Rewinding 2017 - The Top 10

December 27, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli

How a person defines "successful" may offer a clue as to whether the 2017 Year in Movies was one to remember. With its focus on dollars-and-cents, the industry hasn't been pleased by the last twelve months' performance. If one uses tickets sold as a barometer (instead of the easily-manipulated metric of box office gross), the number looks downright gloomy. As I write this, the year isn't quite over but the finish line is close enough that an estimate can be made. The ceiling on number of tickets sold for 2017 looks to be in the 1,225M to 1,250M range. Even using the most optimistic number, this is a sharp decrease from the last two years, both of which easily topped 1,300M.  In fact, depending on the final tally, 2017 could see the worst tickets sold performance since the early 1990s, when the movie landscape was much different. Not a lot there to be optimistic about. Another possible means of defining success is how much "energy" the year's crop of movies generated. In that regard, 2017 was a mixed bag. Certainly, movie-goers in general were excited about Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, It, and The Last Jedi. As for the rest... must see movies were few and far between. Finally, there's the question of quality. In that regard, 2017 was above average but not as good as might have been predicted a few months ago. The spread of good movies was much more even than in recent years. Not everything worth seeing was crammed into the final three months of the year. Four members of my Top 10 (including #2, #3, and #4) were released prior to October 1. That number jumps to 9 (out of 18) if you include the "Honorable Mentions." However, the end-of-the-year group was weaker than has been the case in recent years. Only six (of 18) were released in the Thanksgiving-to-year's-end time frame.

It will be interesting to see whether this "balance" is replicated in 2018. Is this the "new normal" or was it an anomaly? Without question, it weakened the summer movie season. The biggest month of the year in 2017 wasn't May or July; it was March, when Beauty and the Beast, Logan, and Kong: Skull Island opened. The summer boasted some nice earners but only three mega-blockbusters ($300M+) opened between May 1 and August 31 (Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - all comic book movies). For the average movie-goer, however, spreading out the wealth is desirable. There's nothing more depressing than reaching January 1 and realizing you have to wait nine full months before the next batch of quality movies arrive. Better for the psyche to realize that really good stuff can come out any time.

This year, I have handed out eight "honorable mentions". This is two or three more than usual. I think of an "honorable mention" as eleventh place on a Top 10 list, so in 2017, there are eight tied for that honor - films that just missed. These are provided without any new commentary although you can click on the title to link to the original review. For each member of the Top 10 proper, I have added a few additional thoughts.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical)

Baby Driver

The Big Sick

The Florida Project

In the Fade

Patti Cake$

The Post


Wind River

The Top 10 (In Reverse Order):

#10: Molly's Game: This movie earns its Top 10 status based primarily on two factors: Aaron Sorkin's screenplay and Jessica Chastain's acting. When it comes to Sorkin, I never get tired of absorbing things he writes. Yes, he's wordy but he's among the most intelligent screenwriters out there and he almost always has something to say. Those who are turned off by Sorkin's avowed left-wing politics may find Molly's Game digestible because it's largely apolitical.

#9: Wonder Woman: Over the years, there have been plenty of very good superhero movies but few of them (at least few not made by someone named "Nolan") have merited Top 10 consideration. Wonder Woman is an exception because, despite following the trajectory of the dreaded "origin story", the movie treads into territory where comic book-inspired films fear to tread. Putting aside the most obvious of these (making the lead a woman), it takes us into the trenches of World War I and provides us with a tragically effective ending. Yes, the Big Battle is over-familiar and not especially compelling, but you can't have everything. This is probably the best conventional superhero movie since The Avengers.

#8: Hostiles: The theme presented in Hostiles - that of overcoming a deeply-rooted bigotry to forge a new sense of mutual understanding - resonates in today's world. In order to demonstrate how powerful the initial divisions are, Hostiles takes steps that some viewers may find too painful to endure. The opening scene, in which children are murdered by a marauding war party, may be especially tough for some to sit through. To my way of thinking, that scene is necessary to establish a specific mind frame and higher-than-normal stakes for this sort of conflict (although some will disagree). There's no denying that Hostiles is grim but bleakness doesn't disqualify a film from providing a powerful, cathartic experience. I don't expect to be re-watching Hostiles again in the near future but I'm glad I saw it once.

