The Best Films of 2017

The biggest film-related story of 2017 took place off-screen: the downfall of Harvey Weinstein led to the #MeToo movement and an avalanche of related stories about abuses by famous men (both inside and outside the film industry). Hollywood – perhaps the preachiest and most self-congratulatory of industries – has finally been forced to seriously examine its own sins. Only time will tell just how sweeping the cultural changes are and to what degree things will improve, but I think it's fair to say that this year marks a major turning point of some sort.

Additionally, film attendance was lower than it had been in decades. Perhaps one can attribute this to moviegoers expressing their disgust with the industry, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that home entertainment systems have grown increasingly lavish/affordable. Whatever the case, there were plenty of good options at the movies: only one film that I'd immediately categorize as a bona fide masterpiece, but an abundance of interesting, ambitious, well-crafted works (the films I admired this year go beyond both this top 20 list and the honorable mentions).

You'll almost certainly disagree with some of the films I've chosen and the order I've put them in, but I hope you'll enjoy reading this list (and that it inspires you to watch a movie or two).

Honorable Mentions: Mainstream Entertainment Done Right
- Alien: Covenant
- The Big Sick
- It
- Murder on the Orient Express
- Wonder Woman

Honorable Mentions: Good Films by Great Filmmakers
- The Lost City of Z
- The Shape of Water
- Song to Song
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- Wonderstruck

Honorable Mentions: Dark Visions
- The Beguiled
- A Cure for Wellness
- Gerald's Game
- The Killing of a Sacred Deer
- Split

Now, on to the main event...

20. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Whether you liked Rian Johnson's contribution to the Star Wars saga or not, odds are it wasn't the movie you were expecting it to be... and for my money, that's a good thing. Following up on an enjoyable but somewhat hollow installment that was largely content to coast on easy nostalgia, Johnson delivers a film that returns to the richer thematic aims of the Lucas era (while acing the humor and humanity that Lucas often struggled with). Almost all of the characters feel more sharply-defined this time around, and it's fascinating to watch the way Johnson strings the film's central ideas through their assorted plot strands. The most controversial aspect of the film – the story of a bitter, defeated Luke Skywalker struggling to carry the weight of his mistakes – is the movie's strongest and most moving element, played to such soulful perfection by a weathered Mark Hamill. Hamill's work is mirrored by a touching final performance from the late Carrie Fisher: General Leia carries her burdens more gracefully, but can't quite hide the toll they take on her.

19. Okja

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I'm not sure which genre Bong Joon-ho's latest entry most firmly belongs to (Comedy? Drama? Action-adventure? Sci-fi?), but I know it's funny, moving, thrilling, imaginative and frequently pretty brilliant. A tender “girl and her genetically-engineered superpig” story that also functions as a wild capitalism-themed satire, the film never stops surprising you with its storytelling choices or hitting you from unexpected angles. The performances are as diverse as the film itself: a beautifully sincere leading turn from Ahn Seo-hyun, a strangely touching performance from Paul Dano as a tender-hearted terrorist, Tilda Swinton as two sisters with dramatically different personalities, and a Jake Gyllenhaal performance so big you can see it from space.

18. It Comes at Night

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Quite a few 2017 movies took an awfully dim view of humanity, but you won't find a perspective much bleaker than the one offered by this post-apocalyptic drama. It asks a compelling question: if the world was reduced to just a handful of people, would we be capable of overcoming the human tendencies that have traditionally divided us? The way the answer is delivered is going to stick with me for a long time. Audiences hated it, partially because it's a slow-burn story without any sort of conventional payoff and partially because it was marketed as a different sort of horror film. It's Not For Everyone, but it does exactly what it sets out to do.

