So far so good! If the first half of the year is anything to go by then 2017 is shaping up to be a pretty great year for cinema. We’ve had brilliant and possibly-better-than-the-first-sequels (T2: Trainspotting, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) awesome crime capers (Baby Driver, Free Fire) and some brilliant edge-of-your-seat horrors (Get Out, Split). And because the year has been just so full of quality films I thought I’d do a list now, just over the years half way point. This list was meant to just include films released in the first half of 2017, but I’ve expanded that window a couple of weeks to the very beginning of July – I couldn’t bare not including the fantastic film that takes the number 2 spot.
So read on, and see what are my favourite films of 2017 (so far). And let me know what you think of the 2017 cinematic offerings in the comments below!
The film in fifth place on this list could’ve actually been one of many. My top four films of 2017 (so far) are pretty much certain, but after that there were any number of fantastic films that could’ve taken the number five slot (on another day it very well could’ve been Baby Driver). But in the end the number 5 slot went to Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s fantastically eclectic tale of a little girl and her genetically modified super-pig. Bong Joon-ho has been making waves for a while now but it was only with his brilliant ‘The Raid on a train’ social satire/action flick Snowpiercer that I really started taking notice. Okja is no less cynical towards humanity than Snowpiercer, replacing a commentary on class divides with one on capitalism. But it’s nowhere as bleak as Snowpiercer, or at least most of the time it’s not. There is a sequence involving Okja being forced into breeding; one of the more horrific scenes I’ve watched this year. Not to mention the emotional slaughter house climax, which will have even the most ardent carnivore looking at their Big Mac a little differently in the future. It doesn’t push a vegetarian agenda either, as some critics claimed. Rather it asks us to consider what exactly it is we are funding when we buy the low-grade processed meat products that we all love so much.
Underneath the cynical commentary on capitalism though, Okja is an incredibly heart warming tale of love and the bond people have with their animals. Main character Mija, the 13 year old Seo-Hyun Ahn, is fantastic and instantly likeable. Maybe it’s her quest to rescue her best and only friend that endears the audience to her so much, but I think it might have more to do with the childlike view in which we see the other characters. Tilda Swinton plays Lucy and Nancy Mirando, the two heads of the giant multinational conglomerate The Mirando Corporation. Lucy is eccentric while Nancy is cruel and both are wonderfully off-putting (think Swinton’s Minister Mason in Snowpiercer). The meat is murder activists going against the corporation are played by a host of entertaining young actors, such as Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, and Lily Collins. They’re shown in a better light than Swinton and her cronies but they still come off as strange to the young Mija. Dano is especially fun as the overly serious, self-righteous leader of the group. The person you’re going to remember most though, except for the stunningly rendered Okja, is Jake Gyllenhall as TV wildlife personality Johnny Wilcox. I’m still not sure if he’s brilliant or terrible but make no mistake; Gyllenhall goes full Cage and it is glorious. If the promise of a funny, heart warming, and beautifully directed film from a director at the top of his game doesn’t get you interested in Okja, then watch just to see whatever the hell Gyllenhall is doing.
4. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is DC’s best movie since Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise. And I know it’s not a popular idea to even suggest, but Wonder Woman is perhaps even better than Nolan’s opus The Dark Knight (although whether it’s better than Batman Begins is still up for discussion). That’s not really saying much I suppose, all we’ve had in the interim is great-but-not-as-good The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, and the underrated but still problematic Batman v Superman. And the less said about Suicide Squad the better. But make no mistake; Wonder Woman is the DCEU’s first uniquivical triumph. As I said in my review of Patty Jenkins’ superhero film back in June, in the current superhero cinema landscape “Wonder Woman is a breath of fresh air in almost every way.” Nolan’s Batman films reinvented the genre sure, but except for the glorious Batman Begins they were hardly proper comic book movies. The Dark Knight was just Heat with capes. Nolan made Batman a human with human problems in a shockingly real world, which was fantastic and ground-breaking at the time. But then came the imitators, and what works for Batman doesn’t work for, say, Superman (Man of Steel) or The Fantastic Four (Fant4stic). Jenkins rejects this, making Diana Prince every bit as super as she is in the comic books – and Wonder Woman is all the better for it.
