My Top Ten Films of 2017

2017 was an odd year. Politics and social turmoil notwithstanding, the film industry—Hollywood in particular—experienced supreme highs and extreme lows, both critically and at the box office. In the United States, the year saw the release of films that were met with praise from both critics and audiences alike (Wonder Woman; Thor: Ragnarok; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Coco; Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), the wide release of films that debuted earlier on international markets (like the criminally undermentioned gem Raw, which would be in my top ten had it not gotten a French release in 2016), as well as a whole mess of stinkers (Jigsaw, the disappointing Suburbicon, Justice League, and Transformers: The Last Knight, to name a few). Still, I felt that 2017 was an improvement, quality wise, from the previous years, and filling out the rest of my top ten list was more difficult—in a good way! Check out my top ten list below, as I reflect on a genuinely fun year at the movies.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

The closer I got to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming the more nervous I became—the film has six credited screenwriters, a still relatively-unproven director at the helm, that poster is absolutely terrible, and there are enough supporting characters in this one film to fill any franchise. Still, all my fears were eased the second Tom Holland walked on-screen with his intense charisma and charm literally dominating every frame he’s in. More so than just about any film this year, Spider-Man: Homecoming is immensely fun and reminds me why I enjoy going to the movies so much. Holland and the rest of the cast are hilarious and adorably awkward, nailing the high school dynamic perfectly, but Michael Keaton nearly steals the entire show with a complex and restrained performance as Adrian Toomes/Vulture, rivaling Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock as the best on-screen Spider-Man villain. I eagerly await for the 2019 sequel which hopefully retains all the moving parts that makes this film so good.

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand is an absolute powerhouse, and she proves it in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand as Mildred Hayes—a mother who is done putting up with your shit—hits notes of grief, strength, fear, and most importantly humor in a film that demands all of those characteristics and more. Three Billboards deals with some heavy themes, but McDonagh’s script weaves them all together masterfully, never coming across as preachy or otherwise (although that is not the agreed upon opinion about the film’s messages). The real gem about this film, though, is the supporting cast who all hold their own against a career-best McDormand; Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are getting well deserved attention with their dual SAG nominations and Rockwell’s Globes win, but Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes are also phenomenal in every scene they’re in. And what a year for Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones, both of whom will appear in multiple other films on this list.

  1. Get Out

There wasn’t another film released in 2017 that had the same sort of societal reverberations that Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out had. Grossing 254 million dollars against a mere 4 and a half million dollar budget, Peele’s scary-as-hell horror film (sure, there are funny moments but it isn’t necessarily a comedy as the Golden Globes claim) had perfect timing being released in the doldrums of the February box office and remains important almost a year later. Skewing the white-liberal frame of mind better than any comedy bit since the 2016 election, Get Out is bolstered exponentially by Peele’s outstanding script, and a terrifically wide-eyed star-making performance from English actor Daniel Kaluuya. In a cinematic world dominated by horror sequels and reboots—we had a fourth Insidious movie released this month!!—Get Out reigns supreme, thanks in large part to the political implications involved.

  1. Logan

It’s been quite a while since I first checked out Logan—almost a full calendar year now—but the film has stuck with me, and I’ve revisited it on home media to remind myself of just how great it is. In a world where superhero fatigue is quite real—I mean just how many superhero films does one country need a year??—Logan and the previously mentioned reboot of Spider-Man do their own sort of service without the unnecessary restraints of cinematic universe-building. James Mangold’s Logan does this even better than Homecoming by placing his titular character so far outside of the X-Men timeline, and allowing his film to function on numerous levels: a Western (with a healthy amount of allusions to Shane), a family-or-something-like-it drama, and, perhaps most importantly, a superhero film that redefines what the genre can be and aims a gleeful middle finger at it, too. If these really are the last performances of Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart as Wolverine and Professor X respectively, then they certainly go out with style.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I wanted this film to be my number one film of the year—in fact, I actively hoped for this as soon as I entered my opening Thursday-night screening—but it’ll have to settle for a respectable number six. Don’t let the fanboys and the nay-sayers dissuade you—Star Wars: The Last Jedi is damn good and a ridiculous amount of fun. That Rian Johnson can continue to blaze new trails with a franchise on its eighth installment is remarkable in its own right, but Johnson has also proved himself to be a filmmaker independent of a major studio and capable of putting his own stamp on a property. The Last Jedi is beautiful to look at, instrumentally impactful to the fate of the franchise, and a wonderful tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, and it also gives stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill the chance to really shine. There is indeed hope in the galaxy, and, also, Porgs are the greatest.

