Adam's Top Ten Of 2017
Before I foolishly attempt to rank the following works of art and entertainment, please view this list as tentative - I could return to it in a month's time, and want to alter the sequence, and again a year after that, and so on. Further, there are a number of films from 2017 that I have yet to see, and at least a few of them might have ended up on this list, including but not limited to Get Out, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and The Shape Of Water (which would likely have cracked the top three). Thus I conclude my caveats. Spoilers ahead.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming
In the past decade, it seems that Marvel has practically mastered the superhero film. Some complain about formula, but formula is as valid a mode of expression as any - it's one of many creative choices, not an inferior one. It seems, though, that the villains sometimes get shorted in their films, however successful they may otherwise be. Spider-Man: Homecoming is loyal to the fundamentals of its source material, has an incredibly likeable cast, action that often centers on heroism, and a healthy amount of humor, but it's handling of the villain is a true masterstroke.
Michael Keaton steals his every scene as the Vulture, a character who is at once genuinely intimidating and charismatic, but also so human and relatable in his motivation that I found myself actively rooting for him at times. He's visually a strikingly well designed character, with his fur collared flight jacket, expansive, deadly mechanical wings, and predatory avian helmet. Allowing Spider-Man to rescue him so that he survives the story is a decision that blew me away, and I can't praise the filmmakers enough for it. To have taken what is perhaps viewed as lesser character in the comics and turned him into one of the best villains in all of superhero filmdom is a hard lesson for the makers of future entries in the genre.
There is a specific moment of physical carnage early in Logan that told me just how intense a tonal shift from typical comic book films it would be. During an attempt to escape their government pursuers, Logan (Hugh Jackman) drives an armored limousine into a chain link fence. In every movie I can remember, vehicles tear through such barriers with relative ease. But here the fence simply bows outward, wrapping around the hood of the limo, the posts holding it up pulled over, while the metal mesh of the fence itself acts as a net that refuses to give. It's a small, realistic detail, but within it is the guarantee that there will be no easy outs in this story. Logan isn't harsh and brutal by superhero movie standards - it's harsh and brutal, period.
Director James Mangold has created another great work of grit and honesty, and he's done it with the premiere character of a superhero franchise. Jackman gives an unforgettable performance as the tortured, grizzled warrior facing down his mortality and his own bitterness. The film is at times truly harrowing and shocking, the product of a pure, unsparing vision. But when there are moments of emotional warmth, they mean something. Jackman and Mangold set out to make something special, and they gave us even more in a passionate, powerful send off that would make Wolverine proud. That is to say, a send off that is devoid of bullshit.
8. Baby Driver
Edgar Wright keeps setting more ambitious goals for himself, and he keeps exceeding them. A music drenched action movie with utterly masterful car chases, Baby Driver manages to walk a tonal tightrope its entire runtime. It's a crime movie with a pure hearted protagonist, it contains real danger, intensity and violence without ever being ugly. It maintains the exact right BPM the whole song through. An often joyous, practically perfect film, from a filmmaker with a meticulous eye for detail.
There were only a few other people in the theater during my screening of Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and unless I am mistaken, one of them walked out. It was in the midst of the film's jarring climax, a finale which amounts to a drinking down of humankind's collective evils in a few gulps. An increasingly aggressive, jarring, and stressful viewing experience, it works as a horror film in ways that most straight horror films only aspire to, achieving the kind of surreal, nightmare intensity that might, in fact, turn a percentage of the audience away.
This raw energy is due to the bold, pure vision driving the film, and its fully realized, unencumbered execution. The movie exists in a peculiar world, balanced between myth and realism, where characters are believably human even as personifications of spiritual and religious concepts. It maintains this conceit, and never second guesses itself. Aronofsky has been refreshingly open about his intentions regarding the movie, and his effort to convey cultural and cosmic concepts in a tangible way doesn't just result in a unique perspective on what our species believes, but also raises wonderfully transgressive questions about those beliefs. One such question: Is the very idea of infinite, unwavering forgiveness actually ethical? For me, the question of whether Mother! is an electric, unnerving, distinct piece of filmmaking is a much simpler one to answer.
6. Thor Ragnarok
When seen as the third part of a trilogy, the imaginative and wildly comedic Thor Ragnarok is surprisingly risky. Though I believe the previous Thor films to be underrated, they do not approach the creative heights that are seen here, with director Taika Waititi seemingly given near total freedom to play in Marvel Studio's sandbox. As someone who idolizes Jack Kirby, seeing his visual signature present in the astonishingly gorgeous production design was a true pleasure, and one of many elements that make the film stand out from its brethren. Original as it is, though, Waititi's film is also a throwback to an age when such films were more common.
Ghostbusters, Back To The Future, Big Trouble In Little China, and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, are a few examples of a very particular cinematic species: the funny genre movie. While they are generally pretty humorous films, and might work as comedies, they are genre films first and foremost. Their world building, plots, and gimmicks would sustain if you removed the humor from the equation - they have legitimate foundations of sci fi or fantasy elements. So they have everything you need to make a solid genre film, they just happen to be funny in addition to all of that. Thor Ragnarok is a successful return to this style of double entertainment - an action packed visual feast that is also genuinely funny. In this subgenre, you can have your cake, and eat it too.
5. Wind River
My first exposure to Taylor Sheridan was through his role as writer of the superb Sicario. With Wind River, I'm convinced of his excellence as a director, as well. The film sneaks up on the viewer, beginning as a well crafted murder investigation, and gradually expanding into more powerful, frightening, and heart wrenching territory. There are moments of real shock, none of them cheap. You feel the hanging threat of violent carnage, and then its impact when it explodes. A modern, utilitarian Western with both ferocity and empathy, and a real, beating heart.
