Saturday, January 6, 2018

Best Of 2017 | Films | Mainstream Cinema

I have never found a paucity of films to celebrate when it comes to the year-end. I have previously posted a list of my personal favorite films from 2017, in which the majority of my selections were smaller, independent films. I complain every chance I get about the hegemony of Hollywood studios in financing only superhero films and sequels of late. But were I to be perfectly honest, that is a falsehood. Yes, the majority of studio dollars go toward the making of the umpteenth sequel, but challenging, original films still get made, if not as often as we would like.

So here is a list of relatively big, commercial films released in 2017 that kicked ass:

1. ATOMIC BLONDE: Not just far and away the best action film of the year, this was also a wonderfully specific, mid-eighties Cold War-set piece of intelligent cinema. There is nothing cute about ATOMIC BLONDE; it is a bruising, bleeding-knuckles, black-and-blue-faced film. And in less than three years, Charlize Theron has created the two best female action characters in that period, first with MAD MAX; ROAD WARRIOR and now here, thereby cementing her status as the most hard-working and credible action stars of contemporary cinema. In ATOMIC BLONDE, her character does not reveal any back-story, she just is. Hard-ass. Undeterred. Punishingly fierce. A set piece mid-film where she faces off a series of attackers in the stairwell of a decrepit Berlin apartment building, seemingly done in a single shot of more than 7 minutes, is one of the best action scenes in history. Ever. I am in love with this film, irrationally so.

2. JOHN WICK 2: Sure the scene stealing doggie that spring-boarded the action in the first JOHN WICK film is no longer in the sequel. But everything else that made the original film a bonafide modern classic is safely carried through to the second installment. The sequel opens up the somewhat insular world of the sly villains from the first film by having the Keanu Reeves titular character be on the run after he refuses to take on another job from the bad guys. This allows the film to get even more deviously innovative in its action pieces and permits director Chad Stahelski to put foreign locales to impressive use in wowing the audience. I could easily get used to a few more JOHN WICK films.

3. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: I found this film so deeply satisfying that one of the great mysteries of this filmgoing year has been trying to understand the fierce
backlash to this film from some quarters. With the reins handed over to Rian Johnson for the new installment in the adventures of the next generation of Star Wars protagonists (Rey, Finn and Poe, played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively, and first introduced in THE FORCE AWAKENS), the film takes decidedly risky plot turns while retaining major contributions from the enduring characters played by Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. Not to mention new characters in the form of Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro. Most striking of all however is how the soul of THE LAST JEDI lies in the volleying relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the most unlikely of pairs.

4. FREE FIRE: This film is fun in a bottle. Why it didn't get more traction during its commercial run
befuddles me. Set in the late seventies and set almost entirely in a warehouse in Boston where two gangs meet for a transaction (that of course goes terrifically wrong), this movie has pluck and cleverness to spare. And the film circles unapologetically around repeated lessons on how things can always get even more worse. There's Brie Larson here. There is Armie Hammer here (perhaps even better than his more celebrated turn in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). There is Sharlto Copley here. And there's Cillian Murphy here too. And do they cook up a swell mess. This is breathless, heedless, bloody fun.

5. AMERICAN MADE: Doug Liman isn't yet given the credit he deserves; remember this is the director of SWINGERS, GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR AND MRS SMITH and THE EDGE OF TOMORROW. He reteams with the star of that last film, Tom Cruise, for AMERICAN MADE, based on the hard-to-believe-if-it-weren't true story of Barry Seal, an American pilot who was recruited by the CIA and double crossed his way with high-profile South American gangsters (including Pablo Escobar), and became a key player during the Iran-Contra Affair. Liman wisely constructs this film with a comic book sensibility, clearly bowled over with wonder at a man who managed to do the unthinkable. And Cruise, who's always had an edge of the noxious tucked away under his dazzle, is perfectly able to depict a man whose smarminess is inseparable from his charms. What a rollickingly great ride this is.

6. BABY DRIVER: It would seem British director Edgar Wright has been working his entire career to the destination that is this film. And what a film it is: a veritable calling card for how style can entirely define the sensibility of a film. The story is jump-started by one of those you-must-come-back-for-one-last-con-job premises that is elevated to something that seems entirely new. Pumped up on equal parts adrenaline and high-octane, the movie zips along at a pace where you have to catch your breath to keep track of who is conning whom, particularly in its last reel when things spiral to even more heady chaos. And I haven't even mentioned how Wright uses music as a integral part of the film's psche, by creating a central character who needs to constantly listen to music to drown out the tinnitus he suffers from. This film will age well.

7. WONDER WOMAN: It should have been an obvious thing: that the story of a female superhero film be entrusted with a female director. And yet we are surprised by the success of this film. Much of the credit for how well this film works rests on the shoulders of director Patty Jenkins, who takes the Wonder Woman mythology, shakes off the campy eighties association (from the television series), and plays the origin story with nary a wink or a snark. Gal Gadot invests the character with an elusive balance of self-assertion and a sincere desire to help others. In the balance it maintains, it resembles Captain America from the Marvel Universe, who also is a wholesome, even square person, whose goodness of intent is far from worthy of being mocked. A fine balance still is achieved with how the Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) character stands beside Wonder Woman, not because she needs him to rescue her, but because the two work well together. This is a film of many tightrope walks, and it always makes it safely to the other side. And if you get a few goosebumps along the way in your cinema seat, that is added value.

8. LIFE: Am I the only living person to have liked this Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Reynolds/Rebecca Ferguson sci-fi film. The film earned $100 million in revenues, so maybe I am the only living person to stick out my neck and publicly admit to liking this film. The premise: scientists aboard a spaceship discover a unique single-cellular organism that rapidly starts to grow. Of course this film is inspired by ALIEN, but it also taps into the well of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and GRAVITY. But that doesn't make this a bad film; quite the contrary. Even as we know that the evolving alien is going to wreak havoc on the space ship inhabitants, the film holds the fate of the characters in deliciously unpredictable strands. The film is visually arresting, breathless, and happily, perversely, violent. I do not watch much horror, but I wonder if another film this year has found so much beauty in the deep redness of blood.

9. THOR: ROGNAROK: The director of small, spryly funny films like WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is hardly the go-to person for helming the next instalment of a popular Marvel property. And yet the imp that is the New Zealand director Taika Waititi drove the THOR franchise to its best outing yet. By injecting a healthy dose of self-awareness, building a meaty part for Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and hiring the redoubtable Cate Blanchett to play the bad guy. The Marvel films are getting a little too incestuous for my liking as the superheroes have started to bleed into each other's films. THOR: ROGNAROK is guilty of that, but this film is a romp still.

10. BLADE RUNNER: 2049:  Few films are as iconic as BLADE RUNNER, and it would be a fool's errand to try and update that world. And yet, producer Ridley Scott
entrusted Denis Villeneuve to bring forth the next chapter more than three decades after the original film went on to become a bonafide legend. This is a punishing task (something that the STAR WARS sequels have also had to contend with), but turns out Villeneuve was up to it. Yes the film is too long, and yes it does get a little lost within its own world. But it turns a new page to this universe, and yet retains enough links with the original characters, and the game-changing visuals. And what visuals these are; I watched this film in a state of enraptured wonder.

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