2017 has been a long, tough one. As a country, we’ve had to grapple with a lot of hard, painful truths. Personally, I’ve learned my own lessons. But one thing we should all agree on is that it’s been a pretty great year of movies.
Deeply personal messages snuck their way through studio systems. New and fresh voices rushed to the forefront. Ideas became as valuable and incendiary as an onscreen explosion. We learned to dream again just as much as we learned to reframe our own reality.
I decided to stick with a Top 10. And then decided to add some individual awards for those that didn’t make the cut. But here’s the thing: there are 12 individual awards outside of my Top 10.
See? I told you it was a good year at the movies.
Here we go:
Ballsiest Sequel (Non-The Last Jedi Division): John Wick: Chapter 2
Sequels tend to function as storytelling placeholders. They give us more of the same while doing very little of consequence. John Wick: Chapter 2 puts a loud, unavoidable bullet into that bullshit.
The first John Wick gave us some tantalizing mythology in The Continental, the secret hotel for assassins in which business cannot be conducted on the premises. The sequel sees Wick forced to go overseas. They expand the mythology. They show how a secret money system works. How there’s a group watching over everything they’re doing.
And then they threw it all away. All of it.
I couldn’t believe it. I have no idea where they’ll go for John Wick 3, but they’ve set themselves up for a unique challenge. And in giving the actions of their hero true consequences, they’ve pushed their ongoing story into some potentially very interesting places.
Best Movie I’ll Need to Watch Again with Subtitles: Dunkirk
When I first heard how director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre) filmed Dunkirk with predominately IMAX and 65mm cameras, along with their commitment to authentic locations and thousands of extras, I knew I had to see it in theaters. If they were going to go all-out to create an epic sense of scale, then I felt it my duty to meet them halfway, in the theaters where they intended it to be seen.
So then I began looking into which format would I see it in: IMAX, IMAX 70mm, 70mm, or even standard 35mm? Vox did a fantastic rundown of the different formats and how they might impact a viewer’s experience.
Complicating matters is the fact many of these special screenings did not have captioning available. It’s the hidden cost in these special formats. But I found an opening in the fact nearly every article I read on the movie mentioned how little dialogue the movie had, very nearly calling it something of a silent film scored by Hans Zimmer. So, I thought: “I can’t be missing too much. It’s going to be a purely visual film.”
Yes and no.
While the visuals, framing, and sense of scale and geography are astounding – Nolan is truly working at the top of his game here – there was still far more dialogue than I expected. And while I’m sure some will say it’s arbitrary, it still feels like I’m missing a part of the entire movie’s puzzle.
So I admire this movie. I’m blown away at what they accomplished. I could never truly tell what was real and CGI, even if I knew something had to be CGI. The three timelines that converge may not have been a necessary device, but it certainly adds some thematic oomph to what is already a pretty harrowing tale. Nolan has truly taken some risks here, and the budget and assortment of great actors he was able to pull together for this particular film just shows how much his vision is trusted.
I imagine once I catch this with subtitles, it’ll move up my list of the Year of 2017. In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly awaiting Mr. Nolan’s next cinematic gamble.
Most Delightfully Stressful Movie Experience: mother!
There are two movies that gave me my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year: mother! and The Disaster Artist. They provided stark reminders of why going to a theater with a packed, willing audience is always going to a special experience that no streaming service can replicate.
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a stressful movie to watch. But it is also the work of a man with something to say. The extended allegory that begins the movie eventually gives way to an exploration of themes about global conversation and the relationship between creator and muse. Aronofsky understands as well as anybody how to make an audience squirm, and there are several sequences later in the film where the discomfort in the audience was palpable.
This movie may have been marketed as something different. It is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. But discomfort doesn’t a bad movie make. This is something special. It is not subtle, but damn if it does not make its point.
Many have seemed to focus on this movie as being about taking care of our planet – which it definitely is concerned with – but, for me, the final scenes show something far darker and thought-provoking. My guess is that it potentially reveals a part of Aronofsky himself he’s deeply uncomfortable with. It may not make him more likable, but it shows him to be as brave an artist as we have today.
Most Delightfully Surprising Movie Experience: The Disaster Artist
I’ve always liked James Franco, but this is my favorite performance of his. His Tommy Wiseau clearly comes from a place of respect and admiration, and it clearly is a performance built from the inside out. Franco understands this guy, at least as much as you can with such an unknowable character like Wiseau. He has no intention of being mean-spirited or making Wiseau the butt of the joke.
Having said that, I loved watching this with an opening weekend audience. They spent the first 15-20 min laughing at Franco’s Wiseau, his crazy lines and mannerisms dramatized so efficiently and hilariously. But after that? The audience started to get there was something bigger at play. This wasn’t going to be a movie making fun of anyone. This was going to be about friendship and having a dream. About not giving up despite the fact you’re way, way out of your league.
