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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 12:12 am

Movies 2017: A very good year

Saoirse Ronan as Christine and Beanie Feldstein as Julie in Lady Bird.

 

While I wouldn’t call 2017 a great year at the movies (that distinction goes to 1939 or 1968), it was a very, very, very good year, one of surprises, diversity and a sense of steadiness, as there seemed to be something worthwhile to see most of the time. It was a year in which Marvel Films dominated the box office, Warner Brothers proved they could make a great superhero movie (Wonder Woman) while continuing to appear befuddled as to how to handle their other characters (Justice League), and independent films scored big at the box office and gave critics less to grouse about.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2017 was that it was a dismal year where animation was concerned. Coming off 2016, which in the future may be seen as the last year of the great animated renaissance of the 21st century, where there was a glut of impressive products (14 features in all, with Zootopia and Moana among them), there was nothing of note where the major studios were concerned. Despicable Me 3, Ferdinand and Coco were passable but hardly groundbreaking. Only Loving Vincent broke new ground and is likely to be the only animated feature from the year that will be remembered in years to come.

One positive movement that built upon 2016 was the continued release of sophisticated or art house horror features. Jordan Peele’s bracing examination of racism titled Get Out, the French coming-of-age cannibal film Raw, Darren Aronofsky’s flawed but captivating Mother!, the supernatural love story titled A Ghost Story, and the paranoid thriller It Comes at Night, a parable for living in the Trump era if there ever was one, provided adventurous viewers with films that had a finger on the pulse of the unsettling times we live in. Since the horror genre often offers up subversive social criticism, look for movies of this sort to continue to flourish until 2020 … at least.

If there was a recurring theme throughout the movies of 2017 it was the sense of uncertainty that was so prevalent, the feeling that we are on shaky ground as a society. In addition to the horror films listed above, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, The Shape of Water and others tapped into the prevailing sense of unease.

The past year will also be regarded as the year in which the #MeToo movement derailed two major films, saw the termination of various actors from television programs and hopefully proved to be a sea of change in Hollywood culture. On the eve of the release of his independent feature I Love You, Daddy, a New York Times story broke containing allegations of sexual abuse concerning its star, director and producer Louis CK. The film’s release was canceled and has gone unseen except by those who got a DVD screener of it in the mail. (Count yours truly among them). Ridley Scott was forced to use some digital trickery and a good old-fashioned sense of determination to erase Kevin Spacey from his feature All the Money in the World and replace him with Christopher Plummer. Needless to say, the ripple effect caused by this movement has yet to reach its end point, as this story is far from over.

There were films I liked that you didn’t (Logan Lucky, Rings, Ghost in the Shell, The Mummy, Mother!, American Assassin, American Made, Only the Brave, Wonder Wheel), movies you liked that I didn’t (Split, Fifty Shades Darker, The Boss Baby, The Fate of the Furious, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Thor: Ragnarok), and those no one liked (Monster Trucks, Sleepless, The Great Wall, Table 19, The Circle, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Snatched, The House, The Snowman, Just Getting Started).

Compiling this year’s Top 10 list was a difficult chore, as there were so many worthy films that, during a normal year, would have made the list without a problem. However, as is always the case, what helped me determine those that would make the cut were the ones that moved me in one way or another. Each of the movies listed below did just that to one degree or another, reminding me once more of the medium’s ability to transcend its limitations and touch those viewers open enough to receive its bounty.

Lady Bird
– There’s really nothing original at all in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. The title character (beautifully realized by Saoirse Ronan) is a misfit high school senior stuck in a Catholic school who is anxious to flee Sacramento and her critical mother (Laurie Metcalf). You’ve heard it before, but what makes this film special is the genuine, sincere nature of the story, the humanistic performances from the entire cast and, I think, a yearning to see a normal family of today survive and truly love one another despite their differences. There are many lessons to be learned from this film, but I think seeing Lady Bird begin to thrive after a tumultuous, formative year is the secret to its success, as her perseverance is something we can hold on to in these perilous times.

The Shape of Water
– Director Guillermo del Toro’s take on Creature from the Black Lagoon is a parable for our times. A group of alienated people – a poor and mute woman (Sally Hawkins), a closeted homosexual (Richard Jenkins), an African-American woman (Octavia Spencer), an ignored man of science (Michael Stuhlbarg) – and one gill creature (Doug Jones) are the band of marginalized outsiders who come together to take on the cold-hearted government (personified by the tightly wound Michael Shannon) in this Cold War tale. The film is one of the most visually gorgeous and dynamic of the year. Its examination of the vagaries of prejudice and the desperate need for inclusion couldn’t be more timely. 



Ryan Goslin as Officer K in Blade Runner 2049.


