You can tell it's been a good year for cinema by the sheer variety of films being lauded, and by the widespread disagreement between various critics' "Best of the Year" lists. In many years, you'll see the same 10 or 20 films on all the lists, because the selection is so pathetically limited that every critic seizes on the obvious candidates. This year, however, each list is likely to include two or three of the usual suspects, but then be rounded out with selections from a pool of fifty or sixty films that each have a plausible claim to acclaim. (As I read these lists, in fact, I keep encountering movies of which I've never even heard: an experience that fills me with equal parts dismay and excitement.)
It is the critic's perennial lament that keeping up with the sheer quantity of available product is difficult. And, for we "unaffiliated" critics—who, alas, do not receive screeners, tickets to press screenings, or all-expense-paid packages to film festivals—the challenge is pretty much impossible. Myself, I ended up seeing something like 120 films in 2017: it's probably a personal record, but it's barely a third of the titles eligible for this year's Academy Awards, and a mere fraction of all the movies that were released—in the U.S., worldwide, and online—in 2017.
As such, there are a lot of movies turning up on other lists that I'm still looking forward to seeing, either because they haven't opened in Chicago yet, or because I missed them in theaters and they're not yet (legally) available by other means. (Off the top of my head—and in no particular order—my wish-list includes BPM (Beats per Minute), Phantom Thread, The Post, Ex Libris, Faces Places, Wonderstruck, A Fantastic Woman, and many, many others.)
There were also a few prominent films I consciously chose not to see, for reasons that have little to do with their artistic merit. (This freedom is one of the few advantages of being "unaffiliated.") I suppose each of us—professional critics, lay critics like me, and individual movie-goers—must decide how best to respond to the wave of sexual harassment and assault revelations that has rocked Hollywood this year. For myself, it means skipping movies made by toxic filmmakers (scratch Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel), starring toxic actors (sorry, The Meyerowitz Stories), or featuring dumb-ass, willfully clueless celebrities who feel the need to defend a toxic industrial culture (fuck off, Matt Damon, with your Suburbicon and Downsizing).
Does this mean I'll miss seeing some good movies? Almost certainly. (As you'll see below, Edgar Wright's Baby Driver was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I probably would have skipped it altogether if the many revelations about Kevin Spacey had come out before the movie did.) But that's a small price, and one I'm more than willing to pay. Hollywood isn't going to change until its forced to stop enabling these men, and that means you don't get my money (let alone my review) if you put Dustin Hoffman (for one example) in your movie. I choose not to worry about the good movies by sleazy men that I might miss, and focus instead on the great cinematic art by women that we've all missed, over the last 100 years, due to Hollywood's sexist and sexually predatory culture. The long-overdue reckoning finally began this year—due to brave women (and a few men) telling their stories—and I sincerely hope it's only just begun.
Even with all these many omissions and ethical disqualifications, however, I had no shortage of films crowding each other out on my short list—so many, in fact, that the idea of organizing them was a nightmare. I have always disliked the "apples-to-oranges" approach to these things: how does one compare an arty drama to a silly cartoon, or a raunchy comedy to a powerful documentary? This year, I had no fewer than 15 dramas on my short list: they are all worthy works, but are they necessarily more worthwhile and deserving of praise than the most successful action films of the year?
Usually, I pretend they are, and so I choke my lists with high-brow "serious" films while perhaps carving out one or two slots for lighter fare or genre triumphs. This year, I'm doing something different, and breaking my list into six categories of five films each. It's still not a perfect system—for one thing, there are movies that could quite reasonably live in several of my arbitrary buckets—but I think it allows for better recognition of the full range of truly fine films this year.
So, if you really need a single "Best Of" list, feel free to assume that the top two films across each category constitute my twelve favorite films of the year. (I'm still not going to tell you what order they go in, however...) I'm also including some honorable mentions in each category, and—just for fun—some dishonorable mentions, representing the very worst movies I saw in 2017.
THE BEST ANIMATED FILMS OF 2017
Though animation provided some of my absolute least favorite experiences of the year—my two dishonorable mentions were both eye-clawingly awful—my Top Five films remind us that animation is a medium, not a genre: together, they constitute a marvelous representation of the art form's complete spectrum, ranging from the completely ridiculous to the delicately sublime.
5. CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE
I was as surprised as anyone could be at how much I enjoyed this, but David Soren's adaptation of Dev Silkey's children's books is an inventive, irreverent delight, boasting clever new ideas and hilarious gags at every turn. (In fact—since I laughed as hard at this as I did at any movie this year—I'm struggling to remember why it isn't also on my "Best Comedies" list.) Read my full review here.