And you know what? I think the audience bought into it. It was something special.
Best Last Ride: Logan
I have loved the idea of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine far more than I’ve enjoyed the actual movies he’s been in. The guy clear puts in the work, pumping heavy iron and making all us onlookers feel gross and overweight. He clearly relishes the character. It’s just the movies rarely met him at his level.
It’s a little sad that they made such a good Wolverine movie in Jackman’s last film with the character (or so he says; money talks), but it exists. Clearly emboldened by the success of Deadpool, Fox let these guys finally make the R-rated, mature Wolverine movie they’ve clearly been dying to make. And while it is bloody and intestines are shown, it is the characters and the journey they take that will be remembered. This is a Western, spare and unforgiving, of a mutant wrestling with his own legacy and mortality. I’m sad to see Jackman go, but I’m grateful his last ride proved as robust and memorable as this.
Best Use of Adam Driver: Logan Lucky
While Driver’s work in The Last Jedi is pretty fantastic, his turn here as a Southern boy, brother to Channing Tatum, is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. He’s given a lot to work with, and he really hits every note so unpredictably and beautifully. He clearly ramps up Tatum’s game when they’re together, and keeps Daniel Craig’s crazy Joe Bang from running off with the movie.
Most Unexpected Metaphor: Colossal
I love movies that take chances, and this one clearly did. I would never have thought to connect taking responsibility of our narrative with giant monsters and robots in Seoul, but that’s why we’re lucky to have a guy like Nacho Vigalondo making movies.
Best Philosophy Tucked in a Forgettable Film: Alien: Covenant
I’m not entirely sure what the point of this movie – which has a plot dangerously close to Prometheus, it’s predecessor – is beyond a chance for Ridley Scott to be a sneaky modern-day philosopher. The man is 80. He’s still churning movies out on a yearly basis. I half-expect that Steven Spielberg (71) and Martin Scorsese (75) are taking notes on how to absolutely kill it as an octogenarian.
My guess is that Ridley didn’t want to write a book. So he decided to sneak in his philosophical questions inside his big-budget movies, hoping we wouldn’t notice his existential panic until he’s no longer around to answer for it.
The only thing better than a charged Michael Fassbender performance is a second charged Michael Fassbender performance in the same scene. Watching these two androids, an older David and a younger Walter, have their conversations about the nature of creation and mortality together is fascinating. It barely has any real connection with the rest of the movie – which is overrun with weightless CGI monsters and good actors doing their best to breathe compelling life into archetypes – but it kept my brain running where the rest of the movie couldn’t.
So, Ridley? We see what you’re doing. It’s clever. We’re onto you, mate.
Best Glimpse Into Life-Changing Magic: The Work
I sure hope this documentary gets more attention in the years to come. I’ll certainly be selling people on it.
The premise is alluring: civilian men join counselors and inmates in the vaunted Folsom State Prison for 4 days of group therapy. The expectation is that we’re going to see these inmates get pretty deep inside their emotions. The surprise, ultimately, is just how much we see from the civilians.
By showing the emotional breakthroughs of the civilian men – the teacher assistants, the cashiers, the regular dads – alongside the breakthroughs of the inmates, the film subtly shows us just how equal we really are. When money, jobs, and life outcomes are stripped away, we are all the same: children running around in a big, complex world we still struggle to understand. Some of us figure it out a little better than others. Some of us have more supports than others. But we’re all made of the same beautiful thing.
2nd Best CGI Ape Movie: Kong: Skull Island
The only thing I love better than monkeys are well-rendered CGI monkeys.
War for the Planet of the Apes is the thoughtful, earnest version of this.
Kong: Skull Island, on the other hand, is the version where someone gives a five year old some expensive tools and says, “YOLO.” I love how big Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes this ape, and how much character he actually imbues in him. The big guy feels real. It feels like he’s been around a while. And we’re always, always rooting for him to kick some ass and take some names.
The film manages to make about as fun a movie as it can out of such a limited concept – how many times do we need to see this King Kong island story after all? – and do it with some welcome doses of style and humor.
It’s not going to win any Oscars (other than the ones its actors already carry around), but it sure is a blast.
Best Surprise: Coco
I had no idea what to expect from this movie. All I knew was from the trailers – a young boy who wants to play music, some connection to the Day of the Dead – and, even then, it looked pretty light. Minor Pixar with fancier graphics, perhaps.
I could not have been more blown away.
I have no problem ranking this as one of Pixar’s very, very best films. Somehow this movie embraced the cultural authenticity fully, came up with alluring characters, went deeeep with its ideas and themes (I definitely got teary-eyed), and never forgot to be entertaining.
Best Beauty and the Beast Movie of 2017: The Shape of Water
It says a lot about the year we’ve had in movies that an Oscar hopeful movie from one of my favorite filmmakers is this far down the list. Make no mistake, this is a magical movie. It is hopeful. It is lovely. And while I wish it was just a little bit weirder and less predictable, there are still whole sequences in this movie that won’t be leaving my brain anytime soon.
This is a year that Disney gave us a $160 million dollar Beauty and the Beast so laden with CGI that it felt weightless and, at times, lifeless. The best scene in the movie is the one that doesn’t have any CGI in it. The Shape of Water, on the other hand, makes do with a $19 million dollar budget and an odd creature far more believable.
Del Toro has made his Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon movie all at once, spinning a yarn with his own creative threads. This is 100% Del Toro. His humor. His optimism. His love of all things macabre. More than anything, this is his heart laid bare.
AND NOW, MY TOP 10:
10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
This is a movie bursting at the seams with confidence. It’s like James Gunn saw the positive response to the first GOTG and said, “Okay, now I can really do my thing.” The music is just as good – I never thought I’d see an action climax scored to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” – the characters are as fun as ever, and it never forgets to dole out the laughs and the pathos in equal measure. Kurt Russell’s character and the revealing of his grand design is one of the purer cinematic pleasures I had this year, revealing that Gunn understands how to imbue his movies with deep, resonant themes just as much as he knows how to pepper in a nipple sensitivity joke.
9. Blade Runner 2049
I love to refer to masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins as “my boy”, even though he’s more than twice my age and I’ve never met him in my life. But time and time again, this guy has blown me away with the images he brings to the big screen. It’s one thing to make a movie look gorgeous – it’s another to make every shot mean and communicate something. I can’t pick a favorite Deakins-shot film; they’re all so incredible in their own way.
So when you combine the director of Arrival and Sicario – two of the best films I’ve seen in the last two years – with my boy Roger and some smart screenwriters? It’s bound to be something special. I couldn’t wait.
This movie completely overwhelmed me in the best way. I went home chewing it over in my brain for days after. It’s very rare to see something this big of a budget and yet this cerebral, and even more rare that it’s pulled off as well as it is here. Sure, there’s some things that don’t work – characters that don’t make sense, plot threads that are presented and dropped – but it’s easily overwhelmed by the absolute phantasmagoria of ideas flowing throughout it. Everyone is bringing their A-game, and it results in something that hopefully will resonate more in the future, when people take the time to give it a chance.
8. A Ghost Story
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie befuddle my mother so much. She kept asking if I had hit pause again (“No, mom, it’s just one long shot”) or if the characters speak at all to each other (spoiler alert: they eventually do) or what was up with that last shot (I’m still processing it myself).
Writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) has done something pretty special. He’s made a deceptively small movie, centered around an Oscar-winning actor completely covered in a white bed sheet, that challenges not only our own film language, but the way we perceive our mortality.
It’s an exceptionally quiet and patient film. It never hurries. It never holds your hand, yet always plays fair. The music is the sound of ache.
Lowery himself admitted he wrote this during a period of true existential crisis. And for the first two weeks of filming, he was so sure he had made a mistake in trying this movie that he tried multiple times to shut it down. It’s an exceedingly brave risk he took, but I’m so, so very glad he did. He has crafted something as timeless as it is gutting.
7. Get OutMany have said how stunning Jordan Peele’s debut film is. As if they never knew he had it in him. But they’re forgetting the five seasons of Key & Peele that came before. I always suspected that Keegan Michael Key was more of the performer (especially since he booked so many movie roles throughout the show’s run) and Jordan more of the writer.
One of my favorite trends this year is seeing how people forget mastery doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from people who are observant, patiently and fervently soaking up all their opportunities and not missing their one shot. Get Out is technically Peele’s debut film, but that requires forgetting Key & Peele, a show that – while always hilarious – definitely went to some dark, subversive places that even I didn’t know they had in them.
The problem with a lot of sketch comedy these days (SNL, I’m looking at you) is that they sometimes stop at the premise. There is no exploration, no extending the idea or joke. It is what it is. Key & Peele, however, reached iconic status from having sketches that always had at least one extra layer to it – if not three, four, or five. They often used the premise simply as a starting point. Then they went in every direction they could, in writing, direction, and performance.
Having said that, when I first heard Jordan Peele was making his debut film with a production company known for cheaply made horror films? I had no idea what to expect. But once the movie starts, it’s clear Jordan Peele is doing exactly what he wants to do. He knows exactly what he wants to say and exactly how he wants to execute it. There is not one false step or bit of fat in this movie. It is lean, incisive, and somehow incredibly entertaining. And while it is a movie that we’ll always tie to our political climate of 2017, I have no doubt it will be seen as a classic for many years to come.
Even more: I’m so excited to have Jordan Peele doing his thing. Keep supporting this dude.
6. Baby Driver
The collapse of Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man project meant we had to go a little longer between his films than we’d be comfortable with. But Baby Driver shows it was well worth the wait.
