JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2017 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


2017 was a year where I didn't get to see as many movies as I usually would have, so I'm sure I'm missing a number of films that would have otherwise made it on my list. This was a strange mix of a year for me personally, where I had the most productive year personally for my own film work, and some of the biggest personal struggles I've ever gone through. But for the 15 films that made my top list, they were all film achievements that made a huge impact on me.

In a time where we continually find ourselves trying to find answers to endless cycles of horrible violence, there comes this film which presents just how messy and painful those situations can be. It comes in the form of one of the most unique film titles of the year and was for me the year's best film. Director and writer Martin McDonagh has created a stunning masterpiece not only of small town life, but about the nature of tragedy, pain, and retribution that is unlike any film in recent memory. Frances McDormand, who is incapable of ever giving a bad performance, is Mildred. In her continual frustration of the police in town never finding who killed her, she decides to pay to place messages on three billboards just outside of town to wake up Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and hopefully propel him to action. It didn't take long for this film to unfold when I knew we were in for something far different, a film that is more interested in examining the shades of character that we all have. It does so in a very moving scene where Mildred and Willoughby are arguing over the billboards and seemingly at such vicious odds with each other, when Willoughby coughs up blood because of his ever worsening cancer condition. Mildred, who has had nothing but seething disdain for Willoughby up until this time, doesn't hesitate to respond with compassion and concern. From that point on, every character in this film is presented in complex hues of good and bad behavior, including Mildred. One of the most fascinating characters to watch is Sam Rockwell's Dixon, who manages what few characters ever get to do in a film, morph from someone we despise into someone we can at least understand better. I absolutely adore films like this that challenge an audience's loyalty to characters, because that is real life, and even as McDonagh creates a few oddball scenes and characters, he still manages to present a composite of life in America in our current complicated times. Every time horrible violence is committed, most people are always looking for revenge. One of the best quotes in this film is "all this anger just begets more anger." Frances McDormand in particular is a revelation to watch as she struggles with just how far she is willing to go, and whether anything she tries will ever assuage the pain she's in. Every single turn in this film is authentic and often surprising, and it doesn't leave us with easy answers. Each act of retribution only seems to create more pain for others, more people in anger who want even more retribution. Is it the answer? Will we ever find our common humanity that can stop so much anger and violence? This film presents tiny moments of such humanity throughout, and each one that arrives touches the heart so incredibly deeply. It's an astonishing achievement, in a film which sounds like it might be incredibly heavy, but is also funny at times, sad ... all the emotions you could think of. It's our American humanity, on display in all its raw, ugly, beautiful nature. The greatest film of 2017.
When you first hear the concept of this film, it sounds intriguing. But then you hear that the character who becomes the ghost in the film appears in the old fashioned image of a ghost, in a white sheet with two big open circles for eyes. Then you doubt whether this film will work at all. But wait until you watch it. Director and writer David Lowery came up with an absolutely beautiful and haunting film that ended up leaving me with so many thoughts and ideas about the nature of existence, the afterlife, the concept of time, and the lasting nature of love. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play the very simply named couple in the film. When Affleck's character dies early on, he then becomes a ghost for all eternity, seemingly stuck in watching from his house how time passes. Now the usual concept might try to fashion a story that takes place over Rooney Mara's lifetime for example with some kind of love resolution by the end ... that's what I was expecting. But thankfully I was wrong. Affleck is not only stuck watching as the woman he loved falls in love again, but how new occupants enter his house, the house is demolished, new cityscapes are created in its place, and seemingly all over again until he's able to find his way to some other form of eternity. These sequences play out without any real concept of how many years we are looking at, but it's clear we are witnessing hundreds and hundreds of years, and in doing so, the film becomes such a moving and haunting examination of the nature of time itself. It gives you so many powerful ideas to contemplate, and it does so through the use of stunning visuals (including the haunting way that his ghost is able to communicate to a ghost stuck in another house through silence but subtitles on the screen, and also the choice to transport through time through hard cuts instead of slow dissolves), but particularly the musical score by Daniel Hart, which I thought was the year's best. It's a score so haunting and epic, elevating it to a completely different level. And how about the choice to film the movie in an old fashioned square image with round images? We don't get to see this kind of bold storytelling and originality on screen very much these days, but man when we do, we definitely can get some fascinating visions for sure. This is a film that I'll no doubt revisit again and again, and most likely discover new perceptions each time I see it.