17. I Don't Feel at Home in the World Anymore

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Macon Blair is best-known for his work in the films of Jeremy Saulnier, and there's a lot about Blair's directorial debut that feels Saulnier-esque: it borrows the “so how would real-life vigilantism work, exactly?” concept from Blue Ruin and the sudden, shocking violence from Green Room. However, the tone here is looser and more playful, and the movie has a vast supply of hilarious, surprising WTF moments up its sleeve. It also has some things in common with Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America (another story about a vigilante who's just gotten sick and tired of how horrible people are to each other)... but if Goldthwait's film is an angry rant, this is more of an exhausted sigh. The film offers a strong leading turn from Melanie Lynskey (perfectly cast as the frustrated everywoman who decides to hunt down the people who robbed her home) and a juicy supporting role for Elijah Wood (a religious, well-meaning neighbor who proves an eager accomplice). A strong directorial debut for Blair.

16. Baby Driver

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Edgar Wright's latest effort was one of 2017's slickest, smoothest treats. It's an action movie that feels more like a musical, highlighted by giddy sequences in which gunshots ring out and tires squeal in time to the beat of energetic tunes. The story is on the conventional side, but the story hardly matters: Wright's using a familiar template to successfully explore the joy of what movies can do. Also fun: almost every member of the cast acts as if they're in a different sort of movie, and each one is convinced that they're the protagonist.

15. Get Out

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To my mind, Jordan Peele's striking directorial debut only makes one significant mistake: an ending that veers into crowd-pleasing territory rather than confronting the terror at the heart of this story head-on. Even so, this is one of the year's most unique and memorable cinematic experiments: a roller-coaster of a horror/thriller that's simultaneously a Bunuel-esque surrealist satire, a feature-length Twilight Zone episode, a zeitgeist-y exploration of American racial tensions and a Lynchian exploration of the social rot lurking beneath a cheerful suburban surface. I can't wait to see what Peele makes next.

14. Lady Bird

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Greta Gerwig's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is never less than charming (even when it turns formulaic or echoes Ghost World a little too strongly), but it achieves real greatness when it's focusing on the complicated relationship between its teenage protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) and her parents (a brilliant turn from Laurie Metcalf and an affectingly understated one from Tracy Letts). The mother/daughter relationship is a particularly rich portrait: nearly everyone I've spoken to about the film has found some form of personal connection to it, which is a testament to the observant honesty of Gerwig's writing and direction.

13. A Quiet Passion

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This fascinating Emily Dickinson biopic captures a time and place where even the most superficial conversation is something of an art form. Every word matters, and the slightest additions, subtractions or alterations can move mountains. However, it's also a portrait of an era where certain things are simply immovable. In this time and place, to be a woman with dreams of accomplishing something other than tending to a home and family is to be a woman eternally scorned and disappointed. A subtly sublime work that allows the soul of its subject to shine through the muted recreation of the world in which she lived. Gently entertaining, then quietly heartbreaking.

12. Logan

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Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has been around since the beginning of the superhero movie boom (which commenced with 2000's X-Men), and his journey through the assorted X-flicks has been a long, strange and occasionally frustrating one. However, all of that history lends a good deal of weight and pathos to James Mangold's Logan. Drawing effectively (if just a bit too obviously) from vintage westerns, Mangold delivers a violent-yet-poetic swan song for the character. Hugh Jackman's broken, battered performance is the richest incarnation of a character he's been fine-tuning for ages, and Patrick Stewart is even more affecting as the dementia-afflicted Xavier. It's the rare superhero movie that feels like an actual movie (as opposed to the latest episode of a never-ending big-budget TV show), and the film's closing shot is simple, mythological perfection.

11. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

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Here's a film in which everybody talks and nobody listens, and the boiling points that ensue are alternately blisteringly funny and painfully real. The Meyerowitz's are among Noah Baumbach's most sharply-drawn characters, and every member of the cast is in absolute peak form. Dustin Hoffman turns his character's self-obsession into a comic feast, Elizabeth Marvel delivers the year's second-best monologue (the best is in the next entry on this list) and Adam Sandler offers the richest and most nuanced performance of his entire career. Beneath all the acidic laughs, there's a great deal of heartfelt (and sometimes heartbreaking) truth about the complexities of familial love.

