25 Reasons to Love the Movies in 2017
From amazing directorial debuts to ‘Dunkirk,’ offbeat docs to Daniel Day-Lewis – the films, performances and moments that made the year in movies
There were a lot of reasons to hate the movie industry in 2017, from the way it kept foisting reheated-leftover franchises on us to finally finding out just how much enabling it’s given to sexual predators and power-abusing monsters for decades.
There were, however, a lot of reasons to love the movies over the last 12 months, even if this was an art form that gave us both a parody of dark, bloated Batman blockbusters and an actual dark, bloated caped-crusader adventure in a single year. We will remember 2017 as the Reckoning era and the age of the Female Gaze, but also the year of Get Out and Greta Gerwig, of existential ghosts and extraordinary docs, of saying hello to Timothée Chalamet and Tiffany Haddish and goodbye to Daniel Day-Lewis.
There was, in fact, a lot that was worth shouting out about the films of 2017 that went beyond just a mere top 10 list (though I’ve included one below just for posterity’s sake). Here are 25 things we loved about the movies this year – from great works to standout moments, career-high performances to big-picture revolutions and small touches. Keep watching.
My Top 10 list:
1. Faces Places
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
5. B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute)
6. Lady Bird
7. Phantom Thread
8. Lady Macbeth
10. A Quiet Passion
Honorable mentions: All These Sleepless Nights, Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman, The Florida Project, Foxtrot, Get Out, Logan, Molly’s Game, Rat Film, The Work.
The Sound + Vision of ‘Baby Driver’
It’s tough to pick a favorite music cue in Edgar Wright’s impeccably soundtracked homage to Seventies car-chase flicks: That opening getaway set to Jon Spencer’s “Bellbottoms?” An armored-car robbery and subsequent freeway shoot-out scored to the Damned’s “Neat, Neat, Neat?” Our man Baby (viva Ansel Elgort’s endless array of sunglasses!) eluding the lukewarm fuzz to the yodeling-friendly strains of “Focus” by Hocus Pocus? Whatever showstopping set piece you might single out, however, pales in comparison to what the British writer-director has done with the movie as a whole. It’s impossible to think of a better example of a sustained mesh of sound and vision than this set-to-shuffle crime thriller – the sort of high-concept cinematic caper that anyone could come up with and only someone like Wright could actually pull off.
Class of ’17: Jordan Peele, Kumail Nanjiani and Greta Gerwig
One parlayed a career as an incisive comedian into a bid for becoming this generation’s most socially astute horror filmmaker; one turned his real-life tragedy into a first-rate romantic tragicomedy and established himself as a bona fide leading man; one took a teen coming-of-age tale and infused it with chops, heart, soul and guts. All of them gave supporting roles to veteran actors that brought out the best in them. All of them proved that smart, funny, frightening, critically praised, crowd-favored, financially successful hit movies were not the sole province of white males – and in the case of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, that they could be one of the biggest box-office home runs of the year. Hollywood is now listening to them, but to be honest, they’d be telling these stories and making these movies regardless. We’ll be talking about Peele’s gamechanging horror flick, Kumail Nanjiani and friends’ crazysexycool The Big Sick and Greta Gerwig’s pitch-perfect Lady Bird for years to come. We can’t wait to see what they do next.
The Dinner Party Scene in ‘The Square’
It happens a little past the satire’s midway point: Patrons in tuxedos and evening gowns have gathered for a fundraising event at a museum. The institution’s director notes that one of their current artists-in-residence will be doing a “performance.” A shirtless man (played by Terry Notary, who works mostly as a motion-capture performer) starts imitating an ape, climbing on tables and challenging the alpha males in the crowd. He never breaks character – even when it’s time to find a “mate.” And for a tense 10-plus minutes, Swedish director Ruben Östlund and his actors give you one of the set pieces of 2017: a decidedly uncomfortable look at what happens when social niceties are pushed to their breaking points and Exhibit A in the film’s case that we’re all just one tiny push away from polite civilization dropping its collective mask.
‘The Meyerowitz Stories,’ Emma Thompson and the Art of Playing Drunk
Hopefully you saw Noah Baumbach’s lovely literary riff on genius-family feuding before one of its stars put a slight stink on the project – the baggage now means folks may skip Adam Sandler doing his strongest work in years, Elisabeth Marvel making a meal out of an anxious-woman part, Grace Van Patten proving that she’s earned next-big-thing status and the writer-director finding a fertile groove regarding his obsession with self-obsession. But the real pity might be the fact they’d miss Emma Thompson’s contribution to the pantheon of great comic screen lushes. Her sodden spouse is a dollop of drunken anarchy dropped into this dysfunctional miss and comes out as the movie’s MVP; few lines have made us laugh as hard as her sloshed reading of the gem, “he was baby-faced and sinewy, like an old lover of mine, Willem Dafoe.” Speaking of which …
Willem Dafoe in ‘The Florida Project’
Sean Baker’s tour of Florida’s Magic Kingdom motel row is filled with sympathetic screw-ups, kooks, freaks, kids and parents who act a helluva lot like kids. Amidst a cast of incredible non-professionals (one of whom, Brooklynn Prince, is a ray of sunshine given tiny human form), Willem Dafoe isn’t just the rare star in the mix; he’s also the only genuinely reliable adult among these down-and-outers in the sunshine state’s outskirts. This manager is both the calm before the storm and the pillar of strength in the eye of it, a beacon of sanity and stability. None of which, of course, can stop the story’s inevitable loss of innocence. We’ve seen this man play vampires, shark-toothed criminals, supervillains, convicts, rats (figurative and literal ones) and Jesus Christ. It took Dafoe playing a kindhearted workaday stiff, however, to jolt us into remembering what an extraordinary actor he is.
Superhero 2.0 Movies: ‘Logan’ and ‘Wonder Woman’
Memo to studios: If we’re going to be stuck with these big-screen comic book movies from now until doomsday, please mix it up a tad. Maybe make them idiosyncratic and weird, like Thor: Ragnarok; maybe don’t make them such crass, blatant cash-ins and chaotic blunders like Justice League. Or, better yet, take a tip from the two movies that really did push these types of blockbusters into bold new territory and realize, like the Western and the musical and the screwball comedy, that there are a lot you can do with these conventions beyond “pow” and “boom.”
James Mangold’s Logan is the perfect goodbye to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and an elegiac look at what happens when an invincible mutant suddenly deals with his inevitable mortality. And Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman not only broke the gender barrier (if not necessarily the genre barrier; it still ends with a familiar digital smash-up) but gave us a hero’s story that was emotionally resonant, deeply humanistic and profoundly, proudly feminist. That these two movies were major successes – and the rancid Justice League severely underperformed – gave us hope for a kind of event film that is sucking up a lot of Hollywood-and-beyond oxygen. You can satisfy fans and still make near-great movies. Follow these examples.
Tiffany Haddish in ‘Girls Trip’
When we meet her, she’s yelling about chlamydia; we leave her, she’s telling her friends that she wants to make a dick pic her wallpaper, “and not on my phone.” (Don’t even ask about the grapefruit.) In between those two lines, you get to watch comedian Tiffany Haddish become a bona fide movie star. Malcolm D. Lee’s movie about old college friends getting together for a long weekend in New Orleans because of the chemistry between its leads – don’t sleep on what Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith are bringing to the party. But it’s Haddish that kicks this comedy into the stratosphere; she’s the movie’s raging, binge-drinking, bar-fighting id. There are points where this movie can not even contain her. Even the way she puts air quotes around the phrase “place of work” is hilarious.
‘B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute)’
French director Robin Campillo’s epic portrayal of ACT UP’s Paris chapter circa the early 1990s isn’t afraid to go big: there are protests in Big Pharma offices and performance-art scenes during public lectures, inter-organization factions ideologically duking it out and joyous pride-parade celebrations. That it can also drill down past the sloganeering and get painfully intimate in detailing the romance between an HIV-positive founder (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and a new recruit to the cause (Arnaud Valois) is the secret to this phenomenal film’s success. Both leads give you a guided tour of the way their heated courtship turns into raging against the dying of the light (and against the needless death of millions of infected men). But it’s also an ensemble piece par excellence, with members arguing, fighting, flirting, fucking and arguing some more. It’s one of the single most humanistic portrayals of the power of activism you will ever see, and that climactic bit in the club – a Dance Dance Revolution literalization when the sound drops out and all you hear is breathing – remains the most thrilling moment we witnessed in 2017.
