And yet, I probably came out liking 2017 films more than I expected. With a plethora of sequels and franchise cash-grabs, I really didn't expect much. I even dodged all the Star Wars hype, becoming excited only after seeing the film on the big screen. The Last Jedi came out just when I needed it to--it's a film that point-blank challenges the audience and tears down their expectations and dreams, showing us that heroes we care about aren't always all that. It's as if the film is telling fans to lighten up, stop trying to kill what you hate and focus on protecting what you love. For me, it's also a reminder to not give into bitterness, cynicism, and outside pressures. I was reminded that I loved films, and I shouldn't feel ashamed for it. If the film wound up playing into audience expectations and standard tropes, chances are I would have walked out feeling more disillusioned. But since the movie did sucker-punch me in so many different ways, I became honest with myself. It's probably wise to be cynical, but not at the expense of being untruthful to myself.
Star Wars is probably the film I find myself thinking about the most, but it's not the sole highlight of the year. Other sequels have been surprisingly great--John Wick Chapter 2 boasts some of the most incredible action scenes I've seen in years, and as a sequel, it's a phenomenal and inspiring continuation. Blade Runner 2049 is surprisingly faithful, elegant, and thought-provoking. All those Marvel movies have been a blast--some might call them derivative or bland, but I appreciate the consistency and faithfulness to character and worldbuilding. Logan, War for Planet of the Apes, Kingsman: The Golden Circle all had things I could appreciate too.
If there's anything else that really wowed me lately, it's been thrillers. Get Out tops most people's lists, and for good reason--it's unexpected, twisty, original, and fairly well-made. Split is a pleasant surprise too. mother!, frustrating though it is, is an interesting watch as well. There are thrills to be had in other unique places too--Atomic Blonde and Dunkirk stand out in their respective genres thanks to their styles.
Most other movies have been about what I expected. Even the much-maligned Emoji Movie met my low expectations (at which point I just shrugged it off, along with most others). A lot of them I can simply take or leave, and nothing has left me feeling bitter or angry (yet). Some years ago, maybe I would have liked these movies more than I do now. But I'm learning more and more that the films I love have nothing to do with action, quality, actors, directors, franchises, or anything like that. The best films work because of strong scripts that make us care for the characters.
Which is why I decided to push Baby Driver to the top. It has a fresh style, plenty of action, and a hip soundtrack. But it's the character I admire the most, above even the cast of Star Wars. Baby Driver dedicates itself to one hero I wound up loving and rooting for, and it made the film's experience all the more bittersweet. Original, stylish, well-written, and a strong story--I couldn't ask for a finer film this year.
Compared to previous years, 2017 is rather weak--2015 is the last time I felt truly wowed by the quantity of good films that held up. Regardless, I am happy to scoop up the top handful of films this year, because they were quite satisfying in their own right.
For simplicity's sake, I'm going to limit this post to just the movies I liked and enjoyed.
Released films yet to see: The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name, The Disaster Artist, Justice League, Bright
Favorite film: Baby Driver
Least favorite film: Sharknado 5: Global Swarming
Favorite blockbuster: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite arthouse film: mother!
Favorite science fiction film: Blade Runner 2049
Favorite fantasy/epic: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite drama film: The Florida Project
Favorite action film: John Wick Chapter 2
Favorite superhero film: Thor: Ragnarok
Favorite comedy film: Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
Favorite horror film: It
Favorite romance film: Baby Driver
Favorite documentary: What the Health?
Favorite animated/family film: The Lego Batman Movie
Favorite foreign film: Blade of the Immortal
Biggest guilty pleasure: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Most disappointing film: Alien: Covenant
Favorite male performance: Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
Favorite female performance: Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok
Favorite line: "I'm Marry Poppins y'all!"--Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Favorite action scenes: John Wick Chapter 2
Favorite special effects: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Favorite film score: John Wick Chapter 2 (Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard)
Favorite musical sequence: Baby Groot dancing to ELO in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Al's Favorite 2017 Films22. Brawl in Cell Block 99
What this film lacks in actual brawling, it makes up for in its tone, shock value, and straightforward storytelling. Crawling at its own pace, the film unravels layers to its characters and plot that slowly push everything towards the inevitable prison fight. When the violence hits, it's extreme, brutal, and unpredictable. Everything in between seems to flow in a strange, dream-like universe of its own. Perhaps it's better seen as a nightmarish descent into nihilism and damnation. It definitely elicits thought and feeling, which is far more than I'd expect out of a prison thriller (and it's especially refreshing to see Vince Vaughn rise to the challenge of the role, delivering what may be the best performance of his career).
21. Girl With All The Gifts
Note: even though this film was made in 2016, its widespread US release was January 2017.
A rather compelling twist on the post-apocalyptic zombie genre--all the action and terror remains, but the film commands sympathy for the undead. While films like Maggie attempted to pull this off, GWATG is more successful. The plot and characters keep the story interesting, especially when addressing the relationship between monsters and humankind, and whether there's a distinction at all.
Note: even though this film is listed for 2016, its widespread theatrical release was January 2017.
M. Night Shyamalan finally returns to form, and he does so by returning to the style and genre (and even the universe) he previously mastered. His latest thriller is genuinely chilling, thanks to James McAvoy's dominating performance that commands over twenty different personalities. The story is taut as it is well-shot, and it'll be fascinating to see where these interesting new characters go next.
19. Get Out
Thrillers with strange twists and occurrences seem to be in lately. Get Out treads on similar ground as recent flicks like It Follows or Don't Breathe, but with a more daring angle. With its focus on current racial issues, the film couldn't be more timely. All the bizarre encounters and tension-filled dialogue will keep you hooked, but its harrowing implications will lay dormant in your brain long after the credits roll.
Sometimes the best art is the most challenging. Darren Aronofsky set out to challenge just about everything in this extreme and abrasive allegory that ties up the history of man and nature into the confines of a home invasion thriller. The film will upset you, if for no other reason than horrible things happen and very little compassion is shown. But a dark and troubling truth emerges from the narrative that deserves discussion and study. Like it or not, mother! is a film that will leave its mark.
17. Ghost in the Shell
So real, so unreal--Hollywood has never had good luck adapting anime to the big screen, but this might be their best effort by far, because this film is so cartoony but also action-packed. Scarlett Johansson stands as the centerpiece, beautiful as she is tough, and her character's journey into seedy streets and the glimmering streams of virtual reality has enough twists to be compelling. In its own right, 2017's Ghost in the Shell is a solid blockbuster that looks true to the source. I only wish that there could have been more substance to this shell of a movie.
16. Atomic Blonde
This is one slick spy flick. Charlize Theron is badass as ever, giving John Wick a run for his money. The few action scenes pop with explosive resonance. The rest of the film oozes with enough style and attitude to give it its own identity. Charm and grit makes this a glowing, radioactive hit for action fans.
15. The Florida Project
This might be the most real film of the year. Its performances are so raw, they feel like real people captured in a documentary. As a film though, it straddles the line between realism and escapism, childhood and adulthood, paradise and hell, and it all adds up to a compelling and bittersweet view of children living in the shadow of poverty.
14. War for the Planet of the Apes
Not as much "war" as one would expect, but it is surprisingly engaging thanks to its earnestness. It boasts exquisite cinematography, a dedicated cast, and a story that focuses on integral themes of savagery and violence. The film is at its best when it shows the apes contending with their animal selves in the face of human brutality.The journey of Caesar and his renegade apes continues to inspire sympathy and tears as they war for the planet, survival, family, and ultimately their own souls.
Logan offers a bitter and brutal swansong for Hugh Jackman's sprawling legacy in superhero lore. Rooted firmly in strong character development, the film delivers what the other stand-alone Wolverine movies tried hard to bank on: personal stakes deep enough to elicit sympathy. Painted with western-influenced backdrops and tropes, it is a punchy and gritty film mature audiences everywhere can soak in and feel for. This might be the best Wolverine movie of the lot.
12. Blade of the Immortal
Seriously, who wants to live forever? The sheer amount of blood and chopped limbs in this film might deter most from immortality. But it is refreshing and compelling to see one determined hero cling to life for the sake of love and redemption. It is a good story with well-drawn characters and plenty of thematic depth--almost enough to rival Logan. With a premise that feels like a spinoff of Highlander. The only thing holding this film back from reaching those same heights is the pacing.
