We’re approaching the tail end of the year, and as per my end-of-November tradition, it’s time to reward the 2017 Top Ten Entertainers of the Year! That’s right, we’re going to take a look at the artists who have absolutely dominated 2017, becoming a pop culture touchstone through multiple great performances, songs, or novels! As was the case last year, the list will be found below, in alphabetical order, building up to the 2017 Entertainer of the Year!
As 2017 was a highly impressive year for pop culture, the list of honorable mentions is, unsurprisingly, quite long. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer, who is enjoying a career resurgence with great performances in mother! and Murder on the Orient Express, and Michelle Williams, who is continuing a hot streak with Wonderstruck and The Greatest Showman. Matt Damon has starred in two movies where he tried his best despite the odds, and Jason Mitchell was consistently the best part of everything he’s in, be it Detroit or Mudbound. Will Arnett has put his definitive stamp on voice acting between BoJack Horseman and The Lego Batman Movie, while Alec Baldwin became a pop culture staple for his impression of Donald Trump. Aubrey Plaza had two great indie roles in The Little Hours and Ingrid Goes West, Alison Brie starred in The Little Hours, had a stellar turn on BoJack, a nice cameo in The Disaster Artist, a big role in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, created the television show Glow, and got married. Her spouse, Dave Franco, also made the Honorable Mentions list with his brother James for their work on The Disaster Artist, as well as his work in The Lego Ninjago Movie and The Little Hours. Disney Channel star Zendaya not only had K.C. Undercover, she had major scene-stealing turns in Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Greatest Showman. Gal Gadot conquered the superhero scene in both Justice League and the much-superior Wonder Woman. Michael Stuhlbarg had fantastic turns in Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, and The Post. Meanwhile, up-and-comer Timothée Chalamet starred in Name, stole Lady Bird, and is supposedly great in Hostiles. And then there’s the powerhouse that is Nicole Kidman, who absolutely dominated in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Beguiled while also giving strong performances in Big Little Lies and Top of the Lake. She’s a national treasure.
And finally, I wanted to give out a Special Award to John Denver, whose music was featured as a major plot point in not one, not two, but six different films in 2017, each to great effect. “Annie’s Song” managed to get a laugh out of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Free Fire, and Okja, while “Take Me Home, Country Road” added a melancholic layer to Alien: Covenant, Logan Lucky, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Kingsman. Kudos to these films for reminding everyone that Denver was an underrated songwriter, and a true musical legend. Now that that’s settled, let’s look at the list of the Entertainers of the Year!
I feel like the past four to five years has been Steve Carell’s way of proving to us all that playing Michael Scott is no easy feat and that he is, in fact, a terrific actor. He certainly has proven it this year, with three terrific film performances between live action and animation. Carell began the year by reprising his role as Gru in Despicable Me 3. I’ve lost interest in the series after the winning original, but that’s mainly because the series has moved away from its family-based comedy and more towards “LOL Minions.” Trust me, when the film focuses on Carell’s loving, cynical portrayal of Gru, the film is all the better. And I think audiences agree with that, to some degree, as the film brought in $1.032 billion dollars internationally. That’s nothing to sneeze at. However, I think Carell would much rather be praised this year for not one, but two major live-action performances in Battle of the Sexes and Last Flag Flying. In Battle of the Sexes, Carell gets to combine his comedic sensibilities with a sense of pathos as he plays the infamous historical bad boy Bobby Riggs, a talented tennis player who missed his chance because of WWII and reinvents himself as the “world’s greatest chauvinist” in order to support his gambling addictions. Carell’s talents allow him to get to the heart of Bobby Riggs, making him insufferable while understanding that Bobby was doing an act, unaware of the impact of his behavior on the greater conversation. He makes us sympathetic for Bobby even as we can’t wait for Billie Jean King to kick his ass. It’s demonstrates a clear understanding of character, humanity, and pathos, not unlike what he did with Michael Scott or Andy Stitzer. However, while I have yet to see the film, by all accounts his best work comes from Last Flag Flying, where he plays Doc Shepherd, an introverted, broken man who has watched the life promised him by the army slip away as the years go by thanks to a terrible incident several years ago. Now, as he sees his beloved deceased son being used as Army propaganda, he sets out to bring his son’s body home with the help of two friends. I see this film on Sunday, so I can’t make any comments on if the rumors are true right now. However, almost every critic who saw this film has praised Carell’s broken, quiet protagonist, and it could very well lead to his second Oscar nomination. Between two phenomenal live action roles and another go as his popular animated character, Carell has had an outstanding year as a commander of the big screen.
