Monstrosities and Marvels | The 17 Best Movies of 2017
It’s been one hell of a year. Whoever you are, wherever you are, 2017 has probably tested you in ways that you couldn’t possibly have predicted a year ago.
Thank goodness a bunch of the movies were good.
Actually, 2017 has been a banner year for quality motion pictures from a wide variety of genres. The horror genre exploded, with several unexpected blockbusters that critics and general audiences swooned over. There was no shortage of great superhero movies either, come to think of it. The most expensive sci-fi movies were unexpectedly ambitious and thoughtful. And many of the low-budget, serious dramas brought welcome insight and meaningful new perspectives to the daily lives which we all now lead.
No one can see everything – there literally isn’t enough time – and so I must take this opportunity to apologize, for at the time of this writing I still haven’t seen several acclaimed (or at least noteworthy) motion pictures this year. (Among them: Coco, mother!, Wind River and The Lost City of Z.)
It’s also worth noting that there were a whole bunch of popular movies that I either didn’t love, or didn’t care for at all, but there’s no sense getting all negative now. Suffice to say, if I saw it, and it didn’t make this list, there’s a reason, and it’s probably written down in one of my reviews.
In any case, the new year is coming, and we’re all eager to get there. So let’s not waste any more time! Let’s take one last look at the best movies of 2017.
17. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cursed film, a disturbingly oblique thriller about what goes around coming back around, which operates on the level of dream logic at best. Perhaps the film’s most shocking moment is when a mysterious teen demigod (of sorts) simply lays out everything horrible that’s going to happen to Colin Farrell’s emotionally muted protagonist. Everything he says is hard to believe, but he’s so matter of fact about the film’s bizarre upcoming events that you have no choice but to accept it at face value.
And at face value, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dire and captivating horror movie. Farrell plays a doctor and family man who secretly (for reasons which won’t be explained until much later) befriends a strange teenager played by Barry Keoghan. And then, when that friendship sours, the young man exacts a profound and corrosive revenge.
To say more would ruin it but Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted one of the best films about, essentially, being doomed. The Killing of a Sacred Deer propels itself forward with all the energy of a sleepwalker, but also with the same tireless purpose. And as Colin Farrell and his family gradually succumb to their fate, so too does Lanthimos gradually strip away the façade of normality, of family, and fantasy that there’s such a thing as normal.
16. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
When Kenneth Branagh is having fun, watch out, because it’s usually a cinematic delight. Murder on the Orient Express is no exception. Branagh directs the film and gives himself the juiciest role, famed detective Hercule Poirot, an obsessive-compulsive hero with his greatest challenge ahead of him: a locked room mystery, on a train, snowbound in the mountains, where every stranger on board is a viable suspect.
Murder on the Orient Express is a vivid motion picture. The production design, the cinematography, the music and the performances are all at high alert, as though something exciting could happen at literally any moment. And it usually is. Each member of the fabulous ensemble cast gets to chew a little scenery while Branagh, the director, ladles fudges over every plot point, making the film a most delicious confection.
Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express won’t make you forget the classier Sidney Lumet version, or for that matter the novel, but as a cinematic repertory piece, it’s a true delight. And if this sets in motion a whole franchise for Branagh’s lovable new version of Hercule Poirot, as is reportedly the case, the world will probably be better for it.
15. THE POST
Some movies just come along at exactly the right time. Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a drama about an historic flashpoint in American journalism, politics and feminism, is coming out in the midst of yet another flashpoint, and it’s easy to watch this satisfying and well-crafted film as a beacon of hope. After all, we’ve been here before, The Post argues. And we triumphed. Hurray, right?
Well, yes, but the very fact that we went through the events of The Post half a century ago, and that now we need this reminder, is also very distressing. So Steven Spielberg’s direction reflects this irony by presenting half the the movie as a subtle “you are there” drama about the inner workings of The Washington Post, in the days surrounding the release of The Pentagon Papers, and walloping the rest of the story into place with a sledge hammer. The earth literally shakes during one important plot point in The Post. You will pick up what Steven Spielberg is laying down if he has to force feed it to you.
