Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Best and Worst of 2017 So Far

After a terrific 2016 that saw the release of masterpieces such as La La Land and Moonlight, as well as instant genre classics like The Nice Guys and Green Room, was there any way that 2017 could match up? The year has been markedly different, but 2017 has been a great time for movies in its own way. This has been the year of the blockbuster, where big superhero movies, action films, and microbudget horror movies have blown audiences away across the globe. There isn't a single film in my Top Ten so far that doesn't have some kind of genre element, and to be quite honest, that's kinda crazy. After a year where two musicals held the top two spots on my list, it just shows that the movie business can be quite unpredictable. And of course, there have been a fair share of stinkers as well, including some that disappointed me a great deal. So without further delay, check out my picks for the best and worst movies of 2017 so far!

Worst

10. THE MUMMY


As I said in my opening, summer 2017 has been a pretty good one for big blockbuster movies, and the year as a whole has been quite generous to the superhero and action genres. But that mojo wasn't carried over to The Mummy, a hopelessly dull and misguided film attempting to position itself as the start of a new cinematic universe. Although it's certainly less egregiously awful than many other 2017 films, The Mummy has all the hallmarks of a horribly tedious would-be blockbuster. Loud, nonsensical action, boring, unlikable characters, choppy editing, eye roll-inducing references to future films, and a laughable emotional core- it's all here in a film that is as disposable and forgettable as any in recent memory. 

9. FIFTY SHADES DARKER


Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with the Fifty Shades series. It's trash, and most of the people that consume them know that these books and movies are trash. It's a soap opera with whips and handcuffs, a kinky saga with twists and turns that a five year old could see coming. They're profoundly stupid movies- so why are they so boring? Hollywood is notoriously bad with sex, and they continue to demonstrate that with this series. Fifty Shades Darker is a mixtape of bland sex scenes set to pop music, saddled with a leaden and excruciating plot that seems to take everything seriously. It's softcore porn with a serious lack of self-awareness, and it makes for a sluggish, annoying experience.

8. A UNITED KINGDOM


Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

On paper, A United Kingdom should be a great movie. It's a handsomely designed period piece led by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, two terrific actors who consistently deliver strong performances. But the end result is far from satisfactory, a romance that never even feels close to believable and a race relations parable that never manages to be compelling. Especially in the aftermath of Jeff Nichols' Loving, an interracial marriage biopic that deftly pulled off a blend of human drama and historical stakes, Amma Asante's A United Kingdom was a true letdown. I'm sure plenty of people won't see eye-to-eye with me on this one, but this film bored me to tears. 

7. A CURE FOR WELLNESS


Image courtesy of Fox

When the trailer for A Cure for Wellness dropped back in the fall of last year, the film immediately jumped to the top of my must-see list. A big-budget horror movie dripping with awe-inspiring visuals and a creepy, Shining-esque plot? Count me in. But Gore Verbinski simply didn't deliver the goods with this one, which stands as the most disappointing film of 2017 to date. Obscenely bloated (this thing is miraculously 146 minutes long), overly familiar, and almost absurdly predictable, no amount of pretty images could stop A Cure for Wellness from slowly evolving into a dull mess of nightmarish proportions. In addition, the film is stuck with an awful lead performance by Dane DeHaan and a third act "twist" that falls flat on its face, resulting in a horrifying misfire that never even comes close to being satisfying. 

6. THE CIRCLE


Image courtesy of STX Entertainment

With two indie gems (The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour) on his resume, James Ponsoldt had quickly established himself as a talented filmmaker to watch. But just when he was meant to take his first step into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Ponsoldt's career took a huge step back with The Circle, a film that genuinely feels like it wasn't finished. Despite a cast that includes heavyweights such as Emma Watson, John Boyega, and Tom Hanks, Ponsoldt's portrayal of modern day technological fascism suffers from a crippling lack of vision- in the end, this movie just does not know what to say. The end result is as confusing as it is unsatisfying, and when the final frame flickers across the screen, you'll be left saying "What WAS that?" It's that kind of movie. A missed opportunity in just about every single way.

