Long time no see, my fellow moviegoers and laymen! It's been several months since I've sat down and talked about the topic of film, and for the select few who actually paid attention to what I've been trying to do on here, I apologize for taking such a long hiatus. Unfortunately, the ole job has been extremely hectic and energy-sapping the last few months so it's taken me away from reviewing and talking movies. But laziness-related excuses aside, I'm back to make a more concerted effort to reintroduce movie discussions into my normal routine.
With the New Year well under way, I figured the best way to return to this whole movie reviewin' schtick was to breakdown what I thought were the Best of the Best, the Cream of the Crop, the Creme de la Creme, the...Bee's Knees? No, simply, the Top 10 movies I saw in 2017. Before I get into them, here is my general criteria for what I looked for and, ultimately, got out of the movies on my list and the rationale for why they ended up on my list:
1) They are movies I've actually seen. In other breaking and obvious news, water is wet, death and taxes are certain, and 2009's The Last Airbender is the worst adaptation of any beloved source material ever put to screen (sorry....that one still hurts). I know it seems self explanatory, but I feel it's important to mention because there are several movies I haven't been able to see this year that I feel would have a legitimate shot at making my list. Movies like The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, Coco, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Molly's Game, and several more have been getting rave reviews from critics and casual moviegoers alike, but unfortunately, I haven't been able to see them for a variety of reasons (the main one being a lot of them are your typical Oscar contenders/hopefuls who hold limited releases at the end of the year only to release them early the following year once the Oscar buzz has fully kicked in...a practice I hate because I want to see these movies now).
2) Technically and objectively, they were executed brilliantly. Being a layman in terms of filmmaking, I cannot go into full detail about what makes a movie great or horrible in terms of all the technical aspects. However, in general, if the movies look great and have well-written dialogue, believable and emotionally gripping acting, fascinating characters, top line visual effects, satisfying structure, story elements, you name it, and they blend all these components in a way that makes me appreciate them both during and after the experience, I cannot deny that they were objectively great and deserve a spot on my list.
3) They a) tell original stories or b) tell familiar stories but do so in a unique way, and because of this, they stuck with me. While there are movies on here that will seem like retreads or, dare I say, safe products produced by well-oiled machines (SPOILER ALERT: Marvel made its way onto my list. Sue me!), they still all found ways to deliver something to their stories that are truly unique and that separate them from the rest of the pack for me.
4) In lieu of or, preferably, in addition to being original and unique, their stories stick with me and demand that I continue to think about their themes, moral arguments, their inspiring and touching messages, and, in some cases, their haunting cautionary tale elements, long after I've left the theater (or closed my streaming browser on my computer).
5) Last but not least, these movies entertained the crap out of me. As much as the moral absolutist in me enjoys taking what is subjective, such as film, and coming up with arguments for why it is objectively good or bad, there are some movies on here that I simply cannot deny were just plain awesome, as subjective as my opinion may be. While I've tried to broaden my appreciation for all film, both big and small, over the years, sometimes I just can't help but get swept up in a good action flick or something else that may not be as much of a "tour-de-force" as, say, Call Me By Your Name (as you can guess, that's not on my list. I'd bore you with why I'm not even considering watching it, but I'll let a simple Google search of its plot do the talking for me).
Now that I've established the ground rules, so to speak, I won't waste anymore time. Here it is! This is the Movie Layman's Top 10 Films of 2017!
10. War For the Planet of the Apes
Kicking off my list is the epic conclusion to the grand sci-fi trilogy reboot to the Planet of the Apes franchise, War For the Planet of the Apes. I've already given my full breakdown of this film in my Apes review, so I won't repeat everything I said there. That being said, I will reiterate that War is a satisfying and fitting conclusion to one of the best sci-fi franchises in recent years and one of the best complete movie trilogies of all time. While it didn't quite live up its namesake in terms of big battles and war-related action ("War" was a bit of a misnomer if you ask me), it is a mesmerizing and harrowing tale of Caesar (played brilliantly by a performance captured Andy Serkis) and his struggle to lead his apes/people in the face of impending doom, personified by Woody Harrelson's Colonel.
There are two things that ultimately keep this movie from being higher on my list. The first is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second installment in the rebooted Apes trilogy, was my favorite movie of 2014 and remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Unfortunately, War did not quite match the spectacle, story, and overall cinematic bliss present in Dawn, so chalk it up to being a hard act to follow. The second reason was the marketing. My expectations going into this film were wildly different from what I ultimately received from watching it, and I put that partially on the actual marketing and also on the name given to the movie itself. Rather than being a bombastic conclusion to an epic series, it is more of a character piece and introspective look at Caesar. Neither of these things are necessarily an indictment on the quality of the film itself; in fact, now that I know what to expect from the film, I feel that I would find a second viewing far more enjoyable because I would buy more into the examination of the psyche of Caesar. Therefore, these are sort of unfair criticisms. For that reason and the overall quality of filmmaking at play here, War For the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant achievement that deserves a spot among the best films of 2017.
9. Baby Driver
Next on the list is one of the most stylistically unique films of the year, and that is Baby Driver. Sporting a star studded cast consisting of Jaime Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey (yikes...this is unfortunate), Baby Driver also introduced me to an extremely talented young actor by the name of Ansel Elgort, who plays the film's namesake, Baby. The film is a crime drama comedy potpourri infused with and driven by (PUN!!!!!!...I'm ashamed now) an infectious soundtrack that rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy from a few years ago. Baby is a talented getaway driver under the employ of Kevin Spacey's Doc, who is some sort of crime boss who is in the business of planning heists and assembling the teams to carry out those heists. As he displays his impressive driving skills to keep the bank robbers out of the clutches of police, Baby meets a girl by the name of Debora (Lily James) along the way and finds what just might be true love (awwwwww :'D). But can Baby balance his budding romance with the treacherous risks associated with the lifestyle by which Doc has him imprisoned? Watch the movie to find out!
First off, elephant in the room time. Yes, Kevin Spacey is in this movie. Yes, by all accounts, he is a despicable human being who, if he is guilty of the allegations leveraged against him, deserves to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (considering that his only "defense" was to "choose to live as a gay man," I think it's safe to say he is guilty of everything that has come out so far). Luckily, he is not the main character and he is supposed to be a despicable character in the movie anyway, so it sort of works out. Like I said, I hope he gets whatever he deserves legally. At the same time, I'm not going to retroactively despise all movies that happen to have him in them; I'm not going to give him that much power (I will say that I probably won't watch anything with him in the future...if he is ever able to get a job again to begin with).
All that being addressed, this movie is the definition of a fun, whacky adventure with a flavor of legitimate suspense, action, and even romance. Edgar Wright, who is responsible for one of my favorite comedies of all time, Shaun of the Dead, is the perfect director for a movie with this quirky style. He is able to infuse Baby Driver with strong characters and emotional depth, all while encouraging the audience to smile from ear to ear from start to finish. Baby Driver also takes a soundtrack that is strong and delightful in its own right and transforms it into a crucial aspect of Baby's character. Whenever a movie is able to inject a soundtrack directly into the movie's story without going too far by winking and nodding at the audience, I have to give it kudos. Full of heart pumping car chases and action sequences, laughs, and heartwarming performances from its romantic leads, Baby Driver was one of the biggest pleasant surprises for me going to the theaters this summer.
8. Get Out
Next up is Jordan Peele's writing and directorial debut and brilliant addition to a genre in which I usually have no interest whatsoever, Get Out. One half of the Key & Peele sketch comedy duo flips a switch and uses his innate comedic skills and applies them to a horror movie, and by some miracle, it works magnificently without coming off as a parody. Get Out follows a young man, Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) who is dating a young woman, Rose Armitage (played by Allison Williams), and the beautiful couple decides it's time for Chris to meet Rose's parents. The catch? Chris is black and Rose's family is a bunch of old, crusty white people, and her parents don't know he's black! This sounds like the perfect set up to an unholy amalgamation of Meet the Parents and Blazing Saddles. Let the uncomfortable, racially based hijinks of this fish-out-of-water yuck fest begin, right? WRONG! What transpires after this straight forward set up is an incredibly unsettling mystery horror flick where our hero Chris becomes more and more disturbed by what he sees as he interacts with Rose's family and their black maid and groundskeeper. Is he simply paranoid, or are there nefarious deeds going on behind the scenes? Will Chris survive the weekend? Would Rose's dad actually have voted for Obama to a third term?
I didn't watch Get Out until this past week because, to be honest, it flew under my radar and I didn't expect much from it. Plus, I'm not a horror movie buff by any means so I didn't see the need to see it ever, let alone when it came out last February or March. But the word of mouth for this movie was so tremendous and ravenous that I've kept it in the back of my head until I finally decided to pull the trigger and watch it, and I must say, I'm glad I did. Get Out is the rare horror movie that focuses its attention more on the story being told, the characters involved, and the overall atmosphere that those two elements combine to create, rather than on jump scares or gruesome, highly disturbing visuals that are typical of Get Out's contemporaries. The writing for this movie was nearly flawless. The dialogue is some of the most natural, effortless, and subtly humorous dialogue of any movie all year. Moreover, there isn't a single wasted story element to be found; every piece of dialogue, backstory, exposition, and visual storytelling is used to setup something that will pay off later in the movie (I'm not here to spoil the movie so please see it so you know what I'm talking about). On top of all that, it accomplishes what other horror movies I enjoy, such as Silence of the Lambs, accomplish, and that is it sets up a nail-biting, atmospheric, and creepy mystery story in a way that doesn't go over the top in the gore or shock department. It's more creepy than scary, and that's exactly how I like my horror/suspense thrillers. Finally, for anyone who is worried that it hits you over the head with overt sociopolitical messages or political parallels, I suppose it is a little on the nose in light of all the racial unrest in our country over the past few years. However, I think it ultimately took the topic of under-the-surface racism and manipulated it into a fun, cathartic sci-fi suspense thriller that people on either side of that political issue can enjoy.
