The Films of 2017 in 150 Words or Less: Part I

“$7.50 an hour!” “But he has a million dollar heart!”

I’ve seen far fewer films this year than in previous years; tight finances are partially to blame, and a comparative lack of “must-see” films hasn’t helped. But for the most part, I’ve been pretty lucky with the films I have seen, and so I offer my thoughts on the 22 films I haven’t already reviewed…

I have already made my feelings about The Book of Henry very clear indeed.

  • Slamma Jamma

A promising basketball player (former Harlem Globetrotter Chris Staples), railroaded for a crime he didn’t commit,tries to rebuild his life and pay for his mother’s medical expenses by winning dunking competitions. That he does so and gets the girl (Alexia Hall) should not qualify as a spoiler.

It’s not an apocalyptically bad film on the level of Dancin’ – It’s On!; it could afford a good cinematographer (Dean Cundey, Oscar nominated for Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and a cameo from Jose Canseco – albeit one in which he blatantly accepts a bribe and takes the villain’s side.

But it couldn’t afford a good cast or a remotely good script. It’s a cliché-riddled, logic-forsaken mess, like so many bad “inspirational” dramas lacking any clear message; the creators apparently assumed making the protagonist a church-goer would suffice. It also takes a cheap shot at critics, as if anticipating its own condemnation.

In that spirit: 24 – *

  • The Mummy

Shared universes are hell to pull off; even the M.C.U. is not above heavy-handedness when it overtly connects its various threads. And when it doesn’t come off at all…you end up with something like The Mummy.

Russell Crowe is playing Dr. Jekyll here; he’s the head of some vague research group which is presumably the “Dark Universe” (playing on the Universal studio name, no doubt) equivalent of SHIELD. That he is neither a very interesting nor, seemingly, very competent character does not compel my loyalty.

But neither does the film, a flimsy, tonally sloppy mess with unscary horror and unfunny humor. It’s such a drag that it becomes one of the most counter-intuitive tentpoles I’ve ever seen, and one of the worst cinematic choices Tom Cruise has ever made. Sofia Boutella is at least a decent mummy, but Jake Johnson acts as if he’s in a different film altogether. 37 – *½

  • King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword

What was meant to start a six-film series failed disastrously; it cost $175 million to make, and the end result made only $140 million worldwide (and, of course, Warner Brothers will only see about half of that).

It deserved to flop, though; it’s a murky trudge of a film, both in visual and narrative terms, telling a familiar story in an ostensibly new way, but more often focusing on generic fantasy and action beats than on the quippy, street-smart attitude that one associates with Ritchie. Most of the film’s best scenes are the ones which go “full Ritchie”, but they are few and far between.

Bad choices abound, from the Stone (of “the Sword in the” fame) being Uther Pendragon’s petrified corpse, to the lady mage who’s clearly Guinevere never being identified as such. That said, Charlie Hunnam is an adequate Arthur, and Jude Law is reliably effective as the villain. 53 – **

“Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because that’s the only way one could hope for a cure.”
  • A Cure for Wellness

Three things drew me to Gore Verbinski’s latest film: the intriguing visuals; the curiously epic running time; and the fact that I could see it for free. I’d say I got what I paid for, but that’s not quite fair, though it is wildly overlong, repetitive and full of red herrings, and not helped by a needlessly abrasive protagonist (Dane DeHaan), who is all too obviously destined for considerable suffering.

There are effective moments, however: a mortally wounded deer staggering across a road, or an interlude in a small-town German bar which is tenser and more intriguing than anything which happens in the castle-spa which is the film’s focal point. And the final half-hour almost redeems the whole. It’s ridiculous and quite gross, but pulpily gripping. And one can be diverted by the sets, cinematography, and the performances of Mia Goth (poignant and unworldly) and Jason Isaacs (courteous and sinister). 65 – ***

  • Lovesong

Riley Keough and Jena Malone are two of my favorite up-and-coming actresses, and a film headlined by the both of them was, for me, a must-see. The film itself is just okay; the script is not that great, being the kind of script that confuses a lack of specifics with spareness and universality, but they’re both excellent, and So Yong Kim’s artful direction balances the weaknesses of her script.

Keough superbly puts across her character’s lonely aimlessness; she never seems to have a life of her own, and while seems to be partly the fault of the script, Keough owns it, and conveys Sarah’s essential numbness. Malone has less to work with, but she expertly plays her character’s impulsivity and depth of feeling; when she Keough are allowed to simply exist together – the film is about their characters, old friends, sharing an ambiguously romantic bond –  the film comes to life. 72 – ***

  • Beauty and the Beast

It’s the biggest hit of the year to date; unadjusted, it’s the 8th-highest domestic grosser of all time. That it may be the slightest, most forgettable film in the top 10 is irrelevant; that Disney could make an inferior semi-copy of their own classic and make a metric shit-ton of money on it is validation enough.

To give the film its due, it has conspicuous virtues; the sets and costumes are stunning, the supporting cast has some definite highlights, and Dan Stevens, despite some dodgy mo-cap, is a reasonably charismatic and affecting Beast. And of course, the story and the songs from the original film are as beautiful as ever.

But then you’ve got Emma Watson’s flat, unmagical Belle, Luke Evans’ strangely scrawny Gaston, Josh Gad’s tiresome LeFou (yes, he’s gay, but in the tamest way imaginable), and Bill Condon’s lumpy direction, and it all comes back down to Earth. 73 – ***

“Protection from infection!”
  • Free Fire

Ben Wheatley continues to impress me as a director with a fine eye and an aptitude for staging, but with a weak grasp of narrative; here, the emphasis is less on story and more on mounting chaos as a roomful of rogues shoot at one another. Admittedly, it’s hard to care who comes out on top, as the characters are mostly underdeveloped or unlikable.

But Wheatley stages it pretty damn well (aided by some superb sound design), and the actors are engaging enough (especially Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley) that you can at least partially overlook their obnoxiousness and stupidity. Brie Larson, on the other hand, seems mildly bored; in the wake of Room, I can’t really blame her, as she has little to work with here.

Still, it’s pretty entertaining (though it doesn’t go quite as far over-the-top as it could), at least until the weak, hamfistedly “dark” ending. 76 – ***

  • Kong: Skull Island

From the trailers, Kong looked like a cut above the normal franchise blockbuster; the cinematography in particular seemed to be decidedly richer and more imaginative than normal, and it had a great cast to boot – though the same could be said of its predecessor, the 2014 Godzilla, which I ultimately found to be a major letdown.

Luckily, this was a rather more successful film, thanks to Jordan Vogt-Robert’s enthusiastic direction and the superior imagery; the film also draws some reasonably thoughtful parallels between the human characters’ quest and the Vietnam War (it’s a 70s period piece).

The great cast is used a bit unevenly; Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are stuck with pretty standard action-film-lead roles, and John Goodman feels mildly underutilized, but Samuel L. Jackson’s descent into hubristic vengeance is highly enjoyable, and John C. Reilly adds humor and poignancy as a long-stranded American soldier.

And, of course, there’s Kong. 80 – ***½

  • Get Out

When I first saw the trailer for this, I was rather baffled; what seemed to be a fairly standard thriller had moments which seemed so over-the-top as to be laughable. Seeing Jordan Peele’s name on it got me thinking twice, and when the glowing reviews started pouring in, I realized it was a must-see.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite as big a fan of the film as some; I don’t think it always nails the balance between comedy and horror, some of the more compelling characters (especially Caleb Landry Jones as the incredibly creepy brothers) are underused, and some scenes, like the unnecessary cold open, don’t come off at all.

But as a whole, it’s an intelligent, funny, and unnerving critique of race relations in modern America, very well written, solidly directed, and with good performances from Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams (an especially underappreciated turn), and Lil Rel Howery. 81 – ***½

UPDATE 1/12/2018: 

After meaning to re-watch this for months I finally did, and I appreciated it much more the second time around. The cold open works fine, the tone is beautifully managed, and while I do want more of the supporting cast, that’s as much a reflection of how well written, cast, and directed they are.

I said then that it was “intelligent, funny, and unnerving”; it certainly is unnerving, with some tremendously cringe-inducing scenes (and some which are just plain freaky). And it is intelligent, in the way it uses genre tropes to depict a kind of neo-slavery, and in the way it carefully crafts some indelible scenes and images, most famously the “sunken place.”

And I really do want to salute the whole cast, especially Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams; he may well end up with an Oscar nomination, but it’d be nice if she got some recognition as well. 87 – ****

“You’re not very good at retiring.” “I’m working on it.”
  • John Wick: Chapter 2

The essence of John Wick is extravagance surrounding minimalism—an elaborately conceived world of crime, populated by melodramatic figures, all playing host to our hero, the distilled essence of Keanu Reeves’ screen persona, an extraordinary Everyman who seems vaguely amazed at being himself.

This being a franchise rooted in extravagance, it’s one case where a larger budget and broader scope truly make for a richer experience; it’s one sequel which surpasses the originalNot since Fury Road has there been such pure action mayhem on the screen; it may not achieve that film’s mythic grandeur, but it sets very few feet wrong, and asks no more of us than it is willing to reward.

And what rewards: relentless action gracefully staged, a quippy, darkly funny script, spot-on performances from a savvy cast, and sterling filmmaking, especially the cinematography, which shines brightest in the hall-of-mirrors climax.

