The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

Interior of a Movie TheaterWhat a great year for movies. 2017 will go down as one of the better years in past decade. Jodie Foster may be out there slamming superhero movies, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a couple of this year’s superhero movies are about nine million times better than Nim’s Island, so slow your roll Clarice.  Of course, as I say every year, here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes – and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only a handful have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. We’re getting better but movies like The Post, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, and Call Me By Your Name are still playing it aloof.

Anyway, Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 23rd, bright and early, and while Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2017.

The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of 2017

mother11!. mother! – Wait a minute; isn’t this a top ten list? Well yes it is, but sometimes something comes out of nowhere that takes you off guard, makes you uneasy, and doesn’t play by the rules (including those of grammar and punctuation!). So fittingly, a film that does all of those things deserves to have an unofficial spot in this year’s list. Now, never have I endorsed a film as impossible to recommend as this one is. My mantra as a critic has always been to write about and critique films based on whether they’re worth your time and money to see. This one, for most of you, is not. However, it is certainly one of the best films I have seen this year, and so it, just barely, belongs on this list. mother! is a parable of nature, religion, and humanity. It uses heavy handed symbolism to unwind its narrative in such a breathtaking and surreal way, that you may be struck silent by the time the credits roll. Another film, Get Out, does all of this to a lesser degree in my opinion, yet has received tremendous acclaim and attention. My hat tips to director, Darren Aronofsky who chooses not to play it safe, allowing mother! to just barely edge Get Out off my list of the best of the year.

war10. War for the Planet of the Apes – Did you see it? Probably not. This, now trilogy, has actually been quite extraordinary, and this third installment is the finest yet. This film has the feeling of an epic, and director Matt Reeves shoots it like a western. Andy Sirkis reprises his impressive role as Caesar, who is pitted against a crazed military colonel played by Woody Harrelson who is fighting off a new strand of the Simian flu that renders human survivors of the previous strand mute. There is a real sense of power and depth to this film and the visual effects are so well done that you easily forget these apes are CGI.

logan9. Logan – This is an X-Men film, but due to some creative play with franchise timelines, Logan gets to be something different. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film than the usual comic book fare, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids. Like the number 10 film on my list, this film is framed like a modern-day western, and in fact, there is an overt and critical reference to the 1953 classic, Shane. It is also directed by James Mangold, who is responsible for other “country-western” influenced films like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. While not for the faint at heart, this film is one that can be appreciated on many levels by all types of people.

last8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi A Star Wars film has made my list three years straight now, and while this is the lowest ranking one has had thus far, it would have probably fared better against 2015 and 2016 films. The sequel to The Force Awakens starts strong and finishes strong, which like Rogue One before it, is becoming a valuable trademark of these films. Director Rian Johnson takes a risk by exploring the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds to massive effect. He asks us to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

lady7. Lady Bird Welcome to the artsier part of the list, and Lady Bird is certainly that! This is one of the finer films that attempts to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. Ronan and Metcalf are outstanding and will certainly be tough to beat come Oscar time. Unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

coco6. Coco This is a great film. This is also the first full movie my daughter has ever seen with me, which makes it extra special. That aside, this movie is hard not to love. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. It’s also a great story about Hispanic culture, legacy, life, death, and tradition.

35. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Director Martin McDonagh has solidified his Coen Brother-influenced style with films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, now with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he goes full Coen even hiring Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand as the lead of the film, who incidentally gives one of the finest performances of her career. This twisty, quirky drama plays at first like a murder mystery, but quickly becomes something more. Woody Harrelson shows up on my list for the second time giving another excellent performance as Ebbing police Chief Willoughby only to be outdone by Sam Rockwell who gives a career performance as one of Harrelson’s officers. Incidentally, Lucas Hedges also has a small role as McDormand’s son, and he played a role in Lady Bird this year as well.

thor4. Thor: RagnarokWell, the Thor movies finally found their legs with this third film, which proves the third time’s a charm. This time, Thor discovers dealing with his brother Loki was child’s play in comparison to fighting his previously unknown sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.