It’s about damn time we as a culture realized that we need to put Laura Dern in everything. The original indie darling, Dern has really only ever made one true blockbuster, where she played a mid-sized role in Jurassic Park. She was always much more comfortable in David Lynch films, playing his All-American girl heroines. Because of this, she’s never really had a chance to shine. Nevertheless, 2017 is the year that we made Laura Dern a household name by putting her in everything. I’m not just talking about indie scene-stealing turns in small (sometimes bad) films like Wilson and The Good Time Girls. I’m talking game changing cameos in big-time films like Downsizing. I’m talking about a major supporting role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And I’m talking about one of the best years of television that any actor has ever had. From a small cameo on The Last Man on Earth to a wonderful performance in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, fitting right into that universe like she’d belonged there her entire life, Dern has really made sure that we see her talent everywhere. She even reunited with Lynch for the first time in years for the Twin Peaks revival as the infamous Diane, to whom Agent Cooper had dictated his notes throughout the series. And I haven’t even mentioned Big Little Lies. The critical and commercial smash of the year for HBO, most people lay the success of Lies at the feet of Nicole Kidman. However, those people forget that when the show is at its best, perfectly satirizing the behaviors of these rich white women, it’s pitting Reese Witherspoon against the scenery-chewing Dern. And what a “villain” Dern makes. She walks the line of camp frequently, munching on each line of dialogue like it’s her job. And when push comes to shove, she proves herself just a worried mother trying to make it in a man’s world, giving the character all sorts of dimension. I love Dern on this show (especially the way she screams “Thank You”), just as I love Dern in everything. And watching her have the renaissance she deserves is the most rewarding experience of the year.
I think Jake Gyllenhaal’s biggest lesson in life came when he learned that it would be best to veto any “smart” decision as an actor while automatically saying yes to every “bad” decision. What I mean is that Gyllenhaal has become an infinitely better actor when he started saying no to the big money-making roles (*cough cough Prince of Persia*) to instead focus on off-the-wall smaller roles. This all led up to the wonderfully weird year he had in 2017. The year started off with his turn in the sci-fi thriller Life, and while I have yet to see the little box office hit, I’ve heard excellent things about it, particularly Gyllenhaal’s performance. However, there are two performances I do want to focus on: Okja and Stronger. Stronger is the perfect testament to an individual with heroism thrust upon him. He makes the character charismatic, insufferable, good-hearted, flawed, pained, and learning, all at the same time. It’s a wonderful performance, and one that will likely earn him an Academy Award nomination. However, the performance that fascinates me the most from this year is his role in Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. Playing something of a 21st century Steve Irwin with a dark twist, Gyllenhaal taps into some insane part of humanity to play the squeaky-voiced, adrenaline-filled spokesman for the evil Mirando Corporation. It is a bold, infuriating performance, and yet it is the role I can’t stop thinking about the most. It’s the role that truly demonstrates his talent, and when compared to Stronger, it demonstrates the wide net of his range. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, he also appeared onstage in New York, playing the lead in Sunday in the Park With George. It’s one of the most difficult roles in all of theater, and by all accounts he absolutely nails it, with the soundtrack breaking all sorts of streaming records. If that doesn’t make him one of the best entertainers of the year, I don’t know what does.
