Home > Reviews > 2017 IN REVIEW – My Favorite Films of the Year

2017 IN REVIEW – My Favorite Films of the Year

Alright, so I had intended to get this done a while ago – weeks ago, in fact, but at least before the Oscars. Naturally, life, as it does, gets in the way of ambitions, and so I’m releasing it as soon as I could.

2017 was a terrible year, but it wasn’t all bad in terms of the films that came out. In fact, there were quite a few that I loved this year, and… well, here they are! Below are the films from 2017 that either I personally enjoyed the most or that resonated with me the most. As such, I do not call them “the best,” but I do consider them to be exemplary. Unlike my previous two lists, each film is categorized roughly into the genre I think it (mostly) fits into (there’s always going to be overlap), and then in the usual ascending order of quality within the genre.

Even with all these, I can’t say I’m not relieved this is all over, finally. I kinda want to go back to reviewing films now, and 2018 is already well underway now…

ACTION

  1. Kong: Skull Island                3/10/17                75%

Taking place at the end of the Vietnam War, a group of soldiers and scientists are sent out to a mysterious, uncharted island where they are almost immediately confronted by giants and monsters, the king among them a giant gorilla the natives call Kong. Kicking off the action almost from the outset and keeping it going throughout the film’s runtime, this latest take on the classic, sympathetic giant ape deviates from its predecessors by being neither a remake nor taking its time, stripping away almost everything about the other major films – including a trip to New York City – and upping the size of its monster, all in the name of doling out its chaotic kaiju thrills. Skull Island is stylish and at times a bit trashy in its horroresque presentation, but that’s all part of the fun. I had a great time watching this, and unlike a certain other shared universe full of monsters, this one seems to know its place and is perfectly happy to make the best of it. I’m very much looking forward to Kong taking on Godzilla in the next couple years.

  1. Baby Driver                6/28/17                93%

Shame that this movie is now tainted by revelations of a certain cast member’s misconduct, but let’s not let that take away from our enjoyment of Edgar Wright’s latest tribute to older, awesome things, wherein a hotshot young driver is recruited by a crime ring to be their getaway driver. Featuring a lead character, literally named Baby, who listens to a bunch of classic music on his MP3 player to drown out the tinnitus and give Wright an excuse to blast the audience with a wave of smooth tunes, Baby Driver is a slick, stylish, and highly entertaining action flick with plenty of humor, a charming lead performance from Ansel Elgort, and some of the best car chase scenes you’ll ever see in cinema. It has its lulls, but they’re brief and few, and they hardly mar what is otherwise almost a masterpiece.

  1. John Wick: Chapter                2 2/10/17                89%

I was skeptical of the need to turn the original and nearly perfect John Wick into a franchise, but I was also very much open to the idea of getting more of that ridiculous, tightly choreographed gunplay that the first offered, even if it meant the second film would take a hit in the originality department. And that’s pretty much how this has played out, with John Wick finding himself now the target of seemingly every assassin in the world after his unexpected return from retirement in the first film. The hints of a world beyond that story about a quest of pure vengeance is blown up to ridiculous, sometimes even silly proportions. And I couldn’t help but love it. Sure, the draw of mystery regarding all the dealings and hierarchies of this world of assassins is now missing, and the movie perhaps this film is less adept at handling its slower moments than the first, all of which dripped with intrigue, but we do get some more of that great Keanu Reeves action alongside some new faces – Ruby Rose and Common, most notably. It’s a great action flick, and if it’s not quite as incredible as the first, that doesn’t mean this one’s a disappointment – it’s just that the first is just that great, and this one definitely comes close. I might have to reconsider my trepidation towards the upcoming TV spin-off now, won’t I?

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming                7/07/17                92%

I know. I know, I know, I know – I can’t help myself. I love these Marvel movies, and the thrill of seeing Spider-Man now interact with the rest of the Avengers on the big screen still hasn’t worn off for me. I’m sorry, and I know I should probably put this one lower on the list for more original and less commercially obvious films like Baby Driver and John Wick: Chapter 2, but this is a list of my favorite films and not necessarily the technical bests, and so I’m putting Homecoming here because I truly did love it a great deal. Never before has Spider-Man himself been so endearing as he is when portrayed by Tom Holland, who gets to have his moment in the spotlight now, away from the greater Civil War between the various Avengers.

Despite being an action-packed superhero flick, Homecoming is much more focused on the smaller, less remarkable life of Peter Parker as he makes his way through high school while feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, even if it’s not really his responsibility yet. Equally small scale is the film’s villain, Vulture, played by Michael Keaton and reimagined as a blue collar alien technology scavenger who is basically forced to sell weapons derived from the tech on the black market in order to save his livelihood. Keaton is at times terrifying as Vulture without going too over-the-top, and his initial motivation is also understandable, even if his methods aren’t. He’s a man with a plan, not just a vendetta, as has often been the case with Spider-Man’s villains. That vendetta does form with time, but not just because one’s a good guy and the other’s a bad guy and, lo, they doth need to fight. Homecoming is a blast, delivering on the promise of Spider-Man’s appearance in Civil War and promising more to come.

  1. Thor: Ragnarok                11/02/17                92%

I liked the first two Thor movies just fine, the oft-maligned second film included, but there’s no doubt that they were bottom tier in comparison to the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy films, with perhaps the Hulk’s only outing being lower. With director Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok, however, we’ve finally gotten a film worthy of the God of Thunder’s reputation, and with the Hulk co-starring, even he gets elevated by the material. Equal parts hilarious comedy and trippy action sci-fi, Ragnarok also highlights two of the more interesting villains in the MCU – Hela, played with vicious relish by Cate Blanchett, and the hedonistic Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum in somehow yet another career-defining performance. The film also sees the return of Loki, used sparingly but effectively, and introduces Valkyrie, an Asgardian living in self-imposed exile as a mercenary for the Grandmaster. While previous films’ supporting casts were a point of contention for some, I always liked them, and their reduced presence or even exclusion is felt, but even I’ll admit that Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie proves to be the spark that the Thor movies always needed. She is a great addition to the ever-growing MCU cast, and Ragnarok is itself another welcome detour into this strange and hilarious cosmic world before its very existence is threatened in Infinity War.

  1. Logan                3/03/17                93%

The X-Men movies have long been credited for reigniting the superhero movie trend back when the first released in 2000 and dared to take its source material seriously in a post-Batman & Robin world. (Some would argue, rightfully, that credit is also due to Blade, though X-Men is the first to go into production afterward and still aim for a wider audience years later.) The franchise has been going on now for more than 17 years, with sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and even a film focusing on providing a bold, satisfying explanation for multiple timelines and an in-universe continuity reset that in years past probably never would’ve been made – they’d have just recast and moved on, just as they did with Batman.

Logan, however, may be the most daring of superhero films, taking its most popular character, Wolverine, and finally allowing him the room he needed to grow as a character. With the franchise turning 17, it celebrates the legacy of Hugh Jackman’s unprecedented tenure by finally letting him finally do what he does best, which isn’t very nice. But apart from the allowance of some truly brutal violence, the film also develops the more dramatic aspects of the character Apart from setting him in a future where all of those closest to him have been wiped out and mutantkind in general being on the decline, his past once again comes back to haunt him in the form of a little girl with more than a few characteristics in common with him. Professor X, now a stubborn, senile nonagenarian, insists that this girl, Laura, is proof that saving mutantkind is not yet a bygone effort, but Logan, with the weight of over a century of hardship on his shoulders, wants nothing more than to just let the struggle end, both for himself and mutants around the world, even if it means their own extinction.

