Friday, July 27, 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2017

That's right! These are back! Just when you thought the end of the year movie's season couldn't be any more insufferable.

And now it's time for that part of the post where I apologize for not making any posts lately. I mean I know you're probably used to these, but eff it, it's a blog. I have friends who apologize about being absent if they've gone a week without blogging. Could you imagine if I had that kind of guilt?

Part of the reason, besides the standard "my life's been hectic" crap I'm sure you're used to from any blog, is just that the last couple years haven't been great movie wise, 2016 in particular, and while I would have had a pretty bomb worst of list for that year, I'm not sure I would have had anything to say that you haven't heard already. Like yeah, I'm sure you need to hear more about why Suicide Squad was bad right?

But also, I tend to shout most of my movie opinions over at IEGrapevine and my new entertainment podcast, Totally Fandom! Yes, that's the title! I'm not kidding! If you've listened to my top ten list there, this one isn't going to be that different, except I may have moved around like one at the bottom of the list, because I had a little more time this time to think about what I'm going to say. If you haven't listened to my podcast yet, you can find it on Facebook or Instagram. Right now in fact! I'll wait.

Anyway, I like to post stuff here because I can swear more and typos are allowed.

But other than that, it's the same old thing. Same old schtick. Whether you like blockbusters, award winners, or indies that nobody saw, I hope you'll see your favorite movies represented here, and maybe learn about some other little didies you should check out!

What can I say? It's been a great year for movies. Even if it has been an awful year for...well just about everything else.

10. The Disaster Artist

Oh hai (A24)

This was a movie I was looking forward to for quite some time, and one I couldn't wait to talk about. When it was announced, the general belief was that this was going to be the moment we all finally appreciated James Franco. And while he's definitely fantastic in the movie, it didn't really turn out that way; due in no small part to his being one of several actors that the women of Hollywood decided they'd had enough with. As a result, the moment of this movie's release focused less on appreciation for Franco, and more for the madman he played in the movie; real life director Tommy Wiseau.

Now, for a lot of you, the plot of The Disaster Artist is going to sound like a retread, but there are enough people who don't know the story that I feel it requires going over again. Disaster Artist tells the tale of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero (two men (I think) I'm proud to say I've taken a picture with); two guys on a mission to make it in Hollywood. Greg (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor who falls in with Tommy (James Franco), a filmmaker who claims to be from Louisiana, but is very obviously from somewhere else. It is unclear what Tommy is exactly, the smart money is split between a missing Latvian criminal attempting to pass himself off as an American filmmaker, and an unfathomable eldritch horror attempting to pass itself of as an American filmmaker. The important thing is that he wants the same thing Greg wants; to make it in Hollywood. But when it starts to seem as if Hollywood doesn't want them, Tommy, never one to quit, decides to write, direct, and produce his own movie for himself and Greg to star in. The movie is called The Room; and it's widely considered to be the worst film ever made. Yes, this is a real thing, and yes Tommy is also a real....thing.


How you enjoy the movie hinges largely on how much you enjoy watching the Brothers Franco and their familiar troupe (including Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and a hilarious cameo from Zac Efron as 'the drug dealer', famously the best actor in the original movie) recreate cult-famous scenes from the original movie. Fans will like seeing the story behind the film, and newcomers can gape at the audacity it took to make something so off-kilter, but one wonders if you wouldn't just have the exact same experience watching the actual movie (did I seriously just say "one wonders"? That's what I get for writing more grad school essays than I do comedy these days), and most of what the movie does right was done better in Ed Wood twenty years prior. Still, Disaster Artist manages to tell a hilarious and effective story of a guy who stuck to his vision and made something that touched thousands; if not necessarily in the way he expected.

9. The Shape of Water

I've heard of getting catfished on a date, but this is ridiculous! (Fox Searchlight)

Now, before you ask, yes I'm aware that this is not a spinoff of Hellboy starring Abe Sapien. It's just a movie about a character that strongly resembles Abe Sapien, played by the same guy that plays Abe Sapien, with similar power and a similar backstory to Abe Sapien, directed by the guy who made the Hellboy movies and was never able to make a third one, all of which involve the character Abe Sapien. But fuck it, a guy can dream, just like a guy can dream that this is, in fact, the first science fiction movie to win the award for Best Picture, even if internet pedantry wants to take that away from me. They can't, damn it! I've waited too long!

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, this movie. In all fairness to internet pedantry, The Shape of Water, for all it's comic book familiarity and 40s monster movie characters, is essentially more of a fairy tale than anything else; the story of a deaf woman who works late nights at a government facility where a half-human half-fish creature is being held and experimented on. The two develop a mutual attraction, and she ultimately decides to break it out with the help of three of her friends (Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins). But the guy in charge of the project (one of the all time great himself, Michael Shannon) is on to them.

I wasn't quite as big of a fan of Shape of Water as a lot of people (apologies to my podcast partner Brenda Hernandez. Did I mention I have a podcast now?) Shannon is more restrained than usual, the movie's fairy tale mystique, while fun and unpredictable, makes some things kind of ambiguous and confusing when I don't think they really needed to be, and it succumbs to that well-worn tradition in these kind of movies of a guy finding a marvel of science and wanting to kill it as fast as possible (remember the AWESOME-O episode of South Park?).  Its cultural criticism is also a little too obvious.

But it still works. It's no coincidence that the Russian guy, the black woman, the disabled woman, and the closeted homosexual man are the only ones capable of understanding what the creature is going through, while the white, religious, military man is too busy focusing on dissatisfying capitalist frivolities to care. Half the fun is in the fact that, if this movie were made in the age of Universal horror films (you know, the kind they tried to bring back with that awful Mummy movie with Tom Cruise?), Shannon's character would be the good guy. In that sense, the movie utilizes sci-fi and fantasy concepts to shine a light on a romanticized, but problematic, period in our culture. It's also just filled to the brim with Guillermo del Toro's trademark atmosphere, quirkiness, and love of monsters.

8. Your Name

(CoMix Wave Films)

I know it's odd to see an Anime movie on a top-ten list that isn't from Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon (yeah that's right, I know my shit), but Your Name is something special, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. It's already become one of the most successful non-American movies of all time. Granted, it came out in 2016, but you should know by now about my policy of only doing foreign movies in the year they were released in America for me to see. Granted, I did actually see this one in the year it came out, but rules are rules, I don't make them. Well yes I do.

Your Name is a story about two teenagers, Mitsuha and Taki. She lives in a small town in the countryside and he lives in Tokyo, but one night, when an ambitiously-animated comet flies by (if this were made in America, the comet would be voiced by Kevin Hart), the two find that, every other day, they switch bodies. He wakes up in her body, she in his. After wreaking havoc on each other's lives, they try to track each other down to figure out their mess, only to find out they may be separated by more than just space.

It's tough to find good romance these days, but Your Name definitely qualifies. It's sweet, funny, steeped in its setting (which is white person speak for "it takes place in a different country", I suppose), and has a charming sci-fi/fantasy element. It also didn't get nominated for Best Fantasy film at the Oscars because the Academy thought Alec Baldwin as a baby was a better pitch.

7. Dunkirk

Nolan sure does love putting Tom Hardy on planes (Syncopy/WB)

You think I would leave off Chris Nolan's first Best Director-nomination? What's likely Nolan's best movie since Inception is also one of the best war movies I've seen in years. It is, however, a different kind of war movie than something like Fury, which I talked about in '14. It's PG-13 rated, features a member of One Direction, and, like most of Nolan's movies, is lacking in blood and swearing. But, also like most Nolan movies, it doesn't need them (well mostly). A lot of directors working on these kind of movies get a bit caught up in war movie grit trying to sell how grown up and ugly their movie is (call it the Private Ryan effect), so its rare for someone to eschew that and focus more on the pure sights, sounds, and suspense of war.

As history buffs, and anyone who watched that Gary Oldman movie, know, Dunkirk captures the Battle of Dunkirk, wherein British soldiers, pinned against the ocean by the enemy, attempted to escape an inescapably desperate situation, aided only by some brave pilots (one of which is Tom Hardy, once again appearing on a plane with a thing on his face) and, miraculously, an armada of boat-owning British citizens (including Mark Rylance). In true Nolan broken-watch fashion, the three tales, one of soldiers, one of pilots, and one of expeditious dads with boats (a character I'm familiar with), are told simultaneously, despite covering different amounts of time.

