Welcome to Land of The Nerds, where I, Lisa Laman, use my love of cinema to explore, review and talk about every genre of film imaginable!
Thursday, March 1, 2018
Douglas Laman's Top Fourteen Movies of 2017
We begin with the end of a life in....
There's no shortage of unorthodox traits to David Lowery's most recent motion picture as the viewer follows a man's experiences in the afterlife where he's seen as simply a human being covered in a white sheet with two cut-out eye holes. It's a strange premise and it's all the better for being so unorthodox. Lowery relies on visually-oriented storytelling that's thoroughly compelling and the way the movie expands its story beyond just focusing on death but also time itself is utterly fascinating. Best of all is the unforgettable mood of the piece, which is best described as quiet somber reflection that makes moments like sheet-ghost telepathy more heartbreaking to watch than you ever thought possible.
It's the early 1990's in Paris, France. Activists for the ACT UP organization are fighting for the rights of individuals with AIDS and the various stories of these activists, as told by director Robin Campillo, are extremely powerful to watch. At the center of these stories is Sean Dalmazo, portrayed by Nahuel Perez Biscayart in one of the year's finest performances, a young man diagnosed with AIDS who goes through harrowingly realistic patches of fear, anger, sadness and righteous perseverance in the face of this life-threatening disease. All of those emotions swirl around throughout BPM (Beats Per Minute), especially in its phenomenal climax that provides a scene of characters reacting to the death of a loved one that I've never seen before in a movie.
Given that it's been produced by The Lonely Island, you may expect Brigsby Bear to be, like the group's last two movies, Hot Rod and Popstar, a farcical comedy, but that's not the case at all. Humorous moments are in here, but Brigsby Bear is actually more of a fascinating & thoughtful character study of a man trying to adjust to the real world and how the process of creating art provides him with hope of doing just that. Kyle Mooney (who also delivers a fantastic performance as the main character) and Kevin Costello's script takes the heightened situation the protagonist is emerging from and proceed to apply surprising depth and nuance to the situations & characters he encounters from there. The writing and directing for Brigsby Bear emanates an obvious love for the world of this film that proves to be infectious. Why this movie hasn't been talked about more is beyond me, but let's all do our best to change that because Brigsby Bear is totally excellent.
Another high-quality American indie title I'm surprised hasn't generated more conversation. Anne Hathaway gives the best performance of her career in my book as the lead character of Colossal, who discovers that the actions of herself and a giant monster destroying Seoul in South Korea. From there, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo uses this set-up as a springboard to explore abusive relationships in stylized ways that manage to tap into all too real pieces of abusive behavior. The way the feature balances heightened elements like a giant monster running around with insightful looks at differing kinds of abusive relationships is a true feat, ditto for Jason Sudeikis in an outstanding supporting role.
We got a couple of truly sublime documentaries in 2017 (hi Step and The Work!), but the cream of the crop was Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary nearly entirely devoid of dialogue chronicling the birth of Dawson City at the tail end of the 19th century and how it intersected with film preservation. The stories of the earliest settlers here are utterly fascinating and it's impressive just how many various pieces of footage we get to see from movies that are a little over a century old and were once thought to have been lost forever. The real star of the project may just be the score by Alex Somers given how it's powerful enough on its own to show why Dawson City: Frozen Time doesn't need to turn to dialogue to tell its story.
Magic Kingdom is one of the most visited places on the planet. Not too far away from that theme park is the Magic Castle, a low-cost motel visited far less frequently, but that doesn't mean it's residents don't have stories worth telling. Sean Baker's second directorial effort The Florida Project shines a humanizing light on cash-strapped individuals just trying to make enough money to pay for that month's rent. Incredible performances abound from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Pierce and especially Bria Vinaite while it's camerawork shows a remarkable level of craftsmanship. These individual elements all add up to ensuring that normal everyday lives become thoroughly riveting in The Florida Project, a humanistic portrait of individuals society has a tendency to pass right by.
We've been talking about how amazing Get Out is for a little over a year now and it still feels like we haven't covered all the bases in terms of what this film does right. A brilliantly constructed script that intertwines facets of the African-American experience with horror movie storytelling, a cast that's firing on all cylinders (Daniel Kaluuya is especially superb in the pivotal lead role), excellently executed scares a-plenty, Get Out really does just live up to its own well-deserved hype. To boot, it may just have the most cathartic ending of the year, one that redefined how we'll all look at TSA Agents in the future. Needless to say, Jordan Peele's first foray into the world of directing was one for the ages, that's for sure.
I entered 2017 not knowing who The Safdie Brothers were but their directorial effort Good Time ensures I won't be forgetting them anytime soon. This crime thriller stars Robert Pattinson as a guy whose pursuit of money to get his brother out on bail takes him into deeper and deeper trouble. Inherently, that's a premise that could have been used for a run-of-the-mill action crime motion picture but here it's instead used to tell a fascinating tale about a deeply troubled brotherly relationship. Told through distinctive cinematography, editing and music, not to mention also through Robert Pattinson excelling in this lead role, Good Time captures one's attention from the first frame and never releases it from there.
Most blockbuster sequels opt to expand the storytelling of their predecessors by going gung-ho on bigger spectacle. But for Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn writes and directs a tale that instead delves deeper into what makes these cosmic characters who they are. Turns out talking raccoons and blue aliens with giant mohawks have relatable foibles and internal turmoils as well. The science-fiction fun is still intact from the first one (anything with Baby Groot is pure bliss), but the way this new Guardians adventure ends up being one of the year's best films is truly in it's most emotional moments, especially that ending, which has a number of small character moments transpire during a funeral set to the tune of a perfectly chosen Cat Stevens tune. A beautiful capper to a beautiful cosmic adventure.
Harry Dean Stanton's final on-screen performance in Lucky is a winning showcase for all the traits that made this actor so enthralling as a character actor mainstay for so many years. The interactions his titular character gets into with the various locals of the small Southern town he calls home provide plenty of amusement, but there's also a large amount of heart to this tale. Plot details like a character played by David Lynch yearning for his lost tortoise to return home sound like fodder for comedy on paper but instead become gateways for moments of thoughtful introspection in the movie itself. A whole bunch of those kinds of small impactful moments are scattered throughout Lucky and they all add up to something truly special.
All kinds of unique lives intersect in Dee Rees film Mudbound. These people may share a large slice of land they all live in, but they each have unique experiences that the audience gets to experience first-hand. A number of beautiful internal voice-over monologues are especially successful in letting the viewer know just what makes the individual members of the ensemble cast tick while Rachel Morrison's impeccable cinematography doesn't shy away from depicting the grime & the sea of dirt that makes up the landscape these characters inhabit. The assorted characters are brought to life with transfixing performances, with Garett Hedlund managing to be the best of the bunch as a soldier returning home from war. He's able to exude real tragedy in the role and brings a level of absorbing humanity to his character that is in high abundance in the rest of Mudbound.
Elegant and beautiful are the two words that leap to my mind when thinking about The Shape of Water. Guillermo Del Toro's latest motion picture see's the fantasy-fixated filmmaker weaving a tale of a romance between a woman and a fish monster in the 1960's. Such a high-concept starting premise begets scene after scene of unforgettable wonder as the script (penned by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) creates real complex human beings to inhabit its fairytale story. Scenes of our protagonist, played flawlessly by Sally Hawkins, falling in love with this aquatic creature are played not for laughs but in a heartfelt manner that proves to be heavily intoxicating. There's so much well-realized love running around in The Shape of Water, from the love the lead characters share to the love Del Toro has for these characters, that it proves to be impossible not to fall under this features dazzling spell.
In a year chock full of high-quality American blockbusters, Star Wars: The Last Jedi may just be the best of the entire pack. Rian Johnson writes and directs this entry in the mega-hit franchise that takes characters both old and new into fascinating unexpected directions. Whether it's Luke Skywalker revealing himself to be a complex flawed human being after being built up as an untouchable legend for so many years or villain Kylo Ren trying to forge a future by becoming obsessed with annihilating the past, these characters are thoroughly captivating and the same can be said for a number of beautifully executed action sequences (that opening scene alone is one for the ages). Newbie character Rose, played excellently by Kelly Marie Tran, may be both the best character of the film and the individual whose hopeful spirit in the face of despair best crystalizes what The Last Jedi is all about. The Last Jedi is the best kind of character-driven cinema, blockbuster or otherwise, that manages to both transport and lift up your spirit.
And now, the best movie of the year. I went back and forth on this one, Get Out, The Florida Project, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Shape of Water were all in this spot at one time or another. But in the end, there was only one movie I could pick to be the best motion picture of 2017...
Chris Wedge's ode to both fly-over America and loveable movie monsters is....nah, I'm just kidding, no offense to the great and powerful Creech of course.
In all seriousness, the best movie of 2017 is actually...
Lady Bird and Danny sharing an important conversation behind a coffee shop.
Lady Bird's prom night.
Any scene with Lady Bird and her mom.
These are just a few of the scenes in Lady Bird that both subtly tap into a raw sense of reality and also serve as tremendous scenes on their own merits. These individual scenes all add up to a stunning whole, one that creates a transfixing world out of the titular lead character's hometown of Sacremento, California. No two people in this town seem to be the same, everyone here has layers & complexity, making it a realm that's oh so easy to become immersed in. This backdrop is used to tell a compelling story that chronicles a daughter's relationship with her mother over the course of her Senior Year of High School. Contained in this tale are a number of top-notch performances ranging from Saroise Ronan in the lead role to Lucas Hedges in a heartbreaking supporting turn to Tracy Letts as a loveable though tortured father and Laurie Metcalfe's pitch-perfect work as Lady Bird's mother. Then there's Greta Gerwig's writing, which creates engaging characters for all of those actors to inhabit that evoke to an eerily accurate degree real-life people. We've all known or even been people like the characters who make up the cast of Lady Bird and that keen awareness of reality may just be the secret ingredient to why Lady Bird works as well as it does. I'd also say making pivotal emotional moments out of the smallest incidents in life, the kind of occurrences that seem unimportant in the moment but on later reflection prove to have been incredibly formative, is equally pivotal to why Lady Bird is such a phenomenal motion picture. The world of Lady Bird still fascinates my brain months after having seen it and the same can be said for the entire rest of the production. When a movie like Lady Bird is this well-made, this effortlessly insightful and this captivating, it's no wonder it ends up as my favorite motion picture from 2017.
Thank you to all of the artists behind and in front of the camera on these 14 movies as well as numerous other high-quality 2017 features that just missed being on this list.
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