Monday, March 05, 2018

My Favorite Movies of 2017

Just a few observations before my very late list this year. As I was compiling all the information for these films, I was struck by how many of the directors of these movies wrote their own screenplays. I believe we have entered the second age of the cinema auteur and I believe this observation supports that theory.

This would also explain why my list is so long this year. As I usually do, I originally placed these films in order from my favorite to my least favorite of… well… all the movies I gave four stars to this year, which always seemed like a strange practice because I think they’re all great. I realized this as I started to write about Get Out and noticed it had somehow fallen all the way back to number 9 on the list. I moved it back up to the top three, because somehow the top three are my top three, but really none of the films on this list are really in any particular order because they are all incredible movies. I don’t think I ever felt the movies I honored on this list each year were all on such equal ground before.

Here are my favorite films of 2017:

The Shape Of Water
Fox Searchlight
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
R, 123 min.

To call Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy horror film “beautiful” is somehow insufficient. I don’t remember having such a feeling of witnessing beauty in cinema in quite some time. Yes, it deserves every bit of attention it is getting. There was a time when this movie would never have gotten a mention in a place like the Academy Awards, except for maybe make-up, production design and score. It would’ve shown up on every critics’ top ten lists, but never had a chance in major categories. It would’ve been released at maximum profit potential time, rather than being held off until the last minute for a maximum Oscar potential release. It would’ve been marketed as a horror/thriller, rather than the romance that it evokes just as equally. Oh, how times change.

Of course, it is also more than those labels I just slapped on it. It is very much about our changing times and the things that never seem to change. Genre films such as this are often ripe with thematic elements and allegory. To give you just a hint at the many topics from America’s tumultuous past and present this film tackles we need only to look at the cast of characters. Our heroine, Elisa, is a mute woman who nobody but her closest friends ever even notice. She has a latino surname name (although she is not latino) that means orphan. Her best friend is a balding gay artist. Perhaps here is the best place to point out that the film is set Baltimore in 1962. He appears to have been sacked from his graphic design job for the fact of his sexuality being let out in the open, although no such scandalous event is ever spoken of in such blunt terms.

Elisa works at a top-secret government facility as a cleaning lady. Her best (and apparently only) friend at work is a vociferous black woman, who despite her frank nature knows her place and when to keep quiet. The film’s villain is a hard-nosed government agent who tows the company line while despising everything around him, including the gloomy Baltimore environment and the “shithole” in which he works. He’s abusive and yet is convinced everything he does is for the good of all who surround him. Michael Shannon does a good job transforming this stereotype into a 3 dimensional character, however.

Like so many other great films of the recent awards history (e.i. The Artist and Scorsese’s Hugo), del Toro’s romantic horror thriller doubles a love letter to cinema. It is infatuated with the b-movie horror films that inspired its central dilemma as well as other genres over the years, like the cold war spy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. His heroine lives over an old time movie house that struggles against the then newly modern technology of television. Televisions also constantly feed the characters with images of old films that inspire the characters to strive toward idealized lives. Del Toro even inserts a black & white musical sequence into his fantasy. The film is funny and beautiful and topical and quite remarkable.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director & Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneuirin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
PG-13, 106 min.

For the 6 months that passed since I originally saw Dunkirk in the theater, this was steadfast my favorite movie of the year. Coming in second to The Shape Of Water in terms of Oscar nominations, the differences between these movies exemplifies the absurdity of calling any film of this caliber better than another. Dunkirk is a unique cinematic creature that calls upon little that came before it in its style and even the type of story it wishes to tell. Part of its style might boil down to writer director Christopher Nolan’s desire to avoid that misplaced adage that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie. It opens like many recent war films, more in the style of a Saving Private Ryan, where we see very young men fighting a horrifying battle, where death is indiscriminate, taking any life at seemingly random. However, the focus soon switches to the British army attempting to flee the coast of Dunkirk by boat. It becomes a game of survival where the devices of escape don’t actually exist due to uncontrollable weather conditions and a lack of resources. The soldiers’ struggles reflect the turmoil boiling in their own government in deciding what to do about the situation, but never actually depicting that end (see Darkest Hour to fill in that blank if you are unaware).

