Michael Ward on Monday, January 01

"My take on it, like a filmmaker or actor, is if you have much more colors within your creation, eventually people will appreciate what you're doing, and the other stuff is secondary, like critiques or even awards or anything else, as long as people enjoy it." - Tommy Wiseau

I opted to include a quote from the creator of the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies, The Room, because Tommy Wiseau, whose incredible 2003 film is the source material for one of 2017's Best Films, is a filmmaker getting a chance at the fame and stardom he so unabashedly hoped to achieve, living vicariously through James Franco and The Disaster Artist. I found the quote some time ago, and as I reflected on the more than 160 films I watched in 2017, I kept thinking about one portion of his statement above:

"Eventually people will appreciate what you are doing..."

In the list below, the 10 films selected as my choices for the Best Films of 2017 all come from individuals who have worked hard to receive the appreciation 2017 afforded them.

I think of the brilliant writer/director who showed everyone he was so much more than just the name that followed the "&" of a popular comedy duo. And smile wide thinking of the groundbreaking storyteller, back on top of his game, who staged one of the most ambitious war films of recent memory from the ground, the air, and the sea. 

I think of the acclaimed actress who may have cracked the code on the uniqueness of mother/daughter and familial relationships in her authentic directorial debut. I think of a young man, fearless and breathless, pursuing his first love and catching himself by surprise in the process. An aging superhero faces mortality, as does a wise leader of an army, preparing for final battle. 

Then my mind turns to the indelible moments these films created. 

The tightening of a ponytail. The bowl of cereal. The silent gasp of a woman seeing a stranger at her fiancé’s grave. The disorienting fog of war. A character, having reached the point of no return, stating "I did not start this war. But I will finish it."

The writer/director, turned actor, who took dozens of takes to get his own lines right. The breakup. The wakeup. The running away to the happiest place on Earth. The inability to find a set of car keys. The Communion wafers. The kiss in the bathroom stall. The Psychedelic Furs. The phone call. The way a family will do anything to keep a loved one's memory alive. And so many more...

We go to the movies to feel something, to slip into another person's world for a couple of hours. Whether you agree or not with the list below, no one can truly say that these films don't whisk us away into worlds we have not explored in quite these same ways. I learned so much from all of these stories and am left with the unshakable belief that this was a fantastic year at the movies.

I did not come to make this list lightly and many films, including some brilliant documentaries, fought for a space here. But, I can rest comfortably, with these 10 (even if I mentally switch them around countless times in the years to come.)

Note: Hover over the image to learn more information about the film being featured.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2017

10. THE FLORIDA PROJECT | Directed by Sean Baker | Release Date: October 6, 2017

Nothing feels quite real in Sean Baker's The Florida Project. The pastel-colored motels which line up in the shadow of DisneyWorld, presented here as an impenetrable fantasy world as reachable as a rainbow. And what to make of the 20-something young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), raising her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) the only way she knows how - by trying to make a fast buck to pay rent, taking freebies whenever she can, and allowing Moonee free reign throughout the housing complex, managed by the stern, but fatherly Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

We have seldom, if ever, seen poverty depicted this honestly and free of judgment. As Baker's camera pulls wide, we see as many as two dozen doors opening, closing, people milling around, trying to get from one moment to the next. Some characters we meet are raising nieces and nephews as their own children. Others are working 2-3 jobs to come up with less than $100 rent for the week. Others turn to more desperate means to survive. The Florida Project is not an easy watch, but a necessary one. We are aggravated and frustrated frequently with and against its characters. However, the stunning, honest, raw, and uncompromisingly natural performances leave us mesmerized with what may come next. The Florida Project reminds us that, though we don't discuss the Halleys and Moonees of the world, these characters exist everywhere, and we often are too dazzled by the DisneyWorlds around us to ever take notice.

9. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES | Directed by Matt Reeves | Release Date: July 14, 2017

People expected a summer action movie blockbuster and, instead, for this War, director Matt Reeves has delivered something unforgettable and truly special – a blistering, dark, visceral rumination on war, loyalty, and sacrifice. For some this will be grim, dark, and unrelenting. You will want a gulp of fresh air afterwards, and maybe sit quietly with a beverage of your choice and not think about all of this for a good, long while.

But this is one of 2017’s best films, though it may offer minimal light and fleeting levity. Reeves delivers an experience full of gripping, knuckle-white potency, with a breathtaking risk of violence and danger in and around every scene. As Caesar, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture work is extraordinary, and he delivers a performance that rivals the best work of any actor we watched all year.

War is not warm. Seldom, if ever, is it kind. Heroism can exist in challenging and unconscionable environments. War for the Planet of the Apes dutifully ends this new Planet of the Apes trilogy in a strong and demanding way. This is a compelling film, unforgettable and cold to the touch. However, just like a character in the film who allows themselves to shed a single, solitary tear at the film’s conclusion, this is a journey and finale I am thrilled to have taken.

8. LOGAN | Directed by James Mangold | Release Date: March 3, 2017

By daring to give us a realistic depiction of what life for a superhero would actually be like, in all its bloody carnage and visceral impact, Logan gives us an aging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), trying to not only live a peaceful life away from the fights, the X-Men, and the razor-sharp knuckle blades which surge from his hands when provoked, but also as a mentor to an unexpected arrival - 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen). 

James Mangold's film, which has Logan tending to an elderly and ill Professor X (Patrick Stewart), is more modern-day Western than superhero saga ,and Jackman shines in his willingness to give us a glimpse at what happens when inevitability and age catch-up to the supposed immortals. The visual effects are relatively minimal, the punches, the violence, the blood all feels real and painful. We are no longer watching a multiplex time-burner with a big cast of Avengers, Justice Leaguers, or Uncanny X-Men. Rather, we are seeing a bittersweet elegy play out before us, where we are reminded that all good things eventually do reach its right and just conclusion.

Impeccably acted, Stewart especially is so good here, Logan stands apart from pretty much every superhero movie we have had in the last decade or so. There are no snappy one-liners, big epic battles, or massive set pieces which wow us for long stretches. Logan gives us a real person, in a real world setting, facing real world realities and hits us hard in our hearts and minds by doing so.

7. FRANTZ | Directed by François Ozon | Release Date: March 15, 2017

The 37th film from French director François Ozon, Frantz is a powerful, compelling melodrama that has twists and surprises embedded into a narrative that finds us guessing right along with Anna (Paula Beer), the grieving woman still reeling from the death of her fiancé, Frantz, in World War I Germany. In a trip to place flowers on his grave, she is stunned to see a strange man also placing flowers on Frantz's grave and paying his condolences.

The man, Adrien (Pierre Niney), and his eventual arrival to Frantz's family's residence stuns Anna, and Ozon's screenplay begins to take us on a journey of mystery and discovery. Our initial perceptions are redirected, the motivations behind what we are seeing are not as they appear, and after a mid-film pivot leaves us contemplating everything, Frantz becomes a different film altogether. 

An essay on love and trust, with insightful and damning political observations, and presented in sumptuous black-and-white, with a tangible sense of real-world suspense, Frantz is an exceptional film. Notably, the film's resolve and power comes from the astonishing performance by the 22-year-old Beer. She carries the film with a pure and unfettered vulnerability. The movie simply gets better as her character strengthens, and Ozon's film rises and sets on his young actor's unmistakable instincts and talents.

6. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME | Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Release Date: November 22, 2017

Call Me By Your Name documents a life-changing summer for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old falling in love for the first time in 1983 Italy. Directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), and adapted for the big screen by the 89-year-old James Ivory, Elio is preparing for the summer with his parents – Mr. and Mrs. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) - when Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old graduate student joins the family for the summer, studying with Elio's father, a college professor of archaeology. 