4. LOVING VINCENT
Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's Loving Vincent—a meditative investigation into the death of Vincent Van Gogh—does not quite have a screenplay to match its method. But that scarcely matters with a method this mad: a full-length animated drama in which every frame is an oil painting done by hand—mostly in the style of Van Gogh's paintings—it's a soulful, mesmerizingly beautiful film.
3. YOUR NAME
Actually a 2016 release in Japan, but not widely distributed in the States until the Spring of 2017, Makoto Shinkai's Your Name is a delightful combination of love story, coming-of-age tale, body-swap comedy, and time travel adventure. J.J. Abrams is slated to do the inevitable live-action American remake, but it is unlikely to capture—let alone surpass—the wistful charm and delicate emotional resonance of the original.
Pixar's best and most heartfelt film in years, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina's celebration of Mexican culture is more complex than it appears, and richly evocative with themes both sweet and bittersweet. It's a magical tale that speaks to issues of assimilation, immigration, deportation, appropriation, the fading of memory, and each generation's struggle to balance cultural traditions with individual dreams.
1. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
Director Claude Barras's feature debut My Life as a Zucchini is a tiny miracle, capturing some of the darkness and trauma of childhood without losing any of the humor, innocence, or wonder. A short and simple story of orphaned and abandoned children living in a group home, Zucchini is huge with complex and precisely realized emotion, which Barras conveys with the lightest of touches and the most achingly expressive puppets you've ever seen.
THE BEST COMEDIES OF 2017
Comedy was the one category on my list that I struggled to fill. (In fact, considering how badly we all needed to laugh in 2017, the movie industry sorely let us down.) I saw a lot of truly execrable comedies in 2017, but few great ones.
5. THE DISASTER ARTIST
James Franco watched The Room, so we don't have to. Strangely distant from its (perhaps unknowable) subject, The Disaster Artist is arguably more of a stellar impersonation and reenactment than a fully functioning movie. Nevertheless, it's as a comedy that the film works brilliantly: it will never not be funny to watch talentless people passionately making art.
4. INGRID GOES WEST
As a satire of social-media culture, Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West is smart but hardly revolutionary. (I'd argue the Black Mirror episode "Nosedive" did it first, and better.) But, as a character study, a sharply sensitive screenplay and complex, fully-realized performances by Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen—as an Internet stalker and the object of her obsession—elevate this one above the pack.
3. THE BIG SICK
Michael Showalter's The Big Sick is that rarest of things: a realistic romantic comedy. Standing out in a genre that too often relies on absurd misunderstandings and elaborately constructed farce, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's remarkably humane screenplay—based on their life—finds organic humor in serious situations, and conflicts that are grounded in believable characters. Read my full review here.
2. LADY BIRD
Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but Greta Gerwig's deft and sensitive directorial debut creates a portrait of adolescence for the ages. Beautifully occupying the precise, awkward cusp of adulthood, Gerwig's screenplay resists simple formulae and easy answers, favoring messily complex characters brought authentically to life through stellar performances by Saorise Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Tracy Letts.
1. GIRLS TRIP
Easily the funniest film of the year, Malcolm D. Lee's Girls Trip also manages to be a moving story about women who feel like real characters, with real friendships, for real emotional stakes. Girls Trip earns every one of its laughs, dealing with authentic issues through a steady-stream of slapstick gags and sexually explicit one-liners. Smart, smutty, and surprisingly sweet, Girls Trip is a shamelessly proud and infectious celebration of black women everywhere. Read my full review here.
THE BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2017
As usual, I didn't see as many documentary features this year as I probably should have seen. But most of the ones I saw were really good, and reminded me what a powerful and necessary medium it is. (Note to self: see more documentaries.)
A true story with all the rhythms and beats of a manufactured teen sports drama, Amanda Lipitz's Step focuses on the step-dance team at a charter school on the edges of one of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods in America. Insightful and exuberant, Step provides a rare and necessary celebration of the love, beauty, and improbably resilient optimism that empower people to survive and thrive against all odds. Read my full review here.
4. CITY OF GHOSTS
Matthew Heineman, director of the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, explores another overlooked war zone with this intimate, infuriating, brutally vérité documentary about Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a loose organization of citizen-journalists waging an underground information war against the oppressive ISIS regime that has made their home town the capital of the caliphate.
