best of 2017: film

Hollywood had a rough start and even rougher end to 2017. It's strange to think that ten months ago, a flubbed Best Picture announcement at the Oscars constituted a days-long scandal. The results of last year's election inspired some pointed speeches during and after awards season. Now we're finally having a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment in the film industry and beyond. The politicization of Hollywood is nothing new; some of us just have shorter memories than others. It can make going to the movies feel like more of a statement than an escape, but this list is meant to be entirely the latter. While several of my picks inspire contemplation (and hopefully all of them entertain!) watching and discussing them should only bring us closer together. After all, that's what the movies are all about, right?

Now for some bookkeeping! Because ranking these films against one another is a bit of an "apples vs. oranges" debate, I've listed my top picks for 2017 in an unbiased, alphabetical order. There are 15 films in all: eleven made the final cut, with four runners-up that I couldn't let pass without comment.

Best Films of 2017

Autopsy of Jane Doe (dir. André Øvredal): Quietly released at the start of the year, while everyone emerged from holiday shellshock, Jane Doe proved itself one of the best horror films in not-so-recent memory. The two protagonists—father and son coroners—distinguish themselves as some of the smartest leads ever in a horror film, attacking an illogical problem with reason and avoiding every groan-worthy genre mishap. Excellent sound design helps build discomfort and dread right up to the final frame.

Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd): A portrait of female empowerment that largely progresses via the unsaid. Florence Pugh's powerfully understated performance as Katherine anchors the film. You could call Lady Macbeth the dark mirror of Wonder Woman: chill and bleak where the latter always favors warmth, it shows in no uncertain terms the sheer ruthlessness a young woman indulges in the pursuit of her independence. Impatient viewers may find themselves fidgeting, but this is a film gorgeous in its isolation and horrifying in its implications.

Logan (dir. James Mangold): In my opinion, this year moviegoers enjoyed the highest level of creative freedom in superhero films since their latest resurgence. The first of three on my list, Logan dealt with the heaviest subject matter by far. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart both gave admirable send-off performances for characters they've embodied for nearly two decades, and the story by which they did so was appropriately grown-up...just like the fans who were only kids when X-Men first hit theaters in 2000. We also got to meet newcomer Dafne Keen, whose on-screen camaraderie with Jackman wrung a few rare tears from my eyes by the end.

Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray): David Grann is one of the best non-fiction authors writing today, and this film adaptation does great justice to his first book about an English cartographer and explorer who becomes obsessed with the story of a lost South American civilization. Grann's research sprawls across continents, decades, and generations; Gray's film condenses all that down to an indulgent but well-paced two hours that doesn't get distracted by a myriad of details. Robert Pattinson has received a lot of praise for his work here (although I would argue he fared even better this year in Good Time), but Charlie Hunnam's immersion into the figure of Percy Fawcett is what gives the movie its considerable emotional weight.

Score (dir. Matt Schrader): Any cinephile will delight in this documentary about the history of music in the movies. Hans Zimmer serves as a guide throughout most of the film, which starts at the use of organists in theaters to accompany silent films and runs all the way up to present day. It never unravels into the overly technical; instead we're treated to masters of their craft gushing over the sometimes ephemeral, sometimes painstakingly technical process of crafting mood and identity through sound.

The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro): While this hasn't replaced Pan's Labyrinth as my favorite del Toro movie, it unquestionably deserves the praise being heaped upon it. Water tells an adult fairy tale that captivates on first viewing while demanding several more to suss out the layers inherent to any GDT production. A love letter to classic Hollywood and misunderstood monsters, featuring evil that wears a suit and drives a Cadillac, it addresses the now-grown-up fears whose childhood form we saw in Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Color not only catches the eye, but challenges the mind. Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins give award-worthy performances (please, Academy, don't overlook Jones under those prosthetics!), bolstered by stellar support from Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins. If there's one movie on this list you must see on the big screen, make it this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi): The second superhero entry on my list. Where Logan proved that dramatic gravitas geared towards an adult audience has its place in the MCU, Waititi's outing with the "strongest Avenger" delivered an infectious, non-stop glee. Easily the funniest and cleverest Marvel movie as of yet, Ragnarok also benefited from a strong ensemble that clearly enjoyed making the film as much as audiences did watching it. Mark Mothersbaugh's soundtrack, delightfully 80's-esque, was the perfect psychedelic topper.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh): While the trailers may lead you to believe that Three Billboards is a straightforward revenge story, the filmmaker behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths has a far more complex journey in mind. As a grieving mother without answers, Frances McDormand gives a career-best performance that should land her as an Oscar front-runner. The humor comes fast and black, even more so than McDonagh's previous efforts, but don't feel bad for laughing. When the world turns upside down, you might find humor in the strangest and darkest places.

