Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2017

A countdown of the best films of the year, including David Lowery's A Ghost Story, Damien Chazelle's La La Land and Barry Jenkins' Moonlight.

Well, another year in film has come and gone and it’s time once again to count down the best cinema has had to offer over the past 12 months. As ever, most of the awards season frontrunners like Lady Bird, The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri have yet to make it to UK shores but regardless, 2017 has been a particularly strong year for film. From the awards season heavy hitters to the summer tentpole movies, the mid budget studio offerings and the little indies, it has been a varied, surprising and fascinating year with a deep bench of quality films to pull from.

The usual criteria for this list applies: all of the films have been released in the UK in 2017, so old films I caught up with, advanced previews of new films or festival screenings of films not out yet weren’t considered. A lot of great films missed out – my ‘shortlist’ is around 60 titles long and cutting it down was hard – but these 20 films were the cream of the crop, at least for me. If there’s any picks you agree or disagree with, let me know in the comments below, but for now, the top 20 of films of 2017 are…

20. T2 Trainspotting

Rather than leaning on nostalgia for this follow-up to his 90s classic, Danny Boyle examines and reflects on it, making it a central theme of this funny and poignant tale of revenge, regret and middle-aged disappointment.

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19. Blade Runner 2049

Belated sequels don’t often come as good as Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the classic sci-fi Blade Runner, and very few manage to expand on the themes of the original in such a way. Gloriously shot by Roger Deakins, the film further explains what it means to be alive through an ambiguous and compelling mystery plot.

18. Elle

Master provocateur Paul Verhoeven was back to his button-pushing best with this deeply unsettling yet wildly entertaining rape-revenge thriller that defies easy categorization, proving equal parts twisted and laugh-out-loud funny, with a chillingly brilliant performance from the incomparable Isabelle Huppert.

17. Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s elegantly structured, ticking clock World War II thriller is the director’s leanest, tightest film in over a decade, seamlessly weaving together three overlapping stories to give a thrilling and mournful portrayal of the Dunkirk evacuation.

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16. Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give towering performances as a working class couple in 1950s Pittsburgh in this adaptation of August Wilson’s beautifully textured Pulitzer-winning play about race, class, relationships, sacrifice and everything in between.

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15. Colossal

Nacho Vigalondo’s genre-bending dark comedy is a sharp, funny and ambitious examination of fragile masculinity and a take-down of the ‘nice guy’ who can turn on a dime the second his ego is bruised. That it also sees Anne Hathaway’s thirty-something slacker inadvertently controlling a giant Kaiju in Seoul is a bonus.

14. A Monster Calls

JA Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s novel about a boy dealing with the impending loss of his mother by escaping to a fantasy world with a giant tree is a film aching with pain, anger, sadness and grief, and is a painfully accurate depiction of the inner conflict that’s felt when a loved one is dying.

13. The Handmaiden

This saucy, sapphic thriller from South Korean master Park Chan-wook is an intricately plotted delight, mixing the vaguely pornographic material with romance, dark comedy and Park’s uniquely grotesque style to craft a mesmerizing thriller that truly no other filmmaker could have made.

12. The Disaster Artist

James Franco directs and stars as enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau in this riotously crowd-pleasing depiction of the making of Wiseau’s cult classic The Room. Franco clearly has respect for Wiseau’s unfaltering ambition and as such, this film plays like a tragically funny ode to male friendship, ambition and glorious failure.

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11. The Meyerowitz Stories

Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and especially Adam Sandler deliver their best performances in years as a fractured New York family in Noah Baumbach’s latest. A spiritual sequel to The Squid and the Whale by way of The Royal Tenenbaums, this comedy drama is Baumbach at his best: funny, touching and spiky, full of genuine heart and humanity.

10. Get Out

Comedian Jordan Peele made one of the most confident and assured directorial debuts of recent memory with this Twilight Zone-esque slice of social satire, taking aim at white liberal racism in a funny and whip-smart examination of the contemporary black experience and all of the anxieties that entails.

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09. Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s oddball German comedy is both delightfully silly and often strangely profound in its depiction of the unconventional relationship between a relentless prankster and his career-driven daughter. Ade brilliantly captures the melancholy of time passed and connections diminished with a stunning performance from Sandra Huller at the film’s centre.

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08. The Big Sick

Mixing a steady stream of laughs with a so-crazy-it-must-be-true, girlfriend in a coma premise, Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani broke into movies in a big way with this charming, moving and insightful romantic comedy about the early days of his relationship with now-wife Emily V Gordon. With observations about the immigrant experience and middle-aged marriage layered in, this is far from your average romantic comedy.