The central performance by Gal Gadot is fantastic and instantly erases any doubts fans may have had towards her casting. I wrote in my review that “Gadot more than brings the required nativity, headstrongness, and (most importantly) badassery to play Wonder Woman.” It’s a performance as perfect as Chris Evans as Captain America or Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and I hope to God that Gadot continues in the role for as long as humanly possible. The supporting cast is equally impressive also, being fleshed out beyond what most superhero movies attempt. Her love interest is Chris Pine’s Steve and their relationship harks back to the sweet and witty pairings of the golden age of Hollywood cinema. The rest of the cast (which includes such famous faces as Danny Huston, Robin Wright, Connie Nielson, Ewen Bremner, Elena Anaya, and Saïd Taghmaoui) are all wonderful (ha) too, all getting moments to shine without any feeling shoehorned in. And while it should go without saying, it’s worth noting that the film proved all those people wrong who thought a female led superhero blockbuster couldn’t match it’s male counterparts. Hell, Wonder Woman’s no-man’s land scene alone blows all of the years other superhero movies out of the water. I don’t know how Patty Jenkins is going to follow it up in the sequel, but with Gal Gadot returning plus rumours of a Cold War setting, I can’t wait to see her try.
3. John Wick: Chapter 2
If you’re like me, and your definition of perfection is watching Keanu Reeves violently murder wave after wave of faceless goons, then John Wick: Chapter 2 is – without a doubt – a perfect film. Throughout it’s 2 hour running time Keanu Reeve’s John Wick guns down, stabs, and runs over a total of 128 people. Losing one half of John Wick’s directing team (it’s just Chad Stahelski this time around) doesn’t seem to have affected the sequel – it’s somehow even crazier than the first one. When the final credits roll the total body count for the series has reached a glorious 205. Stahelski takes what made the first film such a hit (bone crunching action, gallows humour, and unexpectedly brilliant world-building) and amplifies it up to 11. John Wick Chapter 2 is the best action movie of the year by far, and one of the best in recent memory. Most of this rests squarely at the feet of stuntman turned director Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves. As I wrote in my review of the film back in February; “the action direction and choreography is amazing; it’s leagues above what anyone else in US cinema is doing.”
The film’s standout scene sees John pursued through Roman catacombs by the henchmen of the mob boss he was sent to kill. Keanu Reeves’ John cuts through swathes of goons and ends it with a brutal fight against surprising action star, Common. Reeves kicks more ass than he did nearly two decades ago in The Matrix, despite being in his 50’s. Stahelski shoots the action beautifully capturing every punch and gunshot wound. His frequent use of long takes ensures we actually see it’s Reeves beating the shit out of these bad guys. The supporting cast in the ever expanding world of John Wick continues to delight. Fresh from the first film we have appearances from awesome actors like Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Lance Reddick. As in the first film their appearances don’t outstay their welcome but are enough to add to the larger world of Wick. Their specific roles aren’t overtly explained to us but we see enough of them to realise there is a much wider world of assassins out there. A welcome addition this time around is Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne. Hamming it up as the leader of an underground homeless crime network he’s a delight as always. By the time he appears in the film, it’s running pretty low on plot. That isn’t an issue in the slightest though as it allows the rest of the film to be straight up, balls to the wall action. Make sure you turn it up loud – John Wick 2 is definitely not to be missed.
2. War for the Planet of the Apes
There’s a misconception that summer blockbusters seasons are full of films as ugly and mindless as the films of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. This belief has been stupid for quite a few years to be honest, and even the worst summer seasons have at least a few gems that shine through. But with 2017 this belief couldn’t have been more wrong. War for the Planet of the Apes is the film you can show people when they complain about blockbusters, or say they only watch films released by A24. I’ve seen quite a few fantastic arthouse films this year but none have matched War for the Planet of the Apes for well crafted characters and heart achingly real emotions. And all this in a blockbuster about talking CGI monkeys. It’s shockingly good honestly, even after the superb Dawn of the Planet of the Apes set expectations ridiculously high. War continues story set out by director Matt Reeves in Dawn of the Planet of the Ape (and to a lesser extent, Rupert Wyatt’s fantastic Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Andy Serkis’ head-ape Caesar is reluctantly leading the monkey resistance against the crazy ‘Colonel’ (a delightfully crazy Woody Harrelson) and his soldiers. Despite this though, War isn’t your typical ‘war’ film. As I said in my review of the film in July, “War for the Planet of the Apes is much much more than just an action spectacle. It’s part character study, part concentration camp drama, and part examination on the effects of war and violence upon humanity. But y’know… with monkeys.”
