Thursday, March 15, 2018

acestroke's Top 10 Movies of 2017

I know, I know... we're halfway through March of 2018, so why am I just now publishing my list of 2017's best movies?  Well, I wanted to be sure I'd seen everything that was worth seeing, and sometimes that takes longer than I'd like.  Anyway, I strongly recommend everything on this list, so I suggest you see the films on it, if you haven't already.  You're unlikely to be disappointed.

1.  A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
The central (ghost) figure in David Lowery's transcendent movie may just be the loneliest protagonist ever to roam the cinematic landscape.  Spanning countless years - and perhaps even a few centuries into the past, then back to the already witnessed present, in a bold move suggesting the cyclicality of time - the alleged spirit of C (Casey Affleck) observes his wife's (Rooney Mara) mourning, and eventually all the tenants that come to occupy their house it in the ensuing decades.  Seldom has anyone's (post)life been simultaneously so mesmerizing and heartbreaking as this Ghost's.  When it's over, you may find yourself wondering how in the world didn't this film find a bigger audience, 'cause in 2017 there wasn't a movie more deserving of one.

2.  Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)
Blending a body-switching fantasy between two teenagers of opposite genders with elements of time travel, a natural catastrophe and a years-long search for an enigmatic persona from one's dreams, Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai has created an unforgettable movie that will challenge your intellect and your emotions equally. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Seldom has an Anime film looked this magnificent, its hand-drawn images brilliantly complemented by modern lighting effects, in which every shot of sunlight and reflective illumination resembles something real and otherworldly.  This is worth watching once a month, for the rest of one's life. 

3.  I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
The trials and tribulations of the lower middle class on the English shores are at front and center in Ken Loach's brilliant film, I, Daniel Blake.  Playing an elderly blue-collar worker with a weak heart, Dave Johns gives a subtle, powerful performance full of inner anguish and frustration as the titular protagonist who keeps getting denied his unemployment and disability benefits until he pulls a subdued, British style Howard Beale protest, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" in form of a graffiti demonstration, spray painted on the side of the very building that's been rejecting him and countless others on a daily basis. I, Daniel Blake is a gut-wrenching ballad about the lost souls barely holding on to the remaining shreds of decency in an establishment that is clearly not interested in their salvation.  

4.  Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
There is a scene late in Wonder Woman when its titular heroine, Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), nearly broken and defeated by her arch nemesis, Ares, The God of War, lays on the ground and contemplates if she can, in fact, ever stop the never ending carnage that he's inflicted on mankind during The Great War.  Her realization, at that very instant, of what exactly needs to drive the human soul is a moment that will forever transcend the superhero genre and elevate it to stuff of action legend. More than any superhero movie that I can recall - DC or Marvel - director Patty JenkinsWonder Woman is an exciting examination of a strong, ideological female's idea of - and eventual solution to - World War I bang-bang-and-blow-shit-up global bloodshed.  Its juxtaposition of spectacle, action, myth and fantasy - with a touching romance at its center - is Hollywood's finest such blockbuster since James Cameron's Titanic.  

5.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  (Martin McDonagh)
After the murder of her daughter goes unsolved, Frances McDormand's Mildred Hayes publicly humiliates local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - a man suffering from a terminal illness, and the only decent officer in Ebbing - by displaying the department's incompetence on the titular billboards in her little rural town.  Naturally, her actions draw criticism from the locals, and soon she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are subjects of much scrutiny.  A flashback scene involving the last day Mildred saw her daughter, including a fight between the two in which nasty words were exchanged, is powerfully ironic and heartbreaking. Director McDonagh just may be the best writer working in world cinema today. 

6. Brawl in cell block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a rare prison movie, an ultra violent masterpiece about a somewhat decent man's descent into hell on Earth where he loses his soul, but perhaps not his humanity.  The Shawshank Redemption may have been a more moving prison movie, but I can't think of any other film in recent memory that portrayed the savagery of life behind bars so unapologetically, and with such vile beauty.  And it features the best performance of Vince Vaughan's career.  That's saying something.  

7.  Kedi (Ceyda Torun)
Seldom are documentary films as lyrical and as poetic as Ceyda Torun's passionate Kedi, a movie that looks at everyday lives of several different cats in present day Istanbul, Turkey.  Interviewing various men and women who look after them on daily basis, the film is a combination of a beautiful travelogue about a historical European city and an examination of the feline species of all different sizes, colors and various temperaments.  The lush cinematography will take your breath away, while the testimonies of the local citizens will move you the way only a melodic symphony or poetry can.  Kedi is more than just a documentary: it's an ode to cats everywhere, a testament from the heart to that most domesticated of all house pets.

