Pardon me while I plagiarize myself:
Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.
I should also add that I still go to the movies (and watch movies at home) for the pure joy of it. It’s true that on the whole I take a more thoughtful approach to movie-watching than I used to, but I also still like to just laugh and see things explode and pretend time travel is real for a couple of hours.
I generally hate having to rank things and always struggle to cough up a sincere answer when I’m asked what my favorite anything is, but I recently started keeping track of the movies I see, mostly to build a little scaffolding that might encourage me to write more. Also people like reading ranked lists (even people like me), so I decided to try to rank my favorites from the last year. This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me laughing at a guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.
A few other notes about the list:
- At 42 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even about what you laugh at.
- I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.
- This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2017 (and early 2018) I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling as I make up the list, plus some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. It turned out that 13 movies stood out above the others for me, so it’s a top 13 list. Here’s hoping next year’s list is at least a top 14.
I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.
13. The Big Sick
More than any other title on this list, Dunkirk leverages the power of the modern movie theater. Chris Nolan masterfully allows the oversized screen and dynamic sound system to carry as much of the freight of the story as scripted dialogue, and it works. Dunkirk is a cinematic force, visually stunning and paced start to finish by a mounting sonic landscape that seems to somehow emanate from inside your bones. It would rank higher on my list if the story and dialogue had more depth, though I know Nolan makes no apologies for the verbal sparseness. In a movie thin on scripted performances, Mark Rylance is again brilliant, filling the same kind of space he occupied in Bridge of Spies. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2016 for that role, and I’m a big fan of his work in both films. It’s hard not to root for a guy whose career didn’t really take off until he was 55.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Aiden (15) and I have been enthusiastically in on the Marvel movies since he has been old enough to watch them, but this crew is my favorite. James Gunn nailed the first installment, striking a near-perfect tone between superhero drama and legitimate comedy. Marvel was already succeeding on that front, but both Guardians movies have been high watermarks for the franchise. Part of what makes them work so well is a terrific ensemble of unusual characters who are all interesting beyond the first layer. Groot and baby Groot are not just talking trees, they are empathetic talking trees whose only words, “I am Groot,” somehow still constitute a full vocabulary that only a surly talking Racoon can understand. Chris Pratt is clearly the star here, but he grew up as an actor working among one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled (Parks and Rec) and is perfectly at ease as the center piece of a group of strong supporting characters.
10. Phantom Thread
This is a surprise entry on my list, not because it isn’t getting high marks from critics (it is) but because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. I have limited capacity for PTA’s affection for illogical plot structure and unresolved storylines, so I entered the theater with low expectations and left pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this one until the very end; with about six minutes left, I was prepared to really hate it. That’s not because it had been terrible up to that point, but because I could see the unsatisfying, sideways ending that would make me regret spending money to see a movie about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. And don’t get me wrong, it’s still a true Anderson film that keeps him solidly in “That boy ain’t right” territory. Many folks will find it weird and a little disturbing. But with all of its quirks and long stares in unsettling directions, I found it a lot more accessible than some of his previous work. It looks terrific on the screen, the music is gorgeous, and if there’s a better actor than Daniel Day-Lewis in the world, I don’t know who it is. Some scoff at these kinds of descriptions, but you get the sense that you’re watching a true artist do what he was born to do as he inhabits the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Day-Lewis has insisted that this was his final project and, already the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars, I suspect he’ll go out as the only man to win four.
9. Lady Bird
I have a theory that most teenage boys are subconsciously choosing to settle for a shallow existence at exactly the same time that most teenage girls are plunging their whole hearts into the depths of every possible human emotion. I’m sure someone came up with that theory before I did. And I’m sure someone else decided that it was a bad stereotype of both genders. But I’m still pretty convinced that it’s mostly true, and Lady Bird is a movie about the painful superiority of the choice to feel and care and risk in a world where half of your peers are not only doing the opposite, but are terribly ignorant that there’s another way. It’s about a lot of other things too. It’s also a smart, funny movie that manages to be both honest about and kind to American teenagers without relying on a pile of cliches.
8. Thor: Ragnarok
Thirty minutes into Thor: Ragnarok, I thought to myself, “This is too funny. They can’t keep up this comedic pace and still execute a reasonable plot with any substance.” I was wrong. It is relentlessly funny start to finish, and it still manages to be a good movie that moves one of the marquee Marvel storylines forward. A lot of that credit goes to the three writers, who had worked almost exclusively on smaller Marvel projects, but it all happened under the guidance of director Taika Waititi, who I expect to become a real star. Marvel’s willingness to take a chance on young filmmakers who haven’t worked in the genre (or on any big budget film) is a refreshing departure from the Hollywood formula, and Waititi may be the best of the bunch. He began his career working with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and that same comedic sensibility is evident in his more recent work. He wrote and directed the quirky, wonderful New Zealand hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which was one of my favorites last year. In his Marvel directorial debut, he also plays Korg, the aforementioned guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. And in a movie full of real laughs, Korg was understated comic brilliance. Oh yeah, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, etc. This one is big, loud, fun, and one of my favorite Marvel movies so far.
