So tomorrow’s the big day, right? The day when Hollywood’s elite gather and decide what films are the best?
In genre fandom there’s a reflexive instinct to reject the Oscars, which has long dismissed (sometimes truly impressive) efforts by science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genre filmmakers. I totally get that, even if it’s not always true (just look at this year’s nominees). But rather than grouse and complain about how we disagree with the Academy, I thought it would be more rewarding to talk about how we felt about the cinema of 2017.
It’s been a really good year, I think it’s hard to deny, even if Hollywood itself (and the world in general) has had a pretty awful one. Even some of the worst films I’ve seen were pretty darn good and the best were truly terrific. It’s also been a pretty stand-out year for genre films in particular, with some great additions to the horror and superhero canon in particular. With that in mind I’ve ranked every 2017 film I’ve seen and invite others to do the same.
Ayla is one of two feature-length films I saw at Portland’s annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival at the Hollywood Theatre, an experience I can heartily recommend to anyone in the Pacific Northwest who loves horror or weird fiction. The basic premise of Ayla is that a young man who lost his sister as a child and is unable to let go of her memory finds what appears to be an adult and strangely mute version of his sister, who comes to occupy a central place in his life as he neglects every other part of his life, including his living family and friends. Essentially, Ayla is a story about loss and how it can consume us.
Out of all the debut films I saw this year, Ayla is unmistakably the weakest but that doesn’t mean its bad by any means. The central hook driving the story is a compelling one and the performances given by the film’s mostly unknown cast (Nicholas Wilder, Tristan Risk, Dee Wallace, and Sarah Schoofs in the lead) are actually quite good and do a great job of drawing you into the narrative. Unfortunately, the movie just kind of ends abruptly and there’s never really a satisfying explanation for why the protagonist is so obsessed with his dead sister (his other family members have all moved on… why hasn’t he?). Still, it’s a nice showcase for the cast and the director’s skills which are not insubstantial.
When it was announced that Warner Bros. had decided to make a spin-off of The Lego Movie centered on Will Arnett’s comically self-obsessed version of Bruce Wayne there was a fair amount of skepticism. Arnett’s Batman was funny but would the joke perpetuate itself for a full movie without becoming dull? The good news is no and The Lego Batman Movie not only is funny but actually tells a pretty decent story. The bad news is that it’s still mostly forgettable.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Lego Batman Movie but I have to confess that nearly a year later I barely remember it. I remember all the plot beats and who all the characters were but I don’t remember how I felt watching it. I remember the narrative theme and thrust of the story (“it’s braver to let yourself feel things for other people than to go it alone”) and I appreciated the thought behind it but it didn’t stick with me. Maybe that’s because I already feel that message has been told in more interesting ways. Maybe it’s because the movie never quite escapes the impression of being a merchandising cash-in, unlike The Lego Movie. I liked The Lego Batman, but ultimately I can’t give it more than a solid C in retrospect.
The other feature film I saw at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, They Remain is an adaptation of Laird Barron’s “-30-,” directed by Philip Gelatt, perhaps best-known to science fiction fans as the screenwriter of Europa Report (an excellent film I also saw this year, but which came out many years earlier and so doesn’t qualify for this list). They Remain focuses on a pair of scientists (William Harper Jackson and Rebecca Henderson) who are sent by a nebulous corporate employer to study strange animal behavior at the former site of a murderous cult that made headlines years earlier. A dark and moody film, They Remain examines the nature of cults, the effects of isolation, and the relationship between humans and their environment.
I was pretty excited to watch They Remain, especially since it was the actual premiere of the film, shown to audiences for the first time. Europa Report really surprised me when I checked it out earlier this year and I was eager to see what Gelatt’s newest film looked like. For the most part, I was very pleased with what I got. Gelatt does a great job at getting into the head of his lead character and the sense of dawning paranoia and psychosis that begins to overtake him at the film’s story progresses. You feel, like him, that reality is unravelling around you. Unfortunately, the film also has a last-minute twist (which I assume is in the original story as well) that didn’t quite work for me and I never was quite sure whether the cult’s past activities were a red herring or an important plot point. Then again, part of the appeal is likely considering such questions for yourself.