11. Wonder Woman
Capitalizing off of the best qualities of previous DC films, the stand-alone Wonder Woman movie presents Gal Gadot in role that's as dazzling in aesthetic as it is in charm and physical prowess. Diana is a heroine worth rooting for, not only because she kills so many Nazis, but also because of everything in between the fantastic action scenes. It's really cute to watch the fish-out-of-water dynamics, but it's also captivating to see her rise up in a man's world and grow into empowered heroine. It's a seamless exploration of social issues, which makes Wonder Woman timeless and inspiring.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Spider-Man has come home to Marvel studios and finds a pretty decent comfort zone. Action is as grand as ever, but doesn't flaunt it quite as blatantly as the older movies did. Instead, the film becomes something of a high-school comedy that hinges on superhero identities and stakes. It is an endearing blend thanks to the fantastic cast, interesting themes, and charming levity. Best of all, it's a smooth and focused effort, which makes the older films look choppy by comparison. There's a little bit of everything to this film, making this one of the most effortlessly entertaining flicks of the year.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
Star-Lord and his gang of misfits are back to save the galaxy again! Now with more 70s tunes, more cool weapons, baby Groot, and a lot of emotional baggage in tow. Plot threads come together to break the team apart, where each character gets a chance to reflect and dive deeper into themes of family. It is often insightful and charming, even if the film dips into some low-brow jokes. It's an action-packed thrill ride bursting with color and personality.
8. Thor: Ragnarok
The end is nigh! The third Thor film takes all the loose ends from the last couple of movies (as well as some of the other Marvel flicks) and ties them up into a colorful and epic space fantasy with a lot more zing and humor than before. The combination of eye-popping action, levity, and theatrics is precisely the makeover Thor needed--his adventure to save Asgard has never been more palatable. The characters are a blast to watch. The story is engaging. It manages to carry enough dramatic weight to redeem the weaknesses of previous films--the wait for Ragnarok turned out to be worth it.
Intense. This film is a drab, loud, oppressive thrill ride that places viewers side-by-side with soldiers stuck on a beach, waiting for salvation or death. The non-linear narrative is highly experimental, but the experience is what makes this film so vivid and valuable--it successfully bombards the audience with pulses of tension and fear. For a historic event I was otherwise oblivious to, the film seems faithful not only to events, but to the horrors of war.
Stephen King's classic novel is finally given better treatment on the big screen. It's a familiar tale, but remains no less captivating and scary. Each character is given life and depth, with a lot of dark and surprising twists that inevitably bring them together to fight a truly scary villain. Themes of fear are stronger than ever, and with competent skill, the film tells this tale anew with gravitas, depth, and suspense.
5. Your Name.
Makoto Shinkai always knew how to marry beautiful, vibrant animation with romance, sentiment, and a certain sense of whimsy. All his usual trademarks collide with dazzling results in Your Name, a cute and colorful take on a typical body-swap comedy. There are laughs to be had, but the film manages to balance its plot, which moves into somber and sentimental directions. It gives life to the characters and makes the story fresh. Of all the wonders this year's films have presented, this is the most heartfelt.
4. Blade Runner 2049
35 years after Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece, Dennis Villeneuve brings top-notch talent together and delivers a worthy cyberpunk procedural that matches its predecessor. The tone, mood, and style are spot-on. There are thrills, but the film also takes its time unraveling the story, which brings intriguing new directions to the characters and gives enough meditative space for audiences to contemplate the greater issues of realities, fabrications, illusions, and humanity itself. With the slick backdrop of 2049, this is probably the purest sci-fi film I've seen all year.
3. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Star Wars--it seems that nowadays this series will either delight or infuriate fans. The latest installment managed to do both, because it does one thing nobody wanted or expected: it's a postmodern deconstruction that takes the audience on a thrill ride through unfamiliar territory. The laughs and excitement remains the same, but this is not your daddy's space adventure. It's a gritty struggle not only against good and evil, but against expectations. Classic heroes lose faith. Plots and plans fail. Villains triumph and may not be redeemed. Sacrifices are not always honored. And the Force, though constrained by fundamental laws, is also much bigger than we originally thought. These aren't easy truths to swallow, but I appreciate Rian Johnson for offering a challenging new view on a universe that's always in danger of becoming stagnant. It even offers messages of overcoming failure and staying positive--for me, these themes came through at the perfect time, reminding me to protect what I love and not to give into hate. No matter how loathed this film becomes, I will always value it for its inspirations.