Vince Vaughn in ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’
It’s like the old saying goes: You never realize how big an actor is until you see him physically dismantle a car piece by piece onscreen. Vince Vaughn achieves that feat early on in S. Craig Zahler’s brutal, batshit prison flick; by the end of this grindhouse throwback’s 132-minute running time, you’ll see the former Swingers actor do a lot worse to some human beings who want to hurt his loved ones. We’ve seen this 6’5″ Midwesterner play smarmy Casanovas, smooth-talkers and slick swingin’ dicks, but this one – all bulk and bruised fists – feels like an upgrade; it’s his Taken. He’s the reason you sympathize with this jailbird with a knack fro bringing the pain. The you’re-so-money guy is long gone. In his place is someone whose physique is less beefcake than “beef + cake” and form whom violence is a second language. We like this Vaughn better.
What Rian Johnson Does With ‘The Last Jedi’
Yes, we know: Haters are indeed going to hate, etc. But for those of us who are not beholden to Star Wars as a religion – and for whom canon is not king – the idea that a filmmaker could integrate his vision and aesthetics into this franchise and still make what is 100-percent a Star Wars movie … the concept was thrilling. And even we were not prepared for the way Rian Johnson both lightened and deepened the new trilogy with this entry. There are moments in this movie that made laugh out loud. There were scenes that had us on edge. There was a sensibility behind the decisions that felt bold, personal, unique and respectful without embalming the proceedings in spirit-of-’77 memories. There was life and urgency in these battles between good and evil. And that image of a ship silently warp-speeding into another vessel will haunt us for decades. You could tell the guy who madeLooper made this movie. You could tell the you-know-what was strong with him.
‘A Quiet Passion’ Reminding Us: Biopics Aren’t Always Generic
Modern biopics now tend to come in two distinct flavors: stodgy and reverent, or salacious and ironic. You could easily find good and bad examples of both kinds this year, but writer-director Terence Davies’ witty, wonderstruck look at the life and work of Emily Dickinson was a good reminder that this genre’s usual-route world was not conclusion (or consigned to endless cradle-to-grave repetition). Blessed with a script that suggested Oscar Wilde tossing out epigram outtakes and a fragile-to-fiery central performance from Cynthia Nixon, the movie was a testament to the strengths of both its subject and its creator. It was reminder that all biopics don’t have to be cut from the same cloth – some of them can have tarter tongues and much tender hearts.
‘Logan Lucky’ and the Return of Steven Soderbergh
It’s not like Steven Soderbergh simply locked himself in a bunker and ceased communicating with the outside world when he announced his retirement in 2013; the man gave us The Knick for two incredible seasons, and you should never look a gift premium-cable series in the mouth. But we missed having him make the sort of funky, genre-bending movies he specialized in, so the fact that we got Logan Lucky– a goofy caper film that somehow still ran with clockwork precision – felt like we won the lottery. Soderbergh still knows how to pull off well-crafted heist scenes; get great work out of his ensemble cast, though we’ll single out Daniel Craig and Riley Keough; and his ability to embed class-consciousness in his entertainment without making it a college-course lecture is still there. His latest, Unsane, hits theaters in March. Welcome back.
Allison Janey’s Smoking in ‘I, Tonya’
Has anyone smoked this viciously and vicariously on screen since Bette Davis in Now, Voyager? There’s lots to love and admire in Craig Gillespie’s look at the rise and fall of ice-skating “bad girl” Tonya Harding, from Margot Robbie’s committed performance as the disgraced Olympian to the filmmaking chops on display (watch how the cameras keep circling Harding in her skating scenes, like it’s a frenzied shark – everybody, even the movie itself, seems to be a predator out to get her). But it’s Janey’s sneering, vulgar matriarch that we keep going back to, a one-woman self-esteem wrecking crew with both a chirping bird and a big chip resting on her shoulder. The way she wields her ever-present cigarette like a weapon almost tips the film into camp – but it also serves as a great way of letting know who this character is and how she views the world. It’s a genius bit of business, this.
