Best and Worst Movies of 2017 (So Far…)

Now I know what you may be thinking. Isn’t it just a little bit late to be putting out a list like this? Well yes, most of these lists do come out in July or August but I just can’t bring myself to put together a list then for a few reasons. First, I’m a stay-at-home dad so my ability to drop everything and head out to the movies is severely limited. The 20 times I’ve managed to do that this year represents the high-water mark since my oldest child arrived. And with the imminent arrival of child number 2 chances are it’s going to remain the high-water mark for the next few years. Not that I’m complaining about that mind you because the best job I’ve ever had is being a dad, but this is the reality. And the second reason is seeing as I’m an amateur film critic who doesn’t have press credentials every movie I see comes out of my pocket, so it just takes longer for me to get to a point where I’ve seen enough movies in 2017 to make a half-time judgment on the year in film. Of course if someone with the power wants to hand me press credentials I will not say no to that.

At the end of summer the movie industry outlook is fairly dim as a slew of would-be franchise starters has sputtered, high profile sequels have failed to perform, and the season has closed with the worst box office Labor Day weekend in 17 years. It’s gotten so bad that studios have taken to blaming everything from Netflix to the weather to Rotten Tomatoes to explain their bombs and armchair pundits everywhere have asked if this is the end of Hollywood (spoiler alert: it’s not). But hidden in all of this noise is the fact that for the most part this has actually been a great year for movies. More importantly, and to the movie studios woe, this might represent the tipping point in which a movie’s critical quality might actually make some bearing on its commercial success. As of writing the top 10 highest grossing movies average a stunningly high 83.7% on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile the vast majority of the year’s financial flops and disappointments have from a critical standpoint simply been bad movies. So the optimistic side of me says that Hollywood might take from this the right lesson that maybe the best marker for a movie’s success in our current movie-watching culture might be to just make good movies (I’m not holding my breath, but one can hope). So while this might be a year in which Hollywood studios are smarting from a box-office walloping, it has been a good year for movies so far. And we’re not even done with the year yet.

This should be a fairly straightforward list and there are two basic rules:

  1. The movie has to be released in 2017. Fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of additional caveats. First a movie that only had a limited release in 2016 (released in a few theatres) is eligible if it had a wide release in 2017. Second it’s also eligible if it was a foreign movie made before 2017 but was only available in North America in 2017 either through theatrical release or home video.
  2. A movie is only eligible to be included in one “year’s best” list. This means if I included a limited release movie from 2016 in a hypothetical best-of list from 2016, it is ineligible this year. Similarly all the movies that appear this year can’t show up next year. Truth be told, this rule probably will be more important for my end-of-year list but I’m including it here anyway.

 


WORST 5:

The title “Worst” is a bit of a misnomer because being an amateur film critics affords me the chance to avoid turkeys as much as humanly possible (otherwise I have no doubt that The Emoji Movie or the latest Transformers would make the list). If I’m not getting paid to see bad movies, I generally don’t see it worth my while to voluntarily seek them out. So consider the “Worst” list as the worst that I’ve personally seen or the movies that failed the most to meet my expectations.

(Dis)-Honorable Mention: Beauty and the Beast. The completely unnecessary reboot was this close to making the list. Fortunately, worse films prevailed.

5. KONG: SKULL ISLAND (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

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Let’s get this out of the way first: Kong: Skull Island isn’t a bad movie. In fact I can see it living a happy and wonderful life on basic cable as something I would gladly watch if I stumbled upon it while channel-surfing to pass the time folding laundry. What Kong:Skull Island is however, is not a very good movie. Everything from the climactic battles to the soundtrack to the entirely predictable scenery-chewing of Samuel L. Jackson seems to have been manufactured within an inch of its life to evoke and approximate much better movies and stories. While most of these elements work in the moment in isolation from one another, taken as a whole the movie is just a cynical exercise in manufacturing moments and cheap pops. You can’t help but leave the movie with a bitter taste in your mouth.

4. KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (dir. Guy Ritchie)

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The great problem with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is that it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Half the time it goes for the typical epic feel of most fantasy movies, cashing in on the massive popularity of Game of Thrones. The rest of the time it plays like an irreverent film in the vein of Ritchie’s Snatch or Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrel. It is clear from the offset that Ritchie is interested in making the latter kind of film. But it is also clear that the studio saw in this movie a potential franchise-starter and sought to make this as appealing to as many demographics as possible. So what you get is the remnants of an original director’s vision, which are genuinely compelling and fun to see, but surrounded by a generic film that has been market tested to oblivion. Hopefully the fact that this flopped becomes an object lesson to studios but I’m not holding my breath.

3. THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (dir. F. Gary Gray)

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There is no doubt that this series hit is peaks the moment it stopped trying to be about drag racing and more about increasingly unbelievable and ridiculous stunts. And the more the series leaned into the stunts the more it got to move away from the acting which was never the series’ strong point. But I’d never thought I’d say this, but the eighth instalment has revealed just how crucial Paul Walker and his character Brian O’Conner was to the series. As the first movie completely made since his untimely death, the movie is sorely lacking in the “Can you believe we just did that?” wonder that Walker brought to every scene he was in. It made the stunts less about showing off and more about giddy joy. And with his absence Fate of the Furious just descends into a series of bigger and bigger stunts that increasingly just rely on CGI to make believable. Furthermore without his central presence, the racing family similarly just descends into being made up of jocks, wisecrackers, eye-candy, and an underused Michelle Rodriguez. I realize that the first film post-Walker was always going to be a bumpy transition, but they had better figure out a new formula fast or this series is going to once again descend into the mediocrity it began with.

2. GHOST IN THE SHELL (dir. Rupert Sanders)

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Astoundingly, for all the rightly earned controversy around Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Matoko Kusanagi and the extremely inelegant and racist way the writers tried to get around that controversy, the yellowface is not the biggest problem in the film. Instead, this movie suffers because it is a classic case of taking a foreign property and dumbing it down to make it palatable for an American audience. Instead of the complex philosophical questions that the original film raises, the remake eschews that for a simple action thriller that tries to borrow all the style of the original with barely any of its substance. The only thing separating this film from the worst film of the year is that Ghost in the Shell is at least is a competent but entirely forgettable action thriller.

1. DEATH NOTE (dir. Adam Wingard)

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You know what? I just don’t feel in the mood to talk about just how bad this movie is. Usually I’m guilty of being an overly generous reviewer and rater of movies. But Death Note just infuriates me and I can’t bring myself to talk about the movie let alone find anything worthwhile about it. If you want more of my thoughts on the movie just check out my earlier post. But I won’t blame you if you don’t.

 


BEST 10:

Before I dive into my Top 10 (so far), as with my worst list I have to make the one caveat that this list is incomplete. Now on the one hand, this is entirely understandable. More movies are being made now than ever before. As of writing 151 movies have made at least a million dollars at the box office and the addition of Netflix original movies the task has become more complicated to keep up. But despite the gaps in my film coverage, these top films are still films I would wholeheartedly recommend as worth watching. But here are some honourable mentions:

  • Films I Didn’t Catch That Might Have Made the List: The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Detroit, A Ghost Story, Okja, Your Name.
  • Actual Honourable Mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Icarus, The Lost City of Z, The Salesman, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Now without further ado:

10. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (dir. Matt Reeves)

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War for the Planet of the Apes is the third entry of the ambitious reboot which cements the trilogy as the best trilogy of the decade. Instead of the typical instinct of making every film bigger, War narrows the story down to an intimate affair focusing on Caesar as he contemplates the validity of revenge and its dehumanizing effect on those who seek it. The series’ great strength is that it increasingly has us siding for the apes against the brutality of our own species, and in this movie that cycle is complete as our sympathies lie not in humanity in the vain hope that they will somehow go against their nature and right itself but with the apes, who seek simply to get out of humanity’s way to build a better future for themselves. Ironically every major ape a fully fleshed character while the humans are cardboard cutouts which keeps the movie from ascending the heights of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but that should not detract that this is a solid entry and a worthy finale.