Man was there any movie this year sci-fi nerds were more hyped for and the general public just didn’t care about? Blade Runner 2049 has at this point become somewhat infamous for being hyped everywhere by every nerd site imaginable and then just sort of dropping to the sound of crickets chirping. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t very well-received in some quarters. Hyperbolically (in my opinion) some have proclaimed it to exceed the original Blade Runner (itself a notable flop at the box office but darling among sci-fi fandom) in every way. Personally? I found Blade Runner 2049 a beautiful and ambitious but ultimately failed endeavor towards profundity.
The frustrating thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that it starts a lot better than it ends (far from the only 2017 film to suffer from that problem). The opening sequence where K visits the old replicant to “retire” him (which remains a chilling euphemism) is terrific, as are many that follow as K tries to uncover the nature of the mystery he’s stumbled on to. It’s only towards the end of the film, about the time that Harrison Ford’s Deckard finally makes his appearance, that things really begin to fall apart and you realize the movie was full of good ideas it didn’t know what to do with (as well as many half-baked ideas that should have been shelved). It doesn’t help that virtually every female character in the film is either defined by her relationship to men, a sexist stereotype, or both. There were parts of Blade Runner 2049 that I really liked, but in the end I couldn’t love it.
More than anything else on this list I think switching the places of Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant will be a controversial choice. The funny thing though is that they share a lot in common for both good and bad, which may not be entirely coincidental considering they’re both follow-ups to Ridley Scott’s most widely praised films (even though Scott declined to direct Blade Runner 2049 in favor of Covenant). And like many I was pretty disappointed by Covenant when it finally debuted, though perhaps for different reasons than many (I’m very much on record as having been a big fan of Prometheus).
But despite Covenant’s confused narrative—which clearly wanted to be a sequel to Prometheus but got sidelined into being a more direct Alien prequel instead—I have to say that it stuck with me more. After I walked away from Blade Runner 2049 I rarely gave it another thought, at least after working out my disappointment. But Covenant is full of interesting ideas it actually commits to: the interplay of creation and destruction, the wrath of the created against the creator, and the nature of what it means to love. And if nothing else, Michael Fassbender provided was immensely enjoyable both as the Oedipal David and the gentler, kinder Walter.
Rounding out the three Michael Green scripts of 2017 (the guy certainly got around last year) is Logan, which is an interesting case in how far you can stretch the conventional boundaries of the superhero genre. It’s often been said that superhero films aren’t really a genre, with Marvel’s own Kevin Feige arguing that Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man actually represent different kinds of movies and whether or not you buy that argument it’s hard to argue that Logan isn’t a very different style of film than not only the aforementioned three but also Wolverine’s two previous solo outings. It has been described as a Western (though that itself is a very broad genre) and even noir but a typical superhero film it clearly is not.
I really liked Logan quite a lot when I saw it and had relatively few qualms with it other than some minor complaints about the ending. Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen all give phenomenal performances and James Mangold was quite effective at weaving a story about aging, depression, and regaining hope. It didn’t really stick with me though and that’s one reason it doesn’t rate higher. Once I’d seen Logan I didn’t much think of it. Which is too bad because it’s very experimental style is something I’d like to see a lot more of in superhero films (more on that later).
There was a time when I was as big of a fan of Christopher Nolan as anyone. I was immensely impressed by Batman Begins when I saw it abroad in Britain back in 2005 and The Dark Knight only confirmed my intense affection for the way he reinvented Batman. It’s easy to forget now, given how slavishly DC and Warner Bros. have been (poorly) aping his style for over a decade now but Nolan’s take on the caped crusader was genuinely fresh when audiences first experienced it, wiping away not only the painful memories of Joel Schumacher’s take but also the still campy but more fun style of Tim Burton’s. And since then I’ve enjoyed pretty much every film Nolan has directed though with some reservations in a few cases.
I’m happy to say that Dunkirk is no exception: it’s a very solid piece of work that manages to be a war film where the war is actually horrifying and not simply a stage for rousing heroics. It’s fairly notable for not featuring any German characters at all: the enemy is entirely unseen which, although unconventional, is probably a far more accurate rendition of war than is usually portrayed in Hollywood films. The film does, however, fall victim to some of Christopher Nolan’s weaknesses as a director, lacking in compelling human characters to ground the action (though Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier, who goes unnamed, is a possible exception). Nonetheless, it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of either Nolan or his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, who makes an already tense film even more riveting.
