Every year, I debate whether or not to make a year-end best-of list. I hate ranking movies (or giving them grades for that matter), and where a movie falls, or even what’s included, varies day-by-day, even hour-by-hour depending on my mood and what I remember.
That said, I always cave and always make a list. So I’m not going to beat around the bush this year, I’m just going to buckle down. I am, however, going to do things a bit differently in 2017. I’m just going to list my favorites in no particular order. I’m not going to rank them.
Most years, I have one clear favorite, though that’s a bit nebulous this time around. And in reality, the difference between two and three, five and six, and even four and ten is relatively minor. If a title lands on this list, rest assured it blew my hair back in one way or another.
I admittedly haven’t seen every movie in 2017, but I’ve logged north of 200 new releases, so I have a solid collection from which to choose. I still have a couple to see (Pitch Perfect 3, Beyond Skyline, and A Fantastic Woman among the notables). And there are a couple I watched recently that I need more time with, but that I suspect could make this list. (Star Wars: The Last Jedi is one I’ll probably revisit more than any of the listed titles, but I only saw it a few days ago and need to sit for a while.)
And without further ado, here are my top 10 (actually 15) movies of 2017.
Okay, I just said I wasn’t ranking these, but I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy any movie more in 2017 than Bad Black. Shot on video in a Ugandan slum that only gets power a few days a week, this rags-to-riches-or-something crime tale is American action cinema filtered through a peculiar lens indeed. With zero budget and “guns” made from sticks covered in electrical tape, this has more life, energy, and propulsive force than any Hollywood blockbuster in recent memory. It’s bonkers and off the wall and probably shouldn’t exist, but in the end, it’s an enduring, passionate love letter to movies.
Many folks saw this at fests in 2016, so it landed on a lot of lists last year. But due to my place in the world, Raw is a 2017 release from my POV, so here it is. When you think of French teen cannibal movies, this my not be what immediately springs to mind. Sure, a vegetarian veterinary student starts eating people, but it’s also a tender coming of age drama, the story of female friendship, and a tale of women taking back agency over their own bodies. But don’t worry, there are plenty of holy-shit gross-out moments to watch with your mouth agape and your heart beating in your throat.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine, The Florida Project, once again sees the director focus on characters on the margins, outsiders struggling to survive without a safety net. Pushed to the brink and walking a knife edge, six-year-old Moonee (an incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, who’s barely out of childhood herself, live in a bright purple motel in a seedy Orlando neighborhood, under the looming shadow of Disney. Baker juxtaposes harsh realities with wide-eyed childhood optimism and wonder. It’s a bold move to ask such a young performer to carry a movie, but Prince delivers and Baker paints an eviscerating portrait of the people society casts off in a real and raw, crushing and beautiful, scathing indictment of capitalism.
Best known for his work as part of Key & Peele—which is fine, but I’ve never loved like many—Jordan Peele made his directorial debut with the sharp social satirical horror Get Out. Taking aim at race relations in America, Peele plays with genre tricks and tropes, adding his own unique sheen. And all the while it eviscerates the racial divide, the film creeps the living shit out of the audience. The product of someone with a clear, concise vision, Get Out never feels like the work of a first timer. It shows a sure, even hand; a deep love and understanding of horror; and it’s fun and funny as well as scary and thought provoking.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Is John Wick: Chapter 2 as good as the original? No. But it’s still one of the best modern action movies, and as long as villains continue making the poor choice to fuck with the Boogey Man, I’ll watch the cinematic consequences. I hope they never leave him alone. Chapter 2 finds Keanu Reeves back on the warpath, and it opens up the secret world of underground killers introduced in the first film even further. Once again, the action choreography is top notch, there’s murder and betrayal, and, most importantly, revenge. And minor spoiler: this time around, the dog lives!
The Devil’s Candy
Heavy metal, horror, and…Satan! What more can I ask from a movie? Oh yeah, The Devil’s Candy stars Ethan Embry, which means it checks off most of my boxes. When a struggling painter moves his family into a sprawling home in rural Texas, he begins channeling dark forces into his art, and the murderer who lived there previously (Pruitt Taylor Vince, who made me want to crawl out of my own skin) takes a special interest in the new residents. Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones) crafts a smart, fraught bit of occult horror full of tension, pressure, and a scrotum-rattling metal score from doom pioneers Sunn O))).
