Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Alex's Top 15 Films of 2017

I was going to start this introduction with the paragraph below, but as I started writing it, I realized how similar it was to so many of our/my intros each year. Initially, I almost deleted it because I wanted something “fresh” and after reading the first handful of sentences, realized it was not that. But in that moment I also realized that these entries have become something of an annual snapshot into each of our lives. I’m unsure if other writers will follow similar suit this year, but looking back, often we start our posts by recapping what the year held for us and how it related to the movies we watched. And as we’re now only submitting this one post each year, I think I’m now looking at them as something of a scrapbook. Yes, you’re probably not going to get a ton of originality out of these intros, but I think not only is it interesting to see how life events influenced film preference each year, but as longtime friends it’s just fun to look back over the years and see how each of us has changed. It’s a pretty neat time capture. 

So that all being said, here’s my annual check-in: 

It’s funny how getting engaged, moving with your family to another state, building and moving into a new house, both you and your partner starting new jobs, the kids starting new schools, and getting a new puppy all tend to interrupt your movie-watching schedule. Who woulda thunk it? I can say with near certainty that I watched fewer movies in 2017 than I have in any calendar year of my adult life. It just didn’t happen this year. But honestly, I’m not too upset about it. Aside from the obvious trade-off of experiencing all of these momentous life events with my family instead of watching a few extra movies, I again just struggled to get into many of the mainstream offerings. While plenty still did, there were a great many titles that just didn’t interest me. I really don’t think anymore that there is a lesser quantity of quality films being made – truly, there are so many more – it’s more of a narrowing of my interests and a realization that there are many more important things in life than watching every movie that comes out. And maybe that’s all a given, but it’s just so interesting to feel that transition through the years. 

On the other side of that, however, I’m still writing a post about movies and am excited to be sharing my end-of-the-year list (albeit later than usual). While I did not get around to seeing as many titles as I have in the past, I still saw a good number and was entertained by many of them. There’s so much I love about the movies, and it’s really a joy of mine to compile this list; I constantly look forward to writing it each year. I’ll forever love going to the theater, and seeing a grand spectacle film (even if it’s ultimately forgettable and trite) will always be something I look forward to. I know I don’t have the stamina to hang with the truly dedicated movie fans anymore, but hopefully there’s a base out there that still loves movies as much as I do, but has also let other, often more important, aspects of life fill in the gaps. Maybe for those people, this list can serve as a quick recap of the year, focusing on the handful of films that they might actually want to get to. 

So without further ado, my favorite movies of 2017: 

Quick Preface: I'm not going to list all of the movies I didn't see this year that I wanted to - I'm not sure where that list stops as far as notoriety is concerned - so if you don't see something below that you feel should be on a top list, I'll let you guess whether I didn't care for it or otherwise see it. But as it stands, I'm still happy with the films I did see last year...

