Published Jan. 7, 2018 at ZekeFilm.org.
Or, 10 Movies That Aren’t Pirates of the Caribbean
If my calculations are correct, 2017 was a fantastic year for movies. Yes, yes—any time this writer claims she did “calculations” should be suspect, but how else do you explain that I could have written about the top 30 movies of the year?
Alas, in film writing, like all writing, you must kill your darlings, which is why plenty of movies I recommend didn’t make the cut. Thor: Ragnarok! Kingsman: The Golden Circle! War for the Planet of the Apes! Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales! (Okay, I kid on that last one, even though I did get a kick out of seeing Orlando Bloom again with undead sharks.) It’s also why films like The Shape of Water and Lady Bird didn’t make the cut. Though they were filled with visual wonders and star-making performances, they lacked that special sauce to capture my heart.
Last year, I explained my top 10 was built by the films I would recommend if you could only watch 10 from 2016. This year, I say I sure hope you have time to watch more than 10, but here are the ones that left me with the wow-factor as the credits rolled.
1. Baby Driver
If this isn’t some of the most intentional directing you’ve ever seen, please send me your Netflix queue. Baby Driver writer/director Edgar Wright fills every line and frame with meaning, and cinematographer Bill Pope moves the camera like notes on a scale. Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Co. own the banter-y dialogue, but it’s the music that steals every scene.
Perhaps it’s an unconventional pick, but there’s no movie I’ve recommended more this year. As Bats (Foxx) cheers, “That’s some Oscar s— right there.”
Dunkirk is the more conventional pick for Best Picture, but not because it’s a conventional film. Christopher Nolan’s take on a World War II turning point is the freshest take on the war since Schindler’s List. His characters don’t stick to archetypes, and his framing device is just as subversive. If the Academy doesn’t honor him with at least one nomination for a movie about their most favorite historical era, then I have no idea what we’re doing here.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
While Three Billboards doesn’t show me the best representation of my home Show Me State, it does show Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell at their best. This drama is a small microcosm of the issues splitting our country right now, but it’s not a hostile diatribe. Instead, it’s a healthy dialogue with opportunities for unexpected redemption.
4. Get Out
This writer isn’t normally one for horror. Then again, I’m also not normally one to watch the same movie twice in one week, but Get Out broke both of those rules. Just looking at still photos gives me the heebie jeebies, but I couldn’t look away if I tried. This film constructs layer upon layer of something’s-off feelings, then topples and bulldozes every unsettling thought you had to reveal a deep, sunken pit you’ve already fallen into. Somehow, it’s funny, too, which is just another reason to keep an eye on first-time feature director Jordan Peele.
5. The Post
Hanks. Spielberg. Streep. Need I say more?
Not that The Post coasts on star power alone. We know how the saga of the Pentagon Papers and The Washington Post unfurled in the 1970s, but that doesn’t make the drama any less compelling. The stakes are not just a few journalists’ careers—it’s all of the freedoms of the First Amendment. Hanks and Streep play roles we haven’t seen them in before; he’s bristlier than usual, and she more unsure. Together they make a political drama a human drama with insights for the 2010s.
6. The Big Sick
The Big Sick is the best love story of 2017 because it knows what all the best romantic comedies know: The best stories are never just about romance. This rom-com digs into art, religion, cultural values, and family, and it dances with the intersection of pain and comedy. With a story rooted in both reality and sweetness, you may cry, but it’s not a weepie; you’ll laugh, but it’s not crass. Hopefully we’ll see more of Kumail Nanjiani, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, and Co. during awards season.
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The best Star Wars film since 1980. There, I said it.
I have no clue what George Lucas thinks of The Last Jedi (or if he’s ever intends to see it), but I think the Ring Theory Master would have a soft spot for the internal rhyming in Episode VIII. Threads that appear to trail from the narrative serve thematic and character development over plot, making the previous scene more weighty than it seemed in the moment.
If The Force Awakens was a reintroduction to the familiar, this is a deconstruction of everything we thought we knew. Characters’ exceptionalism is secondary to their choices, and well-known legends may be teaching us more than we realize. Rian Johnson’s story is a gutsy new direction, but Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac prove it has momentum to carry the series forward.
8. The Beguiled
Even if Sofia Coppola isn’t your jam, you can’t deny the gal’s got style. Her voyeuristic camera drops you into a conflict, then quietly pulls you off stage when she says the story has finished. The Beguiled explores a tenser situation than we’ve seen her show us before (a Union solder crashes at a Confederate girls school in the South), but it’s as precise and thematically consistent as the rest of her canon. Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Kirsten Dunst lead the small but sure cast, and—perhaps the greatest miracle of all—Colin Farrell’s performance did more than make me think about his haircut.
The best quasi-superhero movie no one talked about this year. Anne Hathaway plays a down-on-her-luck drunk with a curious connection to a monster attacking South Korea, and Jason Sudeikis is the childhood friend she’s reconnects with her in hometown. To say more would spoil some of the suspense, but I doubt you could anticipate the moves of the wild characters in this wild plot. Hathaway is stellar as always, but Sudeikis is the one who steals the show.
This film is at the bottom of my Top 10 only because I know 80% of you will hate it. For the other 20%, you’ll love it as much as you hate trying to describe it. Should I start with Biblical allusions or one of the other mixed metaphors? The crazy bananas third act or the nudity that isn’t objectifying? Anyone who says they know what this movie means is delusional, but for my two cents, I spent the next few days contemplating the creative process and how much we don’t deserve Jennifer Lawrence.
Rounding Out the Top 20
11. Blade Runner 2049 – Ryan Gosling gives one of the best performances of the year in a sequel better than the sci-fi original. Ask me tomorrow, and this film may be in my Top 10.
12. Wonder Woman – I expected to like Wonder Woman, but I didn’t expect to be so moved by it. Even with familiar story beats, gender-flipping the script reinvented them and poked holes in our assumptions on how to construct superhero stories.
13. Beauty and the Beast – By all accounts except for Disney’s shareholders, a live-action Beauty and the Beast was something no one needed. But by all accounts including my own, this rendition was truly, purely, inventively, originally magical.
14. Mudbound – A Greek tragedy set in the Deep South. The film shows the humanity in all of its characters, but it also leaves us sickened with the regrets of our past.
15. Wind River – Unlike some other 2017 films (*cough* Battle of the Sexes *cough*), it lets the story lead the way instead of its politics, which makes both more cogent. More of Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in everything, please.
16. Okja – Heartfelt but not gooey, a little preachy but complicated, near-perfectly made. Has Jake Gyllenhaal ever been better?
17. The Florida Project – For what this lacked in narrative momentum, it made up for in empathy. I hope we see more of Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – I’m as happy as a dancing Baby Groot to tell you this sequel lived up to my hopes and dreams. James Gunn’s branded directorial style only came back stronger with sharp one-liners and a mixtape-worthy soundtrack, and it overcame typical Marvel weaknesses. Character development across the whole ensemble cast? A compelling villain? What MCU is this?
19. Logan Lucky – Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig as country boys relying on their dumb luck? It’s not the smooth, suave, and sexy Soderbergh is known for, but it’s those actors at their funniest.
20. The Disaster Artist – A cringey comedy that has made me start saying, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and laughing like Tommy Wiseau (“Ah, ha ha ha ha.”) to amuse myself. Dave Franco was the smartest casting decision of the year.
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