7. The Last Jedi
Ten year-old Thad is furious with 42 year-old Thad for putting a very good Star Wars movie that gave us the return (and end) of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia this low on a list of Thad’s favorite movies. Heck, 21 year-old Thad probably would have vowed to put a quality Star Wars movie at number one for a decade if we could just, for the love of Yoda, get another good Star Wars movie. But what can I say? It’s 2017 (well, it was when The Last Jedi dropped) and this is the third good Star Wars movie in three years. So much digital ink (and blood) has been spilled about this one, and I don’t have a lot to add except to say that I think making a Star Wars movie that will please audiences is one of the tougher jobs in the movie industry. The standards of the purists are just impossibly high and often at odds with the the standards of the rest of the purists. It isn’t perfect, and I still prefer The Force Awakens of the three new installments, but I’ll be hard pressed to be too critical of any good Star Wars movie. We all know what a bad one looks like, and thankfully we haven’t even sniffed that territory in the reboots.
6. Get Out
I don’t do horror movies. I honestly can’t remember the last one I saw before this one. I was persuaded to push through my discomfort after learning a bit about what Jordan Peele was after with Get Out (but not so much that I knew what was coming plot-wise). If I had an Academy Award vote, I’d be hard pressed to vote for anyone but Peele in both the directing and original screenplay categories. Get Out is just so very smart from conception to execution. The backbone of the film is a cutting send-up of paternalistic racism, but the layers to the story and symbolism are seemingly endless. Fair warning, it really is a horror movie with all the creepiness and killing you’d expect.
Movies 2 through 5 could easily be reshuffled in almost any order depending on when you ask me. Mudbound is the only one on this list that I didn’t see in theaters since it’s a Netflix movie, and I have mixed feelings about the changing nature of film distribution. It’s hard to complain about the production of more quality movies, and the direct-to-streaming model has been especially valuable in the creation and distribution of powerful documentaries that most of us wouldn’t see otherwise. But there’s no reason Mudbound wouldn’t have been a successful theatrical release, and multiple times as I watched, I wished I could see it on the big screen. This is an excruciating and beautiful story about two families on the same piece of Mississippi land in the 1940s — the black sharecropping family who has lived on the farm for years and the white family who has just purchased the land. It’s a brilliant lens into the history of that era, race, war, family, and the nature of human dignity. Mary J. Blige (who is very good here) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but it was Rob Morgan’s work as her husband and the family patriarch, Hap Jackson, that I found most compelling. [Content warnings: There is a brief subplot about sexual abuse and a brutal scene where a black man is tortured by the KKK.]
4. I, Tonya
In almost any other year, this force of a movie probably would be at the top of my list. Anyone who lived through the bizarre Tonya Harding ordeal knows it was truly stranger than fiction, and that often makes it nearly impossible to create a feature film that does the story justice. But this movie is absolutely as b-a-n-a-n-a-s as the real thing. It is wonderful and terrible in all the ways Harding’s life story demands. I may write a more complete review of this soon since I saw it recently and I left the theater with a waterfall of thoughts and feelings. What makes the film so compelling is that it convinces you that Harding and everyone in her life are terminally broken, dares you to judge them, and then demands that you not only find some empathy for (almost) all of them, but reminds you that we’re all an unpredictable mix of the best and worst versions of ourselves. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney (Tonya’s mom on your screen, C.J. Cregg in your hearts) are both magnificent and deserve whatever praise is thrown their way.
3. Molly’s Game
I don’t call myself a “fan” of many people or things, but when it comes to Molly’s Game writer and director Aaron Sorkin: I’m a big fan. I first became enamored with Sorkin’s writing through A Few Good Men, though I didn’t know for a while that it was Sorkin I was fanboying. I just loved the movie and watched it two dozen times back when it was one of the few VCR tapes I owned. I watched it again recently expecting to be a little disappointed relative to my memory, but the writing, particularly the dialogue, is still sharp and brimming with energy. Sorkin went on to create and write The West Wing for its first three seasons (I’m on my fourth trip through the series), which is where I became more directly aware of him. He also created and wrote the HBO series The Newsroom and wrote the scripts for The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network (for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. So I was eager for another full length feature from Sorkin, this one his first to direct.
Molly’s Game is a based-on-real-events biopic of Molly Bloom, a brilliant young woman and world class skier who missed out on the Salt Lake Olympics because of a catastrophic fall in qualifying. She eventually found herself running high stakes poker games in L.A. and then New York and was caught up in all kinds of associated darkness and trouble. The biggest strength of Molly’s Game (the insanity of Molly’s actual story) is also its biggest constraint (the arc of the story is already written), but Sorkin is predictably on point with the characters and dialogue. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Molly, and I think it’s a shame that she isn’t a Best Actress nominee; Sorkin’s screenplay is the film’s only Academy Award nomination. But I loved it, and I think in a different year it would have garnered more attention and praise. In the midst of so much social upheaval and with so many films speaking to our angst, a movie about a rich girl running poker games just doesn’t register as special for a lot of folks. I get it, but a great film is still a great film, and it’s hard to beat a Sorkin-crafted script.
