When I look back at the movies I loved in 2017, there is a word I can apply to nearly every one of them: intentionality. It is a great year for directors getting opportunities to highlight their craft with deliberate precision. Of the 110 movies I saw in 2017, all of these movies stood out to me as examples of filmmakers utilizing every possible detail to convey their stories and emotions. You will find this sentiment throughout all of these movies no matter what the genre, and this love of the craft results in emotionally riveting movies that will be remembered long beyond the end of the year.
Among many other great movies that barely missed a slot, here are what I consider to be the absolute finest films of 2017.
10. Get Out
Part of loving movies is not only the viewing experience but the potential for discussion afterward, and Get Out generated intense conversations among all those who saw it. Rarely do we get to see a film that is both an effective genre movie, critically lauded, and a smash hit with audiences (it made $175 million in the U.S. on a $4.5 million budget, take a close look at that studio execs). And yet the film is so much more than a commercial success: under the disguise of a topical horror movie, writer-director Jordan Peele has crafted a piece so rich with detail that everyone who sees it will pick up different ones. Every piece of information in this movie is a consciously made symbol toward its greater themes of the black experience in today’s America.
Most films attempting to be current or topical get bogged down in trendy references that will age within months of release, or exclusively focused on politics which also has an expiration date. The elements here stand long beyond a single Presidency, and instead speak to an experience that may require a jolt of horror for non-black viewers like myself to understand. From there the conversation begins, and it’s been a pleasure to see such a large audience, both critical and commercial, embrace this film. Consider me a fan.
Creating an R-rated Wolverine movie is more than just adding some blood and swearing, although that is certainly on display here for the first time ever in an X-Men film. Instead, by not having to cater to the attention spans of 12-year-olds, director James Mangold is able to take Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine into territory we’ve never seen before. The R-rating is liberating for very different reasons than expected: never before has a superhero movie been able to slow down, pace itself, and start showing deeply human themes and stories. As its runtime unfolds, it becomes clear this is a movie for adults; those of us who first saw X-Men and X2 in theaters are all now at an age to enjoy this kind of film over the more traditional blockbuster. The major difference is the pace and the scale: we’re with an intimate cast on a journey where the stakes are personal instead of the bloated cinematic universe more focused on its sequels than the film itself.
Through good and atrociously bad entries of the X-Men franchise, Hugh Jackman has always brought everything to the character, but here he finally comes to fruition and gets an emotionally rich role worthy of his commitment. Amazingly, the same can be said of Patrick Stewart as Professor X; it’s truly a shame they aren’t in the Oscar conversation. Regardless, Logan will be remembered as one of the greatest superheroes of all time and a personal favorite. It’s better than anything I could’ve ever dreamed to see on the big screen for this character, and a true passion project from all parties involved.
One quality of a great director is their ability to cover an eclectic array of topics while still keeping a clear signature. Christopher Nolan is one of those undeniable greats, one of the few directors who sell movies to the masses purely on his name recognition. There are countless World War II movies and yet here he proves with a new approach it’s still possible to create a wholly new kind of film. He paints on the largest canvas possible, the only director to brilliantly utilize IMAX, and creates a movie stripped to the most simple emotions: escape and survival, all through a first-person experience.
Months after seeing and reviewing the film, the takeaway that stays with me the most is the depiction of time. All movies are in some form a manipulation of time, and yet few movies outwardly address it as a central theme. For the men at Dunkirk shown in this film, there are three different quantities of time (by air, sea, and land) but by intercutting them simultaneously, we’re shown that no matter how long your tour of action was, the visceral emotions of war are the same. Survival is not a competition, the victory is living to tell the tale. To see these ideas disguised in a spectacle more immersive than any current VR experience is a feat worthy of recognition as one of the best movie-going experiences of the year. Whatever film Nolan makes next, he’ll likely find himself another slot on the top 10 list.
Read our full ‘Dunkirk’ review here.
7. The Shape of Water
Director Guillermo Del Toro returns to the extraordinarily fantastical filmmaking that made Pan’s Labyrinth a modern masterpiece in 2006. Here he pulls from all kinds of sources, including classic monster movies and Golden Age musicals, to tell an unconventional love story between a mute woman and an aquatic creature in 1962. From there it is a cinematic delight: whether you love fantasy filmmaking or abhor it, the film has something for you as a viewer. Rich with subtext and modern relevance, while watching this movie I felt myself in the hands of a master filmmaker, not wasting a single opportunity to help convey the message and themes that are deeply personal to him. I love seeing a film that wholeheartedly embraces the world of fantasy, and uses elements of both the supernatural and of the past to speak to our present moment.
