Since I published the first batch of 2017 reviews, I’ve only seen an additional 14 films for the year, partially because of the limitations on my time and money, and partially because there have been fewer films I felt I truly had to see. I hope to catch up over the next four months (I will be pushing my film awards back to allow myself more time), but I will likely not come too near the 118 films I saw for last year – still a personal record.
Still, films I have seen, and films I will discuss.
- The Snowman
The name of Michael Fassbender’s drunken wreck of a “hero,” Harry Hole, is symbolic of this film’s ineptitude. It’s a perfectly reasonable Norwegian name when pronounced correctly, but this film (with a Swedish director!) renders it as…well, as a hole fringed with a hair. The kind of hole this film might’ve come from.
It’s hard to know what to blame most; the writing is bad, the editing is worse, and the direction is worse still. It’s a horrendous muddle, wherein it’s not clear if a major character lives or dies, and where the resolution to the central mystery feels totally arbitrary.
But it’s the scenes with Val Kilmer, some of the most pitiful, wholly inept scenes I’ve seen in a long while, that plunge this dreary mess of a film into the depths of awfulness; it is the worst major studio release I’ve seen in four years. 12 – Utter Shite
A film can have unlikable characters and work beautifully…if those characters are interesting, and/or are part of an interesting story. But boring unlikable characters are deadly to watch, and in a boring story are deadlier still. And that’s what Suburbicon is saddled with. It echoes Fargo and Pleasantville outright, along with nearly every narrative of mid-20th-century racism, but offers little wit or insight of its own. It doesn’t even have fun with the retro aesthetic.
Oscar Isaac might be the best thing in it, but even then, he’s more a glorified cameo than a genuinely noteworthy performance. And you might’ve heard about the racial-tension subplot that was totally omitted from the advertising; it takes up at most 20 minutes of screentime and gives its characters of color about 30 lines of dialogue…total.
Really, just a near-total misfire, and a feather in no one’s cap, least of all the Coens. 54 – **
- Tulip Fever
For a film that was shelved for years, heavily re-edited, barely released and disastrously received, Tulip Fever isn’t that bad. You can watch its admittedly ludicrous plot unfurl and appreciate the obvious care taken in crafting the sets and costumes, and the bits of real artistry in the cinematography. And you can dream of what a director who could really milk the melodrama for all it’s worth (Douglas Sirk, for example) would do with it.
That said, there’s no real reason, save curiosity, to go out of your way to see it. It has an impressive and offbeat cast, yes, but most of them make little lasting impression; Tom Hollander as a shady proto-ob-gyn comes off best. And for all the ridiculous contrivances of the story, it’s all played too straight, too glumly to be really entertaining. Even with Christoph Waltz pissing up a storm. 60 – **½
- Atomic Blonde
The best parts of Atomic Blonde are legitimately stunning: the neon-soaked cinematography is glorious; the action scenes, especially the long-take sequences which pile blow on blow, are marvelously staged; it does some fascinating things with sound, above even the action-film norm; and it openly shouts out Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a nice touch for a popcorn film.
But it falls short of greatness, in part because it can’t quite nail a tone. At times it wants to be a Bondian lark, but it’s too dark and brutal. At other times it wants to be a Le Carré-style fog-of-the-Cold-War narrative, but it’s too lightweight to make that work, either. And the most intriguing plot element, the lesbian romance between Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella, is ultimately badly let down by the script.
An impressive film in many ways, but very unlikely to become a new classic. 75 – ***
- Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes may have been intended as an awards contender – it’s the kind of inspiring true story that is generally thought of as awards bait – but it’s looking less and less likely that it’ll make much of an impact; the reviews have been good but not brilliant, and the box-office returns were nothing remarkable.
But all things considered, the film isn’t really so memorable as to merit such attention. It’s an enjoyable film, with solid performances from Emma Stone (as Billie Jean King), Steve Carell (as Bobby Riggs), and Andrea Riseborough (as the hairdresser King falls in love with), excellent period detail, and a fine score by Nicholas Britell.
But Simon Beaufoy’s script tends to be heavy-handed in depicting the sexism of the era and adding humor to the story; the Sarah Silverman character especially falls flat. It’s a good film, but it never really becomes truly memorable. 76 – ***
- Loving Vincent
When I saw Loving Vincent in the theater, I and almost the entire audience sat through the end credits; at the end, many of them applauded, though I was not so moved. It’s hard not to be impressed when a film has such an impact on its viewers, but I can’t quite call Loving Vincent a great film.
It’s not a film to be ignored; the first fully hand-painted feature, it builds upon Van Gogh’s paintings to craft an often entrancing, if sometime coyly self-conscious visual experience, using a fictionalized narrative to explore the mystery of his death in an intriguing way.
But the animation itself is based on live-action footage, and the effect is often strangely unattractive, undermining the obvious care and trouble that went into its creation, while the monochrome flashback sequences are pure History Channel. It’s a rare blend of the ravishing, the compelling, and the frustrating. 76 – ***
- Ingrid Goes West
For all the buzz around Aubrey Plaza’s star turn as the social media-obsessed Ingrid (which I think is good but not great) and Elizabeth Olsen’s supporting role as the Instagram maven whose confidences Ingrid worms her way into (very good), I think the best performance in the film is hiding in plain sight: it’s by O’Shea Jackson Jr., proving he can do far more than play his own father, as Ingrid’s lovelorn landlord, struggling to balance his extremely valid suspicions of Ingrid’s motives with his infatuation with her.
