Not to start off on a sour note but many events in 2017 have reaffirmed my commitment to living outside of the United States. As much as this placement has made it easy to exist beyond the reach of current domestic turbulence, it’s also made it difficult in the last two years to see as many movies as I once did (hence the general slowdown in reviews since July 2015). Generally speaking large films, especially franchise entries and superhero movies, open either the same day or even a week earlier abroad than they do in America. However smaller films, including several listed here, never appear in theaters, meaning I have to wait until their release on home streaming and other services in order to watch them. Last year, the sheer amount of time needed to catch up, combined with the number of projects I’ve been working on, conspired to make it impossible for me to watch everything before the end of the year, thus my Top Ten Films of 2016 was never completed. To avoid this same outcome I’ve devoted an entire week – viewing up to four films a day – to catching up with every interesting film I could possibly find. Sadly, at this time, there still remain several projects I’m curious about (such as Molly’s Game, The Shape of Water, and Phantom Thread) or have strong buzz (Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Call Me by Your Name) which are simply unavailable by any but the most… unethical methods. While these films amount to willful omissions, I’ve decided to make this list as best as possible at this time in order to not go another year without recognizing great cinema. I’ve also sprinkled my incomplete 2016 list into several of the entries here.
It’s notable that this list tilts heavily in favor of genre and superhero movies rather than primarily toward smaller or award-contender films. There are several reasons for this, the first being that we here at Pop Mythology love our superheroes and take their stories as seriously as we do any other, at times more so given the influence modern superhero films have not only on popular culture but culture in general. The second reason is that, again, many smaller films simply aren’t available for viewing while blockbusters, which this year meant a lot of superhero and genre movies, are found everywhere. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the quality of this year’s slate of superhero films was exceptionally high. Of the six mainstream superhero films released in 2017 half of them comfortably fit into any discussion of the year’s most entertaining, engaging, or important cinematic experiences, while at least one other lingers just off the edge of such a list. And with that…
The Big Sick – Sweet, sad, and funny, Kumail Nanjiani’s tragicomedy is as much about cross cultural misunderstandings as it is about grasping close what matters most to you. What could have been a banal, by-the-numbers quirky comedy of family errors is elevated by emotional resonance and great performances from Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and (of all people) Ray Romano. Unfortunately an abrupt ending cheapens the struggles which precede it. Nonetheless, Big Sick and the feelings it evokes are worth experiencing.
Dunkirk – Few movies this year have sparked as many debates among my cinephile friends as Christopher Nolan’s latest offering. While Dunkirk is an absolute masterwork of cinematography, framing, pacing, editing, and every other technical aspect of filmmaking, its general lack of development and emotion lessens the intensity even as the war comes ever closer to characters we’re told to care about. Dunkirk, in my opinion, feels like half a movie, and the half we see on screen is enough to rank it among both the year’s greatest technical achievements and the year’s biggest disappointments.
Spider-Man: Homecoming – I’ll admit it, I’m a Spider-Man fanboy, always have been (just look at the picture attached to my bio below), but even I couldn’t find it in myself to place yet another superhero film in my top ten. In any other year, when superhero films weren’t so ubiquitous and so incredibly good, this newest version of Peter Parker would’ve easily made it among the best. Barring a complete collapse in quality, I expect Tom Holland’s following turns as the new ol’ Webhead to be mainstays in year-end conversations for years to come.
10. Wind River
Before beginning the overwhelming process of filming and promoting two massive Avengers movies, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen found time to appear in Taylor Shierdan’s latest neo-Western crime drama. While slower and less bombastic than last year’s lauded Hell or High Water (itself an honorable mention in my unfinished Top Ten of 2016), Wind River provides both Renner and Olsen several opportunities to flex the acting muscles too often left ignored in ensemble blockbuster franchises (and perhaps even more so in those featuring a reported seventy characters). Added to this are an atmosphere that evokes a slightly more civilized evolution of The Revenant’s man vs. nature struggle and an emotionally wrenching script which keeps its focus squarely on those so often left out of the picture, be it by their own choice to exist there or by society pushing them there. In a year when much needed attention was finally given to often marginalized populations (as will be discussed in greater detail later), Wind River reminds us of yet another group which has gone unnoticed for far too long.
Along with Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy and The Handmaiden, one of last year’s best films, Bong Joon-ho stands out as one of the exciting filmmakers not only of Korean cinema but worldwide. Similar to his previous film, the wildly inventive Snowpiercer, Bong’s bizarre fantasy satire includes radical tonal shifts, from whimsical coming-of-age story of a teen girl and her beloved superpig to a near-dystopian morality play on the impact of human consumption upon the rest of the planet. While Okja appears overtly anti-GMO, with the film’s Mirando Corporation serving as thinly veiled stand-in for Monsanto, riffs on topics including extremist animal rights groups, ridiculous dietary habits, hypocritical celebrity spokespeople (in this case Jake Gyllenhall practically licking the scenery in his portrayal of a Crocodile Hunter-like presenter with an extreme personality disorder), and even huge publicity stunts brought on by public paranoia over GMO products serve to both deepen and muddle the overall meaning of the film leaving the viewer with much more to unpack than a simple “meat is murder” message ever could. The film’s mix of detailed CGI and seemingly ramshackle set design places Bong in Terry Gilliam/Michael Gondry school of handcrafted filmmaking. If this is the type of unabashed strangeness Netflix is willing to pay for, it makes sense that more directors will start taking their projects to the streaming platform, even if it means skipping Cannes. It’s a shame that theater chains in Bong’s native country denied their audiences a chance to enjoy Okja outside of their homes.