dunk3. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan did it again. This is the third movie Nolan has released since I started doing these lists back in 2013, and with Dunkirk he’s 3 for 3! this is such a naturalistic film, that characters hardly matter, and Nolan even goes so far as to cast actors who all basically look alike. He does not want you to be invested in any one hero or character. He wants you to pay attention to the events, the feelings, the sounds, and the visuals. Nolan also implements his famous nonlinear story tricks that he’s become so famous for using in films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar to make the film even more engaging.

baby2. Baby Driver – On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It know that sounds weird, but it works really well. Like Dunkirk, story and characters takes a back seat to the experience of watching this movie. In fact, It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. In light of recent events, Kevin Spacey’s presence in this film retrospectively brings it down a peg, but Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed.

blade1. Blade Runner 2049It’s not shocking that a visually dazzling film from director Denis Villenueve would be my number one film of the year, but it is kind of surprising that that film would be a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. It dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are breathtaking. It’s no coincidence that my picks for the top three films of the year are complex, multi-sensory cinematic experiences. I think that is the legacy 2017 is leaving, and with James Cameron’s hotly anticipated Avatar sequels slated to start coming out in 2019 or 2020, I think we’re on the cusp of a truly spectacular evolution of the cinematic medium!

The Four Worst Films of 2017

I mentioned that 2017 was a pretty good year for movies, at least in terms of the ones I was able to see. That being the case along with the fact that I cheated and gave you a top 11, I will make things right here and just put up a worst 4.

atom4. Atomic BlondeThis one suffered from heightened expectations. It probably doesn’t objectively deserve to be on this list, but for me, Atomic Blonde was one of the most disappointing two hours I’ve spent at the movies in 2017. All we have is a middle of the road espionage film, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That is the recipe for a high risk of disappointment.

Murder3. Murder on the Orient Express – Speaking of “high risk of disappointment,” try remaking a 1974 Sidney Lumet film based on one of the most famous novels of all time after it has been made into at least five subsequent films over the 30 years in between. Bad idea. Kenneth Branagh is erratic at best as director and star, and while he assembled a decent cast, this is one of the most needless remakes of all time, offering no relevance or value above dull self-indulgence.

Justice2. Justice League – New year, another DC bomb! At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results came in and two of their films made my worst of 2015 list: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. This year, they maintain their reservation on my list once again with Justice League. I will say this, it’s their best bad movie yet, but it’s still bad. If you told me you could put Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in a movie together and still bore me, I’d say you were crazy, but it turns out this is entirely possible. The movie has some fun with some of the characters, but at the end it’s still a messy pile of egos, disorganized and faced off against yet another uninspired villain.

Fifty1. Fifty Shades Darker – How is this still a thing? This movie is unwatchable. This is actually the first time I’ve ever included a movie on any list that I did not actually see in its entirety. I used to have a rule that I would give every movie I review or critique the benefit of at least having seen it through. I can now no longer say that. Thanks Fifty Shades Darker. You have literally compromised my own values as a critic, and for that, you are the worst movie I’ve seen any or all of this year.

 

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Atomic Blonde

ABDirector: David Leitch

Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan

Maybe a movie like this could have flown before Netflix, before John Wick, or before Mission: Impossible, but not anymore. Atomic Blonde, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, plays like a Cold War action movie, but it tries too hard to be anything else.

Set in 1989, at the peak of the Cold War, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent in Berlin. Cue all the tropes you associate with this genre: mistaken identity, betrayal, secret list of undercover operatives, and so on and so forth. It even does the very thing this clip from The Other Guys is making fun of; it starts at the end, then goes to the beginning, periodically returning to the end, giving various characters’ perspectives. Ridiculous.

The other characters? Hardly worth mentioning, but Broughton is teamed up with another agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who may or may not be up to something. She also encounters a rookie French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who Broughton finds much more amusing than Percival.

