Brian and Noah cap off a great year of film by counting down the best films of 2017! Did you favorite make the list? No? Well, like better movies then.
I will start by saying that I am not a big fan of Star Wars; the originals are fine, the prequels are not, and I loved The Force Awakens. So when I say that The Last Jedi is a brilliant motion picture I’d like you to understand that is not inherent fandom talking. This is a brave blockbuster, forging a new path for a franchise in its fourth decade. Ambitious doesn’t begin to describe it. A film about the youth realizing they don’t have the answers while their elders realize their time is coming to an end. The fight against inevitability. The transition of power. The value in experience and inexperience. And this is a Star Wars movie? Filled with brilliant set pieces (the opening scene, Snoke’s throne room, the battle on Crait), vibrant new characters, and diving deeper into familiar characters. There is so much to chew on here. I mean, the entire film is about the slow dissolve and decimation of the resistance, and yet has an ending of pure hope. The Last Jedi also contains the best ending shot in the history of the franchise and possibly the single greatest moment in any Star Wars film (Laura Dern for the win!). Simply premiere blockbuster filmmaking.
Edgar Wright’s first real studio picture plays out like a master at the height of his powers. That’s not to say it’s his best film (it’s very hard to choose), but that he has honed his craft and is creating on another level. All of Wright’s films have an effective and integral sound design. For fans of his this isn’t anything new. But Baby Driver is something else entirely. It is his pinnacle. The way he creates his scenes and moves his music to not only the basic action taking place but the little things – gun shots, foot steps, finger taps – is immaculately created. Funny, thrilling, ambitious, fun, infectious, and overall spellbinding, Baby Driver could only be made by someone with specific taste, with a distinct vision, and the tenacity to pull it off. Baby Driver could only be made by Edgar Wright.
A beautiful loving mediation on love and lust, Call Me By Your Name fills the screen with imagery of passion. Leading the way is the star-making performance by Timothee Chalamet who encapsulates the angst, wonders, and infection of a first love. He and Armie Hammer simply heat up the screen as the lovers of our story. But everyone here scores with Esther Garrel turning in a heartbreaking performance as a character who experiences what Chalamet does, only from the other, doomed, side. The Italian imagery is lush with color and sun as our characters bask in it while we bask in them. Romance and lust carry the film as we experience the waiting of the first touch with Chalamet only to also slowly realize the outcome of the story with him. With terrific original songs by Sufjan Stevens, a delicate and bracing script by James Ivory, and a cast of winners, Call Me by Your Name asks us to love along with it if only for a time and revel in how special it is.
Pixar doesn’t make as many classics like they use to, but when they do they bring it. Like Inside Out two years earlier, Coco joins the ranks of Pixar’s best films. Filled with bright colors, brilliant animation, complex characters, and a rich history, it’s a film that is destined to be admired for years to come. With an all Latino cast it uses the culture it’s exploring to immerse an audience of any background in this world. Coco works as a buddy comedy, a race against time adventure, and a sweet family film, but like all of Pixar’s best there’s something else here. Here is a film, a film for children, that deals point blank with death and loss. The idea of cherishing what we have and remembering what we don’t plays out hand in hand with the concept of how losing people you love can be sad but shouldn’t remain that way. There are two moments where the song “Remember Me” plays that are possibly the two most powerful moments on film this year. Coco is a remarkable emotional achievement that reminds us that those we’ve lost can always be found in our memories.
What makes The Big Sick work so damn well is the specificity of it. Not only of the main story, that of a woman who goes into a coma after breaking up with a boyfriend, but of the dynamics involved. The customs and traditions of Kumail’s Pakistani family are not familiar to most audiences, nor are they known or understood by Emily and her family. And that this film spoke to and touched so many and was as successful as it was is a testiment not just to Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s screenplay but a shining example of the universality of the human race. Each audience member, regardless of background, understands the point of view of Kumail and his family. We leave the theater enlightened and with a greater understanding of a culture different from ours with the same basic intent: to want what we believe is best for our children. That the movie is hysterical, sweet, moving, smart, filled with wonderful performances (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are the best they’ve been in years), and so endearing is the icing on the multicultural cake.
Martin McDonagh’s most straightforward film is a riveting portrait of consequences. Told with a raging elegance, the film crackles underneath the surface of its story. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell lead a stellar ensemble filled with lived-in real performances of real people with real pain. Is the film about redemption, acceptance, the perceived healing power of anger? All of those things? None? It’s up to us to decide whether our characters are in the right or wrong. McDonagh seems more assured behind the camera than ever has before and his sharp wit remains just that. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri has tough questions it doesn’t answer, asks much of its audience, and seems to revel in its characters’ flaws. But surrounded by wonderful cinematography and a terrific score, with fantastic performances and a deep rooted truth, it’s one of the best films of the year. Much like Mildred Hayes herself, this is a stubborn little film that earns our heart despite itself.