But whether he’s being grandiose or sly, Spielberg has crafted a potent and exciting motion picture. The Post is fantastically acted and quite riveting, and it would be equally great if it came out ten years ago. Yet there’s no denying that it evokes a more passionate response today because of our current political climate. It’s the right film for right now, and in the future, when (hopefully) we don’t need to be reminded of the messages of The Post nearly so badly, it’ll still be a respectable and well-crafted film.
It’s been a particularly great year for horror movies, some of which broke into the mainstream with both financial and critical success, and some of which are still looking for their audience. One such film is Joe Lynch’s Mayhem, a hilariously berserk horror-comedy about a virus that gets released in an office building, one that makes everyone act on their wildest impulses. And since the world of office politics is already a powder keg to begin with, the first explosion sets off a chain reaction that just keeps going, and going, and going.
Mayhem has a similar premise to this year’s The Belko Experiment, but whereas Greg Mclean’s film spent the whole running time wondering who will snap first, Joe Lynch’s version of workplace hostilities goes completely insane right away. Even the heroes, played by the absolutely magnetic Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving, have completely lost their minds and moral compasses. The safety is off in this movie. Handle with care.
The best part is, Joe Lynch doesn’t simply indulge in sex, violence, or ethical handwringing. He sets the stage for Mayhem by showing us how the oppressive world of big business runs, piece by piece, and sets about dismantling it using tropes from scary movies, video games, kung fu films and workplace sitcoms. Lynch is winding an expensive watch up until the gears pop out. And it’s a pleasure to watch his carefully constructed destruction.
13. THE SHAPE OF WATER
The Shape of Water is a love story of the highest order. Actually, it’s two of them: one between a woman and a fish person, and another between a filmmaker and his monsters.
Guillermo del Toro, who allegedly makes horror movies but who mostly makes supernatural fairy tales, tells a story about a mute cleaning woman, played beautifully by Sally Hawkins, who forms a romantic connection between, essentially, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, played equally beautifully by Doug Jones.
But monsters are things to be locked up, studied, and destroyed. At least, that’s what horrible people have always said. Guillermo del Toro probably isn’t going to blow anybody’s minds when he makes the connection that freaks, outcasts, outsiders and the oppressed are worthy of love. Instead, he’s going to blow your mind with exactly how much love he can pour into just one movie.
The Shape of Water is a captivating love affair, and – like many love affairs – it gets a little high on itself. Guillermo del Toro simply cannot resist the urge to break into song. It’s just that kind of movie. But it’s a sincere movie, with passionate characters and equally passionate filmmaking. A magical modern fairy tale if ever there was one.
10. (tie) BLADE RUNNER 2049
The biggest tie I think I’ve ever included on a “Best of the Year” list goes to three incredibly ambitious sci-fi spectacles which have an overwhelming impact but, if we’re all being honest, also have obvious flaws.
Blade Runner 2049 is an extraordinarily complicated follow-up to a pretty complicated original, one that preserves all of Blade Runner’s mysteries while introducing whole new ones. It’s basically designed to be impenetrable, and asks infinitely more questions than it answers. That’s a blessing for those who like getting lost in alienating dystopian worlds, and thanks to Roger Deakins’ career-highlight cinematography (which is saying something), they’ll be more than happy to meander in the film’s high-falutin’ questions about the evolving nature of humanity.
Of course, that’s also a curse for people who demand narrative cohesion from their sci-fi blockbusters. Blade Runner 2049, like Blade Runner before it, was always going to be a tough sell on the casual moviegoing crowd. But this particular blend of hardboiled moral ambiguity, sumptuous imagery and lofty philosophies will reward multiple viewings, and no doubt will find a larger audience as time goes by.
10. (tie) STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
The Star Wars franchise is, if you actually include all the movies (and not just the ones you think should “count”), pretty spotty and, lately, self-reflexive. What a relief it was to discover that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was a giant about-face for the franchise, using The Empire Strikes Back as a structural launching point before demolishing the whole structure of the franchise to take serious narrative risks.
Not all those narrative risks pay off, of course. There’s a couple of plot holes here and there, a really long storyline that you could take out of the movie altogether without affecting hardly anything, and an ending which – depending on how cynical you want to be – arguably comes like a corporate mission statement. But again, most of the Star Wars movies have clunky parts. Heck, some of them are ALL clunk.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi swings for the fences puts dents in those fences, and it’s quite possible that no one will be able to use the same old fences again. Rian Johnson helped transform an ongoing story which was, if we’re being frank, was mostly about plot for many years into a rich and thematic new type of legend.
