As shows and movies pile up on my Netflix queue and I have less time to get to the theaters these days, I decided against doing a year-end Top 10 Movies or Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense if half the shows or movies I saw this year make the final list. Thus, I’m mashing it all together and doing my top 20 favorite pieces of culture in 2017.
This list will feature the movies, shows, and music that was most impactful and memorable to me this past year. Yes, weighing Get Out against, say, Lorde’s Melodrama is a strange endeavor, but that’s what makes this fun. Let’s get on with it.
- Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2
Before 2015, Chris Stapleton spent most of this century writing songs for other people, including country stars like Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Tim McGraw, and more. That’s a nice way to make a living, unless you’re blessed with a booming, goosebump-inducing voice. A couple years ago, Stapleton released Traveller, his debut album that went double platinum and earned him Grammy love. He became known as the throwback outlaw type that was actually accepted by the country music industry, probably because he wrote a lot of their songs.
Stapleton returned this year with From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2, two separate half-hour records filled with terrific country tunes that sound nothing like the quasi-rapping, overly sentimental stuff you hear on mainstream country radio. Hard-charging barn burners like “Second One to Know” and “Midnight Train to Memphis” will stop you in your tracks, while slower ballads like “Either Way” show off Stapleton’s powerhouse pipes, always brimming with utter conviction.
The content on From A Room (heavy-drinking man reflects on love, family, and how to live) isn’t all that original, but the music’s strength comes from its simplicity and honesty. Lines like “People call me the Picasso of paintin’ the town” and “We go to work, go to church, fake the perfect life” feel ten times more authentic coming from Stapleton than they would almost any other country artist.
Of all the new shows I saw this year, Netflix’s GLOW is the one that is built to run for several seasons. With a never-better Alison Brie at the center, GLOW (that’s Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, if you were wondering) features a hysterical ensemble cast of weirdos, outcasts, and losers. It’s the lovable ragtag group that you love to cheer for. In only ten half-hour episodes, this show was able to give us at least a handful of fully realized characters to be invested in. Marc Maron, in particular, is tremendous as the coked-up sad-sack director that you can’t help but feel for. Not everything GLOW tried worked out, but it was the funniest show I watched this year. It’s been renewed for season 2 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s around for awhile.
- The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious and heartfelt real-life story, co-written with his wife Emily Gordon, has to be the year’s biggest non-Get Out surprise. Who could have expected this little cross-cultural rom-com to make over $42 million at the box office? There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst a story that draws you in with its smart writing and lived-in performances. Speaking of, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are a delight to watch here. Although it may run a bit too long, I wasn’t mad that I spent two hours with Romano, Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Kumail, who I wasn’t familiar with before The Big Sick. I’m ready for more of him now.
The best pulpy summer TV show I didn’t know I wanted, Ozark was not the most original thing I saw this year, but it could have been the most entertaining. For a show that closely followed the male anti-hero format, Ozark differentiated itself with its setting and pace.
Set on the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, the show depicts a rural environment that we don’t usually see on TV (although apparently True Detective’s third season will also take place in the Ozarks): a tourist town in the summer that is all but abandoned the rest of the year. Our protagonist Marty Byrde, a money-laundering financial advisor from Chicago, has to navigate this terrain, which isn’t so easy when the locals already have a drug operation set up. The smartest thing Ozark does is skip all of the background on how Marty got involved with the cartel (Breaking Bad already did that) and plunge us head-first into the action. This show moves fast, which means it has some credibility-stretching moments, as well as some painful dialogue. There’s hardly any likable characters here at all; still, Ozark remains inherently watchable. This might not make any sense, but to paraphrase The Ringer’s The Watch podcast, Ozark is probably not a good show, but it also just might be great.
- Win It All
I’ve always enjoyed the work of indie writer-director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire) and actor Jake Johnson (Nick from New Girl), so Win It All was right up my alley. Swanberg makes small, low-budget fare that usually makes for pleasant, although not life-changing viewing. You have to respect his proficiency (he typically releases one movie a year and has a show on Netflix called Easy) and his ability to pull real emotion from small “low stakes” settings.
Win It All is premised on a couple of simple, yet enduring genres: The poker movie and the “bag of money” movie. It follows Eddie (Jake Johnson) as he is given a duffel bag of cash to store away for an incarcerated friend. The problem is Eddie is a compulsive gambler. Thanks to Johnson’s likable performance, I really felt for Eddie, despite his poor decision-making. You’re living and dying with him throughout his arc as he loses obscene amounts of money to gambling, tries to get his life in order, and then has to go back to the poker table in order to win it all back. Like all Swanberg films, it’s funny but not hysterically so, dramatic but not self-serious.
- SZA – Ctrl
Deeply personal and endlessly listenable, SZA’s Ctrl continually grew on me during the year. Over lovely minimalist R&B, the singer gets achingly vulnerable, candidly and daringly airing out her neediness and imperfections throughout the album with lyrics like “I hope you never find out who I really am” and “Do you even know I’m alive?” On tracks like “Drew Barrymore” and “The Weekend,” you realize you might be listening to a really special new artist. She gets a little help from Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, but all in all, Ctrl is SZA’s show. And she’s not afraid to be its flawed and human star.
- Fargo (Season 3)
First, a disclaimer: The second season of FX’s Fargo was maybe my favorite season of television ever. I’m such a sucker for Fargo’s style (the movie and show): a quirky crime saga peppered with dark humor. So when the third season debuted earlier this year, I tried to temper my expectations a bit after the first two seasons knocked me off my feet. In the season 3 premiere, a character named Nikki Swango (that’s a TV Hall of Fame name right there) uses an A/C window unit as a murder weapon. Needless to say, I was hooked on Fargo again.
Sure, this season didn’t have the ambition or execution of past seasons. Its characters were not quite as memorable, despite a fantastic cast headlined by Ewan McGregor (playing twins), Carrie Coon, and David Thewlis, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Swango stealing the show. Even if this is the weakest of Fargo’s three seasons, it was, as always, eccentric and entertaining and super compelling. In interviews, series showrunner Noah Hawley sounded uncertain about making another season. That’s unfortunate, because three years in, this show has become appointment viewing for me.
- Get Out
When I finally got around to seeing Get Out, the hype for Jordan Peele’s black horror/comedy had risen to unimaginable heights. With a budget under $5 million, it had made over $175 million at the box office and been praised to the rafters by every critic in America. With expectations this sky-high, I could only be (at least slightly) disappointed. One of my biggest regrets from this year in culture is not going to see it on opening night. The neutral expectations and full theater would’ve made my Get Out experience unforgettable. Even with my tepid enthusiasm after watching it on my couch, this is the type of film we need way more of — the kind of thriller that works as both unsettling entertainment and incisive social criticism.
- Narcos (Season 3)
After the first two seasons of Narcos followed Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall, there was doubt that the next season could remain as compelling without Don Pablo. As season three progressed it quickly became clear that this was not just the Escobar Show. Narcos had cooked up more quality product for us. This endlessly entertaining show is not afraid to be pulp history. It educates you with sensational doses of violence and politics.
The action this time follows the Cali cartel, which picks up where Escobar left off in drug-corrupted Colombia. Wagner Moura (Escobar) and Boyd Holbrook (DEA agent Steve Murphy) are gone, but Pedro Pascal is still doing fantastic work as agent Javier Pena, while the third season’s new characters give us interesting arcs to follow. However, what makes this show special is that it’s shot on location in beautiful Colombia’s impossibly green countryside or its narrow, claustrophobic streets. In a tragic development, a location scout was murdered in Mexico while finding spots to shoot season four. It’s suspected that the killing was cartel-related, which complicates our experience as viewers. While we enjoyably consume this kind of entertainment, the drug war rages on outside our living rooms.
- Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
We waited a long time for the Fleet Foxes to return — six years, to be exact. Robin Pecknold and his band took a hiatus to take college courses and figure some stuff out. Crack-Up, their third LP, is less immediate than the first two albums. Its lyrics are more opaque and obscure; there’s no rousing anthems a la “Helplessness Blues” here. But it breaks new ground for them in fascinating ways.
Everything about Crack-Up is purposeful and inspired, from the album title taken from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to that gorgeous album cover of a Japanese coast. There are moments on here that are just as sublime and arresting and beautiful as that cover image: The mid-song tempo change of “On Another Ocean,” most of “- Naiads, Cassadies,” and the chorus of “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” Crack-Up is an essential album about your life cracking apart in frightening and revelatory ways. Let’s hope they don’t disappear for another six years.
- Stranger Things 2
How do you build off a surprise hit? Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer brothers found a way in their second season. They went bigger and bolder, sure, but they also brought back what made us fall in love with the first season. Before the carnage that would come at the end, we got to spend time with the gang at the arcade, watch them trick or treat in Ghostbusters costumes, and be totally delighted by the interplay between Steve and Dustin.
Stranger Things 2 had its weaknesses, of course: Notably, the “Lost Sister” episode and whatever they were doing with Billy’s character. Overall, this season worked for me, though. Bob “the Brain” and Mad Max were inspired additions to the cast. The last two episodes were dark, thrilling, and, most importantly, satisfying, particularly the last scene at the school dance. For such a nostalgic and charming show, there was deep trauma running through this season that made for riveting drama.
- Lorde – Melodrama
Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, just turned 21. This fact astounds me. Earlier this year, she released Melodrama, the follow-up to her debut smash Pure Heroine. It’s hard to believe she just reached legal drinking age when her writing is so impeccable. Lyrics like “Summer slipped us underneath her tongue” and “It’s just another graceless night” are evocative and cliche-free. Where did she get her youthful wisdom and sense of perspective?
Lorde allows more color to seep into her music on Melodrama. It’s brighter and more upbeat (“We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart”). It’s all killer and no filler. My standouts (“The Louvre,” “Supercut,” and “Sober II,” for what it’s worth) may be different than your favorites. This record sweeps us up into Lorde’s infectious nightlife and then, inevitably, exposes us to the cold morning light the next day. What Lorde does on Melodrama reminds us that pop savants like her are all too rare.
- Big Little Lies
In hindsight, how could this not have been entertaining? You get a bunch of movie stars together, film them in luxurious California beachfront homes, have them sip wine and trade gossip, throw in a murder mystery for good measure, and watch the ratings for your TV program soar. But HBO’s Big Little Lies was more than that. It was elevated by committed star performances and Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) confident direction into one of the most entertaining and delightful watches of the year.
You can tell every actor involved is not just here to pick up a paycheck. Reese Witherspoon coolly owns the first half of the seven-episode run before the show shifts focus to Nicole Kidman’s emotionally raw performance. Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, and Adam Scott all provide compelling supporting turns to build out the scandalous Monterey, California community of Big Little Lies. At times, the rich-mom melodrama almost strays into self-parody, but overall, Vallee, who directed all seven episodes, keeps our attention on the complex relationships and the murder we know is coming. Also, shouts to the nine-year-old daughter with a young adult’s music taste for soundtracking the show.
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Matt Zoller Seitz over at RogerEbert.com put it well: “How many Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Imperial walkers, lightsabers, escape pods, and discussions of the nature of The Force have we seen by now? Oodles. But Johnson manages to find a way to present the technology, mythology and imagery in a way that makes it feel new.”
Before the release of The Last Jedi, the pressure on writer-director Rian Johnson was heavier than Jabba the Hutt, and, polarizing fan reaction aside, he came through in the clutch. His Star Wars movie is narratively bold and visually magnificent.
Johnson reveres this franchise, but he’s not afraid to break things and surprise people. Of course, he’s assisted by wildly charismatic young actors, such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega, and graceful veterans, like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (RIP). Despite its two and a half hour runtime, this movie is riveting and complex throughout. I already can’t wait to see it again.
It’s hard to watch Mindhunter and not recall Zodiac and Se7en, David Fincher’s other serial killer studies. His Netflix show has the look of Zodiac, but the feel of those scenes in Se7en when the detectives (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) are conversing with Kevin Spacey’s serene psychopath John Doe. Mindhunter’s intensity comes not from fast-paced action or grisly violence, but from simply sitting across from a mass murderer in a jail cell.
Holden and Tench, the FBI agents here, have wonderful chemistry that makes this show an easier watch than it should be, and Mindhunter visibly benefits from Fincher directing four of the ten episodes (that second episode travel montage is a masterclass). For a show with such a measured pace throughout, the end of the season fully arrests you with its tension-filled, Led Zeppelin-soundtracked climax. No show this year had me hanging on every line of dialogue like this one.
- Blade Runner 2049
Here we have the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi visionary Blade Runner is easier to admire than truly love, and this year’s Blade Runner 2049 revived its world with layered storytelling and majestic visuals. This is, without hyperbole, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a visual feast on screen that is bold, inventive, and sumptuous. Literally every other shot is jaw-dropping. Besides Dunkirk, this was the best theater experience I had this year.
The story doesn’t 100% work, but plot isn’t even one of the top 5 most interesting things about Blade Runner 2049. The performances are fascinating. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as a new type of “blade runner,” Harrison Ford impressively updates his classic sci-fi protagonist Rick Deckard, Robin Wright is so good she should probably be given a supporting role in every movie, and, as always, I’m not quite sure what Jared Leto is doing. This movie could have gone very wrong, but Villeneuve wouldn’t let it. Instead, we got a rich text that delves into what makes us human and what gives us a soul. It’s heady, heavy stuff on a gorgeous canvas.
- Lady Bird
Lady Bird is the rare movie that you would recommend to anyone. Sharply written with specificity and warmth, first-time writer-director Greta Gerwig discovers the perfect balance of levity and gravity in her coming-of-age dramedy. This is a “last days of adolescence” movie that doesn’t treat high school as a melodrama. Saoirse Ronan is the titular Lady Bird, and she carries the film as a character that is easy to love despite her youthful errors. We follow her throughout her senior year of high school in Sacramento (or, as she calls it, the “Midwest of California”) as she falls in love, fights with her mom (a note-perfect Laurie Metcalf), and longs to attend college on the East Coast (“where writers live in the woods”).
The humor is less uproarious belly laughs and more clever little moments that will surely seem even funnier on a repeat viewing. Lady Bird is so generous with all its characters, even the ones that could be made into caricatures in a lesser movie. And despite the light touch, Gerwig’s script deals thoughtfully with class, socioeconomic status, and parenting. Recalling Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and some of her boyfriend Noah Baumbach’s best work, Gerwig’s Lady Bird ultimately sets itself apart as a love letter to home, where we all begin to form who we will become.
- The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
I don’t know how they do it, but The War On Drugs are so clearly inspired by past artists but still manage to create something that feels fresh and exhilarating. Their 2014 release, Lost in the Dream, was far and away my favorite album of that year. So when A Deeper Understanding dropped this year, I tried to keep my expectations mild. You can’t expect a band to top themselves every time, right?
A Deeper Understanding is a bigger budget version of their previous work. Tracks like “Holding On” (my song of the year) and “Nothing To Find” are catchier and hit harder. Everything sounds just slightly more expensive. However, leveling up doesn’t mean they have lost what makes them great. They still riff off the likes of Springsteen, Petty, and Dire Straits without sounding like a cover band. They still have that shaggy, laid-back vibe on “Thinking Of A Place” and “Knocked Down.” I’m frequently discovering new avenues and backroads to explore on each listen of this dense, exceptional album.
In a genre as well-trod as the war movie, Christopher Nolan found his own way into this rarely depicted World War II story, unfurling three timelines as an innovative technique to portray the battle of Dunkirk. But that’s not what you remember most about seeing Dunkirk. What remains with you is the white-knuckle suspense, the experience Nolan creates that drops you in the middle of the chaotic, deadly fray. There’s no generals strategizing in front of a map. No soldier repeatedly taking out a folded-up photo of their wife/family from their pocket. Just stark shots of a French beach and British soldiers desperately trying to survive. This is a different type of war movie, a thrilling and lean survival story that felt fresh amid a summer movie slate of overly familiar sequels and franchises. From Nolan’s widescreen splendor to Hans Zimmer’s cracking score, Dunkirk is as pure a survival story as you’re likely to see.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
How lucky are we to be alive while Kendrick Lamar Duckworth makes music? With good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and now DAMN., I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we just witnessed one of the best three-album runs in hip-hop history. Almost everything about these three records is exhilarating, thoughtful, and virtuosic. I thought there was no way Kendrick could improve upon the jazz-inflected insight of To Pimp a Butterfly, but after DAMN., I had to, yet again, reconsider what was his best work.
There’s something for everyone on DAMN.: Ferocious, mile-a-minute bars (DNA), pop-star collab (LOYALTY), tender and catchy love song (LOVE), introspective rumination (FEAR). It may simultaneously be his most accessible work and also his most challenging. Although it runs through all of his music, what I found most perceptive about DAMN. was the careful contemplation of sin and redemption, both personal and societal. Kendrick has a way of examining religion and his own faith like no other artist right now. The rest of us are just thanking God that we get to watch him at work.
And my full lists:
Top 5 TV Shows
- Big Little Lies
- Stranger Things 2
Top 10 Movies
- Lady Bird
- Blade Runner 2049
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
- Get Out
- Win It All
- The Big Sick
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- Baby Driver
Top 10 Albums
- DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
- A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
- Melodrama – Lorde
- Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
- Ctrl – SZA
- From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2 – Chris Stapleton
- Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear
- Capture – Thunder Dreamer
- Sleep Well Beast – The National
- Something to Tell You – HAIM