Perhaps it’s a cliche to say at this point, but 2017 was a terrible year.
Personally, I have struggled on every front. Creatively, financially, professionally. It has been uniformly awful.
Actually, I take that back. I have been more than blessed with love in my life this year. My kids continue to be amazing little people who impress me more every day as they come into focus, and my girlfriend gifts me every day with the single most healthy, nurturing relationship of my adult life. There’s no discounting how important that is, especially when everything else has been a nonstop challenge.
On a larger level, we have faced a social landscape that has been unrelentingly contentious, emotionally draining no matter where you stand on things, and one of the few bright spots has been the way pop culture has given us a genuine alternative — a way to not only escape from the worst of what’s been going on, but to also process it. There were terrific movies that spoke deeply to a wide spectrum of filmgoers. People not only saw great movies, but they also felt seen by them. There are terrific movies that aren’t on this list, and I’ll be writing about my list of runners-up on my own site, where you may see some titles that you’re shocked you don’t see here. But after wrestling with this list for almost a month, I feel strongly that these are the 10 films that most impressed and impacted me over the last year. That’s the only way I can make this list. I don’t get it when people say they wrestle with the subjective versus the objective when they make lists like this. There is no difference when talking about my favorite films of the year, and since there’s no such thing as an authoritative quantifiable “best of,” nothing else matters.
Some of my favorite filmmakers made the list this year, and in every case, it feels like people working in personal mode, even if they’re working in the most mainstream of possible modes. When I think of 2017 in the future… if there is one… then these are the films that will most directly connect me to who I was at this moment in time.
20th Century Fox
10. The Post
Propaganda does not make for particularly great filmmaking, but sometimes, you have to tell a story at a particular moment. In this case, Steven Spielberg is working in historical mode to urgently warn us about our current political landscape, and while it’s not a particularly subtle parallel, it is an apt one. It helps that the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer manages to make what is essentially one long, dense info-dump into a human, simple, direct drama.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep for a reason, and Hanks seems to be having a ball playing Ben Bradlee, an old-school editor pulled straight from the great newspaper dramas of the Hollywood tradition. Streep’s after something else, though, and while I’ve read some smart arguments about the reality of Katharine Graham’s evolution as a publisher versus what we see here, there is such powerful truth in what she does that I was devastated by her work. I’ve seen this twice and I’d watch it again in a heartbeat. That supporting cast is incredible, and everyone has their moments. Spielberg knew what he was doing casting some of these quiet killers in “small” roles, and his film is richer for it.
One of the most important institutions we have is a free press, and part of the horror of our culture right now is the way a certain percentage of the populace has been convinced that the press is working against them. It’s fiendish, and it’s heartbreaking, and The Post wants to make it clear that a free press, unafraid of government reprise, is essential if we’re going to survive any President determined to abuse the powers of his office.
Plus, I’m all about the stealth Mr. Show reunion. That was awesome.
9. Baby Driver
The movie musical is long overdue for a facelift. Genre, in general, is a trap, and one of the things you’ll see on this list is that I love films that challenge the idea of what a genre “can” or “can’t” do, since those are ridiculous ideas. No one seemed more determined to prove that this year than Edgar Wright, and watching the opening dance scene in his film, in which he makes the getaway drive after a bank robbery into a dizzying, delirious blast of joy, it’s clear that Wright is working on his own frequency.
Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, and it’s a fascinating, charming, weird piece of work. In many ways, this film plays by the same rules as some of Hollywood’s biggest musicals, etching characters in quick, deft detail, well aware that these are meant to be more theatrical and heightened versions of people. I know we are all justifiably done with Kevin Spacey at the moment, but Edgar cast him for that iconic oily quality that has made Spacey such a mainstay over the last 20 years. The same is true of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal as well. Everyone here is tuned in to that particular frequency of Edgar’s, and when that happens, it’s beautiful.
As much as I love that opening, it’s the foot chase when things finally go south where Edgar’s vision found its most perfect expression. It would have been easy to turn this into a movie where it was all about selling a soundtrack full of brand-new artists and big monster hits, but it is clear that this is all personally curated. Watching my own kids lose their minds for the film and watching the way they instantly absorbed Baby’s sense of cool as their own was one of the year’s most unexpected pleasures for me, and watching the film repeatedly has given me an even greater love of the dazzling craft on display. Some people just eat and breathe movies, and when they speak, it is always worth listening.