It’s often forgotten but the original Planet of the Apes film was not thought of as a particularly cheesy or silly film at the time. Released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 picture was considered thought-provoking and though the makeup has aged somewhat (the characters look more like humans than actual chimpanzees or orangutans) it remains pretty visually striking. So the fact that the new Planet of the Apes series (which is ambiguously framed as either prequels or a reboot) has garnered critical acclaim is less a course change than a course correction, getting back to the core of the first film and the novel it was based on before the more campy sequels came along.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were startlingly good. Both dealt with the concept of consciousness, bioethics, the politics of revolution, and non-human animal rights with a deftness that one would rarely expect from a major studio blockbuster. War of the Planet of the Apes, unfortunately, is a bit more of what one might expect. It’s still good, but compared with the pitch perfect execution of Rise and Dawn, it falters slightly. The villain is a little too simplistic, the arc of Caesar a little too predictable, and the plot basically just moves in a circle so that it’s not really clear if anything was learned or gained from the experience. It’s still worth seeing to finish out the new trilogy, but I’ll admit I was disappointed.
Given his recent faltering (as much a consequence of Sony Pictures’ financial troubles as anything else), one might be forgiven for thinking Peter Parker was a spent force in the superhero business. If you’re not familiar with comics or the merchandising that drives the genre, it’d be easy to assume the web crawling had long since been eclipsed by Iron Man or Captain America. And indeed, there’s hints of that in Homecoming, which features some heavy guest starring by Tony Stark and lots of references to the other Avengers. But Homecoming also proves that in the right hands, Peter’s still got a lot of storytelling potential.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is relatively unambitious by Spider-Man movie standards but where it aims it mostly hits on target. Compared with the cheeky melodrama of the Sam Raimi / Tobey Maguire films or the Batman Begins-style reboot of the Marc Webb / Andrew Garfield films director Jon Watts aims for a fairly simple coming-of-age story with actor Tom Holland at its center. And he more or less nails that. Holland’s Peter is a little self-centered, but in that very typically adolescent way we all are at a certain age and you can tell he means well. It helps that Homecoming grounds its whimsy with Michael Keaton’s take on the Vulture, which although hardly accurate to the comics makes for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s better villains.
When Guardians of the Galaxy originally debuted in 2014, no one would have guessed it would quickly become one of Marvel’s most celebrated films. Indeed, many industry analysts wondered what the hell Marvel was thinking, making a colorful space adventure powered by 1970s one-hit wonders and starring a talking tree and raccoon. But the skeptics were proved wrong and it’s probably no exaggeration to say that the Guardians now stand second only to Captain America and Iron Man in their impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And so when a sequel was inevitably announced everyone got excited.
Perhaps it should prove no surprise than that Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 is perhaps the most hotly contested Marvel film since Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ve seen people who’ve been moved to tears by it while I’ve also seen people who loved the first film bored and disappointed by it. It is probably no coincidence that Guardians also centers itself much more tightly on the first film’s nominal lead, Peter Quinn, and the mystery of his parentage. For many this resulted in a male-focused film that lost some of the diverse charm of the original. But others (most compellingly Charlie Jane Anders) argued it allowed the film to tell a compelling story about the dangers of toxic masculinity and patriarchal mythmaking. Personally, I fall somewhere in-between. I saw and appreciated what Volume 2 was doing but I can also acknowledge why some people felt it fell flat.
Is there any bigger franchise in the world than Star Wars? Marvel, also owned by Disney, is certainly gunning for the title but the cultural impact of Star Wars, I would argue, goes far beyond what Marvel has achieved (so far). Indeed, Star Wars is so big and so popular that it’s really hard to remember just how weird the first movie was. But it’s worth going back through old interviews with the cast and crew and noting how no one (with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg) thought the movie would be a success, let alone a runaway hit that would spawn a massive media empire.
I’m noted among my friends and followers as being something of a grumpkin when it comes to Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Part of that is just how safe J.J. Abrams played it, opting for a story that more or less replicated the beats of Episode IV: A New Hope and a setting that saw a scrappy rebellion once more engaged against a massive authoritarian empire (at the cost of essentially making the original films seem pointless). Perhaps because of that, Episode VIII was a breath of fresh air. After the fun but largely empty adventure of The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson throws us into a more complicated and at times admittedly dorky version of Star Wars… which is really what the franchise has always been at its best. Obnoxiously cute porgs, goofy humor, and odd pacing, I’ll take them all in a heartbeat when coupled with a story that actually has something to say about the Force and which takes its characters seriously enough to show them fail.