9. LOGAN LUCKY (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

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Besides being a triumphant if not entirely groundbreaking return for Steven Soderbergh, Logan Lucky is a surprisingly gentle and warm respite from life. While it is most easily categorized as a “Redneck Ocean’s Eleven” it finds its greatest strength not in the thrill of the heist but rather in the quiet if quirky love that the Logan family has for each other. It is punctuated by some of the best comedic performances of the year in Daniel Craig and Adam Driver while showcasing the increasingly impressive dramatic chops of Channing Tatum (a sentence I never thought I’d ever write). Together they shine a sympathetic spotlight on the oft-ignored backroads of America that desperately is trying to earn back a modicum of respect. But the movie is not afraid to have some fun along the way, poking necessary fun where it needs to and simply being a fun but relaxed picture. While the movie will land itself somewhere in the realm of minor to mid-level Soderbergh, that still makes it one of the best of the year so far.

8. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (dir. Raoul Peck)

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There is no doubt that events in the last year have shaken many of us to the core, tearing down our 21st century myths of a post-racial and progressive society while unearthing the ugly spectre of racism and xenophobia. But to the great intellectual James Baldwin, perhaps the only thing that would surprise him about the turn of events from last year is the utter and absurd naivety with which mainstream America deluded itself into thinking its long and ugly history with race was somehow over. And so I Am Not Your Negro is a necessary wake-up slap to the face of complacent white liberalism and a reminder that a solution to racism in America will never be found as long as Americans refuse to confront their own personal sins within. While this movie is not the easiest watch, mostly because it forces uncomfortable introspection, it is probably the most important and essential film of 2017.

7. WONDER WOMAN (dir. Patty Jenkins)

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It is hard to overstate just how much much Wonder Woman needed to succeed. It was the first major female superhero film since the disastrous Catwoman in 2004. And it was the next instalment in the DC Cinematic Universe that had until then been mostly underwhelming and disappointing. The concept of a Wonder Woman movie has been in development hell for at least a couple of decades. And most importantly, it was arguably the biggest film ever handed to a female director in an industry that is pathetically loathe to hand big budget blockbusters to female directors. So the mere fact that it cleared the low bar of not failing and instead turned out to be a really good movie is something to be applauded and celebrated. But I am hesitant to laud it the over-exultant praise that seemed to get lavished upon it. It is nowhere near the greatest film of all time or even the greatest superhero movie of all time. But it is really good superhero adaptation and a welcome step in the right direction for an industry that is painfully slow to change with the times.

6. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski)

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Nobody is going to mistake John Wick: Chapter 2 for high art. After all the movie’s predecessor is still known as “the one where Keanu Reeves goes on a revenge spree because they killed his dog.” But Chapter 2 is the rare sequel that offers more of the same in a bigger and bolder way and delivers it perfectly. Picking up exactly where the last movie let off Chapter 2 spends very little time expositing story, instead propelling John Wick deeper into a rich and textured underworld that provides him, and director Chad Stahelski, the perfect canvas to conjure up more brutal and beautiful choreographed pieces of mayhem. John Wick is the action film that makes you realize just how badly other action movies are shot and choreographed as Wick engages frequently in elegant but bloody ballets of violence. It is also utilizes the oft-mocked Zen quality of Reeves acting, perfectly calibrating it to convey depth and coolness. The joys of John Wick: Chapter may be simple and unsophisticated, but they are well earned.

