2017 might have been a political dumpster fire, but it was a damn good year for movies. People keep talking about how the golden age of television is killing film. Well, sorry…that’s hogwash. While I concede that television is as good as ever (American Vandal, The Leftovers, Insecure, Mindhunter, Catastrophe, Bojack Horseman, Halt and Catch Fire, The Marvelous Ms. Maisel, and Stranger Things 2) top my list for best of the year, traditional cinema isn’t going anywhere without a fight. Heck, I’m not just talking about arthouse movies either—even the blockbusters were good this year. From Spider-man to War for the Planet of the Apes, this summer wasn’t just a mindless big budget slog. The mega-films had heart.
I realize that there are many more qualified critics out there who make lists such as this. I haven’t seen every movie, nor do I have the time. My wife and I welcomed our daughter, our second child, this year, so, combine that with running a freelance business, and, well, let’s just say my time was limited. As such, my list is noticeably absent of major award contenders like The Florida Project and Ladybird. I hope to catch up with all of those films in the new year when they hit Blu-ray.
But…enough babbling…were are the 10 films I enjoyed the most in 2017
Although I had heard murmurs in the indie film world about the Safdie brothers, I wasn’t really familiar with their work prior to this year. Well, in the words of Leo Dicaprio from Django: “You had my curiosity. Now, you have my attention.”
In the loosest sense of the term, Good Time is a crime thriller. But, it’s not the kind you’re used to seeing. For one, our anti-hero protagonist, Constantine Nikas (portrayed in all his scuzzy glory by Robert Pattinson), isn’t some sleek, cold-hearted badass. In fact, Good Time seems to be going out of its way to make crime feel gross. Our “hero” is a greasy vagabond with a cold stare, bleached blonde hair, and unkempt facial hair. His mission—to bail his mentally handicapped brother out of jail—is a little noble but mostly selfish. As such, he’s not a likable character. Yet, you still empathize with him—this grimy hustler who improvises his way out of one bad situation, only to find himself immediately caught in the grips of another. In 2017, there was surely no shortage of think pieces attempting to dissect “Trump’s America”: the marginalized rural white voters who for some reason gave a lying maniac the keys to the kingdom. While Good Time is an urban crime story, I feel like it’s very much saying something about the American underclass—the grifters and “losers” who have wholeheartedly bought into the narrative that the world has done them wrong. And, so, they are going to do wrong right back at the world. In the case of Good Time, that sort of f-ck you sentiment becomes the amoral compass that leads its protagonist straight into the abyss.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Oh…look…another talky film about white Jewish intellectuals in New York City. I mean, how original…
I won’t argue that The Meyerowitz Stories very much fits into director Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre. Though, tonally, I like how he is evolving as a filmmaker. It’s not quite as overtly positive as Francis Ha, nor is it as nihilistic as the Squid and the Whale. Rather, it feels like Baumbach has a reached a point in his career where both sides of his persona—the optimist and pessimist—have met in the middle. Meyerowitz both skewers the pretentiousness of the artistic milieu, while also showing great reverence for it. Its characters are all flawed people, but they still exhibit warmth and compassion. Adam Sandler gives his best performance since Punch Drunk Love as a stay-at-home Dad struggling to come to terms with the father he both reveres and despises. It’s a film about the messiness of family, and how that messiness can often breed the most powerful emotions, from compassion to anger. Beyond that, this duet may just be my favorite single scene of any movie this year.
How rare is it to find a “heartwarming” movie that is actually, you know, heartwarming? And, I’m not talking in a Pete Hammond box quote kind of way. Brigsby Bear is about good people, who want to do good things. It’s about family. It’s about hope. It’s about the joy of the creative process—how making things can be the ultimate form of therapy. It’s also really…really goddamn weird. The pitch is incredibly high concept: an abducted child is raised on a Dark Crystal-esque television show that was created just for him by his insane (but kind of well meaning) captors. When James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney), is “rescued,” he realizes his whole life, belief system, and the titular show were a shame, and, so, he sets out to finish the fictional series his surrogate father created. Yeah…like I said…it’s weird. But, it’s driven by a real emotional core. Not to mention, it’s commenting on the double-edged relationship we have with pop culture, and how our childhood obsessions can be massive influences well into adulthood (ahem…see Spider-man and Logan… both on this list). Brigsby Bear is an undeniably sweet film that never feels too sappy or broadly comedic. It’s dealing with serious issues, but it’s also not a total bummer to watch. Who would have thought that the Lonely Island (they’re producers on the film and Andy Samberg makes a cameo), would be behind the only film this year to make me cry?
Blade Runner: 2049
As cool as the original Blade Runner looks, I was never really a fan of it, as I would argue it’s more of an exercise in amazing production design and atmosphere rather than an entertaining story. Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up doesn’t do much to fix the the first film’s ponderous nature (it’s nearly 3 hours long). But, despite its patient delivery, it’s a better movie. Not only does it somehow surpass the visuals of the original (if Deakins doesn’t win an Oscar for this, the game is rigged), it actually supports them with a deep and compelling narrative. There’s a real mystery at the heart of the film—a noir detective story that leads you in one direction, only to pull the rug out from under you in the final act. Beyond that, there are so many visual set-pieces—so many creative flourishes—that it’s hard to believe that all fit in one movie. For instance, there’s a Her-esque ménage à trois scene that is one of the most visually unique things I’ve ever watched. And, yeah, speaking of eye candy…holy hell…every frame of this film is a painting (a bleak painting, but a painting nonetheless). This is the kind of film that sets such a strong aesthetic benchmark that filmmakers will be referencing it in their Pinterest mood boards for years to come. A 3-hour big budget sequel to a cult movie that never quite hit the mainstream? It’s a astonishing that it was even made. The fact that it’s actually good? That might just be a cinematic miracle.
