I am often at a loss for words when it comes to the films I love the most. I begin by saying “it’s the best!” and only elaborate once my opinion is challenged. In a world that seems to be driven by negativity, a world that sharpens a writer’s ability to be rude and dismissive more than it encourages us to be kind, developing adoring opinions is much more of a solo journey. If I’m writing about something I love, I usually have to shut myself off from everything else to complete the piece. An honest appreciation and enthusiasm for art is hard to find. I am not just speaking of the world, nor am I trying to make a sweeping commentary of how it “should” be. I am guilty of this sort of behavior as well. I prioritize my angry and dismissive opinions over my kind ones. It comes back to bite me often.
This has been a bad year, for the world collectively, and for many of us individually. I escaped this year by going to the movies. I would go every time I was feeling sad and hopeless and alone. The films I fell in love with were the ones that gave me the most hope. Cinema isn’t required to make people feel good, but in 2017 it’s what I needed the most. The box office numbers reflect that I wasn’t the only one.
There are many films I saw this year that were very good, but for one reason or another they left my cold. I have been working on not being too susceptible to the mainstream critical opinion. If your favorite did not make my list, I am sure there is another critic who was also moved by the film that moved you.
So, with all that in mind, here are my favorite films of 2017 (in no particular order):
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)
I have been keeping up with the filmography of Noah Baumbach since I began writing about film in high school. After seeing The Squid and the Whale in middle school, I became obsessed with watching everything Baumbach ever directed. I lapped up the ping pong dialogue of snotty, perpetually jealous intellectuals, constantly trying to get the upper hand on each other. It was a staple of his work for a long time. And then came Frances Ha, and I sensed a shift. It was a move towards poignancy and emotional storytelling. The Meyerowitz Stories is the logical outgrowth of this shift– a marriage of the upper-class intellectual sniping from his earlier films and the sentiment of his later offerings. It’s also a bit of a spiritual sequel to The Squid and the Whale, though much softer and more forgiving.
The cast is a dream. Ben Stiller, who has been mostly sleepwalking these days, is always at his most present when working with Baumbach. Adam Sandler is shaky and vulnerable– a vibrating ball of emotion. Still, the standout for me is Elizabeth Marvel, who took an archetypal weirdo-in-the-family role and made her character organic. She’s not the cutesy, Hollywood awkward. She’s the real deal; gawky with no fashion sense or art for wordplay. I loved watching her every second she was onscreen. Oh, and, a special shoutout to Grace Van Patten who is a hilarious new talent. I can’t wait to see where she goes.
The Meyerowitz Stories is the work of an artist who has grown up. The film is about grappling with aging and time and the weight of not being sure that you lived up to your potential. And yet, the film ends on a hopeful note– a warm smile and a nod to the future that younger artists will be the architects of. I’m so glad Baumbach’s work has made it to this place. What more could I possibly want for a creator I admire?
I have never seen anything like Girls Trip in the movie theater in my lifetime. Rarely are American films made about black women just having a good time. We are always seen in pain; at the hands of black men, white men, white women and the entire world. When we aren’t suffering and weeping, we are seen as sassy support systems. We are the funny friends, the snappy wives, the help, the inspirational figure, etc. And when we laugh, we do it in the service of others. We laugh to make people feel good about where we are in life and how we’ve been treated. When we laugh, you can breathe easy, because all the pain that you’ve put us through has not broken us.
I rarely see black women on the silver screen that remind me how joyous it can be to be black and to be surrounded with my sisters. That is why Girls Trip moved me so deeply. This film is pure joy. It was my first experience going to the theater and smiling from ear to ear for most of the runtime. For me, Girls Trip is more than just a funny film. Yes, it’s hilarious, and Tiffany Haddish is a national treasure. But more than that, it is a celebration of something that cinema has always ignored: black sisterhood.
Girls Trip celebrates black women putting their pleasure, enjoyment and career aspirations before everything– before the wants and needs of men, before the comfort of white people, even before the judging eyes of other black women. It’s about not doing what’s expected of you and prioritizing what you want you need to do for your own happiness. Black women are portrayed taking care of others onscreen. Girls Trip portrayed us taking care of ourselves.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
No film this year has commanded my attention quite like this Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Every second I had my eyes glued to the screen, trying to predict where director/writer Rian Johnson would take the story next. I have an affinity for films that comment on their own premise, demonstrating an awareness of plot conventions and the best ways to subvert expectations. Johnson has a strong sense of cause and affect; giving each character clear arcs with a trackable up-and-down. The best thing about the way Johnson weaves the narrative is how he challenges “protagonist logic”.
