My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2017
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I am not the biggest fan of writer-director Martin McDonagh's previous work, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but I am a big fan of this movie. Far from his more familiar shores, he seems to bring all he was trying to say in his singular storytelling style together near the epicenter of the United States. He touches on numerous rare chords of the modern human condition in this country.
It is the characters and the performers playing them that drive this story as well as the stunning visuals from the billboards to the rolling hills to the quaint, aging streets of Ebbing. Ultimately, it is the intricate meshing of authentic humor with stark tragedy that sets the movie apart and atop the movie lists of 2017.
There are many small but impressive scenes which guilelessly convey so much -- the wild deer standing in for Mildred's (Francis McDormand) daughter murdered daughter offers Mildred a chance to express the depth of her feelings, guilt, regrets, and resolve while avoiding a difficult exchange with a neighbor or friend.
Penelope (Samara Weaving), the young girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband, says something the movie proves to be obviously true, which she got off a bookmark: “Violence begets more violence.” And it’s played for laughs: “Penelope said ‘begets’?”, one of the film’s great lines. Instead of making fun of her, the movie makes clear that unlike other supposedly much smarter people, she can feel its inherent wisdom.
While exiting the theater, I wondered about the movie's staying power, but I was quickly aware of how much it continued to resonate with me. I find it solid in retrospect and improves with further viewings.
The Big Sick
This movie is so funny and so poignant it almost seems too easy, but it is much more than the sum of its scenes. It is honed to a sharp edge which sometimes trims out too much, but we get enough of a glimpse of the rough edges to appreciate the whole -- Kumail's father handing off the tupperware conveying his mother's true love and how it breaks her heart not to look at him; Emily's mother willing to come to blows to defend Kumail against a prejudiced heckler; Emily's father admitting his past infidelity to an ambivalent Kumail.
Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily's parents juxtaposed with Kumail's family gives the movie its philosophical moorings against which Kumail's struggles for Emily's love, for his career, and for his future relationship with his family can play out. Zoe Kazan is impressive being put through a lot from happy-go-lucky to disillusioned to desperately ill to finding her way back. Kumail Ninjiani is as natural as he is hilarious in the same understated way that makes his stand-up so excellent.
The true saving grace of the movie is its adherence to the idea that regret over one's inability to take action can be the catalyst for change.
Scott Cooper's previous films of note, Crazy Heart , Out of the Furnace and Black Mass have always had a tone or feel which appealed to me even if they were ultimately misses. In this one, I think he hits the right chord in tone and in telling a complete story. Although the script throws a kitchen sink of western tropes in the way of the travelers, rapacious trappers, renegade savages, and intractable squatters, the movie comes to fruition deliberately and without too much sentimentality.
Hostiles is a successful modern western which bridges the divide between the traditional and the revisionist prototypes of the genre. Not as bleak as some of the recent revisionist fare but with an eye toward attempting a measure of historical accuracy.
Christian Bale and Wes Studi are the bulwarks which keep the sometimes unwieldy movie from falling in on itself. But there is also Ben Foster as good as always and some stellar close-to-cameo work by Timothee Chalamat, Jesse Plemons, and Bill Camp. If their performances in this film are any indication, Rory Cochrane and Jonathan Majors are a couple actors to watch for in future roles. They both add unexpected moments of humanity to relatively inhumane situations.
I could never say enough about the native americans portraying Studi's family, his grown son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk's wife Elk Woman (Q'orianka Kilcher), Yellow Hawk's daughter, Living Woman (Tanya Beatty), as well as Black Hawk's young son Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief).
In the end, it is the culmination of Rosamund Pike's character's story which gives the movie its memorable coda.
Last Flag Flying
Even though it is based on Darryl Ponicsan's 2005 sequel novel to The Last Detail, Last Flag Flying in no way attempts to represent Bryan Cranston as an older Jack Nicholson nor Lawrence Fishburne as a mature Otis Young, and certainly not Steve Corell as anyone's expectation for an older Randy Quaid. The loose sequel is its own story stemming inciting incident of the original and exploring its impact on the participants over the ensuing 20 years. This story is incident is the combat death of Doc's son in Iraq and the return of his body. Having lost his wife to cancer, Doc feels the need to recruit his old Army buddies fared in his own military experience to help him get through the retrieval and burial of his son.
Much more needs to be said about the talents of Yul Vasquez who plays the officer in charge of trying to convince Carell's character to let them bury his son cloaked in military honor and J. Quinton Johnson who plays the enlisted man and friend of the deceased sent to accompany the body. Both of these actors have been standouts in their past work and every time I notice them in new movies.
Cicely Tyson, announced recently as an honorary Oscar winner, is the denouement which ties all the threads of this story, past and present, into resolve. It is a reminder that an honest truth can is often do the most harm while a tender lie can heal for a lifetime.
This is a movie which is either going to hit you square in the solar plexus or barely register if you aren't paying close attention. I encourage you to keep your eyes and mind wide open, especially if you're past 30 years old.
Harry Dean Stanton, in his final role, plays a 90-year-old man with a sudden desire to make sense of how he lived his past life and how he might live out the remainder. When Lucky has a spell and takes a fall, his doctor played by Ed Begley, Jr. diagnoses that he's "old, and getting older." But the fall causes the old man to wonder about how he got where is, his surroundings, his friends, his acquaintances, his beliefs. “There’s only one thing worse than awkward silence — small talk."
Unusual casting in turn, David Lynch, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley -- adds to the starkness of his endeavor. Beth Grant is wonderful as expected as the bar owner who still tolerates Lucky. David Lynch's character has a tortoise who escaped because he might have forgotten to lock the gate. This movie plays out very much like that escaped tortoise. Slow and steady, it makes its way.
