Best Blockbusters of 2017
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Carr, Lydia Creech, Jessy Alva Swafford and Nathan Smith
**NOTE** These are not in ranked order.
Ghost in the Shell (2017) by Rupert Sanders
Ghost in the Shell got a bad rap for a noble reason: the casting of Scarlett Johansson as an iconic Japanese character originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi is obviously symptomatic of a larger institutional illness in Hollywood cinema--Asian erasure. The history of Asian representation in American movies is a long and consistently embarrassing one, and with this context in mind, it’s unsurprising that Ghost in the Shell was dead on arrival.
[Long disclaimer about race in Ghost in the Shell that you can ignore if you don’t have misgivings about the film:]
While I don’t wish to invalidate the feelings of those who’d rather not support yet another missed opportunity for Hollywood to get their shit together, this is a rather complicated case for many reasons: (1) Anime was originally conceived as a Disney-inspired, Western-style artform that has always fused American and Japanese sensibilities, as written about expertly by film critic Emily Yoshida; (2) there is plenty of multicultural representation in the film, including one character played by filmmaker Takashi Kitano who solely speaks in subtitled Japanese; (3) Mamoru Oshii, the director of the 1995 anime film, said that Johansson was “the best possible casting,” and that a cyborg’s ethnicity is irrelevant; (4) the entire arc of Scarlett Johansson’s career has been one of abstracting her white female body further and further into a futurist realm of technological liberation imagined by cyber-feminism (as I examined in depth for my video essay about her on-screen persona); (5) Johansson’s whiteness ends up being of crucial importance to the narrative in the third act, which is handled...imperfectly (with a certain Japanese character deserving screen time that they are not given). This is a fascinating intersection of factors that perhaps should not be reduced to “white casting = bad.”
The most complicating factor of all when evaluating the project’s wokeness, of course, is that the 2017 Ghost in the Shell adaptation is a good movie. While the anime was heavy on philosophical musings and light on visual storytelling, the live action film synthesizes both, communicating the original film’s concerns about technology almost solely through laser-focused action set-pieces and bold visual motifs.
The internet as a universal consciousness is evoked by the image (seen above) of a circle of monks with wires uniting their brains; the experience of having one’s digital self hacked is given physicality when Johansson does a “deep dive” into a computer only to be ambushed by an army of faceless, grime-covered figures; the blurring of tangible and digital realities is illustrated by the film’s many instances of employing datamoshing/glitch effects on and already screen-saturated urban landscape.
And as an action film, Ghost in the Shell really moves, with a brisk driving force that is always narratively clear and aesthetically interesting (which is more than Cinematary can say for another, less-deserving-of-critical-praise sci-fi dystopia released this year…). The ending of the film is less than ideal (I definitely would have liked to see a faithful representation of the anime’s final post-humanist plot beat), but the film as a whole is cerebral and visceral at the same time--exactly the kind of hyper-stylized postmodern object that I want to see from blockbuster cinema. — Andrew Swafford
xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017) by D.J. Caruso
“There’s no patriots anymore. Only rebels and tyrants.”
Though 2017 was a year of almost constant anxiety and anger, many of the year’s biggest films trafficked not in frustration, but in catharsis. Many of the season’s box office success stories, among them Get Out, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, signaled a determined, if still gradual, step forward toward the realization of the American public’s long-held desire for better representation in mainstream cinema. Though these films were in production long before the election of Donald Trump, they helped many audiences find hope in an otherwise dark time. To this list I would add another film: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel’s long-gestating return to the fur coat and Ferdinand the Bull tattoo of the character he originated in 2002’s xXx. Like the eager Diesel-freak that I am, I saw Xander Cage on opening day, coincidentally January 20th, the opening day of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The world around him may have changed, but Xander Cage’s anti-authority politics and love of extreme sports have remained almost the same. But something has changed in the last 15 years: the xXx franchise, originally envisioned as a solo vehicle for Vin Diesel after the paradigm-shifting success of The Fast and the Furious, has been retrofitted to fit into the “family” model of the Fast & Furious films and is now a group narrative, more Howard Hawks than Rob Cohen. Fast & Furious is often espoused as one of Hollywood’s truly diverse franchises, both in its on-screen casting and in the success it’s found with global audiences of color, with the ethnically ambiguous Diesel in the driver’s seat. But Xander Cage goes even further: joining Diesel are Ice Cube, martial arts legend Donnie Yen, Chinese pop star Kris Wu, Bollywood icon Deepika Padukone, Thai action hero Tony Jaa, the Brazilian footballer Neymar, Ruby Rose, and so many more.
