Thursday, December 28, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2017

Honorable Mentions:
Brigsby Bear
Patti Cake$
Logan Lucky
Wind River
It Comes At Night

The Top 20:

20. Coco
Pixar's latest gem Coco is a vividly-tuned celebration of music and passion. It's is so rich with themes of family, legacy, memories, and yes -- death. But for a film that does approach the subject of death so often, it's incredibly full of life.

19. The Lost City of Z
The beautifully shot Lost City of Z is a sweeping, sprawling epic of exploration and relentless desire that hearkens back to classical adventures of the past. It's one of the most under-the-radar films of the year, and it shouldn't just be hidden away, so go seek this one out.

18. Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen star in this California dreamin' excursion of social media age antics and web celeb obsession. It's over-the-top, thoroughly absorbing, and rich in relevant substance. It's practically a moving postcard with a lot of baggage. And actually, the film's use of "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo alone was enough to get my click of approval.

17. Baby Driver
A playlist-inspired action flick with a high-octane spin, Baby Driver is a film that fires on all cylinders. The flashy editing and kinetic camerawork... The escalating conflicts within each beat of the narrative... The way the rock & soul music synchronizes with the exhilarating tempo of the chase sequences and shootouts...  It's all crafted with stylish precision.

16. Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart gives a captivating performance in Personal Shopper, an unorthodox ghost story that consistently intrigues and perplexes. What's in the mind and what isn't? Grief, trauma, delusion, and paranormal activity all seem to be at work. It's the type of film that will make you think, while coming up with your own theories about it, which means it's worth watching more than once. The end is unsettling and ambiguous, and given the nature of the film, you wouldn't expect anything else.

15. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Yeah, I enjoyed it. 

14. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The crew of ragtags-to-lovable heros return for another round of space escapades. From the dazzling visual effects to the charming, sometimes Looney Toons-esque camp -- to the well-curated soundtrack of classic rock & soul songs that pop against the film's arcade colors and cosmic splash aesthetic -- to the zany sense of humor -- Vol. 2  is a rollicking, gooey, extraterrestrial fun time.

13. Thor: Ragnarok 
Taika Waititi makes an impressive leap to blockbuster fare with the wildly warping blast of cosmic revelry that is Thor: Ragnarok. Simply put - it's a smash. Oh, and Korg rules.

12. John Wick: Chapter 2
As Kanye West once said in a song, "Any rumor you ever heard about me was true and legendary." The same could be said of John Wick. The guy keeps reiterating his desire to retire, but for the sake of us all -- let's hope he doesn't.

11. Wonder Woman
Dashing in as one of the most fantastic superhero journeys of the year, Wonder Women is a triumph in so many ways. It's a film worth rooting for. It'll give you chills, and it'll make you want to pump your fist. It has a shining, glorious soul.

10. Dunkirk
A technical marvel. An expertly crafted World War II thriller that leaves you breathless. Dunkirk is a very straightforward, matter-of-fact tale of rescue and survival that's told with minimal dialogue, and it's just as impactful as anything Christopher Nolan has ever done.

9. Logan
Not your usual Wolverine movie, Logan is a dark and grisly swan song for Mr. Claws that slashes with potent violence and pierces with affecting tenderness. This film honors the end of an era. The last of a dying breed.

8. Good Time
Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career in Ben and Josh Safdie's wickedly intense and tenaciously dirty New York City crime-drama. This thing is jarring, the stakes are high, and it's chalked full of danger. Every maximal scene is designed to get your heart racing. It's a visually stylish adrenaline rush, through and through.

7. Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve delivers an astonishingly-realized dystopian epic. The picture is so sublime and provocative that you just have to sit back and stare in awe. The soundscape is hypnotic too, as the reverberating post-Yeezus score virtually sends waves into your head and swallows you whole. I found the pure artfulness, innovation, and neo-noir vibes of it all to be mesmerizing.

6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
A darkly comic, potently tragic, and thoroughly entertaining display that features a prominent, tour de force performance from the great Frances McDormand. It's a small-town story, but it burns with resonant and relevant themes, sending smoke signals of scathing commentary on abuse of power, racism, predators, hypocrisy, and misplaced priorities.

5. The Florida Project
A spirited and empathetic juxtaposition of childhood wonderment against the backdrop of working-poor struggles within the fractured cracks of America. It's winsome, observant, transient, and as enchanting as it is harsh. The last 10 minutes breathtakingly set off fireworks of swirling emotion that will turn you into a blubbering mess.

4. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a coming-of-age comedy gem that's spunked with a consistently delightful energy. It flaunts a well-written script, memorable characters, and a superb turn from Saoirse Ronan. Everything about this film is brilliant.

3. Get Out
Jordan Peele's feature directorial debut is one of those wildly blended cinematic experiences that you don't often see pulled off with this much success. It's all at once an effective horror film, a sly commentary on race relations, a searing satire on the terrors of white supremacy, and a psychological cult escape thriller. This film will make you jump. It'll make you squirm. It'll make you laugh. It'll make you sweat. And it'll make you desperately want to yell "Get Out!"

2. The Big Sick
Co-written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a semi-autobiographical dramedy that is as pleasant as it is poignant. The film is about the complicated relationships we encounter, the doozies that life drops, the intricacies of family and culture, and the power of comedy that can sometimes help us through it all.

1. The Shape of Water
Weird, wet, wild, and wonderful. The Shape of Water is a deeply majestic fairytale that would only come from the mind of visionary director Guillermo del Toro. The film is definitely filled with a melancholy undercurrent of social themes, but what shines through the most is del Toro's obsessive ode to French and golden age Hollywood cinema, creature features, and outcasts. In the end, it becomes quite clear that The Shape of Water is love.

Will return.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

[Review] Bright

Netflix's "first Blockbuster" is more like a C-film that you'd find at the bottom of a DVD bargain bin in a sketchy Pawn Shop that somehow has managed to stay in business all these years. It's called Bright -- a title so vague and uninspired that it sounds like a script placeholder that no one ever bothered the change. The film haphazardly takes the concept of a buddy cop movie and smashes it together with magic and fantasy elements, and the results are appalling.

This monstrosity is set in what appears to be a modern-day L.A. -- except humans live alongside fairies, orcs, and elves (it's never really explained how this came to be). Will Smith plays a cop who reluctantly teams up with a gravelly-faced Orc (played by Joel Edgerton). The Orc is frowned upon and bullied by the humans at the precinct -- not sure why, because he looks like he could kick everyone else's ass, and possibly eat them. Anyway, the plot sees the mismatched cops cruise around and get caught up in a weird web of characters and mystical forces that even Harry Potter would scoff at. They also beef with a villainous, suit-wearing elf that resembles Elrond on acid.

When the movie begins with Will Smith talking to his wife (who ends up disappearing for the entire time) about how a fairy threw a handful of its own shit into his cousin's eye when they were little, you know exactly what you're in for. This is one of the ugliest, most unfunny, obnoxious, ridiculous things you could possibly see. Bright is a movie that looks like it smells bad. It's the pink eye of hybrid flicks. Director David Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis have somehow managed to create something even pukier and less engaging than Suicide Squad. This is type of thing what would happen if Dungeons & Dragons poofed out a spellbound fart onto Training Day. And of course, I wasn't expecting the dialogue to be good here, but the dialogue is remarkably horrendous here. Although I did get a kick out of Will Smith forcibly shouting "We have a MAGIC WAND!" with a straight face. Unfortunately, the film's stabs at social commentary sound like your Facebook friend who just recently found out that people are treated unequally in this country.

But Bright's biggest crime is that it's boring. Once all the initial amusement and head-shaking stuff wears off, this just turns into a messy, tone-deaf slogfest with erratic logic. I'll be honest with you, I didn't even know what was going on the entire second half of the two-hour duration. I have to at least admire the film for trying something... different, but I'm going to go ahead and say that this one did not work. From now on whenever a new buddy cop movie comes out, my guess is that probably we'll probably be saying "Hey, at least it's better than Bright."

( 3.5/10 )

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

[Review] The Shape of Water

Weird, wet, wild, and wonderful. The Shape of Water is a deeply majestic fairytale (an adult one) that would only come from the mind of visionary director Guillermo del Toro.

This story dives into the life of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who's been mute since she was an infant. She works a thankless nightshift job as a janitor at a secretive laboratory that happens to be cruelly researching an amphibious humanoid that looks a lot like the Creature from the Black Lagoon (or Abe Sapien from Hellboy, depending on who you ask -- he's played by Doug Jones). The gentle Elisa befriends the beast, and what unfolds is a strange, surreal, and sublime tale of love and loss.