If the first X-Men movies were the first to really take this material seriously again, Logan is the first to show that the world is also more than ready for it to mature (you know, in a non-comedic way). The film even became the first superhero film to be nominated by the Academy Awards for its screenplay, and for a while there, it even seemed like it may have had a chance to earn one for Best Picture, particularly in the wake of fellow gritty action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road’s nomination. Jackman’s weary, heartbroken, and rage-filled performance is one of the best performances, period, of his career, and the same can be said of Patrick Stewart’s return as Xavier, with both actors having set the standard for how both respective characters should be portrayed in live action. It’ll be hard to replace them going forward (with one already effectively having been), but at least we have promise in Dafne Keen, who plays Laura with impressive ferocity. Even if we’re unlikely to ever get another Jackman or Stewart, hopefully she will get the same chance they did to make a name for herself as the former X-23 and future Wolverine.

COMEDY

  1. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle                12/20/17                76%

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie, and I was actually expecting to enjoy this movie. Audiences seemed to agree with me, with the film toppling the latest Star Wars movie from the top of the box office for several weeks, even. It seems the nostalgia for the original film was strong with this one, but, luckily, the film isn’t just an easy rehash of that one. Apart from a few Easter eggs and a prologue explaining how the board game reconfigured itself into a ‘90s-era video game, this movie largely stands on its own two legs and refuses to rehash plot points of the original, instead bringing us and its four high school leads into the world of Jumanji and placing them in the bodies of the game’s four character archetypes.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with their out-of-body experiences, with the spindly nerd winding up in a body that looks like Dwayne Johnson, the jock ending up in the diminutive body of Kevin Hart, the feminist ending up in the inappropriately dressed Karen Gillan, and the selfie-taking popular girl ending up in the pudgy body of Jack Black, who expectedly steals the show. And yet, the film itself doesn’t play these characters, particularly the latter, as mere archetypes themselves, with Black’s character (also played by Madison Iseman in the “real” world) having a surprisingly moving story arc. There’s also a lot of fun had with the mechanics of a video game, such as power-ups, inexplicable weaknesses, repetitive NPCs, and cutscenes that provide exposition. The villain, played by Bobby Canavale – clearly not getting enough time to make a potentially interesting character actually be interesting – is the weakest part of this movie, but it almost doesn’t matter since everything else is so fun.

  1. The Lego Batman Movie                2/10/17                91%

Who’d have known that the best big screen Batman movie to come out since The Dark Knight Trilogy would be an animated Lego movie? There was a significant risk of taking all that was good about Will Arnett’s self-absorbed, hilariously grimdark take on Batman from The Lego Movie and putting him in the spotlight for an entire film, but this spin-off wisely makes this movie about just how much better off he is with a few friends around, starting with the adoption of the wide-eyed and eager Dick Grayson, who takes to his role as Batman’s son and crime-fighting partner with perhaps just a bit too much glee for the self-proclaimed Dark Knight. Meanwhile, Joker is distraught to hear that he is no longer Batman’s greatest enemy (Superman is), and so he hatches a plan to release not just Gotham’s greatest villains from captivity, but also every villain ever captured and placed in the Phantom Zone – a group that turns out not to be exclusively comic book villains).

The movie isn’t as clever or loveable as the film that spawned it, but it’s no doubt a really fun, really funny riff on all things Batman-related, such as that aforementioned dig at Batman v. Superman. If Arnett is the perfect narcissistic animated Batman, Zach Galifianakis is the perfect, whimpering animated Joker who misses his squabbles with his archenemy. Rounding out the cast are Michael Cera as the gee-whiz Dick Grayson/Robin, Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, and a man who would be perfect in the role of Alfred even in live action, Ralph Fiennes. The animation, too, is as expectedly gorgeous, and… good grief why was this not nominated for Best Animated Feature, but The Boss Baby was!?

  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)                10/13/17                92%

Adam Sandler finally made another movie worthy of his hidden talents, and it was even released on Netflix!… albeit, not under his Happy Madison label. The Meyerowitz Stories follows the titular family as they reconnect after years of estrangement, with Danny (Sandler) moving back in with his aging father (Dustin Hoffman) and stepmother Maureen (Emma Thompson) after a messy divorce. He also reconnects with his neglected younger sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), all while sending his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college. These reconnections also lead to revelations about how they see and relate to one another, particularly in relation to their self-absorbed father and his actions (and inactions) towards them. Although the characters largely fit into that mold of contrived dysfunctional movie families, Baumbach ensures that they’re still largely relatable, and when they’re not – they at least ring as authentic. The cast is fantastic, as can be expected, but it’s Sandler who proves to be the revelation, once again, as the warm, conflicted, and depressed Danny.

  1. The Disaster Artist                12/01/17                91%

Based on the book of the same name by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist follows Sestero as he befriends Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic, charismatic, Eastern European-accented (though he’ll tell you he’s from New Orleans) fellow actor who convinces Greg to move out with him to Hollywood, where the two devise a plan to make a name for themselves and, eventually, come to make the infamously awful The Disaster Artist, a film whose display of unintentional comedy has since become renowned the world over. The story behind the scenes, however, was not always as comedic, with Wiseau’s secretive nature, control issues, and jealousy towards Greg and those who threaten their relationship threatening the production and putting people at risk. The film, starring James and Dave Franco as Tommy and Greg, respectively, doesn’t ignore these matters, though it does seem to tidy itself up a little too cleanly in the end, as well. Still, it’s a very entertaining film, with James providing a well-observed impression of Wiseau throughout, almost making him endearing, even when he’s at his worst (Which is, in retrospect, kinda creepy, given accusations against the elder Franco) and Dave providing the saner, more empathetic center at the middle of the hysteria. If you ever wanted to see a vivid recounting of what led up to the creation of a disastrous cult classic, look no further than The Disaster Artist.

  1. I, Tonya                12/08/17                90%

Told from multiple perspectives, many of them unreliable, I, Tonya covers the rise and fall of ice skating’s most notorious figure, Tonya Harding, who was accused of orchestrating an attack on fellow ice skater and media darling (for the opposite reasons), Nancy Kerrigan, out of spite for U.S. Figure Skating’s favoritism towards Kerrigan and treatment of Harding as white trash. Coming from a harsh background of abusive relationships and abandonment, the film undoubtedly takes an empathetic perspective of its subject, acknowledging that even if she had some part in the conspiracy (which the film seems to believe fully that there wasn’t, despite Harding’s shaky history on the subject), her development into becoming the ice bitch she came to be known as was not entirely by choice. The film is a borderline drama, for sure, but uses dark comedy in its portrayal of the contradictions of narratives from the various players – Kerrigan notably absent, though possibly justifiably, given the media’s propensity to favor her even before the attack. It’s literal hysteria, and amidst a cast that already includes a tour de force portrayal of Harding’s mother by Allison Janney, Margot Robbie triumphs, showing she has staying power as both a dramatic and comedic actress.

  1. The Big Sick                6/23/17                98%

Based on the true life events of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and how he met his future wife, Emily, and subsequently also her parents after Emily is placed in a medically induced coma to help fight off a lung infection. The three struggle to bond over their shared connection to this woman they all independently love in different ways, despite having never met one another before the incident. Nanjiani also must deal with his own traditional Pakistani parents and their attempts at arranging his future for him with a Pakistani girl, despite his lack of shared beliefs. The Big Sick is a sweet, true-to-life romantic comedy that, despite being from Nanjiani’s perspective, acknowledges mistakes he also made in these relationships and is empathetic towards the other characters in what were and would become his extended family. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano also turn in sweet but genuine portrayals as Emily’s beleaguered parents, who have to trust that Nanjiani’s intentions towards their daughter, in spite of a breakup, are true concern for her wellbeing. The film is truly fantastic and heartwarming in all the right ways.

  1. Battle of the Sexes                9/22/17                85%

Another comedy centering around true events, Battle of the Sexes follows the ascent of female tennis super star Billie Jean King and the rivalry that developed between her and tennis bad boy and self-proclaimed misogynist Robert Larimore Riggs, who failure to see why his belief that women were inherently inferior to men was problematic culminated in the unprecedented 1973 match between the two that was declared the Battle of the Sexes. King at the time, however, was also beginning to struggle with her acknowledgement that she was attracted towards women, beginning a love affair with her hairdresser, to the devastation of her loving husband. The film is, like I, Tonya, filled with plenty of drama, but the film is driven by the comedy to endear us to the characters and the now (hopefully) apparent ridiculousness of the situation, including Riggs, who, played by Steve Carell, comes off as an asshole, but not an altogether irredeemable one. Emma Stone may not have as flashy a role as Harding, but she’s no less successful in her portrayal of a sports figure who seems to be easy to summarize but is far more complex than her public persona at the time gives her credit for.

  1. Logan Lucky                8/18/17                93%

Soderbergh’s return to big budget filmmaking is this year’s The Nice Guys, both being quirky, heightened reality comedies about flawed people going on missions that nearly get them in over their heads that underperformed at the box office. It’s a real shame, too, because this film, dubbed “Ocean’s 7-11” in one self-aware moment, was a real crowd-pleaser in the theatre I went to. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver lead an ensemble cast that also includes Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Sebastian Stan, Dwight Yoakam, Katie Holmes, and, in an inversion of his usual tough, cool persona, Daniel Craig. Here, Tatum and Driver play brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan who devise a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway after Jimmy is laid off from the Speedway and finds out his ex-wife is taking their daughter further away, with the aid of their sister Mellie (Keough) as getaway driver. While Jimmy has the knowledge of the Speedway’s system, they need a safecracker, dragging Joe Bang (Craig) into the mix. Only problem is that he’s currently in prison, adding another layer to the heist. While the entire cast is great, Craig doesn’t often get to flex his comedic muscle, and he’s in full force here in Logan Lucky as the feisty, nasal, Southern-drawl-voiced Joe Bang, who may or may not be smarter than the brothers who wrangle him into the plot. The film has a few lulls, but there’s no denying the film’s greater merits outweigh its problems.

  1. Ingrid Goes West                8/11/17                85%

Ingrid is not doing well. The film opens with her going to a wedding and macing the bride in retaliation for a lack of invite. After a stint in a psych ward, Ingrid begins life anew – becoming obsessed with an online lifestyle coach named Taylor Sloane, whom she begins to model herself after, going as far as moving to her area and tracking her down. Taylor, it turns out, really is as nice as she seems, though Ingrid’s manipulation into Taylor and her husband’s life makes her privy to certain details that Taylor doesn’t even share with her Instagram followers, making her think she’s special. We begin to see how Ingrid got to the point of macing a bride on her wedding day. Again, Ingrid is not well.

Aubrey Plaza is renowned for her ability to play psychotics of all types, but here she gets to play an empathetic one for once. You even kind of start to root for Ingrid, in a weird way, such as when she begins a complicated relationship with her new landlord, played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (in a charming follow-up to his role in more serious fare as his father in Straight Outta Compton). The film is filled to the brim with cringe comedy, but not necessarily just in the ways in which Ingrid worms her way into Taylor’s life. Taylor, too, is a bit of a psychotic, though more of a socially acceptable one, sharing all of her life’s details and making money off of it by feeding off the vicarious desires of her followers, feeding into a cycle of Taylor performing her life, and it’s both hilarious and tragic watching these two women lead lives that ultimately aren’t their own.

  1. Brigsby Bear                7/28/17                81%

To say Kyle Mooney has a unique sense of humor is an understatement. Here’s a film about James, who was kidnapped as a child and raised to believe the apocalypse had happened, and all that was left were a few survivors and a show called Brigsby Bear, which is, in fat, an indoctrination tool for the cult his kidnappers belonged to. James is reunited with his real family, but while James seems to be coping with these revelations relatively well, he still goes back to his old coping mechanism of watching obsessive amounts of Brigsby Bear, roping in his new friends and family in creating new episodes under his own terms. It’s reminiscent of Lars and the Real Girl in that the delusion is obviously a sign of trouble, but playing into it is the only means of helping the main character get through his trauma. It’s bizarrely sweet, awkwardly funny, and just quirky enough for it to qualify as my #2 comedy of the year.

  1. Lady Bird                11/03/17              99%

I’ve always liked Greta Gerwig as an actress, and now I’m going to have to look forward to her career as a director, too. Based on her own life in Sacramento, CA, Lady Bird follows Christine as she clashes with her difficult but well-meaning mother, her depressive father, her Catholic school teachers, and fellow classmates as she begins the difficult process of leaving the nest. The naïve Christine isn’t the easiest person to live with, having expectations for herself and others that are often improbable to impossible to meet, which gets her into trouble, particularly with her mother, Marion. The bond between mother and daughter is the central conflict of this complex film, neither one being an outright villain but oftentimes doing things to hurt each other. And yet the movie isn’t a heavy downer, either, her ignorance of the world but self-assurance of her correctness providing much of the film’s humor. Gerwig acknowledges her own ignorance and selfishness at the time she was growing up, even if it was based in genuine and even valid frustrations, and her empathy with the other characters – her mother, the popular girl at school, the lifelong friend she begins to butt heads with, her depressive but forgiving and indulgent father – lets you know that Christine and her relationships aren’t doomed to always be this way. Lady Bird isn’t flashy nor “important,” but it’s undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year.

DRAMA

  1. The Post                12/22/17                88%

A dramatized account of how The Washington Post obtained secret documentation on how the government covered up decades of information regarding the conflict in Vietnam, The Post might be one of the more irritatingly self-important films of Steven Spielberg’s career. There’s no denying that the film is Oscar-bait, and for a while, I actually found the film to be a bit dull. By the end, however, it did all come together, and what came before clicked. While I’m not too keen on Tom Hanks’ performance as the gravel-voiced editor Ben Bradlee, I am a fan of Streep’s Katharine Graham, the timid and reluctant first female publisher of a major American newspaper after inheriting it from her husband, who committed suicide not long before the incident. In this day and age, I also appreciated the film’s acknowledgement of the important role the media plays in our daily lives, even if they’re not always perfect. This is an important, very solid film, even if it thinks it’s more so than it actually is.

  1. Phantom Thread                12/25/17                91%

I’m still wrapping my head around Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping romantic drama about a renowned dressmaker and his latest muse and their dysfunctional relationship. The movie is a quiet epic with absolutely gorgeous cinematography and costume design (as one should expect from a film about a dressmaker), and it features yet another incredible performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the prim and particular Reynolds Woodcock, but let’s not underplay the importance and brilliance of Vicky Krieps’ role as Alma, Woodcock’s initially naïve rebound after ditching his previous muse and who turns out to be more assertive than she initially seems. Their relationship is both fascinating and horrifying, and it’s not a one-way street, either. I really don’t know, though, what to make of the turn it all takes towards the end. I suppose it’s about the revelry of a pair in an obviously but addictively dysfunctional relationship, but… well, you’ll probably just have to see it to get the full effect. It’s a great film, regardless of whether you feel like you’re fully “getting it.”

  1. The Florida Project                10/06/17                96%

This was a film that many thought would be at least nominated for Best Picture, and while I can certainly see why, I do believe it’s missing something. The children are great characters, but in the moment of watching them, they can be a tiny bit obnoxious – not because the kids are poor actors, but because their characters are just a tad bit too precocious, something I feared when seeing the trailers and only had confirmed. Still, this is a genuinely moving and empathetic picture in a year when we really need empathy for even those who would generally be considered “low class.” Moonee is a girl who seemingly has free reign of the city, living with her irresponsible young mother Hallee in a motel themed like a castle – an attempt to appeal to tourists coming into town to go visit Disney World, whose presence looms over the film in the form of billboards and said tourists that Moonee and the unemployed Halley grift money from. (Its codename during construction is also the source of the film’s ironic title.) Moonee is mostly blissfully unaware of her mother’s troubles, and she and her friends seem to have acclimated to their destitute way of life. Why fret when seemingly everything you could ever imagine is just handed over to you? But Hallee is far from trouble-free, seemingly more bent on forgetting them than truly addressing them. She’s a young woman who has seemingly not grown past her own childhood – a fact that Willem Dafoe’s forgiving, fatherly landlord knows but is basically powerless to fix. The Florida Project is a powerful, moving film, blending childhood adventures with the sadness that poverty brings, and while it is imperfect, it’s still quite an achievement.