10. Call Me By Your Name

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Many of the high-profile LGBTQ films of recent years have placed a good deal of emphasis on the weight of keeping one's sexuality a secret: how will friends/family members/society react if they find out? As such, one thing that stands out about Call Me By Your Name is the way it more or less lifts that burden by setting the story within a relatively judgment-free cultural/social bubble (thus allowing the movie a relaxed, languorous quality that feels fresh in this context). It's a sensitively-written and expertly-acted coming-of-age tale that's more complicated than it gets credit for, though one can't help but think that the film could have shaved 15-20 minutes off its running time without losing anything important. Much of the movie struck me as merely good (sometimes very good – peachy, even), but it reaches new heights in its closing moments by delivering two of the best scenes of the year: a tender, beautifully-delivered monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a long, silent close-up of Timothee Chalamet that's every bit as eloquent as the monologue. This one will linger with you.

9. Brawl in Cell Block 99

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S. Craig Zahler is the real deal. Much like his Bone Tomahawk, this is an expertly-crafted (and even more assured) piece of intelligent pulp detailing a slow-burn descent into hell. An atypically taciturn Vince Vaughn is shockingly good, and the film makes excellent use of his hulking frame. Zahler uses the relaxed pace to offer a host of fascinating textural details and killer character beats, all while building an ever-increasing sense of dread (occasionally punctuated by moments of violence that make you want to watch the movie through your fingers). Yet even with the self-indulgent running time, this still feels like a no-frills movie: it's a committed, straightforward piece of genre work that doesn't try to force heavy-handed metaphors, references to other flicks of this sort or earnest social commentary, and it ends at the exact second it needs to.

8. War for the Planet of the Apes

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One of the fascinating things about the rebooted Apes trilogy is the way each installment pushes the story forward through a different type of metaphorical framework. The first was a strong, socially conscious variation on what Tony Stark once dubbed the “man-mustn't-meddle-medley.” The second continued the story through a Shakespearean lens, using Hamlet and other works as an effective springboard for a tale of warring kingdoms (and wars within kingdoms). The final chapter turns biblical, pairing a fascinating reworking of the story of Moses with imagery that echoes the horrors of recent history (the Holocaust, Vietnam, etc.). It's a film that both takes an extraordinarily dim view of mankind (suggesting that our pending extinction might push us to embrace our very worst tendencies), but one that also seriously contemplates what it might take to escape the endless historical cycle of cruelty and oppression. It's anchored by a regal motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis, who – with the help of his animators – captures the full weight of Caesar's moral and emotional burdens.

7. My Happy Family

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Manana is 50 years old. Like many other Georgian women, she shares her home with several generations of family members. One day, she decides she's going to leave and live on her own in a small apartment. Her family is baffled: if her husband hasn't been abusive or cruel, why on earth would she just abandon everyone? This film explores that question with remarkable insight and nuance, using long, observant takes to detail the complexities of Manana's assorted relationships with her family members. The film successfully underlines the pressure points that drove her out and the serenity of newfound solitude, but quickly complicates both sides of this equation with new relationship shifts and surprising revelations. It adds up to an affectingly empathetic portrait of a woman's struggle to reconcile her weary, broken spirit with her genuine love for her family.

6. Blade Runner 2049

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The miracle of Blade Runner 2049 is that it somehow manages to be be a worthy sequel to Blade Runner. Unlike a host of “legasequels” that primarily traffic in nostalgic repetition, director Denis Villenueve's thought-provoking film feels like a genuinely organic continuation/extension of the original on both a visual and narrative level. It moves at a stately pace that will likely agitate those seeking a big-budget roller coaster, but this is a movie that wants to give the viewer space to wrestle with its abundance of compelling ideas (not to mention time to fully appreciate the consistently stunning images captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins). As with the original, I suspect this will be one that we'll be revisiting, arguing about and seeing from new angles for quite some time. For now, as the marination process begins, let's just say that it's a remarkable achievement.

