Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman
Well, folks, this has been a slow quarter for movies. Between my extended vacation, oral surgery, and other things fun and not so fun, my normal outings with the lovely @FyodorFish often got canceled, and my Twin Peaks rewatch in anticipation of Twin Peaks: The Return meant that much of my home viewing was devoted to damn fine television instead any particular film project.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it does mean that over the past three months I only saw twenty-four movies overall: seven in the theater and seventeen at home.
Luckily, “what’s there is cherce”: Even the worst movie I saw in theaters (The Fate of the Furious) managed to be hilarious to me in its awfulness. And I’m happy to report I couldn’t even come close to coming up with my usual “Top Five Films I Have Seen But Can’t Recommend” list. Finally, while a number of the 2017 movies I have seen to date fall into the “good but not great” category and will therefore likely fall off this list by the end of the year, I think my running Top Ten bodes well for the rest of the cinematic year.
2017 Top Ten (to Date)
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.
The Big Sick
The Zookeeper’s Wife
John Wick: Chapter 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Needless to say, I’m also thrilled there are currently three films by women on this list even if I’m not doing #52FilmsByWomen this year.
Best Film Seen in a Theater: Bacalaureat (Graduation). This film by Romanian director Christian Mungiu is the one everyone should see but almost no one probably will. It is one of those typical “European” films that manages to be intense and subtle about fairly mundane subject matter: In this case, what parents choose to do (or not) in order to provide their children with the best opportunities in life. Really, it’s a study in ethics. I know that doesn’t make it sound very interesting, but it is. It is quiet, and fairly bleak, but the performances and camerawork are excellent. In terms of moral weight and the consideration of social systems, it makes an extremely interesting pairing with Get Out at the top of this list.
Best Theater Experience: Wonder Woman. Was there any doubt this film would be here? Even the horrible movie-going experience I had trying out the new AMC Dine-In that took over my beloved Sundance Kabuki couldn’t ruin the delight I took in seeing this movie with a crowd. While pretty much tapped out on the superhero genre, this is one of those examples of how the unique viewpoint of female and PoC directors can help revitalize stale genres (which I initially wrote about in reference to Creed and McFarland, USA). The earnestness, humor, and joy on display in this movie were all incredibly refreshing. For that reason, I was somewhat sad when the third act went off the rails and into Transformers territory but, all in all, I thought this one lived up to the hype. It reminded me of my favorite Captain America (The First Avenger), so maybe I just need more of my superhero movies to be set in the past.
Best Film to See in a Theater Right Now: The Big Sick. This is an incredibly well-constructed romantic comedy and one of the best films in recent memory to capture the true awkwardness of the early stage of relationships (rather than just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl version of awkwardness). It is sweet and funny and also made me tear up in multiple spots (which in and of itself is not a value, but was rather unexpected). I loved Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents; they really brought those characters to life and imbued them with a complexity you rarely see from parental roles. All this to say that The Big Sick doesn’t hit you over the head with anything particularly cinematic, but it has a number of interesting layers that reward even the most casual viewer.
Best Film to Stream Right Now: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which stars his longtime collaborator and friend Macon Blair. So when I heard Blair had debuted his own film this year at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize award and was picked up by Netflix, I was extremely eager to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. While it doesn’t have the energy that I remember Blue Ruin having, it is certainly a film for our times and I probably related to it far more than I’d like to admit. The two definitely have a similar dark “how revenge can go horribly wrong” vibe, though I don’t feel… is more comic than Blue Ruin. There is also some subtle commentary on gender dynamics at play here that I think will reward multiple viewings. As an added bonus, Melanie Lynsky (Heavenly Creatures) and Elijah Wood are both fantastic.
Most Underrated: Their Finest. This is one of those films that gets underrated because male critics (who are numerically overwhelming in any ratings system) either “don’t get it” or “can’t relate to it” (or both). Like a number of the films here, it has third act problems, but ones that pale in comparison to some others I might (and will) mention. On the surface Their Finest is merely a light confection of a motion picture but it’s actually saying quite a lot about filmmaking and the creative process, life during wartime, romance, and sexism, all from a feminist perspective. In fact, it’s a bit hard to describe: I guess the elevator pitch would be Argo (or actually Laissez-Passer [Safe Conduct] if you really know your French cinema) meets The Imitation Game, meets The Bletchley Circle. The cast is good all around, though Bill Nighy really steals the show.