5. PERSONAL SHOPPER (dir. Olivier Assayas)

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One of the more remarkable developments of the last decade or so has been the transformation of Kristen Stewart from franchise wallpaper into one of the greatest actors working today. Personal Shopper is simply another chapter as she teams up once again with Olivier Assayas with a haunting tale about a medium cum personal shopper who finds herself in stasis as she tries to navigate a job that is soul-killing while dealing with her inability to move on from the sudden death of her brother who was also a medium. As with most of Assayas’ films, Personal Shopper is not easily categorizable as it flits between a slow burn horror and a workplace drama, but it is incredibly compelling to watch thanks to Stewart’s magnetic presence. The movie is a poignant reminder that we can be haunted not just by ghosts of the past or literal ghosts, but that we can be haunted by the spectral and ephemeral relationships we build in our digital age that keeps us in cages of our own making. Personal Shopper is a movie that I’m sure I barely understand, but it has also been the movie that has lingered with me the most.

4. BABY DRIVER (dir. Edgar Wright)

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From the very beginning of his career Edgar Wright has established himself as director who is in complete control of every shot he makes. While previously he has used that control to weave visual humour, Baby Driver finds him for the first time working with more dramatic material. The key word though is “more”, because the movie is still a sumptuous delight of breathtaking stunts and visual flair with a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. I doubt I had more fun at the movies this year than in the first thirty minutes or so of this movie. Ansel Elgort proves he has more than just Young Adult movie acting chops as the glacial driver of the heist crew Baby, who anchors the movie and holds his own with more illustrious actors like Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm. The movie has all the levity of a musical without any of the singing and all the thrills that you would expect from a breezy heist film. And it also proves that there is no genre that Wright can’t make his own and I look forward to see which genre he tackles next.

3. GET OUT (dir. Jordan Peele)

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Without exaggeration it’s safe to say that Get Out is the breakout hit of the year. Coming from the brilliant and razor-sharp mind of Jordan Peele, it is both extremely timely for our modern social climate while also being a cathartic tonic. The premise of a minority man being brought home to meet his white girlfriend’s family is one that instantly relatable to this author but in the hands of  Peele becomes a pin-point allegory for the state of race relations in our country. More than any other movie, Peele perfectly externalizes what it feels like to be a minority in America and specifically why a minority has every right to still be afraid in a so-called “post-racial” society. But on a shallower level, Get Out is also a well crafted horror thriller that has a heavy dose of the dark humour that often accompanied Jordan Peele when he was one half of Key and Peele. Put it another way, it probably is the most entertaining way I can think of to engage in the often times uncomfortable conversation of race in America.

2. LOGAN (dir. James Mangold)

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Six months later and I am still astounded by Logan’s existence. It is a tour-de-force of filmmaking that dared to take a popular and money-making intellectual property and give it not just a proper sendoff but in such an iconoclastic way. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart anchor this phenomenal noir-Western by putting in one final shift as Logan and Professor X but filling those roles with such heft that it allows them to flex their acting muscles and produce the most grounded and human superhero movie to date. The accomplishment of this movie is that if you just removed a couple of superhero elements from the story (like the fact that Logan has adamantium claws and a healing factor for instance), it could still function on its own as a compelling drama about survival and the cost of violence. Unfortunately, those superhero elements are probably whats going to keep this movie on the outside looking in come awards season but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not a worthy tour-de-force of a film.

1. DUNKIRK (dir. Christopher Nolan)

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The best movie of the year so far earns its spot because it was easily the most visceral experience I’ve had at the movies. The true story of Dunkirk is the sheer miraculous nature of the rescue in the face of hopelessness and Christopher Nolan perfectly captures both aspects of that story. With every thundercrack of a gunshot or bomb that explodes on the beach Nolan punctuates the sheer despair of hundreds of thousands of the trapped soldiers who are desperate to escape to a shore that is so close that you can literally see it and yet impossibly far. But he is also equally adept at showcasing the brave souls who literally risked their lives to make the miraculous rescue possible. And while a synopsis of this movie might make it sound like an old fashioned movie, it becomes anything but under the direction of Christopher Nolan. Using his signature aversion to tell a linear story, he weaves a tale using multiple timelines and lengths with expert control and precision so that the intensity of the movie never lets up, and the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people never gets lost. While the fall season has some stiff competition in terms of best picture candidates, the fact is that Dunkirk is going to be a formidable foe to overcome.

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