Wow! We did it. We reached the end of another year in the cinema! And what a year at the movies it has been. 2017 was a tough one to live through in the world at large, but I can’t deny that it’s also probably also been the best year I’ve experienced in cinema since I started writing reviews and analyzing movies in 2011. Narrowing down my favorite films of the year to ten was impossible. Cutting anything from my top twenty-five felt like a crime.
There was an overwhelming number of movies in my sci-fi/genre wheelhouse that not only exceeded expectations but actually elevated the genre. Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Logan all delivered unexpectedly exceptional entries into their respective franchises.
It’s a great time to be a fan of big-budget genre cinema, but the most fascinating, and arguably the most important trend I noticed this year was the blending and bending of different genres in order to learn more about the challenges of specific groups of marginalized people. Get Out, Lady Bird, Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Shape of Water, Good Time, The Florida Project and The Big Sick among others investigate the roles of race, gender, socio-economic status and sexual orientation in America. The groups making these films were among those who felt let down by the 2016 US election, but the heightened environment seems to have stirred an extra firey passion among these filmmakers and that’s not going to go anywhere soon.
It’s a very exciting time to be a fan of great filmmaking from voices we’ve seen so little of in the past.
But before I get to the cream of 2017’s crop of films, let’s take a look at some of 2017’s best gems that didn’t quite make my list that are absolutely worth your time.
Almost, but not quite
Alien: Covenant (Insert internet backlash about liking this film here)
Brawl in Cell Block 99
Ingrid Goes West
John Wick: Chapter 2
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
War for the Planet of the Apes
Now it’s on to the main course, my top 10 films of 2017!
10. Brigsby Bear
Of all of the films that surprised me in 2017, none could rival the experience I had watching Brigsby Bear, a film that can only be described as “2015’s Room for cinephiles, but if the child never escaped.” The film is helmed by first-time director Dave McCary and follows James Pope(SNL’s Kyle Mooney), a grown adult whose maturity has been stunted to remain at age 10 by his parents played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams. He treats the fandom for his favorite TV show, Brigsby Bear, like a religion. One day, something in his household goes awry and James is forced to confront the truths about his fandom and begin a journey of self-discovery into a new world.
The ridiculously bizarre premise leads to a delightful, heartfelt film about the power of storytelling that brings people from all walks of life together. It celebrates the eccentricity of filmmakers, the joys of fan culture, and the beautiful thing that happens when entire communities form and rally behind a movie.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist may be getting all of the awards-season buzz, but Brigsby Bear delivers many of the same sentiments in a more emotionally authentic and effective manner. Don’t let this impassioned gem about the power of friendship, communities, and filmmaking pass you by. You won’t regret watching it!
9. Lady Bird
Coming of age stories have been around as long as filmmaking itself, but very rarely do we get one as passionate, well-constructed, and raw as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. The film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson(Saoirse Ronan) throughout her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento in 2002. Throughout the film, she discovers her ambitions and struggles to overcome and reconcile the challenges of her lower economic status, her loving but overprotective parents, and her own hypocritical nature.
Lady Bird is a special film because it feels so honest in how it deals with many of the issues faced by teenagers in the early 2000s. On her journey, she dates the actor and the musician, consistently argues with her mother, and ultimately has to find a way to resolve her teen dreams with many of the world’s other harsh realities. The ending of this journey was difficult but did not disappoint.
The performances are stellar, but the real winner is Greta Gerwig’s script and a top-notch direction. If you see one coming of age story in 2017, make it Lady Bird.
8. Your Name
Anime is too often one of my blind spots, but this year I was fortunate enough to catch Makoto Shinkai‘s incredible body-swapping romance thrill ride, Your Name. The real surprises that make this film special are better off left in the dark, but needless to say, this Ghibli-caliber movie (not made by studio Ghibli) takes the characters and audience on a journey to some of the most unexpected places I saw in cinema this year. Every time I thought I had outsmarted the movie, it took another shocking turn that I didn’t expect.
