The prime-numbered year of 2017 has been a divisive one, which is at least a little ironic. Now that the glass is half of something, it is time to broadcast my 100% correct and 99% meaningless opinions on the Ten Best Films of 2017. I’ve done a few of these Top Ten lists here on Plot and Theme, and I always add commentary to them to keep them from feeling like a Buzzfeed list, but for you William Shakesman fans I will reproduce a brief and witty summary at the very end.
One more thing: “First Half of 2017” is surprisingly ambiguous in the world of film. Some movies release only in New York or Los Angeles on the last week in December so as to qualify for the Oscars or other end-of-year awards. Some release overseas at the end of one year, but don’t come to America until the next year. (Obviously, the same thing happens for the overseas folk, in reverse and much more often, but it’s hard to get worked up about that because it isn’t happening to me). This fencepost problem is terribly confusing, especially when it gets extrapolated out over the full year. I have an easy rule: If a film wasn’t in wide release in America until 2017, then it is eligible. In practice, this means three films made this list that released in 2016 in some part of the world. If that bugs you too much to continue, then don’t let the door hit you on the way out, because I don’t want assprints on my awesome door.
Just edging out a couple of neat superhero flicks is Colossal, an exercise is tone shift and weird imagination. If you’re not aware, this is the film where Catwoman controls a Kaiju without knowing it. And, as weird as that sounds, it is not even the most bizarre thing that happens in this film (that would go to the weird physical and emotional abuse and break-neck tone shift). The film is kind of all over the place, but in a good way, and because of that it has a distinct flavor beyond anything else you are going to find on this list (even though the next film also deals with a large monster). Colossal should be sniffing VOD services pretty soon, so if you get a chance to check this one out, I highly recommend it.
Cool story: People go through weird cycles of hating Anne Hathaway. Maybe it was the Oscar speech (Number of Oscars won by Anne Hathaway: One; Number of Oscars won by the morons who hate on her in their thinkpieces: ZERO) and maybe people are jealous because she’s talented and was in a Batman movie once, but it is fairly ridiculous to spend your time souring over an actor. They are in a service industry – they’re just ridiculously overpaid. You wouldn’t draft a “Gotcha” blog piece if your Arby’s server dropped your fries. You don’t like their work or their face or that one time they said some political thing? Fine, then don’t patronize their next project. Just shut up about them being “in” or “out” or whatever, because nobody cares if it is “okay to like Anne Hathaway” again.
#9 A Monster Calls
Yay, more very large monsters! Boo sick moms and facing the death of loved ones! Yeah, this one isn’t exactly happy, but it is uplifting nonetheless. The story focuses around a young boy whose mother is sick (played by Felicity Jones in a role where she has actual charm and chemistry; it must just be that long-ago and far-away galaxy that blands everything up). Though he is a resourceful little lad and enjoys drawing, he can’t keep the stress from getting to him, so he has dreams that he is seeing a gigantic monster voiced by Liam Neeson (as monsters go, that’s a pretty good one). The best part of this movie, other than the devastating feels that would give Pixar a run for their money, is the way it sneaks animation into some of the monster scenes. This film surprised the hell out of me, and I look forward to giving it another view soon.
Cool Story: this was the second film in a Liam Neeson double-feature that I saw in January, following Silence. I really liked Silence, but you’re not going to find it on this list, mostly because I feel like I need another viewing to really grasp a lot of the finer details and experience it again. Regardless, this is just an aside that amounts to, “I like Liam Neeson when he isn’t a Star Wars or Taken”.
#8 Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures was the little film that could at the beginning of 2017. It was a fencepost, as it qualified for the Oscars (and even nabbed a Best Picture nomination!) but didn’t go wide until mid January, so you can see how this strategy can be rewarding. This movie just racked up week after week of quality box office as people responded to its strong story, wholesome characters, and cogent themes that resonated especially well in a What?-Trump America (it released before his inauguration). The film is superbly acted all around, from the three lead women to the supporting parts from people like Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali (right in the middle of his Oscar run). It also sports some fascinating filmmaking, with a deft use of visual metaphors, pacing, and strong emotion.
Cool Story: Maybe I just like space, but I absolutely love rocket science type movies set during the early days of the field. Apollo 13 is an obvious candidate, but also October Sky and The Right Stuff are absolutely amazing. I’m happy to announce that Hidden Figures belongs in this rarefied group, as it champions the same themes of ingenuity, bravery, and ascension that these other films do, plus it addresses racial and sexual prejudices in ways that these other films simply do not.