War for the Planet of the Apes
Studios need to make more big-budget, special effects heavy tentpoles like the revamped Planet of the Apes movies. There’s room for intelligence, complexity, and nuance in blockbusters, I promise, and nowhere in 2017 is that more evident than War for the Planet of the Apes. Matt Reeves’ film seamlessly transforms from a Vietnam-style war story to the tale of a distraught father coping with trauma to a Great Escape type rescue picture. With almost no human characters—let alone sympathetic ones—for the audience to connect to, it’s easy to see why the studio had such a difficult time selling this movie. But once again, Andy Serkis, buried under layers of motion capture pixels, gives as delicate and powerful a performance as any man this year and carries the film.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
A friend asked about Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer and my only response was, “It’s weird as balls,” and I stand by that assessment. Hypnotic and confrontational, dense and compelling, it pushes the bounds of what an audience is willing to endure. A surface revenge story where a young man (a chilling Barry Keoghan) targets the family of a celebrated surgeon (Colin Farrell) belies so much more. Nicole Kidman delivers an out-of-left-field powerhouse of a performance. The deliberate pace and rainbow of moral greys will turn off many, but it’s endlessly fascinating and impossible to look away.
A Bong Joon-ho movie with a giant creature immediately has my attention, but true to form, the South Korean auteur eschews expectations with his latest, Okja. It’s a sweeping, fantastic tale, and unlike anything he’s ever tackled before. It may ultimately be remembered as a changing of the guards of how we consume media (much has been said about how Netflix handled the release), but it’s a sweet story of friendship and devotion between a young girl (fantastic newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) and her BFF, a genetically modified super pig. A swift takedown of consumer culture, corporate eco promises, and hidden agendas, it works because of the central relationship and magnificent effects work that sell the authentic emotional core. And I never thought I’d see the ALF portrayed on screen as good guys, but here we are.
I’m not going to front, there’s a moment near the end Tragedy Girls, a kind of teen slasher by way of Mean Girls, where I got misty. Beneath the wicked, biting tale of murder-obsessed, social media fiend besties McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand), lurks a deceptively earnest, complicated portrait of female friendship. The script develops them as friends as well as felons. But don’t fret, there’s plenty of splatter and gore to go around, including one use of a table saw that’s decidedly not warranty approved. Imagine a heart-shaped picture frame of two friends hugging, covered in blood, and you have a good idea of what to expect.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is not for the faint of heart, and neither is his follow up, Brawl in Cell Block 99. The classed-up exploitation-style, slow-burn revenge narrative finds a raging Vince Vaughn brutalizing his way through the underworld prison system. The plot’s lifted straight from the back end of a 1970s grindhouse double feature, and Vaughn plays his man-of-few-words protagonist with a raw physicality. At one point, he punches apart a fucking car. With a giant tattoo on the back of his bald head, he’s like the Terminator, an unstoppable force. Morally queasy, and rugged in every sense, Brawl sets a new standard for onscreen viciousness and brutality. Prepare to squirm.
A raw blister of a movie, a studio would have turned Good Time into a generic action caper. But thankfully it came from the Safdie Brothers, who deliver a frenetic, propulsive blast of cinematic narrative verve. Gritty, dirty, and off-kilter, it grabs the viewer by the back of the head and drags us along on an ugly ride through grimy New York streets. Fronted by a career-best performance from Robert Pattinson, Good Time synthesizes John Carpenter and the French New Wave.
I’ve been psyched for Nacho Vigalondo’s take on giant kaiju creature features since I first wrote about his seed of an idea back in 2014. And as expected, the Spanish director doesn’t deliver the expected film. Sure, there’s a guy-in-a-rubber-suit style monster stomping through Seoul, but that’s all tertiary to the main narrative and thematic thrust. Controlled by the whims of a down-on-her-luck party girl (Anne Hathaway), Vigalondo uses the skyscraper-tall beast as a metaphor and creates a searing, all-too-real portrait of cycles of addiction and abuse. Colossal never flinches, never backs down, and never opts for easy answers, and as a result, it’s one of most powerful, moving, unprecedented movies of 2017.