The genius of The Last Jedi lies in the way it sets aside nostalgia in order to take the hard road, redefining what a hero looks like right in front of our eyes. Mistakes are not plot contrivances, they are born out of character flaws that the film isn’t afraid to address. It gives us a very hard pill to swallow: Our heroes are given their role by the filmmakers, it does not necessarily mean that they are the right people for the job. Antagonizing the hero doesn’t necessarily make a character a villain. And most of all, a hero’s methods are not always heroic.
The visuals are breathtaking, the performances are magnetic, and every single performer in the film’s sprawling cast makes an impression. Mark Hamill is brilliant as grizzled, jaded Luke Skywalker. Carrie Fisher radiates with quiet dignity. Kelly Marie Tran has a plucky, loving energy that is fierce and winning. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver bring the best out of each other, using their sexual tension to add another layer to their volatile rivalry. I could sit here all day just raving about everyone’s performances.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the highlight of the new trilogy– with an affecting ending that’s going to be hard to top in the next installment. I’ve read complaints about how long-winded the ending was, but I think it was perfect. It ended on one important moment: the spark of a new revolution.
What enthralls me about Lady Bird is its pure energy. The film takes me by the hand and together we run through a year of life, love and pain. It moves like a musical– fast and emotional, swiftly moving from one scene to the next with the dialogue of every character coming together into a chorus of voices; a composition of lives.
Lady Bird is an emotionally transcendent film. It’s the kind of film that is often described in rambles. Long, winding accounts of feelings and the swirling of emotion. I want to stand on the top of a building and yell about it. Lady Bird is not the first coming of age film for girls, but it is one of the few that doesn’t feel like a cautionary tale. When I think of Lady Bird, I do not think of all the mistakes I made at that age as I would if we were discussing Blue Car or Ghost World. When I think of Lady Bird, I think about the love I felt for everyone in my life and the pure ecstacy of running, jumping screaming and unapologetically seeking pleasure.
The film moves quickly from one emotional beat to the next. It covers about a year of time, but everything feels much more rapid. Friendships shift, love intensifies and fizzles out, there is boredom one second and wonder the next. We feel emotions as urgently as the characters do. We go from tears to laugh and back to tears again. Lady Bird is an emotional rollercoaster I want to ride again and again. The highs are just as materfully portrayed as the lows.
Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) feels full and vibrant and intimidatingly awake. She never allows for the world to swallow her. She never surrenders to the mundane. Her pursuit of happiness is a revolation.
Colossal is the genre-bending romantic comedy deconstruction film I’ve been waiting for. It takes a plot we all know–Troubled Girl goes back to her hometown after life in The Big City didn’t work out–and breaks it down entirely. For the first time, Small Town life isn’t framed as the best alternative for The Struggling Creative Girl. And the Salt Of The Earth Hometown Guy isn’t a secret Prince Charming.
Colossal is a film about the subtle ways that men control woman, all under the vasage of “romance”, “patience” and “kindness”. How many times in romantic comedies do we see stalker-ish behavior waved away simply because the intentions were supposedly love-related? In Colossal, the entitled behavior of men is exposed for what it really is and we find ourselves as an audience questioning our understanding of how relationships work onscreen and in real-life.
But what is most revealing is the way the film exposes the emptiness of “grand gestures”, and how they are used as power-plays to make men feel strong and important (especially when their life didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to).
Colossal is clever, funny and terrifying all at the same time. Anne Hathaway’s performance is subtle, but there’s so much behind her easy grins and searching eyes. Jason Sudeikis is truly terrifying as a nice-guy deconstruction. Both performances, and this film, command your attention.
When Jordan Peele announced that he was going to make a horror film, I really didn’t know what to think. When I heard it was going to be race-related, I braced myself. I always clench up when a film comes along that tackles racism, even if the person that is making it is of color. The worry isn’t necessarily rooted in quality– I also worry a lot about how these films will be received and what the cultural conversation around them will be.
Needless to say, I was shocked by how much audiences liked Get Out. Admiration for it was for the most part unanimous, in a way that I have never quite seem before. Of course, much of that has to do with the fact that it’s a great film. It’s intelligent, inventive and has a timeless social relevance. And it’s actually scary. It’s not simply a pretty film about ideas– it gives you real, honest scares. But, as a black woman, I can admit the familiarity of the situation helped sell the scares for me.
I think we often forget how horror can be used as an avenue for social commentary. Hollywood had definitely forgot that in recent years (and the rise of Jump Scare horror has a lot to do with it). Get Out came along during a time in horror when the films are overwhelmingly white and lacking in any real cultural relevance beyond aesthetics. It took us all by surprise, and I hope more directors follow in Peele’s footsteps.
What an odd, coincidental companion piece to 2017’s earlier offering: mother! Both are about older men with younger women whom they want to control. Both women in each film want to keep their older men to themselves and, in direct conflict to their men’s affinity for always being surrounded by people. Both women attempt to clear their homes and fail miserably in their efforts.