Also in true Nolan fashion, the story is beautifully shot, expertly scored, and imminently suspenseful. There is little dialogue, and the stories are told more with sound, music, and sights. The end result is breathtaking. Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, and Cilian Murphy all show up too.

6. The Big Sick

(FilmNation Entertainment/Apatow Productions/Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

Probably the funniest movie I saw all year (which is saying a lot, because I watched Justice League this year) was The Big Sick.  Pakistani stand up comic Kumail Nanjiani stars as Kumail Nanjiani, a stand up comic from Pakistan, who develops a relationship with a girl named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). Hijinks ensue as Kumail must navigate the experience of dating an American woman while at the same time trying to please his parents, who would prefer he date someone Pakistani. Or at least that's the premise of the first twenty minutes (and, mercifully, not an ABC sitcom). Thing's take a somewhat surprising turn when the two suddenly break up, only for Emily to wind up comatose in a hospital, leaving Kumail in the unenviable position of having to bond with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) while they wait on her situation. 

I guess what I'm supposed to say when talking about a movie that navigates a variety of Pakistani-American cultural issues is that it's "the movie we need right now", but that's a pretty overused phrase at this point, so I'm just going to say it feels timely and refreshing. It's also just really, really sweet and funny. The always-riotous Michael Showalter directs, and Kumail emerges as an inspired comedic talent, but it's Romano and Hunter who steal it. Romano is the funniest I think I've ever seen him, and Hunter is fantastic as a frazzled, angry mother trying to find it in her to be fond of her daughter's boyfriend. This is as sweet, romantic, and funny a movie as I've seen in a long time.

 5. Blade Runner 2049

(Alcon Entertainment/Colombia Pictures/Scott Free)

Holy hell did this one surprise me. Everything about it, from it's status as yet another entry in the "Harrison Ford plays a character he played in the eighties, only this time he's old" genre, to the very title, kind of put me off. There was no way it would end up worthy of the legacy of the original, quite possibly the greatest science fiction film ever. Well, I was pretty wrong. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those sequels that somehow manage to exceed even the most stalwart expectations and deliver something fresh. It somehow manages to take the themes and lessons of the original and (horrifyingly) make them feel that much more applicable today.  This time, we're following K, played by 21st century Bogart Ryan Gosling. K is a Blade Runner, operating thirty years after the adventure of Rick Deckard (Ford). In the time since then, a wealth of technological advancements courtesy of the gaudy Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, keen on a cinematic redemption), taking over from Tyrell, have led to a new line of synthetic humans, or replicants. Among these is our hero, K, whose job is to retire older replicants (including Dave Bautista) by way of shooting. This is done in spit of the fact that he is a replicant himself. However, his job ultimately sets him on a quest to track down a child supposedly born of the union between a human man and a replicant woman, something supposed to impossible, at the behest of his captain (Robin Wright) and the Wallace corporation, so he can kill the child before the world finds out. As if this isn't enough of a shock, as his journey continues, he begins to suspect that the parents may be the leads from the first movie, and the child may be himself. That's right; this time the Blade Runner is a replicant trying to figure out if he might secretly be human, a twist on the premise of the original movie.

What makes 2049 work so well is the direction by Denis Villenueve (now a staple of my end of the year list, ever since 2013. I found him first! Don't you forget it!) and the cinematography by Roger Deakins (winning a long-overdue Oscar in the process). It's affecting, visually stunning, and capable of telling an actual story without holding the audience's hand. But it's also not quite the same movie. The last one had a vision of the future as dense and overcrowded, but this time, as a result of famines and food shortages, the future seems significantly lonelier. A particularly emotional subplot involves K's relationship with a hologram in his apartment that acts as his girlfriend, and while that seems silly, she comes off as a genuinely loveable character (thanks in no small part to her portrayal by Spanish actress Ana de Armas), forcing us to confront whether her love can possibly be real, and whether K’s can by proxy.

Blade Runner 2049 is every bit as dedicated to uncomfortable questions, breathtaking visuals, and mindbending noir as it's predeccessor and succeeds in nearly every endeavor.