20th Century Fox
One of the reasons I get frustrated by the conversation around genre is that it so often refuses to engage with genre films the same way it engages with “regular” films. Right now, there is real value to having a conversation about how to live as a society with PTSD, and on an individual level, how to life a life without violence after that’s what you’ve been trained for, and if we happen to wrap that conversation in a skin that looks like one of the most popular characters in modern blockbuster filmmaking, then even better. Here’s an example of how nothing, no matter how many chapters you have already made, is ever incapable of doing something new. It’s not like James Mangold and the very smart writers he worked with (including Scott Frank and Michael Green) reinvented the entire X-Men franchise from the ground up. All they did was tweak things a bit, making room for Patrick Stewart to give us a heartbroken Xavier wrestling with dementia, and for Hugh Jackman to say a proper goodbye to a character he played so many times that it is impossible to imagine anyone ever owning it the same way he does.
Dafne Keen is terrific as a little girl who represents everything that was ever taken from Logan, and watching him struggle to give her a life and a future that he never had is more emotionally powerful than I would have expected. Instead of just leaning on Shane, the film earns the reference, and there were few images in any film this year that carried the same weight as the moment Keen turns the cross on Logan’s grave on its side, a reminder of just how much it cost to reach a place where there are no guns in the valley, and no need for them.
7. The Big Sick
If we’re going to be okay, and I’m not entirely sure I believe we will be, then The Big Sick is a snapshot of one of the most important ways we’ll make it through. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon and based on their actual courtship, it is a wise and human look at how hard it can be within any culture to find love and to make our families happy. Najiani grew up with pressure from his Pakistani family to marry within their culture, and they worked to find him an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, he met and fell in love with Emily (played with terrific warmth here by Zoe Kazan), and for most movies, that would be enough story. Instead, an unusual plot twist introduces Kumail to Emily’s parents after he’s already broken up with Emily, and what spins out from there is a wholly original take on the romantic comedy.
Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are awesome in the film, but for me, seeing Kumail lead this movie was a moment that felt like a big step forward for American pop culture in general. One of the biggest problems with rom-coms in general is that they so rarely understand the way love actually works, and this film is a beautiful exception to that. The relationship that develops between Kumail and Emily is based on all the real things that create connections, and it’s a canny piece of writing. For most of the year, it’s felt like Michael Showalter has been left out of the conversation about this film, and I want to offer him special praise for his work with the cast and in finding a way to make this oh-so-specific story feel universal. This is proof that the more personal a story is, the better the chance that we will all be able to relate to it. Every time you chase the mainstream, what you’re really doing is homogenizing your story so it’s completely safe and bland and sanded-down. A film like The Big Sick tells a story that couldn’t be any more particular to two people, but in doing so, it illuminates so much about how we both chase what we want, and sabotage our own happiness. It is a joyous film, it is a heartfelt film, and it makes me feel better about people in general. Any world where we are telling stories like this is a world worth fighting for.
I needed this movie this year. More importantly, our blockbuster culture needed this movie this year. If we are ever going to see these spectacle movies evolve, we have got to be willing to challenge the way business is done right now, precisely because business and art are frequently after opposite goals. When Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, that sounded like a lot of money, but at this point, they’ve already more than justified that purchase price. All they have to do is “play it safe” and keep printing money forever… right? There probably is a safe version of Star Wars, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Star Wars has been at the epicenter of pop culture for 40 years, and even in the 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, it continued to assert a fairly strong hold on an entire generation’s imagination. Now that it has become a multi-generational affair, evolution is inevitable, and Rian Johnson turns out to be the right man for the job. It was up to J.J. Abrams to get everything up and running, but Johnson has taken that setup and done something really wonderful with it, turning the entire series inside-out in a spiritual sense.
