Favorite movies of 2017

My picks for the best movies of 2017, ranked in ascending order of preference. There’s a lot more genre films in here than typically in one of my lists, this was a year where comics/sci-fi cinema was on par with prestige dramas and indie flicks.

Grand Jury Prizes

Taking a cue from the great Roger Ebert, who took his cue from film festivals, this year I’m adding a new category for a handful of films that didn’t quite make the final list – but I still wanted to recognize. My list’s already more than ten, so this is another way to cheat and pad the total.

  • Baby Driver
    Edgar Wright’s film opens with the most exciting car chase I’ve ever seen on screen. The soundtrack is propulsive fun. Stock heist characters given life and flair by energetic performances.
  • Spider-Man Homecoming
    A Marvel movie as if John Hughes had directed it. High school and superheroics; the new kid finally nails a characterization of Spidey in all his key dimensions: his wit, his moral struggles, and his acrobatics.
  • The Post
    Spielberg’s painstaking detailed telling of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, anchored by Meryl Streep, whose excellence we may sometimes take for granted. This is among her best.
  • The Disaster Artist
    James Franco channels the demented, yet somehow endearing, Tommy Wiseau in the funniest movie in quite some time.
  • Darkest Hour
    Oldman manages to convey a world-historic figure, not as a marble bust sculpture, but as a fully three-dimensional, flawed human, confronting a terror of immense complexity.

13. Atomic Blonde

One could imagine at any given time in cinematic history, the undisputed bad-ass of action movies could be a revered title, passed around like a boxer’s championship belt. The belt would’ve been worn by Clint, Arnold, Chow Yun-Fat, so many others, but all of them likely would’ve been men. With Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, I think at this moment the belt’s one true claimant is Charlize Theron.

Beyond its visceral action scenes, Atomic Blonde has a distinct aesthetic, rendering a unique (if not exactly period-authentic) re-imagination of Cold War espionage on the borders of divided Germany.

12. Trainspotting T2

A good rule of thumb for aging artists is: don’t get the band back together. It never works. It inevitably disappoints. You can’t recapture the magic. You’ll risk ruining the enjoyment of the original.

Trainspotting T2 defies those odds by steering into the trap of nostalgia and confronting it head-on. It’s a meditation on the sense of being trapped in place, held back by a past you cannot escape. Our trainspotters have changed some habits, and the world around them is almost unrecognizable. Renton updates his rant of contemporary pet-peeves in a thrillingly executed call-back sequence, another manifesto for a corrupted age. They caught lightning in a bottle for a second time, paid homage to the original, and brought something new and cathartic.

11. Logan

Over 17 years in 9 feature films, Hugh Jackman has not only portrayed the mutant Wolverine with the requisite intensity, brooding, and sarcastic wit, but he’s been an ideal custodian of the character. At countless occasions in public, Jackman has gone out of his way to pay homage and recognize the original creators of the character.

Mangold’s Logan brings a noir sensibility to a fitting conclusion for this epic cinematic journey. An amazing send-off both for Logan and Jackman.

10. The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani’s been on my radar ever since he had a show-stealing role in the horror movie Bad Milo, and his character on HBO’s Silicon Valley is a consistent source of laughter and empathy. But I was unprepared for the complexity of cross-cultural experience and deep human empathy smuggled inside of what was originally advertised as another fun Apatow-branded rom-com.

The screenplay by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon retelling the story of how they became a couple manages to both conform to the fundamentals of rom-com structure yet does so with originality.

9. Get Out

Jordan Peele’s Get Out has frequently been compared to The Twilight Zone and I can think of no higher compliment that is also entirely appropriate. In the tradition of Rod Serling, Peele manages to suffuse a speculative horror tale with several dimensions of social commentary.

The cast is extraordinary. Daniel Kaluuya’s eyes communicate an incredible sense of skepticism, intelligence, horror, and soul-crushing entrapment. Allison Williams becomes the perfect version for every layer of her character. Kieth Stanfield’s shock and trauma are vivid. I had the good fortune of catching this on opening weekend, before its twists and turns and impact on the culture were known, and it was an unexpected thrill ride of the highest order.