When The Last Jedi works, it’s a work of incredible pop art. When it doesn’t, it’s still pretty darned cool to watch.
10. (tie) VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets features the most beautiful imagery of any film this year. Indeed, it contains some of the most beautiful and original imagery you’re likely to find in any film. The whole movie is basically a single, solitary performance away from instant classic status, but dang it, Dane Dehaan – for all his obvious talent – is clearly miscast as a charismatic, hunky rogue.
And so we get a wondrous film with one actor who can’t seem to muster any real wonder. Oh well. Even so, Luc Besson’s incredible epic burns its way into your retinas. The opening sequence alone is a masterpiece of storytelling, revealing the future of humanity through a series of hugs and handshakes, offering hope for a brighter tomorrow in a genre best known for suggesting that we’re all going destroy each other.
From there, Valerian bounds from one unbelievable set piece to another, showing off the limitlessness of a filmmaker’s imagination when money and conventional wisdom are taken off the table. It’s a stunning and sensitive sci-fi epic and it’s going to find an appreciative fanbase. Maybe not soon, but eventually. Mark my words.
9. THE DISASTER ARTIST
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a rare and special work of art. It’s a serious drama about devastating heartache, a true passion project from filmmaker nobody listened to but who desperately wanted to be heard. And it is, quite notoriously, one of the worst movies ever made. Maybe even THE worst.
It would be easy to laugh at Tommy Wiseau, a strange and inexplicable human being with an unplaceable accent and a bottomless bank account. Heck, that’s what many of the so-called “fans” of The Room do on a regular basis, at screenings which encourage straight-up mockery of his magnum opus (behavior that Wiseau, to his credit, has come to embrace). But with The Disaster Artist, director James Franco – who also gives an impeccable performance as Tommy Wiseau – knows that only the mystery is hilarious. The person, whoever he is, is real.
And so The Disaster Artist emerges as one of the funniest movies of the year and, in many respects, one of the tenderest. The friendship between Tommy Wiseau his The Room co-star Greg Sestero (played by James Franco’s brother, Dave) is genuine and awkward, and filled with bona fide affection that supersedes little things like talent and social graces. It’s the story of a guy who made a movie, the people who (at least briefly) believed in him, and what happens when all your efforts turn out to be hilariously awful anyway.
It’s a story of how to cope through art, through friendship, and through acceptance. And it’s anything but a disaster. It, too, is rare and special.
Finally, the peaceful ode to Yasujirō Ozu and the local architecture of Columbus, IN that you always wanted.
Okay, well, maybe you didn’t know you always wanted that. I sure didn’t until I saw Koganada’s sublime debut feature Columbus, but thank heaven I did. It’s the story of a young architecture enthusiast and the son of a dying architectural professor, who meet at an important time in each other’s lives, help each other come to terms with life-altering decisions they both have to make, and explore the true meaning of… you guessed it… architecture.
Plot-wise, that’s not exactly The Maltese Falcon, but Koganada’s keen composition, cool lighting, subtle humanist screenplay, and quietly intricate performances (particularly from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) come together the way that any classical artistic structure should. Form and function become synonymous, so that the film’s central question – can architecture heal a soul? – confidently answers itself.
There may have been more impactful films this year, but there were none more harmonious. Columbus is an illuminating meditation.
Scary clowns! Scary clowns! Aaaaaaargh!
Let’s shift completely in the opposite direction to talk about It, the first installment in a two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s epic tome about the terrors of youth, the shames of adulthood, and a child-eating clown named Pennywise. Like many of the best (and worst) Stephen King stories, it’s told in incredibly broad strokes. But under the versatile direction of Andy Muschietti, and thanks to a stellar cast of young actors, It comes across as eerily universal. These kids are all the kids throughout history, and all kids must overcome their anxieties in order to grow up even halfway right.
Those anxieties take the form of high-octane nightmare fuel. Pennywise, as played by Bill Skarsgård, is a freak from hell to whom the laws of physics and sanity do not apply. These children are, essentially, tormented by an all-powerful god and Andy Muschietti’s inventive direction makes the most of those endless possibilities. It is, if nothing else, a jump-out-of-your-seat, extremely scary film.
