This has been a great year for cinema and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Next time someone comes with their “tv is better than the movies” nonsense, just take a deep breath and feel sorry for the fool. They’re simply missing out. Sure, you won’t get much out of the movies if you live on a diet of Marvel movies, but take a gamble on a smaller release and chances are you’re about to see something really interesting. At leas that was the case for me in 2017, which shaped up to be a particularly strong year for American cinema. So much so that I’m afraid my top ten (and my top five especially) might at first glance look a little “basic.” I tend to go off the beaten path with my year-end lists, but not even I could argue with some of this year’s critical favorites.
Because it’s been a particularly strong year, because I saw more than ten movies that I loved, and because I’m afraid people won’t give a hoot about them if I just list them in some sort of runners-up list, I’ve decided to change things up a little. Each movie in my Top Ten will be accompanied by a “Companion Film”, meaning another great movie from this year, that happens to share thematic, genre, or artistic ties with the main entry. Ten is just an arbitrary number, after all, and a cinematic year like this is worth celebrating.
Before we get started, a few clarifications on eligibility. Movies that I saw at the New York Film Festival but were not release to a general public in 2017 will have to wait until next year to qualify in the list. This includes Lucrecia Martel’s excellent Zama, which will no doubt be mentioned in the post I write a year from now. Movies like A Fantastic Woman, which got a one week qualifying run will also have to wait until next year, when they actually open in more than one city and for more than one week. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the list!
The Ten Best Movies of 2017:
1. Lady Bird
(dir. Greta Gerwig / 93 min. / USA)
The greatest thing about Greta Gerwig’s delightful directorial debut is that it’s both incredibly specific and incredibly generous. It’s not only the relationship between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) that feels complicated, multi-faceted and honest. It’s also the other members of her family, her class-mates, the actors who appear in only one scene, even the town of Sacramento. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t forget that everybody is the protagonist of their own story, even if the movie’s main character is a self-absorbed teenager. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been there. Every teenager is ridiculous and self-absorbed. One can only hope that, from the outside, our teenage selves seemed as adorably lost as Lady Bird.
Companion Film: With an even more difficult and troubled female protagonist stomping through California, Ingrid Goes West makes a sort of evil twin to Lady Bird, one that is hilarious and relentless in its portrayal of mental illness in the age of social media.
2. Good Time
(dir. Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie / 101 min. / USA)
Hats off to the Safdie brothers, and their miraculous accomplishment. It’s truly bizarre that a movie as drenched in masculinity as this one ends up as one of my favorites. With a perfectly lean script and flawless command of camera, score, and editing, Good Time comes in like a runaway train. We see two brothers rob a bank and before we know it, we’ve spent one long and stressful night led by Robert Pattinson’s unstoppable performance. What starts out as one of the most thrilling movies of the year ends up as one of the most specific and effective critiques of white male privilege ever committed to film.
Companion Film: Another brilliant story about New York brothers, albeit in a completely different tone is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. It’s a far more comedic film, but it doesn’t make it any less poignant in its interrogation of family relationships, or daring in its bold structural choices.
3. A Ghost Story
(dir. David Lowery / 92 min. / USA)
If you’re going to have Casey Affleck in your movie, at least have the decency to cover his face with a bed sheet for most of it. Alright, enough comedy! I’m here to tell you Lowery and his collaborators have accomplished something truly special here. What starts out as a movie about a grieving wife turns into a story about a lonely ghost and ends up going into places so unexpected I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them. This was no doubt the most unique experience I had at the movies this year. And to those who complain, saying that a mid-film monologue spells things out too much, well, I’m sad you’ve so wildly misinterpreted this movie.
Companion Film: Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is a less grandiose but equally daring companion piece to A Ghost Story. Instead of focusing on the ghost, it centers on the mourner; a young woman waiting for a signal from the afterlife. Kristen Stewart shines in the main role, especially during what’s already the most iconic texting sequence in cinema history.
4. Princess Cyd
(dir. Stephen Cone / 96 min. / USA)
Princess Cyd is a lovely story about two women. A single writer who has spent the last few years more focused on her work than on her relationships, and a teenager with a tragic past who is discovering her sexuality. They spend the summer together and learn a few things about themselves along the way. Sounds cheesy, but it is not. The trick is in the details. This is a movie about the experience of being human, and director Stephen Cone focuses on that. On the food that we eat, the light of the sun, the flowers in the garden, the textures of our clothes. This is one of the most delicate and warm version of such a story I have ever seen.
