Friday, January 12, 2018

14 Really Good Movies from 2017

24. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

I like King Arthur stories, but I'm not a stickler about the way they're told (super evident in that my favorite Arthur movie is that one with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley). And since Guy Ritchie movies always have a high floor of enjoyability for me, I had a great time with this. It's not a great King Arthur story, but it's a really fun Guy Ritchie medieval action flick. If "Guy Ritchie medieval action flick" sounds cool to you, I recommend it.

I gotta say, though, that I'm glad plans for a whole Arthurian "universe" springing from this have apparently been cancelled. Nobody needed that and none of the characters here are worth multiple movies about.

23. The Fate of the Furious

As much as I'm a fiend for this series, F8 (as it should have been called) didn't even crack my 20 Most Anticipated Movies of the year. That was due to the hackneyed suggestion in the trailer that Dom goes rogue and betrays his team. Since there was 0% chance that his defection was real, I rebelled at the whole concept. And I wasn't crazy about the promise of Jason Statham's Han-killing character joining the family, either. I went into F8 with arms crossed and needing to be won over.

And it was rough-going for a lot of the movie. Charlize Theron is wasted as a super-serious and self-important hacker who growls the worst dialogue I've heard in a few years. "Did you ever think you'd betray your family the way you did today?" And even though I'm all for previous movies' tossing cars between skyscrapers and parachuting them out of airplanes, I found the complications around the New York car chase ridiculous and unbelievable, but not as fun as skyscraper jumping and automotive skydiving. And Statham's transition to the good guys' side was as clunky as I feared it would be.

But about the time that Helen Mirren showed up, I decided to just jump on board. She's awesome, her relationship to the other characters is awesome, the final chase across the ice lake is awesome (confusingly shot at times, but still awesome), and Jason Statham is the most awesome of all. Enough so that I forgive the movie for making him a good guy, even if I don't completely forgive him for murdering one of my favorite characters. There's a devastating missed opportunity when he doesn't dive out of the airplane with a baby in pursuit of Theron, but oh well. This isn't one of the best Fast/Furious movies, but it's good enough and I ended up having a really great time.

22. Justice League

I was skeptical, but hopeful. I hated 50% of Man of Steel and probably 90% of Batman v Superman, but Wonder Woman was such a drastic course correction that I was encouraged that Warner Bros had finally learned its lesson. Not that Wonder Woman was a flawless reroute. And I didn't expect Justice League to be either. Seeds were planted in BvS that were clearly intended to grow into dark trees, so these sequels were going to have to ignore or retcon those in order to lighten the mood. I'll probably have more to say about that when I get to talking about Wonder Woman.

Justice League did a nice job of it though. Steppenwolf is a boring villain, but his plan at least made sense, as did the heroes' response to it. And I was surprised to like all the heroes. I'm an easy mark for Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but Flash was a pleasant, funny surprise and I really liked his and Cyborg's character arcs. I went into this ready to hate emo Cyborg, but he grew out of that. In fact, all the heroes had to make compromises so that community became a major theme of the film. They even figured out how to make an inspirational Superman. It's not a great movie, but the series is finally headed in a direction that I'm interested in and that's a pretty big accomplishment.

21. How to Be a Latin Lover

How to Be a Latin Lover is about a selfish gold-digger (Eugenio Derbez) who gets dumped for a younger man (Michael Cera). While he's looking for his next wife, he moves in with his sister (Salma Hayek) and her young son (Raphael Alejandrois) and learns the value of family. The movie doesn't move far from the usual formula for this type of story, but it's very funny and the three leads are all super charming.

The rest of the cast is great, too. Rob Lowe plays a fellow gold-digger, Linda Lavin is his insanely wealthy wife, Kristen Bell is a frozen yogurt manager who gives Derbez a job, Raquel Welch is his intended next victim, and Rob Corddry is her extremely protective chauffeur. If you have any fondness (or even just patience) for this kind of story, Latin Lover is a charming one.

20. The LEGO Batman Movie

I expected too much. I loved how funny and touching The LEGO Movie was and thought that this would be more of that, just with a ton of Batman references. The trailer promised a story about Batman's realizing that he needs other people, which I thought would allow for some interesting comparisons with Justice League.

And while it is very funny and I'll enjoy revisiting it and picking up references that I missed the first time around, it doesn't have the emotional punch that I hoped for. The emphasis on family is nice, but Will Arnett's Batman is still pretty inscrutable, so the lesson he learns feels very surface.

Don't get me wrong, I laughed a lot and had a great time. But I expected this would be at least a Top 15 movie, if not a Top 10.

19. Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a great spy story with a super cool agent. I like that it's set in the Cold War and I love the heavy use of '80s New Wave music. I even like how the song choices fit with what's going on onscreen ('Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," for instance, when two characters are trying not to be overheard), but I understand how that might be annoyingly on-the-nose for some.

The plot is complicated, with a lot of double- and triple-crossing to keep track of, but while I was often kept guessing, I was never confused. And it all tracked for me in the end. Looking back after all the reveals have been made, I have some questions about why certain characters did what they did, but I'm not calling that a flaw until I've been able to see it again with the knowledge of what everyone's up to.