  1. Lady Bird

It’s a testament to director and writer Greta Gerwig for making a 17 year-old girl from Northern California in the early 2000s so relatable across all spectrums of life. What struck me so much about Lady Bird was just how effective it was; every decision from Gerwig behind the camera feels so vital to the story, and absolutely nothing in this film gets the short straw. Give additional credit to Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy for their beautiful editing that skillfully draws parallels between Lady Bird and her mother Christine (whose relationship forms the genuine beating heart of this film), as well as the ensemble cast who all hold their own: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe (who are dynamite when they share the screen), Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges. Gerwig created something special with this film, and Lady Bird is truly one of the more affecting and hilarious coming-of-age films since Superbad in 2007.

  1. Detroit

Released in an absurd window at the tail end of the summer movie season, it’s a real shame that Detroit has been routinely ignored by the guilds and the Academy precursors. The story of the Detroit Riots of 1967 is the story of our time, and perhaps some of the reason that Detroit hasn’t been given the attention it deserves is because it’s just so damn relevant to today’s society. Just about everything in this film is perfect—Kathryn Bigelow’s skilled and remarkably personal direction, Mark Boal’s tight and emotionally powerful script, and so many performances. John Boyega, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, and especially Will Poulter as the terrifying and racist police officer Philip Krauss should be in consideration for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but none of them will be, which is a shame. Here’s to hoping Detroit will gain some kind of second life on home video.

  1. The Disaster Artist

I’ve always been a big fan of the Apatow brand of comedy and, although The Disaster Artist doesn’t exactly qualify, I have to admit that the presence of Seth Rogen and James Franco in another film together made me excited for this one since it was first announced in 2014. There’s no beating around the bush here: James Franco as The Room writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau is the best performance of the year. Franco attempts so many difficult nuances here—confident yet insecure, cruel yet tender, hilarious yet sad—and nails every one of them. His performance as Tommy carries the entire film (which is wonderful even disregarding the performance at its heart), and Franco should be the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Actor, especially after his victory in the Best Actor – Comedy or Musical category at the Golden Globes. He’s a real triumph here, and I relished every minute of it.

  1. Coco

Despite my affinity for 2016’s Finding Dory, Pixar seems to make the most waves for me when they put their effort behind an original film. Inside Out, Up, and WALL-E remain remarkably crafted pieces of art, perhaps even more so because they stand alone so well. Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, is no exception to this rule, and is further solidifies that Pixar is a force to be reckoned with when giving it their all. Not only is Coco quite probably the most beautiful animated film—or any film, really—that I’ve ever seen, it’s also full of the rich humor, heart, and positivity that Pixar has made their bread and butter. The talented voice cast, led by 13-year old Anthony Gonzalez voicing Miguel, and Michael Giacchino’s Mexican-influenced score further beautify this already beautiful film.

