2017 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

Wonderstruck; Step; Kedi; I, Tonya; The Shape of Water; Dunkirk; Don't Talk to Irene; The Post; Faces Places
Thank goodness for the movies. 2017 wasn’t good to many of us, so it was sweet relief to enjoy the escape of a dark theatre and some popcorn. A lot has been written about the timeliness of many of the best films of the year evoking parables of Trump-era America, and the many of the best films of 2017 were tales of true heroes, great leaders, and of communities united—all a great contrast to the toxicity and divisiveness that define the year. It was a particularly strong year for documentaries, too, with non-fiction filmmakers illuminating more corners of the world with fearless eyes for telling the truth and for highlighting diverse voices. And in some cases, filmmakers turned over new corners of the art form to play with perceptions of the truth—very timely for the age of #FakeNews.

2017 was a year for mavericks and innovators with heavyweights like Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Steven Spielberg (The Post), and Guillermo del Toro making films that demanded the full screen experience. Netflix and streaming might be the fastest growing mode of consuming movies, but the need for the theatrical experience prevailed in some of the year’s best escapism.

Outsiders and underdogs were the most consistent theme among 2017’s standouts. Filmmakers found universal tales of belonging and community in stories driven by misfits with whom one could easily identify. Sometimes these tales were true stories with a ripe political backdrop. Sometimes they were dramas or comedies with chubby outsiders. Sometimes they featured cats.

As I reflect on the movies that made 2017 worth the slog, however, the best films were the ones that made me laugh or made me smile. I think we need good comedies more than ever, and I really do thank the filmmakers who brought a smile to my face, a twinkle to my eye, or, in some case, a much needed laugh to my belly.

Here are my picks for the top ten films released in 2017:

(Dir. Martin McDonagh, USA/UK)

This zany and violent film from Martin McDonagh is black comedy at its finest. Three Billboards has the horror and heft of the best of American gothic literature. As Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) stomps along the thoroughfare of her little Podunk town, she walks in the footsteps of unconventional heroes who’ve defied conventional wisdom in chilling tales by the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and William Faulkner. The Oscar-worthy script finds a note-perfect ensemble cast to bring every word to life with deadpan humour and conviction. Each part of the film is perfectly cast from Frances McDormand’s commanding and dryly funny lead to the more fleshed out supporting characters played by Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, or Peter Dinklage to the smallest of parts, like the delightfully wacky turn by Sandy Martin as Rockwell’s onscreen maman. As the score by Carter Burwell twangs with notes of the spaghetti western and as Mildred provides an unlikely hero to bring justice back to her town, Three Billboards carves its place in a league of great American tragicomedies.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing in theatres.

(Dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA/Canada)

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. This beauty and the beast fable from master filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is a fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s an enchanting lark guided by Sally Hawkins’ brilliant performance as a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibian man (played by Doug Jones in some snazzy make-up) and defies everyone from Russian spies to Uncle Sam in the name of love. Drink in every frame of del Toro’s love story with its dark atmosphere and swathes of teal. The Shape of Water is a love letter to the movies as Elisa finds her voice in classic films shared with her neighbour (Richard Jenkins) on the TV in their apartments atop a movie theatre. The performances are uniformly inspired and excellent from Hawkins’ captivating silent turn to Octavia Spencer’s hilarious ability to resurrect the sassy ghost of Thelma Ritter, but the best acting coup might be the city of Toronto, which plays a central character offering locales like the Elgin Theatre as part of The Shape of Water’s spellbinding fable.

The Shape of Water is now playing in theatres.

(Dir. Pat Mills, Canada)

It thrills me to see a Pat from Ottawa sandwiched between Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro. Pat Mills delivers the best Canadian film of 2017 with his sophomore feature Don’t Talk to Irene. It’s a fine companion piece to his high school set debut Guidance with its offbeat, fun, and infectiously feel-good tale of outsiders conquering adolescent awkwardness. Don’t Talk to Irene features a breakout performance by Michelle McLeod as overweight and underappreciated high schooler Irene, who simply wants to fit in with the cool kids. She has great confidence and screen presence—and even better comedic timing that ensures this upbeat and poppy number puts a smile on your face from beginning to end. Geena Davis is also a hoot playing herself as the sage Oscar winner who provides guidance to Irene from the League of Their Own poster that hangs over her bed. The Thelma and Louise star should help the most overlooked film of the year gain some notice and, hopefully, turn some more heads towards some of Canada’s best up-and-coming talent.

