Every year, In Reel Deep reveals its "best of" list and provides an opportunity for both Andrew Johnson and Steve Cimino to ramble lovingly about their favorite films from the last 12 months. This combined offering contains their co-sponsored three favorites of 2017, along with seven others from each of them (and an honorable mention, for the last few they just couldn't ignore). As always, each section is listed in alphabetical order.
The Three Best of the Year
AJ: Director Christopher Nolan found his focus with this taut World War II thriller, washing away my fear—built up over his last two films—that he had begun to let ambition get in the way of tight storytelling. Dunkirk is already a classic in the war movie genre, and was my favorite in-theater experience of the year by a wide margin. That status is built on a plot that is relatively simple (for Nolan, at least), with visuals of a sweeping, grand scope.
SC: You’ll notice a theme in a few of my top 10 choices: linear films from renowned directors. That’s not to say I want Christopher Nolan to tell straightforward stories only—especially if those stories are horrid Batman trilogy-enders—but I will admit to embracing Interstellar on an ambition-only basis. Dunkirk, I think, is the perfect distillation of what I hope and dream for in a big, booming Nolan work: engaging, sprawling, a little unexpected (who needs audible dialogue, right?) and audacious in its multi-pronged depiction of war. It’s an instant classic and likely one of two 2017 releases we’ll really remember down the line. More on that in 5 seconds.
SC: The other 2017 release that, to me, really and truly matters. Not to denigrate the other eight films on my list, or the rest of what Andrew recommends, but I think Dunkirk and Get Out will stick with people. Jordan Peele’s debut film came at the perfect time, when we’re not only seriously discussing race relations in the United States but nearly battering each other over the idea. That may seem like an inopportune moment to drop a blatantly race-based horror film into the mix, but Peele both pulls no punches and makes us laugh. You may (somehow) disagree with the underlying sentiment that people of color are mistreated by authority figures, but when you hear those sirens and the blue-and-red lights shine on Daniel Kaluuya's Chris at the end, your heart will be in your throat. That’s mixing real-life drama with brilliant filmmaking; that’s forcing your audience to embrace genuine stakes in your oft-ridiculous horror movie. That’s making your debut count. Here’s to more from Peele and auteurs of color like him.
AJ: Powerful statements on race can come from unlikely places and in unlikely forms. Get Out has an almost Scream-like veneer, and it comes from a man, Jordan Peele, who is most famous for his sketch comedy. And yet it says something profound about complicity and complacency in the face of racism, somehow delivering the jumps and jolts of fine horror film along the way.
AJ: I tried to fight it. I really did. I still don’t buy in to all of the Lady Bird hype—I can’t squint my eyes and see a Best Picture Winner here—but I also can’t deny what a delight it is. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is an easy pleasure, a funny film with authenticity at its core. It makes me excited about the future of the medium, and what Gerwig can bring to it.
SC: Is this the year of Michael Stuhlbarg or the year of Tracy Letts? Both of them are In Reel Deep Hall of Fame contenders, but Letts might get the nod after The Post and his work in Lady Bird. Of course, everyone is fantastic in Lady Bird; its 99% Rotten Tomatoes score ensured that not only would the world be inundated with related hot takes but the backlash would be just as scorching. Is it the best movie of the year? Probably not; but it’s as good a coming-of-age story as we’ve gotten in a while. Writer-director Greta Gerwig makes the brilliant call to hop from event to event in what can barely be called montages, keeping her film moving and giving us brief clever snippets to remind us of the passage of time. Then, when she settles things down, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are tremendous as daughter and mother, not to mention Timothée Chalamet’s earlier-than-expected role as the more pompous, conspiracy-obsessed cousin of his Call Me By Your Name character. There’s a lot to like here, which is why pretty much everyone did.
The Best of the Rest
AJ: I had a couple of “edgier” picks for my final top 10 slot, but here’s the thing: there weren’t many more enjoyable films this year than the deeply personal tale of Kumail Nanjiani looking after his future wife—and her frazzled parents—while she was deep in a coma. The Big Sick is a profoundly satisfying movie and a real American love story in a year when we oh-so-badly needed one to charm us.