Netflix has has a bad run in recent months, with a number of high-profile releases that were widely ridiculed or outright slammed by audiences and critics alike. But not all of Netflix’s “original” pictures (actually usually produced by outside parties and then distributed by Netflix) have gone over poorly and last year one picture in particular garnered critical acclaim: Okja, South Korean director Bong Joon-hoo’s newest feature. And it is certainly worth a watch.
Okja is, at its core, about a young girl and her friendship with a strange, fantastical beast dubbed a “super pig,” and raised as part of a massive corporate publicity stunt to raise support for their genetically engineered food. Of course, that’s simplifying quite a bit. In truth, Okja is an incredibly complicated film, one that can simultaneously criticize the packaged meat industry and animal rights activists, which can make you bond with the suffering of a digitally generated meat animal while also not feeling immediately grossed out when her friends and family sit down minutes later to eat some chicken stew. It’s crazy, it’s twisted, it’s unnerving, and it’s very, very good.
Pixar is one of those studios that I always feel a little bit ambivalent about. They’re indisputably full of great talent and they’ve made some great classics, but often when a new film of theirs is released I’ll confess to usually feeling no great urge to see it. I think part of it is that they’ve been so successful that they crowd out most other animation studios and styles, to the point that even non-Pixar films often imitate their look and style. As a fan of traditional animation as well as animated films that aim at a more adult crowd, I’ll admit that bothers me a little. But every time I actually go and watch a Pixar film I’m almost always pleasantly surprised.
Coco is a really great example. I wasn’t exactly sure whether or not I’d enjoy Pixar’s take on Mexican spirituality, though I did make note of the fact that the studio made a special effort to do its research and hire Latin American performers. When I actually saw it though I was won over completely. Coco is an incredibly beautiful film, with rich music and a genuinely moving story about family, loss, and creativity. It is very easily the best Pixar movie I’ve seen in many years and quite competitive against the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. So much for my biases.
I wasn’t always a horror fan. For a long time I actively avoided horror and was easily spooked by even the most timid forays into the genre. I’d convinced myself that as a person who was naturally anxious, who avoided the appearance of danger reflexively, horror films would ruin me. I eventually learned, however, that the opposite was true. Given the opportunity to experience fear within a confined, prepared context, I actually found I felt liberated. And I also gradually realized, looking back on my childhood, I’d actually always enjoyed getting a little bit scared from time to time.
It, based on one of horror giant Stephen King’s most famous novels, touches on some of that experience. It positions a group of children as the main characters, unusually for a horror film aimed at adults (as opposed to a children’s fantasy film with horror elements) but it largely works, in part because it reminds us how easy it is to feel as children that something lurks in the shadows that adults won’t tell us about. The film is not perfect—it telegraphs some of its scares too early and is uncomfortably comfortable with sexualizing its female lead, Beverly Marsh—but it is a very good example of a horror film that touches on the psychology of fear and the importance of confronting that which frightens us. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how the second part turns out.
Technically, I didn’t see The Shape of Water until this year. But since it came out in 2017 and everyone’s going to be talking about it over the next few days I felt it was important to include. I often feel Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors who simultaneously gets too much and too little credit. He’s by far one of his generation’s best visual storytellers, with an expert eye for set design and special effects that is scarcely rivaled. He also sometimes tends to write simplistic stories with very easy to follow themes and easily identifiable heroes and villains. So I wasn’t sure what I’d think of The Shape of Water. The answer is that it may be del Toro’s most complex film yet.
That’s a heavy claim of course, given how excellent Pan’s Labyrinth is. But del Toro something does here he never does in any of his previous films (to my recollection) which is write actually complex, nuanced characters. The Asset, del Toro’s male romantic lead, is beautiful in that strangely monstrous way del Toro loves and full of love—but he’s also not above eating domestic animals, which reminds us he’s not human and a little dangerous. Colonel Strickland is a horrible human being in the same mold as Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth—but he’s also not completely dehumanized here and we get a sense of the pain and desperation that drives him as well. Of course, the real star is Elisa Esposito, the film’s mute heroine who nonetheless never feels voiceless and whose earnest desire to be accepted and loved is moving and universally relatable.
