The Reel Spirituality Community Top 10 Films of 2017


The Year

Every year seems to have a film that towers over the rest. Since we’ve been compiling our annual Reel Spirituality Community Top 10 List, those towering films have been Calvary and Boyhood (an essential tie in 2014), The Revenant (2015), and Silence (2016). This year, we have a clear champion in our poll – Greta Gerwig’s quintessential coming-of-age story, Lady Bird – but it received only about double the number of points as our tenth-ranked film, the somber send-up of everyone’s favorite superhero Logan. In past years, our top film has received almost five times the number of points as our tenth-ranked film.

This speaks, I think, to the overall quality of cinema this past year. 2017 was a good year for good movies, even if it wasn’t a good year for great ones. To put it in baseball terms, 2017 was the 2002 Oakland Athletics, not the 1998 Yankees. In restaurant terms, 2017 was that great little local place down the street that you hope stays a secret, not The French Laundry. 2017 was a year of solid, well-crafted, personal cinema. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a year like this over a year dominated by a single slugger any time.

It was a good year for us too. We started it by welcoming Martin Scorsese to campus to celebrate his passion project Silence. Then, we met with our friend Ralph Winter to talk about The Promise and to honor our Armenian neighbors. We spoke with A Ghost Story-teller David Lowery; Annabelle: Creation helmer David Sandberg; the remarkable pair behind I’ll Push You, Jared Skeesuck and Patrick Grey; the man who memorialized Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky – Logan Sparks; and with Dan Gilroy, who’s Roman J. Israel Esq. remains among the year’s most underrated films. (This coming year promises to be just as fun. Paul Schrader will be joining us for a screening and a lecture at the end of February.)

And that’s all just the most public part of our year. The real value of this list is that it represents the community of faith-filled film-lovers that are all connected in some way to Reel Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary. We enjoy sharing this communal list with you, but more, we enjoy compiling it together. For us, the real fun is the ongoing conversation amongst ourselves that this list represents. We are an ever-growing community of cinephiles who also care very much about Christ. If you are reading this list, you’ll likely fit right in. Join us.

The Films

The overall quality of this year in cinema is represented by the variety of films listed by our community members. Twenty films received either first or second-place rankings by at least one of our voters, and the most number one rankings any film received was two. In past years, we’ve always had at least one film receive four or five top placements and only ten or films be ranked number one or two by any participant in our poll. Given the large number of highly-ranked films this year, we decided to provide capsule reviews of every film that received a number one or number two placing, even if they didn’t make the top ten. We’re calling these reviews “Bonus Features.” If your favorite film of 2017 didn’t make our top ten, maybe you’ll find it among the bonuses.

We loved a lot of films this year including:

  • • a humble, whip-smart coming-of-age-story that feels more like an apology than a declaration;
  • • a Hitchcockian chamber drama about the necessity of self sacrifice in love;
  • • a war film about seeing victory in defeat;
  • • a romantic comedy for an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse society;
  • • a thoughtful, complicated, hilarious, scare-you-silly, satirical horror film that’s less scary than the reality it satirizes;
  • • a blockbuster that thinks more of its audience than its audience thinks of it;
  • • a fairy tale for adults who are aware of the ways our stories, and especially our theological ones, shape society;
  • • an ode to seekers who never find what they’re looking for but find something better instead;
  • • a film about a woman who finally stands up to her abusers, including the audience;
  • • and a sad superhero film about caring for the elderly, for the children, and about knowing when it’s time to let go.

– Elijah Davidson, Reel Spirituality Co-Director and Managing Editor

1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was one of the best things that happened to audiences in 2017. Her delightful solo directorial debut puts the qualities we have come to love in her signature screen roles (chiefly in Frances Ha and Mistress America, both co-written by Gerwig) on full display; an intoxicatingly bubbly mix of intelligence, earnest optimism, overflowing creative energy, a bevy of endearing idiosyncrasies, and a contagious zest for life.

Saoirse Ronan’s career best turn (so far!) in the title role as a mold-breaking, Catholic school misfit is well-supported by a ridiculously talented cast including Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, and Beanie Feldstein. Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale is a bittersweet (with a decided emphasis on the sweet) ode to the people and places that shape us in our formative years, most especially our parents, who for better or worse loom large in our stories and whose longsuffering contributions to who we are, what we become, and the places we end up often go underappreciated or even unnoticed in the moment while we’re young.

Paulo Coelho once made the observation that, “It’s not until much later, that children understand; their stories and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the water of their lives.” Gerwig’s generous-hearted film could only be made by a human being who has grown enough in wisdom to not only appreciate but to also give thanks for the invaluable influence of her parents and her hometown, warts-and-all, in shaping her story and setting her on the path towards her future achievements. This is a film about not apologizing for who we are or where we come from and instead having hearts filled with gratitude as we look back on our life journeys. And at the end of a year rife with cynicism, this message could not be more welcome.

– Jonathan Stoner

2. Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread pulls back a little on the gonzo ambition of Paul Thomas Anderson’s last few films—it’s the closest he’s ever come to a chamber drama—but in doing so he brings into focus his own obsessive quest for perfection. Despite the lack of an official cinematographer (Anderson says it was done by committee), Phantom Thread might be his most sumptuous, well shot film; the driving scenes, which play a largely insignificant part in the film, are a master class in themselves. The dramatic stakes, though smaller than the American epics of There Will Be Blood and The Master, convey a thrilling sense of the erotic mental chess played between fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock and his muse. And yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible in his final film role, but he’s matched both by Vicky Krieps as his lover and a perfect Lesley Manville as his quietly domineering sister.

– Asher Gelzer-Gavatos

3. Dunkirk

Why would I, a woman, select a war genre film in my “Top 10” list of the best films for 2017?  Aren’t they always heavy in testosterone and often lacking in any strong women (the only two noticeable women in the film are actually relatives, a cousin and an aunt, of the Director Christopher Nolan)? Maybe it is because in the hands of Nolan, the genre became something new, something other. We see the war and the predicament of Dunkirk through the eyes of those on land and sea and in the sky. And these three perspectives are interlaced into a compelling story and moving portrayal of the human spirit. It is filmmaking on a grand scale but through a keen mind and delicate hands and heart. In some sense it redeemed the war genre for me.

– Cathy Barsotti

4. The Big Sick

The Big Sick turns the rom-com on its head. It isn’t simply about two characters who fall in and out of love (and then back in love again). Rather, it’s a film about the wholly unrealistic expectations that seem to plague modern relationships. Because it also explores divergent cultural norms regarding dating and marriage, The Big Sick stands out among the more conventionally comedic fare of 2017 and, at least in my book, is one of the “must watch” movies of the year.

– Kutter Callaway

5. Get Out

It wasn’t enough for Get Out to be the highest grossing directorial debut of all time, making back its budget almost 40X over. It still wasn’t enough for it to be nominated for the highest awards the Academy offers, despite being a blend of the Academy’s two least lauded genres, horror & comedy. It did all of that while inventively confronting America’s greatest sin, it’s most festering wound. Get Out will endure not simply as a technically proficient or classic film, but will forever be embedded in the cultural psyche of this tumultuous time. Get Out reflects not only our deepest fears and darkest sins, but its success might just represent out willingness to confront them and the hope that it doesn’t have to always be this way. From a bird’s eye view, Get Out may be among the year’s many great films, but in the lived experience of America in 2017, it might be the most defining and significant film of the year.

– Kevin Nye

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Let the past die.  Kill it if you have to.”

Kylo Ren, villain of The Last Jedi, says this as his credo, and he does his best to follow his own advice. He finds that the past can’t always be struck down as easily as he thinks. The film has already learned that lesson: it moves beyond the Star Wars legacy without doing violence to its forebears. Oh, and it has lots of cool space fights and laser swords too.

– Andy Singleterry

7. The Shape of Water

Who would’ve thought that one the best films of 2017 would be a love story about a mute woman and an Amazonian river monster set in Baltimore during the Cold War? Yet Del Toro and crew managed to do it in whimsical, gritty fashion, crafting some of the most memorable cinematic sequences of 2017. Beyond telling a captivating monster-story, The Shape of Water exposes the ideologies (and theologies) that the powerful in society use to ostracize others who are different than them suggesting that Love (and perhaps God) cannot be confined to a preferable shape. Love is unruly, untamable. Love belongs to and is found among those in the margins.

– Chris Lopez

8. The Lost City of Z

On paper, The Lost City of Z sounds like homework – a period drama about an early 20th century, want-to-be aristocrat, Col. Percival Fawcett, who makes a few trips to the Amazon to find an old city that will prove his theory about human history correct and cement his place among the aristocracy? Spare me. Oh, and before the movie even begins, we know he’ll never find it and that he’ll disappear in the process. And it stars Charlie Hunnam, the guy from… from… well, he looks familiar, doesn’t he? Did he play Bane in that Batman movie?

But The Lost City of Z is anything but drudgery. It is a joyously cine-literate, thrilling adventure film that tackles issues of class, gender roles, race, imperialism, honor, courage, responsibility, parenthood, and science like mounted hunters and their hounds going after a stag. Writer/director James Grey turns this stodgy story of a would-be British imperialist into a spiritual journey that belongs on the shelf alongside Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Apocalypse Now. Sure, Fawcett never finds his city and vanishes in the jungle along the way, but as The Lost City of Z suggests wisely, maybe it’s best that our searched-for cities of gold remain lost, that our souls may be enriched by the searching.

– Elijah Davidson

9. I, Tonya

Talk about spin. Anyone who grew up in the 90s was taught that she was the villain in the story of Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan’s attack–bka “The Incident.” But beyond the accusations, Tonya Harding was a victim of abuse in her own life. Yet, we were none the wiser due to the media’s public execution of her, her ex-husband Jeff Gilooly and her career. This movie gives us a different view of Tonya Harding in a way that is fresh, quirky and sometimes even funny, especially thanks to Allison Janney’s stellar performance at Tonya’s mother.  This film is a reminder that the complexities of human relationships goes beyond headlines and soundbites.

– Avril Speaks

10. Logan

Hugh Jackman’s final portrayal of Logan (aka The Wolverine) depicts a wounded hero fighting against the demons that have plagued him his entire life. The initial trailer for the film utilized Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” a song which sets the tone for this film perfectly. Writer/director James Mangold further subverts the super hero film genre by making Logan in the style of both a Western (drawing influences from films like Unforgiven and Shane) and a road movie (he was also influenced by Little Miss Sunshine). Despite its bleak tone, Logan ultimately offers a glimmer of redemptive light through the title character’s final moments. Logan accomplishes the seemingly impossible for a comic book movie — killing off its hero with absolute finality.

– Gary Ingle

Bonus Features

11. Coco

When you are a minority, there is something very powerful about seeing your people being respectfully represented and your stories being told on the big screen. In this time of administrative threats and hate, Coco is distinct because it seeks to understand, acknowledge, and reflect deep and innate parts of all Mexicanos. We are a people who love deeply across generations and space, we are enriched by remembering our roots, and we rely on each other to carry through. Coco is not just Pixar’s love letter to México, it’s also an example of hospitality and solidarity; a celebration of family, heritage, and tenacity.

– Roslyn Hernandez

13. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Francis McDormand is pitch perfect in her roll as Mildred, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered. This film might well bring her her second Oscar. The film’s plot and dialogue — its combination of absurdity and empathy, expectation and surprise, heartbreak and anger, prejudice and contrition, humor and social commentary, — could be right out of Flannery O’Connor. Martin McDonagh, the screenwriter and director, suggests that moments of grace might be all that can be expected in today’s fractured society. This will not satisfy everyone, but viewers will not easily forget the movie’s raw morality and humanity.

– Rob Johnston

14. A Ghost Story

Rather than have someone write briefly about this film, we decided to let the writer/director of the film, and our good friend Barry Taylor, speak on the film’s behalf. We were honored to host David Lowery earlier this year for a special screening of his elegiac film, and FULLER Studio produced a short film around Lowery’s visit. Enjoy.

16. Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is unlike any film I have seen in years. The Italian countryside, the dreamy pacing and lazy conversations perfectly echo those feelings of a slow summer that is filled with the heat of a budding romance. Despite being about love between two young men, the story feels both personal and universal, because Luca Guadagnino is intentional in making the emotions the focal point of the film. Everything is bathed in sentiment and sensuality, from apricot juice, balmy nights filled with 80s dance music, Greek sculptures found in lakes, and classical piano music. The soundtrack, combining classical, 80s dance, and Italian vocalists help combine the historically-based aesthetics (Italy, Greco-Roman architecture, Liszt) with memories both recent (The Psychadelic Furs) and brand new (Sufjan Stevens). Guadagnino is intentional in leaving out long speeches and conversations (save one important moment) in favor of bathing your senses and allowing your own memories and imagination to fill in the gaps. He has created a gorgeous landscape filled with the bittersweet memories of first love, leaving viewers with a beautiful heartbreak that sends them back into their own youthful summers.

– Lindsey Wright

18. Blade Runner 2049

It is a testament to the empathetic filmmaking of Denis Villeneuve that some of the most deeply human moments of cinema in 2017 came in the tragic love story of K and Joi, neither of whom were considered fully human by their society. Add in the mind-bending visuals, the soul-rattling score, and the pulse-quickening action of Blade Runner 2049, and it’s clear why this is one of the standout films of the year.

– Andrew Neel

22. The Post

The Post is the Spielberg machine operating at its finest – a propulsive, impeccably made, relentlessly entertaining thriller with unmistakable contemporary relevance. Assembled and produced in just nine months, this story of The Washington Post’s battle with the Nixon administration over the publication of the Pentagon Papers is simultaneously a cautionary tale about the abuse of political power, a celebration of democracy and the necessity of the free press, and the coming-of-age story of a legendary leader who happens to be a woman. From beginning to end, Spielberg’s film carries with it a palpable sense of urgency and purpose that define the work of everyone involved, be it the excellent ensemble cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, or behind-the-scene aces like cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. Despite being set largely in interior spaces, The Post is also one of the most visually dynamic films of the year, a work so effortlessly cinematic and skillful that it almost risks being taken for granted (much like the celebrated director at the helm). In this era of uncommon political turmoil, The Post is a much needed reminder that there is nothing fake about speaking truth to power and holding it accountable with rigor and integrity.

– Eugene Suen

31. Last Man in Aleppo

The war in Syria is yet another example of a modern-era phenomenon: a people group caught unfairly and victimized as a result of the chessboard of geopolitics. In the midst of what seems like unfathomable tragedy, a small group of selfless heroes known as the white helmets are busy pulling children out of the rubble of bombed out buildings. I think it was Stalin who said that one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. Movies like this allow us to get to know some of the humans involved in this tragedy, so that we will not reduce them to statistics.

– Justin Wells

31. Song to Song

Terrence Malick’s last entry in his cycle of films translating the Biblical wisdom literature into the contemporary world, Song to Song, is like the other four films in the series—The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Voyage of Time—and therefore not remarkable in its context of only those films, but held up amidst all the rest of filmdom, it is sensational. There is nothing like these films in this history of cinema. What a gift Malick has given us. Given Malick’s reticence—and the rest of the critical community’s disregard for the films in this series that are not The Tree of Life; a disregard born out of unfamiliarity with the films’ referents more than out of true derision—it’s up to us biblically-literate cinephiles to make sure the rest of the world knows what Malick has accomplished. For posterity, here’s a cheat-sheet:

  • • The Tree of Life asks the same questions in the same manner as Job.
  • • To the Wonder minds the tides of romantic love like Song of Songs and even considers the “Christ and the Church” interpretation of that text.
  • • Knight of Cups mimics Ecclesiastes’ search for meaning amidst the best the world has to offer.
  • • Voyage of Time considers creation itself, because all biblical wisdom literature is rooted in the revelation of creation and not in the revelation of the Law, like the rest of the Old Testament literature.
  • • Song to Song is like the first nine chapters of Proverbs, a little moralistic, sure, but more in a matter-of-fact way than a judgemental one.

– Elijah Davidson

31. Twin Peaks: The Return

It is no exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the definitive artworks of our young century, both for its unflinching look at the violence and despair that characterize our times and for the way it stakes out the territory between television and what we traditionally consider cinema. Despite the fact that it aired in installments on Showtime, David Lynch claimed it to be a single 18 hour-long film. And beyond the things that immediately distinguish it from most television – the fact that Lynch directed the entirety, working from a single script he wrote with Mark Frost – The Return backs up this claim by the way in which it subordinates its narrative to a sustained meditation on the experience and the effects of time, paired with an uncommon attention to the wonder of human presence.

For all its spinning of one of the more bizarre takes on the cosmic battle between good and evil (or of the human struggle to find significance in seeming chaos), Lynch does not hesitate to slow things down and linger on the tangential, the inconsequential, the unresolvable: a man sweeping and re-sweeping a bar floor for 3 solid minutes; a drugged-out mother incanting over her last pill; the myriad ways in which his performers (including Lynch himself) have aged since the first iteration of Twin Peaks. This new iteration proceeds through a constant unraveling of itself, its jagged edges and seemingly pointless divergences jarring us out of its world and, with altered eyes and ears, back into our own. Lynch’s method reveals its true heart in the moments when he makes achingly palpable the absence of those friends and collaborators who have passed on in the time it took The Return to make its way to screens. In these moments (Catherine Coulson’s final appearance as The Log Lady being the apotheosis), Twin Peaks reminds us, as little cinema or television does, that any story – any art form – is but a provisional attempt to grasp, and participate in, a narrative that far exceeds the comprehension of any and all of us.

– Samuel Anderson

The Complete List

1. Lady Bird (12 votes, 206.5pts)

2. Phantom Thread (11 votes, 166pts)

3. Dunkirk (9 votes, 151.5pts)

4. The Big Sick (9 votes, 140.5pts)

5. Get Out (8 votes, 137pts)

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (7 votes, 117.5pts)

7. The Shape of Water (7 votes, 113.5pts)

8. The Lost City of Z (7 votes, 111pts)

9. I,  Tonya (7 votes, 100pts)

10. Logan (6 votes, 93pts)

11. Coco (5 votes, 84pts)

12. Wonder Woman (5 votes, 80.5pts)

13. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (5 votes, 77.5pts)

14. A Ghost Story (4 votes, 63pts)

15. The Florida Project (4 votes, 61pts)

16. Call Me By Your Name (3 votes, 58pts)

17. Okja (4 votes, 56.5pts)

18. Blade Runner 2049 (3 votes, 52pts)

19. Band Aid (3 votes, 42pts)

20. The Unknown Girl (2 votes, 33pts)

21. Columbus

22. The Post

22. Molly’s Game

24. Good Time

25. Beauty and the Beast

26. A Quiet Passion

27. Mudbound

28. The Greatest Showman

29. Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol 2

29. It Comes At Night

31. Song to Song

31. Twin Peaks: The Return

31. Last Man in Aleppo

34. Faces Places

35. Wonderstruck

35. Personal Shopper

35. The Reagan Show

38. After the Storm

38. Rat Film

38. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

38. Wind River

38. One of Us

43. Beach Rats

43. Logan Lucky

43. Baby Driver

43. The Son of Joseph

43. 42 Grams

48. Lost in Paris

49. The Beguiled

49. Hostiles

49. Menashe

49. Human Flow

53. Last Flag Flying

53. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

53. Marshall

53. Win It All

53. Unrest

58. Spider-Man: Homecoming

58. Whose Streets?

58. Nocturama

61. Battle of the Sexes

61. Barry

61. The Meyerowitz Stories

61. Lucky

61. Icarus

66. Dawson City: Frozen Time

66. Captain Underpants

66. Step

66. The Square

66. Cars 3

66. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail