Sunday, March 4, 2018

Stop, It's Oscar Time: The Best Movies of 2017

Hey there, cats and kittens.

After an awful year for Hollywood and the entertainment industry but a pretty darn good one for films, 2017 showed that Hollywood has continued to inch its way in the right direction in terms of more diversity in film, better visual effects, and terrific (albeit sometimes unoriginal) storytelling.

And so, here are the best films of 2017 (and, as usual, some overrated ones), just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards:

10. Get Out
Before I get started, I have to note that Get Out is basically tied with It, the coming-of-age Stranger Things-before-there-was-Stranger Things adaptation of Stephen King's famous novel about a killer clown. Both are horror films that weren't all that scary, both made a ton of money, and both will have long legacies. But I'm so opposed to ties on top-ten lists, that after some back and forth, I decided to put Get Out at number ten and have It as an honorable mention. Why is Get Out here and not It? While I'm impartial to coming-of-age films, I also liked the way Get Out seemed so fresh and original, while It is based on a popular book from the 80s that was made into a popular TV miniseries in the 90s that inspired a recent hit Netflix show and will now have a sequel.

I feel fortunate that I knew as little as possible about Get Out before watching it. You should, too (if you're one of five people who've never seen the movie.) So I won't go into the plot. All I'll add is that Get Out is the movie I'm rooting for for Best Picture (as well as Best Original Screenplay), mainly because it's a horror movie, and I think the last horror movie that won Best Picture was Silence of the Lambs in 1992.. There are not many films quite this clever. I enjoyed most of the performances (especially Daniel Kaluuya, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener), and I appreciated how writer-director Jordan Key Peale put a unique spin on the villains. This is a very intelligent and astute movie.

9. Battle of the Sexes
A biographical film about the most famous tennis match of the 20th century, Battle of the Sexes works on three different levels: it works as an exhilarating, though at times cliched, sports film; it works as a loud-and-proud movie about gender equality; and it works as a delicate and mature same-sex love story. I can't think of another movie that does all three so easily.

Like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' directorial debut (a little movie called Little Miss Sunshine), this undoubtedly is a crowd-pleaser. If that's not you're kind of movie, you might want to stay away. Beyond that, it's more than challenging to not see the Battle of the Sexes tennis match of 1973 as a parallel to a lot of what happened during the U.S. presidential election of 2016. If you're not interested in re-opening those wounds, you also might want to avoid this movie.

Not to say that there aren't any problems with the movie (like it's use of a "magic gay man"), but it's still one of the year's best. It's certainly one of Emma Stone's best performances, and if you can understand that Steve Carell is meant to be as obnoxious as possible, you'll love his performance as well. They're supported by a big cast that includes Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, Austin Stowell, and Tom Kenny.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
First, the elephant in the room: I am aware of how problematic this movie is and how painful it delivers its message. While I am not sure I would agree that it is a racist movie, it is certainly a movie that is about as tone-deaf about race and racism in the United States as there can be. I can only conclude that writer-director Martin McDonagh, an Irishman who probably didn't think too carefully about how some situations and characters (and unnecessary character arcs) would be received in the US, especially among minority communities.

Some have defended him by calling the criticism "alarmist". I'm not sure if that's a fair word to use. The concerns about the movie are genuine, but there is a lot to like about the movie. Why do I like the movie? I loved Frances McDormand's performance; it may be even better than her iconic role in Fargo. In a year in which Wonder Women wasn't nominated for anything, we should celebrate tough, bad-ass women as much as the Academy will let us. (Yes, I didn't care for Wonder Women, but I recognize that everyone else on the planet did. And if a major blockbuster that made tons of money and was adored by fans are critics alike can't get nominations, I don't know what can.) I like the other actors in the cast as well, mainly Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson,

The backlash against Three Billboards is most likely justified. I liked this movie, and I really hope McDormand wins another Oscar; I just wish McDonagh had thought more carefully before making some of the choices he made.

7. The Post
While it's impossible not to watch Battle of the Sexes and think about the events of 2016, it is also impossible to watch The Post and not think of the events of 2017. This movie loudly trumpets the role of the media and cautious against a reactionary executive. Meryl Streep, in her first performance in a Steven Spielberg-directed film, is legendary Washington Post-owner Katherine Graham. Hanks reunites with Spielberg in his performance as editor Bill Bradlee. Hanks' performance is a bit too, well, Hanksy. (Do we really need him playing every kind of Jimmy Stewart-esque character there is? Apparently yes, because he's been cast as Mr. Rogers). Streep's performance, however, is exceptional, as always. How easy she continues to make this all look. Like other movies on this list, there is a great supporting cast: Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, and Michael Stuhlbar.

