We continue our recap of the year in movies with a top 10 list, only a month and half late! But I snuck it in before the Oscars, so there is that. This marks the twelfth year I’ve posted a top ten, which is getting interesting. A dozen years! For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
Coming up with a cohesive thematic summary of an entire year’s worth of movies is something of a fool’s errand, but I’m pretty dumb, so let’s give it a shot. The big standout for me this year is the rise of streaming exclusives, especially on Netflix. Now, only one of these will actually show up on my top 10, but one reason for my larger-than-normal list of movies watched this year is the large increase in accessibility represented by streaming services. This isn’t an unalloyed good, of course, and it would have been great to have seen some of these films on a big screen with an enthusiastic crowd, but on the other hand, there’s no way that something like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), or Mudbound would have hit a wide release. Much more likely is that they would hit the arthouses in a few select markets and then make their way to video/streaming. There’s a fair chance I wouldn’t have seen any of them at all, had they gone through the traditional distribution process. In any case, the quality of these offerings is decidedly mixed, ranging from artsy to commercial and everywhere inbetween. But it does feel like some progress in reducing the stigma of “direct to streaming” has been made, if only baby steps.
The other theme that stands out is a continuation of last year’s decline of the blockbuster, which franchise fatigue settling in on several usually reliable series (i.e. Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc..) Of course, the major exception to this is Marvel, which continues to enjoy near-universal success. Oddly, it seems all attempts to copy Marvel’s model are falling flat (The Mummy and Dark Universe), indicating that perhaps Marvel’s special sauce is not quite so easily replicated. In a heartening trend, those of us who value new and interesting films scored a modest string of success throughout the year, including the likes of Get Out, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk, all of which seemed to exceed expectations, even if they weren’t billion-dollar franchise makers. Hope springs eternal, though it’s difficult to get to excited, as there were plenty of films that should have garnered an audience but somehow didn’t manage to find one (i.e. Logan Lucky).
I suppose I should add a third theme that I have noticed whilst compiling the below list. Many of these films make moral claims that could be interpreted in multiple ways. As they made my list, I think you can guess that I’m using more generous interpretations (or valuing the thought provoking nature of certain moral dilemmas). One of ways that I feel like I diverge from some (particularly persnickety) critics is that I’m often willing to give movies some latitude, even when I would normally disagree with something it’s saying. The world would be a boring place if we all valued and agreed on the same things, not the least of which because I wouldn’t like most movies because I could probably find something to disagree with, if I were so inclined to look for it.
As of this moment, I have seen 87 movies that could be considered a 2017 release. While this represents an increase over the past few years and is certainly significantly higher than your average moviegoer, it’s still a much smaller number than your typical critic, so keep that in mind. Standard disclaimers apply, but rather than enumerating those boring caveats, let’s just get to the party, pal:
Top 10 Movies of 2017
* In roughly reverse order
Molly’s Game – I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure I buy this movie’s moral claims, but it does so in a way that provokes thought, which is admirable enough. However, this Aaron Sorkin written and directed film is just so damn entertaining that it’s hard to beat. It’s got some of Sorkin’s not-so-great ticks (i.e. daddy issues, psychologists, etc…), which is why it ultimately tumbles to the bottom of the top 10 (and on another day, might have been swapped out with one of the honorable mentions below), but again the fun value is high enough that it still deserves recognition.
Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut (she also provided the script) is a very well-observed slice of life. This is pretty emphatically the sort of thing I don’t gravitate towards, so I was surprised by how much I was taken with this film. Funny, moving, and while I have never been a teenage girl, it does feel authentic. The pacing is brisk and the film is short and sweet, which helps tremendously. Great performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, but don’t sleep on pretty much all of the supporting cast, like Tracy Letts and Beanie Feldstein. Not the sort of thing I’d expect on my list and it could easily have fallen into the honorable mentions, but then, here we are!
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – Quirky with a dry wit and some helpings of explosive violence, Macon Blair’s directorial debut (he also wrote the script) feels a bit like a Coen brothers pastiche. It also shares a kinship with Blair’s collaborations with Jeremy Saulnier, but it’s great to see that he can do it on his own. Or, well, along with an excellent cast and crew. I mean, lead performances by Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood are certainly helping for sure. This is the sole direct-to-Netflix film to make the list, and it’s a well-deserved win.
Colossal – Nacho Vigalondo’s “Godzilla meets Lost in Translation” story is another film whose socially relevant moral claims provoke thought (to put it kindly, but that shouldn’t be a surprise since I’m a fan of this movie), but again, this is a lot of fun, and it explores its fantastical premise in thoughtful and clever ways.
Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis lead a pretty great ensemble, and Vigalondo’s nervous energy permeates.
Bad Genius – A straight-A high school student starts an exam-cheating business… and this is somehow the best heist film of 2017 (and there was plenty of competition). Visually energetic and confident in a way that recalls Edgar Wright, this movie is tense, clever, and tight, well-paced with multiple bare-knuckled sequences of suspense. The ending mixes its morals up a bit, but again, it does so in a thought provoking and entertaining way. Still, it’s a movie about cheating on tests, and it’s the best caper of the year.
Wind River – Writer/Director Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming a master of a sort of Midwestern Noir. A clear-eye murder mystery tinged with grief and drama, this is a film that recalls Sheridan’s Hell or High Water without feeling like he’s in a rut. This carves out its own territory, and what a frigid, gripping territory it has found. Sheridan surrounds and encapsulates his relevant social themes without feeling didactic, and while you could drown in the isolation and tension, it’s not a slog at all. Recommended!
Your Name – This anime feature starts as a sorta rote body swapping drama… and then it turns into something special. I won’t describe further than that, but it’s a clever script that feints in one direction, lulls you into a sense of security as it executes that part very well, and then pulls the rug out from under you. Entertaining and heartfelt.
The Big Sick – Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani wrote the semi-autobiographical script for this delightful romantic comedy, and the result is genuinely touching. Another movie that manages to be socially relevant without feeling preachy or didactic, it hits many challenging notes perfectly. It’s a movie with a 9/11 joke that actually works, for crying out loud.
Funny, romantic, and quite unlike your typical romantic comedy.
Get Out – A supremely entertaining horror flick on its own, but infused with social relevance in a way that not only doesn’t feel preachy, but which actually leverages our expectations to superb effect. Well balanced and calibrated, it’s an impressive debut from Jordan Peele, who I think we can expect great things from going forward.
Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s stirring WWII epic is propulsively paced, harrowing, and gorgeously photographed. It’s not a conventional crowd-pleaser, what with its distinct lack of dialog and plot, not to mention it’s puzzle-like temporal structure, but it’s so well executed that it still manages to come across as rousing and interesting.
It’s a film that has only grown in my estimation over time, and any initial qualms have faded away. Just an exceptional film.
* In alphabetical order
Atomic Blonde – The strongest action flick of the year, with several notable set pieces that are absolutely spectacular. A little heavy on the needle drops and maybe too convoluted, but still very entertaining and thrilling, and Charlize Theron can kick a lot of ass.
Baby Driver – Perhaps the most striking opening sequence of a film all year, an incredibly well orchestrated blend of music and action, the rest of the film unfortunately can’t quite live up to that promise. It still ends up being one of the most energetic and entertaining films of the year, even if there are a few plot points that don’t feel entirely earned.
Better Watch Out – It starts out as a rote home invasion horror flick, but then morphs into something more. It’s a movie that has only grown in my estimation over time, and it really is a lot of fun, with a great villain, a neat premise, and intense thrills that build throughout. Well worth checking out for horror fanatics.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – Punishingly brutal flick from S. Craig Zahler and starring a surprisingly badass Vince Vaughn (who actually pulls it off), this is perhaps a bit overlong and padded, but makes up for it by punctuating the plot with gruesome action throughout. This is not finely calibrated martial arts execution here; the eponymous “brawl” is much more apt for the fighting that goes on here. Well worth a watch, if you can stomach it.
The Girl With All The Gifts – I’m not much of a zombie fan, but I must admit that I found myself taken with this particular example. Sure, it hits a lot of the standard beats, but it puts enough of a spin on the tropes to feel worthwhile. Quite entertaining, will good child performances and a solid ending (something a lot of zombie movies lack).
I, Tonya – This bitter black comedy will make you feel sympathy for one of the 90s great real-life villains, Tonya Harding. A riveting lead performance from Margot Robbie anchors the film, and there’s a lot here that I wasn’t really aware of back in the 90s when this was happening. It’s a pretty crazy story in real life, which obviously makes for a good movie.
It: Chapter One – This partial adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel gets a lot of things right. Amazing child performances certainly help, not to mention Bill Skarsgård’s frightening take on Pennywise the clown. It perhaps leans a bit too heavily on the CGI jump scares, it nevertheless manages to get under your skin, evoking some primal fears from time to time.
Logan – A fitting finale for Hugh Jackman’s long run as Wolverine, this is one of the more distinctive takes on the superhero film that you’re likely to see. No power boxes with beams to the sky here, though it hits plenty of the tropes at the same time. I wasn’t as taken with this as a lot of folks, but I can see why it’s garnered so much praise.
