The bright lights in Tinseltown were especially revealing in 2017, not only displaying the cinematic spectacles that the motion picture industry is famous for but also, as the story of the year boldly blazons, but avowing the predators who have toiled there for too long.
With the gender balance being bravely argued it is with joy that a suiting Hollywood ending be reflected in Taste of Cinema’s year end roundup. So many of our favorite films from 2017 feature brilliant women either in front of the lens or behind it –– from Wonder Woman to Rumble to Lady Macbeth to Lady Bird to Faces Places to The Beguiled –– what phenomenal females!
Beyond that, just a cursory glance at the titles assembled here in our 30 Best Movies of 2017 (and do please note that narrowing the titles down to a workable 30 titles was no small feat –– I cringe at the many worthy films that didn’t make the cut, and a lengthy Honorable Mentions section aims to tow the line) shows a wonderful and wide-ranging miscellany.
The auteur is alive and well, arthouse and blockbusters are plentiful, documentary films are on fire, genre films are stronger than ever, and let’s just echo it all once more for posterity: female-led projects are popular, bankable, and breathtaking, as are strong women characters.
Without further ado, let the roundup commence, and in 2018 let’s catch up in the queue and compare notes, shall we? Enjoy!
30. The Beguiled
“I loved the sexual repression under the high lacy collars in the heat of the South, and how under all the melodrama, there were themes I could relate to about the power struggle between men and women,” writes director Sofia Coppola in the LA Times of her award-winning film, The Beguiled, adding: “…I loved that the story was about hierarchies in groups of women, something I’ve looked at with my earlier work.”
Ostensibly both a remake of the Southern Gothic erotic thriller by Don Siegel from 1971 and also an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil”, Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay and won the Best Director Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival) smartly and slowly unravels her tale via the female gaze in a film that, if one is patient with it, slowly pulls you under its sunlit and fainéant spell.
Set in Virginia during the Civil War, The Beguiled finds the desperate Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an injured Union soldier and a deserter seeking refuge at an all-female Southern boarding school. Here the teachers, led by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and students (including Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice) seem more than willing to help and soon, sexual tensions give way to dangerous rivalries in a film that so often, even surreally, moves and swirls like a subjugated fairy tale.
29. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Writer-director Rian Johnson delivers a Star Wars film that is everything a blockbuster should be; exciting, unpredictable, and above all, fun. The Last Jedi builds greatly upon 2015’s The Force Awakens, and as we’re brought up to speed with iconic Jedi du jour Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the young and Force-friendly Rey (Daisy Ridley) some awkward humor and winning one-liners (Rey quips to Luke, trying to get his tutelage “I’ve seen your schedule, you’re not busy!”), and some pervasive porgs, Johnson also gives us the best directed film in the franchise to date.
We’ve finally gotten a Star Wars film with an auteur’s tenor (and Johnson’s use of red really resonates), and not only that but The Last Jedi hosts a bevy of badass women being smart, solving problems, kicking ass, and taking names (the aforementioned Ridley is joined by the likes of Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Marie Tran, and a stunning final bow from Carrie Fisher each memorably offset the testosterone). Also we get a beefcake moment from Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, as he becomes the most fascinating and complex villain from far, far away.
The Last Jedi also has perhaps the best lightsaber battles yet, some fan service that doesn’t overly distract (Chewbacca has some very funny and fist-pumping scenes, and Yoda even gets a good line and a fine cameo, too), a real emotional punch and at least two epic space battles. This is a genre fan’s delight, that, quite honestly, only the cynical can assault.
For high-stakes space opera on an epic scale, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a risky, expansive, entertaining and visionary spectacle, made with technical expertism and frequently, bona fide beauty. “Breathe…”
28. Tragedy Girls
McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) are two social media savvy bffs, each with an unhealthy death-obsession, and desire to be adored both in their high school, their community, and across the Internet in Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls. This is a film that treats superficiality and remorseless violence with a comedic sensibility all too rarely seen, earning and deserving its exacted and often evil laughter rather fiercely.
A savage and cynical satire that’s full of colorful off-color status quo commentary, this joyfully fucked up little film also doubles as a paeon to slasher movies and teen exploitation fare (fans of Michael Lehmann’s 1988 cult classic, Heathers take particular note, please).
Part of the fun of the film, which is a pastiche-heavy smorgasbord of slasher film staples –– John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), and even the prestige horror of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) are amongst those name checked and paid homage –– is the requisite identifying of the pop culture that the characters here typify, but also in seeing just how much gratuitous bloodshed the movie will get away with (spoiler alert: a whole bloody lot!).
27. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
“Rumble asks us to be still for a moment and to list to the heartbeat,” writes Washington Post critic Michael O’Shea, “at once familiar and newly strange, that pumps the lifeblood that flows through the songs this country is known for.”
Assertive, emotional, and deeply engaging, the new documentary from Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World sets the record straight on the Native American influence on rock ‘n’ roll and pop music.
Winner of the Audience Award and Best Canadian Film prizes at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, this is a film I saw twice on the big screen this past year (and was moved to tears both times, I proudly attest) and one that eloquently makes its case early in the film when an early Charley Patton recording is played and lands like lightning.
And with reference to so many other indigenous artists like Link Wray (the film’s title is a reference to his hit instrumental guitar rock anthem, the first use ever of the power chord, so stirring it was the first and one of the only instrumental tracks to be banned from American air waves), Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Wayne Kramer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Stevie Salas, Howlin’ Wolf, and many more.
“Rumble,” enthuses Martin Scorsese, referring to the Link Wray classic, “Well, it’s the sound of that guitar, and the aggression there…” Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World pays wonderful homage to the artists therein, and while making their remarkable music all the more powerful and resonate, it offers a wise history lesson void of didacticism, and will also send you in search of records to add to your collection. An overdue revelation, if you love Americana, music, and social history do not miss this movie.
26. Lady Macbeth
Florence Pugh is a fearless force of nature as a rebellious 19th-century mistress sold to a cruel and disinterested husband (Paul Hilton) in director William Oldroyd’s gloomy yet magnificent Lady Macbeth. Written by Alice Birch, and based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, the film is set in Northern England of the 1860s. Here we find Katherine (Pugh), the new mistress on a mid-sized farm with a very grey mansion. Straightaway she is put in her place by her cold and indignant spouse, as well as his bullying and dogmatic father (Christopher Fairbank).
Katherine is little more than a servant to both men, who mistreat and humiliate her with a poisonous surety. After both of these men are called away on unspecified business Katherine at long last tastes freedom, and soon is consumed in a brash, passionate affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the farmhands. This liaison soon consumes Katherine, and not her petty, mean husband or her cold, cantankerous father-in-law will get in her way.
Oldroyd and Birch provide plenty of smart and stinging commentary on class, race (Naomi Ackie’s bullied black servant is another star attraction to this small-scale showpiece), and sex, but it’s Pugh who takes the top prize. When Katherine makes her volte-face, she doesn’t just go measure for measure, she goes full on enfant terrible on everyone who’s in her way. Lady Macbeth is wild.
25. I, Tonya
Hollywood loves an underdog story, and ice skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, excellent), who the world at large saw primarily as fodder for the frenzy of the 24-hour-news-cycle just ahead of the 1994 Winter Olympics when her Team USA competitor/contemporary Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) was attacked and a circuitous trail led back too close to Harding herself.
As told by director Craig Gillespie, screenwriter Steven Rogers, and via what the title scroll proclaims as “irony-free, wildly contradictory” interviews, I, Tonya unfolds like a smart salmagundi of Raging Bull and Rocky only with figure skates instead of boxing gloves.
Robbie is alternately radiant, ruinous, severe, and sympathetic as Harding, and seeing her rise through the ranks of competitive figure skating––aided and abetted by Allison Janney’s brutal, tough love mother LaVona Fay Golden, as well as Sebastian Stan’s abusive, codependent boyfriend and later husband, Jeff Gillooly––is never less than compelling.
Harding, assailed on all sides for being white trash; for being the wrong vision of feminine physicality; for being an overblown tabloid tale, Gillespie still shows us, and underscores that Harding was a dedicated, talented athlete––her execution of the triple axel amidst competition is rightly the stuff of legend and is shown here with the right kind of Silver Screen esprit.
A sharp, sobering, and occasionally kitschy tragicomic biopic told with self-aware splash, I, Tonya gets the gold when it comes to displaying the cruelty and confrontation that can pursue just being a strong woman. Bravo.
24. Brigsby Bear
Endearing and original, director Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear takes some great risks––it kinda sorta plays out like Being There as imagined by the sibling team of Sid and Marty Krofft––and the results are a future cult classic that celebrates creativity and madness in many messed up yet warm ‘n’ fuzzy ways.
Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello penned the screenplay which involves one James Pope (Mooney), a young man utterly obsessed with the obscure children’s television program “Brigsby Bear Adventures”. How obscure? Well, James is the only one who’s seen it. No spoilers here but Brigsby Bear costars Mark Hamill and Jane Adams as a likeable pair of eccentrics who claim to be James’ parents and there’s also Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Alexa Demie and Kate Lyn Sheil, each in very memorable roles.
Produced by The Lonely Island (ahh yes, Andy Samberg has a brief but refreshing role), this is a deliciously uncynical oddity about contagious creativity, fanaticism, and forgiveness. Check it out.
John Carroll Lynch’s generously incidental comic drama of valediction, Lucky is also the farewell performance of its star, the legendary Harry Dean Stanton.
Our eponymous hero Lucky (Stanton), is an aging, beloved, and nonconforming man about town who spends his time smoking, strutting, socializing, sipping milk, doing a strict daily yoga regimen, all while grooving on the full life as only he knows how to. At 90, Lucky may be outspoken, atheistic, and largely opinionated, but that in no way means he’s close-minded, curmudgeon-y, or devoid of spiritual belief and practice.
Lynch’s film is an alternately humbling and hilarious experience, predominantly driven by dialogue, and monologue, but never in a way that’s ostentatious or overdone. Sure this is the sort of film where nothing much happens plot-wise, but it presents a good-humored, keen, and consistent pearl-on-a-string procession of conjecture and insight.
22. Wonder Woman
While box-office receipts state otherwise, many cinemagoers have complained of superhero fatigue, but 2017 did give us a handful of invigorating and rejuvenative superheroes (if this list were a smidge longer it would also include James Mangold’s Logan, which here we relegate to our Honorable Mentions postscript section), and we fucking finally got to catch up with Diana, princess of the Amazons in a fist-pumping action film that wasn’t camp, wasn’t prosaic, and wasn’t a parade of chauvinist conceits, either. No, we got our Wonder Woman and she kicked all kinds of ass!
Directed by Patty Jenkins (2003’s Monster), and starring a sensational Gal Gadot as our unconquerable warrior, Wonder Woman pulls us post-haste through Diana’s origins on the gorgeously rendered hidden island of Themyscira (additional props to cinematographer Matthew Jensen, production designer Aline Bonetto and the rest of the hard working crew) while also presenting a compelling World War I-set narrative involving American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) that first brought Diana to our modern world.
Jenkins and co present a wealth of awesome women, of course (Lucy Davis is great, as are many Amazonians played by Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, and Lisa Loven Kongsli as well as Elena Anaya’s evil Dr. Maru), but there’s also juicy roles for Danny Huston, David Thewlis, and Ewen Bremner.
And a special tip of the hat goes out to Eugene Brave Rock who’s Chief not only gets to descry the dangers of colonialism and cultural genocide, but shares a scene with Diana spoken in Blackfoot. It’s so rare that aboriginal actors and characters are respectfully acknowledged in a mainstream film, so if you needed another reason to love Wonder Woman, well, there you go!
Part war movie, part doomed romance, overfull with artful and exciting action sequences (the No Man’s Land assault led by Diana is worth the cost of admission alone), and all told some pretty subversive content for a populist DC superhero film –– and easily the best outside of Nolan’s Batman films, from that expanded universe –– this is a charismatic, crowd-pleasing, comic book conversion that works on every conceivable level. Wonder Woman dazzles.
21. Song to Song
A visually luxuriant art film from writer-director Terrence Malick, Song to Song is a devastating and delicious love story about anguish, grief, loss, and just being alive. Set within the music scene in Austin, Texas, Malick presents two entwined couples; music magnate Cook (Michael Fassbender), and troubled waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman); struggling but up-and-coming singer/songwriters BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara). As their lives interlace amidst a panorama of music, temptations, and deceptions.
A moving miracle, and a deeply idiosyncratic one, of course Song to Song isn’t a movie for everyone (interjections: aren’t “movies for everyone” just comforting, non-confrontational vanilla anyways?), but it is a movie that exalts and haunts (Holly Hunter’s reaction to her daughter’s suicide sent me sobbing).
Malick, for reasons I won’t delve into here, has made films as of late that needle and annoy as many audience members as her delights and vivifies, and if you’re in the latter camp, Song to Song is his best work since 2011’s The Tree of Life. This is a film for Antonioni fans, for dreamers, for wanderers, for artists, and for lost causes, and it’s sublime and it will grandly outlive us all.