You would never know it from what the multiplexes were showing in the first 10 months of 2017, but with a November and December delivering a flurry of quality films, this became a top-notch year at the movies. Here are my 10 favorites, with plenty more just barely not making the cut.
1. The Shape of Water – Tapping into the magic realism and political fantasy that fueled his Pan’s Labyrinth 11 years ago, director Guillermo del Toro created 2017’s most creative and imaginative film, the saga of a mute cleaning lady (wordlessly expressive Sally Hawkins) at a Cold War aerospace facility, who falls in love with a merman. (No, not Ethel). I could tell you more, but this is a film that you need to discover and experience first-hand.
2. 3 Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri – Playwright Martin McDonagh, known for his grisly dark stage comedies, proves himself equally adept at writing and directing for the big screen with this tale of a vengeful mother of a raped and killed daughter who opts for outdoor advertising to embarrass her local sheriff into catching the perpetrator. Frances McDormand goes to the head of the Oscar race as the ferocious, kick-butt mom.
3. Last Flag Flying – You do not need to recall 1973’s The Last Detail to appreciate this sort-of sequel from novelist Darryl Ponicsan which reunites a trio of Vietnam vets (Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne) 30 years later, learning that our government continues to lie to us about its wartime rationales. Director-screenwriter Richard Linklater helms the high-test testosterone hijinks, but do not be surprised if you are wiping away a tear or two by the film’s conclusion.
4. Call Me By Your Name – A sensitive, sensual coming-of-age tale adapted by director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) focuses on the relationship between a teenage boy, Elio, (Homeland’s Timothée Chalamet) and a 24-year-old American intern (Armie Hammer) to the boy’s archeology professor father, at the family’s Italian country estate. The tentative byplay between the two of them eventually blossoms into physical love, which deepens and changes them both. The payoff to the film, however, is a gorgeously writtten and performed scene near the end as the boy’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) discusses with Elio what has transpired.
5. Dunkirk – This epic recreation of the three-pronged effort – by land, sea and air – to rescue British troops hemmed in by the German army in northern France is masterfully directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dark Knight trilogy), who should finally be recognized by the Motion Picture Academy. History buffs will want to binge watch this film with Darkest Hour, which tells a similar story from Churchill’s viewpoint.
6. The Post – Steven Spielberg reaches back to 1971 to recount the tale of the Pentagon Papers (yep, more government lies) and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s existential gamble to print the purloined documents. Yes, it is a history lesson, but with a 2017 angle, emphasizing the importance of a vigilant, free press. That promising actress Meryl Streep does another of her chameleon acts as Graham, aided by Tom Hanks as managing editor Ben Bradlee. Double this one with All the President’s Men.
7. The Big Sick – Any good rom-com needs an impediment that keeps the lovebirds apart until the final reel and this film autobiographical film written by the real-life married couple of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon has a doozy. She (played by adorable Zoe Kazan) is hospitalized and put into a medically induced coma. That usually puts a damper on romance, but not for the vigilant Nanjiani. Factor in great supporting work from Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents and stubborn matchmaking by his Pakistani folks and you have that rarity – smart comedy.
8. The Florida Project – In the shadow of the nation’s most popular tourist destination, Walt Disney World, are a handful of former budget motels, now reduced to welfare slums. And typical of the residents are 6-year-old Mooney (the remarkable Brooklynn Prince) and her resourceful, but morally bankrupt mom (Bria Vinaite). The unblinking camera of director Sean Baker (Tangerine) follows their daily lives in a documentary-like, semi-improvised account of the underside of Orlando. Almost as impressive as these two unknowns is veteran Willem Dafoe as the put-upon motel manager.
9. Mudbound – A literary adaptation by director Dee Rees (Pariah) looks at racial tensions in the Jim Crow South before and after World War II with insight and character-rich emotions. Almost as oppressed as the black sharecroppers is a young white wife (Carey Mulligan), trapped in a helpless life amid the Mississippi mud. Many in the large cast excel, but none as much as Mary J. Blige as a pragmatic proud woman who becomes Mulligan’s housekeeper.
10. Molly’s Game – Jessica Chastain adds to her list of tough cookie roles with real-life Molly Bloom, a former Olympic downhill skier who becomes the custodian of a high-stakes Los Angeles poker game, attracting the attention of federal agents along the way. She is aided by the glib, fast-paced verbiage of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who makes his directing debut with extreme assurance. The movie belongs to Chastain, but Sorkin creates a couple of dandy, well-played supporting roles for Idris Elba (her reluctant lawyer) and Kevin Costner (her tough-love coach and father).