And, of course, a dog. 82 – ***½

  • The Beguiled

Don Siegel’s 1971 version is a superior hot-house melodrama; Sofia Coppola’s take on the material is less seamy and more rooted in the tension of the scenario; will Cpl. McBurney (Colin Farrell) leave the girls’ school on his own terms, or in the custody of Confederate soldiers? Will he run away with Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who loves him, or will that go awry? Will he win over the headmistress (Nicole Kidman), or will her suspicions of him remain intact?

Just watching the trailer, you know things aren’t going to turn out too well, but along the way one is treated to some gorgeous cinematography, a fine performance from Farrell as the alternately charming and sinister “bluebelly”, an equally fine performance from Kidman as the enigmatic Miss Martha, and a tight, solid script, albeit one that gives the supporting cast too little to work with (Elle Fanning is especially wasted). 82 – ***½

  • The Lego Batman Movie

This is the kind of movie I have to write about immediately after seeing, or it’ll flit right out of my mind. It’s an enjoyable film, no question about it; the rapid-fire jokes, fun vocal performances (Will Arnett is a great Batman, of course, but Michael Cera nearly steals the show as Robin), and vibrant animation make for an unquestionably stimulating experience.

But it doesn’t really stick with you. I won’t say The Lego Movie was faultless, but I felt it was more resonant, more memorable, and in retrospect, probably more genuinely funny. Granted, I’ve gone back and rewatched it and I haven’t done the same for Batman, but I still can’t recall many of the jokes, aside from those I saw a dozen times in the trailer.

However, in the moment, it was quite delightful, and if I went back to it, I’m sure I’d be delighted once again. 83 – ***½

“This was, without a doubt, the most perfect night I’ve had in a very long time…and I don’t deserve it, do I?”
  • Logan

Had I seen this in theaters, I might’ve appreciated the full scope of the action sequences and the full depth of the soundscape much better than I did at home. I also wonder if I would’ve liked the film just a little more; not that I didn’t, but I thought it was very good without ever really threatening to take that extra leap into greatness.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a huge X-Men fan. Maybe it’s because James Mangold’s direction, while never less than capable, lacks that extra spark of inspiration (aside, perhaps, from Professor X’s horrifying psychic seizures). Maybe it’s because the basic plot isn’t all that original. Who knows.

But why grumble, when you’ve still got an effective, entertaining film, with Hugh Jackman bringing considerable pathos to his well-honed Wolverine, while receiving able support from Patrick Stewart as X and Dafne Keen as mysterious little Laura. 83 – ***½

  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The first Guardians of the Galaxy was something truly special. It’s easily my favorite Marvel film, at least in part because of its comparative independence from the MCU. It’s not surprising that the sequel isn’t quite as good, but it’s quite gratifying that it manages to be as good as it is, achieving a moment of poignancy towards the end which nearly rivals the first film’s heartbreaking “We are Groot.”

Sure, Volume 2 has its problems; it’s too long, the plot is too cluttered (especially in the first half), and at times it tries too hard to match the original. But spending time with these characters (especially Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who steals the show here) in this gorgeously realized world (I really hope they give this one the Best Makeup Oscar; the first film was truly robbed), is worth riding out the weaker moments. And how about that original end-credits song? 84 – ***½

  • Baby Driver

I liked Baby Driver a fair amount in the theater, but there seemed to be something missing that kept from really loving it. After a number of online discussions, a few candidates emerged:

  • Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a fairly bland protagonist, and hard to really root for;
  • The story is a pretty standard leaving-the-criminal-life narrative;
  • Several elements in the film – especially Baby’s fighting parents, his stint as a delivery driver, and his home-made remixes – amount to very little;
  • It’s neither funny enough to be great comedy, or impactful enough to be great drama.

Now, there’s a lot to recommend here. Edgar Wright’s direction is great, the sound work is incredible, the stuntwork is superbly executed, and there are some very good performances, especially Jamie Foxx’s (his laconic “Tequilaaaaa” may be my favorite line). And until I rewatch it, I won’t re-rate it. But I do wonder if it’ll hold up. 84 – ***½

“They took much from me.”
  • War for the Planet of the Apes

After being pleasantly surprised by Rise and actively impressed by Dawn, I was all in for this third chapter, especially when early reviews promised an unusually bleak and grueling experience for a franchise blockbuster. And so it is, and it almost tops the second installment…but after a while, the length and bleakness do begin to wear you down, and the final moments, while wrapping things up on a suitable note, lose some impact because of how long it takes to get there.

But I can forgive that, given how much greatness is on display here; magnificent special effects, superior direction and cinematography, solid performances, especially from the apes (I wouldn’t give Andy Serkis an Oscar for this, but I wouldn’t object to a nomination), and a thoughtful, incisive look at the corrosive effects of conflict and human hubris, with one climactic scene being so pungently ironic it’s almost hilarious. 84 – ***½

  • Wonder Woman

This was a film we all needed to be good. We needed to see a female-led superhero film that did its protagonist justice, we needed DC to make a film that didn’t suck, and we needed something rousing and uplifting in these trying times. And we got all of that.

