2017 was an abundantly good year for film. More to the point, 2017 was an absurdly good year for genre film. When I started to think about putting this list together, I faltered. I was sure I hadn’t seen enough of the big films everyone talked about this year to reliably come up with 10 great entries. Having missed out on films like Lady Bird, Blade Runner 2049, The Phantom Thread, Wind River, The Shape of Water, and others, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to cobble together a list of any real meaning.
It turns out, those fears were not just unfounded, but I feel pretty forcefully that the films on this list deserve every bit of their piece of the conversation this year, my blind spots notwithstanding. This was a year where Marvel Studios put out 3 of their most ambitious films in recent memory (including hands-down the best Spider-Man movie ever made), and I had to cut them out of the top ten in favor of a Fox X-film and a DC movie, of all the ridiculous things. Words cannot express how pissed I am that I can’t include two of my favorite horror films in recent years on the list, but them’s the breaks of living through a year with this much good cinema in it.
Without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2017:
On the heels of the absolute trash comprising most of the Fox Studios X-Men cinematic universe, you’d be forgiven for holding out little hope that James Mangold’s second and final film featuring the titular Wolverine would amount to much more than a mixed bag, in keeping with this series’ legacy of mediocrity. Even the so-called high points of the now nine film (ten if you count Deadpool) X-Series have aged incredibly poorly alongside contemporaries like the incomparable Blade. So it’s downright miraculous that Mangold not only created a modern classic in the vein of Shane with Logan, but made a film that is at once both timeless, and also so essentially of right now. The themes of xenophobia and otherness inherent in the X-Men comics have never been paid more than lip-service in any of the films to date until now, and Mangold paints a portrait of a world where the MAGA brigades have won, mutants are a memory, and all but the corrupt and slimy ruling class are hanging on by a thread. In choosing to set this film in an entropic near-future, where all of the battles and sacrifices of Charles Xavier and his students have amounted to nothing, Mangold is allowed to explore themes of legacy, loss, and humanity in bold and deeply emotional ways. While many argued that the central antagonist of this film was an empty cipher, I refute the very notion that a film like this was playing for the kind of standard comic-book dichotomies I think an argument like that presupposes. Mangold deftly crafts a sometimes nihilistic, always emotionally truthful, deeply adult film that is elevated by decades of cinematic history, and heart-rending performances from Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and newcomer Dafne Keen.
9: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Nobody is more surprised than me to see a Star Wars film on this list, but due to one of the greatest instances of cinematic trolling in history, Rian Johnson’s latest entry in the most popular film series of all time could not be ignored. With The Last Jedi, Johnson has not only burned and salted the earth from which the most toxic of fandoms sprouted, but absolutely redefined what it is that Star Wars can be, and what it can mean to an entire generation. But all of that is icing. None of it matters if the film itself isn’t worthy, and after decades of disappointment and resentment (Star Wars has been bad longer and more frequently than it has ever been good), I’m here to tell you that they finally started making Star Wars films worth watching again. Beyond that, this film is stunningly well crafted and thematically unimpeachable. Rian Johnson proves once again that he’s one of our most versatile and talented filmmakers by creating sequences that are jarringly impactful, while absolutely defying expectation. I’ve seen a lot of commentary the past few weeks about how the most recent Star Wars films are merely remixes, throwing bones to the faithful in order to keep them fed and fat. And while that’s absolutely true of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi turns this mechanic on its head to challenge viewers to honestly reflect on why it is they just can’t quit this series. More importantly, this chapter directly confronts ‘fans’ to shake loose their zealous interpretations and burn their sacred texts. The new cast members ably rise to the challenge laid down by the legends Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, who are so good it’s a crime. Rian Johnson is in the church and the money changers had better grab up them dollars quick, because he’s had it with doctrine and gate-keeping. Open up your mind and receive the blasphemy. The future belongs to Broom Boy.