The selling point is the action sequences. There are a few big fights and they're all staged differently and even have different tones from each other. One is a brutal, very prolonged fight in a stairwell, for example, while another in a posh hotel is slow motion and operatic.

18. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

I was a little nervous about Valerian. The trailers looked fantastic and I like the two leads quite a bit, but I'm never sure what I'm going to get from Luc Besson. That's especially true when he's only producing, but he also directed Lucy and I hated that movie. I was getting a similar vibe about Valerian that I did about Jupiter Ascending, another attempt at a bold space opera by unpredictable (in the sense that I can't predict whether I'm going to like any given film of theirs) filmmakers. I enjoy Jupiter Ascending, but it wasn't as cool or cohesive as I'd hoped it would be. And I was concerned that I'd feel the same way about Valerian.

I didn't love it, but I like it quite a bit and it works a lot better than Jupiter Ascending. People seem to be divided on Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the leads, but I love both those guys. DeHaan was an effective Harry Osborne in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and another of his movies made my Top 10 this year. I hear the complaints that he's channeling '90s Keanu Reeves and I'm not going to say that it's not true. What I do push back on is that this is a bad thing for a big, fun adventure movie. I'm not as familiar with Delevingne's work, but she brings a lot of personality to Laureline and totally works for me as the soul of the film.

I agree with the criticism that there isn't a lot of romantic heat between the two leads. That's the film's biggest weakness. There's a big chunk of backstory missing in which Valerian has supposedly turned from a Bond-level womanizer to being ready to settle down in a committed relationship with his current work partner. The movie tells me that this is true and eventually convinces me that Valerian at least believes it to be true, but I never see it or feel it myself. And since I don't quite believe it, I wonder why Laureline does. That's the only thing that keeps me from full-heartedly loving the film, though. The rest is awesome.

It's gorgeous and every scene change brings new ideas and things I've never seen before. It may be the only time that I've ever watched a movie in 2D (always my preference) and thought that I should go back and watch it again in 3D. I wanted to immerse myself in the world even more.

The movie is also funny and exciting and I love how it's about overcoming fear and selfishness with love and compassion. As I watch it more, I expect that my problems with the central romance will become less important. I may not care whether Valerian and Laureline smooch, but I'm fully on board with their work relationship. They make a great team and I want more of them.

17. Murder on the Orient Express

A gorgeous, well-acted film. I would love it more if I wasn't so familiar with the plot that there aren't any big surprises, but that couldn't be helped. And it's not like I'd want them to have changed the solution to the mystery anyway.

Branagh does add some things to the story. Mostly in terms of Poirot's motivations, but also some other details and even an Easter Egg or two for Agatha Christie fans. I was never bored or felt like I'd seen it all before and I'm thrilled that there's already a sequel planned. I could go for a Miss Marple cameo in that to spin off into her own series of movies. An Agatha Christie cinematic universe is something that I wholeheartedly support.

16. John Wick: Chapter 2

The first John Wick was in my Top 20 of its year, so I was eager for another one. The sequel didn't disappoint. More great action and more of that bizarre society of assassins that was such a highlight the first time around.

I love the "Chapter 2" concept as well. Chapter 1 was a complete story, but Chapter 2 uses and expands on the events of the previous movie to launch into a new direction. It opens up the world and lays groundwork for future chapters, which is exactly what I want in a sequel.

15. Logan

I feel kind of bad for putting Logan this low on my list, because I want to applaud it for trying something so different with the superhero genre. But I have mixed feelings about the movie and  having seen it a couple of times now I'm still not fully in love with it.

It's got fantastic performances all around, especially by Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and newcomer Dafne Keen. I love Logan and Xavier's relationship and Keen's Laura is as kickass as she is heartbreaking.

But I don't feel as emotionally connected to any of it as I want to. The first time I watched it, I wondered if the distance was because it's set in the future and has that "What If...?" aspect to it. I hoped that whatever barrier I erected because the story "doesn't count" was something that I would eventually get past in repeat viewings. And I did like it more the second time. The alternate future thing didn't bother me at all. But something's still missing.

I think my problem is that everyone keeps trying to make Logan feel fatherly towards Laura. I love the story of his having given up on most of the world and learning to connect with this little girl, but there's an extra layer of pathos that the film keeps trying to spread on by insisting that Logan and Laura are biologically family. The thing is that when they meet, Logan is not her father in any way that actually makes that word meaningful. She was given his DNA without his permission.

This isn't to excuse his initial attitude about her. He's a jerk and his overcoming that is the best thing about the movie. But I also don't believe that he owes her anything specifically because of their genetic connection. His responsibility to her is general and I get frustrated when I feel like the film is trying to force it to be more.

Back on the positive side though: I paid closer attention to the Shane quotes and themes the second time. I've been itching to watch Shane for a while anyway, but now I'm interested in seeing if a better acquaintance with it will affect future viewings of Logan. The line, "There aren't any more guns in the valley" is especially powerful.