If there’s one person who truly emerged from 2017 as a fully-fledged star, conquering every medium from television to stand up to film, it’s Tiffany Haddish. Having gotten by in a series of small roles and cameos for several years, Haddish had success in her work in The Carmichael Show, playing the role of Lil Ren Howery’s ex-wife, Nekeisha. The show ended its run this year in its third season, but man, did it not disappoint. It remained as funny as ever, and in no small part thanks to her performance. In fact, she had such success, it led to her getting her own stand-up show, as well as an appearance in Jay-Z’s Friends influenced “Moonlight” music video as Phoebe, which turned out to be the most spot-on casting. However, what really helped Haddish conquer the world was her star-making turn in Girls Trip. I wasn’t as in love with Girls Trip as many critics and audiences turned out to be, but I did give it a good review, and there’s one key reason for that: Haddish. My God, was she a ball of fire in this movie. Her line-delivery was perfect, she was game for any feat of physical comedy, and my god, when she performs the infamous Grapefruit Scene, it’s a work of art (warning: that clip is INCREDIBLY NSFW). Not unlike Melissa McCarthy’s breakthrough on Bridesmaids, Haddish is a large part of the film’s success, and the NYFCC Award she just won for Best Supporting Actress is absolutely deserved. However, her year doesn’t end there. She also managed to turn the film’s $100 million gross into an opportunity to be the first African-American female host on Saturday Night Live. And while the writing was not quite up to par the way it should have been, my God did she make it work. Her monologue is one of the best I’ve ever heard on the show, her presence in sketches was on fire, and she now holds the rare honor of being one of only a handful of performers to make Kate McKinnon laugh. Tiffany Haddish has had a true “star is born” year, and after seeing her conquer every medium there is, I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
It’s always nice to see someone end up on the Entertainer of the Year list that earns it through a redemption arc. That’s the case with Armie Hammer. After years of directors and producers trying to figure out what to do with him as a performer, due to his chiseled looks and talented sensibilities. But after a series of flops, culminating in the infamously terrible Lone Ranger, it seemed like his career was dead in the water. However, Hammer did what every good actor does when they need to course correct, from Gyllenhaal to Patel – he reinvented himself as an indie darling. Yes, Hammer has gone from the star of The Social Network to roles in Birth of a Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And the fruits of his labor have finally reached maturity this year, as Hammer had great performances in not one, not two, but three decent films. The first was his vocal performance as Jackson Storm in Cars 3. Hammer has the perfect douchebag voice, and it allows him to give villains a special flair on film. The second, more key performance, comes from Free Fire. As a whole, Free Fire was a rather underwhelming movie, but it did have one major saving grace: Hammer as Ord. Hammer was allowed to utilize every trait he had to make Ord a fascinating, hilarious character: his charm, his wit, his sarcasm, his machismo, and above all, his ability to piss you off. It made the movie worth watching, and it cemented him as a true movie star. However, if there’s one film from this year that people are going to remember from Hammer, it’s Call Me By Your Name. In Name, Hammer will play the initially cold but truly loving half of a gay couple known as Oliver. I won’t see this movie for another month, but by all accounts, Hammer’s performance is one worth talking about, charming and irritating, handsome and loving all at the same time. Plus, it gives us this gif, which would earn him a spot on this list by itself:
Hammer is supposedly in contention for an Oscar nom for the role, and such an award would be the perfect capstone to his truly entertaining year.
For years, Hugh Jackman has been one of the most consistent entertainers. Able to play a blockbuster tough guy or a musically-inclined gentle soul, Jackman has made himself a household name, particularly with his performance as Wolverine. In fact, he’s played Wolverine so many times, he’s the actor to portray the same hero the most times onscreen. And it is by playing on that expectation that he pulled off his greatest two-hander yet. You see, Jackman’s getting up there in age, and he can’t play the young, virile hothead forever. So instead of just handing over the role to someone younger, or continuing to play a role ten years his junior forever, Jackman produced, cut his salary for, and starred in Logan, a gritty Western superhero film. The film had its flaws, but it really demonstrated the skills of Jackman as an actor. Showing an aged version of the hero we’d all come to know and love, he made us watch an aged, dying version of our hero as he struggles to perform one last heroic deed. The film is emotionally rich and changed the way we watch superhero films, and there’s no doubt that this is because of Jackman’s abilities. But his year doesn’t end there. Also containing a sensitive side, Jackman has finally managed to get his original musical The Greatest Showman off the ground. While the film has yet to be seen, it’s clear that Jackman is bringing all of his acting and musical prowess to the film to try to give the world an ode to the 1950s-era extravaganzas that many people desperately crave. Going from an aging hero facing his final days to a striving showman trying to change the face of entertainment, Jackman’s range as an actor has helped secure him as one of the greatest showmen of 2017.
