Friday, January 12, 2018

The Neeson Express: "The Commuter" fun and amusingly preposterous before going off the rails


The Commuter (2018)
104 min., rated PG-13.

Practically a genre unto itself, the reliable collaborative efforts of actor Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra (2016’s “The Shallows”) have resulted in three slickly executed B-level action thrillers (2011’s “Unknown,” 2014’s “Non-Stop” and “2015’s “Run All Night”) for Neeson’s post-“Taken” career as a late-blooming action star. The tradition continues with “The Commuter,” an almost-Hitchcockian wronged-man yarn on a train that nearly apes the formula of the airplane-set “Non-Stop" but keeps up the fun for its first two acts before jumping the rails. By the standards raised by Collet-Serra, it is pretty disposable but still amusingly preposterous.

Formerly a cop with the NYPD, 60-year-old Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) has worked as an insurance salesman for the past 10 years to support his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and their college-bound son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman). Five days a week, he takes a commuter train every morning from the suburbs of Tarrytown, New York to Grand Central Terminal and back. One seemingly normal work day, Michael is fired with severance pay, just five years short of retirement, and on his commute back home, a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) strikes up a conversation that will leave him making the biggest decision of his life. Purporting to be an expert in human behavior, Joanna asks him a hypothetical question for an experiment that then becomes a proposition: if he can identify a passenger on the train who doesn’t belong—by now, Michael knows a lot of the familiar faces on his daily commute—and is carrying a bag with something her associates need, the $75,000 that’s stashed away in one of the train’s restroom compartments is his. If Michael doesn’t comply before the end of the line in Cold Spring, his wife and son will be killed.

Moving like a bullet, “The Commuter” is involving for a long time, as long as one bears in mind that very few of the plot developments hold water. The shrewdly edited opening montage draws the viewer into Michael’s day-to-day grind, efficiently establishing the monotonous repetition with slight tweaks up until the mundanity is ripped out of his life. As contrived as it all is—Joanna is apparently omniscient with an eye on Michael’s every move and even has the cell phone number of another regular commuter—the film depends on one just accepting such loopy logic and going along for the ride. With a film like this, a surfeit of red herrings abounds, as the viewer tries deciding who the odd passenger out might be before Michael does. There are moments of taut suspense, like when Michael hides underneath the train but must remain on it or kiss his family goodbye, and as one comes to expect by now, there are a couple of well-choreographed scenes of fisticuffs between Neeson and other male passengers, especially one fight (shot as a faux single take) in an empty train car over the seats and through the glass with a guitar used as a weapon. More so than Kenneth Branagh did with his 2017 incarnation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Collet-Serra effectively takes full advantage of the cramped space within the train, his camera sleekly dollying back from train car to car with digital trickery and even through the punched holes of the ride tickets, reminiscent of the impossibly stylish camera movements in David Fincher's "Panic Room."

Liam Neeson is committed and in watchably fine form as usual in a role that Harrison Ford might have played back in the 1990s. A similar character in his wheelhouse, Neeson’s Michael is a family man who needs the money, having refinanced his house after the 2008 housing bubble, but wants to do the right thing and still acts with a moral compass in carrying out his task. Also, as most of Neeson’s characters do, Michael has a very particular set of skills, having been a cop, in his process of deduction, but as a man nearing retirement, he takes as many punches as he gives them. Vera Farmiga enhances every film she’s in, and even as mysterious puppet master Joanna who eventually becomes a voice on the phone, she still brings a cunning to her use of the words, “one little thing.” The remainder of the cast does what is minimally asked of them, but it does include the likes of Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, and Andy Nyman.

Instead of trusting the simplicity of their premise and the morality that it entails, screenwriters Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle (2014’s “Non-Stop”) eventually throw in a few more winding complications involving a conspiracy and one of the passengers being a witness to a city planner’s suicide (or was it murder?) to follow through on the film's socioeconomic, screw-the-rich subtext. Once the train literally derails—and, boy, does it derail in cartoonish but awesome fashion—the film morphs into a more routine action vehicle with backloaded exposition and a double-crossing seen coming a few stops before, thanks to a certain casting choice. By then, one realizes all of the film’s cards have already been played and the forgone conclusion is set. What “The Commuter” sets up is so intriguing that it’s a shame the rest of it pushes its luck and ends up being only passably diverting. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Dream Reality: "Before I Wake" a poignant horror fable with allegorical underpinnings


Before I Wake (2018)
97 min., rated PG-13.

Shot in 2013, scheduled for a theatrical release in 2015, dropped from the release schedule altogether once distributor Relativity Media went bankrupt, and then picked up by Netflix in 2017 and now seeing a streaming release, “Before I Wake” is one of many long-in-the-can films that got an unfair shake from actually being seen by an audience. Fortunately, this is one of those rare times where it wasn’t because of the quality of the film itself. It is, however, not surprising that writer-director Mike Flanagan (2017’s “Gerald’s Game”) proves his acumen once again, making “Before I Wake” a horror fable that is smarter and more ambitious than any of the supernatural horror quickies that litter the genre selection on Netflix. Handling material that is more poignant than conventionally frightening, Flanagan locates a human component that is bolder and more interesting than most of the literal figments of fear.

After the death of their son, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Thomas Jane) decide to create fresh start and foster a child. While Mark secures grab bars around the bathtub—their son drowned—Jessie takes down family photos of their beloved Sean (Antonio Evan Romero) and regularly attends a grief support group. They get lucky with Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a sweet, well-mannered 8-year-old boy who can't be spoken more highly of by his social worker (Annabeth Gish). He has a predilection for butterflies and keeps a book about them, but he also keeps a stash of caffeine under his bed to stay awake. As Jessie and Mark come to discover, Cody can tangibly manifest his dreams when he sleeps. One night, they see Sean reincarnated if only for a few fleeting moments, but Cody’s nightmares also fill his slumber.

Co-written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard (who was a co-scribe with the director on “Oculus,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “Gerald’s Game”), “Before I Wake” is an allegory for trauma, grief and guilt beneath the trappings of a couple-raising-a-mysterious-child horror movie. The idea of a parent losing a child is a nightmare, but the script focuses more on the mourning period, how Cody becomes a kind of healing tool for them, and then eventually why Cody's subconscious has made his dreams a reality. That doesn’t mean Flanagan doesn’t get to classily orchestrate tension and startling jolts; he has quite an eye for graceful, moody visual compositions and delivers some ghoulish imagery, one being a literalized boogeyman Cody calls the “Canker Man” who almost resembles an alien but looks more like a child’s nightmarescape drawing of a monster come to life. The Hobsons’ encounter with the colorful butterflies fluttering all around their living room is also a magical bit of beautiful imagery out of a waking fantasy, where the viewer’s awe-inspiring awe matches the couple’s reaction.

Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane are tasked with playing familiar characters who wrestle with grief differently, but Bosworth in particular characterizes Jessie with more dimensionality and ethical complexity as a mother-turned-foster-mother who understandably uses Cody in selfish ways if that means seeing her son again. As much of a natural in front of the camera as any acting veteran, Jacob Tremblay (who actually shot this before audiences witnessed his revelatory work in 2015’s “Room”) is wholly believable and expressive as the adorably precocious Cody. Apart from the gravitas stemming from the performances that allow one to buy into the film’s ethereal sensibilities, the film runs into a few snags, like the impact of one crucial incident not seeming to hit a character as hard as it probably should and the ending opting more for clunky “telling” than “showing” (even if it brings a clearer context to everything that preceded it). Otherwise, nothing can undo “Before I Wake” from being an emotionally compelling metaphysical psychodrama that lands its deeper intent, while evading hokiness and heavy-handedness.

Grade:

Friday, January 5, 2018

Elise Goes Home: Lin Shaye only reason for completists to check out “Insidious: The Last Key”


Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

Able to keep bringing back an audience and milk the "Insidious" series for all it's worth, Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse Productions have the savvy to play with time in order to keep around one of its coolest assets: veteran medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). “Insidious: The Last Key,” the fourth entry, is actually the second installment, chronologically taking place after 2015’s “Insidious: Chapter 3” but right before 2011’s “Insidious” and 2013’s “Insidious: Chapter 2.” While the sleeper original and its pretty effective sequel (both directed by James Wan), as well as the even-more-effective prequel (directed by Leigh Whannell), all felt of a piece and seemed to have found a proper place to end, “Insidious: The Last Key” is undeniably the weakest of this scary, immensely fun quadrilogy. It fares well as an emotional journey for Elise, but as a horror film, it feels more generic and plodding, waiting for the next scare to come. The great Shaye notwithstanding, “Insidious: The Last Key” tests the devotion of even diehard fans.

As a child (Ava Kolker) in 1973, Elise lived with doubt and pain from her abusive prison-guard father (Josh Stewart) for having a special psychic gift that allowed her to communicate with the dead. In California, 2010, the parapsychologist has grown to help others using that gift with the help of her ghostbusting sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). When she is called back to her penitentiary-adjacent childhood house in Five Keys, New Mexico, to offer her expertise to current owner Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), Elise must confront her scarred history and traumas, as well as her estranged brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), who resents his sister for leaving him. For Elise, purging the house of the demon that killed her mother (Tessa Ferrer) might mean taking a trip into the purgatorical place she calls “The Further” before it claims her nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard).

In a series that couldn’t part with its Tangina-like medium just yet, Elise has been strangled to death by the demon that possessed Josh Lambert and was then resurrected as a specter herself to bring Josh back to the world of the living. As with “Insidious: Chapter 3,” where Elise was still alive and kicking, “Insidious: The Last Key” builds upon the mythology of how Elise became who she is by delving into her traumatic history, but after an involving prologue, the narrative structure strikes an uneven rhythm. Once the film moves to the present and finds Elise taking a trip to Five Keys to cleanse her house—it was never “home” to her—of the spirits she unleashed with her powers, there is a bit of misdirection. For better and for worse, the script by series writer Leigh Whannell diverts from being business as usual, paying off a throughline that the worst monsters are the humans who live among us but then doubling back on that idea by introducing the real force at work. When the film brings the demon with keys for fingers, credited as “KeyFace,” into the plot proper, the creature is creepy when left in the shadows but betrays the tangible practical effects of the “Lipstick-Faced Demon” and the “Bride in Black” when it’s rendered with the most CGI.

Helming the fourth installment, director Adam Robitel (he of 2014’s eerie “The Taking of Deborah Logan”) doesn’t quite have James Wan’s atmospheric panache, but he nonetheless has a way with adequately planting his jolts, sometimes on the off beats. A majority of the tension relies on watching Elise walk around the basement and darkened rooms with only a flashlight and a night-vision POV camera, although with a prequel, there isn’t much suspense when it comes to the fates of Elise, Specs and Tucker. There is, however, one socko jump-out-of-your-seat moment involving a bunch of suitcases in a dark tunnel that keeps teasing and psyching out the viewer with a waiting game before something pounces.

The key to whether “Insidious: The Last Key” works at all is Lin Shaye, who gets a substantial amount of screen time as she should. Starting out by filling out bit roles in genre pictures and finding her calling in several of the Farrelly brothers’ comedies, the 74-year-old character actress really gets her due as Elise Rainier in the “Insidious” franchise. This is Elise’s story, and this particular time, Shaye is called upon to bring more emotional heft to a tale that wants to be more than a broken record of jumps. Elise is the type of horror heroine who is still human to not be indestructible, but one feels comfort in going along with her into places others refuse to go. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson also reprise their roles as Specs and Tucker, whose Mormon missionary attire gets an explanation, but the film often leans too heavily on their doofus comic relief, which especially earns more eye-rolls than chuckles when they inappropriately hit on Elise’s pretty nieces. As Melissa and Imogen Rainier, Spencer Locke (2012's "Detention") and Caitlin Gerard (2012's "Smiley") each get their own moments of peril to be placed in and lend some assistance to their aunt, but they are mainly horror-movie pawns.

Simultaneously ambitious and not ambitious enough, “Insidious: The Last Key” may display more craft than the majority of PG-13 horror sequels or prequels theatrically released during the doldrums of January, but it doesn’t change that a follow-up with the “Insidious” namesake shouldn’t be this much of a letdown. Completists might even be disappointed that the title card does not open with the trademark violin-heavy score. Ensuring finality without recapturing the same unsettling spell of its predecessors, this entry just makes one wish the series would give up the ghost. Out of anyone, Elise Rainier deserves retirement.

Grade:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Not Fake News: "The Post" timely, finely crafted and superbly acted

The Post (2017)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is now known for making two kinds of movies: exciting, sweeping blockbusters with a soft spot for sentimentality and intimate, potentially dry (or, in the case of 2012’s “Lincoln,” actually dry) fact-based dramas with a soft spot for sentimentality. “The Post” falls into the latter category as a historical drama about the free press, although it is talky without being dull or stuffy. It might not seem all that Spielbergian on the surface, but even for a film set in 1971, “The Post” is pretty timely and urgently told in its view on trusted journalism and fight for free speech. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back when The Washington Post was running out of money, the newspaper was entrusted to publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) by her late husband, who was left with the paper by Kay’s father and later committed suicide. Amidst her board of male members who dismiss her, Kay is able to trust editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who tries turning puff pieces like the coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding into hard-hitting headline stories. When White House military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) offers The New York Times and The Washington Post classified documents of over 7,000 pages, it turns into an opportunity to print the government’s cover-up about the Vietnam War that spanned the terms of four U.S. Presidents and hold the government accountable. It comes down to Kay’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which comes with risky consequences; she could lose the company and go to jail, her co-workers could lose their jobs, and lives could be destroyed. Can the Post get the scoop and expose government secrets before their rival paper?