There’s a scene in the last half of this movie that takes the established sense of awe and wonder to a new level. This is extra impressive considering the entire film so far has been rich with magic. I’ll spare any details for those who haven’t seen the film yet, but you’ll know it when it happens- the sequence captures the pure emotion of our lead character in a beautiful, unexpected way. It’s the best movie moment of 2017. The rest of the film that takes us to that point is so unique and beautiful that it’s one of the most unforgettable movies of the year.
Read our full ‘The Shape of Water’ review here.
6. Baby Driver
From the electric opening heist to unforgettable opening credits, and through a series of action thrills with Baby (Ansel Elgort) at the wheel, Edgar Wright’s latest movie may be the most fun ride of the year, “cinematic crack” as film critic Anne Thompson called it. Within months of release, there were already countless YouTube video essays dissecting elements of the film, from the costume design to the soundtrack choice, and much more will come: the movie is so intentionally executed it’s hard not to be won over. This is what sets it apart from a run-of-the-mill action movie: all throughout are story points and elements that come together as a flowing, singular vision. I have never seen a movie so seamlessly choreographed to music- song lyrics and beats play as storytelling devices, and it all rushes by so fast even after two viewings I know I have so much more to see in this film. It rewards anyone who loves attention to detail. While there are certainly more complicated characters and nuanced stories to be found on this list, I would argue almost no other film this year has as impeccable infusing of all the crafted elements that make a movie. It’s rip-roaring fun from a cinephile perspective, and that combination lands it comfortably as one of the year’s finest.
Read our full ‘Baby Driver’ review here.
I was waiting for a documentary that would blow me away all year long and as it turns out, the last film I saw in 2017 was such an entry. The first component to Jane that makes it so amazing is its source material: the filmmakers were given access to 100 hours of never used footage from the 1960s of Jane Goodall, in her 20s, beginning her unprecedented career studying primates. The footage alone is merely the first ingredient of this expertly crafted dish: Brett Morgen combines this spectacular footage with a tour-de-force soundtrack from Philip Glass and occasional mind-blowing graphics. His choices in how to concisely tell her story while paying tribute to her impact are consistently spot-on. Behind it all, he chooses to have Jane Goodall herself be the only interview subject telling the story; a more traditional documentary would have had many experts and friends weigh in, but due to Jane’s natural abilities as a storyteller and status as a groundbreaking individual, the decision to let her be the sole voice in the film gives great value to her legacy.
Throughout the movie, as Jane’s career evolves from humble beginnings to becoming a scientific superstar, we see a fascinating character evolution that the film adaptation perfectly unravels. One of the burning questions I kept having at first was, “Who on Earth is shooting this incredible footage?” When we find out who’s behind the camera, a whole new layer of significance can be found in all the footage we’ve seen. A subtle, beautiful theory can show why this footage is stunning: there is love permeating every reel of film from who is shooting it toward Jane and the chimps. Biography documentaries are extremely challenging to make. It’s easy to fall into pitfalls that underserve the great elements of a given subject. Jane is the contrary, it is the film that this living legend deserves. A deeply layered, masterfully executed documentary.
Read our full review of ‘Jane’ here.
4. The Square
If there’s any film I feel was overlooked this year, it’s Ruben Östlund’s The Square, hailing from Denmark. After his last film, Force Majeure, began a satirical conversation on affluence, his latest entry takes this biting social commentary and cranks it to 11. The film consistently finds a way to strike a fine line between being ludicrous, comedic, and moving. Our protagonist Christian (Claes Bang) delivers with deadpan sincerity that perfectly clashes with the absolute madness that unfolds, all of which cuts deep because of its resemblance to awkward real-life situations. The film takes aim at the wealthy, art-loving, socially conscious crowd who believe their good intentions will make the world better, only to realize how complex it is to spread goodness from their privileged perspective. Like many other great films from this year, perhaps it takes a certain degree of bizarre elements in a story for us to realize where we are in the world. Coming from a foreign perspective, Östlund throws in so many sequences that are too crazy to ever imagine seeing in an American film. However, The Square speaks perfectly to an American perspective as being from a wealthy country yet still surrounded by massive disparity. I’d rather you see these great surprises and side-splitting comedic moments for yourself than for me to try and summarize them. At the very least, I hope the film is nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, which would help a larger audience be able to receive the most sharp-witted movie of the year.
Read our full review of ‘The Square’ here.
