This has been a crazy year for me. I can tell this for a lot of reasons (engagement, weddings, moving twice, etc), but one gauge has been a pretty substantial drop in the number of movies I’ve seen this year. As a single guy with lots of free time on my hand in the preceding years, I made keeping up with the film industry a level-2 priority (i.e. not food, sleep, water, etc, nor relationships with humans or God or anything like that). All the life changes have altered that trajectory; while I still enjoy movies and storytelling, there just isn’t time (or money) to prioritize them in the same way (so, say, they went from level-2 to level-4).
All this to say, my list is missing a lot of the more well-respected films of 2017. Here, just to give you an idea, are the movies I’ve been interested in, but haven’t, as of this writing, actually seen: Split, Get Out, Table 19, T2 Trainspotting, Colossal, Alien: Covenant, Cars 3, The Book of Henry (yeah, I know…), The Beguiled, Okja, A Ghost Story, Detroit, The Dark Tower, Wind River, The Glass Castle, Logan Lucky, mother!, Brad’s Status, Stronger, Battle of the Sexes, American Made, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Wonderstruck, Thank You For Your Service, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, Last Flag Flying, Lady Bird, Murder on the Orient Express and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This doesn’t even include the anywhere from 15-20 movies left to be released this year that I would count as having missed if I don’t see them before the year’s end. So yeah, I’ve missed a few. And there are more event films that came out that I missed (or will miss) on purpose–I’m looking at you Transformers and Justice League–making my list, I must say, pretty impressive.
The point here isn’t to blame anyone or anything for this. I like where life is, and honestly I’d be quite sad if the rest of my life consisted of merely keeping track of how many movies I saw in a year. In a way, this is kind of growth; but it’s also true that married/family life is new to me, and I fully believe that I’ll regress to a more middle ground in this, and many other areas of life. But again, the goal here is to highlight what I have seen, so I’ll start with that now:
The Lego Batman Movie, The Girl With All The Gifts, Logan, Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, Going in Style, The Circle, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, and Thor: Ragnarok.
And so, without further ado, my top 5 so far. Note: spoilers ahead.
Number 5: Logan
Heavy on the grit, violence and dour quality previously untouched in the X-Men universe, James Mangold’s film is more a reflection on the end of things than superhero IP movies are generally allowed to be. Usually the point is how can we the studio continue to churn out more and more movies, and while Logan does hint at a potential sequel, it isn’t one that involves Hugh Jackman, whose Wolverine ceremoniously sacrifices himself for the good of the future and his little protegé, Laura, played with aggressive aplomb by newcomer Dafne Keen. Yet this movie is more than just another run of the mill superhero fare. The dour qualiy–and black and white photography–aside, the movie is less dependent on its set pieces than any film in the franchise’s history, choosing instead to work as a character study of an aging Logan, allowing Jackman to act rather than just snarl his way through the film. And while there is violence throughout, even those moments feel smaller, probably because the film asks us to be only be concerned about the fate of its three main characters, instead of the fate of the world. Scaling things down works only because of the beauty of the cinematography and the long gestating development of Jackman’s character, who, after all these years, is well-known to audiences. The payoff found in this, his final film as the character, is well worth the hits (X-Men and Days of Future Past) and the misses (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X3: The Last Stand) of the character’s cinematic existence. While not for the faint of heart, Logan is worth seeing, no matter how invest in the X-Men universe you may be.
Number 4: Spider-Man: Homecoming
I swear, this entire list won’t be superhero films (though it may be heavily littered with previous IP films). First, a quick history of Spider-Man on film. Of course, Sam Raimi’s original films are considered classic (well, 2/3 of them anyway), with Spider-Man 2 considered one of the best superhero movies of all time, although the follow-up is decidedly not. After Raimi walked away–mostly because of the tire fire that was Spider-Man 3–Sony quickly realize that they’d lose the character’s rights if they didn’t make another film, and rushed out two quick–and unrelated to Riami’s–Spider-Man films starring much-too-old Andrew Garfield as the eponymous webslinger. While I didn’t hate either of the Amazing Spider-Man films, they mostly felt unnecessary (the first is basically the same first hour or so as Raimi’s original, and the second treaded into 3 territory with its universe-building villain bloating). So Marvel swooped in and worked out a deal to allow them to include Spidey in the MCU (he’s an essential part of The Avengers in the comics from what I’m told), without Sony losing full rights. And so a witty cameo from new Spider-Man Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War set the stage for his Marvel/Sony co-produced debut.
Above all things, Spider-Man: Homecoming is remarkably charming. Holland possess a likability to him that, really for the first time ever, makes it seem like Peter Parker’s story matters as much as Spider-Man’s does. So while the action scenes are fun, and the tried-and-true “new superhero making mistakes” bits all work, the emotional connection comes from Holland and director Jon Watts’ commitment to telling Parker’s story, too. What you end up with is something akin to what John Hughes might have made if he’d decided to make a Spider-Man film after filming The Breakfast Club. The movie never lets you forget this is part of a LARGER CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (Robert Downey, Jr features pretty heavily in the film’s plot), but still manages to be engaging and exciting all on its own, a testament to Holland and Watts’ care for the film they’re making. It almost manages to stand completely on its own, too (the opening sequences show us the events of Civil War from Spidey’s point of view), which lends even further credence to the quality of the film as a whole.
