If you didn’t read my year-end overview, it adds a little context to this list (like, why do I have a TV show here?).
* Indicates a festival screening and the film had no other local 2017 theatrical run.
Alien: Covenant – After the huge disappointment of the prequel Prometheus, I was not very excited about Ridley Scott’s next return to the Alien series. So I was bowled over by how good most of this film was – pretty much everything Prometheus promised to be and failed to achieve. Then, in the last half-hour or so, Scott and company sink their own ship with an overextended and sometimes downright stupid final act. Hard to recall another film that got so much so right and then blew it completely before the credits rolled.
Colossal – Despite a very fun premise (a giant monster on the attack in South Korea is actually just the walking id of an unemployed, alcoholic woman trying to sort out her life) and terrific setup, this comedy turns sour in its latter scenes. The film’s goodwill and the strong romantic chemistry between leads Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are tossed aside when the screenplay inexplicably transforms Sudeikis’ lovable loser into a violent, psychotic asshole.
Queen of the Desert – Like any highly prolific filmmaker, Werner Herzog has had his rare misses in a long and illustrious career. But I can’t think of anything on his resume as conventional or as dull as this epic about pioneering British explorer, writer, and political appointee Gertrude Bell.
The Beguiled – Sofia Coppola’s remake of one of Don Siegel’s best films (and one of star Clint Eastwood’s most unusual) is beautifully shot in that slightly hazy, natural light look the director loves, and there is certainly a lot to consider in this story as seen through a woman’s perspective. But why try to bring subtlety and good taste to what is at heart, a southern gothic nightmare with a super-dark sense of humor? While the Don Siegel original is certainly made with the so-called “male gaze” (a crutch of modern arts criticism that often substitutes for deeper, less ideological analysis), it is not the simplistic, “castration fear” fable some have made it out to be. It is of its time, for sure, and open to charges of portraying female hysteria, but it also paints the predatory male in an unflattering light. In Coppola’s revision, the AWOL Union solider is humanized more, but I’m not sure to what effect – both movies ultimately end on the same, twisted punch line. And while Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst certainly give more nuanced performances, their roles are far less memorable their live wire counterparts (Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman) in the original.
Darkest Hour – Pure Oscar bait, as contrived in its “prestige film” way as any bloated summer special effects spectacle. As Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman lets the admittedly impressive makeup do half the work for him, while all kinds of annoying mannerisms dominate the rest of his performance.
The Disaster Artist – I’m a little stunned to see this mediocrity on several best-of-the-year lists and nominated for some respectable awards. I’ve only seen Tommy Wisseau’s warped, so-bad-it’s-good cult classic The Room once, so maybe I’m not deeply immersed enough in the subject. But when compared to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (another movie about the making of a masterpiece of ineptitude), James Franco’s take on the Wisseau saga seems like a forgettable sketch comedy routine padded to excess.
Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s epic account of one of the most riveting incidents of World War II is vivid, visceral, suspenseful and – let’s be honest – a little bit monotonous. I give it a qualified recommendation because there are visually stunning sequences and some genuinely emotional scenes thanks to a terrific cast making do with a very single-minded, procedural script. After the clumsy, overstuffed narratives of Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, it should have been a good call for Nolan to clear the plot deck a bit, but I think he cleared it too much here. The film needed a lot more character development and here’s yet another case where the bulk of the movie plays like an overextended climax.
Free Fire – Speaking of overextended climaxes. From my ChicagoNow review: “…the least interesting and most poorly directed of the [Ben] Wheatley films I’ve seen. It’s a one-joke affair made watchable by a terrific group of actors all in peak form, but their efforts aren’t enough to save what is essentially a feature-length shootout that grows more tiresome the longer it goes on.”
It – I don’t have any major gripes about this Stephen King adaptation. It’s watchable stuff, with some decent jump scares and an engaging coming-of-age backdrop. Still, that this now stands as the highest-grossing horror film of all time seems like an injustice to the genre itself. Even restricting the competition to Stephen King adaptations, there are films far more deserving of that record.
