2017: The year in reviews

“Truly catholic taste”: Hollywood floundered in 2017, but from Romania to Mongolia, from Philadelphia to beyond the solar system, great movies took discerning viewers everywhere.

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

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.

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.

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).

Even the films I found to be among the most joyous had their heartbreaking sides.

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:

  • Angelina Jolie had two films this year (one as director, the other as producer) about a young girl enduring horrific oppression in a totalitarian regime.
  • Two documentaries set in distressed urban communities were altered by acts of violence unfolding during production — one striking the subjects of the documentary, the other convulsing an entire city.
  • Two films centered on a noncustodial single father and general screw-up in life trying to maintain a relationship with a young son.
  • Two are about sometimes ambiguous color barriers in American society, one set in the Jim Crow South, the other in a version of our own time.

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.

SDG’s Top Films of 2017

  1. Graduation. In the best of the year’s many broken-family dramas, Romanian New Wave auteur Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) surgically probes the invasive lure of cheating and corruption—and the cost of integrity—in a crooked culture. The protagonist is a doctor whose hollow marriage and personal life are secondary to his hopes for his talented daughter’s future. Explicit references to an offscreen sexual assault; an extramarital bedroom scene (nothing explicit); some language. Adults.
  2. Mudbound. A multifaceted, atmospheric portrait of early 20th-century American marital, racial and social attitudes, Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel depicts two families in 1940s Mississippi, divided by race but linked by land and circumstance. With shifting points of view and rich if often bleak cinematography, it’s both literary and cinematic, epic and intimate, old-fashioned and utterly contemporary. Some violent and graphic images, including a horrific scene of racial violence; marital and nonmarital sexual encounters (nothing explicit); racial epithets. Adults.
  3. Dunkirk. The year’s grandest spectacle is Christopher Nolan’s immersive composite triptych of the military crisis in the Battle of France that led to the “miracle” evacuation of more than 300,000 vulnerable troops. From Mark Rylance’s matter-of-fact civic virtue to Tom Hardy’s stoic aerial heroics, this is a celebration of a spirit of solidarity much needed today. Intense, largely bloodless battle violence; limited profanity and bad language. Teens and up.
  4. My Happy Family. Georgian writer-director Nana Ekvtimishvili’s not entirely ironically titled family drama centers a middle-aged wife and mother living with three generations of family who decides one day that she wants to live on her own. What happy ending is possible, and for whom? Unexpected revelations and twists complicate the story right to the end—except in real life stories don’t “end.” Mature themes including references to adulterous relationships. Teens and up.
  5. Behemoth. Looking to The Divine Comedy and the Book of Job for structural and textual inspiration, Zhao Liang’s surreal art-house documentary offers jaw-dropping images of the hellish human and environmental cost of coal mining in Inner Mongolia and the shockingly illusory paradise that is among its outcomes. Some troubling images including miners suffering the ravages of lung disease. Teens and up.
  6. Maudie. Outshining her celebrated turn in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins plays the Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, who struggles with a body bent by birth defects, but even more with the limits of what others think her capable. Ethan Hawke plays the loutish peddler whose wish for a cleaning lady changes her life, and vice versa. Directed by Aisling Walsh. A fleeting but shocking act of violence; some sexual content (nothing explicit); limited cursing. Teens and up.
  7. First They Killed My Father. Angelina Jolie’s cinematic and humanitarian passions converge in her best film, a chronicle of the Vietnam-era Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia seen through the eyes of a child. Based on the Cambodian activist Loung Ung’s memoir, it’s both an unsparing record of human cruelty and a tribute to the resilience of childhood. Much grueling content including graphic genocidal violence and psychological abuse of children. Mature teens and up.
  8. Quest. Documentarian Jonathan Olshefski spends nearly a decade with a typical-yet-extraordinary black family from North Philadelphia, chronicling their vital role in their community and the joys, struggles and crises that turn out to be the stuff of their lives. Wrenching aftermath of random gun violence; mature themes including characters struggling with drug addiction and questions of sexual identity. Mature teens and up.
  9. Menashe. Filmed in Yiddish and set in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s father-son drama, inspired by the real-life struggles of its star, explores the various ways individuals define themselves, or are defined by others, in relation to family, community, faith, religious authority and tradition. Difficult family situations. Nothing objectionable, but suitable for teens and up.
  10. War For the Planet of the Apes. Returning director Matt Reeves brings the smartest and most morally resonant active Hollywood franchise to a harrowing but triumphant finale (for now). Rife with biblical themes and imagery, War highlights the destructiveness of revenge and the fallibility of even the best leaders. Some intense battlefield violence; moderate depictions of torture, imprisonment and forced labor; a mercy killing and a suicide (both off-screen); limited profanity. Teens and up.

10 Runners-Up (unranked)

  • After the Storm, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s melancholy broken-family drama about a once-promising writer (teens and up)
  • The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey’s animated tale about a young girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon (older kids and up)
  • Faces Places, an eccentric, delightful documentary/manifesto about noticing and celebrating overlooked people and fading ways of life, from Agnes Varda and “JR” (teens and up)
  • The Farthest, Emer Reynolds’ rapturous science documentary about the Voyager program, its survey of the gas-giant planets and its departure from our solar system (older kids and up)
  • Get Out, Jordan Peele’s witty horror provocation starring Daniel Kaluuya and satirizing the shallowness of conventional white liberalism (adults)
  • A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s elegiac experimental film about grief, separation and the quest for meaning and closure (older teens and up)
  • The Post, Steven Spielberg’s topical Pentagon Papers crowd-pleaser starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (teens and up)
  • The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi’s psychological drama about pride and revenge, with a Tehran couple struggling in the wake of a traumatic assault (teens and up)
  • Step, an exuberant documentary about competitive stepping and hope for a better future for students at a Baltimore girls’ school (teens and up)
  • The Unknown Girl, the Dardenne brothers’ exploration of individual and social responsibility in the face of an anonyous tragedy and the healing power of confession (older teens and up)

10 Honorable Mentions (unranked):

  • All Saints, a genuinely inspiring, fact-based story about the fruitful encounter between John Corbett’s Episcopal pastor and a community of Southeast Asian refugees, directed by Steve Gomber (older kids and up)
  • The Big Bad Fox, a delightful animated French-language quasi-anthology from Ernest & Celestine’s Benjamin Renner and April and the Extraordinary World’s Patrick Imbert (kids and up)
  • City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s sobering yet rewarding documentary about the heroic guerrilla journalists of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who court death to report on ISIS activity (teens and up)
  • Columbus, first-time filmmaker Kogonada’s mesmerizing reverie on architecture and human connection, starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson (teens and up)
  • Dawson City: Frozen Time, an astonishing exploration of the history and legacy of a Yukon town and its unexpected link to film history, from Bill Morrison (teens and up)
  • Their Finest, Lone Scherfig’s delightful comedy-drama about the making of a British WWII propaganda film celebrating the Dunkirk evacuation, and the contributions of women at various levels (teens and up)
  • Jane, Brett Morgan’s documentary celebration of the life and career of Jane Goodall (teens and up)
  • The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s old-fashioned period historical adventure based on the life of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam (teens and up)
  • Wonder, Stephen Chbosky’s uplifting adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel about a young boy with a rare facial deformity, starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson (kids and up)
  • The Work, a hard-hitting documentary about an intensive group therapy program pairing incarcerated convicts with men from the outside (older teens and up)
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