From superheroes to the supernatural, this year’s most imaginary films gave us sea creatures, celestial comedy, and the sunken place.
This year at the movies, we saw many surprises with the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Superhero pictures collectively hit a new peak while becoming both more dramatic and more comedic than ever before. Ghost stories reached new heights, as well. Fairy tales fucked. A lot. And the future looked more dazzling and detached than we could have possibly hoped for, or feared.
Below is my annual personal ranking of the best in sci-fi and fantasy cinema. Sadly, no animated features made the cut this time around (Coco came close). Happily, a DC superhero movie did for the first time in four years, and the X-Men franchise cracked the top 10 for once, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe kept to the back half despite delivering some of its best films yet (2017 was that good a year for the genre!). As for my number one pick, apparently, it’s debatable whether it actually qualifies. So let’s discuss…
17. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Luc Besson delivers another stunning spectacle following his previous effort, Lucy (my 14th favorite of 2014), and it is a similarly brilliant movie in the visual sense, not so much in terms of intelligence. Not that this pulpy adaptation of a 1960s French comic book series is dumb, just kind of simple. Much of the criticism with the flashy and crowded space adventure has had to do with it not having a great story, but the plot is just fine. It’s the thin characters and particularly the two leads (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as galactic heroes Valerian and Laureline) that keep it from truly shining. Otherwise, it’s a wonder of world building and a mesmerizing piece of entertainment.
15 & 16. The Lure and The Shape of Water
This year wasn’t exactly unique for seeing human characters falling for aquatic creatures — last year’s best included The Mermaid — but two movies came out in the US in 2017 that equally yet dissimilarly present amazing fairy tales involving lovers from the sea. Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War-set The Shape of Things delivers a fish man to the heart and the loins of a mute cleaning lady, and it’s a gorgeously put-together, if emotionally flat, effort.
Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, originally released in its native Poland two years ago, is a darkly comedic horror musical fantasy about a pair of vampiric mermaid sisters who become nightclub performers. Both movies are enchanting visual delights and each has an unexpected amount of sex and gore, offering adult fans of Hans Christian Andersen something ahead of the nostalgic pleasures that will arrive with Disney’s upcoming live-action Little Mermaid remake.
13 & 14. Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The first Guardians of the Galaxy took the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the cosmic corners of the Avengers-centered superhero property while also taking the franchise to new heights of hilarity. Its sequel continues the comedic focus with a lot more memorable moments, most of them involving the adorable but not too precious Baby Groot. Vol. 2 is not quite as fresh and satisfying as the original, however, especially for how it manages to borrow more from The Empire Strikes Back than does the latest mid-trilogy Star Wars episode.
Arriving later in the year, the third “solo” Thor movie also piggybacked off the success of the first Guardians by similarly going more cosmic and comic. It is plenty funny, albeit sometimes delving too much into self-parody, but its characters and story are just superficially entertaining, which is all it needs to be.
12. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Marvel’s other theatrical release this year (not counting IMAX showings of TV pilots) was the first “solo” Spider-Man effort to be part of the MCU, and it’s also arguably the best of the web-slinging superhero’s movies yet. Starring the immensely likable Tom Holland as a teenage Peter Parker, who is trying to be and do more than he’s capable of even for a fantastically enhanced genius, Homecoming is a terrific coming-of-age comedy masquerading as your typical comic book blockbuster. For me, it was one of the greatest surprises of the year to enjoy this movie as much as I did.
11. Wonder Woman
After disappointing with both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the “DC Extended Universe” made a major comeback (I like Man of Steel) with this effort that’s also a breakthrough for female superhero movies. Working from a script by Allan Heinberg, director Patty Jenkins and the radiant Gal Gadot not only gave us an empowering Wonder Woman movie that kicks lots of ass, but this picture, set during World War I and involving the UK suffragette movement as a backdrop, has a surprising amount of substance. Wonder Woman is smart, classy, and a lot of fun.
9 & 10. Blade Runner 2049 and Marjorie Prime
These two movies both deal heavily with holographic AI companions but otherwise, they couldn’t be more different. Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime is a close-quarters character study that feels like an episode of Black Mirror reworked for feature length. Lois Smith deservedly receives her brightest spotlight in decades as a woman who is sort of rejoined by her late husband (Jon Hamm) in digital 3D form — his younger self is projected into her living room as something that’s part living portrait, part Amazon Alexa. Also starring Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, the movie is both moving and cerebral in its exploration of memory, identity, and love.
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner is also a character-driven film but additionally has a ton of eye candy, giving us some of the most unforgettable set pieces in cinema this year, even if much of it is too beautiful. While not nearly as deep as the original (or Marjorie Prime), through its combination of Roger Deakins’s visuals and the Vangelis-esque score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, Blade Runner 2049 is an absolutely sensational experience.
