The 30 best films of 2017 | Part 1

It’s been harder to care about movies this year than virtually any other I can recall.

The real world intruded in ways too innumerable to count on the silver screen this year. From sexual assault scandals that have touched every corner of Hollywood to an increasingly hostile political climate that has fractured and polarized audiences, the films of 2017 have had to work extra hard to provide any sort of illusion or escapism. Frankly, through no fault of their own, they largely failed. When it feels like the world is falling apart around you — when it appears a significant population of the country not only doesn’t care that things are getting profoundly worse, but are actually celebrating and welcoming the dissolution of social and political norms — when people in power have proven to be so constantly disappointing, over and over again, at upholding personal or social ideals — how can the film climate provide any true respite?

It isn’t, of course, that the films were any worse. In a great year for cinema, many of the most memorable films reflected a certain apocalyptic feeling. Many of these films examined the grieving process — the loss of a loved one or the loss of a world gone by. Many of these films taught us to bury our heroes and kill our darlings, suggesting, as the real world so frequently has this year, that our heroes are fallible and flawed, and the institutions in which we’ve placed our trust may disappoint us. As things go to hell around us, the great films of this year reaffirmed that we could only depend on the bonds we feel with one another — be they passing connections and first loves, long-term romances and parent-child relationships.

And as many others have said, 2017 has ended up a year about women and women’s stories. What an odd thing to say — that 2017 has been a year that has told the stories of the majority of the human population feels peculiar, as if saying, “This is the year of oxygen!” or “This is the year of the sky being blue!” But the films that stuck with me — including the best three films of the year, several others on this list and many that didn’t quite make it, like “mother!,” “The Shape of Water,” “Raw” and “Lady Macbeth” — are stories about women asserting their power, challenging the status quo and finding their places in the world. Maybe the films of 2017 suggested that certain power structures were toppling. They also, perhaps, suggested the power structures to come — more inclusive, more considerate, more, well, feminine. It may be that the world depends on it.

Here are the best films of 2017, beginning with Nos. 30-16. The second half, featuring the top 15 films of the year, will be published tomorrow.

30. “Blade Runner 2049” (directed by Denis Villeneuve)

There was perhaps no more immersive big-screen experience this year than this maddening, elusive return to the world of “Blade Runner,” some 35 years after Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Visually splendid on virtually every level, director Denis Villeneuve recreated with modern filmmaking techniques Scott’s iconic futuristic film noir Los Angeles, and within it set yet another mysterious detective story exploring the line between artificial intelligence and humanity. The boundaries, it turns out, are even fuzzier than they were in the original film. Ryan Gosling takes the lead as Officer K, a blade runner tasked with hunting down original model replicants along the ecologically collapsing California coast, who stumbles upon a case that may connect to the missing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising his original role). To say more would give too much away; “Blade Runner 2049” will overwhelm you with its twisty plot and lengthy runtime, frustrate you with its ambiguities, provoke and stimulate your senses — in other words, it’s a perfect sequel to the equally slippery original, and a movie that demands further study.

Standout performer: Though Ford brings a surprising heart to the latter half of the film, Gosling is given the opportunity to display his range in a surprising character arc.

Standout scene: K’s arrival to the ruined city of Las Vegas is a visually stunning centerpiece, composed brilliantly by director of photography Roger Deakins.

29. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (directed by S. Craig Zahler)

More than delivering on the sleazy promise of its title and the opening scene — in which a buff, tattooed Vince Vaughn dismantles most of a car with his bare hands — S. Craig Zahler’s latest profile of violent masculinity, following 2015’s terrific Western “Bone Tomahawk,” is grindhouse cinema par excellence. Vaughn’s a reluctant drug smuggler who ends up in prison when a job goes wrong; having run afoul of the wrong sorts, he must descend to the titular hellish maximum security cell block to save his kidnapped pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) from an exaggeratedly horrible fate. Many bones will be broken; many faces shattered. Astounding injury will be delivered unto the human person. But what surprises most about “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is how deliberate and slow this descent to hell is; Zahler has a poet’s ear and aspirations toward a modern retelling of the story of Orpheus. He succeeds. Violently.

Standout performer: Vaughn, whose brutish intensity is matched throughout by a wounded reluctance.

Standout scene: About halfway through the film, Vaughn finally goes to prison — but is delayed by an officious intake officer (Fred Melamed).

