Call it the La La Land hangover. In the wake of the overwhelming popularity and wide-ranging critical acclaim heaped on Damien Chazelle’s bittersweet musical fantasy in 2016, it was hard not to notice the extent to which 2017’s best feature films largely rejected the buoyancy, romanticism, and Broadway razzamatazz of the prior year’s box office smash. There were some ostensible exceptions, of course: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is essentially La La Land meets The Italian Job; Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is as starry-eyed as any animated Disney tale; and Benny and Josh Safdie’s Good Time practically overdoses on streaks and splotches of fluorescent color. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds knottier realities beneath the giddy infectiousness, storybook familiarity, and ecstatic sensory overload (respectively) of these films. Baby Driver simultaneous revels in and causally topples crime drama clichés. The Shape of Water’s girl-on-piscine love affair is as taboo-busting as they come. And Good Time’s neon hues vibrate anxiously alongside a jarringly bleak story.
In short, it was a year of unexpected complexity, contradiction, and impertinence. With the benefit of ten months of hindsight, one is tempted to read a deeper meaning to the bungled Best Picture reveal at last February’s Oscars ceremony. A throwback song and dance crowd-pleaser about gorgeous white people in love was initially declared the winner, to absolutely no one’s surprise. Then—whoops! —the honor actually went to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight: an intimate and emphatically queer romantic drama about a black boy/teen/man in inner-city Miami. Also: A Muslim won Best Supporting Actor.
Perhaps it was coincidence, or just Hollywood thumbing its nose at a resurgent and emboldened bloc of right-wing authoritarianism in American politics. However, it also seemed to presage a year in which the best cinema was that which questioned, critiqued, and upended the conventional wisdom with respect to both art and politics—without necessarily eliciting easy answers. Genre was sliced, diced, and remixed in 2017, and discomfiting truths about race, class, age, disability, and sexuality were unpacked with surprising boldness, suggesting that the year’s standout filmmakers felt they had nothing to lose.
This best cinema of 2017 also reflected the creepy elephant in the room: the flood of scandals revealing that the entertainment industry might have a wee problem with misogyny and sexual misconduct. Fittingly, the reaction from many women was not that of a jaded Captain Renault in Casablanca (“I am shocked. Shocked.”) but a paraphrase of H.G. Wells’ bitter suggestion for his epitaph: “We told you so. You damned fools.” On the screen, feminism didn’t wring its hands mournfully or enthuse about how far society has come: It was frank, astute, and often mad as hell. In 2017, cinema interrogated male ego and weakness (Graduation; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Salesman), and used genre to convey truths about women’s experiences (Colossal; Raw). It vividly illustrated how women can be both the oppressed and the oppressor (Lady Macbeth), took its revenge on an effigy of every male deceiever (The Beguiled), and occasionally screamed itself hoarse in righteous rage (mother!). And, admittedly, it also allowed itself a blockbuster victory lap where a certain Amazon warrior-princess is concerned.
Not all of 2017’s best works were so sharply political, however, and the most unexpected achievements were often those films that eroded genre conventions and pushed against formal boundaries. Hokey, well-worn premises were rendered freshly invigorating, studio sequels elected for ambition over the safe and cozy, and between Split, Get Out, and It, horror somehow turned into the year’s smash genre. (Jordan Peele’s film, in fact, pulled off a hat trick: absurdly profitable, culturally impactful, and sharply political.) The increasingly codified and artistically conservative superhero picture was clobbered in wildly divergent ways (see: Captain Underpants and Logan). Olivier Assayas' slippery Personal Shopper reconcieved what a "ghost story" looks and feels like. (As did, for that matter, A Ghost Story.) A pair of quixotic filmmakers somehow turned 65,000 oil paintings into an animated murder mystery about the impenetrability of truth. Christopher Nolan made a WWII feature for the ages—and there are hardly any Nazis in it. Oh, and Martin Scorsese delivered a masterpiece about Jesuit missionaries being tortured in feudal Japan. All in all, 2017 proved to be a heartening surfeit of cinematic riches, one that rewarded filmmakers and viewers alike who were willing to venture outside their comfort zones.
