2017 was a grim, crummy year for the world, but a pretty darn good one for film. So many of the movies I loved in 2017 tended toward strangeness or kindness, often a bit of both. I think we could all use a little bit more of each in our daily lives.
Even though this is a top 20 list, there’s a lot from 2017 I still have to see. I missed A Fantastic Woman and Foxtrot when they played for a week in NYC last year, and I’ve been meaning to get to The Big Sick, The Lost City of Z, Ingird Goes West, Detroit, and Columbus. On the documentary side, I still need to see I Am Not Your Negro, Rat Film, Strong Island, and so much more.
Still, incomplete as all lists are, here are my 20 favorite movies of 2017. Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes. Be kind and strange. And, gosh, call your mother.
[Ed. Note: We do awards a bit different at Flixist. Most of our writers do not get early screenings or award screeners of movies, which means it isn’t easy to see some of the films that only get limited releases in December for many of us. As such we wait a few weeks into January so that we can see everything before we choose our favorites, and then vote in February for the site’s awards.]
There are few joys greater in life than realizing your place in the world. Brett Morgen’s documentary is a wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall experiencing this joy. The film is built around stunning, rediscovered footage of Goodall at the beginning of her career, wandering the jungles of Gombe to observe the chimpanzees in their natural habitat. We get her life story in the film, and I realized just how little I knew about her. Present-day Goodall reflects on the past, at times getting wistful. The Philip Glass score is lush, and features allusions to his score for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
19. The Lure (aka Córki dancingu)
Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was one of the best books I read in 2017. Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure feels like a cinematic cousin. This musical about carnivorous mermaid sisters who wind up working at a Polish nightclub uses a fairy tale set-up to explore issues about women’s bodies in the entertainment industry. There’s also a story about modern immigration in Europe and the ways people are exploited given their lack of options. I adore how Smoczyńska’s runs with the premise, and I can’t wait to see what idiosyncratic work she winds up doing next.
18. The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is one of the most harrowing portraits of contemporary American poverty, and also one of the most sympathetic. I keep thinking about Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and how there’s undeniable love despite both of them living week-to-week in a rundown motel. The heartbreak grows as the situation gets worse and worse for mother and child. Others there face similar desperation; this is life without options, mostly just survival. Like Willem Dafoe’s character, we watch and feel bad, unable to do anything meaningful or truly helpful.
Logan is one heck of a western. It’s a fitting goodbye to the character that made Hugh Jackman’s career, and also a fond farewell to Fox’s run with the X-Men franchise. I doubt the Marvel Cinematic Universe will attempt anything so tonally different with a superhero property. In some ways this swan song to the first cinematic Wolverine plays out like a late-period John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movie. Our gristled ol’ gunslinger saddles up for a final ride. It’s the idea of the character we’re watching throughout the film, like a wavering shadow on the horizon disappearing into a setting sun.
16. Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name captures that feeling of falling hard for someone for the first time. There are the little flirtations, the brushes of skin and sidelong glances, a private grammar of mutual yearning. In a different movie, the intimacy between Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer’s characters might be the center of scandal, but in Call Me By Your Name, a summer romance is allowed its privacy. We observe two men connect and fall in love without shame, scorn, or judgement. Chalamet is excellent as he navigates his character’s sexuality, and Hammer is way better than I realized he could be.
Dee Rees’ Mudbound is moving melodrama about racism and poverty in the post-war South. Even with the shifting points of view, the film is a coherent whole thanks to the writing and the ensemble cast. So much of Mudbound seems mild-mannered, with characters secretly hurting and seething because the consequences of honesty would be brutal. For most characters in Mudbound, the struggles involve freedom denied and fetters imposed. The film’s eventual and inevitable violence is so horrific yet also of a piece. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is among the best of the year, and easily the best in any Netflix production.
Thelma starts like a standard horror/fantasy about a young woman developing telekinetic powers now that she’s away from her repressive parents. Yet it’s not just that. To say more about the nature of Thelma and what she can do (or what she has done) would spoil the unexpected pleasures of Joachim Trier’s film. Thelma and her parents have their reasons for their choices, and I was fascinated discussing their actions afterward with friends. Most of us could understand why they all did what they did. Mostly they did everything out of fear and love. What a perfect way to describe growing up.
13. Get Out
Get Out is a 21st century blend of The Stepford Wives, The Wicker Man, and an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine. Jordan Peele’s horror/comedy could have been a solid one-note polemic about racism and black lives, but his movie is far more observant. There’s something insidious about white liberalism’s rhetoric about race, as if platitudes and equivocation are a way to avoid talking about systemic racism. There’s also a brief examination of Asian assimilation in the film. Get Out deftly moves between social satire and farcical genre deconstruction, maintaining a specter of unease and paranoia throughout.
12. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Every couple of years, Adam Sandler has a role that reminds people he can act and even be vulnerable. The Meyerowitz Stories gives Sandler a wounded vessel for his shouting outbursts as well as his kooky music. Noah Baumbach once again plays with dysfunctional families and difficult people, shaping his film like a collection of short stories. Seeing Sandler and Ben Stiller argue on screen is like the dueling pianos scene between Daffy and Donald in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The secret anchor in the film, though, is Elizabeth Marvel, whose character always seems like she’s got more to say but doesn’t out of habit.
