The health of our current film culture might best be described in terms of balance: Whereas the industry as a whole in 2017 was kept afloat by family films, superheroes and horror, critics and fans alike are searching for excellence across a wide spectrum of genres and target audiences: As gratifying as it was that “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” were terrific, well-executed movies, there was just as much satisfaction to be found in such quirky direct-to-Netflix gems as “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” and “Tramps.”
In between, viewers this year were treated to surprisingly high-toned popcorn movies (“Logan,” “War for the Planet of the Apes”); old-fashioned action adventures (“Lost City of Z”); searingly topical dramas (“Detroit”); small-canvas, thought-provoking indies (“Colossal,” “Marjorie Prime”); and crowd-pleasers that didn’t sacrifice content on the altar of rousing entertainment (“Battle of the Sexes,” “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” “I, Tonya”).
Any of those films could easily have ended up on my 2017 top-10 list. As could have such documentaries as “Step,” “The Departure,” “Jim & Andy” and “Dolores,” and such standout performances as Sam Elliott in “The Hero,” Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project” or Tiffany Haddish in “Girls Trip” — which, as a movie I paid to see with a big, boisterous audience, turned out to be my favorite moviegoing experience of the year, hands down.
Those honorables duly mentioned, here are the movies that made the final 10 (and change).
1. “Mudbound” Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel possesses the sprawl, scope, texture and detail of fine literature, and the ambition and technical chops of such classics as “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” A big, quintessentially American movie full of exquisitely composed shots and indelible performances, this is the kind of movie “they” don’t make anymore, until she does.
2. “Lady Bird” The adorkable indie actress Greta Gerwig made her solo writing-directing debut with this sharply observed coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to break free of her family and home town; it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to make humor and drama look so spontaneous and effortless. Gerwig never puts a foot wrong telling a story that, despite its intimate dimensions, is nothing less than epic.
3. “The Post” Meryl Streep channels Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in a story that’s ostensibly about the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers but really depicts the transformation of a tentative, self-doubting daughter-and-wife coming into her own as a business leader and journalist. Directed with characteristic brio by Steven Spielberg and enriched by a superb cast that includes Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, this is a movie about press freedom, accountability and feminism that has clearly found its moment.
4. “The Big Sick” The comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, wrote this delightful romantic comedy, largely inspired by their own unconventional love story; directed by Michael Showalter with a deft touch, this beguiling ode to family and filial devotion (and rebellion) recalls James L. Brooks in its tonal values that toggle gracefully between hilarious to deeply touching.
5. “Get Out” Jordan Peele made his writing-directing debut with this brilliant horror-satire, which worked on a dizzying number of levels at once, being genuinely funny, scary, thoughtful, provocative and politically resonant, often all at the same time. Conceived and realized with equal amounts of audacity and assurance, this was the first great movie of 2017.
6. “Call Me By Your Name” Luca Guadagnino’s deliciously languid evocation of first love, set in a fabulous villa in Italy in the 1980s, drips with atmosphere, erotic attraction and excruciating good taste: It might all be too-too precious were it not for the well-judged performances of its leading actors, Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet, and an unforgettable supporting turn from Michael Stuhlbarg, whose final speech sends the entire enterprise aloft on a cloud of almost superhuman compassion. Bravi.
7. “Faces Places” French New Waver Agnes Varda proves she’s the OG with this magnificent documentary, in which she and the street artist JR ramble through French towns photographing everyday people and pasting their enormous portraits in public spaces. The film celebrates the uncelebrated, lending them a monumentality that might be fleeting but still holds meaning: It’s an ecstatic example of art-making at its most humanistic and profoundly engaged.
8. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” Filmmaker Bill Morrison, who often works with rare archival footage, delved into a store of long-lost films abandoned in the Yukon for 80 years to create an essay film whose silvery images suggest a medium that is both fragile and remarkably durable; volatile but also timeless. Woven throughout the haunting visuals is a timely meditation on cinema, capitalism and the wages of Manifest Destiny.
9. “A Ghost Story” David Lowery’s strange little movie starts out as a love story, gives way to suspense, and finally blossoms into an enigmatic and highly expressive evocation of time, place, collective memory and history, given extra aesthetic ballast by a squared-off frame reminiscent of family photo albums. Plus, Rooney Mara eats a pie. So there’s that.
10. “Dunkirk,” “Darkest Hour” and “Their Finest” The World War II evacuation at Dunkirk definitely had a moment this past year, as the subject of not just one but three outstanding movies. Taken together, the immersive spectacle of “Dunkirk,” Gary Oldman’s crafty portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” and the humor, winsome romance and tragic loss of “Their Finest” form a fascinating and moving triptych on an event perfectly timed to stir memories of inspiring political leadership and the quiet heroism of civilians.
Read more of our picks for the best of 2017: