Last year, my year-end list was only five films long. I didn’t feel I had seen enough 2016 movies to build out the customary ten without significant padding. 2017? Well, 2017 is a different story entirely. Despite this year being a dumpster fire as a whole,1 for me this has been a stellar year for cinema. I saw enough movies this year that it’s borderline embarrassing, and of those films there are only two that I straight up disliked. Even those two had things to love about them!2
So this year I’ve leveled up to the big one-oh, and I’ve had a hard time making the final selections. In a few days I may wish I had included one film over another, or mixed the ranking a bit, but I know for sure that these are all great movies. So here we go!
10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hoo, boy. If you follow movies even just a little bit you know this film is controversial as hell. I’ve heard a number of criticisms of varying validity, but the most common is that it’s a betrayal of the very franchise that contains it. This “betrayal”—a clumsy and inaccurate word, in my opinion—is precisely what makes the film work so well. Writer/director Rian Johnson, and, by extension, his characters, both old and new, are grappling with the past. It’s about learning from past mistakes and recognizing the flaws within ourselves. It’s about rejecting, confronting and destroying the old institutions that have, in the context of the films, kept the Galaxy in a perpetual state of civil war. And, yes, this also serves as a meta-commentary on the Star Wars franchise, or rather what it has become. The previous film, The Force Awakens, was nostaliga-slathered and derivative, but The Last Jedi makes it work much better in retrospect. After all, we needed to see the status quo manifested before Rey and Finn and friends could hurl a metaphorical Molotov cocktail at it. It’s a gutsy movie.
It’s also an exciting and often funny adventure movie, and in that sense it couldn’t be any more faithful to the franchise. This is a Star Wars film through and through. It’s just not the one we expected.
9. Blade Runner 2049
I went into this film with a lot of skepticism. While I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, I am one of the few people on the planet who is rather lukewarm on Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed Arrival.3 I was also skeptical of the idea of making a sequel to begin with. I’m not generally opposed to sequels, but Blade Runner seemed particularly ill-suited for that treatment. It was a solid and self-contained story that closed out on a satisfyingly ambiguous note. I didn’t need to see what happens with Rachel and Deckard. I didn’t want to. But beyond that, Blade Runner is the OG cyberpunk film. Its influence can, for better or worse, be found all over the place in our culture. What could a sequel bring to such well-worn material?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. First of all, much like the original, the film is absolutely gorgeous on every level, from audio design to production design to cinematography.4 But that isn’t exactly a surprise. You could tell that from the trailers, for Pete’s sake. But it was pleasant to discover that it actually takes its obligations as a sequel seriously. It takes the thematic concerns of the original and expands on them in very interesting ways, while also pulling a Last Jedi and subverting the hoary old trope of the “chosen one.” It’s a fascinating film that reveals more of itself upon subsequent viewings.
Don’t be wary of sequelitis. This one’s got the goods.
8. Blade of the Immortal
Takashi Miike, a hilariously versatile, prolific, and most of all odd director, has brought us a blood-drenched supernatural martial arts film. I could probably end my writeup right there, but I’ll elaborate a little bit. Blade of the Immortal is over two and half hours long, but feels like a lean ninety minutes. It’s touching, funny, exciting, and often all three at the same time. Being a Miike film, it is also very strange. Not many movies feature a necromancer swordsman who wears the talking heads of his female victims as fashion accessories. But in the end, there’s something we all have to agree on: there are few things better than watching an immortal samurai getting chopped to bits as he cuisinarts his way through literally hundreds of sword-wielding goons. This movie has that. Go watch it.
Julia Ducournau’s feature debut got a lot of hype on the festival circuit thanks to stories of some audience members actually fainting during screenings and being carried out on stretchers. I didn’t faint, as I am a jaded person with a withered husk of a soul, but I can see how this movie may be a bit much for those of us with weak stomachs. It’s a horror film, but not in the sense of it being scary. Instead it’s deeply disturbing and transgressive in a Cronenberg-ian sense. I’ve also heard a few people describe it as sexy, which makes me want to give them the ol’ side eye. I’m assuming these folks are focusing on the attractive and sometimes scantily clad young people and not on the people-eating.
