with the same tone as 1978’s Superman, this is a Wonder Woman that just makes a person feel good inside while watching. These new DC movies have all been about doom and gloom up to this point, but then came Wonder Woman to try and make everyone just feel a little better about humanity. (And then came Justice League and everything got mucked up again, but that doesn’t take away what an extraordinary ride Wonder Woman has been.) So, as it turns out, people don’t really need “dark and gritty” superheroes. Or non-stop one-liners. Right now, people just kind of want someone to look at and go, “that person is kind.” — Mike Ryan

20. The Shape Of Water

To be honest, revisiting The Creature From the Black Lagoon as an offbeat love story that doubles a parable about political paranoia and what it means to be a cultural outsider doesn’t sound like a good idea. But, boy, does Guillermo del Toro make it, work, creating a fairy tale for grown-ups that’s as wondrous to look at as it is wrenching to watch. That’s in no small part thanks to tremendous supporting performances from Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins but especially the work of Sally Hawkins as a mute custodian and, beneath some amazing make-up, Doug Jones as the fishman with whom she developes an unlikely bond. — Keith Phipps

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