Cinema in 2017 offered a respite from a year that started out for many as a dumpster fire and didn’t hesitate to keep pouring on the gasoline. Looking at the films below, it’s hard not to notice that so many of them focus on the past, whether it is the war-torn 1940s, an idyllic 1980s Italy, or the world of serious figure skating (or the European AIDS crisis) in the 1990s. I mean, the year’s best animated movie involved a kid investigating a mystery involving his great-grandparents.
Here were our favorite movies of the year. Note: All these films screened in Austin or were available to the public in some form in 2017 unless otherwise indicated; some films screened for critics for awards consideration but have not yet hit local theaters or are available on streaming services.
As I get older, the more I approach year-end Top 10 lists the way some people approach going to dentist — with a mixture of fear at the potential pain and guilt at possibly being shamed about something. Did I see all the movies everywhere? Of course not. Is it possible this list will change over time? Of course. Which is to say here are 10 movies that meant something to me in 2017.
1. “Get Out.” A young African-American man (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend (Alison Williams) visit her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), the sort she describes as folks who would have voted for Obama a third time. Things do not go as was discussed, and, hey, what is up with your parents’ servants, babe? Jordan Peele’s startlingly good debut is here for its completeness, its savvy use of genre, its timeliness, its thematic complexity, its whip-smart casting (I like to think Whitford is actually playing Josh Lyman) and that scene with the keys.
2. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” was one of last year’s deeply weird wonders, so what does he do for a follow-up? An update of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” (and the story of Agamemnon in general) as a young man (Barry Keoghan) begins to insinuate himself into the family of a successful surgeon. Terrific script, masterful direction and, hey, Colin Farrell? You are lucky that Yorgos found you, dude. You have never been better.
3. “My Friend Dahmer.” Written and directed by Marc Meyers from a comics memoir by Derf Backderf, “My Friend Dahmer” seemed to vanish quickly; perhaps it’s already on a streaming service near you. But I was taken with the story of a teenage Jeffery Dahmer (Ross Lynch, excellent) who, shortly after the events of the film, started a yearslong run as a cannibalistic serial killer. Meyers paints a sensitive portrait of a nerd among nerds, the guy that even the outsiders find strange. Points added for a lovely performance from Dallas Roberts (aka that guy who really looks like John Ritter but isn’t actually related to him) as Dahmer’s put-upon father.
4. “Call Me By Your Name.” A 17-year-old American (Timothee Chalamet), living with his family in Italy, falls for Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old grad student who is living with the boy’s family for the summer as a guest of the boy’s father, a well-regarded archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Directed by Luca Guadagnino, it’s here because Guadagnino’s decision to shoot on film made this delicate, almost fairy tale story of first love perhaps the year’s most breathtakingly beautiful English language film. Though the performances were uniformly excellent, my character-actor-loving heart is with Stuhlbarg, who does a spectacular job as the impossibly tolerant father, a man who, as a colleague put it, is “the PFLAG Atticus Finch.”
5. “Lady Bird.” If we all wish really hard, maybe Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf will be in all the movies. Under Greta Gerwig’s astonishingly sure hand, the two give stunning performances as a daughter and mother who have a relationship that every woman I know found terrifyingly spot-on. Richly observed and often incredibly funny, “Lady Bird” announces a major directing talent.
6. “Lemon.” This flop-sweat-inducing story stars Brett Gelman, was written by Gelman and his wife, Janicza Bravo, was directed by the latter and seemed to cut the movie critic masses clean in half: Either you walked out kind of dazzled by its nerve or you never wanted to see it again. Not only did it pose one of the year’s most important cinematic questions — is Isaac Lachmann (Gelman) actually a worse human being than Martin, Gelman’s character on the British TV show “Fleabag”? — but “Lemon” easily was one of the year’s strangest American movies, so awkward and cringe-worthy it makes “Curb Your Enthusiasm” look like “Cheers.”
7. “Coco.” Is “Coco” the best Pixar movie yet made? Well, the entire nation of Mexico seems to think so, where it is not only the highest grossing movie of the year, but the highest grossing movie of ALL TIME. It is certainly the most complex and maybe the most epic, spanning decades. Based on an incredibly unscientific poll, it is also easily one of the year’s most sob-inducing films.