14. Get Out

Not the horror movie that I expected, but a powerful, provocative thriller that perfectly balances its tension, humor, and message. I'm not sure that characters' actions early in the film make complete sense once everything is revealed, but it's so strong at everything else that I don't really care. And what an ending.

13. Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve's sequel doesn't equal Ridley Scott's original in terms of art direction and the score, but does it ever excel in terms of story. I love the multiple layers of symbolism and characterization and the way that mystery leads to mystery. There's clearly room for a sequel at the end, but I also felt like I got a complete story and an excellent. thought-provoking one at that. Dan, Ron, and I talked at length about it on N3rd World, so listen to that for more thoughts. It's a wonderful, complex movie that's worth discussing.

12. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Opinions on this movie have been largely negative, so I want to preface my thoughts with a reminder that I'm a hardcore fan of pirates in general and this series in particular. I didn't care much for On Stranger Tides, but I sincerely love the initial trilogyincluding At World's End.

Having said that, I also love Dead Men Tell No Tales. It's silly and it doesn't explain everything, but those are both things that I love about the series. It fixes a problem I had with Stranger Tides, which was trying to make the story about Jack Sparrow. The initial trilogy was all about Elizabeth and Will, with Sparrow thrown in for flavor. Dead Men returns to their story through their son and it totally works for me. Powerfully, in fact. I don't know if there was sea mist in our theater or something, but I definitely felt moisture on my face by the end.

The new character Carina's being pretty awesome was an added bonus. She's no Elizabeth Swann, but I like her and would love to see where her story goes. Which sums up my feelings for the whole series at this point. After Stranger Tides, I hoped that a fifth movie could put the series back on track and that's what's happened as far as I'm concerned. The future of the series is up in the air, but my finger bones are crossed for it.

11. Thor: Ragnarok

I was so encouraged that Taika Waititi was directing this movie. Thor's my favorite Marvel movie superhero and Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a Top 3 movie for me last year. I knew he'd bring a lot of humor, but also heart to the film.

And it is funny. Almost to a fault, because it doesn't feel like it belongs in the same series as Thor and Dark World. It leans into the comedy more heavily than I wanted and I think that's what's keeping it out of my Top 10. But I do like the jokes and the movie also brings in a supremely threatening villain and a massive shake-up to the series' status quo. Both of those things are pretty great.


Siskoid said...

I'm so happy you liked King Arthur, cuz I did too, and we seem to be in the minority. And you totally nailed how and why it's a fun movie. Leave your copy of La Morte d'Arthur at home, folks. While I wouldn't care for a whole cinematic universe here (studios have got to let that idea go unless it happens organically), I would have liked to see a sequel at least (as with Man from UNCLE, for the same reasons).

F8: Yeah, not the best in the series but a fun piece of fluff anyway. Next movie must have: Mirren doing a car stunt (her request), and space shuttle action.

Justice League: Much better than anticipated, and we liked the Flash too, though he appears to be a polarizing figure with movie fans.

Latin Lover: Haven't seen it. Appreciation noted.

LEGO Batman: Just couldn't shake the feeling I had in the theater and ended up putting this at #1 of 2017's movies.

Atomic Blonde: Great action flick, awesome soundtrack, nice sense of place and time. Loved it.

Valerian: Well said. The world building is impeccable, but the acting is meh. Frustrating (especially to someone raised on the comics) because it's ALMOST great.

Murder on the Orient Express: Loved Branagh's version Poirot, but of course, the problem with any Orient Express adaptation is that it's the best known solution in the entire mystery genre!

John Wick Ch.2: Again, your thoughts (if not your exact ranking order) mirror my own.

Logan: I liked it, but I didn't get my friends getting all emotional about it. My investment in the X-Men films has dropped so low, I guess, that while I can say this is one of the best in the overall franchise, it still didn't get to me on that level. X-23 was great though.

Get Out: I went back and forth on it, but it ended up cracking my Top 5. An incredibly relevant dark fable for our time.

Blade Runner 2049: I definitely want to see it again. I thought it was a strong effort, but nothing can match the original, which is one of my top 2 films of all time.

Pirates: Gave up on the franchise after the unpleasant second film, so I'll take your word for it ;).

Thor Ragnarok: A lot of fun, but yes, the humor came at the detriment of other important elements, jokes punching a hole in what should have been important emotional moments. Heads and shoulders above the other Thor films, but ultimately a little insubstantial.

Now... I wonder what your top 10 will be (though by process of elimination, I can guess a fair few, happy not to have seen a certain ape in these lists yet...)

Michael May said...

Sign me up for a Man from UNCLE sequel, too! With more Hugh Grant!

Your comment about Ragnarok reminds me of something I keep hearing from the writers of The Orville. They apparently envisioned it as being more joke-heavy than it is, but they've purposely left out jokes that would have undermined the drama or science fiction aspects. That's a show that gets the balance right and helps me understand what Ragnarok could have done differently.


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