  1. Beach Rats                8/25/17                85%

Being in the closet isn’t easy, and when you’re part of a posse of homophobic adolescent boys, it’s even harder. Frankie isn’t so much in denial about his attractions as he is aware of the problems his attractions present, and this exacerbates his fronting behavior as a result. Beach Rats is an intimate film with an openly imperfect lead, one who wants to be softer than his compatriots but doesn’t feel as if he’ll ever fully belong in either world. You want for him to be better, stop cruising the internet for hookups with older men who will give him the attention he craves, but you’re especially disappointed when he refuses to go in that direction, even when he does something terrible. It’s a small, quiet film, with not too many surprises, but its aptitude at portraying this complex character is certainly no small feat.

  1. Stronger                9/22/17                91%

Based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter, Stronger follows Bauman just before and after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, during which Bauman lost his legs after showing up to greet his girlfriend at the finish line. Bauman was a key witness to the event, having seen the older bomber before the detonation, but the film focuses more on his recovery process, which took more than just physical healing. While Bauman became a symbol of hope for a nation shaken by domestic terrorism, he became depressed and angry in the background, resentful of how his tragedy made him famous. This also began to take its toll on his relationships – particularly his mother and girlfriend Erin, who butted heads over how to care for him. Stronger features excellent performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, and Miranda Richardson as Jeff, Erin, and Jeff’s mother Patty, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly moments that happened, making nobody a saint, even going so far as showing Jeff’s own glaring faults in light of the help he’s been provided. Those who were put off by Patriot’s Day may also find this film a lot more tasteful, too, focusing less on the thrill of the chase such a short time after the event and focusing more on the personal journey of an actual victim.

  1. God’s Own Country                10/25/17                99%

Three excellent films came out this year dealing with the concept of men coming to terms with their sexuality, and… well, this English film is one of them. At first, the film does feel a mighty bit like Brokeback Mountain, with two shepherds going out to a remote area and, after a rocky introduction, begin to fall in love with one another. Here, Johnny is the son of the farm’s owner, who has suffered a stroke and can no longer do the work himself. Johnny is a drunkard, however, and spends too much time shirking and half-assing his duties. A farmhand is brought in to help, Gheorghe, whom Johnny immediately resents, calling him “gypsy,” particularly when his father begins to praise him. The relationship between the two does begin to change rather abruptly, but the performances from Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make the blossoming relationship work to the film’s favor, and by the end, you’re really wanting for them to make this work. It’s another one of those simple, intimate films, but it works so well and is criminally overlooked. If only the beginning wasn’t so familiar.

  1. Only the Brave                10/14/17                88%

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, better known for directing gorgeous but superficial films like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, Only the Brave tells the story about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, most of whom lost their lives in 2013 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The film does an excellent job of getting us familiar with the firefighters, if not all equally, then just enough to still let their faces be etched into our minds. We learn the struggles of what it took for them to be there, personally and as a team. The film had the potential to be a too-soon, accidentally exploitative real-life drama, but this keeps the film from feeling like it’s merely building up to the tragic end. The actors are also fantastic – Miles Teller, Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, and Jeff Bridges being the standouts. It’s a genuinely moving but not at all exploitative film, and Kosinski also proves to be a sensitive, capable director whose sense of visual design emphasizes the danger of these heroes’ line of work.

  1. My Friend Dahmer                11/03/17                83%

It’s not often that you have a film where a real life serial killer is your main character, to say the least. This is admittedly part of the film’s gauche appeal, but My Friend Dahmer isn’t so much excusing Jeffrey Dahmer’s horrifying murders as it is portraying the formative years of its subject and the unheard cries for help that the tortured soul dealt with before ultimately becoming one of America’s most notorious killers. The film is based on the graphic novel by John Backderf (here portrayed by the always engaging Alex Wolff), who as a high schooler befriended Dahmer their senior year along with a group of other friends who considered the awkward teen to be a role model for their various pranks – that is, until Dahmer’s unusual behavior began to put them off. Disney Channel star Ross Lynch plays Dahmer and, quite frankly, I think it’s a fantastic performance, blending creepy and awkward with sympathy for his struggle, knowing how screwed up he was and how this set him apart from others, as Dahmer himself had stated in interviews. In my brief post-viewing research, it’s also apparent that much of My Friend Dahmer is rooted in fact, based on interviews and Backderf’s unique personal relationship with Dahmer during this formative year, taking place months before his first actual murder – none of which the film depicts, but you can see them just on the horizon. It’s a fantastic, terrifying, and tragic little movie.

  1. In This Corner of the World                8/11/17                98%

Fumiyo Kono’s manga about the life of a young woman from Hiroshima named Suzu before and leading up to the end of World War II is adapted into animated form by Sunao Katabuchi in In This Corner of the World, a harrowing tale touching upon old Japanese customs, the hardship of life during the war, and moving on with the changes it brings. Katabuchi’s film is delicate and beautiful, even in times of horror, and inspires empathy for its subjects – largely civilians – based upon historical photos and accounts of the events leading up to and including the August 6, 1945 bombing of Suzu’s home. While the film can be accused of being a might bit too slow (the obnoxious girl who showed up late for the film in front of me kept taking her phone out to take selfies, but a few times it did try even my patience), most of what’s there is essential, as seeing the day-to-day lives of average people – people Americans at the time saw as enemies – makes the horror to come all the more quieting. Even so, while it may be tempting to draw comparisons to Japan’s other famous WWII anime drama, Grave of the Fireflies, viewers may take solace knowing that there’s far more hope on the horizon with this film.

  1. Wind River                8/04/17                87%

Native American women have an abnormally, exponentially higher rate of undocumented and unsolved disappearances and murders than any other demographic within the U.S., a statistic that hangs over Wind River’s runtime as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) partner up to solve the murder of a young Native woman, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), the daughter of Cory’s friend, Martin (Gil Birmingham). Second time director Taylor Sheridan, writer of the fantastic Sicario and Hell or High Water, highlights the violence and condescension that is directed at Native Americans and the negative effects it has in meting out justice for female victims living on tribal land. Because of this, it does seem the film is a tad too focused on its two white leads, but this does also serve to offer others a gateway into this overlooked part of our country. Wind River is a sad but harrowing film, as well, one which throws in a few intriguing narrative flourishes that keeps this otherwise slow-paced, brutal film from becoming too unbearable.

  1. Call Me By Your Name                11/24/17                93%

Set during the summer of 1983 in Italy, this Best Picture nominee tells the story of 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old American Oliver as they bond and eventually fall in love with one another. Though the film is averse to defining their relationship and their personal identities, it does make it clear that the relationship is one that will stick with the both of them for probably the rest of their lives. Armie Hammer and the Oscar-nominated Timothée Chalamet work very well off one another, with Chalamet being the obvious standout for his depiction of the unusually and probably prematurely self-assured Elio. Easy to overlook is also Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, who is given one of the most moving, warmest father-to-son speeches you’ve seen in quite some time. Call Me By Your Name does tend to meander, I believe, but it’s quick to course correct and has enough good about it that in the end, it’s easy to overlook its faults.