28. “Wakefield” (directed by Robin Swicord)

Robin Swicord’s adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow short story is unapologetically bitter, distanced and literary, which are not necessarily popular qualities; some viewers may recoil from this slow-paced deconstruction of modern male dissatisfaction, misogyny and self-loathing told through an absurdist comic lens, but for the patient, it will reveal uncomfortable truths. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful New York attorney who has grown detached from his former dancer wife (Jennifer Garner). Upon arriving at his suburban home late one night, Wakefield by chance enters a room above his garage — and stays there, watching his family react to his absence, for months. Wakefield, we hear in his voiceover narration, is a petty and resentful man who only learns his place in his family and the world by removing himself from it. As a satire of contemporary masculinity, and as a gentle probing of existential malaise, “Wakefield” is surprisingly powerful and in the end quite moving, almost like “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the cynical.

Standout performer: Cranston’s Wakefield, given line after line of acidic voiceover narration, blows up his life in front of our eyes and relishes every moment of it. So do we.

Standout scene: A lady-or-the-tiger conclusion will no doubt frustrate many; I found its ambiguity powerful.

27. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (directed by Luc Besson)

Few blockbusters from 2017 were made with as much verve and invention as Luc Besson’s summertime flop, a bold and colorful science fiction space opera with a vision of a utopian future that sometimes feels like an acid trip “Star Trek.” Special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are assigned to investigate a dark rot at the center of a massive multi-planetary space station, discovering a hidden cover-up that threatens the human-centric status quo. To say more about why “Valerian” is so thematically relevant to 2017 might be a spoiler, but I can quite thoroughly sing its visual praises. Besson creates and composes some of the most visually satisfying and exciting action set pieces of the year. To think reviews were so poisonous upon its release that most avoided seeing “Valerian” on the big screen, where it belongs — what a shame!

Standout performer: Rihanna’s small role as a shape-shifting cabaret dancer provides a serious charge in a film that, frankly, does not sport its performances among its foremost merits.

Standout scene: A, interdimensional chase in which Valerian’s hand is stuck in one dimension and the rest of his body is in another. Complicated, yes — but extraordinary and inventive.

26. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (directed by James Gunn)

With due respect to the zeitgeist-capturing “Wonder Woman,” the best and most emotionally resonant superhero movie of the year was Marvel Studios’ hotly anticipated sequel. The bonds of the ragtag space-bound surrogate family are frayed when Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his absentee father, Ego (Kurt Russell), abandoning his fellow Guardians to discover his true origins. Quill’s dad turns out to be aptly named; meanwhile, the Guardians are pursued by the genetically perfect race called the Sovereign and an “ideologically pure” branch of the pirate-like Ravagers. “Guardians” explores themes of the dangers of arrogance, the futility of the pursuit of perfection and how these intersect in the relationships between fathers and children. Each character gets a meaningful and emotional arc in writer-director James Gunn’s sequel; if the first film brought them together, the second explores the ties that bind them and keep them together. It’s also hilarious and action-packed from start to finish. Not bad for a movie with a talking raccoon and a cute baby tree.

Standout performer: Bradley Cooper, who provides surprising pathos to the grumpy Rocket Raccoon with his vocal performance.

Standout scene: A climactic faceoff set to the recurring sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

25. “The Lego Batman Movie” (directed by Chris McKay)

Much like its predecessor, 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” this spinoff is a constant barrage of jokes; also like its predecessor, it’s astounding how many of those jokes genuinely land, and how much heart this animated delight has otherwise. The scene-stealing Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is given his own feature-length adventure in an amazingly detailed Gotham City populated by supporting characters and villains from the long history of DC Comics. But the Caped Crusader has to learn how to play with others — a realization precipitated by the arrival in his life of enthusiastic orphan Robin (Michael Cera). Bright, colorful and genuinely clever, “The Lego Batman Movie,” unlike recent big-screen treatments of the character, is a reminder that the most famous comic book character on the planet can indeed still be fun.

Standout performer: Arnett, whose interplay with the supporting characters is a gruff pleasure.

Standout scene: The extended climatic battle for Gotham, pitting Batman against a number of villains from across popular culture.

24. “Step” (directed by Amanda Lipitz)

A real-life tale of triumph over adversity that could make even the hardest-hearted viewer stand up and cheer, “Step” is a documentary we needed desperately in 2017. Director Amanda Lipitz’s film profiles three young students in a Baltimore girls’ magnet school’s inaugural senior class who are also members of the school’s step team. In a culture that does not always value the input or lived experiences of black women, and in a city roiled by police violence and civil unrest, these young women struggle with typical teenage problems, poverty and college admissions — all while preparing for the end-of-year step competition and their senior class’s final performance. “Step” is a true-life sports movie that genuinely inspires; you will be transfixed and held captive by the resilience and triumph of these young women.