Don’t Talk to Irene is available on home video.

7. Dunkirk

(Dir. Christopher Nolan, USA)

Christopher Nolan’s latest puzzler is a cinematic fresco that conquers the big screen by land, air, and sea. This intricately layered war film imagines the evacuation of Dunkirk from the perspectives of the soldiers on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue by boat, and the pilots protecting them by air. Each segment has a unique timeframe—one week, one day, and one hour, respectively—and the thrill of Dunkirk comes from watching Nolan turn the pieces of his Rubik’s Cube in a gripping and breathtaking race against the clock. The aerial ballet by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema dazzles with high-wire manoeuvres and suspenseful points of view, while the precise editing by Lee Smith and the pulse-pounding score by Hans Zimmer combine to make the most technically and artistically accomplished film of the year. The power, though, comes from the united front of the ensemble as the band of brothers working together to find their way home.

Dunkirk is available on home video and is still playing in select theatres.

(Dir. Steven Spielberg, USA)

The Post is very timely with its parable of the free press in the era of #FakeNews and all that, but the film deserves consideration for a lot more than simply harnessing the zeitgeist. (Virtually every well-received film this year finds Trumpy resonance with the right spin.) The Post is a return to form for Steven Spielberg. It’s his best film since Saving Private Ryan and it shows him in his element delivering slickly, superbly assembled escapism that’s also hard-hitting drama. The Post features the best ensemble cast of the year outside of the cats from Kedi with Meryl Streep leading the charge in one of her most natural performances. Tom Hanks continues his recent hot streak alongside Streep, while memorable supporting turns from actors like Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, and Carrie Coon make strong impressions with scant screen time. The Post is even superior to Spotlight, the other great ensemble film about crusading journalism, as Spielberg and company find the nuances of life in the newsroom that make one appreciate the sweat and passion that go into each edition of the morning post.

The Post opens January 12.

5. I,Tonya

(Dir. Craig Gillespie, USA)

Watch your kneecaps, Christopher Guest! I, Tonya is a wickedly funny true crime mockumentary about the notorious “incident” in which skater Tonya Harding (allegedly) conspired to oust rival Nancy Kerrigan by whacking her in the leg. The film has a lot of fun drawing upon wildly contradictory interviews from Harding (Margot Robbie in the best performance of the year) and her partner in crime Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and providing competing versions of the truth. Director Craig Gillespie brings a frenzied, madcap energy to the film that straddles a very delicate balance of tragicomic tones. Most surprising and commendable is the way the film handles domestic violence with unflinching honesty. There are shockingly funny moments in which Harding receives or trades blows with Gillooly and her mother (Allison Janney, this year’s Best Supporting Actress winner if there’s any justice) in a life marked by violence. The effect of watching I, Tonya is like having a long hearty chuckle broken by an abrupt punch to the face, only to start laughing again to understand the horrible cycle of violence in which Harding survives.

I, Tonya is now playing in Toronto and expands January 5.

(Dir. Agnès Varda, JR; France)

Agnès Varda is one cool lady. She delivers the best film of her career—and a remarkable career at that—at the tender age of 88 with Faces Places. This whimsical masterpiece of documentary filmmaking takes to heart a central power that resonates throughout Varda’s career: the power of seeing one’s life reflected in images and stories. As Varda joins forces with street artist JR (like a French Banksy), she documents the paysans of France in beautifully enlarged portraits. Their road trip takes them to small corners of the country where they plaster the faces and toes of French people young and old across buildings and façades to intimately connect the land with its inhabitants. The filmmakers strive to put unexpected faces in surprising places, most notably the portraits of three women across several stories of shipping containers in a traditionally masculine space. The playfulness and infectious joie de vivre of Faces Places is a gift.