Logan Lucky – Steven Soderberg returns to the big screen with an intricate hillbilly heist film that deserved to be seen by more people, this very nearly made it onto the top ten. Clever, intricate, and a little byzantine, this was among the most entertaining flicks of the year and a great time at the theater. It’s on Amazon prime right now, so do yourself a favor and go watch it.
The Post – Unlike my refrain in several of the top ten entries above, this is a movie that is socially relevant while being quite preachy and didactic. That being said, we take Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks for granted these days, and they turn in a mainstream media propaganda film about the publication of classified Pentagon Papers into high drama. Sure, we’ll throw them some perfunctory awards nominations, but no one expects them to win. Then again, while this is an entertaining and dramatic film, it is a bit too much of a puff piece to really win. Still, I was quite taken with the film, and it’s well worth a watch.
Spider Man: Homecoming – Notable for being the third big-screen incarnation of the character in only the past decade, this one sets itself apart by not actually being an origin story, while still introducing us to a distinct take on the character. Smaller scale than your typical Marvel flick and featuring perhaps the best villain in the MCU so far (*ahem* at least, until last weekend), the stakes are no less involving. Once again, very entertaining and fun.
Split – M. Night Shyamalan’s resurgence continues unabated, this is perhaps lacking in some social graces, but is nonetheless a pretty interesting and almost lurid tale about a man with split personality. It ends well too, and features an unexpected twist ending that works well in the film proper, but implies a sequel that I can’t help but feel some apprehension about. Will Shyamalan’s current resurgence end here? Time will tell.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This apparently divisive entry into Star Wars canon has cleared the decks and allowed future filmmakers some breathing room to do new and interesting things. The strongest parts of the film are Rey, Kylo, and Luke’s story, which pretty much carries the day. Poe and Leia maintain course, while Finn and Rose’s story falls flat. I’m still a fan, and for the first time in a long time, I’ve no idea what to expect next, which I count as a good thing.
Thor: Ragnarok – I’ve always been fonder of the Thor movies than most everyone else, but this one is certainly an improvement over the previous two entries in the series. It does feel a bit disjointed, with the bulk of the film feeling like a bit of a diversion from the main plot, but then, that trip to a weird trash planet with gladiator battles is clearly the most fun and entertaining part of the film, while the overarching plot feels a bit standard, despite Cate Blanchett’s best efforts (alas, she simply wasn’t given enough to work with… yet.)
The Villainess – Another film whose spectacular opening action sequence sets the bar so high that the rest of the film can’t quite measure up. Not for a lack of trying (there’s another motorcycle chase later in the film that comes close), but then, the film does fall back onto a weird melodrama plot that doesn’t quite fit. And yet, it’s still kinda fascinating, and so different from what I’m used to that I very nearly put this on the top ten…
The Quantum Jury Prize
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states (like good and bad or like and dislike, and everything inbetween). I’m not sure what that means, but that’s kinda the point. Basically, every time I observe my feelings on these movies, I experience something like a wave function collapse and get different results each time. Still confused? Good.
Phantom Thread – Severe toast buttering noises. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master filmmaker, but I go back and forth on this one. On the one hand, it is immaculately well composed and has a bleakly dark humor that I found interesting. On the other hand, it feels overlong and bloated, and while I found some of the turns of the story interesting, they also didn’t feel entirely baked. Or maybe they were. I don’t really know how I feel about this one, hence it’s inclusion in this new section.
A Ghost Story – Look, this is a ten minute long story that is padded out to an hour and a half. And it’s worth noting that 5 of those ten minutes is just Rooney Mara housing a pie. Definitely bloated and a little static, but on the other hand, that 10 minute story is worth telling.
Mother! – Some of the most impressive filmmaking skills in the industry used to bring a simple Biblical allegory to life. Bewildering and confounding while at the same time simplistic and didactic, this is a movie I go back and forth on. Definitely worth a watch for film buffs, but I can’t see it appealing to general audiences.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Blade of the Immortal
- Blade Runner 2049
- Cars 3
- Dave Made a Maze
- The Disaster Artist
- Free Fire
- Gerald’s Game
- Happy Death Day
- John Wick: Chapter 2
- The Shape of Water
- War for the Planet of the Apes
- Wonder Woman
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen around 90 of this year’s releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don’t wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:
- A Taxi Driver
- Brigsby Bear
- Call Me by Your Name
- Darkest Hour
- Faces Places
- The Florida Project
- Ingrid Goes West
- It Comes at Night
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
It’s been quite a year! Stay tuned for the Oscars next weekend, which should be interesting. After that, we will probably return to to some SF book blogging…