In a typical year, we don’t get most of the really good movies until after Labor Day. Comparatively speaking, maybe that will still be true of 2017, but the first 2/3 of the year has seen an uncharacteristic embarrassment of riches. Just right now, on Labor Day weekend, at the multiplex a mile from my house, are eight (8!!) films with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of over 80%. That is unheard of for this time of year.
Now, there’s certainly a case to be made that the increased ubiquity of Rotten Tomatoes in determining the choices of moviegoers has led to less dissension among critics (because it singles them out more obviously and calls their against-the-grain opinions into question more savagely), and perhaps great Rotten Tomatoes scores are easier to come by than they ever have been before. But even still, I believe we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees this year (rare for pre-September releases), and 2017 has undoubtedly been the best year for action cinema since the heydays of the early-‘90s.
Indeed, I had initially planned on just writing a Top 20 of the year so far, but my initial list of 38 possibilities meant cutting down to 20 was just too difficult.
1. Get Out
I won’t bury the lead; Get Out is the most interesting movie about race that I’ve ever seen. It’s also among the movies I’ve spent the most time wrestling with in my head. At its most uncomfortable core, it’s a film about white fascination with the bodies of black men, and the need to evaluate and control those bodies for our own use—be it sports, labor, or even the pervasive fantasies of “bbc” porn (*not* a reference to the British Broadcasting Corporation). I’m confident in saying Get Out will be studied and dissected for generations.
2. The Big Sick
When I saw this at Sundance, I heard a packed theater in Utah laugh hysterically at a Pakistani immigrant making a 9/11 joke. That’s how I knew I was watching something special. The Big Sick works so well because it hits on so many elements and themes that are universal to the human experience—love, family, tradition, immigrants, forgiveness, parental expectations, healthcare, and having to spend time with your ex-girlfriend’s parents while she’s in a coma. We’ve all been there. This true story is funny, sad, touching, and uplifting.
3. Good Time
As a big believer that the last ten minutes of The Last of the Mohicans are as utterly perfect as cinema gets, it makes sense that Good Time would so enrapture me. It’s all propulsive score, kinetic editing, and adrenalized characters running across New York. But in this case, the score is electronic (and incredible), and the New York we get is a dirty part of Queens. This is as stylish as a crime movie can get without sacrificing its lowlife authenticity.
4. Atomic Blonde
2017 had already given us Baby Driver’s incredible action soundtrack and John Wick: Chapter 2’s incredible neon action set pieces (read about both a little further down), but Atomic Blonde somehow combined both. Charlize Theron, as a spy in Cold War–era Berlin, in fight scenes choreographed as impossible long takes and tracking shots, set to ‘80s Europop songs (New Order, Depeche Mode, Bowie, etc.). Yes please. I only wish the totally superfluous lesbian sex scene had been cut so I don’t feel quite as predictable for loving this movie so much.
At the heart of Detroit is a centerpiece scene of police interrogation and brutality that’s probably over an hour long, and despite how harrowing it is to watch, it’s so equally intense that turning away didn’t even occur to me. I was too locked in its thrall. Most filmmakers wouldn’t have the confidence to hold a movie’s collective breath for that long, but Kathryn Bigelow is as much “not most filmmakers” as anyone can get. This movie will anger some people, but that’s okay. Provocative art should be divisive sometimes.
6. Baby Driver
After Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright clearly has a knack for making me fall in love with movies that I wasn’t sure would be my cup of tea. Baby Driver’s genius is all in the tunes, and Wright perfectly nails making them not seem too cool for their own good. More than anything, the movie sounds like someone with great taste just left their iPod on shuffle—there’re a few classics, several deep cuts, and a few kitschy things that absolutely aren’t getting apologized for. Nor should they be.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming
We’d already gotten two Spider-Man movies this decade—in 2012 and 2014—and the second one felt so stale that the series was prematurely cancelled. Seeing Marvel resurrect the franchise just three years later, and somehow making the freshest, liveliest superhero film in years, is a mini-miracle. What Homecoming gets so right (and what none of the five previous Spidey films really attempted) is that it’s a high school movie more than anything. It’s Marvel’s best attempt yet at fusing a superhero flick with a traditional movie genre.
