The 20 best films of 2017 – The A.V. Club

2017 didn’t improve much on 2016. If anything, the horror and dread of last year only seemed to take root and blossom this year, as some of our worst collective fears were realized and the future seemed to grow dimmer with every bad-news bulletin and misjudged tweet. If there was a constant, at least for cinephiles, it lay with the movies. One can quibble with the cumulative quality of 12 months of cinema. (Did this year produce a Moonlight or a Manchester By The Sea, a near-consensus masterpiece?) But as the world burned, the films still delivered. There were so many good ones in 2017, in fact, that we surely left out some of your favorites, including (spoilers for the few who have opted to read this preamble before scrolling through the selections below) The Shape Of Water, Blade Runner 2049, The Post, Faces Places, Wonder Woman, The Disaster Artist, Coco, and Mudbound. Chalk the omissions up to the particular tastes of our six regular contributors, and check out the individual ballots for a sense of whom to blame specifically for them. Hopefully, 2018 will improve on 2017 in almost every regard. But we really couldn’t ask for much better movies.

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 Phantom Menace. Throughout, Johnson wrestles with what monolithic blockbuster mythology means to us—while making an idiosyncratic blockbuster to call his own. [Jesse Hassenger]

Alain Guiraudie’s follow-up to Stranger By The Lake didn’t get nearly as much attention, but it’s no less perversely beguiling. The title has a sly double meaning, referring both to protagonist Léo’s penchant for getting horizontal with nearly every person he encounters while tooling around the French countryside, seeking inspiration for a screenplay he never quite gets around to writing, and to the inherent difficulty of just being human, which Guiraudie imagines as a constant battle against reversion to an animal state. Staying Vertical’s casual absurdism and polymorphous perversity represent a welcome throwback to the filmmaker’s early work, which has largely gone unseen in the U.S. The narrative structure deliberately travels in circles, yet the bizarre details, and the depth of feeling underlying them, continually surprise. [Mike D’Angelo]

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. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Abel Ferrara’s downtown Manhattan is long gone, replaced with sterile, half-filled high rises and wildly overpriced bistros. But there’s still plenty of grit left on the streets of New York City. You just have to travel to the outer boroughs, as directors Josh and Benny Safdie did for their frenetic crime drama Good Time. The film pulses with the energy of the city as manic scumbag Connie (Robert Pattinson, practically unrecognizable in a dirty hoodie and ratty goatee) fumbles his way through a hastily conceived rescue mission after his disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie) gets arrested at the end of a foot chase following a botched bank robbery. The breakneck pace and scuzzy desperation of Connie’s quest gives the film—which takes place entirely over the course of one night—a certain fun-house quality, enhanced by the delirious close-up cinematography, aggressively stylized lighting, and synthesizer score. The fact that part of it literally takes place in an amusement park doesn’t hurt, either. [Katie Rife]

Martin McDonagh’s angry, funny, heartbreaking movie seems to be borne of our particular moment, with its righteous female rage butting up against police brutality in a small Midwestern town. But if the story of furious, vengeful Mildred (Frances McDormand) and her racist cop nemesis Dixon (Sam Rockwell) has a certain resonance, it also feels out of any particular time, in the sense that anger, racism, and man’s inhumanity to (wo)man are not brand-new conflicts in 2017. Three Billboards steps away from Issue Movie designations, and then keeps on side-stepping, into moments—Mildred’s stinging last memory of her daughter; Dixon’s unlikely stumble toward a gnarled version of decency; any number of unexpected blood splatters—that plenty of viewers will find discomfiting for any number of reasons. McDonagh has already faced some pushback over his willingness to empathize, on some level, with the idiot Dixon (especially in a movie with few black characters). But McDormand and Rockwell perform such a magnificent, fully-imagined, off-kilter duet that the movie never balances out into a conventional morality tale. It stays thorny, with laughs and flinches continually pricking at each other. [Jesse Hassenger]

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 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. [Noel Murray]

