2017, for all its myriad horrendous flaws (including those finally outed in Hollywood itself), was an exceptional year for exceptional movies. I was utterly unable to round up just a top 10 of the 120 films I saw this year, as I’d just be leaving too much great stuff out. Even with 20, I’m still missing superb stuff like Lady Bird, The Death of Stalin, and Paddington 2, but here’s the countdown.
20: Coco (Dir; Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, Starring; Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt)
After Finding Dory and Cars 3, we really needed a new original effort from Pixar, and Coco delivers. Bursting with imagination and sensational visuals, it is also a deeply moving ode to family and legacy that pays respectful tribute to the rich culture of Mexico.
2017’s most proportionately profitable movie is also one of its best, a microbudget horror from comedy genius Jordan Peele. A chilling thriller and urgent state of the nation address, it skewers the self-congratulatory comfort of white America in its story of hijacked and bartered black bodies, all the while anchored by a never better Daniel Kaluuya.
18: The Shape of Water (Dir; Guillermo del Toro, Starring; Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer)
The best English-language film yet from the wonderful Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is a wondrous mix of sci-fi, fairytales, horror, and Americana. Sally Hawkins finally gets the sensational leading role she’s always deserved from Hollywood, while Michael Shannon adds another iconic villain to his resume. Doug Jones’s fish-man-creature is a masterpiece of monster design, the centrepiece of a film stacked with immaculately beautiful visuals.
17: Heal the Living (Dir; Katell Quillevere, Starring; Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval)
A profoundly touching work of humanist filmmaking, Heal the Living‘s triptych of stories centred around one heart transplant shows us the very best and kindest examples of human nature. A singularly lovable film populated by wonderful characters – in particular Tahar Rahim’s absurdly charming Dr. Thomas – it both stirs and breaks the heart.
16: Alien Covenant (Dir; Ridley Scott, Starring; Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Danny McBride)
This entry into the Alien canon may have proved divisive, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the best film of the franchise since Aliens, and the first one since 1986 to really earn its place in that hallowed universe. Terrifying, sexy, and ridiculous, Covenant has lofty ambitions and the nerve to put the Xenomorph itself on the back-burner to focus on questions of Artificial Intelligence and the dangers of unchecked human hubris. Plus, Michael Fassbender gives two of the year’s standout performances in just one film.
Blurring the line between fact and fiction, Chloe Zhao’s film gives a rare insight into the rugged, restrictive lives of cowboys on a Sioux reservation, portrayed with unerring kindness and nuance. Essentially playing himself, Brady Jandreau gives a stunningly charismatic and compelling debut performance, backed by the starkly gorgeous South Dakota scenery. The horse taming scenes are truly a sight to behold, snapshots of raw, unedited talent and commitment, movie magic in its purest form.
14: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (Dir; Martin McDonagh, Starring; Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson)
Martin McDonagh’s third film is as viciously funny as one would expect from the man behind In Bruges, but also taps into a vein of emotion far richer and deeper than either of his previous two efforts. Sam Rockwell’s bigoted, violent police officer gets a truly brilliant arc thanks to McDonagh’s confident and considered writing, while Frances McDormand practically burns through the screen as bereaved mother Mildred. What starts out as a story that some may find fairly predictable transforms into a whole series of different beasts, eventually settling on a smartly ambiguous ending that makes perfect sense.
It’s all too rare that a film focuses so purely and so successfully on making you laugh like The Disaster Artist does. Yes, there’s empathy for its eccentric leading man Tommy Wiseau, and yes, there are messages buried here about how Hollywood treats its outsiders, but really, Franco’s film is so brilliant because it’s so funny, absolutely the most hilarious film of the year. I was aching with laughter by the end, and even those who are not aficionados of trash cinema masterpiece The Room will find plenty to love, especially Franco’s pitch perfect lead performance, one that should receive plenty of awards attention.
