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Where do I begin to talk about what type of year 2017 has been? It was a year that delivered some big surprises, shocking moments, and intense backlash throughout the filmgoing community. And yet, for a year which saw a lot of folks talking about record lows when it came to box office returns, there was an embarrassment of riches when it came to content, both in wide release and more limited platforms. While the ticket sales may not always have said so, we were gifted with a lot of cinematic wins this past year.
My top 10 was hard to put together, because there were some films I really loved this year, but didn't manage to crawl past the 20 mark. But, as one finds themselves doing in such a situation, I weighed all of the films I'd seen this year, and assembled what I feel are the 10 best. It's an eclectic mix, for sure, but 2017 was an eclectic year. I highly recommend you seek all of these films out, but if there's three I really felt I needed to put a button on, it'd be numbers 9, 6 and 5 (for the record). Anyhow, submitted for your approval, here are my top picks for this past year in film. There are some minor spoilers in some of these paragraphs, so you have been warned!
10. Wind River
I really didn't know anything about Taylor Sheridan until he kicked some awards-season ass last year with his dark horse film Hell or High Water. So, by time I was hearing about Wind River coming to theaters, I didn't hesitate to jump on that train the moment it arrived in the station. I'm so glad I did too, because Sheridan once again displays his fixation with how people of different backgrounds and opinions get along, and in some cases fail to. His leads played by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen navigate such a web of hatred and impulsively macho behavior that by time the film's over, you're almost surprised anyone's left alive at all.
Most importantly, Wind River is a testament to Sheridan's mastery of the western noir genre. We've seen it have a bit of a resurgence since No Country For Old Men won best picture back in 2007, but the genre still has some growing pains to work out. Throughout the entire film, we see what was once the "wild west" in its current state: isolated, disconnected, and washed out from its former glory. Yet if you listen closely in the wind, you can hear that the danger is still in Wind River's setting. I've been afraid that this film may be lost in the shuffle, due to its earlier release than most awards contenders, as well as the fact that it was a product of The Weinstein Company, pre-collapse. But much like his protagonists, Taylor Sheridan's dour murder mystery still stands as a landmark product from 2017's bountiful crop.
I've said it before, other critics have said it before, and I'll say it again for those of you who had any doubt: 2017 was a hell of a year for horror. That statement applies to the international market as well, as Julia Ducournau's Raw uses the genre to rip into cannibalism, virginity, and what it means to be a woman in the modern world. Her protagonist, Justine, arrives at veterinary college a sheltered, closed-off vegetarian, but proceeds to become a sensual cannibal after forced exposure to rabbit's liver during a hazing ritual. And I have to give you a fair warning, if that's enough to cause your squeamish alarm to sound off, you're not going to make it through very much of this film.
While cannibalism is something that horror films have used to great effect time and again, Raw delivers some of the most gruesome kills and displays of consumption of human flesh I've seen in some time. But Ducournau never does this to merely shock the audience, as her shots linger on such actions as the lead biting into her own arm during sex, to remind you that yes -- you did just see that. The film never compromises on its content, and the ending is one hell of a twist that'll stick to your mental bones after you've seen this film. It's a bit extreme, but Raw is the type of female-led horror film we need to refresh the genre.
8. Baby Driver
Edgar Wright, you magnificent bastard. After making a trilogy of films that served as loving parodies of timeworn film genres, with an experimentally delightful comic adaptation somewhere in-between, I'd begun to wonder just how he'd fare with his first "American" film, Baby Driver. But when I sat down to see the film, it didn't take long for me to get the answers, as the opening chase (set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms") told me all I need to know. And that is, you could drop Edgar Wright in the middle of a filmmaking desert, and with enough time and work, he'll build you a water park.
In a year that also gave us The Fate of the Furious, Wright's ode to wheelmen and bank heists gave me a film that outdid the Universal franchise, both in car stunts and in heart. You feel every twist and turn of those chase sequences, all the while rooting for Baby to make it out in one piece, able to go home to his good friend Joseph, and his dearest Debora. And if that wasn't enough, Baby Driver delivers another fried gold mix tape from the mind of Edgar Wright, as well as two frightening villains in both Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm's career criminals. If either of these guys isn't considered to become the next Terminator villain, Hamm especially, then there's no justice in the world.
