A lot of people are of the opinion that 2017 wasn’t the best year for movies, and I’m one of them. For whatever it’s worth, the best year for movies was 1939 and we shall not see its like again. Yes, 1939. I don’t know how they did a top 10 list that year. A top 20 would have taken some doing: Gone With the Wind (one of the greatest Hollywood epics of all time, and you don’t get to consider yourself a movie buff if you haven’t seen it), The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach (silent movie supporting player John Wayne became a talkie star in one fell swoop), Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, Gunga Din (Steven Spielberg’s seen it – its fingerprints are all over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Beau Geste (the Gary Cooper version), Dodge City (popular swashbuckler star Errol Flynn proved he could do a western), Idiot’s Delight (in the same year he did Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable, arguably the greatest male movie star of all time, did a damn good musical comedy), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the English boarding school movie, and notable because Robert Donat beat out Clark Gable for Best Actor)…
2017 wasn’t in that league. Still, there were good movies, movies worth seeing, and this critic’s humble opinion, this is the best of the bunch:
Jessica Chastain shines in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, based on “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom’s memoir. Sorkin screenplays are always talky, but actors kill for dialogue like this. The main character, an Olympic hopeful skier with a college GPA good enough to get her into Harvard Law School, becomes wealthy hosting big stakes poker games but finds the fast lane more dangerous than an Olympic moguls run. Idris Elba costars.
A fine showcase for Sam Elliot, playing an aging Hollywood cowboy hero. A cancer diagnosis convinces Elliot’s main character Lee to try to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and perhaps cement his celluloid legacy, as well as make something out of a new relationship with a much younger comedienne (Laura Prepon). The movie is refreshingly unsentimental, and Elliots’ no-nonsense approach keeps The Hero from degenerating into a treacly weepie. Elliot, who by now commands an on-screen presence Gary Cooper would have admired, proves himself a national treasure here.
Oscar-winning Kathryn Bigelow’s last two movies were set primarily in the mideast. She comes home for Detroit, a nerve-jangling docudrama set against the urban violence and unrest that plagued the Motor City in the long, hot summer of 1967. A long lead-in prepares us for a broad canvas story, one that Bigelow doesn’t deliver. Working with her now accustomed collaborator Mark Boal, Bigelow focuses on the controversial, emotionally charged events at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967. Ten black men and two white women were present in the motel when National Guardsmen believed a sniper had fired on them from that location. Along with local police, they stormed the building. By the end of the evening, three of the men had been shot dead and the rest beaten, humiliated and traumatized. Though she doesn’t deliver the sophisticated nuances of The Hurt Locker or the even superior Zero Dark Thirty, she does provide an intense and thoroughly unnerving horror story that’s the more horrible because it’s based on fact. There are varying accounts as to what happened at the Algiers Motel that night, and Bigelow and Boal struggle mightily to provide as accurate an account as possible. The story that emerges is incendiary, if not subtle, and try as you might, you won’t be able to look away.
Oscar-winner Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) tries his hand at that most venerable of genres, the western, and turns in a hard and haunting masterpiece about racism and the cost of violence to the human soul. Christian Bale is superb as Cavalry Captain Joe Blocker, an officer on the brink of retirement after a career fighting Indians. He embodies the D.H. Lawrence quote that opens the movie: “The essential American spirit is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Although perhaps bitter, there is nothing remorseful about Blocker, who has the reputation of having taken more scalps than Sitting Bull. He tries to refuse his last mission – escorting a dying, long-imprisoned Cheyenne Chief (Wes Studi) and his family home to Montana, but can’t risk forfeiting his pension. On the journey he encounters the aftermath of a life of violence in various forms, particularly a young widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family has recently been slaughtered by a renegade Comanche raiding party. As the Huron Magua in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Studi exuded an intimidating, frankly sexual electricity. He still has an undeniable dignity and presence. The movie takes place against some spectacular, often bleak western locations, magnificently photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi, but the story is really set in the hard and stony landscape of the human heart.
Marvel Studios has finally regained control of one of its signature characters, and not a moment too soon. Like a spider, both the studio and the character were in need of some fresh blood. Tom Holland, as a younger Peter Parker/Spider-Man than we’ve previously seen, is a refreshing change of pace, and as the villain Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Michael Keaton injects both humanity and quiet menace. Cameos by Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau, reprising their roles from the Marvel Iron Man series, are most welcome. Jon Watts’ direction is suitably breezy and technically competent.
Battle of the Sexes
A hugely entertaining entry in the current seventies nostalgia boom. A game-upper from Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their latest outing examines the media circus surrounding the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, widely touted as “the Battle of the Sexes.” Sports movies are almost always about something else, and this one is really about the personal struggles faced by both protagonists as they entered the hugely publicized match. Written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) the movie also deftly captures a point in time when long-standing social norms were beginning just to be upended. Riggs is played with astonishing manic energy by Steve Carell, who gets it right – playfully in your face with neither self-consciousness nor irony. Emma Stone, who apparently does not know how to give a bad performance, plays Billie Jean King with an earnestness and normalcy that belies the fact that there was little about this woman that wasn’t extraordinary.
Comic book giant DC has finally taken a giant step towards silencing naysayers maintaining that the home of Superman and Batman now holds a permanent second place position behind the Disney-owned Marvel. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC, is an absolute triumph, by far the best entry to date in Warner Bros.’ DC Crossover Universe movies.