5. TABLE 19


Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Oh, Table 19. To be quite honest, I don't even really remember why I saw this movie. I knew it wasn't going to be good. I saw that the reviews were awful, and the release dump by Fox Searchlight indicated absolutely no confidence in the film. But I didn't have to pay, so I went to an afternoon showing and I was seriously astonished by how painful it was to watch. Despite an amiable cast led by Anna Kendrick, Wyatt Russell, and Tony Revolori, Table 19 is one of the most grating cinematic experiences I've had all year, featuring unlikable characters, a contrived plot, and an allergy to anything resembling good comedy. This movie vanished from theaters quickly, and it'll probably never be heard from again. Just a waste of talent and comic potential all around.

4. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT


Even as someone who has defended Michael Bay's Transformers movies for the good part of a decade, I couldn't find a single redeeming quality in The Last Knight, Bay's fifth and supposedly final film in the saga of the alien robots in disguise. This is the series reaching a new level of incomprehensibility, so preoccupied with blowing up buildings and smashing robots into one another that there's not even a semblance of narrative momentum or an attempt at telling a cohesive story. But most importantly, the Bayhem (as Transformers fans and critics like to call the explosive action in these films) has grown stale, and no amount of CGI destruction can make up for the fact that these don't even feel like movies anymore.

3. THE BAD BATCH


Image courtesy of NEON

It feels unnecessarily mean to put an experimental film on this list. We often clamor for more original material, movies that take risks and don't come from some franchise that has been beaten to death by Hollywood. And on paper, Ana Lily Amirpour's The Bad Batch is all of these things. It's a daring film about a cannibal dystopia, it certainly plays by no conventional rules, and it's very, very different. But originality doesn't automatically make a movie good, and The Bad Batch is simply one of the most hopelessly grueling experiences I've had all year. Watching this movie was a chore, and the fact that it seemingly has nothing to say makes it an exercise in sheer style. But the style isn't that interesting, the narrative is non-existent, and it's an ugly, nasty film that I hope to avoid forever. 

2. GHOST IN THE SHELL


Speaking of visuals that don't matter, let's talk about Ghost in the Shell! If 2017 taught me anything, it's that I shouldn't trust trailers. Based on the brief 2 minute look released by Paramount in November, I thought Ghost in the Shell was destined to be the next Blade Runner, a visionary masterpiece that blended heady ideas and jaw-dropping visuals. My only source of skepticism came from the fact that it was directed by Rupert Sanders, a commercial director who had never displayed any real storytelling ability. In hindsight, that should have been a bigger concern. Some movies are just generally boring and uninteresting, while others dig deeper to the point that you just want to escape the theater. A hapless mix of fetishized video game violence and silly philosophizing, Ghost in the Shell hurt my soul. This movie looks very pretty, but it is undoubtedly one of the most tedious films I've ever seen. 

1. BAYWATCH


But even in a year that has seen some truly bad movies (seriously, 2017 has had some garbage), the choice for the top of this list was quite easy. Going into the summer, Baywatch seemed like the comedy with the most potential. An R-rated adaptation of a classic TV show in the vein of 21 Jump Street with a cast led by Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron? Sounds great! Unfortunately, Baywatch quickly became emblematic of everything wrong with the modern studio comedy. It's a movie with maybe four jokes at maximum, and those jokes are mildly funny at best. The rest is a wash of penis humor, F bombs, and other juvenile nonsense, melded in with a plot that seems like it was written by a toddler. Seriously, this film could not be more stupid. It is everything we feared the studios would make in response to Lord and Miller's Jump Street, and it is so horrid on a fundamental level that I'm glad audiences avoided it like the plague. I'm still shocked that it ended up being so massively awful.

Now that we got that out of the way, here are my picks for the best of 2017 to date, along with a few honorable mentions!

Honorable Mentions: The Beguiled, The Lost City of Z, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Win It All, The LEGO Batman Movie

Also have to give a special shoutout to Master of None: Season 2- it may not be a movie, but it's undoubtedly one of the best things I've seen all year.

