Top of the Class
(The Best Fims of 2017)
(*20 -11 are in no particular order)
Michael O’Shea’s horror film takes a look at black mental illness through vampirism in what was, for me, one of the hardest movies to watch this year and perhaps the easiest to feel conflicted about. With its weed choked open-spaces and narrow ghetto alleyways, The Transfiguration creates a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia, a sense that there’s no way out of this labyrinth of buried feelings and broken people. With strong performances by relative newcomers, Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine, The Transfiguration is a haunting look at the seeming lack of options that exist for young men and women growing up in the projects who are treated like monsters.
Blending Guy Ritchie’s street wise sensibilities with the epic artistry of Frank Frazetta may not lend itself to the most accurate of depictions of the legend of King Arthur, but given how frequently the story has been adapted across mediums, it was time to break away from convention. Charlie Hunnam creates a relatable Arthur, who has far more in common with the characters of Ritchie’s Snatch than the British thespian-led versions that defined the story in the century prior. King Arthur operates with its own cinematic language, blending pagan occultism and surrealism for a scrappy film that understands the hearsay and fragmented nature of legends.
Pixar’s latest feature adds a splash of diversity and culture to their filmography with a film that explores the significance of life and death on the Day of the Dead. The animation is as gorgeous as we’ve come to expect from the studio and directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina who tugged at our heartstrings with Toy Story 3. What’s most surprising about Coco is how well it conveys mature themes of abandonment, celebrity, and memory. With one of the best original songs of year, “Remember Me,” Coco is a real tearjerker that really earns that distinction through clever plotting and concepts, and endearing characters.
Leading up to the release of Craig Gillespie’s film, I saw a number of people ask the same questions: why not make a movie about Nancy Kerrigan instead? It’s simple. Nancy Kerrigan isn’t divisive, misunderstood, or burdened with a legacy that would make her a villain. Nancy Kerrigan isn’t all that interesting. But Tonya Harding, now there’s a story worth telling. And with so many versions of that story told to the media, I, Tonya embraces the multi-faceted nature of the truth, allowing Margot Robbie to tap into the personas Harding has been shoved into by the media and the ones she created for herself. Gillespie’s film is a biopic with personality, refusing to play by preordained rules or leave the viewer with a concrete notion of Harding and playing with the black comedy elements of people who led sad lives, made dumb decisions, and remained themselves through and through.
The Disaster Artist
Admittedly, I didn’t see The Room until a couple days before seeing The Disaster Artist. For years, I wondered why people had so much love for a movie that was supposedly that bad, and even more, why would someone want to make a movie about the making of that movie? But then I saw The Room and I got why it’s different from other bad movies, why its beloved. There’s a sincerity to it, an honest sense that these people aren’t intentionally making a bad movie but giving their all to making a movie. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist further endeared me to Wiseau and Sestero, because as impressive as the shot for shot recreations were, and as funny as the hijinks were, this is ultimately a story of friendship and trying to make it when no one else believes you have it in you. That’s inspiring stuff.
Any concern that John Wick Chapter 2 would simply be a replay of the first film with a bigger budget, are quickly dispatched within the first ten minutes. From there Chad Stahelski further expands on the mythology of the first film, creating a larger playground for Keanu Reeves’ hitman and creats clear parallels to classic mythology. Each action sequence tops the next, in slick stylized scenes of violence that make fantastic use of set pieces. A battle in the catacombs of Rome during the film’s midpoint and room of mirrors in the film’s climax take Wick into Hell and ultimately pit him against his own failings and broken promises by juxtaposes classical and modern art. If we’re stepping outside the realm of genre fare, John Wick Chapter 2 may be the best pure American made action film of the 21st century.