2. War for the Planet of the Apes
Yes, really. I was a late and almost accidental convert to the Apes trilogy. I remember being pretty disinterested in the first installment of the reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and initially being no more intrigued by the second (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). One Friday afternoon I was in a “I need to go sit in a dark theater” state of mind, but the pickings were slim. I was surprised to see how positive the reviews for Dawn were, so I took a chance on it, going in completely blind to the context of the story. I really liked it and thought about it for days.
I then backtracked and watched the first movie, which was good and helpful for filling out the bigger picture. So I was definitely looking forward to War for the Planet of the Apes, but my hope was just for a solid, entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. I got that and a lot more. War for the Planet of the Apes is an epic about suffering, survival, family, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, oppression, bitterness, and sacrificial love.
Yes, really. All of that in a movie about talking apes.
One other note: I’m a purist in many ways, so I’m generally pretty unimpressed by CGI-enhanced performances. But Andy Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar, and the synergy of his acting and the visual effects team behind these films is the definition of movie magic. [Content warning: This is a movie about a war, so it’s fairly violent. There also is a suicide toward the end. It’s off screen, but we see the run up to the death including an image that will be difficult for anyone who has lost someone this way.]
1. Wind River
Let me get the big warning out of the way here: About two-thirds of the way through Wind River, there is a very intense sexual assault scene. So despite my clear affection for this movie, I struggle to recommend it without a strong qualification. I caution anyone with sensitivities in that area to avoid this one. No movie is so necessary that you need to risk new trauma to see it.
My favorite movie of 2016 was Hell or High Water, a kind of contemporary western starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine and written by Taylor Sheridan. Set in West Texas where I grew up, the look and tone of that movie are so perfect that everything about it felt familiar even though it was about two brothers robbing banks to save the family ranch and not at all about a preacher’s kid who was a high school debate nerd. This is another one I need to write about separately, because it shook something loose in me about my writing, and I’m still figuring out how to ride that wave of inspiration.
Wind River was both written and directed by Sheridan (his first time to direct), and it opens on the aftermath of the assault and murder of 19 year-old Natalie Hanson on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who discovers Natalie’s body. Lambert’s specialty is tracking and killing animal predators, and he becomes a key member of the effort to identify and locate Natalie’s killer when rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who doesn’t know the area, arrives to investigate. I’d rather not write much more about the plot than that because it would be difficult to avoid giving away one of the key reveals that comes about halfway through the film.
Wind River flew under the radar a bit, which is a little surprising for a movie with Jeremy Renner in the lead and on the heels of HOHW’s success (it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Whatever the reasons, it’s an underseen and underrated film. Set against a snowy Wyoming landscape that offers mountains in one moment and meth lab infested trailer homes in the next, it looks beautiful and bleak on the screen. The often haunting soundscape and silence become an actual character at certain moments in the film. And the key for me: Sheridan is in Sorkin’s league when it comes to writing dialogue.
I’ve been unsure of what I think about Jeremy Renner as an actor, but while his part here was probably too subtle to get a lot of attention, I think this is his best role to date. Olsen, who is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, is a pleasant surprise, and she’s a legit star in the making. I also was blown away by Gil Birmingham, who played Natalie’s father, and there are two scenes between him and Renner that are as authentic and moving as anything I’ve seen on screen. I’ve seen Wind River four times, and I cry through both scenes every time. Some of that is just being a dad; some of it is that those scenes are a master class in writing and acting.
[Mild spoilers in this paragraph.] The film is a slow burn until, well, until it isn’t…and then it really isn’t. The scene I mentioned at the outset is a flashback where we see exactly what happened to Natalie, and from that point forward the pacing and volume explode for a bit. I suspect the abrupt change gave a lot of critics whiplash, and I wasn’t sure about it at first myself, but I think I’ve made sense of the contrast Sheridan was creating. I’m less at ease with the way evil is dealt with in the end, primarily in one particular scene that taps into a deep well of moral and spiritual questions about justice and vengeance. But after multiple viewings I’ve realized that while hunger for vengeance is the most obvious theme in the story, Wind River isn’t ultimately about good overcoming evil through vengeance. It’s about the discovery that the triumph of good over evil happened in the very first scene in the film. The virtue in Natalie’s courage (and, I think, to a lesser extent Jane’s) is juxtaposed with both the monstrous cowardice of her attacker and the crusade to end her attacker by any means necessary, and it’s Natalie’s virtue that stands as the unmistakable hero of the story.
Like every movie on this list, Wind River is imperfect, and it likely won’t be atop many people’s year-end lists. But even as much as I value a refined metric for evaluating quality film, I’m still most affected by how a movie makes me feel. Quiet and deliberate most of the way, Wind River drew me into the pain of being human and the struggle to make some sense of the harshness and move forward. It was my favorite film of 2017.
Some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about:
The Shape of Water