As you'd expect with a del Toro film, the imagery is exquisite. With its Cold War Americana backdrop, stream of high-concept fantasy, and old-fashioned essence, the lush production design is like stepping into a whimsical museum from a dream. Glowy aqua blues and greens uniformly flood the color palette, while the nifty editing builds a steady flow (the art of the scene transition is strong here and shouldn't go unnoticed). The narrative punches in with the rhythm of a ticking clock or a heartbeat, and it eventually launches into exhilarating thriller mode, not unlike the "Lockjaw" episode of "Hey Arnold" where Arnold and his grandma free a tormented turtle from an aquarium.

Sally Hawkins (who was also superb in this year's Maudie) gives an absolutely ravishing lead performance. She's so expressive, so emotional, so convincing -- without uttering a single word. Her face says it all. This thing also contains a top-notch (and I mean top) supporting cast. Richard Jenkins greatly plays Elisa's friendly, closeted, repressed artist neighbor. The always pleasant Octavia Spencer clocks in as Elisa's best and funniest co-worker. Michael Stuhlbag (who might be in a total of 3(!) Best Picture nominees this year) is perfectly cast as a sympathetic scientist. And frequent scene-stealer Michael Shannon broods in classical villain form. The true monster, indeed.

The film definitely is filled with a melancholy undercurrent of social themes, but what shines through the most is Guillermo del Toro's obsessive ode to French and golden age Hollywood cinema, creature features, and outcasts. In the end, it becomes quite clear that The Shape of Water is love.

* 9.5/10 *

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Friday, December 22, 2017

[Review] Call Me By Your Name

After last year's steamy shocker A Bigger Splash, director Luca Guadagnino returns with another sultry outing  -- curiously titled Call Me By Your Name. It's a lush, well-acted relationship drama that is as intimate as it is vast.

Set in the summer of '83 -- somewhere in Northern Italy -- the film revolves around a young man named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) wasting his days away in the countryside. But his monotony breaks when one of his father's (played by the ever-impressive Michael Stuhlbarg) graduate students, Oliver (Armie Hammer), comes to visit -- and Elio slowly develops a crush on him. And you can pretty much tell where this thing is heading. In other words, things are about to get heated.

First off, this film is beautifully shot with its scenic landscapes, rustic architecture, and sun-soaked colors. It moves at a patient, wistful pace (maybe too patient for some) like a lazy afternoon. Narrative-wise, the film is significantly reminiscent of 2013's Blue is the Warmest Color with its carefully observed dynamics and formative themes of sexual awakening, desire, first love, heartbreak, and memories that never quite distinguish. It's all backed by a gorgeously delicate soundtrack from indie singer-songwriter darling Sufjan Stevens. The songs themselves might make you well up.

Newcomer Timothée Chalamet (who also appeared in Lady Bird this year) and Armie Hammer both give tremendously humane performances. But it's definitely Chalamet that emerges as the shining standout in a role that feels so natural, so assured that it doesn't actually quite affect you until the very end -- during the film's staggeringly emotional closing scene that linger and lingers, and lingers...

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

[Review] Darkest Hour

Believe it or not -- Darkest Hour is approximately the third film this year that involves the events of Dunkirk (the underrated Their Finest and of course Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk are the others). And believe it or not -- that's Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill under all that makeup, padding, and prosthetics, as he gives a truly transformative performance in this well-crafted WWII drama.

It's the year 1940 -- on the cusp of wartime -- and Britain is in need of a new Prime Minister. Stepping in (or should I say waddling in) to take on the enormous task is the self-deprecating, eccentric, and huffy Winston Churchill. The film follows him as he administers orders, despite the little faith his peers have him. "A drunkard at the wheel," they say. And he just might be.

Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), the film is handsomely shot and stocked with rich drama. And while it still has that standard period piece and biopic feel to it, it avoids being too stuffy or run-of-the-mill, for the most part. While Dunkirk hit the frontlines, Darkest Hour dives into the behind-the-scenes action with smokey vigor. The film's pace does slow at times, but there's an ever-present sense of urgent tension beneath it all.

The supporting cast sees the always consistent Ben Mendelsohn clocking in as King George VI, and Kristin Scott Thomas solidly plays Clementine Churchill, but this film is undoubtedly a showcase for Gary Oldman. He's virtually unrecognizable without being distracting, and he practically cannonballs into this chewy role with bumbling, animated, and theatrical enthusiasm, while conveying just enough depth, nuance, and rousing speeches -- you know -- all the stuff that the Academy really likes.

