There was little reason to have hope for mainstream moviemaking (or, hell, much of anything) at the beginning of this year, but in spite of all reasonable expectations, 2017 was one of the best in recent memory. The fall was filled with breezy and biting prestige pictures like Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird; the summer was full of unexpectedly intelligent franchise pictures like War for the Planet of the Apes and Atomic Blonde; and throughout the year, we saw little miracles like Get Out, Okja, and The Big Sick. These were the ten films I valued highest, when the time came to make this list; with another week or month to reflect, they could’ve been differently ordered, or ten other films altogether. That’s the kind of year this was.
Luca Guadagnino’s movies (which also include I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) are sun-soaked treats, in which beautiful people while away their days swimming and eating and fucking; you just want to walk into the screen, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and hang out there. But they’re never merely about sensuous pleasures, a fact that holds firm in his latest – an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, in which a 17-year-old son of an American professor experiences first resentment, then lust, then love for a visiting grad student. Guadagnino beautifully captures the potent mix of desire and idealism that defines such an affair; he also, unexpectedly, portrays the heartache at such a relationship’s end with both maturity and sensitivity. It’s rare to find a film that’s both a sexy frolic and a melancholy weeper, but we have one here, so let’s treasure it.
9. I, Tonya
Craig Gillespie’s dramatization, and reexamination, of one of the biggest tabloid stories of the 1990s is based – per its opening credits – on wildly contrary (and “irony-free”) interviews with the major players in the bonkers story of figure skating rivalry and for-hire knee-capping, particularly skating champ Tonya Harding (a blazingly good Margot Robbie), her physically abusive boyfriend Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and her emotionally abusive mother (Allison Janney, doing her best screen work to date, and yes, that’s a bold statement). It’s a funny movie, mining considerable humor from its hare-brained caper and its own structural cleverness, but there’s more than that; in its own nutty, sideways manner, I, Tonya is piercingly questioning how we approach class and background in America, and how the presumptions baked into both steer the cultural conversation.
8. Phantom Thread
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis previously collaborated There Will Be Blood, for which the actor won the second of his three Oscars; there’s a whiff of James Mason to this performance, though with a bit of elbow room. The character, Reynolds Woodcock, is a man robust in his appetites – eats big meals, drives his sports car fast, moves from woman to woman – but meticulous in his work, and Anderson shows rather than tells (the little blisters in the close-ups of his fingers do the work of pages of expositional dialogue). The picture’s revelation is co-star Ms. Krieps, who is every bit his match; she seems, at the beginning, a variation on the starry-eyed ingénue, but witness the entire conversation they have, without saying anything at all, when he finds her on a dance floor on New Year’s Eve. This is some of the most complex and lived-in acting I’ve seen this year, imbued with a sense of danger and unpredictability that Anderson’s wild script matches. And then some.
Director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) crafts an absolutely bonkers mash-up of social treatise, sci-fi monster movie, and elegant action picture – the kind of thing that could’ve been an utter train wreck of disparate narratives and tones in the wrong hands. These, to put it mildly, are the right ones. Joon-ho beautifully orchestrates pathos, satire, and action set pieces, bouncing the easy, natural, and determined performance of lead An Seo Hyun off the (wonderfully) cartoonish work of Swinton and Gyllnhaal. It’s hard to know exactly how to sell this, or even encapsulate its wonders in a single paragraph. But it’s magnificently entertaining and wildly unpredictable, and there are alarmingly few movies these days that fit both descriptions.
6. Logan Lucky
I’m not sure I had a better time at the movies this year than I had at this, the first feature film in four years from the effervescent Steven Soderbergh; his gifts with actors, compositions, and cutting haven’t rusted a bit, and though it’s something like his fifth heist movie, he’s still finding ingenious new ways to present (and hide) information, tinker with archetypes, and turn the entire enterprise on its head. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver have never been more charming, Daniel Craig is clearly having a blast, and when Riley Keough is eventually a huge movie star (and it’ll happen), her performance here will help explain it. Logan is inventive, funny, and flashy, in all the best ways – and while it would be a treat no matter who was making it, it’s hard to imagine anyone making it as well as Soderbergh.
