Bye bye 2017. It wasn’t a great year for cinema — although it did produce one great movie (“Dunkirk”) and five or six pretty good ones. And that doesn’t even include the movies I’ve yet to see because they haven’t yet been screened in the wilds of Connecticut.
It’s no surprise that most of my movies fall into two categories — blockbusters or arty independent films — given that this is where the creative action is these days. Everyone in Hollywood is either shooting to gross $500 million or win an Oscar, with not a lot in between. This makings rankings a little silly. How are you supposed to decide whether “Lady Bird” is better than “Wonder Woman”? They both have female directors and female protagonists trying to separate from their mothers. The only difference is $450 million in ticket sales.
What’s a little surprising is how many of these movies — nine out of nineteen — are based on true stories, including two that climax with Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. I guess all the original storytellers have moved to Netflix.
I’m a little sad that I only saw 19 movies this year — it’s not like I was giving up on the big screen, but week after week would go by with nothing interesting to watch — and some of the really arty stuff came and went so fast I missed it completely. With that in mind, here’s my list.
The most politically incorrect movie of the year. The entire cast is composed of straight white men, for God’s sake! The rescue of the surrounded British army from the beaches of Dunkirk by a flotilla of small pleasure craft is one of the great stories of World War II and Christopher Nolan has turned it into one of the greatest art films of all time, with minimal dialogue and a conflation of three different time sequences. It’s epic, it’s thrilling and it’s going nowhere at the Oscars.
2. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical account of her high school years in Sacramento is both very specific to its time and class, and universal to everyone who’s ever gone to high school and wanted something more. The main character (played by the actress with the unpronounceable Irish name who starred in “Brooklyn”) struggles to be special and transcend her extremely middle-class background through various misadventures of senior year. Everything seems to be on the line — and it is, for a girl who wants to get away from her hometown.
3. Get Out
Is this a direct attack on the Trump era’s approach to race or a remarkably well-made horror movie in the style of “Rosemary’s Baby”? I’ll leave the politics to others but it is definitely a fun thriller in which the villains are white liberals. Jordan Peale deservedly made a ton of money on this tale of a black dude who hooks up with someone out of a “Girls” episode (literally, it’s Allison Williams who plays Marnie) and ends up in trouble when he goes home to meet her parents. The rising level of creepiness and dawning awareness of what’s happening is masterful. (Fun fact — Jordan Peale is himself married to a white woman — the comedian Chelsea Peretti. I bet Thanksgiving with the in-laws was fun after this movie came out.)
4. Wonder Women
A p superhero movie — maybe the best of all time — because it’s intelligent, wry and to scale (at least until the final 15-minute battle with Ares, the evil god of war). Gal Godot is the perfect Wonder Woman — as sexy as they come and playing the role straight. The political commentary on the fact that the movie had a woman director almost ruined my fondness for the film (see more of my commentary here), but not entirely.
5. The Last Jedi
The most beautiful and best-acted Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi suffers from mid-trilogy syndrome. It’s obviously a bridge to get from the intro film to the finale, with a lot of extraneous filler and a huge body count. A lot of the plot doesn’t make sense, but the characters are well-drawn and appealing. Can’t wait for the next one!
6. Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2
A really fun space movie with enough emotional beats to keep you caring. Who would have guessed that the schlumpy loser boyfriend on “Parks and Recreation” would become a major movie star?
7. The Big Sick
The real life (-ish) story of how the Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his future wife and stood by her while she was in a coma. It’s funny, sweet and touching. Probably the best coma movie since Sandra Bullock’s “While You Were Sleeping.”
8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The character played by Frances MacDormand is wild with fury and grief that the killer of her raped and murdered daughter’s has not been found and seeks to publicly shame the local sheriff. It’s not as depressing as it sounds! Emotionally-compelling and well-crafted until about 2/3rds of the way through when it completely goes off the rails. Not sure what Peter Dinklage is doing in this movie.
9. All The Money In The World
An incredibly tense dramatization of the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty in 1973. I’d have been having a heart attack if I didn’t know how it turned out in real life. This is the movie in which completed scenes by Kevin Spacey were reshot with Christopher Plummer after those unfortunate revelations of sexual misconduct were exposed last fall. Plummer was great, so — good job!
10. Hidden Figures
This movie should have been on last year’s list but was not available for screening when I published last year. Very mainstream entertainment about the genius black women who helped launch the space program through their jobs as human computers. Not particularly complex but the good gals win and it’s very satisfying.
11. Baby Driver
This is a lot of fun if you like car chases and pop music. The title character is a superhuman get-away car driver with daddy issues. Kevin Spacey plays the local crime lord but because the movie came out before those unfortunate revelations his scenes were NOT reshot by Christopher Plummer.
12. Patriots Day
A good recap of the police investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing. Mark Wahlberg is the “everyman” stand-in who is miraculously at the site of every major break in the case. Kudos to the cops who caught these terrorists. It’s amazing to see how they were able to capture these guys so fast. Talk about gripping.
13. American Made
Tom Cruise was born to play this role — the good old boy hot shot pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to smuggle arms to the Contras during the eighties. Based on true events, which I confirmed on wikipedia. Cruise is one of those guys who can’t be bound by everyday conventions and is addicted to danger. BTW, Cruise plays a guy who’s about 35 and he looks it.
14. The Disaster Artist
I was completely unaware that “The Room” even existed and was considered to be the worst movie of all time until this James Franco dramatization. If you are unfamiliar with the story, watch a few YouTube clips of the original movie because you will never believe that such a weird thing ever happened.
15. Darkest Hour
This is a decent counterpoint to “Dunkirk,” depicting as it does the political machinations in the British government while their army was being driven by the Nazis to the Dunkirk beaches. Gary Oldham is very good as Churchill, but the movie feels claustrophobic with all those cabinet meetings. And the invented scenes (like Churchill in the subway) really strain credibility.
16. The Lost City of Z
The last of the “based on a true story” movies I saw this year, this one is about an explorer searching for riches in the Amazon during the early 20th Century. The movie has some things to say about colonialism, dream-seeking, racism, ambition and obsession, but everything proceeds with a stateliness that borders on boring.
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Cute but inconsequential retelling (again!!!!) of the Spider-Man origin story. Tom Holland is winning as the teenage Spidey but I strained to care.
18. Thor Ragnarok
I am not a fan of the Marvel universe, having grown up as a DC Comics kid, but I’d heard this was funny. And it was funny and jokey in the same way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is. But I could not have cared less about the fate of Thor or any of his dysfunctional family. I was so bored I actually walked out half-war through.
19. The Batman Lego Movie
I loved the original “Lego Movie” but making a super-depressed depressed Batman into a superhero Lego protagonist throws away almost all of the joy from the first movie. Like “Thor Ragnorok,” this isn’t exactly a bad movie — I just don’t care for the snarky superhero genre where nothing seems to be at stake.