It is a tough pill to swallow to see the series finally acknowledge that failure is a stepping stone to knowledge, but so much of what we’ve seen happen over the previous eight episodes (including Rogue One) was, in hindsight, a failure, that it feels like it had to finally be acknowledged and addressed. We live in an age where people seem to want narratives about infallible heroes, and where backstory is more important than theme, and it’s strange to watch people grapple with a film that offers up a very different thematic take on The Force. I’ve never had bagboys at the grocery store and the dude at the Christmas tree lot and random friends of friends so openly struggle with their feelings about a movie, and with so little provocation. Any mention seems to inspire some real soul-searching, and I think at least part of that comes from the uncomfortable truths that the film addresses. We are knocked down in life way more often than we are triumphant, and for some of us, that’s all we know. How we live with those failures, what we learn from them, and how they define us are all things that Rian Johnson is dealing with here. He tackles the idea of legacy as both an important tradition to respect, and a trap that must be escaped — a fairly heady idea for a series that is entering its fourth decade. He has laid groundwork here for more than just this one ongoing franchise; he has reminded other creators that we are not handcuffed by Joseph Campbell or the monomyth, and that the past is simply part of who we are, while the future is equally important. For the first time in 40 years, a Star Wars film has me looking not just at the screen, but at the horizon, once again inspired to chase my own binary sunset, fully convinced that the Force will be with us always.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson may not make any more films together. If Day-Lewis is to be believed, he won’t be making any films with anyone anymore. But I will particularly miss this collaboration. What they created with There Will Be Blood was chilling and beautiful, a haunted character study of a great man who was terrible at being human. Now they’ve created a very different kind of character study, an exploration of the exhausting relationship between an artist and his muse. It is an emotionally savage movie in which nothing much happens on the surface, and I found it exhilarating to see this kind of control from both actor and filmmaker.
My own experience this year has been, in large part, about not only understanding, but honoring the role that women play in my life, and I love the way Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) believes himself to be the center of his world, unaware of the incredible gravity exerted by both his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a simple country waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Day-Lewis is amazing and laser-focused and brittle and blisteringly funny as Woodcock, and part of what makes the film so great is watching the way Krieps slowly but surely goes from quietly flustered and a little bit awed to something totally different by the time those closing credits roll. Her evolution is remarkable, and Krieps gives one of the most delightful, fully-formed performances, male or female, starring or supporting, in any movie this year. It’s sneaky, precisely because we don’t know her at the start of the film, and we know that Day-Lewis has been considered the best of the best for decades now. She would seem to be hopelessly out of her weight class… until she’s not.
Watching the way things unfold is all about small shifts of power back and forth, sometimes back and forth within a moment. This film has more to say about the push and pull within a relationship, particularly one where there is a deep sexual connection built around the unconventional, than any thousand Fifty Shades clones ever could, and it says it with wit and restraint and a jet-black dark sense of humor. These two people need each other. They fit together like barbed wire and soft tissue, protecting and destroying with each thrust and parry, in a dance that feels like erotic self-immolation. It is a beautiful movie about some ugly things, and it feels like another step forward for Paul Thomas Anderson, whose voice only gets more urgent and essential with age.
4. Lady Bird
Coming-of-age stories are omnipresent. It seems like we get several of them a year, and if you go to film festivals, they are as common as long lines and bad food. When someone gets it right, those films resonate because they offer a road map for a moment that can often be the most turbulent and seemingly uncharted in our lives. Greta Gerwig seems to be constantly hunting for unflattering, unfettered honesty in her work as an actor, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that she does the same thing as a writer/director. The relationship between Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) can be summed up in many ways by that name in quotes. In the opening moments of the film, we see the two of them in a car together, and they swing from love to rancor and back with no warning. Part of what eats at Marion is the way nothing she gives to or does for Christine seems to be enough, including the very name she gave her. Part of what eats at Lady Bird is that her mother can’t or won’t see that she may want more than her mother believes she can accomplish, and she needs that support to be unconditional. The two of them desperately love each other and need each other, but they are terrible at navigating the communication of those things.
I love Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s father. He and Michael Stuhlberg in Call Me by Your Name are the Best Movie Dads of 2017, and it’s because they both project understanding and acceptance and empathy. They want their children to be happy and healthy and whole human beings, and they are willing to do whatever they can to help them fly. There is such beautiful, bruising truth to the way Metcalf reacts when she sees how Lady Bird is ashamed of her house, her clothes, her family, and it’s righteous anger. It’s also exactly what we sign up for as parents, and that anger isn’t about the kids and their reactions so much as it’s about us and our own dreams and expectations. “We are what they grow beyond,” as a certain crazy green puppet says in another film on this list, and sometimes it can be hard to reach a place of peace about that. We are all human, parents and children, and we are all fragile and reaching out for love and support. Getting it wrong happens a lot, but what matters most is staying in there, fighting it out, and not giving up. The truths that Lady Bird learns by the end of this are significant, even if they’re not all ground-breakingly fresh.
Much love to the young cast, including Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet and the great Beanie Feldstein, for doing such terrific work and painting such indelible portraits of Lady Bird’s friends. I’m also deeply impressed by the way Gerwig suggests whole lives for characters like Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), giving those actors room to shine in what would normally be throwaway roles. It’s a sign of just how wide-open Gerwig’s heart is for these wonderful flawed characters of hers, and we should all learn how to live like that.
