The Best and Worst of 2017

Another year in filmdom has come and gone, and countless movie reviewers have issued their best and worst lists for 2017. And so, with that said, it’s time to add my voice to the chorus, with my choices for the cream of the crop and the curdled cream best discarded.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I did not screen every film that was released in 2017, most notably those that were distributed through limited or select channels, such as the Netflix exclusive “Mudbound.” However, I did spend considerable time staring at those flickering lights on the big screen last year, enough to make me feel comfortable in offering up my selections for the pictures that I believe represented the best and worst of past 12 months.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section (be civil, please). And with that, here goes:

THE TOP 10

10. “Get Out”

Despite some occasional pacing issues during the first hour, this satirical sci-fi thriller – often described as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” meets “The Stepford Wives” – delivers hefty laughs, ample suspense and biting social commentary that might make even the most self-avowed open-minded viewers squirm. Writer-director Jordan Peele hits a home run in his debut feature, making a mark that one can only hope is a sign of things to come. Those who enjoy thought-provoking cinema with unexpected plot twists are sure to like just about everything this release has to offer.

9. “Logan Noir”

What a difference cinematography can make! This is the version of “Logan” that should have been released in the first place. As good as the full-color edition is, the noir version’s stunning black-and-white cinematography takes an entertaining bubble gum action-adventure and effectively elevates it to the level of a serious screen drama. The atmospheric filming style makes the landscape shots positively gorgeous and adds dimension to the performances of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen, taking them beyond stars in a superhero movie and making them actors in a film worthy of note. It also magnifies the epic quality of this story within the context of the Wolverine franchise, quite an accomplishment achieved with such a simple technological change. Admittedly, the film still drags a bit in the middle, and some of the violence borders on being a tad gratuitous. But, these shortcomings aside, “Logan Noir” is truly a film worth seeing, not only for action-adventure fans, but also for cinema lovers of all stripes.

8. “Ingrid Goes West”

A scathingly devastating dressing down of social media culture and our vapid obsession with today’s undeservedly overrated adult iteration of “the popular kids.” Aubrey Plaza delivers a solid, award-worthy performance in the title character’s role, backed by a strong cast of supporting players who execute their portrayals with precision and incisive accuracy. Those who easily see through the thin veneer of what’s supposedly laudable these days will readily detect the unfortunate shallowness of many of our collective ways wickedly brought to life in this impressive debut feature from director Matt Spicer. Let’s hope the message sinks in, especially amongst those most in need of getting it.

7. “Dunkirk”

How refreshing it is to see a big-budget action-adventure film that truly lives up to all of its pre-release hype. This expertly made World War II saga presents a stirring account of this epic historic event, with a superb, ever-suspenseful narrative that’s backed up by masterful cinematography, editing, special effects and sound technology, as well as an edgy, skillfully applied original score. What’s more, unlike many other war movies, this offering effectively depicts man at both his worst and his best in the same film, quite an accomplishment to be sure. Director Christopher Nolan has clearly knocked it out of the park with this one.

6. “Last Flag Flying”

A truly moving cinematic experience that’s not to be missed. With a rollercoaster of emotions and an intriguing road trip narrative, the film takes viewers through an array of feelings and moods from tremendous hilarity to profound sadness, and nearly always seamlessly. Most of all, however, this latest offering from director Richard Linklater features three of the strongest male lead performances to come along in quite a while (kudos to the casting director for skillfully choosing Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne for their remarkable portrayals and their undeniable chemistry). Admittedly, the picture gets off track a few times, going on several needless tangents, but overall this strong, solid film is well worth one’s time. It’s truly unfortunate that this release has been noticeably, if not deliberately, ignored for awards consideration.

5. “Columbus”

A nearly perfect film in virtually every regard, this quiet, cerebral meditation about life, loving, healing, forgiveness, personal growth and human relations gives viewers much to think about, especially when faced with hard choices. Set against the beautiful backdrop of architectural mecca Columbus, Indiana, the film’s exquisite, Kubrick-esque cinematography, ethereal, haunting score, and deft use of sound provide elegant wrapping for this sometimes-humorous, sometimes-heartbreaking, frequently mesmerizing tale. Don’t expect much action from this one; in fact, don’t be surprised if you often find yourself wondering where the story is going, given its often-cryptic dialogue. But sit back, let the film wash over you and take it all in – you’ll likely be very pleasantly surprised, especially by the outstanding performance of John Cho, who demonstrates talents not seen in any of his previous roles. A quiet masterpiece.

4. “Brigsby Bear”

One of the most creative, thoughtfully written comedy-dramas in recent years. Its quirky but touching narrative, superb script and fine performances make this offbeat, description-defying release a captivating piece of filmmaking from start to finish. And, the closer you pay attention to this one, the more you’ll see, a truly gratifying moviegoing experience. Hooray for Brigsby!