7. War for the Planet of the Apes
When you get to the third piece of a highly anticipated trilogy such as War for the Planet of the Apes, the need to get it right is high for both the hopeful fans and the creative team that is right in the thick of it. With two increasingly solid entries into the prequel canon that defines just how the planet goes to the apes, the pressure for a third hit was indeed on. And what does Matt Reeves do for his time out as the franchise's steward? He delivers a hard-fought, heartfelt finale that veers into that rarefied air of franchise cappers that know how to do the job, and do it well. This is even more of a miracle when you consider that War for the Planet of the Apes does all sorts of things you'd think a studio would issue notes against.
For example, it relies on subtitles heavily in its first act, as the apes are still mostly signing in conversation, the film is extremely bleak for a good portion of its narrative, and a character who had all the potential to become the next Jar Jar Binks gets some comedic relief notes during said bleak narrative. Yet all of those factors, in the hands of Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback, turn into golden notes of an apocalyptic symphony. But most importantly, this film cements a notion that has been brewing ever since The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Andy Serkis should be an Academy Award winner for his work as a performance captured actor. While we never see the man on the screen, we feel his presence beneath the CGI "makeup." Without him, Caesar is nothing, and his emotional core drives this film home, as his battle with Woody Harrelson's intense Colonel McCullough makes for a finale so satisfying, I kind of hope they don't revisit this franchise ever again. You can't top this one, Fox.
6. Patti Cake$
Fun fact: Much like the characters from one of this year's breakouts from Sundance, Patti Cake$, I too am from the garden state of New Jersey. So naturally, heading into this movie, I was a little wary, as Jersey has been featured, for better or for worse, in so many other films as a setting. I should have known better than to doubt writer/director Geremy Jasper, as his roots in the state show through and through in this rap drama that shows us Patti's journey to fulfilling the promise of her rap alter ego, Killer P. It's not a film made of stereotypes that shorthand how you're supposed to feel about the characters, but rather it uses the coastal state as a colorful backdrop that really gives the film its unique flavor.
You can feel a Jersey spirit in Patti's personal quest to take over the underground rap scene, and Danielle MacDonald not only embodies every insecurity and every braggadocious bone in Patti's body, but she definitely sounds like a Jersey girl -- minus the stereotype. Her lead is someone who you might not click with in the first act, but by time you make your way to the films' final musical number, you can't help but root for "PB&J" to rule the day. Also, if you're used to Bridget Everett as comedic lead, then you have to see Patti Cake$, as her role as Patti's mother gives the film a mother / daughter storyline that glues together the titular character's entire universe in a snarky, crushing fashion.
5. Your Name
The world of animation had a bit of a mixed year in 2017, as there were some hits, misses, and unquestionably misguided ideas that found their ways into living technicolor. Yet despite absolutely giving my heart over to Coco, there was another animated film that won me over much earlier, and much harder, this year: Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. A story of a teenage girl and boy who swap bodies at intermittent period, and for a day at a time, it seems like something that would have been played strictly for laughs and saccharine laden puppy love. But what ends up happening is something much more entertaining, with a deeper current of emotion and urgency.
Without spoiling the events that unfold, there's a twist in Your Name that shifts the tone massively - so much so that I found myself agape in shock, and a bit teary-eyed. What started as a slice of life story of two people getting to know each other turns into a clock racing mystery that embraces the sci-fi genre with both arms. All the while, the beautiful artwork on display throughout the film is so crisp and clear, it presents us with some of the best animation on display in this year, and in quite some time. You may not have heard of Your Name before today, but this film has made quite a splash in the international scene. You owe it to yourself to see the true power of animated storytelling, courtesy of this vastly underrated hit.
4. Blade Runner 2049
Many of you may be just as surprised as I am that Blade Runner 2049 evaporated off of the face of the earth after a decent, but not impressive opening. While the film wasn't destined for box office glory, the critical tsunami of praise lead me to think that the film would have been more of an awards player, much like previous dark horse Mad Max: Fury Road. And yet, Denis Villeneuve's brilliant revival of Ridley Scott's iconic sci-fi universe landed like tears in rain, which is one of this year's biggest shames.