When I first experienced Rian Johnson's next chapter in the continuing Skywalker saga of films, I was blown away both as a lifelong Star Wars fan and a moviegoer for the rousing entertainment it was from start to finish. I had been a huge fan of J.J. Abrams's update to the saga from a few years ago, "The Force Awakens", but it did follow several storytelling norms and didn't surprise me that much. But what a joy to experience the unknown thrills of a Star Wars film, one that delivered a wonderful mix of nostalgic moments, but also an incredibly intriguing continuation of the storyline of the new main characters, especially Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. Watching their story arc and performances was an absolute delight, constantly wondering about the dark and light sides of both these characters, and never quite knowing exactly where each will truly fall from one moment to the next. I also loved how much the Force was back and so prevalent throughout the film, something that I felt "Force Awakens" was missing. The mysticism of the Jedi and the Force took on all new dimensions in this film, presenting some incredibly new possibilities and ideas. And after that brief tease of seeing Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker at the end of the last film, we finally got to see what happened to Luke, and even with that, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Luke who has grown disenfranchised by the Jedi order as well as feeling the weight of how much he feels he failed in training the son of his sister Leia and Han Solo. I thought this portrayal of Luke was an absolutely wonderful choice, and really stayed true to the conflict within his character that we witnessed throughout the original trilogy, and how he never quite became the perfect Jedi. Hamill is really good in these moments. I also loved how Carrie Fisher's Leia was much more involved this time, and we saw a true Rebel leader that reminded me much more of the Leia I remember from the original trilogy. While not all moments played to their best effect (including a brief surprise appearance by Yoda and a Leia moment that was a little hard to believe), I still to this day do not understand how so many Star Wars fans turned on this movie so passionately. Very few movies, if any beyond Star Wars, have the ability to truly transport me into another world, and this one was able to do that in ways that "Force Awakens" wasn't even able to. Rian Johnson's bold choices in storytelling made this such an exciting adventure from start to finish, and because of those choices, has set up an Episode IX in a couple of years that I can't even begin to anticipate how it will go. Come on, Star Wars fans, this delivered it all! I know for me, it was what I always hoped for. Something fresh, new, exciting, unpredictable that gave our legendary characters a fascinating last go round while telling all new stories with fascinating characters that took this universe into far more interesting directions. Even the new supporting players this time, from a fascinating code breaker played by Benicio Del Toro who allowed us to see a glimpse into the universe that we really never saw before, where people actually made profit on war whether it was for the good or the bad, not caring who actually wins, only that the war goes on. I also loved Laura Dern's character, and how her relationship with Leia had a backstory that we didn't fully know about, but could clearly see in how they work together, and when Dern's character makes her last sacrifice to save the rebels, Rian Johnson's choice to have the universe go completely silent created a chill in the audience that I've never quite experienced in a Star Wars film. For those two and a half hours that made me feel like a kid again when I needed it the most (and for all the future times I'll be watching this one), my deepest thanks to Rian Johnson and all those expanding that universe that gave me such joy and inspired my imagination all the years I grew up.
Just when we thought we might have seen every possible World War II movie we ever could, one of our greatest living directors decided to create a true masterpiece of an addition to the genre. Centered around the harrowing true story of the Allied soldiers who were trapped at Dunkirk by German forces, the film, as crafted by one of the most accomplished technical directors ever, Christopher Nolan, tells this story by tracking three parallel storylines, each of which is fascinating and deeply involving leading up to the rousing conclusion. The three storylines also manage to present the various fronts that the war itself was fought on ... land, sea, and air. On the land, we see the soldiers who wait at Dunkirk, who have to try to survive each new bombardment as they basically remain sitting ducks. In the sea segment, we see a moving story of a father and his two sons, civilians, who decide on their own they need to do something to help the trapped men at Dunkirk when the larger ships cannot get there without being destroyed. It's fascinating to watch their struggle as they risk their lives to save others, particularly in the nobility that Mark Rylance brings to the role and how he remains true to his mission in the midst of ever increasing danger. The third story tells of the battle by air, containing a very subdued by powerful performance by Tom Hardy. Hans Zimmer's musical score is bombastic and deeply moving, as we watch all three storylines eventually converge. Beautiful cinematography and technical craft that we've come to expect from Nolan, but I also loved how involved I found myself in each of these stories and characters. Also in a departure for Nolan and recent war films also, it's an incredibly lean film, clocking in at only 106 minutes. Impeccably edited, shot, and executed, it's a proud addition to the genre, a film of great vision and intensity in an age when we get far too few directors possessing those qualities bringing us original films like this one.