3. A GRAY STATE
On its increasingly disturbing surface, Erik Nelson's A Gray State—an investigation into the life and death of alt-right filmmaker David Crowley—is a true-life, found-footage horror film, using Crowley's digital documentation of his life to trace his steady descent into madness. Beneath the surface, A Gray State manages to be a poignant exploration of the dark side of Internet culture, and a timely, insightful look into the disturbed mentality of Trump's America. Read my full review here.
2. WHOSE STREETS?
Released on the third anniversary of Michael Brown's death, and on the same weekend that White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis's ground-level documentary about black activists in Ferguson, Missouri should be essential viewing for all Americans. Raw, infuriating, and harrowing, Whose Streets? is also an intimate celebration of the resilience of a community, the courage of a new generation of activists, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Read my full review here.
1. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
We need James Baldwin's voice at this moment in history, and Raoul Peck delivers it in a beautiful, wrenching, almost playfully confrontational documentary. Peck lays Baldwin's words over historical and contemporary images of racial injustice, linking past and present with a provocative artistry and accusatory clarity that complement Baldwin's own. The result is one of the most powerful films of the year, both as a cultural document and as a cinematic experience. Read my full review here.
Honorable Mentions: Strong Island, 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene
Dishonorable Mentions: None
THE BEST ACTION/ADVENTURE FILMS OF 2017
This is a slightly fuzzy category, I admit, encompassing as it does action movies, superhero movies, sci-fi movies, heist movies, and other fighting/kicking/shooting/chasing flicks. Frankly, I don't care what we call them, but we know them when we see them, and a great one is not any less of an accomplishment than a stately and tasteful drama. (In fact—as evidenced by the truly atrocious examples that crowd the multiplexes every year—they may be even harder to pull off well.)
5. THOR: RAGNAROK
It took three Thor movies for his solo franchise to figure out what the Avengers movies already knew: the character and his world work best as comedy. Director Taika Waititi was an unlikely but inspired choice to prove that point, but he produced one of the funniest films of the year—in any genre—and the most purely fun superhero movie since Guardians of the Galaxy.
4. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
It's no surprise that Rian Johnson's film features a lot of discussion about "balance," since any new Star Wars episode requires precarious balancing acts: servicing old and new characters, pleasing old and new fans, honoring the past while carving a viable creative path to the future. Predictably, SW:TLJ has been divisive, and it is far from perfect. But, for my money, Johnson juggles the impossible demands beautifully, approaching this world not as sacred text but as a living story to be advanced.
3. BABY DRIVER
In a pretty much flawless movie career, Edgar Wright has become a sort of high-priest of pop-culture, taking overly familiar tropes and reinterpreting them into fresh and stylish entertainments. Baby Driver feels like the movie Wright was always destined to make, a deliriously fun, authentically inauthentic pop-culture confection of a summer movie. (As mentioned above, the only asterisk to its inclusion here is the presence of Kevin Spacey, now forever tainted. Mr. Wright, is it too late to CGI Christopher Plummer into Spacey's role?) Read my full review here.
Like Marvel Comics by way of Cormac McCarthy, James Mangold's Logan is the first big-screen superhero treatment to recognize that superhero stories can handle serious, adult themes, and to set its comic-based characters free from the soulless treadmill of preposterous plot to exist as emotionally complex people. Violent, profane, existentially-bleak, and yet somehow still fun, it's a film that should expand our understanding and expectations about what a superhero movie can be. Read my full review here.
1. WONDER WOMAN
Striding into the no-man's-land of superhero films with the same fearless confidence with which its hero strides into gunfire, Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman is a ground-breaking, ceiling-shattering triumph. It was a near-perfect example of its genre, with a better-than-average story, rich characters, and action sequences that were beautifully executed and emotionally integral. It was also a gentle corrective to its genre, with both the brilliant Jenkins and Gal Gadot's radiantly decent hero proving (as if it needed proving) there are other, better ways to do things than the ways the men have always done them. Read my full review here.
Honorable Mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2; Blade Runner 2049; War for the Planet of the Apes; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Dishonorable Mentions: Transformers: The Last Night; The Mummy
THE BEST HORROR/SUPERNATURAL FILMS OF 2017
Okay, this category is even fuzzier, I confess. There were few "pure" horror films on my short-list, but a lot of psychologically dark, brilliantly unclassifiable, horror-tinged films that were among my very favorites of the year. (It makes sense to me to put these together, anyway. The films in the 4 and 5 slots are practically spiritual sisters.)