8: John Wick: Chapter Two
The original John Wick is a legitimate phenomenon. It’s electrifying, kinetic, emotional, and in the decades to come, it will help shape action cinema. Keanu Reeves, one of our greatest working film actors (do NOT @ me), embodied a modern action icon that will be mentioned in the same breath as John McLane and James Bond without hesitation. As surprising and delightful as the original is, it would be folly to try to replicate the specific alchemy that birthed it. In the true spirit of artistic boundary-pushing, Chad Stahleski and Keanu Reeves took a hard left for John Wick: Chapter Two. This second installment, taking place almost immediately after the first film makes the conscious decision to explore the kind of man John is, and the ramifications he must face for embracing his own wrathful nature. It’s a bold choice for a revenge-action series, and it’s not done in half measures. John Wick: Chapter Two doesn’t insist upon itself, but adds new dimensions of emotional and interpersonal complexity while it deepens the elements of world-building and style that made the original such a cracking modern staple. Adding a Bond-ian globetrotting aspect, this film is also often gorgeous to look at, too. More than any of this, John Wick: Chapter Two explodes forward in constructing action sequences that are dizzyingly, violently awesome.1
7: The Transfiguration
Michael O’Shea’s modern gothic vampire deconstruction is one of the most affecting films I’ve ever seen. A film about a young African American boy living a secret life in the modern American metropolis that shook me to my core for days. Eric Ruffin delivers a powerful performance as Milo, a disturbed teen convinced of his own ongoing transformation into a creature of dark legend. His powers of invisibility are a function of America’s deep racial divide, and the perceptions inherent therein. He moves unseen through the wreckage of his own life, unable to connect to any of it until Sophie (Chloe Levine), his damaged and vulnerable new neighbor forces the issue. Milo’s deeply unhinged psyche and predatory nature are finally confronted with a concept that is wholly alien to him: Mercy. The construction of their scenes together took my breath away, as both Ruffin and Levine convey extraordinarily different intentions and desires in exchanges that are simultaneously universal and worlds apart in meaning. They are having vastly different conversations at any given time, despite sharing literal space. In The Transfiguration, Michael O’Shea has crafted an answer to the modern classic Let The Right One In from a distinctly American perspective, concerned with how we as a society process the things most terrifying to us. O’Shea’s deconstructionist horror film explores themes of self-destruction, compassion, guilt, forgiveness, and sacrifice in ways that will destroy you. If you haven’t read VyceVictus’ review, treat yourself to some of the best film writing I’ve ever read, about a film that is crucial viewing.
6: The Fate of the Furious
What can be said about the Fast & The Furious franchise at this point, 8 movies in, that hasn’t been screamed from a racing car while fist-pumping already? At this point, you’re either in, or basically your life is missing something key. F. Gary Gray walked into a series already established and well underway, but with a deep shadow hanging over it. The death of series mainstay Paul Walker during the filming of Furious 7 may have galvanized James Wan and the Fambly into delivering a beautiful goodbye to their fallen brother, but it left the question of what the series would become without him decidedly open for all us Fast Fans. With some trepidation, I walked into my screening of The Fate of the Furious dimly steeling myself for an installment that might lose some of the magic this series has had pumping through its engines since Fast Five. I needn’t have worried, however, as the latest film in the series served up some of the best setpieces and action scenes the series has ever had, with all of the energy and verve fans have come to expect from the Fambly. On first viewing, I was elated and thrilled as cars dropped from the heavens, piloted remotely by Charlize Theron’s sinister Cipher, and Vin Diesel trod through them like some kind of meathead Jason Voorhees. But it was on second viewing the beating heart of this film really fell into place for me, cementing it as one of my top films this year. The new leadership role for Letty, the inclusion of the Shaw clan, the friendship and nepotism of Mr. Nobody (a wonderful Kurt Russell), and the bro-lationship between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are some of the spices that flavor the stew. Add to that what might be my favorite shot of the year when the Fambly form a protective shield around Vin Diesel at a crucial moment and The Fate of the Furious becomes one of the most emotionally satisfying thrill-rides in years.
Anne Hathaway is one of the absolute best and most interesting actors working today. It’s a real shame that she also has to be the poster child for the dismissiveness of toxically masculine douchecanoes toward things they perceive as either girly or not wholly tailored to their view of what the feminine should be. Her commitment to choosing interesting work and pursuing it with a raw and understated vulnerability has earned as much scorn and derision as praise and appreciation. Colossal is not about any of that, and at the same time it’s absolutely about that. Telling the story of an immature and lost woman returning to her childhood home seeking some form of direction (or simply respite), Colossal bends seamlessly the structure of Kaiju battles royale, rom-coms, and survivor stories to paint a portrait of systemic victimhood, self-actualization, and empowerment through unlearning the deceptive safety of familiarity. It also explores the many faces and unique cruelty of toxic masculinity and the ways we all serve these systems of abuse through the desire for comfort and quiet, and the surety that we are neither to blame for our misfortunes or a part of the cycle. Jason Sudekis gives the performance of his career as The Internet. So sure of his own inherent intellectual authority, so performatively caring when it suits his purposes, so devoid of self-awareness is Sudekis’ Oscar. And so utterly full of shit. Through sheer force of will and disingenuous manipulation Oscar forces all his closest friends to conform to the roles he’s cast them in. Nacho Vigalondo has crafted a film that is shockingly human and emotionally gripping, about putting away the childish notions and structures that keep us from growing tall. Films this dramatically powerful don’t usually come in packages this thrilling and exciting. And Hathaway’s portrayal is so vital and relatable it will sweep you off your feet.