The twisty unexpected journey is fun, but what makes Your Name one of 2017’s best is the film’s investment in the characters and their unlikely romance. The differing values of Mitsuha, a girl from rural Japan, and Taki, a city boy living in Tokyo, create a fun and beautiful chemistry that immediately raises the stakes for the film’s ultimate outcome. There’s a mystery surrounding a meteor shower that drives the plot, but at the end of it all, I was far more invested in seeing where Mitsuha and Taki ended up. All of these elements matched with the absolutely jaw-dropping animation made this one of the most exciting filmgoing experiences of the year, animated or live-action.
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
When it was announced that Rian Johnson, the director of Brick and Looper, would be writing the script and helming the successor to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I knew that the film was headed in unexpected directions. Star Wars: The Last Jedi puts the emphasis on the characters first and takes what we all love and know about the series and turns it on its head by following their arcs to their logical next step. As controversial as it may be, the decision to focus on telling a new story over adhering to what came before has pushed the franchise in ways it hasn’t seen in over thirty years and paves the road for more fresh adventures for our beloved characters in a galaxy far, far, away.
The Last Jedi deconstructs what we’ve known about Star Wars and puts characters like Luke in an entirely different context in order to challenge the notion of what this series could be as it continues growing and passes down to the next generation of filmgoers. It a was funny, touching, and smart piece of character-driven spectacle that reinforces the idea that Star Wars belongs to everyone through its themes. It was truly one of the best gifts Hollywood has given blockbuster cinema in many, many years. For the first time since I watched The Return of the Jedi, I have no idea where this story or these characters are going and it’s incredibly exciting.
For my additional thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, listen to my review: “The Last Jedi – The Cinematic Schematic Star Wars Special”
To listen to even more of my thoughts about the criticisms from fans about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, listen to this roundtable discussion on The Cinematic Schematic: “The Last Jedi: The Fans Strike Back!”
6. Get Out
2017 was a huge year for genre-bending films, but none were as sharp, clever, meaningful, or important as Jordan Peele‘s feature film directorial debut, Get Out. Daniel Kaluuya stars as an African American photographer, Chris Washington, who goes to meet his girlfriend’s family, the Armitages, for the first time. Upon arrival, he notices that things are a little off, even in this so-called “liberal” household that “would have voted for Obama a third time.” The truths quickly revealed about this family’s views on race are troubling, and signal that perhaps “post-racial America” is only a fiction we’ve all been living in since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Get Out is a horror, comedy, and drama all wrapped into one package Jordan Peele has dubbed a social thriller (a term long overdue for a resurrection). The film crafts a terrifying movie about what’s it’s like to be black in America in 2017. Like the Armitage family who seem like decent people on the surface, today’s racism lives on beneath the surface through racial micro-aggressions and the institutions we often hold dear in our society.
In a post-Ferguson/post-2016 election, Get Out‘s story about the African American experience is important and conveys many of the challenges they live through each and every day in a way that mainstream audience can digest and appreciate. For that reason alone, it deserves a spot among this year’s best films.
For my additional thoughts on Get Out, listen to my review: “Get Out – Back to the Movies #62”
In a genre saturated with Marvel Cinematic Universe movies or competitors trying to mimic them, I took great pleasure in Logan, a film that was more focused on investigating the character-driven parent/child relationship between the titular character Logan, Professor Xavier, and the newly introduced Laura in a western road trip movie.
Not only was Logan disinterested in the tropes of the genre, but it actively critiques them by calling out the absurdity of the previously established canon. In the same way that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a revisionist western that deconstructs the myths of the genre to tell a more personal story, Logan is what I’ve dubbed a “revisionist superhero movie” that breaks down the elements of the big screen Wolverine’s “mythic” status and rebuilds him as a more well-rounded character in an altogether different genre. The film is among 2017’s best because it sends off two characters that have been the backbone of the massively successful genre for more than 15 years, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine an Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, by speaking directly to the great cinema superhero films can potentially become if/when they decide to leave the popcorn behind.