Blade Runner 2049 – I was dubious when this sequel was announced as I thought it was just another entry in the nostalgia reboot subgenre of the past couple of years. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the cult classic improves on the original. Ryan Gosling is the Blade Runner of the future, a replicant that undergoes an existential crisis as he investigates a 20-year-old murder. Whereas the 1982 cult classic was visually groundbreaking, the film had a cool feel to it that prevented viewers from engaging with it on an emotional level. However, Gosling’s search for identity and purpose is heartbreaking and all too relatable, as Villeneuve finds the heart in this machine and brings it to the forefront.



Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan and Riley Keough as Mellie Logan in Logan Lucky.

 

Logan Lucky – The best movie no one saw in 2017, Steven Soderbergh’s return from his truncated retirement seems a more modest take on his version of Ocean’s 11. Yes, there is a heist pulled off by a diverse crew – a beleaguered dad (Channing Tatum), a wounded vet (Adam Driver) and a hillbilly explosive expert (a superb Daniel Craig) – but there’s far more at play here as the director takes a subversive approach in criticizing the financial inequalities in our country and showing how good, decent people are pushed to extreme measures to survive. It’s all great, disposable fun, but its message sticks with you in unexpected ways.

The Disaster Artist
– James Franco directs and stars in this tribute to the creative spirit as he gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the worst movie ever produced, The Room. Franco completely immerses himself in the role of Tommy Wiseau, the mumbling, delusional filmmaker, providing an abundance of laughs. Yet, the high-wire act he pulls off here by giving us a man we can laugh at but still maintain a sense of respect for is remarkable. An acknowledgement of all those who struggle to make their dreams come true, this speaks to the underdog in all of us.

Lady Macbeth
– This little-seen stunner from England is based on the book by Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov and concerns a young woman (Florence Pugh) in the 1880s trapped in an arranged marriage and the efforts she employs to free herself. Unintentionally prescient of the #MeToo movement, the film is a shocking tragedy from which its characters cannot escape and shows how one’s morals can be hopelessly perverted when feelings of entrapment and hopelessness take hold. Seek this one out, as you won’t soon forget it.



Ansel Elgort as Baby in Baby Driver.

 

Baby Driver – Like Lady Bird, there’s little original narratively in Edgar Wright’s bank robbery feature. Yet, what makes it distinctive is the sympathetic performance from Ansel Elgort, the roster of character actors used to bring to life its rogue gallery (Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal), and its innovative integration of music. As Baby careens around Atlanta, we’re privy to the music he’s listening to on his headphones and each chase is choreographed to the beat of those tunes. Great, great fun. Wright proves you can energize that which is cliched to great results.



 

Norman: The Moderate Rise & Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – Richard Gere gives his finest performance as the titular character, a low-level wheeler-dealer who’s constantly on the outside looking in until fate brings him in contact with an Israeli diplomat, a meeting that will unexpectedly change his life. The actor has built his career by portraying ambitious, well-put-together men, so it is a revelation when we see him so movingly plumb the depths of this man’s despair. Norman’s efforts to succeed at all costs results in the loss of his identity, something we all should be wary of.



Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily in The Big Sick.

 

The Big Sick – Threading the needle where comedy and drama are concerned is a perilous exercise, yet stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon succeed in pulling off this difficult feat with their screenplay based on their own experiences. He plays himself – a struggling comedian – and Zoe Kazan is Emily, the woman he loves, loses and then tries to win back after she slips into a coma. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) accurately bring to life the sense of anxiety and fear that would plague anyone in their situation while Kazan and Nanjiani’s chemistry has you pulling for them from the start. Touching and funny, this is the best romantic comedy in years.

It Comes at Night
– Trey Edward Shults’ paranoid thriller takes place in the near future where a mysterious plague has swept the country, killing many and wiping out our infrastructure to the point that people are now living in isolation. When a family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) takes a young couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their baby into their home, what begins as a benevolent gesture turns into a nightmare as distrust grows between them in very cramped quarters. Self-preservation is the driving force behind the film, one that couldn’t be more on topic as it points out that this mindset can often lead to impulsive actions, irrational fear and irreversible actions.

Tied for 11th place: Darren Aronofsky’s shocking Mother … Jordan Peele’s powerful cautionary tale Get Out … David Lowery’s oddly effecting romance tale A Ghost Story … James Gray’s gripping old-fashioned adventure The Lost City of Z … James Mangold’s powerful swan song for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) Logan … the poignant look at grief and redemption Frantz … the surprisingly moving biography of poet Emily Dickinson A Quiet Passion … Patty Jenkins’ glorious tale of empowerment Wonder Woman … the darkly comedic cautionary tale I, Tonya … and Sean Baker’s devastating look at modern poverty The Florida Project.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.


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