8.  Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
This bleak, somber Russian drama about the failure of a marriage and the subsequent disappearance of a son of two people (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) who've grown to dislike one another is surprisingly honest and real.  Not only an examination of cold people whose compassion for one another has been replaced by selfishness and indifference, it's also a parable about life in Putin's contemporary Russia, a place where a people's superficiality and shallowness takes precedent above all else.  There's very few, if any, happy moments in Loveless, and that is precisely the point: as the title suggests, this isn't a movie about love, but about its absence.  

9.  Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
At long last, Paul Thomas Anderson, that virtuouso auteur of such modern classics as Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, is officially back!  Once again working with the masterful Daniel Day Lewis, Anderson examines the life of British designer Reynolds Woodock, an eccentric, complicated man who's at once smitten with a waitress, Alma (Vickey Krieps) he meets in a sea-side town, and whom he decides to make his muse. Their relationship soon begins to resemble a union between two people who could not be more different from one another, yet Anderson's film manages to be an ode to love without romanticizing it, with lush cinematography and an enchanting score to match its 1950s, post World War 2 London setting.  A beautiful, understated, and unconventional romance.  

10.  Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
Ben Young's new Australian feature film, Hounds of Love, presents us with a twisted couple who get off on abducting teenage girls, only to chain them to a bed in their creepy house while torturing and raping them, before murdering and burying their bodies in the nearby forest.  The real wonder here, however, is Emma Booth, an actress with raw talent that is heartbreakingly vast in the range of emotions her complex character has to convey.  When Hounds of Love is over, you may find yourself wondering if what you've just seen is just another dramatic torture porn, or a film with unexpected depth that explores the thin line between good and evil in the most original way.  My experience was of the latter kind.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Garland's "Annihilation" is the modern standard for trippy sci-fi fare

The most eerie and memorable element of Alex Garland's new science-fiction thriller, Annihilation, is its ominous, bone-chilling musical score (by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow).  It exudes a spellbinding aura that completely envelopes the viewers' mind and soul with a final act - in which its heroine, Lena (Natalie Portman), faces an extra terrestrial clone of herself - that can only be described as the modern equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's legendary star-gate sequence.  And despite of what you may have heard about this movie, it's true: your experience of it will greatly be enhanced by either hallucinatory or psychoactive drugs of the soft variety, to say the least.

After her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from a year long mission and develops a life-threatening illness, Lena, along with four other female scientists, enters an area called "The Shimmer", where strange extra-terrestrial organisms seems to have taken over the local flora and fauna.  Slowly but surely, the women are eliminated by The Shimmer's local mutations, and when Lena, at long last, reaches the Lighthouse where the strange occurrences first originated, the mind bending, head scratching conclusion will surely divide the audiences.  The last close-up is as enigmatic as it is satisfactory, and Annihilation, despite its imperfections, is still an intellect-challenging ride well worth taking.  Just don't expect it to have all the answers, and you just may not hate it at all.

Friday, December 29, 2017

McDonagh's genius as writer shines in "Ebbing, Missouri"

Frances McDormand is an actress more fitting to play a a worried mother than any other one I can think of.  After all, she stole every scene in 2000's Almost Famous, as the matriarch of a teenager-wannabee-journalist touring with a complex rock band in the early 1970s, and in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, she once again displays complex emotion, and often in a simple glance.  Quick witted and sassy, she insults most people who disagree with her, including the local authorities.  This is not a woman you wanna piss off.

After the murder of her daughter goes unsolved, McDormand's Mildred Hayes publicly humiliates local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - a man suffering from a terminal illness, and the only decent officer in Ebbing - by displaying the department's incompetence on the titular billboards in her little rural town.  Naturally, her actions draw criticism from the locals, and soon she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are subjects of much scrutiny.  A flashback scene involving the last day Mildred saw her daughter, including a fight between the two in which nasty words were exchanged, is powerfully ironic and heartbreaking.

Martin McDonagh here proves that - as he did in 2008's In Bruges - he's one of the finest writers in world cinema today, and in Three Billboards, he creates a post-tragedy setting that is equally comical and somber (a virtuoso one-shot sequence follows an angry officer Dixon, played by a superb Sam Rockwell, as he throws a rather innocent businessman from a 2nd floor window onto the street below; its execution will literally take your breath away).  The characters speak real, honest words, not written ones, and there's no villains or heroes - only ... people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a quiet masterpiece, and one of the very best movies of 2017.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pixar's "Coco" beautifully juggles life & death themes

The themes of life and death are central in Disney/Pixar's new animated feature Coco, and never has the world of the dead looked so magically ... appealing.  Focusing on a boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) who wants to be a musician - in a family of shoemakers where music is forbidden and frowned upon - the movie fuses Mexican culture and its traditional festival Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) with a child's journey into the afterlife, where he learns that to be remembered is to be truly loved (among other things).

