Best of 2017: Movies

by Andrew Osborne

Honestly, nothing I saw at the movies this year came close to any two episodes of “Twin Peaks: The Return” (or even just Episode Eight all by itself) and I won’t have a chance to see “The Post” (which, unless I’m shockingly disappointed, seems like a Best Of lock) until after I…y’know, post this list. But aside from those two outliers, here are the 10 big screen titles that gave the small screen a run for its money in 2017!

Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy 2017 movies as yet unseen by moi): “The Post”, “Phantom Thread”, “The Florida Project”, “A Ghost Story”, “Call Me By Your Name”

Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” deserves all the love and awards consideration it’s received since its release (including accolades from your truly, just a little bit later in this very list) — BUT it’s frankly baffling to me why Noël Wells’s luminous quarter-life crisis dramedy (currently streaming on Netflix) didn’t receive at least as much attention. Greta’s long been an indie darling, particularly at the buzz-tastic SXSW festival, where Noël hit the ground running in 2017 with a Narrative Spotlight win for her debut feature: a comic take on the sadness and alienation of feeling adrift in one’s own generation that’s both timeless and laser-specific to the post-Boomer era of narrowing opportunities and the Luxury Condo-fication of America. As Emily, an untethered, slightly unhinged free spirit in career and relationship freefall amid the rapidly evaporating bohemia of Austin, TX, Wells is charismatically manic (but nobody’s pixie dreamgirl), and the rest of the ensemble is equally superb, including Britt Lower as an aspirational neo-yuppie, Danielle Pineda’s working-class pragmatist, and Nick Thune as Emily’s ex, Eric, a musician slowly releasing his grip on rock-and-roll dreams and the ragged freedom of youth as he drifts into the cozy domesticity of responsible adulthood. But it’s Wells’s fresh voice and sensibility as a writer/director that really sings, and I hope that with triple-threat talent equal to Gerwig and other 2017 Top Ten peers like Jordan Peele and Kumail Nanjiani she’ll receive equal recognition (and career opportunities) in 2018 and beyond.

Judged as a standard horror movie, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is tight, effective entertainment reminiscent of everything from “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to, crucially, “The Stepford Wives” as a likable protagonist wonders if they’re just being paranoid or if something is truly, deeply wrong with seemingly benign surroundings. But, of course, what makes this particular story electric is the nature of the monster, which isn’t just calling from inside the house but has been in residence there for generations. Specifically, Daniel Kaluuya’s young black hero, Chris, sees white people in a clever, cutting, third-rail allegory equating the perception of institutional American racism with the classic thriller trope where nobody (except the wisecracking, audience surrogate friend, here played by the hilarious Lil Rel Howery) is willing to acknowledge that the threat is real until we’re face-to-face with the true nature of the evil and it’s too late to escape (if escape is even possible) without gruesome bloodshed and trauma. Bonus points to Peele for introducing “the sunken place” into the pop culture lexicon and to Allison Williams, whose spot-on casting and performance helped me to (almost) forgive her for all the misspent hours I spent gnashing my teeth at Marnie on “Girls”.

Like “Get Out”, “The Big Sick” would be list-worthy if it were only the sweetest, funniest romantic comedy of the year (especially in an era when mainstream Hollywood is more or less constitutionally incapable of depicting believable relationships or chemistry between recognizably human characters) — but the film’s quietly subversive layer (especially in the blatantly racist Trump era) is the fact that, this time, the charming guy in the Tom Hanks role is (DUN-DUN-DAAAAAHHH!!!) Muslim. Or rather, like many Americans, co-writer/star Kumail Nanjiani (playing a fictionalized version of himself) was raised in one religion but doesn’t care about it nearly as much as his parents do — which, as in the actual events which inspired the story, leads to much drama and discomfort (and one particularly memorable 9/11 joke) when he falls for a non-Muslim (Zoe Kazan) and then breaks up with her (rather than upsetting his parents) shortly before she winds up in a medically-induced coma. (Awkward!!!) And bonus points to Vella Lovell’s nicely dimensional role as one of the suitors Kumail rejects for the pointed reminder that arranged marriage ain’t exactly a bundle of kicks for the women forced to go through it, either.

Big budgets can buy a lot of forgettable CGI, but they’re no match for the low budget ingenuity and style of a natural-born filmmaker like Ana Asensio, making her impressive writing/directing debut with this timely cinéma vérité portrait of immigrant life in America. A film and TV star in Spain, Asensio likewise anchors the film as Luciana, an undocumented exile with a mysterious past and a questionable future forced to face the daily challenges of a hand-to-mouth existence on the famously mean streets of Manhattan. One moment, she’s dressed as a chicken, handing out flyers for a fast food restaurant, and the next she’s nannying the bratty, spoiled children of the beautiful island’s privileged upper classes. Yet rather than just settling for a grim, social-realist slog, Asensio plays up the harrowing suspense of her character’s struggle for survival, pushing it towards a logical yet wildly unpredictable dramatic extreme as she nudges the plot and tone of the movie from the naturalism of Ken Loach or John Cassavetes towards the darker realms of Tarantino, Kubrick, and Lynch.

RENTON (Ewan McGregor), SPUD (Ewen Bremner), SICK BOY (Jonny Lee Miller) BEGBIE (Robert Carlyle)

“Twin Peaks” and “Trainspotting” were two distinctive, surrealistic ’90s touchstones I wasn’t expecting to encounter again in the 21st century, and I certainly didn’t expect either to compare so favorably with their illustrious predecessors. Yes, as with David Lynch’s return to his Pacific Northwest madeleine, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (once again riffing on the novels of Irvine Welsh) strike gold by avoiding repetition and recreation in favor of quieter (though still violent and vomit-crusted) meditations on age, regret, and mortality in the shadowy afterglow of equally grim past events (which at least had the vibrancy of youth and the hope that, if survived, those events would somehow give way to something better). Yet for Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor, as good as he’s been in anything since his original go-round in the role), escaping heroin addiction and his doomstruck mates from the bad ol’ days only led to divorce and dead-end, middle-aged depression — and the nothing-to-lose reckoning that follows is a resigned yet defiant rage against ennui as dark and visceral as the worst toilet in Scotland.

Of course, fictional Renton only had one major psycho to deal with, whereas (at least according to Craig Gillespie’s controversial tabloid biopic) the real-life Tonya Harding was raised by and then married to grotesquely abusive losers, discriminated against and later vilified as white trash scum by, respectively, skating judges and the general public before she was unwittingly implicated in husband Jeff Gillooly’s moronic criminal scheme against Nancy Kerrigan and ultimately prevented from doing the one thing she truly loved and excelled at (a punishment more heartbreaking than anything else she was forced to endure). Of course, the events we see depicted onscreen are purportedly from Tonya’s recollection of events and sometimes disputed by the aforementioned abusers — her mother (Allison Janney, showily nasty) and husband (Sebastian Stan) — but even if just 50% of the story is true, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the titular antiheroine (portrayed by a revelatory Margot Robbie, acting the bejesus out of the juiciest role of her career) and angered by the virulent, toxic classism of American society — another of the monsters (like racism and sexism) we’re not supposed to believe in, acknowledge, or discuss in polite society.

Compared with Allison Janney’s LaVona Fay, Laurie Metcalf’s Marion McPherson qualifies as Mother of the Year — yet she’s also the kind of old school blue collar matriarch whose spartan version of tough love is all about ensuring that her children will be able to survive in a merciless workaday world where dreams are luxuries only kids from the trust fund side of town can afford. And while Marion’s adopted son, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) seems well-suited for the responsibilities of adulthood, her underachieving daughter, Christine (a magnetic Saoirse Ronan) still believes the fantasy that she’s somehow entitled to a life less ordinary, dubbing herself “Lady Bird” and sampling different personas in hopes she’ll soon fly away from the mundane hometown she considers the “Midwest of California”. Likewise, the film dabbles in different identities, shifting between familiar beats of family psychodrama, teen romance, and high school comedy — yet while Greta Gerwig’s likable indie doesn’t exactly reinvent the coming-of-age genre, she nevertheless packs it with great scenes, dialogue and performances, from Beanie Feldstein’s utterly delightful turn as Christine’s loyal BFF Julie to Stephen Henderson’s sweet-natured priest (who stages a high school version of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”, only to sigh in disappointment when the locals don’t “get” the show).