Also, it wrestles with its themes by making them awesome monsters, so 10/5 stars for that right there.
4: War for the Planet of the Apes
Bold, daring, heart-wrenching, and defiant of expectations. The rekindled Planet of the Apes series has stealthily become perhaps the best example of the potential of popular American filmmaking in the 21st century. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was announced, I was utterly dubious at the prospect. I had little faith that what I perceived to be a vehicle for an effects reel and a James Franco would have much to offer in terms of themes, drama, and storytelling. When I finally caught up with the first film in the new series, I was surprised at the level of craft and care put into bringing this story to life. Increasingly, this series has abandoned the ‘human’ factor in terms of telling gripping and affecting stories about humanity through our main protagonists, Caesar and his growing flock of intelligent, genetically modified apes. Thematics and parable have been in play with this series since the sixties, but when Matt Reeves took over the franchise with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it was clear his bold vision would not be constrained with standard action or blockbuster tropes, propped up with on the nose thematic window-dressing elements. These are major, event-level films told primarily through sign language and action, by fully realized and beautifully acted motion-capture performances. Some of the best acting in decades is on display, with Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell delivering frankly unbelievable work. But more amazing still is the bold scope of ambition Reeves brings in these latter two entries, trusting a summer audience to embrace and appreciate a level of storytelling that becomes first apocalyptic in Dawn, and blossoms into full-on biblical in War. It’s a charmingly bold bit of misdirection to title this film thus, as Dawn is by far more of a battle film, and War is absolutely an exploration of hope, guilt, and salvation at a metaphysical level. It’s also only clear once the credits roll on this third and final entry how totally this was always the intention. The three films together unfold an audacious and messianic tale of Monkey Moses rising from slavery to lead an entire world unto a land he can never hope to enter. If all that weren’t enough, these films are utterly thrilling action-drama masterpieces of tension and heroism. They are some of the most beautiful cinema storytelling ever created.
3: Get Out
The two most misunderstood and dismissed genres of filmmaking are likely comedy and horror. This fact is frankly hard to understand when one stops to appreciate the level of technical craft, timing, and control necessary to deliver either effectively. It’s ironic, then that there could be some correlative connection between the ability to cross those swim lanes as an artist, and be able to execute either at a level of expert proficiency. But this is what Jordan Peele has done with Get Out, a blistering achievement in horror filmmaking rife with dark humor and brutally honest racial discussion. When one considers that this is the first feature directed by Peele, it’s perfectly acceptable to feel wonderment and possibly shock at his accomplishment (and maybe the kind of jealousy one can only feel when watching someone born to a trade execute it perfectly). Peele tells the story of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents at their rural retreat for the first time, uncovering a truly sinister underbelly to the idyllic country haven. The film immediately confronts its audiences on their preconceived notions of interracial politics, white saviordom, allyship, and systemic racial injustice. But Peele isn’t interested in browbeating or chest-pounding, so much as pure and unrefined cinematic storytelling. Get Out is not good because it’s ‘about something controversial’. It’s great because it’s such goddamned good filmmaking, while being unafraid to engage with the facile ‘racism is bad’ mindset that absently celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. as a concept, but buries black voices in pop culture as ‘disruptive’ and ‘pot-stirring’. Get Out is a triumph of psychological horror, pacing, acting, and tension. The film is stunningly well-crafted and effective, built to be digested and considered, but above all to be an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema. With his first feature film, Jordan Peele has immediately entered the ranks of some of the most exciting artists making film today.
2: Wonder Woman
As I said in our half-year wrap-up piece, there have been a fair amount of criticisms leveled against Patty Jenkins’ comic book film debut. And they are, to the one, inconsequential nonsense. They don’t matter. Telling the story of Diana of Themyscira, Wonder Woman is a film that the world didn’t know it needed so badly. It is an absolute triumph, breaking free of the meager foundations of the DC Comics cinematic universe, and outstripping even the mighty Marvel machine in terms of sheer character execution. There comes a point every once in a while where you realize that you are watching something that’s not just special, but that will have a profound effect on generations to come. I had that feeling watching this film, and it hasn’t subsided since. Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, and Patty Jenkins’ crafting of her world and worldview are beautifully realized. My heart swelled and tears came to my eyes seeing this modern myth finally given all the respect and reverence she deserves. Gadot’s Diana is a clarion call to generations of girls and women who have been ignored and dismissed by a century of action films and comic books, and this performance and film surpass even the mighty Christopher Reeve Superman in defining its central character for audiences across the globe. What this film does right, it does so with such earnest love and joy as to render the missteps in the final act around editing and action moot. The performances across the board are wonderful, with Chris Pine delivering a standout as Steve Trevor, perhaps the only person in the world with the kind of heroic spirit to rival Diana’s absolute purity of heart and grace. With every rewatch, I’m left feeling the same awe and inspiration as that very first viewing, dumbstruck by the world of Themyscira and the performances of Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. This film is a miracle.