Written by first-timer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (2015’s “Spotlight”), “The Post” serves as a precursor of sorts to 1976’s newsroom classic “All the President’s Men” before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s downfall of Richard Nixon’s administration, so much that this film’s conclusion actually sets up the Watergate Scandal. The film may take a while to get the wheels rolling, but once it does, it is absorbing and reliably well-acted across the board. As the film rests on the side of the press, the repercussions of Kay Graham being prosecuted by Nixon looms over it all (and the 37th president is represented here with actual voice recordings, while he embodied by an actor from afar in the Oval Office window). Director Steven Spielberg remains on the grounds of Graham, Bradlee and the reporters, whether it’s during meetings or the shuffling through of documents, and there's an undeniable watchability to seeing people be good at their job.

Working with Spielberg for the first time, Meryl Streep is predictably terrific but terrific all the same as Kay Graham without bringing an ounce of self-conscious fussiness to her portrayal of an unsung heroine who probably isn’t widely known to the layman. Crippled by her self-doubt by being one woman in a board of sexist male egos who don’t think she has the resolve to make the tough choices, Graham undergoes the biggest arc, acting reserved while facing obstacles, until finding the courage to assert her voice. It’s one of Streep’s least showy roles after playing Florence Foster Jenkins, Julia Child, and Margaret Thatcher, but more riveting for the subtle nuances she brings to Graham. Tom Hanks gets to be more rascally and hot-tempered than usual as Ben Bradlee, who was already portrayed by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” and puts his own stamp on the muckraking editor. This is another first for Hanks and Streep to share the screen together, and of course, it is a delight to watch two legendary actors at work, as Graham and Bradlee occasionally clash but ultimately respect one another. Down the line, there is also a highly impressive deep-bench supporting cast, including Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Pat Healy, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zach Woods, and Broadway talent Jessie Mueller, just to name a few.

Any film revolving around publishing a newspaper story needs a goose of energy, and luckily for the most part, director Steven Spielberg brings tension and urgency to the writing room with crisp, fluid camera movements (courtesy of Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński) and 1970s period details with the cigarette smoke made palpable. As the inevitable outcome approaches, the climactic phone call in the newsroom still holds one in bated breath, and it is a treat to see the sight of an old-fashioned Linotype machine, producing the written word in hot lead. Though “The Post” falls a bit short of feeling remarkable, it is still a rousing, finely crafted grown-up entertainment that, not unlike “Spotlight,” gives audiences the thrill of he or she knowing a story before it breaks, no matter one’s own political ideology.

Grade:

Monday, January 1, 2018

Honey, I Shrunk Myself: "Downsizing" starts out sharp and then loses its way


Downsizing (2017)
135 min., rated R.

“Downsizing” has such a crackerjack premise—it’s not about corporate layoffs—that there is no way it could miss as a piece of loopy absurdism through filmmaker Alexander Payne’s humane, satirically sharp lens. Visually and thematically, it is Payne’s most ambitious and, subsequently, the most wildly uneven in his oeuvre. Beginning as a social satire about the double-edged sword of making the planet a better place and then meandering after that, the film seems unclear of its own vision and leaves more intriguing possibilities untapped. In a way, “Downsizing” becomes like any blasé mid-life crisis drama where a sadsack character learns valuable life lessons, no matter his size. Payne’s films usually remain small and grounded, but this departure takes “small” to an extreme and eventually goes astray.

Norwegian scientists have discovered a breakthrough with shrinking lab mice, and over the course of a decade, they find an environmentally friendly solution to the threat of overpopulation and waste by shrinking a large group of people and forming a small colony. Five years later, the general public is now open to undergo the irreversible procedure of “downsizing,” where they shrink down to five inches, live lavish, if inexpensive, lives and reduce their carbon footprint. Residing in Omaha, mild-mannered occupational therapist  Paul Sefranek (Matt Damon) and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) live in Paul’s late mother’s house and struggle financially in the tough economy. When they witness the “downsizing” success of former classmate Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) at their high school reunion, Paul and Audrey choose to “get small” and check out the popular small community of Leisureland, which ensures that “the grass is greener.” 

For its first forty-five minutes, “Downsizing” settles into a pointed satire, promising Alexander Payne’s low-key, humanist sensibilities and flair for sharp writing to unfold within an ingenious concept that falls into science fiction. When the film is at its best, it’s during the early scenes where Paul and Audrey visit a center that showcases everything Leisureland has to offer if they decide to downsize. The details are amusing, from a tiny spokesperson (Neil Patrick Harris) giving his audience an open house to his miniature McMansion and his wife (Laura Dern) bragging about buying a matched set of diamond jewelry for only $83, and the entire “shrinking” process is fascinating to watch, as Paul, among others, is waxed from head to toe and has his teeth extracted. Visual gags involving an oversized Saltine cracker and a giant rose are also cute. Once Paul ends up taking the plunge and Audrey gets cold feet around the time she has her head shaved, his miniature life in Leisureland leaves a lot to be desired, including the noisy parties in the upstairs apartment hosted by Serbian party animal Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). He then meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident-turned-housekeeper who smuggled herself into the U.S. in a TV box and had to have her leg amputated in the process. From there, the script, co-written by Payne and old collaborator Jim Taylor, loses its way and never fully recovers by the time our characters visit the Norwegian fjords.