#7: Mudbound: Mudbound's life cycle brought it directly to Netflix, which made it more accessible than if it had followed the traditional route of an art house theatrical release. Like Hostiles, it's a story of individuals attempting to overcome racial biases that are deeply rooted in the culture of the time. Mudbound is honest and, as a result, not especially uplifting. It shows how things were in parts of the South during and after World War II, not how some people wish they were or romanticize them as having been. Toward the end, Mudbound seems like a direct refutation of The Birth of a Nation.

#6: Blade Runner 2049: For fans of the original Blade Runner, which became a cult classic in the years following its disappointing theatrical run, Blade Runner 2049 represented a strong (if long-delayed) follow-up. Answering old questions and asking some new ones, the movie expands on themes and ideas from its predecessor while going off in new directions. The film's intelligence and inscrutability, while part of its appeal to its defenders, proved to be too much for many mainstream movie-goers and the final box-office tally was weak. Shades of the original. In fact, it seems unlikely that a faithful Blade Runner sequel could have become a hit because few films this deliberate and narratively dense achieve mainstream appeal. If you want space opera, see The Last Jedi.

#5: The Shape of Water: I'm a softy when it comes to romances, so that's probably one reason why I liked The Shape of Water as much as I did. Since it's sci-fi/fantasy, it comes complete with a huge dose of allegory. A monster movie for those who don't like monster movies and a love story for those who don't like love stories. Sally Hawkins is incomparable and the supporting cast has her back.

#4: Dunkirk: One of the best war movies in recent memory, Dunkirk bucks the blockbuster trend by keeping the running length (relatively) short, making it lean and mean. Although arguably better suited for a late-year release, the movie did well opening in mid-July in large part because of its director's name recognition. Although a very good movie if seen on a small screen, it loses some of the "awe" aspect that accompanies a theatrical viewing. Remember: this was available in all large-screen formats and was filmed in 70mm.

#3: War for the Planet of the Apes: The third (and highest-placed) summer movie on this year's list, War for the Planet of the Apes goes into deeper, darker territory than any of its predecessors, dealing not only with inter-species hatred but genocide. It also offers the strongest argument to-date that Andy Serkis deserves some kind of Oscar recognition - if not in the Lead Actor category then with an honorary statue. Cesar is a remarkable creation - as human (perhaps more so) than any of the traditionally acted characters in this rich, compelling, tragic, action film. My favorite of all the "Apes" movie by a considerable margin.

#2: Logan: For eight months, this ranked as my #1 film for 2017 and I wouldn't have been upset if it had finished the year in that place. In the entry for Wonder Woman, I mentioned the "traditional" superhero movie. Logan falls outside that envelope with its almost Shakespearean approach to what it means to be an aging comic book god in decline. We haven't seen another superhero movie like this before and I doubt we'll see one again. Lacking in rah-rah battles and feel-good moments, it instead is a meditation on mortality with raw performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. Don't try fitting this movie into the tortured X-Men chronology. It stands on its own and is a sad and beautiful way to say goodbye to this universe.

#1: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Perhaps the true brilliance of Three Billboards isn't its ability to meld tragedy with dark comedy but it's capacity for defying expectations. After establishing a scenario and letting us believe the movie is going in one direction, writer/director Martin McDonagh takes his narrative to places we don't anticipate. I can't imagine anyone predicting the final scene from the setup. The characters here are like onions, with many layers that need to be peeled back to reveal what's underneath. Three fine performances (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell) give faces and personalities to McDonagh's creations and the resulting experience is both unsettling and uplifting. The final scene can be read a number of ways and should satisfy cynics and optimists alike. For me, this is the best film of 2017 and the only one to get four stars. However, I will acknowledge that it's not the strongest four-star film of the past few years. So, although I consider the overall Top 10 for 2017 to be on the strong side of the spectrum, this may be the weakest #1 since 2012's Looper.