War for the Planet of the Apes is undoubtedly Andy Serkis’ film. As Caesar he owns the screen every time he’s on it, which is pretty much the entire runtime. And despite Caesar being 100% computer generated Serkis’ mannerisms and ticks shine through. The argument against actors being celebrated at award shows for portraying CG characters is that there is no way of knowing whether an impressive performance is down to the actor or the special effects team. But with Caesar you can tell the genuine emotion is coming purely from Serkis. It’s the same for most of the apes, especially the fantastic new addition to the cast; Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape (who brings some levity to the film when it needs it most). That’s not to say the special effects team don’t deserve awards though, in fact their rendering of these apes is undoubtedly the greatest special effect of the year, perhaps even of all time. War of the Planet of the Apes is a serious take on talking monkeys. In other hands (*cough* Tim Burton *cough*) it would have spectacularly failed. But in the hands of Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis, and a talented team of special effects wizards, it’s one of the best films of the year and a fitting end to a fantastic series.
Like many other people born in the early nineties, the X-Men is a gigantic part of my life. Before Iron Man kicked off the MCU it was the X-Men universe that got me interested in superheroes. From the awesome cartoons, the (mostly) fantastic movies, not to mention the comics (don’t judge me but I’m still a big fan of Mark Miller’s Ultimate X-Men run). Hell, the money put into my X-Men figure collection probably kept quite a few people employed. I remember being 8 or 9 years old and watching X-Men the day before going to the cinema to watch X-Men 2. There was a lot to love in Bryan Singer’s fantastic superhero adventure but one character stood out above all the rest; Wolverine. Even in the questionable X-Men: The Last Stand and awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was still awesome. Following a few spotty years after the disastrous X-Men Origins, directer of the magnificent 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold, returned Wolverine to the big leagues with his underrated Japan set adventure The Wolverine. From this you can see the harder direction Mangold and Jackman were taking the character, which is especially evident if you’ve seen the R rated cut of the film (which, as well as increased gore and f-bombs, is worth it for the extended ninja fight sequence). And after that film was a modest success Mangold and Jackman returned one last time, to make the Wolverine film X-Men fans have always assumed would never get made; Logan.
“But in Logan there are no miraculous last minute saves. Charles Xavier isn’t magically resurrected into a different body after being vaporised; he just bleeds to death, confused and scared.”
To get the most out of the film you really have to be a fan of the previous X-Men films. I mean, you could watch Logan without seeing any of them and you’d still probably recognise how brilliant it is, but if you’ve seen most of The Wolverine’s previous adventures then his journey through Logan means so much more. The whole film is about the toll a person’s past takes upon them and about how old age eventually catches up to us all. Having seen Logan’s youthful start in X-Men 17 years ago intensifies this. And like the audience, the films content has grown more mature too. The violence is ferocious and there’s enough swearing to make up for the 17 years of PG-13 language control, but the film uses the certificate in even darker ways. Even in the gloomiest and most pessimistic X-Men film (arguably X-Men: The Last Stand) there was always hope. Good always won out and there was always a sliver of optimism before the credits rolled. But in Logan there are no miraculous last minute saves. Charles Xavier isn’t magically resurrected into a different body after being killed, à la The Last Stand; he just bleeds to death, confused and scared. The film’s nihilism is clearest in scenes with the friendly Munson family. After taking in Logan, Laura, and Charles, the Munsons treat the group to a meal and a place to stay. Just for a moment, Logan realises that perhaps he could lead a different life, one where they can settle down and be a sort of family. But Logan’s reality soon catches up to this idyllic family life, and without them even knowing why, the Munson’s are all slaughtered by Logan’s clone. To make it even worse they all die thinking it was Logan who attacked them. It’s the sort of heavy stuff that wouldn’t have happened in the Bryan Singer era, that wouldn’t even have fit into the world he created, but Mangold executes it brilliantly.
There have been a ton of fantastic superhero films this year but none will stick with you for as long as Logan. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful end to a fantastic character that transcends the superhero movie genre. Like losing an old friend, it’s sad to see the end of a character that’s been a huge part of the many peoples lives for almost 2 decades. But as Jack said in his review of the film earlier this year; “if he has to go, I can’t possibly think of a higher note to go out on than with the superb Logan.”