It’s finally time for me to reveal my Top Ten Movies of 2017 here on Plot and Theme. I know, everyone settle down. Now, in previous years this piece has come out sometime around the middle of January, as I hastily throw together a Top Ten list ASAP. Usually, this means that a few films that graced the coastal elites in the latter half of December don’t get consideration because they don’t show in whatever Podunk I am currently populating. By waiting a few months into the next year, I get to add more sweet flicks to my list, plus I was able to watch some of the older films a few more times. It should turn out well.
Now, as for what’s on the list. If a movie got a wide release in the United States in 2017, then it is eligible for my list. For most of these, inclusion will be obvious, but two films require extra explanation. I’ll point those out. Finally, as always, I will include my original review of the film, a brief blurb on the movie itself, and then an extra observation or two that relates to the world of film in 2017 in general.
#10 – A Ghost Story
A Ghost Story was a weird little film that likely slipped by a lot of people. It is one of the most slow-burning and strange dramas that I’ve seen in a long time, and it is absolutely packed with peculiar stylistic choices. It’s almost a silent film, is shot in a square aspect ratio, and follows the ghost of one of the characters through time. The ghost is depicted as a floating sheet, just like some of the lazier costumes out there on Halloween. This is not a movie for everyone, and I am sure that some of the spectators in my screening left quite disappointed. But, A Ghost Story is certainly a unique film, approaching questions like love, destiny, time, and legacy in an wholly original way. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are both dialed-in on their roles even though their performances are sparse and muted. There aren’t a lot of movies like this, so if you find yourself tired over the sameness of film, I have to recommend you give A Ghost Story a shot.
I know that I am certainly drawn to the peculiar, the new, the unique. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of Disney and Marvel and Mission: Impossible, but I find myself most excited about the crazy new ideas and the risk-takers. A Ghost Story is one of these films – all vision and consistency. These kinds of movies don’t usually make money, and sometimes they don’t even make a huge impression on the viewership at large, but for my money they are some of the best places to look for something that will absolutely knock your socks off.
#9 – Baby Driver
Speaking of strict stylistic choices, there may not be a more obvious dedication to style than what we saw in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. This is an action film with a distinct auditory style: the pacing of the action scenes are set to diegetic music chosen by the titular character, Baby, who is the getaway driver for a series of heists. In other scenes, the soundtrack of the film may comment on the drama on screen, make a quick little joke, or even wink a bit at the audience. It’s a fun and funny ride that maybe suffers a bit from the “ending are hard” problem. But, mostly Baby Driver is a wonderfully rich piece of action filmmaking that feels united by a vision and a pledge not to take itself too seriously.
God Bless Edgar Wright. I’ve loved this director since Shaun of the Dead and the rest of the Cornetto trilogy. His particular brand of dry British wit just lands with alarming consistency for me. I am aware that this isn’t the case for everyone, and that’s just fine. Because Wright can do much more. He nailed the adaptation for Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and now with Baby Driver has shown that he has great control over action as well (we might have guessed from Hot Fuzz, but this time he sustained it over a full film). We’re not going to be treated to a new film from Wright until 2019 (Shadows), so for now we’ll just have to bask in his previous triumphs.
#8 – Blade Runner: 2049
There was practically zero chance that I was going to completely hate Blade Runner: 2049. Directed by one of my favorite filmmakers today, Denis Villeneuve, shot by the legendary Roger Deakins, and set 25 years after the evens of the original Blade Runner, one of the most influential science fiction films of all time (for my money, it’s right behind 2001: A Space Odyssey). The story is intriguing and has that nice noir taste to it while being completely mired in this science fiction dystopia. There are various turnabouts and tricks, but ultimately I really connected with the main theme of discovering one’s humanity. To all of this, add some astounding and poignant visuals. There were cool shots and special effects, sure, but they also very often conveyed a meaning to the story or characters or both. Certainly a powerful film, and the only reason it isn’t higher on this list is because of a few awkward bits of Harrison Ford dialogue and plot convolution.
Roger Deakins finally won his Oscar for his work on Blade Runner: 2049, and it is hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it. Cinematographers add so much to a film and are hardly ever credited or mentioned by most members of the audience. Deakins is one of the masters. I still think about some of his shots in Prisoners and Sicario, completely divorced from the rest of those films. They’re like single statements of the overall aesthetic and theme of the movies, keeping their fundamental importance in my head at a single thought. I may end up feeling the same way about his work on this film.
#7 – Paterson
Paterson is like a warm blanket for me. I’m a bit of a writer and occasional poet myself, and I absolutely love Adam Driver. In my full review, I described this film from Jim Jarmusch as an “Ode to Poetry”, and that’s all you really need to know. There’s a love of language, an attention to detail, and a celebration of artistry that you won’t see in many other films. There are also a lot of false leads, peculiarities, and small plot turns that end up saying a great deal about the underlying themes. Paterson may be slow and mundane, but it hits like a jolt.
One thing I’ve noticed about the films on this top 10 list is that almost all of them have a strong, singular vision that they adhere to and represent. Paterson is perhaps the most muted example on the list. But, the point still stands: a film with a point of view, a consistent vision, and the artistic ability to follow-through on that vision will always have a leg up on something that is more crowd-pleasing, four-quadrant, and compromised. I’ll choose Paterson over the average Marvel movie. I know I am in the minority there, and that’s fine. People can appreciate film in different ways and for different reasons.
#6 – Get Out
Speaking of a singular vision, Get Out may actually end up as the most important and memorable film from 2017. Sporting an Oscar-winning screenplay from Jordan Peele (who also directed the film), this is an outstanding movie in every aspect. The performances are amazing, the tone and mood absolutely perfect, and the story engrossing and timely. A few scenes from the film are already iconic (the “Sunken Place”, for instance), and the film’s themes comment on many of the racial tensions and issues that the world is dealing with today. Get Out is a great film, and the only reason it isn’t higher on my list is that there are a few awkward moments and strained plot elements that detract a bit from the overall tone. But, these are few and far between.
Oh boy, do I love a great genre flick. When a thriller or science fiction film or some kind of monster movie is done well it makes me so happy. Get Out is closer to a thriller than a horror film, but it still distinctly feels like a genre flick. It relies on a few tropes, but would rather play around with them than emulate them – always a good quality for a satire to have. Sometimes, I think my estimation of films like Get Out is even higher than it normally would be because I adjust for difficulty. It is hard to make a good satire, it is hard to make an honest and effective commentary on race relations without pandering or feeling manipulative, it is hard to make a scary movie. Get Out does all of this (and much more).
#5 – Dunkirk
Dunkirk was an awesome experience, a kind of no-holds-barred trip through the Battle of Dunkirk in three parts: land, sea, and air. It is a taught 90 minutes (very rare for a Christopher Nolan film), and dispensed with the director’s usual penchant for sentimentalism in favor of a kind of cinema veritae look at the war. Another film that is practically free of dialogue, Dunkirk instead takes advantage of a riveting soundtrack to help control the tension and the action. A repetitive and non-linear narrative structure allows the audience to consider events from numerous viewpoints, adding to the interpretation. Overall, it’s a consuming experience, expertly conveyed by a master filmmaker.
I think I am less of a Christopher Nolan fan than most people out there, and that most of his recent films are quite flawed in one way or another. But, the man knows his way around a camera and can tell a great story. Sometimes he gets in his own way, either by complicating something too much or by infusing a story with an extreme level of pathos. I think Dunkirk is his strongest overall film since The Dark Knight (and may, in fact be better), and that the film is a remarkable achievement.
#4 – Your Name.
This anime film was my favorite at the halfway point of the year, and I still absolutely love it. It is a little rom-com body-switching fantasy with a peculiar storytelling method. The music, much of it written specifically for the film, is fun and upbeat and adds a powerful momentum to a lot of scenes. And, at its heart, this is really just an adorable love story told in an unconventional way. The art style and the imagery is breathtaking, and every fresh viewing results in another new observation or piece of symbolism that I had missed before. This is a rich film, and I recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure and a romantic outlook on life.
