Didn’t see that coming.
Or that. Or that. Or that.
After all these years and all these movies, I’m more appreciative than ever when a movie takes me by surprise in a positive way. And that happened a LOT in 2017.
Sure, I had reason to hope “Wonder Woman” might be something special, given the glimpses we’d already had of Gal Gadot as Diana/WW, and the fact the seriously talented Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) was the director. Still, “WW” was even smarter and funnier and more badass and more emotionally involving than I expected.
And even though I’d never given up on M. Night Shyamalan, I honestly didn’t believe his comeback triumph “Split” would be THAT friggin’ awesome, that chilling — not to mention the last few moments, when … (I’ll leave it at that, in case you haven’t seen it).
As for “Get Out,” I was lucky enough to screen it without knowing more than the bare basics of the story, well in advance of the avalanche of hype. (To this day, I do everything I can to avoid trailers and detail-laden advance stories about movies, the better to appreciate the work.) It pinned me back in my seat.
The same goes for “Lady Bird.” Of course I’d heard some of the early buzz, but I was still blown away by writer-director Greta Gerwig’s work, and the performances by that wonderful ensemble.
Even Wolverine’s swan song took me by surprise. Hugh Jackman’s mutton-chopped slicer/dicer has been with us for nearly two decades, through a seemingly endless parade of starring roles and cameo appearances. I thought I was long past the point of giving two cents about Jackman’s character — and then along came “Logan,” the darkest and most violent and deepest and easily the best Wolverine movie of them all.
One great surprise after another — and yet I couldn’t quite find room for any of the aforementioned movies on my list of the very best films of 2017. I’d say that makes for a pretty solid year overall.
The best movies of the year:
With “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal delivered two of the 21st century’s most unforgettable movies about the American war effort overseas.
“Detroit” is a street-level war film in its own right — but the setting is a great American city rocked by racial unrest in the summer of 1967. This is a searing, docudrama-style film, faithfully re-creating (and sometimes interpreting) the known events of the Algiers Motel incident, as it came to be known. John Boyega, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie and Will Poulter are among the standouts in the amazing cast.
I know: many of you didn’t find this adaptation of Stephen King’s massive horror novel as scary as recent “Gotcha!” horror franchises such as “The Conjuring” and “Insidious.”
Granted, “It” doesn’t produce a steady stream of easy, thrill-ride, jump-out-of-your seat moments. It’s a much more subtle, more gradually disturbing, more psychologically twisted, more deeply involving journey.
Take away the whole Pennywise storyline, and “It” would be a great coming-of-age movie in the tradition of “Stand by Me” (which was also based on a Stephen King work). But of course we can’t erase Pennywise, and neither can the kids who stand up to him in this film — so they’ll have to face him again as adults, in the sequel.
8. ‘Molly’s Game’
Yep, they got it right.
From the moment I read Molly Bloom’s book about her journey from Olympic ski hopeful to L.A. waitress to the host of some of the highest-stakes private poker games in L.A. and New York, I knew it was only a matter of time before it was turned into a movie — and thanks to writer-director Aaron Sorkin, “Molly’s Game” is a sharp and slick and funny triumph.
Jessica Chastain perfectly captures Molly’s intelligence and her good heart — and her reckless, self-destructive pattern of behavior. Kevin Costner does some of his best work as Molly’s demanding, perfectionist father. This isn’t a poker movie, but there’s a lot of poker in the movie—and as someone who knows a little bit about the game, I’d say “Molly’s Game” is the most accurate depiction of the poker life since “Rounders.”
7. ‘The Big Sick’
This is one of the best romantic comedies of the decade.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon co-wrote the script, which is based on their real-life courtship in Chicago, when Kumail was a stand-up comic and Emily was a graduate student, and Kumail’s Muslim immigrant parents expected him to follow in their footsteps and agree to an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman, and Emily breaks up with Kumail because he’s being an idiot, and then Emily falls into a coma …
Yes, THAT old story again.
Nanjiani is charming and funny and willing to take a hit for the sake of the story when he’s being a jerk, Zoe Kazan is terrific as Emily, and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter and Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher are wonderful as the parents.
You can’t help but want to hug this movie.
6. ‘Blade Runner 2049’
We are in the era of the Long-Awaited Sequel, whether it’s animated Pixar fare picking up the stories of Dory or the Incredibles many years down the line, or a bold (and successful) follow-up of a beloved, groundbreaking drama, e.g., “T2 Trainspotting.”
