My Top 10 Movies of 2017

From travels across the stars and home renovations of biblical proportion, to a different kind of hormonal craving for flesh.

Another year, another list that I’ll probably regret immediately, partially because I still haven’t seen so so many of the movies I want to see from last year, and partially because I’m sure that I’ll see some of these a second time and demand a recount. I did manage to catch a fair chunk of my hit list though, and some distinct patterns emerged, with a full five sci-fi movies making the list (including three that could be characterized as space westerns), three horror movies, and two maybe-autobiographical dramas about asshole artists. And while I’m sure there are tens (tens!) of gems I haven’t seen, there was plenty of magic I did manage to catch.

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Rotten Tomatoes 49%, IMDb 6.5)

Apparently I made one very good choice in how I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: I didn’t bother seeing it in English, instead settling for a German-dubbed showing where I understood maybe 10% of the dialogue. Based on the mainstream reception to the movie, I think the remainder was pretty unnecessary. Valerian‘s visual inventiveness and childlike sense of fantasy joy require no translation, setting its space-agents off from one wacky scenario to another and casting Ethan Hawke as someone named Jolly the Pimp. It was a huge flop, of course, but if someone is still willing to give Luc Besson a hundred million dollars to mess around in space again, I’m there.

Recommended pairing: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.7)

We’ve reached superhero saturation. When 2008 gave us two high-quality comic book movies in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it felt like lightening striking twice. Now, well, that seems to be the definition of summer movie season. And it’d be so much easier to hate if most of the movies, particularly the Marvel ones, weren’t so damn good. Sure, they’re all products, but Spiderman Homecoming and Wonder Woman were both fantastically polished entertainment, and while they missed the mark a little for me, Logan and Thor Ragnarok managed to play with the formula in some very clever ways. The only one this year to really provide on both fronts was also one of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no doubt indebted to its predecessor, but if the first was a much-needed change-up to the Marvel formula, the second shows how that same formula can be used to give low-budget charm a big-budget sheen. Director James Gunn relishes in some gross-out tendencies and over-the-top violence that would fit in more at a midnight showing. We’re still a far cry here from Batman Returns-levels of auteurism, but dammit, its a hell of a start.

Recommended pairing: Sure, Batman Returns.

8. Gerald’s Game (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 6.7)

Man, do I wish the last five minutes of Gerald’s Game didn’t exist. The epilogue to this tense, single-location Stephen King thriller nearly turned me against the movie. But the ninety minutes beforehand can’t be overlooked, providing the single nastiest scene in any movie I saw this year and delicate moments of quiet, visual terror that stuck with me after I turned out the lights. Netflix has been trying its hand at bringing in big names and big budgets, but the best film it produced by far last year was this well-crafted, small-scale nailbiter.

Recommended pairing: The Ring.

7. Raw (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.0)

Like Valerian above, I wasn’t able to watch Raw in English, settling for French audio and German subtitles, hence the lack of a writeup. But Raw told its graphic coming of age story with such visual flair that it enraptured me all the same. At its base, Raw is an effectively nervy cannibalism story, but it sells it through specific links to sexual awakening, the college experience, and familial role models. And it uses its colour palette and soundscape wonderfully, the former perhaps no more starkly than a moment where a blue-and-yellow painted face has a sudden vicious splash of red added.

Recommended pairing: It Follows.

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Rotten Tomatoes 87%, IMDb 8.2)

Can I just say “It was really pretty” and be done with it? It’s obvious from the trailer that Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, adding to the original’s unmistakable sci-fi noir aesthetic with sweeping vistas and a dusty, forgotten Las Vegas, complete with a half-functioning Elvis hologram. But many mistook the original for a solely technical achievement when it came out, only later (after many edited releases) being recognized as a significant work of storytelling as well. At almost three-hours long, Blade Runner 2049 packs in enough sci-fi gristle to chew on that a second viewing is probably necessary for me to form a solid opinion on whether it reaches the same heights. But damn if I’m not looking forward to sinking myself back into it to find out.

Recommended pairing: Her.

