We pretty much knew last year’s Best Picture Oscars race was coming down to La La Land and Moonlight right after the completion of the Toronto International Film Festival in September. But while there’s something to be said about the strength of films able to ascend to frontrunner position, I can’t help loving the idea of heading into March without a clue as to who might win. Ask ten different critics what their favorite of 2017 is and I’d estimate hearing at least eight unique titles. There’s a level of excitement to this reality that we frankly haven’t had in quite some time. It’s anyone’s game.
Unlike past years where the safe nominees were lacking that sense of out-of-nowhere creativity and pathos beyond tried-and-true molds, 2017’s field is inspiring in its diversity. And those twenty or so films with a real chance at a nomination are legitimately good. I remember there being years where my top ten was devoid of even one true Oscar contender and now I could feasibly see five or more of the following fifteen films making it to the show.
There are seasoned veterans, debuting newcomers, genre flicks, female-led narratives, LGBT-led narratives, women directors, and POC directors all worthy of inclusion. Whether or not the ones that do get honored ultimately reflect this deep talent pool, know that many will stand the test of time as modern classics regardless. Molds are being broken and audiences are gradually embracing the new voices leading the charge. It’s been a true joy to both watch it happen and remain optimistic it will continue from here.
Notable films I sadly missed: Phantom Thread, Foxtrot, Song to Song, My Happy Family, All the Money in the World, God’s Own Country, Loveless
10. Thelma (Joachim Trier)
Joachim Trier delivers one of the most startlingly bleak openings in recent memory as Thelma‘s glimpse at difficult revelations yet to come tightens its vice-like grip. While the resulting coming-of-age tale proves supernatural in aesthetic, its resonant look at an adolescent breaking free of prejudiced constraints contains universally authentic themes. Nature and nurture collide as the power of embracing one’s own identity potently defeats the suppression through conformity ideal forced upon them. Whether a result of religion, race, gender, or sexuality, society will imprison psychologically with fear and hate. To realize you’re not the cancer in your own life is to therefore render those prisons into chrysalises and augment your escape with the strength to change the world.
9. Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)
You may not peg Todd Haynes as a children’s film director—and the box office shows few parents did—but Wonderstruck quickly reveals itself as a perfect vehicle for the auteur. This adaptation of Brian Selznick’s Scholastic book is ultimately a culmination of Haynes’ career with formal eccentricity (two-thirds is a silent film), period aesthetic (half takes place in the 20s and half the 70s), and a stop-motion animated sequence depicting flashbacks. It’s about family and identity, history and “the movies.” Bring your kids to ease them into silent era classics and stay for its parallel, heartfelt (and fantastical) adventures towards independence, inclusion, and closure.
8. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion spans decades and yet feels less like an Emily Dickinson biopic than a portrait for gallery exhibit. Its series of personal vignettes is accompanied by her poetry, each glimpse packed with emotion, intelligence, and a hint of despair. The visuals are beautiful period reenactment lit with delicate drama, the performances deeply human and complex despite their aristocratic machinations. Davies paints Dickinson with a brush of honesty—a virtue her character holds above all others, a vice turning her coldly pessimistic as the world outside her physical and psychological exile of home becomes ruled by selfishness. And Cynthia Nixon shines with regality, wit, and authenticity, fearlessly portraying this legend’s faults as equally important to her strengths.
7. It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults)
There’s nothing scarier than mankind’s potential to destroy itself. This is the message behind Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night—an intelligent slow burn of a post-apocalyptic thriller revealing how a high-concept danger lurking outside is never more potent than the monster lying within. Fear makes us unpredictable as survival hardens us beyond repair. You can live knowing death waits because life itself must be stifled to prolong that fate. Hope is therefore a weapon that softens vigilance, dismantles trust, and makes way for an evil we barely hold at bay. Life can become a gift we no longer deserve to keep.
6. Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
As gorgeous as any period film, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is also ten times more brutal. Gone are ballroom dances and awkward smiles of growing love because there’s no need to dress up an era of overt patriarchy and human property with romanticism. He provides reality’s harshness instead through the empowerment of a woman wresting back her freedom before inevitably seeing her position as victim corrupted into one of oppressor. It’s a chillingly bold depiction of souls weighed by a system erected by men rather than Gods. Innocence is lost to darkness as an unforgettable performance from Florence Pugh psychologically scars us in its drama like few horror films ever could.
5. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Fans of Key & Peele know Jordan Peele as a thinking man’s comedian who alongside Keegan-Michael Key wielded sketch comedy as a vessel for social commentary. It was therefore only logical that Get Out would build upon this complex approach to genre by utilizing tropes as psychological posturing rather than endgame scares. He’s pilfered horror to present a prescient science fiction via socio-political thriller begging for multiple viewings rather than fatigue. The script is tightly wound with expert narrative precision, flair for humor, and fearless metaphorical awareness of our country’s racial appropriation and prejudice. But it’s also visually decisive and inventively polished with a star-making turn from Daniel Kaluuya that instantly vaults he and Peele to A-list status.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
There’s a reason Martin McDonagh can write a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri despite being a British playwright: he’s not writing America. He’s writing mankind circa 2017 through America. We are the angry townspeople screaming. We’re the posturing cowards who don’t actually care enough to act until our lives are affected. Anger begets more anger because we’ve lost the ability to answer it with anything else. There’s no redemption here. No vengeance. McDonagh’s damning treatise on twenty-first century rhetoric’s rejection of responsibility is the blood spewed rage we wield to combat the numbing guilt and hopeless despair consuming us whole.
3. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagnino Call Me By Your Name is a love story unafraid to highlight the suffering love stories contain. Love itself can only live up to its name if its absence rips your heart out to the point of numbing you from ever risking such pure emotion again. The film speaks in its silence and impacts through stolen glances with two magnificent leads dabbling in as much vulnerability as arrogance—Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are unforgettable. They transcend sexuality with universal magnetism and truth regardless of how brief this indelible six weeks together proves. They let love rule above sense, the present above the future. No one should ever deny his/her heart life.
2. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
Who wouldn’t be skeptical after hearing Dunkirk clocked a breezy 104-minutes despite its war epic pedigree? Christopher Nolan hadn’t directed a film under two-hours since 2002’s Insomnia so the announcement coupled with an over-saturated marketing blitz rightfully gave pause. But my worry was unfounded as the effortless orchestration of its visual and narrative complexity proved one of 2017’s most exhilarating theatrical experiences.
This triptych of land, sea, and air converging off the shores of France moves in a way that renders its drama heavy with melancholy in the moment and filled with electrified optimism afterwards as each thread bleeds into the others. We witness the selfless heroism of common citizens rallied by Churchill’s call to arms, desperate soldiers sacrificing morality for survival, and the futility of war in scared boys’ eyes seemingly prolonging an inevitability. The cast is impeccable; the story beats operatic with tightly wound suspense as galvanized victory rises from catastrophic defeat.
1. Mudbound (Dee Rees)
Someone told me Dee Rees’ gorgeous and profound Mudbound reminded him how crazy it is to think people treated others that way so close to his lifetime. He acknowledged the story’s historical significance while ignoring its mirrored glimpse at the present. This inherent naiveté reveals the film’s importance. At a time when Americans abuse patriotism as a weapon to divide, this blindness to what’s currently happening to minority populations only grows. Rees shows racism dissolving via empathy while the machismo of insecure men replenishes its fire to solidify oppression-rooted power. We watch humility save lives and privilege wrongly justify horror.
Its brotherhood of men message transcends its “us versus them” narrative, exposing how blood is a symptom rather than cure. Enlightenment and salvation therefore arrive from escape—in recognizing your life as more than what’s in your veins. Greed moves beyond economics towards the psychological belief that your life matters more than a stranger, forgetting there’s a good chance a stranger will save it. Be that stranger because burying the past doesn’t negate today’s crucial battle.
Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017