When you create a sequel that not only matches its vaunted predecessor's eye for art design, but also outdoes its progenitor in every way, it deserves to be talked about more than what we're hearing out of awards juries thus far. Be it Ryan Gosling's Officer K piecing together a mystery that leads right to the doorstep of Blade Runner's finale, or Harrison Ford's Deckard rationalizing just how much he knows what's real, every inch of this film's script expands the universe in such a way that it takes the story to new heights, while never straying too far from what the original film set out to do. I don't care about the multitude of reasons Blade Runner 2049 didn't hit at the box office. What I care about is what myself and other fans can do to make sure this film endures, as it just might, and totally should.
3. Get Out
From here on out, we've got the heaviest of hitters in 2017's diverse market of filmed goodies. And out of the top three I've selected, Get Out is probably the most impressive in one, key respect: Jordan Peele. The man's always been known to have impeccable comedic timing on Key and Peele, and his writing chops on that same show were always a delight. But to swerve a hard right into thriller and horror territory, as a first time director, with a script dripping with so much social satire that one false move would have collapsed it, is a feat that demands the utmost respect from all who marvel at it.
Daniel Kaluuya's groundbreaking performance as Chris walks a line between empowered hero and fragile young man in such a way that you can believe him as both. Every time I watch his journey through the funhouse that is the Armitage family's annual auction, I can't help but be amazed at how well all of the pieces fit together. No matter how many times I relive those revelations, I still get to enjoy it as much as I did the first time, as those moments aren't treated as gimmicks, but crucial pieces to an overall disturbing jigsaw puzzle. Peele wears his genre loving heart on his sleeve throughout, and operates within the horror genre's rule set to deliver a film that either makes you scream or makes you laugh, and each at the appropriate time. I couldn't think of anyone better to revive the Twilight Zone brand, as Get Out is basically an extended, R-rated tale in that very milieu.
I don't care if superhero fatigue has hit you twice in the face, and once in the stomach, Logan is proof that there's still gold in them there story hills. Building off of the work they'd done together with The Wolverine, James Mangold and Hugh Jackman set out to make a western in the vein of Unforgiven or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with a comic property that had been solely fodder for PG-13 melodrama. With their efforts culminating in this very film you're reading about, they not only succeeded, but they dared others to follow in their footsteps.
Not only do we get to see the titular X-Men character stripped of his comic ready moniker, but we also get to see a sensitivity and tragic heroism that has only been hinted at whenever Wolverine was allowed to get serious. Seeing Hugh Jackman's Logan slowly dying is only matched, and dare I say surpassed, by Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier: a man who has gone from the most powerful mind in the world, to the most unstable mutant in existence. True, there are still elements in this film that are squarely in comic book territory, but the trio of Logan, Xavier, and Laura, better known as X-23, embark on a journey that paves the way for tentpole films that aren't afraid to have a pulse and show emotion, while displaying some epically brutal violence. This film is supposed to be Jackman's swan song in the X-Men timeline, and with the raw power displayed in this performance, I sure hope they keep it that way. Though if James Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green want to tell us some more stories about Laura and her friends, I'll gladly make the popcorn for the entire theater.
1. The Shape of Water
If I told you about how much I love The Shape of Water, what would I say? Would I start by mentioning it has one of the best murderer's row ensembles in quite some time? Maybe I'd tell you about how Guillermo del Toro has made, quite possibly, the best film in his entire career. Suffice it to say, I'm about to tell you that I loved The Shape of Water, and it's because the film is so damned beautiful and sentimental in what it's trying to tell its audience. Best of all, it tells a story we've heard plenty of times over the course of human history, but does so in its own, honest way.
With Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones anchoring the story with a silent love story that basically mashes up Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the latest del Toro picture is the ultimate adult fairy tale. It doesn't skimp on blood or false modesty, but instead embraces a red blooded tale of love in a time of hate, and preserving that which is different from us, in the name of said beauty. Nothing is wasted on this film, and now more than ever I wish Guillermo del Toro had made his Beauty and the Beast for Disney. If there was ever a person who understood the social and thematic importance of grown-up fairy tales, it's got to be him. The Shape of Water stole my heart, and it's the best damned film of 2017 - full stop.