5. Get Out
Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut would’ve been electrifying in any year. But in this particular year, it felt as topical as an op-ed – telling, as it does, the story of a young man who’s horrified to discover that he’s surrounded by racists and liars. Yet as with the best works of commentary, its socio-political concerns are secondary; this is, first and foremost, a chillingly effective thriller, but one in which (brilliantly) the usual red flags of abnormal behavior are easily written off as microgressions and discomfort. Peele juggles tones, orchestrates elements, and coaxes grounded performances with the skill of an old pro, and there are scenes where he has so much happening at once, dramatically and cinematically, that it’s sort of staggering. This is bold, audacious, risky picture, and one that only grows upon reflection.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Nothing’s better than the moment where a good movie becomes a great one, and I can tell you when that moment happens in In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest with pinpoint precision: it’s when we hear a letter Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has written to his wife, which begins as a motivation explainer, and then swims gracefully into straight-up poetry. That he can accomplish that transition, and then pivot into horrifying violence not long after, speaks volumes about McDonagh’s mastery of tone, and Three Billboards takes turns that most filmmakers wouldn’t even attempt, much less sustain. But watching McDonagh pull this off is, in its own way, thrilling. Three Billboards has attracted a fair amount of controversy since its release, particularly for the forgiveness McDonagh grants the least forgivable of it characters; perhaps we’re simply in a moment where real people are so villainous, we’re having some trouble grappling with fictional ones that are deeply flawed yet possibly redeemable. But for this viewer, in the richness of its performances, the hairpin unpredictability of its storytelling, and the artfulness of its dialogue, this is one of those movies that makes you marvel at everything one film can be.
“What are you playing?” the grown-up asks. “We’re just playing!” the kids respond. And director Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is intoxicated with the sight and sound of kids playing – running and yelling and goofing off, and for much of its running time, the movie seems to be doing the same thing. But Baker is up to something sly here, building a little world within the confines of this Disney World rip-off motel, and crafting scenes of fraying tensions, shared histories, and complicated emotions that linger long after its quietly perfect closing images. This is a deeply humanist filmmaker, and he’s sympathetic to these characters, flaws and all; that humanity, and its coexistence with awareness of those flaws, renders this remarkable picture all the more heartbreaking.
2. Lady Bird
Witty and wise, hopeful and heartbreaking, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a film that’s busy on reflection but free-flowing in the moment, full of little undercurrents that would be major subplots in other movies, yet just become part of the tapestry of this one: student/teacher crushes, the aimlessness of youth, longing for a higher station (like I, Tonya, it exhibits an awareness of class frustration that’s rare in American cinema). But Gerwig’s elegant script and her peerless performers most vividly capture the tricky dynamic between parents and teenage children, in both single lines disarming in their simplicity and truth (“Of course you love me. But do you like me?”), and in the things they choose not to say, but let fester. What a swoony, intoxicating movie this is.
Director Dee Rees’s previous theatrical feature, the 2011 drama Pariah, was a fairly typical indie breakthrough film – a low-budget, relationship-based character drama. She takes a giant leap (in budget, scope, and ambition) with this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s WWII-era Southern novel, telling an ensemble story with multiple perspectives in a period setting, and tackling big, important themes. But she never loses the thread that made Pariah so special; it’s moving and angry, lyrical yet terrifying, particularly in the third act’s descent into violence that moves, unexpectedly, to a note of hope. This is a powerful, provocative piece of work.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Atomic Blonde, Beatriz at Dinner, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Brad’s Status, Columbus, A Ghost Story, The Glass Castle, Good Time, John Wick: Chapter 2, Landline, The LEGO Batman Movie, Lucky, Molly’s Game, mother!, My Friend Dahmer, Personal Shopper, The Post, The Shape of Water, The Square, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, T2 Trainspotting, Una, and War for the Planet Apes . Plus ten more that you can watch right now – which we’ll bring you tomorrow.