7. Wind River
At Number 7, I have CSI: Wyoming...whoops, I mean Wind River. This sweeping crime drama is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote one of my favorite movies from last year, Hell or High Water, and stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a Wildlife Services tracker in Wyoming on a Native American reservation, Wind River, and Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner, an FBI agent who comes to Wind River to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in the local Native American community. What follows is a harrowing whodunnit murder mystery that transports the audience into the harsh, frozen tundra of the Wind River reservation as Cory and Jane team up and do everything they can to find justice for a poor young girl in a place where law and order is little more than a pipe dream.
The success of this movie, for me, rests primarily on the shoulders of Taylor Sheridan, who tells an immersive story about community, loss, desperation, and survival in an area of the country that is rarely explored in film, and Jeremy Renner, who delivers his best dramatic performance since his breakout role in 2009's The Hurt Locker. Renner is given a tragic backstory that directly informs the connection he has with this community as well as why he finds such a deep sense of purpose in this case. While he has received more notoriety from his role in the Avengers movies as Hawkeye (which he knocks out of the park by the way), Wind River reminds the audience of why he has become such a huge star in the first place: at his roots, he is a tremendous actor. This isn't to take away from the rest of the cast. Elizabeth Olsen comes to play in her role as Jane and has great moments. One of the unsung heroes of the film is Gil Birmingham, who plays the father of the murdered young woman. His performance is truly heartbreaking and contextualizes all of the emotional beats of the film. One of my favorite scenes in Wind River is a conversation between him and Renner's Cory about their respective losses and how they continue on and cope. On top of all this, the last 30 minutes of the film are exhilarating and contain intense action that put a great cap on a compelling story. Overall, Wind River is a crime drama that doubles as a thoughtful examination of loss and justice in the face of that loss, as well as what separates justice from vengeance, and what moral challenges both present to the individual as well as a community.
6. Thor: Ragnarok
Changing pace at Number 6, I have one of the most fun Marvel Studios experiences I've had in a theater in quite some time, Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel rarely misses these days, so it's not entirely surprising that one of their films usually ends up on my list each year. On the flip side of this coin though, Marvel's consistency can sometimes make it hard for its individual flicks to stand out from the rest of the (generally strong) pack. Thor: Ragnarok, however, succeeds in this sense for me, which is astonishing considering that it's the 3rd installment of an otherwise lackluster series of movies (I enjoy the first 2 Thor movies, but they're admittedly not all that great). Ragnarok follows Thor as he returns to Asgard after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he received visions of the death and destruction of all things, "Ragnarok." Almost as if to answer the call, Thor and Loki are confronted by their sister (step-sister? She's Odin's daughter, I don't know), Hela (played by a charismatic Cate Blanchett), who threatens the safety of all of Asgard. At the same time, Thor finds himself hurled onto an unknown planet that has no knowledge of his status as God of Thunder, where he is essentially enslaved and forced to fight in gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum...AMAZING). From there, Thor needs to figure out a way to return to Asgard in order to prevent Ragnarok at the hands of his evil sister.
This movie is a Flash Gordon-esque, synthesized 80's rock infused, fantastic sci-fi trip. Wildly different from any Thor movie we've seen so far, Ragnarok is an inspired breath of fresh air that lets us see Thor in his full bad ass glory in a way that I haven't seen before. Plus, we are reunited with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk (whaaaaat???), and it's quite simply awesome. The movie is full of great fight sequences and action, it is hilarious, and it is everything that a summer blockbuster should try to be......even though it technically came out in November. I think the real reason this movie sticks out for me is that in addition to delivering on all the action and comedy that we've come to expect from Marvel, the movie quietly accomplishes a fairly compelling arc for our brash, typically hot-headed hero. Thor continues his development as the true leader of Asgard, and the twist they pull off in this movie was very clever and ultimately serves the character of Thor in a way I didn't expect. It also touches on the concept of community and the importance of preserving it. It actually echoes a key Catholic concept; the Catholic Church is more than just the physical constructions that make up a church or cathedral. The Church is, in fact, the members of the Catholic Church and their souls dedicated to Christ, united in communion with Christ. In a nutshell, it's the Body of Christ doctrine. The fact that this movie explored this concept, even if in a more secular way, from the perspective of the Asgardians was super impressive to me, in all honesty. Final note, Korg is my new favorite Marvel character and certainly one of its funniest. Hats off to you, director Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is officially awesome.
There is my Number 6-10. This will bring the first part of my list to a close. Next time, I'll go over some of my Honorable Mentions, and then dive into Numbers 1-5. I'd like to thank whoever read this. Hopefully you've enjoyed my thoughts so far on what I consider the best movies of 2017! If this brings even just one person some level of entertainment, or convinces someone to see these movies, or sparks debate as to what someone else's Top 10 list looks like, I'll be happy. What do you think of my list so far? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time, God Bless and stay tuned!