What a great year for movies. 2017 will go down as one of the better years in past decade. Jodie Foster may be out there slamming superhero movies, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a couple of this year’s superhero movies are about nine million times better than Nim’s Island, so slow your roll Clarice. Of course, as I say every year, here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes – and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only a handful have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. We’re getting better but movies like The Post, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, and Call Me By Your Name are still playing it aloof.
Anyway, Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 23rd, bright and early, and while Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2017.
The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of 2017
11!. mother! – Wait a minute; isn’t this a top ten list? Well yes it is, but sometimes something comes out of nowhere that takes you off guard, makes you uneasy, and doesn’t play by the rules (including those of grammar and punctuation!). So fittingly, a film that does all of those things deserves to have an unofficial spot in this year’s list. Now, never have I endorsed a film as impossible to recommend as this one is. My mantra as a critic has always been to write about and critique films based on whether they’re worth your time and money to see. This one, for most of you, is not. However, it is certainly one of the best films I have seen this year, and so it, just barely, belongs on this list. mother! is a parable of nature, religion, and humanity. It uses heavy handed symbolism to unwind its narrative in such a breathtaking and surreal way, that you may be struck silent by the time the credits roll. Another film, Get Out, does all of this to a lesser degree in my opinion, yet has received tremendous acclaim and attention. My hat tips to director, Darren Aronofsky who chooses not to play it safe, allowing mother! to just barely edge Get Out off my list of the best of the year.
10. War for the Planet of the Apes – Did you see it? Probably not. This, now trilogy, has actually been quite extraordinary, and this third installment is the finest yet. This film has the feeling of an epic, and director Matt Reeves shoots it like a western. Andy Sirkis reprises his impressive role as Caesar, who is pitted against a crazed military colonel played by Woody Harrelson who is fighting off a new strand of the Simian flu that renders human survivors of the previous strand mute. There is a real sense of power and depth to this film and the visual effects are so well done that you easily forget these apes are CGI.
9. Logan – This is an X-Men film, but due to some creative play with franchise timelines, Logan gets to be something different. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film than the usual comic book fare, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids. Like the number 10 film on my list, this film is framed like a modern-day western, and in fact, there is an overt and critical reference to the 1953 classic, Shane. It is also directed by James Mangold, who is responsible for other “country-western” influenced films like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. While not for the faint at heart, this film is one that can be appreciated on many levels by all types of people.
8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Star Wars film has made my list three years straight now, and while this is the lowest ranking one has had thus far, it would have probably fared better against 2015 and 2016 films. The sequel to The Force Awakens starts strong and finishes strong, which like Rogue One before it, is becoming a valuable trademark of these films. Director Rian Johnson takes a risk by exploring the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds to massive effect. He asks us to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.
7. Lady Bird – Welcome to the artsier part of the list, and Lady Bird is certainly that! This is one of the finer films that attempts to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. Ronan and Metcalf are outstanding and will certainly be tough to beat come Oscar time. Unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
6. Coco – This is a great film. This is also the first full movie my daughter has ever seen with me, which makes it extra special. That aside, this movie is hard not to love. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. It’s also a great story about Hispanic culture, legacy, life, death, and tradition.
5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Director Martin McDonagh has solidified his Coen Brother-influenced style with films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, now with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he goes full Coen even hiring Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand as the lead of the film, who incidentally gives one of the finest performances of her career. This twisty, quirky drama plays at first like a murder mystery, but quickly becomes something more. Woody Harrelson shows up on my list for the second time giving another excellent performance as Ebbing police Chief Willoughby only to be outdone by Sam Rockwell who gives a career performance as one of Harrelson’s officers. Incidentally, Lucas Hedges also has a small role as McDormand’s son, and he played a role in Lady Bird this year as well.
4. Thor: Ragnarok – Well, the Thor movies finally found their legs with this third film, which proves the third time’s a charm. This time, Thor discovers dealing with his brother Loki was child’s play in comparison to fighting his previously unknown sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.
3. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan did it again. This is the third movie Nolan has released since I started doing these lists back in 2013, and with Dunkirk he’s 3 for 3! this is such a naturalistic film, that characters hardly matter, and Nolan even goes so far as to cast actors who all basically look alike. He does not want you to be invested in any one hero or character. He wants you to pay attention to the events, the feelings, the sounds, and the visuals. Nolan also implements his famous nonlinear story tricks that he’s become so famous for using in films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar to make the film even more engaging.
2. Baby Driver – On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It know that sounds weird, but it works really well. Like Dunkirk, story and characters takes a back seat to the experience of watching this movie. In fact, It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. In light of recent events, Kevin Spacey’s presence in this film retrospectively brings it down a peg, but Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed.
1. Blade Runner 2049 – It’s not shocking that a visually dazzling film from director Denis Villenueve would be my number one film of the year, but it is kind of surprising that that film would be a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. It dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are breathtaking. It’s no coincidence that my picks for the top three films of the year are complex, multi-sensory cinematic experiences. I think that is the legacy 2017 is leaving, and with James Cameron’s hotly anticipated Avatar sequels slated to start coming out in 2019 or 2020, I think we’re on the cusp of a truly spectacular evolution of the cinematic medium!
The Four Worst Films of 2017
I mentioned that 2017 was a pretty good year for movies, at least in terms of the ones I was able to see. That being the case along with the fact that I cheated and gave you a top 11, I will make things right here and just put up a worst 4.
4. Atomic Blonde – This one suffered from heightened expectations. It probably doesn’t objectively deserve to be on this list, but for me, Atomic Blonde was one of the most disappointing two hours I’ve spent at the movies in 2017. All we have is a middle of the road espionage film, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That is the recipe for a high risk of disappointment.
3. Murder on the Orient Express – Speaking of “high risk of disappointment,” try remaking a 1974 Sidney Lumet film based on one of the most famous novels of all time after it has been made into at least five subsequent films over the 30 years in between. Bad idea. Kenneth Branagh is erratic at best as director and star, and while he assembled a decent cast, this is one of the most needless remakes of all time, offering no relevance or value above dull self-indulgence.
2. Justice League – New year, another DC bomb! At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results came in and two of their films made my worst of 2015 list: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. This year, they maintain their reservation on my list once again with Justice League. I will say this, it’s their best bad movie yet, but it’s still bad. If you told me you could put Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in a movie together and still bore me, I’d say you were crazy, but it turns out this is entirely possible. The movie has some fun with some of the characters, but at the end it’s still a messy pile of egos, disorganized and faced off against yet another uninspired villain.
1. Fifty Shades Darker – How is this still a thing? This movie is unwatchable. This is actually the first time I’ve ever included a movie on any list that I did not actually see in its entirety. I used to have a rule that I would give every movie I review or critique the benefit of at least having seen it through. I can now no longer say that. Thanks Fifty Shades Darker. You have literally compromised my own values as a critic, and for that, you are the worst movie I’ve seen any or all of this year.