4. Logan

(Marvel Entertainment/Kinberg Genre/TSG Entertainment/20th Century Fox)

Oh boy, yes. It is finally time for me to talk about Logan on my blog. The movie so good my mom named a dog after it. I'll try to keep this brief, because I could go on about this movie, but suffice to say it's fantastic. Logan, of course, is Hugh Jackman's final film as the character who got me, and a not-insignificant portion of my generation, into comic book movies. After eight movies, two timelines, and close to two hundred years of existence, the most legendary of the X-Men; the cigar-chomping, metal-boned, claw-wielding superhero Wolverine, finds himself dealing with an entirely new enemy: old age, both his own and that of his mentor and surrogate father, Professor X. While it's been implied in the past that Logan is ageless, we find out here that the power that kept him that way is not, and what was once the toughest comic book hero in a genre full of them is now on his last legs.

But he's not the only one. Professor Xavier, the wisened, telepathic leader of the now-defunct team is suffering from a degenerative brain disease that makes him a hassle to take care of when on his meds; a potential weapon of mass destruction without them. Both are living out their days cranky and alone with only Stephen Merchant to keep them company, before one day, when they are greeted with one final mutant who needs their help: a girl named Laura who is on the run from a company who wants to make her into a weapon. Although Logan wants to stay out of it, he comes to realize he has no other choice but to help the young girl after learning that she is his daughter, conceived in secret by the company, using his DNA. I know that might be a spoiler, but her attitude and penchant for growing metal claws from her fists probably should have tipped you off.

That Logan is the best superhero movie in a decade where the genre has exploded more than anyone even thought possible goes without saying. It's willing to be quiet, introspective, sad, and ridiculously violent in a way that few superpowered blockbusters are now. But it's more than that; to the point that even calling it a "superhero movie" feels more a reference to its metatext, and place in its franchise, than an actual assessment of its plot. You don't even have to be familiar with the franchise (beyond knowing that the X-Men were a team of superpeople who saved the world from bad guys, and Xavier was the leader and Wolverine was the asshole of the group) to enjoy it. It's a movie that utilizes its bizarre sci-fi precepts to make a point on the nature of its characters, and on the society that simultaneously hates and idolizes them. The superhero has always been emblematic of American's view of itself, and in its depiction of a hero as beloved as he was, let's get real, murderous to a problematic degree, the movie depicts more than just a genre of comics or movies that (by the point in time that the story takes place) has gone the way of the cowboy; it's depicting an entire country that may be heading down that road too.

Not to say the genre itself has "gone the way of the cowboy", we're pretty clearly still a ways off from that point. Shit, they're still making X-Men movies. But for one of the genre's most exemplary stories, and characters, Logan is a rare and satisfying epitaph.

3. Get Out

(Blumhouse Productions/Monkeypaw Productions)

Hooo boy. Well, doubtlessly you’ve heard about this one. Get Out took the world by absolute storm when it came out, (it’s been over a year since) and has already cemented its place as one of the most boundary-pushing films in decades. If you’ve seen my other lists, you know I’m very happy with how the 2010s have been to horror, but Get Out is something truly special. Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, a young black man in a relationship with a young white woman named Rose (Allison Williams). When the movie begins, they are on their way to meet Rose’s family, who are also white, at their country estate. You almost don’t need to go any further than that; that’s a solid horror movie premise for poor Chris even without the race dynamic. But, suffice to say, the movie does go farther.

What’s so brilliant about Get Out is that it’s never predictable. Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Katherine Keener) are not the typical “scary white folks” you’d imagine in a horror film like this. There are no Texas drawls, confederate flags, or any other dog whistles for the “racist southerner” trope.  The father of the family even voted for Obama twice. What’s unnerving is how he won’t stop mentioning it to his daughter’s black boyfriend. This is in addition to the fact that the hired help at the house (in fact, the whole neighborhood) are all black folks. To put it mildly, something is off with the family, and the neighborhood as a whole, but exactly what is pretty surprising.

