Michael’s top 20 films of 2017

There were a lot of great films in 2017. So many, in fact, that this year I have decided to do a top 20 list instead of my usual top 10. It means more writing, but trust me, this is a problem any movie buff loves to have.

2017 was a good year for superheros and small indie films, for action and drama and comedy alike, sometimes all within the same movie.

So, what was the best? Let’s get to it!

20. “John Wick: Chapter 2” – The first “John Wick” was a pretty solid action film, but the second entry in the franchise doubles down on everything that made the first so enjoyable, and introduces a hefty amount of intriguing world building that makes it altogether more satisfying. This idiosyncratic, mile-a-minute sequel provided some of the most fun I had at the movies in 2017.

19. “Dunkirk” – You can debate the story merits of most war films, but never the structure. You will either get the story straightforward or through a flashback. The quality can shift, but the structure options are few and sacrosanct. Then Christopher Nolan decided to make a war movie, and changed all that. “Dunkirk” is a film of few words and big feelings. The panic and terror and the confusion are palpable, but perhaps the best thing about the film is the way it is structured. The nonlinear storytelling emphasizes emotion. In doing so it deftly guides its audience on a harrowing journey that is felt every bit as much as it is seen or heard.

18. “Blade Runner 2049” – This belated sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic manages to be nearly as effective a piece of philosophically driven sci-fi as its predecessor. Beyond that lies a compelling neo-noir detective story that is steeped in slow burn atmosphere and a pervasive mood of bleak, impending dread. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is also damned beautiful to look at.

17. “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi” – If you’d have told me that the eighth “proper” episode of the “Star Wars” saga was going to be an epic treatise on the importance of failure and its ability to teach and shape us, I’d have told you that you were nuts, but that is exactly what writer/director Rian Johnson gives us, and it works so well! This is a film with narrative meat, something that takes risks, something blessedly different from the other films in the franchise. “The Force Awakens” was fun and “Rogue One” was great, but for the first time since “Empire,” “The Last Jedi” makes this saga utterly enthralling on multiple levels.

16. “Score: A Film Music Documentary” – OK, film nerd alert. I love movies, as you might have gathered by the fact that my top 10 list has 20 movies on it. One of my favorite things about movies is the music. A good film score is transporting. It can bypass the mind and speak straight to the soul. Naturally, this valentine to the art form speaks to me very much. Seeing the process, the talent and the artistry behind film music is absolutely captivating. The composers in this film are like magicians showing you their tricks.

15. “Mother!” – Are you in or out? Do you love it or hate it? There is no in-between with Darren Aronofsky’s batshit crazy biblical parable. I can understand the sentiment, as Aronofsky does not make his movie easy to like. The start of the film is very deliberately paced, then things slowly amp up as they get weirder, leading to a shockingly violent denouement seemingly designed to polarize audiences even further. Never is an easy answer given for what is going on, but the narrative rewards those willing to put in the work. I for one loved it. I don’t know that I care to ever see it again, though.

14. “Ingrid Goes West” – This movie asks us to spend a couple hours with a genuinely disturbed, lonely person, and as we do, it shows us the myriad ways in which we can all find ourselves isolated and alone, even in a world where the ubiquity of social media is supposedly bringing us all closer together. Aubrey Plaza conveys a sense of desperate loneliness as the titular Ingrid, and Elizabeth Olsen and O’Shea Jackson Jr. do fine work as well. The ending pulls off an odd trifecta of being somehow sad, disturbing and uplifting all at once.

13. “Brigsby Bear” – Kyle Mooney co-wrote and stars in this idiosyncratic, funny and touching story. The underlying plot about a kidnapped adult trapped in a bunker since childhood finally coming face to face with the real world might seem at first blush like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” but “Brigsby” pivots away from those comparisons by telling a story of the way we use pop culture as a safety blanket. It also ultimately becomes a satisfying story about friendship, forgiveness and following your dreams. More about a couple of those themes later in this list.

12. Comic book movies not named “Justice League” – I know lumping all superhero movies into one entry is at best a cop out and at worst an insult to the medium, but I can’t make up my mind and I don’t want a quarter of my list to be superhero movies, so sue me. From the inspired silliness of “Thor: Ragnarok” to the somber gravitas of “Logan” to the feminist roar of “Wonder Woman,” 2017 was a banner year for superhero movies. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” saved the character from the dour and listless direction it had been taken in. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” took a bold risk by narrowing its scope and telling a more intimate story while still delivering plenty of thrills, laughs and quirkiness. Even Batman had his chance to shine, though he did so in a Lego body and voiced by Will Arnett. Indeed, unless your superhero film had the words “Justice” and “League” in the title, it was pretty much guaranteed to work. My personal favorites of the bunch, though only by the narrowest of margins, would have to be “Thor: Ragnarok,” which revels in a sort of kaleidoscopic, almost childlike insanity, and “Logan,” which goes in pretty much the exact opposite direction, sending out the the most popular X-Man in a bittersweet note of tragic victory.

11. “The Post” – Steven Spielberg delivers a lively, timely tale of journalistic nobility with this film, which details The Washington Post’s involvement in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The performances are great and the writing is solid. The film swims in its period vibe, feeling tonally like a cross between “All the President’s Men” and Spielberg’s own “Catch Me if You Can.” As a journalist myself, I had a lot of fun with this. The only reason it isn’t higher on this list is because I couldn’t stop comparing it to “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men” in my mind, and compared to those films, this one feels less substantial.

