Monday, January 01, 2018

Zaki's Flick Picks 2017: The Cinema Year That Was

For all the ways 2017 was rife with problems, it really was an extraordinary year for great movies, with several different genres all emerging as some of the strongest pictures in a long time. Here’s a countdown of my top ten for calendar year 2017:

(Click links to read my full-length reviews/features)

10 - Kong: Skull Island
This is one of those flicks I wish had been released when I was eight or nine, because boy would I have eaten it up. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, this pulpy throwback to old-timey Saturday afternoon monster movies you'd see on syndicated TV benefits from all the special effects advances the 21st century has to offer, but uses it in service of a wry commentary on 1970s militarism. Much of the cast (including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Samuel L. Jackson) plays second banana to a rapid succession of CGI monsters (including the titular beastie), but that doesn't stop them from giving it their all, especially John C. Reilly in a scene-stealing turn.

9 - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh wrote and directed this small story of a small town reacting to a big disruption. Frances McDormand's seething rage as a mother trying to find justice for the daughter who was raped and murdered brackets the entire film, but it's bolstered by strong supporting performances by Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Peter Dinklage. The film's effectiveness lies in how it avoids a lot of tropes and easy answers in facing down a difficult situation, and it demonstrates yet again why McDormand is one of the greatest actors we have.

8 - A Ghost Story
When I first walked out of A Ghost Story last summer, I was fairly certain I hated it. Then, by the time I got home, I was pretty sure I loved it. That's the wide gamut your reactions will run as you take in his meditation on life, death, and loss. In putting star Casey Affleck (and probably a stand-in as well) under a sheet for much of the runtime, silently walking through various tableaus, writer/director David Lowery has made a film that stubbornly, defiantly dares you to stick with it all the way through the end, but when you do, you may be surprised at the emotional journey you've been on.

7 - The Disaster Artist
James Franco directed this look behind-the-scenes of what's widely considered one of the worst movies ever made (2003's The Room), so it's a measure of cosmic irony, I suppose, that it ends up being one of the best of the year. Also starring as The Room's writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau, Franco's characterization -- with thick accent and comically long hair -- could easily have come off like a Saturday Night Live parody, but he somehow finds the way in to make us all feel for Wiseau even as we chuckle at the terrible-ness of his venture. Props also to brother Dave Franco, whose presence as "straight man" Greg Sestero (upon whose book the film is based) gives those of us in the audience a way in. The Disaster Artist is a wickedly funny statement of Kruger-Dunning writ large, but also a powerful testament to the power of friendship.

6 - Get Out
"Rose, give me the keys!" I'm not sure there was a more chilling line in all of 2017 cinema, delivered with increasing exasperation by Daniel Kaluya's desperate college student in writer/director Jordan Peele's powerful debut film taking satiric aim at the racism underlying seemingly benign white liberalism. You can see many of Peele's influences -- from John Carpenter to The Twilight Zone (a revival of which he'll now be overseeing) -- on display in this tight and gripping thriller that's at turns horrifying and darkly comical. While Peele's comic skills have been known and admired for years, his skills as a filmmaker were absolutely revelatory, and after Get Out I'm very excited to see what he has planned next.

5 - Blade Runner 2049
This belated sequel arrived thirty-five years after the original Blade Runner, and while it isn't quite the measure of its predecessor in its simplicity of story, it's blazes new trails both visually and narratively that more than make it a match. While Ridley Scott remained onboard as a producer, much of the credit for this one belongs to director Denis Villeneuve (appearing on my top ten list for three years running), whose distinct style anchors the (at times overlong) story about Rian Gosling's android hunter K seeking Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, and his own identity in the process. The fact that this one didn't play nearly as well as it should have with audiences is disappointing for multiple reasons, but foremost that it means we're less likely to get genre pictures like this.

4 - War for the Planet of the Apes
And speaking of genre pictures disappointing, the third entry in Fox's revived Planet of the Apes franchise had the wind at its back after two extremely well-received previous entries were embraced by audiences, yet it flamed out at the box office. While I have no idea why folks chose to skip out on this one, they missed a powerful statement about the madness and desperation of war, all wrapped up in a sci-fi "summer blockbuster" package. Andy Serkis' motion capture performance as Caesar, the chimpanzee leader we've followed from birth to weary battle commander, is one for the ages, and he's helped by a compelling boo-hiss turn from Woody Harrelson (here he is again on this list) as the villain of the piece. I'm confident that people will find and appreciate War for the Planet of the Apes now that this trilogy can be viewed holistically with a beginning, middle, and end.

3 - Dunkirk
Director Christopher Nolan's gripping World War II drama depicting the famous Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is notable in many ways. Foremost among these is how it eschews so many war picture tropes (the rah-rah hero, the rousing theme music on the soundtrack) and instead drills down on the essential horrible-ness of the experience of war. The watching, the waiting, the not-knowing. Dunkirk is about desperation, and how different people react to it. There's no big star whose journey we follow (the few recognizable faces are deliberately obscured) so instead we're riding along with several nameless, faceless soldiers. Some rise up and do exceptional deeds, and some do the opposite. All of it is human. This isn't a film that dwells on gore and viscera, but it's no less horrifying (and ultimately uplifting) for what it reveals about the human condition.

2 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out two Decembers ago, I liked it just fine, but withheld judgment on the film itself because it felt more like a "greatest hits" package specifically curated to elicit the most nostalgically poignant response. That didn't make it a bad film, but it also didn't make it a transcendent film. My response to The Last Jedi was different, in that it took me several days and several viewings to go from "Yes, I liked it" to, "Man, I loved it." Writer/director Rian Johnson has done something exceptional with this ninth Star Wars movie (and the third since Disney took ownership of the franchise) by turning the tropes we've become conditioned to expect after forty years of living and breathing this franchise, on their ear and pivoting in new and unexplored directions. I have no idea where Star Wars will go with Episode 9. But that's what I love the most.

1 - The Post
In a measure of how much of a master of the craft he is, Steven Spielberg began shooting The Post last spring, and he already had it in theaters by December. Given that accelerated schedule, it's impossible not to see the film -- depicting The Washington Post's race to publish classified Pentagon documents in the early '70s in the face of lawsuits by the Nixon administration -- as a critique and riposte to what's happening in Washington right now, with stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks giving face and voice to the country's conscience against an existential threat the likes of which it has never seen. But above and beyond that, The Post is also a gripping yarn that serves as a prequel of sorts to 1976's All the President's Men, and again highlights the essential role of journalists and journalism in a free and open society.

And that’s it for 2017!

Click here for a full list of my reviews from the year just ended. 

For more movie talk, including an episode-long discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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