There are plenty of audiences that will want nothing to do with The Florida Project. It is not an easy film to like, or even to explain. Sean Baker’s work so far leans heavily on characters who live in the margins of modern society, and it would be very easy for this to feel like exploitation. There’s plenty of people out there who produce misery porn, movies where marginalization is almost fetishized, but Baker’s work feels more honestly observed than that. There are few filmmakers who are willing to tackle class as directly as Baker, and this is the most overt version of what he’s done so far.
The official synopsis for the film reads “Set over one summer, the film follows precocious six-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.” That’s both completely true and not remotely accurate. Yes, Moonee, played by the preposterously charming Brooklynn Prince, is the star of the film, but it’s a lot less 21st-century Little Rascals and a lot more wrenching and real than that synopsis suggests. For one thing, there’s that “rebellious but caring mother” they mention. Talk about an understatement. Bria Vinaite is terrific as Moonee’s mother, Halley, and she is a trainwreck. There are moments in the film when she is so breathtakingly unfit to be a parent that it made me shake. But that’s what is brilliant and beautiful about Baker’s work. He understands that even someone who is a trainwreck is still capable of complexity, and Halley clearly does love Moonee. Love isn’t enough, of course, and no one raises a child alone. There is a community around Moonee, one in which she is the common thread, and that’s where the movie lives and breathes. There’s no particular plot, although there is a slowly-growing urgency regarding Moonee’s well-being that evolves, and there are no conventional good or bad guys.
Willem Dafoe is wonderful as Bobby, a motel manager who keeps an eye out for the people who pass through his place, which is along one of the seedy tourist strips surrounding Disney World in Orlando like arteries leading into the state’s big money-stuffed rotten heart. I lived in Florida for many, many years and even worked at Disney World, and this film is almost horrifyingly accurate, a snapshot of a world that is never acknowledged. Not on film, not in life, not anywhere. I’ve seen people tsk tsk the film and talk about how they can’t endorse anything full of such rotten people, and it kills me, because that’s Baker’s point. “Look at them,” he says to us as a filmmaker in this, and in Starlet, and in Tangerine. “Look at these people who you do everything you can to never see. Look at them and live next to them for a little while and feel what it feels like to live this way. Do that before you judge them or dismiss them. Do that, and you won’t be able to judge them or dismiss them.” Movies are empathy machines, and Baker’s empathy muscle is particularly prodigious. The final moments of the film will either lift you out of your chair or leave you scratching your head. I haven’t seen much middle ground. But for me, the film sticks because it doesn’t let anyone off the hook, and it doesn’t make anything easy. Life’s going to be hard as shit for Moonee, but there is sunlight and there is laughter and there is love, and maybe she’ll make it through, Baker says. And “maybe” is as much as we can hope for.
I should hate this movie. I hated the idea of a Blade Runner sequel the moment it was announced. I hated the idea of putting any kind of literal button on Ridley Scott’s original film. And, having seen Prometheus, I wasn’t particularly sold on Ridley Scott being the caretaker of his own cinematic legacy anymore, so him producing seemed to me to be a step in the wrong direction. Whatever. I should know after 20 years of writing about film production that it doesn’t matter what you think of something when you first hear about it. All that matters is the movie, and in this case, I was flattened by what Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green came up with. They took all of the ideas from the original film and actually expanded them, which is what you hope a sequel will do. It’s what you hope all sequels will do. It’s rare that I have any sequel on my Top 10 list, but two in one year? That’s because these films exceed the expectations we have for the sequel thanks to conditioning from all the cookie-cutter sequels that are part of our cinematic diet. The word itself is such an accountant’s invention, a one-word summation of something that dismisses it by definition. If you say it’s a “sequel,” no more real thought about it is required. But Blade Runner 2049 stands as a work of science-fiction that is so packed with ideas and invention and character that the single least interesting thing about it is that it also happens to be connected to another movie. That is the ideal for a sequel, and one of the reasons this is so high on my list is because three viewings in, I feel like I’m just starting to pull apart why I love it so much.
