2017 was a rather unusual year for movies. For one thing, there were more good movies released than in most other years; I almost made my top ten list a top *twenty* list. (I still did, sort of. Read on.) For another thing, half of the top ten list could easily have been filled by comic book movies; no fewer than three did make the final list. For another thing still, there were many good movies but not many great ones.
The much anticipated “Blade Runner” sequel was every bit as good as I hoped it would be and in some ways better, but then again, it clocked in at almost three hours and I know it didn’t need to be that long. “The Last Jedi,” the eighth film in the “Star Wars” saga – ninth if you include the stand-alone sorta-prequel “Rogue One,” featured more action and more characters than 2015’s disappointing “The Force Awakens,” but it also had sequences that went nowhere and plot holes that didn’t make much sense. “Dunkirk,” that sure-to-sweep-the-Oscars WWII epic from “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” director Christopher Nolan, had several moments of cinematic brilliance, but also bombastic sound mixing, bland casting, and unmemorable characters.
GringoPotpourri’s Top Ten Films of 2017:
1) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri: Irish-born filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s two previous features, “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” were critical hits with fair box office returns and shifting tones that vary from Coen Bros.-weird to elegiac-ally meditative to gut-bustingly funny. McDonagh left the hitman setting behind for this very different film, although murder is still part of the business, albeit murder that appears offscreen. Tell-it-like-is antique store worker Mildred (Frances McDormand, in her best performance since “Fargo”) is disgusted at the Ebbing, Missouri police department’s lack of progress in finding a suspect in the rape-murder of her daughter seven months prior, so she posts caustic adds on the titular billboards that lambast the department, particularly chief Willoughby (a very good Woody Harrelson) for their incompetence. Bumbling, racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, doing career-best work) takes particular offense to the billboards, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that before the film’s end Mildred, Willoughby, and Dixon learn that it is easy for hate to breed more hate, and much harder for love and redemption to rear their much-needed heads.
2) Blade Runner 2049: No one asked for a sequel to Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 sci-fi vehicle, acclaimed for its visuals, its noir-ish tone, and its bizarre characters. But when Denis Villeneuve, who gave us 2015’s “Sicario” and 2016’s “Arrival,” attached his name to the project, enough interest was piqued for Ryan Gosling to attach his name to the project as well. And who better to play Deckard’s successor, hologram-romancing, replicant-hunting K, than Gosling himself? The story, a bigger mystery than the hunt for the escaped androids from the original “Blade Runner,” is an absorbing mystery that takes us to garbage dumps, science labs, and a past-its-prime Las Vegas. It is here, in the film’s second half, that Deckard himself (Harrison Ford in a welcome return) joins the action. All the while, Villeneuve, composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, and cinematographer Roger Deakins weave spellbinding visual and auditory magic. Better than the original? For the impatient viewer, no. For your blogging narrator, yes.
3) Call Me by Your Name: “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” Those words, said post-coitus, are some of the most romantic ever uttered in a movie. That they were said by 20-something Oliver (Armie Hammer) to 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) hardly matters; who wouldn’t want those words whispered to them? The setting, incidentally, is the northern Italian countryside circa 1983, where age of consent laws are different and where Elio’s family summers while his dad (the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg) catalogs artifacts. The standoffish Elio, who, like his parents and his sort-of girlfriend (Esther Garrel), can slip between English, French, and Italian without missing a word, is normally content with his books and his guitar, but in comes Oliver, loose cotton shirts and perfect tan, to assist Elio’s father with archaeology research, and Elio finds something astir in him that, at first, no one else can pick up on except Oliver himself. This exuberant, sun-dappled tale of connection and young love, sensitively directed by Luca Guadagnino, is worth the price of admission if only for the near-perfect final scene, a bittersweet close-up showing that Chalamet is an acting force to be reckoned with.