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07. The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker’s follow-up to his breakout Tangerine is a similarly empathetic, non-judgmental portrait of life on the margins of society, this time focusing on life in an extended-stay motel in Florida. The largely unknown cast, augmented by a wonderful Willem Dafoe, lend this story of human spirit and resilience in the face of adversity an authenticity and vibrancy that brings this powerful film to life.

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06. 20th Century Women

Mike Mills’ lovely 2011 film Beginners told the semi-autobiographical story of his father; his follow-up 20th Century Women is an ode to his mother. Annette Bening is fantastic as a single mother in the 70s struggling to bridge the ever-growing generational chasm between herself and her teenage son, whose discovery of girls, romance, music and art only pulls him further away. Mills’ poignant film plays like a hazy, sun-dappled memory, recalled with warmth and wit and humanity.

05. Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous depiction of one teenage boy’s coming of age over a long, woozy summer in Northern Italy beautifully captures the soaring highs and crushing lows of first love. Though the setting is hardly relatable – a heightened world of rich, sun-kissed academics – the complicated, conflicting emotions are played with startling honesty and heart as the teenage lead Timothee Chalamat dances around older man Armie Hammer as their mutual attraction grows so strong it can no longer be denied. Hammer is excellent but Chalamat is even better, delivering one of the year’s best performances in a film that gradually accumulates so much power that the final scene is a knockout.

04. Manchester By the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a devastating exploration of guilt and grief that quietly immerses you in its sadness and melancholy as it invites you to share the pain of its deeply damaged characters, headed up by an Oscar-winning Casey Affleck. Affleck is quietly heart-breaking as a Boston handyman whose struggle to overcome a personal tragedy is complicated when he’s asked to take care of his late brother’s teenage son. Despite the subject matter, Lonergan manages to capture the highs and lows of daily life, finding moments of humor and levity amid the anguish, which only makes this portrait of pain and loss all the more affecting.

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03. La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s sumptuous modern musical encapsulates the magic of cinema, paying homage to Vincente Minelli and Jacques Demy en route to becoming a contemporary classic in its own right. With a handful of catchy tunes and beautifully rendered musical numbers, Chazelle’s film is lively and technically dazzling but beneath the beautiful colours and charming stars (Ryan Gosling and Oscar-winner Emma Stone on top form), there’s a bittersweet story of the clash between finding love and achieving your dreams, with the swooning romance making way for something deeper and more melancholic.

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02. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture-winner tells the story of a young, black, gay man in Miami at three crucial points in his life, split into distinct chapter that come together to form one stunning, achingly beautiful whole. Jenkins presents a setting and characters that we think we know all about but goes in a different direction at every opportunity, crafting an unexpected, intimate, humane and poetic exploration of identity, masculinity, race and sexuality.

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01. A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s slow. It’s difficult. There’s barely any dialogue. Nothing ‘happens’. But if you get on its wavelength, it is a haunting and deeply affecting film about life, love, loss, loneliness, longing, death, grief, time, legacy and so much more. The thought of Casey Affleck playing a ghost under a heavy bedsheet and haunting his widow (Rooney Mara) sounds farcical, but Lowery conjures up such a poignant, melancholy mood throughout that it never slips into comical, instead leaving a mark so strong that it stay with you long after the credits roll. This is a film that defies easy explanation and certainly can’t be categorized in any conventional way; it’s both a small, simple story and a wildly ambitious, all-encompassing one that covers the whole painful experience of human existence, with Lowery turning an experimental goof into a minimalist masterpiece.

Honourable Mentions

I mentioned before the countdown that there were a number of great titles that I just couldn’t fit into the top 20, so this list of honourable mentions might be quite extensive. Some of the titles that missed out include: Pablo Larrain’s quietly devastating Jackie, which features a knockout performance from Natalie Portman; Geremy Gaspar’s joyously raw underdog rap drama Patti Cake$; Cate Shortland’s unbearably tense abduction thriller Berlin Syndrome; Jorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a typically weird and darkly funny take on the Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis; and Rebecca Hall gave one of the year’s best lead performances as doomed newsreader Christine Chubbuck in Antonio Campos’ Christine.

Other highlights include James Gunn’s comic book comedy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Edgar Wright’s inventive musical Baby Driver, Darren Aronofsky’s daring drama mother!, Olivier Assayas’s compelling ghost story Personal Shopper, Julia Ducourneau’s sickly cannibal horror Raw, Keith Maitland’s formally inventive and moving documentary Tower, Paul King’s delightful family sequel Paddington 2, Matt Spicer’s cautionary tale of Insta-fame Ingrid Goes West, Sofia Coppolla’s dreamy remake of The Beguiled, Kristen Johnson’s personal memoir Cameraperson, Dave McCary’s sweet oddity Brigsby Bear and S. Craig Zahler’s startlingly violent Brawl in Cell Block 99.