11. Faces Places (aka Visages, villages)
Faces Places is a jaunty, late-career highlight from Agnes Varda, one of the best female filmmakers (and one of the best unsung directors) of the 20th century. She partners with street artist JR, and the duo document their art-filled trek through France, creating large portraits of strangers that get pasted onto walls and structures. These huge images, like the best street art, recontextualize a given space, changing the way people think about their surroundings and others. The many kudos bestowed on the film—including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary—will hopefully bring Varda’s name back into a conversation of great filmmakers.
10. My Life as a Zucchini (aka Ma vie de Courgette)
There are two emotional strands braided through My Life as a Zucchini. On the one hand, these children are the victims of horrible abuse. On the other hand, these children are looked after with such tenderness that a new kind of family develops. Heartbreak and kindness, all as a whole. While the film could have been effective as a live-action movie, I think the stop-motion animation add to the pathos and humanity on display. The voice performances are so earnest, and each face and each chid could be a cousin, a niece, a nephew, or a neighbor.
Dunkirk is a movie without characters, but that’s not a strike against it. It’s instead one of its strengths. Christopher Nolan peoples his film with ciphers who stand-in for military and civilian experiences in the land, sea, and air. He similarly uses each of the three combat theaters to explore drama that unfolds in different amounts of time, eventually connecting. Dunkirk intercuts these differing degrees and durations of tension into an unnerving, unrelenting spectacle about failure and survival. Survival is enough, we are told, and it even applies to feature length films.
8. The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro loves his monsters, and that adoration is all over The Shape of Water. The film is a bit like Beauty and the Beast filtered through the green and sepia color schemes of Jeunet and Caro, given a kick of cultural critique since the heroes are either marginalized or ignored. We’re told that Michael Shannon’s Cold War psychopath is emblematic of the modern American male. No wonder Sally Hawkins would instead fall for a sympathetic Amazonian aquagod, and do so unrepentantly. This is a misfit love story at its most fantastic, and my favorite English-language del Toro film.
7. The Breadwinner
Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has been making some of the most stunning and emotional animated films of the last few years. The Breadwinner continues the tradition of Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea, following the struggles of a young girl forced to pass as a boy after her father is imprisoned by the Taliban. Parvana’s bravery drives so much of the narrative, which also takes time to reflect on the importance of stories, both ancient and new, real and fictional. I still think about the hopeful yet uncertain closing notes of the film, and what it says about the stories we tell.
6. Blade Runner 2049
I sat mesmerized for the full runtime of Blade Runner 2049, initially entranced by Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, but then taken by the paths of the narrative. The film is a strong continuation of the future noir established in the original Blade Runner, exploring more of the corporate slave-state that seems to control everything from desires to memories to notions of personhood. There’s been a great conversation about the film’s sexism/misogyny, and whether it’s intentional, unintentional, or an unavoidable symptom of the dystopian world it depicts. I wonder what power means given the placement of a lens, and look forward to watching Blade Runner 2049 again with these conversations in mind.
5. LA 92
LA 92 might be one of the most overwhelming cinematic experiences I had all of last year. Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s documentary on the LA riots is comprised entirely of archival footage and camcorder footage. There are no talking heads for context or calm, just the raw emotion around the Rodney King verdict and its aftermath. The film is chillingly apocalyptic, the score like a symphony playing at the end of the world. LA 92 is an astounding portrait of a city’s anger, sadness, and confusion. It even gives the heartsick context to the question “Can we all just get along?”
Colossal is such an unexpected delight that works because of the way it mashes up genres and the clever way it subverts genre tropes. It’s sort of a kaiju movie, but it’s really something else. It’s sort of a romantic comedy about trying to rebuild your life away from the city, but it’s really not. Nacho Vigalondo gets a lot of mileage from the strange conceit of the movie, and uses monsters in their different forms to explore issues of abuse, harm, toxic personalities, and depression. Both Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis play against type, which is a big reason why Colossal works as well as it does.
3. Phantom Thread
I’ve jokingly referred to Phantom Thread as Merchant-Ivory’s The Lockhorns. There’s so much one can read into the relationship between Reynolds and Alma: codependence, artist/muse, master/slave, parent/child, the difficulties of loving a difficult person. Over the course of this romantic black comedy, these roles seem to flip, or at least the power dynamics twist just enough to keep things interesting. Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville’s performances carry the movie as much as Daniel Day-Lewis (fitting given he story), and I was transfixed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s imagery and Jonny Greenwood’s buttery, sumptuous score.
2. Lady Bird
Lady Bird filled me with teenage feelings. So many of the experiences in the film reminded me of my own upbringing, from the combative relationship with an emotionally closed parent to the slow sense of gratitude that develops for your hometown. Greta Gerwig breezes through a year of change, seamlessly moving from month to month as Lady Bird bumbles through her search for self. While the coming-of-age story plays out charmingly and honestly, Gerwig also explores the broad class gradations in suburbia. Being middle-class in America can mean having a six-figure starter home for some and just barely hanging on to your house for others.
Watching Zama at the New York Film Festival last year reminded me of the joys of watching a movie closely. Lucrecia Martel carefully composes every shot of her film, imbuing each movement and sound in her tableaux with meaning, which includes events happening just out of frame. This odd, existential work of art reminded me of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It’s been months since I’ve seen Zama, but I think back to several moments and I am still astounded. How can there be such allure and dread in a box moving on its own? Or a llama wandering into frame? Or the gentle parting of plants on a river as a boat cradling our pathetic hero ferries away? What wonderful mysteries a film can haunt us with.