Best

10. GET OUT


While my "Worst" picks included some movies with great trailers that ultimately burned me in the end, the opposite can be said for Jordan Peele's Get Out. The first trailer for the comedian/filmmaker's "social thriller" was released in October, quickly going viral and sparking a great deal of excitement for what seemed like an insane, thrillingly topical horror film. The result was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, a raucously funny, genuinely tense piece of cinema that captured the zeitgeist in a way that few micro-budget chillers ever have. Peele's film is the ultimate critique of both overt and subtle racism, and it's as unnerving as it is surprisingly hilarious. With a cathartic ending, consistently smart social commentary, and some truly shocking twists and turns, Get Out is an innovative thriller from a brilliant new directorial voice.

9. IT COMES AT NIGHT


Image courtesy of A24

It Comes at Night is an exercise in ambiguity and sheer terror, but the fact that Trey Edward Shults delivers such a taut, engaging thriller makes this truly unforgettable. We never really find out what "it" is, and this movie is all the better because of that. Shults thrives on unpredictability and tension, the lurking sense of dread that could potentially lie just around every corner. He blends the surreal and the brutally realistic with ease, and the fact that the experience leaves you with more questions than answers only adds to the intensity of the project. It Comes at Night feels like a short film in the best possible way, a complete vision of paranoia that doubles as a fragmented descent into nightmarish madness. Throw in an incredible ensemble cast, and you have a thought-provoking, evocative chiller that fires on all cylinders. 

8. FREE FIRE


Image courtesy of A24

I meant to write about this earlier, but watching Free Fire in an empty theater is completely different from seeing it in a packed house. I originally saw Ben Wheatley's latest at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and that was hands down the most fun I had at the entire fest. Raucous laughter often drowned out the gunshots, making for an experience that was practically interactive. When the film opened in the US in April, I saw it in a theater with five other people. Dead silence. It was profoundly strange. Still, Wheatley's 90 minute shootout is an invigorating action film, a grimy, wild saga of 70s clothes, F bombs, and buckets of blood. It escalates to a level of comic insanity, and it is never anything less than incredibly entertaining. Free Fire flopped when it opened here, but if there's any justice in the world, this thoroughly unique crime movie will become a new cult classic.

7. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO


Image courtesy of Lionsgate

John Wick was a nice little surprise back in 2014. It seemed to be a corny, direct-to-VOD hitman movie that would waste the talents of Keanu Reeves, but it ended up being a fun ride and the ultimate role for the ultimate movie badass. But there's no question in my mind that Chapter Two is the superior film, a sequel that does everything a good follow-up should do. It ups the ante, it raises the stakes, it expands the world, and it even leaves the possibility of a killer finale. Reeves has never been better, and under the direction of action mastermind Chad Stahelski, this movie turns into an operatic display of cinematic violence. By the time things wrap up, I firmly believe that the John Wick franchise will discover every single possible way to shoot a man in the head. Some of the action scenes in this film are all-timers, and the further development of the fully enclosed world of assassins and murderers only makes it that much more fun. Simply put, this movie is a blast. 

6. WONDER WOMAN


After a rocky start to the DC Extended Universe that ranged from messy (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to flat-out disastrous (Suicide Squad), the pressure was on for Wonder Woman to deliver. And for a while there, I wasn't sure that it would work. The trailers didn't sell me until the 11th hour, and I was preparing myself for another DC disappointment. Thankfully, that was so very far from the case. Wonder Woman continued the 2017 trend of amazing superhero films, giving us an origin story that stands as the DCEU's best movie yet and a film that is probably better than at least half of Marvel's output. With a pair of incredible performances from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, Wonder Woman is classic blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. Director Patty Jenkins creates an adventurous, romantic vibe, blending the old-fashioned with the modern to brilliant effect. Wonder Woman is the rare stand-alone blockbuster that feels like a complete story, and it inspires so much hope for the future of this franchise. 

5. ALIEN: COVENANT


Image courtesy of Fox

Here comes the most controversial pick on my list. I know some people who absolutely hate Alien: Covenant, and I know others who truly love it. I happen to fall into the latter category- I think it's one of the most ambitious films I've seen all year. After confusing and disappointing fans with 2012's Prometheus, director Ridley Scott returns with few answers, but a follow-up story that is immensely satisfying. Sure, all the Alien stuff works really well- there are some great kills, fun action beats, and plenty of blood and gore to go around. But the icy heart of Covenant lies in the performance of Michael Fassbender, who is nothing short of mesmerizing in dual roles. He's great as Walter, but after a less interesting appearance in Prometheus, it's David who emerges as the most fascinating character and one of the best villains in recent memory. Scott turns the entire Alien universe on its head with this film, revealing the Xenomorphs to be the creation of a jealous mad scientist who yearned to have the powers of a god. It's heady stuff for a pulp sci-fi movie, and Scott pulls it off with terrifying grace. This movie is great, guys. I'm standing by it.

4. OKJA


Images courtesy of Netflix

Bong Joon Ho has been dazzling critics and audiences for many years now, but Okja might finally be his shot to become a favorite of blockbuster audiences. The Netflix-produced action fantasy has been the subject of much debate and controversy completely unrelated to the film itself, but if theatrical purists look beyond the streaming release and glance at the big picture, Okja represents a chance for one of our best populist filmmakers to become a household name. Okja finds Bong working at the peak of his powers once again, blending gorgeously naturalistic drama, delightfully insane action, and a frightening satire of the modern corporate empire. It's a film that manages to be both tightly controlled and thoroughly unhinged, a masterwork that melds tones, styles, and genres to incredible effect. It's a beautiful film told on an impressively large scale, and it demands to be seen again and again.

3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2


Hollywood- this is how you make a sequel. Director James Gunn could have done anything with the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, his 2014 hit that opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a bold new way. He could have put in more connections to the greater story of the MCU, he could have made a bigger story that he raised the stakes, he could have introduced an excess of new characters- there really was an endless range of options. Instead, Gunn elected to scale down the story, focusing on the family bonds between the characters and developing them in new and interesting ways. In a way, Gunn managed to overcome many of the greatest problems of the MCU- he overcame the sequel curse that has plagued every Marvel franchise except Captain America, he created a fascinating villain in Kurt Russell's Ego, and he allowed for real, grounded emotional stakes. Oh, and it's also a visual feast with a soundtrack that feels thematically in tune with this story and this universe. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is the rare sequel that surpasses the original. It's one of Marvel's best yet.

2. LOGAN


Images courtesy of Fo

Logan is hands down one of the best superhero movies ever made, and even though the marketing campaign did a good job of getting me sufficiently excited for James Mangold's comic book western, I was still blown away by just how good this thing ended up being. It's a brutal action movie of the highest order, so noir-like that the studio even released a black-and-white cut with the Blu-Ray. Logan was billed primarily as the swan song for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, working as their final performances as Wolverine and Professor Charles Xavier, respectively. And on that front, this movie delivers. Jackman is sensational and Stewart conveys a perfect kind of subtle brilliance. With a conclusion in mind, Mangold allows the story to explore some heavy themes while also setting up a new chapter for the X-Men, led by Dafne Keen's awe-inspiring Laura. Logan is filled to the brim with heartbreaking moments and bone-crunching action, vicious even by the standards of R-rated action movies. It's a roller-coaster ride that feels like a complete, stand-alone vision, something that is all too rare in the world of comic book films. Beyond Nolan's The Dark Knight, this really is the pinnacle of the genre.

1. BABY DRIVER


Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is exhilarating. It's as simple as that. It's the gift that keeps on giving, a sugar rush of an action comedy that feels as boldly original and brazenly entertaining as any movie in recent memory. After years of working almost exclusively as a cult director by making films like Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Baby Driver finds Wright breaking into the mainstream with his most accessible film yet- and I cannot tell you how happy I am that it's becoming a huge hit. This is certainly a change of pace for Wright, a more intense, serious film that deals with grounded stakes and real-world consequences. Most of my problems with the film the first time around stemmed from the fact that sections are missing that distinct Wright touch, but multiple rewatches have revealed the necessity of that sharp change in tone to the success of the story. But for all of the things that Wright mixes up in this film, Baby Driver still feels like the singular work of a genius who is operating on an entirely different level from the rest of us. The use of music in Baby Driver makes me giddy every single time without fail, and the action sequences are all-timers. This is a meticulously composed, explosively fun piece of work from one of our greatest pop filmmakers, and I just can't get enough of it. Baby Driver is the movie of the year so far. It's a gleeful, unabashedly awesome instant classic.


Images courtesy of Sony

And just like that, the first half of 2017 is gone. Come back soon for my most anticipated films for the second half of the year!

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