5. The Florida Project

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Sean Baker's follow-up to the innovative Tangerine is slice-of-life filmmaking done right: a bracingly colorful, raucously funny and deeply empathetic portrait of life on the margins. Newcomers Bria Vinaite (playing a young mother using less-than-legal methods to scrape together rent money) and Brooklynn Prince (as Vinaite's wildly energetic six-year-old daughter) deliver magnetic breakout performances, and Willem Dafoe is just lovely as the good-hearted but perpetually beleaguered motel manager. It's one of the most insightful and layered examinations of American poverty I've seen, and the genuinely bold ending takes it to another level.

4. Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan's latest epic is a stunning piece of controlled chaos: an assault on the senses delivered with clockwork precision. It's no surprise that Nolan pulls off the ambitious technical feats he attempts (telling a story from three separate angles that take place across three different timespans), but Nolan demonstrates new abilities in the realm of visual storytelling (it's his first movie that does more showing than telling) and emotional subtlety (some of the film's most profoundly moving moments have the impact they do because Nolan and his actors choose to underplay them). It finds innovative, challenging and affecting ways to say everything a film about this subject needs to say, and currently stands as the finest war film of the 2010s.

3. Mudbound

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Netflix produced a handful of genuinely interesting original features this year, but this gripping period drama from director Dee Rees is the finest of the bunch. It's a fascinating study of post-WWII race relations (and an abundance of other topics) presented in the form of an old-school melodrama, successfully fusing complex thematic material with emotionally direct storytelling. The entire cast (which includes Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Cary Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks, Jason Clarke and Rob Morgan) does strong, sensitive work, and the film's most emotionally resonant sequences are exquisitely conducted. It feels like one of the great films of the 1950s (though it couldn't have been made then), and it establishes Rees as a major talent.

2. mother!

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Environmentalism has been a topic du jour in Hollywood for decades, but there's never been an environmentalist movie quite like Darren Aronofsky's mother! What initially appears to be a Polanski-esque psychodrama eventually reveals itself to be something much wilder and stranger: an abridged retelling of the Bible as seen through the eyes of an increasingly despairing Mother Earth. It's a film so enraged about what humanity has done/is doing to this planet that it can't even contain its own symbolism: elements that enter the film on a metaphorical level become alarmingly literal during the feverish closing stretch (featuring imagery so surreal you'll have trouble convincing yourself you saw it). You can object to its vision, or its methods, or its messiness, or its deeply unpleasant tone, but I can't think of another movie from 2017 that leaves a bigger impression. It feels like a film made by a mad prophet. The first time I watched it, I knew I'd seen one of the year's most striking cinematic experiments. The second time I watched it – as Patti Smith's soulful cover of a perfectly-chosen old standard washed over me – I became convinced it was the year's best film. But then...

1. Phantom Thread

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...I saw this remarkable work, which offers exquisite filmmaking on pretty much every level. Paul Thomas Anderson is at the absolute peak of his craft here, drawing you in with his stunning production design and transforming the subtlest and smallest of gestures into huge cinematic moments. Incorporating elements of vintage gothic romances (particularly Hitchcock's Rebecca) and elegant Merchant-Ivory productions (those oh-so-intimate close-ups that reveal multitudes), Anderson creates one of the most sumptuous and strangely insightful romantic dramas I've ever seen. Daniel-Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps do splendid, nuanced work in their depiction of a relationship that begins on somewhat familiar ground (rich, fussy, prickly genius and his modest, observant, just-trying-to-keep-up muse) and quickly shifts into some fascinating new places (and Lesley Manville – playing this film's version of Mrs. Danvers – adds a host of interesting complications to the mix). Though it delivers its ideas in an unconventional way, the film is very thoughtful about the fickle nature of love and what it takes to make a long-term relationship work... and it builds to a killer climax that's somehow unsettling, darkly funny and deeply romantic all at once. The cherry on top: an unforgettable, swoon-inducing Jonny Greenwood score that makes you wonder if he was temporarily possessed by the spirit of Franz Waxman. This is the year's best film.