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Emerald Recommends: The best movies of 2017

It was a bit of a strange year for Hollywood. Blockbusters continued to dominate the box office and frustrate critics. The industry faced months of moral reckoning via horrific sexual assault allegations. Disney casually dropped $50 billion to buy every superhero you love. Studios gave women their time to shine behind the camera (the work is far from over on that front). And Jordan Peele terrified upper-class white people everywhere.

There was one constant, though: people are still making great movies. The Emerald is on hand to break down the very best of them, from sweeping war epics to coming-of-age indie flicks. These are the best films of the year:

Dana Alston’s picks:

5. “John Wick: Chapter 2” (dir. Chad Stahelski)

Keanu Reeves is an action-movie treasure, but it’s taken years out of the limelight and a franchise built around him for the world to recognize his badassery once again. “Chapter 2” — the sequel to 2014’s violent hit-man odyssey — doubles down on the original’s worldbuilding. Director Chad Stahelski offers glimpses of an assassin-run underworld in between fistfights and shootouts. A battle in a hall of mirrors is an extended treat. But outside of the choreography and visual splendor, “Chapter 2” succeeds by generating empathy for its titular hero, even as he shoots and stabs his way through an army of henchmen.

4. “Blade Runner 2049” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

From the opening swell of Hans Zimmer’s synthesized score, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to “Blade Runner” envelops you in a dark, uncompromising world. Replicants, extremely lifelike androids, are still being hunted down by the world’s governments. K (Ryan Gosling) stalks in and out of the streets of a futuristic Los Angeles. Fog and filth and a powerful dread hang over the city. “2049” tells an important story about the origin of life itself and what it even means to be alive. But the film is at its best when it leans on its pure, rich vision. Credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins; 35 years into an already storied career, he has shot one of the most gorgeous films in recent memory. The sights and sounds alone are worth the nearly 3-hour runtime.

3. “Lady Bird” (dir. Greta Gerwig)

It’s impossible to watch “Lady Bird” without impossibly high expectations. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut received a fair amount of online fame for its near-perfect critical reception. It deserves the acclaim. Gerwig’s story is not strictly new — few coming-of-age films can be — but what makes her film such mandatory viewing is its emotional authenticity. As Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) grows and quarrels with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), the wordplay, relationships and moving moments all ring wonderfully true. “Lady Bird” is a modest movie with epic themes at its heart. Unconditional love and the pains of both adolescence and motherhood are all fair game. Underneath it all, Gerwig proves herself a capable master behind the camera. “Lady Bird” has no delusions of visual grandeur, and it is all the better for it. This is a complex portrait of a young woman learning how to coexist with the people who fight you — and love you — the most.

2.“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (dir. Rian Johnson)

Myths are often lies, expectations breed disappointment and guilt may be the most unconquerable enemy in the universe; these are themes you’d expect from a heavy drama and perennial Oscar favorite. Rian Johnson delivers them to us via the new “Star Wars,” and amazingly makes them belong in a world filled with space battles and laser swords. To that end, the action in “The Last Jedi” is some of the most beautifully realized in the franchise, and it’s also the funniest “Star Wars” film by a mile-and-a-half. In between a series of powerful character moments are beats that will leave audiences in awe and in stitches.

Despite the online rumblings of slighted fanboys (the Rotten Tomatoes user score is a crime) it’s likely Johnson’s film will be revered in a few years. This is the most powerful chapter in “Star Wars,” partially because nothing is sacred. Saying more risks spoilers, but rest assured: no other film this year was as purely entertaining or subversive. Luke, at a moment of weakness, says it best: “This is not going to go the way you think.”

1. “Dunkirk” (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Over a career of films that includes “Inception” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s ability to infuse blockbusters with artistry has filled a generation of theaters. But “Dunkirk” — Nolan’s sprawling, epic account of one of WWII’s greatest stories — finds the filmmaker finally balancing his mastery of pure moviemaking with the humanity of his characters. Make no mistake: the film is a technical marvel. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema worked almost entirely with IMAX cameras, including a reworked version that sat in a cockpit to capture stunning dogfight sequences. The sound design, helped by Hans Zimmer’s’ rousing operatic score, rattles its venue.

“Dunkirk’s” aesthetics amount to a barrage of chaos and terror as thousands of British troops await their fate on the beaches of France. It’s the first time Nolan uses his penchant for orchestrating big budgets to tell a story with depth and grace. His script exists on the surface level of the conflict — we don’t learn much about the people on screen — but captures their almost dreamlike desperation like few stories can. By the end, when the strings crescendo into overwhelming exhaustion and triumph, “Dunkirk” evolves into the most undeniable piece of filmmaking in years.

Frankie Lewis’ pick:

“Logan Lucky” (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Perhaps not the “best movie” of the year, the argument can be made that “Logan Lucky” was the most valuable film to cinema goers in 2017. The film was released in mid-August at a time cinemas were bare. Other movies running at the time such as “The Dark Tower,”  “Annabelle” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” were nothing to write home about. Filmed on a relatively modest $29 million budget, “Logan Lucky” had everything one could hope for in a summer comedy-action flick: high-speed cars, a prison escape, blue-collar yet sophisticated humor and a feel-good conclusion. But ticket buyers were treated to more than they bargained for. Besides the usual summer movie components, the film examined the emotions and day-to-day lives of blue-collar West Virginians like the Logan brothers, and it dove into the complex struggle between divorced parents in Jimmy Logan and Bobby Jo’s relationship.

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]