For my additional thoughts on Logan, listen to my review: “Logan – Back to the Movies #63”
4. The Big Sick
I’m generally not much of a comedy film sort of guy, but Kumail Nanjiani‘s semi-autobiographical story about how he met his wife and started his career transcends the genre. During the 120 minute runtime, I laughed and cried harder than I had in any other film in on the big screen this year. The film isn’t interested in being just a traditional comedy, but also deals with the highly relevant post-2016 election issues of interracial relationships, being non-religious in a traditionally Pakistani Muslim home in America, and going for broke when chasing a dream through the eyes of the especially honest and charming lead character.
Michael Showalter‘s direction highlights all of the most endearing strengths of Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon’s script. The performances seem especially raw and transparent with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both delivering two of the most relatable supporting performances of the year. If The Big Sick is just the beginning of Kumail Nanjiani’s unique contribution to big screen comedies, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
3. The Shape of Water
After tackling a few bigger budget projects like Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro returns to his roots–romance and monster movies. Like The Big Sick, Get Out, and The Post, The Shape of Water has taken on an entirely different meaning in a post-2016 U.S. election world. The film follows a mute janitor played by Sally Hawkins as she encounters and grows fond of an amphibian man who is being held in the facility for study. It uses Del Toro’s signature strengths of attention to visual details, subversive genre-bending and compelling characters portrayed by exceptional character actors like Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins to explore complex themes about the nature of love and the fear-driven culture we live in.
Del Toro’s commitment doesn’t stop at being just an incredibly emotional and heartfelt movie. He also crafts a layered and razor-sharp script that utilizes the best parts of his favorite genres. It’s paced like a Romeo and Juliet romance, looks like a sci-fi period piece, and still delivers the moments of magic and awe that are inherent in the fairytales that inspired another of his critical darlings, Pan’s Labyrinth. This ranks as one of 2017’s very best because more than being a great film, it wants to challenge the audience to learn how to love “the other.”
For Caleb’s additional thoughts on The Shape of Water read his review and analysis essay: “The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro’s Challenge For All of Us to Love ‘The Other'”
2. Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that never should have worked, but somehow, 35 years after Ridley Scott’s classic was released in theaters, Denis Villeneuve created a new film that surpassed the cult hit in nearly every way. Instead of relying on the story and characters of the original film, Blade Runner 2049 decides to focus on an entirely new character’s investigation in order to take viewers on a mysterious and existential journey into the stunningly beautiful, atmospheric, and lived-in world of dystopian Los Angeles.
Dennis Villeneuve’s masterclass world building is impressive, but what makes this film one of the best of the year is its ability to use the film’s lead, K(Ryan Gosling), to dig deeper and realize the themes introduced in the first film. K’s journey of discovering his own humanity interrogates the key themes of defining humanity. And it doesn’t settle for posing the same answers as the original but takes the ideas even further by opening a dialog about the responsibilities of being a creator. Due to its behind the scenes drama and lofty ambitions, the original Blade Runner has become a classic, but Blade Runner 2049 takes the entire idea to the next level and creates a more cohesive film that is destined to be one of the great science fiction films of our time.
For Caleb’s additional thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, read his essay: “Becoming Human: What Blade Runner Reveals About Humanity Through AI”
For my number one pick, I ultimately decided to land on a film that connected with me on a deeply personal level. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! hits all of my soft spots including an ambitious plot, themes about the relationships between mankind, God, and mother nature, and an uncompromising vision determined to make audiences uncomfortable as it begs them to ask themselves the tough questions. It’s rare that a studio backs such a raw, visceral and uncompromising for an auteur like Aronofsky.
On a first watch, it’s a film about Aronofsky’s interpretation of God as an egotistical creator who can neither appreciate mother nature or truly connect with his “fans.” It’s on the second watch when this movie becomes something far more autobiographical of the director’s own personal life and career. Like my favorite Aronofsky film, The Fountain, mother! continues to be the gift that keeps giving with each and every rewatch. mother! ranks as my favorite movie of the year because it swings for the fences and poses a number of questions about creation and human existence that I frequently find myself asking each and every day.
For my additional thoughts on mother!, read my essay: “mother! Should Be Retitled: ‘The Gospel of Aronofsky'”
…and the next five that just missed the cut.
11. The Florida Project
14. Call Me By Your Name
15. Molly’s Game
What were some of your favorite films of the year? Let me know by posting in the comments below!