Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, but right now I got to tell you about… the fabulous… most movie…
Whilst it blew ghastly chunks in almost every single other aspect, 2017 was an absolutely phenomenal year for movies. Or, at least, it felt like an absolutely phenomenal year for movies. Sure, there was the occasional dry spell – Summer, in particular, or the traditionally-cited period of the Summer Movie Season, felt a lot more lacking than in previous years – but largely this was a year that shot out of the gate and kept bashing out the hits all year long. By the end of June alone, I could have put together a strong-as-hell list, and when late-December rolled around and I had to lock in an actual list, I found the cutting process to be absolutely agonising. Films I figured would be certs sometimes barely made the cut, and others that would have been head-and-shoulders above the competition in a different year ended up stalling out shockingly low all things considered, not quite being able to make that extra leap.
Yes, there are a number of niche, independent movies on this list (and the Honourable Mentions) that only those who talk about films for a living or are lucky enough to live near an independent cinema would have seen or even heard of, but the beauty of this past year in Film is that members of those cliques were not hoarding all of the truly great stuff for once. For the first year in a long while, the best films of the year likely played at your local multiplex. Superhero movies, after having hit a new nadir in 2016, bounced back in a big way and not only nearly bowled a clean sweep (it’s always DC’s fault), but also threw convention to the wind and released two of the best works of art in the genre ever. Sequels, whilst still being evened out by dreck like the undead rotting corpse of the Transformers brand, went small and personal, in defiance of standard protocol, many times creating films superior to that of their predecessors – and, in a pair of extraordinary cases, even when that predecessor was first released over 20 years ago.
Horror had one of the best years in what feels like forever, whether that be in the form of carnivalesque jump factories or insidious and challenging works of slow-burn terror – my biggest regret about this list is that I couldn’t fit any more than the one horror on it (but what a horror it is). And then there were the wholly original properties, whether they came in the form of nasty subversions of the historical drama, remixes of established genres in order to create something truly new, or a forty-car pile-up of tones and genre corralled into a cohesive and raucously fun experience. I saw 136 new-release films this year, 161 if you don’t strip out the hold-overs from 2016, and I whittled this list down from 43 serious contenders. There are crowdpleasers, blockbusters, big-name sequels, franchise-enders, quiet dramas, farcical satires, challenging works of pure nastiness, and even a goddamn Star Wars movie for the second year in a row. If 2017 wasn’t quite the all-timer for Film in the way that 2014 was, then it came damn, damn close.
Before we embark on our multi-day voyage through the best of the best, the usual rules. 1) Any film released in America in 2017 but does not come out in the UK until 2018 is ineligible on account of my not having seen it (Lady Bird, The Post, Coco) or, due to my patronage of the London Film Festival, it not being out over here until next year (The Shape of Water, The Breadwinner, You Were Never Really Here). 2) If a film was released in America in 2016 but didn’t receive a release in the UK until 2017, then it too is ineligible because Release Window Disparity is complete bullshit in 2017 and I will not stand for it. Christine, Elle, Jackie, The Handmaiden, Hidden Figures, The Founder, Moonlight… all could have made this process even more difficult than it already was, and all were screwed over by this nonsense. 3) 136 films is a lot, but, now more than ever, it is most certainly not everything that came out this year, and I can’t consider a film if I haven’t seen it. Call Me by Your Name, Happy Death Day, Personal Shopper, and The Void are what I consider to be my biggest omissions, but it’s a list far longer than this one. Oh, and 4) because apparently we have to do this now, a Television Show is not a Film and therefore DOES NOT BELONG ON A BEST FILMS LIST JESUS CHRIST PEOPLE!
Finally, I could make an Honourable Mentions list as long as the Top 20 itself, but let’s keep it restrained to just the absolute near-misses: A Quiet Passion, Prevenge, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Girls Trip, A Cure for Wellness, Mudbound, and mother! – which is also going on the Dishonourable Mentions for the other list, for the record. Right, no turning back. Today, we speed through the first 10. Tomorrow, numbers 10 to 6. And finally, on Saturday, the Top 5. If we’re all ready, I’m going hungry…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
20] Brawl in Cell Block 99
Dir: S. Craig Zahler
Star: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson
Bone Tomahawk was no fluke, and, whilst it may not contain a performance on the level of Richard Jenkins’ – although Vince Vaughn’s career-redefining lead turn comes real close – or be about much of anything, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is better than it in every single way. Methodical, grim, and wincingly brutal, S. Craig Zahler’s second turn behind the director’s chair oozes menace from every single tightly-controlled frame, forcing the viewer to join Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas as he descends ever further into a hole of his own creation out of a misguided desire to provide for, and later protect, his wife. Zahler does eventually make good on the promise of that title, the outcome of which still haunts my retinas several months on from first viewing, but he is more interested in how and why we get the brawl, as we watch Bradley construct his own coffin in real-time, eyes locked to the screen through outstanding performances, crackling dialogue, and a meticulously-constructed sense of world. Even when bones start breaking, it’s impossible to look away or cover your ears; you might miss the perfect deadpan one-liner otherwise.
Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Star: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano
2017 was such an incredible year for Film that Okja very nearly didn’t make the cut for the final list, in case you want an idea of just how high the quality bar has been. That is mad for me to even consider, because Okja was one of the year’s true original pleasures, and the kind of movie that could only have been wrangled into some semblance of control by Bong Joon-ho. Part chase movie, part utterly vicious condemnation of the food industry (and the meat industry in particular), part Studio Ghibli movie, part Millennial activism satire, part full-on comedy, part horror, all delirious fun with more audacity than certain self-styled provocateurs display in their entire careers. It’s a film that finds room for both a heartfelt and hopeful message about savouring the little victories in the face of failed societal change, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s bizarre caricature of a washed-up nature personality inexplicably finding sustained popularity in South Korea, and makes both of them work gangbusters, held together at the centre by a fantastic Ahn Seo-hyun and a friggin’ adorable super-pig.
18] The Death of Stalin
Dir: Armando Iannucci
Star: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
What’s most shocking about The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s long-overdue return to the director’s chair, is just how little of it is played for laughs. That’s not to say that Stalin is not hilarious and one of the year’s funniest comedies, because it is on both accounts, but instead an observation that Iannucci is trying something completely different instead of merely attempting to replicate the magic of In the Loop again. It’s a farce about bumbling politicians taking turns backstabbing each other in a desperate attempt to grab onto and consolidate power, many of whom are so ineffectual at their attempts as to be complete sycophantic nitwits, but rather than letting these buffoons operate in a vacuum, like usual, he instead keeps drawing our attention to the innocent masses caught in the consequences of the powerful’s reckless stupidity. The tightrope, therefore, is precariously thin, but Iannucci gracefully skips across it with ease, and the results are funny, but that laughter comes just as much from it being the only viable alternative to crying in horror as it does witty repartee.
17] The LEGO Batman Movie
Dir: Chris McKay
Star: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson (voices)
The LEGO Batman Movie has more respect, love, and understanding of Batman and the concept of Batman than anybody involved with making actual Batman films since… I dunno, maybe Tim Burton, and I say this as a fan of Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies? LEGO Batman is the stretching of one-joke from the original LEGO Movie – that Batman is an inherently silly and childish character and concept, and everybody needs to stop taking him and it so goddamn seriously all the goddamn time – into an entirely separate 100+ minute movie, yes, but it is also a much-needed corrective to decades of Batman media that have slowly lost sight of the character’s appeal in the first place. And it does so via the most open-hearted and uncynical love letter to the entire history of Batman that one could possibly manage, critiquing and mocking but also legitimising it all with genuine affection that reconstructs a better Batman in the process. All whilst being, gag-for-rapid-fire-gag, the funniest film of the year and a great story even divorced from that meta-narrative.
16] The Big Sick
Dir: Michael Showalter
Star: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter
In a year as cynical, grim, and unromantic as 2017, thank heavens for the existence of The Big Sick, a legitimately romantic AND comedic rom-com that also finds room to explore the culture-clash of being the American-born son of Pakistani immigrants with traditional Pakistani cultural views, the difficulty of finding the love again in a partner that’s let you down, and subverting a few of the more-troubling staples of the Rom-Com genre. Despite, or even because of, sounding like the most self-indulgent Indie to ever Indie its way into a Judd Apatow producer’s credit – it’s the semi-autobiographical tale of Kumail, playing himself, and Emily V. Gordon’s, played by Zoe Kazan, real-life courtship of one another – the film is never anything less than an absolute delight of pure charm and heartwarming sweetness, stuffed with career-best performances by every one of its principal players. However, it’s the commitment shown to its characters and the little moments, including spending almost an hour on Kumail and Emily’s burgeoning relationship before the titular illness takes hold, that makes the film truly sing. Maybe it’s cheating because Kumail and Emily are taking from their own lives, but more films could do with drawing characters this finely.
