This is my list of the year’s best movies. It was made with much care, thought, and gratitude for God’s gift of the human ability to create imaginatively. The best movies in this list are remarkable examples of that gift.
A warning, however: this list is woefully incomplete, as all lists are. The truth is that no one can make a definitive year-end list. Today, too many movies are released every year, in countries all over the world, and nobody can possibly see a sizeable enough portion of them to judge “the best.” Besides, movie criticism is my hobby, not my job. I have watched about 40 movies released this year, whereas real critics have watched hundreds.
I offer this list, then, only as a group of recommendations for your viewing pleasure. I’m sure I missed a good movie or ten from this year.
Here are my rules for composing this list:
- I include all movies released widely between January 1 and November 28. Because I live in a rural corner of Middle America, some movies weren’t available to me upon their initial, limited 2016 release in select big cities. If a movie was first released to me and everyone else after January 1, 2017, in theaters or on streaming video, I can include it.
- I must exclude all movies released in December 2017 because my article deadline is November 28.
- My guiding question is, “would I be likely to watch this movie in twenty years?” My second guiding question, related to the main question, is: “what does this movie contribute to film as an allusive, complex, playful art-form?”
- “The Promise”
A melodramatic epic about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, circa 1915, “The Promise” was the victim of tens of thousands of fake ratings on IMDB. This attack, probably by Turkish propagandists, mostly obliterated the movie’s marketing campaign and helped keep viewers from seeing it. That attack is unjust and disturbing, given that the movie is about the mass killings of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government, which still denies responsibility for those deaths.
“The Promise” contains a few artistic flaws, all well described by other critics. But I think that the movie’s strengths—the lead performances by Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, the cinematography, the presentation of the emotional devastation of the genocide—are overwhelmingly strengths. “The Promise” has the scope and ambition of memorable, mid-20th century Hollywood epics (e.g., “Doctor Zhivago”). I was moved by the movie’s scenic arc, from the magnificent vision of 1914-era Constantinople in the movie’s first act, to the devastation of the Armenians in the movie’s last act. That arc alone is a remarkable anti-war statement, akin to many of the better films about the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
- “Wind River”
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut is an affective modern Western, reminiscent of last year’s excellent “Hell or High Water,” which Sheridan also wrote. Jeremy Renner, who deserves awards for his lead performance, plays a tracker for an environmental agency who finds a dead Native American woman in rural Wyoming. The violence in “Wind River” is among the most disturbing and emotionally charged that I’ve seen in recent years. This is a movie that is simultaneously about the plight of Native American women, the troubles of groups of men who have nothing to do, society’s need for vigilant, responsible male oversight, and—if you watch carefully—cowboys and Indians.
This Martin Scorcese film adapts Shusako Endo’s novel, mixing Scorcese’s personal style with flourishes from great Japanese directors, including Ozu and Kurosawa. Although I still prefer the novel, as I’ve reflected on the movie over the past year, it has grown on me. This is perhaps the best movie made in this century about Christian missionaries.
A delightful heist movie that praises West Virginian hillbillies, “Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s first effort since he came out of retirement. His direction and editing are near perfect. I could watch the movie again and again just for those two aspects of it. But it is also very funny, while playing around with Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies and the heist genre in general.
Winner of Best Original Screenplay at the most recent Oscar ceremony, “Manchester by the Sea” has become a polarizing movie. It has received just three out of five stars on amazon.com—a very poor rating—with over 3,500 ratings, many from reviewers who hate it. Many people I know told me that the movie is boring. For them, it has little plot and character development, and it lacks the necessary excitement that dramatic movies ought to have.
I think not only that they are wrong, but that they have also mis-watched a carefully constructed film with rich characters, including Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning performance as Lee Chandler, a grieving janitor with a painful past. This movie does what many movies should do but rarely achieve: it expands our capacity for empathy for particular individuals.
- “The Salesman”
Another great movie from Amazon Studios, which had perhaps the best year of any movie studio in 2017. And another great movie from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, who does nothing but make great movies. In “The Salesman,” an Iranian teacher tries to direct a theatrical production of “Death of a Salesman” while dealing with his wife’s recent trauma over an assault. For both the teacher and his wife, life begins to imitate art, and vice versa. Farhadi proves again that he is one of the world’s most exceptional and accomplished film artists. He is able to make movies in and about Iran that are nevertheless culturally translatable and universally human. (For example, many of my college students appreciate his 2011 movie “A Separation.” I believe that they would like “The Salesman,” too.)
Time will tell if “Dunkirk” is writer-director Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. I think it might be. With “Dunkirk,” Nolan eschewed his preferred genre of science fiction, choosing instead to represent the historical WWII-era Battle of Dunkirk. Yet “Dunkirk” is less a war movie and more a claustrophobic horror movie, featuring numerous characters trapped and attacked by an unseen, faceless enemy. The final scenes of the Spitfire’s last combat action and landing, with the eventual unmasking of its pilot, are my favorites of the year.