4) Lady Bird: There is usually one landmark coming of age film every ten years, and although the decade isn’t over yet, Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical telling of Sacramento teen Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s senior year of high school looks to be that movie. Lady Bird, who gave herself that moniker, finds herself at odds with the nuns at her Catholic high school, falls in and out of love (twice), breaks her arm, flirts with high school theater, rolls her eyes at her brother and his live-in girlfriend, learns how to drive, and, most memorably, bickers with her mom. Not much else happens, but hey, that’s high school…and high drama. “Brooklyn” star Saoirse Ronan is Lady Bird and TV veteran Laurie Metcalf is mom Marion, and both actresses, giving career-best performances, play off each other like seasoned Broadway stars. They love each other, and are, as such, infuriated by each other’s choices. The ending, which reminded me of my relationship with my own mother, gone since last September, made me both smile and cry.
5) Get Out: Terrific and deservedly nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, I will simply paste the words I used to describe the film in my October post on horror movies: “Horror movie, social commentary, or both? ‘Get Out,’ from ‘Key & Peele’ co-creator Jordan Peele, is a creepy, funny, and observant Trump-era horror film about a different kind of racism: the envy that Caucasians have towards African-Americans for their physical strength – an envy so fierce that it may even inspire said Caucasians, including this film’s Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, to kidnap said African-Americans, albeit under friendly pretenses, to ‘become’ them. After all, what’s another missing black person in today’s America? But I’ve already said too much. Just know that the set up finds affluent white girl Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of HBO’s ‘Girls’) introducing her nervous black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to her parents, leading to first, social awkwardness, and later, all-out terror.”
6) The Lego Batman Movie: 2017 was a standout year for superhero movies. Funny enough (and the movie was very funny indeed), “Lego Batman,” a spin-off from the fun, yet forgettable, “Lego Movie” of 2014, is the one superhero film that no one expected much from. And yet lo and behold, it remains the best of the bunch. There isn’t much plot, except to say that Warner Bros. villains ranging from Voldemort to Godzilla, have been unleashed upon Gotham City, and that everyone’s favorite Caped Crusader must take a break from admiring his seven-pack abs and save the day. There is so much to smile at here, from the references to previous “Batman” film and television installments (even the Batsuit with nipples!) to the cameos from Batman foes memorable and not (hello, Condiment King!). And as the voice of Batman himself, Will Arnett brings the perfect mix of husky-voiced bravado and parody to the proceedings.
7) Logan: Wolverine slaying bad guys with his claws while blood sprays across the screen as in a slasher movie? Professor Xavier dropping F-bombs like the word is going out of style? Storm, Magneto, Cyclops, and all other mutant superheroes/villains dying off-screen before the film even begins? An R-rated “X-men” movie? The answer is D) all of the above. But if the hard-R was something of a marketing gimmick to get butts in theater seats, know that the movie, with or without such “blue” content, is far and away the best “X-men” installment in the entire nine-film franchise. And it’s uncharacteristically bleak, too, feeling closer to an adaptation of a graphic novel than of a comic book series beloved by young readers. I won’t say much more than that, except to say that there are three fantastic action sequences, and that Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have never been better.
8) The Lost City of Z: I was chatting with coworkers over lunch recently about our favorite movies from 2017. When I mentioned “The Lost City of Z” as one of the year’s ten best, they all claimed that they hadn’t heard of the film. While I wasn’t entirely surprised (in small town Tennessee, movies like this never play longer than a week in theaters – it they even open at all), I was dismayed. Because even though director James Gray’s study of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s (“Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam) decades-long quest to find a lost civilization in the jungles of South America often unfolds in the same art-house style as, say “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” it just as often feels like a real-life “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Not every moment in “The Lost City of Z” clicks – and Robert Pattinson seems miscast as Fawcett’s thickly-bearded traveling companion, Henry Costin – but there is adventure, tension, magic, and male bonding-aplenty in this little-seen gem. It deserves a wider audience.