15] Logan Lucky
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Star: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough
Steven Soderbergh really sucks at the whole “retirement” thing. Fortunately, it’s about the only thing that he sucks at, as his official return to feature film directing displays absolutely no ring rust whatsoever (probably because he never actually stopped working but whatever). Logan Lucky is one of the masters of American cinema quietly but firmly reasserting his dominance over what once was his kingdom, with a fun, amiable, coolly stylish caper flick that felt like nothing else released this year even though it doesn’t re-invent any wheels or aim to. Sort of like when the one who got away briefly returns to your life and you realise, just by watching them be themselves again – Soderbergh directs, photographs, edits, and distributes the thing by himself through various pseudonyms, because everybody else in the world is apparently just plain lazy by comparison – exactly what you let go.
But the charms of Logan Lucky go deeper than just appreciating one of the greats returning to work. Thanks to Rebecca Blunt’s screenplay, this is also a surprisingly moving tribute to the kinds of South American states that are normally the butt of every other joke. Instead of going for the kind of cheap pandering and alienating rah-rah patriotism that romanticises the region to uncomfortable extremes, Blunt writes three-dimensional and incredibly charming characters, Soderbergh backs them up with a camera that treats the settings of North Carolina and West Virginia like most directors treat New York City, and the film’s surprisingly moral universe allows it to use the more condescending members of the audience’s expectations and stereotypical beliefs about its cast against them. To craft the perfect love letter to the Southern heartland, Soderbergh and co. simply made the best movie they possibly could. Sometimes the simplest solutions are also the best.
14] The Levelling
Dir: Hope Dickson Leach
Star: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden
Befitting a film all about grief in the aftermath of a suicide, The Levelling is a painful, raw, open wound of a movie. It’s the kind of British indie where, even in its dives into inflated drama and blunt symbolism, it never stops feeling completely genuine, like writer-director Hope Dickson Leach is dredging up her own personal experiences on the subject and consequently pouring every last drop of her emotions into this thing. Akin to Loving Vincent, there’s a central mystery at the heart of The Levelling – why did Harry kill himself – but, unlike Vincent (which I just could not jive with), that mystery is not being pursued out of a desire for closure, where everyone can move on in peace with the knowledge that at least this pure soul who was too good for this sinful world is now in a better place, but instead out of grief-fuelled anger. Clover (an utterly outstanding Ellie Kendrick) blames herself for not being there when Harry needed her, although she won’t admit it, and so she needs somebody to offload that blame onto, whether it be the former best friend who seemingly did nothing to stop him, or the alcoholic father whose years of emotional abuse destroyed his family long before the suicide threatens to set fire to the pieces that remain.
Her search for a smoking gun only picks at fresh wounds that haven’t yet scabbed over, let alone healed, and all it causes is further anger, hurt, and pain in everybody, herself most of all. Hers is a grief that she is taking out on others, albeit entirely unwittingly – at one point, after somebody pours their heart out to her about what they did the night of, her firm and somewhat-accusatory response of “it wasn’t your fault” is met with a barely-audible “fuck you.” All because staring out at the flood-drenched farmland that constitutes home is a constant reminder of the unintended consequences of her not being there. Her father, for his part, refuses to call it anything but “an accident,” because to do so otherwise would require him having to acknowledge that his crumbling family is just as much his fault, and he is clearly not ready to face up to that fact. It is a very, very heavy movie of unflinchingly honest emotions, and viewing it in the aftermath of the suicide of one of my own friends caused it to take on an additional, powerful resonance.
13] Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Dir: Rian Johnson
Star: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill
The eighth proper instalment in a multi-billion-dollar multimedia franchise spanning 40 years, that’s now a yearly obligation because Disney likes having All of the money and would like to continue having All of the money for however long we have left on this solar ball, is the most exciting thing to happen to blockbuster storytelling in years. For the middle chapter of the new trilogy, Lucasfilm handed the reins over to acclaimed indie filmmaker Rian Johnson who proceeded to tear down three generations of tried-and-tested Star Wars storytelling methods and offer up something new and altogether more exciting and emotionally satisfying in its place. Not one based around male familial drama operating on a galactic scale, not one based around dead-horse Chosen One Hero’s Journey horseshit, and not one based upon the J.J. Abrams Mystery Box notion that literally any detail that has not been didactically relayed to the viewer beforehand is some kind of massive twist whose reveal will be a seismic event that explains things we didn’t even know needed explaining. But that of well-written, independent characters with strong beliefs, stronger relationships, and ordinary upbringings who do the things they do, not because of Destiny or Daddy Issues, but because they believe it to be right.