Where they diverge is in how the younger women respond to their abusive relationships. In mother! she folds, killing herself and everyone around her just to make the pain stop. But in Phantom Thread, the younger woman refuses to yield to her environment. She decides instead to become, for lack of a better term, The Master. The way that she takes control of her older man is horrific– and nothing in the film prepares you for the turn. But once it happens, the narrative reveals itself.
Phantom Thread is a love story that is really about power. It also works as a subversion to the May-December relationship. Older men tend to pursue younger women with the understanding that they will be “in charge”. The film plays on that cultural assumption and flips it on its head. In many ways, Phantom Thread is more of a thriller than romantic drama. And did I mention it’s really, really funny?
BLADE RUNNER 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It was so breathtaking to look at that it forced me face my limitations as a writer. How do I describe the gorgeous vast landscapes and stunning production design of this sci-fi epic? I’m at a loss for words. The best that I can do is say that I was moved tremendously by what I saw. I was particularly affected by the way the film lingered. Blade Runner 2049 is long film– each scene takes its time. With that time you are able to take in the fullness of the experience. Your eyes can trace across a relentless landscape.
The film takes us through a dystopia the has all but forgotten about what is like to be human (to oneself and to others). We follow a man who learns how to live, empathize, love and fight for the people closest to him. It’s a breathtaking journey full of mystery, violence, lust, despair and ultimately redemption. But, what strikes me most about the film is the note it leaves us on: Hope.
Like The Last Jedi, Blade Runner 2049 leaves us with the seeds of a rebellion. This one is smaller, with less fanfare around it– there’s no symbol to look to. Yet you can almost feel the rush of change bubbling to the surface of the society. I sat silently through the credits, just taking it all in.
A QUIET PASSION
A Quiet Passion is agonizing for all the right reasons. Less a traditional biopic of Emily Dickinson and more of a meditation on her worldview and how it shaped her perception of life. We see Dickinson laid bare on the screen– sharp, thoughtful and uncompromising. I love the way the film allows her to be habitually unkind without the broadness of depicting her as an acid tongued villainess or bitter old maid. The filmmakers could have easily wrapped Dickson’s story in a romantic fiction to create easy drama, but the films opts instead to anchor the drama in Dickinson’s relationship with God.
In the film, the term “God” is often attached to social situations. Dickinson doesn’t fit in at school and is unhappy, but that conflict is illustrated by her public rejection of pursuing a relationship with God– a declaration she makes in front of her peers. As she gets older she refuses to go to church, attend social gatherings, or even leave the house. Each time her family tries to coax her out of her shell, her refusal is framed as a rejection of God. It is as if, in Dickinson’s society, a proper relationship with God is defined by performing the “womanly duties” that she would rather reject.
Dickinson’s independence is therefore considered blasphemous and she spends her entire life grappling with the agony of her choices and how they isolate her from love and friendships over time. Watching her struggle is equal parts painful and enthralling. One one hand, her time alone allows her poetry to flourish. But her art comes at the cost of a “traditional life” that we are supposed to want for her. She’s a confounding character and Cynthia Nixon brings her to life in one of the best performances of her career.
Mudbound left me with a profound mixture of emotions. It is a story with such emotional and historical truth that it felt like legend. Mudbound is a classic tale of racism, sexism, and the foolish pride that helps keep those reductive ways of thinking alive. Carey Mulligan plays a wife who has to live at the mercy of her husband’s insecurities and watch helplessly as they destroy her life and the lives of everyone around them. Her husband (Jason Clarke) is influenced by his father (Jonathan Banks) who feeds his feelings of inadequacy and encourages his racism.
Next door, a loving black family struggles to survive. Their patriarch (Rob Morgan) and matriarch (Mary J. Blige) are kind people, lacking in dysfunction. With the white family the share one common experience– they both had a loved one go off to war. When the men return, they build a bond that is impossible for the two families to replicate. They can come together, but race and class continues to separate their loved ones.
This clash leads to tragic results. But from that tragedy comes transcendence– a knowing. There is a haunting beauty in the reckoning that ends the film. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell are warm, charming and ultimately heartbreaking as the unlikely friends. Mudbound is a film with a full heart that deserves your attention.
OTHER GREAT FILMS FROM 2017
Columbus, Logan Lucky, The Big Sick, Princess Cyd, Wonder Woman, Call Me By Your Name, Brigsby Bear, A Ghost Story, The Lost City of Z, The Shape of Water, Raw, I Tonya, Okja, IT, The Lego Batman Movie
FILMS I DID NOT GET TO SEE IN TIME FOR THIS LIST
BPM, Wind River, Beatriz at Dinner, The Villainess, Your Name, First They Killed My Father, My Happy Family, The Wound, The Breadwinner, Coco, Faces Places, The Post, The Work, A Fantastic Woman, Good Time