#7 Wonder Woman
Not the most recent film on this list, but most likely the one that will cause the most uproar. Here’s the thing: people love Wonder Woman, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. Gal Gadot embodies the character perfectly, kicks a ton of ass, and the World War I period piece style of the film allows it to tell an isolated story. It also contains one of the best superhero action sequences in any film ever. Director Patty Jenkins and the other filmmakers should be proud of these superlatives, but Wonder Woman is not without its flaws. Fortunately, they are common flaws to the superhero genre: meh villain and bland ending. In the big picture, these detract only slightly from the overall quality of the film, but it is enough that Wonder Woman is bested by a different superhero flick.
Cool Story: After these last two films, it is time to discuss the gendered elephant in the room: Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman have been adopted as poster children for the idea that women can be good directors. That sentiment is reductive and patronizing to the point of absurdity. I understand that money talks, and it goes a long way to actually have a Wonder Woman to shove in the face of executives to show them that women-led films can actually make money if they’re good and interesting (imagine that!?!). Still, I worry that this is counterproductive. What if the next superhero film directed bya woman flops? Will you accept the reverse of the Wonder Woman argument? “Oh look, Captain Marvel only made X, I guess women can’t direct movies.” Of course you wouldn’t accept that argument, so don’t make it when it comes out in favor of your side. Instead, argue based on the quality of the art, the work, the talent involved. Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, Sophia Coppola, Katherine Bigelow, Ana Lily Amirpour, Mira Nair, Andrea Arnold, and other talented filmmakers don’t deserve to have their works reduced to box office numbers in service of their gender (really, no one deserves that, but the fact that Transformers 5 has made $430 million dollars isn’t used as a proxy for the worthiness of Michael Bay and by extension all male directors ever). Champion the movies that you love for relevant reasons and celebrate when people you dig do well, but don’t generalize that success into some weird congratulatory collectivism.
If you told me that one of the coolest moments I’d experience at the movies in 2017 would be a little girl being impaled by a harpoon gun, I would have seriously worried about both your sanity and mine. But, here we are. I’ve gushed plenty over Logan, mostly as proof-positive that Fox has a strong hold on a specific superhero film style: Hard-R Superheroes. Of course, the current iteration started with Deadpool, and promises to continue, but you have to marvel at how well Fox has captured this aesthetic. Logan uses its R rating just as well as Deadpool did, except it substitutes pure violence for the perverted humor. This is perfectly in service of the story that Logan wants to tell, and it works beautifully. And the result is very very easily the most emotionally-charged and resonant Wolverine movie ever.
Cool Story: What is the future of X-Men in films? Do you realize that Logan, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse are all in the same universe, technically? Three X-Men films are slated for 2018: New Mutants in April, Deadpool 2 in June, and X-Men: Dark Pheonix in November, and it isn’t very likely that there will be any kind of tonal harmony between these movies. Maybe that’s okay though. Maybe embracing the Hard-R rating for Deadpool, the schlock for the normal X-Men, and the horror for New Mutants makes sense, giving just enough variety to keep the viewers interested.
#5 It Comes at Night
We’ve hit the Top Five with the most depressing movie that I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s also potentially a masterpiece of cynical horror, braving the depths of the worst aspects of humanity and daring the viewer to come along for the ride. The acting is understated and impeccable, the pacing perfect for this kind of story, and the imagery absolutely terrifying. Not everyone will enjoy this kind of film, but for those that like the idea of depressing themselves into a deep funk are going to turn out the lights, fire up It Comes at Night, and lose all hope for a few hours.
Cool Story: There’s this interesting narrative floating around the film internet that horror is evolving into something new, something quieter and more thought-provoking than the standard slasher or jump-scare fest. Of course, these kinds of films have secretly always existed on the fringes of the genre, but the recent forays into more heady fare like The VVitch, It Comes at Night, The Babadook, It Follows and other are potentially reaching a critical mass where the casual horror fan can start dipping their toe into these kinds of films. But, this is important: this is not a new direction for the genre, but a spin-off into a more-defined subgenre. We are still going to get all the same slashers, microbudget haunted house or doll movies, and supernatural stuff. Now, we’ve just got this weird little spot where horror can be a little more sophisticated sometimes.
#4 Get Out
It’s horror movie corner here, though I wouldn’t object to classifying these films as thrillers, either. Get Out is an absolute critical darling, and very easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far. It has a lot of the same components as It Comes at Night, especially with regards to the social commentary and slow build-up of dread, but there’s also a heavy satirical element to Get Out. It is frightfully hard to nail the balance between genuine horror and satire, especially with regards to tone, but Jordan Peele pulled it off wonderfully. I can’t wait to revisit this film.