Super Dark Times (dir. Kevin Phillips): Last year Stranger Things capitalized in a big way on 1980's nostalgia, and this summer IT proved audiences are still hungry for more. But what about the 90's kids (including yours truly)? Faithful to its name, Super Dark Times avoids saccharine kitschiness and capitalizes on the dark possibilities of the final years without ubiquitous cell phones or WiFi. It evokes the darkest pitfalls of adolescence explored by authors like Ray Bradbury, but the horror here is purely human. Keep an eye out for the young leads, who carry the story.

Wind River (dir. Taylor Sheridan): There was never any question that Wind River would boast an engaging story— Sheridan has already put his formidable writing talent on display in Sicario and Hell or High Water. This was his first outing in a director's chair, and it payed off marvelously. Wind River boasts the subtle character politics and shocking outbursts of violence characteristic of his screenplays, and turns the wild, chillingly empty panoramas of Wyoming into a supporting character themselves. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen operate at a career best, as does each supporting player. Beautiful and heartbreaking, this is one that sticks with you.

Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins): The third and final superhero entry on this year's list, falling somewhere between the R-rated grit of Logan and the technicolor whimsy of Thor: Ragnarok. Much has been made (rightfully) about the empowering message behind Wonder Woman the character, as well as the girl-power duo in director Patty Jenkins and actress Gal Gadot who brought her to the big screen this summer; however, Wonder Woman is capable of standing on its cinematic merits alone. Gadot's Diana Prince has the perfect balance of empathy and strength, and the "No Man's Land" sequence is one of the coolest action scenes with one of the coolest soundtracks put on film. Warner Brothers may think that the competition is DCEU versus MCU, but in all honesty Wonder Woman could take on the Avengers pretty capably by herself.

Honorable Mentions

A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski): Critically maligned and a box office disappointment, Wellness struggled against a long runtime that prioritized atmosphere over the quick pace preferred by many movie-goers. But what an atmosphere it was! Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs both give performances with a welcome whiff of Hammer Horror melodrama. Gothic horror fans should delight in Verbinski's R-rated fantasy/mystery hybrid, even if the supposed twist can be seen coming from a mile away.

Dealt (dir. Luke Korem): Anyone who watches this excellent documentary about a blind magician (he prefers "card mechanic") will look back on past excuses for laziness with a little shame. Richard Turner is an extraordinary man: beyond his talent with slight of hand, he holds a black belt in karate and, for many years, functioned without many of the aids available to the visually impaired. Essentially denying his failing sight, we get to watch Turner come to terms with his reality as he pursues professional honors. (If you want to catch more of his tricks, Turner made an appearance on Fool Us earlier this year.)

Buster's Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith): While I had the pleasure of seeing this trippy Book of Jonas-inspired movie on the big screen during DIFF 2017, it probably escaped the notice of most until turning up on Netflix this fall. Admirers of Rami Malek's performance in Mr. Robot will find much to love here...and, dare I say it, more to think about without so many preachy intrusions. This is a perfect film to watch with friends; there are no easy answers found within, which should spark great conversation over dinner afterward.

Katie Says Goodbye (dir. Wayne Roberts): The last film on my list serves a pointed lesson on finding the positive side to every setback. Olivia Cooke plays the titular waitress, also engaging in sex work to supplement her income. Katie's life may look like a dead-end playing out in slow motion to an outside observer, but she has plans. Realistic ones, too. An absent mother and her lousy boyfriend, along with some local ne'er-do-wells all conspire through their own, independent actions to derail her escape from a tiny Southwest town. You will feel uncomfortable and despondent, several times; Katie's journey feels modeled on a Greek tragedy more than anything else. But don't give up on Katie and her story, because this one girl has plenty of optimism to go around.

How does your "Best Of" list compare? Did I snub any favorites, or include something you couldn't stand? Sound off in the comments, and I'll see you in 2018!


  1. I LOVED Logan! I cried a lot during that film... I still haven't had time to go see Thor: Ragnarok :(

    1. I almost never cry in a movie, but Logan had me bawling. And Ragnarok is such a hoot- probably the most fun I had at the movies all year!

  2. The only films I watched from your list were Thor and Wonder Woman, both of which I loved!

    1. And those were two great ones to catch! I've felt burned out on superhero movies for quite a while now, but 2017 wound up having a few exceptions to that rule :)