8. “I Called Him Morgan.” In the dead of night in the middle of a freak blizzard in February 1972, Helen Morgan, wife of increasingly legendary 33-year-old jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, walked into Slug’s Saloon and shot her husband dead. Not one to rush things, Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin (“My Name Is Albert Ayler”), who wrote, produced, directed and co-edited the film, spent years tracking down musicians, securing interviews from reluctant sources and editing the thing to within an inch of its life. The results — a brilliantly told tale of an incredibly complicated couple — speak for themselves.
9. “Wonder Woman.” “You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media.” You’d think that this quote from the late, brilliant comics creator Dwayne McDuffie would feel dated, but no, it doesn’t. Yes, this is a blockbuster with a whole mess of problems. But it is here not as much for what is was as for what it did. Adult women sat in theaters weeping openly at the sight of themselves flying through the air and punching though stuff, as excited as any nerdy dude to see this sort of outsized power on screen. Directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” wasn’t just the year’s most successful superhero picture; it was the year’s second highest -grossing movie overall and eighth highest in the world. Hollywood, for the love of Hera, please take note.
10. “Twin Peaks: The Return.” So, yeah, this is a total cheat, what with it being an 18-hour TV series that aired on Showtime. I don’t care; don’t @ me. It was everything I wanted from cinema in 2017: David Lynch, one of the great director’s of our age, helmed the whole thing from beginning to end and made it a Rolodex of his styles: impressionistic, expressionistic, funny, smart, totally baffling and incredibly jarring. It is absolutely a masterpiece.
The best movies are all about empathy.
As Roger Ebert once wrote, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”
The best movies of 2017 took us into the lives of a wide variety of characters, from a mute cleaning lady to a grieving mother.
Surprisingly, some of the strongest films focused on women — a rarity in Hollywood, and possibly a sign that things are changing for the better.
Here, at a glance, are my Top 10 films of 2017. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
1. “The Shape of Water.” Guillermo del Toro is the world’s most visually inventive director. He’s also, literally, a great artist. He carries around sketchbooks for his movies, and within those sketchbooks are his elaborate drawings of various characters. And it’s quite amazing to see how those visions are transformed to the big screen. In “The Shape of Water,” he creates a creature that looks like it stepped out of the black lagoon but upon closer reflection appears to be quite human. As the mute cleaning lady Elisa, Sally Hawkins gives a bravura, nearly silent performance, and rarely has an actor been able to express so much without words. Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins are all Oscar-worthy in their supporting roles. But the real star of this tale is del Toro. What an amazing creator of worlds.
2. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Frances McDormand stars as a foul-mouthed, angry mom who puts up three billboards that call out the local police force for not having solved a case involving the murder of her daughter. Writer/director Martin McDonagh creates the character of Mildred, and McDormand brings Mildred to life, just as she did for Marge Gunderson in 1996’s “Fargo.” The best actress race will come down to Hawkins and McDormand this year. But there’s someone else who might make it a threesome. That would be …
3. “Lady Bird.” Saoirse Ronan stars as the title 17-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., with artistic aspirations and a mom (the brilliant Laurie Metcalf) who loves her more than she can show. There’s something about this movie that feels honest on the most basic levels. It deals with growing up, becoming a person, staying true to yourself and accepting family. Ronan nails it. Also, big props to writer/director Greta Gerwig, who deserves all sorts of recognition for her feature film debut.