But It is more than that a schlocky shocker. It bridges the gap between boo scares and existential dread. It’s a serious drama with a scary demon clown in it. It’s an old school fright flick with rich characters and meaningful emotions. It’s one of the best kinds of movies, the kind that entertains you as much as it connects with you on a serious, personal level. It rules.
6. THE LIGHT OF THE MOON
There are moments in your life that change everything. Movies tend to be about those moments, but writer/director Jessica M. Thompson’s reflective The Light of the Moon puts the emphasis on the everything, and how one catastrophic event taints everything that comes afterwards, in ways you cannot expect, and ways that are tragically predictable.
Stephanie Beatriz stars as an architect who is sexually assaulted on the way home from a night out with friends. It’s a brutal act, frankly shown, and the aftermath is equally frank. Trips to the doctor’s office, discouraging updates from law enforcement, estrangement from friends and family, and an uncrossable gulf in an otherwise healthy love life. There’s no scheme at work, no revenge to be had, there’s only picking up the pieces and trying, as best one can, to either move on or move forward.
The Light of the Moon is riveting in its attention to detail, the day to day ramifications of trauma and the subtle changes in behavior on the part of everyone even tangentially involved. The film asks seemingly impossible questions that, somehow, need to be addressed before anything like closure is possible. Assuming closure is possible at all. And Stephanie Beatriz gives a remarkable performance that covers all of these difficult evolutions organically and honestly.
Artifice has no place here. The Light of the Moon reveals all.
The best horror movies find a way to eat at you, and Raw is definitely one of those movies. Julia Ducournau’s morbid coming of age drama stars Garance Marillier as a young veterinary student, reserved and uncertain, who had never even swallowed a piece of meat in her life until an unexpected hazing ritual on her first day of college. And then she finds herself craving more meat. Fresher meat. All kinds.
Raw could have been a grand guignol gross out endurance challenge, but although parts of Julia Ducournau’s film will test your constitution, this is not a mere exercise in sensationalism. Raw is a sincere and disturbing descent into a hellish daily existence, one driven by impulse and hunger. Call it a metaphor for addiction if you must, or for sexual experimentation, or even just the unpredictable ways in which people find themselves evolving when they’re finally out in the wild. It all works. It’s that versatile a motion picture.
Raw resonates. It’s a grotesque and thoughtful, enthralling and repellant. And the cast embraces the darkest impulses to transform the unthinkable into something disquieting, but natural. We shouldn’t believe this is really happening. We shouldn’t be able to get into this mindset. But Julia Ducournau and Garance Marillier did, and they give us a guided tour.
4. THE BIG SICK
The funniest joke of the year was, unpredictably, a 9/11 joke. And it happened in the funniest film of the year, the sweetest romance of the year, and the biggest tearjerker in who knows how long.
The Big Sick stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail Nanjiani, in a movie he co-wrote with Emily V. Gordon, based on their own life together. The endlessly charming Zoe Kazan plays Gordon, who fell prey to a mysterious illness early in their relationship. Actually, shortly after they had originally broken up. She winds up in a medically induced coma, and Nanjiani winds up spending that whole time with her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, and it’s exactly as awkward as it sounds.
Michael Showalter has helped deconstruct the romantic comedy genre several times now, in films like The Baxter (which he directed) and They Came Together (which he co-wrote). The Big Sick isn’t a satire of the form but it does completely revise it, breaking the formula while hitting all the important beats. The story is captivating but unexpected (that’s life), and the characters are hilarious but totally natural (that’s life too). It has meaningful observations about love, family, and the never-ending clash of cultures.
Everything about The Big Sick is exquisite, yet unassuming. It’s just great, dang it.
2 (tie). LOGAN
Two of the best superhero movies ever came out in 2017. Put them side-by-side and they complement each other perfectly. They’re essentially polar opposites.
James Mangold’s Logan is one of the boldest and most distinctive superhero movies. It’s not because Logan plays a lot like a western (which the movie explains to us in nearly condescending detail), but because, like many westerns, it’s about a dying era. Actually, it’s just about dying. Logan, the Wolverine, is at the end of his life and suffering all the indignities of age. Heroism was a long time ago. And the fact that someone’s now asking him to transport a young mutant girl across the country, and fight a gang of cyborg mercenaries, is the last damned thing he needs.
