The more I’m able to invest myself in film, the more I get out of it. Each consecutive year I’ve been writing reviews I’ve found myself seeing not just more movies in general, but more movies I never thought I’d see myself watching. And that’s been almost universally for the better for me. The vast majority of theatrical releases I saw this year were films I enjoyed immensely. I’m only regretful I still ended up missing out on quite a lot of really good stuff. For example, you’re sadly not going to see Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, or The Disaster Artist on here simply because I was too busy to see everything I wanted, and some stuff like Phantom Thread just didn’t make it to my area until the last week or so. But I do my best, and I’m pretty confident with my picks so far. Without further adue, let’s get down to the honorable mentions.
First, let me take a moment to just say, Netflix, great job this year. You’ve been killing it. For every subpar original movie or series you produce, there’s usually at least two more that are superb. I got a lot of mileage out of your original content this year, and you’ve cemented yourself as a platform that has serious cinematic chops to be reckoned with. (If you haven’t gotten around to watching Mindhunter yet, I’d seriously recommend getting started.)
Bong Joon Ho might’ve only dropped onto my radar with 2013’s Snowpiercer, but his latest offering Okja ensured he’s gonna stay there for a while. Okja may loose some merit for not being a totally cohesive or consistent work of social satire, but it more than makes up for it in tone and execution. I’ve never seen a movie that’s able to pull off “Spielberg but dark” quite this well. It’s a tonal mash-up that would be disastrous in the hands of any other filmmaker, but Okja pulls it off with ease. If you have a Netflix subscription, there’s no reason for you not to give this a look.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s latest offering might be the most emotionally authentic examination of anger I’ve ever seen. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s not a movie that’s trying to be satisfying in any sense of the word, but I found it’s examinations of grief and anger to resound with me all the more for it. It’s an honest, if uncomfortable, examination of how erratic long-seated grief and anger can make people, yet it also manages to be optimistic in the most surprising of places. It’s also bolstered by excellent performances, humorous writing, and solid direction; making it surprisingly watchable for a movie I don’t expect many people to walk away satisfied from. I can understand people’s complaints with it, but it helped me think about things in a different light, and for that I’m grateful.
Taylor Sheridan’s (almost) directorial debut makes a surprisingly good companion piece to Three Billboards, in that they’re both extremely authentic depictions of dealing with grief. However, Wind River leans hard into a decidedly more pessimistic and hopeless place than Three Billboards. I’d be hard pressed to find a movie in recent memory that made me come out feeling totally emotionally drained. There are moments and performances in Wind River that are positively agonizing in their authenticity at portraying how harrowing the loss of a loved one feels. Haunting is the good operative word to describe Wind River at the end of the day. There were horror movies I saw this year that elicited more visceral reactions from me, but no movie I’ve seen filled me with quite the sense of existential dread this movie did. In fact this makes Taylor Sheridan’s previous work Sicario feel like a cake-walk by comparison. And while there’s plenty of exciting, less existentially depressing aspect of the movie to recommend, including quite possibly the most masterfully intense stand-off and shootout you’re bound to see on film this year, Wind River’s true merit comes from all the elements that make it unappealing. It’s a harsh, brutally uncompromising, sorrowful film, but it gives much needed representation to its subject matter and cements Taylor Sheridan as a writer with a purpose. You may not feel remotely happy watching Wind River, but it’s a movie I recommend highly.
I’m not totally sure if Katherine Bigalow’s latest cinematic work offers something unique to say about systemic racism and police brutality, nor is it’s harrowing depiction of the subject matter a remotely pleasant viewing experience in any kind sense. Despite this, I find myself thinking back to this movie a lot just for the sheer technical perfection of it all. I’m hard pressed to find a more perfectly paced, expertly directed, or immaculately presented movie all year. The performances in this movie are also something truly extraordinary. Will Poultur in particular delivers what might be the most memorable performance I’ve seen all year; it’s haunting, brutal, and eerily convincing in a way that got under my skin. It’s one of our best directors at the top of her form applying her talents to a story that truly deserves the best telling it can get. Even if this movie can’t quite add to the ongoing conversation of racial tension in the way it clearly wants to, it’s one I think does deserve to be seen, and I do wish it had connected with a bit of a larger audience. Definitely recommended viewing from me.