If Matt Damon plays Paul Sefranek as the character was written, he is fine as a sincere everyman and a conduit into the world of “downsizing.” Though Ngoc Lan Tran initially comes across as a broad Vietnamese caricature speaking in a broken-English accent that audiences are intended to laugh at, Hong Chau makes the bossy, brusque character a sweet, endearing and original creation. As the voice of reason for Paul who opens his eyes to the inequality that remains in the small world, she fuses tender vulnerability and humor, most memorable of all being her question of what kind of “fuck” she had with a male character. Kristen Wiig is fine with what she’s given as Paul’s wife Audrey, but then her character disappears, never to be seen again. As Paul’s neighbor Dusan, Christoph Waltz makes the most of the one-note role and just has to smile widely for a laugh.

“Downsizing” doesn’t fail to surprise and Payne’s humane worldview still shines through, but as the story evolves, it just shrinks in imagination and stops holding the viewer's engagement. It ends up becoming a preachy parable about climate change and mankind destroying the planet and an unconvincing spiritual journey for Paul. For the first time, Payne seems unfocused, as if he wants to unpack so many ideas rather than hit the target on one idea. What "Downsizing" conceives at the onset is such a fresh "what if?" that it's unfortunate when the freshness fritters away in exchange for a far less interesting package.

Grade: C +

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Films of 2017


2017 was quite an eclectic year for film. My list runs the gamut from coming-of-agers to an adult fairy tale, to an animated film, to a horror film with something on its mind and others that are harder to pigeonhole. (It should be noted that I failed to see both "The Florida Project" and "Phantom Thread," two films that are reputed to be good or even great.) While this is the first year I have only given three films perfect scores, there were still plenty of films that I would have been comfortable putting on my Top Ten list. Out of the 150+ films I saw from January to December of 2017, here is a list of Honorable Mentions, runners-up and my list of the top ten films.

Honorable Mention: Beauty and the Beast; The Beguiled; Better Watch Out; The Big Sick; Blade Runner 2049; Brawl in Cell Block 99; The Devil’s Candy; Dunkirk; Hounds of Love; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The LEGO Batman Movie; Life; Prevenge; Raw; Split; Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi; War for the Planet of the Apes; Wonderstruck

16 - 25: A Cure for Wellness; The Greatest Showman; I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.; Ingrid Goes West; Brad’s Status; I, Tonya; Patti Cake$; Tragedy Girls; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Gerald’s Game

Runners-Up:


15) Wonder - “Wonder” had all the trappings of a feel-good picture that tells audiences how to feel and tests their sugar tolerance. It is sentimental, sure, but this adaptation of the 2012 bestseller by R.J. Palacio about a boy with a facial difference knows just when to reel in the emotions and make the puppet strings invisible. Humane and open-hearted rather than cloying, “Wonder” never goes for a cheap cry but sneaks up on audiences without pandering or straining to be inspirational. Every sniffle, tear of joy, and lump in one’s throat is earned.

14) Good Time - To anyone living under a rock, Robert Pattinson has come a long way, baby, after glittery, pale-white vampire Edward in the “Twilight” saga. In effectively grimy indie crime-thriller “Good Time,” his creditably volatile, Pacino-level performance is proof of that. Pattinson plays Connie, a reprehensible but charismatic con artist rushing through a seedy New York City to turn things around after a botched bank robbery that ends in the arrest of his mentally handicapped brother, and with every choice he makes, he only digs himself a deeper hole. With a synthy, ‘80s-style score and handheld cinematography creating a propulsive energy, filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie deliver gripping, electrifying work.

13) Okja - Tonally and narratively, Bong Joon-ho’s audacious genre-shifter “Ojka” was many different things at once, not unlike “Snowpiercer”: a “Lassie”-esque fable about a girl and her pet pig; a scathing satire of corporate evil; an eco-friendly message movie that could make any meat-eater a full-time vegan; and an activism action adventure. In spite of Jake Gyllenhaal’s jarringly screechy performance belonging in a different movie, this is one wild, wacky, singularly strange beast that is unlike anything else in the theater or on Netflix (where it premiered), and it’s a sight to behold.

