Top 20 Films of 2017
19. Logan Lucky
17. Baby Driver
16. The Big Sick
13. Darkest Hour
12. The Post
Surprise! The best superhero movie was not a Marvel movie. Well, it was in a sense. But it wasn’t legally. This explainer is unnecessary.
Wolverine – and Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of him – has long been the most interesting thing about the X-Men, and his absence is largely the reason 2 of the 3 films in the new trilogy (First Class and Apocalypse) were underwhelming. He got a pretty comical first solo feature in Origins then an OK sequel with The Wolverine – I’m not sure about that second one, I never saw it.
But Logan? That’s another story entirely. Logan is everything superhero movies have and have not done correctly since the first X-Men film launched the superhero craze in 2000. It’s invested in characters we know and love, while still being concerned with ones we might see in the future. The emotional payoffs work because they’re universal to our world and the one on screen. Technically, Logan is just as sound as any previous outing, only with less bells and whistles to distract. And creatively, it’s freer than any superhero movie has even been allowed to be – aside from Deadpool.
Jackman has been there for the highest of highs (Days of Future Past) and the lowest of lows (The Last Stand) in this franchise, and he’s been rock solid through it all. It seems fitting he be sent off in the best X-Men film that’s been made.
I’m generally not a fan of cultural revivals. It’s something we’re pretty used to at this point. TV executives see the Golden Age wilting away, so why not just bring back Will & Grace, Gilmore Girls, or The Office? And we’re far enough away from the 70’s and 80’s that the cultural capital of hits like Alien and Blade Runner are worth revisiting and rebooting. It’s weird that I used those examples though because both 2017 revivals are no-doubt successes.
Unlike Alien: Covenant though, Blade Runner 2049 works because of its commitment to the original. Tonally and spiritually, both films are of one mind and work in the same universe that’s passed on for several decades. 2049 takes the best parts of its predecessor and updates them for the modern age – that is, if the modern age were 2049 in dystopian Los Angeles. Despite the overwhelming visuals, nothing feels out of the realm of possibility, a key for any successful sci-fi entry.
What really brings it home, though, is a game cast working with a director in his prime. Denis Villeneuve brings the best out of Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto and Robin Wright while getting surprising turns from relative unknowns like Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks. It’s his brilliance that makes Blade Runner 2049 the year’s best summer blockbuster, a true cinematic experience that meets nostalgic expectations and gives you a little more to take home than you expected.
I am so unbelievably not qualified to talk about how important this movie is. You just have to watch it. That may seem like an easy out, but it’s not. It’s me being truthful.
My friend Jesse and I (Reel Friends!) have had a standing argument since True/False 2016 about the movie Kate Plays Christine. It’s one of his favorites in recent history, and I thought it was just OK. It’s pretty novel in the sense that it’s really playing with the idea of “non-fiction” film. It’s showy and well-made, but I still think it’s a pretty cold offering.
Just one year after Kate Plays Christine dropped at T/F, Netflix sent Casting JonBenet to fill a similar role: a provocative look at a weirdly true story using people who weren’t actually there, but who probably wish they were. The major difference between the two is the heart Casting brings with it. Whereas Kate can feel exploitive (even if purposefully), Casting never seeks to gain entertainment from its incredibly sad inspiration. Instead, we find our moments of levity in the people we get to know on the way. They’re people like us, except some of them are overconfident stage actors and another one is a cop/sex educator. They like to talk and gossip, and ultimately they want to relate to the people in the story they like. It’s funny, chilling and a pretty good roadmap of how any conversation about a conspiracy theory should end up.
One of the best qualities a film can have is a genuine sense of empathy, and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has it in spades – perhaps more so than any other film this year. Set in larger Orlando area outside of Disney World, it’s an intimate exploration of poverty in an area more commonly known as a magical area for families and children. The juxtaposition isn’t lost on the audience, but writer-director Sean Baker keeps us appropriately on the outside looking in. The most we’re treated to are short visits to upscale hotels and glances at helicopter tours of the area. There’s one moment where the veil is lifted, but describing it would take some of the magic of the film away, so I’ll skip it.
But going back to the film’s empathy, it’s most admirable trait: As the viewer follows the life of young Moonie, her friends and her out-of-work-stripper mother, there’s no sense of emotional manipulation from Baker’s direction. Whereas some films exploring class struggle and poverty give us unnecessarily heroic cliches, we’re instead given the most straightforward look at life in lower-class Orlando. It engenders the truest form of empathy as we’re allowed to wholly take in these characters stories and develop our own sympathies. Some may be more inclined to feel for Moonie, while others might be drawn to her mother. Still, others may be captured by Willem Dafoe’s fiercely loyal motel manager, whose quiet strength is expressed not through words, but in loving action and intentional inaction. That may be a confusing thought, but those who have seen the movie will understand.
Aside from its enormous heart and focused vision, The Florida Project is a gorgeously made film, its color palette and cinematography inspiring a fever dream state that reaches its heights in the film’s final seconds. However, this dream isn’t relegated to only the happy moments. We get the full spectrum of life in this ecosystem, making for a sneakily inspiring, yet totally devastating work that will be remembered in spite of its shunning during awards season.
A Ghost Story operates in same arena as a lot of Terrence Malick movies, but I was specifically reminded of the vast, rich headspace of The Tree of Life. There’s a lot in here about what it means to live and to die and to move through time as beings that are – in whatever you way you tend to see it – timeless.