  1. Brad’s Status                9/14/17                82%

Ben Stiller’s a pretty great dramatic actor, as is probably pretty well known by now, and his presence is definitely Brad’s Status’ most obvious strength, as a good chunk of the film is accompanied by Stiller as Brad narrating his inner thoughts – a narrative device that you’d think would mire the film in lazy exposition, but not so here. Brad is taking his son on a tour of prestigious colleges, having earned such high honors for his artistic ability that such a thing is actually feasible. As the two go on this trip together, Brad begins to marvel at the promise of what lies ahead for his son, but he also begins to think about how much his own life has changed since college – thoughts which lead him to start thinking about what might have been had he gone down a different path. Might he have been more like his now wealthy former friends that show up in his Facebook feed, seemingly in a state of perpetual prosperity and new experiences? This is a film about a midlife crisis in the social media era, but thanks to the film’s grounded perspective of Brad, it doesn’t feel overly dramatic nor exaggerated, even as Brad’s inner monologue begins to reveal his most selfish but unspoken desires. His relationship with his son rings particularly true, though, oftentimes being remarkably sweet but occasionally contentious as Brad begins to fuss over his son doing or not doing the right thing or getting what Brad thinks he deserves. Brad’s Status is a tragically overlooked film that I think a lot of parents (and kids who wish to understand their parents) would identify with.

  1. The Lost City of Z                4/14/17                87%

Based on the book by David Grann and the life of British explorer Percy Fawcett, The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed,” fellow yanks) follows Fawcett on his several expeditions into the Amazon over several years to find the legendary city, said to be covered in gold and still teeming with people from an ancient culture. You wouldn’t think that a slow film where characters only find pieces of evidence over the course of its 140-minute runtime would be that riveting, but James Gray’s film remains a fascinating study on its subject, his family, and his colleagues, not to mention its examination of British colonialism at the time, which didn’t look too highly upon the indigenous cultures they took control over, regardless of the evidence of ingenuity presented to them. For me, having never seen Sons of Anarchy but having seen Pacific Rim, Charlie Hunnam is also a freaking revelation as Fawcett. The dude can act, and he’s surrounded by a number of other skilled actors, too – notably Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, and Robert Pattinson. The film is an at times grim epic, knowing what happened to the real life Fawcett and the truth about his lost city, but you can still comprehend the motivation, and through Gray’s filmmaking, you can understand the draw of the adventure, too. It’s a fantastic film if you have the time, and it’s even on Amazon Prime.

  1. Good Time                8/11/17                92%

Thrilling, lurid, and grimy, Good Time is probably one of the more ironically titled films you’ll see in recent years, but even though its protagonist, Connie Nikas, is ultimately a lowlife who will do almost anything to make his way in the world, you’ll never not be glued to the screen as he goes from robbing banks with his mentally challenged brother to going on a quest to find a means of breaking his brother out. It shouldn’t come as any surprise by now that Robert Pattinson has shed his reputation as a teenage vampire heartthrob, but for those of you still stuck in 2012, Good Time should prove to be the much-needed wakeup call to Pattinson’s tremendous talent as an actor.

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri                11/10/17                92%

Largely seen as a true contender for Best Picture of the year for the various awards it was nominated for, including the Oscars, Three Billboards is probably the most controversial film of the Academy’s list thanks to its focus upon some truly morally gray characters, including asking for audiences to feel empathy for a racist cop who stands in contention with the enraged mother of a raped and murdered teenage girl whose assailant has yet to be found. It’s not so much that Three Billboards asks for us to agree with them, however, so much as it’s asking for us to see all things from all perspectives, regardless of how much a scumbag the person is or seems to be. The film does have a dearth of people of color, but other than that, the quirky pacing of the film and the turns the narrative takes keeps the film entertaining.

  1. Detroit                6/28/17                84%

I feel as though Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit might be the most criminally overlooked film of 2017. Taking place mostly over the course of a single night in 1967, Detroit tells the story of what happened at the Algiers Motel during the riots that broke out on July 23 after police raided an unlicensed club and broke up a party celebrating the return of two black veterans from Vietnam. Police, searching for a non-existent sniper at the nearby motel, shot and killed three black men and were later acquitted of murder charges on the grounds that it was self-defense. Detroit dramatizes the night’s events based on testimonies of those present, with a bit of speculating about what must have gone down for the given outcome. Criticisms have been lobbed at the film for using its black actors as atmosphere and focusing more on the white ones as both active villains and heroes, but I feel more like the film is accurately portraying the helplessness that is inflicted upon the victims due to the systemic problems that existed at the time and continue to exist. Bigelow’s film is careful to explain the nature of the problem from the moment it begins, with an animated retelling of the events that led to the migration of black Americans looking for work to Detroit, and it’s filmed in such a way that the audience is almost there, ensuring empathy for the victims. It’s a brutal film, but it’s expertly performed and crafted.

  1. Dunkirk                6/21/17                93%

Christopher Nolan turns his eye away from epic sci-fi and fantasy and towards real life events, here depicting the efforts to rescue soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk as the German forces closed in on them and get them home to safety. The film expertly weaves together its three main stories – one about a trio of soldiers on the beach, the second focused on one of many civilian boats that headed from London to Dunkirk, and the third focused on a pilot fending off enemy fire from the sky – and brings them together into a cohesive whole, despite the stories taking place at various times in the conflict. Apart from the editing, the film is also just a marvel of visual storytelling, sound design, and cinematography (though it does sometimes become hard to identify which soldiers are which in the more frenzied moments). The story is gripping, moving, and harrowing, and by the end, you’ll be as relieved as the soldiers. Along with Lady Bird, if I had to pick an actual “Best Picture,” this one would have to be it.

FANTASY

  1. The Red Turtle                1/20/17                94%

Studio Ghibli collaborates with Germain-French studio Wild Bunch on this dialogue-free story about a man who is shipwrecked on an island and whose many attempts to leave are thwarted by a large red turtle. The man at first regards the turtle with contempt, but after the strange occurrence of the turtle transforming into a beautiful woman, he begins to accept his life in this world and become one with it. The film is a more minimalist feature than what Ghibili typically produces, even going so far as moving away from their usual animé style altogether in favor of something more reminiscent of old European comics, such as The Adventures of Tintin. The themes of man reconciling himself with nature, however, do remain, and while perhaps it’s easy to dismiss the film as more of an experiment than a film proper, particularly considering its fairly short 80-minute runtime, The Red Turtle contains more than enough narrative and thematic structure to make it a worthwhile and beautiful film to behold.

  1. A Ghost Story                7/07/17                91%

Ethereal, minimalist, grand, sad, and beautiful – words that come to mind when I think back on watching David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a film about a man who dies unexpectedly and comes back to haunt the house in which he and his wife only recently moved into. As time moves on, he also haunts future inhabitants but is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in his current form. All that remains of him is a sense of longing and loss and that proverbial sense of unfinished business in death. Filmed at an unusual 4:3 aspect ratio and utilizing an old-fashioned bedsheet ghost costume, A Ghost Story is economical in its style and presentation, but this is juxtaposed with sometimes strikingly grand or intense visuals and themes that hang over the film. Lowery is not afraid to linger on said moments, particularly the painful, awkward ones – and I don’t mean awkward in a humorous sense, but, like… meditating on the sight of a person just doing something so mundane and getting to just witness it, as if you, too, were a ghost with nothing better to do than to fixate on this uncomfortable but strangely intimate moment. It’s probably an acquired taste, but if you have already or are capable of doing so, I highly recommend A Ghost Story.

  1. Your Name                4/07/17                97%

I already commented upon this film last year, but I’m including it here since the film was only really able to make its mark within the United States in the middle of last year after having already become one of the biggest animated features of all time within its home country of Japan. The film concerns a teenage boy and girl who randomly find themselves switching bodies. As the two attempt to figure out what is happening, a stranger mystery also begins to unfold, one that happens to concern a comet passing Earth at close range. The animation is really gorgeous, and the film as a whole is surprisingly sweet and funny, and the mystery of what’s happening actually becomes increasingly fascinating as it unfolds. The title holds some significance that I won’t spoil here, but needless to say, it’s a fitting and poignant one.

