Small Wins, Big Tanks: Top Ten Movies of 2017

Movies: Top Ten Films of 2017

Film critic Katherine Monk looks back on a year without frontrunners or favourites, making 2017’s top choices a truly personal matter with I, Tonya, Icarus and Wonder Woman landing on the podium, and plenty of other worthy contenders in the race.

By Katherine Monk

It seems the President and Harvey Weinstein eclipsed the klieg lights of the entertainment world: There is no artistic standout, nor crowd-pleasing frontrunner in the race for this year’s movie laurels as the recent Golden Globe ceremony proved.

The five major awards were handed out to four films. No Moonlight. No Lala Land. Not even a Hidden Figures. The year 2017 will be remembered for the last-minute resuscitation at the box-office thanks to Star Wars’s enduring shock paddles, pulling a loser year into so-so territory in the home stretch with more than half a billion in receipts for The Last Jedi.

Nonetheless, revenues were down 2.7 per cent ($11 billion US) over 2016’s $11.377 billion US, with admission prices unchanged.

Tonya Harding Margot Robbie Figure Skating movie

In Your Face! Margot Robbie nails the elation of landing a triple axel as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.

People will still go to movies at the theatre. Yet, it seems they need a really good reason to do so, and 2017 didn’t pony up the big-budget winners. Justice League was just the most noticeable bomb, but Tom Cruise stalled in American Made and The Mummy, Johnny Depp is starting to sink into the deeps with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and even Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 failed to crack the $100M mark in domestic receipts, curling up behind the burning hot John Wick 2.

Pretty and pat entertainments were passed over, probably because they’re largely mediocre and formulaic, and perhaps because they no longer suit the changing Zeitgeist. The marquee was filled with attempts at reclaiming past glory, from second helpings of Guardians of the Galaxy to Power Rangers, Planet of the Apes, Cars, Pitch Perfect, LEGO movies, Transformers and more.

They whirred and buzzed and exploded on cue. They kept Hollywood flush thanks to international income, but even China is tiring of the superhero stuff now that it’s all-too familiar.  The films that stood out were different. They matched a mood of change and unease. It’s why Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is poised to win best picture at the Oscars: It’s about the death of the American Middle class, and with it, the American Dream.

Three Billboards Ebbing

Rustbelt Reality: Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand star in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.

Images of mourning, emptiness and a sense of innocence lost dot the cinematic landscape. We walked through abandoned family homes in The Florida Project and Ghost Story. We revisited the canon of Second World War stories and found human frailty instead of iron-jawed heroism in  Churchill, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour.

Steven Spielberg — the boy-king of blockbuster spectacle — plugged in an old Xerox machine and reanimated the ghost of Nixon, desperate to remind America of its own history with deceitful  Presidents.

Wonder Woman Gadot

What a Gal: Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, Amazon princess and defender of the human race in Wonder Woman.

Hollywood has always represented our most flattering mirror, but the old optics have finally lost credibility. The magic is gone, and with it, our ability to believe in the beautiful lies strewn with stars. We’re craving real food for thought, and the movies that can deliver the whole truth — and  nothing but the truth, through all its twisted, dramatized manifestations of soul — will be the ones to survive a changing movie climate, and the lingering shiver that thrives on denial.

That said, here are my top ten films of 2017:

  1. I, Tonya: Competitive figure skating is a world of high-drama and high-risk athletics, Shakespearean theatre on razor-sharp blades, and when it all comes together, it’s absolute poetry. Yet, when it all falls apart, it’s I, Tonya. Perhaps the sharpest dissection of the figure skating world since Will Farrell blew it apart at the seams in Blades of Glory, I, Tonya takes us into the clique-ridden cult of figure skating through the back door of the Tonya Harding scandal — a saloon brawl that spilled out on Olympic ice in Lillehammer. Harding never took home a medal, but Craig Gillespie, Steven Rogers and Margot Robbie tempt us to don a Team Tonya T-shirt by turning the tragic heroine — played here by Margot Robbie — into an undeniably empathetic figure. In the process, they reveal the quiet class differences that inevitably doomed a young, talented and ambitious kid from the very start. The beauty of Rogers’s script is his resistance to exploit sentiment, despite so many ripe fruits bending into his grasp. What makes it bearable, and maybe even too pleasurable given its cruel content, is Margot Robbie’s unrelenting, unpredictable, and entirely uncompromising performance, summarized in three words that capture Harding’s truth: IN YOUR FACE! Coupled with Allison Janney’s inspired work as Harding’s mother, LaVona, and Sebastian Stan’s equally mesmerizing embodiment of the boob, Gillooly, we gain a deep admiration for Harding. She’s anarchy with a bad perm, an axel-wielding threat, and a rebel with a relatable cause. I, Tonya is a modern American tragedy carved in ice on blades of rust, but Robbie and the filmmakers make it bleed a comic, bright red because they finds what every sport movie needs most: heart.
  2. Icarus: Perhaps the most important movie of the year, Icarus is Netflix original documentary that takes us into the very heart of the Russian doping scandal — and gives us eye-opening information about how the highest levels of Russian government were complicit in the biggest athletics scandal in history (that doesn’t directly involve FIFA). The beauty of it all is it unfolds before our eyes in real time as filmmaker Bryan Fogel falls deeper into the well of lies. As a competitive amateur cyclist, Fogel felt his peers were performing better than him without good reason. He believed they had to be doing performance enhancing drugs, so he decided to carry out an experiment using himself as the guinea pig. He would document a regimen of doping, and see what happened. All he needed was a scientist willing to help ensure the study was credible. Incredibly, he found Grigory Rodchenkov — the head of the Russian drug lab that tested every athlete at Sochi. Fogel just wanted to prove it could be done, he had no idea he would change the course of Olympic history. Rodchenkov isn’t just a modern hero, his ability to connect the dots while reading quotes from George Orwell’s 1984 make him an oracle for our times.
  3. Wonder Woman: It’s a classic for one simple reason: It gives us a different perspective on the world of Man by forcing us to see it through the eyes of an empowered woman — which is on point in a way that only a Madonna bustier or a Wonder Woman chest plate could be.
  4. The Square: “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s an easy message, but a hard sell — sort of like Ruben Ostlund’s art house eclat. The Square addresses just about every modern-day challenge in society, from Europe’s ‘immigration crisis’ to our technological dependence and our collective need for constant distraction. It’s brilliant and jarring black comedy, but beyond Ostlund’s beautifully crafted frames is a profound question about social responsibility, and whether art and artists can affect the world beyond the ivory tower. Or is it all pretty and well-intended affectation?
  5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: It’s not a true story. But it could be. And therein lies the terror at the very heart of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Playwright and film director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) drives a bulldozer through the American heartland, and digs up the decomposed remains of innocence and optimism. The social metaphor is as bold as the title suggests, but the drama is painted in muted, human tones and detailed strokes of pain thanks to a trio of Oscar-worthy performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
  6. A Ghost Story: Yes, indeed, A Ghost Story is haunting. It wakes the ache that’s always there. Yet, in his bid to dig a little deeper into a single image of a ghost sitting in an empty house, David Lowery successfully pulls a long sliver from the calloused sole of the Zeitgeist with his art-house horror hybrid starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. Somehow Lowery finds the lost soul in every one of us as he shows us a ghost who walks away from the white light so he can spend time with his wife. Scary, funny and destined to get under your skin, A Ghost Story was the biggest buzz title of the summer for good reason.
  7. The Big Sick: “Do you see a future where we can be together?” That’s the question Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) asks her boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) in The Big Sick’s pivotal scene, but it’s the question that also defines the whole movie — on two very different levels. On the surface, Emily’s query is a reflection on romance that echoes inside every lover’s heart and forms the essential beats of every love story, be it comic or dramatic: Will this work? Can love transcend guilt, disappointment and fear? The other level goes much deeper. This movie asks us to think about the whole concept of the future when Emily becomes critically ill, taking us to the very edge of rom-com’s comfort zone — and into the realm of timeless human comedy.
  8. Loveless: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathan) Loveless is a chilling tale of parental neglect, where we watch two self-absorbed adults spend more time looking at their phones than into the eyes of their only son. When he disappears without a trace, it takes a while for them to even notice his absence. The rest of the running time is spent looking for the boy in an urban wasteland, filled with Socialist relics from the past and 21st century arrivistes. Heartbreaking in endless ways, Loveless offers another important glimpse of the modern Russia and its current obsession with wealth.
  9. Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig stars as Lady Bird — aka Christine — a young woman growing up in Sacramento, California, craving a meaningful engagement with the world. Saoirse Ronan and Gerwig are already high on the Oscar buzz meter for this personal coming of age story, but it’s really Laurie Metcalfe who makes this the sweet and memorable debut feature it is. Metcalfe and Ronan play a mother-daughter team that feels so authentic, you’ll think Gerwig read your diary as she shows us two headstrong women who love each other desperately, but can’t seem to find a clean page. The small touches, from the details of attending Catholic school to the absurdities of teen friendships and unspoken class differences, prove Gerwig not only has a great touch as a director, she’s a solid screenwriter who realizes you don’t have to throw your characters off a cliff or decorate them with Spandex and special effects to make your audience care.
  10. Stronger: Jake Gyllenhaal and Canada’s own Tatiana Maslany headline this Oscar bait based on the true story of Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley. Taking us back to the morning of April 15, 2013 — when two homemade bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon — director David Gordon Green begins with the horrible event, then follows Bauman on the difficult road to recovery. By making sure the big news stayed on the periphery, the director puts Bauman’s pain, shock and suffering into the centre, forcing us to see the very personal, human cost of terrorism, and the impossible role of ‘public hero.’  Look for Gyllenhaal at Oscar time.

Stronger Gyllenhaal Maslany

Up-Close and Personal: Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany star in David Gordon Green’s Stronger.

There were many other films in 2017 that felt just as worthy, from France’s ode to early AIDS activists in BPM, Jordan Peele’s dark race satire Get Out and Paul Thomas Anderson’s frilly Phantom Thread featuring Daniel Day Lewis’s final performance. Points for Borg vs. McEnroe, The Post, The Shape of Water, Leisure Seeker, The War for the Planet of the Apes and Ingrid Goes West — as well as The Disaster Artist, Killing of a Sacred Deer, John Wick 2 and Call Me By Your Name. They were great, too. But this year, more than any other I can remember, it all felt personal. So beyond any political import, innovative twists or critical momentum, my top ten simply spoke to me.

@katherinemonk

Photo above: Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and filmmaker Bryan Fogel could handle treated urine but could not contain the piss storm of the Russian doping scandal in the Netflix original documentary Icarus, which shines a bright light on how the Russian secret service does business. Courtesy of Netflix.
THE EX-PRESS, January 10, 2017

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