     15. Alien: Covenant
I love the Alien franchise. They can make a new one every year and I’ll gladly fork over my $10 to see it as soon as it comes out. The two most recent entries have definitely had their issues, but their ideas have been grand and right up my alley: where did we come from? What’s our purpose? I love movies about space exploration, future technologies, and themes that explore the advancement of civilization. Those (together) are really some of the most fascinating things to me, and honestly, any movie that features them I will rate highly. In general, I thought the production values of this film were better than those in “Prometheus”, but I thought the ideas were a bit less fascinating. I like that they took it to another level, but again we were left unable to communicate with our creators and learn more about our actual existence. The world building was neat, and I love continuing to dig a little deeper, but I don’t think this was quite the payoff I was hoping for after “Prometheus”. If/when the next Alien film is made, I’ll be curious where they end up next.
     14. Thor: Ragnarok
Based on the trailer, I REALLY wanted to like this more. It might have been the best trailer of 2017. Plus, Taika Watiti directing, Cate Blanchet as the villain? Sign me up! In reality, the great setup probably led to too high of expectations, and it was never able to catch up. Still, it was an enjoyable Marvel film, and I am really digging the way the Marvel Studios is approaching its offshoot franchises. James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy, Waititi now with Thor, Ryan Coogler with Black Panther, etc. Giving these unique/artistic directors a chance to run with these franchises however they see fit (still staying within the general bigger picture of Marvel’s plan) is fun to watch. It’s given great life to these smaller franchises, and really made them stand out on their own. I love it. I easily think this was the best of the Thor movies, but no matter what, I just can’t seem to get incredibly invested in this storyline. Still, this movie was entertaining and finally provided some substance to Thor’s journey (before, I always felt like he was too powerful for whatever obstacle they put in front of him). Blanchett’s character was a great match, and she was so fun to watch in this role. As much as I wanted it to be, this wasn’t a top-tier superhero movie for me, but it was a memorable one that should continue to stand out from the heard.
     13. Colossal
What if I told you there was a movie out there in which a woman (Anne Hathaway) moves back to her hometown after losing everything in the big city? Simple enough, right? But what if I then told you that, simultaneously, giant monster attacks started cropping up around the world. And then what if I finally told you that eventually we realize that these monster attacks only happen when our main character gets blackout drunk (which she does often), and all of the monster’s moves mimic her moves (if she lifts her arm, the monster lifts its arm). And when you’re taller than a skyscraper, even that can have major consequences. If there’s ever been a more creative metaphor for life while drinking extreme amounts of alcohol, I’ve not seen it. Throughout the film she becomes more aware of this and actually learns to control it – but also learns that when she can’t handle life and continues to drink, it often leads to the death of thousands of people. While a silly concept, it gets pretty heavy. There are even deeper layers in the film, and an interesting turn from Jason Sudeikis’ supporting character. It’s fascinating to see this whole story play out and learn why it’s all happening. Going in, I expected a bit more comedy, but it was definitely an interesting film.
     12. Life
It feels very much like this could have been an offshoot of the Alien franchise. Some similar themes (origins of life; space exploration), but without the restraints of the Alien mythology. Actually, if Alien and The Thing had a baby – its name would be “Life”. I love a good monster movie, especially when it can take over bodies and you can’t be sure if your friends are “infected”. Plus, since I am so fond of space exploration movies, the idea of finding life is something I’ve often thought about – and this is the worst possible outcome. Even if something seems inferior or harmless, how could we ever know what real capabilities it has or how it would respond to interaction with our species? It’s something I don’t think I’d ever want to be a part of, and this movie only confirmed those sentiments. The action was intense, and the idea of being trapped in space with a deadly creature is truly frightening. A great space thriller, if you’re looking for that.
     11. Split
This was an interesting study, propped up by a solid performance from James McAvoy. He was the perfect choice to play a character both timid and creepy. The film explores a character with multiple personalities – 23, I think? – and the interactions he has with certain people around him. The most interesting aspect is how his personalities interact with each other. They’re aware of each other and often get into skirmishes (there’s a great example in the film about all of them constantly fighting for the light and whoever is holding it at the time gets to talk – and the others are constantly trying to get it away from him). I would have been perfectly fine with a film that simply explored the life of this person, but it continues to go further, and gets more and more “sci-fi” as it goes on. But maybe the coolest thing about the film – and it’s been out for a year now, so the ban on spoilers has lifted – is that we find out this takes place in Shayamalan’s Unbreakable universe. I had no idea going in, so it was a fun surprise. I didn’t love Unbreakable, but I think it’s a clever concept for a superhero movie. And I didn’t realize that I cared about that universe expanding until I knew that it was. Now I feel like I’m pretty excited to see how all of these characters interact together in the sequel.
     10. Wind River
Well acted, well paced, and it told an important story that I don’t think is well known today. The film took place is snowy North Dakota, and centered on the death (and rape) of a Native American girl. As tragic as that is by itself, it explored why this is an epidemic around reservations. I won’t share too many details as to not give away the exploration of the crime, but it was a very harrowing look at a world that has been pushed aside and ignored. While there is sadness in this tale, it’s still quite fascinating, and is a great whodunit thriller. Jeremy Renner, who is one of the leads in the film, has a great character arc and gives, probably, the best performance of his career. I do feel like everyone should see this movie, but I will reiterate that it’s intense.