A Cure for Wellness
In a year where Universal failed to relaunch their monster universe, Gore Verbinski managed to find a way to blend gothic horror with our modern anxieties for a film so weird, and indulgent that I still can’t believe it got made. Dane DeHaan’s wanderings through the Swiss Alps set wellness center convey the feeling of a horror video game, making the film’s length and slow uncovering of its mysteries acceptable and even desired. There are shades of Verbinski’s canceled Bioshock film within the project, in its rejection of a secluded society of elites, and its condemnation of the rat race of modern job hierarchy. Containing some of the year’s most beautiful shots and production designs, A Cure for Wellness is a horror film not to overlook in what has been a great year for the genre.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
James Gunn’s sequel takes a more personal approach with the Guardians, giving them tougher obstacles, and making their team harder to hold together. While the humor and soundtrack (one that I found even better than the first film’s track listings) remain highpoints of the film, Gunn creates a narrative that while a bit more unwieldly than the first, manages to be thematically succinct in its examination of homogeny and individualism within the boundaries of family. There’s such a drive for these characters to maintain unique identities as part of a group, that it’s easy to see parallels with Gunn’s own journey to define himself within a cinematic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 successfully introduces new characters, while furthering the narratives of those we already love, and ultimately is one of the most unique and voice-driven of the MCU’s offerings.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“This is not going to go the way you think.” Luke Skywalker tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen. Rian Johnson’s latest entry in the Star Saga divided fans (though not enough to stop it from becoming one of the year’s most profitable films), and turned several of the series’ biggest tropes on their heads and delivering something truly unexpected in terms of narrative, style, and shot compositon. The Last Jedi isn’t built on fan service, a risky move considering how massive that fandom is, but by doing so Rian Johnson frees Star Wars up from some of its constraints and points towards a more unexpected future. While it’s exciting to see Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (in her final role) return to the characters that made them icons, Johnson successfully cements Rey, Kylo, Poe, and Finn as the leads of the franchise and it is their arcs and fading line between the dark side and the light that will push Star Wars forward and allow more rules to be broken in perhaps the most rule driven of series.
2017 served as a Stephen King renaissance, reinvigorating interest in adapting the horror novelist’s properties and at the forefront of this interest was Andy Muschietti’s IT. By firmly establishing itself in the 80s, IT combats our collective generational nostalgia by creating a portrait of life not so compelling as our Spielbergian motifs would have us believe. This is a world where adults have failed the next generation, and where the innocence of children is lost rather than preserved. Oh, and there’s an evil entity who fashions himself as a clown, among other things, who just happens to be scary as hell thanks to Bill Skarsgard’s transformative and chilling performance. IT succeeds largely because it doesn’t stray far from King’s novel, and makes changes with a purpose that still retains the essence of the work and modernizes our fear of monsters. In its perfect blend of horror and humor, IT became a new pop cultural touchstone. Horror never needed IT to survive, but I’m sure glad it exists and that it will hopefully set the course for the kind of care and production values that King adaptations are worthy of going forward.
10. The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s film finds beauty in impoverished living and emotional wealth in the space just outside of the proclaimed “happiest place on Earth.” Just as he did with his prior film, Tangerine, Baker looks at people at the margins of society, those often ignored both in life and on film. He doesn’t try to perfect them or moralize them but find the integrity in their flaws. Aided by Alexis Zabe’s stunning cinematography, The Florida Project creates a portrait of American life that feels like a 21st century Mark Twain story painted by Norman Rockwell on loan to Disney. Brooklyn Pierce and Brie Vinaite give compelling performances that make them endearing despite the fact that we know that their lifestyles and ignorance will ultimately be their undoing. And Willem Dafoe shines as the empathetic motel manager who is powerless to prevent the wane of innocence. The Florida Project is a powerful coming of age story, not only for the child at the center of it, but the mother who must reckon with her own failings.
Logan is a death song, a painful eulogy to one of the 21st century’s most enduring characters, and a rumination on aging and mortality. There’s a brutality to Logan, not only in its bloodshed, but at its hard looks the characters of Charles Xavier and Logan, and the way it treats their bodies and their inability to heal from wounds both physical and mental. More western tone poem than superhero movie, Logan builds on seventeen years of comic book movie history for a final product that outshines the rest of the X-series and creates fascinating parallels between Xavier and Logan, and Logan and Laura in how they deal with violence. No superhero film outside of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, has so successfully allowed a character to reach an endpoint, not based on comic book accuracy, but on a natural arc of their story and their existence in a world not so far removed from our own. Carrying the dirt and grit of an old war photograph, Logan is a harrowing but ultimately hopeful experience.