Companion Film: Another movie about a summer of love is Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino adopts a deliberate and relaxed tone, and like Cone, crafts a gay romance that escapes the cliched dramatics of the genre.
5. The Florida Project
(dir. Sean Baker / 111 min. / USA)
I’ve thought a lot about Sean Baker’s movie since I saw it at the New York Film Festival, and I only grow more and more impressed by the way in which he balances the tone. On one hand a gripping portrait of poverty in the dingiest part of Florida, on the other a loud and hilarious movie about an incredibly obnoxious child and her troubled mother. I think about what this movie accomplishes and I wonder: How can a movie be strident and subtle at the same time? How can it be shouting in your face one minute, then indirectly present you with a profound detail in the most understated fashion?
Companion Film: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja might seem like an odd companion, but if you think about it, these are both tonally bold movies about social issues told from the perspective of a resilient little girl who just won’t give up.
6. Get Out
(dir. Jordan Peele / 104 min. / USA)
Jordan Peele’s debut as a feature filmmaker might rank fourth on this list, but it is undoubtedly the movie of the year. I don’t have to tell you things aren’t going great in America right now, but maybe I have to remind you how Get Out -thanks to Peele’s incisive screenplay and an excellent cast- became relevant in a way virtually no movie had been this decade. The satire about black bodies trapped in the horrifically white suburbs was a phenomenon for a reason. A movie this sharp, this effective, that captures the current mood so perfectly is nearly impossible to come by. It became an event, and it was an achievement.
Companion Film: Also exploring American identities through B-movie sensibilities, Sofia Coppola was accused of whitewashing history. The absence of black characters in The Beguiled speaks volumes. This is a dark and incisive exploration of white southern womanhood dressed up in a delightfully pulpy package.
7. The Lost City of Z
(dir. James Gray / 141 min. / USA)
A rare movie. Not only because it’s an unabashedly old-fashioned story about an old-timey explorer’s journey into the Amazon, but because it’s a kind of movie that comes only once in a generation. This movie is a mystery. As if director James Gray didn’t quite know what he was trying to accomplish with it, but he felt something. Whatever is was, he felt if it so strongly he had to follow that instinct and put it on screen. The last fifteen minutes of The Lost City of Z are some of the most magical moments I experienced at the cinema all year. It’s a movie that exists as a bridge between our dreadful world and the land of dreams. Movie magic.
Companion Film: In Mudbound, director Dee Rees complicates a generational epic about two families in the American South -an epic of the kind that rarely gets made anymore- and emerges with a gigantically moving film.
8. Hermia & Helena
(dir. Matías Piñeiro / 87 min. / Argentina, USA)
Everyone who’s moved to a foreign country -including myself- at some points refers to their life back home as feeling like a dream. What’s more, we know that if we ever went back, then our lives abroad will become the dream and home will feel, once again, like reality. This odd feeling is perfectly captured in Hermia & Helena. Matías Piñeiro is one of the most exciting directors to emerge this decade. With just a handful of films he’s established a unique voice. His movies are short, playful, and full of life. He finds inspiration in Shakespeare’s comedies, which is only appropriate for someone with an appetite for subplots, tangents, and all kinds of structural games. Someone who is unafraid to turn cinema into play.
Companion Film: Both Shakespeare and Piñeiro understand how strange love can be, and with Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson follows suit. Set in the world of fifties high fashion, the movie plays like a cross between Scenes from a Marriage and Fifty Shades of Grey. A twisted rom-com if there ever was one.
9. The Post
(dir. Steven Spielberg / 115 min. / USA)
Only a veteran as provenly successful as Steven Spielberg could read a screenplay in February and fast-track production so the finished movie could come out by the end of the year. And only a genius of his stature could make it a great movie. The Post is a bold and underlined argument for the democratic importance of an independent and free press, embodied by a heroic Meryl Streep cloaked in a golden caftan. It ain’t subtle, but certain times call for bluntness. This movie, after Lincoln and Bridge of Spies before it, closes out Spielberg’s magnificent a trilogy about the idealism and practicality of the U.S. Constitution.
