If you didn’t read my year-end overview, it adds a little context to this list.
* Indicates a festival screening and the film had no other local 2017 theatrical run.
**A late 2016 release I ignored the calendar to include.
At Your Doorstep* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Latino Film Festival: “The mass evictions that occurred following Spain’s 2007 housing market collapse form the unlikely backdrop for this Spanish musical. Singer-songwriter Sílvia Pérez Cruz’s songs aren’t especially hummable, but they convey the desperation of the characters and Cruz turns in a solid performance in her first dramatic role.”
Atomic Blonde – Rough-and-tumble action fare made with such expert combat staging that it’s no surprise to find the director is a former stuntman and stunt coordinator. I wish the writers would have had the guts to end the movie on the unexpectedly downbeat note it hinted at, but if the movie is ultimately formulaic, it’s never less than full-blooded entertainment.
Battle of the Sexes – Middle-of-the-road filmmaking is buoyed by strong performances and a smart script in this dramatization of the events leading up to the famous Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs match. The movie pointedly shows that King’s real enemy wasn’t Riggs (an over-the-hill former great exploiting the sexual revolution to remain relevant), but the overwhelming force of institutionalized sexism. Emma Stone and Steve Carrell are both very good and the movie pulls off the neat trick of letting you feel great about what King accomplished while still feeling a little bad for Riggs – a hustler making his last stand.
Because the World Never Stops* – This unique short film assembles on- and off-camera footage from a Swedish television newscast to highly amusing effect. From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Critics Film Festival: “Capturing the innocuous comments, moments of tedium and just plain odd asides shared among the news personalities, it exposes the artificial and shallow nature of much of the so-called journalism on the airwaves.”
Between Sea and Land* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Latino Film Festival: “Actors playing characters with afflictions are a cliché of so-called prestige films, but Manolo Cruz’s totally convincing, heartbreaking performance as a young man with severe dystonia defies cynical dismissals…If you want a film to slap you in the face and make you realize your life isn’t all that bad, this devastating Colombian drama should do the trick.”
The Big Sick – It was great to see this modest charmer become a genuine sleeper hit, especially in the midst of mega-marketed summer releases. I confess, I found it a little odd to think about star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and co-writer Emily Gordon going through a real-life health trauma, handling its repercussions on their budding relationship, and then thinking, “Hey! This would make a great romantic comedy!” But you know, it kind of does. And who am I to judge when my biggest laugh during the movie came from a 9-11 joke (which is pretty great, by the way).
Blade Runner 2049 – It didn’t need to be made and I would still argue it should not have been made (franchising a stand-alone masterpiece rubs me the wrong way), but this was far from the wholly unworthy follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic that I feared it would be. In fact, it’s an excellent film and beautifully crafted by director Denis Villeneuve, but also so reverent to the original that it kind of feels like the most skillful “fan film” ever made. Still, considering how badly it could have gone, this was something of a minor miracle.
Call Me by Your Name – Luca Guadagnino’s previous feature, A Bigger Splash, was my favorite movie of last year, so my anticipation was high for this film garnering so many end-of-year honors. There’s a lot to love about this movie, especially Guadagnino’s masterful way with framing and camera movement, but I found the director’s style less engaging in this Bertolucci-influenced romance than in the wickedly playful context of his last film. I’m also not in line with the raves for young lead Timothée Chalamet, who seems to be channeling the less interesting tics of Casey Affleck. And though Michael Stuhlbarg is as great as advertised as Chalamet’s father, the substance of his much-lauded final speech gave me some pause in its overt glorification of youth and beauty. Still, it’s a movie with much formal brilliance and great feeling for its characters.
Chuck – This surprisingly sweet boxing movie (with very little boxing) stars Liev Schreiber as the title character, Chuck Wepner, who was a loose, uncredited inspiration for Rocky. Schreiber is very good as the lovable, often lunkheaded hero, and in two short scenes as his brother, Michael Rapaport is just sensational. Another good movie in IFC’s stable that the company seemed weirdly determined to see fail in theaters. The marketing for this could politely be called “minimal.”
The Cinema Travelers* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the DOC10 Festival: “…a very well made look at the arduous work and increasingly diminished returns of a dying trade: traveling projectionists who set up mobile cinemas under tents in very remote Indian villages…An old charmer who runs a business fixing projectors does give a sense of the magic of cinema, but on the whole the movie is more about small businessmen fighting off industry oblivion than movie-made dreams.”