There are times when I wish I could withdraw and redraft my reviews. Logan is one of these times. While initially I criticized a lack of resonant themes and a rather generic superhero conflict, the grit and desperation of Hugh Jackman’s “final” turn as the character has only become more relevant as our own trouble times (of the type so brilliantly portrayed in Logan) have unfolded. Jackman’s performance, along with those of Patrick Stewart and immediate standout Daphne Keen, ranks among the absolute best in the history of superhero movies (not quite reaching Heath Ledger’s Joker, but easily out pacing Jared Leto’s), making the first two mediocre Wolverine films necessary stepping stones toward this beautifully brutal farewell. The commercial and critical success of both Logan and last year’s other dirty X-Men offshoot Deadpool (among the best of 2016) prove that superhero films don’t all need to be formulaic – even if both do follow a familiar structure – and that the genre has so much beyond colorful and quippy characters battling blue lights from the sky. Hopefully Fox Disney learns this lesson, but no matter what happens to Wolvie in the future, at least there will always be this one time when his on-screen portrayal was perfect.
7. Your Name
Opening in Japan in 2016 (a year which included animated wonders like Moana, Zootopia, and the criminally under-rated Kubo and the Two Strings) and 2017 in America, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name went on to become the highest grossing anime of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. What looks in trailers like a tired story of literal star-crossed lovers reveals itself as a new take on body-swap comedies and disaster movies. A gorgeous visual style captures natural beauty, modern wonder, expressive characters, and stunning fantasy sequences – so basically a couple of giant robots away from everything anime does well with few of the tired clichés its critics cling to. Whimsical humor and sympathetic characters ease our way into a larger narrative of destiny, divinity, and division where, for once, obstacles keeping our protagonists apart are justified rather than arbitrary. Thematic structures weave organically throughout the twisting narrative and small clues are dropped so subtly that once fate is revealed we understand not only how every thread connected to this point but also how they may then be unraveled. Your Name‘s greatest success is in crafting its disparate parts, from tone to story to location to character, into one inseparable whole.
6. Killing of a Sacred Deer
Out of context the dialogue in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Killing of a Sacred Deer is stilted, awkward, and possibly enough to make viewers quit before the film even starts. Yet this writing style provides the perfect introduction into the film’s surreal atmosphere where every spoken word and musical note, every character interaction and reaction, every new piece of information and development, becomes increasingly unsettling until finally, when the rhythm of the detached, mundane dialogue has become normalized, the creepiness sets in. That’s when the conversation style becomes a warning: if you’re put off by how the characters speak, you’ll definitely be put off by how they act. While a wholly different experience, Lanthimos’s disturbing, unrelenting gloom and attention to making every detail slightly distressing is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with Colin Farrell’s over-the-shoulder strides through the hospital ward paralleling the camera following Danny down the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Much as Lanthimos used last year’s brilliant absurdist comedy The Lobster (yup, another of the top ten) as a platform to parody the ridiculous expectations people have of love, Killing of a Sacred Deer strips away the romanticized notions of family and recalls the ancient tradition of horror story as morality play.
5. Wonder Woman
At the beginning of this year it would have been more controversial to say something positive about the DC movies than to remark that the company’s cinematic universe could use a reboot, especially after its tent-pole film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a major disappointment made worse when Captain America: Civil War (easily one of the year’s best films) was released mere weeks later. Now, however, there is one required exception for any comment about the general quality of the DCEU. Whether or not Wonder Woman arrived in time to save DC’s film ambitions can be debated, but it’s obvious that the movie, the first to successfully feature a female superhero, arrived exactly when the public at large needed it. On its own, Wonder Woman is a solid piece of world building alternative history with entertaining action setpieces, a delightful lead, and sharp wit, if yet another bland villain, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the film came out in a year when much of society seems determined to roll women’s rights back to the barefoot-and-pregnant era (it’s probably a coincidence that justice finally caught up to numerous serial sexual predators after the film was released… probably). Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot captured the zeitgeist better than any film this year… well… all but one… by providing the strong female role model who has been too long absent. The debacle of Justice League might have snuffed out that glimmer of hope and ended the concept of a shared DC cinematic universe, but at least there’s Wonder Woman to stand on her own.
4. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Everyone loves A New Hope. Everyone thinks Empire Strikes Back is the best. Everyone looks at Return of the Jedi as the worst Star Wars film until the prequels, which everyone hates. And everyone was so happy when The Force Awakens brought back what was good about the franchise. But no one can agree on The Last Jedi. This is even true on an individual level with people arguing that at its best Rian Johnson’s series debut surpasses even the universally beloved Empire while at its worst Episode VIII scrapes the bottom of a barrel left clean by the universally reviled prequels. This is what happens when a filmmaker defies convention and decides, instead, to do something new. Following its own tagline of “Let the past die” Last Jedi pursues a bold new direction for the Star Wars series rather than relying on established cliches and goodwill. The fact that a film with such a strong visual and emotional presence, including some of the most effecting moments in the franchise’s history, has met an extreme backlash highlights the dangers of rabid fandom. At some point devotees need to realize that the stories on screen won’t always match those they’ve conjured up in their imaginations, and that this is good. Last Jedi is exactly the film Star Wars needed to bust out of the rut created by its own mythos so that the universe far, far away may expand beyond repeating what’s already been done. Although I still think that the entire casino planet subplot is Episode I-level garbage.
3. Thor: Ragnarok
Sure, we could talk about how Marvel released three films this year, all of which were at the least entertaining if not vital entries in the MCU’s progression. We could also talk about how Thor, and the actor who plays him, finally became came into his own in his third solo film. We could talk about how Thor: Ragnarok necessitates a new Hulk movie, or the differences between the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, or how at this point Marvel could make a Great Lakes Avengers movie populated entirely by sock puppets and still attract A-list actors to voice those sock puppets, gross 800 million worldwide, and find a way to make it entertaining. But instead, let’s talk Taika Waititi. After making a name among indy filmmakers with Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (which narrowly missed last year’s unfinished list), Waititi managed to translate his quirky sensibilities into the single most enjoyable blockbuster of the entire year. By replacing bland dark fantasy with a colorful palate of pulpy 1960’s scifi, Waititi and everyone else involved injected entirely new life into Marvel’s least loved solo series. Sure, the film might not have been as weighty as needed heading into Infinity War, but who cares when there are so many little, hilarious touches whizzing past? Thor: Ragnarok makes a strong case for Marvel to finally release a fourth solo movie, but only if Waititi remains at the helm. At this point, it isn’t just Marvel who could put out a sock puppet movie and have it be successful.
2. Get Out
Even more than Wonder Woman this was the film 2017 needed. In a time when one part of American society is becoming more aware of racial privilege and protesting the unprosecuted murder of black people while another part of society is openly embracing Nazism, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut serves as the perfect satirical slap in the face for everyone who hasn’t yet chosen a side. By making the everyday fears of young black men into a horror film – complete with a noticeable ramp up in intensity, plenty of gore and jump scares, and allusions to previous masters of the genre – Peele has offered the rest of the audience a glimpse into what it’s like to exist in a world where your presence as a symbol is more important than your life as an individual. If absolutely nothing else, Get Out should be commended simply for existing; a mainstream horror film where the true villain is America’s enduring legacy of racism has ever been accomplished before. Further, given 2016’s admission that enough of America’s population is bigoted, foolish, and cowardly enough to support an admitted racist, sexist, fascist as their leader, the release of a film like Get Out marks the boldest cinematic statement of the year. This is a troubling film not for brutality on screen but for the brutal honesty it demands of people watching that screen. Taken on its own, Get Out‘s precision requires at least a bit of investigation. Taken as a whole, its themes require long periods of self-reflection which, for some, may be far more horrific than any amount of gore, jumps scares, and sociopathic villains ever could be.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve followed up last year’s best movie with this year’s best movie. And just as Arrival didn’t ultimately win Best Picture – with that honor going… eventually… to Moonlight, which was the most deserving choice – it’s clear that Blade Runner 2049 won’t receive accolades equal to its accomplishments. Far from being yet another unnecessary nostalgia trip, Blade Runner 2049 justifies its existence by both continuing and expanding on the ideas presented in Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction opus, itself a film that audiences needed years to catch up to. Blade Runner 2049 is loaded with the same contemplation which granted the original its extended lifespan. Like his previous film, Villeneuve’s work feels akin to literature in the depth and scope of its examination of what it means to be alive, making the viewer simultaneously more and less intelligent; intelligent for learning of and understanding the ideas, less intelligent for not having thought of them yourself, exactly as the greatest science fiction always has. Yet, whereas literature (for as amazing as it is) is limited by the imagination of the reader, cinema fills the senses with sights and sounds specifically crafted to reinforce its ideas and atmosphere. From the bright holograms of future Los Angeles, to the cold creepiness of a replicant modeling center, to the negative space of once irradiated wastes, everything on screen in 2049 is filmed in ways that maximize visual impact. Meanwhile strong performances from Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Dave Bautista drive home the emotions contained within a thick shell of stoicism. In short, Blade Runner 2049 is cinema working at its highest level. The only thing missing from the film is the audience.
So, that’s it. Hope no one is too infuriated by my rankings. Save that outrage for more important things and remember that this is just one person’s preference. I am happy to hear yours.
Lastly, I’d like to offer a sincere wish that the next year be better than this one. If not, at least troubled times have a history of inspiring great art. Here’s hoping we’re all around to see it.