From an inauguration that sank many people’s stomachs to the sudden ground swell of #MeToo, 2017 wasn’t exactly a feel-good year. We experienced the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, took a giant leap backward in climate change proactiveness, and learned to watch the news out of the corners of our eyes, horror-movie style. Others opted to turtle.
But there remained screens, often found at movie theaters, that offered joy, not sorrow, even if their popularity has increasingly dwindled. Among the best were love stories, action flicks, a look at life on the other side of the tracks, and—thank God for ’em—superhero stories. As cinema has always supplied, they were a means to escape.
Here are my favorites of the year, in no particular order.
DunkirkDirected by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan shot this ambitious World War II drama with IMAX cameras on 72mm film. Regardless of how you saw it presented—IMAX, 72mm, both, or plain ol’ regular—the visuals were spectacular. Equally impressive was how Nolan seamlessly wove together three perspectives (land, sea, air) despite that events in each setting took place within radically different time frames. The kiddos who came for star and One Directioner Harry Styles got a history lesson, while Nolan diehards got a laugh from Tom Hardy once again having his dialogue obscured by something covering his mouth.
The Florida ProjectDirected by Sean Baker
Sean Baker’s story about a wild child and her wilder young mother traffics in compassion, escape, and making the best out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Brooklynn Prince’s impressive performance as the tiny troublemaker who lives with Mom in a motel just outside of Walt Disney World is matched by Willem Dafoe’s subtle turn as the sympathetic motel manager forever caught between enforcing the rules and giving the small family a break. It’s sometimes hard to watch: The daughter constantly misbehaves, often in appalling ways, and her mother’s temper is easily tripped, especially when she’s in the wrong. But ultimately you can’t look away.
Call Me By Your NameDirected by Luca Guadagnino
This is a love story that sneaks up on you. The spark between Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet’s characters is engaging enough (hugely aided by the indulgent languor encouraged by the Northern Italian setting). But it’s a bittersweet monologue near the film’s end that will wrench your heart in good ways and bad, with an ensuing surprise phone call acting as the final nail. The last moments comprise just the camera and Chalamet’s far-off stare, capturing the entirety of the emotional heft that came before.
Baby DriverDirected by Edgar Wright
It isn’t a musical, but it’s still got a beat. Edgar Wright’s actioner, the first film he’s written solo, about a young getaway driver who’s always listening to music to distract from his tinnitus is wholly original: Baby’s iPods supply the soundtrack, and the movements onscreen are often timed to that soundtrack’s tempo. The result thrills your ears as well as your eyes, with the music spanning decades and genres and the car chases fresher than anything involving furious fastness.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriDirected by Martin McDonagh
If you’ve seen In Bruges, you know that writer/director Martin McDonagh has a gift for lighting up the darkest parts of the human condition with humor. So it’s not surprising that he managed to make a story about a woman seeking justice for her daughter’s rape and murder entertaining. Frances McDormand is terrific as that fiery woman who rents the titular billboards in her small town to question why the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t found the girl’s murderer yet. But Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as a dimwit cop who first provides laughs and then, shockingly, heart.
LoganDirected by James Mangold
Professor Xavier is declining in his twilight years, and the titular X-Man isn’t doing so well himself. But the erstwhile Wolverine still has some fighting to do, this time on behalf of a little girl who bears adamantium instead of bone as well as battle skills much like his own. The first X-Men movie to be rated R, Logan allows Hugh Jackman to fully exhibit the character’s inner badass, with him cursing from the film’s start, unafraid to behead a thug or two, and not exactly warming to Laura, the equally violent pipsqueak who may be his daughter. (“I am fucked up,” he tells her.) It’s all hugely entertaining, and more than enough justification to avoid another reboot.
Lady BirdDirected by Greta Gerwig
Timothée Chalamet also co-stars in Greta Gerwig’s hit directorial debut, but the film belongs to Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan. They play a Sacramento mother and her 17-year-old daughter, respectively, with the latter struggling to break loose from her home and Catholic school rules and the former typically playing bad cop in a misguided attempt to grip her girl more tightly. Gerwig also wrote the script, which is often funny (“Six inches for the Holy Spirit!” will bring a flood of school-dance memories to Catholic school alums) and sometimes heartbreaking (when mom stops talking to the self-christened Lady Bird because she applied to East Coast colleges behind her back, Lady Bird begs, “I’m so sorry for wanting more.”) It’s the rare coming-of-age tale that doesn’t feel old.The LEGO Batman MovieDirected by Chris McKay
Granted, it’s not as perfect as its predecessor. But thanks to Will Arnett’s ace turn as the Caped Crusader and a fusillade of jokes from its five (!) scripters, it’s close enough. Batman’s not in the best state of mind: He’s lonely but fears commitment. So he microwaves his lobster thermidor for one and tells the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) that he “doesn’t do ’ships.” But then he adopts a fellow orphan (an equally good Michael Cera) and melts a little when the kid, whom he calls Robin, wants to be just like him. With the film’s studio, Warner Bros., allowing its catalog to be mocked on top of all the quips between mentor and puppyish mentee, The LEGO Batman Movie ends up just as hilarious as Justice League.
The Shape of WaterDirected by Guillermo del Toro
Call it Beauty and the Amphibian. Guillermo del Toro’s transfixing fairy tale about a mute woman and the fishman she loves comes close to Pan’s Labyrinth in its sumptuous visuals and imagination. Sally Hawkins’ character may be silent, but her face offers an abundance of expression as she befriends the government experiment that’s jailed in the building she cleans every night. Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and an especially fabulous Richard Jenkins co-star, meaning the talent both in front of and behind the camera is first-rate.
EscapesDirected by Michael Almereyda
You probably don’t know who Hampton Fancher is, but here’s some trivia: He’s the co-writer of Blade Runner as well as Blade Runner 2049. I call it trivia because the more deeply you get into this documentary, the more of an afterthought these sci-fi movies seem. Before becoming a screenwriter, Fancher was a TV star, and director Michael Almereyda peppers the film with Fancher’s old clips as the actor tells one amusing story after another like a garrulous party guest. His favorite topic is his romantic conquests, even when they don’t reflect so favorably on him (such as dating Teri Garr while he was broke and she was famous). But it seems that nothing is off-limits to Fancher, and between his sense of humor and the entertaining visuals that Almereyda perfectly matches to each yarn, this is one Hollywood blowhard you won’t mind meeting.