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Film News

From Blade Runners to Billboards

The best films of 2017

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Bladerunner 2049
Blade Runner 2049

Not everyone loved this follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult film. Then again, not everyone loved Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult film. Maybe, like the original, it will take another decade before Blade Runner 2049 is truly appreciated. Frankly—and speaking as a fanboy who, for real, owns a Rick Deckard costume—it’s hard to imagine a better team than director Denis Villaneuve (Incendies, Sicario, Arrival) and screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who, yup, penned the original). There’s no arguing that the film isn’t eye-bogglingly beautiful to behold. But its deeply humanistic core hides under a chilly robotic surface, and repeat viewings may be required for some people to really warm up to it. Pay attention to Ryan Gosling’s subtle character work as the dutiful but painfully lonely replicant, though, and you’ll be rewarded with a sci-fi parable that is alternately heartbreaking, satirical, tragic, romantic—and above all—artful.

Dunkirk

Epic historical dramas are a dime a dozen. Heck, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, released later in the year, covers largely the same story—albeit from the domestic angle. It’s not the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation that makes this World War II drama (although it was a crazy turning point in history all right). Instead, Christopher Nolan’s time-dialating/time-condensing script and meticulous direction intertwines a trio of perspectives (soldiers on the ground, citizens at sea and pilots in the air) to express the utter chaos of war. The fractured timeline—conflating past and present—keeps the tension from ever letting up. The result is a heart-pounding drama that finds everyday loyalty and heroism turning even brutal defeats into hear-swelling victories.

Get Out

Writer-director Jordan Peele was the first of many fresh voices this year. He’s a familiar face (having headlined the sketch comedy series “Key and Peele” for five seasons). His premise liberally borrows from The Stepford Wives, updating its social satire for post-Obama America. But there is something refreshingly and surprisingly vivid in this tale of a young, African-American man who meets his girlfriend’s upper middle-class liberal parents for the first time and finds himself descending into an overly polite suburban horror show. What could have been just another all-too-easy attack on racist conservatives is instead a heavy think piece designed to weigh on the consciences of “progressive” voters—plus, it’s a damnably entertaining shocker with some serious scares and a pitch black sense of humor.

Lady Bird

Coming-of-age dramedies are something of an indie film staple. But Greta Gerwig, graduating from actress-writer (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Frances Ha, Mistress America) to full-fledged writer-director, infuses this semi-autobiographical film with her own charming sense of humor and a magnificent attention to detail. Mother-daughter stories are rare in Hollywood, and the opportunity to watch overbearing-but-loving mom Laurie Metcalf engage in all-out combat with smart-but-unmotivated teen daughter Saoirse Ronan is one of this year’s greatest joys. Blisteringly funny, painfully well-observed, this tiny look into the joys and attendant horrors of our teenage years is a sweet and cynical delight.

Lady Macbeth

This down-and-dirty anti-romance isn’t your typical BBC fare. It takes its inspiration not from Shakespeare but from Nikolai Leskov’s obscure 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In 19th-century rural England we meet our semi-titular character Katherine (fresh face Florence Pugh in a savage debut). She’s been married off to a cruel and uncaring coal magnate nearly twice her age. But Katherine’s frigid traditional marriage soon warps into a nasty, sadomasochistic game when she takes up a lover and positively dares anyone to cross her path. Mid 19th-century mores and gender roles are flipped, and our heroine teeters between righteously sympathetic and callously over the top. Far too stark to call Gothic, way to bleak to call romantic, Lady Macbeth is a violent heartbreaker for those who prefer broken hearts to happy endings.

Logan

No doubt about it, 2017 was a hell of a year for superhero movies. If you’re going to turn to comic books for inspiration, you might as well produce the sort of bright, bold, highly entertaining blockbusters we saw this year. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was pure, unadulterated fun. Thor: Ragnarok dropped a flippant bomb in the middle of what has been an occasionally self-serious genre. And the newly empowered Wonder Woman proved it’s not the “juvenile” source material that remains difficult to translate. All you need is the right people behind the camera (and, yes, more women making the big decisions—particularly when it comes to female characters). Logan, however, was a true bellwether—shooting down just about every preconception about “comic book” movies. Firstly, it’s successful R-rated release proved audiences are hungry for serious, mature stories—even if they involve superpowered mutants. Secondly—following on the heels of the preposterously overproduced X-Men: Apocalypse—the film’s stripped-down, minimalist style proved that bigger budgets and more guest stars are not the end-all, be-all solution to these sequels. The ninth film in Fox’s X-Men franchise broke a hell of a lot of rules to create a grim, expressive, brutally honest and positively mesmerizing rumination of the burden of exceptional gifts and the responsibility of family.

The Red Turtle

Maybe this tiny animated gem—produced by Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli, but written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit—is only here to prove that slow, silent and contemplative isn’t a death knell for films. With no dialogue and minimal action, the film chronicles the tale of a sailor, shipwrecked on a small tropical island. (Where and when, we’re not privy.) He does what he can to survive. That’s pretty much it. Eventually, the film does drop in a supernatural element, relieving the man of his crushing loneliness. But it’s so delicately handled that it creates barely a ripple in the film’s gentle, natural rhythm. Like the steady in-out movement of the tide, there’s something ineffable and hypnotic about this luminously animated film that lingers in the eyes, the ears and the soul.

The Shape of Water

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro loves his monsters. And here he lets that lifelong passion boil over, mutating the original Creature From the Black Lagoon template into a steamy, interspecies romance. British actress Sally Hawkins is magnificently understated as the Plain Jane mute woman who befriends and eventually falls for a (mostly) gentle amphibian man captured by government scientists in the early ’60s. The writer-director finds multiple layers to this beautifully assembled adult fable, touching on everything from xenophobia in Cold War America to the sweeping melodrama of Hollywood’s Biblical epics.

Three Billboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Crime films don’t come more morally confused than this thorny but lovable tragicomedy from Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). Frances McDormand, who has already delivered several performances of a lifetime, offers up another as Mildred—the bitter, bruised mother seeking closure in her daughter’s unsolved murder. The object of her wrath (summed up in the titular billboards) is congenial, small-town sheriff Woody Harrelson. What McDonagh’s corrosively funny, sympathy-flipping script does so expertly is make us realize that everyone is alternately right and wrong, good and bad, in near-equal measure. The film ponders whether people are capable of such niceties as change, forgiveness and contrition—but it sure as hell doesn’t offer up any easy answers.

Your Name

This beautifully animated sci-fi story was a massive hit in its native Japan (the highest grossing anime in history and the fourth highest grossing film period). As expected, it made barely a blip on America’s radar. Nonetheless, this enjoyable, easy-to-access tale of two teenagers—an urban boy and a rural girl—who mysteriously switch bodies—is hard to shake off. The Freaky Friday-esque setup gets played for a few laughs, but the meticulous details of the surroundings ground the film is an unexpected layer of reality. Plus, the narrative has a doozy of a kink in the middle of it all—trading the Disney-esque high school rom-com in for an apocalyptic tale of cosmic interconnectedness. Emotional, funny, exciting and vividly realized, this crowd-pleasing genre film deserves a bigger audience.

 
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