Monday, July 3, 2017

The Best (and Worst) Films of the First Half of 2017

The first half of 2017 has given us a dozen strongly recommended features and a ten-worst list.


The only four-star film to date (a rating connoting excellence on every level) is Aisling Walsh's "Maudie," a biopic of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis reminiscent of the best of the Bill Forsyth oeuvre. Profoundly moving without a hint of the maudlin, "Maudie" stands tall on the shoulders of Sally Hawkins' Oscar-worthy performance, devoid of gimmickry, which surprises and delights at every turn, bringing out all of Maud's humor and indomitable spirit with the subtlest of physical movements and tonal inflections. I hope, too, that Ethan Hawke's work as Maud's husband Everett will not get lost in the shuffle. This is a daring part to take on - there's nothing warm or fuzzy about this manimal - and Hawke does well to locate his well-concealed humanity. Walsh captures the spirit of the north and mounts scenes magnificently, announcing herself as an important new talent, while Sherry White's nuanced script speaks volumes in few words. The most achingly poignant of these come in Maud's final deathbed question to Everett, which in a small, exceptionally lovely film is as big as any question we humans ever ask.


Another biography of a woman artist, Terence Davies' "A Quiet Passion," stars Cynthia Nixon in a nomination-worthy performance as Emily Dickinson, devoted sister (to Jennifer Ehle) and daughter (to Keith Carradine). Anything but stuffy or starchy, this is a full-bodied portrait made with wit and, especially in the first half, laugh-out-loud humor. (Catherine Bailey enchants as the naughty, ahead-of-her-time Miss Vryling Buffam.) As in "The Deep Blue Sea," Davies evinces his mastery of light and darkness; where so many directors aim for the crepuscular glow of dusk, the hours between twilight and nightfall, when just a hint of illumination suffuses the home, belong to Davies as to no other. Also as in that film, which made my 2012 top-ten list, you may find yourself thinking deeper thoughts and feeling deeper emotions than you realized lay within you. Davies makes use of the poetry itself - as read by Nixon - as effectively as any film since 2013's "Reaching for the Moon." What emerges is a picture of a brilliant mind that rarely failed to get in the way of its owner's happiness.


Bill Condon's live action "Beauty and the Beast," an improvement on the animated classic of a quarter-century ago, is the year's first certified crowd-pleaser. Funny, witty, impeccably cast, fully imagined and movingly penned, it is eternal yet effortlessly of the moment. Emma Watson makes a radiant and full-throated Belle, Dan Stevens brings genuine human emotion to the Beast, and Luke Evans is sheer perfection as the narcissist Gaston. (The part of LeFou is tailor-made for Josh Gad, and all of his laugh lines scored big with the packed house.) The voices of the fixtures at the Beast's castle have been chosen so thoughtfully, including Ian McKellen as Cogsworth (his last line, in the come-to-life epilogue, will have you laughing for days); Audra McDonald, an inspired Garderobe; and the nonpareil Emma Thompson a worthy heir to Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts. (Don't miss the elegantly mounted cast credits.) Condon brings out the deep feeling of the story in a way animation cannot, reserving pride of place for the message of seeking out others' inner beauty. This "Beauty and the Beast" will hold up well in generations of kids' collections; it's a consummate entertainment for smart audiences of all ages.

#4-#12 (in alphabetical order)

·         Edgar Wright's kinetic "Baby Driver," with a star-making lead performance by Ansel Elgort as the tinnitus-suffering, iPod-blasting personal getaway driver to Kevin Spacey. He's in love with Lily James, but has to pull off one last heist (with teammates Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm) before they can ride off into the sunset. Great car chases, a terrific (and almost non-stop) soundtrack and some crackerjack dialogue add up to a summer hit that feels throughout like the next big thing.

·         "The Fate of the Furious" lacks the grace notes that made 2015's "Furious 7" the apotheosis of the franchise - F. Gary Gray is no James Wan, and the untimely death of Paul Walker gave the earlier film an unmatchable potency and resonance - but there are still some jaw-dropping scenes (one involves cars that start themselves and reverse from high-level garages onto the street, another auto-piloted cars that crash into a building in something like Tetris formation) and top-shelf stunt work.

·         Cristian Mungiu's Romanian import "Graduation" is rich with the moral and ethical complexity of a country still shedding the corrupt skin of its communist days. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a respected doctor whose bright, accomplished daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is one exam away from a generous scholarship to an English university and the bigger world that both parents wish for her (and, regretfully, for themselves). But when she is suddenly attacked on the day before her test, to what lengths will Romeo go to secure for her extra test time or even an artificially high score?