1: Alien: Covenant
Love him, hate him, or scratch your head at him, Sir Ridley Scott is one of the most important filmmakers of all time. Scott’s blend of technical proficiency and sheer salty perspective has been instrumental in creating some of the towering accomplishments in cinematic history. Scott has unapologetically worked at a pace that would kill most artists for decades, creating films both hailed as incomparable achievements and derided as incompetent film-salad. And at 80, Scott shows no sign that he is ready to cede ground to a new generation or introduce any level of compromise to his own artistic vision. Ridley Scott makes films for Ridley Scott, exactly how Ridley Scott would make them. Uninterested in pigeon-holing himself into one worldview or voice, Scott has ferociously pushed at the boundaries of his craft in ways that should frankly embarrass people like James Cameron or George Lucas, deeply influencing film through the years. His drive to create and realize stories and worlds interesting to him has never been constrained to the expectations or desires of peers and audiences. This strength of focus and will has resulted in an ouvre with a nearly unrivaled variety of tone, subject matter, and yes, quality. When RIdley returned to the world he created in Alien with Prometheus, the resulting film was a poorly balanced mishmash of mystery, world-building, and tone wrapped in a gorgeous package. When he decided to come back to that well once more for Covenant, Scott made the conscious decision to jettison the Lindelofian nonsense of mystery for mystery’s sake, pick up the pieces that worked (David), and make a film that is provocative, uncompromising, and intensely himself. Ridley Scott appears to have entered his version of Goya’s ‘black paintings’ period as of late. Looking at the world around him at this late stage with a unique disdain, and feverishly painting what he sees as humanity’s great failings on the walls for the rest of us to parse. Ridley Scott crafts a film in Covenant that unapologetically mocks the very spirit of perseverance and hope he so expertly celebrated in The Martian, scoffing at Man’s sense of self-important destiny in a universe that is absolutely indifferent, if not wholly hostile, to our sense of purpose. We’ve ruined and squandered so much in our short tenure, in his eyes that we are deserving of nothing so much as to be replaced and forgotten on the shores of eternity. It might be righteous to be served doom on a plate of our own misguided making, if we weren’t also so beneath such considerations as justice.
Scott cannot, however, escape his deeply humanistic tendencies to admire and appreciate our singular will to thrive, and our faith in some greater goodness that we might yet find in our own failings. Take the character of Oram, played by Billy Crudup. A man of faith, reluctantly pushed into leadership, and losing everything to his own hubris. His final act in this story is to become a cosmic joke for the amusement of Michael Fassbender’s malevolent android, David, securing doom for his shipmates by becoming a vessel for the most horrible form of life ever conceived. But Scott finds heroism in Oram. His quiet grace balances his laughably misguided faith. His failures and failings would make him an outright antagonist in another film, but he’s wholly human here, and Scott lets Crudup imbue his character with a complexity that is unexpected and fresh. Fassbender’s dual role as the stoic and devoted Walter creates a crux upon which Ridley Scott can stage his own Miltonesque exploration of the natures of good and evil, of faith and arrogance, and of service and chaos. This is a superior film, that will only grow in stature for years to come.
The excising of each of the following films from this list hurt my soul in indescribable ways.
Spider-Man: Homecoming – Micheal Keaton delivers maybe the most compelling performance of a Marvel villain to date. Tom Holland simply is Peter Parker, in every way. He delivers moments here that had me tearfully cheering in triumph, both proud of him and so worried that this kid is going to get hurt!!! I truly love this film, and it’s a testament to how good a year this has been for movies that it just missed the top ten.
The Devil’s Candy – Words cannot express the sheer joy and badassery of the final ten minutes of this film. I love this movie more than I can convey here, and the fact It didn’t make the list should in no way reflect how ardently I demand you watch it as soon as possible. This is exactly the kind of horror fare I want people making. This movie is bad–ass.
Baby Driver – This movie is fantastic, joyful, fun, sweet, and awesome. Like Hot Fuzz, this one is going to be in constant rotation in my house.
Thor: Ragnarok – This movie is stoner van-art committed to film. I’m so desperate for a 4K Blu Ray of this, the drool has ruined my keyboard
It – One of the most heartfelt horror movies about pre-adolescents ever made, and a top 3 Stephen King adaptation by any metric you care to employ. (Read my review here)
Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 – So moving, fun, bonkers-bananas-nuts, and emotionally satisfying that it feels like a quantum shift in Marvel’s style. The Cat Stevens song at the end will wreck you, if you have any heart in you at all. (Read my review here)