Thoughtful, tender, and frank, the movie leaves no stone unturned. Chalamet delivers a star-making turn, extraordinary to watch mature over the course of the film. His cool, unwavering confidence is so fragile, but he pushes forward to pursue something he cannot suppress. Clearly, he rocks Oliver’s world and watching the two of them tiptoe through a most unique courtship is honest and exhilarating. Hammer, never better, is terrific as a man still learning about himself through the eyes of a fearless and brave suitor. In a powerful scene, it is Oliver who lets his guard down first, uttering the phrase which interpolates the film’s title.

The film payloads a soul-baring final 20 minutes, which absolutely wrecked me both times I viewed the film. Stuhlbarg perhaps delivers the monologue of the year in a conversation with Elio that is full of envy, empathy, understanding, compassion, and ultimately, acceptance. Then comes a phone call, a conversation, and a warm fire, leading to one of the most memorable end credit sequences I have seen in years.

A story of first love: one of discovery, fear, anxiety, and tenderness, as brave as the characters forever impacted by their connections. Call Me By Your Name revisits a moment everyone can relate to: That first love and that first broken heart, in a movie speaking to everyone willing to accept it into their hearts.

5. THE DISASTER ARTIST | Directed by James Franco | Release Date: December 1, 2017

Leave it to James Franco to tell the story of Tommy Wiseau and The Room. And while thousands of words have already been written about The Room and Wiseau and all the bizarre facts and anecdotes surrounding the making of the film, well documented by Greg Sestero’s book “The Disaster Artist," Franco’s take is a wonderful, endearing, and hilarious look at the dreamers who dream and try to make it in the movie business.

Franco stars as the filmmaker with his younger brother, Dave Franco, portraying Sestero. James' performance is fantastic, wearing makeup to alter his look just enough to stand apart from his brother. Wiseau is a man shrouded in mysteries: His age? “Same as you.” Where is he from? “New Orleans.” Is that an accent? “Yeah, New Orleans.” How does he have the money to live the way he lives? “I told you. Money is no problem.”

Wiseau’s messy and shambolic trip from script to screen is inspiring and given significant respect because at the end of the day – he did it. He made his movie when no one else would. Properly, Franco, and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, give The Room respect because clearly, the movie has resonated and connected with audiences for more than a decade. No matter if that loves come from mockery, disbelief, or to create a new meme of the moment, people who see The Room love it and embrace it’s existence. That’s not nothing.

Respect. Love. Praise. A tipping of the hat. The Disaster Artist pays respect to Wiseau and Sestero, but also finds something of a prolific outsider in James Franco reminding us all why we love the movies so much and why creating art is exhilarating.

4. THE BIG SICK | Directed by Michael Showalter | Release Date: June 23, 2017

The Big Sick remains a movie I want to show everyone I know. 

Written by the husband and wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the film documents their real-life story about dating, breaking up, and struggling with the reality of Emily’s sudden and severe lung infection that forces her into a medically induced coma for a period of time. To the couple’s credit, the film never panders to its audience, especially when Emily becomes sick. The film does such a wonderful job of setting up the world these two characters inhabit that we are on the journey right along with Kumail and Emily’s family, who leave their home in North Carolina, to be with her in Chicago, trying to make up for lost time.

Witty, funny, endearing, bittersweet, honest and authentic. Initially, we are observers who then become invested in these characters and their lives. We bond with their struggles, challenges, and root for their wins and feel bad for their losses. The ensemble is wonderfully cast, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as Emily's parents, are terrific in the film’s second half, Kazan shines in the first hour. Nanjiani steers us through both halves of the film, in a long overdue breakout performance.

Bottom line: I simply did not want to let these characters go when the movie ended. The Big Sick is a movie I'm going to love for a long, long time.

3. DUNKIRK | Directed by Christopher Nolan | Release Date: July 21, 2017

A war film unlike any other we have seen before, Christopher Nolan's disorienting, exceptional, masterful Dunkirk tells us a World War II story from three different perspectives - by ground, by sea, and by air. Told in a non-linear style, until the three stories converge upon one another unexpectedly, and with breathtaking results, Nolan has left science-fiction and fantastical adventure and gotten gritty. The results are astonishing.