City of Ghosts
Matthew Heineman follows Cartel Land with an in-depth look at the citizen journalists standing up to ISIS in Syria. Many of them live in hiding as marked men, forced into exile. Gripping, taut, and with visceral moments that suck the air out of your lungs, this is the story of everyday people fighting for their homeland against insurmountable odds. At the same time, the cameras capture fleeting glimpses of joy and normalcy, and we see what it is they struggle for. City of Ghosts pairs well with the also excellent Last Men in Aleppo and Hell on Earth. There are other worthy documentaries covering the situation in Syria, but these three are my tops.
I know I was never a teenage girl in Sacramento in the 2000s, but damn, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird feels eerily familiar. The fact that it’s this year’s most critically acclaimed indie darling gave me pause, but it’s as good as advertised, or better. A bittersweet coming of age story and the delicate portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, stellar performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf anchor the film. It doesn’t blaze any new trails, but the dramatic comedy feels timeless, deals with big ideas and petty teen concerns with equal attention, and deftly captures that awkward moment where we dangle between adolescence and adulthood, between trying desperately to fit in and stand out at the same time.
There are, of course, countless other films I could have included on this list. Wonder Woman is fantastic, and by far the best thing DC has done to date, though it’s far from perfect. Finally, after like 12 movies or whatever, Logan gives us the grim, Wolverine western we never knew we really needed—and it’s about damn time we see Sideburns straight up stab dudes in the skull. Thor: Ragnarok is a Day-Glo, candy-colored superhero fever dream.
I toyed with doing an entire best-of list of just documentaries, that’s how strong 2017 has been. If The Work doesn’t reduce you to tears, you may not be human. Ex Libris proves that I did need to watch a three-plus-hour doc about the New York Public Library. Jane may not deviate much from a traditional biography, but culling from 100-plus hours of footage, it’s like watching a damn symphony, and now I have a wicked crush on Jane Goodall. Whose Streets? makes me want to kick through walls. Faces Places is framed as a delightful road trip romp that examines art, the artist, aging, and looking back at a life long lived, and what initially appears a trifle carries a delicate weight. Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk isn’t for everyone, and is woefully overlong, but 15-year-old me had a shit-eating grin the whole time.
Starring Iko Uwais, Headshot presents a jittery, brutal action picture that may well be the angriest movie I’ve ever seen. Boyka: Undisputed once again proves Scott Adkins is the undisputed king of DTV knuckle-breakers. Takashi Miike’s 100th film (yes, one-zero-zero), Blade of the Immortal is an excellent samurai take, one with absurd amounts of blood and physical punishment. And, of course, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a near-silent war epic, is fantastic and crushing and inventive.
I didn’t expect to love a glacially paced movie that’s mostly Kristen Stewart texting with a (maybe) ghost, but then I saw Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. The Girl with All the Gifts shows there’s still life in the undead and that zombie movies can be relevant. Not for everyone, I’m here for Ana Lily Amirpour’s deliberate, hallucinatory post-apocalyptic burner The Bad Batch. Slow and sparse and nihilistic, It Comes at Night presents an endlessly complex moral, ethical, and philosophical horror outing. And It may be the best Stephen King adaptation since The Shining, it’s certainly the most fun.
Sundance gave us one of my early favorites this year, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, an oddball odd-couple pairing anchored by a wonderful Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood. Ingrid Goes West offers a black comedy that’s the true social media horror tale horror movies have tried and failed to tell. With The Disaster Artist, James Franco managed to make a great movie about a terrible one. And Alejandro Jodorowsky is back and in fine form with the autobiographical, weird-as-balls Endless Poetry, his most accessible film to date. But don’t worry, he’s still Jodorowsky, so there’s shit like a dwarf Hitler.
I admittedly slacked quite a bit on international cinema this year. But Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone is a delicate, deceptively meaty drama powered by Kim Min-hee’s banger of a lead performance. Joachim Trier’s Thelma plays like a horror superhero origin story (I’d so watch more) and has perhaps the most compelling opening of any movie of 2017. Wulu puts a unique, particular spin on the rags-to-riches gangster narrative, filtered through African and French POVs.
It hasn’t been the strongest year for animated movies, but Pixar’s Coco is a truly special movie; a magical, otherworldly tale that brought me to tears multiple times. Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is dark and bizarre and definitely one to traumatize your kids with. The Breadwinner is a gorgeous, compelling saga of bravery and heroism in the face of unimaginable odds.