Of the three most recent Steven Spielberg-directed somber historical motion pictures (the other two being Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), The Post is the best. While there is the uncomfortable controversy regarding the fact that this is The Post and not The Times, meaning the filmmakers probably exaggerated the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers while not giving the New York Times enough credit, I was willing to overlook it, but it probably didn't help its Oscar chances. (For the record, I can't figure out why they didn't just make it The Times. Perhaps because Graham and Bradlee are such known figures.)

If you are concerned that Speilberg and frequent Trump critics Streep and Hanks are going in for an unabashedly pro-media, anti-fascist film, rest assured that this very much is a bipartisan critique on the U.S. presidents and their administrations that repeatedly lied to the American people about the situation in Vietnam; that list includes both Democrats and Republicans: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (who is featured throughout the film through the use of those infamous tapes).

6. Coco
Pixar's first musical is a grand celebration of Mexican culture that is so magnificent, it has become the highest grossing film in Mexican history. Anthony Gonzalez plays 12-year-old Miguel, an aspiring musician in a family that has banned music. Miguel runs away, and through an accidental bit of magic, he finds himself in the Land of the Dead during Day of the Dead. Racing against time to avoid being permanently stuck there, Miguel finds his ancestors (who hate music as much as his living relatives), a helpless musician named Ernesto (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal) longing to be remembered by the living, and one of the most famous singers in history named Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt).

Coco starts off with lots of human and heart, and then sort of drags a bit in the second act. However, that's when the music starts, and man, does Gonzalez have an incredible singing voice. The third act is where most of the film's heart is, and it's one of the most pro-family messages in a while, even if it lays it on a bit thick. The images of the Land of the Dead (particularly that gorgeous bridge) are some of Pixar's most stunning, and keep in mind this is the studio that brought us WALL-E, Up, and Inside Out. Aside from its lame title (you can read here the controversy behind why it was changed), this is an awesome film for movie-goers of all ages.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The most controversial, and yet one of the best, Star Wars films ever, The Last Jedi has proved that this franchise is here to stay for a while. To some, this is bad news. As David Chen of Slash Filmcast pointed out, there were three types of fans who were disappointed by the movie: the alt-right crowd angry at all the diversity in the newer films of this franchise, the hard-core fans who feel writer-director Rian Johnson is overstepping his bounds with his creativity, and film nerds who were picking apart the film's plot holes. (Nobody wants to be in the first group; everyone wants to be in the third.)

Whatever. I loved this film. I loved its meta quality. I loved the final performance of the late, far-above-great Carrie Fisher. I loved the cagey, alienated, disillusioned portrayal of Luke Skywalker by Mark Hamill. I adored a reunion scene that I won't elaborate on because I think it's too soon to spoil. I was so impressed by the acting of Daisey Ridley, who continues to inspire young girls around the world, and Adam Driver, whose portrayal of the malicious Kylo Ren continues to remind us of the limitations of Millenials. I was thrilled from start to finish (save for that lame casino scene), and I applauded the performances of Laura Dern, Oscar Isaac, and others. Johnson took some big swings and mostly hit it out of the park, regardless of what the three types of the agitated had to say.

As I wrote in my review, there will come a time when fans tire of this franchise. Star Wars is not Marvel, another Disney-owned studio, with enormous longevity. But for now, considering how wonderful the three most recent movies have been, why stop now?

4. Kedi
A cat in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul during my 2011 trip. They're everywhere.
Who would've thought that a Turkish documentary about the feral cats of Istanbul would be so entertaining? And yet, it is. It goes without saying that this is a must-see for cat lovers, but even if you hate cats, you'll probably like this movie. As one man in the documentary says, you can't really trust people who don't like cats.

This documentary takes us through the streets of Istanbul, one of the world's great cities. And while we meet lots of different common folks, the main focus is on Istanbul's cats. As someone who's traveled there, I can affirm to you that these creatures are indeed everywhere, and unlike most places, they really don't seem terrified of humans.