An aptly hypnotic companion piece to the 2017 return of “Twin Peaks”, this festival fave (by the directing troika Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm) chronicles the art life of the cinematic icon in his own words as the favorite son of Missoula, Montana describes his early interest in painting and sculpture while growing up in various parts of the U.S. and the way those creative experiments and youthful experiences led to and influenced his first films (“The Alphabet”, “The Grandmother”, “Eraserhead”) and later projects. Lynch’s stories (about the mysterious naked woman he once saw wandering through one of his childhood neighborhoods, his college days with rocker roommate Peter Wolf, the chicken lady and similarly unnerving neighbors he encountered during his young adult life in Philadelphia, etc.) are fully worth the price of admission all by themselves — but the accompanying visual cascade of Lynch’s alternately disturbing and transcendent creative output (combined with an eerie soundtrack best described as…well, Lynchian) burrows deep under your skin ‘til you’re falling, falling ever more deeply into the subconscious of this haunting documentary’s subject.

A tie on a Top Ten list is probably cheating, but these two films (both starring and produced by caustic national treasure Aubrey Plaza) are such a matched set of equal delights it seems uncouth to divide them (especially since, at 97 and 90 minutes respectively, the double feature is just a bit longer and way more entertaining than “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”). “Ingrid Goes West” is a timely tale of unchecked FOMO and social media addiction, with Plaza as a lonely, friendless, emotionally unbalanced stalker so obsessed with the seemingly perfect life of a rich, entitled Instagram celebrity that she’s completely oblivious to the charming romantic chemistry she stumbles into with her landlord (charisma bomb O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who needs to be in way more films and TV shows in 2018). Meanwhile, in “The Little Hours”, Plaza plays a foul-mouthed nun in a 14th century convent seething with repressed desires until a hunky fugitive arrives (the ubiquitous Dave Franco), sparking sexual chaos and comic echoes of “The Witch”‘s female empowerment climax. Boasting a murderer’s row ensemble of comic talent (including Alison Brie, Kate “Oates” Micucci, Nick Offerman and Fred Armisen), the humor is leavened by a sweet, forbidden romance between Molly Shannon’s Sister Marea and John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso as part of the film’s tacit humanist theme that life’s hard enough without imposing additional, nonsensical edicts on ourselves.

Like “Splash” with less humor and way more interspecies sex, Guillermo del Toro’s flawed but stylish romantic dramedy take on “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a swoony, gorgeous love letter to underwater photography and early ’60s design with enjoyably cartoonish performances and a story well-suited to salving 2017’s dispirited liberal sensibilities (straight white male capitalists BAD, misfits and minorities GOOD) — though, frankly, I wouldn’t want to be the poor agent tasked with handing Octavia Spencer another script where she plays a sassy ’60s custodial professional, even if she’s great in the role and laughing all the way to the bank. Of course, the same applies to Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, doing nice if familiar takes on their traditional sadist and shady smart guy roles, respectively, while Richard Jenkins delivers a rainbow flag variation on his standard, soulful everyman persona. Yet while casting against type isn’t in del Toro’s wheelhouse, creature design most certainly is, thus anchoring his standard-issue (yet effective) mad scientist plot with a lab-rat amphibian both scary and sensual enough to make you believe the fascination he engenders in Elisa, the mute military research base cleaning lady who gets deep under his gills (portrayed by a luminous Sally Hawkins, somehow magically keeping the whole silly thing afloat).

Honorable Mention: “Atomic Blonde”, “The Hero”, “Small Town Crime”, “Becoming Bond”, “Kedi”, “Their Finest”, “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story”, “Wonder Woman”, “Bill Nye: Science Guy”, “Mansfield 66/67”, “Life”, “Brad’s Status”, “Battle of the Sexes”, “Blade Runner 2049”, “Lucky”, “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”