4. War For The Planet Of The Apes
The perceived success of a film trilogy can hinge on its finale. Even if the first two are great, a fumbled landing can overshadow the whole, if unfairly. Less common is the trilogy which saves its best for last. In the case of War For The Planet Of The Apes, director Matt Reeves has created a modern classic, arguably the most accomplished Apes entry since the original in 1968.
At the heart of the film is the struggle of the apes for the fundamental right to exist, and the vengeful conflict within their leader, Caesar. That these external and internal battles are handled with the appropriate gravity and truthfulness is a testament to two elements : the actors, and the special effects. The superb Woody Harrelson creates an intense, tortured villain, while the incomparable Andy Serkis brings pathos, wisdom and rage to Caesar. They manage between them an interplay of fiery enmity, a whirlpool of a standoff that threatens to draw everything else inside.
What struck me while watching the movie is the degree to which it focuses on its characters, who we've gotten to know over the previous two films. Avoiding the temptation to become a huge cg spectacle, it feels frequently small and intimate, and this is the filmmakers' smartest move - to center on what matters. That being said, War For The Planet Of The Apes is a special effects masterpiece. If Avatar defeated the uncanny valley, then this movie buries it. The realization of the Ape characters is so utterly flawless, that you cease to think of them as effects, and get drawn into a trilogy finale for the ages.
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I've had some incredible experiences watching movies in the theater, but I've rarely been privy to the kind provided by The Last Jedi. Watching a new Star Wars "trilogy" movie is always special, because regardless of your final thoughts on the film itself, you are at the time bearing witness to pop culture history being written in real time, right before your eyes. What made this experience so special, is that the film goes places you can't predict, where anything can happen and everyone's survival is in question. It is alive with danger and possibility in a way that few franchise films ever are.
But all of this unpredictability is no gimmick - it speaks to the very point of the film. When you are caught up in the gears of history, in this case galactic history, it is difficult to know what the right choice is, and what the consequence will be of a given action. Mistakes are to be expected, failure unavoidable. One can only do what they think is best, and hope it pans out. In this environment of dire fates, director Rian Johnson injects humor and truthfulness. Character s are handled with an intelligence and honesty that gives them life and tangibility - they seem to exist in and of themselves, not as mere products of a master story plan. As a result they make choices we might not expect, and don't always succeed. They don't know they're in a franchise.
The spectacle on display is truly a thing to behold. Johnson has delivered some of the most impressive, evocative visuals and action ever in a film series that is famous for such things. From Poe Damaron's heart pounding solo assault on a giant enemy battleship, to the crimson drenched throne room fight and the hyperdrive collision, to the iconic showdown between Luke and Kylo, this is a movie that constantly exhilarates and dazzles. Forty years out from A New Hope, it's proof that there's still nothing like a great Star Wars movie.
Dunkirk isn't just tying for my favorite movie of the year (and to make it doubly clear, these last two films on my list are a tie, numbers notwithstanding), it also happens to be my favorite kind of movie. Telling it's story through purely cinematic means, it is low on dialogue, and high on the relentless tension wartime survival. It is much more a product of pure cinema than any of Christopher Nolan's previous work, and I hope it is a foreshadowing of more. From the moment that gunfire intrudes upon the film's opening, Dunkirk does not let up for it's entire runtime. It is a masterpiece of sustained intensity, crafted by one of our greatest living directors.
No other filmmaker is as obsessed with the motion picture's ability to expand and compress time as Nolan, and he uses it in Dunkirk to brilliant dramatic effect. The story, based on an actual WW2 event, is a trinity of three interconnected timelines. One is compressed into the film's refreshingly lean runtime, the other two less so, with the least foreshortened one approaching real time. It may sound unwieldy, but in practice it plays out seamlessly, which is itself an impressive creative achievement. The split timelines serve important storytelling purposes, for one allowing you to witness certain events from alternate perspectives. A character's endangerment and rescue may happen separated by many minutes in the film, though they were immediately consecutive to the character's who experienced them - thus the very chronological structure of the movie is utilized to enhance suspense.
The technique further allows for the three timelines to overlap fully at the climax, when each of them have simultaneously reached their peak intensity. The technical genius on display is alone awe inspiring, but Dunkirk is all the while an emotionally gripping, exhausting masterpiece, easily placing high among the greatest war films ever made.
1. Blade Runner 2049
The breathtaking audiovisual splendor of Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 would have been enough to land it on this list. The production design and special effects - which to my bottomless delight actually incorporate practical miniatures - could be a meal on their own. And they hired Roger Deakins to photograph it all.
But beneath this glorious, toxic cyberpunk heaven is a film of substance, which takes the questions the first film raised about what it means to be human, and probes even deeper, into the existential substrata. The relationship between Agent K, a replicant, and JOI, a holographic A.I., is truly beautiful and affecting. These movies are about the value of humanity in a hostile, dehumanized world, and they chose to center the plot around precisely this, connecting it to the original film in a way that is deeply, emotionally rewarding. It uses the amount of time between it and its predecessor to its advantage.
Denis Villeneuve was my favorite working director before the release of this film, and now he has exceeded that. It was maybe fate, that such a long time passed between these films, so that this one could reach its maximum potential, to be made in 2017 with this incredible cast and crew, by this brilliant filmmaker. Villeneuve fills every moment with thematic and visual richness, crafting one of cinema's all time great sequels, to take its place with the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, and Aliens. More than worth the wait.