Was it a good a year for horror or what? Not every film was a hit but there were certainly a lot of really high profile releases explicitly labeled as horror in 2017 as well as a number that arguably touch on the genre’s edges (such as Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Okja, and The Shape of Water). And the year’s horror extravaganzas arguably started with Get Out, one of the most talked about movies of the year and the long-form directorial debut of renowned actor and comedian Jordan Peele.
What is there to say about Get Out without entirely spoiling its premise or the major surprises? That it’s a horror film viewed through the lens of a black man’s experience in a white-dominated culture? That’s true but seems reductive. That it manages to be both deeply disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes within the span of a single scene? Also true. That it will probably make your skin crawl and cause you to question some of your very basic assumptions about the black experience if you’re not black? Definitely. Altogether, Get Out deeply deserves every accolade its earned and makes a very compelling claim for required viewing in the horror genre as well as the examination of race in American cinema.
If there’s one movie that’s felt neglected at this year’s Academy Awards after generating a huge amount of conversation it is without a doubt Wonder Woman. After debuting to nearly universal praise and an immense box office return (making it the highest grossing DC Comics movie ever without Batman as the lead character) it has been curiously overshadowed in this year’s accolades, especially considering the arguably favorable timing in the age of Trump and #metoo. Perhaps it’s because there are so many other good films to choose from. But for my money Wonder Woman beats many of them.
Wonder Woman is not a perfect film but is definitely excellent. Featuring a compelling and passionate lead in Gal Gadot and built around a story about war, fear, and why helping people matters even if they’re flawed, Wonder Woman impressed and thrilled me… and I’m not even a fan of the character (nothing against her, I just haven’t read the source material). I also have to give the film a big thumb’s up for telling possibly the best love story in a superhero film since Captain America: The First Avenger and for doing so in a way that centered the female gaze. Also, as someone who’s been continually frustrated with how small Marvel’s gods seem, it was gratifying to see some truly mythic mythology in Wonder Woman.
Of course, Marvel had to come along the same year and prove that they can do gods right. I’ve never been as much of a critic of the Thor films as many others have—I thought the first Thor, while silly also had a great message and genuinely great chemistry between its too leads (I for one will miss Natalie Portman, who’s sorely underrated). But there’s no denying they’ve often felt trapped between embracing the melodramatic and mythopoeic origins and staying true to the style and trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But finally, with New Zealand’s talented son Taika Waititi, someone got it just right.
My greatest fear, going into Thor: Ragnarok was that, like previous Thor films it would be silly but forgettable. That the trailers seemed to be aping the style of the the Guardians of the Galaxy films did not do much to alleviate this feeling. But that was very much not the case. Far from being just a silly romp (which some critics still described it as), Ragnarok is actually a great story that examines the core of who Thor is, both as a Marvel superhero and as an actual, literal god. It also happens to be very funny. But ultimately it’s not the laughs that won me over. It’s Odin’s speech to his son about what it means to be a god, the responsibility that entails, and why it’s the ideas that matter, not the things or places we associate with them.
As aforementioned it was a great year for horror. It was also very clearly a pretty good year for superheroes, with both Marvel and DC breaking out of their usual patterns. My number one favorite film was not, however, a superhero or horror film. It was a spy film, a genre for which I have great affection but which has become neglected in recent years. I am, of course, talking about Atomic Blonde.
I’ve never seen the John Wick films—a personal failing many of my friends are happy to remind me of—but if they’re anything like Atomic Blonde, directed by one of the men behind the camera of those films, I understand the love. Atomic Blonde is a pitch perfect spy film, combining intrigue, frenetic action, and the sexy thrills we’ve come to expect from the genre in a seamless fashion. It also happens to have come out right at the peak of 80s nostalgia but while the film makes extensive use of an 80s soundtrack for excellent effect, it doesn’t feel trapped by that style the way many other projects do. Atomic Blonde is without a doubt a modern film, doing things with cinematography and choreography I didn’t even know were possible. I can’t recommend it enough.
And that’s it me for me. I don’t even remotely expect my ranking to line up perfectly with any of yours (heck, my ranking changed several times writing this) but I’m curious. What did you love? What did you hate? Share your thoughts in the comments.