A Few of My Favorite Things, 2017 Edition
The second-worst year on record still left a lot of good in its wake
2016 was, unquestionably, the worst year I’ve ever experienced in my now-35 years on this planet. 2017 managed to best that low, low bar, but in addition to not sucking quite as much as its predecessor, it managed to have several things to actually commend it. In an effort to combat the crushing, omnipresent negativity of the day, here are several of my favorite works of art from our last go around the sun. Note: These are in no particular order.
I should note, this entire section comes with an enormous asterisk. A new film from my favorite director, one that’s garnering him possibly the best reviews and the most awards of his entire career to date, was released in 2017, but due to the cruelties of the staggered release schedule, it has yet to appear in my area. That’s not a guarantee that I’ll love it, mind, but there’s a fair likelihood. If so, expect an update.
Blade Runner 2049 — This is one to which I took a while to warm. Denis Villenueve’s 35-years-later follow-up to one of the greatest science fiction films of all time initially left me a bit cold, though ironically for reasons opposite of what I expected. It’s no secret that Harrison Ford is in the movie, reprising his role from the original as Rick Deckard, onetime blade runner. The film, however, did such a good job of building a new world (it’s still difficult for me to think of it as a Blade Runner film per se) and investing me in a new crop of characters that when Deckard finally shows up, it’s a letdown, as the film feels as though it bends over backward to prostrate itself at Ford’s feet. A second viewing ameliorated some of this concern (I still feel the film does it, but it doesn’t bother me quite as much now that I’m prepared), but it feels a waste of such a fresh start. Cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in some career-best work, the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer is lovely and evocative, and Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright and even Jared Leto bring their A-game. It’s not quite the film I want, but it’s a fascinating, striking, intelligent science fiction film of the type we rarely see nowadays, and that alone is reason to root for it. The fact that it’s quite good is icing on the cake.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi — My favorite film of the year is also (supposedly) one of the most divisive…though I have to admit I believe the number of complainers is smaller than they like to claim. Regardless, director Rian Johnson’s installment was the first in more than thirty years to feel dangerous, thrilling and, most of all, alive, taking risks, jettisoning J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” bullshit and cutting through the spectacle to reveal the beautifully human heart of the whole enterprise.
It — Stephen King’s most famous novel received a new adaptation this year, leaving poor Bill Skarsgard to follow in the clown shoes of the legendary Tim Curry as the demonic entity known as It (Pennywise, if you’re nasty). Luckily, director Andy Muschietti chose well, and Skarsgard left his own stamp on one of the most famous horror villains of all time. Likewise, Muschietti put the humor and heart of the book at the fore with a charming, winning cast of Losers, never allowing the cosmic terror of an inhuman monster who feeds on fear to eclipse the other, all-too-human horrors of growing up. The film, which smashed box office records for both horror and R-rated films, is part one; while it’s unknown exactly how part two will shake out, this is a winning, crowd-pleasing adaptation that did King’s magnum opus justice.
Gerald’s Game — 2017 was the year that Stephen King adaptations made a triumphant return, after being consigned to low-budget dreck (or larger adaptations that still failed creatively) for what seemed like decades. While It got (deservedly) the lion’s share of the love, Netflix released a smaller, more intimate film of one of King’s most infamous novels. The plot is lurid and fiendishly compelling: A married couple take off to a remote cabin for a weekend of passion, only to have the husband die of a heart attack after handcuffing his wife to the bed. What follows is a grueling tale as Jessie (a never-better Carla Gugino) attempts to survive dehydration and starvation, wild animals, and her own growing insanity, and somehow escape. Horror maestro Mike Flanagan manages the near-impossible feat of adapting the novel, with Gugino and Bruce Greenwood turning in stellar performances and committing to film one of the most grueling scenes in recent memory. While The Dark Tower fell, It and this film managed to still make 2017 one of the best years ever for King fans.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Superhero movies have been getting an unfortunate amount of criticism lately, but this is still their golden age…and films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 show why. Marvel’s multiple films per year can indeed come across as being cookie-cutter, but rarely do you have a big-budget franchise film as idiosyncratic as this, not only featuring a cast of criminals but also a massive amount of heart, and a climactic punch-out between the hero and his father, a literal planet, to the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is the exact flavor of insanity I want out of my superhero movies.
Thor: Ragnarok — Director Taika Waititi seemed an…interesting…choice to direct the third in Marvel’s series of Thor films, with its world-ending promise and lackluster previous entries. But the idiosyncratic Kiwi brought it, giving Ragnarok an ’80s sci-fi comedy spin that played to star Chris Hemsworth’s natural comedic talents and finally gave the series an identity. The whole enterprise is hilarious from beginning to end, and features a personal touch that Marvel’s factory line tends to overlook. Big, bold and beautiful, this is action-comedy that would simultaneously look great airbrushed on the side of a van and make Jack “The King” Kirby proud.