John Wick: Chapter 2/Atomic Blonde
For my money these are easily the two best ‘pure-action’ movies of the year. It’s no coincidence either; as Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 2) and David Leitch (Atomic Blonde), were the minds behind the original John Wick. Both have their flaws to be sure; Atomic Blonde suffers from a needlessly convoluted story and is probably too long, and John Wick: Chapter 2 has some awkward pacing. But once they get going, there’s no stopping them. Both are endlessly watchable, stylish films with great performances physical and emotional performances at their core. Both are exemplary in their fight-scene construction, choreography, and presentation. Both are at the head of an action renaissance that finally breaks the chain of needlessly over-edited and under-choreographed action films that have dominated for the past decade; and both should be celebrated for it. Overall, both movies are bad-ass. If you’re an action junkie like me, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have seen these.
Kong: Skull Island
I still can’t believe my favorite summer-action movie of this year came out in March. Kong: Skull Island has no reason being anywhere near as good as it is, but I’m so, SO glad it is. It’s a big ball of monster movie joy. Every shot of this movie is bursting with color. Every action scene is bombastic and energetic to the fullest degree. It fully embraces its setting and time period for maximum stylistic effect to create something unique and wonderful. Is it perfect? No, but it’s too busy being so much fun for that to matter. It’s a movie that revels in being what it is, and in doing so becomes the best possible version of what it can be.
And now, Sam’s Top Fifteen Movies of 2017
Is this already destined to be one of the most overly talked-about super-hero movies of all time? Yes, but I’d be lying if I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind it. Logan is an undeniable accomplishment for the super-hero genre, and a really good movie to boot. Like The Dark Knight before it, Logan mostly chooses not to acknowledge the precedent super-hero movies before it have set, and instead commits to being its own thing. It’s a movie that rightly recognizes the strengths of its characters and its actors, and sees where to set its emotional goals. It’s exactly the kind of shot in the arm the super-hero genre needed this year in terms of stylistic quality and ambition. And even though it seems already doomed to be hailed for all the wrong reasons by the exact same crowd who still won’t shut up about the previously mentioned Dark Knight, it still deserves its praise one way or the other.
So boy was I wrong about this one! In what was increasingly a wasteland year for animation, I had prematurely dismissed Pixar’s latest venture as too similar to Sony’s The Book of Life, and felt it wouldn’t end up offering much outside my expectations. What a pleasant surprise to see Pixar instead deliver a film that soundly upended all my preconceived notions of what it would be. Coco is not only another visually stunning, richly presented outing from Pixar, but a deeply heartfelt celebration of culture, family, and identity worthy of standing with some of the best movies Pixar’s ever produced. I loved this movie, I love everything it stands for, and I’m very happy it rose far above my expectations. If you haven’t caught this one yet, I’d strongly suggest amending that. And be warned, it will probably make you cry.
The Lost City of Z
It’s been a while that I’ve seen a movie that tried this willfully to be an ‘epic’ in every sense of the word. Whether or not The Lost City of Z actually accomplishes this is mostly down to preference, but it was hard for me not to be impressed with James Gray’s period-drama. It’s an often somber film, but it’s also a compelling exercise in mood and atmosphere and the technical filmmaking chops on display are nothing short of masterful. Does it totally hold up narratively or thematically? I’d wager probably not once I get around to revisiting it. But if nothing else it’s an interesting and ambitious film about someone’s interesting ambitions. Also no spoilers, but it has one of my favorite final shots of the year.
I have to say that It was my favorite ‘movie-theater experience’ I had all year. It was the same kind of theater experience I’ve had at The Avengers or the final Harry Potter movie; and that’s an impressive feat considering the kind of movie It is. There’s so much about It that could’ve easily been mishandled. Adapting ANY Steven King story is a tough feat in itself, (just look at The Dark Tower,) but considering the sheer breadth of content packed within the novel It, it’s a miracle anyone could pull this off at all, much less so effectively. And yet It does it all masterfully. It’s heartfelt and earnest, yet gleeful in its own macabre horror. I’m hard pressed to find a movie this year that had me as viscerally invested in the fate of it’s characters nor as joyous at watching them succeed. The only reason it’s not higher on my list is because I’m frankly nervous to see if It: Chapter Two can capture any of the magic. If it can, I’ll be more readily prepared to call the complete package a masterpiece. But for now, It is a knockout.