Darkest Hour is far from my favorite film this Oscar season, but I certainly respect it.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, December 18, 2017

[Review] Star Wars: The Last Jedi

"Breathe... Just Breathe..." Luke tells Rey as she sits upon a sacred rock, finding her inner self. The same could be said to us as an audience, considering all the hype, anticipation, excitement, and fan freak-outs that come with a new Star Wars release. The Last Jedi -- if you're counting -- is the 8th entry in the saga, and I'm pleased to say that director Rian Johnson delivers a thrilling adventure, as well as an intriguing extension to one of the world's most beloved and regarded franchises.

The film picks up shortly after the events of 2015's The Force Awakens, checking in with the spirited Resistance fighter Poe (Oscar Isaac), journeyman Finn (John Boyega), and General Leia (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.) as they continue their battle against the conflicted baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master, Snoke. Meanwhile, the series' new driving force Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to recruit the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) from his island retreat, and maybe just learn the ways of the Jedi.

This space opera grips hold and entertains from opening crawl to end, striking a solid balance of humor, heart, heaviness, and the beautifully shot action sequences that we come to expect. And while many of the plot missions and infiltrations remain familiar, the story explores new settings and introduces some great characters and spunky creatures along the way. Porgs -- the highly expressive, little puffin-like runts -- seemed to be a fan favorite before this film even hit theaters. And on the human front, there's the unlikely maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, a revelation) who's abruptly thrust into action, playing a significant part in this tale and operating as one of the film's most pleasant surprises. Speaking of surprises, this film is full of them. The narrative boasts twists and turns, pushes and pulls, challenging complexities, and emotionally stirring moments.

In fact, there's a lot going on at once here, and a couple odd choices are made (I can't go into detail), which is why the film serves well in a second viewing, especially after you've digested the initial and overwhelming awe. The Last Jedi is also the longest film in the series, clocking in at two and a half hours -- but if you're like me and immerse yourself into this world, you won't want it to end. It all results in a stellar culmination of climaxes, and it also makes us anxious for the next installment.

With themes of friendship and sacrifice, the film's strength truly lies in its characters, and it keeps a grasp on nostalgia as well as what the future may bring for these souls. Like many Star Wars films before it, we look to The Last Jedi for optimism and hope in all things good, even when everything can go awry. It's compelling to see such a diverse group of individuals unite for a common cause. The story is also about holding onto what's important. To quote a line that's indicative of the sentimentalism of Star Wars itself, as well as those who've passed on: "No one's ever really gone."

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, December 11, 2017

[Review] The Disaster Artist

"Is it just me, or is this kinda bad?"

Ah, Tommy Wiseau's The Room -- it's been hailed as the best worst movie of all time, reaching cult status and provoking conversational setpieces. To this day, it has frequent midnight showings in theaters across the world, cementing its spot in cinematic history -- so much so that the all-over-the-place James Franco has now made a movie about the making of the movie. It's fittingly called The Disaster Artist, and it's genuinely hysterical.

Franco plays Tommy Wiseau -- when we first meet him he's shouting and climbing up walls during an acting class. That's where he sparks up a complicated friendship with an aspiring star named Greg (Dave Franco), and the two head out to Hollywood. From there, the film dives into story behind The Room -- from script, to tumultuous production, to head-scratching red carpet premiere.

The important thing to note about The Disaster Artist is that it isn't a parody or a spoof -- it's a passionately realized portrait, serving as a fascinating look into the weird world of Wiseau, as well as an amusing behind-the-scenes tribute to the infamous disasterpiece. It strikes a balance between surprisingly somber and relentlessly comical. In fact, it's very very funny. I hooted. I hollered. And it's well-crafted enough to the point where people can probably enjoy it without having seen the material that inspired it. But I'll be real with you -- it is indeed best if you have seen The Room, or at least clips of its most iconic scenes.

A big part of why The Disaster Artist works so well is James Franco's pitch-perfect and deeply dedicated performance as Tommy Wiseau. It's more than just a good impression. He portrays him as earnest, ambitious, shameless, bizarre, mysterious (no one actually knows where he's from, how old he is, how he funded the movie, or what the heck is going on with his accent), oblivious, unintentionally hilarious, sympathetic, and villainous all at once. The supporting cast is solid too, including the likes of Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Nathan Fielder, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Jacki Weaver, and more. I'll keep the cameos a secret.

What could've been a one-note romp becomes something much more substantial as it espouses themes about dreams, the unconventional and independent spirit, artistic merit, failure and success, and director's intent vs audience reaction (Are they laughing with you or at you?). It also further examines how The Room is the ultimate recipe for an accidental phenomenon, why people have latched onto something so uniquely bad, and why it's achieved such a lasting legacy. One thing's for sure -- The Disaster Artist wouldn't exist without it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

[Review] Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The great Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (there's a lot of punctuation in that title), a steadfast character study and litigation drama that never quite rises above its courtroom constraints.