Jordan Peele’s through line for suspense is not in the openly hostile white neighborhood, but in the white neighborhood so intent at putting a black visitor at ease (despite clearly not knowing how to act around him), they wind up making him (and us), extremely uneasy. This is not only a ridiculously clever social commentary; it makes for a better movie. Peele understands that true horror is in the uncanny and the uncomfortable, more so than the racist southerner with the chainsaw.

2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(Blueprint Productions/Fox Searchlight/Film4)

Damn, if you thought it couldn’t get more political than that, wait until you see this one. In a time when the country is more divided over issues like the enforcement of the law and the treatment of women and minorities than it has been in decades, here comes old Martin McDonagh to throw some wood on the fire. I couldn’t be happier; this is the guy's first movie in almost five years, and it’s one of his best. Frances McDormand kills as Mildred Hayes. In a film about angry people, Hayes is the angriest, and for good reason. Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier, and the local police department, run by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has not caught the men responsible. It has, however, been more than busy with controversy over a variety of poorly-handled instances of violent conduct, and even racism, most of them the fault of the dimwitted and short-fused Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, in a career stand-out). She calls his failures out with the eponymous trio of crimson billboards, erected on a highway outside the town, demanding justice. It’s easy to be on her side, the Police Department has some clear issues that need to be handled, and a strong, motherly, angry woman taking a middle-American police force to task is, in many ways, exactly the story the world needed in 2017. But of course, it’s not quite that simple in the real world, and even less so in a McDonagh story.

And it’s that (if you’ll permit me using the phrase, not long after I decried it’s use) that makes Three Billboards so important. McDonagh is not interested in easy stories, where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and the good guys win. He knows that’s what the audience wants, and he’s more than willing to wink at the notion, as he’s made clear in movies like Seven Psychopaths, but he’s not interested. Like all his movies, Three Billboards turns the characters you don’t like into characters you do, and the characters you do like into characters you’re not sure about, all while asking if all the hubbub that comes from anger, even genuinely righteous anger, ever brings us closer to justice.

It’s also, again like all his movies, perfectly written and fantastically acted, particularly with regard to McDormand and Rockwell, who both took home well-deserved Oscars for their work. It’s also moving, unsettling, and often absolutely hilarious in spite of itself.

1.     A Ghost Story


Wow. Yeah, so, I love this movie. I fully realize what you are about to read might be some of the hipsteriest stuff I’ve ever written here, so I apologize, I don’t normally go for movies this unorthodox (I wasn’t overly enamored with Boyhood), but this one honestly blew me away. I almost want to be careful how much I praise it, because it’s not really the sort of movie you get hyped up to watch as much as the sort you just expose yourself to and let affect you. It might even be boring for some people. All I can say is that I was utterly transfixed, and ultimately, blown away.

A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, introduces us to ‘C’ (Casey Affleck), and ‘M’ (Rooney Mara), two young, attractive people living in a house in the countryside. The closest thing to conflict their other otherwise simple life experiences is a desire by M to move away, while C would rather not. Their argument doesn’t really get resolved though, because C winds up in a fatal car accident, only to wake from the morgue as a ghost. Like a full on “white sheet with holes for eyes”, budget-Halloween costume ghost. He returns home to the grieving M, only to find he cannot speak to her, cannot be seen by her, can only occasionally, with effort, interact with the world around him, and apparently can’t (or rather, won’t) leave his home. While this happens, he watches M grieve, grow, and leave, all while he is left in a house that undergoes rapid change.

The film is filled with weird quirks that may seem too hipstery for many, whether it’s the nameless characters, the mumbled dialogue, the aspect ratio (made to look like a super 8 camera recording), or, yes, the fact that the lead is Casey Affleck wearing a sheet with eyeholes in it, a fact which honestly overjoyed me. There’s even a cameo from Ke$ha. But it all works for this movie. It doesn’t feel pretentious; it feels honest, simple, and straightforward. Also you get all the subtlety of a typically great Casey Affleck performance without having to look at Casey Affleck. Rooney Mara is equally moving in her own understated way.

A Ghost Story is spooky, but not scary, somber, but not depressing. It’s a moving, intense, cosmic rumination on death, love, relationships, and the passage of time.  If you’ll forgive the pun (and you’ve forgiven plenty by this point), it’s nothing short of haunting, and it'll stick with you long after it's left your screen.

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