9) Wonder Woman: As a general rule, I haven’t been a fan of DC’s “Justice League” franchise. Compared to the vibrant polish given to most MCU films, it feels like amateur hour when watching “Suicide Squad,” or “Batman vs. Superman,” or…you get the idea. But finally, with this female-directed, female-starring movie, DC has gotten it just right. The film’s release, 30 years overdue, is nonetheless serendipitously timed to come out in the year of #metoo, when women need positive same-sex role models more than ever. Wonder Woman’s heroic charge through no-man’s land and the trenches of WWI is arguably the best action scene in any film this year, and it’ll make you smile as much as the sizzling chemistry between Gal Godot (as WW) and Chris Pine (as Steve Rogers) will make you swoon. If there is any awards justice, Patty Jenkins’ name will be among those read off when the Best Director nominees are announced next week.
10) The Shape of Water: Mexico City-born director Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish-language movies have always been better than his English-language ones, but “The Shape of Water,” a whimsical romantic fantasy set during the Cold War, may actually be his best film since “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As usual, he has lots to say, this time using the Reds scare of the 1950s to comment about the looming start of a new Cold War, courtesy of both Trump and Putin. And his big-hearted, “outcast” heroes – a mute woman (Sally Hawkins), her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), etc. – are people whom Trump and Putin would likely go out of their way to walk on the opposite side of the street to avoid. Del Toro isn’t subtle about any of this, but the result – flawed but lovely to behold – is ambitious, one part “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” one part “La La Land,” and one part “Bridge of Spies,” with just a dash of “Mad Men” thrown in for good measure. Fabulous production design and nice acting from a cast that, in addition to Hawkins and Jenkins, includes Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, and the always-interesting Michael Shannon.
Runners up (getting us to an even twenty after all):
11) The Florida Project: This wonderful curiosity, a sort of cross between last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” and 2012 nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” follows young Moonee (newcomer Brooklyn Prince), who lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a cramped hotel room at the Magic Castle, a purple oasis for working class transients on the strip leading to Walt Disney World. Moonee, her friends, and sometimes her mom, spend their days hustling for free food, fleecing unsuspecting tourists, spitting on parked cars, and testing the patience of the Magic Castle’s put-upon manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, my pick for Best Supporting Actor). As the plot goes, that’s it. But what humor, heart, and humanity can be found in this miracle of a movie, with naturalistic child performances, characters we feel as if we’ve known all our lives, and an ending that is just about perfect.
12) War for the Planet of the Apes: The third time is definitely the charm for this concluding film in the “Caesar” trilogy of “POTA” movies. “War,” like “Logan,” above, is part western, part road movie, part post-apocalyptic sci-fi. But a more beautiful post-apocalyptic sci-fi western road movie you will not find; Matt Reeves’s confident direction, Michael Seresin’s lush cinematography, and Michael Giacchino’s stirring score combine for an experience that is very cinematic indeed. Meanwhile, Andy Serkis’s motion-capture work continues to impress. As Caesar, he is perhaps the most humane character in movies this year.
13) American Made: Poor Tom Cruise. Except for the “Mission: Impossible” films, audiences seem to have tired of his Ray-Bans and his movie star smile. Both attributes are on display in “American Made,” which reteams him with “Edge of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman. And “Made,” originally titled “Mena” after the Arkansas town in which most of its action is set, is Cruise’s best movie since “Edge.” He doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to his real-life character, CIA pilot/drug smuggler Barry Seal, but he projects the right amount of Tom Cruise-ness in the role, while Liman does his best attempt to make a “Goodfellas” for 2017. Well, “Goodfellas” it ain’t. But it’s at least on par with “Go” and some of Liman’s other, breezy early efforts.
14) I, Tonya: If “American Made” aspires to be the “Goodfellas” of Iran-Contra movies, then “I, Tonya” aspires to be the “Goodfellas” of figure skating movies. It almost succeeds, too, with a documentary feel, a series of unreliable narrators, and a plethora of period-appropriate songs and costumes…along with a triple-digit F-bomb count that would make “Goodfellas” director Martin Scorsese proud. Also: as Tonya Harding, that working class wannabe ice princess, Margot Robbie, who worked with Scorsese on 2012’s similarly-ribald comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street,” gives a performance that lands a perfect 10.