8. Lady Bird
Lady Bird is so entirely immersed in the voice of its director and screenwriter, Greta Gerwig, that it carries itself with a confidence rarely achieved by first time filmmakers. The voice of Lady Bird is a voice that Gerwig has been developing for years, most notably with Noah Baumbach. While the influence from Baumbach is clear in Lady Bird, Gerwig creates a more inclusive experience, one that feels entirely removed from ego or pretension and is instead grounded in relatable adolescent wandering in a world that doesn’t feel insular. Some of the best films this year have dealt with class and age, and Gerwig relates the dignity of the lower middle-class American experience, alongside the near constant embarrassment of young adulthood for a result that feels like a unique and necessary coming of age story. Saoirse Ronan’s titular character faces the challenges of expectation, and the anxieties of who she will become in a world that’s quickly changing, and while sometimes that means losing and being lost, she ultimately becomes a figure who assures us that everything will be just fine as long as we retain the truth of our individuality.
7. Wonder Woman
What a fitting year it was for Wonder Woman to finally get her due with a film that’s nothing short of a triumph. Patty Jenkins earns every moment of her gorgeous blockbuster debut, creating a character-driven, expertly choreographed, cheer worthy film, that isn’t afraid to have love as its central theme, and also allow for a female character to have the indulgent final battle that so many of her male counterparts have been afforded over the years. Gal Gadot’s unmistakable charisma firmly established her as a new icon, and coupled with Chris Pine’s charm, Wonder Woman achieves the chemistry of romance better than any blockbuster this year. Wonder Woman is the best superhero origin movie we’ve gotten thus far, because it creates a complex look at humanity as people who may not be worthy of saving but are worthy of compassion and a chance to be better, and uses facet as an opportunity for the self-discovery of its hero. There’s a clarity in Diana’s arc, one that somehow manages to coalesce 75 years of history and contradictory notions into a character who is believable as both champion for peace and soldier who won’t back down in the face of battle. Wonder Woman is the kind of film that will likely inspire future generations of filmmakers and creatives, it already has, and it could not be more appropriate that a woman is behind that.
Matt Reeves’ sequel lives up to its title through showing us the emotionally devastating cost of war. With an opening sequence that stands up there with the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, Reeves makes it clear that while this may be a science-fiction blockbuster, but it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from death, or pain and its cost on the soul. While we eagerly anticipate action in most summer blockbusters, War for the Planet of the Apes makes us dread it, makes us fear which beloved character we’ll lose next, and what, if anything, can be saved. The performances, most notably Andy Serkis’ Caesar, and the film’s production design create an immersive experience that makes this world fully believable. And there’s an eeriness found in the similarities between this world and our own, as the extremism, fear, and military fetishism found among The Colonel’s men can be traced directly back to our own society. War for the Planet of the Apes cements this modern Apes trilogy as one of the all-time greats as it does the very thing that made the original series such a cultural touchstone. It holds a mirror up to our society and asks us to gaze into it and see ourselves as both apes and humans, a warring people hastening our own end by our inability to give up the specter of revenge and find compassion before it’s too late.
5. The Shape of Water
Water fits the shape of whatever it’s in, so it only stands to reason that Guillermo del Toro’s love story comes to perfect execution inside of a monster movie. del Toro has described The Shape of Water as his first true film as an adult, one that deals with adult concerns of sexuality, aging, and loneliness. It’s clear here that del Toro is performing with a newfound purpose, and while his monster carries his familiar signature, including a wonderfully emotive performance by Doug Jones, there is a maturity to his handling of these outsiders and their concerns. Sally Hawkins gives what is arguably the best performance of the year as the mute Eliza and her romance with the Amphibian Man creates a balanced look at seemingly voiceless outcasts and gives them a voice. With Richard Jenkins’ spirited performance as Eliza’s neighbor Giles, and Michael Shannon’s unbending villain Strickland, del Toro presents a modern fairy tale made willing and unwilling participants and sets them against a world on the cusp of social change.
