It’s listing time again! In today’s entertainment consumption sphere, all experiences must be pitted against each other and assigned numeric values that are ultimately arbitrary to anyone except the writer themselves. It’s just this fun thing some of us love doing even though the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
I saw twenty-five films in theaters in 2017, but four were Best Picture nominees officially released in 2016 and therefore disqualified from this list, because I’m an unreasonable stickler about dates. (Ranking those four from Best to Least Best: Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures, and Manchester by the Sea. Of those four, nothing has haunted me throughout 2017 more than the Attack of the 50-Foot Viola Davis.)
Of the remaining 21 contenders that I saw in theaters, we had eight super-hero sequels or continuations, though one of them didn’t reveal that till the final scene; five non-superhero sequels; one reboot; two adaptations of printed works (one already famously done); one non-superhero animated film (possibly an all-time low for me); and four live-action original works. Obviously you’ll note the following list is far from comprehensive in covering 2017’s release slate. This was such a busy year for us that spare time for theater-going was in much shorter supply than usual, to say nothing of the impact that Netflix’s strong TV-series slate has had on my viewing habits. On the bright side, 21 films is a 10% increase over my total for 2016, which wasn’t much of a year.
(For what it’s worth, I decided to set aside most Oscar-potential films until after the official nominations announcement is made on January 23rd. I definitely plan to get around to Get Out soon, and for light kicks maybe Cars 3 if it ever reaches Netflix, where I noticed the other day they now have Pirates of the Caribbean 5 for any die-hard cheapskate Captain Jack Sparrow fans willing to kill 2½ hours to catch up on his antics. Last year I was not one of those.)
In the meantime, here’s what I didn’t miss in theaters in 2017, for better or worst-of-the-worst. Links to past reviews and thoughts are provided for historical reference. And now, on with the bottom half of the countdown:
21. Transformers: The Last Knight. As I wrote at the time: “Michael Bay’s latest assemblage of toy robot fight footage extracted from a wheat thresher doesn’t stop at just King Arthur for his pop culture cribbing. After an opening fray that brings us the Game of Thrones/Armageddon crossover no one ever asked for, Bay and his four credited screenwriters go out of their way to photocopy portions of Suicide Squad, Downton Abbey, National Treasure, Aliens, Stand by Me and Three’s Company while trying to turn giant toy robot fights into Serious Business, to come up with clever disguises for sports-car placement ads, and to perpetuate the four previous films’ ongoing YVAN EHT NIOJ-style recruitment campaign.” I prefer to write all-new capsule reviews for these year-end listicles, but frankly, I’m running out of new ways to rant about these messes, which I continue enabling only because they’re a long-standing father/son ritual. I’ve also seen five Roman Polanski films and inadvertently watched a Weinstein Company release last night, so here’s hoping my viewing list won’t factor into my verdict on Judgment Day.
20. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. What I hoped would be Luc Besson’s spiritual space-opera sequel to The Fifth Element was instead Space Mega-Snowpiercer with extra pretty colors and no point. The two young-adult leads, each recovering from playing bad super-villains, have all the chemistry of high-school drama students assigned to write term papers on the Thin Man movies but who both got D-minuses for radically different yet equally depressing reasons. All the dazzling visual effects in the world couldn’t make me accept the part where the film brakes (and breaks) for an extended love letter to Rihanna, but it’s just as well because I never, ever got past the part where the most important MacGuffin in the universe was a space hamster that pooped magic space marbles.
19. Split. For the first ninety minutes I was sold on M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback and enthralled with the multiple performances by James McAvoy and the singular performance by Anya Taylor-Joy (soon to costar in April’s The New Mutants) in a wicked cat-and-mouse locked-room thriller. Then I remembered why I stopped watching Shyamalan movies when we groaned at not one but two twists by the end: (a) surprise, there are super-powers, and (b) the whole thing is actually the first expansion pack in the M. Night Shyamalan Cinematic Superhero Universe, an adjacent sequel to a previous flick of his. My first sit-through of a Blumhouse Productions suspense yarn felt like a bait-and-switch.
18. Dunkirk. I didn’t expect one of the year’s best films, as anointed by Top Critics, to be my next-to-least favorite Christopher Nolan film (pausing here for glares at Talia al-Ghul and Officer Robin), but here I am. The sliding-time-frames gimmick in and of itself didn’t bother me so much as watching nameless, interchangeable, mostly silent lads parade through a series of mishaps whose pileup felt increasingly more comical than historical. I would’ve been content with a shorter film about sea captain Mark Rylance’s quiet struggle with a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy, or excited at the idea of a half-hour dogfighting epic called “Tom Hardy, WWII Flying Ace”. Ensemble dramas running multiple tracks are usually cool with me, but the lack of internal lives for the individual soldiers who survived the Miracle at Dunkirk left them as cyphers when in fact they should’ve been the stars.
17. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. In the action comedy Central Intelligence, Dwayne Johnson plus Kevin Hart equaled $200 million at the US box office. Someone behind the scenes ran extra calculations and figured they could potentially double their dough by adding expensive special effects, sequel nostalgia magic, a Strong Female Character™, and Jack Black, in that order. Thus it was made, fun was had, and coffers were refilled. Other than Kevin Hart shouting, “CAKE MAKES ME EXPLODE!” I expect to forget its contents by February.
16. Kong: Skull Island. The year’s best so-bad-it’s-good popcorn flick wasn’t just an excuse for super awesome giant monster fights or a reminder that the world needs more Apocalypse Now cinematography, though I’m fine with either justification. It’s also the second reboot in the Godzilla and Friends Cinematic Universe, but more of a keeper than its predecessor, which isn’t saying much. As the lost leads who fail to keep up, Loki and the future Captain Marvel can’t quite figure how to enjoy their work half as much as John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and wacky John C. Reilly, three old pros having a blast because it didn’t matter to them if this expensive blockbuster soared or flopped. Regardless, it’s both a shame and a hoot to see a film so knowingly flawed that its own director happily joined in roasting it.
15. Justice League. The secret origin of all your favorite old super-hero teams follows a strict, simple formula: a bunch of preexisting characters team up, fight and fight and fight, and then make excuses to stay together and have further adventures. What Zack Snyder left unfinished for the most heart-rending of reasons, Joss Whedon reassembled with some effort and reshoots into a serviceable, occasionally thrilling yet astonishingly basic super-hero story that would be entirely suitable kiddie fare if it weren’t for Snyder’s left-behind shadowy overtones and Aquaman’s potty mouth. It’s a better film than Dawn of Justice, partly because it’s less bitter but mostly because it’s less ambitious.
14. Murder on the Orient Express. Kenneth Branagh’s fabulously fastidious, illustriously idiosyncratic Hercule Poirot deserves an ongoing series all his own, preferably in which none of the endings have been spoiled for me as this one famously was. Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit solution remains unique in pop culture history, and Branagh’s do-over gives it an enviable upscale sheen as well as a showcase for Michelle Pfeiffer’s return to form, but Poirot’s denouement struggle with shades of gray comes off as antiquated in a 21st-century world where shades of gray are the norm rather than the rare exception.
13. The Lego Batman Movie. With The Lego Movie‘s directors away on other assignments, the first of its many spinoffs rebuilds the fourth wall and stays firmly behind it, settling in for frenetic family fun. Kids will love the super-heroes, the animation, and the products they’ll add to their birthday and Christmas wish lists; parents can enjoy the all-star cameos, the wide selection of C-list characters making their big-screen debuts, and the occasional flurry of in-jokes while trying to resist counting how many gags and one-liners fall flat. It’s not bad, but The Lego Movie may have set the bar a little too high.
12. Baby Driver. I had high expectations for Edgar Wright’s flashy, caffeinated music-video concept album with stylish car chases in it, and yet none of the chases delivered me that sensation of “I’ve never seen this done before.” No one can stop dueling bank robbers Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm from stealing large chunks of the movie to keep over their mantels as trophy prizes, but I realized where the larger problem lay when I found myself rooting for them instead of for Our Hero, the gawky young getaway driver who’s years away from achieving their order of magnitude and who keeps fading into the background behind that boomin’ soundtrack.
11. Detroit. I like the idea of having more serious-minded, modestly budgeted dramas attracting fans into theaters and would rather give each and every such case an A++ if it would help. With director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boals’ take on the true story of a 1967 tragedy of racist police brutality run amok, the approach wasn’t about finding the Moral of the Story or a path toward a hope-filled future so much as it was about magnifying true horror that resonates with aspects of the 2017 political zeitgeist. At times the real-time reenactment of torturous interrogation, amplified with volume-11 action-flick gunshot sound mixing, achieves The Passion of the Christ levels of extreme viewer discomfort, minus any promise of a redemptive ending. Such is real life far too often, granted, but it’s tough to imagine anyone buying the DVD to endure encore showings.
To be concluded!