2017 was filled with cinematic wonders – films that felt like instant classics and reminded us why we go to the movies. I awarded a whopping six films with five-star ratings this year. Before I get to my list of what I consider the top 10 crowning achievements of 2017, here are some cinematic moments that lingered in my heart and mind.
Top five moments of movie magic
5. Jerry Before Seinfeld
Yes, this is part of a stand-up comedy special on Netflix, but it’s an incredibly cinematic moment nonetheless. Near the end of Jerry Before Seinfeld, the iconic comedian sits in the middle of a long, winding street littered with handwritten notes dating back to when he first started doing comedy. It’s an indelible image exhibiting palpable evidence of the power of perseverance.
4. The Post
Another example of tactile work. You can practically feel ink smudging on your hands as Steven Spielberg shows the mechanical process of printing. As we see the Pentagon Papers issue of the Washington Post run through the press, this film reminds us that the possibility of revolution is right at our fingertips.
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Let’s just say there’s a confrontation in Supreme Leader Snoke’s blood-red throne room that evokes the same level of dread and suspense as the last act of Return of the Jedi. It’s scary and exciting, harrowing yet hopeful.
As British soldiers hobble through a railway station back home in England, an elderly blind man congratulates them on a job well done. One of the soldiers replies, “All we did was survive.” Without missing a beat, the old man says, “That’s enough.” It’s the most poignant dialogue exchange of the year. This brief, understated moment is more powerful than the typical Hollywood sentimentality that many critics seemed to want from this film.
Fun fact: Christopher Nolan’s uncle, John Nolan, plays the old man in this scene.
The opening of It is a work of dark magic. As I wrote on The Film Yap: The introduction to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is one of the year’s most mesmerizing scenes. He emerges from the shadows of a sewer after a boy’s paper boat falls inside. When he starts talking to little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), we understand why the boy doesn’t run away. Skarsgård brilliantly captures the clown’s seductive power, the sweet persona covering his sinister side like candy coating. The film leaves you wanting more intimate, slow-burn encounters with Pennywise like this one. I feel a shiver of excitement every time I think about this scene.
Top 10 Films of 2017
10. The Lost City of Z
Earlier this year, I wrote a column series in which I reviewed beloved epics I had never seen before, including Braveheart, Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia. Like those classics and the expedition it explores, The Lost City of Z evokes a spine-tingling sense of discovery. Epic yet intimate, this is “Golden Age” movie magic mixed with contemporary grit.
Another exploration of a mysterious world but a less conventionally cinematic one. In his dazzling feature film debut, writer-director Kogonada uses the architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana as the foundation for a quietly devastating drama about loss, spirituality and soulmates. It’s a thoughtful examination of how our surroundings become entwined in our interior lives. In the end, Columbus is a testament to how there is plenty of movie magic to find here in the Midwest.
Terminator 2 by way of No Country for Old Men, Logan is a brutal, beautiful piece of superhero cinema. It immerses you in an atmosphere of raw emotion. Watching this film is like drinking whiskey in a dark bar as Johnny Cash croons on the jukebox. It’s a portrait of a larger-than-life character coming down to earth with the rest of us and revealing the vulnerability behind his bravado. One of the best superhero films ever made.
7. Get Out
At its best, horror holds a funhouse mirror up to society and reveals our warts. In 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero exposed the cancer of consumerism and used zombies to symbolize the mindless, materialistic masses of America. In 1982’s The Thing, John Carpenter explored our nation’s anxiety about AIDS through the story of an infectious alien. This year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out made us face racism in a way that evoked a potent combination of nervous laughter and profound fear.
6. Baby Driver
A pure adrenaline rush with a tender sense of innocence amid the mayhem. Baby Driver feels like the kind of pulp fiction you’d find on a dusty shelf in a mom-and-pop bookstore. With snappy dialogue, quirky characters, electrifying performances and a killer soundtrack, it springs to life on screen. This film will give you a buzz. It’s the most fun I had at the movies this year.
5. The Post
Sure, on the surface, this seems like a square, populist journalism drama. But it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s most cutting films. In this age wherein crooked leaders constantly cry about fake news, The Post is a film we all need: a tale of courage amid corruption, bravery in breaking down barriers and the importance of holding people accountable – even those in positions of power high above us. Rarely does a period piece speak so eloquently to our current reality.
4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
An instant classic. I haven’t felt this way about a Star Wars film since I watched the original trilogy when I was a little boy. This is the rare sort of sequel that simultaneously scratches childhood itches and delivers the emotional heft we want – no, need – to experience as adults.
This isn’t just the perfect swan song for Harry Dean Stanton. It’s a vital look at the weight of everyday life and the light at the inevitable end of the tunnel. It’s quite a feat for a film to leave a smile on your face after it makes you stare into the abyss.
Yes, it’s nice to click on Netflix and curl up to a movie on the couch. But every movie-lover wants to see something in the theatre that sweeps them away. We want to gaze upon the big screen the same way a child looks up at a blanket of stars – with pure, wide-eyed wonder. We want to see something that thrills us and terrifies us and rips the rug out from under us – something indistinguishable from an act of magic. We want to be filled with a sense of discovery as we witness heroism and horror – simultaneously grounded and larger-than-life displays of raw humanity. We want to see movies like Dunkirk.
So much of our time in front of screens now involves furiously scrolling through an ever-flowing stream of bleak, contentious muck that feeds our cynicism. It’s refreshing to be swept away by a story that cracks your heart open and makes you feel grateful just to be alive. As I wrote in our roundtable year in review, the story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) flooded me with memories of my father’s battle with cancer. I could practically smell the hand sanitizer from his hospital room again as I watched Bauman hooked up to tubes and monitors. And during the physical therapy scenes, I remembered the long, quiet drives to the rehab center, where I often winced as I watched my dad in a more vulnerable place than I had ever seen him before. My mom stayed by my dad’s side this whole time. But much like Bauman’s girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), she grew tired and frustrated as she watched him struggle, and the light of hope flickered and faded.
My father’s homecoming was much like Bauman’s – bittersweet, awkward, as if he were a foreigner in a place that used to be familiar. As Stronger shows, the hurdles don’t stop at home. Every day is a search for a new normal that seems to be nowhere in sight. That journey never plays out in the maudlin way you’d expect from a film like this. Even the last scene, in which Bauman walks with his prosthetic legs, comes as a surprise. There’s no rousing music to lift your spirits – only the sound of Bauman breathing heavily as he slowly but surely makes his way across the street and toward a new life.
Director David Gordon Green could’ve easily aimed for corny, crowd-pleasing fare here. But like the best filmmakers, he understands that cinema isn’t merely about popcorn material that makes you want to cheer. It’s also about capturing raw, painful, private moments – the kind of moments that reach out in the dark, cast a light in our hearts and let us know that we’re not alone.