When it comes to the year-end racket, you hear a lot about awards contenders and critical darlings, but too often the year's most entertaining films are forgotten in the conversation. But I love a good piece of popcorn entertainment -- and honestly, everybody does, that's why they make so much damn money at the box office. With that in mind, welcome to my annual tradition breaking down the very best of the biggest, loudest, and sometimes dumbest films to hit theaters this year because there's an art to having a good time, and the films that know how should get their due recognition as well.
This year was notoriously rough at the box office, with a series of big-budget tentpoles that bombed out with audiences: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, The Mummy, The Dark Tower and Transformers 5 all tumbled with critics and audiences alike, making for the worst summer box office in over a decade. But not to worry, even if the summer crop of action-packed filmmaking was a disappointment, the rest of the year was jam-packed with ass-kicking popcorn-powered entertainment.
I never thought I'd see the year that a Fast and Furious film didn't make the list, but even if F. Gary Gray's supercharged sequel Fate of the Furious packs in plenty of entertaining set pieces, the film never recovers from the decision to make Deckard Shaw a hero, completely ignore that he murdered Han in cold blood, and fundamentally violate arguably the only concrete law of a Fast and Furious film -- family. As for the other close calls, The LEGO Batman Movie, Mayhem, and The Hitman's Bodyguard were this close to making the cut. And even though they're great action movies, I decided to leave off Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Logan because they're both a bit too existential and emotionally taxing to consider them classic "popcorn movies".
So without further ado, here are my picks for the best popcorn movies of 2017. Sound off with your favorites in the comments.
10. Tie: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword / Kong: Skull Island
Both Kong: Skull Island and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword are fun, fast-paced action movies with plenty to offer, but they both fall short of fulfilling their full potential. Guy Ritchie's bloke-tastic would-be franchise starters can't seem to catch a break at the box office these days, and just like The Man from UNCLE before it, Legend of the Sword is a delightful, cheeky action adventure that just didn't connect with audiences. Which is a damn shame because it's fun as heck with all of Ritchie's signature cocksure swagger and fast-talking verve, led by a wise-cracking Charlie Hunnam, who struts his way through a magical, mythical retelling of the King Arthur myth. It's a bit shallow, but full up with personality and pulpy mythological flourishes -- Jude Law is doing arch villainy with a flourish of Liberace and his trio of tentacled sea witches deserve their own spinoff -- and Daniel Pemberton's pulsing score is a rush that keeps Legend of the Sword swinging into action with the audience locked in toe-tapping step.
Kong: Skull Island has some of the most impressively constructed set-pieces of the year and a whole bunch of fantastically fun creature designs, but much like Gareth Edwards' Godzilla remake, Skull Island plays like a series of expertly constructed action sequences with little to no character drama of interest to string them together. Skull Island takes an absurdly talented cast including Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, and Shea Whigham and squanders them as cyphers or, worse yet, cartoonish buffoons. The good news is the monster action, which is expertly designed and a complete joy to watch, doing justice by the king of the apes while also embracing all the opportunities of the many creepy-crawlies inhabiting Skull Island. If Skull Island had characters worth caring about, it'd be an all-timer, but even as it is, it's one damn entertaining piece of monster cinema.
9. Beyond Skyline
Beyond Skyline is a special kind of WTF. Of all the movies to spawn a franchise, I never would have guessed the much-derided 2010 sci-fi pic Skyline could pull it off, much less that the follow-up film would be such a gleeful, globe-trotting action-packed adventure. A proud, pulpy B-movie featuring aliens that rip the brain right out of your skull, Beyond Skyline stars Frank Grillo as a cop struggling with his wife's death and his son's (Jonny Weston) outbursts of lawlessness when a brutal alien invasion kicks off. Once the aliens make contact, the film ricochets through settings and characters at a breakneck pace, packing in a paperback book series worth of sci-fi lunacy into a single feature film; traveling from subterranean tunnels to the freshly nuked streets of Los Angeles, into the world of lovingly rendered alien tech aboard one of their ships, all the way to Laos, where Mark teams with rebels to battle the alien threat.
Characterization is nil and the dialogue can be cringe-worthy, but Beyond Skyline blasts through plot, set-pieces and word-building with an exuberant flourish for details, including a fantastic blend of man-in-suit and digital effects that milk gold from a middling budget. You've got Frank Grillo playing hero with a baby in one hand and a space-tech blaster on the other, Antonio Fargas as a Vietnam vet who calls everybody "bitch", Iko Uwais and Yaya Ruhain beating the shit out of giant aliens, and there's even an honest-to-god Kaiju battle. Beyond Skyline won't be for everyone, but if you love a bananas B-movie, the feature debut from writer-director Liam O'Donnell ticks all the right boxes.