4. “I, Tonya.” I didn’t expect to like “I, Tonya.” I thought, “Why on earth would someone make a movie about disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding?” I was so wrong. Margot Robbie stars as the skater from the wrong side of the tracks who wanted to become an Olympic star. She has the talent, but she doesn’t have the money or the class to suit Olympic judges. Robbie makes us understand Harding — and the tragedy that came from hanging around the wrong sorts, namely her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Look for Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s toxic mother, to get an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. She’ll be battling with Spencer of “The Shape of Water” and Metcalf of “Lady Bird.” What a great year for women in film. (Opens in Austin on Jan. 5)
5. “The Post.” And just when you thought you had the Oscar nominations nailed down for best actress, here comes Meryl Streep as Washington Post owner Katharine “Kay” Graham in “The Post,” the latest from Steven Spielberg. The movie tracks Graham’s decision to take the Post into rarefied journalistic territory, as a rival of The New York Times. Graham faces a big problem, however, when she has to decide to support the Times journalistically and go ahead and print the secrets contained in the purloined Pentagon Papers. It could jeopardize the paper’s financial future, especially since the Post is going to become a publicly traded corporation. Streep captures the essence of Graham’s steel magnolia persona perfectly, in part by showing Graham’s uncertainty. And if you don’t believe in the merits of journalism after watching this film, then I doubt there’s any argument I can make to change your mind. (Opens in Austin on Jan. 12)
6. “Get Out.” Who would have thought that a horror movie from writer/director Jordan Peele would be one of the standout films of 2017? But this movie is far more than horror. It’s a scathing critique of American society and its racism, told in ways that are far from didactic. Daniel Kaluuya stars as the African-American man who gets invited to meet the parents of the white woman he’s dating. But these parents are something else. So is the girlfriend.
7. “Darkest Hour.” Gary Oldman gives the performance of a lifetime as Winston Churchill, who faces down an angry war Cabinet and a reluctant Parliament, all while rallying a nation to keep fighting Nazi Germany. The situation is far from promising because British troops appear likely to be wiped out at Dunkirk. But Churchill persists, resists and shows the mettle that helped bring down Hitler. As Oldman says, playing Churchill is like tackling Mount Everest. Oldman does it well. Lily James has a breakout role as Churchill’s secretary.
8. “Call Me by Your Name.” Director Luca Guadagnino takes us into the lush world of northern Italy during the summer of 1983, when a graduate student (Armie Hammer) arrives as a research assistant for a classics scholar who owns a gorgeous villa. The classics scholar has a son, played by Timothee Chalamet, who feels strangely fascinated by his father’s American assistant. Sexual tensions ensue. The movie is from a screenplay by James Ivory, who directed such classics as “The Remains of the Day,” “Howards End” and “The Room with a View.” It’s based on the novel by Andre Aciman. Chalamet and Hammer appear to be shoo-ins for Oscar nominations.
9. “Wind River.” This little movie from Texas writer/director Taylor Sheridan deserves all the love it can get — and has gotten from critics and audiences. Jeremy Renner stars as a Fish and Wildlife Service tracker who stumbles upon the murder of a young Native American woman and tries to help solve the case with a young FBI agent played by Elizabeth Olsen. The story of the murder finally gets told in flashback, and there’s a shootout that rivals anything you’ve ever seen in a western. Classic moviemaking.
10. “Loveless.” Yes, I know that depressing Russian films might not be up your alley. Yes, I know that some people don’t like subtitles. Yes, I know that a story about a bickering couple who are on the verge of divorce doesn’t sound like a movie you’d like to watch. And then when their son disappears, it gets even worse. But director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan”) offers a scathing critique of modern-day Russian society in this dark drama. It’s stunning, from start to finish. (No Austin release date set)
I have long been obsessed with watching movies, but now that I get to do it professionally, I see way more of them than at any point in my life. By the time you read this, I will have eclipsed my 2016 total and watched more than 250 movies over the course of the year, including about 150 new theatrical releases. That may seem like a lot to the casual viewer, but when you consider that over 700 films are released over the course of a year, it really is a drop in the bucket.
But, as with every year, many of those are practically straight to video releases that barely see the light of the day. Now that we are headed into awards season, it is a fairly small group of titles that have managed to catch the attention of critics and industry organizations. Many of my favorites appear on those lists, but all managed to inspire and entertain me in recent months, and several of them earned multiple viewings. I suspect that all 10 of these films will be purchased for my home library and enjoyed frequently in the years to come.
1. “Call Me By Your Name.” Based on a beautifully written novel by Andre Aciman and adapted by screenwriter James Ivory, it would not surprise me to learn that Luca Guadagnino’s lush romantic drama had been funded by Italy’s national tourism board. In a rural northern village in the early ’80s, 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) slowly falls in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older graduate student who has come to stay with his family for the summer. First love, especially for queer audiences, has rarely been depicted in such an achingly beautiful way.