15) The Big Sick: What do you do when you’re a Pakistani-born, stand-up comedian whose conservative Muslim parents so disapprove of your life as it already is, only to fall for a white girl and fail to integrate her into the familial aspects of your life? Well, if you’re Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself), you blow it…only to find yourself lost when the girl who slipped through your fingers falls into a coma, and you have to fill in the blanks for her skeptical parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both good). Trust me: it’s better – and funnier – than it sounds. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (the girlfriend) have terrific chemistry.
16) Thor: Ragnarok: I like Chris Hemsworth as much as the next guy, but let’s face it: his character Thor is arguably the silliest of the “core” Avengers cast. What I mean is that the back stories of Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America, while fanciful, are at least grounded in some semblance of reality, whereas the not-quite-Shakespearean soap opera of Norse gods as set in outer space has always had an element of goofiness to it that is too hard to get past. So why not embrace said goofiness? That is exactly what director Taika Waititi and a very game Hemsworth, did, making for the freshest, funniest Marvel movie since 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
17) Dunkirk: The wordless trailers for “Dunkirk,” coupled with the fact that the WWII film was directed by longtime Oscar bridesmaid Christopher Nolan, practically screamed Best Picture. The movie opened to rave reviews and the best 2017 box office for a non-sequel/remake/adaptation. Alas, it isn’t *that* good; the sound mixing, as I mentioned in my introduction, is muddy, and some key characters are underdeveloped. Still, there are moments of nearly unbearable suspense, and twisty, “Prestige”-esque time sequencing marks the movie as one of the better ones of the year. Bonus points for bringing a little-known WWII rescue mission to the attention of American moviegoers.
18) Darkest Hour: Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” may have taken us to the front lines of the complicated rescue of Commonwealth soldiers stranded on a French beachhead, but Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” takes us to the halls of Parliament and 10 Downing Street, where newly-anointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill fights, like Abe Lincoln did with a splintered U.S. government at the end of the Civil War, to get Parliamentary support for not just his Dunkirk rescue, but also for the faith in his belief that fighting (“Never surrender!” bellows Gary Oldman as Churchill) is better than negotiating. Oldman, unrecognizable under jowls of makeup, is suitably impressive, and the imaginative cinematography gets a shout out as well.
19) Spider-Man: Homecoming: In any other year, Marvel Studios’ first take on the Spidey legend would be the best superhero movie of year, but 2017 was, as I mentioned before, a banner year for the genre. As such, the lively “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – not quite an origin story but the first headlining feature for Tom Holland, who had a few memorable scenes as Spidey in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” – is nothing less (more?) than the fifth-best comic book movie of the year. But don’t fret; it’s good, and its age-appropriate casting is a breath of fresh air.
20) Coco: Uneven, overlong, but ultimately winning Pixar film about wannabe child musician Miguel, who comes from a family of cobblers and who, forbidden by his grandmother, Coco, from playing guitar, accidentally finds himself crossing over the spiritual plain during Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. Unabashedly Mexican, with a surprising amount of non-translated slang. I mean this as a good thing, of course…and I want to give a shout out to the film’s vibrant color palette, which makes “Coco” one of the studio’s more visually striking entries.
Thanks for reading. As an added bonus, here is my pick for the worst film of 2017:
The Mummy: Although I am sure there were worse movies in 2017 than this Universal Studios-distributed, Tom Cruise-starring turd (did Adam Sandler make any movies last year?), I always go out of my way to avoid bad movies. My radar failed me for this one, though. What could have been a fun first feature for the studio’s hoped-for Dark Universe franchise was, instead, DOA – as dead on arrival as the mummy (Sofia Boutella) whose tomb Cruise’s Blackwater-type contractor stumbles upon while raiding the war-torn Middle East of its treasures. Cruise redeemed himself later in the same year with “American Made” (see #13, above), but I for one am growing tired of seeing him in action hero mode. He should do more supporting roles. Think Kevin Spacey but without the buggery.