SC: I’m sad to say that I haven’t seen Sean Baker’s feature-firm breakout, Tangerine, but I can vouch for its follow-up as one of the year’s best. Bringing in the great Willem Dafoe for a little star power—playing a good guy, no less—works perfectly, but the real genius here is Baker’s casting of the kids. Brooklynn Prince as Moonee proves to be brilliant beyond her years, but Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera aren’t bad either. Add to that a truly nuanced performance from Bria Vinaite—playing Moonee’s desperate single mother, who can be characterized as either a no-good fuckup or seen as someone willing to throw her own life away to keep her daughter sheltered and fed—and you’ve got a cinematic experience unlike any in recent memory.
A Ghost Story
SC: This is the first movie I saw on a plane to crack my top 10; it’s that good. The premise seems absurd at first: Casey Affleck under a sheet, Rooney Mara stuffing a whole pie down her gullet. It takes a few minutes for writer-director David Lowery to wipe the curious smirk from your face. But as you follow Affleck’s ghost on his journey, it becomes a haunting (for lack of a better word) tale: being untethered from time and reality in this fashion, forced to wordlessly hunt for the one action or item that frees you, is one of the more frightening afterlife concepts I’ve seen posited in a major film. A beautifully haunting song from Dark Rooms is the cherry on top of this emotionally charged masterpiece.
SC: More than any other film this year, I walked out of Good Time and thought, “Was that really good or really bad?” The way each increasingly absurd twist links to the last one is a daunting tightrope for young filmmakers to walk, with a good chance that the Safdie brothers were about to plummet to their cinematic deaths at every turn. Yet Good Time not only survives but thrives, continuing the Robert Pattinson renaissance and taking the caper movie to all-new, anxiety-accentuating, electronica-driven heights. It’s both visually distinct and deeply gritty, with protagonists that harken back to the “pleasant and charming, until the shit really hits the fan” robbers of Dog Day Afternoon and other unpredictable heist movies that take their time to reveal just how fucked-up the thieves really are.
SC: I knew very little about James Baldwin before I saw I Am Not Your Negro, which made it a more powerful experience. Because I wasn’t aware of the risks he took, of the unpopular opinions he shared on national television, of how eloquently he explained the perils black people felt on a daily basis. For this new generation who never knew Baldwin, and even the old ones who’ve forgotten the validity of his insights, director Raoul Peck provides an engrossing compilation of his life, of a man whose words are as necessary now as they ever were. As I put it in my review, “Peck tells a story of American racism that reminds us how far we haven't come in the 50-plus years since Baldwin's friends were killed for supporting civil rights.”
SC: Yorgos Lanthimos is not a director I’d recommend to many others. At the very best, he’s an acquired taste. But I love his work, and even though The Killing of a Sacred Deer never reaches the heights of Dogtooth or The Lobster, it’s another truly original masterwork from the Greek director. Who else can get Colin Farrell to grow a massive beard, put on several dozen pounds, and openly consider which one of his family members to murder? Who else can recruit Nicole Kidman as his counterpart in this very, very strange adventure? And who else can take Barry Keoghan, already buzzed about for his work in Dunkirk, and vault the kid to another level with a truly unsettling performance that I’m still mulling over? I don’t know if Lanthimos has another gear beyond “weird as fuck,” but we don't really need to find out until he stops making films this memorable.
AJ: What takes some people far beyond the boundaries of civilization? One of the joys of film is the opportunity to ponder an answer to such human mysteries vis-à-vis a memorable character and an indelible setting. I can’t pretend to understand what motivated Percy Fawcett to return to the remote jungles of Bolivia over and over again, but I can well imagine now, thanks to Charlie Hunnam, who played Fawcett, and director James Gray.