Does it matter that this movie paints by numbers? It certainly doesn’t have to matter. Movies like Mission: Impossible and John Wick have very little going on upstairs, but what they do have is unrelenting spectacular action sequences! Atomic Blonde has one of those, and while it may be one of the best examples of an action spectacle in a long, long time, it doesn’t do enough to hold the other 90 minutes of the movie afloat.

Atomic Blonde the film wisely immerses us in the music of the times. The best part about Atomic Blonde is its selection and execution of the New Wave/Punk music of the time. Like Baby Driver, none of this music is original; the art is not in the music but rather the selections, arrangement, and placement. I have an even deeper appreciation of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” now.

So what do we have here? Do we have the “female James Bond,” as some publicized this film to be? No. We have middle of the road espionage, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That’s just enough to recommend it, but not without the caveat that it comes with a high risk of disappointment. C+

Atomic Blonde is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

It’s All About Choice

choice_mainThe recent film Baby Driver forced me to spend an unhealthy and inordinate amount of time contemplating film narrative development. My upcoming review of that film will go into more specifics in terms of how that film’s narrative is “driven” from a most unsuspecting source. In broader terms though, Baby Driver got me thinking about what at its core drives film narrative, and the answer I arrived at is one word: choice. Well choice, or the absence of it. Historically, there has actually been some debate about what the basis for Hollywood storytelling and narrative style is; however, in order to really arrive at any conclusions, we need to go back to the early days of film. There are actually two film theorists, Robert Ray and Jeanine Basinger, who hold two popular yet different views on the topic.  Robert Ray says in his book A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema 1930-1980, that classic Hollywood narratives revolve around the ideology of “the denial of the necessity of choice,” and this ideology can be utilized both in story as well as in film style/technique. What he means by this is that the narrative is propelled forward due to the appearance of a lack of choice for the protagonist and/or the filmmaker.  Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman’s View, on the other hand believes that choice, especially in the case of the movie female, is key to the storytelling and workings of classic Hollywood cinema.  Each of their views can be analyzed separately. For example, Ray’s view can be seen quite clearly in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach while Basinger’s view is well illustrated in Alfred E. Green’s 1933 film Baby Face.

Coach-1In his book, Robert Ray uses the western genre as the best way to document the “denial of the necessity for choice.  He focuses on the western male individual and his “ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crisis.”  Thus, Ray seems to believe the western hero, a man who is in complete control (or appears to be) of the world around him, is the ultimate example for his theory on how to drive a movie narrative.  Ringo (John Wayne) in John Ford’s Stagecoach is a character that strongly illustrates Ray’s theory.  Ringo is the perfect example for Ray’s statement that “the denial of the necessity for choice…discourag[es] commitment to any single set of values.”  Ringo has no solid set of values and the audience is well aware of this.  As the film progresses, the audience realizes Ringo is unique in the sense that they know the drunk is a drunk and the prostitute is a prostitute but they know very little, if anything at all, about Ringo.  Thus, he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.  This frightens most of the characters in the film at first, but Ford demonstrates that Ringo’s qualities are reputable and add to his control of the narrative.  One scene that shows this is the famous dinner scene.  In this scene, everyone stops to eat at a dinner cabin and no one wants to sit near the prostitute, but Ringo thinks that everyone leaves the table because they do not want to sit by him.  Here the audience sees Ringo as completely nonjudgmental and honorable.  Much of this also rings true to the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver. He remains a mystery to most of the other characters in his “stagecoach,” yet his stoic silence and individuality propel the film. Watch the scene where Baby jams to his tunes while Doc (Kevin Spacey) lays out the plans for the next robbery, and tell me there are no similarities to the dinner scene in Stagecoach!