Standout scene: Kori, one of the three main subjects, receives an anticipated college admissions letter. The result is beyond her wildest dreams — and you’ll be crying with everyone on screen.

23. “Marjorie Prime” (directed by Michael Almereyda)

In the near future, a lonely widow with Alzheimer’s is gifted something remarkable from her family: a full-body hologram companion that resembles her late husband in his younger days. As their conversations continue, does this computer program become more like her husband, or more like some idealized person who never existed? A chamber piece layered with thoughts on death, regret, memory and artificiality, “Marjorie Prime,” based on a play by Jordan Harrison, is masterfully composed by director Michael Almereyda and his ensemble cast: the great Lois Smith as the widowed Marjorie, Jon Hamm as the holographic recreation of her husband, and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law. “Marjorie Prime” takes a number of turns you will not anticipate, but stays one of the most provocative and fascinating examinations of our relationship with technology and mortality.

Standout performer: Smith, whose performance is deeply layered, sweet and increasingly tragic as the film’s plot develops in unexpected directions.

Standout scene: A concluding conversation between three unlikely characters that reinforces the film’s prickly themes about truth and memory.

22. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (directed by Martin McDonagh)

Nobody actually talks or acts like the characters in a Martin McDonagh piece talk and act. The Irish playwright turned filmmaker, best known on the big screen for his terrific 2008 “In Bruges,” can create a hermetically sealed cinematic environment as distinctive as any filmmaker’s, and he uses these artificial worlds to create provocative parables examining violence and forgiveness. His latest, set in small-town Missouri, tells the story of a cycle of hatred and rage that overwhelms the residents of a community. And on a larger scale, it dares to examine the nature of redemption — the notion of turning the other cheek, even when one is overwhelmed by righteous anger, and how sometimes it’s much easier to preach than actually do. Frances McDormand stars as the furious mother to a murdered daughter; Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell star as the lawmen, the former respected and genuine and the latter a racist yokel, she runs afoul of. All are terrific, as is McDonagh’s razor-sharp screenplay. “Three Billboards” may be the most angry and profane film of 2017; it may also be the most Christian.

Standout performer: McDormand, whose steely, angry character truly contains multitudes.

Standout scene: McDormand’s character delivers a blistering monologue to a visiting priest about complicity.

21. “John Wick: Chapter 2” (directed by Chad Stahelski)

This Keanu Reeves-starring action sequel is one of the most thrillingly made action movies of 2017, a postmodern color-drenched ballet of gunfire, stuntwork and awe-inspiring choreography. Expanding the universe established in the 2014 original film — an underground economy of hitmen and the global institutions that support them — Reeves’ John Wick is once again pulled back in right when he thinks he’s out of the murder-for-hire life. But an egregious betrayal pits Wick against a powerful adversary and an army of equally skilled professionals, including a silently menacing Ruby Rose and an intimidating Common. The plot may be barebones, but “John Wick: Chapter 2” calls its shot early, hearkening back to the clarity and simplicity of silent film in its barrage of stylized action. Bring on “Chapter 3,” and sooner rather than later.

Standout performer: Reeves, who makes it all look easy giving one of the year’s most skilled physical performances (he really only has competition from Charlize Theron in the almost equally fun “Atomic Blonde”).

Standout scene: Reeves and Common exchange surreptitious gunfire in a crowded subway station.

20. “Stronger” (directed by David Gordon Green)

I can only imagine audiences believed “Stronger,” about a heroic Boston Marathon bombing survivor and his lengthy and painful rehabilitation, was the sort of movie they have seen before. But that is not what director David Gordon Green’s film actually is — if anything, “Stronger” is a response to films of that sort, one that recognizes the weight and guilt of survival and the expectations of superhuman heroism placed upon these survivors. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a marvelous performance as Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombing but identified the bombers for the FBI. Confronted with a lengthy road of physical therapy, post-traumatic stress disorder and his role as a national symbol of “Boston strong,” Bauman threatens to completely crumble. How can our heroes be everything we need them to be when they’re only human? With his supportive but struggling girlfriend Erin (a great Tatiana Maslany) by his side, Bauman eases toward peace of mind; “Stronger” upends the inspirational drama clichés that populate movies like this to tell a story of uncommon depth and complexity.

