This year, the Academy Awards delayed its’ ceremony until the first Sunday in March, which thankfully provided time to actually view just about all of the nominees, and consequently reflect on last year’s best offers. It was a challenging year for cinema, an art-form besieged by so-called, ‘prestige TV’, to retain its’ crown as the most relevant of social experiences, but so many of the following movies (particularly the top three on this list) not only benefit, but demand to be seen on the largest screens and with the largest crowds as possible. Luckily for audiences, there were still plenty of films that moved, stimulated, and most importantly (and unfortunately often not considered by the Academy), entertained in 2017:
10) Wonder Woman – In studio Warner Brothers’ haste to create their own linked comic-book superhero universe to rival Marvel, they’ve repeatedly gone for style over substance, visual excess over character build. With the arrival of director Patty Jenkins’ stellar origin film, they finally have an end product to be proud of. Everything from the look, the tone, the writing, acting, and assured action pieces line up nicely to create one of the most thoughful, inspiring, and entertaining blockbusters yet in the ever expanding superhero genre. When star Gal Gadot reveals herself in full armor regalia on the WWI battlefield, it’s an extended action scene of power and inspiration, as she does the impossible in the presence of weary soldiers in awe of what they are witnessing, a display that is not lost on an audience thrilled to finally see the hero needed right now, up there on screen . . .
9) John Wick 2 – The first installment of ‘John Wick’ came out of nowhere, slaying action audiences as a violently over-the-top Keanu Reeves vehicle directed by his ‘Matrix’ stunt double and action choreographer, Chad Stahelski. The two are at it once again, upping the ante in body count, broken limbs, and insane practical effects, as well as expanding upon the underground criminal mythos introduced in the original. While the franchise certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s still a cathartic experience to watch what is ostensibly an invincible ‘hero’ in an unrealistic situation. Since the action is grounded in real, practical stunts and choreographed fighting, it is a veritable ballet of bullets and fists.
8) Baby Driver – Writer/Director Edgar Wright’s sensibilities are on full display in his latest pop-comic-thriller-adrenaline ride of a film, his take on the heist movie; the one-last-job story so prevalent in gangster films, but here in a unique celebration of music and romance that is so packed with scene after scene of excitement, it explodes on screen. The movie is a wonder of practical stunts and car chases, punctuated by an almost omnipresent soundtrack of tunes from all sorts of musical genres and timeframes. It’s a film of undeniable fun, an endorphin rush of pure cinema from an auteur who loves to stand genre trope on its’ head and spin it.
7) Lady Bird – Writer/Director Greta Gerwig emerges from acting in the indie world to directing her first feature, a story inspired by her own experience growing up in Northern California, yearning for more out of life. Saoirse Ronan has had an impressive career so far as a young actress, but nothing in her filmography approaches the wry wit and deft handling of a hilariously rapid fire script that gives her titular character some amazing zingers. Her interactions with Laurie Metcalf, who plays her harried and oftentimes scathing mother, capture a real mother/teen daughter relationship, warts and all. Gerwig works on an ecomony of scale, coaxing incredible performances from the entire cast, with nothing wasted, in a near perfect debut film.
6) Phantom Thread – Daniel Day-Lewis, as always, is a marvel in his portrayal of Reynolds Woodcock, a final role that he and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson created together. He is surrounded by stellar costars in Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville. PTA knows exactly where to place and linger his camera to coax audience rapture even in the most mundane of situations. These three actors and their director are able to convey everything an audience needs to know about these characters with nuanced acting, along with a screenplay that understands when to be quiet and when to be verbose. The film perfectly captures the little annoyances and the grand battles that all couples have in a convincing manner, only here they are set amongst exquisite fabrics, high society, and little deaths.