Coco — Pixar’s output has been hit-or-miss lately, but directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina return the studio to fighting form with Coco, a visually-stunning heartwarmer at once familiar and unique. Putting Mexico’s Dia de Muertos celebration at the fore could have come across as either pandering or just a reskinned version of the normal Pixar formula, but it’s treated with reverence and respect, while telling a universal story of love, loss and remembrance. Its twists may be a little too telegraphed but the journey is the thing, and by the time of the final performance of “Remember Me” comes, you’ll still be sobbing.
Kong: Skull Island — Who knew that crossing King Kong with Apocalypse Now would be a winning proposition? Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, I suppose. The second entry in Legendary Films’ “Monsterverse” (following on the heels of Gareth Evans’ lackluster Godzilla reboot) featured spectacular visuals, endless riffs on classic films and a legitimately great supporting performance by John C. Reilly.
Wonder Woman — The DCEU had its share of stinkers (all of them, in fact), until director Patty Jenkins’ breath of fresh air emerged from the trenches and took the crown. Gal Gadot embodied Diana of Themiscyra in a way that only Marvel casting had accomplished (which is to say, definitively), and her warm, caring presence suffused every frame of this World War I-set action spectacular. DC has yet to equal this accomplishment (Justice League, which released later in the year and was better than every other DC film, still couldn’t touch it) but Wonder Woman was a throwback to classic films about love, sacrifice and honor, and upheld those values as well as its predecessors. The fact that it did so in 2017 made it feel like a breath of fresh air; the fact that it did so being led by women was a revelation for millions.
Twin Peaks: The Return — David Lynch’s unclassifiable series returned, true to its word, a quarter-century after it left. Showtime granted Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost a whopping eighteen hours to tell their story, and the result was…well, as Twin Peaks-y as you could want. Frustrating, hilarious, gripping, incomprehensible, horrific and, yes, brilliant — this is not only Peak TV but also Peak Lynch: a hodgepodge of the director’s quirks, dalliances, distractions and dreamlike storytelling that remained as fascinating as it did 25 years ago.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Season three of creator Rachel Bloom’s comedy-drama-musical continued its tightrope walk and managed not only to stay upright, but added a huge weight in the form of addressing main character Rebecca Bunch’s mental illness unflinchingly. Achingly sad, brilliantly funny and possessed of enough great music to fill a (filthy, hilarious) songbook, no other series tackles as much and succeeds as much as this scrappy little show.
Riverdale — This should not work. On paper, it sounds like one of the most ridiculous ideas ever: Archie meets Twin Peaks. And yet, the show worked like gangbusters, despite (or perhaps because of) sexy Archie, culturally-aware teenagers, a dozen potboilers’ worth of mystery plotting and a ton of atmosphere. Beautifully shot, well-acted and compulsively watchable, Riverdale was one of the biggest and best surprises of the year.
Stranger Things 2 — Netflix’s sleeper hit returned, this time set in 1984 and continuing the adventures of Will, freshly back from the nightmarish Upside-Down, and his friends, still mourning the loss of psychic test subject Eleven. Despite a misstep as the show tried to branch out and give Eleven (sorry not sorry, “Jane”) her own standalone plot, the Duffer Brothers’ paean to the ‘80s added elements of Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Aliens into their winning mix, while retaining the humor and heart that made the first season such a phenomenon. Decry the nostalgia boom all you like; when the remixes are this good, who the hell cares?
Doctor Who — 2017 saw the clock chime for Twelve, as Peter Capaldi’s instantly-classic turn as the traveling Time Lord drew to a close. But before that, we got one final season with this aging rock-star alien, as he settled in to safeguard his arch-nemesis and picked up an instantly charming new companion along the way. Next year will bring a new Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, the first woman ever cast in the role) as well as a new showrunner (Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, taking the reins from Steven Moffat). No matter what the future holds, however, the show went out on a high note: Capaldi was a Doctor for the ages.
Rick and Morty — Fans didn’t deserve the long-awaited third season of Adult Swim’s dark, brilliant animated series about a sociopathic, spacefaring genius and his sad-sack grandson/guinea pig. Look to the embarrassing debacle surrounding McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce release, or the litany of misogynistic abuse heaped on the newly co-ed writers’ room for the show for proof. But creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are kind, and gifted the universe with the best season yet, somehow finding the heart beating beneath “the darkest season of adventures yet”, including such highlights as Pickle Rick, a kaiju-sized skinless Summer and, in an out-of-left-field turn, a sojourn to the Citidel of Ricks that resulted in one of the finest scripts ever written. Long live Rick and Morty; may its fans mature before it returns.
