My Favorite Directorial Efforts of 2017
Every January, I make myself pick out specific performances I loved from the previous year. I spend so much time talking about movies, but I don’t actually give credit to specific performances. The only time I’ll talk about them is when I’m going over the Oscars. Which isn’t the same thing.
The great thing about lists like this is that it forces you to consider everything. You immediately start thinking of the performances that are nominated for the awards. But if you consider each and every movie you saw from the year (and I did. All 400 of them), and think about how you really felt about all the specific performances, you’re gonna be surprised which ones you actually liked best. (Especially if you can be honest about it and don’t think about what’s already out there, which few people are willing to be.)
Today I’ll be covering all the directorial efforts I loved. They’re in order, but they’re not really in any order. The numbers don’t matter. These are just the ones I enjoyed the most. We’re not talking about awards-worthy or whatever.
So here are my favorite directorial efforts of 2017:
1. Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
I’m surprised that this made number one. But you know what? I’m just so impressed with this effort. This is the one where I sat in the theater, thinking, “Oh my god. He did it.” I’ve said this just about every time I’ve talked about the film, but it still holds. Watching his early career, you can tell that he really wanted to be like Stanley Kubrick. And watching this movie in particular, all I could think was how he pulled it off. He made a movie about dressmaking interesting. I watched the first half of that movie and all I wanted to see was how he was making those dresses. No one could really pull something like that off except Kubrick. He would give you a subject where you went, “There’s no way I’m gonna watch a three-and-a-half hour movie about a guy becoming part of the nobility and give a shit.” And then, two hours later, at the intermission, you’re like, “Oh man, where is this going, this is amazing.” That’s what Paul Thomas Anderson has achieved. A status that I didn’t think he was at quite yet. But man, am I so impressed by this movie. I know it’s not the flashiest direction on this list — that’ll be the next two entries — but, pound for pound, it was my favorite.
2. Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
This is a pro doing pro work. He finally made his war movie, and it’s a hell of an effort. Beginning with the decision to have three different, interweaving timelines (a week, a day, an hour) on the land, in the sea and in the air was the first step to the impressive direction in which he took this film. The other direction was eliminating the one knock most people had on him in previous films — the exposition. So rather than have lengthy scenes of people explain what’s going on, he basically cut out all the dialogue and let the action speak for itself. It’s a really terrific piece of work. I almost made this the de facto number one, because it is a great job, but, just like when I saw the film, I thought, “Am I doing it just because it makes sense or am I doing it because that’s how I really feel?” And I realized — while I do love the effort, it’s not my favorite. It’s just really, really good. I preferred his work on Interstellar, even if this is more of a complete effort. But there’s no denying this is one of the best directors working today and he consistently puts forth an incredible effort, every time out.
3. Edgar Wright, Baby Driver
Technically, this is Edgar Wright’s best work. I love Scott Pilgrim, but this feels way more orchestrated all the way through. He timed his action to his music, and he wrote and directed the scenes as if they were set to music. Which is a really impressive feat. The whole experience feels controlled, and from the opening moments, to the scene where Baby is walking the streets of Atlanta to “The Harlem Shuffle,” and all the lyrics are appearing at the right moments on lamp posts and buildings, you know you’re in sure hands. I probably would have been much more all over this if I were still 22, but I still have a deep respect for what he accomplished here, and I can’t wait to see what he’s got for us next, especially since people are actually starting to go to his movies now.
4. Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve, over the past five years, has become a director who hits home runs every time out. Prisoners was a masterpiece. Enemy, even though no one saw it, was a great little movie. Sicario was a near-masterpiece. Arrival was a near-masterpiece. And then when they said his next movie was Blade Runner, I got really nervous. Because not only do I not really care that much about the original (good and influential as it may be), I wanted to see him tackle interesting subject matter and not get sucked in to a ‘universe’. But what I’m fast learning with him is that no matter what he takes, his direction will make anything seem way more interesting. He takes a realist approach to his films, and he grounds them in emotional authenticity. He takes the first thirty-plus minutes of the film to really situate you with Ryan Gosling’s character, before he lifts the scope way up and gets you to where, I’m assuming, fans of the original would have wanted him to go. Hell, they don’t even bring in Harrison Ford until almost two-hours into the movie. I’m really impressed by what he did here. I did not expect this movie to be a top ten for me, and I’m completely on board with whatever he wants to do next (even if it is Dune).
5. Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
There’s something so tender about his direction here. I loved it. It’s like Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain. He never over-sentimentalizes it, and allows it to feel real and natural. And before you know it, you’re so invested in everything and it almost comes out of nowhere. The minute you get to that monologue at the end from Michael Stuhlbarg, you’re getting your heart broken the way the main character is. It’s really a great piece of work.
6. Darren Aronofsky, Mother!
I really love how he just went for it. Take away your personal feelings about the movie and whether or not he achieves what he set out to achieve — the work is still really impressive. He created a tightly controlled experience that takes place entirely inside a house, and by the time he get to that third act you’re wondering how in the hell he pulled it off. It’s really impressive. Effort-wise, this is one of the best of the year. It’s just a shame that not everyone was able to appreciate it when it came out.
