Movies are supposed to be an escape, and Heaven knows there was plenty to escape from this year. Then again, movies are also art, and art is supposed to give you something to take with you when you inevitably go back into the world outside the theater. The best films of 2017 delivered on both counts, removing us for a few blissful hours from the chaos of Donald Trump’s America while also showing us how to cope with the regime of a corrupt, incompetent sexual predator. The world may fall apart on us, but at least our movies haven’t yet. Here are the best cinematic achievements of the past 12 months:
1. Get Out. I gave in to the urge to call this film “timely” back when I reviewed it, but racism is an endemic feature of American life, so Jordan Peele’s devilishly funny horror flick will still look like a masterpiece in 20 or 50 years. How carefully the details are built up, how the part-Swahili soundtrack gives this movie a different feel, how cleverly Peele injects racial themes into the hoary horror genre to make it deliriously new. We are all in The Sunken Place now, but at least we have this movie to comfort us.
2. Call Me by Your Name. Feel free to gander at the gorgeous Italian scenery in this coming-of-age film, but the real greatness of this languorous masterpiece lies in its magnificent performances (by Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others) and the heady eroticism that infuses every frame of Luca Guadagnino’s gay romance. Timothée Chalamet anchors this as the American-French teen who falls for an older man, and the final shot of his pensive, crushed face will burn its way into your memory.
3. Columbus. As careful and sparse as the modernist buildings that serve as its backdrop, this drama about mourning and moving on is about the friendship between a Korean man tending to his comatose father in Columbus, Indiana, and a local girl who’s been putting off her entry into college, bonding over their shared knowledge of architecture in a town that’s an unlikely mecca. This debut feature by video essayist Kogonada shows that both John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson should be headlining their own films.
4. The Florida Project. The way some artists use found materials, Sean Baker uses found actors. He cast an Instagram blogger (Bria Vinaite) and a little girl at his local Target (a force of nature named Brooklynn Prince) as the leads in this story about life at a crappy motel near Disney World, and it may be the greatest of Baker’s explorations of the people at the margins trying to scrape by. Whether you find this movie joyous or depressing will depend on how you read that remarkable final shot, but either way, what a ride it is.
5. Personal Shopper. Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas are one of the great actor-director teams in cinema right now. They already gave us Clouds of Sils Maria two years ago, and now comes this hard-to-categorize film that’s part bereavement drama, detective thriller, and journey through the world of high fashion. Stewart’s uncanny performance somehow knits all this together, and Assayas manages to make a ghost feel otherworldly after the thousands of cinematic ghosts we’ve seen. A world of ambiguous intrigue is in that last knock that the heroine hears.
6. Graduation. Cristian Mungiu continues to do Romania proud with this riveting drama about a college student who survives an attempted rape right before her scheduled exam and whose father dives deep into the education system to rig her test results. Be appalled at the portrait of a society where cops, professors, and administrators all have their hands out for bribes and favors, and be compelled by the story of two parents who once raised their daughter to be honest and are now trying to game the system for her.
7. Baby Driver. What’s more fun, the death-defying car chases, the slick camera moves with which they’re filmed, or Ansel Elgort’s liquid dance moves as a music-besotted getaway driver? I can’t decide, and I don’t care. This thriller is never less than a delight to behold as it sets its romance and its action sequences in lockstep to a flawlessly chosen soundtrack. I can’t remember the last car-chase movie with so much buoyancy and lightness. By the way, your tattoo says “hat.”
8. Thelma. A Norwegian college student from a strict religious background falls for another girl, and when she can’t act on it, electric lights flicker and birds commit mass suicide around her. A “serious” filmmaker dabbling in a popcorn genre, Joachim Trier brings his immense skills to this crackling supernatural thriller and turns out something as crepuscularly beautiful as it is dark and disturbing. Hallucinations and grand mal seizures have never been so romantic.
9. Lady Macbeth. Prosperous rural boredom leads to adultery and bloodshed in William Oldroyd’s austere English period thriller. Adapted from a 19th-century novel, this film adds race to the plot and turns it into a volatile concoction of sex, female oppression, and white privilege. Led by Florence Pugh’s imperious performance, this movie seethes with frustration and murderous desires underneath its outward decorum.
10. Colossal. Anne Hathaway is really funny when she’s turned into a kaiju. In a year when toxic men have dominated news cycles and inspired a heartening “we’re not gonna take it anymore!” moment, here’s a thrilling story about a recovering alcoholic who sees that nice guy who was waiting for her literally turn into a monster. Nacho Vigalondo couches all this in an audaciously funny science-fiction parable, and the heroine’s ultimate victory over her male tormentor will make you cheer.
Honorable mention: Martin McDonagh’s scathing, somehow optimistic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri … Paul Thomas Anderson’s plush revenge thriller Phantom Thread … Richard Linklater’s deeply moving road film Last Flag Flying … Sunao Katabuchi’s delicate, scarring anime epic In This Corner of the World … Steven Spielberg’s high-stakes newspaper comedy The Post … Robin Campillo’s rousing French gay-rights call to arms BPM (Beats Per Minute) … Bong Joon-ho’s cuddly food-industry satire Okja … Claude Barras’ piercing tale of damaged kids My Life as a Zucchini … Asghar Farhadi’s searching moral dilemma The Salesman … Todd Haynes’ sumptuous tale of two periods Wonderstruck … Joseph Cedar’s darkly funny comedy of ambition Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer … Dee Rees’ Deep South generational saga Mudbound … Agnieszka Smoczynska’s insane Polish musical fairy tale The Lure … Chris McKay’s expertly balanced The Lego Batman Movie … and just to piss off everyone, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!