Oh, right. I guess I’ve buried the lede a bit. Raw follows a young Belgian woman in her first year at a co-ed, live-in veterinary school5 as she makes the journey from vegan to cannibal. So, sexy? Not the word I would use. Although I will describe this film as very horny. It’s a movie about urges: the traditional coming-of-age film urge to fit in, the urge to get busy and, yes, the urge to feast upon human flesh.
It’s a bizarre and fascinating film and an infuriatingly brilliant debut. Really Ducournau? Your first feature and this is what you pull off? That’s nuts.
6. Tigers Are Not Afraid
Do you like tears with your fears in horror movies? Well, have I got a movie for you. Issa Lopez’s film follows a young Mexican girl whose mother vanishes, presumably a victim of gang warfare. She ends up on the street and falls in with a small group of boys, also orphaned by the cartels. From there on, the only adult characters are either malicious or simply indifferent. It’s a heartbreaking, heartfelt and occasionally joyous movie, and you’d be forgiven if you didn’t recognize it as a genre film at first. Lopez slowly and subtly introduces the magical realist and supernatural aspects in such a way that, when we’re presented with actual ghosts, they seem of a piece with the more down-to-earth elements. It builds to climax that is at once devastating, horrifying and subtly hopeful. The deft way Lopez handles those elements gets the credit for just about everyone in my screening sniffling if not crying. Me? I just had a bit of dust in my eye. That’s all. I swear.
I hesitate to compare this movie to the work of another, better known filmmaker, as I worry it might minimize Lopez’s achievement, but Tigers Are Not Afraid reminds me in the best way possible of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish language films. It’s hard to avoid the comparison, being the tragic, child-centered fairytale that it is, but Lopez is very much doing her own thing. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and you absolutely need to track it down.
5. The Square
The Square may be my biggest pleasant surprise of the year. Despite it winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, I knew absolutely nothing about this movie before I sat down. I walked out of the theater with my jaw dragging on the carpet. Ruben Östlund’s satire of the art world is hilarious, incisive, intense and at times actually scary. The film follows Christian, the curator of a modern art museum, as he stumbles his way through the unveiling of a new installation piece: “The Square” of the title. It’s an illuminated square placed in the center of the plaza in front of the museum. The artist’s statement: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”
Using that framework, Östlund tackles an ambitious array of tough themes, including nationalism, racism, classism, white liberal hypocrisy, performative allyship, and… and… and… Well, let’s just say it’s doing a whole heck of a lot. One scene that I think is particularly illustrative has Christian starting an apology to someone he had misjudged; an apology which slowly devolves into a cringe-inducing and condescending monologue about privilege.
This movie also features a dude who pretends to be a chimpanzee. You should see it for that alone.
I adore Nacho Vigalodo’s twisty little time travel thriller Timecrimes, and with his English language debut he’s gotten even more ambitious. He takes a premise that looks rather silly on paper and crafts it into one of the funniest and darkest dark comedies I’ve seen in years. When Anne Hathaway’s alcoholic and unemployed Gloria is forced to return to her home town, she meets up with her childhood friend Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis. Drunken “fun” ensues. Well, it’s fun until a gigantic monster appears is Seoul, South Korea, and Gloria slowly realizes that she is connected, if not responsible, for the beast.
From there it goes way dark as it delves into abuse, alcoholism, the unintended consequences of our actions, and male entitlement. To his credit, Vigalondo never makes Colossal preachy. He’s smart as hell about how he deals with those themes and his handling of tone is kind of awe-worthy. Again, this movie is funny.
The fact that Colossal didn’t do well at the box office is infuriating to me. Go see it. It needs a cult following, and we need to build it.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It’s a miracle that Guardians of the Galaxy movies are even a thing. With the rights to their flagship characters belonging to other studios, Marvel was forced to build their Cinematic Universe with their second stringers. After that success, with Captain America being a bigger draw than a movie with both Batman and Superman, they decided to venture out into the weird stuff. So what do they do? They went to James Gunn, a guy best known for writing the Scooby Doo movies and directing two weirdo, niche genre films that tanked at the box office, and said, “Here’s $200 million. Make a bonkers, comedic space opera that features a talking raccoon and a talking-ish tree.” How did that gamble play out? Massive success. Groot, of all tree-people, is now a known and beloved character among suburban old folks who’ve never touched a comic book in their lives. See? Miracle.
