Trigger Warning for ‘The Last Jedi’ haters.
Maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe it’s just the times, but 2017 felt like the biggest testament to the power of seeing a movie in an actual theater in a good long while. As the marketplace evolves, as streaming services become bigger and bolder in their content offerings, and as Prestige TV seems destined to churn out more great shows than can possibly be watched, there’s still nothing like seeing a truly great movie on a big screen in a room full of strangers.
But it takes a great movie to make that experience worthwhile, and 2017 delivered in a variety of ways. Something like Thor: Ragnarok took the popcorn movie to new heights with a truly surprising, hilarious, and thrilling sci-fi adventure. Split, a January horror movie, took the box office by storm and elicited gasps from the audience with its final scene. The Big Sick brought a diverse group of people together in unison to watch a delightful and unique romantic comedy with a someone other than a white dude as the romantic lead. And Logan subverted what a superhero movie could be by basically turning Wolverine’s swan song into a well-crafted, violent, and very depressing Western.
So if there’s a throughline to my Top 10 list this year, it’s that a lot of these movies benefited from the theatrical experience in a big way, and serve as proof positive that, in some cases, you simply cannot beat seeing a movie in a big theater. So behold, my Top 10 films of 2017, most of which I hope you ventured out and saw on a big, big screen.
I’m not really a huge fan of the original Blade Runner, but I fell head over heels for Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Blade Runner 2049. This film, to me, really exemplifies the power of actually going to a movie theater. It’s a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the best possible sound, that transports you to an unknown world for two and a half hours. It’s sadly ironic then that the film wasn’t such a box office hit, and a shame too. Every frame of this movie is exquisitely crafted, and this story of loneliness and the longing for connection—human or otherwise—provides a strong emotional throughline in what could’ve been an offputtingly cold affair. In a world where Netflix, Amazon, and people who think a movie theater is their living room are drawing folks away from theaters in droves, Blade Runner 2049 was a stark reminder of uniqueness of a theatrical experience. Even if not many folks actually did venture out to see this thing, I loved the hell out of it.
This movie broke me. Director Sean Baker’s intimate portrait of the near-homeless in Orlando, Florida, from the point of view of a young child who doesn’t know better, is a miraculous feat of filmmaking. The Florida Project sneaks up on you. It’s very slice-of-life, with strings of scenes that simply portray this certain group of people living their lives without huge plot twists or major narrative turns. But it’s in the film’s final 10 minutes or so that it all starts to come together, and you realize everything you’ve been watching has been laying the emotional foundation for what happens next. Every scene, every shot, every character choice had an express purpose, even if in the moment it felt somewhat aimless. That’s truly great filmmaking, and that it’s used here to shine a light on a not insignificant subset of the American population that doesn’t get near enough attention is admirable on Baker’s part. Empathy provides a path to understanding, and The Florida Project has empathy in spades.
When I first saw Get Out, I really liked it. Jordan Peele had crafted a clever, terrifying, and darkly funny commentary on race in America packed with exciting twists and turns. But it wasn’t until the second viewing that the sheer brilliance of Get Out really clicked for me. Peele is operating on a number of different levels here, and there’s not a single misstep in the entire film. It’s a searing condemnation of the current state of race in America that doesn’t just zero in on the outwardly racist, but those who see themselves as above bigotry and yet traffic in subtle, sometimes even more harmful racism that doesn’t just marginalize people of color, but silences them completely. That Peele is able to do all of this under the guise of a “social thriller” that works tremendously well as a horror film, with bits of razor sharp humor sprinkled throughout, solidifies him as a truly great new filmmaking voice.
Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers working today and Baby Driver was my most anticipated film of the year, so I may be a little biased here, but I loved this movie. Wright’s first truly “American” film weaves in and out of multiple genres with ease, starting as a flighty heist movie, switching gears to a swoon-worthy romance, and revving up in its final act as a straight-up intense thriller. The confidence and control of Wright here is astounding, as he crafts the entire film to the beat of a pitch perfect soundtrack. If he’d succeeded only there, Baby Driver would be cool. But in addition, he crafts compelling, three-dimensional, and dare I say potentially iconic characters, which is what elevates Baby Driver from a neat thing to a truly great film.
Leave it to Christopher Nolan to create a film explicitly not made for Netflix or Amazon. Dunkirk is the opposite of the ideal home-viewing movie, as Nolan puts together a purely experiential piece of cinema. The result is breathtaking, if you’re able to get on Dunkirk’s level. There’s no sense in trying to piece together the narrative or figure out the characters’ backstories—the purpose of Dunkirk is to sit back and let Nolan transport you to the beaches, to the sea, and to the air, to offer an unforgettable experience that helps further understand the heroic actions of these men in the face of certain defeat by putting you, as close to “literally” as possible, in their shoes. In many ways this is the film that Nolan’s been building to his entire career, and it’s surely one of his best.
Top 10 lists are personal, and thus while I can acknowledge some third act stumbles, to me Wonder Woman’s successes far outweigh any other quibbles I may have. Director Patty Jenkins’ focus on the emotional thematic impact of the film is tremendous, as she basically crafts a story of two opposing ideals—Diana, who thinks humanity is inherently good, and Steve, who thinks humanity is inherently bad—butting heads and hitting on something profound in the process. The “No Man’s Land” sequence alone has more emotional impact than anything in any superhero movie in decades (ever?), and it’s all due to the thematic work Jenkins does throughout the rest of the film, as well as her precise shot choice. Diana, seeing humans in need of help, brushes off the men’s warnings and dives headfirst onto the battlefield. A shining beacon of hope, optimism, and genuine goodness. Love ultimately conquers over humanity’s imperfection, standing in contrast to despair and cynicism. That Jenkins threads this thematic needle without ever getting cheesy or sentimental, and that Gadot sells every single line she’s given as the truth, is a testament to the filmmaking and talent on display here. “I’ll save today. You save the world.”