  1. Wonder Woman                6/02/17                92%

Finally! A good superhero movie starring a woman! Finally! A Wonder Woman movie! Finally! A DCEU movie that’s pretty much universally liked! To say that a lot was riding on the shoulders of Wonder Woman is an understatement, as the character who made her big screen debut in the lamentable Batman v. Superman and stole every scene she was in got her own moment in the spotlight in Patty Jenkins’ inspiring, exciting, and – best of all – entertaining film, doing justice to the Amazonian princess (and finally making a solo film starring a female superhero that wasn’t eye-gougingly awful and/or boring) after years of DC Comics’ trinity largely only existing as a duo in cinemas since the 1970s. Wonder Woman may have a mildly disappointing climactic battle, sure, but everything that leads up to it is pure awesomeness, with Gal Gadot embodying the role with affable sincerity and inspiring bravery and having great chemistry with Chris Pine, playing the complicated role of Steve Trevor, a spy who finds himself crashing into the waters near the hidden island of Thermyscira. The film also has arguably one of the Top 5 most heart-pounding, heart-tugging scenes of all superhero cinema, immediately raising her to the status of definitive, much the same way that Christopher Reeve did as Superman and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. She just is Wonder Woman, and like its heroine, Wonder Woman the movie is… well, it’s wonderful.

  1. The Shape of Water                12/01/17              92%

The surprise winner of this year’s Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, The Shape of Water takes the premise of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and adds a bit of forbidden romance, creating a Cold War-era fairy tale about loving someone in spite of societal expectations and norms – in this case, a mute woman whose custodial duties at a scientific research facility puts her in contact with a captured merman who is considered an abomination by his cruel captors. Sally Hawkins is positively wonderful as the mute woman, Elisa, and Doug Jones, as always, disappears into the prosthetics-heavy role of the amphibious man she falls in love with, at once beastly but also clearly a kindred spirit with Elisa. Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg round out the equally fantastic supporting cast, with Michael Shannon playing the scenery-chewing role of villain of Col. Richard Strickland, who, despite his exclusionary perspective, believes himself to be the hero of the story. Guillermo Del Toro’s film is gorgeous to look at, both in terms of cinematography and overall design, and while some are likely saying that the Oscars bestowed upon the film are better seen as retroactive for his much more powerful Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s still plenty to love about this sweetly strange fairy tale, too.

  1. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi                12/14/17              90%

Haters be damned. I loved The Last Jedi, even though I do think it’s ultimately inferior to The Force Awakens due in large part to that film’s better sense of character development and pacing. The Last Jedi isn’t just good because it’s a deviation from the expected – it’s good because of what it does for the series because of and how it deviates from the expected, widening the scope of the franchise and making it seem like anything was possible again, formula be damned, all while staying true to the preexisting logic and lore of the franchise. Its sense of scale is also unprecedented, taking place over the course of seemingly only a few days or so, with the remnants of the Resistance on the run from the First Order after the destruction of Starkiller Base in the previous film. Meanwhile, Rey is being trained in the ways of the Force by none other than Luke Skywalker, but not for the reasons that you would expect. Bitter about his failures as a Jedi and uncle to the man now known as Kylo Ren, Luke’s self-imposed exile has taken him far away from the days when hope seemed to finally be at hand. It’s a dark, unexpected film, one that perhaps expectedly pissed off the more strident fanatics of the series who ascribe to George Lucas’ “rhyming poetry” perspective on the material. For me, the only thing I could’ve asked for is perhaps yet more Phasma… and perhaps a better character arc for newcomer Rose. Hardly “worst movie ever” problems, though.

  1. Coco                11/22/17                97%

Pixar seems to be in fine form again, even with the smattering of sequels, as their long in development film based on the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos finally released this past fall, proving that they are more than capable of making audiences happily cry along with their characters en masse – even if it’s with a film that they tried to use as an excuse to trademark the holiday’s name for themselves… Miguel comes from a family of shoemakers who also happen to have banned music from their household indefinitely – a problem that the musically-inclined kid hopes to overcome. When Miguel surmises that his great-great-grandfather may be his idol, the famous crooner Ernesto de la Cruz, he gets it in his head that he should claim his birthright and swipe de la Cruz’s iconic guitar from his mausoleum and enter the talent show, regardless of his family’s wishes. A curse is placed over him, however, which causes him to crossover into the land of the dead. There, he connects with his ancestors and learns the true story of why his family has gone to such extreme lengths to ensure the absence of music in their lives. The film is a masterpiece of imaginative imagery, culture, and highly detailed animation, one certain to make you cry both tears of sadness and joy. While I am sure that it’s an imperfect film, I really cannot think of anything negative to say about it, either. I think this is one Pixar film that’s destined to be considered among the upper echelon of the studio’s output, alongside WALL-E, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out.

HORROR

  1. It Comes At Night                6/09/17                88%

“Vague” almost doesn’t even begin to describe It Comes At Night, a film where unease, suspicion, and paranoia reign and tragedy is inevitable, and yet there are no obvious threats, too. It begins with a family of four saying goodbye, as the elderly member slowly slips away from a disease that has ravaged the rest of the world, his body burned and then buried. The family is then later encountered by a separate one, with the two factions slowly forming a partnership. Fear begins to take over, however, and nobody seems to be certain why beyond their gut feeling. This is not a film about the horrors of physical monsters but conceptual ones – fears about the capacity for doing evil by those you love, fears about trusting people you like but can’t necessarily know everything about, fears about the thoughts that can fill your head and the things that can happen late at night without your knowledge as you fall asleep, etc. I left the theatre not entirely certain what I was expected to have gotten out of it, but the film did resonate for quite some time after, and I think that intentionally vague conclusion is largely what was intended and what most other viewers will get out of it, too. It may not be wholly satisfying to some, but for anyone who can stomach pondering concepts rather than concrete conclusions after a film ends, I think they’ll be pretty pleased with this one.

  1. Raw                3/10/17                90%

It’s hard growing up and suddenly finding yourself at a point where you no longer know who you are or you’re now free to reinvent yourself without parental influence. For Justine, a lifelong vegetarian and an early graduate to veterinary school, figuring all this out is a huge part of who she is at the moment, which is a bit of a distraction. Shockingly, she’s also developed a taste for meat – particularly for human flesh, a realization that comes to her after a bit of hazing and one particularly unfortunate night that affords her the opportunity to embrace her cravings. Raw is a shocking but strangely understated film – you’ll gag at the vile moments but identify the uncomfortable truths that relate to your own developmental years and acts of rebellion against your old family values and those of your peers and people in places of power. The film is obviously not celebrating cannibalism, but it is celebrating the endurance of figuring out one’s own identity even when others may not accept it and maybe even feel victimized by it.

  1. Split                1/20/17                75%

By now, you may have already had the final scene spoiled for you, but I won’t do it here. What I will say is that Split is a really great turn for M. Night Shyamalan, providing the best twist of his career: making great movies again. The trailers hinted at either something brilliant or something ridiculous, but Split has it both ways, with James McAvoy’s performance as a man who kidnaps a trio of girls and introduces him to his multiple personalities is one of his best, making each personality distinct from one another (some of them timid and meek, others cold and terrifying) and even ensuring that personalities impersonating other personalities have obvious but subtle tells. Anya Taylor-Joy also turns in yet another memorable, admirable performance as the lead captive girl whom McAvoy’s kidnapper seems to favor across his personalities. Her character is also pretty well-written – resourceful without being unrealistic, as we get glimpses of her past that show she was raised as a hunter. Through this, we also learn of her traumatic past and watch as she deals with her current situation as it relates to her previous. Split is suspenseful, terrifying, fascinating, and even kind of entertainingly trashy at times. It’s the better movie that The Visit hinted he was still capable of, and I can’t wait to see if he can keep that momentum going with his next film.

