The 2017 Golden J Awards

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This was a busy year for me, which means I saw less movies than I normally do. Fortunately, 2017 was a great year for movies. This victory is small, seeing as how 2017 was also the year I became convinced that the Clown-Man President of the United States is probably going to kill us all by ushering in a nuclear apocalypse but hey, I’ll take what I can get. I’m always disappointed to miss out on a lot of the year’s big movies (as of this writing, I have yet to see Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, etc – yikes!) but it is especially unfortunate because I have literally only managed to see three movies directed by women this entire year (Before I Fall, Wonder Woman and Rough Night. These were all good films that I would recommended but none were among the best of the year). This lack of exposure means that my year-end list is dude heavy and I wouldn’t feel right about suggesting that all ten of the year’s best movies were directed by men without including the caveat that there are definitely films directed by women that deserve to be on this list…I just haven’t actually seen them yet.

10. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (directed by Chris Smith)

I once had a documentary film professor who told the class to never, ever agree to be in a documentary. The documentarians have so much power over you and the events that you are involved in that you can never be sure how you will come off. Whether Jim and Andy is presenting something close to objective truth or not, it presents us with a fascinating central character that we are completely willing to follow down this peculiar, method acting rabbit hole. Jim Carrey is here presented as someone who needs to get away from himself and uses method acting as a thinly vailed excuse to do so. Director Chris Smith doesn’t just coast on the sheer audacity and unbelievability of the behind the scenes footage of Man on the Moon that informs the film, he also examines Carrey as a sort of tragic, peculiar figure and the results are worthwhile. This movie is definitely not for everyone but, for me, it was a worthy and unique entry in the Netflix documentary stable.

9. Split (directed by M. Night Shyamalan)

I’ve been sticking up for M. Night Shyamalan for a long time and, if you know me well enough, you have probably heard me go to bat for almost all of his films (except the irredeemably awful The Last Airbender). Given that, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed the hell out of Split, Shyamalan’s goofy yet tense movie about a guy with 23 different personalities. James McAvoy makes the whole thing work, giving a legitimately great performance that extends far beyond the wow factor of an actor playing so many different roles in the same film. You feel for his different personalities and he brings a unique energy to each one. However, none of that would matter if the film wasn’t as effective and tense as it is but, fortunately, Shyamalan’s partnership with Blumhouse has continued to be great for him creatively. You would never notice how little money was spent on this movie or how claustrophobic it actually is because Shyamalan keeps raising the stakes and finding new angles within the established setting (between this movie and It Follows, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is one to watch out for). Oh ya, there is also the small matter of the ending. You couldn’t pay me to spoil it but let’s just say it has been a long time since a movie has left me feeling such surprise and excitement.

8. Thor: Ragnarok (directed by Taika Waititi)

After Joss Whedon’s departure, I was worried that the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t have anything left for me. Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange all had me underwhelmed and like Marvel had permanently traded substance for its repetitive, worn out style. I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. Not only is Thor: Ragnarok one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time, it also has a ton of things to say about current events (some of which I covered here). There are so many aspects to love about the movie: the great performance given by a finally-not-bored Chris Hemsworth, the way it dives into real Marvel Comics weirdness with both feet and the kick-ass use of Immigrant Song. I am a huge fan of Thor and I couldn’t be happier that Taika Waititi did the impossible and reinvigorated Marvel’s weakest franchise.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson)

The Last Jedi was the perfect film for a franchise that had, since its recent Disney funded revival, been getting by mostly pandering to fans with callbacks to the original Star Wars trilogy. The Force Awakens and Rogue One definitely have their bright spots (the former more so than the latter) but Jedi was the first of these new Star Wars films that felt interested in taking the series in a bold new direction. The whole cast is fantastic, but this movie belongs to Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and (unexpectedly) Mark Hamill. I liked Daisy Ridley in Force Awakens, but she  truly comes into her own as Rey. Adam Driver remains the find of century as Kylo Ren, who might well be the best villain in all of Star Wars. Hamill is on another level, selling Luke’s transition from jaded hermit to full blown hero over the course of the movie’s admittedly long run time. It is not just the performances that make the movie work, it is the themes and Ideas that inform the film as well. I love that Finn (John Boyega) sees the scope of the First Order’s influence and oppression, I love that Poe (Oscar Issac) learns that sometimes the most heroic thing that he can do is put faith in his fellow rebels and I love Rose’s statement about how the rebels will ultimately win. The structure may be wonky but that did little to affect my enjoyment of this excellent film.

6. Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)

Baby Driver had me in the palm of its hand from the very first second it started. The opening action scene is an incredible piece of cinema, with Edgar Wright using every tool at his disposal to engage the viewer (I still have “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion stuck in my head). Wright has made kinetic, endlessly fun action movie with a compelling, unique hero at the center of it. Ansel Elgort is giving an amazing central performance as Baby, who commands your attention despite his introspective and quiet demeanor. The film makes some missteps, most notably its undercooked central romance that seems to rely on Baby’s girlfriend reminding him of his dead mom, but the stuff that works in Baby Driver works so well that it is easy to overlook the flaws.

Warning: film contains disgusting amounts of Kevin Spacey

5. Gerald’s Game (directed by Mike Flanagan)

Between Gerald’s Game and Hush, Mike Flanagan is making a name for himself as a director of tense, frightening thrillers starring incredibly compelling women. The plot concerns Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) trying to escape from a bed that she was handcuffed to and stuck in when her husband (the titular Gerald, played by Bruce Greenwood) died, leaving the key far away from arm’s reach. You might think that a movie about a woman chained to a bed would be boring, but the movie is far from it due to the strength of the Flanagan’s direction. Things get especially interesting when representations of Jessie’s subconscious enter the picture in the form of her husband and her own inner voice. Flanagan really explores the character’s psychology and it is a treat to watch Burlingame sink her teeth into such a meaty role.

Side note: the film also provided me with the most disturbing image I saw in a movie all year (and that’s saying something in a year that also contained Mother!)

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (directed by James Gunn)

Wow, what a year for Marvel Studios (despite the disposable Spider-Man: Homecoming). Before Thor: Ragnarok delivered the most entertaining movie going experience of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 provided what might have been the most emotional. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a riot but it’s also an incredibly compelling drama about real, flawed character (that just happen to be silly space aliens) who substantially grow and change over the course of the narrative. The film’s themes of empathy, maturity and collectivity were also profoundly resonant, at least for me. I’ve been a fan of James Gunn ever since Super but even I couldn’t have guessed that he would be able to make original, thought provoking and hilarious movies within the rigid, overproduced Marvel framework. Oh, and I’ve been pretty much listening to the soundtrack on loop since May.

3. John Wick: Chapter 2 (directed by Chad Stahelski)

I get the sense that a lot of fans of John Wick were a little off-put by Chapter 2, which is not unexpected. The first film has the hook of being “the dog revenge movie”, which is an easy mechanism for investment and empathy for almost any audience. The second film has to survive on the strength of its characters and complex, original world and for my money, it pulls that trick off without a hitch. Director Chad Stahelski impressively builds on everything that made the original compelling. The action is better, the underground network of assassins is fleshed out and, to top it off, the film leaves on a hell of a sequel tease.

2. Mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Mother! is a ruthless gauntlet of emotion that it is impossible to look away from. What starts out as a relatively grounded, creepy film evolves into an expressionistic fever dream that understandably shocked and disturbed audiences during its theatrical release. For my money, Darren Aronofsky is the best American film director currently working and he is in greatest hits mode with Mother!. There is some of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Fountain and Noah in this film but none of it feels diluted or compromised as a result. This movie is definitely not for everyone, but it reminded me of exactly what I love about cinema and it is the movie I will likely be revisiting the most on this list.

1. Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

What else could it have been, honestly? Jordan Peele, who has proven himself as one of the funniest people in show business, made the shift to expert dramatic storyteller look easy with his debut feature. Get Out is tense, funny, timely and contains a murders’ row of talent in front of and behind the camera. Daniel Kaluuya is an instant star, Lakeith Stanfield makes a small role pop like few others could and Betty Gabriel makes them look like lightweights as Georgina, the mind controlled maid of the Armitage household. Get Out exploded in the culture (references to the sunken place and Armitage family quotes like “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have” are still a regular occurrence on social media) and endless buzz surrounds Jordan Peele’s next project. In a world where the Transformers movies generate endless revenue and the Fifty Shades movies continue to be popular, it is always nice to see the public and critics harmoniously agree on the quality of a film that is as great as Get Out.