Standout performer: Gyllenhaal, whose Bauman is an immature mama’s boy thrown into the most unexpected and challenging time of his life.

Standout scene: The bandages on Jeff’s amputated legs are changed for the first time in the year’s most exceptional single shot.

19. “Strong Island” (directed by Yance Ford)

In 1992, 24-year-old William Ford Jr. was shot and killed by a Long Island, New York, mechanic. Ford was black; the mechanic was white; the case was brought to a grand jury and no charges were filed against the murderer. Another statistic. But 25 years later, his brother, filmmaker Yance Ford, brings this story to urgent, lacerating life in this confessional memoir of a documentary. It charts the Ford family’s journey from the Jim Crow South to the “more enlightened” North, and the early life of Ford’s parents. It also depicts in unwavering detail how this act of violence and the loss of his brother shattered Ford’s family irreparably. Stunning and heartbreaking, “Strong Island” seeks to deliver justice to a family for a life pointlessly taken, and to do justice to all the vivid contradictions and unfulfilled dreams of the unlived life of William Ford Jr. In doing so, Yance Ford exorcizes his own devastating guilt and sadness in intimate, furious detail — rendering “Strong Island” an unforgettable, unshakable experience.

Standout scene: Yance Ford’s concluding monologue that imagines his brother’s final moments will shatter you.

18. “Columbus” (directed by Kogonada)

Immaculately framed and composed by first-time director Kogonada, previously best known for his video essays on the great cinematic auteurs, “Columbus” is a Linklaterian story of two stalled souls struggling with their relationships with their parents, the paths in front of them and the things they are reluctant to leave behind. John Cho is a Korean-American man brought to Columbus, Indiana, when his estranged architecture scholar father has a sudden health crisis; Haley Lu Richardson is a 20-year-old with a fascination for the modernist architecture that pervades her city, but who finds herself unable to leave her former addict mother to pursue her dreams. The two form a close bond. “Columbus,” in its unassuming and quiet way, portrays the unruliness of quiet desire and desperation amid the precise order and clean lines of modernist architecture, with its two magnificent lead performances conveying volumes in vast silences.

Standout performer: The brilliant young Richardson, whose wounded, dutiful daughter longs for more but feels guilty about it. She’s a revelation.

Standout scene: A late-night impromptu dance in front of the headlights of a parked car.

17. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” (directed by Noah Baumbach)

Another comedy about a dysfunctional upper-class New York family of dissatisfied artists and frustrated underachievers? Noah Baumbach’s latest might as well be a spiritual sequel to his 2005 masterpiece “The Squid and the Whale.” But “The Meyerowitz Stories” is exceptional even by Baumbach’s typical metric. It’s about the imperious sculptor and patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and his relationship with his three children: Danny (Adam Sandler), an aspiring musician who wants his father’s approval; Matthew (Ben Stiller), a financial planner who receives his father’s attention but doesn’t want it; and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who wouldn’t mind a bit of attention from anybody. When Harold has a sudden health crisis, his children are thrown into disarray. Funny, tragic and moving in equal measure, Baumbach has composed a comedy of resentment and reconciliation that sports some of the most deeply considered characters and exceptional performances in his storied career so far.

Standout performer: Sandler has never been better or more heartbreaking as the impotently angry, lonely Danny.

Standout scene: A tribute to Harold Meyerowitz’s work and art receives a toast of unexpected emotion from Matthew.

16. “The Post” (directed by Steven Spielberg)

The third in an unofficial “civics trilogy” from the greatest American director — following 2012’s “Lincoln” and 2015’s “Bridge of Spies” — examines the role of the free press in standing up to a hostile and dishonest presidential administration. Sound timely? This is the story of The Washington Post’s role in publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a classified government study on the United States’ role in the Vietnam War, in 1971. Tom Hanks stars as Post editor Ben Bradlee, who wants to throw temperance out the window and publish the information; Meryl Streep stars as Post publisher Katharine Graham, already struggling to earn respect as a woman in a male-dominated industry, who is forced to consider the legal and financial implications of publication. Spielberg draws terrific performances from his two leads and his expansive ensemble cast in a tremendously thrilling companion piece to the classic “All the President’s Men” and a movie for the moment.

Standout performer: Streep gives a modulated and perfectly understated performance, yet another tremendous role in a long line of them.

Standout scene: In a tense phone call with multiple skeptics, Graham is finally forced to make a decision about publishing the classified information.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, featuring Nos. 15-1.

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