Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Maybe 2017 felt the need to double down on all the magnificent films 2016 brought us, but this past year was a strong one for cinema. Filmmakers were more eager than ever to craft works of genius that stirred up thought-provoking discussions long after the end credits. And it’s these strong artistic statements and voices that made my personal best list.
I’ve hyperlinked my full reviews (where possible) for easier access to my long-form gushing over these fantastic offerings.
17. THE BIG SICK: Pleased to report the hype surrounding this one was real. This is the way to write a healthy, poignant, genuinely affecting romcom. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have taken their personal, heartrending, real-life experiences and made them into something that speaks to the universal. It’s got so much damn heart, humor, drive and charm, it’s undeniable. I cried.
16. BLADE RUNNER 2049: My desire to marinate in the beautiful world this created and the heady concepts it posited far outlasted the run time. Not only does this function as an extension of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Villeneuve makes this decades-in-the-making sequel a unique standalone. Let your eyes sensually bathe in this one, and your ears delight in the tremendous sound design and score.
15. WONDER WOMAN: In my years of doing this job, there’s been no greater moment to witness than seeing a young girl stand up and scream “yes,” during the goosebump-inducing “No Man’s Land” segment in director Patty Jenkins’ feature. This one raised the bar in terms of its storytelling approach, not only within the DCEU, but also how female characters should be portrayed in other cinematic universes. It’s impossible to shake this film’s empowering feeling.
14. GIRLS TRIP: A lot has been made about female-driven crass comedies this year, seeing as we were #blessed with four of them. However, none ranked better than this. It’s that ridiculously good. Housing an absolutely terrific, star-making performance from stand-up comedienne Tiffany Haddish, this raunchcom is what’s been missing from our cinematic landscape for far too long. It’s certainly worth celebrating. More of this forever please.
13. THE BEGUILED/ LADY MACBETH/ MY COUSIN RACHEL: This was the year of subjugated women pushing back against oppressive, fragile, toxic masculinity in real life as well as in cinema. These three features best capture what we’ve all been feeling, functioning as a shot of adrenaline into the cinematic social consciousness. All are highly feminist-forward films spotlighting a similar thematic through line – and have two middle fingers pointed at the patriarchy.
12. GET OUT: Thank you, Jordan Peele! Thank you for giving us the indelible phrase “the sunken place” to best describe how crazy and upside down this world has become. Socially relevant, visually remarkable and wickedly intense, this wholly original narrative’s incisive, provocative commentary has wedged itself into a necessary conversation. Plus, it only gets better on repeat viewings.
11. THE POST: With the media under attack by our frog president, it’s only natural that Hollywood’s reflexive response was to create masterful art. The immediacy and resonance of the narrative even stood to reinvigorate a master director like Steven Spielberg. He and his company have fashioned a thrilling cinematic experience that’s undoubtedly complementary to SPOTLIGHT and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. It provides a beacon of hope in our time of need – and it’s riveting.
10. BABY DRIVER: Writer-director Edgar Wright has made a supped-up, roaring tour-de-horsepower feature with this cinematic car-cophony. Stimulating to the senses, and with a killer, crushing soundtrack that won’t leave your own metal chariot’s sound system, Wright and company’s passionate commitment overwhelms audiences in the best of ways. The car-crunching mayhem is something special to behold – as is everything else down the line (editing, costumes, performances).
9. THE DISASTER ARTIST: I don’t think I laughed harder during a film this year – or ever felt more empathy towards eccentric auteur Tommy Wiseau. Perhaps the most ingenious thing about this “too-insane-to-be-true-but-totally-is” story from director/ star James Franco about the making of THE ROOM is that, even if you haven’t seen THE ROOM, you’ll still love and understand this film. For the die-hard fans of the cult classic, the filmmakers have also laced this tale about male camaraderie with subtle, loving nods and nuances. Franco and his ensemble do a tremendous job re-enacting the beloved “so-bad-its-good” movie – so much so, you’ll kill to have them do midnight showings of their recreation.