Number 3: The Big Sick
I’d heard so many good things about this movie throughout the summer, that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if I was disappointed upon seeing it early in the fall. Fortunately, this thoughtful, honest and often hilarious film written and starring comedian Kumail Nanjiani, tells a fictionalized version of how Nanjiani met his wife, Emily, played in the film version by Zoe Kazan. The film is most remarkable for how it handles its often serious plot elements without ever coming across as overly sentimental and remaining light-hearted and humorous throughout most of its run time. The complications are myriad: Kumail and Emily come from different cultures, and the expectations set by his Uber-traditional family make it so he can’t even tell his parents about her; this causes the couple to break up, and to make matters worse, Emily ends up in the hospital and eventually in a medically-induced coma, leading to Kumail spending a great deal of time with, and eventually befriending, Emily’s parents. All of these ingredients together don’t seem to make sense together, but due to earnest performances by Nanjiani and Kazan, as well as stellar work from Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s frazzled parents, as well as a screenplay that focuses on depth of character along with maintaining a sense of humor, it all comes together. Furthermore, the film never succumbs to sentimentality or hilarity for the sake of itself, as the honesty and sincerity of each scene always feels thoughtful and well-considered. By the end, you feel privileged to have been allowed a small glimpse into these people’s lives. And while the ending feels like a nice bookend to the earlier events of the film, the earnestness of the film allows Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter to get away with a little saccharine to close things out.
Number 2: Blade Runner 2049
To me, films like Blade Runner 2049 and the number one film on my list are why the movies will always hold an important place in my life. There is a vastness to the filmmaking happening in this film that begs to be experienced on a large screen, with the most surrounding of surround sound, in the dark where all eyes and ears are fixated by the thing happening in front of them. Denis Villeneuve, already responsible for a Best Picture nominee in last year’s sci-fi hit Arrival, as well as critical hits like Sicario and Prisoners, has shown himself most adept at world creation, a skill necessary for massive undertakings like the sequel to a 35-year-old cult hit that didn’t seem to be crying out for a follow-up. Yet somehow Villeneuve makes 2049 feel not only necessary, but an important addition to his filmography. Ryan Gosling is excellent as the main focus of a film that sometimes comes across as heavy-handed (although the original suffered from this as well), and Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard, whose story is the true emotional core of the film. In many ways, this is what sets the new version apart from its predecessor; while Ridley Scott’s visionary 1982 film was as much a visual marvel then as Villeneuve’s is now, the heart in this film feels akin to that of Amy Adams’ character in Arrival. The film is also a heckuva neo-noir detective story, drenched in a newly realized version of a world created by Scott and masterfully re-imagined here by Villeneuve. The films major downfall is its nearly 3-hour run time, although to director and editor Joe Walker’s great credit, it never feels slow, but instead deliberate, the difference between the two is vital to whether the film works for you or not. Even more notably is the cinematography work of director of photography Roger Deakins, who should see his run of 13 Oscar nominations without a win come to an end next March; the camerawork is equal parts gorgeous and terrifying, a credit to the quality of Deakins’ work. All this comes together to this end: I’m fully willing to make the bold statement that Blade Runner 2049 is a better film than the original, mostly because of the manner and skill with which it is made, and the punch the climax delivers in its final moments.
Number 1: Dunkirk
For those who’ve been following along, this should come as little surprise. While I haven’t spoken as glowingly about Christopher Nolan here (but check out the podcast I co-host, Brew With A View, for more Nolan gushing), it’s safe to say that he is my favorite working director. From breakout hit Memento, to his work on the Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and even films that don’t work quite as well (Insomnia and Interstellar), Nolan has shown his ability to create giant films that still maintain the heart of smaller movies, a balancing act that is difficult for some, impossible for most (coughZachSnydercough). Nolan’s latest, a World War 2 film entrenched during the events of the Allied evacuation of the titular French city, is in many ways a fully new film for the director. It’s his first war film, his shortest film with a theatrical release and the first movie he’s made without an obvious protagonist. This last piece feels like it might be a detriment, but somehow Nolan makes this element a boon to the film’s existence; rather than working as the story of a singular person or a small group of soldiers, the lack of a central protagonist creates an epic feel that the shorter running time might not suggest exists.
The film exists in three locations, all function on different timelines: the land, which takes place over a week, the sea, which takes place over a single day, and the air, which takes place over a single hour. Other than the opening scenes, there is not explanation; yet somehow, the oddness of the timing works. Yes, it causes you to think (this is certainly not your typical check-your-brain-at-the-door summer action movie), and it borders on too-smart-for-its-own-good (as Nolan is sometimes guilty of doing, to be fair), but overall, the emotional core of the movie works. Rather than creating a disconnect without a central character to follow, the larger theme of humanity and the strength of the human spirit shines throughout. Most impressively is the way that Nolan and editor Lee Smith infuse the incessant click of Hans Zimmer’s score, which features the director’s own pocket watch ticking and ticking, until it suddenly stops when the tension releases. This tension is why the film is short by comparison to his other films: a film this tense couldn’t last any longer without wearing viewers down completely. And it all works. Hopefully this is the Oscar breakthrough that Nolan deserves; even if it isn’t his best film, it is deserving of all the praise it has received.
Honorable mention (aka, 6-10): 6. War for the Planet of the Apes; 7. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2; 8. Baby Driver (saw this recently, slightly muted because of the recent news about co-star Kevin Spacey); 9. Thor: Ragnarok (one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while); 10. Beauty and the Beast