Matt’s Best Movies of 2017

1. Logan

Violence has consequences. And in “Logan,” horrific violence has horrific consequences, even if you’re one of the “good” guys.

“Logan” finds the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in the not-too-distant future, working as a chauffeur to make ends meet and trying hard to forget his past. When he’s not working, he’s caring for the ailing nonagenarian Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in a world where mutants are no longer being born and the X-Men are all but extinct. Now an aging has-been, Logan is but a shadow of his former self: hardly the cocky, self-obsessed man he once was, this broken-down man is haunted by the memories of the people he has killed and those he has left behind. When a mysterious girl with powers like his lands on Logan’s doorstep, he is forced to live up to his legend and fight to protect her from forces that want to destroy her.

In “Logan,” we finally get a superhero movie that doesn’t feel like a comic book. The story is a small one, where the there is no larger-than-life megalomaniac wielding a giant destructo-beam with aspirations to rule the world. Instead, this movie is satisfied with the central goal of keeping the girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) safe. In this mission Logan finds purpose, and it is enough.

Those who were hoping for an X-Men movie will be disappointed in “Logan.” While there are multiple well-choreographed fight sequences (without fast-cut editing), in this film the violence is nothing like we normally see in superhero cinema. In this movie, when someone is sliced by the Wolverine’s sharp claws, there is blood. There is gore. Death isn’t bloodless or pretty, and the camera doesn’t flinch as we are shown the violence inflicted by Logan and others. This is, by far, the bloodiest movie based on a comic-book character I think I’ve ever seen. But it’s not gore for gore’s sake; there is a purpose for it.

Built upon fully-realized characters with understandable motivations, “Logan” never feels like it’s manipulating us. The drama is earned, as are the laughs and cheers. This kind of character-driven drama is not something most audiences are used to, but it’s a significant step forward for the superhero genre.

2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

After a several-year hiatus since his last film, “Seven Psychopaths,” writer-director Martin McDonagh is finally back, and his razor-sharp wit is on full display in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.”

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mom who recently lost her teenage daughter in one of the most horrible ways imaginable. The impotent local cops, led by Chief Willoughby, have been unable to make any headway in finding the killer. Mildred isn’t the type of person who accepts this sort of failure readily, so she takes matters into her own hands and rents space on three billboards in her town taking the Chief and his department to task. Neither the department nor the townsfolk like the negative publicity, and Mildred soon finds herself at odds with nearly everyone.

Particularly when dealing with the temporal limitations of a feature-length film, it’s tempting for writers to oversimplify. People become types and archetypes, and they act accordingly. The protagonist is sympathetic and the antagonist isn’t. But the real world hardly ever works that way: humans are complicated, and sometimes people do change. “Three Billboards” works so well because nothing in its world is simple, and people’s motivations aren’t as clear as they might initially seem. Mildred is someone you can relate to, sure, but she’s also so single-mindedly focused on her task of finding justice for her daughter that she’s also not a very nice person.

“Three Billboards” features some of the most fully-formed characters I’ve ever seen in a two-hour movie, and the arc of one of these players is one of the most complete and believable in memory. The dialogue is memorable, the action absorbing, and the theme of forgiveness hits just the right note; it’s a particularly meaningful message in a callous world of soundbites and short attention spans.

3. The Shape of Water

“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful fairy tale with a message that’s particularly resonant in our modern world. It’s about the people our society marginalizes but are vital to making our world work.

Everything in “The Shape of Water” comes together in near-perfect fashion: the score, the screenplay, the cinematography, the set design, the costumes, and the acting. These are some of our best creative professionals working at the top of their game, and what results is one of the technically best movies ever made. It’s also a hauntingly beautiful, almost magical work about what it means to love and be human.

 

4. The Greatest Showman

“The Greatest Showman” deserves to be an instant classic, even if it doesn’t become one. It boasts some of the best original music of any movie musical in recent memory, and features some numbers to go with them that are simply show-stopping. It is anti-bullying, pro-celebrating our differences and has an inspiring message about the power of imagination. It is both inspiring and affirming; it’s just the sort of movie we need right now.

Five of the songs from “The Greatest Showman” are stuck on a loop in my head. The music is that good. It’s still playing in theaters. If you see it, you won’t be disappointed.

5. Lady Bird

In a world where cinematic entertainment for the masses usually means everything has to be big and loud, with the stakes often being the future of humanity itself. These larger-than-life tales often fail to touch audiences because it’s hard to connect with them, whereas the ones that do are usually very small, personal tales.

“Lady Bird” epitomizes this latter type of movie: in a very specific and deeply personal semi-autobiographical tale about her own life growing up in Sacramento, writer-director Greta Gerwig tells a story that is universal in its resonance. Growing up is something we all have done or must do, and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s (Saoirse Ronan) experiences aren’t very different from those most of us had in high school.

“Lady Bird” proves the maxim that you should write what you know. Gerwig has matured as a writer and has really found her voice, which surprisingly is different from the Woody Allen- and Whit Stillman-esque work she’s done before, like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” With “Lady Bird,” she’s written a movie that is original, wise, and insightful.

6. Baby Driver

Doc (Kevin Spacey) is a mastermind who plans robberies, always using a different crew of angry, dangerous, and unstable criminals (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal). The only common element to these jobs is the person driving the getaway car, Baby (Ansel Elgort). Baby has an amazing gift behind the wheel: he’s able to maneuver cars like they are an extension of himself, and he is masterful at evading police and capture. Baby, who just wants to live simply with his new girlfriend Debora (Lily James), never wanted any of this but he has an obligation to Doc and can’t leave the life.