This documentary, directed by Ceyda Torun, will tug at your heart and make you impressed by the resourcefulness of these felines. Her camera takes a very active approach to following them around and telling their stories. This movie is the most surprising must-see of last year.

3. The Big Sick
The Big Sick is one of the very best romantic comedies in a long time. Based on the real-life love story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani plays himself (which is kind of weird), and Gordon is wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan. Among the supporting cast are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents of Emily; Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, and Anupam Kher playing Kumail's family members; and Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant as his comedian friends. All are fantastic. The first conversation Kumail has his Emily's parents is probably the funniest scene of the year.

There's so much in this movie: comedians, love, family drama, interracial dating, and a health crisis to top it all off. I'm deeply disappointed that this movie didn't get more nominations, like for Best Picture, for example, though I am happy that Nanjiani and Gordon are nominated for Best Original Screenplay. In terms of acting, we've never really seen Nanjiani pull off stuff this dramatic, and Kazan is as charming and perfect as ever. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

2. The Salesman
The second Best Foreign Language Film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (who did not attend last year's Oscar ceremony to protest Donald Trump's travel ban of Iranians entering the US), The Salesman is yet another fantastic marriage of subtle tenseness and acute observations of the unique difficulties some ordinary people face. Set among the backdrop of a local production of the play Death of a Salesman, this movie has all the ingredients of a great Farhadi thriller: toxic masculinity, suspicion, paranoia, and false choices. Like he did with A SeparationAbout Elly, and Le Passe, Farhadi has made a tense movie without including any typical Hollywood cliches. I greatly await his next motion picture, which will be his first Spanish film.

1. The Florida Project
The Florida Project is a masterpiece. Like Tangerine before it, Sean Baker finds atypical stories so worth telling. To paraphrase the fine folks at Pop Culture Happy Hour, this movie might seem like it's going to "poverty porn" and overly didactic, but it isn't. I don't know how Baker and team managed to do a movie like that this way, but they did. Part of it may be due to the performances, which are perfect. With all due respect to Sam Rockwell's more ostentatious performance in Three Billboards, The Florida Project features probably Willem Dafoe's best performance yet, as the hotel manager and borderline babysitter for the hotel's kids and their parents. (I'm rooting for him to win the Oscar, though he's the underdog.) There are also so many other brilliant performances by unknown actors who for some reason have not been nominated for anything this awards season (especially Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite as the daughter and mother, respectively, living in this low-rent hotel not far from Disney World). This movie is probably one of the best of the decade, and I cannot wait to see the next projects directed by Baker.

Honorable Mentions: The Disaster Artist, Thor: Ragnorok, The Lego Batman Movie, It, Call Me By Your Name

Overrateds of the Year: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, God's Own Country, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Columbus, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, Okja, Marjorie Prime

Fortunately, the films in my top ten shows a list of diversity: The Florida Project features a diverse cast set in economic situations American films rarely feel comfortable detailing; The Big Sick features an interracial love story, and much of the cast members are Pakistani or Pakistani-American; Kedi and The Salesman are both foreign films from countries with majority Muslim populations (Turkey and Iran, respectively); Coco celebrates Mexican culture and features a Latino cast and is co-directed by a Mexican-American; Star Wars: The Last Jedi is (controversially, for some stupid reason) probably the most diverse Star Wars movie ever; The Post certainly doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, but it does star Meryl Streep as Graham, a towering figure in American journalism; and finally, Battle of the Sexes features basically an all-white cast (except for Morales), but essentially half the cast is female (and of course, it's about one of the US's most celebrated gay athletes). Three Billboards has its controversies, but it is led by a strong woman playing a strong woman. And then of course, there's Get Out, which uniquely visualizes the US's problems with race.

I do hope Hollywood continues this trend.

Actor Who Was In Everything:

Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out; American Made; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Florida Project)

Runner Up: Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Goodbye, Christopher RobinAmerican Mademother!Crash Pad)

Fireman of the Year: Christopher Plummer (All the Money In the World) (and special shout-out to Jack Matthews for giving Plummer that title)


Best Actress:
Who Will Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Who Should Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Actor:
Who Will Win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Who Should Win: Timothee Chalomet (Call Me By Your Name)

Best Supporting Actress:
Who Will Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Who Should Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)

Best Supporting Actor:
Who Will (Probably) Win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Who Should Win: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)


  1. Thanks Chris for the nice article! Why have we never heard of Kedi! Going look for it now! Meow!