SC: I saw Zucchini quite early in 2017; it was actually nominated for Best Animated Feature Film last year but didn’t get released in the United States until February. Yet it’s stuck with me for the last 11 months, the rare non-Pixar animated masterpiece with genuine weight and emotional heft. Similar to Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's animated through stop-motion, a painstaking procedure that takes forever and often ends up being more cartoonish than drawing. However, Zucchini’s very adult subject matter mixes perfectly with the big-headed kids and their large eyes, maintaining a sense of childlike wonder while forcing its characters through some deep, emotionally perilous situations. At 70 minutes long, it’s a wonderfully short gem that doesn’t stretch itself too thin; my only advice is to skip the dubbed version. This one should be seen in its native French.
SC: This isn’t how you’d expect Daniel Day-Lewis to go out, which means it’s exactly how he should. It doesn’t feel as consequential as Paul Thomas Anderson’s other work, certainly nowhere near as powerful as There Will Be Blood, yet it still embraces and examines truths just as large. It’s much funnier than you’d expect, and captivating to boot, especially given that it only focuses on three characters. The simple interpretation of PTA’s message is, “Loving an artist sure is hard.” But if you dig a little and really ponder how these characters end up where they do, the takeaways are a lot more complex and uncertain.
AJ: Steven Spielberg can make American historical dramas for the rest of his days as far as I’m concerned. Like his other recent work in this area (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), The Post looks forward just as much as it looks back, ruminating on the public’s right to know state secrets in a democracy and the free press’ role in challenging government leaders, especially the executive branch. The Post is preachy and more direct than it needs to be at times, but Tom Hanks and especially Meryl Streep make it easy to overlook all that.
AJ: Well, it’s easily the best Human-Fish Monster romance I’ve ever seen. Guillermo del Toro is a treasure; a uniquely creative and meticulous force. The Shape of Water is a poignant portrait of companionship, of what it means to to hear and see and feel someone you really care about. Not bad for a monster movie.
AJ: I’ve heard the criticisms of this film, and I accept them as valid. I just don’t agree with them. Or, rather, I choose to focus on something else. Yes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is over the top, but for me that bombast served a purpose. Anger and kindness are powerful forces. This is a movie that is at its best not when it plays against its ostensible tone—when it delivers quiet moments of humanity.
AJ: A bleak movie for a bleak year. Director Matt Reeves might not have intended to make a film that wonders whether the planet is better left to our simian relatives, but, in 2017 at least, that was a message I was a little more eager to hear and accept. These films, as my esteemed colleague has pointed out in the past, are the best blockbusters going.
AJ: It was too long, and I’ve lost all patience with this kind of film … and I loved Wonder Woman anyway. The vision of Gal Gadot charging across a World War I battlefield dodging and deflecting machine bullets was enough all by itself to merit inclusion on this list, but there were plenty of other things to like—from the glimpse in to the world of the Amazonians to Chris Pine’s excellent supporting turn.
AJ: I didn’t see nearly enough this year, so my profound condolences for the films I heard good things about, but couldn’t get to in time. Columbus, The Florida Project, Wonderstruck, The Square, Call Me By Your Name, Coco and Phantom Thread, I will be making time for you shortly.
As for the near misses, Ingrid Goes West gave me the most trouble. I found the film to be profound and a great vehicle for Aubrey Plaza to show she’s more than April Ludgate. It just didn’t quite stick the landing. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the better sequels I’ve seen. Mudbound was halfway to a masterpiece. Baby Driver wasn’t half bad for something reverse engineered. Finally, Logan was considerable evidence that there is a way forward for the comic book film.
SC: I saw The Post and Call Me By Your Name mere days before this list published, and I don’t think I’ve sat with either of them enough to declare top-10 status. However, I will say that seeing Bob Odenkirk and David Cross interact with Tom Hanks in a Steven Spielberg film was one of the joys of my young life, and that the already-famous Michael Stuhlbarg monologue in Luca Guadagnino’s passionate romance had tears streaming down my face.
Other than those two, Spider-Man: Homecoming was the most enjoyable Spidey movie yet, The Big Sick gave us brilliant performances from Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, The Lego Batman Movie continued the streak of Lego movies being far more fun than they should be, and Gary Oldman deserves all the praise he’s getting for the barely-decent-without-him Darkest Hour.