Superhero stories are, for the most part, permanently stuck in their second act. They are created, they have adventures, and they rarely ever stop. And if they do stop, they don’t fade quietly away into a guilt-ridden, painful death. Logan follows that unbeaten path and finds more humanity than practically any other filmmaker has ever has along the way. Hugh Jackman gives his finest performance, and Patrick Stewart – playing a frail Professor X, stricken with degenerative mental illness and a shame he can’t bring himself to confront – probably does as well.
Logan is the end of the superhero movie. A fitting, sad conclusion to an era that had nothing more to offer. Or so it appeared…
2 (tie). WONDER WOMAN
Patty Jenkins’ phenomenal Wonder Woman is the beginning of the superhero movie. Everything old feels new again, everything new feels revolutionary.
Wonder Woman stars an effervescent Gal Gadot as Princess Diana of Themyscira, who lived her whole life in isolation, warned about the outside world and the warmongering men who rule it. But when a World War I pilot, played by Chris Pine, crash lands on her island she ventures forth to save the world.
That’s a pretty good plot. It becomes great as we realize that the world isn’t ready for her yet. Patty Jenkins cleverly spends almost half the movie making us wait for Wonder Woman to show up. She’s not being coy, she’s not copping out. She’s showing us what it’s like to be oppressed, to know better than the fools who keep you down, and how gloriously fulfilling it is to finally step onto the battlefield and prove what you can do.
In the film’s instantly iconic “No Man’s Land” sequence that is exactly what happens, and it kicks more ass than practically superhero scene before it. Not because it’s the best choreographed action in movie history (it’s pretty great though), but because it feels completely earned. And as the movie progresses, that victory proves short-lived, and Diana is challenged in more meaningful and profound ways.
Okay, okay, Wonder Woman ends in a chaotic and somewhat disappointing CGI fight. Superman: The Movie had problems too. The important thing is that Wonder Woman warrants the comparison to the grandest and most influential blockbusters. It doesn’t just entertain us, it inspires us. It shows us a new way to make movies. Heck, it shows us a new way to live. If that doesn’t make Wonder Woman an instant classic… what could?
1. GET OUT
The best movie of 2017 came out in February. The year went downhill from there.
Get Out is a film of great insight and righteous anger. Writer/director Jordan Peele tells the story of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya), dating a white woman (Allison Williams), meeting her supposedly liberal parents for the first time at their country house. Our hero knows he’s going into hostile territory, whether the residents think of it that way or not, and indeed, practically every line of dialogue comes across as defensive, aggressive, or ignorant as hell.
Jordan Peele spends most of Get Out relating the experience of watching a horror movie, always being on your guard, to the daily black experience in America. The bullshit that has to be put up with, the micro-aggressions that could escalate if you’re not careful. The unease is horrifying, but Jordan Peele rolls his eyes just enough at the racist bullshit to make it viciously and uncomfortably comic.
Until the shit hits the fan, and all hell breaks loose.
Get Out exposes the lie of a post-racial America, just in case you needed it exposed, and violently fights back. It’s an impossibly tense horror movie but equally valuable (and equally intense) as a socio-political allegory, a blistering critique of a culture that has been all too willing to forgive itself. It’s that rare film that works on every single level, to the extent that multiple viewings reveals multiple films.
Get Out works one way until you know the twists, and then every line of dialogue takes on a new meaning the second time you watch it. More nuances reveal themselves every time, as the mechanics of the “twist” raise questions about every interaction, and even the whole world.
Jordan Peele has written and directed one of the best horror movies. By extension, I would argue that this means he’s also directed one of the best movies, in general. Get Out is a film we desperately needed, and had needed for a long time. It contributes meaningfully to our collective, ongoing conversation about race, politics, cinema, and beyond. I think it’s going to be a classic.
SEVENTEEN RUNNERS-UP (in alphabetical order):
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
A Ghost Story
Happy Death Day
The LEGO Batman Movie
My Friend Dahmer
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Top Photos: Fox Searchlight / Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.