While admittedly not an enormous fan of Guillermo del Toro, there was nothing about The Shape of Water that didn’t absolutely floor me. This film is poetry in motion. Evoking classic themes and imagery of monster films of old, capturing the vivid romance of cinema’s past, and blending old-school techniques with modern flare, this is simply the most beautiful film of the year. Sally Hawkins, in one of the best performances of last year, leads a stellar ensemble cast. Guillermo’s eye for set design works best in any film he’s done since Pan’s Labyrinth. The music, by Alexandre Desplat, is simply stunning, the only score this year that, when listening to it outside the theater, immediately puts me back in the movie. The sense of adventure, the ache of heartbreak, the magic of love, man, The Shape of Water is as close to a dream come to life than we’ve had all year.
The technical achievement of the year, Christopher Nolan has set himself a new benchmark with Dunkirk. While not the emotional sucker punch that was Interstellar, this is a film that clearly carries the director’s heart. He weaves three storylines happening concurrently with each other but each with a distinct pace. One moves more slowly and deliberately, one more kinetic and frantic, and one patient with a building dread. As the pieces move into place at Nolan’s discretion we realize how small this story actually is and how heroic the seemingly faceless can be. From the sound mix, to Hans Zimmer’s masterful score, to the jaw-dropping cinematography (some of the most beautifully shot frames I’ve ever seen on the big screen) Dunkirk is a modern war classic about hope, bravery, and humanity guiding the will.
There is a beautiful tragedy that plays alongside Lady Bird‘s coming of age comedy. Our alliance shifts throughout the film between our two main characters. We sympathize with Lady Bird and with her mother Marion. Because, as in life, no one person is correct. At times Lady Bird is very ignorant about her mother’s intentions and at times her mother acts irrationally. Greta Gerwig knows this and uses the narrative crux of a protagonist and antagonist to subvert those expectation for the audience. This is real life, this is a mother and daughter trying their best, no one is the villain. But Greta also infuses her film with a comedic universality. We sometimes aren’t sure why Lady Bird is laughing at what her best friend is saying but they are having the best time, and we can recognize it and suddenly we’re laughing. The characters in Lady Bird are universal and ones we can relate to; but they also are inspiring. Who wouldn’t want the will to have convictions as strong as Lady Bird, or be as caring and selfless as her father, or have the misguided confidence of Timothee Chalamet’s character, or the pathos of her best friend, or the perseverance and work ethic of her mother? Hilarious, charming, relatable, and altogether inspiring, Lady Bird is a classic that will be around for as long as parents and kids fight.
A thundering statement of a film filled with layers upon layers of meaning and interpretation. There was no film this year with more repeat watch-ability. A horror film wrapped in social allegory, a comedy film rooted in a racial drama, Get Out was the film 2017 needed. Jordan Peele crafted a gift for everyone from the casual moviegoer to the advent movie lover. No frame is taken for granted, no line not riddled with meaning, no performance not ever changing with every viewing, this is simply a masterpiece of filmmaking. But not only is Get Out the singular achievement of the year but it’s so damn fun. Daniel Kaluuya gives a star-making performance, Allison Williams gives her best performance ever, Lil Rel Howery steals the show, everyone gets a chance to shine. This is a film of distinct purpose, playing to masses by playing both sides of the equation. By showing the villains as white liberals, those who make an extra effort to show how not-racist they are, the film is able to affect both the African-American community and the white liberal community (the two communities most likely to enjoy the film). It’s a stunning high-wire act so as not to alienate the former audience. But Peele and company don’t care, and that’s the trick. They don’t care who might think what about their movie, they want to make the best, most entertaining one possible. There is so much to unwrap in Get Out that I’ll be watching for years discovering something new. Pay attention to dialogue, motivations, the props, camera techniques, narrative flow, because it’s all intentional and it’s all there for you discover. We are just scratching the surface of the genius of Jordan Peele and the genius of Get Out.
Just like 2013’s Her, The Shape of Water brilliantly makes the case that any story can be a love story if told earnestly. It’s undeniable that the film’s premise (a mute cleaning woman falls in love with a fish monster being kept in a government facility during the Cold War) is strange on its face, and even so much as a wink of acknowledgement of that fact from anybody involved would have sent the whole thing crumbling to the ground. Instead, the film is treated with a gentle sincerity from start to finish, and the illusion is never broken. The entire cast is allowed to shine, with Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins doing some of their greatest work, and the result is director Guillermo del Toro’s best movie in at least 12 years.
Everybody expected at least a powerhouse performance from Phantom Thread. Daniel Day-Lewis is always excellent, and reuniting him with Paul Thomas Anderson, on top of this supposedly being his final acting role, promised to be something truly special. So it was unsurprising when he gave one of the best performances of the year, and possibly one of the best of his career. What was surprising was that it might not have even been the best performance in Phantom Thread. That honor should arguably go to Vicky Krieps, whose showing as Alma was every bit as vulnerable, mysterious, and lived-in as Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock. Phantom Thread is every bit as rich as a Paul Thomas Anderson movie should be, while also being one of his most accessible and, sneakily, his funniest.
mother! is a stunning return to form for director Darren Aronofsky. It’s interesting to watch as an intensely biblical allegory, and the performances are very strong throughout (Jennifer Lawrence stands out in particular), but it’s the climax that lodges mother! firmly in the Top 10 of the year. Watching Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother wander around her home, terrified and confused, as it descends into chaos is truly a sight to behold and a reminder of the emotional heights Aronofsky is capable of achieving. Perhaps more than any director working today, he is uniquely capable of making the viewer literally gape at the screen while thinking, “Holy shit, holy shit, what’s going on, oh my god, holy shit.”
