Forget dancing in the streets a la “La La Land.” This year the movies moved to a much edgier beat, tackling such tough issues as racism (“Get Out”), revenge (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), fear of outsiders (“The Shape of Water”), poverty (“The Florida Project”) amongst others. Even “Star Wars” showed more bold moves.
Not every film was serious; there was good escapist fare (“Girls Trip,” “Wonder Woman”). Mostly, though, the best of 2017 sought to challenge us — making us ponder where we are, where we’ve been and perhaps where we need to venture next.
Here are my picks for the best films of 2017.
1 “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Martin McDonagh’s controversial dark comedy burrowed into my psyche deeper than any other movie this year. Frances McDormand gives a Category 5 performance as a mom hell-bent on avenging her daughter’s murder. She’s ably assisted by Sam Rockwell as a hate-fueled deputy, the film’s most charged and debated character. “Billboards” wants to make us uncomfortable as hell as we venture into America’s gray zone of morality. It does so brilliantly.
2 “The Shape of Water”: Master cinematic chef Guillermo del Toro whips up a Michelin star charcuterie plate of genres — horror, romance, drama and political commentary — for one gorgeous fable about the movies of yore and society’s “outcasts.” Expect to fall in love with Sally Hawkins playing a plucky mute janitor and then swoon — just as she does– over a scaly, abused “Creature From the Black Lagoon-equse” monster. What a timeless tale with a message that resonates so powerfully today.
3 “Get Out”: The woefully discredited horror genre is known to make damned good statements about our cultural ills. Such is the case with screenwriter/director Jordan Peele’s mega-hit. But what’s particularly remarkable about Peele’s first feature is how skillfully that message winds cobra-like around America’s collective throat. “Get Out” exposes the racism that lurks in all of us, forcing us to not only scream at the screen but at ourselves as well.
4 “The Florida Project”: “Tangerine” filmmaker Sean Baker shines a beaten-up mirror at American poverty, and although it’s justly not a pretty picture, it does have bursts of beauty and humor. He takes a cinema verite-like approach to this portrait of a resilient young girl (Brooklynn Prince) who’s living on the flickering-out neon fringes of Orlando’s Disney World with her ill-suited mother. Baker bundles together intimate scenes that seem to be going nowhere, but add up to be a stunning composite. Then there’s that ending. Oh that ending. How perfectly it brings it all together.
5 “God’s Own Country:” This poignant, tone-perfect drama features two conflicted lads, one from Romania (played with natural ease by Alec Secareanu) and the other a bitter, closeted, mostly illiterate farmer (Josh O’Connor in an Oscar worthy performance) and their uneasy attraction. It is understated and powerful, with every scene benefitting the narrative. First-time feature director Francis Lee makes us feel like we’re shivering on the unforgiving Yorkshire landscape while illustrating how that rugged terrain shapes and defines those who live there. Parallels to “Brokeback Mountain” are inevitable, but “God” charts its own course, guiding us to deep and satisfying emotional destinations.
6 “Dunkirk”: Christopher Nolan’s taut, compact World War II drama is a marvel of technical know-how and might. From editing to cinematography to sound, “The Dark Knight” filmmaker and his crew made one of the most impressive films of any year. While “Dunkirk” undeniably lacks strong character development, it does accomplish its chosen goal: to make us feel as if we are caught in the crosshairs of war, with the seconds ticking by while the bullets whiz past.
7 “Call Me By Your Name”: The obsessive, tug-of-war of desire is sensually rendered in Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous coming-out, coming-of-age drama set in Italy. It’s masterfully made, with a gratifying screenplay from James Ivory — who adapts Andre Aciman’s lyrical novel with understanding and compassion. Armie Hammer — as the object of an older teen’s desire — has never been better, but it is Timothee Chalamet’s emotionally contorted performance that makes the film.
8 “Lady Bird”: Even though Greta Gerwig isn’t in it, the quirky, engaging writer and director makes her presence felt in every frame of this lovely dramedy. The autobiographical narrative fondly captures what it’s like to be a dissatisfied, uncertain Sacramento high school senior (“Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan) eager to fly away from a “boring” hometown and a critical, martyr-prone momma (an exceptional Laurie Metcalf). There have been many coming-of-age films, but “Lady Bird” is a special one, particularly in how it depicts a turbulent mother-daughter relationship.
9 “War for the Planet of the Apes”: Those doggone dirty apes defied the odds with a killer reboot that’s anything but the average Hollywood cash-grabber. The “Apes” trilogy is really one of the best in cinematic history, and this finale hammers that home. Director Matt Reeves frames his nearly wordless action epic that’s dense with pathos and parable as if it’s an homage to “The Great Escape” and a Shakespearean tragedy. The result is one of the best action films in years, anchored around a masterful motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis.
10 “The Big Sick”: During this knock-you-down-and-out year, what a relief to bundle up with this comfy, warm blanket of a romantic comedy that’s based on the real-life relationship of screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars) and Emily V. Gordon. Ideally cast (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano run away with every scene) and filled with smart, funny and tender situations and exchanges, “Big Sick” was the magic elixir that lifted our spirits and reminded us to appreciate what’s important in life.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”; “Faces Places”; “I, Tonya”; “Hostiles”; “Coco”; “Mudbound”; “Stronger”; “The Lost City of Z”; “The Square”; “Frantz”; “Brimstone & Glory”; “A Fantastic Woman”; “Girls Trip”; “Detroit”; “Wonder Woman; “Logan.”