It is the most wonderfully frustrating time of the year: that period when film writers get lost in the mad scramble of cobbling together a top-10 list to impress colleagues and convince readers that they hold the key to the collective movie knowledge of the past 12 months. It is an undeniably fun exercise, but one that can induce heart palpitations: What if I missed the one film everyone is, or should be, talking about?
Yet there's a natural point at which every critic's "top films" start to blend together into a unified chorus. Phantom Thread, Call Me by Your Name, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri …… the favourites get name-checked again and again.
To offset the familiar shouts and murmurs, The Globe and Mail presents its annual alternative Top 10, which compiles the most overlooked, underrated, and unfairly dismissed films of 2017 (listed alphabetically).
For obvious reasons, I'm a sucker for any film in which the protagonist is named Barry (an exceedingly rare occurrence). But the sort-of-true tale of drug-running pilot Barry Seal deserves a spot here for more than appealing to my vanity: the comedy-action film is a rollicking journey into the criminal underworld, with a frenzied and frantic energy courtesy of leading man Tom Cruise. As Cruise's cocky Seal double- and then triple-crosses everyone from the CIA to Pablo Escobar, the star delivers an increasingly paranoid and wild performance, while director Doug Liman ensures every single scene is visually explosive. The pair, who last teamed up for the delightfully stupid Edge of Tomorrow, don't always succeed in their aesthetic and narrative tricks, but the end result is one of the most purely watchable mainstream studio films of the year.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
There is almost too much going on in S. Craig Zahler's gruesome ode to the exploitation cinema of the seventies. Is the film, almost completely ignored on the theatrical circuit (never getting a release in Canada), a right-wing treatise on the decline of the average white American male? Is it a nightmarish critique of the U.S. prison system? A rigorous exercise in midnight-movie gore? A chance for Udo Kier to play the weirdest version of Udo Kier yet? Perhaps it is all of those things, but most of all, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a nasty, completely captivating bit of cinematic excess that cannot be ignored. The fact that it contains the finest performance of Vince Vaughn's up-and-down career is only the blood-red cherry on top.
Good Time & Personal Shopper (tie)
Who knew that the stars of the Twilight movies would emerge from their franchise obligations with the best taste in collaborators? This year saw both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson make not only the finest films of their careers, but two of the best movies of the year, period. Stewart teamed up once again with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas for the sublime slow-burn ghost story Personal Shopper, while Pattinson joined forces with the Safdie brothers (Josh and Ben) to produce the scuzzy, neon-drenched crime flick Good Time. See you in hell, Bella and Edward.
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
If the Netflix algorithm worked just right, you might have seen director Macon Blair's dark comedy pop up on your streaming home screen this year. But for most audiences, it's a good bet they've missed out on the director's wonderfully twisted tale of revenge and loneliness. Fire up your Netflix queue now, if only to catch Melanie Lynskey's award-worthy performance.
John Wick: Chapter 2
Going into 2017, few would have expected a sequel to a Keanu Reeves shoot-em-up to be one of the more beautiful films of the year. But hey, the past 12 months delivered a fair share of surprises. A collision of the poetic and the profane, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a bold, visually mesmerizing experience. Reeves' hit-man title character shoots, stabs, and strangles his way through a mythical New York City, doing so via the most artfully arranged shots in recent action-cinema memory.
Last Flag Flying
As of this writing, Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying has earned just $930,000 at the North American box office – a depressingly low figure for a film once considered Academy Awards catnip. Critics, too, have mostly dismissed it. But look past this ignorance and you'll find a thoughtful and sharp drama about the lives we choose to lead, and the regrets we carry along the way. Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell deliver fully lived-in performances, with Carell in particular turning in Oscar-worthy work.
If you didn't catch Steven Soderbergh's heist caper, you missed out on the most fun to be had indoors all summer. Marking the director's return from semi-retirement, Logan Lucky is at worst a downmarket Ocean's 11, at best the most purely entertaining movie of Soderbergh's wildly varied filmography. As expected with any Soderbergh project, there are ambitious twists and a timeline that skips around so artfully that it demands a second, or third, or fourth, viewing. But the film reaches a true high thanks to its casting, with Daniel Craig's Southern-fried bank robber Joe Bang the year's most joyous comic creation.
The Lost City of Z
Perhaps if James Gray's adventure had been released in the past three weeks, everyone would be raving about the intoxicating experience the director concocts. But because it debuted quietly this past April, I'll have to make a case for its importance once again: The Lost City of Z is a stunning, dreamy ode to the challenge of escaping one's background, through whatever means necessary. Adapting David Grann's non-fiction bestseller, Gray tracks 1900s explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) up and down the terrors of the Amazon, building up to an ending that is as haunting as it is beautiful.
Among all of the year's various reboots and retreads, a sequel to Trainspotting seemed the most ill-conceived and, truly, unasked for. And yet, director Danny Boyle pulled off the impossible, delivering a complex film that not only uses nostalgia as a force of creative good, but reinvents the very concept of chasing past glories. It's a shame that T2 Trainspotting didn't make an impact on North American shores, but that's only an opportunity for audiences to now discover something they don't know they so badly need.
Truth be told, I would much rather be rewatching Ashley McKenzie's debut feature for a third or fourth time than be writing about it. There are only so many ways to write "remarkable" and "fearless" and "sincere" and "fantastic," after all. One viewing of Werewolf, chronicling the ups and downs (mostly downs) of two Cape Breton drug addicts, and you will understand my good-to-have dilemma.