The Best Films of 2017 (According to Britt Hayes)
2017 may have been the worst year in recent memory, but one place still offered a welcome escape from the doom-and-gloom of daily headlines: The movie theater. When reality let us down, movies were there to pick us back up with stories that were inspirational and painfully relatable, taking us to worlds both near and in a galaxy far, far away. This was definitely a bad year in many respects, but it was another great year for film — making it all the more difficult to narrow this list down to the 10 best films of the year.
This was actually the first year that I (foolishly) believed that picking just 10 titles would be a piece of cake. I liked a ton of movies this year, but the ones I loved, I really loved. I’d never felt more optimistic about making a year-end list…until I actually finished it and realized I had 13 films. Picking three to cut seemed too painful, but I reminded myself — as I remind you, now — that lists are fairly arbitrary. The order of the films below is constantly changing, and if you feel as though something was unfairly left off, please know that I feel the same — and I’m the one who made the damn thing.
The only thing that unites all of these movies is that they all resonated with and spoke to me on some profound level — that, and five of them were feature directorial debuts (well, sort of; one was a solo debut, but that counts).
So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films of 2017, with honorable mentions to follow:
10. Brigsby Bear
Directed by Dave McCary
Kyle Mooney’s idiosyncratic indie would pair perfectly with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and not just because they both star Mark Hamill. Both films explore our complex relationship with nostalgia, letting go of the past, and the realization that objects (whether they be space dice or made-up children’s television shows) are only meaningful because of the subjective value we attach to them. Brigsby Bear takes a complicated and nuanced approach to examining the ways we create and digest art, the personal significance it has based on individual and shared experience, and how we process trauma. Kyle Mooney gives his best performance to date in one of the sweetest films of the year. My heart grew three sizes after watching it.
9. Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
Including Jordan Peele’s brilliant directorial debut on my own top 10 list feels redundant at this point, but the visceral social horror satire of Get Out cannot be overstated. Daniel Kaluuya serves as the perfect anchor for Peele’s film, in which a man goes home to meet his girlfriend’s liberal family and stumbles upon a sinister secret in their extremely white, affluent neighborhood. Inspired as much by Euro-horror as by more obvious influences like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives, Peele’s film is a confident debut featuring excellent performances from top to bottom. Few actors in recent memory are more consistently fascinating to watch than Lakeith Stanfield, and few scenes this year were more terrifying — and on-point — than Alison Williams eating Fruit Loops by hand while listening to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
8. Lady Macbeth
Directed by William Oldroyd
Lady Macbeth and Get Out belong next to each other on this list. Let’s call it the “white people are the worst” section. Stage director William Oldroyd transitions to film with an anarchic upheaval of conventional period dramas. Every bit as satirical and sinister as Get Out, Oldroyd’s film follows Katherine (a remarkably mesmerizing Florence Pugh), a woman sold into marriage with a misogynistic narcissist and forced to live out her dull days on her detestable father-in-law’s rural estate. Katherine’s monotonous life is soon disrupted by a precarious affair with a stable boy, and as their relationship deepens, the situation in the house devolves into madness. Filled with bleak humor, Lady Macbeth transcends its thrilling satire to become an allegory for the importance of intersectional feminism. I went from pumping my fist as Katherine took agency for herself to cringing at the increasingly ill effects of her white opportunism.
7. Ingrid Goes West
Directed by Matt Spicer
To call Ingrid Goes West a cautionary tale for the social media generation feels too reductive. Matt Spicer’s directorial debut is far more than a darkly comedic Black Mirror pitch, and he has Aubrey Plaza to thank for it. Plaza gives the best performance of her career as Ingrid, a lonely and mentally unsteady obsessive whose grip on reality is caught in a manic tug-of-war between a recent personal tragedy and Instagram. If we criticize others most harshly for the things we fear (or know) to be true about ourselves, then rejecting Ingrid as too unlikable or insane to be relatable really says something about the viewer. Spicer opens the film by giving us a reason to empathize with Ingrid before sending her on an obsessive odyssey through a city as vacant as her own loneliness, where narcissism is little more than a mirror for self-loathing and isolation, and digital hearts are the only meaningful currency.
6. The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Explaining why I personally loved Sean Baker’s latest film would be too, well, personal. The director behind Tangerine brings his keen eye for the overlooked corners of humanity down to Florida, exploring the heartbreaking reality just outside the Happiest Place on Earth. Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee spends her days with friends in their own small world, oblivious to — or intentionally avoiding — their decidedly un-magical circumstances. Although Willem Dafoe gives a wonderful supporting performance (and finally becomes Willem Da-friend), it’s Prince and her mother, played by newcomer Bria Vinaite, who give The Florida Project its heart and bittersweet soul. As someone who spent a portion of her childhood in this same part of Florida, and who also indulged in the imaginary escapism of the Happiest Place on Earth to cope with a struggling, irresponsible mother, The Florida Project feels painfully intimate — and occasionally joyous.