Look, some people strongly dislike Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That’s fine. I happen to think it’s a pretty brilliant, thrilling, and subversive piece of cinema. Keep your nitpicky arguments over whether this is “Star Wars” enough—what writer/director Rian Johnson crafted here is a genuinely surprising, thematically rich, and terrifically memorable piece of blockbuster filmmaking. This is a story about acknowledging the past, both good and bad, and moving forward. It’s a story about the power of the individual, no matter your background, social status, or bloodline. Everyone has the capacity to do good—true good—in this world. The thematic work in this film is incredibly potent, and then Johnson goes and shows off his cinematic skills as well, crafting jaw-dropping set pieces like the opening bomber sequence and that Throne Room scene.
But through it all, everything is rooted in character. The Throne Room turn isn’t near as exciting if Johnson doesn’t do the work beforehand on deepening the connection and dynamic between Kylo Ren and Rey. He’s a filmmaker who understands the power of setup and payoff, and boy do the payoffs in this movie work. So yeah, I love The Last Jedi not just as a Star Wars movie, but as a rich, exciting piece of filmmaking all its own. It’s one of the best films of 2017 and one of the best Star Wars movies ever made. Haterz to the left.
The coming-of-age genre is so played out at this point, especially in the indie world, that crafting an entry that’s truly moving and unique is nigh impossible. But leave it to Greta Gerwig to take that challenge and put together one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent memory, Lady Bird. It’s Gerwig’s attention to detail that really makes this thing soar, from the unironic use of Dave Matthews Band to the specificity of Lady Bird’s crushes. And it’s a coming-of-age film that doesn’t just include the parents, but makes them a vital part of this story. We empathize with every single character in this film, and that’s due to Gerwig’s note-perfect script and deft direction, as well as the impeccable performances. Lady Bird is one of the most delightful and joyfully moving moviegoing experiences I’ve had in a long while, and in a year like 2017, that goes a long, long way.
The Shape of Water is the best film Guillermo del Toro has ever made. It’s an immaculately crafted fairy tale wherein not a single scene feels off or out of place. Beyond the central love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaning lady and Doug Jones’ Fish Man, Octavia Spencer is not just the sassy black friend; Richard Jenkins is not just the friendly gay neighbor; Michael Stuhlbarg is not just the mysterious scientist; and Michael Shannon is not just the mustache-twirling villain. Each of these supporting characters gets at least one extra scene in which they’re fleshed out as three-dimensional human beings, not cardboard cutouts that serve to prop up the film’s protagonists. Del Toro takes absolutely no shortcuts here, and it shows.
At heart, The Shape of Water is the story of a group of outsiders banding together to do what is right—unlikely heroes to a T. They’re the unseen, the ignored, the maligned, and in Hawkins’ case, literally the unheard. Hawkins in particular delivers a performance here that is so heartfelt and earnest I was moved to tears just watching her face.
Del Toro’s original subtitle for The Shape of Water was “A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times.” 2017 was basically “troubled times” incarnate, so thank God The Shape of Water was there to bring some semblance of joy, understanding, and hope for “outsiders” everywhere.
I first saw Call Me by Your Name at the Sundance Film Festival, almost a year ago. I was blown away then, and it’s remained my favorite movie of 2017 ever since. The filmmaking on display in this 80s-set summer romance/coming-of-age/coming-out story is phenomenal. Director Luca Guadagnino does such a masterful job of making the world of his film real and tactile that for two and a half hours, you feel as though you’re there in Italy with Elio and Oliver, feeling what they’re feeling. From the precise yet intimate cinematography to the impeccable sound design to the almost dreamlike choices of music, every inch of Call Me by Your Name feels like it was tuned just right.
That certainly extends to the performances, and it’s the work of Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer that solidifies the film’s connection with its audience as something truthful. You feel the love blossoming between these two, but you also delight in watching them tiptoe around each other at first, playing a passive-aggressive game of chicken. These characters feel lived in and fully realized, and Chalamet and Hammer both rise to the occasion and then some.
A lot of the films on this list solidified my faith in the power of cinema, and that’s true of Call Me by Your Name. It’s a wildly empathetic film, but it’s almost magically transportative. Film as a medium has the capacity to transport the viewer’s consciousness to another time or place, if only for a moment, but with Call Me by Your Name Guadagnino not only sustains the illusion for the entirety of the film’s runtime, he imbues each and every frame of the film with emotional honesty, making this an experience that you feel deep in your bones, not just with your senses. That’s pretty incredible, and in a day and age where our attentions are being pulled in every single direction all the time, a film that works this well, on this level, and speaks to the universality of love and heartbreak, is basically a miracle.
Honorable Mentions: A Cure for Wellness, Stronger, The Lost City of Z, The Big Sick, Logan Lucky
*Note: I have not seen Phantom Thread due to lack of screening availability.
For all of Collider’s Best of 2017 content, click here, and peruse our other personal staff lists below:
Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. He’s been working for Collider for over a decade, and in addition to managing content also runs point on crafts interviews, awards coverage, and co-hosts The Collider Podcast with Matt Goldberg (which has been running since 2012). He’s the creator and author of Collider’s “How the MCU Was Made” series and has interviewed Bill Hader about every single episode of Barry. He lives in Tulsa, OK and likes pasta, 90s thrillers, and spending like 95% of his time with his dog Luna.
Sign up for Collider's newsletter for exclusive news, features, streaming recommendations and more