That diversity has paid off where it counts: at the overseas box office where in many territories, particularly in China, Xander Cage was a huge hit (in fact, it’s one of only three American films, the others being Warcraft and Terminator Genisys, to gross over $100 million at the Chinese without grossing $100 million in the United States).
But the value of Xander Cage doesn’t just lie in its remarkable diversity. As Fast & Furious has driven on past the tragic death of Paul Walker, it has become increasingly chummy with what conspiracy heads might call the “deep state,” gleefully embracing surveillance technologies and the extra-legal intelligence operations of the United States government. In Xander Cage, America is the enemy, with Toni Collette’s ice-cold suit giving a villainous face to the crimes and overreach of our own government. As Cage notes, there aren’t any patriots anymore, only rebels and tyrants, and those words hardly felt truer on inauguration day. That anti-authority attitude isn’t only expressed as rage; Xander Cage is as much of an optimist as he is a firestarter. This is a world where everyone has a place and all skills are valuable, a world where Kris Wu can save Vin Diesel’s life by being a really good DJ, where stealing cable access so poor children can watch a soccer game is among the most heroic acts one can do.
Though Xander Cage is at the end of the day still a corporate product, and there’s only so much studio movies can actually do to effect change in the world, it still has value, offering a much-needed vision of a world where there are no more patriots, no more tyrants, only rebels, from all colors and creeds and corners of the world. — Nathan Smith
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) by Rian Johnson
The idea of myths and mythmaking has always been paramount in Star Wars.
Even non-fans of the franchise could probably tie back Joseph Campbell to George Lucas, Luke Skywalker and the quest to vanquish the Empire. To its detriment, this notion of the crafting of modern myths and the characters involved has seeped into the series so deeply that now it would become foreign and opaque to set it on a path in any other direction.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi did just that.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (the first time someone not named George Lucas has solely written and directed a Star Wars movie), The Last Jedi is more interested in probing our sense of the modern myth and what that entails rather than emphasizing it. It is more interested in questioning the series’ idea of faith rather than idolizing it and it is more interested in tearing down what came before to build up something new rather than glorifying it.
It seems almost too 2017 to categorize The Last Jedi in that way — a movie telling you to burn the past and create a new future — but that’s what Johnson did. Most remarkably, it takes the concept of “the Force” — an ethereal power that derives in all of the Jedi, giving them strength and wisdom — and views it more through a religious lens, labeling it as more of a Zen state of being rather than a superpower (something previous installments have used it as).
The film is no perfect state, it struggles to find its footing at time and is overlong at others. But it also leaves with a sense of true understanding and a step into a direction the franchise has never taken — the unknown.
Will things be the same as it looks to conclude its new trilogy or will this new course put it something entirely fresh? I’m not sure, but I look forward to finding out. — Zach Dennis
Thor: Ragnarok (2017) by Taika Waititi
Before beginning this brief love letter to Thor: Ragnarok, it is important that I briefly discredit myself on two accounts: 1.) I have not seen either of the previous Thor movies, nor any of the Avengers franchise films — save Iron Man and Captain America; 2.) I came solely to enjoy another fine Taika Waititi installment — which is likely not a priority for the bulk of Thor: Ragnarok audiences (which is fine! You are free to love those Avengers as much as you like!).
As such, it is important to further note that I found myself highly confused at the beginning of the film, leaning over to my more MCU-attuned pal and asking infuriatingly obnoxious questions to her, such as “Wait, why does it look like the olden days in Thorland? I thought Thor was a justice league?” and “If Low-Key is his brother, why is he trying to kill him? That’s sad.”
Now that I’ve established my discredit, I have to say that Thor: Ragnarok was just a blast. From beginning to end, the movie perfectly balances a world-ending action plot with ridiculously fun dialogue that I can’t stop quoting (in a terrible New Zealand accent). From the start of the film, we pick up immediately in Thor’s narration that we’re in for a goofy ride on whatever over-the-top excursion this film is going to be. As confused as I was, I trekked along, lapping up it all up, from Thor dangling in a cage above lava (but somehow making a ‘record-scratch-you’re-probably-wondering-how-I-ended-up-here’ story out of it) to Taika Waititi’s brief cameo as the ever-lovable Korg, to SPACE GOLDBLUM and his Willy Wonka-esque tunnel of insanity. I can’t do this movie justice.
With its endlessly goofy dialogue, incredible set and costume designs, and tense plot (that never takes itself too seriously), Thor: Ragnarok is a genuinely fun time. — Jessy Alva Swafford
Coco (2017) by Lee Unkrich
One of the things I’ve always loved about animated movies is the feeling that you’re witnessing something truly magical. Animation is a film medium that has always created a sense of wonder for me. This became even more evident after I saw Pixar’s latest film Coco. The world building in this film, specifically the vibrant Land of the Dead, is extraordinary and really something that took my breath away (pun intended). With Coco, Pixar writes a beautifully crafted love letter to Mexico highlighting some very important aspects of Mexican culture.
Coco’s stellar voice cast paired with an enchanting and absolutely addictive soundtrack are all steps in the right direction for Pixar.
It was no doubt in anyone’s mind that any new original feature from Pixar would rake in money at the box office. However, my biggest question was would I actually care about the new movie they put out? When I saw the trailers for Coco, I really thought it looked like a mash-up of Kubo and the Two Strings and The Book of Life. About 15 minutes into the film, I was so mesmerized by what I was seeing on screen that I felt my skepticism fade away. It turns out Pixar really did their homework for this and even appointed Adrian Molina, who is of Mexican descent, as writer for the film. This decision has really made all the difference.
From the details of the marigold petal covered ofrendas (offerings) for Día de los Muertos to the scene where Miguel’s Abuelita turns her sandal into a treacherous scolding tool (Filipino mom/grandmas do this also), Coco dives into its subject matter and the risk has a super sweet pay off.
I went to the the theater twice to see Coco. Once with my mom and once with my best friend. It is such a comforting movie that you are okay with watching it again and again each time bringing someone new to experience the film for the first time. The movie’s message is sincere and one that we can all benefit from; Remember those who have paved the way for you, but don’t be afraid to carve out your own destiny. — Jessica Carr
DOUBLE FEATURE: A Cure for Wellness (2017) by Gore Verbinski // The Shape of Water (2017) by Guillermo Del Toro
As illustrated in last years “Best Blockbusters of 2016” list, what counts as a blockbuster is pretty nebulous. There are a lot of factors to consider: budget, production, content, distribution, box office, etc… After having another year to think about it, my personal definition has become something along the lines of “a movie given wide release with a focus on spectacle.” And if that will suffice, The Shape of Water and A Cure For Wellness are the most singular blockbusters of the year.
Despite being distinct from everything else released in 2017, they are sister films in many ways: both have a vintage art-deco aesthetic, a teal-green color scheme, a shared lineage of gothic supernatural fiction, protagonists with disabilities (be they temporary or permanent), strong sociopolitical undercurrents that raise suspicion about institutional power, and recurring motifs of water, sea monsters, and people in tanks.
But more importantly, they are freaking weird, and that spectacular weirdness has definitely gotten lost in the shuffle of middlebrow awards talk for The Shape of Water — a Cold War-era romance centering around the creature from the iconic Black Lagoon. Far from milquetoast Oscar-bait, this is a movie that opens with Sally Hawkins masturbating to an egg-timer, later includes a scene in which she has underwater sex with the aforementioned gill-monster in a partially-flooded bathroom, and even features a left-field musical number.
A Cure For Wellness is even stranger--it’s a conspiratorial mystery set in an ornate spa resort--and its strangeness is perhaps best crystallized by a scene in which eels are forcibly pumped directly into the stomach of an already-sickly Dane DeHaan.
Both Guillermo Del Toro and Gore Verbinski have a gonzo sensibility for genre schlock, and in a movie landscape that is becoming increasingly homogenized into Disney-fied (and Disney-owned) uniformity, I’m grateful that multiplexes still occasionally screen movies by and for weirdos. — Andrew Swafford
Logan (2017) by James Mangold
It’s easy to understand why someone would become cynical of the current superhero cycle. If it isn’t a palindrome offering from Marvel, it is a generally discombobulated effort from one of the other studios or a forgetful retread from another.
Thankfully, Logan interjected life into the genre that has become stale and redundant — offering not only a swan song for one of the longest tenured members of the genre’s society but also reminding us that these movies do have the power to say something more than just the surface level about capes and evil.
Following misanthropic Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), years removed from the heroics of the previous installments in the X-Men franchise or his self-titled spin-offs, the legendary character has become much more of an afterthought of a previous life rather than a cognoscente being in a modern society. His existence includes driving a limo and returning to his rundown, almost poetic lair where an albino mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) helps him in taking care of an even more rundown Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) — who has weathered to the point of nonexistence due to age, mental state and an unspoken tragedy that occurred in the relatively recent past.
Enter a new mutant, played by the rugged and charming Daphne Keen, who carries all the gruff and bravado of Wolverine in his prime, but in the package of a young child.
On the surface, Logan is a genre exercise we’ve seen before — the reluctant hero must help a young child back to their home while a villain attempts to thwart the plan — but the fact that it carries the qualities of a superhero movie, not to mention the fact that Jackman has been playing the character for nearly 15 years adds a level of weight unlike anything else in the superhero genre.