12) Logan - It would be hard to imagine after watching Hugh Jackman return to this iconic Marvel character for 17 years that the focused, fittingly final entry would be able to reinvigorate the series and take more risks than one might expect. At once a western, a road picture, a meditation on mortality, and a closing character drama, “Logan” is blessed with an R-rating, lasting pathos, and deadly serious stakes without being humorless. Adult-oriented, angry, and visceral but also emotionally resonant, it’s a film that lets its retractable-clawed hero be human at last.

11) It - A coming-of-ager about the woes and anxieties of being a kid in a looking-glass town damned by an an evil entity, “It” is elegantly mounted, classically confident, adult-minded, goosebump-inducing and never without a beating heart. Out of the slew of Stephen King adaptations to choose from, this is decidedly one of the very good ones. Pennywise the Dancing Clown will certainly be getting many horror fans floating into the theater, but “It” wouldn’t be what it is without fully realized characters who are always in the forefront and collectively share a warm, close-knit underdog camaraderie. If he’s not already, King should be awfully proud. 

The 10 Best Films of 2017

10) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriDemonstrating yet another tonally deft balance and an ear for sharp dialogue that makes one wish we could all pull out quips like this on a dime, Martin McDonagh's “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a barn-burning statement, pitch-black comedy, soul-searching drama, tragedy and morality tale about the lengths to which people will go when coping with loss and injustice. There’s simmering rage but also biting wit, catharsis and truth. McDonagh wrote the script with Frances McDormand in mind, and based on her work on screen, one can’t imagine anyone else more right for the role of Mildred, a Midwestern woman who calls out the police using three open billboards seven months after the murder of her daughter. McDormand is a commanding force of nature and leads an excellent ensemble, including nuanced work from Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Smart and unpredictable with shocking bursts of cruel violence, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missour” keeps zigging where the viewer thinks it will zag.

9) mother! - Daring in ways a lot of modern filmmakers would not even try in fear of failing, writer-director Darren Aronofsky is one of cinema’s most courageous cinematic artists who really swings for the fences and never lets his audience know where he’s taking them. His latest offering may be the last word in his thoughtful, challenging auteur sensibilities. Shrouded in cagey mystery, “mother!” is, no contest, the least commercially viable and most polarizing studio film of the year, and amen to that. While reactions to this unsafe, studio-produced art film with household names will undoubtedly be split down the middle on what works and what does not work, and what it all means, there is always a place reserved for movies that trigger an emotional response, shake you up and change your mood, and leave so much room for debate. A cinematic Rorschach Test, anxiety attack, and hallucinatory nightmare unlike anything else, “mother!” is a tour de force that is hard to process after just one sitting but even harder to ignore and worthy of discussion for years to come. 

8) Super Dark Times - A remarkably haunting feature debut to be proud of, director Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” sets an unsettling mood and sustains it from there with the aftermath of a bloodied deer that has smashed its way through a school window and takes its last breaths. It’s disconnected from the plot proper, but it efficaciously casts a dark cloud over this coming-of-age tale in a pre-Columbine era that disturbingly and authentically dissolves into an earth-bound nightmare of innocence lost and the collapse of friendship. For a film not classed as a horror film, though just as bleak, visceral and frightening, it still tests the viewer’s handling of stress, intensity and paranoia. Though its final shot leaves a shred of hope and regained innocence for one of its scarred characters, the film leaves the viewer shaken to the core with a lingering emotional resonance. Not dissimilar to “River’s Edge” and “Stand by Me” (both released in 1986) and 2004’s “Mean Creek,” “Super Dark Times” is harrowing, excellently acted, sensitively observed and vividly moody, earning the right to be placed in the same sentence as those three films before it. 

7) Coco - Breaking the tradition of sequels, Pixar returns with an original in the winning “Coco.” While 2014’s Guillermo del Toro-produced animated effort “The Book of Life” highlighted Mexican culture first, director Lee Unkrich (2010’s “Toy Story 3”) and screenwriters Adrian Molina (who receives a co-directing credit) and Matthew Aldrich come up with their own rich, personal story that is at once culturally reverent and thematically universal. Celebrating the importance of family is a common throughline in many Disney pictures, and themes of believing oneself and seizing the moment may seem theoretically basic for a film targeted at children, but the filmmakers also have something to say about memory, regrets, family ties and mortality. As thoughtfully written as it is rousing and dazzling to look at, “Coco” is an inventive, touching and flavorful treasure that delivers on every level. All that has gone before the film’s last five minutes won’t prepare one for the beautifully moving, smiling-through-tears final moments, making “Coco” pretty perfecto.

