I’m the damned fool who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of… list every year, and that’s because I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last few weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either didn't have time to see in the theater or things that simply never came out locally. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in that timeframe, mostly in an effort to solidify my top 10.
I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I was assembling this list. I often feel that after the top 5, the numbers don’t mean much, and that’s certainly true this year. Of my top 20, I saw 12 of them more than once.
All right, enough preamble. Here are my humbly submitted Top 20 best features. Please enjoy, discuss, debate…
As always here’s a good chunk of Honorable Mentions that I found enjoyable and definitely worth a view.
- Darkest Hour
- Gerald's Game (most gruesome scene I've seen in a movie all year)
- Happy Death Day
- Wonder Woman
- Baby Driver
- Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2
- The Lego Batman Movie
- The Disaster Artist
- A Ghost Story
- The Foreigner
- Goon 2
- My Friend Dahmer
- Brawl In Cellblock 99
- The Florida Project
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- SpiderMan Homecoming
- Personal Shopper
- The Lego Ninjango Movie
Random Shout Out: The Foreigner
After single-handedly making The Lego Ninjango Movie watchable (he choreographed all the fight scenes and played two separate ‘wise old man’ characters), he gets another chance to put his skills on display here, kicking soldiers through windows and setting deadly traps amid forest foliage. Plus, Chan has a bit of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven aura about him here, with the costs of his violent life visible in the weary lines of his face. I’m not sure anyone has plans to turn this into a franchise, but I certainly want to see more from this Chan-aissance.
20. Star Wars The Last Jedi
Arriving at just around the moment when the Star Wars revival threatens to switch over from big-ticket sci-fi/fantasy event to humdrum annual clock-in, Rian Johnson’s middle chapter appears blithely and wonderfully unconcerned with paying off the supposed mysteries of its predecessor or setting up a grand finale. Instead, The Last Jedi recognizes that characters, not fan service or homage, gave The Force Awakens its fizz, and takes it from there, sending Daisy Ridley’s Rey for a series of thorny, testy Jedi lessons with none other than Luke Skywalker himself. There’s plenty of other business, from meditations on aging through a Forever War to zany droid antics, and Johnson navigates the wilder shifts by steering into the series’ weirdness. He’s the first filmmaker since George Lucas to approach the material with what feels like a genuine vision—one that accommodates low-tech, long-distance Force chats, mordantly funny First Order infighting, and one red-backdropped action sequence that might feature the best use of lightsabers since the 2 on 1 dual inThe Phantom Menace. Throughout, Johnson wrestles with what monolithic blockbuster mythology means to us—while making an idiosyncratic blockbuster to call his own.
19. It Comes At Night
It's a real shame that It Comes At Night was marketed as a straightforward horror thriller about people fighting against monsters (something that it most certainly is not) because conversations about misleading trailers dominated the discussions surrounding it at the time of its release. In reality, It Comes At Night is a fantastically unsettling slow-burn horror flick about a group of families slowly unraveling in the face of a contagion -- all told through the eyes of a son whose mental state gradually deteriorates in the wake of his grandfather's death. While it's not as conventionally exciting as the trailers would lead you to believe, It Comes At Night is still one of the most horrifying and legitimately scary movies of 2017, and a masterclass in leaving you with more questions than it answers.
18. A Cure For Wellness
It’s a bit of a tragedy that Gore Verbinski’s delightfully bizarre, absurdly violent and grotesque A Cure For Wellness went largely unnoticed. Hollywood’s versatile trickster, Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe go for broke cramming various sub-genres and mood-drenched tropes into an overstuffed, batshit-crazy horror epic, a loving nod to old Universal monster movies, among many, with the mad scientist conducting experiments that “defy god and nature” in a picturesque old castle perched atop a village that somehow skipped the 20th Century, Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous cinematography taking full advantage of the Euro-gothic aesthetic. The film is a literal no-fucks-given gonzo experiment, laced with the riskiness of Giallo and the surrealist imagery of a David Lynchian nightmare, disparate tones wrapped dreamily around an angry, blunt satire about the self-destructive, soul-sucking nature of greed and ambition.
17. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos takes the piss out of the Michael Haneke-style allegory of bourgeois guilt with this demented dark fable about a heart surgeon (Colin Farrell) cursed into making an unconscionable decision by a teenage creep (Barry Keoghan) and his own unwillingness to take responsibility for his failings. As in the director’s breakthrough, Dogtooth, and his English-language debut, The Lobster, the real subject is the twisted logic of relationships, obligations, and social façades, caricatured through the director’s distinctive blend of grotesquerie, surreal deadpan, and alienness. The inspiration comes from Greek mythology, but the style is almost Kubrickian and rivetingly strange.