As for the rest of the film, it’s quite good, and at its best as Ingrid is achieving, however fraudulently, her dreams of a literally picture-perfect life. It loses some steam in the darker third act and the rather pat denouement, but even then we have Billy Magnussen’s very solid turn as Olsen’s pathological hyper-bro brother. 78 – ***½
In my fall preview post, I suggested this looked “thoroughly charming”, and that “themes speak to me on a personal level”; in practice, it was a pleasant watch, and an objectively good film, but less resonant than I had hoped. It all feels just a bit too detached, a bit too objective; Menashe is a reasonably sympathetic protagonist, and Menashe Lustig gives a solid performance in the lead, but he just doesn’t come to life the way a truly memorable character does; Yoel Weisshaus as his disapproving brother-in-law arguably makes the greater impression.
Still, it’s a thoughtful, nicely made look at the Hasidic community in present-day Brooklyn, hinting at the disparity between the community’s traditionalism and the modern society existing around it (a theme which could’ve been profitably explored to a greater degree). It’s just not something I can really recommend if you’re not already interested in the subject matter. 79 – ***½
Perhaps the most hotly-debated film of the year, with some calling it brilliant and others calling it trash (never a bad thing in my book). I personally fall somewhere in the middle; it betrays the fact that Aronofsky wrote the script in about a week, being at times heavy-handed and at others quite muddled in its allegory, and the performances, while generally solid, take second place to the (impressive) direction and (very impressive) production design; Ed Harris in particularly has little to do, though Michelle Pfeiffer has at least a few moments to shine.
But Aronofsky stages the mounting chaos extremely well, especially in the second half (I also love Kristen Wiig’s brief, surreal turn), and if it’s not quite as profound as it wants to be, it’s a film I rather relished being able to pore over afterwards…more so, perhaps, than I relished actually watching it. 79 – ***½
Having neither read the novel or seen the popular miniseries, it seems fairly clear to me this film assumes the viewer has done one or both; there are lingering shots on details which doubtless thrilled the initiated, but left me cold.
On the whole, I still quite liked it, and being relatively unfamiliar with the story allowed me to be surprised by its various twists and turns; suffice to say it didn’t always play out as I expected. And it benefits from a strong ensemble of young performers; Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis are both excellent, but Finn Wolfhard’s smart-alecky Richie steals the show; he reminds me just a bit too much of myself at that age.
I will say, though, I wanted more of Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise as he was in the opening scene; as an actual character than a mostly CGI menace. That’s much more interesting to me. 81 – ***½
- Wind River
Between this and Hell and High Water, I’m convinced of Taylor Sheridan’s abilities to the point where I’m considering rewatching Sicario. Here, he makes his directing debut and acquits himself well; it’s a fine thriller, with a climactic flashback that proves to be about the most grueling scene I’ve seen this year.
That it touches on Native American issues whilst having white protagonists might reasonably give one pause; that said, Graham Greene steals the show as a deadpan reservation police chief, while Gil Birmingham (great in High Water) has a small but poignant role as a grieving father.
But the true heart of the film is Jeremy Renner as a Wildlife Bureau agent who’s drawn into a murder case on the titular reservation; he’s haunted, driven, and savvy to the brutal world he works in; Elizabeth Olsen, as a rather green FBI agent, is a shade too bumbling. 83 – ***½
The excellent reviews suggested this was no mere “inspirational true story”, but thanks to a botched release, fairly few viewers found out for themselves. It’s not quite Best Picture material – the narrative is a bit choppy – but it’s a damn sight better than one might’ve expected, thanks to David Gordon Green’s direction, a script which astutely touches on our sometimes pathological need for heroes, and a superb cast.
Jake Gyllenhaal, as Jeff Bauman (who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombings) is excellent at depicting both Jeff’s fuck-uppery and his ever-shifting attitudes towards his physical condition, ranging from despair to determination. And Miranda Richardson, as his alcoholic mother, gives a genuinely pathetic performance that never tips over into ham. (Many loved Tatiana Maslany as Jeff’s on/off girlfriend Erin; I think she’s fine.) Carlos Sanz, meanwhile, makes the most of his small role as the man who saved Jeff’s life. 84 – ***½
- Good Time
Robert Pattinson is 2-for-2 when it comes to art-house dramas, set in New York City, about not entirely likable men who go on a sometimes harrowing, sometimes surreal journey during a 24-hour period. (How’s that for a niche?) Mind you, I didn’t love this like I loved Cosmopolis, but this tale of a lowlife (Pattinson) struggling to raise the money to bail his brother out of jail after a bank heist gone wrong is pretty damned compelling.
Granted, some will simply turn away as Pattinson sinks deeper and deeper into a moral morass (and there’s one moment which went a little far even for my taste), but the Safdie brothers direct it well, it’s superbly shot and edited with an excellent score, and despite the considerable ugliness of the story, it has a relatively happy ending which doesn’t feel at all tacked-on – though possibly not the one you’d expect. 84 – ***½
One of the most delicately beautiful films I’ve seen this year, set in the titular city (in Indiana, that is), a city of 44,000 which happens to be one of the great showcases of Modernist architecture. That architecture and the appreciation of it are what draw Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a pair of confused souls, together, first for a moment, then for quite a few of them.
I could have watched them share the screen for hours, so beautifully do Cho and Richardson (who’s incredibly winning) inhabit their characters, and so rich is the material they have to work with; the visual artist Kogonada, making his directing debut, also wrote the lovely, thoughtful script.
It’s wonderful to look at and listen to; it’s wonderfully acted across the board. It has its flaws, and the ending is a shade weak, but on the whole I adored it. 87 – ****