6) Get Out - Jordan Peele, one-half of sketch-comedy duo “Key and Peele,” must have had the foresight to know the America that would be born around the release of his directorial debut. It being a horror film, “Get Out” marks Peele’s first foray into a genre one doesn’t ordinarily equate him with, and his intentions are devilish, thoughtful, and courageous. Racism still exists and it’s an unsettling thought, so Peele dares to repurpose the taboo of an interracial relationship from 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” through a looking glass by way of 1975’s “The Stepford Wives.” Blistering, disquieting, slyly satirical and entertaining, this is worth celebrating as ballsy, incendiary genre filmmaking ready to take chances. With the help of the fiercely indie-minded Jason Blum getting a picture like this greenlit within the studio system, Jordan Peele sticks to his guns and seems to have fully made the film he wanted to make without any tinkering or mainstream pandering. He is such a trailblazing talent behind the camera that one gets excited just thinking what ideas are festering in that mind of his for a sophomore project. Giving one plenty to think about and discuss later, “Get Out” is as important as “12 Years of Slave,” and suffice it to say, it might be more scarily relevant now than ever. 

5) Baby Driver - When so many studio movies come off as safe, assembly-line, personality-free products connected to a franchise, writer-director Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is alive with bona fide flavor and energy, flooring it with an identity all its own. Wright, he of 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, never lets his vision turn too arch or self-indulgent when concocting a bracing tossed salad of a genre picture. It’s a heist caper, a love story, and a visual mixtape all thrillingly rolled into one crowd-pleasing joyride. When almost everything clicks in a movie, it is like a shot in the arm for cinephiles, and “Baby Driver” is a creatively fresh, criminally fun and awesome rush. If it isn’t the most thematically meaty film of the year, few others this year will match this one's infectious exhilaration. A blast of cinematic ecstasy, “Baby Driver” is exactly as cool as it strives to be, affirming that they still do make quality summer movies like they used to.

4) The Shape of Water - “Romantic” isn’t typically a descriptor one would use to describe a Guillermo del Toro film. “The Shape of Water,” however, is decidedly del Toro’s most daring film, too, with unquestionable echoes of “King Kong” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” if the beauty and the beast actually fell in love and actually consummated their bond. Not unlike the fantastical filmmaker’s 2006 adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro brings a fairy tale sensibility to this otherwise real world, while adeptly juggling romance, suspense, horror and comedy. A whimsical, enchanting, beautifully tender and unexpectedly moving tale of love, loneliness and connection at its core with the backdrop of Cold War paranoia where anyone who fell into a subset of “other”—mute, gay, black, Russian—was a suspect, the film is also a dreamy, rapturous love letter to classic monster movies and movies of all kinds. Sally Hawkins is sublime, soul-stirring and just plain lovely as mute cleaning lady Elisa, wordlessly but expressively communicating everything one needs with her eyes and infectious smile to see when her heart aches and what brings her joy. Unusual and wonderful, "The Shape of Water" is sheer magic.

3) Lady Bird - More than a decade ago, quirky indie darling Greta Gerwig might have starred as the titular character of “Lady Bird”—not a biopic of Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife—but Gerwig actually makes it her solo writing-directing debut. The project feels undeniably personal that one can just hear Gerwig’s voice through the performance of Saoirse Ronan, although not in a self-consciously quirky way that reminds one of the many times Woody Allen sometimes unsuccessfully cast another actor as his stand-in. Rather, Gerwig’s title character is an offbeat original and Ronan in the role only enhances the longing and adolescent emotions found in the already-terrific writing. Not only a coming-of-age film about living on the cusp of adulthood and trying to navigate pre-college life but also a love story between a mother and daughter, this is a lovely slice-of-life that feels freshly observed and deeply felt with a confident voice. Sharply funny, insightful and poignant, “Lady Bird” is close to perfect, the kind of film the viewer doesn’t want to end with characters one doesn’t want to see go. On second thought, it is perfect.

2) Call Me by Your Name - First love and sexual exploration are memorable touchstones in one’s life. There is the thrilling buzz, the nervousness, the heartbreak and all the feelings of experiencing an attraction to someone. Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel by writer James Ivory and directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name” beautifully captures the unspoken yearning and feelings that are finally acted upon before it’s too late. A ripe romance but also a coming-of-age story, the film is as gentle, sensitive and observant in gaining insight into two people who find a deep connection. The story here is simple, taking its time patiently unfolding like the relaxed, leisurely nature of basking in the sun during a summer in Italy, but as told through the eyes of worldly 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with his father’s 24-year-old American intern Oliver (Armie Hammer) during the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy, it is rich, subtle and complex in emotion. Swooningly sensuous, breathtaking and impassioned, “Call Me by Your Name” is intoxicating cinema for all of the senses, and it wouldn’t be premature to call this an all-timer of all the love stories ever told. 