Never a filmmaker to be placed in cuffs, Christopher Nolan stepped out of genre fiction and lengthy runtimes for a lean historical war film that works like clockwork. Nolan’s approach to the Battle of Dunkirk is to create a thriller, a tension filled race against time with the fate of the world in the balance. And yet, despite the stakes, Nolan never loses sight of the personal as he shifts between 3 different locations and time periods to create an all-encompassing view of the humanity at stake and the struggle to return home again. Nolan’s penchant for practical effects has perhaps never been better as the aerial fights depicted in the film are unlike any captured on film before. Aided by frequent collaborators Hans Zimmer and Hoyte Van Hoytema, and a cast of British Thespians, Nolan carefully constructs a story of patriotism founded in the sheer will of survival and holding on just a little longer.
3. Get Out
If you look at the films bookending this entry, it’s clear that Jordan Peele has found himself in great company. His horror film, or as he refers to it, a “social thriller,” refuses to tackle racism as it’s been done before. This isn’t simply Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with horror elements mixed in, but a dissertation on modern racism that isn’t always obvious, and is founded in dueling American experiences. Peele tackles the racism found in aspects of white liberalism with an insightful eye that’s both humorous and profoundly uncomfortable. With shots that capture the wide, expressive range of his characters conflicting emotions, Peele allows for tonal variance within his film, refusing to suggest that all of America’s racial problems can be viewed the same way or dignify the same response. While the twist didn’t work for some viewers who found its pseudo-science too hard to buy, it’s a twist that aptly nails the psychological science behind so much of America’s racism and allows for the film to own up to its horror heritage. More than any other debut this year, Jordan Peele’s film proudly announces a new and necessary voice in horror and is a much watch whether you’re a fan of the genre or not.
As many of you have probably heard by now, Blade Runner is my favorite film, and while a sequel was never necessary, Denis Villeneuve pulled off a near impossible feat of a sequel that doesn’t undermine any of the questions posed by the original and successfully adds the world’s mythology in its deeply affecting look at not only what it means to be human, but what it means to matter. 2049 distinguishes itself from its predecessor by stepping away from its neo-noir trappings and expanding its mystery to encompass a social divide predicated on conspiracy theories and lost legacies. And yet, for all of its big ideas, Blade Runner 2049 is a personal story built on K’s quest for love and his hope that he is more than a tool. Villeneuve’s film is a beautiful expression of an existential crisis that pulls the plug on the idea of individual exceptionalism and instead looks for the achievement of community and mutual reliance on others, not as tools, but as lives filled with dignity and meaning regardless of origin. Of course, none of these themes would carry the weight they do without Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography that remains unbeaten by anything else this year. While it seems unlikely that we’ll get to return to this world, Blade Runner 2049 is a successful sequel and standalone chapter, that will be worth discussing and analyzing for years to come.
Controversial, horrific, indulgent, self-reflective, and all encompassing, mother! is the film that Aronofsky’s entire career has been leading to, his masterpiece, and the best film of the year. It doesn’t matter if you were able to pinpoint the film’s allusions or not. A film isn’t a punching bag, it doesn’t need to be beaten in order to prove something, only analyzed within its context to better understand why it exists. mother!, in my reading, turns both the biblical Old and New Testament into in a domestic thriller, one that challenges the tenants of faith, the treatment of women, and the fallacy of man as passionate creator deserving of free reign. Continuing Aronofsky’s themes of addiction, celebrity, ascendency, and naval-gazing, mother! is an uncomfortable viewing experience, one that refuses to offer easy answers even under the identification of its references. Score-less, mother! answers our cries with a void of silence, denying us music to tell us what to feel and when to feel it. It’s a film that shifts the more times you watch it, and depending on when you watch it, its only constant being the wrongness that comes off of it in waves. It’s a tapestry of human experience, one that points a finger at us, accuses, and tells us that God’s love has a cost, that our consumerism of art has a cost, and that we may not be worthy of either because of the apocalyptic price we carry. mother! is a horror film and horror should make us uncomfortable, make us reflect not only on the cost of all on all-consuming hate, but all consuming love as well. It should make us question not only what exists in the dark, but also what exists in the light. In a year that so often seemed built on questions without answers, mother! has been the film that I just can’t shake, and I don’t think I want to.