  1. The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is not only far and away the best film of 2017, it has to be in contention for the best film of the past decade. Featuring star-making turns from Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinatie and the best performance of Willem Dafoe’s career, The Florida Project highlights an underrepresented portion of the American population—those living in extreme poverty—but never attempts to make any sort of judgment about the characters it presents, or the circumstances in which they live. Alexis Zabe’s simple yet stunning cinematography, coupled with Baker’s subtly fly-on-the-wall direction, create such an utterly realistic setting that it could only make sense for it to be true—and it is. Filmed and set in the Mickey Mouse-shaped shadow of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the film benefits exponentially from its documentary like filmmaking, and, although it sounds cliché, audiences often have to remind themselves they’re watching a movie and not a stylishly edited piece of someone’s life. Baker is known to yield strong performances from his first time actors, like Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in 2015’s Tangerine, but the strength of Prince and Vinatie cannot be understated, they are just that good. Both command the screen with every frame they appear in, and mesh into their characters of Moonee and Halley respectively with ease, grace, and immense skill. The Florida Project demands to be rewatched for many reasons, least of which is the final scene of Moonee and her friend Jancey as they sprint through towards Cinderella’s Castle filmed in gloriously distinctive iPhone quality. Dafoe should win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but hopefully this is not merely a consolation prize—The Florida Project deserves all the attention it gets, and more.

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The Ever-Changing Rules of the Academy

Apparently unable to keep a homeostasis for very long, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet again changed its rules of eligibility, effective for the 90th Academy Awards next February.

Numerous categories were affected as the changes were announced on Friday, yet most notably changed was the Best Documentary Feature category. Despite O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary in February as a film and also serving as a TV documentary mini-series, the Academy has now ruled that documentary series are now longer eligible for the award. Although O.J. was not mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change, this alteration feels, to me, like a direct response to a film which met Academy qualifications last year by premiering in theaters before it aired on television. This rule seems to make it unnecessarily difficult for worthy films to be nominated for Oscars, and the Academy seems to be limiting their own goal of finding the year’s best films (O.J. topped my best-of film list for 2016, as well as numerous critics). Traditional, theatrically released docs are not the only way to make an exceptional film, although the Academy seems to be preserving some sense of superiority by limited the category in such a way. ESPN’s latest documentary We the Fans, which premieres on April 11th as the first part of an eight-part series is now no longer eligible for the Academy Awards, yet may be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards comes September.

Of course the Academy is not shy about changing its rules in one way, sometimes directly after changing them in another way. The best example of this in my lifetime is the recent rule changes for the Best Picture category. In 2009, before the 82nd Awards, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominated films to ten, although it only stayed that way for two years. A response to populous films like The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) not being nominated, many now think the rule change was a failure mainly due to films such as The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry, 2010) receiving nominations. The category now hovers between five and ten, and very few films with mass appeal, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) make the cut despite original intentions from the Academy.

I’m on the fence about the rules myself. I thoroughly believe the Oscars should do their best to honor the best films possible, yet their near-constant dismissal of films that received critical and commercial acclaim is baffling to me. Yes, some films that meet both qualifications have received nominations–Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010), Inception (Nolan, 2010), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and others. Still, the middle ground is irritating. There are far more than ten films released every year that deserve Best Picture nominations, and I see no harm in giving the Academy a minimum/maximum of ten to nominate. I do see the dilemma when films like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud get nominated, though. For the record I enjoy those films, yet calling them Best Picture-worthy feels odd to me. Perhaps the Academy is better being exclusive, live it was for decades upon decades, and only nominated five, often incredibly-worthy, films.

Spider-Man Thoughts

Spider-Man is easily my favorite superhero and I am an unashamed defender of nearly all of his feature films so far, save for one example: I absolutely loved The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I did not enjoy Spider-Man 3, and the latter gets worse with each viewing. After the new trailer for the latest iteration Spider-Man: Homecoming dropped yesterday I had to reevaluate my overall thoughts about the franchise–after watching the trailer multiple times, of course.

First and foremost I do think this movie has some potential, and I’ll absolutely be waiting in line to see it on opening night. I was a huge fan of Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character in Captain America: Civil War, and I think the addition of actors such as Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revelori, Bookem Woodbine, and, particularly, Michael Keaton, give this movie a fresh, diverse group of talent. Although I am weary that the film has six credited screenwriters, I am quite excited for this film, apart from its awful title. Still, I don’t think this film needs to exist.