·         Trey Edward Shults' "It Comes at Night" is lean, economical, no-frills genre moviemaking, yet this young director (who debuted with last year's Cassavetes-esque "Krisha") continues to amaze with his command of technique and now his versatility. In the near future, a virulent, Plague-like disease has wiped out almost all of humankind. Paul (Joel Edgerton) has a few inviolable rules for his wife and teenage son: only go out of the house in pairs, always wear your gas masks outside, and never ever unlock the red door. When an intruder offers much-needed provisions if they'll take in him and his wife and young son, Paul's comfortable pattern yields to an outwardly friendly but inwardly uneasy entente. "It Comes at Night" gives the lie to so much of the current cinema, proving all you need to create thrilling entertainment is a compelling scenario, a first-rate cast and a director with a vision and the talent to see it through.

·         Paolo Virzi's Italian import "Like Crazy" stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in a hilarious, nomination-worthy performance as Beatrice, a patient at a laughably "progressive" psychiatric clinic who claims to be a mega-rich aristocrat on a first-name basis with the president. When Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), an inked-up and head-down troubled case, joins the community, Beatrice snaps her up and the two hijack the clinic's van into town for a series of amusing adventures. The Italians can do psychiatric comedy like nobody else; if you haven't seen Roberto Benigni's 1996 "Il Mostro" ("The Monster"), do yourself a favor. Here, Virzi sustains the comic tone throughout.

·         "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," about an endlessly insinuating, small-time wheeler-dealer who finally makes it big after buying a pair of expensive shoes for the right Israeli politician, is elevated by the performance of Richard Gere and especially by the witty direction of Joseph Cedar, who in 2012's "Footnote" turned Talmudic philology into the stuff of high suspense. This guy really knows how to direct a movie.

·         "Personal Shopper," Olivier Assayas' second consecutive collaboration with actress Kristen Stewart, never achieves the profundity of 2015's "Clouds of Sils Maria," but holds the viewer's interest with its unabashedly outré story of a wealthy socialite's clothes buyer who's also a medium desperate to connect with her late brother, who died of the rare genetic heart defect they shared. Assayas perfectly captures the world of the wealthy and famous; as in "Clouds," there's an iPad display of a famous name wearing different outfits that makes most directors' use of technology look totally fake.

·         The Spanish import "Truman," about a divorced actor recently diagnosed with cancer and his childhood friend, now a married teacher in Canada, who reunite in Madrid for a few days of nostalgia and new experiences, exemplifies the difference between Hollywood and foreign film. In Hollywood, this picture would be (if ever made) mawkish and false; "Truman" is soft-spoken, unforced and true.

·         Stéphane Brizé follows up his brilliantly naturalistic, contemporary "The Measure of a Man" (which cracked the top half of my 2016 top-ten list) with the 19th-century character study "A Woman's Life," featuring a deeply felt performance by Judith Chemla as Jeanne, whose youthful marriage to a viscount proves to be a trap from which she struggles all her life to extricate herself. Her husband Julien, whose title does not come with a commensurate fortune, cheats on her and saddles her with responsibility for a profligate son who bleeds her dry financially and emotionally. Brizé is perhaps the current director best attuned to the outsize importance of money matters.

The Worst Ten (in alphabetical order)

·         I slept soundly through Michal Marczak's Polish import "All These Sleepless Nights," in which we spend 100 minutes watching two twenty-something best friends party, dance and jabber meaninglessly across Warsaw.

·         Colin Trevorrow's howler "The Book of Henry," about a child genius (yawn) who looks after his perpetually distracted waitress mother and younger brother, takes place in an alternate universe of phoniness and fraudulence. When Henry bites the big one from a brain tumor, he leaves Mom detailed instructions on how to kill their police-chief neighbor, who's (rather obliquely, from what we're shown) abusing his stepdaughter. Mom's reaction? Sounds great to her! She goes through with it, all the while listening to Henry's cassette tape, in which he guides her second by second, anticipating every detour she takes. The level of contrivance and coincidence in this movie is, to borrow a line from "The Golden Girls," like being struck by lightning in a house you won from Ed McMahon.

·         Dave Eggers' book "The Circle" might have worked on the printed page; on the big screen, its ideas about the online world infiltrating and taking over our lives and minds come crashing down around real-world places, situations and dialogue that couldn't sound phonier if they'd tried. Emma Watson is all wrong for the lead, while Tom Hanks continues to cement his status as a sure-fire indicator of a huge flop. Every member of Hanks' vast workforce laughs at every laugh line and aside in every speech. I rolled my eyes, then grumbled aloud, then walked out.

