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.

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

You don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten

Comprehension can sometimes be disadvantageous, particularly when it comes to fantasy movies. Movies that we might have loved as kids don’t play as well as adults, since we’re aware of the cliches, the bad metaphors, the underlying problematic pieces. It’s easy to overlook how much of a creep Venkman is in Ghostbusters as a kid, but it really threatens to derail the whole thing as an adult (it’s still fun). There’s a pretty boring subplot about corporate theft and lawsuits going on in Jurassic Park that I didn’t comprehend one bit in 1996, but its absence made me enjoy the film more if anything (it’s still great). The Phantom Menace has plenty of eye candy for kids and some seriously interesting visual ideas, but doesn’t work as soon as you hit 12 or 13 and can start recognizing the stiltedness of the dialogue. It seemed that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might be more sensitive to these problems of over-comprehension than most, judging by headlines such as “Valerian Would Make a Great Silent Movie“. With a director like Luc Besson (The Fifth ElementLucy), Valerian had a pedigree suggesting an ambitious and thrilling mess lay in wait, so I decided to put this “silent movie” bit to the test.

I live in Germany, and was on vacation for the one English showing of Valerian in the town I live in, so I went to see it in German. My German is awful (bad enough that the teller warned me while I was buying the ticket), so any nuance in the dialogue was entirely lost on me. I could follow the broad strokes of the plot, but any technical details were downright incomprehensible. But it turns out you don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten.

The movie is constantly distracted by its world, bouncing from set piece to set piece that have little to nothing to do with the main plot, and its all for the better. There is an overarching plot about a lost civilization trying to reclaim its riches, which is only notable for the homeworld that it shows, a beautiful beach-laden cartoon reminiscent of the best parts of Avatar (there were good parts!). But the majority of the film sees the space-cowboy agents, Valerian and Laureline, alternating hero roles to save each other from mostly unrelated hostile aliens. The design of the alien species and the fun it has building up the city of a thousand planets is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, in that it really does try to fill every frame, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that it revels in the cartoonishness of it all, but it makes for a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces are crazily inventive, such as an opener taking place in an quasi-virtual marketplace where Valerian’s body gets stuck between two dimensions, or a wacko comic act involving a neanderthal king, a selection of dresses, and a lemon. There are certain pieces whose plot function I couldn’t follow due to the language barrier, but when they involve a submarine pirate re-enacting the “there’s always a bigger fish” bit from The Phantom Menace while heisting a jellyfish, maybe ignorance is best.

There’s also the excellent prologue sequence, showing the first contact and building of the interspecies city set to “Space Oddity”, which really shouldn’t work but does through sheer earnestness. The earnestness maybe gets a hand from the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Develingne, who can easily pass for teenagers despite being adults portraying adults, giving it the vibe of a Last Starfighter or Narnia-style preteen adventure. That being said, they have a weird sex thing going on and shoot a fair number of things, and Ethan Hawke plays a character named “Jolly the Pimp,” so maybe it’s not quite The Neverending Story. DeHaan doesn’t exactly light up the screen (and apparently does a Keanu Reeves impression in the English version, which sounds hilarious), but Develinge is a fantasting presence and adds a lot of necessary spark (they really are co-leads, despite only Valerian’s name being in the title). The movie goes on probably twenty minutes too long, and the resolution of the main arc is a total slog, but when Valerian just lets loose and gets weird, it’s one hell of a trip.



Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna

Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Litmus test: If you like this stupid scene, you’ll find something to enjoy in Valerian. And I love this stupid scene. The eye shimmy with the sound effect at 0:44 kills me.