The Last Jedi only “ruins” Star Wars if you have somehow convinced yourself that the blueprint Johnson has put forward is a bad thing. That films shouldn’t have detours that don’t further the plot but do colour in the world, that characters aren’t allowed to be actively wrong about anything even if they’re ostensibly good, that excessive and badly-controlled masculinity shouldn’t be questioned, that anything left unexplained and not being teased a reveal in future sequels is a “plot hole” – despite nobody in modern Internet criticism understanding what the hell one of those actually is anymore – and that a diverse cast should not be allowed an equal share of stand-out awesome sequences, instead being hoarded solely by the White guys on-staff. The Last Jedi is not perfect, a film like this cannot be, but Johnson’s vision for the future of blockbuster filmmaking is near-perfectly realised across these two and a half hours, and he serves up more stand-out sequences and satisfying character and story developments than almost the entire rest of the Summer movie season combined. And even though he tears down almost every widely-considered sacred cow in the Star Wars library to do it, Johnson also does right by the franchise since it never feels like anything other than Star Wars, and Star Wars has arguably never been better.
12] Ingrid Goes West
Dir: Matt Spicer
Star: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.
My experience watching Ingrid Goes West largely involved my slowly sinking ever deeper into my cinema seat, my eyes becoming ever more obscured by my fingertips. Part of this was because, even as Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith more fully sketched in every last one of their characters with the kind of specificity that tears them away from being mere stand-ins for an overall message, I was forever waiting for the film to slip and start fully conflating Ingrid’s mental problems with the film’s satire of social media – it never does, by the way, at least to me. Primarily, though, this was because far, far too much of Ingrid Goes West is painfully relatable. After all, and as I have written about before, the trick of Ingrid is that it is just as much a satire of the entire concept of sociality as it is a satire of Instagram culture and social media. The ways in which we perform for the benefit of others, the crippling desire for intimacy and love that can mentally destroy those who feel they don’t have it, the unspoken artificiality and possessiveness that comes from having a Best Friend, and all tied together by the manner in which social media and West Coast living warp these insecurities to their own ends.
But lest you think that Ingrid is the kind of film that smugly gets up on its high horse and sneers down at those who partake in such systems – although that exact kind of person is represented in-film, and he is a hateful, pompous jackass whom almost nobody likes and whose very brief (and unfortunately non-sticking) comeuppance is inordinately satisfying – the film reveals its other brilliant trick: empathy. Again, because almost all of Ingrid’s cast are so specifically drawn, the film allows each of them a chance to let their guards down and express vulnerability, regret, and shame. You get to know these characters as people, not scornful stereotypes to laugh and throw rocks at, and everybody’s deep unhappiness is played for sincere empathy. After all, with all of this artificiality in every aspect of our existence, why mock something genuine when you can instead hold onto it and the feeling that it provides, even when that something is coming from potentially thousands of miles away by a complete stranger on the other end of a screen?
11] Baby Driver
Dir: Edgar Wright
Star: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey
It finally happened. Edgar Wright’s perfect record has been brought to an end. In every year since I started making these lists (beginning in 2010) and in the for-fun exercises I do for years stretching back before then, one thing held constant: Edgar Wright releases a film, it ends up my favourite of the year. But this year, not only has Baby Driver not escaped with the accolade, it stalled out just outside of the Top 10. That’s not a knock on the quality of Baby Driver, despite how this looks, however. After all, Wright’s fifth commercially-released feature is the purest distillation yet of his sensibilities as a filmmaker and storyteller: the interplay between cool and nerdom as filtered through classic genre moviemaking and an impeccable taste in music. More than any film he has yet made, Baby Driver feels like a direct feed into the workings of Wright’s brain, unsullied and unfiltered by any outside or commercial voices. In the inverse of how these things usually turn out, this also became Wright’s first inarguable commercial success.
That’s almost definitely down to just how much fun the film is, more so than anything else I saw this year. From the already-iconic pre-title bank robbery, to Baby and Debora’s bonding over music at a laundromat, to the botched bank robbery that leans into the dark comedy of a Blur interlude, to a breathless foot chase, all the way through to the climactic killer track, Wright’s skills as a filmmaker have never been more refined than they are throughout this movie. And, even though the film acts primarily as a love letter to music and the ways that we experience music today – even with the film’s visual and audible signifiers being largely rooted in the past, this is a distinctly modern-feeling film – Wright still pens a fantastically entertaining cast of characters, coaxes pitch-perfect performances from his cast, and makes the whole film engaging on an emotional and thematic level too, because he’s not about to fall into the same hole a million other Indie filmmakers of lesser talent do. So, consider the fact that Baby Driver couldn’t break the Top 10 more a sign of just how ridiculously high the bar was in 2017, rather than a sign that Wright is somehow losing his touch. He ain’t. It’s just that other filmmakers were tried matching him this year.
Tomorrow, it’s the first half of the Top 10.
Callie Petch is a broken people living under loaded gun.