This also brings up Ray’s statement about the “law” versus the “heart.”  He says, “This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some ‘natural’ standard.”  In Stagecoach, Ringo shows that he defies the law for a moralistic reason, avenging his brother’s death, both when he went to prison as well as with the gunfight at the film’s finale (both instances also echoed in Baby Driver).  Ford also uses stylistic technique to show Ringo’s control over his environment.  In the scene where Ringo is first introduced, he climbs into the stagecoach with all the other passengers.  Here, Ford positions Ringo in a way so that every time the camera goes to him he dominates his own frame.  All the shots of the other passengers share the frame with other people, but Ringo is always shown as alone.  This preserves his individual characteristics as well as to allow the audience to identify with him and trust in him.  Furthermore, Ford also allows Ringo to wander freely in and out of frame throughout the film.  Several scenes show Ringo with this freedom of movement.  This represents the fact that Ringo is in control of his environment.  Therefore, Ringo is a strong example of how the western hero can demonstrate the “denial of the necessity for choice” forcing audience identification and, thus, drives the film’s narrative.

BabyfaceThe 1933 film Baby Face is a film that fits nicely into Jeanine Basinger’s theory about women in film.  The crux of that theory is that films on one hand show women with a passion for success where there are unending opportunities and outlooks for them.  However, on the other hand by the end of the film this power of opportunity and choice they once had is somehow deeply undercut and forced in one direction which usually adheres to the current cultural status of women.  Baby Face demonstrates this quite flawlessly.  One scene that brilliantly illustrates Basinger’s ideology is towards the end of the film.  In this scene, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) has received Trenholm’s (George Brent) fortune.  This money represents all that she has passionately and ruthlessly worked for since she joined the workforce.  However, when Trenhom’s bank is bankrupt, Lily is faced with the choice to either help her husband whom she may love or leave with the money.  She eventually chooses love but at the cost of her husband shooting himself before she makes up her mind.  This alone strongly depicts Basinger’s theory that the woman full of passion is forced to make a choice, usually involving love.  However, Basinger is truly correct when the audience learns that Lily and the recovered Trenholm move to the factory town to start a new life together.  Here the film shows that Lily’s choice that she was forced to make deeply undercuts the passion she had earlier and she is forced to conform to a more socially accepted role for women of her time.  Thus, supporting Basinger’s statement that many films show women doing amazing things, however, in the big picture, the life of the average culturally accepted housewife is the best way to end up. Watch the evolution of Debra (Lily James) in Baby Driver compared to that of Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). How does the narrative treat them? What choices were made? Where do they end up and how does that reflect the current cultural status of women? Also, I would be remiss to not mention the similarity in title: Baby Face, Baby Driver.

MildredAlthough Ray and Basinger’s views are contrasting in some respects, I propose that the two theories can be reconciled.  An excellent example of this reconciliation can be found in an analysis of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce.  Although Ray and Basinger’s theories for the basis of classic Hollywood narrative success differs on many fronts, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce seems to correlate both theorists ideas into a very cohesive classic Hollywood narrative structure. It is at this reconciliation, that I believe we stand today in terms of what is driving our modern Hollywood narratives as well – Baby Driver being a strong example.  As Ray states, films of the classic Hollywood era were quite careful to try to draw as little attention as possible to the actual production of the picture itself.  That is to say, trying to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie or that choices are made for every step of the film’s progression.  However, as time passed many films began to deviate from this normal classic Hollywood style and create new genres of film style and mythology.  This transition away from the classic Hollywood style and storytelling did not occur over night and, thus, it is these transition films of the late 30’s and early 40’s that illustrate a clash of Ray and Basinger’s arguments.  Although they are still classified to be of the classical Hollywood style and narrative structure, these films also began to include new styles, choices, and techniques which, in the case of Mildred Pierce, were strongly focused towards the movie female.