  1. It                9/08/17                85%

One of the highest grossing horror films of all time, this latest adaptation of Stephen King’s gigantic novel about a group of kids being terrorized into adulthood by a cosmic entity that takes the form of an insidious clown named Pennywise is probably one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. The trailers looked like your typical horror remake crap (even if it’s more of a new adaptation than a direct remake of the 1990 miniseries) with jump scares and cliché movie monster tricks like unnatural contortions, screaming suddenly for no reason, and moving with a few frames dropped from the film. And, you know, It kind of is all of that stuff, but it’s also fairly effective, as you’re successfully led to see the film’s events transpire from the perspective of the kids at the center of the film. That each of the kids – Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Glazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs – give strong, endearing performances is also a boon to the film, as they could’ve easily become obnoxious. Stranger Things’ Wolfhard, Glazer, and Oleff in particular show off some great comedic sensibilities, too, and while we all know that Lieberher is a gifted and rising child actor, Sophia Lillis is a standout as the Loser Club’s token girl member, Beverly.

Beverly and Lieberher’s Bill are the most traumatized of the kids, and so their stories are the primary focus of the film. It’s a shame that Jacobs is largely relegated to such a small role, particularly since some of his character’s traits from the book and original adaptation are instead given to Taylor’s character, Ben – perhaps in a misguided effort to bolster the profile of the third point of a love triangle – and that Beverly ends up relegated to a damsel in distress at one point in the film, given her strength as a character leading up to that point, but at the very least, the new Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård, is an effective antagonist. He’s distinct in his Victorian design from Tim Curry’s iconic nose-honking, red-haired menace, and the blending of practical and CGI effects to make him do the things he does is mostly successful. I’ve heard complaints that the new one is perhaps too scary to believably pass as potentially friendly to Georgie in the film’s intro, but I’m going to argue that those people are the ones who are misguided – all clowns are creepy, in some fashion, and Curry’s portrayal was no less outwardly sinister, either.

It is perhaps not terrifying, but it’s a highly entertaining and creepy blockbuster horror film that’s not afraid to embrace its R-rating, even in spite of starring a bunch of kids (that aforementioned intro with Georgie is seriously disturbing). After all, childhood isn’t without its R-rated moments of horror, so why not actually depict that?

  1. Gerald’s Game                9/29/17                91%

Stephen King adaptations really had a resurgence in 2017, some more successful than others (It vs. The Dark Tower), but I think my favorite of them has to be this under-the-radar release from Netflix and recently crowned horror movie auteur Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil). It’s a simple story about survival with an intriguing setup: Gerald and Jessie are an older couple seeking to rekindle the romance in their relationship before it falls apart entirely, and so they plan a romantic getaway to a vacation home out in the woods, with Jessie promising Gerald to try a few new things in bed to spice things up. They get into an argument, however, when Gerald’s handcuffing fetish gets too out of hand for Jessie. Angered and riding the high of a Viagra he just took, however, Gerald ends up having a heart attack and dies with Jessie still cuffed, arms splayed, to the bedposts. With the house being in a remote location and nobody else expected to come out for several days, Jessie has to confront her situation head-on and figure out a way of surviving and possibly escaping the ordeal, a fact made all the harder when it’s revealed that a hungry stray dog has made its way in through an open door, but even more horrifying may be where Jessie’s mind goes as she begins to slip away.

This is an excellently crafted horror film, with a fantastic performance from Carla Gugino as Jessie, playing double duty as both a victim and her more empowered but unpronounced mental projection who only finds her voice when confronting Jessie’s mental image of the neglectful Gerald, played by an also fantastic Bruce Greenwood. There’s also the surprise of E.T.’s Henry Thomas in flashbacks, playing Jessie’s father, and Flanagan makes good use of Thomas’ child actor familiarity to disturbing effect. The film is very well-paced, and even in its more surreal moments, it holds together. I’m not quite so certain that the ending sticks its landing, kind of bursting the bubble of all that came before rather than releasing all that pressure in a satisfying way, but everything else is so strong that I can’t help but still call this one of the best horror films of the year, and definitely one of the most tragically overlooked.

  1. mother!                9/15/17                69%

I loved this movie. Fight me. Amidst the complaints that it was just “too weird” or “too confusing,” I found myself fascinated and entertained in picking apart Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre film that might or might not be an allegory for the creation of the universe and God’s perhaps self-serving relationship with humanity. Regardless of one’s interpretation (though the biblical parallels are too pronounced to not account for them), there’s no denying the curiosity factor’s a big draw of the film, though that’s not just what makes it great. Jennifer Lawrence is our audience surrogate to this crazy universe, her husband, an eccentric author (Javier Bardem) who randomly invites a couple into their house (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) and sets off a series of events that eventually leads to something resembling Armageddon playing out within their once peaceful house in the countryside. The film takes place entirely within and rarely around this house, and Aronofsky uses this confined space to his advantage, finding imaginative ways of reconfiguring it on the fly as the film goes along. And if the film isn’t an allegory for something, then it’s at least a fascinating, expertly executed hellish nightmare of a film for claustrophobes and those who fear casual everyday intrusions, such as the guest who doesn’t respect the house rules or overstays their welcome. It’s seriously one of the most engaging, fascinating, confusing, and horrifying films I saw in 2017, and I was left kinda giddy by the end for having seen such an audacious thing on the big screen.

  1. Get Out                2/24/17                99%

More horror than comedy, but a standout nonetheless thanks to being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar despite being both, Jordan Peele’s Get Out is an allegorical masterpiece about a group of people who rarely get called out when talking about racism: liberal hypocrites. Now, I realize that saying that makes me sound like a right-wing nut, but hear me out. Left-leaning people tend to villainize the right for being redneck hicks who hate people of color, but they often don’t realize they’re practicing a quieter form of racism that’s no less insidious – it’s just better dressed. As the white father in Get Out tells our black protagonist, “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could,” but the fact that he feels a need to pat himself on the back for that in the presence of a black man is more than just a little weird. That man is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who has made a trip out to meet his white girlfriends’ affluent, white parents, a neurosurgeon (Bradley Whitford) and a hypnotherapist (Catherine Keener). Despite their amiable attempts to set Chris’ mind at ease, there’s no doubt that something weird is going on, but this is par for the course for Chris, who keeps trying to assuage Rose’s embarrassment at her parents’ behavior. Still, the mounting evidence against them begins to take its toll, as does the strange behavior of Walter and Georgina, the on-site help who also happen to be black.

I won’t spoil how things play out if you haven’t seen it, but the film is undoubtedly intelligently written and directed, with a slow, uneasy buildup until its explosive finale. Kaluuya, in an Oscar-nominated turn, really is fantastic as Chris, exuding good-natured passivity while repressing his years of hurt and anger before letting it all out. The guy first came to my attention on Black Mirror, and his performance there continues to be a favorite of mine in that series, too, so it’s great to see him as he breaks out here. To heap praises upon the rest of the cast may result in hinted spoilers, but just know that they’re all truly fantastic in their own right, too. I’m really thrilled this movie was as good as it was because Jordan Peele undoubtedly has a bright future as a smart, topical filmmaker.

SCI-FI

  1. War for the Planet of the Apes                7/14/17                93%

Who could’ve known that the second attempt to reboot the Planet of the Apes series would be this fantastic sci-fi drama series basically about the origins and rise of a revolutionary political leader who just so happens to be an ape? War is a fitting conclusion to the story, finding Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes in conflict with a mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who is intent on ridding the world of the apes that unleashed a disease upon the world that was either killing off humans or devolving them into mute simpletons.