3. “The Shape of Water”

Though at times a little formulaic, this inventive fantasy/fairy tale delivers the goods with superb special effects, gentle humor, heartwarming sincerity, and a host of excellent performances, especially by Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins. Think “Beauty and the Beast” meets “E.T.,” and you’ve got a good idea what’s going on here. This one may strike a few odd chords, but it nearly always does so in perfect pitch.

2. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

This dark comedy-drama, with its ample, in-your-face gallows humor and unrelenting colorful vulgarity, takes big chances on its way to easily becoming one of the best releases of 2017. With stellar performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, the picture keeps us guessing, even when we think we’ve figured things out, using assorted misdirections to captivate viewers throughout. Despite a slight tendency to drag in the second half, the film overall is a flat-out winner, though definitely not something for the sensitive or squeamish.

1. “I, Tonya”

Handily the year’s best, with its wickedly macabre humor and superb performances across the board, especially Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in positively stellar performances. With a kick-ass soundtrack, impeccable editing, excellent writing and a spot-on monologue format, this cynical, fact-based biopic carries the day in virtually every regard. To be sure, sensitive viewers may be offended by some of the language and violence, but both are properly balanced and in context. If you like your comedies with an edge, rush to see this one.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

“The Big Sick”

A charming yet edgy romantic comedy that breathes new life into a genre that has grown progressively tiresome and stale. Based on the protagonist’s own unusual courtship experience, the film takes chances that movies of this ilk are seldom willing to do. Despite a slight tendency to drag a bit in the final 30 minutes, this fresh, lively offering features fine performances all around (especially by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in strong supporting roles) and raucously funny bits not typical of rom-coms. See this one – you won’t regret it. 

“Lucky”

Though sometimes a little too cryptic for its own good, this otherwise-reflective meditation on life, existence, mortality and human relations provides viewers with much to ponder about the state of one’s reality and how it’s shaped. With an excellent, career-topping performance by the late Harry Dean Stanton, coupled with a strong supporting ensemble, this quiet, low-key debut feature from actor-director John Carroll Lynch explores the meaning of life and the secrets to help make it fulfilling, both while we’re here and as we’re about to make our ultimate transition. A promising first effort from a filmmaking newcomer and the crowning achievement of a veteran performer’s repertoire.

“Battle of the Sexes”

A well-crafted time capsule offering that superbly re-creates one of the biggest sports and social spectacles in recent history. With excellent performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell – who practically channel the essence of their characters – and masterful period piece production values, this entertaining offering effectively captures the look and feel of its subject matter and its place in modern American cultural history. Admittedly, the picture tends to drag slightly in the first 45 minutes, but, this shortcoming aside, the film otherwise delivers in every other regard. Game, set, match.

“Marjorie Prime”

A thoughtful, insightful look at coping with grief, promoting healing, reconciling interpersonal discord, preserving memory, growing comfortable with technology, assessing the nature of reality and contemplating the fate of human evolution, all wrapped up in an intimate, beautifully filmed, well-acted, smartly conceived sci-fi offering. Although the script at times doesn’t quite rise up to the level of its narrative and Pulitzer Prize-nominated source material, the film nevertheless touches many bases and gives viewers much to contemplate. With an excellent ensemble cast, highlighted by a superb performance by long-underappreciated character actress Lois Smith, this latest production from director Michael Almereyda once again distinguishes the filmmaker as one of today’s most inventive, ambitious and underrated talents in the business. “Marjorie Prime” may be a little difficult to find, but it’s well worth the search.

“The Journey”

What it lacks in authenticity is more than made up for by its fictional though thoughtful debates of the issues at the heart of the Northern Ireland peace process, why it took so long to resolve and the remarkable steps it required to bring about a workable solution. Add to that the sizzling performances of Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, and you’ve got a riveting series of dialogues that, in lesser hands, might easily have come off as a dry, plodding history lesson. While I usually have issues with films that take such blatant dramatic license, and even though the writing and narrative occasionally go wildly off the rails, this inventive take on this subject matter satisfies immensely without ever becoming tedious or pretentious. There’s much more here than what many of the dismissive accounts contend, and it involves material worth watching – and perhaps applying when circumstances merit.

“Beatriz at Dinner”

At times brilliant, at times frustrating, this dark, sociopolitical satire gives viewers much to ponder both practically and metaphysically, a rare fusion for a film these days. It also manages to maintain a fair amount of suspense at an event – a dinner party – that would seem an unlikely setting for such a narrative quality. Salma Hayek gives one of the year’s best performances, more than adequately backed by a superb ensemble of supporting players, most notably John Lithgow. Admittedly, it’s a little disappointing that the film draws upon a concluding plot device that’s been used before (even if it’s employed in a way not seen before), but, this disappointment aside, “Beatriz at Dinner” gives us much to think about at a critical juncture in our country’s – and our reality’s – history.