Best Opening Scene: Baby Driver. While I had a number of problems with the third act of this film, and it is a little too in love with its soundtrack, it is hard to argue with the effective way it explodes onto the screen in the opening heist getaway scene. The stylized look is very modern, but the choreography of both the cars and people seems to harken back to the golden age of movie musicals. Ansel Elgort is riveting throughout. I would never have guessed that the uptight, rather bland brother from Divergent could play this character, but he makes it seem easy. His physicality especially is a joy to watch. If the rest of the movie had lived up to the promise of this opening Baby Driver would likely be at the top of the above list, but unfortunately it just ends up coming off as Tarantino-lite to me.
“Been There, Done That” award: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I had pretty much decided not to bother with this one based on the mixed reactions I was seeing on the interwebs, but when my niece came to town and wanted to go to the movies, I figured “Why not?” It was amusing enough and if you liked the first one I would imagine you would like this one, even though I don’t think the script comes close to the crackle of the original. Plus, much like The Empire Strikes Back, it really suffered from the gang being separated for much of the film. But, yes, Baby Groot is adorable.
Biggest Theater Disappointment: The Fate of the Furious. I had never seen a Fast and the Furious movie (not for any particular reason, I just hadn’t gotten around to it), and having heard so much about them I went into this one with high hopes. Alas, it was not meant to be. My spreadsheet notes for this one read “Stupid. I can’t believe these are popular.” Really, what more needs to be said?
And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter:
Best Classic Rewatch (tie): Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and L.A. Confidential (1997). How many times have I seen Escape from Alcatraz? I don’t know, but I never get tired of it. Every rewatch I appreciate new things: This time around it was the slow approach we make to the island in the beginning. Utterly gripping. L.A. Confidential was a movie I hadn’t seen since its release and I was a bit scared of what I would find. Rewatching twenty years later I’m much more attune to the shoddy treatment the women get, but otherwise it holds up quite well. Incredible script and lots of interesting camerawork.
Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential
Best New-to-Me Classic: Battle Royale (2000). I’m not really sure if something made in the year 2000 can count as classic, but this movie is excellent. I liked it way more than I thought I would considering it’s a splatterfest. I see why so many people link this story with The Hunger Games but to my mind they are trying to do very different things even if on the surface their plots are similar. One thing Battle Royale does exceedingly well is character development: We start with over forty kids and I feel like the audience gets to know each one individually. An amazing feat, especially considering that any nuance is probably lost on me since I don’t speak Japanese.
Best Math Greek Selection: Fitzcarraldo (1982). Generally the Math Greek knows better than to suggest a film by someone like Werner Herzog to me, but I think he knew that my soft spots for both Claudia Cardinale and opera might convince me otherwise. And, given that a few years back he presented me with Herzog’s journal of the making of this film (as yet unread), I finally decided to take the plunge. For those that don’t know, the story concerns a would-be rubber baron (and lover of opera) who comes up with an incredible plan to circumvent some dangerous and unpassable falls by hauling a riverboat over a mountain. To film this, Herzog decided to haul a riverboat over a mountain. Hijinks ensue.
Klaus Kinski is not usually my jam, but opera makes strange bedfellows.
The “Add Fuel to the Fire” award for Most Improved on Rewatch: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Obviously this rewatch went hand in hand with my recent review of the entire run of Twin Peaks. I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came out and I honestly don’t remember where I stood on it. I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been since I had read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer at that point, but I’m sure I probably didn’t “get it” either. Anyway, it is essential viewing if you like the series and certainly doesn’t deserve its horrible reputation.
The “When You Play with Matches Sometimes You Get Burned” award for Least Improved on Rewatch: St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). This movie came out the summer before I started at Georgetown University and believe me when I say that there are no other reasons anyone should be watching it. Vanity Fair, what were you thinking?
Everyone is young and stupid at some point in their life: Exhibit A.