A film qualifies for this list if it could be viewed theatrically for the first time by the ticketed public in the greater St. Louis area between January 1 and December 31, 2017.
20. Baby Driver
2017 / UK, USA / Dir. by Edgar Wright / Opened in wide release on June 28, 2017
A delirious combination of jukebox musical and high-octane heist picture for everyone who’s ever had to cue up just the right song before pulling out of their driveway.
19. Your Name. [Kimi no na wa.]
2016 / Japan / Dir. by Makoto Shinkai / Opened in select U.S. cities on December 2, 2016; locally on April 7, 2017
An indescribably ravishing work of animation, and a brilliant reclamation of the body-swapping trope. A poignant sci-fi dramedy about cultural, economic, and gender divisions (and commonalities).
18. A Ghost Story
2017 / USA / Dir. by David Lowery / Opened in select cities on July 7, 2017; locally on July 28, 2017
Formally audacious and astonishingly affecting. A lo-fi meditation on grief and memory, with a humbling truth underneath its startling narrative swerves: Time is a flat circle.
2017 / Canada, Australia, USA / Dir. by James Mangold / Opened in wide release on March 3, 2017
A weary, anguished, fittingly ultra-violent farewell for Hugh Jackman’s mutant; a resonant rumination on aging and mortality; and a jarring but necessary gutting of superhero flick formulae.
2016 / USA, France, Germany / Dir. by Jim Jarmusch / Opened in select cities on December 28, 2016; locally on January 13, 2017
A sublime statement of humane values for a callous age, presented (warts and all) with such scruffy lyricism and bone-dry wit that a platitude becomes warm wisdom: Live simply.
15. The Salesman [Foroushandeh]
2016 / Iran, France / Dir. by Asghar Farhadi / Opened in select U.S. cities on January 27, 2017; locally on February 10, 2017
Death Wish, as only Asghar Farhadi could envision it: gnawing, unsatisfying, unpredictable, and quietly, remorselessly critical of everything from sexual shaming to the very notion of revenge.
14. The Florida Project
2017 / USA / Dir. by Sean Baker / Opened in select cities on October 6, 2017; locally on October 27, 2017
Italian neorealism meets Carl Hiaasen in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, where a child is queen of all she surveys; somehow grubby, jubilant, bleak, and touching all at once.
13. Lady Macbeth
2016 / UK / Dir. by William Oldroyd / Opened in select U.S. cities on July 14, 2017; locally on July 28, 2017
A seductive and utterly ruthless portrait of both miserable victimhood and blackest villainy—in the form of one unforgettable woman. An exquisitely nasty briar patch of race, class, and gender.
12. Raw [Grave]
2016 / France, Belgium, Italy / Dir. by Julia Ducournau / Opened in select U.S. cities on March 10, 2017; locally on March 31, 2017
Cannibalistic hunger as a vivid metaphor for a girl’s sexual awakening. Equal parts grisly and haunting. An incisive depiction of how women’s erotic appetites are policed, indulged, and repressed.
11. The Lost City of Z
2016 / USA / Dir. by James Gray / Opened in wide release on April 21, 2017
James Gray’s best work to date. Shrewdly observed, splendidly structured, and visually enthralling. An endlessly layered rumination on everything: exploration, failure, legacy, vanity, history, and personal evolution.
10. Graduation [Bacalaureat]
2016 / Romania, France, Belgium / Dir. by Cristian Mungiu / Opened in select U.S. cities on April 7, 2017; locally on April 28, 2017
A 21st-century tragedy with teeth. Straps down the most essential parental ambition—to secure a better future for one’s child—and vivisects it, revealing all the vainglorious ugliness pulsing within.
9. Good Time
2017 / USA / Dir. by Benny and Josh Safdie / Opened in select cities on August 11, 2017; locally on August 25, 2017
The Safdies channel Lumet, Scorsese, Mann, and the Dardennes for one frenzied night in a neon-slicked New York City. The result, like Robert’s Pattison performance, is gritty, relentless, and unambiguously electric.