Your Name. is the only animated film on my list, but I still saw a bunch of awesome animated flicks over the past year. I adored Coco, and it probably fell just outside of my top 12 or so. Captain Underpants took full advantage of its weird animation style to tell a pretty sweet story. Of course, there was a lot of cynical cash-grabs in the animated film bucket as well (but that’s true regardless of a film’s style). Just like always, you have to seek out the good stuff in any genre or style or technique. You’ll find it.
#3 – Lady Bird
Lady Bird is a remarkable achievement for first-time director Greta Gerwig. She tells a wonderful coming-of-age story that is also a bit of a time capsule to the early 2000s. Anyone who has been through high school (or is currently going through it) should find something endearing and relatable in this spectacular film. The performances are impeccable, from the headliners like Saoirse Ronan and Lauren Metcalf too the smaller bits played by Lucas Hedges and Timotheé Chalamet. Lady Bird is great, a timeless exploration of growth, love, and the understanding the comes with age.
This seems like the most appropriate place to exalt the newest awesome directors on the block. This year, it was Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig announcing themselves to the world, but we should remember that there are some astounding talents behind the camera coming up in Hollywood. Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Patty Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, Damien Chazelle, and many, many more (plus, these are just the most recognizable, mainstream names). Coupled with the stalwart experts that are still working, this is a great time to be into film.
#2 – The Shape of Water
Speaking of an expert stalwart, enter Guillermo del Toro and his beautiful fantasy story about a mute woman and a fish creature falling in love at a research facility during the Cold War. This is the magic of del Toro at his absolute finest. The film has whimsy, heart, jaw-dropping aesthetics, set design, and visuals, and even sports powerful performances throughout the cast – including Doug Jones as the creature. This film has been the butt of many jokes, most of which employ an over-simplification to highlight the absurdity of the story. And yet, The Shape of Water is a story about a woman and a Fishman falling in love. Del Toro is able to take the audience on this journey with him and make it 100% believable and stirring; that’s a baffling achievement, and one that speaks to the power of fables.
Fables and fantasy can be powerful things. The ability to tell a peculiar story without regard for the way things really are can be a potent advantage. Of course, Guillermo del Toro has always championed this power of fantasy, of fairy tales. And, throughout his career, he has served up a veritable bounty. The Shape of Water is merely the most recent example, but if you found yourself stricken by the film, I can’t recommend Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and the two Hellboy films enough.
Now, before we get to my number one favorite films of the year, it is time for a few Honorable Mentions. I’ve already mentioned Coco as part of the animated section. It was a wonderful outing from Pixar dealing with some heavy subject matter. It sports some great music and has a vibrant look, even for Pixar. It Comes at Night just barely got bumped out of the top 10, mostly because it is a bleak bummer. Still, it’s an incredibly well-made bummer. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also just missed this. It is an undoubtedly strong film, mostly on the back of three titanic performances, but there were other films this last year that I felt were a tad stronger. Finally, I’d like to draw attention to the best comedy I saw last year, which was The Big Sick. It is very awkward and dry at times, but I still feel like it lands most of the time. Finally, I should mention my favorite “blockbuster” type movies of 2017. My favorite superhero flicks were Wonder Woman and Logan, and for the first time in a long time I actually enjoyed, a Star Wars movie (maybe I am just a contrarian, though).
With all of that out of the way, my favorite film from 2017 was . . .
#1 – Call Me By Your Name
I waffled back-and-forth between The Shape of Water and Call Me by Your Name, but ultimately I settled on this coming-of-age film set during an Italian summer in the early 1980s. Both films are wonderful, life-affirming, and the perfect kind of heartbreaking, but I settled here on account of the great performances, the deft subtlety of the story, the warmth of the characters, and two or three jaw-dropping moments that will likely stick in my head for years. Call Me by Your Name is why I watch movies – to be kicked in the gut with a sublime empathy for another, to feel their highs and lows and experience another person’s uniqueness, another person’s journey through life.
There’s not much else to say about Call Me by Your Name. See it, it’s gorgeous.
Plot and Theme’s Top Ten Films of 2017
Call Me by Your Name
The Shape of Water
Blade Runner: 2049
A Ghost Story