No film this year had as much to prove as Blade Runner 2049. The original is one of the most beloved and rabidly defended sci-fi films ever made, a film that very few people were actively asking for a sequel to. And yet, Denis Villeneuve delivered his third five star stunner in as many years to create not only a more-than-worthy follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, but an ingenious sci-fi epic all his own. Michael Green’s (who also penned Alien Covenant) script is loaded with philosophical quandaries and grand narrative tricks, elevated by stunning direction and set design and jaw-dropping cinematography from Roger Deakins.
2017 was a thrillingly strong year for British debuts, but none were as sublime as Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. A wonderful slow-burn love story in the stunning yet unforgiving Yorkshire countryside, brought to life by a brilliant lead duo, it shows how life can blossom even against the harshest of obstacles. Queer stories are too often weighed down by hopelessness or a sense of doom, but God’s Own Country refused to head down this cliched path, instead finding its power in brightness and growing positivity. At its best, it was as moving as anything you could hope to see in 2017, telling as much of its story with things left unsaid as it did with dialogue.
10: Call Me By Your Name (Dir; Luca Guadagnino, Starring; Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg)
An absolutely stunning and swirlingly romantic love story that will make you desperate for a holiday, Luca Guadagnino’s tribute to love, lust, and endless teenage summers deserved every part of its rapturous critical reception. Timothee Chalamet gives a heart-wrenching breakout performance and Armie Hammer does career best work, while Michael Stuhlbarg is kept in the background until he can be deployed most effectively with a truly magical monologue. James Ivory’s script finds hope and joy everywhere it looks, making its sadness all the more potent. Beautiful scenery and lighting transport you to 1983 northern Italy, an effect completed by the spirit-piercingly lovely songs from Sufjan Stevens.
9: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Dir; Yorgos Lanthimos, Starring; Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman)
Utterly bizarre and disconcertingly immersive, watching Sacred Deer is like being trapped in limbo, pulled out of your seat into Yorgos Lanthimos’s horrific and hilarious world of stilted conversations and Biblical punishments. This black comedy shatters taboos as it relentlessly rattles along to its inevitable, pitch-dark conclusion, inspired by Greek myth, but taking on a from that’s pure Lanthimos. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are both on top form, matched every step of the way by terrifying newcomer Barry Keoghan. Skittering and prowling cinematography casts the audience as a predatory villain in one of the strangest and most riveting cinematic experiences of the year.
Combining huge ambition with incredibly lo-fi effects and a minuscule budget, A Ghost Story is utterly, amazingly original. Looking at life from the point of view of the dead, David Lowery tackles concepts like time as an eternal loop and the transience of humanity, yet his most prominent visual effect is tossing a sheet over Casey Affleck. Shot as if it were a home video, A Ghost Story finds the entire history of the universe and contains it in a single Texas bungalow. Much of the film sounds nonsensical on paper, particularly the unbroken five-minute shot of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie, but in practice, these scenes are uniquely transfixing and unlike anything you will ever see.
One of the most unpredictable blockbusters of recent years, The Last Jedi threw out decades of established Star Wars traditions. It was a move that infuriated the close-minded ‘fans’ of the series, but absolutely the best choice Rian Johnson could have made. No franchise does giddy excitement quite like Star Wars, and The Last Jedi‘s best beats were so exciting that I had to restrain myself from incoherently yelping at the screen. The series has never been as visually or emotionally ambitious as it is here, nor has it ever asked so much of its cast, but it reaches, and perhaps even exceeds, those goals. The action is tremendous, including the year’s best fight scene, and even as the scale grows ever more colossal in the battle for galactic freedom, Johnson never forgets that the individual human stakes are the most vital.
6: Phantom Thread (Dir; Paul Thomas Anderson, Starring; Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville)
If Phantom Thread is truly to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film, then it is a wonderful grace note to go out on. A quieter role than we’ve seen from the legendary actor in many many years, this return to buttoned-down Britishness after iconic roles of American bombast allows for a less showy, but equally magnetic, performance. He’s matched by every other element of this sumptuous film, from venom-laced turns from Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville to Jonny Greenwood’s lovely classical score. Every character and relationship is drawn with care, wit, and fierce intelligence by Paul Thomas Anderson and, acting as his own DOP, he also creates indelible ’50s visuals, none more so than a raucous and dreamlike New Years Eve party. A real filmmaker’s film, Phantom Thread is also very funny and thrillingly propulsive, another five star knockout from the most consistently brilliant auteur of the last 20 years.
