Top 10 Films 2017

Cinema is God’s way of making me care. On the days when I feel on top of the world, film is there to remind me that existence is so much more than my emotions. On days when I’m drowning in despair, film lets me know that I should fight on, be brave, for there is yet hope. Above all, cinema works as a mirror in which I discern the version of the man I want to be, the one I should not be, the one I am grateful I left behind. When I think about the movies I think about God, forever grateful that He’s allowed me the privilege to watch, dissect, enjoy and live the greatest art form of all.

Here are, in descending order, my 10 favorite movies of 2017, an absolutely incredible year:

  1. CAFÉ SOCIETY

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Were it not for the jazz score consistently playing in the background of near every scene, Woody Allen’s Café Society would feel like a tremendously sad film. An American fable of a New Yorker traveling to Hollywood only to get his heart broken, Café Society name drops ancient celebrities, features a visual gag or two and characters the audience is meant to laugh along to, or at. Had it been played a little bit more straight, comparisons to An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby would not have been out of place. Indeed, the film features a narrator who recounts even the most awful of episodes—when main characters die, for instance—in the same casual tone of voice he employs throughout the entire proceedings. And yet no amount of lightheartedness can make that final, memorable shot hurt any less.

  1. AMERICAN HONEY

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It must say something about the Hollywood production system that the most damning indictment of contemporary middle America was a film written and directed by a British woman. Andrea Arnold’s film is a poignant tale of lost youth, of its wild enthrallments of the new, of rebellion not only against adults but against the very social mores that raised them, of its frantic attempts at encountering meaning in the mundane, of its doubts masked by the confidence that only irrepressible hormones provide. But if American Honey seems to condemn anyone, it’s not the young, but the old. Shots of dilapidated homes, wretched cities, a thriving drug scene, all seem to indicate that kids must stick together or perish in the hopelessness of their forbears.  

  1. EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS

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If reading certain novels makes it easier to visualize them on the screen, then this Argentinian wonder makes me feel as if I am in my bed, reading about the mystery of the murder of a young wife. The film works like a novel, from its opening voiceover narration, to its various flashforwards and flashbacks, to the dual romance at its center. One romance belongs to the victim’s husband, eyes peppered with longing; the other belongs to the detective assigned to the case and his boss. Above all, it manages to convey regret. Its lingering shots on door knobs, characters eyes and old photographs provide a sense of opportunities not taken, of wistfulness and a desire to love that went unfulfilled until the day bravery overcomes our fears.

  1. MULHOLLAND DR.

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Overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy of the picture, I drove to Mulholland Drive a few days after watching it. I got my car towed, and a parking ticket. Thank you David Lynch!

6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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I watched 162 movies in 2017, and none could break my heart quite as spectacularly as the three minute conversation between Lee (Casey Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams) near the end of the film. I dare you to watch it and not feel something, anything, swelling inside you, not only for the on-screen couple but for everyone out there who exists solely for the burden of their unforgiven sorrows.

5. MUNICH

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Munich will continue to feel timely not only for its even handed, impartial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for how it portrays vengeance. In horrific events such as the one depicted here, vengeance is not only clamored for, but necessary. A couple of flashy executions later, however, and the full picture starts coming into view. What is the true purpose of revenge, if not seeing others suffer the way you have? And if we want to see others suffer, what does that say about us? “There is no peace at the end of this”, somebody says, and no truer words have ever been spoken. Munich is as bleak a film as they come, yet the lessons it imparts have the potential to change the world.

4. CIDADE DE DEUS

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Beyond its unstoppable kinetic energy, more than the flawless union of humor and carnage, greater than the pirouettes the camera engages in, City of God remains with me for a very distinct reason: it reminds me of the madness of El Salvador, my home country. Until the day national cinema catches up to the greats, I’ll always have this picture as a document of what’s going on in my country.

3. 25th HOUR

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Sometimes I felt as if 2017 was too stacked, too much of a good thing. As this list makes clear, I was fortunate enough to catch many sublime films, which are among the best, if not the very greatest, of all the director’s oeuvre. It was not a problem until now, in which I had to go over all the fantastic films and settle on a mere ten. I settled on 25th Hour because there was no way around it: this is a monumental piece of work, Spike Lee’s crowning masterpiece.

2. SILENCE

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The most hauntingly despairing moment I’ve ever witnessed in a motion picture occurs 140 minutes into Silence. After suffering a series of horrendous torture rounds, father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is led to a courtyard where six people are hanging upside down, their heads stuck in a pit, blood slowly dripping out of their skulls. If Rodrigues does not recant faith in Christ, they will remain there for days, until the blood runs out of their bodies. I know what my response would have been, and have been asking God for answers as to why life forces some to pits of hopelessness and cruelty, while all you hear from the heavens is silence.

1. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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As a whole, the Planet of the Apes trilogy illustrates why the human race will never know peace. It doesn’t portray humans as naturally bad and apes as naturally wrong; by favoring a more shaded approach, the series is empathetic to all sides of a conflict, recognizing good and evil is not as clear cut as black and white. War for the Planet of the Apes features a flawless motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, conveying more heartbreak, regret and anger with one mere glance than most actors do in entire monologues. The picture belongs to him, and he will go down as one of my favorite film characters ever. It is through Caesar’s eyes that we understand the dangers of not letting go of our grudges; the decision to not forgive unleashed a series of events that culminated in doom not only for his people, but for the humans as well.
Caesar, weary and exhausted from a lifetime of conflict, becomes a hero the moment he admits to his flaws and recognizes his mistakes; yet he is not the only one. The picture is littered with many small moments of beauty, of selflessness and reflection that you start to wonder how the heck something this meditative and thoughtful ever made it out of the Hollywood blockbuster system. When you realize this tale of tragedy, betrayal and redemption is not really about monkeys but about us, about our ancestors and our children, about our apparent inability to let bygones be bygones and focus on the beam in our eye instead of on the speck on our brother and sister, the only appropriate response is admiration.

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Top Characters in Film 2017

A film character is defined by several traits. The first and perhaps most prominent one is the performance by the actor hired to perform the role. And while movies rise and fall on the strength of its performances, solid acting alone is not enough to sell me on them. So beyond acting chops, I consider the setting these characters are in, their backgrounds and contexts, and how they must feel in the adventures that play out for my viewing pleasure.

The following 10 characters provided me with memorable lines, great story lines, wild entertainment and above all, reminders that it is not how much money is put into a project that matters, but how much heart.

In alphabetical order:

BEN—CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

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When Ben (Viggo Mortensen) tells his six children that their mother has just committed suicide, he utilizes the same tone of voice and manner that he employs when he is teaching them about Noam Chomsky and lecturing them about Lolita. As most loving parents do, he believes this to be the right way to raise his children, but the film argues that love is not a good enough excuse to do certain things. Ben, we come to discover later, is kind of a kook. This is his journey of realization, occasionally moving, hilarious and insightful.

DOROTHEA, JULIE, ABBY, JAMIE and WILLIAM—20TH CENTURY WOMEN

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The greatest film narrator of 2017, Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) cares so much about everybody that she invites strangers over to her house for dinner. It’s a house where she already lives with two girls and two guys, and though only two of them are still teens, everybody is in the process of growing up. The film, which appears lyrical at times, presents the interactions between them as almost poetic, tinged with wisdom, sadness and the hope of a freer tomorrow.

BROOKE and TRACY—MISTRESS AMERICA

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For somebody who utterly loved Frances Ha, it took me a while to finally get around to this Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach collaboration. But when I did, there was nothing I wished more than being witness to the writing process of this acting/directing duo. The witticisms they make their characters express! The last stretch of the film, when Brooke, Tracy, and some of her friends invade a rich guy’s house with a business proposition, is absolutely genius and one of the funniest moments I’ve had at the movies all year.

K—BLADE RUNNER 2049

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Nobody does dejected misery better than Ryan Gosling. What he accomplishes as an android with dreams of a soul in Blade Runner 2049, however, stirs the heart so that the only appropriate response is silence, astonished at the sacrifice.

LOGAN—LOGAN

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Delivering the performance of a lifetime, Hugh Jackman is a wounded, depressed and alcoholic Wolverine in a film that’s almost uncomfortable to watch. The opening frame makes it clear that Logan does not want to be in this world anymore, and for the next two and a half hours he will slice, dice and cut up fools who want to help him get to his final destination quicker. Therein lies the tragedy of Logan: in its inability to see beyond the scars and blood, deep into the soul that is worthy of redemption.

NADINE—THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Sometimes we are the asshole. Far too often movies present the hero of the story, making us relate to the hero’s righteous indignation, in one shape or another. With Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), we are forced to relate to a person who’s not all that likable. Nadine is such a fantastic creation not because she is cruel and insensitive for meanness sake, but because she is so human. Her flaws and follies are the ones of all of us, and by seeing her we can confront ourselves with the question: “am I in the wrong here? Should I be the one asking for forgiveness, instead of demanding it?” It is no easy feat of course, but the movie makes clear that though the path to redeem oneself is tough, at least it’s there for everybody to embark on.

REY—STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) is what happens when writers are allowed to explore characters motivations and be bold with their behaviors. I did not care much for Rey when she was first introduced, seeing her as a bland Luke Skywalker rip-off. Now, however, she has truly come into her own, and it is exhilarating to watch. “You’ve got spunk”, somebody tells her in the movie. She does, and you wish more characters around her did too.