There is no name I’m more excited to write on this list than Kesha’s (perhaps even more so than the Entertainer of the Year). After breaking out as a talented backup singer, Ke$ha (as she used to be known) made a name for herself several years ago as a lively performer of bacchanal, combining her strong voice with the beginning of Auto-Tune to create a series of party-ready hits, along with a couple of slow songs to show her range. She became so big that she even had a short-lived reality show. And then…she vanished. Most people assumed her 15 minutes of fame were up, and perhaps even forgot about her. The truth was much more painful. She had [allegedly] suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of her producer, Dr. Luke, who retaliated against her complaints by refusing to allow her to release new music (a part of her contract). Despite several celebrity witnesses, documents, and more, the judge threw out her case due to statute of limitations issues (Dr. Luke’s legal team intentionally dragged the case out past the date), and reprimanded her in his statement for signing the contract, as if she could have anticipated it. This would be enough to break the average performer. But not Kesha. She regrouped, channeled her pain, and released Rainbow, one of the best albums of 2017. Mostly written in rehab, Rainbow covered the saga of Kesha’s pain, recovery, attempts to move on, and ultimately, her forgiveness of those who wronged her. The album biggest single was the world-conquering ballad “Praying,” which served as both a condemnation and offering of forgiveness to the monster who had abused her for so many years. The song went double-platinum because of its stripped down power, not to mention its additional use as the theme song to the #MeToo movement. And to top it all off, she played a small but key role in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, playing a young woman at a party who enters a discussion about the meaning of life, love, and art in the course of human events. Kesha has made herself a powerful symbol for victims, lovers, and goodhearted humans everywhere, and I’m proud to name her as one of the entertainers of the year.
Kumail Nanjiani (and Emily Gordon)
Ok, so this entry on the list actually technically includes two performers, even though I’m only going to officially name one. The reason for this is that while Kumail Nanjiani gets the vote for Entertainer of the Year across the board, he couldn’t have done it (quite literally) without his writing partner and wife, Emily V. Gordon. I’ll get to that in a minute. Instead, let’s look at the year that career supporting comedian Nanjiani has had. You see, Nanjiani has made himself recognizable everywhere this year. On TV, he continued his supporting role on Silicon Valley, stepping up to play a larger role in the ensemble, and getting some of the funniest scenes in the series as the unluckiest of the Pied Piper team. Meanwhile, he also finally got his chance to host Saturday Night Live, making himself game for a series of ridiculous sketches and delivering a funny, poignant monologue. Vocally, he served as a character in the Middle-Earth: Shadow of War video game (hilariously spoofed on Conan), as well as a major role in The Lego Ninjago Movie, which he stole out from under Dave Franco and Justin Thoreaux. However, it’s really been in film that he’s had his chance to shine. He starred opposite Taran Killam and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the funny comedy Killing Gunther, as well as stealing scenes as the only funny part of Fist Fight (to be fair: there were very few scenes worth stealing). But of all of his roles this year, nothing comes close to the little marvel that was The Big Sick. The Big Sick stars Kumail as…well, Kumail Nanjiani, as he meets a young woman named Emily, falls in love with her, and ends up having to connect with her parents in the hospital while she is comatose from an unknown disease. All the while, he struggles to open up to his family due to differences in faith and culture. It’s a marvelous ode to the romantic comedy, adding an honest, poignant angle to the struggling genre. And not only does Kumail own the movie – he has three scenes of emotional honesty that absolutely crush me every damn time – he helped write it. Why? Because it’s his life story, along with his wife Emily V. Gordon. Gordon is in every way Nanjiani’s equal, just as funny and lovable and real, and in writing the script alongside him, she has made herself just as deserving in the film’s success and praise. So it would be wrong to give him the title of Entertainer of the Year without rewarding her as well. They are equally two of the most important figures in pop culture this year. Oh, and on a side note, you should follow both of them on Twitter (@kumailn and @emilyvgordon respectively). They are very funny and very deserving of the follow.