     9. The Shape of Water
I saw this film very late in the game - like, after it already won Best Picture. So I think my view of it probably ended up being a little skewed. I REALLY wanted to see this movie for a long time, and the more hype it received - and especially after it won four Oscars - the more anticipation I had for it. And that's rarely a recipe for success. Too much hype is never good for a movie; almost none can live up to the expectations we create in our heads. So that being said, I did not like this movie as much as I expected and/or wanted to. But I still enjoyed it plenty. The storytelling was beautifully done and sweet. The cinematography was exceptional; nearly every shot felt meaningful and impactful. I also appreciated the social commentary it provided - the Michael Shannon character and the General he reported to (white males; too much anger and aggression; this construct that they're oppressed; a skewed idea of power and authority) are still just as harmful and present as they are today. Sadly, those characters did not need to be written into the 1960's to feel as real as they did. Otherwise, the relationships between many of the other (protagonist) characters were great. Elisa, Giles, Zelda, and Dr. Hoffstetler - I'm not sure which I enjoyed the most, but I'm just glad they all rose to the occasion and helped out for the greater good when they needed to. The movie didn't quite have the pacing I was expecting, and there was less fantasy than I was hoping for (I would have loved to dive deeper into the mythology of the featured creature), but it was still a joy to watch.
     8. Baby Driver
I’m not typically a fan of “action movies”, but I think this had enough variation on the genre to keep me interested. The rest of the film did not match the adrenaline-pumping tension of the first scene, but I appreciated how it slowed down and actually told a story about this character; there were some nice layers to this guy that you don’t necessarily expect in an action movie. While the music of the film was focal – I think it was mostly an excuse for Edgar Wright to put all of his favorite songs into one movie – I actually didn’t love all the song selections as much as the marketing made me believe I would. I think sometimes Wright got a little too cute with some selections and in those moments I was wondering why he loved a certain song so much (where as the “right” song would have just kept me in the moment). Still, the story was fun, the pacing was excellent, and the general vibe of the film was still something I really enjoyed.
     7. Logan Lucky
I think this movie provided the most fun I had at a theater all year. Yes, the acting was good from all the leads (special nod to Daniel Craig for being such a weirdo in this film), the directing from Steven Soderbergh was expectedly on-point (he knows how to make heist films), and the pacing swift enough to keep anyone involved – but for me this movie gets such high marks for being such an escape. 2017 was a crazy year, and while I love movies that have a lot to say about society, I also can appreciate a movie that just wants to have some fun and let you forget about the world for a couple of hours. That’s how I feel when I think about this movie, and I mean that in the very best way. I don’t think I need to say much else because there isn’t a lot going on outside of what’s happening on the surface. But if you want an enjoyable, silly (but smart) escape, this is a great option.
     6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This was probably the most difficult movie for me to rank this year. If we’re talking about its successes, the first place we need to start is with the acting. The three actors in the film who received Academy Award nominations – Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell – were all absolutely deserving. McDormand stole the show. And the supporting performances from Harrelson and Rockwell provided a lot of great depth to the film. But as social commentary has been a major theme this year, the plot of the film – a mother taking on the law after they’re unable to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer – felt especially important. Taking place in the south, not only did we get the dynamic of men vs. women, but we got citizens vs. police. It was usually an uncomfortable position to watch, but I think that’s what made it more powerful. Sometimes it needs to be uncomfortable. There was definitely some wildness to the film – both from the actions of the characters and the direction of the movie – that at first were jarring, but ultimately I think led to a more shocking look at how life can sometimes be not only for police officers (do they ever get in trouble for anything?), but for men in those southern "boys clubs" (do they ever get in trouble for anything?). The entire film felt unfair, which I assume was the point. Still, even with the many battles going on, there was constantly an undertone of compassion and understanding. As humans, I think that’s a great message: we might fight to the bitter end about our values and beliefs, but I do still believe we need to care about one another and remember that we’re all human beings. As for some of the detractors, the main ones for me were the overall pace and tone. This movie was all over the place. As individual scenes, I thought they all worked great, but it bounced back and forth so much, often struggling to decide if it was a laugh-out-loud comedy or a tear-jerking drama. I realize that life is all of that, but the constant jostling between the two – I felt like it somehow took me out of it. Still, as a commentary on the world (and for its artistic values) I think this is an important film for people to see.
     5. The Big Sick
This movie was just so sweet and charming. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the story follows their real-life meeting and relationship. It really did feel very honest, and easily featured some of the funniest stuff I saw in a movie this year. It found the perfect balance of taking very relatable situations that happen in real life and letting us laugh about them/ourselves. I loved watching both of their families, and how they eventually came around to the idea of these two being together, even though they came from such different backgrounds. Gordon’s mother, played by Holly Hunter in the movie, was great and showed some surprising comedic chops from an actor that doesn’t otherwise show that side often. I'm bummed she didn't get an Oscar nomination. But overall, the movie was just delightful to watch. You run the gamut of emotions with this, but never to a point where any of them feel tiresome or overwhelming. It’s a nice balance throughout, and as far as romantic comedies go, surely this was the best of the year.