8. Wind River
After writing two great films, Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan completes his trilogy on the American frontier with this, his directorial debut. Like its predecessors, Wind River is principally about a place (in this case, a Wyoming Indian reservation), and the crime that develops from the collective struggles of its inhabitants. Sheridan’s work explores how differing concepts of justice manifest across disparate places, and that’s on full display here. He’s already a contender for the best screenwriter of his generation.
9. John Wick: Chapter 2
As a piece of pure entertainment, Chapter 2 ups its predecessor with better fights and better locales. But John Wick: Chapter 2 also manages to function as a sneaky piece of art cinema—most of it’s fights and chases are filmed amid neon accent lights and reflective surfaces, making this (maybe) the most interestingly shot mainstream action movie ever. One scene particularly reminded me of Enter the Dragon’s climactic mirror sequence.
10. Lady Macbeth
For as long as I can remember, my least favorite film genre has always been British period pieces in which aristocratic characters wallow in ennui about their boring, privileged lives. If you feel the same, then Lady Macbeth is absolutely the movie for you. It’s basically Breaking Bad: “19th century English countryside edition.” Or, think of it as the first Game of Thrones prequel; watch a normal girl turn into Cersei Lannister in a brisk 90 minutes.
The concept seems like pure Linklater—two people at a personal crossroad meet in a city famous for its architecture, and then they walk around, look at the buildings, and talk about life. But the execution is much more like classic art house cinema—Ozu or Bresson. The frames are perfectly composed, the camera barely moves, and the film is quiet, pensive, and lyrical. It’s almost a visual work of modernist theory, but done as a non-experimental, traditional narrative. That won’t be an endorsement for everyone, but it’s really lovely.
12. A Ghost Story
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a married couple living in a small house. Then, he dies. He returns to their house as a ghost (with a sheet over his head). As time passes, he silently observes his wife, and, eventually, new tenants in the property. If this doesn’t sound interesting to you, then it probably won’t be. A Ghost Story is a meditation on the passage of time, and part of its arsenal is making you, the viewer, fully experience that feeling of time passing. It’s slow, but that’s the point. It’s also profound and beautiful.
13. Whose Streets?
There are (basically) two kinds of documentaries—those that capture something as it’s happening, and those that illuminate the past. Films of the first type rarely capture major events that shake a nation, because you can’t normally plan for such things and filmmaking takes preparation. Whose Streets?, a first-hand account of the Ferguson riots following the shooting of Michael Brown, is an exception. It’s an intense, heartbreaking, and monumental piece of history. If you don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement, please please see this.
14. The LEGO Batman Movie
It’s hopelessly and depressingly ironic that, while DC won’t allow their characters to be funny in their official films, when their parent company, Warner Bros., makes a LEGO movie out of DC characters, it’s the funniest movie of the year. DC wants their films to be unrelentingly dark, but The LEGO Batman Movie fully takes the piss out of that darkness, and out of Batman’s entire (fictional) psyche. It’s as epic a takedown of the character as could be imagined, but it’s done in an incredibly loving, hilarious, and creative way.
I fall in the minority who did not think Dunkirk was an utter masterpiece of cinema. It’s a survival story in which I didn’t care about who actually survived, because the film only used its characters as props. It’s the first Christopher Nolan film that didn’t care deeply about psychology, and when the denouement came, I felt nothing. However, as a piece of technical craftsmanship, Dunkirk truly is a masterpiece, which is why I couldn’t possibly leave it off this list. The air battles alone are worth the price of admission.
Seriously, I was the last person that ever thought I might like a cannibal horror film. Raw premiered at two different major festivals I attended and I stayed the hell away. Only after great reviews and friends’ recommendations made me feel obligated to see it did I begrudgingly do so. But damn, it’s great stuff. Really, it’s less of a cannibal flick and more like David Cronenberg (in classic, pseudo-erotic body-horror mode) directing a Chemical Brothers music video. It’s not for the weakest of stomachs, but I handled it just fine.