8. 3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: Art featuring a social justice bent is what’s now. And it’s now more pressing than ever to address society’s ills in hopes of correction. Writer-Director Martin McDonagh’s neo-western/ pitch black dramedy showcases one town’s boiling frustrations. It’s cinema that encapsulated 2017’s zeitgeist – and perhaps the most provocative one to attempt to do it. Recently, many have called it out for what they deemed a clumsy representation of intersectionality. Welcome to what McDonagh sees as America 2017! White men are redeemed regularly after the most horrific racist actions occur, and white women’s voices often drown out women of color’s. It’s disheartening and sickening – and McDonagh isn’t about to sugar-coat it, nor trick his audience into any “in a perfect world” scenarios. It’s a Molotov Cocktail of a fire-starting film. One thing’s for sure: it would make a helluva double feature with GET OUT.
7. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: This. Movie. Levelled. Me. And I’m still a little fragile about it too. Once again, director Luca Guadagnino (I AM LOVE, A BIGGER SPLASH) takes us on a sensuous summer vacation, making us all recall what it was like to fall in love for the first time. It’s a haunting love story that will rip your heart out – and leave you feeling broken open for months after. Soak this one in!
6. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: Even in a bleak world going through upheaval, director Matt Reeves and company bring us this elegant, harrowing and immersive study of humanity. Running the gamut of emotions, this genre-mutating show-stopper hooks perfectly into the lore of the franchise, while at the same time redefining it. It’s a genuine feat in storytelling and technology that has to be seen – and assuredly felt.
5. THE BREADWINNER: Flying under most people’s radars is this animated gem from Nora Twomey (THE SECRET OF KELLS). This female-directed, female-driven film adapted from Deborah Ellis’ novel tells of a young girl in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, who is forced to disguise herself as a boy to provide for her family and spring her father from prison. It’s a powerful, riveting, moving story that’s all female agency. It left me with a lump in my throat, dumbstruck. It’s a must-see.
4. THE FLORIDA PROJECT: I’ve been a Sean Baker fan ever since PRINCE OF BROADWAY and STARLET. I’m overjoyed that others are jumping on board, mainly those who make the important decisions to fund his artistic endeavors. His style is a reserved visual poetry that bursts with emotion and life – particularly when his stories portray people living on the fringes of society. With this drama set in the shadow of a land fueled by dreams, wonder and make-believe, he brilliantly captures a childhood sense of play, rapture and discovery. Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Bria Vinaite’s heartrending performances will break you. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of the scene with the kids eating ice cream. This is cinéma vérité at its finest.
3. LOGAN: To take the words from the titular hero, “so this is what it feels like.” How lucky were we, receiving two incredible comic book movies this year?! And they saved the best for last, with our final chapter with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). We finally saw our much-beloved character getting in touch with his berserker side (without the confines of a more family-friendly rating), as well as exploring his humanity within different relationship dynamics, which are as textured as films like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, CHILDREN OF MEN and SHANE. It earns every emotion, particularly in its blend of superhero action sequences and intimate drama.
2. MOTHER!: If there was a bolder, brassier, ballsier picture this year, I didn’t see it. Having now experienced writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s outrageous, audacious stunner four times, I’ll go on record preaching its gospel. Not only does the narrative assuredly work on face value as a commentary on modern society (and all our foibles and failings), it completely functions in all of its Mobius strip-like allegorical connections (religious and whatnot). My anxiety levels still rise thinking about the sink that wasn’t braced and Mother roaming her house barefoot. Topped with tremendous performances by the cast, and masterful work from DP Matthew Libatique, production designer Philip Messina and the entire sound department, this provocative picture’s nihilism wows.
1. THE SHAPE OF WATER: One way to get straight to the heart of any cinephile is through a feature that pays homage to beloved classics. It’s even better when it’s disguised and made subversive enough that those references become obscured. Director/ co-writer Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a masterpiece in this gorgeous, passionate, poetic fairy-tale for adults. Putting clever twists on tropes, and color-coding his characters, he and co-writer Vanessa Taylor create a world in which society’s marginalized are the heroes. It’s bliss when we all need it the most!
2017 honorable mentions: MUDBOUND, TRAGEDY GIRLS, COLOSSAL, POLINA, DEIDRA & LANEY ROB A TRAIN, THEIR FINEST, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, COCO, PERSONAL SHOPPER, GERALD’S GAME, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I,TONYA, PREVENGE,THE WORK,KILLING OF A SACRED DEER.