Shades of “True Romance” are seen throughout, but “Baby Driver” isn’t a cheap knockoff, it’s its own thing. From the pitch-perfect soundtrack to the stunt driving to the acting, “Baby Driver” was one of the most wildly entertaining movies of 2017.

7. Blade Runner 2049

Director Denis Villeneuve was given the difficult, almost Herculean task of making a sequel to a time-honored classic of science fiction and film noir. And you know what? He did it.

While “Blade Runner” isn’t revered on quite the same level as “Star Wars,” among film snob types it’s on the shortlist of the all-time greatest movies. With “2049,” Villeneuve successfully imagines a world that is fundamentally the same one we saw in the first movie, but that has moved on – and has become even more of a dystopia in the process.

As replicant detective K, Ryan Gosling manages the difficult task of emoting while also acting emotionless. Although he’s not human, the loneliness he feels as an android very much is. The need to connect, which is something he shares with his predecessor Deckard (Harrison Ford), propels him through a sepia-toned world that has been destroyed by humankind and must move on to survive.

While it may not have the answers, “Blade Runner 2049” impressively deals with big, weighty questions like what it means to be human. And the movie looks fantastic while doing it. Shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, “2049” is one of the best-looking movies of the decade. If you missed it in the theater, you really missed out.

 8. American Made

I know I know, it’s been said so often that it belongs on the list of clichés that need to be permanently retired, but in the case of “American Made,” the shoe fits perfectly: truth really is stranger than fiction.

In the go-go 80’s cocaine was king: it was the drug of choice for Wall Street and Hollywood types, and the Columbian cartel was all too eager to meet the demand with its blood-soaked supply. Into this world entered Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), an experienced airline pilot who disdained the rules and authority. The narcos needed someone to transport their product, and Seal was crazy and bored enough to be willing to take risks just for the thrill of it. It was a perfect fit.

But it was even stranger than that.

Before he began the drug running, Seal had been noticed by the CIA, who needed a pilot to run guns and money to the Contras in South America (a scandal that later rocked the Reagan administration when Oliver North testified before Congress). Seal figured that he could make twice the money on his runs if he worked for both the CIA and the narcos, and the CIA was all too happy to let him do it. So he did, and in the process created a massive compound in the little town of Mena, Arkansas, where multiple banks quickly took up residence in a rush to meet Barry’s need to find someplace to stash the mountains of cash he was taking in on a daily basis.

Rarely are true life stories as immensely entertaining as “American Made.” Director Doug Liman handled the material well, with his best decision being the idea to step back and let Cruise do his thing. And Cruise has never been better: his Seal is the essence of American exceptionalism and cockiness, all wrapped up in his self-assured smile. I left the theater wanting more, but satisfied by what I’d seen.

There were few movies in 2017 that were as fun as “American Made.”

9. Gifted

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a single dad raising Mary (McKenna Grace), his child prodigy daughter in a small fishing town on the east coast. Although Mary is in a regular elementary school, everyone else, including Frank’s mom (Lindsay Duncan) thinks she needs to be in a school for gifted kids, which Frank can’t afford on his meager income. But while Mary may not be at a special school, she’s happy and well-adjusted, living the kind of childhood Frank (who, like Mary, is highly intelligent) and his sister never had.

“Gifted” works well because it treats its characters like real people with realistic motivations and authentic emotions. There’s no bad guy; there are only real conflicts involving people who care about one another and who only want the best for Mary. While it respects her gifts, the movie never treats Mary as a superhero or as a circus curiosity; she’s a kid, after all. Like all kids, Mary needs more than just to have her talents nurtured: she needs friendship, warmth, love, and stability.

“Gifted” is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. It’s clear from each scene that every single person who made it believed passionately in what they were doing: it’s a beautiful, touching, and honest.

10. It

Some ideas strike a collective chord with all of us. Take clowns, for example. Sometime within the last 30 years, there was a collective realization that clowns are kinda scary. What was the genesis of that idea? Was it the doll in “Poltergeist?” Was it the capture of John Wayne Gacy? Or was it when Stephen King (still my favorite writer) published “It?”

In “It,” King somehow was able to distill the scary clown concept down to its essence in a way that managed to tap into this fear in a novel way. What makes King’s creation, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, so frightening is that It is also able to take the form of the thing you fear most in this world… and he feeds on us when we’re most vulnerable: when we’re children.

“It” remains one of King’s seminal and most well-regarded works, so it’s particularly important that any adaptation gets it right. This movie does. This version of Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård (proving, once again, the Skarsgård rule*), is particularly terrifying. The kids, led by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) are all well-cast. Director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) is fluent in the cinematic language of horror and understands the importance of framing a shot. The sets are well-conceived (in particular, the house on Niebolt Street where the kids have their first showdown with It).

My only nits to pick with the movie are that first, it relies a little too much on nostalgia, sometimes to the point of distraction. References to 1980s pop culture do the story a disservice, begging Generation Xers to force a laugh every time we recognize the name of a song by the New Kids on the Block (at times, the movie was so heavy-handed in its references that I was reminded of this pitch-perfect scene from “Bojack Horseman”). For all of the tweaks made to the story, the climax of the story – easily the weakest part of King’s book – was a bit of a letdown.

Overall, however, “It” is effective at bringing the thrills and chills.

MATT’S BEST MOVIES OF 2017: HONORABLE MENTIONS

11. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

12. Good Time

13. The Florida Project

14. Brigsby Bear

15. Wind River

16. Dunkirk

17. Annabelle: Creation

18. The Disaster Artist

19. Patti Cake$

20. Last Flag Flying