5. The Shape of Water (Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.7)

If Pan’s Labyrinth was Guillermo del Toro’s perfect dark fairy tale, The Shape of Water is his adult fairy tale, fully awake with life’s complications but surprisingly and unabashedly fantastical. It delivers visually from frame one and carries itself with a grace that doesn’t immediately scream “fish-man romance”. It’s pulpier elements are carried out with flair (the fact that its an often-violent cold-war noir half the time is a little underadvertised), but it manages to provide real heart to its silent central duo, giving us the Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon dance sequence we never knew we needed along the way.

Recommended pairing: A full playthrough of Bioshock.

4. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.5)

The Last Jedi is the only movie on this list I had the opportunity to see twice, and it turned out to be a very important second viewing. At first, I took The Last Jedi to be narratively innovative but lacking in big moments or a sense of adventure. But the second time, it struck me that I was looking for big moments in all the wrong places, because we get tons of them, from the way the film uses silence to a beautiful, haunting effect, to the incredibly striking paths of red sand under layer of salt leading to a line of AT-ATs that have never looked more imposing, or the sheer audacity and thoughtfulness of its arc for Luke Skywalker. The chemistry of the leads that carried The Force Awakens is what I expected to keep carrying this trilogy, and The Last Jedi shows that this generation has so much more to offer.

Recommended pairing: The Road Warrior.

3. Phantom Thread (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 7.9)

Phantom Thread, being a film about silk and lace, has a quiet and delicate look from the outside. But it quickly proves to be much more, succeeding as a chamber drama about social power struggles but also as damn funny entertainment that you want to crawl into and live inside for a while. Also, its as much about breakfast as it is about fashion, which is a surefire way into my heart.

Recommended pairing: mother!

2. Get Out (Rotten Tomatoes 99%, IMDb 7.7)

Get Out is the perfect horror movie for an alternate-universe 2017 where the new cycle isn’t swamped by barely-disguised white supremacy, where it was pretty easy to live in the suburbs and assume that we were basically in a post-racial society. Get Out‘s commentary is still slick and highly relevant, but perhaps less subversive than it would have been in that other timeline. Regardless, the commentary is what everyone who saw Get Out was well primed for. What I was less prepared for was how masterfully Get Out is crafted, legitimately scary and consistently tense. Jordan Peele got his training in parody, but Get Out is incisive and original.

Recommended pairing: The Invitation.

1. mother! (Rotten Tomatoes 69%, IMDb 6.7)

mother!‘s divisiveness must have been expected in the editing room. If you don’t find its wavelength immediately, it’s either a confused mess or an over-obvious sledgehammer. For whatever reason, mother! grabbed me early and didn’t let go, providing by far the most visceral response I had to a film this year. Part of the fun was teasing out each and every analogy it lays out (very, very bluntly), but this distracted me just enough that when its final act came crashing down, I was unexpectedly carried away by the sheer mayhem of it all. It’s an incredibly forceful tour de force from Aronofsky, and love-it-or-hate-it, its the least compromising wide release in many years.

Recommended pairing: Phantom Thread.

Honourable mentions to the synchronized mayhem of Baby Driver, the slow-motion disaster of The Beguiled, the cocaine-fueled fun of American Made, the sheer oddity of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the underrated crowd-pleaser Battle of the Sexes, the Southern gothic Mudbound, and whatever was going on in Colossal.

I still really need to catch up on lots, but at the top of my list are Good TimeThe Big SickThe Villainess, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Projectand A Ghost Story. If there are any you want to champion, yell at me in the comments!

Oh, and all reviews, 2017 or otherwise, can be found here.

Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its visuals being able to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

I’ve never been one for manga and anime personally. Not out of spite for the medium, or nativism, or unearned self-superiority about “cartoons”; there’s just too much damn fiction out there to ingest, and Eastern animation never managed to rise to the top of my to-do list. Which is to say that, while I’m aware of its influence on The Matrix and its ilk, I’ve not particularly familiar with the Ghost in the Shell source material. But even if I was completely ignorant of the source material, Ghost in the Shell betrays its manga origins in the same way Zack Snyder’s Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk betray their comic-book source. Ghost in the Shell tirelessly recreates scenes that feel like splash pages of a graphic novel, which works in small doses but feels engineered to be distant, kind of like an entire movie with the style of the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski. Rather than find a way to bring the story and characters to a style more suited to film, director Rupert Sanders has tried very hard to jam something that looks like a manga sensibility into every frame, exposing the weakness of film for these sorts of tricks (things that look slightly fake and dumb suddenly look *really* fake and dumb). The wanton attempts to create memorable visuals are rendered nearly completely moot by forgetting to first build an environment that we can imagine ourselves in, by forgetting to give us a reason to care in the first place.

