COLUMN: The 10 Best Films of 2017
The end of the year brings grading and reflection points for both the school teacher in me and the film critic. Looking at the online Trapper Keeper portfolio called Every Movie has a Lesson, I published 126 full film reviews in 2017, topping last year’s 114 and setting a new high mark. When I did this website’s first “10 Best” year-end list in 2011, that number was 53. Humming along with press credentials, festival access, and being part of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle as a recognized awards-voting body, I can’t even remember what 53 feels like.
Even at 126, I feel like I left plenty of opportunities on the table living in a big market with a great reach of films. For the purposes of a proper “10 Best” list, short of not making it to The Disaster Artist, Mudbound, and Molly’s Game quite yet, I feel sound about 2017 and have no problem calling it a fair to middling year. By this teacher’s math and reflection, 2017 < 2016 < 2015. Give me the likes of Sicario, Creed, Brooklyn, Spotlight, Room, La La Land, Jackie, Moonlight, A Monster Calls, and more compared to most of the 20 films listed below.
Focusing back to now, only three of my “so far” picks from this past June made the final ten this year. Here’s my definitive list. True to this website’s specialty, each film will be paired with its best life lesson. Enjoy!
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2017 AND THEIR LESSONS
1. LADY BIRD
This was like watching a no-doubt home run off the bat of a muscle-bound slugger fly over the stands and out of the park. Like that home run crack, Lady Bird’s effect was unmistakable. I knew it as soon as film made contact. From that opening car ride argument between surefire future Oscar nominees (if not eventual winners) Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird was going for something of reinvigorated conventions and oxymoronic cadences with the coming-of-age film framework. (full review)
BEST LESSON: PUNCHY WHIMSY-- All of Lady Bird’s conflicts and clashes build to swelling peaks of emotion and legitimate feels. Gerwig’s film is one heck of a debut and shows that a good cry and awkward laughs do go together when assembled with truth and care. When it hits, my goodness, it hits. When it charms, by golly, it charms. Few films this year can tout such towering achievements of writing and performance to create such a genuinely satisfying experience.
2. I, TONYA
In a fierce performance, Margot Robbie proves without a shadow of a doubt that she is a talented actress beyond her bombshell looks. From the director of Lars and the Real Girl and the writer of Stepmom (I know right?), the dark comedy, pushed often by Allison Janney’s Oscar-worthy rants, fuels an unconventional sports film and true story American dream saga with kinetic sizzle. It’s the wildest and brashest film I saw this year. (full review)
BEST LESSON: EVERYONE MIGHT BE TELLING THEIR TRUTH, BUT NO ONE IS TELLING THE REAL TRUTH--The true merriment of I, Tonya is the trying to sniff out the bullsh-it. Many of us remember witnessing the tabloid history unfold on television before our very shocked and captivated eyes in a era before the 24-hour news cycle. Even know the fate of the characters, this film’s spin of such events will glue you to the screen preparing for the suspense of possibly observing a few chapters of “what really happened.” Who’s right and who is full of it?
From what I can tell viewing the year-end lists of fellow critics, this one is going to be a unconventional choice and I don’t care. I see a great deal of perfection in the whimsy and introspection of Wonderstruck. Artful to no end, I cannot help but compliment the care and consideration given to the Brain Selznick source material from a skilled filmmaker like Todd Haynes stepping into PG material in a manner as impressive as Scorsese doing Hugo. In a landscape where people are craving rich and compelling films for family audiences instead of mindless animated entertainment, I adored what this film accomplished. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE MAJESTY OF MUSEUMS-- Both in the novel and in film form, Wonderstruck is a love letter to museums, their history, and their continuing presence as authentic experiences. It starts with one person gathering a collection of interest, a “cabinet of wonder” if you will be that in a single room or an expansive complex, and deciding to share it with a larger audience. In the present-day of Google, Wikipedia, content apps, and innumerable virtual experiences, there should always be a place for the tangible and real wonders right before our eyes in museums. Calling them magical is not enough and calling them antiquated should be a compliment and not a slight.
4. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The closing chapter of what has quietly become one of the best film trilogies of all-time (it’s that good as a sum total) elevated the impressive soaring themes, blockbuster action, and the performance-capture brilliance of Andy Serkis that have enraptured myself and many others. Serkis, present and emoting in every scene behind the finished special effects, deserves the Oscar for Best Actor even if he doesn’t stand a chance against the stigmas towards the technology. No film this year hit me the full roller coaster of feels like this one, from heart-stopping thrills to blubbering tears. (full review)
BEST LESSON: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE-- Due to the increases in peril and consequences, this is a repeated lesson from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that is cemented even further in this third film. Both primate species love their families, cling to their homes, and possess tangible feelings and emotions that drive their actions and personalities. “Humanity” doesn’t have exclusivity to those behaviors in this fictional world anymore.
5. THE BIG SICK
The Big Sick, written and inspired by the real-life duo of Emily V. Gordon and leading man Kumail Nanjiani, offers wide hopes that smart romantic comedies are still possible since their 1990s hey-day and that they don’t require man-child actors and full-on toilet humor. When people have asked me this past year for a no-doubt winning movie suggestion or hidden gem to entertain them for any occasion, The Big Sick has been my top recommendation for its maturity and humor while still carrying the right heft of drama to keep it honest. In my eyes, this was the best screenplay of the year and I hope the Oscars notice. (full review)
BEST LESSON: FIND SOMEONE YOU CAN BE OVERWHELMED BY-- This lesson is going to sound like one of those “find someone who looks at you the way so-and-so looks at such-and-such” memes, but captivating ga-ga devotion is a real draw. The film uses the word “overwhelm” when it talks about measuring such love and it couldn’t be more spot-on advice. Love has its own rules and it’s just as hard to keep as it is to earn.