Few individual authors had a better year than Stephen King, whose work was faithfully adapted into some great projects like Gerald’s Game and 1922. That said, no movie to debut in 2017 captured the spirit of King's work quite like Andy Muschietti's IT -- a film that honored the nature of the source material while also putting a unique and nostalgic spin on the original story.
Quite a bit of credit can be attributed to Andy Muschietti for his expert handling of the film's scares, but it's also worth pointing out how damn-good the cast is in this movie. Bill Skarsgard is an obvious standout for his ability to take the baton from Tim Curry and create an entirely new (yet arguably just as iconic) version of Pennywise, but we also need to point out the strength of the casting for The Losers Club. With IT: Chapter 2 slated for a September 2019 release, our hope remains high that this masterful horror movie can deliver the same amount of terror and heart as the original did this year.
15. Your Name (Best Animated Film of 2017)
The world of animation had a bit of a mixed year for me in 2017, as there were some hits, misses, and unquestionably misguided ideas that found their ways into living technicolor. Yet despite very much enjoying Coco, there was another animated film that won me over much earlier, and much harder, this year: Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. A story of a teenage girl and boy who swap bodies at intermittent period, and for a day at a time, it seems like something that would have been played strictly for laughs and saccharine laden puppy love. But what ends up happening is something much more entertaining, with a deeper current of emotion and urgency.
Without spoiling the events that unfold, there's a twist in Your Name that shifts the tone massively - so much so that I found myself agape in shock, and a bit teary-eyed. What started as a slice of life story of two people getting to know each other turns into a clock racing mystery that embraces the sci-fi genre with both arms. All the while, the beautiful artwork on display throughout the film is so crisp and clear, it presents us with some of the best animation on display in this year, and in quite some time. You may not have heard of Your Name before today, but this film has made quite a splash in the international scene. You owe it to yourself to see the true power of animated storytelling, courtesy of this vastly underrated hit.
14. Tonya, I
The triple axel was Tonya Harding’s greatest trick—and making an audience think that it’s a comedy of some sort is. Craig Gillespie’s infuriating and brilliant biopic gives its subject control, and with fury, glibness, regret and a big smirk, Tonya (Margot Robbie) and the many others in her life spin her story, detailing the ways that trauma (and class marginality) has affected and shaped her. Scenes of abuse—in which Tonya is often pummeled by both her mom (Allison Janney) and her husband, Jeff (The Winter Solider himself Sebastian Stan)—are bracingly uncomfortable but cut with snark, and the film then has the gall to ask why you could possibly be laughing at such a horrible thing. I, Tonya dares to embody a camp aesthetic and immediately rebuke it, making sure that everything about it, from its skating scenes—dizzingly filmed as if her skill should be admired, but without actually detailing the technical aspects of what she’s doing, as if to mimic white queer men and how they talk about character actresses—to its genre packaging (part wannabe gangster film, part confessional documentary), smears the ironic quotation marks of its framework with blood, sweat and tears: a roar and a snarl and a declaration of defiance.
13. Logan Lucky
If Baby Driver is the souped-up muscle car of 2017 heist films, Logan Lucky is the reliable old pickup. Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking is a leisurely paced tall tale about a racetrack robbery, with Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as smart, soulful bumpkins, Riley Keough as their can-do sister, and Daniel Craig in what in my opinion (Best Supporting Actor nomination) role as the mad criminal genius whose usefulness to their operation is impeded by his incarceration. The script (credited to the previously unknown “Rebecca Blunt,” rumored to be an alias for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) springs plenty of surprises, but is ultimately more interested in why these people need money than in how they’re going to get it. The simple pleasures of a twisty plot work in concert with Soderbergh’s fascination with the visual textures of ordinary human spaces, resulting in a film that feels lived-in, even at its most cornily artificial.
12. Thor Raganarok
Thanks to director Taika Waititi, we knew Thor: Ragnarok would be funny. We didn’t know it would be one of the funniest movies of the year. In the third installment of the thunder god’s cinematic adventures, Hela, the goddess of death, arrives to destroy Thor’s world (and his hammer). The whole movie pulses like a nightclub, with kaleidoscopic visuals and dazzling action. No, it doesn’t have the emotional wallop of some other Marvel movies, but it has a literal wallop in the incredibly fun team-up between Thor and the Hulk. After the staid Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, Ragnarok was a vivid reminder that Marvel can still subvert expectations when it wants to.
