Today’s question: What’s missing from our list of the year’s best films?
I mentioned two of my personal favorites that were left off the master list on my ballot, one surprising to me (The Meyerowitz Stories) and one not at all (the Trainspotting sequel). But my personal list has plenty more material for what should have been! Take, for example, Colossal, the giant-monster gender-dynamics dramedy. I don’t know if this is because the movie’s release, at least to critics, was so drawn out (it played a bunch of festivals starting in September 2016 before coming out commercially this past April) that it didn’t register strongly as a 2017 release, or if some found the movie’s ambitions—it touches on addiction issues and self-loathing in addition to toxic “nice guy” masculinity and, uh, giant monster fights—too unwieldy. Whatever the case, I love Colossal, especially the messiness and complexity of Anne Hathaway’s character, who the movie could have easily turned into a too-tidy metaphor. Amidst all of the villainy and destruction, she locates a real humanity. A lot of movies on our list are genre riffs, mostly ones I really like, but few of them surprised me at the same rate as this one.
I’m a little sad that Taika Waititi’s hilarious indie buddy comedy (that also happens to be a major superhero blockbuster) Thor: Ragnarok didn’t make this year’s list. Admittedly, it’s an odd beast: a Marvel movie for people like me, who’ve lost all patience for the average Marvel movie’s constantly repeated beats (even if it does end with yet another goddamn battle with a faceless monster army). But it’s also an incredibly joyful film, a reminder that a comic book universe has room for tones beyond the frat-boy posturing of Civil War or the forced zaniness of the Guardians Of The Galaxy films. Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hiddleston, and even Waititi himself—playing the endlessly charming rock-man Korg—all liven up the screen the second they show up, but the real treat here is Chris Hemsworth, whose pleasure at playing Thor as a well-meaning comic doofus is irresistibly infectious. It hasn’t been this purely fun to hang out with a Marvel hero since Robert Downey Jr.’s first turn as Iron Man; I can’t wait to watch Hemsworth stretch his comedy chops again once he’s done playing serious in the upcoming Infinity War.
A few of my picks didn’t make the overall best of 2017 list, but one that I especially wish was getting more awards-season love is Lucky, John Carroll Lynch’s loving send-off to fellow character actor Harry Dean Stanton. The movie, which was released two weeks after Stanton’s death at the age of 91 in September, was Stanton’s first starring role since 1984's Paris, Texas, and the two films share a certain poetic loneliness enhanced by their wide-open Western settings. As our own Mike D’Angelo pointed out in his review, it’s an ideal swan song for Stanton, who grapples with the prospect of his character’s—and his own—imminent death with an understated vulnerability both emotional and physical. (A scene of the nonagenarian Stanton, his body wilted and his face longer than ever, tending to his yard in undershirt and briefs shows the physical effects of extreme age with an honesty rarely seen on screen.) It’s also an endlessly charming hangout movie, with actors like Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr. popping in for a comedic monologue here and there. (David Lynch’s turn as a fedora-clad local whose concern over his missing tortoise eventually comes to a place of Zen-like acceptance is particularly endearing.) If you’ve got any affection in your heart for cranky old men grousing about game shows over bloody marys at their favorite watering hole, then Lucky may be just your speed.
I can’t say I’m remotely surprised by the absence of 4 Days In France, which barely got a theatrical release and has yet to be made available for home viewing in any format. If more than a couple of voters saw it, I’ll eat mon chapeau. That’s a shame, though, because writer-director Jérôme Reybaud has crafted a unique riff on what philosopher Stanley Cavell once dubbed the comedy of remarriage. The film is a bit of a throwback, sending its restless protagonist on a road trip across the French countryside, where he encounters a fascinating cross-section of humanity (all in the process of trying to get laid). But it’s also au courant enough to have his abandoned lover pursue him by tracking his movements on Grindr. With the possible exception of The Florida Project (and a lot depends on how one interprets that film’s ending), 4 Days In France is the warmest and most hopeful of my 2017 favorites—not just because of how things resolve for its estranged couple, but due to its quiet insistence that every person we might come across has value, and a story worth hearing. Sound intriguing? Stick it on your various queues (even though it’ll be noted as “unavailable”), to let those platforms know you’d like an opportunity to see it.
I’m going with I, Tonya, in spite of the withering-but-accurate description given to it by our own A.A. Dowd—“diet-Scorsese.” It’s a corker of a true story, and the movie succeeds in hitting it from both sides: as a silly tabloid blip in the pop-culture universe and as a critique of how the media and the public accept as black-and-white what might actually be pretty damn gray. Tonya Harding, to the public, was a white-trash villain, an interloper who decided to violently cheat instead of compete on equal ground (equal ice?) in the world of Olympic figure-skating. But Harding’s own version of the story—and that’s what this movie is, no question—is much more complex. A destitute outsider in a sport that, by its nature, doesn’t make it easy for anyone but the relatively well-off to participate, Harding forced her way in by skating better than everybody else, in spite of her homemade outfits. Margot Robbie is awesome as Harding, as is Allison Janney as her awful, abusive mother. I understand people dismissing parts of I, Tonya as gawking or exploitive, but I thought it handled all the weirdness with a sort of frenetic grace.
