The Best Films of the Year

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2017 may have been a vast, sweeping shitshow of epic proportions, straining our faith in democratic institutions and the fundamental quality of human nature (hello, Syria, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands). But it was a bumper crop for film, if that’s any consolation.  We at ToM go see a lot of movies, and you’re going to have some duds in there — I personally didn’t care for the reboots of IT or Blade Runner, to be perfectly honest.  But there were films this year that either jolted you out of your inertia or transported you to another place, sometimes both.   Like Mia Farrow’s Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, they take us somewhere we need to go, even if the place we’re going is not necessarily one of escapism.  This is certainly not the case where Raw or Get Out is concerned, but The Florida Project was all about the fantasy of escape.

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The one takeaway from this year’s films is that there are many fascinating, complicated female characters, from Raw‘s vegetarian Justine to Lady Bird to the breakout performance from Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.  With the exceptions of Get Out and Coco (which also feature interesting gender dynamics), all of these films center on women in one way or another — perhaps a snapshot of our times.

1. Raw

My far and away favorite film of 2017 was Julia Ducournau’s Raw, a truly striking and audacious effort from a (mostly) first-time director.  The story of a veterinary student in her first year of school in France takes some amazingly transgressive turns that leave an indelible mark on the viewer.  I had a hard time picking this film over Get Out as the best of 2017, in part because they both comment in the most literal terms on issues of the contemporary moment — gender, race, sexuality.  In fact, both films deal with these subjects in a wry, unblinkingly brutal kind of way. But Raw stuck with me the most.  I would recommend it to anyone who has a taste for dark comedy and a strong stomach.

2. Get Out

If Raw was more crazily over-the-top and determined to shock, Get Out was the film that most captured the American zeitgeist in 2017. Perhaps I place Raw a little higher because it seems to transcend national or cultural boundaries, whereas Jordan Peele’s brilliant directorial debut seems very specifically focused on the culture and pathology of the United States.  While its satire of bourgeois liberalism and white supremacy would have been relevant at almost any point in US history, it’s hard to say that it would have packed quite the emotional oomph if Hillary Clinton had been elected president.  As it turned out, Get Out‘s January release more or less coincided with the elevation of an unabashed Nazi to the highest office in the land, and its trenchant critique of whiteness laid a devastating blow.  The movie is funny, dark, smart, and suspenseful — a true original in the horror genre, likely to be imitated for decades to come.

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3. The Florida Project

This was my sentimental favorite of 2017 movies.  While Raw and Get Out were profoundly unsettling, The Florida Project had the homespun aspect of your grandma’s old needlework sampler.  The follow-up to director Sean Baker’s 2015 stand-out Tangerine, this film also relied on largely untrained and inexperienced actors to create a serious sense of verisimilitude — in this case, the world of poor and unstable families living hand-to-mouth in tacky hotels near the Magic Kingdom in Kissimmee.  The story of young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her compatriots brings one into a wild and carefree world, much like the one I remember growing up in a rundown neighborhood and getting into adventures with my ragamuffin friends.  The Florida Project delicately balances the enormity of the characters’ socioeconomic situation — which is quite bad — with the impulses and urges of six-year-old kids who know little, if anything, about it.  Suffice to say the performance of Willem Dafoe, as the only sane adult in the room, will be up for some awards — a brilliant, funny, fatherly performance. I just adored the movie in general, for its unflinching but naturalistic and compassionate portrayal of people living in difficult circumstances.

4. Lady Bird

It’s hard not to love Lady Bird. The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, the film brings a fresh and bracing take to the conventional coming-of-age, teen-girl drama.  Buoyed by great performances by Laurie Metcalf, as Lady Bird’s hard-working but passive-aggressive mother, and Saorise Ronan as Lady Bird herself, the story takes us down familiar paths of teen movies like Mean Girls or Edge of Seventeen.  But Gerwig and Ronan bring a wit and intelligence and pathos to the story that others might not have been able to achieve.  It also works as an empathetic ode of Sacramento, dwelling in the sense of a place that Lady Bird desperately wants to escape but ultimately defines who she is.

5. Coco

Writing about a Pixar movie is difficult, because almost all of them are good.  (Wall-ERatatouille, and Inside Out are in my personal canon.)  Unsurprisingly, the gang in Emeryville, California took their time, did their research, and came up with a music-fueled animated film that depicts Mexican culture without demeaning or misreading it (at least as far as I can tell).  The film has already become the highest-grossing movie in Mexico’s history in short order.  Like pretty much everything Pixar does, it is warm, inventive, compassionate, and loaded with love for the central characters and the place and culture they are from.  To those of us who grew up in the pre-Little Mermaid world of merely passable animated films, the fact that something like Coco exists today and is even taken for granted is utterly remarkable.

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6. Okja

This is a bit of strange one, as a Netflix release from the acclaimed Korean director Bong Jon-Ho, the man behind the great dystopian film Snowpiercer.  Okja takes a slightly different tack, while still wrestling with issues of technology and social justice.  The somewhat bizarre story centers on a young girl who befriends a giant pig, which is being raised as a genetically-modified source of nutrition by a diabolical company run by the great, evil Tilda Swinton.  There are animal-rights activists involved, and an epic quest to save Okja from being turned into hot-dog meat.  As a film that it’s far lighter than Snowpiercer and even has a bit of wacky, slapstick spirit to it, but it still confronts difficult issues.

7. Ingrid Goes West

My last favorite film of the year is a brilliant satire of social media, starring the always compelling Aubrey Plaza.  Ingrid Goes West is the essence of cringe-inducing viewing, as Plaza’s character pursues an ill-fated and wrong-headed relationship with a minor Instagram celebrity in LA, insinuating herself into the person’s inner circle, with dreadful results.  The film was both funny and disconcerting, without laying on too heavily the social-media-is-bad bromides.  In the end, it was more about how technology creates new possibilities for vulnerable people to be vulnerable — not just that the tech is bad in itself.  The title of the film also plays with Horace Greeley’s famous exhortation, “Go west, young man!”  If the West we are all seeking is just social media fandom, then it is a very dark West indeed.

Late updateRian Johnson’s The Last Jedi turned out to be a great, rollicking Stars Wars film for people who (like me) don’t really like Star Wars, while The Disaster Artist was about as much as I had laughed at a film in years–even if it was mainly one long dialect joke.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

4 thoughts

  1. Great list! Okja wasn’t on my list of best of the year. I also think it’s a way darker film than Snowpiercer since Okja is too real for me in it’s subject matter. The Florida Project is definitely up there for me, I loved it through and through. Raw is an interesting choice for number 1 and I wished more people have seen it when it came out.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Dan! I make no attempt even to pretend that my choices are objective, so they reflect my idiosyncratic tastes and the happenstance of which films I get to see. Okja is definitely an odd one; I liked how it mixed real pathos and political satire with a wacky, almost slapstick sensibility. But is it Best Picture material? Probably not… You should share your own list!

  2. Good list. I look forward to checking out the movies on the list I haven’t seen yet!

    Did you get a chance to see “A Ghost Story” with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara? It is hard to see, at least in my opinion, how this one doesn’t stay with a viewer for quite a while.

    Other film for 2017 worth watching, again at least in my opinion, is Columbus. A very meditative film about life, death, and platonic love set in Columbus, Indiana (the “mecca of modern architecture”).

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