“The Post”

After a painfully slow start, “The Post” thankfully finds its legs about 40 minutes in, at last taking off on a more engaging pace as it moves toward an inspiring (albeit predictably feel good) conclusion. It’s a film with a timely (though, one can’t help but cynically wonder, regrettably tardy) message about the state of journalism in an America presently besieged by corporate media consolidation and heavy-handed attempts to quash free speech. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks turn in adequate performances in their lead roles (though definitely far from their best), with the real stars shining in the supporting parts (particularly Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood and Matthew Rhys). Given the current political climate, “The Post” is the right film with the right message that liberal Hollywood adores and loves to lavish with honors. It’s just too bad that it’s not a better picture.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

A vastly underrated gem that definitely deserves wider attention – and  more recognition – than it has received thus far. With what is arguably Annette Bening’s best screen performance, coupled with a fine counterpart lead portrayal by Jamie Bell and an emotive closing song by Elvis Costello, this heartfelt romantic tearjerker justifiably earns every bit of emotion it evokes from audiences. Don’t listen to the cynics; if you enjoy good old-fashioned love stories, go see this one, but keep the tissues handy.

“The Hero”

A quiet but powerful character study about an aging Western movie actor full of regrets seeking to make amends with whatever time he has left. Featuring a solid performance by Sam Elliott in a rare leading role, the film touches the heart without ever becoming maudlin, sappy or manipulative. A genuine surprise worthy of one’s time.

BOTTOM 10

10. “Paris Can Wait”

Though beautifully filmed, this journey through the French countryside can never really make up its mind if it wants to be a travelogue or a romantic escapade. Short on character development and interpersonal chemistry but long on lusciously photographed examples of French cuisine, the story meanders through a largely unconvincing narrative toward a predictable and unsatisfying ambiguous conclusion. This ground has been covered in a number of other prior offerings – and better. Clearly, this is one on which we can all wait.

9. “Wonder Wheel”

While stunning visually, this latest offering from filmmaker Woody Allen has to rank among the worst of his offerings. With leads who are horribly miscast (especially Kate Winslet in a bombastic exercise of overacting), writing that’s seriously bloated and in need of retooling, and characters who are neither likable nor believable, the film tells a tale that in many ways feels like a working class 1950s retread of “Blue Jasmine” with elements of “Café Society” thrown in. As much of a fan as I am of the director’s work, I whole-heartedly recommend skipping this one – and hope that he gets back on track with his next project.

8. “The Beguiled”

While atmospherically on target, this tedious slog never engages, leaving viewers waiting for an ending that takes far too long to come, even in spite of its scant 94-minute runtime. Half-baked performances that could have been phoned in, underscored by virtually nonexistent Southern accents, make for a cast of confederate belles who look bored, disinterested, even robotic at times. The sinister, macabre suspense depicted in the film’s preview makes the picture appear more captivating than it is, a genuine disappointment to be sure. Watch the trailer instead of the theatrical release for this one, and you’ll see a better, if shorter, movie.

7. “Alien: Covenant”

This is a franchise sorely in need of something radically fresh to keep it alive or a cancellation notice to put it (and viewers) out of misery. With the exception of a few spiritual vs. scientific plot devices, there’s essentially nothing new here that we haven’t already seen many (and I do mean many) times before. Any attempts at enlivening the narrative are derivative at best, shedding no particularly new light on why any of this matters (or why viewers should care). Go back and watch the first two movies in the series – they’re much better.

6. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Simply put, a big, fat, incredibly overlong snooze. This poorly written, frequently trite and shamelessly derivative alleged action-adventure saga sapped most of my interest about 20 minutes into its nearly 2.5-hour runtime. To make matters worse, this needlessly episodic trial of viewer patience features abysmal casting (save for a few supporting players irretrievably trapped in their thankless roles), special effects that seem to exist largely for their own sake and a woefully inadequate back story that cripples the picture almost from the outset. Avoid this one if you possibly can.

5. “Mother!”

Pretentious! Obvious! Crap! There – I said it flat out, with the same kind of in-your-face, virtually nonstop barrage of gratuitous imagery that makes up much of the content of this over-the-top exercise in cinematic self-indulgence. Despite several fine performances (particularly Michelle Pfeiffer) and an inventive production design, these assets can’t save this morass of self-evident religious cliché mixed with contemporary social commentary. See this one at your peril lest you come away from it saying “There’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.”

4. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

When making a psychological thriller, the cardinal rule is not to make it boring, but, unfortunately, this dull, unintelligible offering falls into that trap within the first 10 minutes. A stilted script, wooden performances and undecipherable narrative drive this cinematic mess into the ground quickly. It’s truly disappointing that the creator of “The Lobster” followed up that brilliant work with this self-indulgent garbage. It’s one thing for a film to be off-beat and unconventional, but it’s something else entirely to be so muddled that it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. Oh, and by the way, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman – given that you’ve each got two films in my Bottom 10, please start picking your scripts better.

3. “Life”

“Derivative,” it seems, is not just a financial term – it’s also an apt way of describing this flat, unoriginal, overlong, poorly written knock-off of “Alien” with homages to “Gravity” and “Armageddon” thrown in for good measure. The story is wholly predictable in virtually every regard, right down to its supposed final plot twist. Some of the special effects are genuinely well done, but some others are positively silly. It’s easy to see how this one got moved out of the summer blockbuster release season; it would have been easily embarrassed by its competition. The film’s tag line says “We were better off alone”; that really should read “We were better off staying home.”

2. “The Circle”

Is it a thriller? A satire? Both? Neither? It’s hard to tell, since the filmmakers obviously didn’t know what they were doing or trying to achieve. This overwrought, unfocused mess can’t decide what it wants to be. Despite a decent performance by Tom Hanks and an attempt to address issues of social relevance (halfhearted though that effort may be), the picture’s largely preposterous story line, monodimensional character development, and abysmal performances by Emma Watson and (especially) Ellar Coltrane sink this one rather quickly, leaving viewers longing for the ending far ahead of its arrival. Handily one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

1. “Split”

A positively awful movie and a sad cinematic commentary on the career of a director who was once one of Hollywood’s shiny rising stars. Despite James McAvoy’s admirable attempt at putting lipstick on this celluloid pig, as well as some allegedly lofty efforts at trying to elevate the tone of the narrative above its simplistic, unsettling nature, there’s nothing here to make this glorified slasher picture memorable, insightful or, at times, watchable. Keep those hard-earned dollars in your wallet.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

“Wonderstruck”

When one watches a film with the word “Wonder” in the title, one expects it to evoke feelings in line with that term. However, this drawn-out, sleepy mess never lives up to its billing, leaving viewers constantly hankering for the story to “get on with it already.” A true waste of talent, cinematic resources and viewers’ time.

“The Wedding Plan”

What starts out as a modestly funny premise begins falling apart about midway through by lapsing into a series of prolonged, talky conversations that lack even moderate laughs and harp on belabored spiritual and philosophical musings. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t tap into the deep veins of humorous potential here, instead choosing to serve up something far less substantial than it could have been. Send your regrets, and skip this one.

“Ghost in the Shell”

It’s unfortunate when the substance of a good story gets buried under layers of cinematic style, keeping the essence of the underlying narrative from shining through. But that’s precisely the problem with this live action anime feature. An over-reliance on action sequences and stunning (but decidedly excessive) visual effects dilutes the relevance and poignancy of this film, depriving viewers of the most important attribute it has to impart. Scarlett Johansson’s staid, detached bad-ass routine is growing a little stale, too, a virtual carbon copy of the performances she gave in “Lucy” and “Under the Skin.” And then there’s the movie’s tendency to borrow from numerous other sources, like “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Ex Machina” and “Total Recall,” to name a few. Pass on this one – you won’t miss much.

“Call Me By Your Name”

Though beautifully filmed and scored, with generally capable performances, this overrated, tiresome, trite exercise in tedium disappoints overall. With a script characterized by bloated, stilted, implausible dialogue and a narrative that’s been done countless times before, there’s precious little about this annoying slog that we haven’t already seen many, many times previously. Save for one particularly touching scene toward the film’s close that helps to redeem much of what precedes it, “Call Me By Your Name” fails to live up to its potential – or its press releases.

“Phantom Thread”

Despite exquisite costume design, some occasionally humorous moments, and fine performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville, this exercise in pretentious self-indulgence passing itself off as audacious art is cold, unengaging and implausible virtually from the outset. This bizarre fusion of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Beguiled” never gels and leaves viewers wholly unsatisfied by the end of its overlong runtime. It’s unfortunate that Day-Lewis chose this vehicle as the performance to cap off his otherwise-brilliant career.

Copyright © 2017-18, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

 

 

One Comment

  1. Jim p January 16, 2018 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Great top 10 list, Ben! So happy to see some love for Lucky, The Hero, and Battle of The Sexes. Also some bold ‘Worst 10’ selections, with several on other top 10s.

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