The year is coming to a close and award nominations are rolling in. Some films like "Dunkirk," "The Post" and "Call Me By Your Name" are already looking like clear contenders for an Oscar nod. But I have some different thoughts about what the best films of 2017 were.
As a fan of genre cinema, I was delighted to see some great action films come out like “John Wick 2,” “Atomic Blonde” and the criminally underappreciated “Brawl in Cell Block 99.” There were also films that beautifully transcended their genre roots like “Logan” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
I was also thrilled to see more women directors making a diverse line up of films including Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” and Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled.”
But there was still a lot of frustration with so much bland, unoriginal filmmaking and with smaller films having a harder time finding a place to open in a theater in San Diego.
But even with a host of films not opening in town for me to see and consider, narrowing what I liked to a mere 10 films was a painful process, in part because the films are so diverse that it’s not so much comparing apples to oranges but rather like comparing filet mignon and chocolate truffles.
There are usually some standouts that rise immediately to the top but then rounding out the second half of the list I usually have a lot of films that I have to struggle with whether to include or push to an honorable mention list.
But in picking the top 10 I look for films that display exquisite craft, that find something fresh to say or an original way to say it, or that I have a gut reaction to. By gut reaction I mean that the film just makes me fall in love with it or that it thrills me in some way. Films in that latter category may be flawed but there’s something about them that I can’t resist and I know I will return to them again and again.
At No. 10 I will confess to failing in my struggle and placing two films that work as perfect companion pieces in a tie for the number 10 slot: “Casting JonBenet” and “I, Tonya.” Both address tabloid headline cases in ways that are fresh, hilarious and horrific. “I, Tonya” is an audacious mock documentary look at the Tonya Harding Olympic scandal while “Casting JonBenet” reimagines the documentary format in a fascinating way.
In “Casting JonBenet,” director Kitty Green uses a casting call for actors in JonBenet’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado to "reconstruct" the events and perform scenes. The film is as much about the real case as it is about the people auditioning. There are so many layers to this film, one of which involves the filmmaker herself and how she manipulates her material to craft this fascinating documentary.
At No. 9 is another film that rethinks what a documentary can be. Filmmaker Bill Morrison creates a genuine found footage film with “Dawson City: Frozen Time” by building a storyline from nitrate film stock discovered frozen in the ice below a hockey rink in the Yukon Territory. The best way I can describe it is it’s like experiencing a fever dream.
In the eighth slot is another film directed by a woman, the French cannibal film “Raw” from Julia Ducournau. The film proves to be more about the lengths people will go to show their love than about horror.
At No. 7 is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I know the film is experiencing a backlash and I know it is flawed but I have already seen it four times and will see it many more. I love it despite its flaws and for how it enriches the “Star Wars” saga. It’s a film about characters in transition and about learning from failures. How daring to make a film about heroes dealing with their shortcomings and to make a pop entertainment action film in which older women are in charge of the rebellion and they suggest violence may not always be the right answer.
In the sixth slot is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos specializes in uncomfortable cinema and what “Killing of a Sacred Deer” serves up is not quite horror, not quite supernatural but entirely creepy and disquieting. This is a filmmaker in meticulous control of his craft and he deliberately challenges his audience by never giving them what they expect.
At No. 5 is “The Phantom Thread,” a thoroughly original look at a romantic relationship that doesn’t fit any stereotypes. Director Paul Thomas Anderson reteams with actor Daniel Day Lewis, previously they gave us the brilliant “There Will Be Blood.” Once again Lewis gives us an unyielding character that is perfectly defined through gestures, looks, and silences. Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a narcissistic and borderline Asperger dressmaker whose life is disrupted by a strong-willed woman. Never has the crunching of a piece of toast been used to make such an impact.
Any of the next four films could have been No. 1, but each is unique and difficult to rank with other original works of art. But my top four films include Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” for its originality and its clever use of horror tropes to make a vivid social commentary about race in America. It was the perfect film to start out 2017 with Donald Trump moving into the White House. Peele made us see racism from a new perspective and he delivered a scathing attack on complacency.
Then there is Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred for Frances McDormand and she tears up the screen as a woman bent on justice. She’s riveting and the film challenges us with characters that are not entirely likable but who are absolutely human.
Next up is Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” This film hooked me from its opening, which immediately defined the people, the place, and the time. It too looks at racism in America but also at poverty and how economic hardship can impact all people. Like “Get Out” but using very different means of storytelling it makes you feel sick about racism and intolerance.
Although I love all four of these top films, I give the edge and the No. 1 position to Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” in part because it gave me such joy to see Del Toro return to the side of the monsters. “The Shape of Water” is a dark adult fairy tale that finds beauty and love but without being blind to the ugliness in the world. It’s also a loving valentine to cinema itself.
I will have my complete Cinema Junkie Awards when I get back from break in early January.