It might be said this film is more than sum of its parts. It’s quite well directed, solidly written, has good acting (Gal Gadot is perfectly cast, and Chris Pine more than holds his own), and is as technically assured as you’d expect. But even if I did my awards tomorrow, it wouldn’t get any nods for writing, directing, or acting.

Rather, it’s the sheer spirit that unifies its various elements, the irrepressible spirit that drives Diana into the bloody mouth of war with the conviction that she can save humanity by doing so. And convinces us that she could. 85 – ***½

  • The Little Hours

The Little Hours shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s basically a one-joke film, based on a story from the Decameron (a young man hides out in a convent and finds himself the target of the nuns’ lustful attentions), blending historically accurate settings with highly contemporary language – in essence, doing just what Monty Python and the Holy Grail did.

And it works, because the script is so funny (apparently the dialogue was entirely improvised; if so, it was done very well), in part because the cast is so good – my favorites being Kate Micucci’s sweetly ridiculous Ginevra and John C. Reilly’s affable Tommasso (Fred Armisen’s small-but-crucial role near the end is a delight as well) – and in part because of its surprisingly lovely cinematography and crisp direction.

If the story goes a bit off the rails at times, it doesn’t diminish the fun or the giddy poignancy on display. 85 – ***½

“It is said cats are aware of God’s existence. While dogs think people are God, cats don’t, They just know better.”
  • Kedi

If Kedi were just 80 minutes of cats wandering around Istanbul, it would be an engaging diversion, at least for cat lovers. But it offers so much more. Not only does it boast some really stunning cinematography – the filmmakers developed a special rig to put the camera at cat’s-eye level – but it offers so many examples of sheer human goodness to go along with the innate charm of cats as to make for a truly rewarding experience.

No, it won’t be the same if you’re not a cat person. Me, I’ve spent most of my life around cats, and however complicated my feelings towards them may be, I can’t deny the great affection I have for them. And so it is with the people in this film – my favorite being the man who, as a youth, built a cat cemetery as an homage to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly86 – ***½

  • The Big Sick

Anymore, it feels like films can’t quite stick the landing. So when a film ends as perfectly as this one does, cutting to black right at the moment you want it to, ending on precisely the right note, it goes a long way toward earning your praise.

Luckily, the rest of the film does likewise. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s script is based on the true story of their courtship and marriage, and it’s as warm, funny, and perceptive as you could ask for, touching on the world of stand-up, the experiences of immigrant families in America, and the particulars of one rocky but ultimately successful relationship and hitting a bull’s eye each time.

It’s uniformly well acted across the board, led by Nanjiani, who’s charming and funny as himself, and Zoe Kazan as Emily, likable and affecting in equal measure. Michael Showalter’s direction is subtle but worthy of praise. 87 – ****

  • A Quiet Passion

I never figured an Emily Dickinson biopic would be this good. Hell, at first I didn’t figure this film would be that good, either – it took me a while to adapt to its stylized, surprisingly snarky tone. But after a while, especially once Cynthia Nixon assumed center stage thanks to a stunning transition sequence (involving the Dickinsons having their pictures taken), the film won me over.

Nixon’s performance is simply brilliant, encompassing Dickinson’s poetic soul, otherworldly personality, and pungent wit. Jennifer Ehle, as her doting sister Lavinia, is nearly as good, while Catherine Bailey, as a snarky family friend, steals her scenes quite completely.

But of course, much of the credit is due to Terence Davies, whose marvelous script and superior direction make for one of the best biopics in recent memory. After his brilliant The Deep Blue Sea, I should have known he’d hit this out of the park. 88 – ****

And that brings us to my #1 film of the year to date…

“Well done, lads. Well done.” “All we did is survive.” “That’s enough.”
  • Dunkirk

War films have never been my favorite genre; too many offer well-staged combat and little more, except maybe an anodyne “war is hell” message. Could Nolan make a war film that rose above that? I was skeptical.

He did, by making it less about war and more about survival, less about the events of Dunkirk and more about the experience. He played to his own strengths by keeping the dialogue to a functional minimum, by crafting characters who were deliberate archetypes (the script is, admittedly, the film’s weakest facet), and by putting his skills as a craftsman front and center.

The result is a visceral, horrifying, gripping film, which boasts some of the best scenes he ever shot, from the transcendent dogfights to the subtly brilliant final shot, while still managing to pack an emotional punch; when the little ships arrive at Dunkirk, it’s hard not to get choked up. 89 – ****

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