Not to get overly political over here, but I don’t think I’m entirely wrong in saying that it’s a lot harder to make movies about the blue-coller southern working class “stickin’ it to the man” than it used to be. That kind of story just doesn’t sell as well today, and I don’t have nearly enough time to go into the logistics of why. So color me impressed that Logan Lucky is able to be, as the movie eloquently puts it, “Oceans 7/11,” without ever stooping to self-deprication, faux-sentimentality, or grossly ill-timed romanticization of white-rural lower-class America. Instead, Logan Lucky is plucky, honest, and legitimately heartfelt without ever feeling like it hasn’t earned it. And that’s a tough balancing act for a movie who’s emotional climax literally happens at a child beauty pageant, but Steven Soderberg proves once again he’s the man for the job.
The Florida Project
It’s always special when a movie is able to perfectly capture the emotional landscape of a point in time, and I’m pretty sure that’s what The Florida Project is. It’s at once a celebration and a strong condemnation of eternal adolescence. And though it’s certainly not the first of its kind, certainly not even the first to use urban Florida as its backdrop, that doesn’t diminish the resonance it brings. In addition it’s a beautifully shot and fantastically performed drama that kept me completely engaged throughout. I’m hoping it gets recognized at awards season because I feel its examination of lower-class America deserves to be analyzed and explored more. It’s an important contemporary film that deserves to be remembered for what it sets out to do.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Marvel had a good run this year as always, but I’m a little sad Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 didn’t enter the discourse very often. I feel like Guardians Vol. 2 is a legitimate standout in the already impressive MCU catalog. The directions in which the characters developed upstaged my expectations and ended up delivering some of the most emotional gut-punches I experienced in theaters all year. It also has one of the standout villains of the MCU so far, a not terribly impressive feat considering villains have never been a huge part of the MCU equation, but unique in how well the villain connects to the central thematic conflicts of the film. In fact thematically I’d say Guardians Vol. 2 is the boldest and most introspective entry in the MCU to date; with its strong rejection of toxic masculinity and introspective exploration of emotional neglect and abuse. Combine that with another great soundtrack, really fun action, and truly gorgeous imagery, and I’d say overall Guardians Vol. 2 is an excellent complementary piece to the first Guardians and a great film overall. It’s more of what I wanted the first Guardians to be, and I think it’s gonna stay with me for a long time.
War for the Planet of the Apes
Can we just take a minute to step back and consider how great the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy has been? All three Apes movies now have floored me not just in terms of CGI and performance capture, but in how a legitimate blockbuster franchise like this has leaned this heavily on bold story choices, mature presentation and themes, and an overall commitment to smart storytelling. And now here’s War for the Planet of the Apes, an epic capstone to one of the best trilogies I’ve had the pleasure to witness on the big screen. Though maybe not so much a war film as the title suggests, it’s an astounding piece of cinematic drama for a movie where almost non of the main characters are human and even fewer use verbal speech. It’s visually spectacular not just in terms of how detailed the character effects work is, but in how richly layered the world is and how expertly it’s framed. (This movie easily has my favorite use of extreme close-ups of the year.) While The Lost City of Z might’ve tried the hardest to be a cinematic epic this year, War for the Planet of the Apes is the one that takes home the blue-ribbon as far as I’m concerned.
Sometimes a piece of art comes along whose whole is more than the sum of its parts; whose impact ends up being far greater than the quality of the individual pieces should suggest. For 2017, I can think of no other movie that fits that category better than Wonder Woman. Sure it’s not like there’s anything wrong with most of the individual pieces of Wonder Woman either, (though there are some that certainly could’ve been done better,) but nit-picking any of those pieces that don’t work perfectly not only misses the broader impact of this movie by a mile, it’s an active disrespect to the people who draw value from it. Wonder Woman is, no hyperbole, a towering achievement of twenty-first century pop-culture. It’s a further cementation of the super-hero genre’s value in today’s day-and-age, and a movie who’s priorities and themes I’ve only come to appreciate more with time. Wonder Woman may not be a perfect movie, but what it stands for is just about the most inspiring, hopeful thing I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. There’s just so much good in Wonder Woman, both within the movie and in the affect it leaves. Wonder Woman may not even crack my top five this year, (in any other year it probably would have,) but I have no qualms in considering Wonder Woman to be the most important movie of 2017. I just wish the rest of the DC movies could be even a tenth as good.