7. Sean Baker, The Florida Project
It’s hard to make a film with non-actors and a child as your protagonist. To make it as engaging and as emotional as this is, is a real feat. We knew Baker could tell a verité style story with Tangerine, and I feel like some people thought he was gonna go back to that iPhone well and just shoot something like that. But here, he holds back on the iPhone until the very last moment of the film, using it to enhance everything else he’s done until that point. He makes a very laid back film. Tangerine felt immediate and in your face. This one feels like it’s hanging back and just observing. I love how he paced it and focused on little moments that add up to life, rather than moments that string together to form a straight narrative. Things just happen, the way they do in childhood. You remember episodes, not whole sections. I’m in awe of what Sean Baker has been able to accomplish with his last two films, and I really cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.
8. Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
I still can’t believe this movie exists. Guillermo is one of the only people who can make a movie so specific and so personal to himself and have everyone love it. It’s a movie about a woman who falls in love with a fish! It’s also a beautiful fairy tale, told in the past and meant to evoke our present day. Say what you will about the film and its idiosyncrasies, but it’s beautifully made. There’s a musical number with a mute woman and a fish man! And it works! Also, on a somewhat behind-the-scenes note — I still can’t believe he pulled this movie off for $20 million. It looks so much more expensive than that. And that does factor into why I love the effort so much. A great director can take their limitations and make the most of them. And that’s exactly what he does here.
9. James Mangold, Logan
James Mangold did what few others have been able to do. It’s pretty much just him and Christopher Nolan at this point. He took the superhero genre and took away all the pretenses and affects and left us with a riveting drama about someone who just happens to be a superhero. Wolverine has long been the best part of the X-Men movies. And the individual films about him were just… mixed to okay at best. And here, he takes all the history we have with the character and really gives him a proper movie. The kind of movie that will hold up for years to come. It’s the perfect storm of taking everything you know about a character and boiling it down to the essentials. He doesn’t overdo it with mutants. He doesn’t give you huge set pieces. The climax of this movie is a fight in the woods. The big set piece at the beginning is a car driving through a gate. He doesn’t overdo it. He lets the characters and the actions speak for themselves, and really delivers a wonderful, wonderful film, that is better than most non-superhero films from this year.
10. Kathryn Bigelow, Detroit
Say what you will about her and her style, she makes captivating films. The entire Algiers Motel sequence was one of the most tense pieces of film I saw this year. Overall, I think the film meanders a bit, but as a whole, it’s an incredible piece of work that shows just how vital she is as a filmmaker. I wish the film ended up getting more love overall than it did, because it is just about up there with her previous efforts.
11. James Gray, The Lost City of Z
James Gray has become the trendy ‘underappreciated’ director. It’s for a reason. He has been churning out very solid films for years and hasn’t gotten any form of recognition for them whatsoever. This, I feel, may be his best work. It’s just a thing of beauty. This, in the hands of someone like Ridley Scott, would have had a bunch of Oscar nominations. It’s so classically made, and on such a small budget, considering the scale and size of the picture. This is Aguirre. This is a man driven by the obsessive desire to find something, who dedicates his life to it. It’s gorgeously shot, and one of those movies that has not gotten anywhere near the love it deserves.
12. S. Craig Zahler, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Zahler is becoming the king of the modern day B movie. With Bone Tomahawk, he made a western that was not only riveting, but horrifying when you got to the final act. This movie — you’re set up to think B movie, and then it brings you wildly in another direction for the first half of the movie. It’s kinda like what From Dusk Till Dawn does, getting you invested in the drama of these fugitives and this family before becoming about vampires. You’re set up to think ‘prison movie’ and then the first forty minutes are this drama about a guy and his wife trying to survive, and him getting into a situation he didn’t necessarily need to be into, and then it sort of becomes a prison movie, but not the kind you’d expect. To the point where you forget about the point of the film. And then it starts heading in that direction, and it just gets nuts. I respect the shit out of everything he did here, and this is, to me, one of the most underrated movies of the year. If you can handle the violence, I think this is a movie, like Bone Tomahawk, you’re gonna be surprised at how much you like it. He also found a way to turn Vince Vaughn into a viable action star. It speaks to the effort that you truly believe Vince Vaughn is gonna kick the shit out of anyone he gets his hands on in this movie.
13. William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth
The surprise darling of the year for me. I was awed by this movie within five minutes. I could not take my eyes off of it. This is structured like a stuffy period piece that feels anything but. It’s almost a Hitchcock movie, or a Daphne du Maurier gothic romance, that also doesn’t feel anything like that. From its audible lack of a score to the lingering of shots and moments, I loved everything about how Oldroyd shot this movie, and really think this is one of the best overall films of the year.
14. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent
They made an animated movie about Vincent Van Gogh where every frame is an individual oil painting. I would be insane to not mention them among the best directorial efforts of the year. No matter what you feel about the finished product, there is no denying that the mere fact that this film exists is one of the great technical achievements of 2017.
15. Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya
I love the route he took with this. Making it bursting with energy and not caring how unreliable the narrators are, going so far as to lean into it, having them break the fifth wall at times (talking to the camera during a flashback where they’re already narrating to the audience what’s going on), to really show just how unreliable the whole thing is. The amount of energy that goes into this movie is clearly a product of how he wanted to direct it. He also clearly made the choice to go the full Goodfellas, leaning into the music choices (some of which are truly inspired). He also did a great thing by using Margot Robbie in the skating scenes as much as possible. Obviously some things he couldn’t do (the triple axel is something few people can actually achieve, so of course that had to be CGI), but by and large, it feels organic and real. I’m very impressed by what he did here.
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