Dunkirk doesn’t tell a linear story, however, also to reflect the madness and disorganization of what the soldiers themselves were experiencing. It cuts between several storylines. A British foot soldier tries several different tactics to escape amongst the dwindling hope of the coastal extraction by the British Navy. A pilot tries to hold off air attacks on the soldiers waiting for means of escape with dwindling resources of his own. And two civilians set their personal vessel across the Channel to rescue the stranded soldiers after the government gives orders to commandeer the civilian vessels for the rescue efforts.

There is very little dialogue or exposition provided by the filmmakers. After a while it also becomes clear that the elements of the story aren’t being revealed to the audience in a linear fashion. These techniques have rubbed some viewers the wrong way, but they all combine to provide a wholly unique cinematic experience, one that places the audience into a war zone atmosphere in a way that captures the horrors and struggles of war that may be too close to the truth of war than we may want to know or re-experience for those who have already seen war. It evokes the feel of the films of Terrence Malick, but with an intensity of purpose that Malick seems to actively avoid. It is unique in a way that brings new definition to film as an art form. It is beautiful in its own way as well.

Get Out
Universal Pictures
Director & Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Lil Rel Howery
R, 114 min.

It’s easy to think of this movie as merely a fun entertainment, a good horror flick. But of course, that is part of the genius of it all. It is simply a good horror movie, but it is also so much more than that. Its inherent brilliance is deceptive. It only shows itself if you really are willing to examine it, and if you do that the riches of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut are nearly endless.

Peele, working from his own screenplay, wields allegory here like a weapon. He doesn’t just bludgeon the audience to death with it. Although he does do that; it’s a horror movie. The conceits of the plot are clearly a social critique of racism in our culture. However, there are times he uses allegory with the delicacy of a scalpel, and other moments where he turns it upside down and comes at it from another direction entirely. The movie is like a tree. If you cut it open, you’ll find concentric rings that reveal layers upon layers of allegory reflecting the layers upon layers of racism that infect our country to its core, ranging from outright racism to systemic “love thy neighbor” racism that many of us never even realize we’re guilty of committing.

The story follows an interracial couple, a black male and white female—the genders in this dynamic are as important as every detail in the movie. The two are embarking on their first visit to meet the woman’s family. She jokes that she doesn’t see why it’s important if she hasn’t told them he’s black. The man is put at ease to find that her parents appear to be very liberal about race and progressively minded, however, he’s never fully at ease.

Peele fills the film with humor, as well as all of the necessary horror tropes of surprising shocks, gore and perpetual attempts of escape that define the genre, but nothing is ever included without purpose. A deer that the couple hits on the way up to her country childhood home and a wisecracking friend don’t merely just fill the horror movie trope quota for the film, but also signify important obstacles in race relations. Like so many horror movies, a lack of belief from authority figures into the plot, here it also exemplifies the inequalities in our justice system. Nothing is wasted in this film. Nothing is gratuitous in this movie although its genre has a reputation for gratuitousness.

Baby Driver
TriStar Pictures
 Director & Writer: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey
R, 112 min.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is the most utilitarian entry in this list. It is an example of an artist using every tool at his disposal to create what boils down to being just what it is, a fun entertainment. It is a mastery of photography, editing, soundscapes, and motion. The words in the script don’t really mater. The performances, although they are good (especially Hamm), are only the means to an end. I don’t believe there is really any deeper meaning to be found here. This is a heist picture, one of the most spectacular ones ever made.

The story follows a young man known only as Baby. He drives. It’s what he’s best at. He’s a get away driver used on a series of different bank robbing teams organized by the unwavering Doc. Baby has a hearing problem and uses music to soundtrack everything in his life. His getaway soundtracks have to be perfectly timed to keep him in the rhythm that allows him to drive so well. It sounds almost absurd, but on top of this premise Wright builds one of the most dramatic heist films ever, fueled by the very soundtrack Baby uses to pace his life.