A movie made for remix culture, reconfiguring, rearranging, and mashing up existing cinematic parts to create a hot rod with a slick and sexy exterior. Baby Driver is undeniably cool—so cool that only a nerdy British hipster could be familiar enough with its various influences and references to make it in the first place. But, this isn’t just an inside-baseball jaunt for grindhouse cinema gear-heads. Rather, Edgar Wright’s most profitable film is a playful, intense, and joyous ride full of heart and oozing with style. It features one of the best film casts in recent memory, along with some of the most precise editing I’ve ever scene in an action film. Admittedly, things really stumble in its third act with a villain who, for all intents and purposes, becomes the T1000 (how is he not dead, yet!). And, the character work is thin (on the page, I doubt Baby Driver would have impressed me). Heck, I’d argue there are a LOT of script problems. But, damn, it…I don’t want to ruin your groove. If “cool”could be personified in movie form, this would be the result. Crank up those tunes! I’m ready for another ride.
The Big Sick
Since people know I’m a movie buff, I often get asked for recommendations on movies to watch. This is often trickier than it sounds. I mean, I loved A Ghost Story (see below), but I’m not recommending that to my Aunt’s friend Myrtle. The Big Sick is a perfect movie for “everyone”—it’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s compassionate. It’s sweet enough for your parents, but edgy enough that it doesn’t feel too saccharine. In translating real-life events into movie form, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his co-writer/wife Emily Gordon, craft something that feels both personal, yet universal. The Big Sick manages to be both a charming romantic comedy and a touching American immigrant story. Things really kick into gear with the introduction of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who play the parents of Zoe Kazan’s character. Surprisingly, their relationship becomes the heart of the film, with a dramatic arc that resonates more than the central “A” story. Granted, the film has the “Apatow problem” (he produced the film): it’s about 20 minutes shaggy in terms of length. But, still, it’s hard to deny The Big Sick’s ostensibly effortless charms. When the time inevitably comes and you need to watch something with your parents during the holidays, this is the movie to choose.
Under normal circumstances, if you would have tried to sell me on the premise of Dunkirk, I probably would have fallen asleep halfway through the pitch. A WWII film about a British retreat? With no identifiable characters or a defined plot arc? No thanks! But, the thing is, Chris Nolan isn’t your average filmmaker. He makes big “swing-for-the-fences” sort of movies. Oddly, enough, in premise alone, Dunkirk doesn’t feel like an epic movie. Yet, in Nolan’s hands, it somehow is. He crafts an experience that is textured and visceral, featuring some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve ever had the pleasure to see on screen. Moreover, he combines it with a very “Nolan-esque” structure that marries three different timelines into a single fluid construction. Some will decry the film’s lack of character work or its relatively thin plot, but I’d argue that’s not what makes Dunkirk compelling. Can a film be so well made that you can’t help but be emotionally moved? When it comes to Dunkirk, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Arguably the best X-Men movie ever made (I still hold a candle for Matthew Vaughn’s First Class), Logan is so good it’s somewhat shocking…almost as shocking that it took this long to get a Wolverine movie with a R-rating (he’s literally a character with knife hands). But, here we are. Director James Mangold not only gets the violence and gore right, he also wisely understands that beneath all the blood and decapitations this is a character piece—a brutal Western about an aging gunfighter who has one last mission to complete. It’s as much an elegy about a man facing his own mortality as it is a superhero movie. And, thankfully, there’s not some random “universe” or blatant brand “synergy” Easter egg anywhere in sight. Logan is the superhero story at its most stripped down and raw. It’s touching yet beautiful. And, while I have minor qualms (yet another story where the villain is a bizarro version of the hero…ugh), that doesn’t stop me from respecting the hell out of this picture. About time, bub.
I always feel guilty putting a Marvel movie on this list as it feels like I’m praising an unstoppable media machine hell bent on selling me a “brand” rather than a standalone movie experience. But, dammit, Marvel, I can’t quit you. Yeah…you might be soulless corporation profiting on both my childhood nostalgia and my most rudimentary cinematic desires, but, dang, your homogenized blockbuster slurry tastes good. To be succinct: Spider-man Homecoming is a damn satisfying time at the movies. It’s a breezy, swingy adventure film that legitimately cares about its characters and their emotional development (I’d classify it as a teen comedy first, a superhero movie second). The film wisely keeps the superhero stakes low (no beams to the sky, no world-ending calamity) and it features a very clever twist about the villain’s connection to Spidey. Are the Marvel films even movies at this point? Nah, they’re episodes in the largest and most expensive television series ever made. But, I’d be straight up lying if I said I didn’t enjoy each serialized outing. More slurry please!
A Ghost Story
It would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t bored during potions of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. After all, it’s a slow moving exploration of love and loss that features a scene where actress Rooney Mara literally eats a pie for 5 minutes of screen time. Oh, and did I mention Casey Affleck spends the majority of the movie underneath a sheet? Yeah…I know…that description sounds painfully “arthouse,” and, to be fair, I won’t argue with that designation. Straight up: this isn’t a movie that’s for everyone. But, damn…it’s achingly beautiful, poetic and gorgeously constructed. It’s as much about a single relationship as it is about the nature of humanity—a desire to understand one’s legacy and impact on the world. Few movies about such broad existential topics feel as emotionally specific as this. After it was over, I was pondering its implications for days. It’s sublimely shot (the 4×3 aspect ratio somehow really works here). But, beyond that, I was stunned with how it effortlessly floats through time, looping upon itself to not only comment on the infinite nature of temporal space, but also its relativity. One second can feel like an eternity…a lifetime can pass by in a second. Beautiful stuff.
- The Disaster Artist
- Ingrid Goes West
- Cars 3