#1 Get Out
No movie in 2017 captured the cultural zeitgeist quite like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. It’s a box office smash, a word-of-mouth phenomenon, a critically praised masterpiece, and a horror film? What a concept! This truly was the year of the horror comeback. The genre produced some of this year’s most successful films. It’s fitting, isn’t it? Horror always thrives in times of turmoil. Peele’s insidiously brilliant film is a deconstruction of systemic racism told through the lens of a paranoid thriller. With shades of Rosemary’s Baby, the film introduces our protagonist into a paranoid situation that builds steadily and dreadfully until his fears are undoubtedly confirmed. What’s so clever about it is the ways Peele deconstructs racism through genre convention. And he uses particular forms of racism – the subtle racism of supposedly “woke” liberals and the exploitation of black bodies, to hone in on his message. At no point does the movie lose its tightness and structure as a horror film to make room for social commentary. It’s all woven seamlessly together. The ultimate result is a timely, frightening thriller and a masterclass in horror satire.
#2 The Shape of Water
A truly great film is not something you passively experience; it transcends the borders of the image and flows out into you. You become a part of it. The Shape of Water is such a film. It’s a love story between a mute human woman and an amphibious humanoid being held captive by a cruel government agency. There’s echoes of Beauty and the Beast and King Kong, but if those films were afraid to go all the way with their interspecies romance, this one sure isn’t. Every frame of this movie is dripping with passion, empathy and intimacy. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted one of the most bonkers combinations of genres in years; a Cold War-era drama meets classic Universal monster movie meets quirky romance, and it works from beginning to end. This is a fairy tale for grownups, and while the movie is dark, violent, sexy and a little dirty, I was surprised by how gentle and charming it is. The chemistry between characters and the central romance are absolutely palpable. Too many major movies are cynical and jaded, with filmmakers who are afraid to tackle anything with genuine earnestness. The Shape of Water is devoid of cynicism. I realized I haven’t said much of anything about the technical aspects of the film – cinematography, costumes, music, etc. It’s all top notch, and all works so beautifully in sync it feels like a symphony. This is a film whose individual components work so effortlessly together that Del Toro might as well be playing his audience like a piano. We are offered no choice but to succumb to this dizzyingly romantic celebration of empathy.
Coco is a beautiful example of storytelling and visual magic. It’s one of the finest films ever made by Pixar, a studio who regularly produces animated mass appeal entertainment that works as genuine art, not just as a vehicle to spawn merchandise. Following a young boy torn between honoring his family and chasing his dreams of becoming a musician, It’s a tale as old as time on paper, but it’s in the details that this film comes alive. Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina have infused the story, set during Dia de los Muertos, with a rich attention to Mexican culture and folklore. There’s also genuine human emotion and stakes involved in the action. The characters may be animated, but they’re so vivid and alive on screen they feel truly human. One of the movie’s great strengths is its portrayal of elderly characters, who are so often stereotyped or played for laughs in children’s entertainment. Coco treats all its characters as individuals in their own stories.
#4 Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig has done something truly extraordinary with Lady Bird. She’s evoked a very specific time and place – Sacramento in the early 2000’s – with characters and events based on her own life, and turned it into something universal and enduring. The central relationship between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mom (Laurie Metcalf) is one of the most authentic, well-written dynamics between two characters in any movie this year, or any year. The movie perfectly evokes the feeling of being an uncertain teenager, surrounded by the woes of the real world, with the presence of post 9/11 paranoia lingering in the background. In one of many great lines throughout the film, Lady Bird declares, “not everything is war. Other things can be sad too.” There’s an innocent selfishness to the character that is recognizable and understandable. These are human beings with complicated emotions, not one-dimensional movie characters. On the rare occasions Gerwig diverts from breezy authenticity to deliver moments of cinematic drama, they work because they’re absolutely earned. Lady Bird is one of those movies you tell people about using the classic phrase “I laughed, I cried.”
Darren Aronofsky has poured everything he has as an artist into the making of this frenzied, devastating vision of hell. Mother! Is an angry film. It comes at a time when humans have come dangerously close to destroying this planet. It is born from humanity’s greed and barbarism. It’s the work of a filmmaker who is fucking angry and passionate as hell and doesn’t care if you like what he has to say. And many people won’t. Those looking for easy answers or plotting will be disappointed, to say the least. The characters and events exist purely as metaphor. Jennifer Lawrence is mother nature. Javier Bardem is god. The house is planet earth. The people that show up and destroy the house are humanity as a whole. It’s a religious metaphor and a metaphor for the artist as a narcissist, willing to create at the expense of those who worship him. I haven’t even begun to deconstruct it. You could dissect the movie scene by scene and find something to analyze. And yet, the movie does not come off as some sort of laundry list of metaphors. There’s cinematic artistry and genuine entertainment value if you’re willing to go along for the ride. The last forty five minutes is a carnival fun house of apocalyptic horrors, with some of the longest sustained sequences of pure panic I’ve seen in a movie.