8. Atomic Blonde
Atomic Blonde is so close to being something spectacular. Charlize Theron and her endless supply of couture coats are a vision to behold and the Oscar-winning actress puts in a craftsman's committed physical performance as Lorraine Broughton, MI6 superspy extraordinaire. Unfortunately, Lorraine's story is embroiled in a convoluted espionage narrative that saddles what should be a light and breezy film with patience-testing weight it can't quite support.
That said, even with the distracting and predictable diversions, Atomic Blonde is a hoot and a half thanks to Theron's stylish performance, a cheeky pop soundtrack, and exceptional command of action from director David Leitch and John Wick fight coordinator John Valera. You've heard about Charlize's big "one-take" fight scene and it does not disappoint, easily pummeling the competition as the best fight scene of 2017. Atomic Blonde is an aesthetically-minded action film, with washes of color and Lorraine's ever stunning ensembles making it a movie that's always fun to look at, even in the downbeats between Theron's badassery. It's also queer as hell, unapologetically, without turning Lorraine's sexuality into a political stance -- an all-too-rare moment for bisexual women in blockbuster cinema. It's a shame Atomic Blonde falters as a spy movie, because as an action film, it's a saucy, sultry banger of a good time with style to boot.
7. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
xXx has always been James Bond for the Axe body spray crowd; occasionally off-putting but not without its earnest dudebro charms and a love for stunt work that makes the first film such an absurdly entertaining watch. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage amps that juvenile daredevil spirit into overdrive with ludicrous, epic action set pieces and rounds out the rougher edges of the first two films with a killer ensemble cast. Filled out with the world's most beautiful and badass, xXx sees Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, Nina Dobrev, Kris Wu, Toni Collette and Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone team up with Vin Diesel's extreme sports pro turned superspy.
The film is wonderful and ridiculous and doofy and so much fun. Watching The Return of Xander Cage is like watching a nine-year-old boy play with his favorite action figures ... if he had a multi-million dollar budget to pull those fantasies off. There's a breathless, feverish excitement to the increasingly absurd set-pieces, designed with such casual indifference towards physics, that has a feeling of pure playfulness Diesel skis through a snowless jungle, he hops on a high-tech motorbike and chases Yen into the ocean, he kicks ass in Zero G. Oh, and the bumbling nerdy tech genius? She looks like Nina Dobrev. It's all so blatantly silly and indulgent, and it's the very best kind of stupid from start to finish.
6. Wonder Woman
Bless Patty Jenkins for taking the iconic character we all know and love, honoring the very qualities we know and love about her, and translating that into a crowd-pleasing, inspiring feature film despite the pressures of the DCEU all but crumbling around her. Indeed, if Wonder Woman suffers structurally, it’s in the way it heeds to the demands of that cinematic universe, most notably in that hideous act-three CGI battle, but even when Jenkins’ vision has those fingerprints on it, she gives Wonder Woman enough heart and charisma to keep the film afloat.
As the titular hero, Gal Gadot is a vision, not just for her otherwordly beauty -- though, yes, she’ll take away your breath along with that of every character in the film -- but Gadot just is Wonder Woman. Her easy confidence, her radiant enthusiasm, and a smile so warm it melts right through your cold dead heart, Gadot is an exceptional hero and through Jenkins’ lens, she is photographed lovingly with all her strength and beauty on full display. Wonder Woman is all about love. Patty Jenkins loves Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman loves mankind, and if the box office numbers are any indication, they love her right back. “Only love will truly save the world,” Diana Prince reminds us at a time we most need to be reminded of that message.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Tom Holland's Peter Parker is nothing less than perfection in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot of the web-slinging superhero, who's been an enduring presence at the cinema for the last fifteen years. Naturally there were doubts of overkill and character fatigue as Spider-Man geared up for his third onscreen incarnation, but with the guidance of Kevin Feige and the folks over at the MCU, Homecoming knocked it out of the park and reminded audiences why Spidey has become one of the most enduring and iconic comic book creations, both on the page and the screen. Holland's spot-on performance as the heroic teenaged kid from Queens is a huge part of what makes the film work, but as we learned from Andrew Garfield, there's only so much a great performance can accomplish when the film surrounding it isn't up to par.
Thankfully, everyone else is playing on Holland's level. Working from a script by John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, director Jon Watts pulls off a well-measured mixture of classic Spider-Man hijinks, John Hughes-tinged coming-of-age rom com, and an updated youth culture fit that feels alive and authentic in 2017. It's smart, sharp filmmaking and a fun expansion of the MCU's proven formulas, with engaging action scenes designed to show off the very best of the hero's abilities and personality. Holland's "Come on, Spider-Man" scene is iconic Spider-Man, pulled from the very best of the character. He's also matched by a fantastic villain (a too-rare triumph in the MCU). Michael Keaton's Vulture is a force of working class rage, almost as sympathetic as he is terrifying and wickedly charming. Bottom line, Spider-Man: Homecoming is breezy, funny, and assured of exactly what it wants to be, making it an absolute joy to watch with a grin on your face and a bucket of popcorn in your hand.