Dunkirk doesn't play by conventions. A main character doesn't have a name for the first 30-40 minutes. Discussions of war-time decisions lack context, with most viewers perhaps confused by what is being discussed, since the rescue of 400,000 British military soldiers is not a commonly known tale in the United States. A man, with his sons, navigates a personal yacht with supplies to try and aid in the rescue efforts. Soldiers are forced to band together, never having a thought in questioning loyalty or "sides." And a fighter pilot is in near constant battles with German pilots coming in from seemingly every angle.

Nolan places us in the confusing fog of all of these situations. We go from day-to-night and things feel haphazardly constructed, things may seem sequenced wrong. Nolan orchestrates a lyrical cadence to this war. He builds to a final act like a symphonic composer hitting a crescendo at just the right moment. Suddenly, we understand everything that is happening, the stakes feel real, our hearts are in our throats, and we simply hold on and ride this thing out until Nolan decides to take his foot off the accelerator.

Dunkirk will likely rank among the best films of the decade as we move past 2017, and Nolan's ability to take us on a journey is unparalleled. 

2. LADY BIRD | Directed by Greta Gerwig | Release Date: November 3, 2017

In Greta Gerwig's brilliant, moving, and hilarious Lady Bird, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saorise Ronan) is 17 years old and ready to begin her senior year at an expensive private Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. The year is 2002, and the country is still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks from the previous year. The tech bubble has burst and older computer savvy employees have either been downsized, excised, or replaced by cheaper, younger workers. As a country, we are in a bit of a funk here, but life perpetually moves along, no matter what.

Gerwig's film retains a stunning authenticity about teenage friendships, relationships with parents and the dichotomy of strength and vulnerability that exist within them. When movies and television feature parents and children bickering, oftentimes melodrama is heightened and the reasons behind the arguments appear fantastical in nature. As Lady Bird pinballs her way through a fast-moving senior year, Gerwig places us right in the middle of these moments, allowing us to observe, consider, and reflect. In a way, her camera is also pivoted around on us, aiding us in rekindling our memories from more youthful days, either as the child or the parent caught up in any number of similar situations. 

Gerwig crafts just the right words to keep the film from veering off course and feeling disingenuous. 

Lady Bird moved me to tears more than once and speaks volumes about the "push-away" and "pull-close" relationships children develop with their parents. The film had me laughing early and often - thinking, pondering, and wondering if my college pursuits, and those of my wife, were as stressful on our parents. I also reflected on having a daughter around Lady Bird's age, off to college far away from home. The core of this movie gets so much right, it is as insightful as it is affecting. 

AND THE BEST MOVIE OF 2017 IS...

1. GET OUT | Directed by Jordan Peele | Release Date: February 24, 2017

Jordan Peele's directorial debut, Get Out, radiates brilliance. It is a fearless, ambitious, bold psychological suspense/horror film that balances deft comedy flourishes with palpable intensity, moments of honest psychological horror, and great suspense. Quite simply, he has delivered one of the finest debut films of recent memory.

Moreover, Get Out is just exceptionally well made in every way. Serving up an outlandish and exaggerated premise, commonplace with domestic horror films, he slowly turns the camera around on us, the viewers, forcing us to ask difficult questions about our perceptions and values, allowing us to openly wonder why we are reacting and responding to the images and developments he places before us.

The late author and journalist, Molly Ivins, once wrote that "satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful," and Peele wields his weaponry (a pen, a camera, a voice) with such precision-like skill that it may take a minute before you realize he is wryly showing us who we have been and who we are. 

Another quote comes to mind from British author Aldous Huxley: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."

Get Out, nearly one year after it's debut, still shakes people up. We are still discussing it in 2018. Come for the horror, stay for the horror of reality. We hear all the time how horror films are a reflection of society at large, and people bend over backwards finding ways to defend and elevate the genre, giving it depth and meaning. 

Peele walks the walk and if you can't hear his message, perhaps you haven't been listening in the first place.