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.
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.
By Jon Kissel
As the MMC's Best of 2017 week continues, we move onto the year's best scenes. Some of these weren't in the best films, but the spark of genius can show up in a movie made by my favorite director or in a film that gave me a rage headache. The more spoiler-y these get, the further down the list they are.
By Jon Kissel
As the first full year without cable, TV watching in 2017 was made slightly more difficult. While cord-cutting meant that staples like Fargo and Better Things went unwatched (along with Better Call Saul and Top of the Lake: China Girl), streaming services like Netflix and Hulu compensated with an ever-expanding amount of options, some immediately great from their first episodes. With half the shows on this list debuting in 2017, the Golden Age of Television continues to renew itself even as critically acclaimed shows like The Leftovers end and Veep and The Americans plan their end in the coming months. When the supply of new shows from ambitious and intelligent creators seems unending, previous favorites Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black can have off-years. With TV, there's always something great ready to take the place of slouchers.
(Other unseen shows that might've made the list: The Deuce, Mindhunter, The Keepers, Alias Grace, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)
Darren Aronofsky has put some bonkers imagery onscreen over the course of his career, but it’s never weird for the sake of weird. Every refrigerator monster is on purpose and in service of the hapless characters running through Aronofsky’s wringer. His seventh film, mother! (hereafter referred to as Mother for the sake of simplicity), is the first where that might not be the case. A naked allegory for biblical history, Mother doesn’t have characters so much as it has symbols. Even Aronofsky’s tackling of the story of the flood in Noah was still grounded in the titular patriarch and his family. Mother is no less powerful and memorable than a film like The Fountain or Black Swan, but it’s the most elemental in the unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings it dredges up. However, what it lacks in characters who exist as individuals, it more than compensates in its level of bonkers, as this is the closest to a filmed nightmare that I’ve ever seen. Mother is so visceral and so potent that its allowed some amount of shirking in the character department.
The wave of 80’s nostalgia reaches its height with It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s famous clown-phobic novel. Written in 1986 and originally set in the equally nostalgia-laden 50’s, It gets brought into the rosy decade currently obsessing modern audiences. The 50’s and the 80’s, marked by domestic calm in the aftermath of disruptive grand events, are perfect representations of ugliness hiding beneath the surface, an ugliness made manifest by King’s iconic Pennywise the Dancing Clown, brought to campy life by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV miniseries and now by an eccentric and disconcerting Bill Skarsgard. In director Andy Muschietti’s vision, It becomes a distillation of horror filmmaking intruding onto a sun-dappled summer. He captures the gauzy childhood adventures of bikes and swimming holes and bully evasion alongside a judicious use of jump scares/edits, musical stings, sped-up motion, and other tried-and-true techniques guaranteed to get the heart racing. The tremendously-successful film is a true crowd-pleaser, earning scares as well as laughs even as it seriously endangers the future earnings of clown college graduates.
Americans have long looked west for rejuvenation and reinvention, trampling others that were already there in search of their own interests. Despite all the trappings of modernity in Matt Spicer’s exceptional debut, Ingrid Goes West is a tale that could be easily adapted to any US period of the last few hundred years. This is the story of the coward Robert Ford, of Oklahoma homesteaders, of the ancestors of those homesteaders on their way to California during the Great Depression. Aubrey Plaza’s titular protagonist is no one’s idea of a frontierswoman, as she chooses to use her dwindling funds for beer instead of toilet paper and is never shown eating something that wasn’t hastily prepared for her and pushed out a drive-thru, but she still traverses the country and into an unknown and tenuous future, equipped with her stake and her online profile. Both a Western without the spurs and a satire without much exaggeration, Spicer joins the group of 2017 debut directors, already populated with the likes Jordan Peele and Julia Ducournau, who have wildly succeeded in their first outings.
Exactly no one believed that prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking would stick. Soderbergh took a few years to dabble in television, with exceptional results, and he finally returns to the big screen with Logan Lucky. His latest revisits the grand heists of Ocean’s 11, replacing the gawdy glitz of Las Vegas with the drawls of West Virginia. Soderbergh roars back to life as surely as the NASCAR vehicles featured in a film that retains the charm and humor of his other caper films while adding levels of earned sentimentality that his work has often been too cool to engage with.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.