December 29, 2017

Best and Worst Films of 2017

Top 10
Best Film of 2017: The PostSteven Spielberg can make a better movie using muscle memory than most filmmakers can while exerting full effort. Every element here is quality craftsmanship, from the scene construction to a hefty cast headlined by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The film, based on events surrounding the Washington Post’s publication of the classified Pentagon Papers in 1971, is also a polished polemic, drawing on our contemporary zeitgeist to reiterate the importance of a free, independent press.

2. Get Out—The dynamic of interracial relationships is the fulcrum of comedian Jordan Peele’s audacious directorial debut. Beyond mere gore, two elements have long been at the heart of the horror film genre: humor (intentional and otherwise) and social commentary. Get Out is quite purposefully funny. But it’s also deadly serious. Let’s be clear: Peele equates the black experience in America with a horror movie. What begins as a wry take on the clash of cultural assimilation morphs into a funhouse mirror reflection on cultural appropriation and even slavery.

3. The Florida Project—Writer-director Sean Baker follows his award-winning Tangerine with another film about lives along the periphery, a modern-day fractured fairy tale, a parable that doesn’t tell the story of royalty residing inside a grand castle or the bourgeoisie immediately surrounding it, but instead the hoi polloi of the realm living beyond its gilded gates. The film draws it title from the early name given to Walt Disney’s Orlando theme park project, Disney World, but its scope extends to the denizens subsiding along the margins of the Magic Kingdom

4. Mother!—Writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s latest is what would happen if Luis Buñuel adapted “The Giving Tree.” It’s a trying experience, prone to pretension and bedeviling narrative detours, but the payoff lingers. A Biblical speed walk through Genesis, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation, the film’s purpose is not principally ecclesiastic. Aronofsky, a self-described humanist, filters a pro-environmental message through a theological construct, making this film is a companion to Aronofsky’s adaptation of Noah as the story of an environmental catastrophe and an absentee God.

5. Lady Bird—As was writer-director Greta Gerwig, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is an early-aughts high schooler growing up in Sacramento yet yearning for the bright lights of New York City. The ensemble cast, led by Ronan, is awards-worthy, and there’s complexity in how the film even-handedly treats its antagonists. This is an astute, refreshing coming-of-age dramedy, but it’s more than that—it’s a paean to home and how we are a product of our formative setting.

6. Blade Runner 2049—Set thirty years after the original science-fiction film noir classic, the protagonist is again a laconic blade runner, this time an obedient LAPD replicant named K (Ryan Gosling), who makes a startling discovery that threatens to further blur the divide between humans and their flesh-and-blood avatars. Director Denis Villeneuve amplifies on classic philosophical and religious themes, from creation and mortality, to humankind’s technological and moral trajectory. Moreover, the original’s visionary cinematography gets an eye-popping update from the incomparable Roger Deakins, producing a postmodern landscape that ranges from neon-lit, chiaroscuro urban centers to the arid ruins of Las Vegas.

7. Molly’s Game—Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut in this adaptation of the memoir by real-life “poker princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), and the removal of that creative check allows Sorkin to mainline his already rapidfire prose. After Bloom is charged with running an illegal gambling den, she’s left with only one ally, her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, in fine form). Any narrative deficits are filled by Sorkin’s script, which truly crackles during the byplay between Bloom and Jaffey, as well as the ongoing narration describing the ins and outs of Molly’s world of underground poker, an exclusive playground for movie stars, business tycoons, card sharks, and even shady mobsters.

8. I, Tonya—Just when you didn’t think there were more dramatic depths to plumb from the Tonya Harding story, along comes this provocative dark comedy that examines the madcap madness of Harding’s (Margot Robbie) upbringing and her tumultuous marriage and skating career. Robbie is terrific, as is Allison Janney as Harding’s mom and harridan. But the star is director Craig Gillespie, who takes Harding’s (in)famous, tragic story and fashions an emblematic American folk tale.