8. Personal Shopper
2016 / France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium / Dir. by Olivier Assayas / Opened in select U.S. cities on March 10, 2017; locally on March 24, 2017
Kristin Stewart delivers a magnetic and wonderfully nuanced turn in a marvelous Continental puzzle box that resists all attempts to curtail and subdivide its mysteries. That final shot: Whew.
7. The Shape of Water
2017 / USA, Canada / Dir. by Guillermo del Toro / Opened in select cities on December 8, 2017; locally on December 15, 2017
Only Guillermo del Toro would think to play matchmaker to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and only he could pull it off with such lavishness, humanity, and heartfelt magic.
6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
2017 / UK, Ireland, USA / Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on October 20, 2017; locally on December 1, 2017
Arresting, chilly, and terrifying. An unforgiving depiction of a man’s inability to accept that doom is slouching towards his family, and that it’s all his fault.
2017 / USA / Dir. by Kogonada / Opened in select cities on August 4, 2017; locally on September 22, 2017
A gorgeous not-quite-love story, hypnotically enamored with art, design, and history. Most of all, with people: their longings, loyalties, and resentments.
2017 / UK, Netherlands, France, Germany / Dir. by Christopher Nolan / Opened in wide release on July 21, 2017
Sand. Sea. Air. Steel. Oil. Flame. Tick. Tick. Tick. The WWII picture distilled down to a frantic scramble for survival—that also emerges as a fascinating historiographical statement about narrative.
3. The Beguiled
2017 / USA / Dir. by Sofia Coppola / Opened in select cities on June 23, 2017; locally on June 30, 2017
A visually stunning and morally blistering fable about the lies that men tell and the willpower of righteously wrathful women. Sofia Coppola’s finest work to date.
2. Blade Runner 2049
2017 / USA, UK, Hungary, Canada / Dir. by Denis Villeneuve / Opened in wide release on October 6, 2017
Against all odds, they got it right. Everything that blockbuster science fiction should be: dazzling, contemplative, wondrous, cerebral, humane, enigmatic, sexy, and sorrowful. Studio sequel perfection.
2016 / Mexico, Taiwan, USA / Dir. by Martin Scorsese / Opened in select cities on December 23, 2016; locally on January 13, 2017
Theology, ethics, and philosophy given thrilling cinematic form. A harrowing feast for the senses and the mind. A poetic and fiercely complex rumination on freedom of conscience, the pitfalls of language, and the limits of authoritarian power. A lamentation for the eternal solitude of the human condition. Profuse with handholds for believers, heathens, and atheists alike. An instant masterpiece.
Honorable Mentions: 20th Century Women; Call Me by Your Name; Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie; City of Ghosts; Colossal; A Cure for Wellness; Get Out; Human Flow; I Am Not Your Negro; I Called Him Morgan; Jane; John Wick: Chapter 2; Julieta; Kedi; Last Men in Aleppo; Logan Lucky; Lovesong; Loving Vincent; mother!; My Life as a Zucchini; Neruda; Obit; The Red Turtle; Reset; Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan; Song to Song; The Square; War for the Planet of the Apes;The Wedding Plan; Wind River
Overrated, Slightly or Highly: Battle of the Sexes; The Big Sick; Brad's Status; California Typewriter; Detroit; Letters from Baghdad; Menashe; Norman; Risk; Their Finest; Tickling Giants; The Women's Balcony; Wonderstruck
Underrated: Dark Night; Happy Death Day; Past Life; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Best Overlooked Performance: Anya Taylor-Joy, Split
Considered Last Year: After the Storm; The Fencer; Germans & Jews; A Quiet Passion; Toni Erdmann; Tower
Notable Films I Missed: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children; Faces Places; Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool; Gook; My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea; Only the Brave; Pop Aye; The Woman Who Left; A Woman's Life; The Wound
Films We're Still Waiting for in St. Louis: BPM (Beats Per Minute); Dawson City: Frozen Time; EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library; Hostiles; In the Fade; Molly's Game; Nocturama; Phantom Thread; The Post; The Work