A new Paul Thomas Anderson movie is always a big deal, much less one that would be a reunion between the filmmaker and his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis (and would turn out to be the thespian’s swan song). What the duo came up with, however, felt unlike anything else out there: an ode to 20th century fashion, obsession, relationship power dynamics and the notion that, for every stuff workaholic pot, there is a lovely German lid. It wore its movie influences on its sleeve without tailoring the entire sleeve out of them; it was somehow both chilly and swooning at the same time. And it has a climactic line of dialogue that we’d rank up there with “I drink your milkshake!” If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last film, the man is going out on a major high.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Speech
There’s any number of reasons to love Luca Guadagnino’s love story: the attention to detail, the introduction to the young star-in-the-making Timothée Chalamet, the scenery, the sensualness, the sense that someone has figured out how to use Armie Hammer correctly, that scene-stealing peach. But nothing floors you like that speech that Michael Stuhlbarg gives to his son near the movie’s ending, a plea for the young man to never forget the agony and the ecstasy that this summer fling has left the teenager with. The way the actor treats three words (“I envy you”) doubles as the sound of hearts breaking – both onscreen and in the theater.
A Baker’s Dozen of Cate Blanchetts: ‘Manifesto’
A homeless male Blanchett, a broadcast news anchor Blanchett, a blue-collar factory worker Blanchett, a mourning widow Blanchett – collect all 13! Visual artist Julian Rosefeldt takes his art installation involving the Oscar-winner reading numerous philosophical tracts while in a baker’s dozen of different personas and turns into one seamless showcase. Not all sections are equal, but when you see all of these vignettes strung together as a whole, you realize the focus has switched. It’s now a tribute to the actor – and to the process of acting itself. And to see her transform the principles of Dadaism into a ranting, raging eulogy at a funeral is to witness a performer who knows how to turn text into feeling no matter what. We once said we’d watch Blanchett read the phone book. We’d settle for the Dogme 95 rulebook.
Robert Pattinson Got Dirty, James Franco Got ‘Disaster’-ous
Two immersive performances, two career highs. Robert Pattinson had already continued his trajectory into in-house arthouse kook this year with The Lost City of Z, sporting impressive facial hair and sweatiness as an old-time jungle explorer. Then came Good Time, and you suddenly felt like directors Josh and Benny Safdie had discovered a whole other actor behind that pretty face. You can practically smell the desperation emanating off his greasy outer-borough criminal determined to spring his hospitalized brother or die tryin’ – it’s the best thing the star has ever done, and we say this as big Cosmopolis fans.
As for Franco, his chronicle of how one man crafted the worst movie ever made – The Disaster Artist – would be notable enough for the discipline the story brought to his directorial skills. But when you factor in his demented performance as The Room auteur Tommy Wiseau, complete with “All-American guy” accent and lounge-lizard loucheness, and you can see a whole other level of the modern-day renaissance man’s talent open up. The commitment these two former matinee idols show in these films could not be more admirable, or make us more anxious to see how they try to top it.
Girl, you’ll be a man-eating woman soon. No horror film – not even Get Out, which continues to get better with every viewing – floored us more this year than the French shocker about a college student (Garance Marillier) who develops a taste for human flesh. It’s tough to watch, tougher to look away and toughest of all to believe that this is director Julia Ducournau’s first feature, given how assured and controlled it is. Best of all, it takes the coming-of-age movie into some odd, unexpected places – call it the bloody flip side to Lady Bird.
The Frances and Sam Blues Explosion: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’
She’s a take-no-shit mom trying to shame local law-enforcement into investigating her daughter’s murder; he’s a dim-witted racist deputy with mom issues. She isn’t afraid to kick a teenage girl in the crotch; he will throw a man out a two-story window in a fit of enraged mourning. Both of them are in need of serious redemption, and what Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell do with these two Martin McDonagh characters feels nothing short of miraculous. The Fargoactress tears into her vengeful-matriarch part with fangs, turning this woman into an avenging angle capable of tenderness (that doctor’s office scene with Woody Harrelson) and a Biblical fury. As for Rockwell, it takes a certain actor to guide you along the arc of such a flawed, violent, unsympathetic man and make you feel he’s earned the small, it’s-a-start victories he gets along the way. And both of them know exactly how to make this playwright-turned-filmmaker’s lines sing.
How do you solve a problem like Christopher Nolan, an man who can turn cerebral puzzles into blockbusters but still makes you feel like you’re watching cinema directed by a brain in a jar? Answer: Give him a massive WWII set piece to recreate. The filmmaker somehow turned his massive spectacle about a turning point in Britain’s battle against the Nazis (the old ones, not the shitty modern-day ones we’re dealing with now) into something with urgency, humanity, a pulse, a soul. You could actually hear a heartbeat beneath all of his usual bells and whistles, which only made the cross-cutting between three chronologically mixed stories feel that much more of an achievement. We always knew he was a technically proficient and someone who could intellectualize pop. Dunkirk proves, once and for all, that he’s also an artist, full stop.