·         Never trust a movie by a guy named Nacho. Case in point: Nacho Vigalondo's "Colossal," with Anne Hathaway as an alcoholic New York screw-up who discovers to her horror that her movements control those of a monster marching through the streets of Seoul. The movie fancies itself a genre-bender, but it's really just another Comedy Without Laughs with a silly sci-fi overlay. Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens vie for the title of most unpleasant movie character of the year, the former as another robot-controller distastefully enamored of his homicidal capabilities, the latter as Hathaway's bullying Big Apple boyfriend.

·         I also walked out (though not nearly soon enough) of Oren Moverman's "The Dinner." Talk about false advertising: the trailers sell this as a Richard Gere movie about a Congressman whose son gets into criminal trouble (with his brother's son) that imperils his latest campaign. But Gere's a supporting player; virtually the entire movie belongs to Steve Coogan as the most annoying, psychotic father whose kid hasn't been forcibly removed by Child Protective Services. Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney are lamentable afterthoughts as the respective wives in a bizarre, incoherent mess of a movie.

·         Fast on the heels of last year's "High-Rise" (and with 2013's "Sightseers" still in memory), Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire" has convinced me to pull the plug on seeing his films. This is a totally unfunny, self-obsessed single-site action comedy about a gun sale gone wrong, with two of my least favorite working actors, the charisma-free Armie Hammer and the fingernails-on-blackboard Sharlto Copley. That Brie Larson would choose this film to follow up her Oscar win for "Room" defies credulity.

·         It's inevitable when you see as many movies as I do. When you go through your list at the end of the year, you'll see a few titles and have no recollection of them whatsoever. It happened for me at the halfway mark with "The Last Word," my third and last walkout. This is - as Google reminded me - a cringe-inducing would be comedy about a wealthy, ornery widow (Shirley MacLaine) who demands the local paper's obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) pen hers in advance - and just how she wants it.

·         The wicked twist ending is the sole saving grace for the brain-dead "Alien" ripoff "Life," a pure paycheck project for Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, featuring a decidedly daffy alien menace and a gore lover's mentality (which I do not share).

·         "Sleepless" is perhaps the most January movie ever released in January, an actioner of multiple laugh-out-loud plot twists and a supremely hammy lead performance by Jamie ("Stay with me, man!") Foxx. And yet, it's the title on this list I hate least; one might even enjoy it with a group of friends, each pointing out different absurdities and impossibilities.

·         Much less fun is "War on Everyone," from John Michael McDonagh, the sick mind responsible for 2014's "Calvary." He returns with this desperately overwritten and profoundly unfunny crooked-cop comedy, with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña completely miscast as partners on the Albuquerque P.D.

Best and Worst Documentaries

Two documentaries earned strong recommendations in the first half of 2017:

·         Roger Sherman's "In Search of Israeli Cuisine," which treats its title quest with appropriate academic rigor. We travel to almost every corner of Israel, meeting restaurateurs, farmers, vintners and food writers who have given serious thought to whether Israel is mature enough and has enough of an identity to be said to have a cuisine. The film covers such matters as the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking, the challenges facing Arab restaurateurs in Israel, and the influences of Judaism on the eating habits of a population that is 80% secular. Great food porn, too.

·         Bill Morrison's "Dawson City: Frozen Time" tells several amazing stories. Dawson City, a Gold Rush town in Yukon that reached its highest population of 9,000 early in the 20th century, was the last stop on the line for hundreds of silent films that Hollywood sent north, usually taking years to make their way up to the isolated hamlet. When the studios refused to pay for their return carriage, many of the films were thrown away on the ice floes, but over 300 ended up salted away under an ice hockey rink - which turned out to be, for these highly flammable and combustible nitrate films, an accidental stroke of genius. They survived - occasionally jutting out onto the playing surface - and were discovered in 1978, during construction of a rec hall behind "Diamond Tooth Gertie's" casino. In virtually every case, the Dawson reel was the only surviving copy of the picture. But the story of Dawson itself - its main drag decimated year after year by fire, but always rebuilt - is equally fascinating. Sid Grauman started there. So did Alexander Pantages. Fred Trump owned a brothel! Morrison's nearly wordless film - with a moody, ambient score by Alex Somers - casts the same eerily hypnotic glow of Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg." Film lovers will want to seek it out.

The single worst documentary of 2017 so far is Brian Knappenberger's Netflix POS "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press," which has the temerity to blame Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel (who bankrolled Hulk Hogan's successful lawsuit against Gawker) and the candidate Thiel endorsed in 2016, Donald Trump, for allegedly endangering dissent. Knappenberger must be living under a rock, because dissent has never been expressed more freely or less bravely than today. The "free press" does face serious problems, but they are of its own making: laziness, inaccuracy and pervasive bias as to which Americans had caught on long before Donald Trump.

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