For better or worse, 2017 felt like one huge bizarre science fiction story. It’s no wonder, then, that science fiction and fantasy films often felt more resonant and important than so-called “realistic” fiction. Not that there weren’t great realistic films playing in theaters. Audiences needed the heroism of Dunkirk, the humor of The Big Sick, the warmth of Lady Bird and the anger of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for just a few examples. Yet when looking over all of the best films of 2017, sci-fi and fantasy dominate.
This was a year where dystopian visions of dying mutants and warring apes captured the national zeitgeist. It was a year where a horror film directed by a comedian and a movie where a woman sleeps with a fish monster are in serious consideration for major award nominations and might actually capture some wins. It was also a year where even genre skeptics could give in to superhero domination, as so many superhero films turned out good or even great (there’s six on this list). Here are 15 films which changed the game, movies which entertained and stories that needed to be told. When cinematic worlds of imagination are this compelling, who needs real life?
15. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
The first Spider-Man film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost exactly what the haters accuse every MCU film of being: a shallow, uninspired popcorn film that coasts by on jokes and charming actors. Yes, Spider-Man: Homecoming has some serious problems. The plot is shallow, the action uninspired, but those jokes and those actors are so great that its flaws almost don’t matter.
Spider-Man 2 it ain’t, but Homecoming is still an extremely entertaining film. It fulfills Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original goal of making Peter Parker’s everyday life at least as entertaining as his web-slinging adventures. The high school comedy is often hilarious, while Michael Keaton as the Vulture steals the show as possibly the MCU’s scariest cinematic villain. There’s a lot of room for sequels to improve, but Tom Holland’s already guaranteed you’ll buy those tickets.
mother! is almost certainly the year’s most divisive movie, and it makes perfect sense why so many people hate it. It’s sadistically unnerving, makes no sense if taken literally and even if audiences got the allegorical meaning, there’s still a lot there that could be offensive. If you’re not on the wavelength of Darren Aronofsky’s particular artistic/environmentalist/religious anxieties, there’s not much to recommend in this movie at all.
If you’re on the director’s wavelength, however, it’s absolutely a film worth experiencing and appreciating. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is at once deeply personal and excellent at conveying the film’s more grandiose concerns. The wild surrealism of the horror entertains even as it disgusts. Once the film’s multi-layered allegories click, the cleverness and audacity is something to behold.
13. BLADE RUNNER 2049
For a certain type of filmgoer, Blade Runner 2049 was both the most anticipated and dreaded movie of 2017. To most other filmgoers, it might as well have not existed, judging by its mediocre box office results. As far as $150 million R-rated sequels to ’80s cult films go, Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t as transcendent as Mad Max: Fury Road, but still a worthy successor to the original Blade Runner.
Like Ridley Scott’s original, Denis Villenueve’s long-awaited sequel is visually stunning and deeply thought-provoking. The pacing is glacier-like and the treatment of female characters can be problematic, yet the amazing effects, cinematography and art direction, as well as its commentary on oppression and deconstruction of power fantasies, make this trip to the future well worth the almost three hour investment.
12. WONDER WOMAN
The world waited years for a good live-action DC superhero movie and decades for a good female superhero movie. Wonder Woman delivered on both fronts. Director Patty Jenkins, on her first film in 14 years, took the material seriously but without sacrificing humor. Instant star Gal Gadot is as perfectly cast as any of the greatest superhero actors.
Critics and audiences both loved this movie to the point it almost verges on overrated. Aside from its sociologically significant distinguishing factor, it’s a pretty standard formula superhero origin movie. The formula is executed very well, but even the execution starts to falter during the CGI-heavy final battle against a rather boring villain. Even so, one can’t deny the sheer electric thrill of the film’s “No Man’s Land” centerpiece.
Coco isn’t Pixar’s most original film. While it’s a nice break from the studio’s recent stream of sequels, and it’s not at all a rip-off of The Book of Life like some feared, the plot isn’t going to blow adults’ minds. It’s funny and beautiful, for sure, but also borrows liberally from the likes of Ratatouille and Spirited Away and uses the exact same villain archetype as every other non-Incredibles Pixar movie with a villain.
Even if you know where it’s going, however, the movie still manages to reduce you to tears by the end. The last 15 minutes of Coco are as moving as the first 15 minutes of Up or the ending of Toy Story 3. There’s a reason Coco became Mexico’s biggest box office sensation ever AND managed to bypass China’s ban on talking skeleton movies by being just that moving!
Oh, it’s just your typical “alcoholic woman returns to her hometown, deals with an abusive friend and accidentally destroys South Korea via a psychic link with a giant monster” movie. Another one of those. Why don’t these Hollywood folk ever think up something original? (…that last paragraph was sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell)
Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal didn’t do much business in theaters, but feels like it’s poised to become a cult favorite. It’s a startlingly creative film that zig-zags between comedy, drama and sci-fi action in ways surprising and memorable. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis anchor the craziness in emotional reality. Possibly too much reality for some, this must be a tough watch for anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship. Those who can handle it, though, will find a powerful uplifting message.
9. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 improved upon its predecessor in some significant ways even as it disappointed in others. On the negative side, it’s not as funny or tightly paced, and nothing could capture the element of surprise the first one offered back in 2014. And yet, while the sequel sometimes feels like it’s repeating itself in terms of jokes, it’s stronger than ever when it comes to character development.
Where the first movie traced the formation of a found family, the second complicates things by delving deeper into the characters’ struggles with their own families. Gamora and Nebula get some much overdue depth, while Starlord’s relationships with different father figures raises important questions about what can and cannot be forgiven within family. Between the heavy emotions, the movie finds plenty of time for awesome action and stunning eye-candy.
8. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy comes to a stirring conclusion with War for the Planet of the Apes, an epic of Biblical scope. It takes a lot to get audiences to root against their own species, but unlike with the morally ambiguous conflict of the previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War has you on the apes’ side 100% as humanity crumbles. Andy Serkis has never been better than he is here as Caesar, the apes’ leader and savior.
As allegories, the Apes films have always been messy, and there’s not the least bit of subtlety in the film’s political commentary. But it’s thrilling in its boldness, amazing that a major studio actually approved of a film so furious with the United States of America. This is mature popcorn entertainment with just enough food for thought to stick in your memory.
7. THOR: RAGNAROK
The best of the year’s three MCU films, Thor: Ragnarok is a blast of pure fun even as it faces the end of the world. Some were put off by the juxtaposition of constant silly comedy and a serious storyline, and to be fair it does have some trouble callibrating that balance in its first act. Once Hela makes her grand return and Thor’s sent off the Sakaar, though, the movie fires on all cylinders.
Taika Waititi has crafted the most beautiful looking of the Marvel movies. Most any freeze frame is like a Jack Kirby drawing come to life. He introduces wonderful new characters such as the heavy-drinking Valkyrie, the revolutionary rock monster Korg and The Grandmaster, aka Space-Goldblum. Amidst all the rapid-fire jokes and awe-inspiring action are thoughtful messages about colonialism, slavery and diaspora.
6. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
The LEGO Batman Movie used every second of its runtime to its advantage. No other movie in 2017 was as jam-packed with so many jokes, so many fun visual ideas, so much fast-paced action. A movie that could have been the most cynical exercise in corporate branding instead turned out a sharply satirical yet joyous (and downright geeky) celebration of everything Batman.
The only major issue holding The LEGO Batman Movie back from the same heights as The LEGO Movie isn’t a matter of quality but of ambition. The LEGO Movie was about life, while LEGO Batman is pretty much just about Batman. But as a movie about Batman, it might be the best. Sure, there are better movies featuring the Dark Knight, but none have delved as deeply into the character’s psyche as this cartoon.
Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart were always the best parts of a wildly inconsistent X-Men movie series. For their final performances as Wolverine and Professor X in Logan, they finally got a movie worthy of their considerable acting talents. The darkest major superhero movie since Watchmen, and the saddest since… well, maybe ever, Logan stands as the artistic highpoint of an amazing year for superhero movies.
Set in an all-too-plausible vision of the near future, Logan is so unrelenting it makes its obvious inspiration, Children of Men, look downright cheery in comparison. What keeps the movie from becoming nihilistic are its moments of kindness: Logan caring for an ill Xavier, a family standing up to shelter their guests from the authorities, Laura and her young mutant peers fighting back against their abusers and working together to turn a comic book fantasy into a real community.
4. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
So much has already been written about this movie so shortly after its release. You’ve probably seen it already, possibly multiple times, and already know if you love it or hate it. This list is obviously approaching The Last Jedi from the “love it” side of the argument. The haters might not be convinced now. It’d also be hard to convince the people who hated Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Time will correct them.
If this sequel trilogy is all about carrying on a legacy, Rian Johnson’s installment develops that theme in fascinating new ways. It’s about acknowledging the darkness in light as much as it is about finding light in the darkness. It enhances the spiritual wonder of The Force even as it tears apart the old Jedi order. With shocking twists, amazing fight scenes and powerful messages, Star Wars hasn’t felt so vital in a long time.
3. YOUR NAME
There’s something magical about seeing an auteur finally come into their own. Makoto Shinkai’s long been hyped as one of the most talented up-and-coming anime directors. With Your Name, the most successful anime at the worldwide box office, Shinkai’s finally made a masterpiece, marrying his long-time thematic obsessions with a much more compelling plot and characters than his previous films.
This is a movie where it’s best to go in knowing almost nothing about it. It starts off a perceptive comedy with a sci-fi twist and evolves into something incredibly moving. Prepare to laugh and cry. J.J. Abrams wants to do a live-action version after he finishes Episode IX, but even if he gets the story right, there’s no way he matches the visual splendor of Shinkai’s animation.
2. THE SHAPE OF WATER
Guillermo Del Toro’s ode to outcasts, true love and the joys of monster sex is his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water isn’t quite as inventive as that 2006 masterpiece, but what is? Few other movies are as stylistically assured and nakedly emotional as The Shape of Water. It’s the exact sort of grown-up fairy tale Del Toro does best.
Sally Hawkins deserves an Oscar for her performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady whose attraction to Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man makes perfect sense as someone whose big unfulfilled need is acceptance without judgment. Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg make an excellent supporting cast of marginalized heroes. If Michael Shannon’s Strickland is awfully similar to the villain of Pan’s Labyrinth, placing this fascist figure in the context of 1960s America creates a new, necessary sense of fear.
1. GET OUT
Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out came out back in February and everyone’s still talking about it. When a film makes that much of an impact on the culture at large, you know it’s something special. Sure enough, Get Out is the best film of 2017, the best horror film in a long time and a film people will be talking about for years to come.
Like the best Twilight Zone episodes (no wonder CBS is giving that property to Peele), Get Out uses a sci-fi twist to both disturb and speak truth. It bypasses the easiest targets to get at subtler, more uncomfortable truths about racism. The jump scares are fairly mild, but the psychological terror sticks with you. It’s also brilliantly funny, even if the Golden Globes’ placement of the film as primarily a “comedy” is questionable. Get Out brilliantly entertains while it enlightens and unnerves.
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