I saw a lot of films last year. It’s a family tradition to go out and see a movie about once a week. I’ve always treasured it but especially now. It’s been one of my consistent comforts for a year like 2017.
Most critics get their best films of the year list out before the end of the year, but given that I’m not a professional critic, my access and time is a bit more limited, especially when it comes to those that just sneak in at the last minute before hitting wide release in January. Plus, I figured getting out my list a couple weeks before the Oscars would be close enough.
What I’ve realized over the past several years is that media itself isn’t as important, so much as our reactions to it. I don’t just mean big topics like oppression and hegemony, but the easy, personal things. Who did you empathize with? Who pushed you away? What tugged at your heartstrings? What annoyed you? What lingered with you after you left the theater, if anything did at all? Do you still feel like the same person before you experienced it?
The films I list here changed me in some way. Sometimes they gave me new knowledge and sometimes they reminded me of what to hold onto. Each one gave me increased perspective and energy that I hope to bring to 2018.
The ranking here is approximate. I tried to put some films in some kind of order and I have my top favorite saved for last, but really, every film listed here is one that I treasure.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Sometimes a movie that’s nothing but pure joy and creativity is an achievement in itself. There’s a certain insincerity that lies underneath so many current animated family features. It’s reminiscent of lot of modern comedies. They try to act cool while being too lazy to put in the effort to even achieve sentimentality. Even when they come with pleasant morals, there’s no genuine warmth.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a blessing in that regard. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that makes literal toilet humor appealing and exciting. The fact that these kids laugh about poop and farts isn’t a gateway for cheap laughs, but rather a source of innovation and authenticity. They make art, they bring excitement to themselves and others. Their concerns and passions as children are fully respected.
When the trailers first came out, I was initially worried about the animation. The trend towards smooth, plastic aesthetics in 3D CG animation ha bothered me lately. Even when a film is beautiful, it can be lifeless. However, the animation in Captain Underpants is lively, colorful, and fresh. Characters bounce, settings warp for drama, styles change to wonderful effect. The film is simply full of love.
The Thor franchise has always been important to me, maybe for the wrong reasons, but important nonetheless. So I was always going to have strong feelings on this film, one way or another. Besides its personal significance however, I think most people can agree that Thor‘s strengths come forth when the films embrace humor alongside the epic family drama. As a general rule, when the writing is good, jokes don’t deflate a story’s themes and sincerity.
Thor: Ragnarok carries that in spades. It is wholeheartedly goofy from the first frame. Thor is kind, brave, and strong. He is also arrogant, impulsive, and selfish. His journey is a humbling one, where he must realize what it means to be a leader. Ragnarok‘s humor works to support that arc, not undercut it.
Additionally, the anti-colonial themes are hard to miss. In the wrong hands, “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people” could sound like a white supremacist line about blood purity, especially given the documented wave of white supremacists who have appropriated Norse mythology. However, with Valkyrie‘s redemptive arc, Heimdall’s integrity and bravery, and even diverse background actors, all against Hela’s reign of subjugation, it’s clear where Ragnarok stands. Thor’s maturation becomes a narrative about resistance. Royal inheritance squabbles become an analogy for what it means to reckon with history’s skeletons.
Finally, on a personal note, I love the original story of Ragnarok. Its themes of death, rebirth, and inevitability have counter-intuitively given me comfort. I’ve seen criticisms of Ragnarok that say its humor weakens the darkness of the original myth, but I see this film as a true execution of those themes. You can lose everything, but as long as you remember what’s important, you’ll find a way.
I’m always excited for what films Cartoon Saloon create. Ever since I first watched The Secret of Kells, I’ve been enchanted by their films. The Breadwinner is significantly different from their previous ventures. The setting is less mystically enchanting and more violently oppressive. It’s also an adaptation of a novel by Deborah Ellis, directed by Nora Twomey with Tomm Moore only as a producer.
However, the film still carries on a theme of Cartoon Saloon’s previous films: the power of stories. In The Breadwinner, they hold our history, connect people with others, and comfort us. Most of all, the best ones are personal. Stories are an expression of our hearts in their entirety, whether it’s what we’ve learned, what drives us to be brave, or what we still grieve. There’s more to The Breadwinner than that, but you can tell what parts of the film I latched onto the most.
