For me, 2017 goes in the books as the year when we don’t have to comment on special effects anymore. In major motion pictures, they are almost universally good now, and if they aren’t, it’s because the studio purposely cut corners. As such, several blockbuster science fiction movies find spots on my list, starting with the year’s most pleasant surprise.
1. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” – Fifty years after its debut, the cult classic French comic-strip and comic-book series by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières gets a triumphant big-screen treatment from “The Fifth Element’s” Luc Besson. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are in fine form as galactic cops and potential lovebirds Valerian and Laureline, although it’s forgivable if they are sometimes upstaged by the sights and sounds. Between Rihanna’s shapeshifting lounge singer and the vibrant sets on the sprawling space station of the title, “Valerian” makes a viewer want to move to this world and live in it. The undercurrent about how individuals can propel wars gives the adventure a purpose.
2. “War for the Planet of the Apes” – The pre-make trilogy (for now; there could be more films) beautifully wraps up with an engrossing – if mistitled – Western-style feud between ape leader Caesar (Andy Sirkis plus state-of-the-art motion capture) and a human military leader (Woody Harrelson). The fact that most of the movie features CGI simians (including Steve Zahn’s lovable Bad Ape) and we don’t stop to think about it is incredible, but “War” also offers up food for thought on the reasons why modern military conflicts tend to be endless.
3. “The Big Sick” – In a down year for comedies, this personal work from “X-Files Files” podcaster Kumail Nanjiani adapts the real-life story of his wife Emily’s (Zoe Kazan in the movie) illness and subsequent coma. Struggling comedian Kumail’s touch-and-go bonding with Emily’s parents – played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano – rings true, and Nanjiani finds the right balance of jokes and bittersweet life and career struggles.
4. “Logan” – This marks Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine, and what a way to wrap up 18 years as the most popular X-Man. The capper of the “Wolverine” trilogy is a superhero flick that eschews the superhero trappings, as – in a deeper version of the arc from 2000’s “X-Men” – Logan reluctantly becomes a father figure to a girl mutant with a lot of similarities to himself. That girl’s adamantium-claw-aided dispatching of soldiers is a notable gleeful/violent sequence in a year filled with them.
5. “Wonder Woman” – After years of mostly too-grim fare in the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, director Patty Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg remind everyone how to make a superhero movie. And it doesn’t hurt that Gal Gadot is somehow able to combine goodness, humility, beauty and power in one package. Diana’s weird but rich backstory about her upbringing on a magic island of women warriors is followed by her navigation of World War I-era Europe and fun fish-out-of-water gags as she’s accompanied by an American soldier (Chris Pine).
6. “Kong: Skull Island” – 2005’s “King Kong” set the bar high in the genre of action extravaganzas, and it didn’t seem a reboot was necessary. But this version finds new entry points into the familiar “Kong” mythos, as American soldiers in the wake of the Vietnam War are dispatched to the fabled Pacific island. Seventies music and characters with various motives (including Samuel L. Jackson’s lieutenant, John Goodman’s scientist, Brie Larson’s photographer and John C. Reilly’s marooned WWII pilot) provide momentum, but the action sequences still stand out, whether Kong is swatting down choppers or squaring off in an epic bout with the island’s big, bad skullcrawler.
7. “Get Out” – Writer-director Jordan Peele delivers a horror thriller with a social message that’s catnip for critics making end-of-year lists, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a clever movie. A young black man accompanies his white girlfriend to her family cabin for the first time, and what starts out as parents trying too hard to be too cool around him gradually transforms into a deeper mystery.
8. “John Wick: Chapter 2” – After establishing this unique world of principled hitmen in the 2014 original, the sequel revels in it. Man-of-few-words Wick (Keanu Reeves, continuing in the career-revitalizing role) goes through challenges like stages in a video game, whether he’s using his apparently reinforced car or his bevy of guns as weapons. But he’s worth rooting for as he moves toward revenge in a single-minded yet measured fashion.
9. “Split” – 2015’s “The Visit” gave us hints, and now “Split” confirms that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is back in a creative groove we haven’t seen in 15 years. An acting showcase for “X-Men’s” James McAvoy – who plays various personalities within the same body — and “The Witch’s” Anya Taylor-Joy, the film works as a straight-ahead kidnapping-and-escape story. But also, enough time has passed that revelations in the style of 2000’s “Unbreakable” have become fresh again.
10. “Gifted” – “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb returns to the genre of sweet and humorous character studies in this story of Frank (“Captain America’s” Chris Evans), whose rather informal custody of orphaned 6-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) comes under legal fire. Webb and writer Tom Flynn know how to tee it up for the talented young actress, whose math-prodigy Mary is mostly big-hearted but can get entertainingly (yet believably) snarky with adults such as her teacher (Jenny Slate).
What were your 10 favorite movies of 2017? Share your list in the comment thread.