AJ’s Top 10 Films of 2017

When Aaron and I discuss Oscar coverage, there’s usually one thing we both complain about. Access. It’s pretty basic when you think about it. How is it that hundreds of groups across the country can proclaim a film is excellent, or worthy of Oscars if a select few thousand are the only people that have seen it? It’s problematic at times, with some films not releasing for months until after the first wave of reviews hit the internet. This season, perhaps more than any other, featured films that had been anointed as critical darlings until the larger public became critical of them.

No film embodied this more than “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a film that understands America about as much as I understand Cantonese. Let’s be honest for a minute. This movie is essentially a collection of bad Quentin Tarantino bits, that have no relevance to each other, somehow existing in the same film. How does a film about the unsolved rape and murder of a young girl also contain jokes about Catholic priests, the Blood and the Crips, dwarves, multiple rapists, white people using the n-word, or the dozens of other offensive topics it tries to pass off as funny? Why should we reward something that shows the worst of us? It’s a film that angry. I appreciate that anger. But if you can’t give us solutions to that anger outside of the mere concept of “love,” what the hell are you doing? It’s a film that thinks it’s pushing buttons but doesn’t have any answers, making it a shallow viewing experience on your 2nd or 3rd viewing.

As a critic myself, I can acknowledge I’ve made bad calls (see my Awards Circuit “American Horror Story: Cult” review). Sometimes the groupthink can take hold, and in “Three Billboards” case, it felt like some simply wanted to take the “Zeitgeist Belt” away from “Get Out.” Yet these discussions are important for us to have as a public. Both films have found their way into the popular culture and each has something to say. Do these movies have to be ones that describe what we’re feeling right now? No. But do they inform the narrative of where this country is going, especially when you look at them in context with each other? Yes. A resounding yes.

2017 has many films that leave that mark for me, and what’s incredible is how fluid my feelings have been. A few experiences here and there have changed my rankings from even a few weeks ago when I first submitted them for voting purposes. Other films have stuck with me in a more profound way than one might expect. With that in mind, let’s swan dive into the abyss.

10. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

When Rian Johnson was brought on board to helm my favorite franchise, I knew we were in for something special. However, I never could have anticipated how much I would love this film. Let’s get it out of the way, it’s not a perfect film. If it was, I would have it in 1st place. But it’s not, so save the casino, Leia spacewalk, and absurd green milk complaints for another day. Instead, focus on the kamikaze slice through an MC85 Star Cruiser in a silent but beautiful shot.

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My god. This has got to be the most incredible single shot in the entire franchise. Bar none. Yet the film wasn’t done. Instead, we received an iconic battle on Crait. Luke returned for a moment, only to pass into the force as the masters before him. Johnson carved his last moments so perfectly that we got to see him look to the suns on the horizon one more time. The moment that had made me fall in love with this franchise was brought back to say goodbye to one of its iconic heroes. Even if you believe this film is not as well made as others in this franchise, the emotion that I felt would never allow me to leave this off my list, making it an easy inclusion.

9. “Mudbound”

There is a point about 45 minutes into Dee Rees’ brilliant dive into the post-World War II American South that the film begins to turn. The first act hangs on the audience as if we’re reading Southern Gothic literature. Yet the second act begins to shine a light on why we’re here. Two men brought together by the struggles of war, strike a friendship that will remind you of the “Shawshank Redemption.” However, the true south begins to leak in through the edges of the frame, revealing the truly horrific side of American that many would rather forget occurred.

The lifeblood of this film is Jason Mitchell. Mitchell is an absolute thrill every moment he touches the screen. His charisma makes the film good,  and his friendship with Garrett Hedlund is amazing. Rob MorganMary J. BligeCarey Mulligan, and Jonathan Banks give killer performances. This movie should be a much bigger deal, spoken in the same breathe as “In the Heat of the Night,” and “The Defiant Ones.” Hopefully one day it will.

8. “Lady Bird”

For a while, I’ve wrestled with this film, and it’s fluctuated from 1st to now 8th on my list. I realize that if it were not for Laurie Metcalf‘s stellar performance as Lady Bird’s mom, I would probably not enjoy this film. Metcalf brings a subtlety that is astounding, and in the process makes you wish she had 20% more screentime. Tracy Letts‘ is equally incredible, and telling his son to go get a job that he just interviewed for is one of my favorite scenes of the year. Finally, the young cast should age extremely well with time. Saorise Ronan, Timothée ChalametBeanie FeldsteinLucas Hedges, and Odeya Rush might be the reason we look back at this film as the coronation of a new Brat Pack for Hollywood.

7. “Dunkirk”

Some films on this list could only have been accomplished by a single director. One of them is the thrilling “Dunkirk.” I’ve said before that I believe this to be Christopher Nolan‘s crowning achievement. It in many ways has all of the staples of Nolan’s filmography. It uses exceptional editing to play with time. It showcases top of the line action, that is not only disorienting but frightening to ingest. Hell, it even has Tom Hardy reciting barely understandable dialogue. Even when he does things that I’m not in love with, this film simply lives to exceed expectations. It’s an incredible piece of art and should be remembered with “The Thin Red Line” or “Full Metal Jacket” as one of the best, if not unconventional, films about the experience of war.