Memorable Moments/Performances of 2017: “Get Out”‘s cathartic cheer-out-loud finale, “Mr. Roosevelt”‘s unexpectedly touching group hippie hug and the exhilarating “take this job and shove it” scene at Austin’s Barton Springs swimmin’ hole, that stairwell fight in “Atomic Blonde” (and, yeah, I know everyone and their brother’s already referenced it in other year-end lists, but DAMN…), every scene with Sam Elliot and Nick Offerman kickin’ back in “The Hero”, “Small Town Crime”‘s John Hawkes badassin’ around Utah in his black muscle car, all the kitties of “Kedi”, the parking garage chase and every Spud scene in “T2: Trainspotting”, one of Bill Nighy’s Bill Nighy’est performances ever in “Their Finest”, Gal Gadot managing to make me love someone other than Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, Jemima Kirke’s cameo in “The Little Hours” (leading to additional forgiveness for another lovely lady trapped in the final two or three seasons of “Girls”), Daniel Craig single-handedly making me wish “Logan Lucky” had been a way better movie, Sarah Silverman in “Battle of the Sexes”, Sylvia Hoeks’s riveting replicant and Harrison Ford’s dog in “Blade Runner 2049”, Oscar Isaac raising “Suburbicon”‘s game almost but not quite to honorable mention status, Harry Dean Stanton’s perfect swan song in “Lucky”, the bit with the dentist drill in “Three Billboards” that still makes me wince every time I think about it, and, of course, PORGS!!!

To be fair, I watched this documentary on Netflix rather than in a theater, but I forgot to mention the godawful vanity project on my TV list and feel its douchiness must be commemorated for the ages. Basically, Jim Carrey shot a lot of home movies about how cool it was that he impersonated Andy Kaufman (and Andy’s annoying Tony Clifton character) on-set-and-off during production of the mediocre biopic “Man on the Moon”, and how that somehow makes him at least as much of a comedic genius as Kaufman. And then, just when you think the ego diarrhea can’t get any more embarrassing, Carrey deadpans to the adoring camera crew he presumably hired that, for his next trick, “I wonder what would happen if I decided to just BE Jesus.” Barf.

Oh, sure, nobody will admit it now that we’ve made Kevin Spacey take the “Game of Thrones” “SHAME!” walk, but earlier in the year, critics were raving about how amazing “Baby Driver” was because…get this…it scored some okay but not great car chases to hipster pop songs! (Never mind all the one-dimensional characters and the idiotic turnaround at the end where Christopher Plummer (I mean, uh, Spacey) suddenly, for no reason, got all tender-hearted for the protagonist whose life he’d threatened and extorted for years.) But at least geek icon Edgar Wright’s characters had a single dimension each, whereas Christopher Nolan reduced one of the most inspiring historical stories of all time to a big budget film school experiment that makes telling people apart difficult (and caring about them nearly impossible), all in service of the groundbreaking new message: “Hey, guess what? War is bad!” And finally…look, I get it, it’s absurd that it took so long to get a big screen Wonder Woman and yes, of course, the character’s an icon of female empowerment (plus, Gal Gadot was great)…but DC’s latest superhero tentpole, while far superior to its prior films, was still an underwritten story with a dumb villain and nothing but a mess of CGI at the end (even if the mess was orchestrated by a female director).

FUCK YOU, KENNETH BRANAGH: Seriously, dude? You needed CGI to show a train going through a tunnel in your crummy, incoherent version of “Murder on the Orient Express”? You somehow didn’t have access to the cutting-edge “real train going through a tunnel” technology THEY HAD IN FUCKING 1903??? FUCK YOU, KENNETH BRANAGH!!! And finally…

No, racist, sexist fanboy jerkoffs, it’s NOT because there are more prominent black and Asian characters now (and women yelling at manly men), but rather it’s because it’s sluggish and boring and I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters (except, okay, maybe the melancholy nostalgia of the final reunions between Luke, Leia, Chewie, and the droids) — and the logy, illogical story and endless, endless “Easter egg” rehashes and callbacks to far better films don’t help much, neither. Sure, there were some decent moments — the battle in Snoke’s throne room, Luke striding out to meet the AT-ATs, some of the space battle shenanigans, the porgs — but the problem with the new era of “Star Wars” franchise units in general isn’t that they’re kids’ films (because kids’ films are generally simple, fast-paced and fun, with distinctive characters and peppy dialogue) but rather that they’ve somehow become ponderous Charlton Heston-era Bible epics full of “deep” themes about good and evil that nobody really cares about and artfully framed “iconic” shots that don’t actually move us…and yet they’re cozy and familiar and everyone goes to see them because everybody goes to see them despite never really having the kinds of moments we loved in the first place.

Andrew Osborne has written for websites including "Nerve," "Rocker," "Vanity Fair," and "Wired." He's also written film, TV, comic, theatrical, and interactive scripts for Warner Bros., MTV, HBO, Orion, MPCA, Platinum Studios, enVie Interactive, and the Discovery Channel, among others.