     4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from this movie after the last couple Star Wars films. I liked (didn’t love) The Force Awakens, but Rogue One did very little for me. But being very much on the Rian Johnson bandwagon, I wanted nothing but success for him with this film. Luckily, I think he gave me exactly what I wanted, even though I didn’t know going in it was what I wanted. I’m sure you’ll get much more detailed descriptions of this film from other writers who are more passionate about the series than I, but I felt this was the perfect Star Wars movies to bridge old fans and new. I realize that the humor was different than in previous films, and some of the sequences were rather “unnecessary”, but I still loved the storylines (the purest form of good vs. evil), and the world building was just so much fun. Every scene seemed to provide something new and unique – I could just feel Johnson using any excuse to come up with a new creature. I’ve always loved that about Star Wars, and I think it was best displayed in this film. The plot for the Jedi definitely did not go how I expected, but I think I liked it. I’m still unsure how I feel about the interactions with Luke and Kylo Ren, but I get it. I understand Mark Hamill’s initial issues with the direction of his character, but like he ultimately has, I think fans will come around to it and see it as a necessary arc for the Jedi. I did appreciate Kylo’s feelings about the past (which of course mimic the crowd’s attachments to certain aspects of the franchise) – Johnson obviously did not mean it with anger, but having Kylo say to Rey (and the crowd) that she needed to let go of the past (kill it, if she had to) felt overdue. Johnson went against the grain with a lot of fanboy theories about the series, and I’m glad he did. It was time to break free from the cage every filmmaker was stuck in. I know a lot of die-hard fans didn’t care for the movie, but I hope most of them will eventually come around. I absolutely think this was the Star Wars movie we needed, and I think it was a blast to watch.
     3. Brigsby Bear
What I loved most about this film was that it really succeeded and was impactful on a couple different levels. We jump in on a 20-something guy who, for all intents and purposes, seems like a fine kid. His family dynamic is peculiar, but there’s love there and it’s clear they prioritize education and family. His main quirk is that he’s still obsessed with a favorite childhood TV show, Brigsby Bear (this plays well to a generation that loves nostalgia). We then realize something strange is going on, as they appear to live in an underground bunker. We could normally assume a disaster of some sort in the real world, but then we see animatronic animals lining the outskirts of the yard and we know something is off. Flash to the cops arriving and us realizing that he was actually kidnapped by these people as a baby and has been living in isolation with them his entire life. What they gave him in that bunker is all he knows of the world. I share all of that only because those details were never hidden as part of the plot; I don’t feel that I’m ruining much. Anyway, from there we really get into some neat themes of the film. On one hand, we have this kid man who’s suddenly thrown into the real world and is trying to cope with everything: his real parents, his sister, making friends, etc. It’s a very unique coming-of-age story watching him figure out where he fits into his new world. On the other, from an artistic standpoint, he learns that Brigsby Bear never got a finale, so he sets off to make a movie and complete the story himself. This leads him down a few different paths – some of discovery, some of hardship – that all lead him to the person he becomes. It’s a very quirky movie, but it has a lot of charm, and Kyle Mooney (SNL) does a great job finding a middle ground to live in with this character. I loved watching his journey.
     2. Molly’s Game
To those close to me, it’s probably no surprise that I have an Aaron Sorkin movie so high on my list. His writing is just so entertaining to me. His heavy use of exposition; the way he describes scenes and empowers his characters – as a fan of the writing medium, it’s everything I wish I could put in my own writing. Add in Jessica Chastain crushing it in this role, and throw in the fact that I also love poker (and the high-stakes world around it), and this was a perfect storm for me. Even before seeing this film I could have told you it would be high on this list. As for the actual substance of the film, thanks to Sorkin's quick repartee, the pace moved swiftly and kept me engaged throughout.  It was an incredibly easy watch and I don't feel there was much lag time. And as expected, Chastain owned this role. She, along with co-star Idris Elba, were quite fun to watch on screen together. Chastain has long been one of my favorite actresses actors, and this film only solidified those opinions. On the other end, while I’ll defend Sorkin’s writing (and directing debut!) to the end, detractors will point to Sorkin’s overwrought themes and tidy arcs - but for me, that’s all just part of the package. Sure, you could say that Molly’s “30 years of therapy in two minutes” was a bit trite (and convenient), but Sorkin likes quick, impactful conclusions/self-realizations. They may not be the most realistic, but it definitely makes for an entertaining movie. So I was fine with all of that. There weren’t many grand social remarks with this film (though you can make a general case for women’s empowerment), but it was an incredibly entertaining watch.
     1. Get Out 
Equally entertaining, thought-provoking, culturally-significant, and poignant, “Get Out” was one of the best experiences I had watching movies all year. I fully expected something of quality from Jordan Peele (even though people seemed surprised that he could handle a genre outside of comedy), but was so pleased to see such piercing commentary on society today – and wrapped up so neatly in an entertaining package. To go on about the different levels of this film and why they’re each so important would be to retread what has been gushed about for months now. After reading so much about the film myself, I don’t feel like I can as articulately expand on what has already been said. But just take it from me: if you have been under a rock and somehow haven’t seen this movie yet, go check it out. Then go read about it from people much smarter than I. It’s a wonderful, important piece of cinema that I’m glad exists in today’s climate. Plus it's just entertaining and exciting to watch!

Thanks for checking in again this year. As referenced at the start, I still feel there are a great many movies from 2017 that I need to see - but this is at least a start. We'll see what next year brings!