The Cliff* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Latino Film Festival: “In this slow-burning Spanish thriller, a well-to-do attorney is pulled into a crime investigation following the mass suicide of members of a cult to which his sister belonged. A subtle flashback structure helps build the intensity in a dark blend of procedural drama and macabre mystery reminiscent of Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—it’s not quite as good as the former but much better than the latter (and yes, both the Swedish and American versions).”
Coco – You can check off the list of familiar elements from other Pixar animated features as you watch Coco, but they know how to execute that formula to perfection and sill wring out some real emotion. The afterlife populated by Mexican Day of the Dead iconography is a work of considerable artistry and only a heart of stone wouldn’t get a little choked up by the script’s lovely notion of what lingers in fading memories.
A Cure for Wellness – It’s kind of a derivative mess (lifting from Shutter Island, Eyes Without a Face and countless Frankenstein knock-offs), but this epic horror tale of a sinister clinic in the Alps is also memorably strange and boasts some sensational production design. Frankly, I didn’t think Gore Verbinski had anything this interesting left in him after all those Pirates of the Caribbean flicks.
Detroit – Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is far from her best work, but it builds in potency and, along with Get Out, seems like essential viewing at this time in America. From my Chicagoist review: “Despite problems with both style and structure, Detroit ends up being a moving and properly distressing view of America’s ongoing police crisis. Though recounting events from 50 years ago, the story feels as fresh as the latest headlines of police cover-up allegations or protest-inspiring officer acquittals.”
Fences** – Denzel Washington’s filming of the August Wilson play is exactly that – there’s little attempt to open this up for the big screen and the screenplay (adapted by Wilson himself before his death) still comes across very much as a work for the stage. But the acting is so strong across the board, and Wilson’s dialogue gives the cast so much to work with, that the stagebound qualities don’t cripple it on the screen.
Four Hands* – This is a fairly conventional but well-made psychological thriller from Germany that benefits from the moody atmosphere built by writer-director Oliver Kienle. Lead actresses Frida-Lovisa Hamann and Friederike Becht both impress as sisters in conflict over a possible plan for revenge against those responsible for a childhood trauma that can never heal.
Get Out – Jordan Peele’s social satire horror film came along at exactly the right time – addressing white privilege and upper class racism just as Trump was fanning the fires of justifying both. The movie has been a tad overrated, as the climactic scenes fall back on well-worn genre tropes that diminish some of the story’s bite. But Get Out is damned clever in setting up its Stepford Wives-inspired plot and Peele shows considerable skill in his first feature behind the camera.
A Ghost Story – Two really regrettable, self-indulgent scenes hurt David Lowery’s widely acclaimed and daringly different feature, but there is true poetry throughout the rest of the film. At its best, this is a lovely, poignant meditation on the passage of time that might make a good double-bill with Marjorie Prime if you could stand such a heaping helping of melancholy. Stripped of its serious missteps, this would have been a masterpiece, but it’s still a must-see. Never thought I would be so moved by people in Peanuts-styled ghost costumes standing over wrecked buildings, but when that one ghost says, “I don’t think they’re coming back,” I pretty much lost it.
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse* – Imagine a glacially-paced, nearly silent variation on last year’s The Witch and you will have a pretty good sense of what this demanding but rewarding German feature has to offer. Set in the Middle Ages, this film boasts a look that seems like the work of a fine arts-trained master at the height of his game. Incredibly, it began as a student film.
The Hero – Pretty familiar ground gets covered here (protagonist with a fatal disease, bad father trying to make good, May-December romance), but the cast makes it work, especially Sam Elliott as the titular aging actor. Great to see Elliott getting a late-career moment with some prime roles lately. This is worth seeing just for the scene where Elliott and Nick Offerman run lines together: some of the best acting I’ve seen in a while.
Kedi – No cat lover will be able to resist this documentary about the large community of stray felines that roams the streets of Istanbul and the humans they interact with regularly. Utterly charming without negating the struggles of these creatures or the wilder, less cuddly tendencies of some.
Life Guidance* – This Austrian film is a thematically obvious, but stylistically satisfying critique of middle class aspirations through a dystopian sci-fi narrative.
Logan – The non-stop torrent of factory-stamped superhero movies and a growing feeling that each one is just a mega-sized commercial for the next led me to skip several releases in a genre that, ten years or so ago, I used to look forward to. But I bit on the buzz surrounding this X-Men entry as a break in the formula, and largely it is one. A stand-alone story with a dark western feel, it’s excessively violent and a little too long, but on the whole it delivers the goods. Still, for a more significant break in the superhero formula, see Sleight (included below).
Logan Lucky – This enjoyable heist comedy isn’t in the top tier of Steven Soderbergh’s work, but it’s fun stuff. A kind of redneck Ocean’s 11, it’s much looser and more likeable than the director’s hit remake of that film (one of my least favorite of his works). I especially enjoyed Adam Driver’s hangdog readings of lines like, “I see you’ve got your robbery ‘to-do’ list.”
The Lovers – Debra Winger and Tracy Letts excel in this comic drama about a long-married couple, walking though their dispassionate relationship and carrying on separate affairs, until they unexpectedly rekindle their passion at exactly the wrong time. A deftly handled take on dysfunctional adult romance and sexuality.
Racer and the Jailbird* – Engrossing, gritty yet romantic crime fare with plenty of visual panache from Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead, The Drop). Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos are two of the most magnetic actors around and they have amazing onscreen chemistry.
Rat Film – From my Chicagoist coverage of the DOC10 Festival: “Rickety in structure but undeniably fascinating, this semi-experimental work charts a long history of racial and socioeconomic disparity against changing strategies for rat control in Baltimore…My favorite moments involve a charismatic and philosophical pest-control official and some self-anointed rat hunters with pretty wild methods.”
Roman J. Israel, Esq. – Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to his excellent directorial debut Nightcrawler got a pretty lukewarm reception, but I really liked this reworking of a familiar plot (idealistic lawyer gives in to the temptation of big money) through the viewpoint of the kind of character never featured as a hero in those kinds of stories. Denzel Washington’s Roman is socially dysfunctional (probably autistic) and demandingly precise to the point of handicapping his own brilliance. Smart and thematically rich, with a superb performance by Washington.
Sleight – A model on how to do a superhero movie that doesn’t feel like a dozen other superhero movies. Low-key and very light on special effects (budget was around $250,000), it plays the traditional origin story with a patient but suspenseful build. The final shot is a lesson in how showing less can actually have a much bigger impact than trying to pound the audience into submission with one overextended climax after another.
Stray Bullets – Familiar crime-gone-wrong fare made with style and energy. An enjoyable B-movie on its own merits, this is more impressive knowing writer-director Jack Fessenden (son of indie horror veteran Larry) was just 15 when he started working on it. Read my ChicagoNow review here.
Thoroughbreds* – This pitch-black comedy of entertaining sociopaths planning a murder is told with dry wit and great dialogue. Corey Finley makes an auspicious filmmaking debut adapting his own play to the screen, visually evoking a brittle world of upper class privilege and its accompanying moral decay. The excellent performances of Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and the late Anton Yelchin do justice to Finley’s razor-sharp language. Look for it in theaters this March.
Truman – The incredibly charismatic Argentinean actor Ricardo Darín is in great form in this sentimental but never schmaltzy movie about two friends getting together after years apart when one (Darín) announces his decision to stop his cancer treatments. The title refers to the dying man’s dog, who becomes the focus of his final planning.
Victor and Isolina* – A grandson captures his Latino grandparents’ long and combative relationship in this witty and inventive short film comprised of audio of interviews with the couple and 3D-printed models of the subjects and their separate homes.
War for the Planet of the Apes – Though not nearly as strong as its two predecessors in the new Apes series, this is still a worthy entry in one of the few blockbuster film franchises worth following. That said, the series should end here (it won’t…too much money to be made and a fourth film is already in development) as War has a lovely finale that wraps up Caesar’s story perfectly.
Win It All – This is the most enjoyable of the Joe Swanberg films I’ve seen, maybe because it’s stripped of the navel-gazing, bedroom therapy themes and on-the-fly aesthetics of the films from his micro-budget era that I’ve watched. An enjoyably lighthearted approach to a familiar “gambler in over his head” plot, it benefits greatly from the appeal of leading man and co-writer Jake Johnson.
The Workshop* – Laurent Cantet digs into the psychological underpinnings of white supremacy through an unexpected avenue – a writer’s workshop for unemployed youth. As in many of his other films, Cantet builds conflict without giving in to familiar movie-made resolutions or easy answers. Another potent, complex exploration of French society’s class divides from the director of Human Resources, Time Out and The Class.
Click here to see my 10 favorite films of 2017.
Click here to see picks 11-25.
Click here to see my “odds and ends” lists.