It’s like clockwork when you cover the motion picture business. The beginning of a new year inevitably brings … one or more lists of the previous year’s best movies. So without further ado, here are the 2017 English language live-action films I found to be the most accomplished, satisfying, or entertaining, plus a few more relevant lists of worthy features. All are in alphabetical order because I appreciate each of them equally, albeit for different reasons.
Edgar Wright, the filmmaker behind the genre parodies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, leans on his mastery of the music video to make a rollicking, rhythmic heist-comedy about the intrepid young wheel man (Ansel Elgort) for a gang of thieves, which boasts a couple of tough guys portrayed by Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx. Our hero wants out so he can be with his dream girl (Lily James), but they keep pulling him back in. With careening car chases, criminal high jinks, romance, and a rockin’ soundtrack wedded to the visuals — what’s not to like?
Anne Hathaway stars in this thoroughly original sci-fi fantasy, spiced with action and comedy, as a feckless woman who somehow inadvertently controls the physical acts of a giant monster in a South Korean city thousands of miles away. Her slightest movements can destroy skyscrapers and stomp innocent people to death, and she just happens to be dealing with some serious psychological issues. Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens play the two less-than-ideal men in her life. It’s a crazy concept, but it genuinely pays off.
Disappearing under the most realistic prosthetic makeup I’ve ever seen depict any historical figure, Gary Oldman delivers a career peak performance as embattled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in and out of the public eye during the opening days of World War II. The private scenes between Churchill and his wife, Clementine (Kristen Scott Thomas), as well as those between the newly anointed prime minister and King George (Ben Mendelsohn), are as potent as the raucous sessions in Parliament.
While it covers some of the same circumstances as Darkest Hour, director Christopher Nolan has achieved a sprawling, immersive recreation of the harrowing situation that befell the Allies on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. With a top-grade ensemble cast led by Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, Nolan deftly follows the story on land, on the sea, and in the air.
In a startling and accomplished debut as a screenwriter and director, Jordan Peele (one-half of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele) uses the horror movie genre to make a scary, wickedly droll film about racism. Daniel Kaluuya has a star-making turn here as a young black man whose white girlfriend (Allison Williams) brings him to meet her well-to-do parents (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener) with truly disturbing results.
Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson plays Constantine, the older of two hapless New York City brothers who botch a bank robbery, and it’s his best onscreen work to date. When his mentally challenged younger brother, Nick, is captured, Constantine vows to free him despite the cops in hot pursuit. This gritty, witty update of classic Mean Streets-era Martin Scorsese comes from the fraternal writing-and-directing team of Joshua and Ben Safdie.
Margot Robbie may be too beautiful to play the ill-fated working-class Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, but that doesn’t stop her from nailing the role in this sharp, tragicomic look at the background, initiation, and aftermath of the notorious 1994 assault on Harding’s skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. There’s award-worthy supporting work by Allison Janney as Harding’s vile mother and Sebastian Stan as Harding’s conniving husband Jeff Gillooly.
More than a mere coming-of-age movie, actress Greta Gerwig’s first shot at directing a movie on her own is also a painfully honest look at mother-daughter relations, high-school social orders, and middle-class life in Sacramento, Calif., during the early 2000s. The beating heart of the project is young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, brilliant as the fictionalized version of Gerwig in the director’s somewhat autobiographical script.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The West Wing), the true story of Molly Bloom (a compelling Jessica Chastain) is an outrageous thrill ride into the shadow world of high-stakes gambling. Bloom’s career as a competitive skier is derailed by injury, and via unexpected career twists, she ends up overseeing a series of private poker games with pro card sharks, celebrities, and mobsters, earning big bucks and attracting the attention of the FBI. Idris Elba as Bloom’s lawyer and Kevin Costner as her dad up the ante.
A well-wrought, superbly acted, and painful history lesson from director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees addresses the pervasive, crippling economic and class divisions, and racial strife that still plagued the rural South during the 1940s as World War II was being fought and in the subsequent peacetime when two men — one white, one black — return from the war to work on a farm in rural Mississippi. The stellar cast includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige, all of whom excel.
Daniel Day-Lewis is astonishing as Reynolds Woodcock, a tightly wound, elegant, and acclaimed fashion designer in early 1950s London. Woodcock’s symbiotic relationship to his sister (a superb Lesley Manville) is jeopardized when he discovers his muse, a long-limbed beauty (Vicky Krieps) whose love for him plays quiet havoc with his regimented life. This is also a reunion between Day-Lewis and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson who previously teamed on There Will Be Blood.
‘THE BIG SICK’
Call it a docu-rom-com or just call it a charmer. Either way, this movie is a treat that dramatizes how Pakistan-born comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) actually met and fell in love with Emily, the American graduate student who would become his wife, and the way their love was tested by cultural differences and a debilitating illness. Costarring Nanjiani as himself, the winsome Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents, with a script from Nanjiani and his significant other, Emily Gordon.
‘THE SHAPE OF WATER’
What if the cheesy ’50s monster movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon were a reciprocal love story between the creature and the damsel he pursues? Guillermo del Toro delivers something close to that concept with his exciting, heartbreaking, and visually stunning fable set during the cold war in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman at a secret U.S. lab facility who stumbles upon and connects with a captive amphibious creature (Doug Jones) with astonishing powers, infuriating a sinister government agent (Michael Shannon). The results are thrilling.
‘THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI’
With its mix of deep and unique characters, mordant humor, and shockingly violent moments, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s investigation into small-town tragedy, mores, and politics showcases costars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell at their best.
Mildred (McDormand) is so disgusted with the inability of the local police to solve her daughter’s murder that she rents three billboards on the edge of town and uses them to shame the cops for failing to solve the case. And trouble ensues in this pointed, unflinching, and zesty effort.
There’s a long history of urban film noir — crime dramas set in the dimly lit corners of a big city. This, though, is a wilderness noir as an area game tracker (Jeremy Rennert) must tread lightly when he is teamed with a novice female FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve the murder of a young woman on a snow-swept American Indian reservation, home to the tracker’s ex-wife. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who authored the script for Sicario.
This World War I period piece is part of the same DC Comics’s cinematic universe that’s produced a series of heavy-handed superhero bummers, but its introduction of the amazing Amazon warrior Diana — overseen by Oscar-winning director Patty Jenkins — is truly superior to the rest. Israeli actress Gal Gadot embodies the strong, charismatic, and compassionate superheroine, and Chris Pine is her undaunted leading man, American soldier Steve Trevor.
You get social commentary, humorous moments, and loads of heart amid the battles as Wonder Woman tries to bring a message of peace to the warmongers.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE MOVIES
In the Fade
The Divine Order
Call Me by Your Name
I, Daniel Blake
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Fall of a New York Fixer
The Disaster Artist
The Florida Project
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes
My Life As a Zucchini