Who would’ve thought that the most sweeping epic and ensemble film of the year would be a Netflix release? Dee Rees’ Mudbound is the best movie of the year that is immediately available at your fingertips. The film takes us into post-war Mississippi and gives us a web of 7 characters brilliantly interlocked and given complex relationships worth spending time with. Using voiceovers, we get to understand each of them without relying on typical exposition and, like a novel, we’re given a window into their thoughts in a soulful way.
One particular shot of Laura (Carey Mulligan) being comforted by Florence (Mary J. Blige) expresses volumes of information entirely through the camera framing and the blocking. My hope is that cinematographer Rachel Morrison makes history by being the first female to be nominated in that category, it would be well deserved. Multiple other times we’re given key information about characters’ relationships entirely through the way they occupy space together. Brilliant cinematography and the carefully crafted voiceovers are two of the many examples of how the film beautifully harmonizes classical and modern filmmaking in a daring manner that pays off tremendously. The result is one of the most moving films of the year. It’s also worth noting that this may be the best handling of the veteran experience I’ve seen lately: the two men returning from a war they can’t fully grapple with are at the core of the film (played by Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund). Despite all the pain and hardship seen in the film, it still left me with a gasp of optimism and a hope for the future. In terms of race and class in America, there was much work to be done in the 1940s, and there is still much needed today, but there is still optimism and love to be found moving forward in times of intense difficulty. Mudbound, largely due to Dee Rees’ top-tier direction, is a concrete step toward making the world a better place.
Read our full review of ‘Mudbound’ here.
2. Phantom Thread
Imagine for a minute big and cynical blockbusters as mindless fast food served off a corporate assembly line with no nutritional value. The great movies from your favorite directors, then, would be a homemade meal with uniqueness and comfortably delicious taste. Phantom Thread, in this analogy, would then come across as a 5-course, 5-star meal out of your daily (or yearly) price range. Expansively rich with taste, quality, and sophistication, it’s complexity may not be approachable for all but is undeniably made with impeccable craft. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most beloved working filmmakers among cinephiles and has continued to gain clout with every outing. Here he continues his body of work with one of his most alluring and entirely successful projects to date.
Daniel Day-Lewis may be the selling point, but the film is actually a two-handed romantic drama with previously unknown actress Vicky Krieps going toe-to-toe with the master. In 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a fashion designer at the top of his game, living a perfectly tailored, brutally precise lifestyle, alongside his sister Cyril (an awards-worthy Lesley Manville). Upon meeting Alma (Krieps) and falling in love in his own prickly way, this organized life is slowly unraveled, and as a viewer, I was hanging on scene after scene as the relationship complicates and moves into unexpected directions. Phantom Thread is as delicately and precisely crafted as the very dresses that our protagonists make, where every single movement is a deliberately crafted thematic choice. I know I will be returning to this film for years to come to continue unpacking and savoring the richly layered textures brought on here and the thrilling tension of this unconventional romance. It’s one for the ages.
Read our full review of ‘Phantom Thread’ here.
1. The Florida Project
One of the qualities I seek out in a great film is the ability to transport us to an unfamiliar location we may never otherwise know. The world is vast and full of infinite subcultures worthy of exploring, and many of my favorite movies are deep dives into such unfamiliar places (both narrative and documentary). In Sean Baker’s film, we get a look into a 21st Century no-tell motel on the outskirts of Disneyworld that houses permanent residents at the bottom of the capitalist food chain. Baker ups the ante by telling the entire story from the perspective of 6-year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince). First, we are riveted by her “Little Rascals” style stories as she navigates the world with ferocity and humor. Then through her eyes, it becomes fascinating what we don’t see. The illicit behavior of adults is filtered through a child, and our limited perspective requires us to fill in the pieces. A vignette approach instead of a traditional plot helps the film to feel raw and unscripted in the same way summer does as a child.
Director Sean Baker is also his own editor, and the order of information feels expertly cut from end to end (notably, a repeating bathtub shot that first seems mundane only to pay off perfectly). And of course there’s the cinematography: with his last film Tangerine making waves for being shot on an iPhone, we now see what he can do on 35mm film, and he delivers gorgeous hues of Florida pinks, yellows, and greens. Moment after moment look and feel iconic and sail into uncharted waters in this radical location. There will be much to discern from further viewings, however, for today The Florida Project will stand among great cinema as my pick for the best movie of 2017.
Read our full ‘The Florida Project’ review here.
Honorable Mentions: Lady Bird, Jim & Andy, Human Flow, mother!