2. “Lady Bird.” Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut follows a teenage girl named Christine (aka Lady Bird) who is still finding her way in the world. Saoirse Ronan gives the finest performance of her young career (which has already seen her twice nominated for an Academy Award), ably assisted by a brilliant supporting cast and Gerwig’s whip-smart script that is loaded with laughs. Christine’s relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is strained but loving — they are able to scream at each other and manage to laugh during the same conversation. Backed with an irony-free soundtrack that spans the 2002-2003 school year, this was the first film of the year that really won me over and had me running back to see it for the second time.
3. “The Shape Of Water.” All I can say is that nothing about this movie should work, but everything about this movie did (at least for me). Sally Hawkins is divine as a mute cleaning lady in a government facility who does indeed fall in love with a merman (aka the “asset”) on the job. Octavia Spencer plays her best friend at work who gives her a literal voice when needed. Both women are at the top of their game, and Doug Jones somehow manages to convey deep emotions even while submerged in a tank.
4. “Dunkirk.” Christopher Nolan’s war drama was one of three very solid films depicting the World War II evacuation of soldiers from a beach in Northern France. You should plan on also seeing “Their Finest” and “Darkest Hour,” but if you only make room for one of them, this is it. While viewing it at home may lack the impact of catching it on 70mm film in the theater, not even the smallest screen could take away from Nolan’s masterful filmmaking, ably assisted by a dynamic score from the legendary Hans Zimmer.
5. “Faces Places.” Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda partners with a photographer named JR for this delightful romp through the French countryside. Varda, now nearly 90, is struggling with her vision. Using a customized vehicle, they drive from village to village taking photographs of people and printing them on oversized sheets of paper to paste on the sides of buildings. It’s a clever proposition that highlights the benefits of having friends outside your age group. If you need an antidote to politics and world news, let me suggest a few viewings of this documentary to lighten your mood. (Playing at AFS Cinema on Feb. 22)
6. “The Florida Project.” Sean Baker’s follow-up to “Tangerine” offers a compassionate look at the poverty that exists within a stone’s throw of the Magic Kingdom. Newcomer Brooklynn Prince stars as Moonee, a 6-year-old girl living in a cheap hotel with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in Orlando. Willem Dafoe has earned well-deserved raves for his role as the hotel’s manager, a man who tries his best to look after the people who are scraping by and struggling to stay living on his property.
7. “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.” My first viewing at Fantastic Fest nearly took my breath away. Yorgos Lanthimos follows up “The Lobster” with another film starring Colin Farrell. Here is Steven, a cardiac surgeon and loving family man who has struggled in the past with drinking too much. In fact, despite rising to a successful career in his field, it is possible that he has been drunk on the job before. It is even more possible that his proclivity for alcohol resulted in the death of the father of a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) during a medical procedure. Steven’s guilt has resulted in him attempting to mentor Martin and become a father figure towards him, but the young man has other, much darker ideas that will change his life forever.
8. “The Beguiled.” Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature film might have been released too early in the year to be a big player during awards season, but multiple viewings have seared it into my brain. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are uniformly excellent in this artful Civil War-era story of an injured Union soldier who ends up being cared for in a girls’ school in Virginia. Based on the Thomas P. Cullinan novel, the story was also adapted back in 1971 with Clint Eastwood in the soldier’s role.
9. “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” France’s official entry for the best foreign language film category at the Academy Awards, this new spellbinding drama from Robin Campillo (“The Class”) depicts the actions of the Parisian chapter of ACT UP in the early 1990s. While the gay community was being decimated by the AIDS epidemic, these activists fought for their lives against the lack of support from the government and pharmaceutical companies. (Playing at AFS Cinema on Jan. 9 and 14)
10. “Coco.” Pixar’s 19th feature film takes us to Mexico as Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina create a dynamic and colorful tribute to Mexican culture. Using the Day of the Dead as a backdrop for a touching story about the importance of family and remembering those who have come before us, it carefully balances emotional moments with great gags and delightful original songs.
Honorable Mentions: “Okja,” “Get Out,” “Logan Lucky,” “Baby Driver,” “Personal Shopper”