2. John Wick Chapter 2
Whoa, what a continuation. John Wick Chapter 2 wisely harnesses all the great things that made the first film work--character, worldbuilding, action choreography, an understated script--and cranks it all up with a bold new set of escalating actions and reactions. It becomes a sprawling revenge thriller on a mythic level. New territory opens up, giving the characters endless space to settle old grudges and challenge old beliefs. At the center is the same ol' John Wick, who remains a captivating antihero we can root for. The last scenes promise a heck of a finale to come.
1. Baby Driver
This flick gives you all the things you need to be thrilled: the music and the road. Set with a killer playlist, the movie roars ahead at full speed, delivering fast car chases, shoot-outs, and lots of color. The cast is phenomenal, with each player adding personality and flair, even in the grittiest of scenes. Ansel Elgort stands out as the centerpiece, filling the shoes of a deep, charismatic character. His world of love, loss, crime, and redemption is a compelling arc that makes the story engaging and delivers a sumptuous payoff. Tied together with a great script, the film stands out as one of the most captivating car chase films I've seen, and an easy contender for my favorite of the year. Easy like Sunday morning.
Other great titles worth renting:
- Beauty and the Beast: One of the better live-action Disney adaptations. Great musical numbers, and any changes to the story don't take much away from the experience.
- Detroit: Wasn't a fan of the pacing or style, but the film's content is hard-hitting and compelling. Deserves to be seen.
- The Fate of the Furious: Yeah, you should know what you're getting with this. Few good story twists, mostly just brainless fun. Plenty of heart still.
- The Lego Batman Movie: Has its moments and a few good laughs.
- Lost City of Z: Slow, but very well-made and interesting.
- My Life as a Zucchini: Cute and solid animation with plenty of heart and nuance.
- Okja: A little weird tonally, but it has some strong moments.
- What the Health?: A fairly convincing food documentary on Netflix--worth a look.
- Kingsman: The Golden Circle: Not nearly as punchy or fresh at the first film, but it does entertain.
- Kong: Skull Island: Vibrant and cartoony, but the film does pack some impressive punches in its action scenes.
- Transformers: The Last Knight: Oh man, this is such a mess, but it's such a gorgeous mess it's hard to look away. I actually found this more enjoyable than Age of Extinction, but the series has definitely been played out by now.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: The YA tropes might be a little off-putting, but the film is as gorgeous and imaginative as they come.
- The Void: Shallow, perhaps, but still a respectable invocation of cosmic horror tropes.
Honestly, I'm not looking forward to much in '18. Sure, there will be more comic book adaptations of all kinds, but most other titles look like ones I could personally take or leave. Here are the ones that actually have my attention:
- Annihilation: Should be good on the merits of Alex Garland's direction and penmanship. He won my heart over with Dredd and Ex Machina--any other sci-fi, I will trust him with.
- Avengers: Infinity War: So many films have built up to this--it will be huge.
- Battle Angel Alita: Don't let the big eyes throw you off. This was a really cool anime and manga to begin with, and I've been yearning for James Cameron's adaptation for years. Now that it's gained traction under Robert Rodriguez, I expect the movie to be fun, plain and simple.
- Black Panther: Why not? Black Panther's debut in CA: Civil War was pretty awesome, so his stand-alone movie should have as much punch as Wonder Woman did.
- Ready Player One: The book was fantastic, warts and all. Under Spielberg's direction, this should be both a blast from the past and a rocket to the future. In other words, pure imagination.
- Soldado: The sequel to Sicario, one of my top favorites of 2015 and one of my top favorite modern thrillers. Even though it was a complete story in itself, I welcome more.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story: Odds of this being bad? Never tell me the odds with a Star Wars film. Chances are good I'll enjoy this no matter how messy the new franchise becomes.