Happy New Year and here’s to another year at the movies. It was one of the weakest summers in living memory (in this way it’s almost a relief that I spent it studying for the Bar). Otherwise it was a good and interesting year at the movies, and, as always, here we are once again with a Top 10 list.
Disclaimer #1: This list is not political, at least not in a partisan sense. I’m not interested in shilling for your party, your causes, or in crusading against things in politics that you hate. If you’re hoping this list will be some type of grand treatise on a certain national leader or on high-profile enemies of his, or on efforts against him, look elsewhere. The world does not revolve around you or your problems, nor does good cinema.
Disclaimer #2: I haven’t seen every movie in 2017. No one writing these lists at this time ever has, but at this point I have seen enough that I know, with absolute certainty, what makes the lists.
The Honorable Mentions
Spoiler Alert: Get Out is not on the best list. While everyone else scrambles to put that tripe on theirs to prove how ostensibly not racist they are, I’ll be over here appreciating authentic black cinema. Girls Trip isn’t just an unbelievably raunchy comedy in the vein of Animal House, Bridesmaids, American Reunion, and, of course, The Hangover. It’s an energetic band-back-together party movie about modern fake glamour culture and black social ladder ascension. This is very much the film that the abysmal nu-Ghostbusters last year failed to be – a genuine sexually-debaucherous epic powered by the strength of its characters played by good actors, most especially Tiffany Haddish, and with something for everyone.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
On so many levels, this is the film nu-Star Wars continually fails to be. While the movie never quite rises above its opening five minutes – an extraordinary construction of an optimistic future, the overall picture is a great time. Movies are rarely this comfortable in their own skin, especially with the type of social and political pressure so many big-releases face to be as platonic and passionless as possible. Not here. With magnificent 3D effects and featuring a sexually-playful pair of space police operatives running, flying, and projecting through cities, worlds, dimensions, and stations in an effort to keep order in the center of the new galactic civilization, Valerian is a great space adventure movie and a glorious return to form by Luc Besson.
Again, the second half of this film can’t top the first, especially with that beginning, but what a magnificent musical caper thriller this movie turned out to be. A movie about a kid with tinnitus and a self-constructed soundtrack to his life escaping his life of crime and realizing his dream – this is 2017’s purest summer blockbuster. It is Edgar Wright’s post-Cornetto masterpiece, an instant generational touchstone (as articulated by the great Guillermo del Toro), and somehow also a case study on that terrifying affliction. With action beats, edits, and character movements synchronized perfectly to the soundtrack, Baby Driver rocks – literally.
…and thus without further ado, I present to you the ten best films of 2017.
#10: “A Ghost Story”
There’s an unintended poetry to this list, starting with the top list’s bottom entries both being love stories built from horror conventions. A Ghost Story’s near-wordless art-house direction won’t be for everyone, but the film is an experience, not a plot. A mere 90 minutes of anticipation, it moves with an unsteady observational brisk – charting time and existence in the cosmos while keeping immediate with the central character as he explores his little corner of it. It’s the story of a ghost’s grappling with loss and search for closure, and it’s truly incredible that (with all puns intended) a character in a white sheet with black-slit eyes could be so emotionally transparent.
#9: “The Shape of Water”
A genre-based continuation of Guillermo del Toro’s underappreciated 2015 haunted-house cinematic novel Crimson Peak, this film presents a woman-driven love story framed as a Cold War allegory. Del Toro is a master at reinvigorating the old and tired, here repurposing monster romances and schlock-horror B-movie antics into a gripping, explicitly-sexual getaway tale about the voiceless finding and awakening their passion. The genius lies in the visual details, given life and space by a rock solid structure that, even with a frivolous moment or two, achieves fresh realization. If del Toro’s work is all that survives when the apocalypse comes, the subsequent beings who discover us will attribute a far greater robust strength to our imagination than we deserve.
#8: “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”
When I first “reviewed” the film, I proclaimed its superiority to the first despite some very clear flaws. To be sure, those flaws are still there, but a second viewing reveals an even deeper emotional brilliance than I appreciated. This isn’t just a film about familial reconciliation, but one of growth and maturity through the forging of bonds, tender care for a small child, and shared humanity in the course of escaping egotistical space beings. Guardians, Vol. 2 is more than a Marvel entry that made audiences truly feel a character’s loss for the first time in the whole serial universe. It’s a movie the kids will go crazy for, much the way we did for Star Wars, only to realize in adulthood that it is even better than they knew.
#7: “Lady Bird”
Every year, critics and/or audiences get carried away with at least one movie to the point where its reception and celebration overwhelm the actual merits of the film and discussion around it. Lady Bird does not deserve the perfect-flood tomato rating, nor need it be framed as some NASA-tier successful launch for women-featured films, as though they’ve never existed before. Not because there’s something wrong with this film (there pretty much isn’t), but because it does it a grave disservice.
Based in part on actress, now writer/director Greta Gerwig’s youth, Lady Bird is an inspired depiction of a strained, distant mother-daughter relationship in a culturally and psychologically uncertain time in the life of a young woman. It will never not be strange to see a period piece from 2002, but the Wes Anderson-style side-scrolling of Lady Bird’s walk through her town, with the focus kept with her home and her Catholic school, makes the setting feel lived in, yet constricting in ways that irritate people of that age who seek emotional understanding. The core, however, revolves as much around the mother’s difficulty with reaching her daughter, and regret over how much of the time spent with her was so emotionally vacuous due to their incorrigible similarities.
The acting by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf is worth it. But this family is genuine in the Ordinary People sense, given a quiet resonance through a life-affirming, dramatically-pulsing story and an ending that makes it a surefire must-see with your mom on Mother’s Day 2018.
#6: “John Wick: Chapter 2”
Speaking of breaking, bleeding, and exerting oneself to escape from a constricting culture, sometimes all it takes to make a movie great is to have the main character murder everyone in his path with nothing but a gun and a good initial reason. There are films ranked higher than this that can’t be said to have achieved as much potential as this one did, especially in terms of pure, adrenaline-pumping shoot-em-up fun.
John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t as pure a construction as its predecessor. But only one other film this year can be said to have perfectly realized the expansive world it promised, with this one bouncing to and fro along its parameters, and in and out of its hidden pockets. The intrigue remains alive, the spiritual themes remain potent, and the spectacle of watching one man take on the entire world – played by a 52-year old actor doing his own stunts – remains exhilarating.
#5: “I, Tonya”
Pleasant surprises were a dime a dozen this year, but none more-so than this film. Re-contextualizing a scandal from the ‘90s and charging the public consensus around it as indirectly participant in it wouldn’t be anyone’s first idea of a great time, especially in today’s political culture. Step forward, I, Tonya, a bold, brutal, well-acted, and eminently watchable film depicting the assault on Nancy Kerrigan by a hitman employed by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband – which many believed to be the beginning and end of Harding’s story – as a small chapter within a larger story of violence, abuse, and mistreatment. It’s the darker counterpart to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Sully from last year, but where human beings crack under the public spotlight instead of keeping their quiet, modest composure… because they’re human. Especially when this human being has been conditioned from toddlerhood into accepting that abuse as an element of everyday life given her blue-collar upbringing, and all the judges and media want to see is repression under a smile. Margot Robbie and Alison Janney are at their best once again, playing the kind of characters that far better suit the stupid PR surrounding #7. I, Tonya was a box-office bomb and may very well go unacknowledged at the Oscars, but time will reveal its greatness… just like the next one.
#4: “Logan Lucky”
No other film in 2017 made me fall in love with original characters the way this one did. Steven Soderbergh’s graceful touch has been sorely missed on the big screen, and Logan Lucky is his new unsung masterpiece. The comedic profile of browbeaten heartland hillbillies pulling off an impossible caper against a conglomerate slathered in the colors and symbols of their country that exploits but overlooks them structures according to Soderbergh’s prior Ocean’s Eleven, but transcends it via a steady through-line of family restoration and identity reclamation. It’s got the cleanest, most perfectly-executed dramatic characterization and plotting of the year, carrying a charm that would disarm and delight even the most unwilling, prejudicial sort of folk, and packing an emotional punch that movies these days just don’t do.
Yes, the depressed, polar opposite cousin of Deadpool gets an easy seat in the Top 5. If this were merely a fitting farewell to the most iconic and irreplaceable long-running superhero performance, alongside only Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk, that would be enough to make Logan a great film. That it also explores intricately the cost of violence, the life he never got to lead, and the man he never got to be – that it plunges as deep as it does into western-influenced film noir with a modest budget and sheer willpower from Hugh Jackman makes it the most extraordinary work of its kind in nearly a decade. In a category of pop art hell-bent on needing cities, worlds, or galaxies to save to convince characters that they’re heroes, Logan provides not only an inspired counterpoint but an affectionate document of regret and loss beautifully woven within the blood-soaked, bone-stabbing action that’s the best of its kind since The Raid.
Even now, I remain in awe of Jackman and Director James Mangold’s achievement, so I will instead let a friend take this one: “As a kid it wasn’t my thing; as a young adult I just never had the taste. But I knew, as a man, I would fall in love with westerns one day – one day when it mattered. Logan did that for me. I crave westerns now like I’ve never craved movie genres because Logan showed me their humanity, morality, and depth. It showed me that killing has a price… even if it’s for the right reasons. And sometimes the only price is to give up your own life for another.” Thanks, Hugh.
#2: “Blade Runner 2049”
Earlier I mentioned that this list has some rhythm to it, in part because this film, much like the feature it had to overtake to get to runner-up, adopts a Children of Men approach to its chase sequences, characters, and brooding moments without the pretense or self-insistence. Some films are simple visual stories; others are universal experiences. This (along with the year’s winner) is the latter, and what an experience it is. It’s the most beautiful, sensational, dreamily-evocative masterwork since The Martian – a fitting point of comparison given that the look of both sprung from the same visionary.
Blade Runner 2049 is more than just an impossibly perfect sequel to a film that neither needed nor called for one. It’s both a profound meditation on creation and decisive, poetic afterward on an internally-conflicted and existentially-uncertain person’s search for what’s real and worth the efforts of his violence in a world where nothing exists but dehumanized material ambition. Denis Villeneuve has proven himself nearly as irreplaceable an artistic treasure as both del Toro and Ridley Scott, with his dedication here to re-tooling the best examples of effects-driven visual construction and surrounding us with quiet grains of sublime, worldly thought that will shape our perceptions to the future. If it ever returns to IMAX, you owe yourself the trip.
I’m out of words on this one, folks. I truly am.
Yes, I realize that three out of my last four movies of the year have been war stories, but even among them Dunkirk is something special. To call it the best film of 2017 does not do it justice. To call it the most visually striking, seat gripping, and overwhelming cinematic epic of the year fails to relay its impact and brilliance. Nearly as wordless as #10, as grand and bombastic as #2, as softly emotional as #3, Christopher Nolan has accomplished something that defies and transcends genre and category. At once an immediate, harrowing portrait of shared fear and anguish among men stuck and squeezed in one of the worst conceivable situations in real history, and celebration of a triumphant miracle through a structure that itself makes note of its statistical impossibility, Dunkirk is a love letter to persistence and humanist virtue. It is a rich, magnificent work of sophistication and affectation with the clock ticking ever on as sullied, exasperated men travel from the frying pan into the fire, then into the furnace, then into hell, trying to find and hold onto their humanity however they can.
We joke about films doing the unfathomable like this, but how often can we say with a straight face that one of such awesome masterpieces was made and could be so universal in its viscera? I will remember Dunkirk not only for its effect on me and my peers, but also on the tear-stricken stranger in the theater I briefly comforted after the film who told me how it brought her back to the day she learned, at the age of seven, that her father wasn’t coming home from the war. This is forever ingrained into my experience with the film, and I am thankful for it as much as I am thankful for anything else.
Happy 2018 and here’s to a future where we continue onward with a resolve to not let inevitable failures and disappointments deflate our spirits and siphon off our appreciation for the bigger picture – our treatment of one another as human beings.
This much gushing on movies has left me with a sickening feeling of incompletion. So here’s a short list of the year’s worst films. I’m not even going to give these a picture. They don’t deserve the honor.
I miss mystery murder thrillers. Between this and the misfire of Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, 2017 sadly failed to deliver on them. Here’s a movie that takes the awesome mystery premise and illustrative color palate of a book that seemingly couldn’t be more perfect for adaptation, and stumbles over itself repeatedly in every facet of its incomprehensible direction until all that is left are their shambled remains. It’s dull, stupid, painfully disappointing, and just plain wasteful. Next time, let Scorsese, Fincher, the Coens, or even J.J. Abrams work their magic on this one instead of employing a roundtable committee that can’t keep one scene constant, let alone an entire two-hour film.
The Book of Henry
Colin Trevorrow is not a good filmmaker. He’s definitely not a hack; his premises and basic conceits for movies are interesting enough, but his horrendous execution of every moving part reveals him to be a less geeky, less inspired, and even less quirkily playful George Lucas. In this respect, it’s actually a shame that he doesn’t get a shot at directing Star Wars: Episode IX; the right people around him could make for something decidedly great.
I thought all that was clear given how bad Jurassic World turned out to be, yet somehow The Book of Henry is worse – a tone-deaf, fantastical monstrosity that squanders every youthfully imaginative element that deserves a better movie than this.
It’s certainly unique, and very much a product of an otherwise skilled visceral filmmaker – the seeming reason for its pretentious celebration among so many. But mother! is no smarter or more thought-provoking than signs at your preferred political rally. It’s nothing more than The Passion of the Christ for enviro-nihilists and horror geeks who think that their contempt for humanity and ability to notice a theme make them special, especially when it’s presented as unsubtly and non-subtextually as it is here. But even if we’re to try and forsake the “what” for the “how,” in the spirit of Ebert, in spite of Michelle Pfeiffer making the first half hour tolerable, mother! is messy, trailer-obsessed, stupidly unoriginal (just watch Rosemary’s Baby), and, worst of all, underwhelming.
The world is against me on this film, and the world is wrong. Get Out is not the subversive psychological revelation of racism under the smile that everyone and their cat has deluded themselves into haplessly believing. A film with the ostensible intentions everyone attributes to it should make you uncomfortable, not slavishly genuflecting to it with self-flagellation like it’s the one true key to Heaven.
So far the opposite of being a “real talk, hear me roar” airing of grievances, Get Out is more damaging to the racial fabric in America than every movie made for a segregated reception. But I’m not even referring to its innocuous treatise on whitey. This film adopts the Klan’s view of blackness, black identity and black culture, and cries out for escape, segregation, and anti-miscegenation. It presupposes, with an opportunistic condescension only a modern hack comedian could conjure forth, the very things it ostensibly critiques, and can’t even do those things effectively. The lead actor is undoubtedly skilled in classic theatre, but in the film can’t make more than two authentic facial expressions – each being bewilderment with a head tilt. The last five minutes reveal not only zero energy after the inverted Skeleton Key revelation, but zero integrity to the entire story, shoehorning a hackneyed happy ending instead of the realistic one. It’s pure dreck from beginning to end, and society’s pedestaling of it is the very proof of its inconsequence.
When I wrote my first and only Zero Punctuation-style joke review of this movie, I was tempted to go all the way and keep this movie off the worst-of list in favor of giving some kind of special excremental trophy for the federal crime it perpetrates upon all those who have to endure it. I fear I’ve written myself into a corner now.
What else can be said about this utterly abysmal, painfully malfeasant, astronomical catastrophe of an ostensible celluloid construction? I can’t believe this movie was made. I can’t believe it was re-made with new editors and even a new actor. I can’t believe any respectable person said yes to this, and I really can’t believe that anyone thought that what they had on their hands was anything less than a sensually offensive trash-compactor holocaust on par with only Battlefield Earth, and Winter’s Tale.