It would be interesting to learn exactly how they filmed this. Most of it is done with the expert editing of Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss under the close scrutiny of Wright, but some of the music and action must’ve been choreographed practically. There is nary a moment when the images of the film are not underscored by popular music of some kind. Sometimes there are practical sources for this constant musical accompaniment. It hardly matters whether the characters are involved in intense action or captive in an emotional moment, the music only seems to stop for expositional dialogue. Even then, Baby is a fluent lip reader who rarely takes his ear buds out to listen to a conversation, not that he could hear a conversational volume level anyway.

Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Based on characters in the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis
R, 164 min.

Denis Velleneuve’s big budget sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic sci-fi Blade Runner also utilizes every aspect of filmmaking to a very high degree. Music, sound, photography, editing and CGI effects combine for a much less utilitarian film than Wright’s Baby Driver, and one much more profound in its study of just what makes us human, both good and bad. Following up Scott’s own very unique take on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi fantasy was a daunting task to say the least, impossible at worst. Despite the fact that the studio quite erroneously believed such a task could provide a blockbuster experience, Villeneuve hardly fails to live up to the standards of the original, and in my estimation, quite surpasses it.

People often forget how cerebral the original Blade Runner is. 2049 takes every thought started in that film and expands them tenfold. It immerses you in its dystopian future world with sounds and images that take time to decipher. Then it asks just what it is to be a sentient being. In the first film, it was left up in the air as to whether its hero was a human or not. Many viewers never even questioned if Deckard was human but assumed it was asking of the replicants he was hunting whether it was right to treat them as tools after giving them souls. In this one it is clear from the beginning that our hero is a replicant himself. Yet what does his sentiency necessitate as a lifeform. It takes the question further by introducing digital representations of artificial life that are thought even a lower form of sentiency than the replicants, mere sex toys used by both humans and replicants. The levels of social order expand even greater than the disparity seen in our social orders today.

It’s true that Blade Runner 2049 falls far short of passing the Bechdel test or any other measure of gender equality that is becoming more prevalent in today’s society. The women here are too disposable and subservient to celebrate any sort of equality progress in this film. Even Robin Wright’s police lieutenant is subservient to the flawed system within which she works. However, it’s story is a reflection of the world we have lived in up to this point in history. Perhaps this is why no attempt has been made to change the timeline to more plausibly fit this universe into a possible future of our own.

Phantom Thread
Focus Features
Director & Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
R, 130 min.

Phantom Thread, on the other hand, might be a film representing the epitome of our times in terms of female empowerment. Paul Thomas Anderson’s striking masterpiece (among a career of many different kinds of masterpieces) plays like a classic period romance and almost typical portrait of a tortured artist and the unique ways he tortures those he loves. Unlike so many period romances of the past though, the object of the man’s desire has a mind quite her own and a modern sense of how to read this layered man.

The film involves Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned fashion designer, who finds his inspiration in young women who live with him and his sister, partners in their business, until his desire for them wanes. He meets a new muse in Alma, who doesn’t take to the new life style as readily as some may have, yet continues to find ways to remain necessary to Woodcock, even managing to turn his need for her into something resembling a twisted sort of love.

For much of the film, I was impressed by the production design, costumes, acting, direction, and skill of the writing, but struggled to find exactly what set this movie apart from other period-stylized doomed romances I’ve seen before. However, in the final 10 or 15 minutes of the movie, Anderson’s screenplay twists the expectations of such a plot ever-so-subtly on its side in such a way that, not only the ending, but also everything that comes before it is seen in a much darker light that somehow saves these lovers from the broken fate that seems inevitable for them. It changes everything about the film without betraying the characters or the style. It’s as remarkable as the performances required to pull it off. I was very happy to see the surprise acting nominations for the movie, especially for Lesley Manville, who plays Woodcock’s sister and business partner with perfect control and understanding of everything in his world except for Alma.

