With Thor: Ragnarok, the last of three 2017 Marvel films, the dominant superhero studio fully commits to idiosyncratic directors instead of the workmen guns-for-hire they started their extended universe with. No more Alan Taylors or Louis Letteriers churning out empty eye candy. Instead, Marvel has turned the keys over to weirdos like James Gunn and the refined vision of Ryan Coogler, and their films are all the better for it. Taika Waititi, the director of Ragnarok, splits the difference between the two, borrowing the wacky space opera flare from the former and the stealth critique of great powers from the latter. Waititi also happens to be the strongest comedic director Marvel’s worked with, and it’s no surprise that he would make a raucous action flick on par with something like Midnight Run or Hot Fuzz. That Ragnarok can be so much fun while also being about something beyond capes and magic powers marks it as one Marvel’s best outings.
Mad Greek genius Yorgos Lanthimos opens his latest film with an apt metaphor for his consistently stellar work. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a surgeon, and the film begins with his POV at work, staring into an open chest cavity as the heart inside pulses away. It’s just tissue and viscera, sparked by ion gradients. However, what appears to be mechanical contains mystery and incalculable value, much like Lanthimos’ penchant for having his actors deliver flat expository dialogue that still communicates depth and humor and meaning. His latest is another jolt of idiosyncratic black comedy pumped into the cinematic bloodstream, as vital as any element or amino acid.
The idiot plot, defined by Roger Ebert where the plot of a movie could be settled if everyone wasn’t an idiot, could be called a stubborn plot in Marc Webb’s Gifted. A simple and obvious compromise is the necessary remedy in this story of what to do with a young math prodigy, and Webb postpones the easy solution to his film’s problem for as long as he can. He fills in sympathetic characters on all sides of the central conflict, puts talented actors in those roles, and doesn’t treat the viewer any stupider in smaller scenes than the premise is already treating them. Disguise the solution staring the characters in their faces and Gifted becomes a very-good to great film, an indie heartstring-tugger that’s more perceptive and tangled than implied by initial appearances.
A different kind of superhero origin story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women looks at the unique creative beginnings of the DC superhero. Whereas a character like Spider-Man was born out of an economic need to reach teen audiences, psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is pitching radical feminism and sadomasochism directly at comic book consumers in thinly veiled metaphors. Director Angela Robinson’s film takes great care to find plenty of instances in Marston’s comics to back up what the professor clearly stated was his purpose, and it’s amazing that Wonder Woman was allowed to be published in the first place under censors’ noses.
With The Florida Project, Sean Baker continues his tales-from-the-underclass directing career. As a follow-up to his trans prostitute film Tangerine, Baker’s latest contains the same desperate poverty and the same utilization of non-professional actors. Set in the shadow of Disney World, the denizens of The Florida Project live day to day in a flophouse motel, painted purple to distract bypassing tourists from a region that’s supposed to contain the happiest place on earth. Tellingly, the only character that comments on the general crappiness of the Magic Castle motel is a well-off Brazilian woman, baffled that such a place exists and that she might have to spend the night there. While foreigners might be surprised at this kind of poverty in the wealthiest country on the planet, Americans are increasingly accustomed to it. Baker uses his child protagonists to get the viewer to the high of how children can find happiness and adventure in almost any setting and to the low of wondering why they have to do so in such a decrepit setting.
Current television shows have plenty of options for depictions of female friendship. From Insecure to Orange is the New Black, women writers have put what they know best onto the small screen, demonstrating that hang-out TV is entertaining regardless of gender. One of these shows is Comedy Central’s Broad City, a wacky two-fer on the streets of New York. Girls-behaving-badly film Rough Night is driven by much of Broad City’s creative cast. Director Lucia Aniello has helmed and written several episodes, and writer/stars Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs play major roles. As it shares all this personnel with Broad City, the expectation is that Rough Night will also share Broad City’s drug-fueled hijinks and lived-in camaraderie. Instead, the tone in this film is out-of-control and unfunny for long stretches. Television might’ve figured out how to tell these kind of stories, but, using Rough Night as an example, cinema’s got a ways to go.
There’s documentaries that have grand scopes like 13th or No End in Sight and then there’s I Am Another You, a film about one man living on the margins. Made by Nanfu Wang, who injects herself into the proceedings and narrates over much of the film, the film follows a homeless young man named Dylan. For 80 minutes, Wang peels back Dylan’s layers, fooling both herself and the viewer about who this guy really is.
Gender pay gaps, boys’ clubs, and blatant misogyny run rampant in Battle of the Sexes, a film that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the present day. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton turn their indie sensibilities to a famous sports incident, playing things largely straight where they’d earlier been more inventive. Little Miss Sunshine practically invented a new subgenre while Ruby Sparks undermined the trope of the manic pixie dream girl that so many indie films rely on. Battle of the Sexes isn’t breaking new ground in the same way. Instead, Faris and Dayton found a fertile piece of history and put charming actors in it. The film works because it can’t really fail.
In a year where escapism from the news cycle was desperately needed, escapism in the best films of 2017 took the form of extreme emotional catharsis. Whether that meant the unleashed ecstatic nightmare of mother! or Raw or the free-flowing tears induced by Logan Lucky or Coco, the biggest reactions from the year's best worked on a primal, gut level. Quieter intellectual films like Phantom Thread or Lost City of Z didn't take up nearly as much air as the reaction to the more elemental Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That gap between what works subjectively in the moment and the objective feeling of certainty that one's watching masters at work means that the year might not have as many all-timers as other years. Revisiting Logan in the future might dull its sharp edge and bring out more of its flaws, but in the year that was, the heart needed some reinforcement, whether it came from animated orphans or mutant Mexican girls.
By Jon Kissel
The following are five each of my favorite male and female performances in 2017. There are plenty more to choose from, but Daniel Day-Lewis seems too obvious.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.