6. “The Florida Project”

To live in Orlando, in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, is an interesting life to lead. The world around me is simultaneously developing, yet consistently falling into tourist trap cliches. It’s a world where there are haves and have-nots, with much of our city and surrounding counties rely on a few employers to make ends meet. The film not only showcases people I can recognize from my past but also features my current hometown. For the first time, the world where I live was important enough to bring to the big screen. It was emotional for that alone. Then, this film also happens to crush you.

Willem Dafoe is incredible here and somehow hasn’t gotten his due. Sean Baker directs non-professional actors to greatness, adding to the authenticity. However, the film’s heartbeat is a young girl named Brooklynn Prince, who simply steals your breath. I did not cry harder in any movie this year, and while it is a meandering film, the last 15 minutes are the best in any film this year. I love this movie, and it is one that should live on for years to come.

5.  “Coco”

This is a film for anyone who has ever experienced loss. It takes a moment that many of us regard as our saddest and worst moments, and turns that loss into something positive. It stretches it’s arms wide and gives you an outlet of hope and love through the prism of sadness. Pixar’s first real foray into showcasing a culture that is distinct and complicated turned out to be an overwhelming success. Visually, this is some of Pixar’s greatest work to date. Narratively and musically, it’s very much in that conversation as well. This is one of the best Pixar movies in the last decade, and it makes me even sadder that we’re getting another sequel to a movie that does not need one. Regardless, “Coco” stands on its own in a beautiful and inspiring story about following your dreams, and exploring the path that may take.

4. “I, Tonya”

The film that is probably most controversial on my list is “I, Tonya.” For many, the film was violent beyond accessibility. Others had problems with the “redemption arc” of Tonya Harding. Yet these issues never bothered me. First, I don’t see this as a redemption of Harding. I believe as adults we can see how her actions led to the clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan. At the same time, that doesn’t mean I cannot feel sympathy for the path that led her to think that choice was her only available option. I can feel sympathy for her inability to see the darkness in those around her. To quote “BoJack Horseman,” “when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, red flags just look like flags.” Margot Robbie delivers career-defining work in this role, and she is simply incredible. Allison Janney does the same, creating an exceptionally troubling and negative mother in the process. While the tones of extreme domestic violence and Coen inspired hijinks should not work, they build off each other. The result is an excellent, and one of a kind film.

3. “Get Out”

What can I say about Jordan Peele’s exceptional film that hasn’t already been said? It’s a masterful homage to horror and an incredibly poignant look at race relations in America. I gushed and gushed and gushed over this film on its release. It’s still an incredibly personal film to me, and one that I can’t get out of my head. Somehow this film is undeniably the film of 2017. Whenever I think of this year, I will think of “Get Out,” and the incredible statement it makes. I’ve already written thousands of words on “Get Out” so I’ll leave you with this. Daniel Kaluuya is a star. We found our next great actor. The question is, will he be confined like Denzel Washington had been until the past 10 years? Or will he be able to stretch his wings and have a Michael B. Jordan style career? Time will tell.

2. “Blade Runner 2049”

The world of “Blade Runner 2049” is simply the best-looking dystopia I have ever seen. There are 50 foot walking ads of giant pink people. There are bright lights that create a neon ever-present light on the world around them. This is a world where a major U.S. city has been destroyed by a nuclear blast, yet remains every bit as extravagant and sinful as America is today. These design elements will always speak to me when I think “Blade Runner,” and it’s the most incredible world I’ve seen. Add to that an incredibly raw and emotional performance from Ryan Gosling, my favorite actor, and you’re cooking. Then add in immaculate sound design, gorgeous cinematography, and career-best work from Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve, and you’ve got me. Every piece of this movie works for me, and I know that I did not enjoy myself more in a theater this year. This was my cinematic experience of 2017.

1. “The Shape of Water”

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes. A woman has sex with a fish monster. Somehow, even months after the film was released, this is still the first question I get asked. I get it, it’s weird. Undeniably so. At the same time, Guerilmo Del Toro is one of the weirdest filmmakers alive. I don’t know what people expected when the film was being made, but who cares? This film is about a lot of important things at the moment, and I think that’s an important thing to discuss.

First, a woman (Sally Hawkins) stands up to a man that tries to sexually assault her. She does it with brilliance and anger, despite being unable to literally say no. Second, Michael Shannon is the most intimidating man possible, and this film allows him to showcase anger and hate in the worst ways. He’s also inept and does not take others opinions into mind. Yet he is punished for this, not praised. He’s a weak man, and violence begets violence. Third, Richard Jenkins is soft-spoken and brilliant. He is sweet, loveable, and emotionally vulnerable in 1960s America, where being a gay man could have gotten him killed. Yet he persists.

Finally, the film has an important subtext of pro-immigration. The creature is from South America, the Amazon to be exact. He is a creature that is unlike anything else in the world. So, of course, Shannon tries to demonize and torture it for his own pleasure. Yet it fights back, unwilling to lie down until he is within an inch of his life. It’s a strong statement on immigration today, and again, the context is unavoidable. Add in the fact that the film is essentially a musical with how it uses score. Add in incredible production design, costumes, visual effects, and cinematography. Finally, add in Del Toro’s sweet hand and his ability to create a vision unlike any other. These reasons and more are why I am so in love with “The Shape of Water.” It’s a modern-day fairy tale for the romantic in all of us. Human or fish.

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