‘Rat Film,’ ‘Dawson City’ and 2017’s Offbeat-Doc Renaissance
It’s not that hard to cobble together a 10-best documentary list every year if you watch a decent amount of nonfiction flicks – and thanks to HBO, Netflix and a number of distributors still willing to get them out to a moviegoing public, you’ve arguably never had a better chance to see them en masse. But 2017 was the year we had serious trouble limiting a documentary list to just 10 – from Faces Places to Ex Libris,The Challenge to The Work, there was a bounty of cinema vérité ready, willing and able to blow your mind.
But for us, this was the year that experimental, offbeat, WTF docs really hit their stride. Films like Dawson City: Frozen Time, Bill Morrison’s tale of lost silent movies found in a remote Canadian mining town that doubles as a case history of bootstrap capitalism and a gorgeous display of decaying imagery. Or Theo Anthony’s incredible Rat Film, which appears to be a look at amateur vermin exterminators in Baltimore before diving into urban planning, institutional racism and cosmic head-trip detours. Or Machines, a narration-less tour of an Indian factory that forces you to rethink not just third-world labor but first-world cine-activism. These were micro-to-macro looks at our past, present and future that reflected the world around us in creative, soul-searching ways. See them by any means necessary.
In which a British theater director adapts a Russian novella for the screen and reminds you that revenge should be served ice-cold. William Oldroyd delivers what feels like a Masterpiece Theater period piece with blood drying on its fangs, complete with an oppressed lady-of-the-house heroine that finds liberation in taking a lover and satisfaction in taking down the patriarchy down brick by rancid brick. He already feels like a major filmmaker from the get-go, and his young actress is a major find; if people could start casting Florence Pugh in every third movie, we’d be very grateful.
The Fact That Tracey Letts Exists
Few men can play middle-aged white-male anger with more gusto than the Pulitzer-winning playwright and actor, but never mind the rage; 2017 was the year we saw the range. His turn as the gentle, slightly overwhelmed father in Lady Bird has already earned him deserved praise (he and Laurie Metcalf make a great double act), and his small but significant part in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, playing counsel to Katharine Graham, is proof that he’s a top-notch, you-can-see-him-thinking screen listener. It’s his third role of the year, however, that seals the deal: A husband who starts cheating not on his wife but with her (long story) in the criminally underseen movie The Lovers. There is a symphony of reticence, defeat, confusion, exasperation and, at one point, unbridled joy that plays across his face – and that’s not even counting the moment he sings “It Must Be Love” while plinking the Madness tune out on the family piano. This man can do anything.
That Sudden Left Turn in ‘A Ghost Story’
We don’t want to give away exactly how David Lowery’s cerebral, soulful, achingly beautiful tale of a man (Casey Affleck), a woman (Rooney Mara) and a filmmaker gambling that you’ll go along with watching someone in a crude Halloween costume for most of a movie takes a midway detour into uncharted territory – suffice to say, it does not involve eating a whole pie in a single shot. (That happens earlier.) What we will say is that the movie suddenly widens its scope in a way that had us audibly saying, “Whoa”; that it made us rethink this entire mediation on grief and memory; and that we were tempted to start clapping in the theater. If you’ve seen it, you know what we’re talking about. If not, check it out. Sheet happens.
There’s a scene in the visual-essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada’s directorial debut in which Haley Lu Richardson, a college student in Columbus, Indiana, takes a visitor – Star Trek‘s John Cho – to a local architectural wonder. She gives him tour guide’s spiel. He interrupts her: But why does it move you? We then watch Richardson begin to explain, emphatically, what it is about this particular building that gives her such an emotional reaction; because the director switches angles and films her from behind the residence’s window, we never hear what she says. Some folks have criticized the sequence, saying it’s another female character denied the chance to speak. But you could also look at the scene from the perspective that the answer itself is not what matters – it’s that someone actually bothered to ask this young woman what she thinks. It’s moments like that one that have kept us thinking about this deceptively spare character study, a small film about connecting that left a gigantic impact on how we thought about the art form in 2017. Any year that gave us a movie like this could not have been all bad.