10. “I, Tonya” – Allison Janney. I just need to say her name. I need to say it first before saying anything else about this film, because as good as it is, that is how much better she is. She gives the best performance of 2017 in this film as Tonya Harding’s brutal, wicked, domineering mother. She manages to pull off a performance that is equal parts funny, tragic and infuriating, finding slivers of humanity in the person of an essentially irredeemably evil character. Margot Robbie is also excellent as Harding, and the film’s themes of the pernicious whims of the American public regarding who they celebrate and demonize are expertly explored.

9. “Baby Driver” – Behold the musical car chase heist movie you never knew you always wanted. Holy hell is this thing fun, and original, and just … well … cool. This is probably the coolest film of 2017. Every frame is steeped in a sense of effortless bravura and joyful swagger. You’ll believe that cars can dance, and not in a lame Pixar way. Gunshots provide the drum line helping to score scenes of violent beauty. Edgar Wright’s dream project finds him at the top of his game. The mind boggles at how a film that is one part “Bullitt” and one part “La La Land” could end up being entirely its own thing.

8. “Molly’s Game” – Aaron Sorkin is a man who knows his way around a sentence, and his directorial debut is full of his trademark crackling, whip-smart dialogue. The movie hurtles forward at a breakneck pace through the rise and fall of Molly Bloom, deftly played by Jessica Chastain. It comes across almost like a feminist “Goodfellas,” with Bloom the stand in for Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. It takes great pleasure in showing us the glamorous, hypnotizing shimmer that can make seedy things look so appetizing.

7. “Lady Bird” – Greta Gerwig is an astounding actress and has co-written some amazing films. Her first foray as a solo writer-director is unbelievable, though. This is a frayed, tender coming-of-age story with a wicked sense of humor, astutely observed and grounded in a deep sense of melancholy. Saoirse Ronan gives a career-best performance in the title role. Laurie Metcalf is great. We’ve all felt what these characters feel at some time, and the movie does a wonderful job of inviting us to reflect on ourselves through their setbacks and triumphs.

6. “The Big Sick” – Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon and Michael Showalter come together to create, (as cliche as it is, it has to be said) the feel-good movie of the year, a movie that feels at once like a natural addition to the classic romantic comedy pantheon and like something entirely new. As screenwriters, Nanjiani and Gordon tell an autobiographical story that is never too cute or too maudlin. It feels sardonic and real, and Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, who plays Gordon in the film, bring a real chemistry to their roles. The entire movie is nothing but warm and heartfelt and charming, all while transcending rom-com conventions by turning them on their ear.

5. “The Disaster Artist” – In 2016’s “La La Land,” Emma Stone belted a tune dedicated to “The Fools Who Dream.” In 2017, James Franco took it upon himself to introduce us to the most notorious of those fools. Tommy Wiseau is not a good filmmaker, not even a competent one, but he had big dreams and he went for them in a big way, and Franco’s film celebrates that. This is a love letter to anyone whose ambitions ever outstripped their talents, to all those who have more bravery than common sense. It doesn’t pull any punches either, and has no compunction making Wiseau look like a vain, moronic jerk at times. Franco’s performance engenders sympathy for Wiseau, though, even at his worst. He manages to transcend impersonation of an admittedly very mockable person to find the humanity underneath.

4. “The Florida Project” – This is a hard film to watch, which is odd because it is also beautiful. In the washed out, weathered margins of the Sunshine State, “The Florida Project” finds not just beauty, but innocence, and it celebrates those things before letting them shatter before our eyes. This is a tragic tale told from a child’s point of view, and it ultimately deals with the beginnings of the cocoon of childhood innocence falling away. It is brutal, but also breathtaking.

3. “The Shape of Water” – Continuing our beauty trend, “The Shape of Water” has probably the most sumptuous visuals of any film released this year. Every second of the film is pure art, fit for framing. It is also incredibly moving and magical. Director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro hides multiple stories of self-discovery in a deceptively simple tale of a woman falling in love with a merman. With nary a word uttered by either of them, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones command the screen, turning in performances that by turns elicit laughter and heartbreak. The evocative mood of the film is utterly transporting, helped along not just by the visuals, but by Alexandre Desplat’s masterful score, which is the best of 2017.

2. “Get Out” – Jordan Peele’s debut film  is not a comedy, despite what the Golden Globes would have you believe. It has a way of making your skin crawl, even if you are laughing. You might not even know why you’re laughing. Discomfort? Awkwardness? That is not to say that there aren’t real laughs to be had, but Peele isn’t concerned with them. They are the metaphorical spoon of sugar to help people more readily digest this thoughtful, complex narrative about race in America. The script wallows in racial tensions, and relishes in confronting the audience with them. Its commentary constantly shifts, winding toward its final message. Racism is alive and well in America today, hiding in plain sight and every bit as destructive as it has always been. Does that make you uncomfortable? It should. Peele uses the horror genre in the same way that Gene Roddenberry used “Star Trek” or Rod Serling used “The Twilight Zone,” to say something important that some people don’t want to hear in a way that might force them to hear it.

1. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Human beings are complex creatures, not all good or all bad, and motivated by a cornucopia of thoughts and feelings. The characters at the heart of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are people. Fully realized people. Besides the brilliant dialogue and compelling story and great score and all the other amazing things that Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece brings to the table, that is the ace up its sleeve. It traffics in humanity’s gray areas, steadfastly refusing to vilify almost everyone it introduces to us. It is interested in what motivates people, the way they find joy, the way they numb pain, and the causes of both. Frances McDormand gives a performance to rival her work in “Fargo” while Sam Rockwell turns in one that just might define his career, and together with the rest of the cast they inhabit a world that feels tangible, hewn in wood and brick and rust, weathered every bit as much as the characters. These are people who have endured tragedy, and it is a tragedy that sets the plot of the film in motion, but human existence is fluid, laughs come with the pain, and people change or our perceptions of them do. This is a movie that knows that, and it is 2017’s best.

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