The plot of Ghost in the Shell isn’t complex, and can in some ways be summarized as Shitty Blade Runner. After an accident, robotics developer Hanka has Mira Killian’s brain transplanted into an android shell, successfully fusing the human soul (“ghost”) with android strength and providing her with a decidedly fake-looking body suit. Because there is a need for action sequences, Mira is of course renamed Major and used as a supercop. In case this didn’t make it obvious that Hanka aren’t the good guys here, bad-guy CEO Cutter is introduced saying, out loud, in a line of scripted dialogue, “I don’t care about her, I want to use her as a weapon,” as if we couldn’t understand that through the next scene where she shoots about twelve goons after crashing through a window. Firstly, Cutter is the absolute worst, a completely forgettable, mustache-twirlingly evil villain played by an actor who is trying to chew scenery but completely unable to exert any kind of presence. Secondly, the entire first half of the movie is full of lines like this. One of the advantages of basing a movie off of an influential piece of work is that, even if the audience is unfamiliar with the specific material, you can trust them to be able to follow the general flow. Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its audience to be able to understand a single thing, and despite its emphasis on crafting capital-b Big visuals, very little confidence in using those visuals to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

There’s precisely one moment where the movie threatens to legitimately become something a bit more than a Hollywood actioner, where Major peels off fashionable artifice from a human plucked off the street to intimately examine the difference. It’s a short scene, cut off and never really revisited, but feels yanked in from a better movie (really, it feels like something out of Under the Skin, a much better Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film about what it means to be human). On the other side, at one point near the end, the great Takeshi Kitano’s Section 9 Chief character finally gets something to do and the movie threatens to become pulpy and fun, a kind of neo-Tokyo A-Team. But its attention span isn’t long enough to even pull this off, instead ending quickly in an cold showdown with a stylistically neutered final boss. The action sequences overall seem maybe better suited to a video game, interesting in concept and nicely loud but completely unengaging to observe. While I’m willing to live with a Hollywood sci-fi that doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential, but Ghost in the Shell does so in such a horribly uninteresting manner. It’s hard to get mad about something so completely dull.

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D+

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, and Juliette Binoche
Rotten Tomatoes

Stray Observations

  • While I can’t say for sure, I’m willing to bet the movie does a decent job of capturing the city design from the source material, only because it looks more like something people in the early 90s thought the future might look like rather than anything resembling a modern interpretation. The blocky holograms all feel supremely tacky, and worse than that, often feel decidedly less futuristic than what the world looks like right now. Sure, the billboards in NYC might not be 3D flying things, but at least they don’t look as poorly rendered as Brain Age guy.
  • I don’t want to get in the weeds about the casting controversy, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled about that. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about adapting foreign fiction to Hollywood (e.g. The Departed, which transplanted the basic plot of Infernal Affairs but made its new Boston setting an important part of its style), but Ghost in the Shell tries to have its cake and eat it too, retaining strong Japanese elements while casting all of its lead characters (Takeshi Kitano aside) as white folks, and putting it in the hands of a white Hollywood director whose only previous credit is Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s probably an interesting American adaptation out there, exploring the separation of ghosts and shells in terms of how our body, be it our race or gender or whatever, determines our self, but this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this version strongly co-opts its Japanese stylistic origin, which does make the whitewashed casting fairly icky.
  • That being said about the casting, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really work here (her understated style conflicts with the movie’s need to vocalize everything), but just in case that sounds like I’m dismissing Johansson getting these kinds of roles, I cannot recommended Under the Skin enough, where Johansson plays an alien who slowly grows empathy and curiosity about the men she abducts and her own human form, and I have an unabashed love for Luc Besson’s Lucy, that dumb movie where Johansson can utilize 100% of her brain and uses it to kick all kinds of ass. She can clearly fit both sides of the bill to play Major; the production here just does her no favours.

John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.

One of my favourite details about Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a small one about air transit. When The Bride travels to Tokyo to face O’Ren Ishii, she brings her sword on the plane. She doesn’t check the sword; she just carries it with her to her seat. Kill Bill came it in 2003, near the height of TSA mania, so this was obviously not an oversight, but I also don’t think it was simply a rule-of-cool moment either. I think Tarantino wanted to imply that the world of Kill Bill was one where The Bride’s story was unique, but not unbelievable. One where “assassin” was just a particularly exciting job option, maybe even with a booth at the school fair. In that tiny shot, Tarantino defined the structure of the entire universe of his film.

John Wick, which I’ll go to bat for as one of the best films of 2014, has a similar conceit. Wick is part of none-too-secret assassin’s guild, which has its own currency and lavish hotel. The first film used this for two main reasons, comedic relief and lending some in-universe plausibility to the absolute chaos that Wick creates. It’s a slapdash bit of mythos that allows you to enjoy the headshot ballet without worrying about real-world ramifications, but is entirely tangential to the revenge narrative. John Wick 2, on the other hand, leans entirely on this mythos, relying on it to kick off, propel, and wrap up its plot. In doing so, it reveals just how derivative this conceit is; scenes where Wick uses the guild armory to load up feel like a rehash of Kingsman, of all things, and no new interesting characters are introduced on the management side aside from the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. The mythos provides the bones well enough, but little in terms of narrative muscle.

In fact, the whole first half is a bit of a slog. A high-ranking guild financier calls in an old favor from Wick, asking him to assassinate a rival for a position on the guild board. Wick then ends up the enemy of both factions, each represented in action sequences by their dragons, played Common and Ruby Rose. The machinations behind this are related to the simple but arcane guild rules, and never feel as urgent or intimate as the revenge motivation of the first film. It has its villain pose a similar moment of personal affront to Wick early on, but it feels like a weaker retread of “kill dog, steal car”. The villain throughout the whole movie is pretty weak and unmemorable, highlighting just how underappreciated Michael Nyqvist was in the original. For a fair portion of the first half, it becomes a bit difficult to agree with Wick, and when he mows down a group of guards that he provoked himself, its almost enough to call the movie on its nihilism.

But when it comes together, hot damn does it come together. Around the halfway mark, the shoe finally drops, starting with an absolutely thrilling catacomb shootout and not stopping until the credits roll. At this point, the universe comes to life, including a magnificent extended sequence where seemingly everyone everywhere on the streets is out to get Wick. Even though the main villain never quite works, Common and Ruby Rose are both good presences, managing to come across as genuine threats to the nigh-invulnerable Wick and also injecting some much-needed personality. The camerawork clicks too, with a museum providing a consistently interesting and unique backdrop to Wick’s violent opera, in addition to the aforementioned catacombs. Director Chad Stahelski still opts for relatively long (for a modern action movie), smoothly swerving takes, allowing us to appreciate every detail of the fight choreography even as it flies past us. While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.

B+

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John Wick: Chapter Two (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Ruby Rose, and Ian McShane

Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • I called Wick nigh-invulnerable, but he does get shot and stabbed more than once. However, after a quick bandage, he’s back on his feet and back to kicking ass. Die Hard this is not (nor does it have to be!).
  • SPOILERS: The point I’m getting at with losing Wick’s sympathy is when he kills Gianna, and then takes out a group of her guards. He’s acting as an unprovoked assassin here, so it’s tough to not sympathize with the guards, and also makes Common’s Cassian seem briefly like a potential side-hero. The movie seems aware of this, as it throws in a scene where Gianna threatens a competitor’s children to make sure we have no sympathy for her, but it still feels morally a bit uneasy momentarily. Thankfully, Ruby Rose’s Areas comes along to betray Wick immediately afterwards and give him enough moral high ground to kill about fifty people and keep our sympathy afterwords.
  • SPOILERS: I’m still a little upset that Wick and Cassian never teamed up; Cassian understands that Wick was the tool, not the brain, behind the assassination, and Wick was going after the guy who put the wheels in motion. While I’m sure he would have turned down a team-up, I was waiting the whole damn movie for one of them to at least bring up the possibility.