From a financial standpoint I do understand why this film has been made. Sony was desperate to move on from the lukewarm reception of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and their 2014 hack, while Marvel was itching to bring one of Marvel’s most popular heroes into their Cinematic Universe. Mutually, they agreed to co-produce the film pleasing fans almost universally, save maybe for people like me who loved Andrew Garfield’s take on the character. Despite this film’s good intentions, though, it feels like a cash grab to me. As Civil War shot to the top of the box office and the juggernaut of Star Wars continues to be the highest grossing film of the year even when it’s a mostly unrelated spinoff film like Rogue One, Disney and Marvel have proven that they are in it for the money, and we continue to give them ours.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I am monstrously excited for not only Homecoming but for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and I’ll buy my tickets for Star Wars: The Last Jedi months in advance, yet I wish we, America, gave a bit more attention to smaller independent films as well. (On a related note, I’ve bought tickets to see both Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016) this week so expect to see a mini-review of both of them in the coming days.)

You can check out the (very good) second trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming here.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode One – “Somebody’s Dead”

Quickly emerging as one of spring 2017’s freshest and sharpest series, HBO’s Big Little Lies manages to exceed the expectations set in front of it to present a show that is often funny, often mysterious, and consistently excellent in front of, and behind, the camera.

Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same nameBig Little Lies is, from a creative standpoint, stacked with talent. Written by The Practice and Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelly, the show is most sculpted by its director Jean-Marc Vallée, helmer of recent Oscar-winning and nominated films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Reunited with his Wild stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, Vallée feels right at home with the Monterey, California-set series, and anyone familiar with Vallée’s work will also feel comfortable as his visual style is well-used here.

Witherspoon is devilishly delightful as Madeline Martha MacKenzie–a television series name if I’ve ever heard one– a theatre producer and mother who takes a new mother, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing at the beginning of the school year for their children, where the series starts. Witherspoon is not new to a role like this: peppy, sure-footed and independent, Madeline is a stone’s throw from a character like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Tracey Flick from Election. Although familiar, this character feels like a bit of a further evolution for Witherspoon, who masterfully portrayed real-life hiker/author Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Madeline has more to her than meets the eye–spurned by her ex-husband, she is quickly painted in the show as someone who gets what they want due to hard work, without the risk of losing her morals and her responsibilities. This responsibility manifests in her teenage daughter, who is leaving for college. A key scene towards the end of the episode shows how important motherhood is to Madeline, which is perhaps why Jane Chapman is so important to her.

Woodley is also quite good as Jane, a mother of a six-year-old with an evidently checkered past if we are to believe the (outstanding) editing in the pilot. Feeling very much like Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, “Somebody’s Dead” intercuts scenes in the present, as Jane, Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Renata (Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) are dropping their kids off at school, to an event an unforeseen amount of time in the future where detectives are investigating the murder of an unknown person that occurred at a fundraising event for the school. Vallée keeps the identity of this person a secret through his skillful editing, creating a mystery that the seven-episode limited series will make room to answer.

Aside from Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman has the ability to steal the show. Although not given as much screen-time as her counterparts, Kidman’s character is presented as a successful one as well, with a wealthy life, nice children, and a handsome younger husband played by Alexander Skarsgård. Her side of the story, too, sets itself up as the one containing the most mystery with Skarsgård’s character, Perry, potentially being abusive towards Kidman’s Celeste, as well as their two twin boys. Celeste is surrounded by a wave of toxic masculinity, and her soft-spoken yet confident demeanor is a perfect one for the character, which I hope we see a lot more of as the series progresses.

With a strong pilot from an outstandingly capable cast and crew, Big Little Lies is setting itself up for greatness, and I only hope that it continues to build on the momentum it has created with its first episode. Mystery and intrigue can keep an audience for so long, but as shows like How To Get Away With Murder testify too, keeping that audience along for the ride can be a more difficult struggle.