I, Tonya
30West, Neon
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser
R, 120 min.

It’s important to remember while watching I, Tonya, that right at the beginning of the movie the filmmakers offer a disclaimer to its “based on a true story” claim. It explains that it’s based on the words of Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, whose stories about their involvement on the attack of Harding’s competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, contradict each other and have changed throughout the years. Many critics of the film seem to be taking the filmmakers at their word, which is ridiculous as they constantly challenge to audience throughout the film to question what they are seeing, even going so far as to have characters break the fourth wall and literally question what the audience is seeing. Tonya even says at one point, “I never did this,” as we watch her fire a shotgun at Gillooly. Do we take her at her word or the filmmaker’s image at its image?

The brilliance of this movie is that it isn’t about the truth of what happened, but it is about what makes people do the things they do. Ambition, pride, greed, stupidity—at any point in time, we are all guilty of making choices that serve ourselves above others for these and any number of other reasons. What is true about I, Tonya may not be the details, but the situations ring quite true. People who love each other can be cruel to each other. People who are talented can overreach for their just desserts. Some people are just plain stupid.

I, Tonya also tackles some very timely subjects. It is a portrait of a life of abuse. When someone lives life abused, it will negatively affect their life and their choices no matter how talented they are. The exposure of this cycle of abuse is something the filmmakers can be proud of. Many people who live these lives don’t even realize how their choices perpetuate the cycle. A film like this can offer details that abusers and the abused might recognize, and take steps to change.

The movie also exposes the reality of the class system that has long been a subject of denial by the country at large. There is a class system in this country and it works very destructively in the lives of those who find themselves in an immoveable position at the bottom of the class scale. We do look down on the down trodden in this country because we can rarely separate the symptoms of those afflicted by their station from the people themselves. When someone possesses the obvious talent that Harding did, why should she have to work harder than privileged peers to get noticed for that talent? Whether Harding was actually involved in the attack on Kerrigan or not, Harding’s talent was assaulted by society at large long before that fateful day.

Call Me By Your Name
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: James Ivory
Based on the novel by: André Aciman
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel
R, 132 min.

Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is a romance about first love. People might not realize how particular that makes this movie. It isn’t an overview of love like so many romances are. This isn’t the Clift Notes version. This movie depicts what it’s really like to discover love for the first time. Its main character, Elio, a 17-year-old American-Italian boy, isn’t even fully aware of what he is discovering at first. The fact that his feelings are for a man and not the female peers that first provoke his sexual discovery makes the experience even more confusing for the boy and in another way more assured that what is overcoming him truly is love in the end.

Taking place in 1983 in a summer cottage in the Italian countryside, the film is very much a period piece as well, a costumed drama if you will, that employs short shorts in lieu of top hats and corsets. Thinking of it in that fashion, it makes perfect sense that it is from a screenplay written by a king of period romances, James Ivory, known for his long-time collaborations with Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Ivory’s screenplay perfectly captures the cautious nature of a first love, taking pains to postpone the revelation of the lovers feelings toward each other until it feels it may injure them or the audience. This is important for the vulnerability involved in any love and the still forbidden nature of homosexual encounters at the time.

The object of Elio’s desire is an older man, Oliver, who has come to Elio’s family’s summer home as a graduate student studying under Elio’s father as a history researcher. Despite the age difference between Elio and Oliver, there is never the sense of either taking advantage of the other. Their feelings are always genuine, which goes to exhibit how rare and special love of any kind can be. Their journey is a truly beautiful one, matching the beauty of the Italian countryside that surrounds them. Call Me By Your Name is a gentle film that deals with the full power of emotion that inhabits love. It never strikes a false note, and it doesn’t pretend that first love is ever the only love. It may be the most painful, however, even in its most beautiful ways.

Personal Shopper
IFC Films
Director & Writer: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Kristen Stewart
R, 105 min.

