Best and Worst of 2017
Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer and director is remarkably self-assured. The screenplay is grounded in love and honesty and her filmmaking is in command of the rhythms of comedy. A seasoned ensemble of terrific actors create complex and recognizable characters. Review
No good deed or well-meaning intention is left unpunished in Ruben Östlund’s dry comedy concerning an art installation called The Square. The film explores the awkward collisions of art and life; not even the audience is spared. Scenes and details, intended to defy explanation, are injected into the story to irritate viewers and foil sober-minded critics. Elizabeth Moss is excellent as an earnest and befuddled American journalist covering the art scene in Sweden. In one disarming and timely scene she confronts dapper museum curator (Claes Bang) and accuses him of seducing and abandoning her. Her accusations go nowhere.
Jordan Peele honed his writing on the TV series Key & Peele and as a cast member on Mad TV. His well-deserved success with this comedy/horror film about race in America has you laughing one second and squirming the next. It audaciously skewers the hypocrisy of black/white history as well as current pieties about improved relations.
Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino sensitively adapts André Aciman’s novel about a romance between a good-looking older man and a precocious 17-year-old. The narrative is set in the amidst of the small towns and romantic landscapes of Italy in the summer of 1983. Emotionally honest and physically bold performances are supplied by Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothee Chalamet as Elio. As Elio’s father, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a memorable speech in praise of wisdom and compassion.
Killing of a Sacred Deer
Colin Farrell’s kindly heart surgeon befriends oddball Barry Keogan, who is the son of a man who died on the doctor’s operating table. The ensemble delivers comically mundane lines with an effectively muted affect. We are left feeling unmoored as the plot becomes increasingly bizarre: characters act without motives and the visuals are increasingly quirky. The result is a hysterical comedy of middle-class manners that somehow morphs into the horrifically mythological. A beautifully shot, wonderfully creepy film.
The Florida Project
This rambling, shaggy story of a wayward mother and her unruly 6-year-old daughter living in a hotel outside Orlando, Florida is anchored by the performance of little Brooklynn Prince. Willem Dafoe is the sympathetic hotel manager. As he did with Tangerine (2015), director/writer Sean Baker knows that love is still precious to those living, preciously, on the fringes of society.
Jennifer Lawrence is beset by unwanted visitors and a series of apocalyptic events in an old house she shares with her sanctimonious and oily writer husband, played by a Javier Bardem. Things start poorly, get worse, and finally descend into Armageddon. Review
Shooting in 70mm film and avoiding a digital effects overload, Christopher Nolan captures the fury and chaos, sweep and intimacy of war in the air, on land, and at sea. He revisits an essential battle of WWII, as fit to offer a rebuke to a generation that gobbles up his fantasy fare. Except for some cartoonish moments from Kenneth Branagh, the acting is convincing. Hans Zimmer’s fine score is artfully blended into the shattering sound design. The aerial dogfights are breathtaking. Review
Pixar isn’t satisfied with just creating amazing animation. They are going global. In this superb effort they employ Spanish voice talent as well as musicians to present the textures of a small Mexican village. It is the story of a boy who yearns to be a great musician — set during the Mexican Day of the Dead. Coco honors family, history, and Mexican culture in a wildly imaginative story filled with great music.
PT Anderson directs Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, celebrity designer and dresser to royalty and the elite. The protagonist’s obsessive work habits border on decadent. His elaborately controlled world begins to unravel after he takes in a former waitress named Alma (Luxembourg’s actress Vicky Krieps) as his assistant and the primary model for his designs. The music, cinematography, acting, and costumes are powerfully elegant. The film is an appropriate (alleged) last film role for Lewis, who is in total command. As with Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the ending confounds, but the film has already worked its magic. You leave the theater dazed.
Five Documentaries Worth Seeing
There are many docs worth noting. Here are a few that should be recognized.
Agnes Varda at age 88 and artist JR at age 33 collaborate on a film that celebrates life in small towns around France. The subject is nothing less than the nobility of existence. The film is pure poetry.
Intent To Destroy
Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) exposes America’s suppression of information about the Armenian genocide of 1915 at it simultaneously documents the production of Terry George’s film on the same topic, The Promise.
This is a good year to discover the story of veteran activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder, with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union.
Long Strange Trip
The earnest blend of testimonies and concert footage in this 4-hour music documentary on Jerry Garcia and his merry band gave me a renewed appreciation for The Grateful Dead.
Birth of A Movement
Examining the racist history of the silent film Birth of a Nation, local filmmakers Bestor Cram and Susan Grey revisit key moments in the history of D.W. Griffith’s movie while examining the such subjects as race relations in Boston, protest movements, and the overlooked career of William M. Trotter.
Blade Runner 2049
To paraphrase: “Looks great, but not so filling.” I think we were supposed to be confused and uncertain about who’s who and what’s what but after two hours you just give up. It was overly long, slow, and comes with a dreadfully bombastic score. The scenes of aging Harrison Ford in peril were straight out of Mad Magazine.
War for the Planet of the Apes
I confess that I love watching monkeys ride horses. This film, however, comes off as your standard bad western — it just happens to have monkeys instead of cowboys. The silly plot about apes in bondage, or some such nonsense, is capped by a laughably clichéd ending.
The Meyerowitz Stories
Parts of director Noah Baumbach’s script are clever, but Ben Stiller’s and Adam Sandler’s comic styles are mismatched and poor editing made the disjunction worse. Dustin Hoffman is so generic and listless in his role as an ornery grandfather that it’s as if he is saying to viewers ‘Watch me. I don’t have to act anymore. I’m Dustin Hoffman.’
First They Killed My Father
This essential lesson in Cambodian history, based on Loung Ung’s memoir, is performed in the Khmer language by native actors. Alas, director Angelina Jolie turns noble ambitions into a dishearteningly static and predictable picture book of a film.
The film is one of the better entries in the superhero franchise though, as usual, every CG moment and twist of the plot is hammered with melodramatic abandon. The dialogue’s comic book seriousness and the self-conscious irony of Chris Pratt’s performance as Steve Trevor become tiresome. And I am I the only one made uneasy by the specter of Nazi atrocities via the mass death by gassing storyline?
Lost City of Z
Bland and laughably predictable from start to finish with an ending so comically inept that it tainted any credibility the story might have had in the lead up. You’re better off reading the book.