Best Casting: Short Term 12 (2013). Speaking of casts that are going places, Short Term 12 is a typical indy film that warrants a mention simply because of its incredible cast. First off, you have Brie Larson in her breakthrough role. But you also have the debut of Keith Stanfield (last seen in Get Out) as Marcus, a pre-Mr. Robot Rami Malek as Nate, John Gallagher Jr. (last seen in last quarter’s 10 Cloverfield Lane), Kaitlyn Dever (who I loved as Loretta McCready in Justified), and even Stephanie Beatriz. Very good performances in an otherwise unremarkable film. (Seriously, it’s fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about).
Best Documentary: Tower (2016). I don’t watch too many documentaries as a rule, but this quarter I saw three that all merit a recommendation. The first was Fog City Mavericks, about the incredible filmmakers who have emerged from the Bay Area (and also Chris Columbus for some reason). Fog City Mavericks was a pretty standard documentary but was well structured and I certainly learned some things. The next two were more creative and both appeared on the Best Documentary shortlist for the last year’s Academy Award: Cameraperson and Tower. I’m not a huge fan of memoirs in general, so it is probably no surprise that I didn’t share the critical love for Camerperson, but it has a number of interesting bits that might work for you if you like the genre. Tower, the story of the mass shooting at the University of Texas in the 1960s, was very well done. I liked the angle they took, not focusing on the background of the shooter or those murdered but rather the experience of the survivors of that day—it’s an extremely interesting look at human nature and reactions to trauma. I resisted this one somewhat because I didn’t think I would like the fact it was mostly animated, but the style worked beautifully for the story they were telling. Check it out on Netflix if you are interested.
Most Oddly Relevant for Today: The Running Man (1987). Relevance is just one of the many reasons this 80s “classic” is painful to watch.
John Wayne award for hyper-masculinity (tie): L.A. Confidential (1997) and Excalibur (1981). While one might make the argument that these films are exploring and confronting traditional definitions of masculinity, I will not be the one to do so.
Gloria Steinem award for proto-feminism: Their Finest (2015). In addition to the film’s plot and (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) script, there was also the crew: It was so bloody refreshing to see all those women in the opening credits (including direction, screenplay, editing, score, and production design).
Most Adorable Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Best Choreography Involving a Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Worst Geography: St. Elmo’s Fire (2015). No contest. This is a film about a bunch of Georgetown grads, who are nothing like Georgetown grads, and who keep visiting the campus of University of Maryland for some reason. Psst, screenwriters, Georgetown University doesn’t have fraternities.
Worst Title: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.
Worst Title (runner-up): Baby Driver (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.
Francis Ford Coppola “Opera in Unlikely Places Award” award (tie): Fitzcarraldo (1982) and The Running Man (1987)
Best Use of Helen Mirren (tie): Excalibur (1981) and The Fate of the Furious (2017). Sadly even this Dame’s presence couldn’t save either one.
Worst Abuse of Lycra: The Running Man (1987). Let us never speak of it again.
Best Use of a Cape and Cowl (tie): Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997) and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017)
That cape you like is going to come back in style.
Pam Grier award for distribution of vigilante justice: Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood in I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)
“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award: Wonder Woman (2017)
“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award (runner-up): Excalibur (1981)
Best Use of Nunchaku (tie): Battle Royale (2000) and I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)
Best Use of the Old Poisoned-Drink Switcheroo (tie): Valentina Cortese as Viktoria/Karin in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and Taron Egerton as Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Film I Forgot to Include Last Quarter but Barely Deserves a Mention Here: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). It was fun while it lasted but is utterly forgettable except for a couple of songs, which really should have been nominated for Oscars (yes, I’m serious).
What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What have I missed that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.
Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole gives notes to Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard in Their Finest
For Vol. 2017, Issue 1, click here.
*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:
2017: Baby Driver, Bacalaureat (Graduation), The Big Sick, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Their Finest, Wonder Woman
2016: Cameraperson, Miss Sloane, Tower
Released prior to 2016: Battle Royale (2000), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Excalibur (1981), Fire Walk with Me (1992), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Fog City Mavericks (2007), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Running Man (1987), Short Term 12 (2013), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Viva (2007)
Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.
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