11. Blade Of The Immortal
The 100th Feature Film by TAKASHI MIIKE. Let that sink into that soft skull of yours. 100 Films. Ichi the Killer, Audition, Visitor Q, 13 Assassians, Gozu, Yakuza Apocalypse, I could go on… Where's that box set? 'Blade of the Immortal’ is both a lovingly absurd and gloriously bloody bit of poppy fun, and a long and lingering tale of brooding and inner demons told in a distinctly Japanese manner. At times, it can feel deadly boring, while at other times it’s wild and alive. The storytelling is episodic and lumpy, often lurching between battles and conversations with little cohesive purpose, but sometimes singularly focused on its protagonist’s inner plight to the point of tedium. In other words, it’s a Takashi Miike movie. The guy has never been the most narrow-minded or focused storyteller, and ‘Blade of the Immortal’ brings out both the best and worst of him. It allows him to indulge in digressions that go nowhere and lose sense of the plot for the sake of god knows what, while also providing a simple and elemental action/fantasy drama to cut loose with when he finally snaps back into focus. It’s one of the most thrilling and gloriously goofy films of the director’s 100-title strong career. Miike knows his audience (raising hand) and knows how to amuse himself while racking up a record body count. ‘Blade of the Immortal’ does exactly what it’s supposed to for a very specific audience. No one else will likely even realize that this thing exists. At least those who appreciate this particular brand of Asian Extreme cinema should go home happy.
10. John Wick Chapter 2
In a film year marked by gothic imagery, twisted interpretations of classic myth, and send-ups of modern art, who’d expect all three from the sequel to John Wick, the surrealist action movie par excellence that cast Keanu Reeves as a hit man out to avenge his dog? Even more exquisitely strange than its stylized predecessor, Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2 sends Reeves’ artist-of-death on an Orphic journey through the criminal underworld; Derek Kolstad’s script expands on the original’s internal mythology with plenty of deadpan wit. The dazzling action set-pieces are some of the best in recent memory, from the demolition-derby opening to a museum shoot-out painted with Jackson Pollock splatters of blood to a magnificent (and metaphorically rich) fun-house climax in a mirrored art installation.
9. RAW (Best Foreign Language Film)
Raw... a film as gory as it is vibrant. It’s the story of a young vegetarian who goes to veterinary school and develops a taste for human flesh. This student-turned-cannibal must then navigate her criminal appetite along with school and a mysterious family history. The film is told with a kinetic filmmaking style that makes even the simplest moments resonant along with the brutal ones. And, as the film unfolds, things only continue to get more and more, well, raw. A fascinating character study wrapped in an entertainingly horrific package, Raw is wonderful. Plus it's about cannibalism, always a win in my book.
8. Get Out
On paper, comedian Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film sounds like a one-joke Key & Peeele/ Twilight Zone sketch, reimagining the “black man meets his white girlfriend’s parents” premise of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? as a nail-biting thriller. But execution is everything, and what makes Get Out such a marvel is how seriously Peele treats the genre. Anyone could’ve figured that he’d nail the subtle behavioral comedy of over-eager liberal whites straining to show their daughter how much they love and accept her black beau. The surprise of Get Out is how genuinely unsettling, surreal, and labyrinthine the story becomes as it plays out, Peele forgoing easy laughs in order to convey the mounting discomfort of his hero, magnificently played by Daniel Kaluuya. The film effectively puts a nightmare on screen—and one from which it’s impossible to get “woke.”
7. The Shape of Water (Best Actress)
Since the release of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has made several good movies, but none that were great—that is, until The Shape of Water. Combining the love of fantasy the director is known for with infinite heart and style, The Shape of Water is a dream-like, beautiful movie about a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a mysterious amphibious man (Doug Jones) after he’s captured and brought into the facility where she works as a janitor. It’s incredibly smart and poetic, but also audacious and funny. The performances are marvelous and it leaves you feeling like you are floating on air. Nothing is wasted on this film, and now more than ever I wish Guillermo del Toro had made his Beauty and the Beast for Disney. If there was ever a person who understood the social and thematic importance of grown-up fairy tales, it's got to be him.
6. Wind River
Taylor Sheridan mostly known for his role as Daivd Hale in the early seasons of Sons Of Anarchy, isn't technically a first-time director, having made his first feature behind the lens back in 2011, but he joins Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele to complete the triumvirate of breakout filmmakers in 2017. In the past couple of years I've grown to expect good things from Sheridan as a storyteller, he having written the scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, but Wind River is yet another superb step in his growing career, and one of my favorites of the year.
With this story Taylor Sheridan steps away from the United States' southern border to tell a story set in a wholly different world that exists within the country: a Wyoming American Indian reservation. The death of a teenage girl (Kelsey Asbille) sparks a homicide investigation by the FBI, headed by a fish-out-of-water agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who finds assistance from a local wildlife officer (Jeremy Renner). It's a taut, well-woven mystery set against a special backdrop, and it has cemented feelings around these parts that future Sheridan movies will be appropriately anticipated.