The directorial debut of character actor John Carroll Lynch stands on this list as the "Little Engine That Could." Far from a blockbuster and puffed with zero muscles for Oscar bait on the 90-year-old frame of its star Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky is a straight-shooter of writing and performance brilliance to make cantankerous endearing. In different hands, this would be a Coen brothers quirk-fest or a Grumpy Old Men farce. Instead, Lucky plainly might have the most heart of any film on this list, and that’s saying something. (full review)
BEST LESSON: ACCEPTING MORTALITY-- Nothing is permanent and the biggest truth to be told is the finality of the human condition. No matter the level of your faith or depth of character, misgivings about your own ephemerality are inevitable feelings we all share. We would all be so “lucky” to reach our nineties to have that revelation.
Sharply shrinking the comic book genre’s towering current scale down to the marrow inside of its bones, James Mangold’s Logan nails the western motifs to make one of the best comic book films of all-time. For me, this movie is like what young songstress Ella Mae Brown did to slow down with Bonnie Tyler’s 80s classic “Holding Out for a Hero” a few years ago. This is energy boiled down to bold substance, making something rightly stoic as the conclusion for Hugh Jackman’s lovable anti-hero. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE POWERFUL NEED FOR FATHER FIGURES-- Logan openly creates a parallel with 1953’s seminal western classic Shane and it is an ideal thematic pairing. Alan Ladd’s reluctant gunfighter and Jackman’s Wolverine embody the fight for the defenseless as well as the influential father figure role of this lesson. Laura is another Little Joe and but one more person Logan leaves a positive mark on in his world. Tales may be written on the actions of heroes, but the personal connections they build and leave behind are where the real legend lies.
8. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Sean Baker’s sprightly dose of youthful fantasy mixing with socioeconomic reality was one of the few times I’ve ever gone back to a review and changed my rating after some thoughtful reflection. This film went from a four-star film to a five-star one on the strength of the impact of that aforementioned storytelling and emotional mix. The level of empathy stoked by this film’s fire is off the charts and I cannot help but respect that. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE CAPACITY TO FEEL EMPATHY-- The crucial emotional response The Florida Project demands of its viewers is empathy. If you can’t find that, if you turn your nose, close your eyes, and refuse to accept that this kind of American lifestyle exists, you are missing the hard truths, the teachable moments, and the larger points being presented. Become compassionate enough to remove the negative prefixes from Mother Teresa's quote of “unwanted, unloved and uncared for” when it comes to addressing poverty. Take her advice and start in your own home and community.
9. PHANTOM THREAD
Five years ago, after beating my head senseless over the pretentiousness of The Master, if you would have told me I would have a Paul Thomas Anderson film in my “10 Best,” I would have said you were nuts and wondered how the sequel to Boogie Nights could have been achieved. Yet, here we are and Phantom Thread is the real deal. Exquisitely crafted and intensely nuanced, I was impressed like I've rarely been. If this the last ride of Daniel Day-Lewis, he leaves us with a gem. (full review)
BEST LESSON: “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT CAREFULLY”-- This quote from Lewis’s Reynolds, the peak of the film's trailer, sent in the direction of his new muse could be echoed in dozens of aspects of one’s life. Mundane activities could become effective and even artful with an extra level of paid care and consideration. At the same time, there is an unsettling level to that rigidity. Often there is a missing flexibility to perfectionist who cannot get over themselves or adjust their idiosyncrasies.
10. LOVING VINCENT
In terms of sheer creation of a finished piece, Loving Vincent might be the most miraculous film of the year and greatest technical achievement as the first entire oil-painted feature-length animated film. 125 painters combined their efforts on over 65,000 canvases shot on film to create this incredible achievement. Beyond the art, the enriching whodunit drama of investigating the final days of Vincent Van Gogh backed by Clint Mansell’s rich musical score create storytelling worthy of all the work. (full review)
BEST LESSON: INTERPRETING AN ARTIST-- Subjected to ridicule and criticism from a young age to his last, Van Gogh’s talent and purpose were always questioned before the established reverence that followed his death. Another Van Gogh quote in the film reads “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” Sometimes artists are not peaceful souls. The few people that did realize his greatness in the moment were not enough to save his.
When I can, I dip my toe into the world of short films and I’m beginning to love the art form and the efficiency of its skill. Merely scratching the surface of this form of film medium, among the handful I saw and reviewed this year, Not Yet was a five-star gem. Picture one of those expressive and imaginary Pixar shorts that open their films and apply live-action human emotion to it That will give you a taste of Not Yet. My full review has a link to the short for you to see for yourself. I promise nothing but smiles.
BEST LESSON: THE IMMENSE CHALLENGES OF CHEERING SOMEONE UP-- Some folks are tough nuts to crack in the cheer department. Add the physical drain and toll of illness into that equation of happiness and the challenge is even greater. Self-deprecating humor in this situation often works in spades, but there’s one action that’s even better: Love. In Not Yet, you have a man that unabashedly loves his wife with every ounce of willingness and companionship. Love always wins the best cheers.