As Wolverine ages, so too does the genre at large, and the wear and tear of so many movies and so many stories is felt not only in the narrative of Logan but the main character of the same name. In this sense, Logan feels like something fresh and new even while it is walking back on something we’ve seen time and time again. — Zach Dennis
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) by Chad Stahelski
This came out early in 2017, and I think has gotten a little bit forgotten, especially in the wake of sub-par imitations (looking at you, Atomic Blonde!), but the follow-up to 2014’s John Wick carries the franchise forward and opens up the world in ways that actually felt earned! Not to mention, of course, how competent and confident Stahelski and Reeves are as action filmmakers.
I’m not the only one to point this out, but the John Wick franchise has roots going all the way back to silent cinema. Chapter 2 explicitly shows a clip from Buster Keaton’s The General, and the poster references Harold Lloyd (below).
Part of the joy of watching the greats of the silent era is their physicality. Not only were these men really funny as comedians, but they were also accomplished stuntmen. As a stuntman-turned-director himself, Stahelski obviously looks up to Keaton and the others, and because he puts so much care into staging and choreographing his own films (matched with Reeves’s dedication to training and doing his own stunts, too), there is a certain joy in watching it all come together and look so effortless, though perhaps not without some reservations about the level of violence and what that says.
I do think Reeves playing up the physical toll to John Wick over the course of the onslaught (also an important aspect of his performance!) is some small concession to the not-fun-and-games message that may be lacking, and I’m excited to see if Chapter 3 proves me right! — Lydia Creech
Wonder Woman (2017) by Patty Jenkins
When the aliens come and demand to see our superhero movies, we need only show them Wonder Woman. They won’t want to see a “superhero film that’s actually a political thriller” or a “superhero film that’s actually a western” or a “superhero film that’s actually a John Hughes movie” or a “superhero film that’s actually a comedy.” They’ll want to see a superhero movie, so we’ll show them Wonder Woman. It’s not about an insecure kid who’s just like us or a jerkass billionaire who’s charming despite his flaws--it’s about a super-powered hero who saves humanity because she is good and we need her help.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins sees this story as an essential modern myth and treats it with great sincerity and affection for her heroine, hitting all the familiar beats but hitting them spectacularly, imbuing each with heart and meaning to make this played-out genre speak to us again.
In her review for Cinematary, Paige Taylor gave a glowing account of the emotional tug that this movie had for her and other women in the audience seeing themselves on screen this way for the first time. She also had some quibbles, including the claim that “The ending has an almost autonomous feel, like they are just kind of going through the motions of your standard hero vs. villain final face off.” To me, the familiarity of the movie’s final showdown is important: if this is the first great female-led movie in the genre, why not make it a great genre movie? Just because these tropes have been well-trod by men, that doesn’t make them meaningless. The film tells a broad, archetypal story about why the world is evil and whether humans are worth saving; there are no such musings underneath the cacophonous din of any Avengers climax, but Wonder Woman reminded me that stories like this can resonate when handled with care.
Wonder Woman’s hero approaches each situation with clear-eyed sincerity, and its director calls for us to do the same while watching. Some might call it generic, but others might call it ideal. — Andrew Swafford
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) by Luc Besson
Mark Harris said it best, recently, about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in a tweet in which he said, “it has the visual inventiveness of ten movies and the script of one-tenth of a movie.” Harris concluded though that “in this case, an okay trade off.”
It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. After watching Valerian, a wonderful parlor game would be to find someone who could disseminate what just happened on screen in less than thirteen hours. Couple that with the utter lack of willpower in giving a damn by stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, and you’ve got one of the strangest blockbusters to be mass produced for a wide audience.
But give writer/director Luc Besson a little credit — it looks amazing. The greatest takeaway from watching Valerian is the visual inventiveness in every shot, the amount of layers added onto the façade that makes each scene more of a walking fever dream rather than yet another space opera. The end product feels like a polygomous harmony between Hayao Miyazaki, Guillermo Del Toro and the Wachowski siblings that went awry due to no one agreeing to flesh out the narrative.
It may seem counterintuitive to continue to assault the lackluster script again and again in a post that is in its essence an endorsement of the film, but my inclusion of Valerian harks back to the reason we go to see big, bombastic movies in the first place — they look cool.
Not only that, they look alive and vivid. We remember the colors, the creatures, the locations and the action moments, and that lasting impact means more than whether or not we were able to come to a narrative close in a Transformers movie.
Valerian speaks to all those levels (not to mention it stars some excellent scenes of our Lord and Savior, Rihanna). — Zach Dennis