Tuesday, February 20, 2018

TOP 10 MOVIE PICKS of 2017

Cinema pushes the bounds of our imagination. Being a visual artist, I find movies flex my mind and take me to new worlds. Whether at home on the couch or in a theater, we can be inspired.  Each year, I share my own Top 10 Movies of the Year to indulge my cinephile obsessions and express my opinions, hopefully turning you on to something cool to watch in the process.  This year, it was REALLY difficult to choose my favorite movies.  There were some really fun (and some lackluster) blockbusters over the summer, plenty of clever low-budget indies, and now a stellar line-up of films highlighting awards season.

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm feeling some comic movie fatigue now.  Warner / DC released a solid Wonder Woman movie which was a world-wide success but offered no real surprises.  The much-anticipated Justice League really missed the mark with an uneven tone and a post-production hatchet-job which turned a dark, ambitious Zack Snyder project into the softball abomination Joss Whedon limped to the finish line with.  Marvel Studios produced a couple of entertaining, albeit by-the-numbers movies with Guardians 2 and Thor 3 (which went goofy by trying to replicate the space opera tone of Guardians).  Fox won out this year though with James Mangold's Logan.  It was a much needed breath of fresh air, playing out like a post-apocalyptic Western.

Where I certainly don't feel let down is with the continuing Science Fiction renaissance of the past several years.  You'll see a few of these in my list but others are worth mentioning to get us started.  New takes on old characters such as Kong: Skull Island were great. Samuel L Jackson is dynamite as Kong's antagonist (sans Captain Ahab).  However, Universal's attempt at The Mummy jump-starting their own monster movie universe was dead on arrival. Though flawed, the Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenent sequels were both true to their source material and some satisfying guilty pleasures.  Mayhem, Colossal, and It Comes at Night are smaller-budget gems with sci-fi roots which show what great things can be done with acting, a solid story and minimal effects.

With political times, come timely political movies. With the American Press under fire more than ever before, Spielberg gave us The Post, which through the lens of one of the biggest stories of the 20th century highlights the importance of free and independent journalism. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (that's a mouthful- pun intended) tells the story of Deep Throat, the infamous informant whose information brought down the Nixon administration. It's worth noting that Liam Neeson gives one of his finest performances in the is film, which fell under the radar of the awards season.  On the funnier side, Downsizing served a clever satire on sustainability and had me in stitches.  Christopher Nolan never disappoints and managed to give a fresh take on the war genre with Dunkirk while Gary Oldman gives another legendary performance as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour.  Lastly, I found Last Flag Flying to be a real gem of a movie with Lawrence Fishburne, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston playing Vietnam vets reunited for the funeral of Carrell's son, who was killed in the Middle East. The performances are poignant and deals with some heavy themes any military family could connect with.

Other films well worth the time invested were Jawbone, Brigsby Bear, I, Tonya, The Mountain Between Us, Free Fire, Catfight, Trainspotting 2, Wind River, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Beatriz at Dinner, Gerald's Game, Baby Driver, and Buster's Mal Heart!  Now on to the required viewing...

[HONORABLE MENTION] A Ghost Story (directed by David Lowery)

The first act of this movie is purposefully, dreadfully slow.  After the death of her husband, we find ourselves stuck in time with M (Roona Mara).  It is a muted despair and the embodiment of loss.  It's painful and you want to turn it off.  But then something special and unique happens as a film like no other you'll have seen unfolds on the screen.  C (Casey Affleck under a bed sheet) serves as the silent narrator of his journey through time as a ghost. After the first act, the pace of the movie accelerates and then lifts off, paying out in spades.  It's a fresh take on the classic haunted house tale and a cleverly surprising indie film.

[10] Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney)

If you enjoy dark comedy, this movie will delight you. The Coen Brothers served as writers of this satirical take on the great American experience called the suburbs.  It has terrible reviews because it is terribly dark, and it's in their darker material where I've found my own favorite films from the writers (i.e. Blood Simple or No Country For Old Men).  Set against the backdrop of the 1950's, it is the dissection of the picture perfect, Cleaveresque family.  It's macabre, it's unnerving, and it's hilarious. Some of the themes play politics with the present day by bridging certain imagery such as the neighborhood building a privacy fence around the daring black family which has invaded white suburbia (think border wall, right?)

[09] War for the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves)

Rounding out the prequel Planet of the Apes trilogy, War cements the series up there with the very best science fiction ever adapted to film.  Caesar and the entire motion-capture cast are brought to life with the most intense range of emotions ever applied to animated characters.  As The Colonel, Woody Harrelson gives us a brutal performance drawing shades of Apocalypse Now as the rogue authoritarian head of the regime. The story is true to its source material bringing us full circle not only to the Apes inheriting the Earth, but with man reaching his ultimate devolution as was first penned by Rod Serling in the original movie fifty years the prior.

[08] Una (directed by Benedict Andrews)

Taking place over the course of a day, Rooney Mara (Una) and Ben Mendelsohn (Ray) put on an acting clinic in this daring drama.  After years of living under a new identity Ray is approached at his workplace by Una, the woman he had a statutory affair with when she was a young teenager.  The taboo subject matter opens up a theater of emotion between these two characters which unfolds layer by intriguing layer.  Una confronts her abuser and Ray confronts his long lost love.  It's complicated but grounded, appalling yet sympathetic and driven by a really good script by David Harrower based on his play, Blackbird.  Perhaps the movie serves as a timely exploration of sexual accountability.

[07] IT (directed by Andy Muschietti)

As Stephen King adaptations go, this year's re-imagining of IT is as fine as they come.  I, for one am all too excited for the second installment.  The movie is faithful to the novel's first half and really captures the essence of the Loser's Club (reminiscent of the chemistry of Stand By Me).  Pennywise (Bill SkarsgĂ„rd) is perfectly quirky, creepy, and terrifying in a wild performance by the actor.  The Master of Horror is done proud (thankfully- *clears throat* darktower *clears throat*) and this one will stand the test of time.  The entire young cast is dynamic together and I only wish I could see them on screen together for more of the same. 

[06] The Girl with All the Gifts (directed by Colm McCarthy)

When I recommend this movie, I always say, "If you're ever going to watch another zombie film, then make it this one."  The dystopian, British creation is very unique, fresh story.  In the near future, a group of children who are zombie-human hybrids may hold the key to humanity avoiding extinction.  Melanie (Sennia Nanua) leads us through her coming of age story dealing with the hunger for living flesh yet being conscious of her need to gain control of it.  Glenn Close's Dr Caldwell is a delightfully wicked antagonist trying to capitalize on the children's' gifts.  The movie is written by M.R. Carey (based on his own novel).  The author makes a cameo as one of the "hungries".

[05] Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (directed by Martin McDonagh)

This dark comedy gets set off when a grieving mother takes over three dilapidated billboards in a small Midwestern town with a message directed toward the Sheriff (Woody Harrelson).  The message creates a showdown between a woman pushed to the brink and the local yokel authorities.  As the unhinged, brutally-honest Mildred, Frances McDormand truly gives the performance of her career and is cleaning up Best Actress awards for her efforts.  The small cast all deliver the material in a way that keeps the audience sucked into the story.  It is very much a story of principal and it's neat to see such a wide audience embrace the story for what it is- molotov cocktails and all.

[04] The Shape of Water (directed by Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro's films have always given a certain human-touch to monsters and the macabre. With The Shape of Water, he turns a simple story into pure science fiction poetry.  It's a period piece, a love story and the tenderest of monster movies.  In a secret research facility in the 1960's, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) discovers a captive amphibian creature (Doug Jones), who she develops a clandestine romance with.  One of my own favorite actors, the explosive Michael Shannon sits in as antagonist and head of the creature's inquisition.  It is truly magical audiences' deep empathetic embrace of this film which reinforces the director as not only a legend but one at the height of his craft.

[03] Loving Vincent (directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)

Over 100 painters hand-crafted 65,000 frames in oil paint to make the first hand-painted motion picture in history- all in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.  In the vein of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly (computer animated), the film uses actual footage of actors as reference for the animation.  The story follows Armand, (Douglas Booth) the son of Postman Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) who was one of the artist's famous subjects.  Roulin tasks his son to deliver Vincent's last letter to his brother, Theo.  In his search for Theo, Armand journeys through the landscapes of the artist's most famous works and the characters who sat as his subjects.  The film is a psychedelic visual masterpiece and one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of animation.

[02] Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

This genre-bending brain-child of Jordan Peele has already reached cult classic status.  Is it horror, science fiction, a thriller, a dark comedy???  When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) ventures on a weekend get-away at his girlfriend's parents' estate, we're dropped into an episode of the Twilight Zone spun out from interracial relations.  The story turns race commentary on its ear and breaks all the molds. This is one I wish I could watch again for the first time.  As with all good thrillers, there's plenty to catch the second-time around but I'm sure I'll come back again and again in the coming years.  It's a movie where it's best not to know what to expect going in and as you put together the pieces, you'll see what the hype is all about.

[01] mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

One of the modern masters of cinema, Aronosfsky delivered a primal scream with mother!  She is a biblical allegory, the history of man, a commentary on the creative process, a cry for help from Mother Nature, and my favorite film of 2017.  It's layered and it's hard to digest.  Everyone audience member is shocked and horrified- and you will either love it or despise it.  Leaving the theater, I was still processing what I'd seen and other patrons were visibly upset and complaining within earshot.  "It was just terrible," one woman muttered looking at the ground.  I for one, was floored.  I had a half-grin because I understood their disgust (and my own joy at being challenged by the film both intellectually and emotionally).  Jennifer Lawrence takes on the provocative role with an intense vulnerability.  The true measure of art whether it evokes emotion- by that rationale, this film is the highest art.

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