The Movies That Mattered in 2017

Tribalism aside, it was a banner year for film.

The new Star Wars movie opened a few days ago. It will make a mint. But within hours of its opening, it also made waves.

Before the end credits had finished rolling, an army of devoted Star Wars faithful had taken to their devices to declare that The Last Jedi was a disgrace to the memory of the doctrinal faith. One online commenter called it the “assassination of the entire star wars universe,” which sounds really serious. The new film’s alleged sins include over-jokiness, a reluctance to answer every plot question raised by the previous chapter, and, well, just being different. Being different is the worst offense of all.

Perhaps because I do not worship at the House of Skywalker, I found The Last Jedi to be perfectly delightful, and probably the best Star Wars picture since the first one. If that doesn’t get me excommunicated, I don’t know what will. But I bring up the issue because while the films of 2017 offered plenty of worthwhile titles, it marked a downturn in how we talk about movies. The Star Wars backlash reflects our tribal culture, where battle lines are drawn and we exclusively stick to our teams. People on the right attack movies for being too PC, people on the left attack movies for being ideologically impure—in both cases at the risk of missing complex films that don’t fit easily into straight lines. One of my favorite 2017 films, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, has gained its share of disapproval because it suggests that one character, an unpleasant racist jerk, might possibly bumble his way to becoming a better person instead of simply being punished for his transgressions. No straight lines in this film.

Meanwhile, when Star Wars owner Disney purchased 21st Century Fox last week it was the merging of two storied Hollywood studios. If anybody thinks this means big movies are going to get more adventurous or grown-up, please brace yourself for a shock. But hey, it brings together various trademarks of the Marvel universe, so we no longer have to lose sleep over whether the X-Men will ever join forces with the Avengers.

Actually, the year was better-than-average for superhero blockbusters, as both Thor and Spider-man offered witty antics, and Wonder Woman, while not exactly a great movie, became a lightning-rod for the subject of women in Hollywood. Speaking of which, the exposing of bully/alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein set off a cavalcade of revelations about the ugly treatment of women in the movie business. This is a sea change, and obviously overdue.

There were also movies—things we could try watching without prejudice. Of course, I should talk about bias—according to another anti-Last Jedi commentator, the “bought/paid-for critics give it praise like predictable lap-dogs,” so I’ll be over here lighting cigars with 100-dollar bills signed by Walt Disney. Nevertheless, here are my choices for the best movies of 2017.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return. Another problem in how we talk about film: although director David Lynch called this an 18-hour movie, it’s being disqualified from year-end polls because it showed first on TV. I say a screen is a screen, and I didn’t see anything else this year that matched Lynch’s wild experimental saga—surely the most expensive avant-garde film ever bankrolled by Hollywood. Lynch’s teeming (if often baffling) imagination was executed with supreme control, and Kyle MacLachlan’s dazed, vacant Dougie Jones was obviously the Man of the Year.

2. Phantom Thread. In what he claims is his final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a fussy 1950s fashion designer who falls for a waitress (Vicky Krieps). At first glance, this movie unfolds along conventional lines, but then it goes a little strange, like a Hitchcock picture viewed through a fever dream. Interesting stuff from There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, and beautifully made. (Opens locally in January.)

3. Get Out. It’s funny, it’s scary, it wields a surgical knife on the subject of race. Jordan Peele’s crafty horror-comedy is a true original, and it was gratifying to see something different that also connected with an audience.

4. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is not a realistic portrait of an actual small town. It is a highly stylized, precisely written study in character and ethics. Director Martin McDonagh wants us to think about how we view people and how we watch stories, so don’t expect to have everything resolved in a tidy package. Frances McDormand shines as an outraged mother, and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are equally good as members of the local police force.

5. A Quiet Passion. Cynthia Nixon gives a terrific performance as Emily Dickinson in this consistently surprising portrait of the poet’s life. Maybe only director Terence Davies could pull this off, by using an artificial style that somehow gets to something real.

6. The Lovers. A rare big role for Debra Winger, wonderfully matched by the increasingly essential Tracy Letts (also in the likable Lady Bird). In Azazel Jacobs’ low-budget character study, they play a married couple, currently having affairs, who somehow fall back in lust with each other. A wonderfully odd film that feels like it was made completely outside any known moviemaking system.

7. Detroit. Kathryn Bigelow’s horrifying account of a gruesome night during the 1967 racial violence in Detroit. It flopped with audiences, and you can see why: The film goes too far, holds nothing back, and really puts the viewer through it. It’s a fascinating and uncompromising approach, even if hard to recommend.

8. The Shape of Water. Although it’s an R-rated picture featuring inter-species sex, there’s something childlike about Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural romance: It presents a perfect streamlined fantasy with every element in place. The Cold War tale puts a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) in proximity to a fish-man (Doug Jones); what follows may not be deep, but there’s a lot to be said for pure moviegoing pleasure, and this film has a lot of it.

9. Personal Shopper. There’s also a supernatural component to this story of a woman (Kristen Stewart) grieving for her dead twin, and trying to communicate with him. Olivier Assayas’s film seems almost random at first, but it becomes suspenseful at a key moment, and lifts into a wonderful final sequence.

10. Logan. Probably any of the also-ran films below could fit in this slot, but there was something gratifying in the way this film took a well-worn Marvel character (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) and found a way to put him at the center of an actual story.

Ten more: S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, a violent yarn with an indomitable Vince Vaughn performance; BPM, a moving look at AIDS activists in Paris; Before I Fall, a teen Groundhog Day; Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, a lush holiday at an Italian villa; Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with its ingenious time-shifting narrative; Alexander Payne’s social comedy Downsizing; William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, a period piece with bite; the uneven but lively satire The Square; Steven Soderbergh’s clever heist picture Logan Lucky; and the Twilight Zone vibe of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.