5. Phantom Thread (Best Actor)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s eerie Gothic drama about the relationship between a dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his muse (Vicky Krieps) in post-war London has the clearest thesis of any of the writer-director’s post-Punch-Drunk Love work, though it’s expressed in mysterious terms, characterized by ellipses and contradictions. (It’s narrated by one character, but seen mostly from the other’s point-of-view, for example.) The American dreams and sexual frustrations of Anderson’s earlier movies are gone (the film is purposely sexless), but his characters are still creatures of appetite; in retrospect, it’s amazing how much of the plot is driven by taste, in both senses of the term. The performances are terrific across the board, while the filmmaking is elegant, intimate, and ambiguously charged, from Anderson’s own (uncredited) cinematography to the creepy and romantic Jonny Greenwood score; the film’s enigmatic and evasive qualities are part and parcel to its psychological portraiture. It’s a beautiful film to get lost in.
The X-Men series is not known for airtight continuity, and what a blessing that has turned out to be. Freed from any real franchise requirements, Logan proceeds as a send-off for Hugh Jackman’s metal-clawed Wolverine far removed from his earlier stories, fitting for a character with enough longevity for several lives. Though this doesn’t look or sound much like any other superhero spectacles, let alone other X-Men movies, director James Mangold creates an emotional continuity with Wolverine’s series-long pain, exacerbated by the endless tug of war between his status as weapon and hero. The movie comes right up to the edge of wallowing, but is spared from the nihilistic abyss by its new takes on old characters (Patrick Stewart as an ornery, elderly Professor X; Stephen Merchant as Logan’s unexpected sidekick Caliban) and Wolverine’s belatedly tender relationship with his sorta-daughter Laura (Dafne Keen). For post-credit cookies, look elsewhere. For a moving consideration of the ravages of age in a comic-book world, here’s Logan.
Christopher Nolan’s own astounding magic trick: persuading a mass audience to see movies so structurally complex that they just about qualify as avant-garde, at least by Hollywood standards. Dunkirk recounts Operation Dynamo—the evacuation of over 300,000 Allied soldiers from northern France—in three interwoven sections that unfold over different lengths of time; watching it is like simultaneously reading a novel, a chapter, and a sentence that are all converging on the same single word. Nolan’s great gift is his ability to craft cinematic engineering problems that feel vital and probing rather than sterile or academic. With Dunkirk, he conveys the breathtaking scope of a seemingly impossible task without sacrificing any of the arresting details through which history comes alive on screen.
2. War For The Planet Of The Apes
When you get to the third piece of a highly anticipated trilogy such as War for the Planet of the Apes, the need to get it right is high for both the hopeful fans and the creative team that is right in the thick of it. With two increasingly solid entries into the prequel canon that defines just how the planet goes to the apes, the pressure for a third hit was indeed on. And what does Matt Reeves do for his time out as the franchise's steward? He delivers a hard-fought, heartfelt finale that veers into that rarefied air of franchise cappers that know how to do the job, and do it well. This is even more of a miracle when you consider that War for the Planet of the Apes does all sorts of things you'd think a studio would issue notes against.
For example, it relies on subtitles heavily in its first act, as the apes are still mostly signing in conversation, the film is extremely bleak for a good portion of its narrative, and a character who had all the potential to become the next Jar Jar Binks gets some comedic relief notes during said bleak narrative. Yet all of those factors, in the hands of Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback, turn into golden notes of an apocalyptic symphony. But most importantly, this film cements a notion that has been brewing ever since The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Andy Serkis should be an Academy Award winner for his work as a performance captured actor. While we never see the man on the screen, we feel his presence beneath the CGI "makeup." Without him, Caesar is nothing, and his emotional core drives this film home, as his battle with Woody Harrelson's intense Colonel McCullough makes for a finale so satisfying, I kind of hope they don't revisit this franchise ever again. You can't top this one, Fox. Or should I say you can’t top this one Disney.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Hollywood simply doesn’t make science fiction movies like Blade Runner 2049 anymore—movies that are epic in scope, with major stars, huge budgets, and slow-burn, intricate, weird stories. Blade Runner 2049 somehow not only met my expectations of a follow-up to its iconic predecessor, but it expanded and built on the mythology in surprising and satisfying ways. When you create a sequel that not only matches its vaunted predecessor's eye for art design, but also outdoes its progenitor in every way, it deserves to be talked about more than what we're hearing out of awards juries thus far. Be it Ryan Gosling's Officer K piecing together a mystery that leads right to the doorstep of Blade Runner's finale, or Harrison Ford's Deckard rationalizing just how much he knows what's real, every inch of this film's script expands the universe in such a way that it takes the story to new heights, while never straying too far from what the original film set out to do. I don't care about the multitude of reasons Blade Runner 2049 didn't hit at the box office, or the issues some people had with the length. What I care about is what myself and other fans can do to make sure this film endures, as it just might, and totally should. Every frame of Blade Runner 2049 is a work of art.