The script for film is right around 100 pages, but the film is nearly three hours long, and while you can argue all day long that Villeneuve should have trimmed it or could have trimmed it or that it could have been something else, those long silences are fundamentally a part of what it is that Villeneuve loved about the original film, and it’s one of the reasons he made this one. This is an act of artistic love and worship as much as it is a piece of storytelling, and it’s interesting watching someone who’s in such command of the very bleeding edge of his craft as Villeneuve is right now make a film that is both a recreation and an expansion of something that is obviously part of his own artistic DNA. It’s why Rian Johnson was the right man to explode Star Wars, and it’s why Villeneuve was the right man to breathe real life into these replicants.
There is a scene in the middle of the film, where K (Ryan Gosling) is at home with Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic girlfriend, and she invites a real woman named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to serve as a physical intermediary between the two of them. Mariette wears Joi like a digital skin while touching K, who is a replicant, effectively trying to become the something real that will give each of these simulations that thing they so desperately crave from each other, from the world, and from life itself: reality. They want to know that something is real, that anything they feel or think is real, and they are constantly searching for it. That search is the real drive underneath the detective-movie trappings of the Blade Runner films, and that’s why it means more than just some clever way of wrapping the style of classic film noir around a different genre frame. These movies are about characters who live in a world that increasingly makes them feel unreal, warped and bent by forces too petty and powerful to affect, and just what it is that we’ll do in order to feel real.
When I first heard that they were going to introduce the idea that the replicants had begun to have children, I thought it was a dangerous overstep as an idea, but here’s where theme matters more than plot to me. Of course that’s the next step, and of course that’s what makes the replicants “real.” There is nothing that connects you more directly to someone else than being part of their creation, and to see studios spend massive resources to make and release a film that dares to ask hard questions about our responsibilities to those we create and to the world in which we unleash them is exciting. I am constantly delighted to be proven wrong about things, and I look forward to remembering just how wrong I was as I continue to unravel this sensual, heartbroken dazzler in many repeat viewings to come.
Guillermo del Toro has been a master in search of his masterpiece for years now, and all it took was a broken heart for him to finally find it. I love The Devil’s Backbone. I love Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, I love the Hellboy films and Blade II with the same ferocity. I think del Toro has been working at an incredibly high level overall for most of his career. But there is a purity and a strength to The Shape of Water that is dazzling because it feels like there was no filter between his brain and the screen. Like most artists who work in an intensely personal mode, he would probably describe his career to you in terms of the compromises he’s made. As he gets older, he becomes more and more aware of exactly who he is and exactly how to accomplish what he wants onscreen, and we are the ones who benefit from it.
The Shape of Water is a love story, yes, but it’s not just about Elisa, the big-hearted mute woman played by Sally Hawkins and the oddly-sexy fish man played by Doug Jones. This is a film that shows us that the love between friends, the love that turns strangers into family over time, is more powerful than people understand. The heroes of The Shape of Water are the people who society ignores. There’s Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa’s next-door neighbor, an artist who can’t even sell out anymore because no one’s buying. He’s a homosexual, acutely aware that he is living in the wrong era. “I was either born too early or too late,” he laments at one point. His commercial work is all designed to sell a horrible plastic happiness, one that is not only embraced by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) but also fetishized. Giles doesn’t see himself as a strong man or a brave man, but his love for Elisa is enough to enable him to do huge things and to be ferociously brave when it matters. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a cleaning woman at the same government facility as Elisa, and she’s learned how to stay invisible so she can remain employed. She has one motto, don’t make trouble, and when Elisa breaks that motto, it is that fierce love she feels for Elisa that gets her to not only do the right thing, but to be unafraid about it.
More than any other movie this year, more than most movies I can remember, this movie screams it loudly: love is everything. Love is what sustains us. Love is what makes it all worthwhile. Love is important. Love matters. Love is what lasts. Love is stronger than hate and fear and anger, and the touch of real love is enough to transform us. There is so much in our world right now that we should hate and fear and be furious about, but that will not get us through. Many of the films on this list, and this film more than any of them, are potent and eloquent reminders that it is love that we are fighting for, love that we are chasing, and love that will deliver us.
In the year’s strangest, riskiest moment, Elisa finally finds her voice and begins to sing, and she finds herself in a black-and-white movie, dancing with this sea monster like Rogers and Astaire, and what could be ridiculous is instead transporting and rapturous. Del Toro needed to make this film in 2017, and we needed him to make it. I am sure he will deliver us many beautiful and essential films in the future, but The Shape of Water may well be the defining moment of his career, because this movie is this filmmaker, laid bare and daring you to mock the fervent intensity of his love.
Thanks for reading. Let’s have a great 2018.
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic