2017 was a weird year for movies. There were uncommonly good blockbusters in the first half of the year and uncommonly pedestrian awards contenders in the second half (Suburbicon, anyone?). We still don’t really have clear-cut front-runners for the Oscars. Twin Peaks: The Return is a TV show. No, it’s a movie. No, it’s a TV show. Will Smith’s latest blockbuster went straight to streaming, Tom Cruise starred in a Mummy movie, and many a cinematic universe failed to launch. Netflix gobbled up a record number of movies from film festivals and then later did little to nothing to promote them (sorry, I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore and Mudbound). The latest Star Wars crossed a billion worldwide in three weeks and is somehow a disappointment. Thanks to Trump, everything seemed hyper-relevant in ways filmmakers never fully intended. Domestic box office ticked up yet attendance plummeted to a 25 year low. And the Golden Age of TV continued to produce better works of cinema than most movies.
In the face of such splintering views, fierce competition from TV, and changing viewing habits, Hollywood did what it always does, which is to go bigger and louder, producing endless spectacle and continually selling us on cinematic experiences instead of mere movies. The difference in 2017 was that the studios leaned on the likes of Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, Matt Reeves, James Mangold, Taika Waititi, Rian Johnson and Patty Jenkins to pull this off, and they all beautifully showed what happens when auteurs get bigger budgets and a wider canvas. At the same time, promising new voices emerged on the indie scene and a little social thriller from Jordan Peele captured the zeitgeist and will probably be taught in film schools years from now.
#20 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
#19 – Get Me Roger Stone
Get Me Roger Stone is a fascinating account of the political opportunist (the titular Stone) and his allies (e.g., Paul Manafort) who rose up through Nixonism, fine-tuned their instincts through Reaganism, and groomed Donald Trump for the presidency for over 20 years only to have him turn on them as soon as they started stealing the spotlight. It’s the only documentary I saw in 2017 to feature someone (Manafort) who has since been indicted by the Federal Government and may face even more charges in 2018. More so than just about everything else that came out, Get Me Roger Stone was vital in helping me better understand Trump and the shifting political winds in America.
#18 – Wind River
As the screenwriter behind Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan has quickly carved out a cinematic space for himself as the voice of the overlooked American crime stories, from DEA agents quarreling with monsters of their own making to Texas bank robbers battling foreclosures and rural blight. Wind River, which Sheridan directed in addition to writing, focused on his most overlooked segment of the population yet, putting Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson on the case of a poor Native American girl who died on a reservation. The goal of the film – to shine a light on the type of crime which regularly goes unreported – is noble, and the performances are solid. The tense finale, a Sheridan specialty, doesn’t stack up to Sicario’s border crossing sequence but is just as good as anything in Hell or High Water.
#17 – John Wick: Chapter 2 (My Review)
Keanu Reeves’ gun-fu action franchise managed to top itself and delivered the best action movie of 2017 with some of the most ingenious staged sequences in the history of the genre. Excuse me while I watch this scene again:
#16 – Thor: Ragnarok (Juli’s Review)
Ragnarok is the rare trilogy-capper which seems to have been made for people who didn’t really like or never even saw the first two films in the trilogy. As someone who actually likes both of the earlier Thor movies, though, it took me a second viewing of Ragnarok to truly appreciate it and a third viewing to love it. The Shakespeare family drama is gone. Ditto Game of Thrones imitations. In its place, we have Taika Waititi painting the universe in dayglo and unleashing Chris Hemsworth to improv his way through the funniest movie about the end of the world (well, end of Asgard) I’ve ever seen. In fact, Ragnarok is almost too lightweight for its own good. However, in a year in which escapism was called for fewer films fit the bill better than Ragnarok.
#15 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I’ve always been more of an admirer of writer-director Martin McDonagh work than fan. His prior black comedies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, occasionally made me laugh but ultimately left me feeling cold. So, Three Billboards, easily his most emotional work yet, caught me completely off guard. It’s a film which never does what you expect it to, giving us a grieving mother whose grief has turned to blind rage, a bumbling sheriff who is actually not quite so bumbling, and a racist deputy who might just do the right thing. It’s also a film with shockingly casual approaches to domestic violence, racism, and police brutality, thus the arguments by the film’s many detractors that McDonagh utterly fails to maintain tonal control. However, I could watch an entire mini-series of just Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson verbally sparring as their characters in this movie.
#14 – mother! (My Review)
mother! was the most challenging film of 2017 – challenging to watch, figure out, talk about, and agree on. Is it a pretentious mess, a masterclass in experimental filmmaking, or one half excellent mind-fuck thriller, one half cinematic overindulgence of the highest order? More than that, what is it about? Can we even trust what Aronofsky says when asked about that since he changes his answer every interview?
My take: mother! is an expertly executed mindfuck thriller in the style of Rosemary’s Baby until it becomes something drastically different, yet the first half is so strong and mysterious that it carries you through the avant-garde second half, which is undoubtedly pretentious but also at least an impressive technical feat of filmmaking. After the way mother! bombed, though, we can be damn sure it will be a long time before another major studio takes a chance on a film like this again.
Wonder is the type of film you might instinctively avoid if you don’t have any kids dragging you to see it. After all, isn’t it just a cliched weepie like Simon Birch? Not really. Not until the end, at least. The trick the film impressively pulls off is presenting its disfigured central character as both the victim and the (unintentional) victimizer. Jacob Tremblay’s Auggie is the 10-year-old who has to go to school for the first time and learn tough life lessons through hardship and repeated encounters with bigotry. Family friendly entertainment 101, right?
Yes and no. Wonder capably teaches all the lessons you expect, but by shifting the perspectives from Auggie at the start to the various other people in his life throughout the rest of the film we get a much fuller picture and more emotionally rewarding/less manipulative depiction of what it’s like to just be a kid today, be you an ostracized other like Auggie or an overlooked sibling like his sister. By allowing other characters other than Auggie to have inner lives, Wonder turns into that rare family film which seems genuine instead of schmaltzy and transcendent instead of conventional. Seeing this with my 10-year-old nephew and listening to him rave afterward about how much the movie moved him and spoke to his own experiences is one of my most cherished filmgoing memories of 2017.
#12 – Mudbound
Dee Rees’ masterful adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel tells the story of two Mississippi families, one white, the other black, and how they are united by geography, divided by prejudice, and each hurtling toward conflict when their psychologically battered sons return home from WWII and defy rigid social convention. The genius of Mudbound is the way it offers a voice to the voiceless, continually reframing the story around the diaries and letters of those characters whose role in the story would normally be secondary. We are reminded of how little had changed in certain parts of America by WWII and sadly how little has changed since then.
#11 – The Disaster Artist (Juli’s Review)
What could so easily have turned into a case of James Franco and his famous friends mocking the lesser talented likes of Tommy Wiseau turned into a loving tribute to friendship through (bad) art and the drive and desire to simply be heard. Makes for an interesting companion piece with Brigsby Bear, another one of 2017’s ode-to-cinema movies. There, Kyle Mooney and his childhood friends combined Room with Lars and the Real Girl/Harvey to tell the life-affirming story of a kidnap victim who just really wants to make the final episode of his favorite children’s show. Like Disaster Artist, it also culminates with a character in a movie theater lobby anguishing over what people will think of his work and serves as an ode to cinema.
#10 – The Big Sick (My Review)
The Big Sick takes the Judd Apatow man-child-becomes-man character formula, widens its cultural landscape to tackle the immigrant experience, tempers its jokes with a medical tragedy, and bases everything in autobiography since the story is essentially star Kumail Nanjiani and wife/co-screenwriter Emily Gordon’s real-life brought to screen with little variation. The result is one of the most purely charming movies of 2017. Steven Spielberg sure thought so. Or didn’t.
#9 – Lady Bird (My Review)
Greta Gerwig’s loosely autobiographical coming of age story brilliantly takes Edge of Seventeen, transplants it to the early aughts, and adds an extra layer of indie comedy and poignant reflection on mother-daughter relationships. It movingly shows us how sometimes you don’t appreciate where you’ve come from until you see where you thought you wanted to go. Sadly, the story of Lady Bird largely became about its RottenTomatoes score which then changed the way people thought of the movie, but can’t we just forget about that and start talking about that heartbreaking ending again?
#8 – Blade Runner: 2049 (My Review)
I didn’t see the original Blade Runner until a week before 2049 came out, and I didn’t love it. I still don’t. It’s more (admittedly gorgeous) style than substance, features troubling sexual politics, and stars Harrison Ford at his most checked out, likely because he hated the script and continues to hate the movie to this day. What’s odd, then, is that 2049 has a similar overabundance of style, is somehow even slower and much longer, and also features a central performer (Ryan Gosling) who has maybe 2 facial expressions, 3 tops, yet I adore it. 2049 is the Blade Runner movie that has a mystery worth looking into, a detective who actually detects things, just the right amount of Jared Leto, a finally engaged Harrison Ford, kickass women, and universe-expanding visuals which invite us to escape into the film’s deeply bleak world. Too long? Maybe, but I never noticed.
#7 – Get Out (My Review)
Leave it to Jordan Peele, closeted horror fanatic and well-season sketch comedy expert, to make a horror movie from the black point of view and turn outwardly well-meaning white liberals into villains. In his hands, the film alternates funny and creepy and takes its Stepford Wives-Meets-Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premise in shocking directions, delivering its central character and, by extension us, into the sunken place, one of the better metaphors for what it was like to live through 2017.
#6 – Dunkirk (My Review)
Dunkirk is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’m someone who once took a college class where all we did was watch WWII movies. This…this is not a war movie. It’s a survival movie which just happens to feature lots and lots of soldiers, most of whom do not succumb to war movie cliche and instead simply fight to survive. That Nolan chose to tell us this survival story in three parts laid on top of each other is likely vexing to his critics or just those who feel this story would have been better served with a more traditional linear approach. However, the catharsis which comes when the three timelines finally match up is as powerful a cinematic moment as any I experienced in 2017.
#5 – Wonder Woman (My Review)
As real women marched for equal rights and pay around the world, Wonder Woman gifted them with one of the most inspirational film moments of the year:
However, as a movie Wonder Woman is decidedly imperfect, chiefly because of its Zack Snyder-ivied final act. As such, like Lady Bird it has been commonly accused of being overrated. But Wonder Woman’s old-fashioned, Richard Donner-esque approach to superhero storytelling completely won me over. It’s neither as pompous or ponderous as anything to emerge from Gotham or Metropolis nor as irreverent as anything Avengers-related. Instead, it’s a beautiful marriage of First Avenger, Thor and Donner’s Superman, and gives the world what it’s long deserved: a wonderful Wonder Woman movie, a genuinely good female-led superhero movie and a blockbuster hit directed by a woman.
#4 – Baby Driver
While promoting Baby Driver, Edgar Wright self-deprecatingly joked that whereas other directors spend years working on passion projects that turn into deeply personal and profound movies, like Scorsese’s Silence, his passion project was simply a pulpy car chase movie. It’s the height of what he wants to put out into the world, and it’s perfectly attuned to his gifts, marrying impeccably selected pop songs with ingeniously edited chases scenes, intricately planned Steadicam sequences (like the opening with Baby getting everyone’s coffee), and a heaping dose of pure cool. I didn’t know Wright quite had Baby Driver in him nor did I know Jon Hamm would make for such a chilling villain. What a joy to discover both of those at the same time.
#3 – Coco (My Review)
Pixar got its groove back with Coco by lifting a bit from Ratatouille (Miguel wants to play guitar against his family’s wishes just like Remy wants to cook) and Wall-E (Miguel watching old movies just like Wall-E binging Hello, Dolly!), combining it with a culturally sensitive portrayal of a Mexican family’s celebration of Dies de la Muertes, and delivering us into the visually spellbinding Land of the Dead. You thought Pixar had run out of ways to make you cry? Well, now they found a story where the dead can basically die again, just for good this time if they’re family forgets about them. Damn those bastards are good. Never before has an old woman faintly singing the phrase “Remember me” delivered so many into an instant ugly cry.
#2 – Logan (Juli’s Review)
So, this is what it feels like when a pop culture icon goes out on top and shows everyone else how to truly break new ground in cinema’s most familiar genre. This is what it feels like when an R-Rating is used to achieve emotional maturity instead of gratuitous violence and immature humor (no offense, Deadpool; still love ya). This is what it feels like when someone takes Marvel Studio’s oft-used mantra about combining comic book stories with well-known film genres (e.g, Ant-Man and the heist movie, Homecoming and John Hughes movies) and actually pursues it with an eye toward giving us genuine emotional complexity instead of pure escapism. And this is what it feels like when Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart deliver career-best performances and gracefully hand the baton to someone as promising as Dafne Keen. There may yet be future Wolverine movies in a rebooted form once the Disney sale goes through, but nothing will likely ever top this, the only Oscar-worthy X-Men movie ever made.
#1 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (My Review)
The Last Jedi reminded the world that even a franchise as big as Star Wars can still take chances, and the world is reacting accordingly, which is to say they’re complaining about it on the internet and waging war in comments section. I get it. A franchise that played it too safe two years ago now suddenly re-defined everything we thought we knew about what a Star Wars movie could be, sacrificing the iconic Luke Skywalker along the way and throwing all of our fan theories, predictions and expectations back in our faces and laughing. As someone on Twitter joked, if Force Awakens held our hand and offered us a nice cup of tea Last Jedi slaps us across the face and calls us a bitch.
But maybe that’s what we needed. Yes, Last Jedi is too long, and Rose and Finn’s trip to the casino planet is the clear lesser of the three main plots. Yes, I have no Earthly idea why that scene with Luke and the manatee-cow milking is in there. So, yeah, there are legitimate gripes to have with the movie. However, in a year defined by turmoil Last Jedi upended everything, introduced moral relativism into what had been the “let’s all go fight the space Nazi’s” franchise, and still delivered some of the most spectacular and rousing moments in franchise history – Rey and Kylo back-to-back, Luke staring down the First Order, Yoda laughing himself silly while the old ways burn.
As Swiss Army Man director Daniel Kwan told Collider, “ scene reminded me of the fact that so much of the bullshit conflicts that are happening right now come from the fact that too many people are holding too tightly to old books and old rules that no longer make sense in modern times and we need to burn it all down. Burn it down and laugh and dance and realize we can pave a new way.”
Honorable Mentions: Colossal, Detroit, The Glass Castle, Stronger, Jim & Andy, Lady Macbeth, Darkest Hour, War for the Planet of the Apes, Ingrid Goes West, The Lost City of Z
Amazing 2016 Movies I Saw for the First Time in 2017: Autopsy of Jane Doe, Silence, Moonlight
Notable 2017 Movies That Haven’t Made It To My Neck of the Woods Yet: The Post, Shape of Water, I, Tonya, Call Me By Your Name, Molly’s Game, Phantom Thread, The Florida Project. I will update once I’ve seen those movies, that is if any of them supplant any of the films on my list.