Legion — This came out of nowhere: an X-Men-less X-Men series about a peripheral character that sort of vaguely fits into Fox’s X-universe, created by Fargo’s Noah Hawley and starring Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza in her most astounding performance to date. Like Bryan Fuller’s recent forays, it took art-house cinema and merged it with premium-cable prestige to create a stunningly original tale of mental illness.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — The third season of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock follow-up was a bit more uneven than the previous ones, but there were enough amazing highlights (such as Titus going full “Lemonade”) and gut-busting jokes that the series still remains one of the best comedies around.
American Gods — Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left the show abruptly after the first season, reportedly due to budgetary disagreements with Starz, and now the legendary Gillian Anderson says that without them, she’s gone too (and Kristen Chenoweth may follow). What that means for the future of the sprawling adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel remains to be seen, but at least we were treated to one more season’s worth of insanity from the brilliant, twisted mind behind Hannibal.
Super Mario Odyssey — It’s-a Mario, back in the 3D space after years of 2D throwbacks. This game, an update to the boisterous, groundbreaking Super Mario 64, managed to be the most polished, most clever, most charming Mario game ever made. Its new mechanic, “capturing” via a ghost-possessed hat, is so natural that it feels as though it’s been part of Mario’s arsenal since the NES days. The entire time I played this, I was constantly amazed by the thought and sheer love poured into the creation of this thing. This is the first of Nintendo’s 1–2 punch (not to be confused with 1–2-Switch or Arms) that led to the best first-year lineup of a game system in generations.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — “System sellers” are still crucial in an ideological sense, but more and more major titles have moved to being multi-platform, outside of a few hangers-on like Halo for Microsoft and God of War for PlayStation. But Nintendo’s first-party IPs stand alone, and Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest video games ever made. Between this and the next entry, I daresay no other new console has ever had such a phenomenal launch year.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle — Ah, Rabbids. I had blissfully forgotten that you were a thing. When news broke that the king of video gaming, Mario, was going to star in a game with Rayman’s leftovers, no one expected anything but a cash grab of the most questionable logic. But then something strange happened: the game was great. This inexplicable mixture of the Mushroom Kingdom, Ubisoft’s mentally-deranged proto-Minions and X-COM tactics-driven gameplay coalesced into a strange, wonderful game that somehow merged the best of all worlds. The end result had a fresh take on Mario, while maintaining the polish of Nintendo’s first-party games and channeling the charm of Shigeru Miyamoto’s iconic creation into the Rabbids even made them a blast. Speaking of Miyamoto-san, he was the impetus for a wonderful moment at last year’s E3, where his praise of the game brought its creative director to tears.
Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon — The last hurrah of the venerable Pokemon franchise on the aging 3DS system (the next mainline game is expected to be released on the Switch, finally jumping the series into the console arena after 20-plus years of existing solely on handhelds), Game Freak decided to go out on top, taking what was already one of the series’ best generations and polishing it until it glows. Pokemon Sun and Moon introduced a plethora of new mechanics and concepts into the Pokemon world, and US/UM pushes it even further, refining the experience until it’s the definitive expression of the concept. Fantastic graphics, joyous gameplay and one of the best-designed generations of new creatures to catch, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are going to be hard to eclipse (sorry not sorry).
Injustice 2 — This is a game series in which Superman is tricked into killing Lois Lane and his unborn child by the Joker whom he then murders, and goes on to establish an oppressive, fascistic rule across the globe, and it’s still somehow less dark, depressing and nihilistic than Zack Snyder’s take on DC’s venerable superheroes. It helps that developer NetherRealm Studios (creators of the Mortal Kombat line) actually understand the characters, unlike Snyder’s gun-obsessed Batman and mopey Superman. I’m not much for fighting games, but NetherRealm has managed to merge a sterling narrative with its combat tree system. It doesn’t hurt that you also get to play superhero dress-up; each of the playable characters has five different armor slots (head, arms, torso, legs and accessory) so that you can craft your very own unique look for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the like. The roster is deep and varied, the writing and vocal performances (including the one true Batman, Kevin Conroy) are great, and the beautiful animation bursts with character (it’s seriously the best facial animation I’ve ever seen in a game). Ignore the random loot (Martha boxes!) and dig in to fantastically fun trip through one of the best DC games of all time.