Olivier Assayas enjoyed working with Kristen Stewart so much for her Caesar-winning performance in his film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) that he wrote Personal Shopper with her in mind. She must’ve have been just about all he had in mind, since there is hardly another role in the movie that even registers as a supporting one. Like her role in the former movie, she once again plays a personal assistant to a pop culture star. And once again, she spends a great deal of her time in her role communicating via smart phone. That’s about where any plot or character similarities end between the two movies.

It might be shocking to some to learn that Personal Shopper is a ghost story of sorts along with being a horror movie of other sorts. To call the pace of the film languorous might be an understatement, and yet it is endlessly fascinating. Beautifully shot by Yorick La Saux, who also shot Sils Maria, the film’s atmosphere is both haunting and claustrophobic. It seems to accept that ghosts are a real phenomenon, although it questions whether they affect the story in the way Stewart’s character believes. She is a self-proclaimed medium in mourning of her brother, who recently passed. She’s convinced he’s trying to communicate with her, when it becomes apparent that she may have made contact with another spirit.

Assayas never forecasts where he his headed with his plot. There are developments you’d never expect. All the while Stewart holds the camera captivated. Assayas admits a fascination with modern society’s obsession with texting. He likens it to communicating with the dead and he turns that parallel into a slow burning thriller. One texting sequence is the film’s masterstroke; building tension in one of the most original ways I’ve ever seen. During a journey, Stewart communicates with an unknown person on her phone. The texts begin as an annoyance but build into a frightening encounter contained entirely to the phone. There is a palpable threat to her being. This sequence should stand in film classes for years to come as a magnificent cinematic example of how to build tension.

War for the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Fox
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Based on characters created by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer
PG-13, 140 min.

Subtlety is not an aspect you expect to find in a major blockbuster franchise, especially one that imagines a future in which apes take over the planet as the master species over man. And yet somehow, subtlety has been a major storytelling edict of the latest trilogy reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. Starting with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where an incredibly understanding, accurate, and heartbreaking story about Alzheimer’s Disease instigates a plot that destroys most of the human race and imbues apes with greater intelligence and language, the Apes movies have tackled very human issues of bigotry and morality with some of the most amazingly realistic CGI and motion capture performances of even the biggest of blockbuster films.

Lead by Caesar, the ape who began everything, the apes try not to impose themselves on the few humans that remain, but man’s nature for war persists on endangering his tribe. So with a few compatriots by his side Caesar embarks on a journey to settle things with the humans and rescue apes that have been taken as slaves. The opening scene raises haunting questions about white men’s history of employing natives to lands they are invading to help them in their cause of destroying and enslaving the members of the very culture of the servant natives.

Caesar’s journey leads to the discovery of further developments in the human demise, which draws questions about the morality of conquest versus the inevitability of it. What always impresses me about this franchise is its willingness to enter into philosophical quandaries to support the action these films predict. War for the Planet of the Apes is the most successful in the franchise at this practice. No action Caesar takes is without careful consideration of its morality and consequences. The same cannot be said for the humans, lead by Woody Harrelson’s Kilgore-esque performance. However, even the humans are not complete monsters, as they are merely fighting for their own survival, and fighting mostly against an enemy they can no more see than they can control. Can they really be blamed for lashing out at one against whom they can do both?

The Big Sick
Lionsgate, Amazon Studios
Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler
R, 120 min.

I understand that many of my favorite movies can be acquired tastes. With The Big Sick, I have discovered a movie that I want everyone to see. This is a wonderful movie that I can’t imagine isn’t up anyone’s ally. It’s a romantic comedy, but don’t let that turn some of you off, because it isn’t some dumb plot made up of people not expressing how they really feel about each other and stumbling upon some made up conflict that only occurs to a screenwriter when it’s late at night and he’s out of ideas to turn his funny observations on love into a feature length screenplay. And, it’s not just a romantic comedy. It’s a human dramadey, it’s a look at the life of stand up comics, and it contains a couple of the year’s great supporting performances.

The Big Sick is a mostly autobiographical story by its screenwriters, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, about the quite unusual circumstances surrounding their falling in love. Nanjiani plays himself, while Zoe Kazan is just about perfect as Emily. The two meet and strike a cord with each other, but Kumail fails to let Emily know that his family is actively trying to arrange a marriage with him and just about any Pakistani girl as per their religious beliefs. When she does discover this, their relationship is hardly far enough along for Emily to believe she can commit herself to a man who has that to fight against before their relationship can really go anywhere; so she calls it off

Necessary spoiler here! Not long after that Kumail is called by a hospital when Emily falls ill, and because he is the only person they can get a hold of, he’s put in the position to make a life-altering decision for this woman he has barely yet gotten to know. Her parents are eventually contacted, and because he was the one who made the decision, their assumption is that he was a serious boyfriend. So you’ve got that typical Hollywood conflict that has come about in a very non-typical way, making this a most appealing and interesting romance. All the while Kumail must continue to live a kind of a double life with his own family, who doesn’t approve of a relationship with a non-Pakistani woman and a comedy career that is just at the point where he could break into a bigger arena.

The most wonderful aspect of this film are the performances, however. Kumail proves his undeniable charm with some harsh comedy sequences and his constant rock in a hard place position. Kazan takes what in any ordinary rom com would be a totally thankless role—she spends most of the film off camera in a hospital bed—and imbues it with the charm and tenderness necessary to allow the audience to see what makes Emily so special. Nor does she dodge the tricky position that her character also finds herself in once she begins to get better.
Ray Romano proves there’s much more to him than a television sitcom buffoon with his performance as a father who is spiraling into despair for his daughter because of his own helplessness in the situation. But it is Holly Hunter’s performance as Emily’s mother that becomes probably the most criminal omission from the Oscar nominations this year. Hunter’s pragmatic portrayal is serious and funny, and so wonderfully captures everything there is to being a parent to a child in danger. Please watch this movie. It is available on Amazon and free to Prime members.

Lady Bird
Director & Writer: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues
R, 94 min.

I’ve heard some people complain that Lady Bird is just a typical formulaic coming of age story. It is a coming of age story, and it follows the formula of one pretty religiously, but it is far from typical. This is a wholly original coming of age story that takes those formula tropes and exemplifies just why they are the formula by giving us a genuine teenager, who is a genuine woman, and who has genuine parents. In a typical coming of age story the adults are usually very inaccurately represented if they have a presence at all, and the truth is no matter how much resentment a teenager has toward their parents, parents are one of the biggest influences in our coming of age.

The central relationship in the movie is between mother and daughter. Saoirse Ronan artfully portrays “Lady Bird” as a teenager experiencing every emotion and every desire a person can have, which is pretty much what being a teenager is. Laurie Metcalf is her over-protective mother, whose reasons for being so boil down to real life problems of economics, overstress, and a keen sense that she is about to lose all control of her daughter’s destiny. Sadly, this is what being a parent is, and no teenager out there has the capacity to realize it. Matcalf’s Oscar nomination is well deserved.

Greta Gerwig’s screenplay is at times painfully personal. It is also funny, but more so it understands that people, especially teenagers, rarely make the right choice on their first try. There are times when you just don’t like “Lady Bird”, a name the main character gives to herself. I remember when I decided that I didn’t want to be called Andy anymore, even though everybody in my life called me that. I started introducing myself as Andrew to everyone. It never took. Another detail that really spoke to me about this particular take on the teen coming of age story is the characters’ relationship with the city of Sacramento. The place you grow up in has so much to do with how you wind up defining yourself and will always hold a special meaning that even other people who hold the place sacred will never quite understand.

Good Time
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Lennice Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhab Abdi, Necro, Peter Verby
R, 101 min.

Good Time is one of those movies that probably isn’t for everybody. I liken it to a remake of Martin Scorsese’s film After Hours were it made by the minds behind the video game Grand Theft Auto. The story involves two brothers, one with mental deficiencies, who botch a bank robbery. The mentally challenged brother is caught and jailed. After attempts to free him on bail fail, the free brother learns that his brother was hospitalized after an incident in lock up and decides to go to the hospital and break him out. It would be wrong to reveal much more, but what does happen turns into an epic night-long adventure bringing the free brother into contact with various people of low reputation.

The Safdie Brothers excel in raising the stakes for Robert Pattinson’s character, who isn’t that good at making smart choices to begin with. His dedication to his brother is noble; the lengths to which he is willing to go are not so much. He uses people. He cheats and steals. He’s a street hustler who has a charm that can barely compete with his need to do wrong.

What this hustler has at the end of everything is nothing to show for his great effort. But, it’s important that his needs are very basic. All he really wants is to do right by his brother, who unfortunately is one of the victims of his misuse and abuse of everyone around him. It is never even clear whether he knows that his brother’s fate is his own fault, but he’s going to fix it no matter what. That makes Good Time a character study of a man’s determination to achieve without any resources whatsoever. It exemplifies the survival instinct of human nature in a man that is determined to pay his own personal survival over to another. In a life with no resources, that may be the noblest gesture of all.

The Beguiled
Focus Features
Director & Writer: Sofia Coppola
Based on the novel by: Thomas Cullinan
Based on the screenplay by: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Rieke, Emma Howard
R, 93 min.

In this new age of the auteur, simplicity has fallen by the wayside. It is rare to find the same type of simply rendered auteurship that we saw during the last age of the auteur in the 70s. It would be easy to dismiss a movie like Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled as not eventful enough. In fact, I believe it has been dismissed, which is surprising considering the #metoo movement with which it falls so easily in line. Had it been released six months later than its odd summer release date, I’ve no doubt that it would’ve been a frontrunner in the awards season.

The allegory of a shady Union soldier finding himself under the care of a school for girls behind enemy lines during the Civil War is easy enough to follow. The fact that Coppola characterizes him as she does is frighteningly parallel to events that sparked the tipping point in the narrative of the female empowerment movement last fall. The characters are implicitly important to the current conversation about sexual harassment going on in our media today. The women presented here are all very different in their approach to this man injected into their isolated environment. Some want to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Some see him as a way to recapture what the war has taken from them. Some approach him in the same predatory way they might accuse him of approaching them. Where his presence takes them is certainly not the best-case scenario.

Coppola carefully approaches her material here as if in anticipation of the new reality that men and women find themselves in terms of sexual implications in the workplace. She includes nothing here that is not necessary. Every breath is considered to its fullest implications. It plays like a horror movie, which is by no means a mistake. And yet, the climax is fairly unsensational. While many might call it anticlimactic, I believe it is a reality check, a way for Coppola to point out how easy it is to get from presumption to crime against morality. Also notice her use of color throughout the movie. There are portions of the movie that appear to be black and white or sepia-toned, but when the end reveals the reality of everyone’s human nature, their surroundings appear to be in full and dazzling color.

Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Joon-ho Bong, Jon Ronson
Cast: An Seo Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Jose Carias
R, 120 min.

Okja is movie I could’ve never imagined being made by anyone 10 years ago. Even with the creative power behind Korean filmmaking finally reaching America at about that time, the concept alone here is practically beyond imagination. Its execution would’ve been impossible not long ago, both in terms of the digital rendering required and the unprecedented international collaboration between western and eastern artists. But ever since Joon-ho Bong’s contribution to the Kaiju monster craze with his wonderful The Host, he has been working toward something of this epic scope in conception. His Snowpiercer proved that such a collection of actors could be brought together, and now we get the global science fiction that the genre has always demanded.

The story by Bong and screenplay collaboration with British writer Jon Ronson imagines a future where a large conglomerate corporation develops genetic manipulation into food production. They hold a contest for farmers to rear their latest creation, a giant cow created to end hunger. A little girl’s father wins one of the cows, but when it comes time for the company to collect its matured product, the girl has grown to love the animal. She’s named the creature Okja, who acts as her protector. Needless to say, the film acts as an artifact of animal rights propaganda, but like all good science fiction it raises many more questions about human existence.

