The top 10 films of 2017, according to Emory film experts

Dec. 22, 2017


Megan McRainey

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The film experts in Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies have selected their picks for the best films in 2017. The choices are based on films that have opened in Atlanta as of Dec. 20. (Some eagerly awaited titles including The Phantom Thread and The Post have not opened yet.) Many of the titles below are current in theaters, streaming online or available on Blu-Ray or DVD. The films are listed in alphabetical order. 

Emory reviewers include Tanine Allison (TA), Matthew H. Bernstein (MHB), William Brown (WB) Ryan Cook (RC), Dan Reynolds (DR) and Michele Schreiber (MS).


Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) have teamed up again to provide a harrowing depiction of white police and national guard racism at its worst. From an early kaleidoscopic portrayal of the inciting incident of the 1967 Detroit riots and their continuation, the film comes to settle on the terrifying, notorious brutalization of several black guests (and two white prostitutes), who are being held on suspicion of being snipers, at the Algiers Motel. The critics are correct in noting that black victimization becomes prominent in a story of black resistance.  Still Boal’s script and Bigelow’s brilliant orchestration of chaotic action and multiple camera cinematography creates a powerful immersive effect. This is not an easy film to watch--its relevance to Ferguson-era America police brutalities and judicial failures is obvious and deeply disturbing—but it is a major achievement. (MHB)    


Christopher Nolan’s ambitious World War II epic drops you into the midst of the Dunkirk evacuation of British troops, a turning point in the war that averted disaster. “World War II epic” might connote to you a stuffy black-and-white propaganda piece about “why we fight.” Nolan works against this association by omitting almost all of the historical context and long-winded calls to arms. Instead, he concentrates on the visceral experience of his major protagonists.  And unlike some of Nolan’s other films (for example, the nearly three-hour Interstellar). Dunkirk is lean and focused.  It is also experimental, in tying together three narrative threads unfolding at radically different paces (one hour in the air, two days on the boat, one week on land). The stunning cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and thrilling score by Hans Zimmer tie these narrative strands together and capture the harrowing intensity of the troops’ struggle for survival. (TA)

The Florida Project

The Florida Project dramatizes the trials of impoverished denizens of strip motels, a nationwide phenomenon, but here ironically located in the shadows of Orlando’s Disneyworld. The foul-mouthed, charismatic Moonee (7-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her friends indulge in sometimes harmless pranks and at other times seriously destructive acts, in and around the pink pastel painted “Magic Kingdom Motel.” Meanwhile her aimless, irresponsible mother (Brian Vinaite) spirals further into destitution. For Monnee and her Little Rascal friends, poverty is an adventure. With astonishing performances from mostly first-timers and Willem Dafoe, Sean Baker’s film is hard to watch at times; still, this is a must-see, alternately exuberant and unflinching look at America’s underbelly. (MHB) 

Get Out

Jordan Peele’s writing-directing debut simply astounds with its conception and execution. On a surface level, it is a witty, highly entertaining and innovative horror film (actually much more a psychological thriller), intended to give black characters a central place in a genre that has historically neglected them. More to the point, Get Out diagnoses the current state of race relations in America, placing a keen, analytical eye on upper class liberal whites and their patronizing treatment of blacks in the allegedly post-racial era signaled by Obama’s presidency. The richness of Peele’s ideas are evident in every single detail of this revamping and updating of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s gentle premises. No film this year, or in many years, has been this thought-provoking; with the help of a talented cast, Peele plumbs the depths, contortions and perverse logic informing white Americans’ dehumanizing treatment of blacks, and black ingenuity in response. (MHB)

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is made with such exquisite care and precision by Greta Gerwig (in her solo directorial debut) that it is hard not to find something to appreciate in its intimate and nuanced portrayal of a teenage girl’s coming of age, or as Gerwig has put it: “what personhood is for a young woman.” This is not a story that films tell often. We see a great many coming of age stories of young men but rarely of young women, and even more rarely of a confident young woman like Lady Bird. The film is being sold as a mother-daughter story and indeed, it arguably offers the most touching and realistic representation of that relationship in screen history (with fantastic performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf) but its emotional resonance extends to the portrayal of its entire cast of characters (such as her father, her best friend, her boyfriends, her Catholic school teachers), each of whom could be the subject of their own film. (MS)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s films can be hit-or-miss, but the hits are often extraordinary. Such is the case with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a collection of tales about a group of New York siblings and their relationship with their fragile, egotistical father. Dustin Hoffman gives the performance of his late career as Harold Meyerowitz, an almost-was sculptor who has fortified his ego over the decades by constructing a tenuous narrative of his own importance. The damage he has wrought reverberates in the lives of his adult children, Danny (Adam Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and Matthew (Ben Stiller). As a series of crises brings the siblings together, long-dormant wounds are reopened and new tensions arise. (DR)


Like Detroit, Mudbound tells a story from our past (in this case the immediate post-World War II era) that speaks ferociously to our present. Two families--one white (the McAllans, frustrated land owners) and one black (the Jacksons, their tenant farmers)—find their lives intertwined in many ways beyond the economic. Using source novelist Hillary Jordan’s reliance on multiple voice-overs from different characters, director Dee Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison visually accentuate the importance of implacable land in implacably racist Jim Crow Mississippi. The film boasts a wonderful cast ensemble playing various family members (matriarchs Cary Mulligan and Mary J. Blige the best known among them). But it is the rough but hopeful friendship between Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell)—whose WWII service has given him the experience, pride and dignity to demand social equality—and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund)—at loose ends after his own experiences—that sets tragedy in motion as war-scarred bonds encounter relentless Jim Crow custom and black exploitation. (MHB)


South Korean director Bong Joon-ho had $50 million and free rein to shape this eccentric transcontinental tale of a girl and her “super pig.” The result is an endearingly chaotic parable of folk resistance to institutional power, a motif characteristic of Bong who excels at blending humanistic portraits of everyday life with topical social satire. Okja applies the pattern to the subject of genetically modified foods, dramatizing the struggles of local farming and grassroots ecological activism within the global industrial food economy. The film features hollow corporate villains and naïve innocents, but nuances its colorful genre play with earnest interest in its characters and their poignant humanity. (RC)

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has re-envisioned the low-budget 1954 horror/sci-fi classic Creature from the Black Lagoon and the results are literally marvelous. This Cold War tale of an abused government intelligence “asset” creature and the trio of marginalized citizens—one mute (Sally Hawkins), another African-American (Octavia Spencer) and another gay (Richard Jenkins)--who try to help it survive rushes along with witty dialogue, fluid (sorry) camerawork and fantastic settings involving movie palaces and frequent song-and-dance numbers. Our heroes struggle against Michael Shannon’s alternately frightening and ridiculed macho government agent who mistakes sadism for patriotic duty. In short, del Toro has co-written and directed a genuinely funny, wildly imaginative and deeply moving work that is a joy to watch and should appeal to anyone who has ever yearned for love and fulfillment against overwhelming odds. And that is all of us. (MHB)       

Star Wars: Episode Eight—The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi is the strangest blockbuster in recent memory. Faced with the daunting task of following J.J. Abrams’s immensely popular Episode VII—The Force Awakens, writer-director Rian Johnson opts for the unexpected. Rather than relying on the previous film’s formula of technical precision, nostalgia, and charm, The Last Jedi marks a tonal shift for the series. Pervaded by absurdist humor, the film plays as a pointed but affectionate critique of the Star Wars franchise, of Star Wars fandom, and especially of the direction in which Star Wars seemed headed with Episode VII. Conventions are subverted and narrative trajectories are reversed, but the film remains anchored by powerful performances from Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill, and by surprising surrealistic flourishes and allusions to a century of cinema, from L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1927) and Wings (William Wellman, 1928) through Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). In The Last Jedi, Johnson delivers a good Star Wars film that isn’t just “a good Star Wars film.”  (DR)

Honorable mentions go to several outstanding films: The Big Sick; Call Me By Your Name; Dawson City: Frozen Time; First They Killed My Father; I Am Not Your Negro; I, Tonya; Visages, Villages; Wind River; and Their Finest