Our heroine has been raised as a princess on an uncharted island of Themyscira, which is populated by Amazons. The Amazons ride horses, shoot arrows, swing swords and throw spears. In short, they’re totally bad ass. Remember how Brad Pitt moved in the action scenes in Troy? They all do that here. They’re a horse cavalry SEAL team and men need not not apply. But inevitably, a man does appear, when World War I American flyer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands, and has to be rescued from the surf by Diana. The Germans are on on to him, and invade the beaches of Themyscira before you know it. Hippolyta’s Amazon’s are tough, but not, we soon see, invulnerable, and Diana resolves to help Steve with his mission. That gets our heroine to London, and some genuinely impressive period production values, and some amusing, if predictable, fish out of water story material. And Gadot makes for both a glamorous and entertaining fish out of water, which to its credit the movie is able to exploit without invoking comparisons to similar story fodder in Marvel’s first Thor movie.
Once on mission, Wonder Woman takes on the look of a war film, right down to the bleached color of Saving Private Ryan. The tone, though, is closer to the movies made in the sixties from Alistair MacLean novels like The Guns of Navarone. Jenkins handles the requisite action set pieces more than capably, frequently transitioning to ultra-slow motion mid-shot with a Guy Ritchie flair. Hans Zimmer’s exciting new theme, featuring soloist Tina Guo’s electric cello, is primal and electrifying, and certainly the most memorable character theme since Monty Norman’s James Bond leitmotif.
An astonishing directorial debut from funny man Jordan Peele, this is a tidy, nasty thriller that starts out like any number of comedies dealing with the awkwardness of young mixed race young couples introducing their significant others to their parents. Peele, who also wrote the clever, scary script, takes his young hero (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Far from greeting him in white robes beneath a Confederate flag, they treat him with the overboard welcome of liberals trying to hide their discomfiture. It turns out, of course, that things are far worse than they appear, as Peele diverts from domestic comedy into pure horror, but seldom, if ever, do things go the way you’re expecting. Wildly entertaining while making some very perceptive comments on the state of race relations, Jordan Peele has crafted a true tour de force along the lines of Stephen King meets the Fockers. Absolutely not to be missed.
The Shape of Water
A dandy fifties-style monster movie effectively mashed up with a Beauty and the Beast fantasy romance that’s packed to the gills with other movie references that you’re meant to catch, the movie is also extravagantly, unrepentantly, giddily romantic. British actress Sally Hawkins explodes from near-anonymity in America with a breath-taking and star-making performance as a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at a high-security research facility in the early sixties. Her only friends are a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and her gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins). Her life’s predictable routine is shaken when a new research asset is brought in. The asset is a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) which has been captured from the jungles of South America where it was reportedly worshipped as a god. We suspect early that the creature these government scientists have captured is intelligent. Del Toro presents, quite literally, a fish out of water. Del Toro, whose movies are always technically masterful, benefits here from superb, athletic cinematography by Dan Laustsen, and Paul D. Austerberry’s imaginative production design. Mixing genres from musicals to film noir, The Shape of Water revisits and reinvigorates the enduring allure of the classic monster movies by playing upon the primal emotions of fear, abandonment and danger, but also curiosity, awe and desire.
An instant classic – a tight, well-constructed war movie that makes audiences appreciate, and even feel, the sacrifices made by veterans of conflicts past. Despite the epic scale, most of the sprawling story focuses on small groups of participants: privates on the beach, hoping for deliverance, a private citizen piloting his pleasure boat across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as he can, and a couple of Spitfire pilots, providing what meager air cover the RAF can risk.
The movie is both condensed and complex, expansive and intimate. Dunkirk is big, make no mistake. Writer/director Christopher Nolan shot the movie on large format film stocks: 65 millimeter, the medium of choice for the huge, road show epics of the fifties and sixties like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Ice Station Zebra, 2001: A Space Odyssey and IMAX, the biggest of the big. This was an unusual choice in this increasingly digital age, but dear Lord, is it justified by the results. Not only does film, particularly large format film, enhance detail, but it vastly enriches the texture of images, which is a massive advantage given Dunkirk’s minimalistic dialogue.
As is typical with Nolan movies, the action is propelled by state of the art special effects, many of them practical, thunderous sound and an unrelenting Hans Zimmer score. Nolan also uses real planes, where possible, and even a couple of actual aircraft on screen blow away the Star Warsy CGI antics relied on by Michael Bay for Pearl Harbor. Relying on his large format cinematography and perfect editing, the action is impressively, even traumatically immersive. No 3D needed.
Dunkirk is certainly a master class in the craft of cinema, but the craft serves the story, and that story makes a strong statement about service, sacrifice and morality. One of the movie’s most compelling images is that of a burning plane, a plane set on fire by its pilot, who refuses to let it fall into enemy hands even as he himself is about to captured. As you stare at those flames blazing on a twilit beach, I defy you not to be reminded, if only for a second, that the fight against facism never really ended.
Honorable Mention: The Post
Steven Spielberg seems determined to be the Carl Sandburg of American cinema, and he’ll probably make it. His latest movie The Post (as in The Washington Post) is a riveting, if romanticized) historical drama, and startlingly relevant. A highly entertaining docudrama about the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, despite enormous resistance from the Nixon White House, Spielberg recreates a bygone era with fetishistic accuracy. The bottom line here though is not the skill with which a bygone decade is cinematically recreated, but the forceful reminder that the issues presented by the story are not only relevant but actually urgent today. The Post reminds us, in the context of a thoroughly entertaining movie, that the fundamental rights guaranteed us by the Constitution must not only be cherished and celebrated, but defended with the iron will and resolve of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Liberty requires more than lip service. Tyrants nearly always justify the abridgement of freedom with plausible-sounding excuses, and a free press is always the first thing to go. The Post entertains and celebrates but also warns. Democracy cannot thrive in the dark. If history teaches us anything (and it does, for those who care to look), democratic governments not only have no fear of the light, but function best where the governed can see the entire process. Newspapers are the rough draft of history, but they are also the harsh light of day in which the slimy, scurrying things that feed on fear in the dark cannot hide.