I have no interest in making a year end list that speaks to life under Donald Trump or that reflects the cultural consciousness of 2017.
These are among the more tiring of critical, shorthand cliches for summing up the year in movies. And bold-faced political films like “Get Out” and Americana rich dramas like “Three Billboards” and “The Florida Project” all perform very well in that context. But I don’t want to read the analysis for what “The Shape of Water” has to say about healthcare any more than I want to pretend as though that’s how I shaped my list.
The other cliche is the critic who wants to recommend as much as possible. News flash: there are a lot of good movies readily available at your fingertips, but you know as well as I do that there are only so many hours in the day. Critics often bemoan these lists as pointless and would rather devote their column inches to movies that won’t appear elsewhere. But if I can be the umpteenth person to say you should really see “Lady Bird,” hey, maybe you should really see “Lady Bird.”
So here’s what I’ve come up with instead: the movies on my Best of the Year List are ranked based on what I’d most want to watch again right now. And in my book, there are about 18 truly great movies I saw in 2017 that stand above the rest. These are the ones I’ve most wanted to tell people to see, the ones that have lingered in my mind for weeks and months and have made me want to revisit them. Isn’t that enough?
- “Baby Driver”
There’s nothing quite like tapping into the perfect song for any moment. “Baby Driver” captures that sensation in how dialed in each heist and action sequence is with Edgar Wright’s eclectic soundtrack. But “Baby Driver” isn’t simply an empty adrenaline, sugar rush of music and comedy. To see Ansel Elgort strut down the street with his white earbuds and drugstore sunglasses, you see that Wright isn’t afraid to look silly. It’s confidently in love with itself and every song change even if it doesn’t look classically cool. In that sense, “Baby Driver” is an inspiring personal statement for what could be Wright’s masterpiece.
I know what purgatory feels like, because Christopher Nolan has taken us there. By making the most of its engrossing IMAX aspect ratio, deafening sound and disorienting, non-linear screenplay, “Dunkirk” envelops its audience in a sensation of hopelessness. It’s bleak, constantly tense and sobering to watch the 400,000 men on Dunkirk’s shores forever trapped as they wait for their deliverance.
We should’ve never expected Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to speak for black people by making a prescient movie about racial oppression. But “Detroit” is documentary realism as a Sam Peckinpah home invasion horror story. The early depictions of the 1967 Detroit riots resemble an apocalypse we’re all just living in, and before long we find ourselves held hostage in a hateful, monstrous nightmare that never seems to end. “Detroit” isn’t explicitly a ripped-from-the-headlines statement about 2017, but it embodies how devastating and hopeless things can feel these days.
- “The Red Turtle”
In just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable “The Red Turtle” runs the gamut of humanity’s life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our us. A man washes up on a deserted island, explores in desperation and is thwarted by a red turtle in each of his escape attempts. What happens from there is a breathtaking metaphor for the choices and events that shape who we are.
- (tie) “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Shape of Water”
“Call me by your name,” Armie Hammer says to Timothee Chalamet. “You are everywhere,” Richard Jenkins’ narrator says to close out “The Shape of Water.” Luca Guadagnino and Guillermo Del Toro could not have made two more different films. Guadagnino made an intellectual portrait of two young men sizing up one another’s masculinity set in a lush Italian countryside, and Del Toro made an elegant, old fashioned, adult fairy tale set in a noirish cityscape. But at their core, these are two love stories about seeing yourself in someone else. Together they make an enchanting coming of age.
- “Blade Runner 2049”
Ridley Scott’s original “Blade Runner” has an incomplete, ambiguous, illusory beauty to everything on screen. In Denis Villeneuve’s new “Blade Runner 2049,” the world has been filled in, and the questions of how people live in this futuristic society have been answered. Villeneuve molds Ryan Gosling’s blank canvas into an emotional and existential journey through what it means to be human, to have memories or to feel connected to others. The ambiguity is gone from Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner,” but it still invokes so much elegant, captivating mystery in every frame.
However you choose to read “mother!,” just see it. No movie this year was as polarizing as Darren Aronofsky’s bat-shit crazy black satire and allegory that puts uninvited party guests sitting on your countertop on the same level as cannibalizing a newborn baby. Yes, really. This movie is that nuts, and you wouldn’t be wrong for hating it.