Sometimes there’s one critic who says the most perfect thing about a movie, so I’ll concur with David Ehrlich’s description of Thelma as being “like an adaptation of ‘Carrie’ as directed by Ingmar Bergman.” Actually helmed by Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st), this Norwegian supernatural thriller follows the title character as she goes off to college and, the further she strays from her strict religious principles — drinking alcohol, falling for a female classmate — the more she suffers from unexplainable seizures and struggles with increasingly dangerous telekinetic powers. The premise sounds more high-concept on paper than it plays out in the film, which also reminds me of Let the Right One In but not nearly as explicit as an exercise in genre. If I’d have qualified mother! for this list (it’s too much of an allegory to even accept it as any sort of grounded story of fantasy), there’d be a pairing here with that.
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Unintentionally, for the third year in a row, a Star Wars movie holds the seventh-best slot. This time it should be noted that there was greater competition keeping it so low because, in spite of it having the same placement, The Last Jedi is the best Disney-era installment yet and in some ways is the greatest movie of the franchise since the original. Writer-director Rian Johnson packs a lot in, all for thematic purpose and character development above any narrative push for the series, and he exhibits a comprehensive grasp of everything that Star Wars means, from its stories to its merchandising to its parodies, and he honors it all on screen. Nothing matters and everything matters in this rare thought-provoking episode of the iconic space opera saga.
After 17 years, Hugh Jackman finally got to truly act in his ninth and supposedly final X-Men movie appearance as Logan, aka Wolverine, and what a performance to go out with (a dual performance at that). This is the character we all expected when we fan-cast Clint Eastwood in the role during the early years of internet user groups. But with that light charm and hint of a golden heart that Jackman has infused in him over almost two decades. It’s the best superhero movie performance since Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight. Patrick Stewart isn’t too shabby either, delivering extraordinary work in an otherwise steadily perfect portrayal of Professor X. Then there’s newcomer Dafne Keen — I don’t like to praise youth performances too much but hers is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, at least in this kind of film. And yes, there’s lots more to love about Logan than just the acting but we need move on to the top five already.
4 & 5. War for the Planet of the Apes and Okja
How dare the corrupt humans of the not-so-distant future corral genetically modified animals into concentration camp-like pens as if they’re just beasts without intelligence or feelings. Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is the story of a girl and her GMO super pig, not unlike how E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about a boy and his alien. I reference that 35-year old sci-fi classic not just because in both stories the kid has to rescue their strange friend, but because the title creature of this new movie is possibly the most empathically real-seeming, artificially constructed non-human screen character since E.T. Okja is also a humorously heavy-handed message movie with wonderfully over-the-top performances by Tilda Swinton (in her second set of dual-character sister roles in two years) and Jake Gyllenhaal.
War for the Planet of the Apes, the third and best of the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, also has us believing we’re truly watching real animal characters on screen, thanks to the increasingly impressive performance capture work by Andy Serkis and others. Woody Harrelson joins the unparalleled series as a corrupt colonel, but as great as he is, these movies’ humans are never as captivating as the non-humans. Thanks to an epic score from Michael Giacchino and patient pacing from director Matt Reeves, the sequel plays like a classic war or Western film that just happens to be populated with a cast of apes created using the greatest movie magic ever conjured.
2 & 3. A Ghost Story and Personal Shopper
The ghost story is reinvented in these two small films with big ideas, one of which stars Kristen Stewart as an American woman in Paris working a miserable job as a personal shopper for a celebrity while also waiting to make contact with the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother. The other stars Casey Affleck as a man who dies and — as a ghost depicted as a sheet with eye holes — continues to inhabit the house he had lived in with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), through a perpetual cycle of time. These films make a particularly complimentary double feature because one is a character piece focused on the living while the other is focused on the dead, but both protagonists are just trying to communicate with a loved one on the other side.
Each has moments of terror, yet neither is much of a horror movie. They’re also both emotional yet lack dramatic punch. They’re clever but are not very thought-provoking. They invite the viewer to go along with their characters in their time of grieving and experience the eternal or seemingly eternal sense of unknowing and longing and emptiness. Occasionally dishes or glasses are levitated and then smashed to the ground. Personal Shopper features a vomiting poltergeist. A Ghost Story showcases a prognosticating Will Oldham. They both ultimately haunt us in an affecting way that makes them stick with you a long while.
1. Get Out
Jordan Peele’s tremendous feature directorial debut belongs at the top of a lot of lists, including those focused on the best horror and best comedy and best movies overall of 2017. There hasn’t been a lot of discussion, however, regarding Get Out as a work of sci-fi and/or fantasy. Perhaps because those genres don’t really surface until late in the game and so the classification is sort of a spoiler. At its climax is the revelation that Daniel Kaluuya’s character, who senses something is not quite right when he travels to meet his girlfriend’s parents, has been selected for a brain transplant procedure similar to one at the core of Being John Malkovich. And as sci-fi does best, the movie uses such far-out ideas to represent very commonplace social issues, here pertaining to race and white liberalism. And as cinema does best, it broadly but pointedly goes above and beyond that and any other simple genre classification to entertain and enlighten on many levels.