American moviegoers aren’t necessarily the most demanding viewers in the world, but it seems we have our limits, if dire movie-ticket sales for 2017 are any indication. Not since 1992 have so few Americans gone to the movies; it was the worst year for moviegoing in a quarter century.
The punishment wasn’t equally shared in Hollywood. Most studios felt the pain, with one glaring exception: Disney had another terrific year with success on multiple fronts, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the live-action Beauty and the Beast to Pixar’s Coco (Cars 3 was less successful, but hardly a flop) and, of course, multiple Marvel outings, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok and even Spider-Man: Homecoming (which was released by Sony, but still a win for Disney’s Marvel brand).
The biggest non-Disney success story was Wonder Woman, but even she couldn’t save a disappointing Justice League. Other franchises took a beating, from Alien: Covenant to Disney’s own Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Attempts to launch new franchises or even create new cinematic universes — cinematic Big Bangs, as it were — were big bombs with both critics and audiences. Neither star power nor familiar properties could save movies like The Mummy and Ghost in the Shell. King Arthur, never a successful figure in Hollywood, had an epically bad year with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Transformers: The Last Knight.
There were exceptions. Christopher Nolan, practically the only name in Hollywood these days for creating original spectacles that are critical as well as popular hits, succeeded again with Dunkirk. Audiences and critics embraced a couple of horror movies, It and Get Out. Critics generally loved Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, but audiences weren’t interested.
2017 was a tepid year for family audiences, especially compared to the prior year, which gave us the likes of Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book and Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention the terrific Queen of Katwe. After Coco and maybe Lego Batman (neither of which I dug as much as others did), it went downhill fast: Despicable Me 3, The Boss Baby, The Emoji Movie, Lego: Ninjago. (Wonder was good, and even Ferdinand wasn’t bad. I did not see Captain Underpants.)
The bottom line is that, with Hollywood floundering, even more of the year’s best films were smaller, less mainstream films — foreign films, indies, documentaries — than usual. At least, my own reckoning of the year’s best films is probably less Hollywood than it’s ever been.
For American Catholics in particular, this is a fine occasion to recall the exhortation of the 1971 pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio, which urges us to “seek to acquire a truly catholic taste, one that includes both the traditional and the latest forms of artistic expression, one that appreciates and understands the production of all nations, of all cultures and of all sub-cultures.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone has to like everything. Some of the movies that other critics loved in 2017 did less for me, from Lady Bird and The Florida Project (both which I appreciated but didn’t love) to The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (both which I cordially disliked).
At the end of 2016 I said that every year is a good film year, but some years you have to go further afield than others. 2017 was another year like that, but more so.
Even at the wider level, there were disappointments. Some of my favorite international filmmakers — the Dardennes, Asghar Farhadi, Hirokazu Kore-eda — had films on American screens last year, but none cracked my top 10 (they’re all runners-up).
More generally, amid the generally downbeat or harsh themes that are often prevalent in ambitious works, I struggled to find the less stressful counterpoints that have tended to top my lists in recent years: movies like Paterson in 2016 and Brooklyn the year before. (Continuing the motif of lovely, humane dramas named for an American urban area and focusing on a male-female relationship, I enjoyed Columbus very much, but it landed in my honorable mentions.)
Even the films I found to be among the most joyous had their heartbreaking sides. One was Sally Hawkins’ other film this year playing a handicapped dreamer with an inarticulate, seemingly almost subhuman lover (no. 6 below). Another was an oddball documentary about noticing people and changing the world (the third title in honorable mentions).
A few observations about the films below:
In each of the above cases, one of the two films is in my top 10 and the other in my runners-up. Your mileage may vary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.