If Yasujiro Ozu ever made a movie set in Indiana, it might look something like “Columbus.” Director Kogonada’s thoughtful and meditative film has heart and intimacy far beyond its film theory pretentions and shot construction. Haley Lu Richardson gives one of the finest performances of the year as a local tour guide who can speak to the lovely architecture in her hometown as structures that can give you a sense of understanding and peace. “Columbus” shares Richardson’s contemplative, comforting and profound outlooks on life.
- “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Bluntly political, hilariously profane, bitterly angry and operatically staged, Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards” succeeds as a portrait of justice and redemption rich with Americana. Frances McDormand gives a ruthless performance as a woman who earns the wrath of the local police when she buys ads demanding to know the fate of her raped and killed daughter. Sam Rockwell too is arresting as a bumbling and racist cop who isn’t beneath his own redemption.
- “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”
“Parade my corpse with whistles and torches,” a gay man dying from AIDS says in “BPM.” This incredible French drama crackles with urgency and feels as pressing today as when the AIDS crisis was at its peak where this film is set. It starts focusing on activist group Act Up Paris with lively, intellectual scenes of students arguing about how to develop a slogan that will “wake up the queens.” But it gradually evolves into a sobering and intimate love story between people who suffer but always persevere.
- “Get Out”
Jordan Peele said on Twitter that “Get Out” isn’t a comedy or a horror; it’s a documentary. His film lays out the racial micro-aggressions and coded language white people use everyday in 2017 with scary and hilarious honesty. But “Get Out” so perfectly captured the pulse of the year because Peele stages everything with a mastery over genre filmmaking, blending tension with humor to get a squirm-inducing blend of both.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the superhero movie was saved by an R-rating. “Logan” is not just bloody but heavy. Wolverine was long an invincible figure, but as Logan, director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman tapped into the tortured, beaten down husk of a man that made for a superhero story with genuine stakes and drama.
13. “Phantom Thread”
Like every other Paul Thomas Anderson film and like none of them. “Phantom Thread” starts as if it were made by Ernst Lubitsch, so sumptuous and elegant, thanks in part to Daniel Day-Lewis’s regal posture, Jonny Greenwood’s waltzing, yet dreamily out of time piano score, and the film’s painterly pastels in every frame. But PTA slowly turns the screws to surreal, madness inducing levels about male and female power dynamics in a relationship. I almost liken it to what Darren Aronofsky did with “mother!,” only instead of strangers trying to paint Jennifer Lawrence’s house, it’s Day-Lewis displaying the “gallantry” to eat his wife’s asparagus cooked with butter instead of oil and salt. Both films are comically absurd at times, but it’s “Phantom Thread” that has the delicious twist in which its female protagonist wins some power back .
- 14. “The Florida Project”
The young Brooklynn Prince is a revelation in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” She slouches and pouts with no cares in the world, She gleefully swears and schemes, but she always puts on an innocent, childlike face. What started as a colorful, anecdotal portrait of an unseen corner of Orlando just outside Disney World transforms into a touching, even dangerous drama about how our economic surroundings affect our behavior, our relationships and our opportunities.
15. “Lady Bird”
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is a coming-of-age story that feels like so many other films and none of them. Gerwig’s directorial debut already demonstrates an incredible sense of self, resisting clichés and quirks while serving as a relatable slice of life in countless ways. Saoirse Ronan, almost unrecognizable compared to her work in “Brooklyn,” has an innate chemistry with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), illuminating the constant push and pull between mother and daughter that few films have ever illustrated so well.
If “Inside Out” was Pixar’s masterful attempt at offering children a framework and image for why people feel emotions, “Coco” is a guide to coping with death. It’s at once hilarious and heartbreaking as a movie that celebrates Latin music and culture while illustrating a view of the afterlife filled with the same traditions, bureaucracy and people you encounter every day. Only Pixar could concoct a lesson about cherishing family bonds and remembering those we lose within a musical comedy with such madcap spice and energy.
17. “War for the Planet of the Apes”
The stunning conclusion to this consistently surprising and impressive prequel trilogy is the rare blockbuster filmmaking that packs a genuine emotional wallop. Watching “War” is like watching “Apocalypse Now.” The madness, despair and intensity of warfare is all contained in Caesar’s eyes, in what is still such an underrated motion capture performance by Andy Serkis. And the visuals on display evoke “the horror” that most blockbusters overlook in their attempts to be “fun.”
Runners up: “The Big Sick,” “Okja,” “Tramps,” “John Wick 2,” “Split,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”