I've said it for so many years, and I'll say it again. Aaron Sorkin is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, and I truly want him to script my life. After so many years of writing one great film and television production after another, he finally stepped into the directors chair and made an incredibly fascinating film, telling an incredibly true story about Molly Bloom, who was once an Olympic class skier who eventually would run the world's most exclusive high stakes poker game. Jessica Chastain gives an amazing performance as Molly, following her improbably journey and how she deals with the law eventually catching up with her. Sorkin not only is able to portray the world of high stakes poker with originality and style, but also manages to present a very personal story of Molly, and how her ambition leads her into being successful what she does, while also standing for what she believes in even under extraordinary circumstances when she faces the legal ramifications of what she got involved in. Chastain is supported by an incredible cast, including her lawyer Idris Elba, who straddles a line of his own and delivers a monologue later in the film which is extraordinary in its ability to not only remember the incredibly scripted dialogue by Sorkin, but to also make it so realistic that his character is actually delivering it. I also was so deeply moved by the relationship we see in this film between Molly and her father, played by Kevin Costner. Costner's father pushed her her entire life, but the flaws of his own character ended up putting a distance between him and his daughter, and when the two finally talk, it was one of the most emotionally moving scenes between a father and a daughter that I've seen on screen. It's a truly remarkable film.
Guillermo del Toro, always known for creating such worlds of beautiful visual fantasy on screen, created a masterpiece which also became one of the most oddly beautiful love stories of recent times. It also ended up becoming an ode to classic monster movies of the past, all meshed together to create something truly extraordinary. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a strange creature of unknown origin who is brought into containment to either be studied or destroyed. Sally Hawkins gives an extraordinary performance as Elisa, a cleaning woman at the facility who also happens to be mute, who has an instant fascination and concern for the creature. What happens next is definitely unexpected as these two find love, companionship, and acceptance with each other. Some have said it's a study in loneliness, and the film is definitely that as well, but it's far deeper than that too. One of the most moving moments in the film is when Elisa defends her love for this creature by saying how it sees her for who she truly is, beyond what makes her imperfect. This film has so much to say about the nature of love and how many people outside of it will judge and fail to understand it, but how little that truly matters when you find that one person, or in this case, creature, who TRULY sees you and loves you for who you are. Not for any other reason than who you truly are. This love story is supported by a wonderful supporting cast ... from Octavia Spencer's fellow cleaning woman Zelda who tries her very best to help while being nervous non-stop, to Michael Shannon's complex villain Richard Strickland who only sees an abomination of nature in the creature and wants it destroyed while truly being a monster himself ... to Michael Stuhlbarg's Dr. Robert Hoffstetler who truly wants to learn from this creature, and to Richard Jenkins's tender portrayal of Giles, the man who lives with Elisa and does everything he can to help. There's so many extraordinarily beautiful and surprising scenes in this film, in a story that doesn't have to bother with even explaining where this creature comes from, but to instead present the truths that love in its truest forms can never be understood or defined, but as long as it is by the two who truly love each other and see one another for who they are, that's all that matters. One of the most beautiful film scores of the year by Alexandre Desplat helps complete a film that is an absolute wonder and one you'll never forget.
As long as I've loved movies, I have always enjoyed behind the scenes stories and have learned so much by watching other filmmakers work. It's truly the best continuing education that there is for us as filmmakers. But this documentary that showed the behind the scenes madness of the making of the Milos Forman film "Man on the Moon" was far more than just a standard making of film. For years, I had never heard that Jim Carrey had decided to get SO deeply into character as Andy Kaufman that he decided to completely BE the reincarnation of Andy during the entire shooting of the film. So his every dealing with director, cast, and crew would be as Andy. And thanks to some remarkable footage that was shot behind the scenes that had never been seen before, we get a truly honest glimpse of how much Carrey pushed the limits with everyone for what he believed would make the film and his performance a success. This archival footage is surrounded by a brand new interview with Carrey, which can be a little over the top at times, but also very inspirational in other moments. Particularly in what he says about living one's truth, and how in making the decision he did to be Andy all through the making of the film, he pushed the limits no matter what people thought. And how many times, that's exactly what needs to happen to live our truths. The documentary also has much to examine about the nature of acting, and how deeply into character someone wants to and needs to go for a performance. It also is fascinating to watch how much he lost himself in the performance, how hard it was to come back to Jim Carrey after truly being Andy Kaufman for so long. That's something many actors experience when they get so deeply into some roles. Some will say Carrey went entirely too far and made the filmmaking process much more difficult than it needed to be. I see something different. I see a man who believed this was the best thing for the film, and did everything possible to make it happen. And look what resulted ... a truly great film and performance, and a documentary all these years later showing it all. That being said, I'm glad I wasn't Milos Forman trying to keep control of that set, lol.