Perhaps even more miraculous? The fact that the sequel is so good it may surpass the first film. It’s hard to make that kind of judgement, given that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 couldn’t exist without the original, not just in a box office sense, but in how it builds on the wonderful character work in the original. With its increased emphasis on friendship and Golden Girls-style “found families,” the franchise has become something like Fast and/or Furious with aliens and laser blasters and small-g gods. We even have Drax channeling Dominic Toretto when he describes the Guardians as family instead of friends.
This all sounds pretty sappy, and it is, but in the best of ways. As filled with sarcasm and one-liners and sight gags as this movie is, it is never anything but heartfelt. It’s a really strange comparison to make, but Gunn’s control of tone is just as good as Lopez’s in Tigers are not Afraid. Those movies couldn’t be any more different otherwise, but they’re both just as likely to get me all weepy in the end. I roll my eyes at the fact that this is still something that needs to be “proven,” but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 proves that blockbuster cinema can provide thrills and spectacle and laughs while also being just as genuine and personal as any indie film. They just need to try.
2. John Wick: Chapter 2
John Wick was bloody awesome. And just plain bloody. I don’t know if anyone has actually confirmed this, but I suspect it may have set the record for splattery headshots-per-minute. But more than that it indulged in some really wonderful world building. John Wick, a man who is almost always referred to by both first and last names, isn’t just a legendary hitman knocking around in the real world. Instead he exists within an ornate demimonde of assassins, centered around the Continental Hotel, which has its own rules, social norms and even currency. It’s a really strange and ambitious decision on the part of the filmmakers, and it takes what could have just been a really good action movie about a boy and his (dead) dog, and elevates it into something great.
With John Wick: Chapter 2, director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad have actually stepped up their game. It’s bolder and stranger than its predecessor, taking all of that world building and making it even more ornate and giving it some thematic heft. Introducing us to clans of homeless hitmen and rockabilly switchboard operators, the film fleshes out the Wick-iverse without over-explaining or draining the intrigue from it. The result is something nearly transcendent that I can’t quite describe in any intellectual sense. It’s like these guys took a slice of my brain and put it under a microscope in order to see the best way to make my synapses fire in the right ways. I can’t wait for Chapter 3.
1. Get Out
To say Jordan Peele “came out of nowhere” is of course nonsense. After all, he’s been well known for years as an actor and comedian. That doesn’t change the fact that his feature directorial debut is a revelation. Peele’s satirical horror film (or as Peele himself would describe it, documentary) is a masterpiece; a nearly flawless mixture of terror, humor and social commentary, all crafted by a director with a remarkable and layered understanding of visual storytelling.
‘Get Out’ is a documentary.
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) November 15, 2017
And Peele doesn’t go the easy route. When you hear “racial horror movie” you might imagine the baddies are a bunch of toothless klansmen, but the villains of Get Out are white liberals. The rich and oblivious types who probably would consider themselves “woke” if they knew what the word meant,6 but who in their own way objectify and dehumanize people of color just as much as any mustache-twirling bigot. It’s deeply uncomfortable material, and Peele mines it for all its got. In last year’s list I described The Invitation as “torture porn if you suffer from social anxiety.” Get Out takes that feeling to a whole new level, where you’re not cringing on behalf of a single character but on behalf of humanity.
When I walked out of theater last February, I remember thinking, “If this movie isn’t in my top ten at the end of the year it will have been a wonderful year at the movies.” Well, it was a wonderful year at the movies, and yet there’s Get Out, still at number one. It’s that good.
Well, that’s it. I think it’s a pretty solid list! Obviously, while I saw a lot of movies this year, I didn’t see all of them. There are two I haven’t gotten to yet that I strongly suspect would have been on this list if I had: The Shape of Water and The Transfiguration. Even though I haven’t seen them, I feel obligated to highlight them, just based on everything I’ve heard from people I trust.
How was your year at the movies? What does your list look like? Please tell me how I’m objectively wrong in my rankings!
Oh, and happy new year!
- Literally. I saw a literal dumpster on fire in the middle of the street a few blocks from my apartment.
- You can read my review of one of them right here.
- I haven’t seen any of his other work. I know, I know. I’ll get to it.
- C’mon, Oscars. Throw Deakins a bone here. He’s earned it.
- That’s a thing? I don’t know if that’s a thing.
- “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could!”