5) Hostiles – Cinema has been around for a hundred plus years, and genre popularity goes through its’ requisite cycles, but has any category of film been more defining of the American spirt than the good, old-fashioned WESTERN? The only problem was the past idealized version of the stoic cowboy and the simplistic portrayal of the barbaric ‘indian’, were built on a jingoistic frame of American pride in taming the wild and beating back the wicked. Writer/Director Scott Cooper, who very effectively explores stories miles away from urban centers, resets the stage with his new complex genre film, an interpretation of that is rooted in an honest account of life in the Wild West. There are no clear ‘white hats’, ‘black hats’, and ‘savages’, despite what many of the characters think – as the film muddies these lines, so does a riveted audience.
4) Blade Runner 2049 – Ridley’s Scott’s 1982 film, ‘Blade Runner,’ remains a masterpiece of science fiction cinema even to this day. It re-defined the vision of a future for a whole generation of filmmakers and fans, overlaying breathtaking visuals over a film noir plot. Scott passed the torch to equally visionary director Denis Villeneuve, who successfully maintained the brutal nature and expanded the palate of the world to wondrous, captivating, mesmerizing effect, fleshing out themes of caste, human relations with, and quite frankly abuse of, technology, and the search for the profound.
3) Get Out – Jordan Peele is funny – as one half of the Comedy Central hit, ‘Key & Peele’ he regularly wrote and participated in skit after skit that skewered racial issues with a populist slant. With the pair moving on, he sought to create a horror movie that would challenge the genre by highlighting a subject rarely explored in mainstream entertainment. The trap he sets for newly-minted star Daniel Kaluuya is not an obvious one, and the fun of the movie is how it plays with race and perception for both black and white viewers, right to its’ final frame. ‘Get Out’ is a well-staged, well-acted, crowd-pleasing thriller that hits all the right beats, earnestly drawing gasps and cheers out of its’ audience, all the while slyly satirizing race assimilation in an expertly handled representation that changes the game.
2) Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi – The release of a new episode of ‘Star Wars’ is the biggest cinematic event of the year it drops, and as such there is always an enormous weight placed on it by a truly unrivaled fan base. Disney/Lucasfilm gave the reigns, and what seems to be artistic license, to writer/director Rian Johnson, who crafted a unique tale that subverted the tropes of the series with quiet contemplation, surprising comedy, and mind-blowing sequences of gorgeous fantastical sci-fi action. It’s hands down the best directed ‘Star Wars’ film in the series and the most artistically daring in presentation and scope, a fact that has unfortunately drawn ire from some of those aforementioned fan-boys. By taking the risks he does, Johnson sets this new trilogy on a path shadowed by themes of parental failure and the nature of legacy, so much so that it becomes an extended metaphor for the whole franchise, one that holds such a place of rare reverence that it threatens to overwhelm itself. Kill the past indeed.
1) Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan has become a signature filmmaker of the modern era, crafting popular entertainment that redefines the source material and challenges the audience experience. ‘Dunkirk’ sees him turning his lens and pen to a WWII story that came to signify his home country of Great Britain’s inspired, if at times futile, involvement in that fray. What he ends up with is a work of staggering power that transports the audience directly to the frontline of an extremely harrowing situation. Nolan not only builds suspense, he and his crew mystifyingly sustain a heightened, suffocating anxiety across the entire film to create a singular experience of dread and danger. It is surprising that filmmakers can still mine WWII for dramatic stories – with Nolan’s entry he strives for a truly innovative take on the material, and ends up with a unique, transporting, and transcendent masterpiece wrought across the largest screens in the land, and the Best Picture of the Year.
P.S. – Best Picture frontrunners, ‘The Shape of Water’ (Best Picture winner?!) and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ are not on this list for a reason. While both of these movies are assuredly directed, artfully designed, and in some cases deftly acted, they are bullshit movies, caricatures of reality/individuals/beings and visions of an America that is ugly and false. While there are things happening in this country that defy explanation, that rightfully encourage wrath and result in pain, art is given disservice by works that ring so truly false . . .