It's very early on in this remarkable film, and a daughter and a mother are having a normal difficult conversation that most mothers and daughters have. All of a sudden, that daughter decides to open the door of the moving car and jump out. That's when I knew we were in for a far different coming of age story than ones we had seen before. And I should have known it anyway, knowing that Greta Gerwig would be at the helm with her directorial debut. I had the privilege of meeting Greta Gerwig many years ago at our local film festival when she was still an aspiring actress, and I so loved how different her roles were, and I am so overjoyed to have seen her career rise like it has and for her to have directed one of the truly great coming of age films ever made. Saoirse Ronan, who has been delivering one great performance after another in her young career, gives a career best here, playing the uniquely named Lady Bird McPherson. The film actually takes place in 2002, detailing the struggles of growing up for Lady Bird in Sacramento, California. Laurie Metcalf gives one of the best performances of the year as her Mom, and I was so blown away by the complexity portrayed in their relationship, unlike a mother-daughter relationship I've seen portrayed on screen. There's such an amazing realism to this portrayal that brings it to a much higher level, even though the themes of growing up we've seen explored many times before. Gerwig brings such a freshness and authenticity to the characters, and particularly in portraying the honesty of female adolescence. It doesn't hit one false note in that journey, with real pathos, humor, and the wonder and possibility and confusion that comes with growing into an adult. It's an absolutely beautiful film.
In our era now where we have been seeing sequels to so many of the movies my generation grew up with, one of the most daunting challenges had to be a sequel to one of the most beautifully haunting futuristic movies ever made, the original "Blade Runner" from 1982. But one of our greatest rising directors already known for his mastery of visual poetry on screen, Denis Villeneuve, took on the task, and created a film that not only seems a natural extension of the universe from so long ago, but also a science fiction film that stands on its own, examining so many fascinating ideas about the nature of humanity and the advancements of the future. Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances as the lead this time, playing K, a new generation of BladeRunner that is still going around trying to find replicants. Although in this case, there's also a long buried secret that he is tracking down, which ultimately leads him to Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, now in exile in a wasteland where Las Vegas used to be. Ford has been cycling through updates of all his most well known characters in recent years, but gives his most deeply nuanced and touching performance in a long time. I loved how this film defied our expectations, and managed to meet our expectations for a sequel while also stepping out in brand new ways. There was never any real way to fully capture that world that Ridley Scott first imagined in 1982, but this one comes pretty close. There's no unique Vangelis score this time, but Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer also manage to do what the film does ... evoke moments from that great score and strike out on their own as well with a bombastic and moving symphony. There were ideas and images that stayed with me for weeks after I saw this film. That's also very much due to the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was the perfect choice to give us what we most needed from a BladeRunner sequel ... that incredible atmosphere.
I've never been a huge fan of the horror film genre, so I tend to avoid most of those films because they only end up specializing in mindless gore that holds no interest for me. So when it first came out, this film didn't register on my radar until awards season began and everyone was talking about it. Thank goodness I finally heard that excitement about the film and gave it a chance, as it is truly one of the best films of the year. First time director Jordan Peele did such an amazing job of not only crafting a perfectly detailed thriller that truly surprises and shocks as it goes on, but also manages to touch on important topics of race, creating the rare kind of horror/thriller that we don't often see. His cast is all at the top of their game, especially in how we identify so much with Daniel Kaluuya's Chris Washington, and how we accept what is happening just as he does. There's such a realism and authenticity to Daniel's performance, as well as such deep emotion, that I'm so very glad it's getting noticed like it is, including an Oscar nomination. Unlike most standard horror fare where it never makes sense how people react, Chris's reactions all seem authentic, and once the truth is revealed, it's a surprise as horrifying to Chris as it is to the audience. Beautifully shot, expertly paced, and powerfully acted, it's a film that truly transcends its genre and becomes something really remarkable. And remind me to never sit in front of someone with a tea cup and spoon ... no Sunken Place for me please.