Roman Israel (Washington) is a devoted defense attorney and activist with a grassroots past. In order to keep his career afloat, he joins a big-time law firm led by one of his former students (played solidly by Colin Farrell). From there, his values are greatly tested when he takes on the messy case of a murdered store clerk.

To no one's surprise, Denzel Washington is excellent here (seriously, would you expect anything less?), playing a character that is as quippy and sharp as he is vulnerable and conflicted. That said, the role is never as hard-hitting as his Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Fences. In fact, I would have liked to known a lot more about this character, but unfortunately the film's oblong pacing, wordy and procedural disposition (there's a lot of typing and talking on the phone), episodic story turns, and lack of narrative momentum hinders us from ever gaining a deeper understanding of Roman Israel beyond the surface.

An intriguing twist pops out of the briefcase in the last act, throwing a major dilemma at our protagonist, but by that time, it just feels too late -- like this is the moment when the film should just be getting started. And the abrupt ending attempts to provoke some emotion, but it comes off more as an unsatisfactory head-scratcher. All of this leads me to believe that this film probably would've worked well as a TV series instead of a two-hour portrait -- just look at "Better Call Saul"!

( 6/10 )

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Monday, December 4, 2017

[Review] Better Watch Out

Ah, nothing like a Christmas horror movie hybrid to ring in the holiday spirit. That's what Better Watch Out does -- it's a gleeful and twisted home alone/home invasion thriller, and I'm not talking about Joe Pesci or Santa.

Set on an unassuming suburban street, strung with Christmas lights and crawling with carolers, one night Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is called upon to babysit a 12-year-old boy named Luke (Levi Miller), who's hopelessly in love with her and planning to impress. Things go awry fast when they start receiving threats from mysterious intruders. And, well -- to avoid spoilers -- I'll leave it at that.

If you can get past some of the awkward humor at the beginning, this turns into a fun, creepy, intense, shocking, and even dark holiday spectacle. Better Watch Out is a film that goes all the way Christmas and all the way horror (that's the way to do it, right?). It also shares some similar traits with the campy teen-horror movie The Babysitter, which debuted on Netflix this year. And speaking of Netflix, Dacre Montgomery (Max's sleazy older brother Billy from "Stranger Things") makes an amusing appearance here.

Anyway, the story delivers its tropes with a winking eye -- from the eerie foreshadowing to the screechy jolts to the jarring jumps -- but it also subverts them with some You're Next-like twists. All the while, it's backed with catchy and well-selected Christmas songs (including "Merry Christmas [I Don't Want to Fight Tonight]" by the Ramones) that contrast the deranged events and the film's deep plunge into an MA-rating (yeah, this isn't very family-friendly). So if you're in the mood for something on the naughtier side this December, make Better Watch Out the one.

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

[Review] The Man Who Invented Christmas

We all know the story of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol quite well with its countless renditions and seminal splendor. But what about the conception of the novel itself? That's what this year's The Man Who Invented Christmas gazes into. The film is a cheerful and tidy portrait of the creation of the classic book -- from life, to brain, to pen, to paper, to presses -- and the rest is history.

Dan Stevens (The Guest, Beauty and the Beast) plays Dickens. He's presented as a likable if quirky and sometimes reserved fellow. As he struggles to come up with an idea for his next novel, the plot follows him through the writer's block and sleepless nights, the skepticism and pushback from his peers ("A Christmas ghost story?!"), and of course the glorious bells of inspiration.

This is a film that you watch with a smile on your face, especially if you're a fan of the timeless source material. It's stuffed with pleasantries, it has a delightfully old-fashioned essence to it, and it features a charming performance from Dan Stevens (I wonder if the actual Charles Dickens was this dashing?). It's also quite fascinating to see how the things that unfold in Dickens' real life parallel and influence characters, settings, situations, and themes in the book -- even some of the spookier stuff. And once the ink really starts flowing, the film takes on a bit of a whimsical quality, as the characters begin to appear right alongside Dickens in his writing room, including Scrooge himself (played by Christopher Plummer).

In the end, The Man Who Invented Christmas won't necessarily deliver any new surprises or bring about life-changing epiphanies, but it's still a nice look at a famous story from a different angle, and it'll probably help you get into the Christmas spirit this season.

( 7.5/10 )

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