If you’d told me after seeing Keanu back in 2016 that Jordan Peele was going to end up writing and directing the best horror-thriller of the decade, I wouldn’t have known what to say. But anyway, here we are. To be honest, Get Out can probably share the title of “Most Important movie of 2017” jointly with Wonder Woman if you really wanted to get picky. Get Out certainly does hold the award for ‘Most Interesting Discourse Surrounding a Film’ if nothing else. Almost everyone I saw talking about this movie had something interesting to say; some unique perspective with which to view it. And honestly, I’d say that the fact this movie led to so much interesting and well-thought out discourse is even more valuable than the film itself. But let’s not forget that Get Out is a killer film first and foremost. It’s a masterful exercise in suspense, tone, and atmosphere that’s frankly mind-blowing to see come from a first-time director. The writing is superb, the direction is nuanced, and the performances are some of my very favorite of the entire year. Get Out is probably going to be the definitive horror-thriller for my generation, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I think The Last Jedi might be my favorite thing anyone’s ever done with the Star Wars brand in years. I don’t say that lightly either; I can’t remember the last time anything Star Wars-related made me feel this way. After The Force Awakens managed to revitalize the franchise by relying on the lessons of the original series, The Last Jedi makes the wholly correct choice to boldly chart its own course and double-down on the human element that’s been so lacking from the franchise for so long. Seriously, I can’t tell you the profound feelings of catharsis I have to know that Star Wars finally feels like its about people again; not horribly card-board cutouts or obvious fanboy stand-ins. What The Last Jedi might lack in terms of story-structure and general subtlety, it more than makes up for with pure heart. It’s what Rouge One was in its best moments and so much more. It’s the most decidedly humanistic Star Wars movie to date, and I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel. I also can’t even begin to express how glad I am to see a Star Wars movie thats so willing to embrace its legacy, but not the horrendous, awful, stupid pedanticism of the Star Wars expectations. Make no mistake, The Last Jedi is still relying quite a bit on nostalgia and reverence for the original trilogy, but it knows it needs to be a successor and not a revival. It’s a true sequel, one that has its own aspirations, influences, and themes at play; and even if they don’t all fit together perfectly it’s joyful to witness regardless. I loved The Last Jedi. It made me appreciate The Force Awakens a little more in some respects, and I think we’ll have an even greater appreciation for both installments when the trilogy wraps up. I just really hope it can stick the landing.
I think Baby Driver is a culmination of something I’ve just been dying to see experimented with more in Cinema for a while now; I.E. can you really build a whole movie around extended sequences of actions perfectly synced with rhythm? The answer is yes, of course, and Baby Driver isn’t totally the first of its kind to do so either, but that doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate it regardless. Baby Driver is a slick machine of a movie. Its parts are noticeable only in how well they compliment and accentuate each other. The music, the editing, the writing, the performances, the action, it all draws attention to itself, yet only for how uniquely they all work in tandem to create a great experience. It’s stylish, but its style brings it substance; and thats something I think Edgar Wright has just about mastered. Baby Driver is just tons of fun, and the more I think about it, the more I can’t get enough of it.