As a lifelong Blade Runner fanatic, I was admittedly more predisposed than others toward loving Blade Runner 2049—and to hating it, as well. Between it and Twin Peaks: The Return, I spent a lot of the last year agonizing over decades-later sequels to things I love; in both cases, I was more than relieved. Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up may have had a couple of weak spots: Compared to its predecessor, it was notably more plot-heavy, in that modern blockbuster sort of way, and Jared Leto’s villain was a tad underdeveloped for how hammy he was. But really, these are nitpicking complaints for a such a worthy follow-up, one that builds on the original’s themes without merely rehashing them, expands on its story without ever feeling like it’s just nostalgic pandering, and what’s more, crafts a compelling new one that—even if you’ve never seen Blade Runner, you maniac—you can still appreciate on its own. Also: Roger Deakins deserves every award, and possibly some new ones. This is one of the most gorgeous films of the year, effortlessly sweeping through the dizzying concentric spirals of artificial farms, the burnt-orange swirls of an irradiated, Ozymandias statue-strewn Las Vegas, and the rainy neon shimmers and glowing hologram stomping grounds of future Los Angeles. Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 has a painterly composition and immersive ambiance that rewards repeat visits, and I think it will grow a similar following over time—to the point where we’ll look back and find it absurd that it didn’t even rank within the top 20 movies of the year. I tried, future readers!
Every once in a while, I find myself weirdly obsessed with one of the year’s braindead big-budget action spectacles, usually just by virtue of it setting off all the primitive parts of my brain that love audacious, self-assured stupidity. In 2017, that was Kong: Skull Island, a proudly ridiculous monster movie that jammed together kaiju slugfests with Vietnam war film tropes and indulgent cinematic flourishes usually reserved for anime and Hideo Kojima games, two things director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has often cited as big influences and that he channels here perfectly. The result is a movie with imagery that’s as wild and titillating as its monster fights—slow-motion helicopters shot from above in a perfect geometric formation, Kong’s rippling silhouette set against a massive orange sun, Tom Hiddleston using a goddamn samurai sword to slice up tiny pterodactyls inside a swirling emerald fog. Yes, it lacks the grace and restraint of a John Wick or the characterful heart of a Fast And Furious, but it’s just plain fucking cool and sometimes that’s enough for me.
I rewatched Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night this past weekend for the purposes of this very list, and doing so confirmed my suspicion that this movie is, indeed, a nerve-shredding slice of excellence. A victim of a misleading marketing campaign that fooled folks into thinking it was going to be some sort of supernatural horror film, it actually reveals itself to be an experiment in psychological suspense, in which two small families end up united by an uneasy alliance in a post-apocalyptic America. Set almost entirely within the confines of a boarded-up house, Shults’ camera moves implacably through the interior spaces, slowly zooming into haunted expressions that reveal the fracturing nature of his characters’ psyches. It’s the kind of story where you don’t want to give anything away, but from almost the minute the plot is set in motion the knot in your gut lets you know exactly what is going to happen—you just don’t know how it’s going to get to that point. Shults sets the hook with impressively darkened visuals that don’t ever blur or keep you from knowing exactly the spatial geography of the scene, and an admirable commitment to slow-burn editing that nonetheless manages to insert some jolting scares without feeling cheap or unearned. Many a couch cushion will fall victim to the clenched nails of anyone lucky enough to spend a night taking in this bleak character study.
Seconding Matt on the greatness of the bonkers Kong: Skull Island. Another enjoyable film that’s probably (and unfortunately) not headed for awards consideration: Girls Trip was the most I laughed at any movie this year. The movie picked up Bridesmaids’ dusty baton to offer another long-overdue women-led gross-out comedy. Where Rough Night was mean-spirited, Fun Mom Dinner disjointed, and Bad Moms too tame, Girls Trip bravely went all-in with gags that would make the Hangover guys themselves hurl, along with a flurry of hilarious dialogue asides. Also seconding Jada Pinkett Smith on the greatness of Tiffany Haddish’s star-making turn as the comet-like force of Dina, a completely confident character even as she accidentally doses her friends, hides pot in unmentionable areas, and smashes wine bottles, looking for a fight. Girls Trip made history as the first film with an all-black team (cast, director, writers, and producers) to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, making it a major release breakthrough not tied to superhero or space war franchises. The fact that all four of its leads are women just piles on more 2017 evidence that a straight shot to box-office success is to smartly play to female audiences.
For the second year in a row, no documentaries made our top 20. Last year, our best excuse was that the big consensus doc favorite, O.J.: Made In America, appeared on the TV list instead. This year, I’d chalk up the oversight to the general lack of any one standout nonfiction triumph we could all rally around. But if I had my druthers, Starless Dreams would have earned such unanimous support. Mehrdad Oskouei’s remarkably intimate documentary lends a voice to the teenage girls cooped up behind the walls of a youth correctional facility in Iran. There are no bells and whistles to distract from the vibrant personalities Oskouei captures or the often-heartbreaking stories he coaxes out of them. (If nothing else, the film is a model for interviewers, demonstrating how to respectfully get reticent interviewees to open up.) Starless Dreams has some withering things to say about a culture where girls sometimes feel safer and more liberated behind bars than they do on the outside. But that’s all implicit; Oskouei lets his subjects do the talking. It’s a beautiful film, and its absence from our list, however expected, fills me with much more guilt than the omission of a certain acclaimed sci-fi noir.