Cool Story: There is no other place to address this heavy peculiarity, but I saw Get Out with a terrible audience, and I still loved it. It was a free preview at a student union, and there was a lot of strangeness surrounding the screening. An activist stood up at the front of the theatre before the film ran and ranted about police shootings and racism in general, and then thoroughly disrupted the actual showing by yelling out at odd intervals, apparently every time something racist happened in the film. The crowd started getting annoyed, a few scenes were made, and it was just an overall shitshow.
#3 Baby Driver
The most recent film on the list, I just saw Baby Driver last week, and boy am I glad that I did. Few films have such artistic vision and confidence while simultaneously being entertaining, emotional, and full of pulse-pounding action. There aren’t a lot of movies like this that blend genre, look great, and entertain in unique ways, but things like Snatch, The Nice Guys, The Big Chill and other weird crime-comedy-action mish-mashes come to mind. That’s great company, and I completely think that Baby Driver is going to end up being one of those go-to movies that you never get tired of watching.
Cool Story: Edgar Wright’s filmography is fascinating. There’s the obvious Cornetto Trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, and then also one of the most quirky and low-key comic book flicks of the last decade, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and now Baby Driver. The Cornetto Trilogy is fairly consistent in tone, and it is easy to see how Scott Pilgrim fits into that same space. Baby Driver is something different, something new. It certainly has some of the same comedic sensibilities, but it is far more grounded and realistic than these other films. To me, this is an exciting development, and suggests that Edgar Wright’s next project (something called Shadows) should be highly anticipated.
The final two films are also fenceposts, with Paterson being released at the very tail end of 2016 after a long festival circuit. Still, this is an understated gem that absolutely floored me with its quiet contemplation of poetry, life, and passion. Adam Driver is astounding as the titular character, the movie is partitioned and paced brilliantly, and there is great profundity in the plotting even though very little happens. This is the kind of quiet indie film that someone can fall in love with.
Cool Story: Adam Driver is so much more than Kylo Ren. I probably first experienced his talent in the first season of Girls, but I also remember being drawn to him in the way-better-than-it-should-be British rom-com What If? starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. Since then, he has obviously exploded and ended up in things ranging from Silence and the aforementioned Star Wars film to smaller pieces like Paterson and Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m pretty confident that Driver may be the best young American actor working today.
Honorable Mentions and Foreign Fenceposts
Before we get to #1, I wanted to go through a few honorable mentions, especially with regards to some foreign movies that released in the fall of 2016 that I only got around to seeing now.
Let’s start with the honest-to-God honorable mentions. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was right on the bubble, and got kicked out by Baby Driver at the last moment. It is quite simply not as good as the other two comic book flicks I have on here, and was easily edged out by more unique pieces like Colossal. The Netfix documentary Five Came Back had a strong chance, but it is much closer to a miniseries than an actual film, so I chose to leave it here. I thought long and hard about Okja, but for reasons that will be clear when I post my review, I decided to wait on that one. Split was close too, but I felt it just didn’t do enough to warrant inclusion.
Now, for the foreign fenceposts! Elle and The Handmaiden were both released in 2016 and didn’t make I over here in time for me to see them (though I did express my high expectations in the Top Ten of 2016 piece I wrote). Suffice to say, I absolutely loved both of these films. I just completely consider them movies from 2016 that I didn’t get a chance to see in time. This is different from the #1 film on the list (which is also foreign) for a key reason: Elle and Handmaiden didn’t really get a wide release here in the states, so there’s a clear nebulousness to them. The next film did get a wide release, and it was in April, 2017. That seems sufficient enough for inclusion at #1 . . .
#1 Your Name.
I loved this movie so much. Is it a little smaltzy and hopelessly romantic? Perhaps, but no other films I have seen so far this year has kept me engrossed in the characters, the narrative, the themes, the metaphors, and the style quite like this anime gem. It’s basically a body-swap film, where a Japanese girl and boy magically swap bodies at odd intervals, each kind of pining for the other’s life. But, it gets weirder than that. There’s a great musical score written specifically for the film, including some great rock songs, and a wonderful sense of Japanese culture. I unabashedly recommend Your Name. for anyone who wants a magical and thoroughly rewarding viewing experience.
Cool Story: This piece is almost 3000 words long, so I am going to let everyone off the hook. Congratulations and thank you if you made it this far, and I hope you keep coming back to Plot and Theme for more foolish musings in the future!
Plot and Theme’s Top Ten Films of 2017(Halfway Edition)
- A Monster Calls
- Hidden Figures
- It Comes at Night
- Get Out
- Baby Driver
- Your Name.