RICK BLAINE—CASABLANCA

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In a perfect world, men would be like Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Selfless and brave, he recognizes that his demons don’t amount to a hill of beans in this messed up world, and he lets the woman he loves fly away to a better world. In a perfect world, men would not be like Rick Blaine. Bitter and grieving over the loss of the only woman he has ever loved, he shacks up in Casablanca, sticking his neck up for nobody. Bogart perfectly encapsulates the duality of love, its heroic deeds and restless nights.

SOUTHEAST TEXAS CHEROKEES—EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

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I’ve never watched a single baseball game in my life, but this made me want to join a team. More than any other experience in 2017, the shenanigans of the Southeast Texas Cherokees are so damn fun its near impossible not to have a good time.

TERRY MALLOY—ON THE WATERFRONT

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Single handedly transforming acting forever, Marlon Brando is something to behold. Sure, there’s the “I could’ve been a contender” monologue, devastating and memorable, but Brando was such a gifted performer that even in the most mundane shots, like picking up a glove from the floor, he appears as if he is a god among mortals. By the time he enters the warehouse bruised, battered but victorious, Marlon Brando has become a legend.

The Disaster Artist

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When I was bored sometimes I would go to The Room`s Wikipedia page to read about the most surreal movie making experience I was aware of. It was very funny, and its creator, the now legendary Tommy Wiseau, struck me as nothing but a nutcase.

The Disaster Artist still portrays Wiseau as unhinged, dangerously so sometimes, but it also does something else with him. It shows he had dreams. We tend to romanticize those with dreams, thinking of them as noble and inspiring, but what about those with dangerous ones? The power of cinema lies in its ability to get us to care for dreamers, and The Disaster Artist makes us care about Tommy Wiseau’s intentions, even when they were not the best ones.

It was clear to anybody around him that he should have never been allowed in the same building as a movie camera, and one can easily imagine a different scenario. One in which this Dracula looking director is not the kooky, outsider hero, but a disturbed maniac that almost suffocated an entire production crew.
By painting dreams not as the beautiful ideals Hollywood constantly sells audiences, but as the desires harbored by people that could either turn the world a better or world place, The Disaster Artist is much more than just a comedy. One suspects is a similar work of art as that which inspired Tommy Wiseau to move to Hollywood in the first place.

A-

Justice League

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That a movie this stupid has been so massively successful on a worldwide basis tells me, well, I don’t really know what it tells me, if anything, nor do I know what it means. Do we deserve flicks like this because despite our airs of knowledge, we are nothing but creatures of habit that get aroused by big, fancy explosions?

Does it tell us that the great artists, thinkers and people of note throughout history all lived for nothing, now that their efforts have been forgotten, replaced by crap like freaking Justice League?

Or does it all not matter, because crap has existed since the dawn of humanity and will continue to do so, and personal entertainment preference has little to nothing to do with the state of the planet?

I do not know any of this. What is a certainty, however, is that this is perhaps the absolute worst superhero movie I have ever seen.

D

 

Casablanca

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I was familiar, of course, with the established consensus. Casablanca was one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, a movie unlike any other, a must see for all those who professed even the slightest interest in the art form.
And I had never seen it until today.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said before in the past 75 years? Everything everybody said about Casablanca is true.

A+

20th Century Women

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“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

B+

Dunkirk

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After thinking on it for twelve hours, I feel confident enough to say Dunkirk bored the bejesus out of me. It is also filmmaking at its finest, one of the extremely rare motion pictures that can, from the opening to closing frame, be called art.

There was a piece on The Guardian earlier this week, calling Dunkirk the first film in Christopher Nolan’s career to merit comparison to the filmography of Stanley Kubrick. While there were some making the same assessment three years ago when Insterstellar came out, pitting it against 2001: A Space Odyssey, I found it a premature judgement. I love Insterstellar, but it is far too emotional and weepy to be Kubrickian.

With Dunkirk, I was emotionally invested in none of the characters whatsoever; I admired the picture more than anything else. I recognize the great care and detail that went into every aspect of its making, and I applaud it. Was it a good time at the movies? Absolutely not. I even checked my clock once. Is this one of the best films I’ve seen this year? Absolutely yes.

A+

Baby Driver

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Five minutes into Baby Driver, and tears were welling up in my eyes. The great craft and detail they put into the car chases, the score, the reaction shots, was evident, but what got me was something else.
It was not the sense of fun, either, present from first to last frame.
I think that what made me emotional was recognizing a dying breed of cinema. Being face to face with a movie that proudly waves the flag of “there’s more to film than superheroes and sequels, look I promise!”.

You made me look Baby Driver, you sure did make me look. I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

B+

Logan

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Superhero movies adapted from comic books have had such a tremendous impact on popular culture during the last decade that they’ve even received their own grading curve.
“Good by superhero movie standards”, or “terrible even by comic book adaptation standards” has become the de facto response to this kind of product. Whether this is harmful or beneficial to cinema as a whole is a topic that demands its own blog post (maybe when Wonder Woman opens?), so this entry will not approach Logan as another superhero comic book movie, but rather as simply another slice of cinema.

I note this disclaimer out of fear that I will be doing this movie a disservice by calling it the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight trilogy. A quick glance into the past reveals that in the intervening years there have not really been that many memorable movies of the kind, which would take away some credit from Logan.
So instead I will say that Logan is the most memorable film I have watched since Silence; it reminds me of the greatest television series I have ever watched, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; and features a performance by Hugh Jackman so magnificent that if I cared at all about awards, I would hope against hope he’d be nominated for something.

“That was not Wolverine”, a friend lamented upon exiting the cinema. “I hated the movie.”
“I hoped that character from the other movie showed up”, the other friend said. “That would have been cool”.

I kept quiet, pondering their words. How many people spend fifteen dollars hoping to see something cool on the big screen? Is that why superhero movies are so popular, since they feature a CGI infused extravaganza of explosions and shiny costumes? Why do so little people pay mind to the human element, and the pains and the joys of life on this earth?

Logan might be the story of a 200 year old mutant who cannot die, but his tale is agonizingly human. Hugh Jackman inflicts Logan with so much sorrow that a mere glance is enough to break your heart. I would say that Logan is a man battling his demons, but it would be a misreading of the film. Logan lost that conflict many years ago. What’s left is a man who is in constant agony every waking hour, considering death a welcome change to the life filled with regret and loss he’s led up until that point.

That the script for this was approved is some sort of miracle. Consider the scene in which Laura (Dafne Keen) is riding a mechanical horse, and Logan approaches to call her back to the car. She looks at him asking for one more ride, so Logan pulls out a quarter from his pocket and says “One final time okay?”, before inserting the coin into the mechanical box next to the contraption. Logan pulls away and Laura starts to ride again.
A moment like this, lasting about thirty seconds and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, becomes beautiful not only because it survived executives overseeing it making sure they made every penny back, but because it speaks volumes about the world we all inhabit. This is real life. A kid riding a mechanical horse; an old man lifted from his wheelchair and into a public toilet; a young man saying he will drop from college to go travel across the country.
Small, fleeting moments are what make up our lives, and small, fleeting moments are what Logan is incapable of grasping. He says the adamantium inside his system is slowly killing him, but that’s only partly true.
Logan has been dying since the day he let his sorrows overtake any glimmer of hope for a better future he might have had.

Again, Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime. It will take me a while to get rid of the images of a bruised and battered Logan out of my head, his gaze lost somewhere where the camera cannot reach. Watching it in the dark in a packed room, I felt knots in my stomach, and I wondered if my neighbors felt the same. I wanted the movie to be over and go home imagining Logan living his remaining days somewhere happily ever after.

While not a perfect movie, mainly because the quasi generic bad guys keep reminding the audience that they are watching a Marvel adaptation every time they are on screen, it reminded me of the immense power cinema holds whenever a story is well told. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the deafening noise and chaos resounding that has been ruling our world for the past year, there is still room for the intimate, and that hope should not be given up on. But most of all, it reminded me that true heroes don’t wear capes after all.

B+

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

birdman-poster-4We live in a golden age for cinema.

Were we to compare the films produced during the last decade, to those released 40-50 years ago, would the results really skewer to the latter?
We complain about noise and explosions and the mindless, meaningless entertainment that permeates movie screens each year, and while it’s true that some blockbusters should have never seen the light of day, it’s also true that people have been making bad movies since the day the medium was invented.

Maybe because every movie being produced is either an adaptation or a sequel, filmmakers feel compelled to craft them with utmost care, seeing as they are possibly the only project they could ever work on.
So we continue getting flashy blockbusters, but something has changed.
Godzilla hints at having a heart underneath all the carnage; Guardians of the Galaxy is more about the fascinating adventures of space exploration than invincible superheroes; and Michael Bay tones it down with Pain & Gain, a hilarious drama if I ever saw one.

And if popular movies are increasingly ambitious, what of the smaller movies?
The ones not meant to be consumed by everyone?
Perhaps it’s creators feel liberated; perhaps they can make whatever their hearts desire; perhaps they can finally make what cinema is meant to do: Art.

So we arrive at Birdman, a picture that could not have possibly existed a decade or two ago, and now that it does, film history is richer for it.

A+