We’re midway through 2017, and it’s been a mixed bag of a year. The awards season gifted us with some great films, but also a few surprising duds, not to mention the awards hopefuls that didn’t even get a nomination. Then the blockbuster mill lurched into motion with some mediocre (or just downright terrible) sequels, and an aborted attempt at franchise creation. In the Great Cinematic Universe War, DC dealt a crushing blow to Marvel with the belated (and quite good) feature debut of Wonder Woman, proving that they’re still in the game. Sprinkled amid all of this were priests, monsters, heroes, and little plastic people.
But what were the winners and losers of the past six months? Here are That Film Site’s five best (and worst) films of 2017 so far. Let’s start with
- Rules Don’t Apply
This biopic of Howard Hughes gestated in Warren Beatty’s mind for forty years, and it probably could have done with a few more decades. The film is unsure whether it’s a Hughes biography or a romantic comedy, and neither aspect manages to hold our attention. Perhaps at least one rule should have applied here: the one that states that your film should actually be entertaining.
The true story of Saroo Brierley is extraordinary, which makes it all the more frustrating that Lion is so underwhelming. Saroo’s adopted family (including his mentally unstable brother Mantosh, whose plight is given hardly any thought) are given short shrift as he embarks on the search for his biological family in India, a search which devolves into nothing so much as an extended advert for Google Maps. Lion was nominated for a whole host of awards, and I can’t for the life of me understand why.
- Alien: Covenant
In which Ridley Scott continues to butcher the franchise he helped create. The xenomorph is a mystery, a force of nature, and really doesn’t need an origin story. Regardless, Covenant runs with Prometheus’s hodgepodge of themes, while simultaneously retreading the same tired territory we’ve seen so many times before, and without the horrific skill Scott displayed in ‘79. Covenant is like Prometheus and Alien had a baby, and we all wish they hadn’t.
- King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
This was originally set up as an eight film series, but a big office nosedive has thankfully nipped that idea in the bud. King Arthur is loud, empty, achingly dull, and bafflingly, oppressively grey. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep at one point. Let’s hope that this is the last we hear of this particular legend.
- Transformers: The Last Knight
No one does eardrum-splitting, eye-gouging, incomprehensible mayhem quite like Michael Bay. Over the course of the previous four Transformers films, Bay has beaten us down, eroded our will to live; and now, in the fifth of these abominations, when two planets smash into each other, all we can feel is a soul-crushing numbness. This is the absolute nadir of the summer blockbuster, of cinema, of humanity. And – it literally pains me to say this – there’s going to be another one.
Enough of this negativity. Let’s move on to
- The Lego Batman Movie
At a time when it feels that animated films are either the heartfelt artistry of Pixar or the childish slapstick of everything else, The Lego Batman Movie, much like its predecessor, offers a refreshing and chaotic alternative. Will Arnett’s Batman, the breakout star of The Lego Movie, is just as self-centred and arrogant as ever, even if he does become Best At Teamwork. Kinetic and frenetic, if one line/sight gag/reference doesn’t tickle you, it doesn’t matter; something else will be along half a second later that will. But underneath the jokes and the outstanding animation, The Lego Batman Movie is an anarchic love letter to the Dark Knight’s 78 year history. Hasn’t he aged phenomenally?
- La La Land
Barring the oh so catchy “Another Day of Sun”, the songs barely register on the list of things that make La La Land so good. It’s everything else that makes Damian Chazelle’s paean to Hollywood such a joy. It’s the cinematography, the camera sweeping through traffic jams, apartments and swimming pools. It’s the eye-popping colours, evoking the Technicolor classics of yesteryear. It’s the sizzling screenplay, plumbing the likes of Casablanca for its tale of dreamers daring to dream in the modern world. It’s Gosling and Stone and their Astaire/Rogers chemistry. And, of course, it’s that ending. And what an ending! A breathless tour of all the inventiveness and magic of the Great American Musical, with a bittersweet tang that remains true to the characters. La La Land is a glorious, sun-drenched homage to the movies.
To call Moonlight the black Boyhood would be to do Barry Jenkins’ film a grave disservice. It is so much more. Three snapshots in the life a young black man growing up in poverty, Moonlight explores the intersection of race, sexuality, and masculinity. There is a quiet intensity to Moonlight which makes it impossible to look away. It is a mesmerising film. Jenkins’ unobtrusive camera offers us a glimpse into a world that could be very different from our own; but Moonlight’s triumph is how it infuses its specific times and specific places with a very human universality.
- A Monster Calls
Profound, gut wrenching honesty is a rare thing indeed in fantasy, and few are as profoundly, gut wrenchingly honest as A Monster Calls. The bulk of J. A. Bayona’s film is a sensitive character study of young Conor O’Malley, who is visited by the titular monster as his mother dies of cancer. The monster, sagely voiced by Liam Neeson, is a wonderful creation, a giant tree man who sits on roofs and pushes his head through ceilings. The monster tells Conor stories, and they are beautiful watercolour vignettes that offer glimpses into the emotional tangle of Conor’s own story. But it is the ending that blew me away. I don’t think I’ve seen a more heartbreakingly honest examination of loss and grief. Conor’s truth is my truth. A Monster Calls forged a deeply personal bond with me, and that is a rare thing indeed.
- The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s period thriller is an exquisitely carved puzzle box. The twisty, turny narrative shifts the pieces around, often accompanied by Park’s dark humour and delightful sense of irony. When the pieces are in place, the box unfolds to reveal, at its heart, a surprisingly sweet love story. The Handmaiden is about how men perceive, and underestimate, women. The female leads are more resilient and cunning than the men could ever believe. Just when the men think they have them figured out, the women turn the tables and prove that the men were wrong all along. The Handmaiden may very well be Park’s best film to date, and is certainly the best of 2017 so far.
And there you have it: That Film Site’s best and worst films of 2017 so far. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments.