Monday, February 5, 2018

Best of 2017 | Films | Performances

As my colleagues on the Moviewallas podcast have mentioned on more than one occasion, 2017 was a year of incredible performances from films that were not themselves always incredible. I cannot argue with that. Yes we had our share of exceptional films this year, but the actors shone in so many other less than exceptional films too. And as in past years, I have not restricted my picks of the top performances to just five in each category. When there is an opportunity to recognize great acting turns, why limit yourself to just a few. In fact I may have gone a bit overboard with more than 20 picks for Best Supporting Actor, Male! In each category, I have bolded my absolute favorites.

Jake Gyllenhaal in STRONGER

Best Actor, Male
Charlie Hunnam, THE LOST CITY OF Z
Colin Farrell, THE BEGUILED
Garrett Hedlund. MUDBOUND
Jake Gyllenhaal, STRONGER
Jeremy Renner, WIND RIVER
Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Tom Hanks, THE POST

Timothee Chalamet in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Best Actor, Female
Charlize Theron, ATOMIC BLONDE
Meryl Streep, THE POST
Saoirse Ronan, LADY BIRD


Saoirse Ronan in LADY BIRD

Best Supporting Actor, Male
Adam Driver, LOGAN LUCKY
Armie Hammer, FREE FIRE
Daniel Craig, LOGAN LUCKY
Harrison Ford, BLADE RUNNER 2049
Jason Clarke, MUDBOUND
Lilrel Howery, GET OUT 
Lucas Hedges, LADYBIRD
Michael Fassbender, ALIEN: COVENANT
Michael Stuhlbarg, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME 
Michael Shannon, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Ray Romano, THE BIG SICK 
Richard Jenkins, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Sharlto Copley, FREE FIRE
Stan Sebastian, I, TONYA
Tracy Letts, LADYBIRD
Woody Harrelson, THE GLASS CASTLE

Oscar Isaac in SUBURBICON

Best Supporting Actor, Female
Andrea Riseborough, THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Alison Williams, GET OUT
Beanie Feldstein, LADYBIRD
Carey Mulligan, MUDBOUND
Catherine Keener, GET OUT
Holly Hunter, THE BIG SICK
Julianne Moore, SUBURBICON
Kirsten Dunst, BEGUILED 
Laurie Metcalf, LADYBIRD
Lois Smith, LADYBIRD
Michelle Pfeiffer, MOTHER!
Miranda Richardson, STRONGER
Nicole Kidman, THE BEGUILED
Sienna Miller, THE LOST CITY OF Z
Tatiana Maslany, STRONGER
Tiffany Haddish, GIRLS TRIP

Holly Hunter in THE BIG SICK
Tatiana Maslany in STRONGER

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Best Of 2017 | Films | Mainstream Cinema

I have never found a paucity of films to celebrate when it comes to the year-end. I have previously posted a list of my personal favorite films from 2017, in which the majority of my selections were smaller, independent films. I complain every chance I get about the hegemony of Hollywood studios in financing only superhero films and sequels of late. But were I to be perfectly honest, that is a falsehood. Yes, the majority of studio dollars go toward the making of the umpteenth sequel, but challenging, original films still get made, if not as often as we would like.

So here is a list of relatively big, commercial films released in 2017 that kicked ass:

1. ATOMIC BLONDE: Not just far and away the best action film of the year, this was also a wonderfully specific, mid-eighties Cold War-set piece of intelligent cinema. There is nothing cute about ATOMIC BLONDE; it is a bruising, bleeding-knuckles, black-and-blue-faced film. And in less than three years, Charlize Theron has created the two best female action characters in that period, first with MAD MAX; ROAD WARRIOR and now here, thereby cementing her status as the most hard-working and credible action stars of contemporary cinema. In ATOMIC BLONDE, her character does not reveal any back-story, she just is. Hard-ass. Undeterred. Punishingly fierce. A set piece mid-film where she faces off a series of attackers in the stairwell of a decrepit Berlin apartment building, seemingly done in a single shot of more than 7 minutes, is one of the best action scenes in history. Ever. I am in love with this film, irrationally so.

2. JOHN WICK 2: Sure the scene stealing doggie that spring-boarded the action in the first JOHN WICK film is no longer in the sequel. But everything else that made the original film a bonafide modern classic is safely carried through to the second installment. The sequel opens up the somewhat insular world of the sly villains from the first film by having the Keanu Reeves titular character be on the run after he refuses to take on another job from the bad guys. This allows the film to get even more deviously innovative in its action pieces and permits director Chad Stahelski to put foreign locales to impressive use in wowing the audience. I could easily get used to a few more JOHN WICK films.

3. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: I found this film so deeply satisfying that one of the great mysteries of this filmgoing year has been trying to understand the fierce
backlash to this film from some quarters. With the reins handed over to Rian Johnson for the new installment in the adventures of the next generation of Star Wars protagonists (Rey, Finn and Poe, played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively, and first introduced in THE FORCE AWAKENS), the film takes decidedly risky plot turns while retaining major contributions from the enduring characters played by Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. Not to mention new characters in the form of Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro. Most striking of all however is how the soul of THE LAST JEDI lies in the volleying relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the most unlikely of pairs.

4. FREE FIRE: This film is fun in a bottle. Why it didn't get more traction during its commercial run
befuddles me. Set in the late seventies and set almost entirely in a warehouse in Boston where two gangs meet for a transaction (that of course goes terrifically wrong), this movie has pluck and cleverness to spare. And the film circles unapologetically around repeated lessons on how things can always get even more worse. There's Brie Larson here. There is Armie Hammer here (perhaps even better than his more celebrated turn in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). There is Sharlto Copley here. And there's Cillian Murphy here too. And do they cook up a swell mess. This is breathless, heedless, bloody fun.

5. AMERICAN MADE: Doug Liman isn't yet given the credit he deserves; remember this is the director of SWINGERS, GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR AND MRS SMITH and THE EDGE OF TOMORROW. He reteams with the star of that last film, Tom Cruise, for AMERICAN MADE, based on the hard-to-believe-if-it-weren't true story of Barry Seal, an American pilot who was recruited by the CIA and double crossed his way with high-profile South American gangsters (including Pablo Escobar), and became a key player during the Iran-Contra Affair. Liman wisely constructs this film with a comic book sensibility, clearly bowled over with wonder at a man who managed to do the unthinkable. And Cruise, who's always had an edge of the noxious tucked away under his dazzle, is perfectly able to depict a man whose smarminess is inseparable from his charms. What a rollickingly great ride this is.

6. BABY DRIVER: It would seem British director Edgar Wright has been working his entire career to the destination that is this film. And what a film it is: a veritable calling card for how style can entirely define the sensibility of a film. The story is jump-started by one of those you-must-come-back-for-one-last-con-job premises that is elevated to something that seems entirely new. Pumped up on equal parts adrenaline and high-octane, the movie zips along at a pace where you have to catch your breath to keep track of who is conning whom, particularly in its last reel when things spiral to even more heady chaos. And I haven't even mentioned how Wright uses music as a integral part of the film's psche, by creating a central character who needs to constantly listen to music to drown out the tinnitus he suffers from. This film will age well.

7. WONDER WOMAN: It should have been an obvious thing: that the story of a female superhero film be entrusted with a female director. And yet we are surprised by the success of this film. Much of the credit for how well this film works rests on the shoulders of director Patty Jenkins, who takes the Wonder Woman mythology, shakes off the campy eighties association (from the television series), and plays the origin story with nary a wink or a snark. Gal Gadot invests the character with an elusive balance of self-assertion and a sincere desire to help others. In the balance it maintains, it resembles Captain America from the Marvel Universe, who also is a wholesome, even square person, whose goodness of intent is far from worthy of being mocked. A fine balance still is achieved with how the Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) character stands beside Wonder Woman, not because she needs him to rescue her, but because the two work well together. This is a film of many tightrope walks, and it always makes it safely to the other side. And if you get a few goosebumps along the way in your cinema seat, that is added value.

8. LIFE: Am I the only living person to have liked this Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Reynolds/Rebecca Ferguson sci-fi film. The film earned $100 million in revenues, so maybe I am the only living person to stick out my neck and publicly admit to liking this film. The premise: scientists aboard a spaceship discover a unique single-cellular organism that rapidly starts to grow. Of course this film is inspired by ALIEN, but it also taps into the well of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and GRAVITY. But that doesn't make this a bad film; quite the contrary. Even as we know that the evolving alien is going to wreak havoc on the space ship inhabitants, the film holds the fate of the characters in deliciously unpredictable strands. The film is visually arresting, breathless, and happily, perversely, violent. I do not watch much horror, but I wonder if another film this year has found so much beauty in the deep redness of blood.

9. THOR: ROGNAROK: The director of small, spryly funny films like WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is hardly the go-to person for helming the next instalment of a popular Marvel property. And yet the imp that is the New Zealand director Taika Waititi drove the THOR franchise to its best outing yet. By injecting a healthy dose of self-awareness, building a meaty part for Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and hiring the redoubtable Cate Blanchett to play the bad guy. The Marvel films are getting a little too incestuous for my liking as the superheroes have started to bleed into each other's films. THOR: ROGNAROK is guilty of that, but this film is a romp still.

10. BLADE RUNNER: 2049:  Few films are as iconic as BLADE RUNNER, and it would be a fool's errand to try and update that world. And yet, producer Ridley Scott
entrusted Denis Villeneuve to bring forth the next chapter more than three decades after the original film went on to become a bonafide legend. This is a punishing task (something that the STAR WARS sequels have also had to contend with), but turns out Villeneuve was up to it. Yes the film is too long, and yes it does get a little lost within its own world. But it turns a new page to this universe, and yet retains enough links with the original characters, and the game-changing visuals. And what visuals these are; I watched this film in a state of enraptured wonder.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best of 2017 | Films | Personal Favorites

I blame the holidays.
I maintain a list of films I've watched all year on Letterboxd. They include films from the past year that have triggered introspection, impressed with their craft, or just made me giddy in my cinema seat. And then the end of the year approaches, the holidays arrive, and I get caught up in the spirit of the season. That is when I inevitably recalibrate the rankings on my list. When I think back upon the past twelve months, the films that register more than others now are those that have moved me the most. The word 'movie' dates to the 1890s when it was first noted that projecting still images in quick succession approximated movement on the screen; this definition makes sense. But I like to think of movies, the good ones at least, as films that move us the most, those that emotionally register, often irreversibly. Come the end of the year, the more cerebral films tumble down the list and the ones that have altered something within my emotional circuitry, rise to the top. The list of films stays the same, but when it comes to the rankings, the heart has always trumped the mind. And so is the case with this year’s list too:

1.      STRONGER: Nominally, this is a film about a person overcoming physical disability, at this time already an exhausted genre in cinema. But director David Gordon Green makes this a film about all the other things that are impacted by sudden disability; the lives of those around the person; the sense of self as the ground has literally disappeared from under them. The perennially underappreciated Jake Gyllenhaal is supported by career-best performances from Miranda Richardson and Tatiana Maslany. The film has no interest in making heroes out of any of the characters (based on real life individuals). And by allowing them to be deeply flawed, ill-intentioned even, i.e., human, STRONGER became the most emotionally authentic film I saw this year.

2.      CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: Like BOYHOOD, this is a film that doggedly refuses to add up to much through most of its running time. Until the very end when it suddenly does, and it quietly breaks your heart. Director Luca Guadagnino, a master of surfaces rendered with impossible beauty, lets the film languor, letting the viewer soak into the locale and the characters.  Its a deeply immersive experience. More than anything else CALL ME BY YOUR NAME gets the subtle, complex dance of first love just right: the initial tentative circling around each other, the mixed messages, the dubious reading of signals, and the alacrity with which those around are recklessly used as pawns. This is the rare film that understands the cruelty that goes hand in hand with the swoon of young love.

3.      THE BEGUILED: A wounded soldier during the American Civil War is rescued to a Girls School. This is your classic rooster-in-a-henhouse story. In her take on the 1971 Clint Eastwood/Geraldine Page film, Sofia Coppola has left much of the story intact, but chosen to tell it from the perspective of the hens instead of the rooster. What great fun to watch the psychosexual repression get pressure cooked into a delicious stew of moral ambiguities. Inspite of a constant backdrop of booming cannons from the Civil War era, the sexual politics feel fiercely relevant.

4.      THELMA: All those lamenting the death of good cinema should immediately get their hands on this Norwegian thriller. A young girl leaves her sheltered small town family life to attend university in a big city, and starts noticing strange things happening to and around her. Always holding its cards close to the chest, THELMA evolves into something utterly unexpected. You watch the film with incredulity, unsure at every minute where the story is headed. Is this is a coming-of-age film. Is it supernatural horror. Is it a character study about the perils of repressing sexuality. Is it a strident rebuke to religious fanaticism. As you think back on the film afterward, you realize it is not primarily any of those things, although it touches upon them all. And you recognize that the film’s ambitions are grander still, taking on nothing less than how the world at large looks at femininity.

5.      KAPOOR AND SONS: For a long time, the biggest enemy of mainstream Indian cinema had been a willful adherence to moral and cinematic tropes that were dated even decades ago. Which is what has made the Indian films from the last 5-7 years so utterly exciting, as experimentation in form, in structure, and in content have led to a new golden age, with exceptional films coming from young filmmakers eager to marry the aesthetic of independent cinema with quality of craft. KAPOOR AND SONS earns its place in this pantheon. It is blessed with superlative acting from an enviable ensemble cast and a director who knows precisely how to tap into their talent. But the thing that truly sets this film apart from others in the cadre is the script. The writing in this film refuses to find easy villains. It knows that family conflicts can spontaneously escalate to something not unlike between enemy lines during war. The writing seeks empathy, it seeks understanding in the face of long germinated prejudices, and it seeks space for everyone to breathe. This film made me glad to be alive.

6.      THE POST: At a time when the big studios are almost exclusively financing sequels and superhero franchise films, a resolutely cerebral film seems a minor miracle. Steven Spielberg has made an astute turn in his career with a recent trilogy of political films, LINCOLN, THE BRIDGE OF SPIES and now THE POST, that while superficially unrelated, all comment urgently on the state of contemporary politics in America, and the dangerous path we are currently treading. Kay Graham, the de-facto publisher of The Washington Post , in the early 1970s was faced with the choice of publishing the next of the Pentagon papers at the risk of having Nixon shut down the newspaper. THE POST is hermetically sealed within its times. But when you consider the issues at stake: the press versus a government bent on stifling its freedoms, a woman trying to exert her moral will in a predominantly male business, corporate imperatives directly abutting national security risks, you realize just how relevant this film is to the absolute now. THE POST is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, and for that alone it is an accomplishment.

7. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER: The films of Yargos Lanthimos make you wonder if he is the person most urgently in need of a hug in the whole wide world. But thank goodness for filmmakers like him. Demonstrating once again why he is a master of the disquiet, he is able to effortlessly conjure up unease and impending terror. The teenaged children of a celebrated cardiologist (Colin Farrell) and his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) start to suddenly get sick with no medical explanation. Does any of it have to do with the young boy that the cardiologist has taken under his wing? Like all of his films, Lanthimos creates a world with its own absurd rules, and staunchly sees the film through based on those tenets. Isn’t it that evil is so frightening because it often hides in plain view amongst the banal. Part cold knuckled revenge thriller, part unforgiving moral treatise, and an altogether unpredictable and sinister experience, this movie may be too disturbing for some. But every lover of cinema needs to watch this film.

8.      COCO: This film nicely fits in with the best of Pixar films in its ability to create a complex new world and being unafraid to tackle darker ideas. This film owes a lot visually to Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY, and the influence of Pixar’s own MONSTERS INC is apparent. However the film’s place and sensibility is uniquely its own. It uses the Mexican rites of Dias De Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) as its springboard, but those rites resonated strongly with the Indian customs I grew up with, speaking to the universality of our common traditions. COCO filled me up and then devastated me. Note to Pixar: please abandon all efforts with sequels; your recent original material (INSIDE OUT, THE GOOD DINOSAUR and now COCO) speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be diluted by mediocre sequels.

9.      LOGAN LUCKY: Were this film made by another director and distributed by a major studio, it would have been a runaway hit. But we expect proficiency from someone like Steven Soderbergh, and to our great peril, take him for granted. The director of the OCEAN’S ELEVEN reboot (and the sequels) takes a stab at another heist story, this time set in the down South NASCAR racing circuit instead of the gleaming Vegas surfaces of the OCEAN’S films. Oh but what fun this film is, probably the most entertaining one I saw this year. Soderbergh walks a tight line between mocking his characters and demonstrating unequivocal fondness for them. I have no desire to live in a world in which Steven Soderbergh is no longer making films.

10.   A CURE FOR WELLNESS: This is a blindingly original film. A young man is sent to a hidden mountain resort to bring back an office colleague who has seemingly been retained there against his will. The man arrives there, and of course, nothing is what it seems, and from there things take on one twisted turn after another. With a commitment to its craziness that initially puzzles and then outright wins you over, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is what happens when you allow a filmmaker with lofty vision (Gore Verbinsky) to go with his full creative intent and you get the hell out of his way. What an utter lunatic delight this film is.

11.   DUNKIRK: What is left to say about DUNKIRK at this point? That in spite of other incredible mainstream productions released this year, you will not find a film with better craft. That this is the film that Christopher Nolan has been working toward his entire career. In which he has found the right scale, placed hubris in check, and put to optimal use his penchant for time dilation. Many expected DUNKIRK to be the story of the exodus of the more than three hundred thousand Allied soldiers out of France from Nazi control. But Nolan wisely decided to focus on a handful of individuals-  in air, on land and on water - demonstrating yet again that his best work comes from smaller scale projects.