Yorgos Lanthimos takes the piss out of the Michael Haneke-style allegory of bourgeois guilt with this demented dark fable about a heart surgeon (a bushy-bearded 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, with Farrell as a suburban King Agamemnon, but the style is almost Kubrickian and rivetingly strange, cracking into nightmare in the climactic scene. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

The centerpiece moment of Ruben Östlund’s The Square pits a dining hall’s worth of self-proclaimed art lovers against the evening’s “entertainment”: a performance-art stunt that pushes way beyond the outer limits of their comfort zones. It’s an exaggerated version, perhaps, of what audiences might experience watching this super-sized cringe comedy, awkward enough to get Larry David hot under the collar. Another savagely funny savaging of male ego, à la Östlund’s Force Majeure, the film takes place behind the scenes of a museum, where a pretentious curator (Claes Bang) grapples with personal and professional crises of his own making. But far from just poking fun at a hypocritical modern art world, the Swedish writer-director casts a wide satirical net. His biggest catch: the withering insight that there’s often a giant gap separating values from actions, flattering self-image from reality, “helping” from helping. Thankfully, Östlund wants to make us laugh as well as squirm; scene for scene, The Square is often gut-bustingly hilarious, provided you can see the humor in foibles that might mirror your own. [A.A. Dowd]

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. [Jesse Hassenger]

Edgar Wright’s frenetic pulp exercise plays like a cinematic mix-tape, dropping a bunch of archetypal heist movie characters—the ruthless boss, the loose cannon, the mouthy moll, etc.—into a mashup of some of the greatest chase sequences of all time, scored to propulsive rhythmic alt-rock and classic R&B. The technique on display here is next level, as Wright arranges shots, cuts, effects, and music into seamless visual and aural compositions. No element is superfluous. Gunshots become the rhythm track to a song. Dialogue has its own staccato rhythm. Cars spin around each other like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Baby Driver miraculously sustains the rush of its breathless opening sequence for nearly two hours. Young filmmakers are going to be ripping this picture off for decades to come. [Noel Murray]

On paper, comedian Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film sounds like a one-joke Key & Peele 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.” [Noel Murray]

Loosely adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book, James Gray’s ambiguous and lyrically orchestrated historical epic turns the story of the early 20th-century British explorer Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, in a revelatory performance) and his search for a lost civilization in the wilds of Brazil into a symphony of mystery, obsession, and transcendence. A master of classic film style, Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) dedicates almost as much of the movie to the time between Fawcett’s expeditions as his adventures in Amazonia, placing them in the context of the era’s wars, social mores, and colonial horrors. Half mystic, half rationalist, his questing, self-destructive hero withdraws into the jungle in the hope of finding a fabled city whose existence would implicitly redeem the human race—an artist in a dark world. As in all of Gray’s films, the cast is exceptional, including a never-better Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife and a barely recognizable Robert Pattinson as his trusty aide-de-camp. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Every once in a while, a particularly effects-heavy blockbuster gets singled out as being particularly post-actor, usually due to a reliance on CG imagery. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story earns that distinction better than most, but it uses only a common bedsheet to obscure its central performer. Casey Affleck plays a musician who dies, then returns to haunt his lover (Rooney Mara) and their house as a stereotypically garbed specter, visible only to the audience. As the ghost cannot or will not leave his former home, the world moves on without him. The film initially resembles a close-up study of relationship strife and grief, but as it drifts forward in time, it turns into something both sweeping and unknowably intimate. Lowery continues to separate his actors with blocking, a taller 1.33 frame, a Will Oldham monologue, and, as ever, that bedsheet, yet the effects aren’t entirely isolating. Quite to the contrary: This is one of the year’s most transporting experiences. [Jesse Hassenger]

Is it a biblical allegory? A cautionary tale about climate change? A barbed treatise on the nature of creativity? Darren Aronofsky’s veiled confession about what a nightmare it is to date him? All of the above, plus the year’s most audacious, polarizing provocation. Remarkable to think that this phantasmagoric assault, which in a sense encompasses the entirety of recorded history (and beyond), unfolds exclusively in a single house, which Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed, beatific mom-to-be struggles to protect from a series of invasive interlopers. Arguing about what it all means can be great fun, but Mother! is best experienced as pure sensation—a rollercoaster that ratchets you uphill for miles, until the lack of oxygen makes you lightheaded, then plummets you at 200 miles per hour through one of those haunted house rides in which something horrific pops out at you around every turn. Except that in this case, “something horrific” just means humanity. [Mike D’Angelo]