Breathlessly exciting and outrageously sexy, Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is a mystery story so audacious and twisty that it feels like Alfred Hitchcock has come back to life for one last film. With a camera so mobile that it practically gives you whiplash, Park fills every inch of the spooky old mansion that The Handmaiden calls home with clues and misdirections. Every act knocks you off your feet with revelations both shocking and, in hindsight, perfectly plausible all the way until a punch-the-air satisfying ending. Nothing is as it seems, and though the sex is lurid and explicit, a staunch opposition to exploitative pornography in favour of romantic connection ensures what could be a pervy film is merely a very, very, very cheeky one.
2017’s best argument for the sustained survival of the cinema experience in the face of ever-growing competition was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. To see it in an IMAX screen is more than just watching a movie. Relentless, thundering noise and spectacular shots from DOP Hoyte van Hoytema drag you kicking and screaming to the beaches of northern France during the one of the most triumphant defeats in military history. The screech of diving bombers swiftly cements itself as one of the year’s most nerve-shredding sounds, the raw fear and desperation of the soldiers on the ground conveyed without any showers of blood or viscera. Dunkirk hammers home that World War 2 was essentially fought by children – 19 and 20 year olds battered and shot down on the dunes – but never loses sight of hope, with Tom Hardy’s aerial heroics especially drawing awed gasps from shellshocked audiences.
For all that it is very funny and beautifully shot, the true success of The Florida Project is its unflagging kindness. Sean Baker proves himself as one of America’s most empathetic filmmakers with a study of poverty and childhood that strikes a uniquely wonderful balance between the hardships of the former and the endless joys of the latter. Bright pastel colours and ceaseless rapid-fire children’s jokes alleviate the misery at the story’s core, but there are constant reminders of the severity of the problem that Baker’s film tackles. All the child actors are magnificent, especially Brooklynn Prince as the miniature whirlwind that is Moonee. Prince gives one of the best child performances ever, and Bria Vinaite is electric in her first ever film role as young mother Halley. Tying everything together is Willem Dafoe doing his finest work in years in a superbly sweet and patient role that will move you to tears.
A shattering tragedy, a side-splitting farce, and a melancholy look at loss and forgiveness, Foxtrot is three films in one, and all three of those films are masterpieces. Not only are they brilliant on their own, but the way in which Samuel Maoz deftly makes his 180 degree turns in tone without any discomforting inconsistency is almost miraculous. Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler are the stars of the show during the first sequence, cuttingly real as parents dealing with the news of the death of their son, their pain leaping off the screen and into your soul. Even here, though, Maoz makes room for dizzying technical flourishes, before going all out to craft the surreal world of a desolate outpost on the Israeli border, from technicolour dance sequences to hilariously slow dystopian technology. It’s a war film where a gun is fired just once, and it has the true, world-altering impact that that sort of violence deserves, making for an all-time great portrayal of conflict.
1: You Were Never Really Here (Dir; Lynne Ramsay, Starring; Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts)
On the topic of well-handled violence, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with as confident and assured a grasp of what violence really means as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. She and her editor Joe Bini never let the brutal punishments – dished out and taken by Joaquin Phoenix’s lumbering avenger Joe – act as catharsis, keeping them just out of our eyeline. It means the tension is never broken, every second of its lean 85 minute runtime a full-blown panic attack in film form. It’s a dark and lurid story, ripe for an exploitative film, but in Ramsay’s ingenious hands it’s something far stranger, more disconcerting, and even occasionally beautiful. Astonishingly economic writing fills in entire backstories in single moments, and Phoenix’s central turn is the sort of primal roar of pain and confusion that only the very best actors could handle, let alone channel into a complete character. Even just thinking about You Were Never Really Here (and remembering Jonny Greenwood’s monumentally frightening score) while writing this has opened up a pit in my stomach, the sort of macabre achievement that marks it out as the clear number one for this list.