8. Call Me By Your Name

One of my favorite moviewatchers out there chose this as her pick for the best movie of the year weeks before I had a chance to see it, so I walked out of the cinema slightly disappointed I hadn’t seen a movie that would vault to the top of my list – but this is one of those films that stays with you for days after you see it.

This is a deliberately paced film that soaks in every detail of the lush romantic summer in 1980’s Italian countryside. The central relationship of the story builds like a symphonic structure, slow and sweet at the start, culminating in an emotional crescendo. Near the end of the flim, Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s becoming perhaps my favorite supporting actor, gives a wrenching monologue of human kindness and understanding. Call Me By Your Name contains one of the most powerful long takes I’ve ever seen an actor give on screen.

7. Phantom Thread

The ensemble trio of Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps – I don’t even know what to say; their achievement is breathtaking and extraordinary. This group of actors create a drama of intense emotional violence wrapped inside a world of obsessively crafted fashions.

Their weapons of this psychological warfare: glances, pauses, raised eyebrows, shrugs, outbursts, smiles, tears. The simplest of human gestures, under the command of these performers, can bring about pain, or release, or affirmation, or any number of complicated deeply held feelings.

6. The Florida Project

This year, I find myself much more in agreement with the Oscar nominations than usual, but the absence of this film is more than an oversight. It should’ve been nominated for Best Picture. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince were among the best of the year.

Willem Dafoe brings a pained humanity to the desparate everyday struggles of a manager of a bottom-tier long-term-stay hotel property. Solely on the basis of his “soda machine” scene, Dafoe should’ve earned a nomination. The 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince is outstanding. Finding a good child actor at that age is nearly impossible, but she manages to shoulder the film with heartbreaking honesty and innocence.

5. Blade Runner 2049

Writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green found an ingeniuos solution to revisiting the world of Blade Runner – they recaptured the central question at the heart of the original: do replicants have souls? In the original, that question was explored with a human/replicant relationship, and in this sequel, by exploring the relationship of a replicant and an A.I.

Director Denis Villeneuve had the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Ridley Scott, who defined the cinematic cyberpunk aesthetic: the neon-lit Asian-influenced rainy streets that have become so iconic, they’re still referenced in works as recent as Netflix’s Altered Carbon series.

Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins create their own aesthetic for this installment, building upon those templates but dumping atmospheric waste on them: clouds, rust, dust, haze: a climate-adjusted dystopic land and cityscape.

4. Lady Bird

Starting with her work as co-writer on Frances Ha, but now maturing into a more distinct form in Lady Bird, Gerwig has created a filmmaking style that suggests a new cinematic grammar. The fundamental units of composition: shot, scene, sequence, montage, in Gerwig’s hands, they take on new meanings.

Gerwig frequently employs a techinque that is montage-as-scene, almost a meta-scene: cutting together moments of (partially improvised?) performance, organized around a theme or idea, allowing audiences to fill in a number of gaps. Several of these meta-scenes in Lady Bird suggest they could’ve sustained an entire Act or even a standalone film. That’s why, at a brisk 93 minutes, the film manages to seem like it covers more story and character depth than many films capture in three hours. I’d be thoroughly delighted if she pulls an upset and her film wins either Best Picture or Best Director at the Oscars.

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand can be a force of nature when channeled into the right role, and this film provides her with another perfect opportunity to do what she does best: portray a flawed woman of conviction, with laser-focused eyes and a spine of pure fuckin’ steel.

I’ve long been a fan of Sam Rockwell, who can go a bit off the rails sometimes with his glee and zany peculiarities, but this character allows him to bring the quirk and the melancholy in just the right proportion. Woody Harrelson’s laconic lawman is an example of brilliant casting: Woody’s innate Texas bearing and world-hardened skepticism come thorugh in a brief yet dense work of character acting.

Writer-Director Martin McDonagh has a knack for elevating tales of crime, revenge, depression; his characters stride through sadness and chaos, struggling to keep it together in a world they can no longer recognize.