9. The Big Sick—Pakistan-born standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, whose romantic relationship with a white woman runs afoul with both his and her families, particularly after she falls ill following their breakup. The whip-smart screenplay, co-written by Nanjiani, is both funny and heartfelt, aided by cross-cultural themes, dating in the 21st century, and outstanding supporting turns from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

10. Good Time—This hypnotic odyssey from directors Benny and Josh Safdie begins with a botched heist and continues through a crazed night in New York City, as one brother (Robert Pattinson) tries to break his arrested, mentally disabled brother out of a hospital. It’s invigorating cinema.

The Best of the Rest (alphabetically): Baby Driver; Brigsby Bear; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; Logan; The Lost City of Z; Only the Brave; The Shape of Water; Wonder Woman; War for the Planet of the Apes

The Bottom Rung
Worst Film of 2017: The Space Between Us—As if the surfeit of YA weepies hadn’t proliferated enough, now it’s invading other planets, too. Men are from Mars and women are typecast in The Space Between Us, which may as well describe the void left by an absence of adequate filmmaking. A boy raised on Mars (Asa Butterfield) escapes to Earth to find his online pen pal, even though he’s unlikely to survive our atmosphere. The real fault in this star system starts with the slipshod staging from director Peter Chelsom, whose last hit was Hannah Montana: The Movie. The special effects are the shoddiest this side of Spaceballs. Meanwhile, writer Allan Loeb follows up his excruciating screenplay for Collateral Beauty with a script highlighted by such lines as, “No matter how much I want Earth, Earth doesn’t want me.”

Baywatch—Stuck between a “Rock” and a hard place, this is a parody in search of a purpose. Even Dwayne Johnson’s considerable charisma can’t save this waterlogged caper, held together by neoprene and bad CGI.

Beauty of the Beast—It’s hardly politically correct to recoil from a romance spawned by a brute holding a young girl captive, positive that if she would only get to know him better that she’d learn to love him and cure his violent impulses. Our court system and women’s shelters are full of such stories. Emma Watson wanders aimlessly through entire scenes without purpose or design, and her go-to expression is a bemused, pursed-lip smirk for a role that demands a broad mien. Together, it’s the woolly mammoth meets the woolly personality.

The Book of Henry—A glorified TV thriller-cum-blatant tearjerker, the original screenplay by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X, et al.) passes the time with a diversionary subplot before arriving at a denouement that unfurls over the course of a school talent show and could have occurred at least thirty minutes of screen time earlier.

The Comedian—Robert De Niro plays a former sitcom star and comic icon spending the twilight of his life slogging through the grimy stand-up circuit. Director Taylor Hackford fashions the film like The Wrestler meets a long, dull episode of Louie.

Downsizing—Rarely have I witnessed the second half of a film spiral downward so quickly, decisively, and egregiously as this sigh-fi failure from writer-director Alexander Payne.

Fifty Shades Darker—It’s somehow fifty times worse than its irksome original. Forget the mopey characters and hamfisted dialogue; it’s the ongoing arrested emotional development of all the women in creepy Christian Grey’s orbit, the only discernible reason any of them would remain in his presence for longer than five minutes.

The Great Wall—This nod to Chinese folklore bloated into a middling, forgettable Hollywood actioner. There’s precious little authenticity, from the storyline to the excessive CGI to Matt Damon’s character as a cipher for American audiences. The entire spectacle devolves into fantasy crossed with cosplay history, trudging towards a haggard finale inside the Forbidden City that pivots on the power of magnets, for Pete’s sake.

The Mummy—The last thing you can say about Tom Cruise’s screen persona is that he lacks for confidence. But that’s precisely the sensation exuded in this batch of CGI silliness, a tonally turbulent monster mish-mash in which Cruise reads his lines like someone who first saw them five seconds before the director yells, “Action!”

The Snowman—A half-thawed, Norwegian-set thriller, with all the substance of frozen water and an abstruse story that immediately melts from your memory.

Most Pleasant Surprises
American Made
Girls Trip
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Kong: Skull Island
Only the Brave
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok

Most Disappointing
The Beguiled
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It Comes at Night
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The Film I Enjoyed Despite What Everybody Else Says
Justice League

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