It Comes at Night – The latest in a line of overpraised indie horror (I would include It Follows, You’re Next, Goodnight Mommy and the next film below on that list), this is very well made, superbly acted, and its emotional gravity certainly raises it above standard “plague horror.” But it’s also a really one-note affair. It’s grim and you know it’s going to get a lot more so. The downward trajectory was so obviously cemented, I couldn’t really engage with this one.
Raw – This year’s European horror darling is thematically interesting but aesthetically bland. Comparisons made to David Cronenberg are valid in that Raw is a little like Shivers and Rabid, but for this Cronenberg fanatic, those two early efforts are not among his more interesting films. There’s also more than a little of Ginger Snaps in this portrayal of the savage side of young, female sexuality, but while Ginger Snaps is no masterpiece, it’s a lot more fun than Raw. The performances are good, but the characters thin – mainly present to support the blunt message. Not a bad movie, but it had little impact on me beyond triggering some wincing at its gross-out effects.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – The latest from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) starts badly, then gets better, but it never reconciles its facile comedy and attempts at deeper emotion. Sam Rockwell’s character is the case-in-point: through most of the movie, his character is the most shallow, dimwitted, easily dismissed role. Then, he gets some grace notes in the last third of the movie and one of the best actors working in film today gets to shine. But the screenplay cheats the actor for most of the film and cheats its audience, too. This has its moments and the kind of quality cast that can almost let you gloss over the missteps…but not quite.
Toni Erdmann – Topping many end-of-year lists in 2016 (its first non-festival run in Chicago was last year) and drowning in major awards and nominations, this bittersweet comedy of discomfort from Germany definitely has several memorable scenes. It also has scenes that, well, seem a lot like the scenes that came before them. At two hours and 42 minutes, this story of a most dysfunctional father-daughter relationship goes from winning to wearying. Like a lot of American indies of its type, it’s a little too in love with its own quirkiness and shot largely in humdrum, handheld medium shots or close-ups. Watch this with lower expectations than I had going in and you may reap larger rewards.
Wonder Woman – It’s another superhero movie! And this one’s a woman! Not bad, but hardly worth the adoration it earned either. The climactic battle seemed endless. In the current incarnations of this genre, they almost always do.
Wonderstruck – It hurts to include this on the overrated list, as I would put Todd Haynes on any short list of the best directors working today, but Wonderstruck underwhelmed me. It boasts some very creative visual strategies and terrific production design, but Haynes’ dips into Velvet Goldmine-styled ’70s nostalgia seem forced here. More significantly, I just felt emotionally disconnected from a story that seems to depend on a big emotional payoff. And as much as I admire Carter Burwell, his score is just incessant here…a few scenes without the music telling you how to feel might have given the lovely motifs more impact. Based on a book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote Hugo, the movie shares a similar narrative structure and themes, but where Hugo nailed the target for me on every level, Wonderstruck is much more hit and miss. Worth seeing, but it’s my least favorite Haynes film to date.
The Zookeeper’s Wife – From my Chicagoist review: “…a true and important story, but with enough of a ‘good cry’ factor to make the horrors of war go down just a touch easier…Its real-life protagonists, Antonina and Jan Żabiński, were true heroes. But the movie paints them in such broad strokes of nobility, and with so few personality traits beyond that nobility, that they seem more saintly than human.”
Annabelle: Creation – I had a good time with this, even though it’s a bit stupid and completely reliant on jump scares. It’s a one-trick pony, but they do the trick pretty well. It helps when you see a picture like this in a theater with a crowd of teens and twenty-somethings (mostly male) reduced to yelling out their panic like kids half their age. Theological lesson of the film? A room full of bible pages will somehow keep a demon at bay, but the sincere faith of humans is pretty much useless.
The Assignment – Walter Hill’s most maligned movie to date is not worth getting up on a soapbox to defend, but the criticisms that this low-budget revenge saga is a work of transgender phobia is a bit like complaining that the Three Stooges endorse eye poking. If not an outright spoof (and I think it’s possible Hill saw it as such), this is certainly not a movie to take seriously. Michelle Rodriguez’s pre-op “male” character is about as convincing as Trump’s comb-over, but once the hit man becomes a hit woman, Hill gets to show he can still stage an action sequence with the best of them. Sigourney Weaver’s mad doctor villain fulfills the required B-movie role of “Major Exposition,” with dialogue guaranteed to fill in even the least attentive viewers.