Remember how I put Interstellar as my second favorite movie of 2014? Yeah that was probably a mistake in hindsight; it’s not nearly his best movie and has a lot of flaws that bog it down, mainly the fact that it’s just way too cold and too long for it to have the emotional impact it needs. And for a while I kinda thought that was just going to continue to be a running limitation of Christopher Nolan’s work. Since the beginning of his career, Nolan has made movies of a profoundly, quiet, Kubrickian sensibility. And that’s all fine and dandy, (in fact there’s another director coming up on this list who does that a lot too,) but it starts to get really tiresome when you line them all up back-to-back. They just end up seeming really joyless and alien, and that was especially noticeable in Interstellar. What a pleasant surprise to see Nolan’s latest film bears all his signature trademarks, yet frequently triumphantly soars with an inspirational zeal not seen in his other work. It’s all decidedly restrained, as are all emotions in Nolan’s work, but it’s supremely effective nonetheless. Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s most human movie to date; a movie about duty in the face of overwhelming odds and overcoming the most oppressive of fears. And the fear is certainly oppressive, as Nolan doubles down on the suspense and danger of war to make the triumphs all the more triumphant. For how sparse and bloodless the movie is, it’s still gripping and intense in ways most horror movies can’t even achieve. In addition, we get to see Nolan experiment with time-dilation on a larger scale, resulting in his most engaging story-structuring since Inception. Add to that Nolan’s signature production values, some truly impressive practical effects and arial stunts, another great Hans Zimmer score, and some fantastic performances, and I think it’s safe to say Nolan’s proved he hasn’t lost his touch in the slightest.
The Shape of Water
I don’t know what I can really say about The Shape of Water. It’s a really simple little movie about a very strange little love story/period-piece that doesn’t overstay its welcome and keeps its thematic ambitions modest and manageable. And yet since it’s Guillermo Del Toro working at the helm here, it ends up being profoundly more beautiful, charming, and touching than anyone would reasonably expect it to be. Del Toro might have the best grasp on Magical Realism of any story-teller of this decade, and The Shape of Water is exemplary in showing all of his greatest strengths as a storyteller. He’s able to take material other filmmakers might’ve handled in an exploitative, insincere, or sleazy manner and handle it with legitimate heart, maturity, and sincerity. And The Shape of Water wears its heart on its sleeve so proudly that it immediately won me over. I can’t think of another movie this year that had me smiling throughout the entirety of its runtime. I loved the characters, the performances, the story, the production design, the music, and the achingly beautiful visuals. What I’m trying to say is that The Shape of Water just made me happy; happier than every other movie I saw this year.
Blade Runner 2049
Surprise surprise! Another Denis Villeneuve movie tops my favorites list for another year; what can you do, this guy just can’t seem to fail. Anyway, The Shape of Water may have made me the happiest at the movies this year, but Blade Runner 2049 is my favorite movie of the year. It’s an incredible sequel, and fantastic movie on its own merits, the most visually arresting and atmospheric movie I’ve seen in a long time, and every bit as thematically ambitious as the original Blade Runner. In fact I don’t think it’s a very controversial statement to say I probably prefer 2049 to the original in a lot of ways. It perfectly manages to build-upon the themes of Blade Runner, but takes them in smart, unexpected directions that broaden its cinematic conversation to new topics. It also takes the same approach to its world-building; returning you to the world of Blade Runner, yet showing how its evolved and changed in the thirty years since we’ve been gone from it. It’s one of the most impressive challenges I’ve ever seen a movie take upon itself, and it shows it’s more than up for the task. The movie certainly isn’t without its flaws; its pacing, length, and emotional coldness make it a challenge to watch, and its lofty thematic ambitious certainly aren’t fool-proof, but these flaws just simply aren’t enough to stop me from being totally engrossed in the world of 2049. Every single frame of this movie is rich, layered, and imaginative in ways that just have to be seen to be explained. There’s not a shot in this movie that isn’t perfect in its own way. The performances and characters are every bit as complex and engrossing as the world they inhabit, and keep you invested just as much as the impeccable visuals. And special mention has to go to Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting, overpowering score. Of all the really great musical scores we’ve had this year, it’s the one that’s lingered with me the longest. All-in-all, Blade Runner 2049 was exactly what I hoped it could be, and for meeting my expectations so perfectly, it’s my favorite movie of 2017. Denis Villeneuve continues to be my favorite working director today. If he’s really going forward with that Dune movie next, I can’t even begin to imagine how that’s going to turn out.
And that’s my list of my favorite movies from 2017! Thanks for sticking with me for another year. I hope you’ll be with me through 2018, and I hope we get some more great movies out of it. Thank you, and I’ll see you next time!