Joachim Trier's Thelma is a haunting, deeply unnerving coming-of-age story about a young woman (the fantastic Eili Harboe) raised in a strict religious family, whose repressed sexuality and latent reality-bending powers emerge simultaneously in her first year of college. Darkly beautiful and complexly evocative, Thelma is a suspenseful feminist fable that lingers (and troubles) long after viewing.
Another foreign film that uses horror tropes (in this case, cannibalism) to tell a dark, collegiate coming-of-age story, Julia Ducournau's stunning debut Raw is not for the faint of heart—particularly if you are (like the protagonist is at Raw's beginning) a vegetarian. Garance Marillier gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance in a film that feels as fearless, surprising, and dangerous as anything I saw all year.
Director Bong Joon Ho's film about a genetically modified giant pig and the little girl (Ahn Seo Hyun) who loves it is an absolutely indefinable thing: a Disney-esque children's adventure film cross-bred with a satiric horror movie. Smart, fun, emotionally wrenching, and visually dazzling, it's a modern fairy tale with the sensibilities of old fairy tales: the ones with violence and horror and biting social commentary. (And be warned: it may put you off bacon forever.)
2. PERSONAL SHOPPER
A genuinely unsettling ghost story in which we're never quite sure whether the ghosts are real, Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper is an arresting—and, yes, haunting—exercise in restraint and mood. A never-better Kristen Stewart is hypnotic as an American girl in Paris, a personal shopper and part-time medium haunted (literally?) by the death of her twin brother.
1. GET OUT
Like all good horror, Jordan Peele's brilliant Get Out works on several level. Those simply hoping for a funny and scary movie about culture clashes will find it. But beneath its genre surface Get Out is the first great horror film of the Black Lives Matter era, exploring vital themes about the legacy of slavery, the objectification and exoticization of black bodies, the appropriation of black culture, and the dangerous, insidious lie of a "post-racial" America. Read my full review here.
THE BEST DRAMAS OF 2017
5. PRINCESS CYD
Small, interpersonal dramas about literary white people are so prevalent that I honestly thought I couldn't possibly watch (let alone like) another one. Thus I was surprised by how much I loved Stephen Cone's Princess Cyd, about an orphaned 16-year-old girl (Jessie Pinnick) who goes to stay with her author aunt (Rebecca Spence). An almost indefinably moving story of two very different women—one just finding her identity, the other finding hers gently questioned—Princess Cyd has remarkable humanity, authenticity, and generosity of spirit.
As formally perfect a film as I saw all year, Columbus is a quietly stunning announcement of a major new cinematic talent in Korean-born writer-director Kogonada. Featuring a clever and daringly restrained screenplay, and incredibly realized performances from John Cho and (particularly) rising star Haley Lu Richardson, the real star of Columbus is Kogonada's thoughtful (and beautiful) mise en scène. Like the architectural modernists the film showcases, Kogonada's careful understanding of people in spaces yields subtle and powerful emotional resonance.
3. I, DANIEL BLAKE
Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake—a 2016 UK release—is an artful, infuriating, and unfailingly humane story. The story of a disabled worker (Dave Johns) and a single-mother (Hayley Squires, in my nominee for performance of the year) navigating the bureacratic inhumanities of the welfare system, I, Daniel Blake captures both the oppressive cruelties and the sustaining kindnesses of poverty, managing to be heart-warming and soul-crushing in almost equal measures. Read my full review here.
Few films have explored the inextricable narratives of white and black America with the intelligence and emotional nuance of Dee Rees's Mudbound. The story of two families of farmers in 1940s Mississippi—one black, one white—Rees explores the economic codependencies that forever link them, and the social injustices that forever separate them. There are moments when Mudbound seems to be heading towards reductiveness—or, worse, platitudes of harmony—but Rees and her stunningly good cast deftly sidestep them, insisting on psychological complexity and insolvable fissures.
1. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
In the follow-up to his critical breakthrough Tangerine (2015), Sean Baker proves himself again a sensitive and visionary chronicler of the overlooked American fringes with a story that is simultaneously both harsh and whimsical, delightful and devastating. Through the eyes of six-year old Moonee (the dazzling Brooklyn Prince), Baker captures all of the gritty desperation of life on the low-rent outskirts of Disney's "Happiest Place on Earth." But he also somehow—without an ounce of sentimentality or condescension—finds the innocence, and wonder, and the sustaining kindnesses. His characters feel more like people than those found in other films, and the communities they occupy come to seem not so much "fringes" at all, but the very heart and soul of America.