12.   GET OUT: Of all the films on this list, Jordan Peele’s debut directorial effort will likely be talked about most in ten years’ time. The premise is deceptively simple: invited to the family home of his Caucasian girlfriend, a Black man begins to sense that things may not be what they seem when he arrives there. The film works as a satisfying straight up thriller. But it gives so much more upon introspection. Peele has mentioned that the inspiration for the film was a mash-up between THE STEPFORD WIVES and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.  By adroitly approaching this as a genre horror film, Peele is able to have the viewer experience a gleefully amplified version of the African American experience in America. And therein lies its genius.

13.   MOTHER!  There is something to be said for a film that will just not submit to a middling response.  Most viewers have outright hatred - the seething, foaming at the mouth kind - for the film. And then there's a minority who have great admiration for it. Here is the key to the movie: it is the rarest of films which is aided by a little bit of prior knowledge before being viewed. The film, from its look into an early marriage in the first act, then to a home invasion in the middle, and finally to a spectacularly deranged last act, is open to many interpretations. I saw the entire film as an allegory for what the conversation between a prideful Creator and his young creation might look like. Once you see the Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence characters as God and Mother Earth, respectively, the film makes absolute sense from first scene to last. The film has also, rightly, been seen as a statement on artistic creation, and the exacting, crippling demands it makes from the artist. Or simply as an age-old push and pull between a wanting masculinity and a giving female presence. No matter how you look at it, as insightful, or as overly obvious, you cannot deny that this is the work of a wily provocateur. And we are remiss to toss it aside based on literal interpretations of the film’s events.

14.   LADY BIRD: You come out of the theater having watched LADY BIRD, and you want to give the film a hug. Greta Gerwig has long been a double threat (an endearing screen actor and a sharply discerning screen-writer) and over the years there have been many (including me) who have wondered when Hollywood would wise up to her talents. Well, Hollywood was too busy bankrolling the next superhero film, and so Gerwig wrote and independently directed her first feature based on her experiences of growing up as a teenager in Sacramento. There is not a single innovative thing in this film, from the plot, to the structure, to the insights it provides. But a story well told, and with an abundance of respect for all its characters, is all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths.

15.   THE LOST CITY OF Z / MUDBOUND:  I am cheating and placing two films in the final spot because I cannot bear to let either one go unsung. Both are strikingly ambitious pieces of cinema, with wide breadth in scope, created by filmmakers relatively young in their careers.  In his sixth film as director, James Gray takes on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went deep into the Amazon to search for the mythic City of Z in the 1920s. Gray uses this premise to reflect on a multitude of themes: the heedless obsession that has driven the greatest explorers, the tremendous and often irreversible toll this takes on families left behind at home, and the inherent danger in assuming ascendancy during the initial interaction with aborigines in a newly discovered land. This is a smart, grueling, meditative piece of cinema.

MUDBOUND is only the third movie from Dee Rees and it plays with the assured confidence of a filmmaker telling a story that must be told. Without sentimentalism or overt stridency, Rees follows a multitude of characters navigating the American South after the end of WWII.  They are all achingly human, victims of their time and their prejudices -  and the abject whims of fate. To Dees’ credit, there is equal compassion and an objective search for comprehension for the motivations behind Caucasian and Black characters alike. Some are monsters, yes, and the ugly cruelty of racism is a constancy, but there is also always the haunting presence of an unsparing destiny that will not allow unrealistic outs for any of the characters.  

As I wrap up this list, I realize that there were so many other fine films in 2017 that could have just as easily been on my list. So I had to get nit-picky in eliminating some movies.  Both I, TONYA and BABY DRIVER should have made the list, but I had to make some tough cuts and they were painful eliminations. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a bonafide great film, but I couldn't buy into its conclusion. THE SHAPE OF WATER is visually as wondrous a film as any Guillermo Del Toro has made, and Sally Hawkins breaks your heart, but its conclusion unfortunately succumbed to the one thing Del Toro has always avoided: sentimentality. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI features crackerjack performances from a stellar ensemble, but the film ultimately felt too mean-spirited and eager to provoke at any cost. THE DISASTER ARTIST is good entertainment but seemed a bit of a piffle, an inside joke. As you would expect from Paul Thomas Anderson, every scene in the enigmatic PHANTOM THREAD buzzes with surgical precision, but the film's eleventh hour turn to an unforeseen direction soured my mouth; had this conclusion always been Anderson's intent or was the film constructed only as a character study of the Daniel Day Lewis character (and that last act tacked on after the fact)?

I have also deliberately left out documentaries because there were so many compelling ones released this year (you absolutely must watch FACES, PLACES) and I will put out a separate list for them. Likewise I will be soon be publishing a list of the best of commercial cinema in 2017, where ATOMIC BLONDE, JOHN WICK-2 and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI should find their rightful top perches. For an impenitent list maker like me, this should nicely feed my mania; watch this space for more.