Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #1

We've saved the best for last: Luca Guadagnino's poignant and haunting "Call Me By Your Name," a story of first love lost and self found with a (huge star-making) lead performance by Timothée Chalamet that's fifty decibels softer than Oldman's in "Darkest Hour" yet infinitely truer, more penetrating and more memorable.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #2

Reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s great “Housekeeping,” Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” a biography of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, staked claim to the highest in cinematic achievement in the first half of 2017. Profoundly moving without a hint of the maudlin, it stands on the shoulders of Oscar-worthy performances by Sally Hawkins and, as Maud’s husband Everett, Ethan Hawke, and a Sherry White script that speaks volumes in few words.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #3

The Safdie Brothers' "Good Time" plays like a contemporary update of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" with a criminal overlay. An unrecognizable Robert Pattinson (whose "Maps to the Stars" scene as a chauffeur driving a boldly suggestive Julianne Moore through Beverly Hills is perhaps the sexiest of recent years) stars as a hood who enlists his slow younger brother (Benny Safdie) in a botched bank robbery, then tries to break him out of Rikers, eventually plucking the wrong handcuffed guy (Buddy Duress) out of a hospital on a perfervid and hallucinatory nighttime odyssey through the underbelly of New York. Events feel increasingly disconnected from reality, culminating in a did-that-really-just-happen moment that I will never forget. The cast, featuring the terrific Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Jason Leigh in small supporting roles, is uniformly excellent, led by the chameleonic Pattinson, a serious and thoughtful cineaste who's going to be around for a long time. So will the supremely stylish, adrenaline-fueled and draining "Good Time," which more than half of my audience watched enraptured to the last of the closing credits.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #4

Harrowing yet exhilarating, Ruben Östlund's art-world satire "The Square" took the Palme D'Or at Cannes. Östlund's last film, "Force Majeure," made the top half of my top-ten list in 2014 (and its exclusion from the Oscar shortlist was another blot on the Academy). Östlund is better than any other director working at putting you smack in an unpleasant situation and forcing you to think about and decide what you would do. It's a cinema of dilemma, but more so a cinema of discomfort. Things - aural things even more than visual - are always happening around the edges of his frame that keep his characters and us from ever being able to relax. I was surprised but not shocked that both the friend I attended "The Square" with and two friends to whom I had recommended it walked out. I, on the other hand, was nodding my head up and down with excitement. In a largely moribund current cinema, "The Square" feels jarringly alive.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #5

Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic "A Quiet Passion" features a nomination-worthy performance by Cynthia Nixon as the belle of Amherst, devoted sister (to Jennifer Ehle) and daughter (to Keith Carradine). Anything but stuffy or starchy, this is a full-bodied study of a woman, 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 house, 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 also 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 portrait of a brilliant mind that rarely failed to get in the way of its owner's happiness.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #6

Bill Condon’s live action “Beauty and the Beast” was a stunning surprise, an improvement on the animated classic of a quarter-century ago and the first certified crowd-pleaser of the movie year. Funny, witty, impeccably cast, fully imagined and movingly penned, it delights and enchants, eternal yet effortlessly of the moment.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #7

David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” stars a kick-ass, super-sexy Charlize Theron as MI6 superspy Lorraine Broughton, sent to Berlin to infiltrate an espionage ring and procure a vital information database. James McAvoy – in his best performance in years – is the station chief who alternately helps and hinders her; there’s also good work by Sofia Boutella (whose erotic scenes with Theron are only enhanced by the latter’s real-life lesbianism), Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, German vet Barbara Sukowa and the redoubtable John Goodman. This is a movie that’s beautiful to look at (I could watch it with the sound muted) but also to listen to (with a great new-wave soundtrack that fits the late-80s Berlin setting like a glove), with mordant humor and scenes of hand-to-hand combat far more ingenious and exciting than the director’s “John Wick” franchise. I can't wait to watch this flick again (and again).

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #8

August brought a gift to moviegoers in the form of "The Trip to Spain," the third installment of the "Trip" franchise that is itself a gift that keeps on giving. Director Michael Winterbottom again reunites Steve Coogan and the otherworldly talented Rob Brydon (and that hauntingly beautiful music Michael Nyman wrote for "Wonderland') for a restaurant-review tour marked by hilarious bickering, dueling celebrity impersonations, and critiques of said impersonations. And when I say hilarious, I mean that I wiped tears of laughter out of my eyes regularly throughout the two-hour runtime that provides exceptional value for money. Coogan and Brydon exhibit a fair bit more self-awareness (of their status on the entertainment totem pole, of the passage of time) in this picture, imbuing it with a greater poignancy. The comedy also feels more unrestrained than ever, finding its clearest expression in an ambiguous ending that seems to thumb its nose at the audience and ask "Why the hell not?" A box set of the "Trip" trilogy would make a marvelous gift for anyone who loves to laugh.

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #9

Sebastián Lelio showed promise with his major debut, 2014's winning "Gloria" (with Paulina Garcia). He delivers in spades with "A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)," a film of wit, sensitivity and Almodovar-esque style that marks Lelio as an important writer and director keenly attuned to the contemporary woman. The woman in this case is Marina, a trans woman played by the trans actress Daniela Vega (who appears in virtually every frame of the film and commands the screen). Marina is a singer and actress in love with an older businessman, Orlando. When Orlando takes ill in bed one night, Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he dies upon arrival. Rather than sympathy, Marina is met with the contempt of most of Orlando's family (expressed politely by some, at least initially, and brutally by others) and the suspicion of the seen-it-all sex crimes detective who doubts that Orlando's bruises resulted from a fall on a staircase. "You will not come to the wake, or the funeral," Orlando's ex tells Marina, while the detective refuses to step out for the police doctor's physical examination of her. Vega walks the tightrope throughout, never making Marina a doormat even as she reacts to continual attacks on her dignity with remarkable equanimity and, despite the raw emotions in play, only rarely shows the full force of which she is capable.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Ten Best Films of 2017: #10

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 of the film, a virulent, Plague-like disease has wiped out almost all of humankind. Paul (Joel Edgerton) has a few inviolable rules for his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.): only go out of the house in pairs, always wear your gas masks outside, and never ever unlock the red door. When an intruder (Christopher Abbott) offers much-needed provisions if they’ll take in him and his wife (Riley Keough) 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 you don’t need a big budget, special effects and universally recognized comic-book characters to create thrilling entertainment. All you need is a compelling scenario, a uniformly first-rate cast and a director with vision and the talent to see it through.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Worst Films of 2017

This year, I made a conscious effort to avoid, to a large extent, films I knew I wouldn't like. I saw about 50 fewer films than in 2016 (and have some hope of going below 200 this year). Perhaps as a result, I awarded one star to only sixteen films, making compiling a worst ten list unusually easy.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Noteworthy Performances of 2017

Of course, there is some fluidity between leading and supporting roles, and between casts and individual performances (but not, at least here, between actors and actresses). That said, here, in chronological order, is what I wrote about some of the especially memorable performances (mostly by women) given in the films of 2017.