5. Phantom Thread
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The more I consider Phantom Thread, the more enamored I become with Paul Thomas Anderson’s surprising love story. There’s something so irresistibly delectable about this thrilling and wry period drama about an eccentric fashion designer’s relationship with a new muse. Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis (in what is allegedly his final performance) have outdone themselves with this expedition into the life of a singularly-minded artist and how maddening it is to love him. (As our editor-in-chief Matt Singer pointed out, Phantom Thread feels like Day-Lewis apologizing for his career.) Anderson’s latest would pair well with mother! in that respect, though it features much stronger female leads: Newcomer Vicky Krieps is stunning as Day-Lewis’ lover and foil; her performance is like an epiphany. Lesley Manville is equally fantastic as Day-Lewis’ sister, and her refusal to put up with his nonsense makes for some of the funniest scenes in the film.
4. Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
I’m just as surprised as anyone that Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut was not my absolute favorite film of the year, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t smitten with Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan’s rebellious, ungrateful teenager is literally all of us, from the cringe-inducing scene where she loses her virginity (I felt triggered) to her misguided attempts to impress friends and the name she chooses to give herself like some rebellious high school diva. But it’s Lady Bird’s contentious relationship with her mother, her father’s (an excellent Tracy Letts) sense of shame at being unable to provide for his family, and their lower-middle-class lives that really struck a chord with me. Gerwig’s film, inspired by her own teenage years, is almost brutal in its realism and pathos — as conveyed beautifully in the scene where Lady Bird’s BFF (Beanie Feldstein) bemoans, “Some people aren’t built happy.”
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Is mother! a Biblical allegory? Is it an environmental one? Is it a metaphor for being married to a willfully dedicated artist who places his creations above all else — including his partner? Is it about the relationship between the creator and his creation? Darren Aronofsky’s paranoiac thriller is actually all of the above, and although it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, there’s something elegant in the way the famously be-scarfed filmmaker weaves these thematic threads into an anarchic tapestry. Evocative of ’70s psycho-thrillers with a visceral contemporary bent, mother! — which takes place entirely inside an isolated home — showcases Aronofsky’s most meticulous filmmaking to date. It’s almost impeccably well-crafted and supremely crafty, and though some have called it audacious, there’s only one word to describe a film this self-indicting that opens with a shot of a Rachel Weisz doppelgänger engulfed in flames: Brazen.
2. Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
The top two films on this list are constantly swapping places with one another. By the time this is published, Call Me By Your Name will probably be my favorite movie of the year. An hour later, it’ll be the film that’s currently at number one. For now, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous, breathtaking drama resides here — perhaps appropriately so, as if the top of the list were my head, and just below it, my heart. This tender coming-of-age story stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio, the worldly (but unwise) son of a scholar who falls for a hunky Jewish college student staying with his family in Italy over the summer. Casting Hollywood’s most Aryan-looking beefcake as a Jewish dude who earnestly says things like “my bubbe” seems absurd, but Armie Hammer’s performance — which evolves from aloof cad to sensitive seducer in record time — is so sincere and lovely that he makes it believable. Coming-of-age films are rife with first loves and first heartbreaks, but none have captured the melancholy ache quite like Guadagnino’s film. There’s a bittersweet quality as the stomach-flipping thrill of anticipation and sexual tension gives way to the imminent reality of the situation. And though it’s been frequently mentioned, Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father — particularly his gut-wrenching monologue at the end — is absolutely phenomenal.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
And so here we are, with my favorite film of 2017. Denis Villeneuve exceeded my greatest expectations for Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that honors the gorgeous atmosphere of the original, but delivers a story that’s far more contemplative. On an existential odyssey through a dystopian Los Angeles and into the Nevada desert — now a sand-driven wasteland befitting “Ozymandias” — Ryan Gosling’s K is slowly confronted with the notion that reality is in the eye of the beholder. Is the love that A.I. companion Joi (Ana de Armas) feels for K real? Is K the “chosen one” — the Jesus-like offspring of a replicant and a human? Is he a human, and what does that really mean? Villeneuve’s film takes overt inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire (including the words K recites during his baseline test), and suggests that our humanity is defined not by our biology, but by experience and perception. Joi is real to K, and that’s all that matters in a world where humanity has been commodified and monetized. But Blade Runner 2049 evokes another pensive written work: William Carlos Williams’ “XXII” (aka “The Red Wheelbarrow”), a poem that seizes upon the reader’s need to attach meaning to an object (like K’s wooden toy horse). On the surface, this single, fractured sentence seems like a puzzle just waiting to be solved; but the conclusion it yields is far more simple and profound than any epiphanic moment of resolution. Reality is only what we perceive it to be.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Alien: Covenant, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Good Time, It Comes at Night, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Shape of Water, The Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.