For further reviews about Big Little Lies, read here and here.

Hollywood is Ga-Ga for “La La Land”

This past Tuesday, Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land tied the record for most Oscar nominations ever received by one film–14, a record now shared with All About Eve and Titanic. Yet again the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to honor a film by Hollywood and for Hollywood, effectively ignoring other worthy films to glorify themselves. As has been the case before–and will likely be the case again–this is not a good thing.

As they’ve done in the past, Hollywood is expressing a tendency to overlook a film’s flaws to honor what they believe will make themselves look the best in the future. A similar case of this happened during the 2012 award season when The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011) received ten Academy Awards nominations and eventually won five of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. A movie with (evidently) very little staying power, The Artist was a similarly trendy choice at the time of its release. Silent films were a thing of the past, yet The Artist revived the genre in a way that hadn’t been done since the Academy Awards’ inception–The Artist became the first silent film since the very first Oscars to win Best Picture. Instead of focusing solely on merit and deservedness, the Academy went with the trendy and unique option, so perhaps it was merely a coincidence that the film also painted Hollywood in a very, very good light.

I’m reminded of the 2012 Academy Awards this year. The Artist had won three Golden Globes by the time the Oscar nominations were announced, and few were surprised at its ascent to become an award-season darlingLa La Land did this and more at the Golden Globes in 2017, winning all seven of the awards it had been nominated for, and quickly becoming the front runner for the Best Picture Oscar. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, yet I’m always amazed at just how quickly films become the talk of the town, La La Land not being an exception. When this year’s Oscars roll around on February 26th, I would be shocked if the film did not win a double-digit amount of Oscars with the rocket-propelled trajectory it is currently riding. (Still, anything can happen in a month, so we’ll see.) So, my unpopular opinion is this: La La Land‘s success is not a good thing for the reputation of the Academy, and is not a good thing for film as a whole.

This is not to say La La Land is not a deserving film, or not a good film. Despite its flaws, I’d be remiss to forget its wonderful qualities: the score conducted by Justin Hurwitz, as well as the songs written by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, are extraordinary and some of the best original songs I’ve ever seen on the screen. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is astonishingly beautiful, as well as the production and costume design, and Damien Chazelle continues to prove that he is one of the bright directors of our present and future. Emma Stone is terrific and Ryan Gosling is good as well, in spite of the biggest issue that I have with the film: its script. The motivations of Stone’s Mia and Gosling’s Sebastian are so hollow and so cookie-cutter that their actions, the path the film takes, and the conclusion the film reaches never feel justified to me, or are, at the very least, fantastical, melodramatic, and above all else, easy. My girlfriend frequently tells me that my negative comments about the script can be explained by the fact that the film is a musical, and musicals aren’t meant to be realistic, which is more than fair–I mean, they break into the Griffith Observatory for godssakes, so of course the film doesn’t have to be realistic. Still, these characters do not feel like real people, and I can never fully attach to them as a result. Their issues, their concerns, and their actions are never complex or difficult. From the introduction of both of their characters, I never had a doubt in my mind that Sebastian would be able to open his jazz club, or that Mia would become a famous actress–these destines already feel predetermined. For me, the script pulls down the rest of the film, and the immense acclaim that the film has received in spite of this sours me on the film as a whole.

La La Land is the trendy pick for best film of the year. Maybe America needs this film in this odd time of our lives, and perhaps we cannot be bothered with the much deeper (and much better) films that were released in 2016 like Moonlight (Jenkins) or Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan). La La Land will likely be the Best Picture winner that America wants right now, but it will not be the one it deserves a decade down the line. The intense and all-encompassing love that the film has received will likely not fade as we reach this year’s Oscars, yet, in a perfect world, it would. Other films deserve a chance to shine in the big categories, but I’ll concede and admit that I’m cheering on La La Land in at least one category–if “City of Stars” loses Best Original Song, I’ll be the lead torch-holder at the riot.