Following in similar footsteps as Pixar's Inside Out (2014), Coco takes Miguel into a world of the dead - where he encounters relatives who've long since passed - in his journey to find the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer he believes is his deceased great-grandfather.  But there is more to this Cruz than meets the eye, and a twist that follows Miguel's discovery just might move the adults in the audience to tears - a familiar ploy by Pixar for more than two decades now.  There is also some good music - especially a number called Un poco loco, sung by Miguel on a grand stage along with a dead has-been musician, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Coco's conclusion may not resonate the way Up, Wall-E or Toy Story 3 have, but it's still undeniable proof that Pixar has no equal when it comes to animated filmmaking of the highest order, where the visuals and the emotional impact are equivalent to the finest of adult dramas.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Margot sheds all glamour in gritty "Tonya"

As Tonya Harding, the (in) famous American ice skater whose career faced several obstacles and media scrutinies back in the mid 1990s, Margot Robbie sheds all the glitz and glamour that otherwise make her one of sexiest actresses in Hollywood today.  Married to a man (played by Sebastian Stan with an extra touch of ferocious dorkiness) who beats her like a punching bag on a near daily basis, Tonya's also subjected to endless verbal abuse by her chain-smoking mother (a superb Allison Janney) who treats her like a piece of dirt, even when the poor girl's actually doing her absolute best.

Robbie's performance is a true landmark, and she's captures the vulnerable white-trashiness of Harding in ways where many others surely would've failed: her Tonya's not a hero, but an aspiration of a dream shared by many who both loved and hated her for the "alleged" wrongdoings she was (apparently) not guilty of.

Director Craig Gillespie's film is a rough, honest and gritty biopic (made with the same tough-love as 1993's What's Love got to do with it), where the heroine's both successes and failures are measured not necessarily by her own downfalls, but by those close to her.  In a holiday season full of countless crowd-pleasers and wholesome family films, I, Tonya bravely ventures into unglamorous biopic waters, and successfully rises above the competition.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Abstract "Deer" too artsy for its own good

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who gained fame with 2009's disturbingly original Doogtooth (and last year's The Lobster), makes movies that an average person will either love or hate - I seriously doubt there's middle ground in his approach.  In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell's Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy resembles a pre-one armed man tussle Richard Kimble, his long, gray-ish beard giving him a medical version of a Grizzly Adams look.  Living in perfectly clean and safe suburbia with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and his two children, Dr. Murphy's existence is thrown into a loop when his friendship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) takes an unexpected turn after his children get seriously sick.  Is the boy responsible for their affliction as a revenge for something Murphy had inadvertently done in the past?

Lanthimos here creates a world  that is interesting to look at (the production design is striking), but simultaneously fills every scene with elongated moments that drag a storyline that should've maxed out at ninety minutes past the two-hour mark because, well... he can (do we really need to hear several different conversations about why adults have more underarm hair than teenagers?).  We're also never quite clear how a despicable boy such as Martin could ever posses powers that enable him to curse anyone, a rare mystery where the absence of a solution actually doesn't elevate the material at all, but instead drags it down the head-scratching hole of pretentiousness.

The final slow-motion scene set in a diner is particularly pointless: it drags unnecessarily on and on, and resolves nothing.  Just like the majority of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Last Jedi" explores the psychological dilemma

Rian Johnson is the first filmmaker to simultaneously direct and single-handedly write a Star Wars movie since George Lucas himself, and in The Last Jedi, the second installment of the newly resurrected space-saga, he succeeds more often than not.  Since I am not a fan of his previous works (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper), I did not have high hopes for this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised by his take on the Force in a galaxy far, far away, and the heavy psychological element he chose to focus on.  It is the darkest movie of the franchise since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, surpassing even The Revenge of the Sith in the department of somberness and bleakness.

Focusing primarily on the mentorship by veteran Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) toward the new protege Rey (Daisy Ridley), Star Wars: The Last Jedi further explores the internal conflict of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), as he struggles to maintain his badness as the second in command of the First Order, serving the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  The scenes where Rey and Kylo are mentally connected while being physically separated by thousands of miles are impressively written and staged, and they'll likely challenge the average Star Wars' fans in ways not seen before.  Another memorable sequence depicts Rey in a hall of mirrors where her reflections infinitely stretch on forever, a moment reminiscent of a famous shot in Citizen Kane.  And of course, the final showdown featuring Skywalker is both exhilarating and melancholy, as his Obi Wan Kenobi-esque journey concludes appropriately.

The Last Jedi proves that there's few modern sci-fi adventure movies that can replicate the excitement and awe of Lucas' universe, and featuring Carrie Fisher in her final role as Princess Leia, it is the last Star Wars movie with a leading (human) character from the original series.  Just how the upcoming Episode IX will conclude this rebooted franchise no one can yet say, but if it's as psychologically complex as Rian Johnson's vision, then we're in for quite a ride.