Jacksonville, FL – Two things stood out to me while assembling my list of the year’s top movies. First, it’s remarkable how many science fiction and horror movies I watched this year. Practically every film I liked presented a dystopian vision of the future (or past) or a horrifying situation rooted in the present. No doubt that’s a sign of the times. Between the Trump presidency and the rise of the far right around the world, reality often seems more dystopian and terrifying than anything you’d see at the theater.
Second, I think I saw a record low number of dramas and traditional ‘Oscar-bait’ films. All this goes to say is that there were plenty of terrific films I didn’t get around to seeing in 2017, and I’d encourage you to post your favorites in the comments section.
Get Me Roger Stone – A fascinating and weirdly cathartic look at one of the right-wing political operatives behind Trump’s style of politics. Roger Stone’s role in the 2016 election is exaggerated – no doubt a product of his shameless self-promotion – but this Netflix documentary captures the nefarious strain of right-wing politics that runs in a straight line from Nixon through Reagan and into Trump, reminding us this era we live in didn’t start with Pepe memes or inflammatory tweets.
Kong: Skull Island – For all of the crappy reboots that Hollywood churned out over the last decade in search of profit, this was genuinely enjoyable. Set at the tail end of the U.S. war on Vietnam, Skull Island reimagines a washed-up franchise as a statement about the insane brutality of imperialism – made possible by a terrific over-the-top performance by Samuel L. Jackson.
It – I saw It in a neighborhood Florida theater just hours before Hurricane Irma – then a category 5 storm – made landfall. I’m sure this magnified the feeling of dread already present in Stephen King’s tale of killer clowns, which I never found that scary on its own. But It works on another level as a Stranger Things-style coming of age story about conquering fear through solidarity and friendship.
Split – To put it mildly, M Night Shyamalan’s movies have a mixed record. Split ranks up there with his best work, introducing us to a truly menacing villain and providing two jaw-dropping plot twists. It’s especially rewarding for fans of Unbreakable, M Night’s gritty take on comic book stories from the early 2000s.
Logan – The only traditional superhero movie worth a damn in 2017. In a market oversaturated with mindless blockbuster action movies – from the pro-World War I revisionism of Wonder Woman to Marvel and D.C.’s never-ending glorification of billionaires – Logan stands out as a surprisingly meditative and nuanced entry into the X-Men series. Released amid Trump’s refugee ban and brutal crackdown on immigrant families, the image of Wolverine helping a Mexican and Central American kids across the border to find shelter couldn’t be more welcome.
It Comes at Night – File under “Movies with deceptive trailers.” This slow-burn horror story looked like another artsy zombie flick. Instead we got a paranoid survivalist thriller with a lot to say about Trump’s refugee ban and the rise of xenophobia in the U.S. Even folks who don’t like scary movies can enjoy It Comes at Night, which is more eerie than terrifying. That said, I’d make sure to watch it with a couple of people. It’s the kind of movie you’ll want to talk about as soon as it ends – and probably watch again.
The Florida Project – There’s something deeply disturbing about the extreme poverty that surrounds Walt Disney World’s theme parks and luxury resorts in Orlando, Florida. That’s the subject of The Florida Project, a documentary-style look at the struggles of poor and working-class families in central Florida. Set in the cheap motels and poor neighborhoods around Disney and told from the perspective of children, it’s one of the year’s most visually striking and unsettling films – especially for an Orlando native like me.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – Following in the vein of last year’s Rogue One, this latest installment in the 40-year-old sci-fi franchise brings terrific class politics to the table. As one reviewer put it, the film breaks from most previous Star Wars movies by taking a stand in the class war on the side of the oppressed, attacking wealthy arms dealers, aristocratic religious dogma, and out-and-out fascists in the process. Ordinary poor and working people, especially women, are the heroes, facing insurmountable odds resisting the First Order. It’s a film that takes a lot of risks, most of which pay off.
Alien: Covenant – One of the most thought-provoking science fiction stories I’ve seen in years. All of the classic monsters of the Alien series, along with a couple new creatures, return to terrify a crew of colonists on a far-off planet. But unlike this year’s uninspired Blade Runner sequel, Covenant builds on the best elements of the previous films while posing serious questions about the contradictions of technology in a capitalist system.
Get Out – Horror movies had a pretty outstanding year, but none stood taller than Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The story centers on a young Black man who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s wealthy parents in upstate New York. Revealing the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism of rich white liberals for the horror it is, Peele’s film strikes a balance between bone-chilling terror and clever social commentary that never feels cartoonish or heavy-handed.