Amongst my critic friends, a consensus emerged a month or two ago declaring 2017 to have been a great year for movies. I didn’t agree. I tend to judge (modern) years’ film quality by how many movies make the cut for my end-of-year article — that it, how many 4½- and 5-star movies there are. And based on that, I’d been feeling like it had been a rather weak year.
As recently as 2014, my annual lists were 25 entries long. In 2015, only 17 movies met my criterion. The next year, one fewer made the cut. Last year, I saw just another 16 movies that qualify for a Best-of-the-Year stamp from The Apple Box. That didn’t seem like “a great year” to me.
But then I thought about the masterpieces. The 5-star pictures. The true best. I saw seven 5-star pictures from last year. You have to go back to 2011 to find a year with more. What’s more, while ’11 did have more, a number of them just did covered old territory brilliantly well; 2017 did just as much but with more daring choices, human value, and intelligent conversation.
It really was a great year for movies. These are the sixteen biggest reasons why.
16. KONG: SKULL ISLAND
It shouldn’t have been so good. Who expected it would be so good? A profit-driven reboot of King Kong to help populate Legendary’s “MonsterVerse” connected universe, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (whose only previous credit was The Kings of Summer) spectacular eye for a gorgeous shot combined beautifully with his sense of dynamic energy to create one of the best action movies of the year and one of the most visually striking. John C. Reilly also steals every scene he’s in.
15. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES
(NEW AND SELECTED)
There have always been two Ben Stillers: the dopey maniac of such comedies as Zoolander and the dour neurotic of Noah Baumbach comedies like Greenberg. Considering Adam Sandler’s love of those same two extremes, it’s a marvel the latter never worked with Baumbach before The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a perfect unity for all three. With the deadpan Elizabeth Marvel joining Stiller and Sandler as three dysfunctional offspring of a retired art professor (Dustin Hoffman), The Meyerowitz Stories is somehow both one of the driest and one of the silliest comedies of the year.
14. DARKEST HOUR
If Gary Oldman doesn’t finally earn an Oscar this Sunday, for his mind-blowing transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, nobody can say he didn’t give it his all. As effective as he’s been as a wizard, a terrorist, a vampire, a punk rocker, or a peacock, this is the role Oldman deserves to be remembered for. It’s the best performance in a career or great performances. The fact Darkest Hour‘s writing, directing, score, and cinematography are also so good (and that Joe Wright’s WWII drama is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) are all almost bonuses.
(Read my full review here)
13. VALERIAN AND THE CITY
OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
The more bonkers director Luc Besson gets as time goes on, the more divided audiences and critics are over his movies. For instance, some (like yours truly) thought 2014’s Lucy was a near-masterpiece; to many others, it was ludicrous nonsense. Valerian, a tale of two special operatives in the future (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) on a mission to uncover an interstellar conspiracy, could just as easily be labelled ludicrous nonsense. But when it has some of the most stunning visuals of the year wrapped around a rousing-in-an-original-trilogy-Star-Wars-way sense of adventure, it’s hard to care. (Yes, I’m saying it did Star Wars better than The Last Jedi.)
12. BLADE RUNNER 2049
Denis Villeneuve has made four English-language movies — Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 — and somehow managed to make four masterpieces already. The man destined to be the next Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan used all the clout that came from directing a Best Picture nominee last year to bring about a sequel to a movie that not only seemed incapable of supporting a sequel but that had already been lost to the pantheon of “untouchable” classics. Not only does it do loving justice to the world created by Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott in the original Blade Runner, the argument can be strongly made that in some areas — CGI-enhanced effects, Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ visuals, just not being so damned dark in every single scene — the sequel actually improves on the original.
11. BATTLE OF THE SEXES
One of the greatest strengths of cinema is its ability to arouse emotion. So many films that are accused of cheap sentiment or heartstring-plucking are really just guilty of doing it without earned justification. But when that ability to rouse is used skilfully and adeptly, the result is something like Battle of the Sexes, one of the most vivacious and energizing movies of 2017. Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris capture the ’70s like they’ve unearthed a 40-year-old document. It almost feels shocking the rivalry between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) wouldn’t have been tackled before now, but if there were any perfect time for its powerful message of equality, it’s now. Having one of the most impressive comedic casts of the year sure doesn’t hurt, either.
10. WONDER WOMAN
For the last five years, DC struggled in vain to copy the magic Marvel has conjured over the past ten. It turns out the problem was just Zack Snyder. Once the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was left out of the chair to make room for Monster‘s Patty Jenkins, something wonderful happened. Against all odds, DC made a movie better than all but two or three best of Marvel’s 16 so far, thanks in no small part to a star-making turn from Gal Gadot. Wonder Woman is very arguably the greatest superhero origin movie, creating complex characters and a tension normally reserved for a first sequel while still finding time to raise contemporary social issues. In any other year, it would unequivocally be the best superhero movie of the year. The problem is, there was also…
(Read my full review here)
When Deadpool showed R-rated superhero movies could thrive at the box office, every studio began greenlighting things they never would have considered before 2016. In Logan‘s case: making the very dark, final bow of Hugh Jackman as the grizzled, past-his-prime Wolverine, in a post-apocalyptic future where almost all humans are dead, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) is almost dead himself, and Wolverine spends his nights driving limousines for money. And when the adamantium claws ultimately do come out, the savagery and violence that results, which would normally be cut away from with a more teen-friendly rating, injects more gravity and tragedy into Logan than any X-Men movie has ever come close to. It’s a stirring look at mortality, the best Western of the year, and the best superhero movie, too.
(Read my full review here.)
8. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE
2017 was a fantastic year for acting, and three of the best examples centred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell lead a story of obstinate one-upping that ends up destroying most of the lives involved, like a rural Changing Lanes. The difference is Changing Lanes didn’t have the gift of Martin McDonaugh behind the pen and lens. McDonaugh envisions his characters so clearly, creating lived-in, subtly powerful figures who seem to exist outside of the scenes you witness. McDonagh, McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell work wonderfully together to evoke a town you’d almost want to visit — if not for Ebbing’s rampant racism, bigotry, and rage crimes.
(Read my full review here)
7. WIND RIVER
Probably the most criminally unnoticed masterpiece from last year was Wind River. After writing the stunning Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan took hold of the camera as well for his third script. Everything Sheridan learned on his last two pictures informs his work here, creating an incredibly strong directorial debut. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tracker (Jeremy Renner) agrees to help an in-over-her-head rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) try and solve a murder on a Wyoming Indian reservation — but really, the whodunit plot is one of the less important parts of Wind River (at least until the final act). What makes it such a strong movie are the visuals, the performances, and the wonderful guessing games the script gets you playing as you try to hang on to the speeding narrative.
6. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
As great as 2014’s Boyhood was, it was so much “too much” for its own good that it betrayed the very childlike spirit of its intentions. (Really, should any movie about childhood be twice as long as a child would endure sitting through?) The Florida Project is the perfect recalibration. Told through the point-of-view of a mischievous six-year-old, it’s the story of a little girl (Brooklynn Prince, giving one of the most precociously winning performances of any child actor) getting into trouble in the motel where she lives with her twentysomething mother (Bria Vinaite), while trying to avoid getting caught by the gruff-but-lovable motel manager (Willem Dafoe). It’s Beasts of the Southern Wild without the tragic undertones, a movie of whimsy and fun that makes you wish you could hang out with your grade school friends again.
5. A FANTASTIC WOMAN
The greatest performance of the year that Oscar ignored was Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman. Marina (Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) are a couple madly in love. After spending an evening celebrating Marina’s birthday, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and very suddenly dies. While Marina may not have been wed to Orlando, she’s of course entitled to some sympathy, yes? She has some right to the dog they mutally owned? To the apartment they shared? To at least get to attend Orlando’s wake? Well, it would all be a simple yes, were Marina not a transgender woman in Chile. Brutally illustrating much of the ridicule, harassment, and painful hypocrisies trans men and women deal with on a daily basis, A Fantastic Woman manages to amplify the extremes of the torments exacted upon Marina via the world by anchoring it all to Vega’s staggeringly strong performance. In a more just world, we’d all be debating right now about whether McDormand would be able to sneak a win over Vega for Best Actress this Sunday.
If you know one person who saw mother!, odds are they hated it. And if you know several, maybe one person thought it “actually wasn’t that bad.” Maybe you even saw it — and maybe you just couldn’t believe why Jennifer Lawrence would make something like that or thought it was dumb and made no sense. Well… I can’t justify the first two; ignorant people are stupid. The fact is that, like many polarizing movies, mother!‘s biggest challenge is getting audiences to overcome its uncompromising vision. If you aren’t willing to let the movie explain itself at its own pace and to its own chosen extent — or aren’t willing to prepare yourself ahead of time for something atypical — you’ll be left aggravated at best, like most audiences were when they gave mother! a damning “F” Cinemascore. But like Spring Breakers, Cloud Atlas, and Under the Skin, the more open you go into the experience (or the more prepared) the more likely you are to appreciate its genius. Darren Aronofsky directed Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, but mother! is his greatest work yet — whether or not you “like” it.
3. BABY DRIVER
Even in a stronger year, Baby Driver would have been a brilliant fusion of action and song. It’s a musical fed through a car engine. Getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus, which he drowns out by always listening to music. What makes Baby the best, though, is how he choreographs his action scenes in perfect synchronization with car chases, footraces, and shoot-outs. (The insanely good soundtrack doesn’t hurt, either.) The cast is spectacular, from Horrible Bosses alumni Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx to Jon Hamm and Lily James, but Elgort steals the movie in a career-making performance. Director Edgar Wright worked for twenty years to get Baby Driver made, and the result is a brilliant testament to that drive and the most fun ride of the year.
2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Some movie romances stay with you, permanently burned onto your heart. They connect on such an intimate, human level, they transcend cinema and story and exist simply as records of true love (“true” or not). Call My By Your Name, the European summer romance directed by Luca Guadagnino, is destined to sit right there on the emotional shelf with Casablanca, The Way We Were, and Titanic. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a boy coming of age in 1983 Italy, whose archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has an American student of his, Oliver (Armie Hammer), come stay with their family for a six week internship. To say exactly how the story gets where it goes would be to betray the most emotionally honest journey of any movie from 2017 and one of the most powerful love stories of at least the last few decades. If the final four words of Call Me By Your Name don’t unleash a torrent of every bottled emotion in your body, your heart is dead.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are the only two major directors nowadays fighting for celluloid over digital: they also both have an oeuvre of almost all masterpieces, which really is a rare thing nowadays. In a career that includes Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, Dunkirk may just be his greatest. It’s a spectacular picture, covering soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk (over one week), sailors shuttling soldiers back to Britain (over one day), and pilots flying Spitfires over the English Channel (over one hour), all coalescing in a climax with more tension than any film in this critic’s recent memory. From the very opening scene, the action starts suddenly and refuses to let up for 90 straight minutes, as the suspense gets increasingly and suffocatingly palpable. I felt true terror watching it. The true, incapacitating, primal emotion of terror, the feeling like I couldn’t even catch my breath. It is an incredibly rare movie that can reach you to such a primal level with skill rather than scares, and Dunkirk is incontrovertibly that movie.
Curious about how the rest of 2017 stacked up? Check out my ranking of the rest of the year here!