From the Archives: Best of 2017 So Far

From the Archives: Best of 2017 So Far

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

We are now more than halfway through 2017 and I can’t believe how old I am. Time seriously flies when cruel relativity reduces each passing year into an even smaller segment of time comparative to the tragically short length of one’s life. I remember a time before I had back hair. I remember a time when I couldn’t figure out what to do with the year between the first Spider-Man trailer and the release of the movie. I remember a time just a few months ago when it occurred to me that I was now anticipating the sixth Spider-Man movie since that first trailer dropped FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. What I’m saying is I can barely keep up with Father Time and it never feels more tangible than when I sit down to write a ‘Best Of’ list. But mortal reckonings aside, this is also my favorite thing to do. I am a nerd. Nerd love list! What an opportunity to celebrate how much fun it is to go to the movies, all while exploring the themes which tie films to our times.

A few caveats for my list: – I only allowed one superhero movie. I have a hard time with these since I’m so enchanted by the brand regardless of quality. Better to leave slots open for movies I can talk about with some level of objectivity. – I’ve written so much about Personal Shopper that it would be redundant to have it on my list. Plus, it’s one of those movies which exists between years for me. It’s in a sort of limbo (which is quite appropriate to its content). – After locking my list down I saw two movies which would have severely shaken it up, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year to see if they make it. TANTALIZING!!

Here we go!

10. The Belko Experiment – dir. Greg McLean

From the mind of James Gunn and the director of Wolf Creek comes this delightfully demented riff on Battle Royale. Swap the island for an office building and the students for paper pushers and you pretty much get the idea. What sat with me most about this original take on a beaten to death concept was how earnestly and effectively it strode for its goal – to make me feel queasy and uncomfortable. It’s a feeling I used to chase back when I was fifteen. A movie didn’t have to be good. It just had to be F-ed up. The Belko Experiment is F-ed up. And funny. It’s very funny. I didn’t realize how much I missed this kind of thing until I saw it, and it was nice to have some cruelty back at the multiplex.

9. It Comes At Night – dir. Trey Edward Shults

Speaking of feeling queasy and uncomfortable, the end of It Comes at Night caused me to lose both my appetite and at least one night of sleep. And let’s be honest, very few things keep me away from food. As a follow up/companion piece to Shults’ debut film KrishaIt Comes at Night takes a similar thematic framework and places it into a horror film. The performances are all fantastic, and the minimalist filmmaking is densely packed with telling (but ambiguous) details. It’s scary in the moment, but the dread lingers well beyond the closing credits due heavily to the fact that so much of it is open to interpretation, and each of these interpretations is as fatally bleak as the rest. The reason it made my list is that it’s a parable about our shameful-yet-human tendency toward black/white thinking, and how, when faced with an opportunity to broaden perspective, so many of us just double down on our black/white allegiance, often to our own detriment.

8. Get Out – dir. Jordan Peele

Horror films have always been an opportunity to explore morality without sacrificing fun, and Get Out does this with class. As much a commentary on “otherness” as it is a barbed evisceration of social structures, Peele’s debut film is required viewing for all Americans. It certainly showed me a perspective that I couldn’t have even conceived (and benefited greatly from) without being an aggressive message movie (or forgetting to be a movie at all I’M LOOKING AT YOU, HIDDEN FIGURES). On top of all of this, Get Out is a tremendously scary horror flick in its own right. It’s so entertaining, in fact, that it could slyly sneak its message past the guard and into the brain of even the most resistant viewer. What I’m saying is that even a dyed-in-the-wool racist has the potential to not just enjoy Get Out, but come out of it a better person without even realizing it.

THAT’S the power of cinema.

7. xXx: Return of Xander Cage – dir. D.J. Caruso

What do you want me to say? This movie is a blast. So often I dig into movies for a deeper meaning that I forget the simple joy of escape. This third entry of a mostly forgotten franchise is something that nobody knew they wanted, and barely anyone (in America) saw, but those of us who did went bonkers for it. Everyone at my theater left this one buzzing, myself included. Return of Xander Cage gave me the Fast movie which The Fate of the Furious failed to deliver AND I COULD ACTUALLY SEE WHAT WAS HAPPENING. It’s sad muddled action is now the norm, but it is and xXx clears the bar. And wouldn’t you know it? Vin Diesel isn’t sleeping his way through this one! He even appears to be – gasp! – having fun.

6. A Cure for Wellness – dir. Gore Verbinski

This movie is a mess. So so so much of it falls apart upon prodding and pulling, but I just don’t care. It’s an original horror property from the brain of one of our most talented and distinct mainstream filmmakers and the final showdown involves a big, bad villain who is completely on fire. There is nothing, I say, NOTHING better than a flaming stuntman and A Cure for Wellness has three of them. It also has dental torture, eel ingestion, corporate intrigue and a litany of other tried and true methods of inducing fear all wrapped up in a gothic horror package. It’s a sort of modernized James Whale production. A Cure for Wellness is to BioShock what District 9 was to Halo, and in both cases we got original properties that were way better movies than what would have likely been run-of-the-mill video game adaptations. There is no reason a film like this should have landed a budget, let alone a huge one, and Verbinski doesn’t waste a penny of it. Take a chance on this one. Even if you ultimately don’t care for it, you will be glad you spent time with it.

5. Logan – dir. James Mangold

I cried and cried and cried and cried and cried while watching Logan. Not only was it a farewell to one of pop-culture’s most enduring characters, but also to the actor who has portrayed him for longer than seems possible in a world with 6 Batmans. Think about it, none of the other X-Men are played by just one person, but Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine. And let’s be honest, he’s not the most accurate portrayal of the original comic book character either, but his embodiment of Logan was so complete that he transcended the source material and became the definitive iteration. It took decades of X-media to finally give this beloved character a proper film, and it’s fitting that they’d nail it on the very last try. While Logan does devolve into typical X-men action (everyone stand still and use your laser eyes!) for a few minutes, it’s a hiccup that does nothing to slow the punishing roll of this enormous feat of filmmaking.

And it helps that the inclusion of an actual X-Men comic book suggests that the entire series up until this point may have just been fiction in the world of Logan. It’s a brilliant and optional retcon, employed with such verve that it caused zero drama amongst fanboys and fangirls. That’s IMPOSSIBLE, and we saw it happen.

Now bring me my X-23 movie!

4. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki – dir. Juho Kuosmanen

Imagine if someone sucked the eye of the tiger out of a Rocky movie and replaced it with dry, feel-good comedy and a charming romance. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does here, but it really, really does. Olli Maki is a very low stakes film (based on a true story) that functions as a low stakes story for the characters too. Well, except for Maki’s boxing trainer, who desperately wants to see his protégé eat lightning and crap thunder. It’s a juxtaposition of personalities that creates both humor and drama and remains light on its feet throughout. To use a boxing cliche, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki floats like a butterfly and … well, that’s it. No stinging here. At a time where the condemnation of toxic masculinity has become a thing of toxicity itself, Mubi’s first foray into big screen distribution takes the opposite route by showing us a strong man, capable of wielding his strength in a way that isn’t dangerous or toxic. Leading by example is a great way to go about it.

It’s a knockout! Yup. I said that because I wanted to.

3. T2: Trainspotting – dir. Danny Boyle

There is no reason why the sequel to a masterpiece should also be a masterpiece (or at least very close to one). This unnecessary and long-rumored film functions as so many things at once. It is a commentary on nostalgia culture, on meta filmmaking, on drug abuse, on personal responsibility. It’s a retrospective of Danny Boyle’s entire career. It’s a celebration of his influence on two decades of cinema. It’s a direct continuation of the Trainspotting story.

Some way, somehow, the entire cast, the director, the screenwriter (the list goes on) came back for the sequel and none of them phoned it in. T2 is just as beautiful, grimy, funny, and horrifying as its predecessor, and the characters are just as unforgivably shitty … and easy to root for. T2 flies over a bar that the majority of sequels can’t even reach on their tippy-toes: it makes an inarguable case for its own existence.

2. Baby Driver – dir. Edgar Wright

The hype is real. Baby Driver rocks. Like a musical by way of a music video without actually being either of those things, Baby Driver is kinetic cinema at its most digestible and most hilarious. But don’t confuse this with the more parodical work of Wright’s career. This is not a riff on classic car chase movies, but rather a valid entry into the canon. At the same time, there is no way this could be mistaken for a film of the 70s. It’s as modern as it gets. This blend feels less like a remix or mashup, and more like something entirely new. And does anyone do “hilarious but aggressively militant loose-cannon” better than Jamie Foxx? He might have my favorite line of 2017 so far.

Edgar Wright escaping the franchise machine is going to be one of the great dodged bullets of cinema history. Mark my words.

1. Okja – dir. Bong Joon Ho

Okja is exactly the type of movie for which I’d struggle to press play. Even with its pedigree, there’s just something about animals in peril that gives me pause. Even fantastical animals made entirely of CGI.

This was released directly to Netflix, so you can watch it right now if you so desire (and you should!). I must brag, however. I was fortunate to see this on the big screen, and not only did the opportunity effectively force me not to delay in taking in a “sad animal” flick, it proved to be an enhancement to the overall viewing experience. Okja is such a beautifully rendered creature set amidst a wide variety of incredible (and incredibly interactive) backdrops that this inherently fantastical film always feels rooted in reality. This extends into the roster of thoroughly characterized players. Many are larger than life (Jake Gyllenhaal channels his inner Looney Tunes villain, by way of Kevin Kline), but all are flawed, lived-in, and properly motivated.

Using a somewhat standard E.T.-esque adventure framework, Bong Joon Ho depicts the entirety of a functional social structure, complete with ethical gray areas, forcing the viewer to decide where he or she fits into the machine. No judgment is passed, and a viewer needn’t reach an answer to enjoy or be moved by the film, but will likely find it impossible not to reassess which values they hold most dear, and which of their innocent complicities they are able to live with.

Okja, in my estimation, seems to say that wherever one falls on any issue, methods matter. I couldn’t agree more. If nothing else, watch this one for Gyllenhaal’s performance. You won’t believe it.

Psssst. It’s not a sad animal movie either. My preconceived notions were wrong.

Honorable mentions: SplitJohn Wick 2Guardians of the Galaxy 2ChuckLifeFree FireGiftedBecoming BondColossalI Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore.

Listen to more Best of 2017 picks on this week’s episode of I Like 2 Movie Movie!

Leave a Reply