The film is a jockeying mix of philosophizing and reminiscing with kernels of wisdom so spare and clear they flash like struck matches. "I always thought that the one thing we could agree on is what we were looking at,” Lucky mutters to someone, “but that’s (wrong) because what I see isn’t what you see.”
The movie is filled with revelatory moments. After being invited to the birthday party of a the convenience store clerk's son, Lucky realizes he has no gift, but there is a roving mariachi band there and they accompany him when he breaks out impromptu into a rendition of "Volver Volver," a scene as poignant and odd as the entire movie and Lucky himself.
The Only Living Boy in New York City
Allen Loeb's amazing script which was featured in the first Black List of Best unmade scripts back in 2005 finally got made. It is no surprise then that the story is sharp, leaning into its turns and keeping its balance in the twists. It also shares its title with a Paul Simon song, (so much better than Baby Driver). It not only includes a portion of that Simon anthem, but opens with Simon and Garfunkel's cover of Johnson C. Frank's "Blues Run the Game." I might have been sold before the opening credits were finished running.
This is the sort of movie I would like. It's literary without being haughty. It's got melodrama without being melodramatic. All the characters are flawed and fragile, but so resolute in their mistakes, as human in their downfall as they are in their redemption. The sort of movie that only I might like, but which I am often surprised when many others do like. I hope that is the case with this one. Of course, it also has Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Camp, and Pierce Brosnan. Callum Turner is quite good as the lead.
I Don't Feel At Home in this World Anymore
An honest story about the reactions of an average every woman whose house was around and her desire to the police to help get her stolen property back, And perhaps, at the end of the burglar. All her efforts and actions are logical and lethal even though they lead to unintended, outlandish consequences. Macon Blair has quickly become on of my favorite actors in the "who is that guy?' level of supporting players, and now he is fast becoming one of my favorite writer-directors with this film.
Blair never lets his movie off the rails to overdue the zaniness of the characters or the situations or to wedge in more violence or action sequences. The story grows from the honest, reasonable motivations of the characters, and those characters seem quite real as they are well-drawn in a skillful and economical manner which I much admire in Blair's writing. Not sure I buy the ending as much as he's selling it, because I may not know quite what I'm seeing, apparition, fairytale, reality?
Thanks to a wonderful script by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldritch, Coco holds together with some fine songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez including the Oscar-winning "Remember Me." The fact that the movie made me laugh and cry gave it a real chance to make my top ten.
In fact, as is often the case, there are two incredible moments in the film so perfectly executed they sustain the film in my memory. When Hector borrows a guitar from the fading Chicharron and sings him his favorite song before he fades away completely. I would echo Edward James Olmos who has been quoted as saying his small role as Chicharron was a proud highlight of his career. The other scene will not surprise anyone who has seen the movie is when Miguel sings "Remember Me" to his grandmother Coco to help her remember her father, Hector.
No one needs to weep like I did, but I find it hard to believe anyone with an ounce of love for movies and good storytelling wouldn't at least choke up. I believe stories and the questions they ask and some they answer are enormously important to our evolution as human beings. I love movies that do both particularly thing well.
A Taylor Sheridan movie with Gil Brimingham in it moves to the top of my must see list. I've never been a big Jeremy Renner fan, nonetheless he is best when his performance is minimalist and that works here. Elizabeth Olson is perhaps too much of a waif for her role as an FBI agent in training, but she uses it to her advantage and her sheer perseverance is rewarded as Renner's character tells her, "You fought for your life, Jane. And now you get to walk away with it. You'll get to go home."
After Mud, Lawless, and Hell or High Water, the partnership of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have again produced one of the most effective scores I've heard in ages. The haunting echo of the lines from Renner's daughter's poem: "Far from your loving eyes in a place where Winter never comes/ Far from your loving eyes and all along the wind I run/ I return to this place and close my eyes again" is a major reason the movie stays with me and won't let go. It never loses its impact even after multiple viewings.
As if there was any doubt, Gil Birmingham, playing the murdered girl's father, seals the deal in his final scene with Renner. He has decided not to sing his death song. "I just want to sit here and miss her for a minute, will you sit with me?"
Remember when Jessica Chastain was one of the many things which made "The Help" such a multi-layered success, when she played the younger version of Helen Mirren in the underappreciated "The Debt," and Tom Hardy's mysterious girlfriend in "Lawless"? I miss that Jessica Chastain, the actress who can shine like a diamond amid an awful lot of rough, but it's clear from her recent work in The Zookeeper's Wife, Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane, and the tour de force that is Molly's Game that she can carry a movie on her own.
First, I admit openly I like poker. I like to play. I enjoy watching it on television. I follow poker results a bit. So, I might be predisposed to like this movie. However, like the book it is based on, this movie is not really about poker at all. It is a movie about a young woman's development of herself into a successful business owner and operator through her own intuition, insights, and ingenuity.
Like Molly Bloom herself, Chastain is supported by a savvy cast including Jeremy Strong, Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, and Bill Camp who as usual does so much with so little. Idris Elba is cast against type as her reluctant attorney. Even Kevin Costner shines in a thankless role as her part-villain, part-hero father. The somewhat thin story centering so narrowly on Molly's business success does benefit from Aaron Sorkin's framing of the film partially in flashbacks as she and Elba piece together a legal strategy for her arraignment.
Comparing the actors with their real life counterparts in Molly's book can be fun as well as enlightening.
Honorable Mention: Tied for 11th:
The Man Who Invented Christmas
The Greatest Showman