2. Your Name

When I walked into the cinema to see Your Name I didn’t know much about it other than the fact it had been one of the top-5 grossing films in Japanese box office history. I hadn’t seen a trailer. I wish I could see more films this way because going in with zero knowledge and a vague sense of optimism allowed every single detail of the movie to be fresh and pack full impact.

I won’t reveal the central conceit of the flim: it follows a trope that’s been a used a lot in live-action comedies over the years, but the way in which that trope is revealed in the early stages of the film is surprising and brings an original riff on the format. To set expectations, it’s a romantic drama with limited elements of science fiction.

Your Name is filled with gorgeous artwork: nearly every frame has a painterly obsession and beauty. Some sequences have visuals that combine the best aspects of hand-drawn animation with the advanced camera techniques allowed by computer animation, synthesizing a hybrid visual aesthetic which paints gorgeous horizons, looks to the stars, lingers on quiet moments and details of contemporary life in Japan.

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

When Kathleen Kennedy took over Lucasfilm, I had a wish-list of things I wanted to see come to a new Star Wars film. As an avid fan of the Star Wars franchise, after The Empire Strikes Back, there have been a number of missteps and gargantuan fuck-ups, but they were correctible.

More than anything, the series needed to get back to its deepest roots. And by those roots, I’m not referring to the imagination of George Lucas, but the timeless mythological structure explored in the studies of Joseph Campbell – not just the oft-cited “Hero’s journey,” but the mosaic of the world’s mythic traditions.

Those roots are best embodied in the character of Yoda. Ever since his appearances in the original trilogy, Star Wars films, comics, tv shows, and books have tried to emulate the wise master but failed spectaculary. The wisdom of a seeker in the mysteries of the force had been reduced time and again into cliché fortune-cookie bullshit. Nothing of substance or earnest grappling.

Rian Johnson restores a genuine moral and spiritual conflict, reuniting the ultimate student/master pair of Luke and Yoda to tell one last important lesson: the lesson of failure.

Failure is experienced by every character in The Last Jedi. Every step of the way the Resistance, Leia, Poe, Rose, and Finn – they fail. Luke’s removed himself from the struggle because of an all-encompassing surrender to the fear of failure.

Through his critique of the corrupted Jedi order, the character of Luke rescues the mystery and wonder of the force as presented in the original trilogy that was mangled by the “midi-chlorian” mistakes of the prequels, democratizing the force, making it accessible again: once again, the characters in Star Wars can serve as inspiration to everyone, not just stand as an elite royal bloodline.

The grandeur and wonder of the mysteries of the universe as communicated through the Force had become occasionally formulaic in the multitude of spin-offs: the Jedi and Sith’s tricks starting to have the vague whiff of magic tricks as opposed to revealing the foundation of all life in the galaxy. The Last Jedi presents a new use of the Force – in spectacular fashion – suggesting that maybe we’re only scratching the surface of what’s capable in this realm.

The conflicts at the heart of the original triology were pure and stark. In this era, they can seem a bit removed and less able to speak to the conflicts of this time. Re-calibrating the heroes and antagonists with less moral clarity and bringing in some shades of gray were just what this story and franchise needed.

Once the choice was made to bring back Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker, an enormous challenge was presented: how to bring back an icon, and not have it be redundant, a repeat of Sir Alec Guiness in A New Hope? I love the answer: give the unsullied hero of the galaxy, the man we last saw in ultimate triumph, a crippling experience of failure, a chance to be redeemed when he had once been a redeemer of others.

Luke’s final actions, his final monologe, allowed moviegoers to experience one last time a genuine miracle of inspiration, on par with his signature bullseye at the Death Star. Goosebumps and tears. Quite an extraordinary achievement by Rian Johnson. It’s no wonder they signed him up to do three more once they saw this one.

This movie brought my Star Wars fan wish-list to life, better than I could’ve imagined.

I am aware of contrary views on this film. I’ve glanced them in your tweets. I’ve heard them on your pods. I’ve read them in your blogs. Heard them at the bar. After careful consideration: