1 – BLADE RUNNER 2049
Denis Villeneuve took on one of the most dangerous tasks a filmmaker could possibly undertake when he agreed to direct a sequel to Blade Runner. The original had been a box office bomb in 1982 but then spent the next 35 years growing into one of the most revered scifi films ever created. The film that came into theaters in October 2017 was not just a sequel however, it was a towering achievement in its own right. Astonishing visuals, a mesmerizing score, and the continuation of the concept of the replicant. More human than human? In todays world of voice technology and our ever quickening descent into automating away our own futures, Blade Runner 2049 did the impossible, it elevated the original film even further while bringing a new vision of that world to life. Denis Villeneuve was the director of two of my favorite films of the last few years, Sicario and Arrival. He is said to be working on a new version of Dune for his next project. It would be criminal not to give him a chance to direct a Star Wars film. I suspect he would create a version of that world that would leave us all in awe.
2 – THE POST
Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks directed by Steven Spielberg. Isn’t that enough? No? Well consider that this is a true story about the media that takes place at a time when papers were king. Newsrooms were filled with reporters on phones, not computers. The workplace was dominated by men who took little notice of women outside the home. Meryl Streep brilliantly portrays a woman who has spent a lifetime playing the role of mother and wife that society expects of her. Thrust into the role of owning and managing a newspaper, she finds herself at meetings with rooms full of men who treat her politely as a lady but disparagingly as a business partner. The assumption is that she will do as she’s told and follow the lead of the men. Tom Hanks character pushes her into confrontation with her advisors, her beliefs, and the idea that she has not only the right to make her own choices, she has more smarts and savvy than even she has given herself credit for. Considering the times we are living in currently, looking at this story through the talent assembled is a stunning statement about where power lies and how it can be taken when someone dares to make a difficult decision for the right reasons.
3 – DUNKIRK
Christopher Nolan’s war epic is an ode to the British people as well as the power of a director who has his choice of projects. Opening with no exposition and then throwing us onto a beach full of 400,000 young men hoping not to die, the film then begins to circle through time with intertwined stories. Small boats trying to stage a daring rescue when the British navy can’t and two Spitfires doing everything they can to keep the air clear of enemy planes create that circle which Nolan masterfully tightens like a noose around our necks. We never really get to know anyone particularly well and sometimes it’s even difficult to recognize characters but we do know these are all young men who want to live in a place where that is not a good prospect. Shot on film and using many practical effects, Dunkirk looks real, feels gritty, and puts us in a position to relive history that is not that removed from today. The score is epic and one of the best of the year, adding tremendously to the feeling of time slowly running out for so many. By the time the lucky young survivors make it home, expecting to be shamed by their defeat, and a young soldier reads the famous words from Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, you will realize what a special film you have seen about an event that changed the world as we know it.
4 – WONDER WOMAN
Patty Jenkins’ take on Wonder Woman is miraculous when you step back and look at it through the lens of the women’s movement sweeping through Hollywood. Yes, it’s a superhero story like the dozens we have seen in the last few years. Yes, it’s full of fights and action and makes it seem like humans can do nothing for themselves but watch as their problems are solved by a woman with a shield. Look deeper though, not just at the surface of the film but the people behind it. Gal Gadot IS Wonder Woman. The wide eyed terror at the bloodshed she witnesses in the trenches makes us feel her dismay that people would do this to each other. Her innocent fervor to stop evil is inspiring to everyone because it is real and pure. The actress in real life is very much like her character. When Gal wore flats instead of heels to the Wonder Woman premiere, it became a story about dressing for comfort in Elle magazine. She speaks in public with some awe about the character and how she feels it represents a different vision of women in the movies. When she talks, we believe she is telling the truth. We see in her, in some small way, what a good and decent person can do in the world. Isn’t that what heroes are all about in the first place?
5 – WIND RIVER
Taylor Sheridan wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of my favorite films. With Wind River, he writes and also steps up to directing duties. The themes he has played with so effectively make appearances here: people in harsh conditions, against great odds, often feeling like they are being taken down a path that they can’t get off of. Wind River opens with a young woman running through deep snow in the middle of the night while a voiceover reads a beautiful poem. The next thing we see is in the daylight, a hunter with a rifle, taking aim at a wolf. The juxtaposition is stark and powerful. This is a place for those who are strong enough to take the brutal climate as well as the harshness of life with few ways out. The film takes place on an Indian reservation. We see in many ways that poverty and lack of options can create opportunity for poor choices and feelings of hopelessness. The great thing about Sheridan’s writing is that you feel it, you don’t have to be talked to about it. As with the two films mentioned at the beginning, Wind River is a character piece. We get to know these people and believe them to be real. When there is an explosion of violence, it is not like most movie violence. It is quick, loud, and horrifying, the way it seems like it would be in real life. Sheridan is not as sure handed at directing as he is at writing. Villeneuve could have pulled more raw emotion out of the same script. Sheridan is a rare talent though and this is a special film, one that will probably take him to more directing jobs.
6 – SPIELBERG
A film about one of the most talented directors of this or any era. I have a huge interest in films beyond just the finished product. How do films get made, where do the ideas come from, how do special effects get created? All of these things are discussed during this documentary as it goes through the career of the man who brought us Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, E.T., Saving Private Ryan, and (my number two choice), The Post. Anyone with a passing interest in film will enjoy this look at decades of films that touched the lives of millions. It’s also an interesting time to see this since Ready Player One releases soon and it looks to be a return to the more magical Spielberg that we grew up with.
7 – IT
There are Stephen King movies and then there are movies based on Stephen King books. “It“ falls firmly into the first category. Films like Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile live in the world created by Mr. King, where the bizarre becomes real. “It” took a huge liberty with the book by setting the time in the 80’s. This creates a nostalgia for certain members of the audience (umm, people my age) similar to that of Stranger Things but not nearly so overt. This story is as much about the kids as it is about the scary clown. We see them face bullies, young love, and peer pressure that we can all recognize. The clown could be any of those things and facing him means facing ultimate fear. He lurks everywhere and nowhere all at once. This film clearly respects it’s audience and the source material. It oozes quality in performances, sets, and a creepy score by the co-writer of the Blade Runner 2049 score (see all the connections in this list yet?). Not a true horror movie by my standards but an effectively creepy tale of adolescence that has me impatiently waiting for part 2.
8 – A GHOST STORY
The first time I heard of this film I was excited because I believe that Casey Affleck is an amazing actor who makes great choices in projects. When I saw the “man in a sheet” trailer though, I was turned off. It looked silly for a film that otherwise seemed to be a serious examination of grief. I am so glad I gave this an opportunity! While not for everyone, I found this to be a staggeringly powerful film. Once you see where the sheet comes from and realize the part it plays, you will not notice it further. There are some incredibly unsettling moments that will send shivers down your spine, most of which are aided by outstanding cinematography. There are few words spoken so the bulk of the story is told through imagery. What is most unusual and welcome about this story is that 99.9% of the films we see about loss deal with the characters interacting with other people at funerals, at parties, etc. This film is about the moments outside of those interactions. There is a scene of one character eating a pie where we watch her for several minutes, just eating pie. Again, I know it sounds odd, but this is behavior that most of us don’t see because it takes place in private where grief takes on different forms. A Ghost Story takes you in surprising directions and shows you private moments that make you feel as if you are spying on real people. Anyone who has experienced profound, unexpected loss will find this film powerful and compelling.
9 – BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99
Vince Vaughn becomes someone totally different right in front of our eyes in Brawl. The funny man shaves his head, sports a cross tattoo, and literally dismantles a car with brute force in the first few minutes of this slow burn film. Brawl is sly about going in different directions than we expect. A moment of near domestic violence turns almost tender, a meeting in a prison yard goes from a warning about a gang of inmates to a warning from the star to those inmates. The other subversion is that the main character is not a likeable guy. He makes poor choices in the name of family and his “career” is not exactly that of an upstanding citizen. He simply looks better to us than the parade of lowlifes that surround him so he becomes our protagonist. Vince seems totally calm throughout. Violence is presented as a means to an end but, like Wind River, it is not the heroic violence of a superhero, it is the brutal violence of survival and retribution. The volume of violence is not great, in fact the movie runs on a little too long, but when it appears, it is brutal, graphic, and feels like we are watching a street fight in real life. It’s good to see Don Johnson in a small but important role and he plays his part to perfection. Brawl is in your face action with a decidedly 70’s slant but director S. Craig Zahler is firmly planted as a force to watch today.
10 – BUSHWICK
I may get some flack for including this film in a Top 10 list but that’s ok. I loved Bushwick! There are some plot contrivances and logic may be strained at times but this little picture about New York being overtaken by domestic terrorists trying to stage a secession is far from fiction. The opening scene shows us an empty subway platform where Brittany Snow (a terrific turn in an unusual role for the beautiful actress) and her boyfriend are on their way to meet her family. Within minutes, a man engulfed in flame runs past them screaming and we know that we are not in Kansas (or Bushwick) anymore. The rest of the movie is a long walk to get to safety through streets that have become a war zone. Dave Bautista plays a former military man who accompanies our heroine through this journey to get to friendly territory and find a way out. We learn what is going on little by little through encounters both banal and violent. The central conceit might seem flimsy but consider some of the violence that occured in real life in 2017. It has become apparent that hatred and violence can erupt anywhere and, if enough happens at once, we are not well equipped to stop it quickly. Consider the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA and then look at Bushwick through that lens. Perhaps this story is not too far-fetched after all when you consider how things can get out of hand so quickly. The film is shot to appear like one long, continuous take which adds greatly to the immediacy. It’s power would have been greatly diluted had it not been for the gut-punch ending. Bushwick is not award winning filmmaking but it certainly shows us a reality that is stretched but, sadly, not completely impossible in a world with so much hate and misunderstanding.
MOST DISAPPOINTING: THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE
I will go with Lego Ninjago as the most disappointing. Incredible animation, excellent 3D, two great movies prior to this, and… well, not much else. A few laughs from Jackie Chan and an entire movie trying to sell Ninjago toys? The first two had heart and spoke to young and old. This one is like one long commercial. The first 10 or 11 times we hear dad say, “La-Loyd,” it’s funny. The next 30 times the charm is gone like civility in politics.