Unlike 2016’s never-ending train wreck, 2017 actually proved to be a mixed bag of emotions. For every gut-wrenching outing of a Harvey Weinstein-type figure, there was the minor win that the world was safer from one less creep in authority. And while movements like Black Lives Matter and gender equality continued to gain momentum, the glass ceiling was still met on many issues.
An old Chinese curse (cleverly disguised as a blessing) goes that: “May you live in interesting times,” and no time has been more interesting than the present. From unending humanitarian crises to the threat of nuclear war, 2017 has certainly been the most interesting year on recent record.
If one collective entry could be reserved for the wave of heartfelt and humanist cinema that has made a welcome comeback in the last few years, then Sean Baker’s (of Tangerine fame) The Florida Project, Luca Guadagnino’s dreamy gay love story Call Me By Your Name, and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird would certainly be worthy of this list.
As with all art, a sign of the times lives on through the world of cinema. For better or worse, these are the 10 movies and documentaries that defined 2017.
Director: Jordan Peele
Why it’s relevant: It’s an innovative and satirical take on covert racism.
Get Out could well be the film of the year. Not technically speaking–that would be reserved for Dunkirk–but in capturing the sign of the times. Premiering at Sundance with a cinema release weeks later, the film burst onto screens and didn’t leave for a good, long time. Worldwide earnings are currently at $254 million (with a budget of only $4.5 million) which is no small feat for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut.
Taking the fairly straightforward and eerily relevant story of a mixed-race couple met with hostility from one partner’s small-town (and very white) community, Get Out combines Look Who’s Coming to Dinner with The Stepford Wives, and sets things in the digital age. It’s a satirical rendering of covert racism enacted by conservative liberals, and it’s fresh take as a sociopolitical comedy-horror hit the ball out of the park.
The film is so rich in subtext and homage that there are multitude ways Get Out should be honored; continuing the conversation and addressing America’s, nay the Western world’s, race problem in a new manner is just a start.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Why it’s relevant: As with life-imitating-art, it’s a pro-female story that advances female filmmakers simultaneously.
The success of Wonder Woman was a win for many. Not only was it a great film that empowered women (both on-screen and off, with Patty Jenkins the first-ever woman to direct a live-action, theatrically released comic book superhero film) Wonder Woman was quite frankly the best superhero movie of recent years and undoubtedly DC’s saving grace from a sinking film roster.
It not only signaled that stories can be better and more meaningful for women, but a return to strong superhero stories too. Gal Godot has been praised endlessly for her turn as the titular superhero, with many likening the actress to the female warrior IRL, confirming the perfect casting.
Of course nothing is without controversy, as the film conjured strong debate on the question of modern feminism. Many argued that considering the patriarchal Hollywood system, Wonder Woman was a huge step forward for women, while others (and strangely enough self-appointed feminist James Cameron) suggested Diana’s costume contradicted the film’s message. Ultimately Jenkins, Godot and a bevy of critics silenced the debate with reasoned discussion and justifications in their filmmaking, proving that men shouldn’t argue with women senselessly on a topic they don’t have first-hand experience with.
Wonder Woman has opened the door for female filmmakers further and in a post-Weinstein Hollywood we can only hope that more diverse groups of women not only get behind the director’s chair but behind large franchises. Jenkins and Godot are back for a sequel to be released in late 2019 – the future of superhero blockbusters never looked so bright.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Why it’s relevant: A clever take on the world’s ever increasing environmental crisis.
Korean director Bong Joon-ho has been delighting audiences with his unique blend of fantasy for years, so his second English-language outing, Okja, was promising from the get go. Add to that its rebellious nature–the film screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Netflix’s first-ever entry–and was henceforth met with mixed emotions from cinema traditionalists. That said, it did receive a four-minute standing ovation at the end.
Okja’s story is certainly relevant to current affairs; a multinational corporation threatens the livelihood of Okja, a large mythical pig-like creature, prompting a small girl called Mija to try and save her animal friend. Tilda Swinton plays the evil CEO, while an ensemble cast of strong talent provides support.
Besides the anti-corporate sentiment the film includes a biting satire on the meat industry through a pro-vegan message. Even if that’s not your jam, come for the jokes, stay for the beautiful CGI.
Ghost In the Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Why it’s relevant: This remake proved that Hollywood doesn’t always mean bigger and better, with the industry’s whitewashing practices under scrutiny.
In all fairness this conversation started way back in early 2016, but Hollywood has a hard time understanding things sometimes. That is, until box office earnings explain things in a language well known. Ghost In the Shell was for all intents and purposes a major fail. Fiscally it managed to make back its $110 million budget plus a pittance more, but both critical and audience responses were lackluster.
Mostly lauded for its stunning visual design which admittedly was breathtaking, but a weak overall plot which forwent the depth of the original animation, plus all of the added political incorrectness, and Ghost In the Shell 2k17 barely made a last impression–except for the lessons Hollywood learnt from this. It should be noted that Mamoru Oshii, director of the original films, stood by the decision to cast Johansson and praised her performance as the Major.
However you feel about the casting controversy there’s no arguing that the final product just doesn’t feel like a rounded Hollywood blockbuster. All sparkle and little soul, audiences want more than just car crashes and fight scenes these days, with Ghost In the Shell a glaring example.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Why it’s relevant: Technically speaking it’s perfection, raising the bar for other filmmakers.