Companion Film: Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope is also a topical film with a very clear message. It merges the Syrian migrant crisis with his signature deadpan humor. Such a bizarre mix shouldn’t work, but Kaurismaki proves empathy and humor are the best ways to deal with a crisis.
10. Faces, Places
(dir. Agnes Varda, JR / 89 min. / France)
Nobody makes movies like Agnes Varda. She’s so energetic, exciting, and just so endearing. She is as good a filmmaker as she is a personality. One can’t help but fall in love with her. Her personality is infectious. She is also 88 years old. That’s the tension that turns Faces, Places from a delightful movie into a profound one. Varda teams up with photographer JR to drive around France meeting new people and learning their stories. It’s the kind of premise Varda usually tackles, only this time her age is clashing with her physical being. Her body can barely keep up with her youthful spirit. This is a beautiful movie about people, kindness, and aging. Calling it delightful would be an understatement.
Companion Film: If we’re talking about unique movies about death and memory, then we must mention Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, an unlikely sequel to an already perfect film that manages to be every bit as moving as the original.
Worst Movie of the Year:
Bad movies are easy to forget, but a movie you hate… You will remember that one. A bad movie can be forgiven. The Book of Henry, for example, is terrible, but admirable in its ridiculous incompetence. War for the Planet of the Apes, however… Now that’s a movie I will never forgive. I wish I could get back the two hours and twenty minutes of my life in which I had to sit through a festival of empty philosophizing and tortured apes.Why would anyone think this counts as entertainment? This is a Planet of the Apes movie for Christ’s sake! But it’s the evocation of everything serious from religious allegory to slavery and the Holocaust that moves War for the Planet of the Apes from torturously boring into outright offended. I’m getting angry just writing about it. What a piece of trash.
You hear film critics complain about “Marvel movies this” and “Star Wars movies that”, and then, when they’re face to face with a truly idiosyncratic and inspired blockbuster, they rip it to shreds. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets got mostly terrible reviews -probably because it had box-office bomb written all over it from before it opened- but deserved so much better. Director Luc Besson’s science fiction extravaganza is a feast for the eyes, and presents us with charmingly old-fashioned storytelling. With its B-movie sincerity and its bold effects, it feels closer to the original Star Wars than any of the official sequels we’ve gotten since 1983. I will grant some things don’t work as well as they could (Dane DeHaan is horribly miscast as the lead, I’ll give you that), but by God, this was a blockbuster that went for broke, and I hope it gets rediscovered in the future.
This year, movies like Detroit and Suburbicon were rightfully criticized for their tone-deaf approach to race relations, so I’m surprised there aren’t more people criticizing Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on similar grounds. This movie uses institutional racism and violence against women as mere plot-points, jokes even. The biggest offense is the way Three Billboards sets up the rape and murder of a young woman to fuel the redemption arc of a racist cop. McDonagh’s script is interested in plot complications and shock value at the expense of its characters. Focusing so hard on upending expectations might make Three Billboards seem like a morally complex movie, when in reality, it doesn’t have much to say. At least nothing of value.
So, The Boss Baby is not a great movie or anything. It is, however, a fairly good movie. Which might as well be the biggest achievement of the year when you consider the premise of the whole thing. This is a movie about a baby that wears a suit and is voiced by Alec Baldwin. You see, he behaves like Jack Donaghy, but he’s a baby! This movie had no right to be anything but a pile of garbage. And yet, it is one of the most inspiring uses of animation of the year. The character animation and the design of the whole thing are inventive to a degree most American animation (especially computer generated animation) refuses to be. It’s a movie that follows in the proud tradition of the classic Looney Tunes and UPA cartoons of the fifties. The movie eventually runs out of steam (how could it not?), but for the first half or so, The Boss Baby is quite something.
If you had told me last year that I would enjoy the freaking Boss Baby more than the newest films by Todd Haynes and Yorgos Lanthimos, I would have taken it as a personal attack. Yet here we are, with two filmmakers I hugely admired tied for the most disappointing results of 2017. Haynes and his collaborators did a masterful job with the sounds and visuals, but not even they could save Wonderstruck from one of the most frustratingly bland screenplays of the year. Meanwhile, Lanthimos went full sadist in the quasi-horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I couldn’t find any point to his brutal experiment. At least we can rest assured that no movie, no matter how terrible, will ever take away our ability to enjoy the masterpieces that are Carol and The Lobster.