Before I Fall – From my ChicagoNow review: “The Groundhog Day template gets stamped onto the young adult fantasy genre…It’s an utterly formulaic effort, with paper-thin characters and connect-the-dots plotting, but it’s a hard movie to dislike. Underneath its factory-issued construction is an anti-bullying, anti-peer pressure message conveyed with undeniable sincerity.”
The Belko Experiment – There’s not a subtle touch to be found in this blood-soaked slam of corporate culture, but like last year’s The Purge: Election Year, it nonetheless feels disturbingly relevant in this rage-filled, “Make America Great Again” era.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – This is the kind of highly watchable, excessively violent exploitation movie that grabs you, holds you…and then you find yourself wondering if you should have enjoyed it at all. “Brawl” does not come close to defining the climactic mayhem portrayed – brought to the screen with skull-crushing (literally) intensity and no shortage of skill by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk). It could have used a stronger lead than Vince Vaughn and didn’t need to run two hours and twelve minutes, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glued to the screen.
Don’t Kill It – Go in with proper expectations (which is to say, not too high) and an appreciation for gore gags and you’ll have a laugh or two with this one. There’s something to be said for the semi-bored way Dolph Lundgren delivers every line of exposition, including “It’s in the Bible and stuff.” And the central gimmick – the demon immediately possesses the person who killed the person it last possessed – sets up some quality kills, including a memorable depiction of death by mounted antlers.
Get Even* – As it never received any real theatrical distribution, I guess this deliriously awful DIY vanity project (cobbled together somewhere between 1993 and 2007) qualifies as a 2017 release for its showing at the Music Box during Cinepocalypse this year. Whatever year you want to blame for it, you would be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyably amateurish production. L.A. attorney John De Hart financed, wrote, directed, produced and stars in this tale of an ex-cop targeted by his former commanding officer who now heads a baby-sacrificing cult. Wings Hauser appears to be high on something during most of his scenes as the movie’s Chuck Norris aspirations devolve into demented cable access-level results.
The Night of the Wild Boar* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Latino Film Festival: “This brief Chilean feature is completely overwrought, but entertainingly so, and also impressively stylish. A romance writer travels to the remote rural town that was the setting of her deceased lover’s reality-based horror novels. Once there, she is hounded by an unstable cop who suspects her late partner was responsible for seven deaths in the community. An enjoyably twisted little cat-and-mouse game, with a sensationally odd final shot.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl – As a longtime Jane Campion fan, it’s strange to classify this BBC/Sundance series (which, like episodes of the new Twin Peaks, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival) as a guilty pleasure, but…well…this show is seriously f–ked up. It has truly cinematic qualities and the story is never less than compelling, but there are more lapses in credibility here than in an afternoon soap. Praised in some circles as an attack on the dominant misogyny in culture, this is hardly a positive portrait of womankind either. Every major female character makes flat-out horrendous decisions over and over, and several seem downright “baby crazy.” Nicole Kidman’s character seems like a cartoonish spoof of academic feminism and the professor/pimp villain of the series seems more suited to a Bond film than a gritty look at the underbelly of sexual commerce. Admittedly, I came to this without seeing the first season of Top of the Lake, mistakenly thinking they were both stand-alone stories, so I may not be grasping the intended tone. But for now, I will stand by “f–ked up.”
Classe Tous Risques (Noir City)
Drive a Crooked Road (Noir City)
In the Mouth of Madness (Music Box of Horrors)
Land of the Dead (Music Box of Horrors)/Night of the Living Dead — R.I.P, George Romero.
The Seventh Victim (Chicago Film Society)
What’s the Matter with Helen? (Chicago Film Society)
Least-favorite revival: Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Having not seen this movie in at least two decades, I was excited for the chance to see it on the big screen again, as I loved it as a kid and a young adult. Turns out, it just hasn’t held up for me. Sometimes youthful memories are best left untouched.
Click here to see my 10 favorite films of 2017.
Click here to see picks 11-25.
Click here to see my honorable mentions.