I don’t think there’s been an actress to make me shout “YASSSSSSS” at the screen as loudly as Charlize Theron. Maybe it’s because I just saw Monster for the first time this year, but I’ve suddenly come to realize that as an actress, a dancer, a model, a spokesperson, an icon, and more, she’s just all around one of the most important figures in pop culture, maybe ever. And this year has been no different, when she demonstrated that even when she’s just kicking back and having fun, she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Take The Fate of the Furious, a film that requires no effort and has never featured anything close to a “good” performance. It’s just a bunch of actors and actresses looking good and kicking ass, all while having fun. And Theron enters into that universe with complete dedication. She seems like she’s having the time of her life chewing scenery as the villainous Cipher, a hacker who wants to watch the world burn. She relishes each evil action and faux-philosophical line she spits at Vin Diesel, and she does it all while wearing the world’s best-worst example of white dreds. Is it an intentional choice to make her look more sinister? Is it a bad case of cultural appropriation? I don’t know, but Theron’s the only one who can get away with it, so don’t you dare try. But while she’s an absolute blast in the Furious series, there’s no performance from this year as badass, as iconic, as fun as Theron’s performance as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. Theron’s performance in Blonde is the iconic, James Bond-esque female warrior the world has always needed: she’s stylish, she’s tough, she’s sexy, she’s smart, and she’s cold, all at the same time. Watching her play people against each other as she uses sex, violence, and Vodka as openly as Bond himself is worth the price of admission itself, and seeing her perform her own stunts as she beats Soviet spies to death as George Michael’s “Father Figure” plays in the background is absolutely remarkable. And she does it backwards, in heels. That movie works because each and every bruise on Theron’s body is real, each dance scene or body blow is executed wit the grace of an artist, and both performances demonstrate what it looks like when a great actress loosens up and has fun. There’s a reason both films were massive blockbusters, and it’s because Theron is the star the world needs. She truly is one of the best entertainers of the year.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR:
No actor, director, or musician has had as big, as special, or as incredible as Jordan Peele. He has branched out from his stand up comedy to make himself Hollywood’s next great auteur. After the end of Key and Peele, the comedians chose to go in quite different directions. Keegan Michael-Key made himself over as a respected actor of both drama and comedy. Peele, meanwhile, embraced his role as an idea man to make a bunch of fantastic projects come to life. This could be indirectly, like his minor role in Captain Underpants as the heroes’ rival Melvin. It’s a joy to watch Jordan portray the Establishment Nerd as an ode to Eddie Murphy’s White Man impression, and it’s one of the film’s best aspects. Then there’s the projects where Peele had a much larger role, like Big Mouth. While Big Mouth was much more Nick Kroll’s baby, and the best role was reserved for Maya Rudolph, it’s Peele who walks away with some of the show’s funniest moments. His portrayal of The Ghost of Duke Ellington, a version of the deceased musician who gives advice to the young heroes, gets several great moments and musical numbers, but there are two impressions that impress me even more. The first is the character of Atlanta Claus, a Tyler Perry spoof who appears occasionally to shout out Tyler Perry catchphrases for the audience. The second, and most importantly, is The Ghost of Freddie Mercury. If you have ever listened to a Queen album and thought “You know who would do a spot-on impression of the most flamboyant singer in history? That guy who does Obama,” then congrats; you’re the only person to do so. However, he not only does a spot-on impression, he sings an entire song for the audience, praising the joys of being gay for a young boy questioning his sexuality. It’s a rocking, hysterical moment, and somehow one of the best songs of the year. However, if there’s one thing we’re praising Peele for in 2017, it’s Get Out. Utilizing his talents for writing and storytelling he’d picked up from his stand-up and sketch comedy, Peele made the rarely-funny, entirely frightening little curiosity Get Out. It is, all in one go, a comedy, a drama, a thriller, a horror, and a fantastic film, all at the same time. Peele has proven himself to be one of the smartest writers and greatest directors in modern history, and Get Out is rightfully becoming a pop culture phenomenon, an awards darling, and one of the best films of the decade (I myself will be putting it in my Top Ten of the Year, and maybe in the Top Five depending on the next few weeks). And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he and his wife, Chelsea Peretti, had their first child together. I cannot commend him enough for being one of the greatest entertainers alive. And with the news breaking that Peele will be producing a Spike Lee film while creating the next generation of Twilight Zone episodes, I think now is the perfect time to coronate Jordan Peele as the Entertainer of the Year in 2017.
I hope you enjoyed this ranking of 2017’s greatest stars. The next few weeks will be dedicated to talking about Christmas, but we’ll be coming back on the 27th to begin listing the Best of 2017, including trailers, Television, Music, and, of course, the Top Ten Films of 2017. Stay tuned, and let me know who your favorite stars of 2017 were in the comments!