He’s created a colorful cast of characters surrounded by well-orchestrated car action, all scored to a delicately selected and ear-pleasing soundtrack. You can tell Wright is having just as much fun as the audience is. Writing about this movie ended up being one of the true pleasures of 2017 for me – a moment in time I’ll never forget – so mad props to Wright for being so patient with his vision and bringing something so alive and electric to the big screen.
5. The Big Sick
The first time I saw this movie, I had all the feels. I left thinking this is one of the most gentle, forgiving movies I’d seen in a long time. It’s all exemplified by an exchange when Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) tells his comatose ex-girlfriend’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter) that they both feel good about the upcoming surgery because the doctors know what they’re doing.
“No, they don’t,” she says. “They’re just winging like everyone else.”
Every character in this movie is struggling with something – their legacy, their career, their culture, their family, their own marriage and relationship – and they’re all doing the best they can.
But “best” looks different to everyone, and this is a movie that shows us that we can want the best for the people we love and still cause them immense pain. Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon have done a masterful job at taking their own true story and translating it to the big screen. They don’t leave out the thornier elements, knowing it’s only going to make the whiffs of roses a bit sweeter.
Bonus: this is probably the funniest movie I’ve seen all year.
4. The Last Jedi
This is my favorite Star Wars film yet. I’ve always enjoyed Star Wars since a couple elementary school friends taught me how to build a Star Destroyer with LEGO bricks, but it’s never been a deep passion of mine. I’d read about it and occasionally engage in delightfully nerdy conversations with other fans. But George Lucas did not ruin my childhood (guys, let’s give this dude a break, okay?), and I don’t think the world is in desperate need to have the original trilogy versions on Blu-Ray.
With that, I worried when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced their plans for a movie every year that they would dilute the story and the brand irreparably. I enjoyed A Force Awakens and Rogue One enough, but their difficult productions could be felt in how many cool moments they could pull off, yet how much they struggled to completely string their storylines together. They also felt, for all their intergalactic endeavors, dispiritingly claustrophobic.
Enter writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom, Looper).
Johnson wrote this script just like he writes his other movies – complete with callbacks, themes, style, and a touch of weirdness. In being allowed to pursue what interests him, we’ve been gifted what is, to me, the fullest, heartiest Star Wars yet.
I still have multiple lines (“Let the past die”) and whole scenes (the epic Throne Room battle, Holdo’s hyperspace rip-through) stuck in my head nearly 3 weeks later. It’s the first Star Wars movie I can remember immediately wanting to revisit. And the best thing about this movie is that while it embraced the power of failure, it also removed the Hero’s Journey that had begun to burden the franchise and put it back in the hands of everyone. Anyone can step up. Anything is possible. It’s an exciting time.
3. War for the Planet of the Apes
Before Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the AMC network meant one thing to me: the home of all those old Planet of the Apes movies. I would flip through the channels as a kid, only to become entranced by an installment in the series, the makeup stiff but somehow artful. More than anything, the movies played with ideas. It was a series designed to challenge our preconceived notions of what it means to be human and our place in the universe.
The new Apes trilogy has continued the tradition. I thought Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be the high point of the series. This one-ups it in every way possible – story, ideas, effects, scope, everything – and tells a story that is as epic in its locations as it is in the depth of the emotions it explores. It’s rare to see a movie this large lean so hard into its quiet moments, and it makes the short bursts of violence and aggression all the more painful. They stuck the landing.
2. Band Aid
The rise of streaming giants in our culture means we’re constantly grappling with the paradox of choice. We have so many options that it’s hard to stick with something. And in being overwhelmed, it all starts to bleed together. So sometimes you need something to snap you out of it. Sometimes you need something to show you what a movie can do to you.
All the sudden, the possibilities of film seemed a bit more exciting and electric. They could be deeply emotional, while still being silly and charming. Writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones hired an all-female crew, something that not only set an example for others, but also pushed everyone involved to make the best film possible. They certainly succeeded.
This movie is hilarious. It’s also incredibly, sometimes brutally honest. No punches are pulled. No emotions left unexplored. Lister-Jones masterfully balances her tears with her laughs, and the songs are as catchy and fresh as the film itself.
1. Lady Bird
The beauty of Lady Bird is in its accumulation. Every moment in this movie is so honest and, at first glance, doesn’t seem entirely significant. It’s only as the movie starts rolling towards its conclusion, punctuated by as perfect a final moment and line as I’ve seen in a movie all year, that its power is felt. And goddamn is it powerful.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s debut film truly takes us on a journey, with a capital J. We see all the hallmarks of your typical high school senior movie – school plays, sex, college admissions – but never as authentic and real as this. I laughed out loud nearly as much as I held my breath, astonished at the emotional weight of which Gerwig swings with. I can’t wait to revisit this film.