Andy Ray’s Ten Best Films of 2017
2017 was quite a year for Hollywood. It was the year that gave us “Lucky,” “Logan,” and “Logan Lucky.” It gave us “Wonder” and “Wonderstruck.” We were also treated to films named “LBJ” and “Lady Bird,” which had absolutely nothing to do with one another. And as you might expect, I’ve found ten pictures which rise above the others.
- Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan doubled as first-time director for the murder mystery “Wind River.” As with the Texas oil glut in his 2016 film “Hell or High Water,” the plight of Native Americans is the underlying theme which sets in motion all the action of “Wind River,” a gripping story which never lets us forget the conditions and effects of our reservation system.
- Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” brilliantly recreated racial tensions during the 1960s, and this film culminated with the harrowing Algiers Motel Incident, in which white cops mentally and physically abused a group of African-American motel guests. Will Poulter gave one of the year’s most chilling performances as the leader of the police detail. Even though most of us are familiar with the story, “Detroit” had us on the edges of our seats throughout.
- Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke were brilliant in “Maudie,” a biography of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, who suffered from lifelong arthritis. Never mannered or maudlin, Hawkins’ depiction is so businesslike we never forget her affliction even as we root for her art career. This is the best performance of the year by an actress.
- Sally Hawkins turns in another stellar performance in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” the story of a mysterious South American sea creature brought to an aerospace research center in the early 1960s. Hawkins is a mute cleaning lady who develops a fondness for the humanoid beast, even as the facility’s hard-nosed leader is intent on harvesting its body for space exploration. Michael Shannon turns in another brilliant acting achievement as the evil, no-nonsense boss, a truly unforgettable character. Except for the very ending, I loved “The Shape of Water.”
- Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick” stars Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani as a Pakistani comedian who falls in love with a girl who becomes ill and must be placed in an induced coma for an indeterminate length of time. Exploring cultural and racial differences, “The Big Sick” also happens to be the funniest picture I’ve seen since “Little Miss Sunshine.” Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are hilarious as the sick girl’s parents. As their relationship with Nanjiani evolves, “The Big Sick” becomes increasingly engrossing.
- “Ingrid Goes West” was promoted as a light comedy about Instagram obsession, but it was actually a very heavy dark comedy about obsession and the desire to belong. While parts of this film are funny, other parts can be difficult to watch as Ingrid crosses societal boundaries in her effort to simply fit in. Aubrey Plaza is dazzling as the protagonist, who may be smarter than any of us realize, but is constantly hindered by a skewed sense of judgement. This is the year’s most thought-provoking film.
- “Molly’s Game” plays out like a Martin Scorsese film, as it follows the career trajectory of former Olympic skier Molly Bloom who ran one of the most legendary high-stakes poker rings in recent history. Jessica Chastain gives the best performance of her career as the strong-willed genius, whose banter with her attorney (Idris Elba) is nothing short of amazing. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is like “Moonlighting” on steroids, and the tension builds like “GoodFellas” or “Casino.” This is the year’s best mainstream picture.
- Actress Greta Gerwig proved herself adept behind the camera too with “Lady Bird,” which traces the senior year of a rebellious teen and the difficult relationship with her demanding mother. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf shine in this entertaining and very moving story, featuring boyfriends, school musicals, and the desire to hang out with the cool girls. Nothing is what is seems in Gerwig’s original screenplay, which always manages to remain one step ahead of us. As with “Molly’s Game,” the dialogue is smart and witty.
- Irish playwright Martin McDonagh out-Coened the Coen brothers with his intelligent, clever, and eerie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which tells the tale of a grieving and bitter mother’s attempt to focus the local police department on the mysterious rape and murder of her daughter. Frances McDormand gives us her best work since “Fargo,” and Sam Rockwell is spellbinding as the town’s hotheaded racist cop. Dwarf actor Peter Dinklage is great in his small role as a used car salesman who has a thing for McDormand’s character. There’s a lot going on here, but “Three Billboards” is never difficult to follow. Quirky and rich with plot twists, this is the “Hell or High Water” of 2017.
- Young newcomer Brooklynn Kimberly Prince radiates childhood confidence in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” an exploration of the lives of those who live in rundown motels, and try to find work wherever they can even though they possess no marketable skills. But “The Florida Project” is no downer. This is an exciting and fun romp through the daily lives of a small group of kids determined to find adventure in everything they do. Willem Dafoe has never been better as the motel manager and all-around handyman, who feels a sense of protection over his lodgers while intent on keeping mischief at bay. There’s never been another film quite like “The Florida Project,” and its pure uniqueness plays into its overarching theme of social criticism. The irony of the motel’s proximity to Disney World is never lost on viewers, and the film’s final shot is mesmerizing. While I loved “Three Billboards,” “The Florida Project” is the year’s best picture.