Films about the heady buzz of first love aren’t exactly hard to come by, but it’s rare to find one as poetically realized as Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. Although more stylistically restrained than is usual for him, Guadagnino’s lush sensibilities can’t help but lend a baroque quality to the tale of a summer affair between teenage musical prodigy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and twentysomething Oliver (Armie Hammer), a cocky American student who’s spending the summer studying with Elio’s archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) at the family home in Northern Italy. Over a series of long, lazy afternoons and wine-drunk nights, Elio and Oliver begin a flirtation that hangs heavy between them like the humid summer air. The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet makes it easy to get swept up in Elio’s erotic awakening, even though we know as well as he does that their love will be followed by heartbreak as surely as summer heat by winter cold. [Katie Rife]Nocturama came and went from American theaters like a vivid fever dream fading with the morning light, and it’s not difficult to figure out why: Any film that unfolds from the perspective of teenage terrorists plotting an attack on Paris is lucky to get released at all. (Thanks Grasshopper Film, for braving the potential controversy.) But there’s really no confusing Bertrand Bonello’s gripping, stylishly disturbing vision of destructive youth for a realistic depiction of extremism. Despite its procedural, hour-by-hour construction, Nocturama is more allegorical: a tragedy about kids vaguely lashing out against cultural values deeply ingrained within them, until being drawn—like the shambling corpses of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead—to a consumerist temple that may become their tomb. Beneath the provocative questions lies a tour-de-force of mesmerizing technique, as Bonello bends chronology around his adolescent radicals, exploits the electrifying resonance of pop music, and goes full genre without trivializing the real horror of a city on fire. [A.A. Dowd]

The Prestige’s “Transported Man” pales beside 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. [Mike D’Angelo]

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. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Writer-director Greta Gerwig accomplishes something extraordinary with Lady Bird: a story that’s both hyper-specific and universally relatable. The film takes place in Sacramento, California over the course of the 2002-2003 school year, where 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) dreams of ditching what she calls “the Midwest of California” and escaping to New York City. Gerwig cradles Lady Bird’s story like a delicate baby robin, allowing the tension between her characters to arise organically and daring to make them refreshingly, well, ordinary. And although it’s also frequently hilarious, Gerwig derives real emotional impact from Lady Bird’s strained relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), whose desire to protect her daughter from disappointment manifests as a tendency towards cutting, critical remarks. It’s a film deftly attuned to the tedious cycles of teenage life, an age where the present feels like a heavy weight pressing down on your chest and the future like a cloudless blue sky that goes on forever. [Katie Rife]

Some movies are escape hatches, meant to deposit you someplace better and brighter than where you started. Others meet the problems of the world head on. What could be more 2017 than a film that does both simultaneously, letting sobering reality encroach on magic, or maybe vice versa? The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s beautifully bittersweet portrait of life on the economic outskirts of the Sunshine State, takes place primarily at a flophouse Magic Kingdom both tantalizingly close and impossibly far from the real one. Half of the film unfolds from the waist-high perspective of latchkey child Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), cutting a path of unsupervised mischief across the property. The other half devotes itself to the hardships of the girl’s trash-talking mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggling to shield her daughter from the harsher truths of poverty. Baker, an open-hearted ally of the disenfranchised, builds his funny, heartbreaking, triumphantly alive movie on the nexus between their experiences. And he locates something close to a worldview in the entwined exasperation and compassion expressed by put-upon motel manager Bobby, brought to almost unspeakably moving life by a never-better Willem Dafoe. If this wasn’t the most 2017 movie of 2017, maybe it was just the one we desperately needed. In a year when America seemed to suffer from a drought of empathy, The Florida Project supplied it by the gallon. [A.A. Dowd]


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