choice2It is clear that Mildred Pierce demonstrates many of the characteristics Ray would say are commonly found in the classic Hollywood formula narrative.  For example, in the scene near the beginning where Mildred (Joan Crawford) is summoned to speak with Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), Curtiz uses classic Hollywood style to show Peterson’s control and authority over the situation.  In this scene Peterson is positive that he has found the murderer and he explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded.  In the first shot of the scene, the camera is positioned behind Peterson’s desk.  This shot allows Peterson to tower over Mildred as he stands up to greet her.  After he sits down, Curtiz cuts to a close shot of Peterson so that he dominates the frame as he begins to explain his case.  The camera then cuts to a longer shot of Mildred and then back to the same closer shot of Peterson.  This technique of cutting back and forth during a conversation while emphasizing one individual’s contribution more than the other’s echoes Ray’s theory of how there is very little choice involved here.  Like Ford, Curtiz too shows one character as completely dominant.  This method forces the audience to identify more with Peterson than with Mildred without drawing their attention to any camera movements.  This scene also uses other classic Hollywood techniques to show that Peterson is in control of this conversation.  Later in the scene Mildred wants to know who Peterson believes the murderer to be.  Peterson stands up and again the camera is positioned behind him allowing him to tower over Mildred.  After he tells Mildred that she is entitled to know who killed her husband, there is an eyeline match between Peterson and the buzzer on his desk, which alerts one of his officers to bring in the suspect.  Peterson is very much in control of his diegnesis here; all he has to do is push a button to make something happen.  This use of an eyeline match to reinforce Peterson’s control over the conversation helps suture the viewer into the film, and is also a common characteristic of the classic Hollywood cinematic style.  Before the scene ends, there is another shot that adds to Peterson’s control of the scene.  After Mildred’s first husband is brought in as the suspect, the camera cuts to another shot of Peterson.  In this shot, the camera is pointing slightly upwards at him to give him an aura of superiority as he confirms his position by saying calmly, “Yes, he did it, your first husband, Pierce.”  This technique again enhances the viewer’s trust and assurance in Peterson without drawing attention to the filmmaking process.  Thus, this scene is a very strong example of Ray’s theory that the classic Hollywood narrative is driven by an appearance of a lack of choice by the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

Basinger’s voice can be heard in another sequence of the same film. Mildred Pierce is one of the films of the late 30’s and 40’s that experiments with adding a distinct and noticeable style to the film and, thus, beginning to deviate from the transparent classic Hollywood style of filmmaking.  It seems that it is these stylistic sequences that hold strongly to Basinger’s theory of the movie female in classic Hollywood narratives.  A scene that demonstrates a deviation from classic Hollywood style is the final scene of the film.  Here Curtiz uses bright imagery contrasted with dark imagery in the same scene.  After Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has been discovered as the murderer, Mildred exits the police station.  As she exits, her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) is waiting for her.  As they leave the police station they walk out from the shadows and out through a bright sunlit arch.  This obvious contrast of darkness to brightness stylistically implies a positive future for the couple.  Here Basinger shines through as Curtiz creates an establishment or reestablishment of a man/woman couple.  He does this with rather expressionistic style as well as constructing his narrative so that the woman has made a very hard choice; Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter and, thus she chooses to start over.  This scene comes quite soon after the audience learns that Mildred lost her restaurant to Wally (Jack Carson).  This connection strongly supports Basinger’s statement that while movies say women should be both woman and wife, these same films show, (as in Baby Face) these “woman” options fail leaving the woman left to become the wife.

ChoiceRobert Ray and Jeanine Basinger have two very strong arguments about what drives a film narrative.  Ray has strong evidence to support his view that a film that guides the audience thematically and stylistically by displaying a “denial of the necessity for choice” is the best way to drive a narrative.  Stagecoach is a good example of this theory through use of the western hero.  Basinger, on the other hand, finds that characters, usually woman, forced to make a choice is what makes a film work and is seen in the film Baby Face.  However, most remarkably, is the fact that both theorists can be represented in one film, Mildred Pierce, and more modernly – Baby Driver, where their theories are demonstrated separately while still making the film work as a whole. This has lead to the evolution of the American film narrative paving the way for pioneers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most recently Edgar Wright.