I have a big secret, I think Christopher Nolan is at times enormously overrated. There I said it. Blast away in the comments, I’m here for it. That said, I think Dunkirk (and many others would agree) is the most technically brilliant film of 2017. I like innovative Memento and Dark Knight Nolan, not trying-so-hard-to-be-convoluted Inception Nolan, and thankfully Dunkirk is of the former.
From cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s lush visuals, thanks to 65mm IMAX film (projected at 70mm in theaters); the realistic use of practical effects further adding to the mise-en-scène; the visceral sound design transporting the audience alongside the soldiers; Hans Zimmer’s heart-wrenching score; the lack of dialogue, gracefully showing and not telling the story, Dunkirk is an exercise in not only perfecting the art of filmmaking but advancing it forward. Breaking the mold of what a film can be, it’s both high art and entertainment.
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Why it’s relevant: It proves that delayed sequels don’t have to suck.
Blade Runner 2049 proved that a) sequels can be good; b) you can successfully continue a film series 35 years later; c) Denis Villeneuve is the reigning king of sci-fi. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and certainly there were elements that left fans of the original not entirely satisfied, but you can’t argue that Blade Runner 2049 isn’t at least a good movie.
Did I think it was unnecessarily long? Yes. Would I have liked more meaningful roles for women? Absolutely. But at the end of the day it’s a sci-fi blockbuster and it delivered as a popcorn flick and then some.
Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve and Harrison Ford have all expressed interest in continuing the series and considering 2049’s success that’s likely already under way.
The Big Sick
Director: Michael Showalter
Why it’s relevant: It confirms that minority stories created by indie filmmakers hold up against Hollywood’s blockbuster industrial complex.
This charming and frankly hilarious indie premiered at Sundance all the way back in January. Based on the true story of how lead actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon met, the couple wrote the script together with Judd Apatow providing the push for this to get made.
A guy-meets-girl love story for the modern age, The Big Sick is about an interracial couple dealing with cultural differences while dating and falling in love. When Kumail’s Muslim family plans his arranged marriage to someone else, he screws things up only to have Emily suddenly fall into a coma before he can repair the damage. It’s something that could only happen in the movies except it happened in real life first.
From the trials and tribulations of dating and falling in love to cultural disparities, The Big Sick is a refreshingly real romantic comedy.
Directors: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
Why it’s relevant: A grassroots look at fighting systemic racism.
Whose Streets? is a raw look at the unjust killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014 and the uprising that followed in its wake. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum and this documentary offers first-hand insight into the fearless activism that many undertake daily.
Yet another Sundance premiere, Whose Streets? was supported by the festival’s institute program, allowing first-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan to deliver a visceral video account of the action which wasn’t being fairly represented across traditional media outlets at the time.
2017 proved to be quite a year for documentary filmmaking. Unfortunately Whose Streets? is still just as relevant today as when filming took place.
Director: Ai Weiwei
Why it’s relevant: Understanding any humanitarian crisis starts with the stories of those directly affected.
Artist Ai Weiwei’s documentary on the ever-increasing refugee crisis is a visually beautiful account of one of humanity’s biggest problems today. Sincere and sobering, Human Flow follows on from the artist’s installation work highlighting the crisis in recent years. Heavy use of drone footage adds both beauty and a sense of scale, while the film actively pleas for European refugee agreements to be upheld.
For areas where the migration isn’t as present it might seem like things have settled down, but Human Flow is an urgent reminder that as countries turn their backs and close off borders, the future of the world continues to look bleak. If 2017 has one overall message it’s that as humans we must open up and work together, with the state of our planet at risk.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
Director: Brian Knappenberger
Why it’s relevant: Censorship of the press is something that affects us all gravely.
What starts out as a look at Hulk Hogan’s court case regarding a leaked sex tape quickly turns into a harrowing look at the freedom of press in America and how easily wealth supports censorship. The Netflix documentary uncovers how Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel funded Hogan’s legal battle against website Gawker, in what appeared as a personal vendetta due to the site’s outing of Thiel nine years prior. In short, tactics were sneaky and Thiel and Hogan succeeded in bankrupting Gawker and its founder Nick Denton.
Eerily contrasting this in the second part of the doc is the secret acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by billionaire Sheldon Adelson–a move that was outrightly denied by him while the paper refused to disclose the new owner, even to staff. This led to an investigation which confirmed the buy and resulted in various firings, not to mention sparking a multitude of questions about free speech.
More relevant than ever, last month saw billionaires Charles and David Koch back a large deal buying Time Magazine and various other outlets, igniting further fears of a plutocratic press. Necessary viewing, particularly in the age of Trump and his bid to discredit truth through journalism.
**Bonus** Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Why it’s relevant: In case we weren’t sure after The Force Awakens, this confirms why the Star Wars revival wasn’t just a good idea but a great one.
Let’s be honest, what kind of a definitive movie list would this be without a nod to Star Wars? While the second film in the sequel trilogy only released last week, we could have called this at the beginning of the year and nobody would have blinked an eye. This time around there’s potentially more excitement, considering we know how well Episode VII turned out.
Looper director Rian Johnson is at the helm on Episode VIII, both in writing and directing duties, and he does not disappoint. Universal praise is already flooding in, with some touting it the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the surprise element that this installment offers that has both fans and critics alight, contrasting with J.J. Abrams’ well-received but somewhat safe outing in Episode VII.
A necessary inclusion, The Last Jedi is especially poignant as Carrie Fisher’s last film before her death late last year. The best Star Wars film since the ‘80s and a send off to series royalty? We’ll take it 2017.