Good Time was unlike anything else I saw in theaters in 2017. Every frame embodied the word kinetic. Robert Pattinson’s Connie is constantly on the move, improvising his way through the night and ending up in a place almost unrecognizable from where he starts. He is a fascinating figure in that he is a fairly reprehensible human being who does some truly disgusting things, yet he is still incredibly compelling even though he seems to lack the traditional heart of gold to balance out is wrongs. He’s just a bad dude, and it’s very hard to root for him, but Pattinson’s brilliant performance sucks you in anyway.
Tempted though I may be, I will resist writing about nothing but Michael Stuhlbarg’s incomparable, show stopping performance, because the rest of Call Me By Your Name deserves almost as much praise. The passion between Timothee Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver exudes out of the screen, and is matched by every other element of the movie. The Italian scenery and landscapes are gorgeous. The original songs written and performed by Sufjan Stevens are evocative and essential. That Stuhlbarg monologue. The final, lingering shot is haunting and bittersweet. Call Me By Your Name is more than just the sum of its parts. Rather, it’s the parts themselves that make it so great.
Get Out is the perfect combination of “Movie” and “Film.” Purely on its surface, it is immensely enjoyable and rewatchable. It is at times both the funniest and most terrifying movie of the year, and it even produced the gif of Daniel Kaluuya crying as he descends into the Sunken Place, cementing it in the culture forever. But below that surface is a movie begging to be examined and unpacked. Nearly every line of the uncomfortable first half of Get Out takes on a second meaning in the light of the sinister second half. The movie’s exploration of “liberal racism” and how, while maybe less obviously and aggressively hateful, it can be just as evil and damaging as any other kind is poignant, timely, and fresh (unfortunately so). Kaluuya and Allison Williams both give award worthy performances under the guiding hand of director Jordan Peele, who, in a year filled with impressive debuts, stands out among the very best of them.
Christopher Nolan has put together an incredibly impressive filmography so far, and Dunkirk may be his crowning achievement. It manages to be grand and subdued simultaneously, combining overwhelming visuals and a pounding score with deft, low key performances, sparse dialogue, and a tightly constrained runtime. More than any movie in recent memory, Dunkirk demands to be seen in the biggest format possible. A theater is ideal, but a large TV is acceptable. A laptop will not do. Dunkirk is an experience as much as it is a movie; it’s tense, claustrophobic, triumphant, and melancholy. More than anything, it is the cinematic achievement of the year.
Unlike the movie directly preceding it on this list, very little of Blade Runner 2049 is subdued. Aside from one of Ryan Gosling’s trademark silent-but-compelling performances, every bit of the movie revels in its grandiosity. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is simultaneously dark, shadowy, and aggressively colorful, and is the very picture of enormity. Themes of what it means to be human and feel love, all too common in robot movies, are examined with a careful grace, and find new life in the hands of Denis Villeneuve. Harrison Ford managed to shake the “What am I even doing here?” demeanor he tends to bring to his recent roles and instead give one of his best performances in some time. A nearly three hour, big budget Blade Runner sequel in 2017 seems doomed to fail in every respect, but it was approached with an incredible passion and respect, and the results were breathtaking.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is an incredibly complex examination of what it means to be a hero, centered around two deeply rich performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. McDormand’s Mildred is our nominal hero, a woman who has endured immense suffering and is willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to find justice. How can you not root for that, after what she’s gone through? Except, at the same time, how far is too far? As the film goes on, her actions seems less and less heroic than they do sad and unhinged. Then there’s Rockwell’s Dixon, a hateful and racist cop who sees the light as time goes on and starts to drift towards the side of good. But does he? His mindset may have altered slightly, but has he redeemed himself? Can he ever? These are questions that Martin McDonagh is not interested in answering for us. He merely asks them, presented alongside his usual dark and witty humor, leaving the viewer with a compelling and confounding movie that sticks around long after it’s over.
As soon as I left Lady Bird, the conversation wasn’t where it ranked in 2017 – it was undeniably #1 – but rather where it ranked all time for me. It’s a damn near perfect movie. It deftly runs an absolute gauntlet of emotions, from heartwarming to jubilant to exceedingly sad. It’s intensely relatable, even if the subject matter isn’t something you’ve personally lived through. It’s incredibly efficient with its time; so much happens in only an hour and a half, and not one second of it feels rushed. Every one of its characters is deep and contradictory and profoundly human; there are no bit parts in Lady Bird, and every actor makes the absolute most of what they are given. Even the egregiously bad ADR on the bridge near the end only serves to highlight the flawlessness around it. Greta Gerwig, Laurie Metcalf, and Saoirse Ronan get the bulk of the attention and praise for Lady Bird, and they deserve every bit of it, but every single person involved in this movie should be immensely proud.