#6 The Big Sick
I really don’t care for romantic comedies, and I can’t remember the last one that stuck with me the way The Big Sick has. It follows some of the same beats as other films in the genre, but earns its conventions with a screenplay that is sweet, good-natured, authentic, and true. Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan are lovable as hell, which helps. If we don’t like the characters falling in love, we’re not going to care at all. The parents of each are part of the real strength of the movie, too. They’re so well-developed as people, we can see where they’re coming from even when we don’t necessarily agree with them. The Big Sick is also just plain and simple the funniest movie of the year. There’s huge laughs throughout, and the screenplay, by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, based on their own experiences, is perceptive about family dynamics and culture. It may have restored my faith, for now, in the romantic comedy.
#7 The Florida Project
Sean Baker, whose previous film Tangerine made my top ten list of 2015, has delivered another colorful, fascinating examination of life on the fringes. Cinema can be an exercise in empathy. A good film will allow us to identify with people in a way we haven’t considered before. The Florida Project, which takes place during one summer at a seedy motel on the outskirts of Disney World, shows us a world we think we’ve seen before and magnetizes the energy and joy in it. And also the tragedy. The movies takes place almost entirely through the perspective of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a perspective the gives the movie a dreamy quality that exists in a world apart from the cold reality of the grown up world. There is a sequence towards the ending when Moonee is suddenly snatched out of her own innocent reality and the audience feels the same sense of confusion and displacement she feels. This moment of realization, involving a panicked and tearful Moonee, is as heartbreaking and overwhelming as any movie scene in 2017. Baker ends the film with a sequence of pure fantasy that allows his characters an unadulterated rush of joy that balances their scary, uncertain reality.
#8 Wind River
Wind River is such a lean, purposeful thriller, it reminds you how powerful a simple story, well-told, can be. There’s barely any frills here. No unnecessary characters, plot threads, or visual trickery. Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut, and it’s a confident, muscular drama that relies on pure storytelling. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are both flawless, delivering performances that don’t call unnecessary attention to themselves. Neither of them are screaming “Look! Give me an oscar! I can ACT!” They simply create characters that work within the story. Sheridan conjures an unsettling feeling of dread throughout the movie, with the endless snowy landscapes and the weathered faces of people who’ve made due in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Wind River is an absorbing, grisly mystery that, when solved, will leave you emotionally drained.
I cried more than I’d really like to admit while watching Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, the first genuinely fantastic Netflix original film. And bless them for producing it because I can’t imagine many other studios willing to finance a film this bold and visionary. The story of a human child and their beloved pet has been the basis of hundreds of movies, but Okja uses it as a jumping off point for a genre-defying tonal rollercoaster ride. The film isn’t subtle about its political agenda. This is a blatantly anti-corporation satire about the food industrial industry. It’s also somehow a touching fantasy and a dark comedy and an innocent coming of age tale all in one. To say the performances are outlandish is to understate it. Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver the straight up wackiest performances of their careers. The visuals aren’t any less subtle. Neither is the film’s biting satire. Bong Joon-Ho has no interest in being subtle. The harrowing climax of the movie is so dark, you can’t imagine a typical studio would allow it to be released wide. There are images here that will be ingrained in my memory for a long time. Okja is the kind of experimental pop fantasy you’d hope Netflix would have the balls to finance, and they did.
#10 Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve’s expensive, gorgeous science fiction epic was considered a box office failure, but it’s one of the more ambitious major Hollywood releases to come out of the studio system in some time. Ridley Scott’s original film, a genre classic and a masterpiece in its own right, was also a box office failure upon its release. Much like the original, Blade Runner 2049 is not an action film. It’s a slow, meditative study on the nature of being human. You can see why this might not necessarily appeal to the Avengers audience. Box office failure aside, it’s a stunning visual masterwork and a tricky philosophical mystery. Honestly, if the movie was literally about nothing other than the splendor of its imagery, I would still be impressed. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is jaw-dropping. Every shot could be framed and hung as a piece of art. Put this fucking movie in the MOMA. The visuals themselves tell a story before a single line of dialogue has been spoken. Giant holographic women and product placement line the streets. Endless seas of corporate buildings extending past our fields of vision. It’s a bleak picture of the future; a dystopian nightmare eliciting a man’s world of greed and ego, dominated by corporations. Okay, so the movie looks fantastic. It also has a thoughtful, intelligent story to support the visuals. The moral and philosophical implications of the first movie are continued and expanded upon in unexpected ways. And Sylvia Hoeks, as a villainous replicant, is perfection.