4. Thor: Ragnarok
Taika Waititi was just was the Thor movies needed. After the dreary stuffiness of The Dark World, Waititi's irreverent brand of humor courses through Thor: Ragnarok like a jolt of life support, casting aside concerns for cannon-centric sequelizing in favor of blasting the franchise full-speed-ahead into far more interesting territory. Rocking an insanely appealing cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Marc Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum and Waititi himself as the CGI scene-stealer Korg, Ragnarok sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a zany intergalactic adventure packed with all the colors of a Kirby comic and all the nuttiness of a Sunday morning cartoon.
Hemsworth's comedic talents are one of the great cinematic discoveries of the MCU, and he gets to be a full-out goofball in Ragnarok, which fashions him as a blowhard a la Jack Burton and lets him run loose. Thompson is the real revelation, however, as the swaggering (both because she's drunk and legit baller af) Asgardian hero Valkyrie. Every scene she's in is crackling with energy, even in a film where nearly every moment is abuzz with a current of giddiness and mischief. Ragnarok is the most joyful, wonderfully whacky movie I saw in theaters this year.
3. Baby Driver
With all the critical acclaim Edgar Wright's high-octane heist romance has earned over the year, it'd be too easy to forget that even with Wright's flourishes of cinematic artistry and off-kilter humor, Baby Driver is a proud popcorn movie right down to its bones. It's just a very, very good one. Where most popcorn entertainment chooses to go dumb, loud, and universal with the desire to reach the biggest audience possible, Wright has once again tapped into his gift for genre and delivered a sharp, symphonic, and oh-so specific chase film.
Wright knows all the parts it takes to make a classic crime movie in the noir tradition, but he updates them for the iPod generation (with one of the year's best soundtracks to boot) and reassembles them into something both familiar and refreshingly distinctive. Ansel Elgort's ace getaway driver, Baby, drums his fingers and dances through the criminal lifestyle with a detached ease, but Wright keeps it grounded with concrete action and brief moments of shocking violence that reach through the dreamy haze of music and movement to remind you of the stakes. It's a delicate dance, and Wright pulls it off beautifully (even if I never quite got around to buying Elgort in the lead role), and his sharp filmmaking will keep you tapping your toes to his unique beat until the curtain call.
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Leave it to Rian Johnson to take the seemingly immutable structures of a Star Wars film, turn them on their heads, and deliver the most innovative, thoughtful and downright ballsy movie in a galaxy far, far away since the 1977 original. The Last Jedi shakes the idea of what makes a Star War movie down to its roots, stripping away the hero worship and the framework of classical myth-making, which have become too ingrained and too familiar, and fashioning complex, challenging character arcs in their place. Whether it's Luke on Ach-To, Poe on his foolhardy mission to save the world single-handedly, or Rey and Kylo on the singular plane of their force bond, the characters confront crushing failures that fundamentally force them to evolve beyond who they walked into frame as at the start of the film.
The Last Jedi is all about evolution, for its characters and for what a Star Wars movie can be. It's not surprising that it's become such a divisive film -- it's challenging and uncomfortable, working intentionally against expectations in order to deliver moments of genuine surprise. And those moments are so powerful and so damn cinematic because Johnson makes you believe that anything can happen in his movie. That's how you get the thrill of the throne room sequence, which has instantly become one of the most satisfying theatrical experiences of my life, or the beauty and impact of Holdo's silent cut. The Last Jedi is packed with iconic moments, visual splendor, and tightly-crafted character arcs that all tie back to theme. It's a reminder of what you can do with blockbuster filmmaking that sets the bar real high for the next generation of filmmakers to come.
1. John Wick: Chapter 2
How do you follow-up an instant classic action movie like John Wick? By doing it all over again with bigger stakes, deeper world-building and mercifully, way less puppy murder. Keanu Reeves returns as the titular retired hitman, who gets pulled back into the life once again when an old accomplice comes to collect on a blood debt. Assigned an impossible kill, Wick is outgunned and double-crossed at every turn as he descends back into the law of the Continental and the underground world of assassins.
John Wick co-director Chad Stahelski returns solo for the second round and he keeps his grip on the reins tight, navigating the sequel toward ever more satisfying in-world reveals and a deeper look at what makes Reeves' unconventional action hero tick. If John Wick was about discovering the legacy of the character and watching him turn back to that darkness, John Wick Chapter 2 is much more interested in who John Wick is now and where, if anywhere, he can find a place in the world now. Cinematographer Dan Lausten (who also shot Guillermo del Toro's utterly stunning The Shape of Water this year) makes Wick's descent back into the life look like a nightmarish phantasmagoria -- gorgeous and vivid, but disorienting and sometimes blinding. As a sequel, Chapter 2 is a triumph, doubling down on everything we loved about the character and the world and setting the stage for a third chapter beautifully. But it also triumphs as an action movie in its own right; a tightly-wound trip down the rabbit hole of a fantastical criminal underground, dripping with visual panache and an artisan's eye for action.
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