Another year, another list of favourites. 2017 has been a … turbulent year in the real world but a stellar one for film. You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately, VIFF coverage aside, but I have been going to the movies. As of this writing, I watched 323 films in 2017, 70 of which were 2017 releases. Not too shabby, considering that I only go to one festival.
Before we get to my dozen favourites, there are a few things worth sharing. First, here are a few that I haven’t seen yet:
- Call Me By Your Name (wr. James Ivory, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
- The Florida Project (wr. Chris Bergoch & Sean Baker, dir. Sean Baker)
- I, Tonya (wr. Steven Rogers, dir. Craig Gillespie)
- The Post (wr. Josh Singer & Liz Hannah, dir. Steven Spielberg)
- Phantom Thread (wr & dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
- Professor Marston and The Wonder Women (wr. & dir. Angela Robinson)
Some of these were due to scheduling on my part (I have a day job!) and some on the film’s part (Neither The Post nor I, Tonya are out here yet), but all of them seem like precisely the kind of movies that would end up near the top of my list.
Second, these choices are presented alphabetically except my favourite, which will come last. There are various reasons for this, but mostly it comes down to the fact that they are all good movies that I have a hard time grading relative to each other because they are all so different. Consider also that some of them I have seen multiple times and others just once, and that second-viewings are often where I end up solidifying an opinion and you end up with a list that looks like this.
Third, I don’t have any honourable mentions, but I will probably write further thoughts on 2017 in a separate post.
So without any further ado, here are my favourite dozen
Baby Driver (written & director Edgar Wright)
Edgar Wright is a precise director. He knows exactly how and why he wants to tell a story and knows exactly how and why to move a camera, make a cut, or drop a needle in a particular scene to convey precisely what he wants. With Baby Driver he seems to want to convey that maybe music is more important to cinema than we think it is. From the opening chase that syncs perfectly to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to the immaculate long take of the title character dancing down the street to Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle (my personal favourite) to the extended foot chase set to Hocus Locus by Focus with (with every footstep and gunshot times perfectly). Wright seems to try to tell us that maybe music could be used to greater effect in the movies and I, for one, think he has a point.
Stunningly directed, and fun from the first frame to the last, Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year.
The Big Sick (writers Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, director Michael Showalter)
I wasn’t quite prepared for The Big Sick. Not your standard rom-com, it tells the (mostly) true story of the courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, much of which happens to be Nanjiani getting to know Gordon’s parents after she falls into a coma. It’d be easy to say that Nanjiani didn’t really have to act in this because he’s playing himself but that’d be doing him an incredible disservice. There is more than one scene in this film that reduced me to tears, more than a few that made me laugh out loud (including the best 9/11 joke maybe ever), and all of it hinges on his performance.
Heartfelt, bittersweet, lovely, and above all honest, The Big Sick is one of the best movies of the year.
Dunkirk (writer & director Christopher Nolan)
Not to put too fine a point on it but Dunkirk is the film that Christopher Nolan has been working towards his entire career. Looking back at his filmography you can see his experimenting with IMAX cameras, visual storytelling, and how time impacts a narrative. Dunkirk is the logical extension of all of this, combining it all into a perfect cinematic experience.
Three stories take place over three different time frames, all of which converge at the climax, with multiple award-worthy performances anchoring each one. Tom Hardy proves once again that he’s one of the best leading men of his generation managing to convey an entire character with just a dozen or so lines and his face nearly entirely covered. Kenneth Branagh provides a masterclass in acting via body language and expression.
Tense, thrilling, and emotional, Dunkirk is one of the best films of the year
Get Out (writer & director Jordan Peele)
Whether or not it’s my favourite, Get Out is probably the film of the year. It came out at exactly the right time and captures a part of the American zeitgeist like no other film this year except Wonder Woman.
It’s an incisive look at modern racism, in particular, the kind that doesn’t think it’s racist, the kind that sounds like it might have good intentions but actually is just the same defining of other people’s experience that it always has been. The kind where white folks will praise the black guy but then steal his agency and place in the world. Not the loud, overt racism we are used to seeing but the quiet, subtle racism that permeates modern society, and manages to be terrifying while still getting some of the biggest laughs of the year.
Get Out is one of the best films of the year.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (writer & director James Gunn)
If the first Guardians of the Galaxy film is about choosing your family, then Volume 2 is about being a family. The big complaint I keep hearing is that there are too many digressions but the digressions are the point: the characters are broken up into small groups so that they can learn about themselves and make a connection, and at the end, they come back together a stronger and supportive group.
The film has a lot to say about coming to terms with abusive parents, transferring anger, and toxic masculinity, and realizing that not everyone is going to let you down. There’s a certain talking space raccoon who has his whole worldview challenged and the resolution of that story may have made me weep like a child.
Big, weird, and colourful while at the same time being earnest and deeply felt, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2 is one of the best films of the year.
Logan (writers Scott Frank, Michael Green, & James Mangold, director James Mangold)
Logan is, far and way, the best of the X-Men films and probably in the conversation as one of the best of the superhero genre. You might think that a little strange considering that the film strips away most of the usual trappings: there are no super suits, there aren’t any laser beams, no one is trying to destroy the world, it’s just a straight character-driven western where the ageing cowboy happens to have claws.
Logan is old now, beaten and broken by his past, a past that a young girl made in his image has come to revere. She admires the hero she knows from stories, he reviles his past failures. Ultimately Logan is a story about reconciling these two points of view, about how to find hope for the future and once again become a hero, to fight for someone you love knowing it might cost you everything.
Bleak but hopeful, with a bittersweet story and a perfect end to Hugh Jackman’s tenure as The Wolverine, Logan is one of the best movies of the year.
Lucky (writers Logan Sparks & Drago Sumonja, director John Carroll Lynch)
To say that Harry Dean Stanton’s performance in Lucky is a lifetime best sounds like hyperbole, but considering that the film was written for him by his friends, directed by and starring his friends, about him and his philosophies about life and death, and taking into account that it is both only his second lead performance ever and the last one he will ever give? Yeah. Lucky is the performance of a lifetime.
Harry Dean Stanton isn’t Lucky, but Lucky is very much Harry Dean Stanton. At 90 years old he has much to say on life, and those thoughts and philosophies all come out by way of amazing conversations with other amazing actors throughout the course of the film. A spiritual journey taken by an avowed atheist who has to come to terms with the fact that he is old and nothing lasts every, that while being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely, it might be a lot easier than dying alone.
Anchored by a beautiful performance, crafted with love and affection, Lucky is one of the best films of the year.
Okja (writers Jon Ronson & Bong Joon-ho, director Bong Joon-ho)
Now that they have proven themselves a major player in the TV market Netflix has been making strides towards being a major player in the movies and Okja is one of their earliest attempts. Suffice it to say that they knocked it way out of the park. At its core, Okja is the story of a child and their pet, but rather than a boy and his dog, it’s a girl and her super pig, and the super pig gets kidnapped by a food company looking for a new revenue source, and a rescue ensues.
There are parts of this that are as good as Spielberg’s early work, and both Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal give swing-for-the-fences performances that are worth watching the movie just to see.
Fun, emotional, and sweet, Okja is one of the year’s best movies
Personal Shopper (writer & director Olivier Assayas)
There’s a popular opinion that Kristen Stewart is a bad actress and while it’s true the Twilight movies weren’t great, if you look at the rest of her performances you’ll be proven wrong. In Personal Shopper she plays a, well, personal shopper, who also works as a medium desperately trying to make contact with her recently deceased brother. Tormented by the lack of signs, and by a mysterious person who may be texting her from beyond the grave, she struggles with whether any of what she is experiencing is real. It’s a powerhouse performance and one that explores the power of grief and acceptance. Yeah, you heard it from me folks, Kristen Stewart is great.
Haunting and powerful, Personal Shopper is one of the best movies of the year.
The Shape of Water (writers Vanessa Taylor & Guillermo del Toro, director Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro has a penchant for fairy tales. Most of us think that means princes and princesses and magic in that way that Disney taught us to believe but del Toro’s tastes tend to run more along the lines of the original Grimm’s stories: dark, and full of sex and violence. This is by no means a complaint; the world can be a harsh place and his stories are all about finding hope among the harshest of places and situations.
The Shape of Water is no exception, a tale of three disenfranchised people (a mute, a woman of colour, and a gay man) fighting to liberate a creature from another world from an avatar for American fascism, all filtered through del Toro’s own unique aesthetic and sensibilities. It might be the movie he has been working toward his entire career, it’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking, and it’s one of the best movies of the year.
(Also, Sally Hawkins in more things, please.)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (writer & director Rian Johnson)
I’ve written at length about how all I want for the new Star Wars is for it to evolve into its own thing. The Force Awakens and Rogue One are both good, but they’re both pandering directly to our nostalgia, exploring things that have been explored, and telling stories we have already been told. The Last Jedi answers this by all at once being a Star Wars movie and being something new, and different. The Last Jedi reminds us that maybe we shouldn’t hold onto our past quite so tightly and that things need to evolve if they are going to survive.
It provides amazing character development for all the characters, with Poe learning what it means to be a leader, Finn committing to the cause of the rebels for larger and more selfless reasons, and Rey teaching us all that the force doesn’t belong to anyone, and Luke following the most logical path when you consider not only what The Force Awakens sets up but where he was the end of the Original Trilogy.
The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film that holds its own with the originals, it’s gorgeous, it’s emotional, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
Columbus (writer & director Kogonada)
Columbus is a beautifully shot film about two strangers who form a friendship based, at least in part, on being stuck in Columbus. Jin (John Cho) is stuck because of his father and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is stuck because of her mother. They have architecture in common, and through the course of the story they visit famous buildings in the city and speak about them, but also about responsibility, their relationships to their parents, how they’ve ended up where they have ended up, and eventually where they might go.
I can’t quite tell you what it is about this movie, at least not without spoiling the movie. I don’t have a whole lot in common with either Jin or Casey, but I do have a lot in common with how they feel. This movie reaches right down into my soul and dredges up emotions I haven’t felt since my mother passed away. That may not sound like the most pleasant of experiences but it provides some fresh perspective and catharsis, to know that things have gone on and will go on, that the connections we make are important, and most importantly that my feelings –the good ones and the bad– and being vulnerable enough to really let them out is OK.
This is not a film for everyone, but with its beautiful cinematography, quiet and introspective writing, two award-worthy lead performances, and a depth of feeling that I didn’t experience with anything else this year, Columbus is my favourite film of 2017.