For a plot description of Colossal, I’ll leave it to how the director, Nacho Vigalondo, first described it to co-star Jason Sudeikis (please try to read this in a thick Spanish accent): “It’s about a woman who, every time she drinks, a monster attacks South Korea.” In terms of plot, yep, that’s Colossal. But what it’s really *about* are the ways jealous men attempt to control women, and how the women can break free. It’s strange and kinda ridiculous, but it’s the best (only?) feminist monster movie since Aliens. Anne Hathaway kills it.
18. Wonder Woman
In some ways, because of the stakes, the best thing about Wonder Woman is that it doesn’t suck. But that shouldn’t diminish the fact that it’s also really good! Every Marvel superhero movie seemingly doubles as a comedy, and the other DC superhero movies just represent a corporation’s idea of a 14-year-old boy’s idea of psychological complexity. But Wonder Woman succeeds at something that’s become a complete afterthought in comic book movies—it’s actually inspiring. It allows its hero to feel purely heroic. In 2017, we all need that.
19. Ingrid Goes West
When a disturbed young woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) becomes obsessed with an Instagram “influencer,” she decides to seek her out IRL and be her friend. Ingrid is hard to nail down into a genre. It’s not so much a black comedy as it’s just a depressing comedy. Like the great “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, Ingrid Goes West is an exploration of what the need for social media “Likes” is doing to us, and the psychological problems that can emanate from it. At the very least, it’s a film that might make you put your phone down for a bit.
20. I, Daniel Blake
When the titular Daniel Blake, a carpenter in New Castle, can no longer work because of a heart condition, he discovers the British welfare system is designed less to help people than to deter people from receiving help. The winner of the 2016 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this isn’t a movie with a happy ending, but it reflects reality all too clearly. As we watch our own government continue to dehumanize us, I, Daniel Blake is a heartbreakingly relevant film about not letting the system steal your dignity from you.
21. Patti Cake$
There are elements of Patti Cake$—about an overweight Jersey girl with the talent and dreams of becoming a rap star—that feel overly familiar. It’s an underdog story, and a story about attempting to belong in a subculture that doesn’t want you. But Patti Cake$ knocks it out of the park in two prime areas: the tunes are wonderful and potent, and the characters (and actors) have a genuine earnestness in their search for acceptance that’s truly affecting. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleaser, this is it.
22. Logan Lucky
After directing three Ocean’s movies, and three movies with Channing Tatum, Steven Soderbergh came out of his self-imposed feature-film retirement to combine his two favorite pastimes. But somehow, Logan Lucky, which is basically a redneck version of an Ocean’s movie (set at a West Virginia NASCAR race instead of a Vegas casino), feels more like a Coen Brothers movie—it’s all about the characters’ local dialect and amusing drawl. But hey, anytime you can see a movie that combines Soderbergh and the Coens (kind of), what are you waiting for?
23. Band Aid
At first glance, Band Aid seems like one of those indie movies; you know, the kind where you read the plot and just think it arrived off of a bearded hipster assembly line. A husband and wife who can’t stop fighting decide to turn their fights into songs and form an indie-pop band. With Fred Armisen on drums, natch. But Band Aid isn’t merely cutesy-funny (though it is that, too). There’s real emotion, pathos, and pain explored here, and writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones is a revelation of talent.
24. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
It’s a misconception that the government didn’t go after any banks after the 2008 financial crisis. They did actually go after *one*: a small bank in New York’s Chinatown called Abacus. But why was this tiny, family-run operation being prosecuted while the Wall Street executives behind the crash were just cashing their bonus checks? That’s what documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) explores here, in a powerful story about a small immigrant family literally taking on the government. Telling stories like this is why great documentaries remain so vital.
25. The Hounds of Love
When I say this movie might not be for you, I mean it *really* might not be for you. It’s an Aussie movie about a teenage girl who gets kidnapped by a couple to be their temporary sex slave, but she starts playing her captors against each other. It’s not a pleasant film (at all), but its style and use of music is hypnotic. Yes, I know how awful it is to laud the style of a movie that’s basically about rape and torture. But you have to love anything that does to “Nights in White Satin” what Reservoir Dogs did to “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
And now we’re off to the fall “good movie” season! Will any of the above still be around for my end-of-the-year list? Stay tuned.