And the next five:

One thing's for sure ... there's no director these days quite like Paul Thomas Anderson. A bold director whose films always surprise, Anderson delivered yet another movie that had me puzzled at first, but then thinking much more deeply after the film was over. Oh how I wish we had more directors creating original visions like this. And who knows ... right now it's #11 on my list, but years from now it may be a film that takes on deeper meanings and ends up becoming an even higher favorite. I had no idea what to expect from this movie and where it might go. And I certainly could have NEVER predicted where it did ultimately go. In what is supposed to be Daniel Day-Lewis's final screen performance (man I sure hope that doesn't remain true), he delivers another nuanced and completely lived-in performance as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker who has a demand for routine and life to be the way he wants it that crosses so many extremes. In pushing away one woman after another, he finally meets his match (perhaps?) in Vicky Krieps's Alma, who tries so hard to make a life and a relationship with Reynolds against increasingly painstaking odds, and the very strange constant companion of Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. It's a dynamic that is absolutely fascinating to watch play out, and you keep wondering what the point will be and where the story will lead you, and trust me, you WILL be surprised. I can't wait for repeat viewings to more fully analyze this film, and how Anderson creates an unexpected allegory on relationships and how each one finds its ways of working ... as bizarre as it may seem to everyone else on the outside.

Finally! The DC Comics finally delivered a movie that not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them. And it came from a character who filmmakers struggled for years to figure out how to make a successful movie out of. It came from the combination of an accomplished director with vision, Patty Jenkins, and the perfect casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. After having already introduced the character in the disappointing "Batman vs. Superman" movie, Wonder Woman's origin story was told in this beautiful and riveting film. It took on a completely different tone than the disappointing films in the DC Universe so far, and created such an enjoyable superhero origin story that was such a delight. The film is inspiring and compassionate in ways I didn't expect, and contained one of my favorite sequences of the year, when she emerges across a World War I battlefield deflecting bullets right and left. If only the rest of the DC Universe movies could follow this film's example, it could perhaps do as well as Marvel's universe. And from a kid who grew up on DC Comics more than Marvel, I'd certainly be happy seeing that.

I first had to admire what a model of efficiency this film was. Steven Spielberg hadn't even planned on having this project, but started on it around April and had it filmed and completed by the end of the year. The film itself is also very efficient as evidence of a quick production schedule, without a lot of the usual Spielberg flourishes that populate his other films. He simply lets the story unfold, and thankfully, it's an incredibly timely story even though it details the true story of events from nearly 50 years ago. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep do admirable if not exceptional jobs portraying Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham, the editor and the owner respectively of The Washington Post. Before they would become infamous for their work on the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency, the Post was involved in another controversy that threatened to destroy the paper. In deciding whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers that revealed so many secrets about the Vietnam War, the workers at the Post face the battle of what is news and what can happen if a free press is not allowed to provide checks and balances on even the highest office in the land. While the film is a throwback to a type of film we don't often see anymore, I also loved how it portrayed the connection that newspaper people had with those in power back in those days, and how they had to face their own struggles in separating the need to report the news and potentially taking down the very people they know as friends. Spielberg also made a brilliant choice in not having an actor portray Nixon, but showed us Nixon throw the windows of the White House as actual audio from Nixon's tapes is played as the battle ensued between the administration and the press to publish these secrets. Even though we knew the outcome, the film stays tight throughout, and it becomes a film that contains a very important lesson that we definitely must not forget in our current political climate.

Sometimes, the performances in a film can be so exceptional, that they are able to transcend the weaknesses in story to truly become something remarkable. Such was the case with Luca Guadagnino's film that brought out incredibly nuanced and emotional performances by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, detailing the story of their romance in northern Italy in 1983. The pacing of the story is slow, but the performances pull you through, especially to see all the different layers of these two slowly being peeled away as they deal with their relationship and having to keep it hidden. All concluded with a remarkable scene with Michael Stuhlbarg which elevates the film even more. Gorgeous scenery shot so beautifully, truly moving performances, and a rare entry in films about relationships that truly present them as they should be shown.

As someone who has followed Steven Spielberg's films all my life (and practically grew up on them), I thought I knew pretty much everything about him. He was the director who inspired me to be a film director when I was 10 years old, so I was fascinated to learn even more about his process and career through this remarkable documentary. It's a rich treasure trove of film memories, and it's amazing to think just how productive he has been, and how many truly exceptional films he has made. The documentary is so wonderful in hearing about his process through so many of his films, but I was struck by learning about the recurring themes in his movies that come from his personal life, and how he managed to explore those personal themes while still making extremely popular entertainment. How can you love movies and not love this documentary?