But A Ghost Story has something that The Tree of Life doesn’t: people that we really care about. I say this as someone who is deeply invested in Malick’s magnum opus and believes it truly is one of the great “Christian films” of all time. While Tree is more concerned about where we come from and how it influences the way we are nurtured, A Ghost Story is much more grounded in the lives we live and how they’ll continue on after we don’t. While the implications of a timeless ghost lead to a lot of questions about what an afterlife may look like, I think Casey Affleck’s bed-sheeted protagonist is more of tool used to show us that while the earth fades and time forgets us, there’s an eternal quality to life that stretches beyond our comprehension. That quality is echoed in both the people we love, the people we don’t and the spaces we all share.
4. Lady Bird
Calling movies “coming of age tales” is a trope in its own right, and I’m tired of critics – and viewers – selling films on that merit. In some regard, every movie is a “coming of age tale.” Just because you’re watching a movie about a bratty teenager turning into a man or woman doesn’t mean it teaches us anything profound about life.
Lady Bird though… Lady Bird is different, almost in the sense that it has no perception of its own importance. Instead Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is content being what it is: a movie about a poor, unexceptional girl living in a seemingly unexceptional place. Her problems, thoughts and desires are, on some level, our own. But the cross-sections between them make them unique, teaching us all something about the beauty and folly of individualism. Even past all that though, Lady Bird is endearing and unfairly entertaining given how deftly it weaves between teenage heartache and triumph.
Another film I’ve written a Cinema Faith review for. Again, a few additional thoughts:
- Frances McDormand is 99.9% going to win Actress, Leading Role at the Oscars (spoiler for later!) And to believe she almost didn’t take the role!
- Lucas Hedges is in everything now, and he’s really good.
- I’m really down for Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell to tag team all of Martin McDonagh’s movies for the rest of his career. Shouts to the Seven Psychopaths reunion.
- It was set in Missouri, but filmed in Western North Carolina. Best of both worlds, in my opinion.
BEFORE YOU READ FURTHER!
I need to admit that I had the hardest time choosing my top movie from last year. And it led to a bit of an unconventional approach to choosing my No. 1 and 2. I’ll explain it further below, but I did want to say this: growing up as a sports fan and athlete, I hated ties. And while I don’t hate them as much anymore, I still find them to be unrealistic. In the end, you have to choose/someone has to win.
But this is just a blog. I’m not actually voting for awards, so there’s a little bit of room for subjectivity here. I’ve heard it said by several critics and columnists that 2017 was a masterpiece year for film, specifically when it comes to the 2 films listed below, along with Lady Bird. I think that’s right on the money, and I obviously think there’s an argument to be made that Three Billboards is a misunderstood masterpiece in its own right. I’ll go into this more in the Oscars picks section of this blog, but I’d be thrilled to see any four of these movies awarded on the big night… just maybe these next two a little more.
1b. Phantom Thread
Yet another film I’ve reviewed for Cinema Faith. Some additional thoughts:
- I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this as the going away party for Daniel Day-Lewis and not enough as the coming out party for Vicky Krieps. She’s incredible as Alma, the woman who literally and figuratively stares down DDL and doesn’t just survive – she thrives. Sign me up for any future Krieps vehicles, PTA-helmed or otherwise.
- I listened to a podcast a while ago talking about the merits of Phantom Thread as a commentary on marriage relationships. I immediately shook it off… but I’m starting to come around to that way of thinking, at least to some degree. I think the film speaks to me more as a reflection on obsessive tendencies, but it has some very meaningful things to say about what it’s like to be married.
- I’ve never wanted to live inside a movie more than this. Much of this has to do with the way the food looks.
- I don’t think I’ll end up liking this movie more than I do There Will Be Blood. But this has a real chance to end up as my No. 2 PTA film.
- Ultimately, I think this is the better movie than the one listed below. I still don’t think it has the same urgency that Get Out has. But this is undoubtedly the best made movie of 2017.
1a. Get Out
After a year where political tribalism hit its breaking point, Get Out is probably not the movie liberal cinephiles expected to drop in January; especially not from the mind of Key & Peele and 2016’s most unnecessary comedy-sketch-turned-feature Keanu.
But Jordan Peele doesn’t abide by our expectations. And instead of a film looking at the evils of ethno-nationalism, Peele uses his directorial debut as an all-out skewering of white liberalism.
That’s not to say this is any sort of roasting or “ha ha” playful jabbing; the Golden Globes classification of Get Out as a “comedy” is a greater injustice than that of The Martian just a few years ago. No, Peele’s film is a horror film through and through, examining the creeping, perverse ways white America fetishizes and distorts black bodies and power. It’s a subject that, much like my assessment of Whose Streets? above, I’m not qualified to talk about. So I won’t. I probably shouldn’t as it is – the movie is best seen the less you know about it.
I will say this: my favorite movies always leave me with a sense of almost evangelistic excitement. I have to tell people about what I just saw out of fear they might not experience it themselves. I only experience that once – maybe twice – a year. Get Out is the only film that left me with that sense this year. It checks every box I want in a good movie – technically sound; artfully unique; both of-and-beyond its time – while achieving a distinctive tone that simultaneously entertains and horrifies.