Faces Places is currently playing in limited release.

3. Kedi

(Dir. Ceyda Torun, Turkey)

I write this top ten list with my cat, Fellini, nuzzled up against my leg. His purring and cozy warmth makes me love Kedi even more. This Turkish cat doc captures the bond between cats and humans as director Ceyda Torun observes the feral cats of Istanbul and the humans who care for them. Kedi takes the cat video to another level with frisky cinematography that patters along the ground at feline level to let us see the world from a cat’s eye view. The remarkable footage that Torun gets with these cats is most impressive, since directing a cat is no easy feat, but more impressive than the difficulty of these shots is the seeming simplicity with which she crafts the film. It’s just so rich and natural in its observations. Torun commendably uses the magic of these furry creatures to comment on the lessons one can learn from tending to members of the animal kingdom. There is a moment late in Kedi where someone remarks, “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you, is life smiling at you.” The sentiment really rings true for anyone with a feline friend.

Kedi is available on home video.

2. Step

(Dir. Amanda Lipitz, USA)

Step on up to the best documentary of the year! Director Amanda Lipitz draws on her Broadway roots to create an enthralling musical with a lively spirit against a richly and timely backdrop that extends the girls’ stories to those of others across the nation. This wonderful and accessible film is a must-see before it gets an inevitable dramatic treatment. The dancing is as powerful to watch as it is empowering for the dancers at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Step, a kind of stomp dancing infused with a rich history brought from Africa, provides an outlet for the girls as they strive for their best as the first graduating class from their school. They infuse their dances with urgent messages drawing upon the Black Lives Matter movement and shootings of unarmed Black men in their neighbourhood, which gives Step an unexpected emotional wallop as one watches the girls succeed on the dancefloor and in the classroom. Parents and teachers are everyday heroes supporting these girls, but the step team provides a true underdog tale that inspires audiences by watching the dancers mature over the course of their final year. I can’t stress how refreshing it was to see a film emphasize the power of positive images in 2017.

Step is available on home video.

(Dir. Todd Haynes, USA)

Todd Haynes reminds us why he’s one of the best directors working today with his latest film Wonderstruck. The Carol and I’m Not There director pulls off a bold feat by delivering an adaptation of a children’s novel that’s an all-ages art film. Wonderstruck got lost somewhere in the process of trying to find an audience between two disparate demographics—smart-house crowd and families—but I don’t hesitate in encouraging anyone and everyone to give it a chance. Young fans of the book must marvel at how beautifully Wonderstruck realizes the two parallel narratives with distinct styles that honour the novel’s innovative formal structure. One thread features deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, a remarkable young talent, in an homage to silent films, while the second storyline stars Oakes Fegley in 70s’ retro talky fashion. Both stories are quests and treasure hunts, intimately linked by the powerful screen presence of Julianne Moore and a captivating journey through museums and archives. Wonderstruck looks at the stories and lives that simple treasures hold as Haynes considers artefacts, books, records, and dioramas to show that we are all curators in our own lives, collecting and keeping cherished goods that tell our stories for years to come. Beautifully shot by Haynes’s frequent collaborator Ed Lachman and made into true movie magic by composer Carter Burwell’s wall-to-wall score that brings chills with its notes of enchantment and wonder, Wonderstruck is the most marvellous and moving film of the year.

Wonderstruck is still playing in select theatres and will soon be on home video.

Honourable mentions: The Beguiled, Blade Runner 2049, Call Me By Your Name; The Commune; Dawson City: Frozen Time; First They Killed My Father; Get OutHochelaga, Land of Souls; Lady Bird; Long Time Running; Manifesto; Personal ShopperRacer and the Jailbird; Sieranevada.

Best festival films awaiting distribution or release in 2018 (so check back next year!): Sweet Country, Custody, Susanne Bartsch: On Top, On Bodyand Soul, Who We Are Now.

Previously in 2017 in review: the best performances of the year, the best Canadian films of the year, the best documentaries of the year, and the worst films of the year.

What were your favourite films of the year?