Despite the name, the film is actually a rather subdued movie compared to its two predecessors, which is just fine by me, though I did find that the imprisonment escape plan took up perhaps too much of the film’s runtime when it could’ve focused on meatier scenes between Caesar and the Colonel, himself a more generic military despot villain than I’d have liked. I also took issue with the film’s staging more than a few times, with supposedly stealthy actions like trailing the humans’ tanks is spoiled by the fact that you don’t understand how the humans didn’t see the group of apes on horseback out in the open and trailing them just a few hundred feet back at some point, all just in the name of getting that iconic shot of characters riding horses on a beach into the movie.

That’s a bit nitpicky, but it did take me out of the movie. Regardless, though, even with those quibbles, it’s a great film that’s sure to satisfy. The effects also remain excellent, as ever, and even the inclusion of a comic relief character who tragically calls himself “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn) is a welcome addition to the film. The performances are also fantastic, particularly the returning Serkis, and the story overall is a very satisfying conclusion to what began six years prior, with promises of more interesting stories in the future. Heck, I wouldn’t mind them retreading the era of the original movie, even.

  1. Marjorie Prime                8/18/17                90%

Those who love Black Mirror will likely find a lot to love in this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jordan Harrison. It’s a speculative, quieter sort of sci-fi film – a genre most commonly associated with big action involving laser cannons these days – that deals with how technology affects the lives of a couple and the wife’s live-in, elderly mother, Marjorie, who is beginning to succumb to dementia. To cope, they purchase for her a Prime, a digital representation of a person who’s passed away and exhibits all the qualities from them that you ask of it.

Marjorie has it take on the form of her late husband, Walter, but as he was when he was much younger and handsomer than when he died. She talks to the holographic projection like it’s really Walter and even begins to alter him into a more idealized version in small ways. Though meant to be therapeutic, though Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, finds its presence and her mother’s interactions unnerving, questioning just how much something so reminiscent and yet malleable is beneficial to dealing with actual, persistent grief if it’s not coming from the actual person and doesn’t truly know them.

It’s great to see these gifted actors in this film – Lois Smith, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, and Jon Hamm as the projection of Walter – and while the themes explored may not involve travel to alien planets, the film does what some of the best sci-fi does by reflecting our human anxieties and desires through its plot devices and inventions. Fantastic film, all around.

  1. Colossal                4/07/17                80%

Anne Hathaway breaks away from her usual dramas and dramedies and stars in this sci-fi/fantasy allegory for toxic relationships and addiction that’s way more fun than you’d think a movie about that would be. Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who returns to her hometown after a messy breakup brought about by her alcoholism. She’s attempting to rethink her life and, in the process, ends up reconnecting with old friends who attempt to help her along the way, including childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who sets her up with a job at his bar and takes care of her as she settles in. In the process, she discovers that… well, that she controls a giant monster in South Korea whenever she steps foot within a playground at 8:05AM – something she figures out after passing out drunk on the park bench.

The kaiju parallel to Gloria’s problems becomes fairly obvious, as both leave a path of destruction in their wake. However, Gloria’s attempts to change her ways has unforeseen consequences when Oscar’s nice guy façade begins to peel back and reveal something more toxic and destructive than Gloria and her monster problem. I kinda see this film as 2017’s Swiss Army Man, an indie film that also used well-known (and great!) actors in an absurd premise to address everyday problems through its full-fledged embracing of its odd premise. This one’s a bit more subdued than that one, namely because it doesn’t involve a talking, farting corpse man, but it’s no less potent in the lessons its lead character learns and the entertaining, satisfying way in which the story unfolds, and for a while, this was even my favorite movie of the year, period!

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2                5/05/17                83%

James Gunn and Marvel Studios pulled off making the first film one of the biggest and most surprising box office draws ever, and so to say that anticipations for the sequel were very high. There’s been a strange sort of backlash against this film, however, which I don’t quite understand, most of the time involving people merely saying that the film was “garbage” and “a mess” without providing much evidence to back it up other than it seems to be a trend to self-validate by hating on things that get big and popular and still bring joy to people. I loved Vol. 2, and while I won’t say it’s as good as the first, it’s no more a bad movie than that one was, either. The exploration of Star-Lord’s father and abandonment issues, the complicated and contentious relationship between Gamora and adoptive sister Nebula, Rocket’s fear of embracing anyone (except maybe Groot) as anything more than business associates, and even a bit of Drax’s own reasons for doing just the opposite are explored here as they encounter Ego, a celestial and immortal being who just so happens to be Star-Lord’s charming but reclusive father.

The plot does the usual sequel thing of splitting up the core characters and setting them up in mostly new ways or giving familiar pairings deeper story threads. The always honest Drax and the newly introduced empath Mantis are a particularly entertaining pair, but as touching as the story is between Star-Lord and his father or his relationship to Gamora is, it’s the connection between Rocket and space pirate Yondu that’s the most engaging and, shockingly, moving. The film does have a tendency to undercut its dramatic moments with goofy humor when it should just let them land, but the fact that it goes to such depths in the first place is significant, and it actually does the right thing in the very end in a very big way. I honestly see no reason why anyone who loved the first shouldn’t love the second. (Also, the mixtape soundtrack is much stronger than the great first one.)

  1. Blade Runner 2049                10/06/17                87%

Perhaps it’s too long for some people at nearly 3 hours long, but I don’t really care. This long-anticipated/dreaded sequel to the revolutionary classic first is a masterpiece, arguably as good as, if not better than, the first (though it undoubtedly wouldn’t have been as good without it). Denis Villeneuve was the perfect choice to bring this ambitious neo-noir tale to the big screen, bringing with him Roger Deakins for his Oscar-winning cinematography to remind us how beautiful a dystopian futuristic city and the surrounding wasteland can be. The film is also smart enough to leave open a lot of the interpretations people had of the first film largely intact, regardless of which of the several cuts that film had, and never concerns itself much with the idea of being here for the purpose of answering those questions we had, instead providing us with more things to think about, even as it revisits the world and some of the characters from the first, all while providing us a self-contained story with new characters.

Here, the replicant nature of the film’s protagonist, K, is obvious. K is from a new generation of compliant (slave) replicants, working as a Blade Runner by tracking down rogue models still in hiding. K, however, isn’t without desire. He’s allowed to live a life outside of his line of work and has taken to simulating for himself a domestic relationship with a holographic woman named Joi. The two seem to love one another, though can it really be called that if they’re both artificial beings and can’t really even touch one another with Joi having no physical manifestation? These questions of the nature of their reality is furthered by the discovery of the body of a once pregnant female replicant’s body buried under a tree outside the house of one of K’s targets. Can replicants… replicate themselves the way humans do? If so, where is the child now, and what is their nature? And what does all this mean for K, who seems to want to live life on his own terms?

The reason why I say that this may be better than the first is that K is a spectacularly empathetic character compared to Deckard, and the way that his story plays out is one of the film’s biggest strengths and surprises. Gosling is great in the role, and his relationship to Joi is far more fascinating than the noir-ish one between Deckard and Rachel from the first. I can certainly see detractors’ point about the coldhearted, theatrical human villain, played by Jared Leto, being a much weaker one compared to the sympathetic Roy Batty, however, but we do get another intriguing replicant villain named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks, who maybe isn’t as memorable but is justifiably the focal point of the villainous side of the plot. The questions that the film does answer from the first, such as the fate of Deckard and Rachel, are satisfying and, again, do not squelch any ideas you may have about Deckard’s nature, regardless of what the first film’s director and this one’s producer, Ridley Scott, may have to say about it. It’s a truly remarkable thing they’ve manage to create here, one that unfortunately suffered a similar initial fate as its predecessor by bombing at the box office, but here’s to hoping it likewise achieves at least a similar sort of cult following. It certainly deserves it.

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