Honorable Mentions: (Wind River, Logan Lucky, Atomic Blonde, Alien: Covenant, Gerald’s Game, Raw, A Ghost Story, Mudbound, Split, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Annabelle: Creation, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri)
We’re fighting a battle of legacy, of failures we inherited and survival in a world damaged by our predecessors. Many of 2017’s releases presented us with narratives that told their own interpretation of that struggle. IT, The Last Jedi, King Arthur, Get Out, The Florida Project, mother!, Lady Bird, Wonder Woman, and Blade Runner 2049, all dealt with characters who struggled to define their place in a world stretched out of definition, a struggle I’ll define as millennial from my current seat. Maybe more than any other recent year, there seemed to be a thematic symmetry that existed between this year’s blockbusters and independent features, as though the result of a post-Obama America was predicted long before the votes were counted last fall. There’s a certain cinematic, thematic neatness to be found in all of this mess, and for the most part our films seemed to be contributing to each other, conversing, some more loudly than others, in the hopes that we would see the sign of the times. We did in part, but the self-caused blindness and the need for safe, easily digestible entertainment that chewed its way into 2016, only grew in 2017 to the inventible detriment of risky storytelling or risky storytellers. The world is sick, and I can’t help but think our film culture caught some of it.
While 2017 offered a richness of film that exceeded 2016’s offering, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. Whether from studio cowardice and greed, monsters doubling as Hollywood bigshots, canceled would-be franchises, or critical hit jobs, I was left with a sense that while we were richer for many of this year’s releases, we’ll ultimately be poorer from it in the long run as the cost of some expensive and controversial choices were unable to be recouped. In other words, the sickness is spreading.
Success stories like Split, Get Out, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman, and Lady Bird will surely help matters in the long run, and hopefully prove to Hollywood that stories told by women and people of color are wanted and needed. But with films that didn’t provide an immediate reprieve from the increasing real-world horrors, there seemed to be an increasingly antagonistic reaction from audience members and too many films treated like enemies and propped up only to be knocked down. Films were better this year, but arguably we as a film community weren’t.
While chanting our 2017 fight song in the hopes of change, we too often forgot who we were fighting, and went off without precision or just cause, the shrapnel tearing through all aspects of the film and entertainment community until not even Star Wars or a fucking Olaf cartoon were safe from ire. There were righteous efforts, especially those made on the fronts of whitewashing and #metoo, and nothing can dimish that. Aside from that, any year where Buzzfeed can publish a character assassination piece on Armie Hammer, or a movie or TV series can be dogpiled in the efforts to “cancel” one individual at the cost of the whole (there were many), or any critic can, in good conscience, be lauded for dragging a film and offering it up for slaughter as the worst film of the year before said film has even been released, showcases a growing state of negativity and mean-spiritedness that isn’t so different from the tweets of a certain clown in the oval office. We may all be too smart to be tweeting “Loser,” but so many of efforts to tear things down carried the same sentiment. Film culture is entrenched in liberalism, but over the past couple years it seems we’re inching ever closer to the conservatism so many of us are trying to combat.
Perhaps it’s time to stop looking for all films to be held on the same pedestal, to stop moralizing every creative decision, to stop asking for film to service us instead of meeting it on its own terms, and to celebrate the fact that we can have so many different voices telling us their stories. For 2018, my hope is that we continue our survival, continue our fight, but that we fall in love with movies again, because there’s no experience like it.
2017’s Film Grade: B