1) A Ghost Story - What happens after we die and leave those we love? Does the memory of us vanish or remain in our house? Do we leave behind anything? “A Ghost Story” is certainly not a conventional haunted-house film or even a horror film for that matter, but it ponders such questions of loss and leaving behind one’s legacy, as well as the mysteries of the hereafter. An elliptical, cosmically linked journey through the history of one house, spanning time and space, the film is a work of art about a dead man (Casey Affleck) returning back home to watch his wife (Rooney Mara) from afar but in the form of a ghost under a sheet. Should anyone dismiss the film for being soporific or not be taken with it will be missing out on writer-director-editor David Lowery’s singular and poetic meditation on life, death, grief and the overall human condition unlike any other, leaving the most open and willing viewers unprepared for its cumulative power and reflecting on his or her own life. Indefinable as an elevator pitch though it may be, “A Ghost Story” lingers and resonates as pure cinema that never dies. It’s forlorn and tender, beautiful and strange, quiet and lyrical, and challenging and evocative, and if one goes in with an open mind, it's an experiential tour de force that makes you feel alive.

The Worst Films of 2017


The good news? There were actually fewer bad movies seen this year than last year. Granted, I dodged a bullet by skipping both “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “The Emoji Movie,” although by saying that, I’m judging two books by their covers (in these cases, I think it’s okay). I granted no “F” grades to any films this year, but there was a single “D -,” so that’s bad enough. Without further ado, here is one opinion of the five worst films of 2017. Happy New Year!

Dishonorable MentionThe Circle; Ghost House; The House; Jeepers Creepers 3; The Mummy; Rings; Rupture; You Get Me

5) Leatherface - The idea of exploring the genesis of a boy and his chainsaw could have germinated into a worthwhile, compelling companion piece. Unfortunately, rote, half-hearted origin story “Leatherface” undercuts everything that was so frightening and unknown about Leatherface and lacks the insight or psychological examination to even warrant being made about the making of a murderer. It squanders no opportunity to rub the viewer's nose in the ugliness and unpleasantness on screen to the point that the film feels gratuitous in every way. While it is still a notch above the campy one that had no help in making stars out of Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, “Leatherface” counts as the second most worthless addition to the series.

4) The Bye Bye Man - One can actually see this creepily folkloric concept—an entity having the power to force a person to see things that aren’t there, not see things that are there and commit generally horrible acts when its name is spoken or given any thought—playing well with a smarter script that didn't under-think everything and more confident direction. As it stands though, there aren’t many nice things to say about the inane PG-13 horror film “The Bye Bye Man.” “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the characters repeatedly say as a warning to themselves and others, but let’s just call it a day and say what everyone is so predictably thinking: don’t see it. 

3) The Layover - How baffling and depressing that William H. Macy chose his second directorial feature to be “The Layover,” a female-centric comedy that hates its female characters. There’s no way to defend a film that sets two best friends against each other and reduces them to stereotypically petty, immature, unpleasant, regressive gargoyles who destroy their lifelong friendship over a hunky man. As if any movie ever needed to evoke the nightmare of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway sabotaging each other after neither one would give up the same wedding venue and date in 2009’s equally insufferable “Bride Wars,” “The Layover” is lazy and desperate at best, and insulting and misogynistic at worst. Alison Bechdel should be furious.

2) Friend Request - Following the same blueprint as the ingeniously conceived “Unfriended,” “Friend Request” is like the lame, conventionally shot Lifetime Original knockoff. The filmmakers tried forging their own path with a witchcraft angle, but they are so beholden to staging a tedious parade of jump scares, none of which work due to being predictably telegraphed and unsparingly used. Reliant on pandering to the teenybopper crowd who will no doubt be hiding behind their cell phone screens and probably checking their own Facebook, the exceedingly moronic “Friend Request” easily occupied the lowest rung of theatrical horror releases of this or any other year.

1) The Snowman - The first (and presumably last) adaptation of one best-selling novel in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime series following policeman Harry Hole, “The Snowman” could have been, at worst, a standard-issue but watchable and reasonably involving investigative procedural and whodunit. Despite top-notch talent on both sides of the camera, the reality of it is actually a disaster unfit for release. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but this was an example of a film that has obviously been through extensive reshoots and cuts after a tight production schedule left 10-15% of the script unfilmed that the finished product resembles nothing short of a half-finished muddle. With results this shockingly calamitous, the filmmakers have instantly melted away any chance of turning the rest of Nesbø’s crime fiction into future cinematic projects. Something was definitely lost in translation because this final cut can’t possibly be the riveting cat-and-mouse thriller anyone signed up for, not even ticket-buyers. Not even a little visual competence makes “The Snowman” any less of an abominable slog.