The movie employs a great deal of humor over its running time as the corporation tries to use the girl as a PR opportunity, all the while never wavering from its plans to slaughter Okja. Tilda Swinton plays a duel role of sisters each trying to run the corporation in their own way, while living up to the twisted business ideals of their father. The themes of this science fiction don’t restrict themselves to the failings of corporate greed and the morality of breeding livestock, but also tackles the complexities of familial and social relationships and even what defines a soul. It is an epic science fiction that covers as much thematic ground as it does geographical.

The Post
20th Century Fox
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Bree, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemmons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, John Rue
PG-13, 116 min.

Spielberg is arguably our greatest living filmmaker. A pioneer of the modern blockbuster, he receives more criticism these days than he once did. A frequent dig at him by those who grew up with him is that he’s a sensationalist. Ironic since it was that sensationalism that made most of us fans of his to begin with. Lately, he seems to be trying to answer those jibes with fairly grounded productions of real life events. Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are in some ways the antithesis of the films that made him famous. The Post can be added to that list, but his message here is more important than any he’s ever delivered.

In his latest, Spielberg has set out to tell the story of the leaking and publishing of the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, this was a report conducted by the Pentagon that proved that the government enacted policies that called for it to lie to the American people about the progress and American success in the very unpopular Vietnam War. In telling this story, Spielberg is making a not so subtle rebuttal to current trends in political circles to call into question the credibility of journalists and mainstream media that tell stories certain politicians don’t want told. The movie itself allows the events depicted to unfold in a way that it becomes clear that what journalists do is very difficult and often at great personal and professional risk.

Of course, a name like Spielberg is able to surround himself with the best of the best. From Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep to the reunion of the Mr. Show duo, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, on a very different level of seriousness, the acting across the board is phenomenal. The score is one of John Williams’s best. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Januz Kaminski captures the 70s atmosphere impeccably. Also placing the film perfectly within its time are the costumes by Ann Roth and Rick Carter’s production design. This is professional filmmaking hitting on all cylinders.

Director: Dee Rees
Writers: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees
Based on the novel by: Hillary Jordan
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan
R, 134 min.

Mudbound is a portrait of the South and racism like none I’ve ever seen before. Taking place in the years following emancipation when a man who would’ve at one time been a slave to a landowner is now a partner sharecropper, and the relationship between the two races really hasn’t changed much. The story is told from four different points of view and covers entitlement and female rights at the same level as racism.

We see a farming community struggling with the poverty of the Depression just after the country has entered World War II. Instead of the progression of new minds, all there is to make life work are those who are accustomed to old ways and those that are too broken to serve the country in war. As those who have been enlightened by the camaraderie of battle return to work the land, tensions rise as ideals and attitudes clash. Two families are the focus of these events. The McAllens who struggle with their own inner demons as the new generation tries to restart as farmers and the Jacksons, the black sharecroppers trying to make a mark with their freedom, while too frequently being pulled back into old patterns by the McAllens’ dependence upon them.
The movie is an example of one of those incredible ensembles that hits all the right emotional marks, nailing a volatile situation on the ragged edges that creates it. Like Spielberg’s experienced mastery, Dee Rees (with much less experience mind you) orchestrates an entire production to operate each individual part to the finest perfection, making the whole a masterwork of filmmaking. Most impressive is the depressing environment she creates with the help of cinematographer Rachel Morrison. It seems to always be raining, and yet the photography captures the beauty of their perpetual mudbound state.

Whew! That took some time. I really need to consider cutting it back to ten films again.

I also very much enjoyed: Alien: Covenant, Cars 3, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, Ghost in the Shell, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Kedi, Logan, Murder On the Orient Express, Spiderman: Homecoming, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Super Dark Times, They Call Us Monsters, Thor: Ragnarok, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Wonder Woman.

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