You can’t get much riskier than attempting a second chapter to “Blade Runner,” one of the most influential and revered science fiction movies of all time—but director Denis Villeneuve was up to the challenge. “Blade Runner 2049” was quite probably the most visually stunning movie of the year, with some beautiful cutting-edge CGI that also paid tribute to the look and style of the original.
Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast as the new and improved model of Blade Runner, Officer K, and Harrison Ford continued his run as the King of the Long-Awaited Sequel (the “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” franchises). But the most heartbreaking performance was from Ana de Armas as Joi, who genuinely loves Officer K, against all odds and logic, and let’s just leave it at that.
5. ‘Baby Driver’
Writer-director Edgar Wright choreographed this tense and exciting heist film to the sounds of a perfectly chosen soundtrack, and the result is pure, high-octane entertainment.
Ansel Elgort was perfectly fine as “Baby,” the savant driver with ever-present ear buds — but the real standouts were Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza Gonzalez as the hardcore crooks (each with an interesting back story), and Lily James as the waitress who captures Baby’s heart.
Best of all, the chase sequences were almost entirely grounded in practical effects and genuine automotive stunt work, i.e., none of that CGI nonsense you see in the “Transformers” and “Fast/Furious” movies.
Leave it to the masterful Christopher Nolan to fashion a powerful and inspirational war film about a retreat — albeit one of the most heroic and important evacuations in modern history.
In the spring of 1940, tens of thousands of British, French and Belgian troops were surrounded by the Germans in the harbor of Dunkirk, France, and all hope was lost — until hundreds of civilian British fishing boats, pleasure crafts, yachts and lifeboats heeded Winston Churchill’s desperate call to set sail for Dunkirk and ferry the troops to safety.
With Nolan employing a mix of CGI and practical effects, and world-class actors including Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance helping to tell the story in a very human fashion, “Dunkirk” is the kind of film that will envelop you every second of the way.
3. ‘Wind River’
Taylor Sheridan started his career as an actor, and he was no slouch. Perhaps his best-known role was as David Hale on “Sons of Anarchy.”
But let’s please talk about Sheridan’s first three produced major movie screenplays.
It could be argued the best script of 2015 was “Sicario,” and the best script of 2016 was “Hell or High Water,” and the best script of 2017 was “Wind River.”
All written by Taylor Sheridan.
Sheridan also directed “Wind River,” a modern-day Western set in the cold and unforgiving and untamed Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Jeremy Renner is outstanding as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who acts as an unofficial adviser to a rookie FBI investigator (Elizabeth Olsen) who is brought in when the body of a teenage girl is discovered on Native American land. The dynamic between Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen is reminiscent of the pairing of Scott Glenn and Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs.” They’re that good together.
2. ‘The Post’
In “All the President’s Men” (1976), Alan J. Pakula’s classic film about Woodward and Bernstein’s takedown of Richard M. Nixon, the Washington Post has been established as a serious, nationally respected publication.
Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” (opening Jan. 5 in Chicago) is set in the same newsroom, just a few years before Watergate — but at that time the Post was considered to be a provincial, inconsequential player in the world of journalism.
And then comes a pivotal moment, when publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) have the opportunity to publish groundbreaking journalism and take a heroic stand — but oh yeah, there’s a strong chance the paper will be sued and collapse, and both Graham and Bradlee might go to jail.
“The Post” is a love letter to the First Amendment, great journalism and pioneering feminism. It’s also entirely accurate to the events of the time.
1. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’
Five minutes into writer-director Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black comedy about race, crime, gender bias, class warfare, sex, violence, betrayal, justice, family and rotten-to-the-core hypocrisy, we know we’re seeing something special. Frances McDormand gives a ferociously funny and heartbreakingly effective performance as a grieving mother, and the supporting cast is filled with nomination-worthy work, most notably from Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
“Three Billboards” is that rare and special film that makes us feel we know each and every one of the characters in this Missouri town — until we learn not to be so sure of ourselves, as there are surprises lurking around every bend in the road.
I loved this film.
Honorable mention: “The Founder,” “T2: Trainspotting,” “Lady Bird,” “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Thank You for Your Service,” “Logan Lucky,” “Gifted,” “Megan Leavey,” “John Wick 2,” “Split,” “Get Out,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “All the Money in the World,” “I, Tonya”