The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is a thesis on why marginalized people love monsters and what makes us “human.”
In short, often the marginalized find themselves in monsters. Monsters are grotesque, foreign, and shunned by society. For many, there’s a switched empathy to be found within these depictions of ostracism and hostility, particularly for when the normal judge the strange on appearance and little else. The Shape of Water reverses this perspective and makes the “normal” dangerous and sickening. The characters who are neglected, overlooked, and sneered at by society have greater insight and depth. They are the ones who truly understand beauty and goodness, particularly as it is hard to find.
I was not excited about Dunkirk when the trailers first sprang up. I don’t hate war movies but I’m not particularly interested in them. Violent, white masculinity gets to be painted as tragic and heroic. War is simplified into good vs. evil. Characters suffer, maybe even die, but they ultimately get to save the day. Dunkirk doesn’t completely subvert these things, but it is also not about these things.
Rather than crafting character arcs of bravery and triumph, Dunkirk taps into something more primal: Survival. It is okay to not want to die. The broader historical context of the Battle of Dunkirk is not ignored, but its meaning is irrelevant to these soldiers in the moment. Bombs fall from the sky and you realize how easy it is to perish, especially in pain. Characters are not built up to make the story human. The inherent, engulfing fear of death creates Dunkirk‘s humanity, at its worst and best. That’s the sort of honesty I appreciate.
The classic archetype of an indisputable male genius who is oblivious at best or cruel at worst, especially towards women, is a tired, tired cliche. Often, a story involving this kind of man will ponder whether intelligence and creativity are inversely proportionate to caring about others. In particular, the women in this man’s life are either disposable or distracting. His mistreatment of women is painful, avoidable, and tragic, but maybe, maybe, just worth it for whatever “good” this man will give unto the world.
Phantom Thread both indulges and dissects this male genius. There is empathy for Alma as she falls for him. He is strange, blunt, and fussy. However, there’s nothing like being the muse of a man who is beloved for his craft; Through his work, you are not simply loved, but elevated. It’s intoxicating. Eventually though, he will become bored and toss you away to find someone else. When Alma sees the writing on the wall, instead of waiting for Reynolds to return to her, she forces his hand.
It’s clear that Reynolds would not be the genius that he is without the work of the women under him. It’s the bodies of women that are adorned, it’s the hands of women who do the sewing, it’s the mind and looks of women that allow him to keep going. And it’s the feminized labor of cooking that ultimately unravels him.
This film is not exactly about a woman triumphing over a man. It’s not about a man realizing his wrongs and then repenting or dying. Rather, it turns a critical eye to what kind of man the male genius must be and what kind of dysfunctional systems he must build for his success. Primarily, they are ones of exploitation and corruption. Not corruption in the sense of illegal activities and shady business, but instead, degradation of the soul.
For a film so rooted in the mundane reality of growing up, Lady Bird feels transcendental. I suppose that’s the point though. The things that are so familiar to us, things that are too close for us to see, things that seem boring, contain a kind of grace born out of such intimacy. This is especially exemplified through family.
I love Lady Bird‘s balance of conflict and comfort between mother and daughter. Lady Bird and Marion will lash out at each other, embrace each other, and then lash out again. Most of the time, both of are “right” when they fight. Neither is condescended to or smacked down by the film. Their tense relationship is not exaggerated for effect. They are two people who are trying their best, but not always living up to it. It’s very difficult to find stories that careful and tender towards their characters.
Figure skating, as a “feminine” sport, holds women to the strictest standards. Despite the sweat, danger, and skill involved, a female figure skater must embody effortless, graceful beauty. In this way, Tonya’s violent passion works for and against her. It is her hubris.
However, I, Tonya isn’t a film about a woman who does too much and goes too far, a woman who should’ve known better. Instead, it is about how a woman and a society bring out the worst in each other. How when a so-called meritocracy isn’t a meritocracy, so how dare she get shortchanged. Tonya is not absolved of her sins but they become contextualized. When the people who you depend on most abuse and fail you, what kind of person do you become?
There are laughs in this tragedy, but they’re a coping mechanism, a lesson for the audience. Sometimes the bad behavior of others is so absurd, so malformed, what else can you do but laugh? I, Tonya sees talent and work ethic that’s rewarded in the worst way possible. Still, sometimes it’s a little too mean but it’s not unfitting. The world—the America—of I, Tonya will squeeze every last drop of entertainment out of you and then grind you down under its thumb.
Your Name technically came out in 2016 and premiered in the United States that same year. However, wider release of the film didn’t happen until 2017 (which is when I saw it), so in the name of talking about my favorites (especially ones that didn’t get a 2016 Oscar nomination), I’m including it here.
On paper, Your Name sounds like a potential mess. Body swap stories between boys and girls are ripe for tired gags and easy sexism. Your Name sidesteps that though. Gender is present, and even is the root of a few genuinely good jokes, but there’s more pressing issues at hand.
Your Name is a beautiful story of identity, cultural divides, and growing up. The breathtaking visuals alone make it worth watching but the writing pushes you into a tide of visceral emotion. While the plot ends up with a life or death situation, the stakes are ultimately grounded and human. What makes people worth fighting for is the mundane, the richness of humanity itself. What brings out the best in people is love, not only in the romantic sense, but love for their friends, their family, their home.
The Florida Project
When live-action dramas focus on young children, I get anxious. As someone who can get stressed out over predictable sitcom high jinks, I tend to anticipate the worst for young, innocent characters and dread it. It’s an emotional reflex. This isn’t me saying bad things should never happen to fictional children, but children’s trauma is too easy to milk as a cheap plot twist for fear, tears, and shock. And because it’s too easy, I tend to carry that anxiety throughout a movie until the tension is broken by some unfortunate incident or everything is fine and I get to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Florida Project made me that flavor of anxious but earned it. When these children do encounter danger, the harm is indirect or barely avoided. The ways in which children can be hurt run deeper than extreme assault. Yet, Moonee’s life is filled with happiness too. She’s carefree, energetic, and joyful. Even when she’s acting terribly, it’s not malice so much as childhood in all its facets. That makes the heartbreak even more tragic. Her mother, Halley, clearly loves her and yet, partly because of Halley’s choices and partly because of the society they live in, it’s not enough. There’s no easy sense of right or wrong by the end, only a wish for things to have gone differently. Maybe a wish for a better world or a better system.
I mean, duh. I listed it in Karleen’s and my Favorites of 2017.
I was going to leave it there but given how little I wrote in my original entry and how much I’ve written comparatively about the other films on this list, it would feel lazy to simply say that you should watch it, again.
In some ways, Get Out is an allegory for the oppression of black people in America. There’s that layer of fantastic, scary weirdness between the reality of the ways black people are frequently disenfranchised, exploited, and killed. The Armitages are extreme and fictional.
On the other hand, there’s a foreboding sense of how it’s much closer than many would like to think. Besides the nefarious reveal, the racism is real, casual, and lived in. I’m not black so there’s only so much I can speak to, but the tension of being surrounded by white people who seem clumsy but “well-meaning,” the ways in which your trust of “good white people” can be built and broken, the ways you contort yourself to smooth everything over. Unlike scenarios of creatures lurking in the night or zombie apocalypses, the horror is not something buried far away or an event to anticipate in the future. You can’t just go to sleep it off and hope for the better. It’s not fantasy. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not some mythical beast to escape from. It’s literally right now.
There’s no way to define what makes the best art best, but I’d say that it can speak to truth, especially it’s difficult and ignored. Often, the best art makes up for how just telling the truth doesn’t work. Of course, this sort of end goal can apply to every other film I’ve listed here already, but I believe Get Out encapsulates that the best.
So, go watch it already. Go watch it again.
Honorable mentions: The Big Sick, Kong: Skull Island, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Loving Vincent, Logan Lucky, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, The LEGO Batman Movie.
Films I haven’t seen (yet): Wind River, A Ghost Story, Girls Trip, Mudbound, Okja, Blade Runner 2049, BPM, In This Corner of the World, Napping Princess.