The Greatest Showman

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The astonishing success of The Greatest Showman can be attributed to a notoriously human characteristic: dreams. As a biopic, it is a failure, merely a bare bones approach to a subject which deserved a more dramatic treatment. It does not work as a musical either, the flashy dance and tap moments feeling manufactured and obvious.

However, it’s like the creators were aware of this and did not care; they were engineering a product that did not concern itself with such artistic merits. Indeed, most of the film seems to take place in another world, the settings appearing dreamy and fantastical.

This movie was birthed with one goal in mind, and one goal only: to remind you what it was like when the world seemed pure. I think that is why so many people have connected with it, and continue to make it such an unlikely winner. This movie puts you in the frame of mind you had back when you were a child, when dreams were avenues that could actually lead to success, when integrity, heroism and love appeared noble and achievable, before the dawn of adulthood came to put everything in darkness.

C+

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I, Tonya

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I do not know if Tonya Harding was aware of the full details of the “incident”, and neither do I care. In the eyes of the law she is guilty, and to her own she is not; my opinion of it does little to alter this truth.
However, what I haven’t stopped thinking about since the credits started rolling are the moments and events that led her to infamy.

Tonya Harding’s story is the story of the world. Not in the particulars, of course, as few of us get to be the best in the world at something, or have friends that are so imbecilic they should be given awards. Her story is our story in that nobody can truly understand who we are, our motivations, behaviors, without first taking into account all the years that came before, and everything in it that shaped us. It is an impossible thing to do.

The film did not make me understand Tonya Harding. But I felt for her, the way we should all feel for each other. I felt her pains, and frustrations, and rationalizations, and resentments and thoughts and feelings, and every stupid little thing that led her to plead before a judge to not take skating away from her, the only thing she’s ever been good at. If we are all like Tonya, marked by the lousy decisions and injustices of our past, then we need something more than a second chance: we need love.

A-

Hostiles

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That Hostiles feels perpetually long might be attributed to the fact that it inhabits the world we call our own. Of the many, many movies I watch and write on each year, only a handful feel like they take place in the Earth I’ve grown up in. This is not a knock on any of those movies, of course; my favorite film of 2017 was one in which monkeys could talk and ride horses.

This is a serious and grim picture, one in which bad things happen because they always do, and where the minuscule moments of hope are welcome, in the face of the doubt of how long they are going to last.

B

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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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In the immediate aftermath of the release of The Force Awakens, I felt like the most ignorant movie watcher in all of God’s green kingdom. Critics, fans and audiences alike were in unison singing the movie praises, and for the life of me I could not understand why. Had I maybe seen a different version of it? Was I on some type of drugs that did not let me fully appreciate the nuances and subtleties of this new space opera?

Thankfully, time has put everything in its right place. Since then, there’s been countless of pieces written on the deceitful effects of nostalgia and how it tricked many a great writer, high on the exciting memories of their childhood, into calling The Force Awakens a great film, instead of the series of recycled, uninspired, nostalgia infested pop machine it truly is.

Needless to say, I  had my reservations going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Now, a day removed from the experience, and having already established myself as immune to Hollywood’s emotional manipulation of childhood memories as a means of storytelling, I can safely say that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a thoughtful, occasionally moving, ultimately epic blockbuster that is light years ahead of what came before it.

Gone are the insulting callbacks for callback’s sake, replaced by characters and motivations that feel organic and even necessary; gone too, are the beat by beat repetition of fan loved moments that, while temporarily pleasing, just weigh the picture down. Of course this being a Disney production the creators cannot stray too far away from the conventional, but even in this limited creativity vacuum director Rian Johnson, helmer of the fantastic and perceptive Looper, finds new and thrilling ways to excite us.

The result is a film that lives in the now, that feels immediate and therefore earns my emotions. And while being in the present might prove too problematic at times, the uncertainty of what’s to come eating away at you, I find it is much more fulfilling than looking back through the rose tinted glasses of our memories, where only the thrills, on which man alone cannot subside on, live.

A

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

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Like Dunkirk this summer, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that is easier for me to admire than to actively root for. In addition to Sam Rockwell’s performance of a lifetime, I particularly recognize what a great and solid script this is. Its twists and turns would not feel as Shakespearean were they not anchored in strong commentary about family, guilt, and second chances.

Similarly, its humor, some of it very outrageous, would feel out of place if the script did not take the effort to paint the characters not like broad figures, but as genuine humans, deserving of our time and yes, even compassion.

B+

Wonder

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You read the premise for a movie like Wonder, and your eyes instinctively roll back. The difficulty in making stories like this feel non manipulative is that of course bullying sucks; you’d be hard pressed finding somebody that does not agree with that. So how to make the story of a special needs, bullied ten year old, earn its tugging of the heart?

One route could be what Stephen Chbosky did, which is to keep everything low key and as naturalistic as possible. It’s what worked wonderfully (and more effectively) in his previous effort, my favorite movie of all time The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was surprised that Wonder did not spend so much proselytizing as it did asking the questions that we are afraid to ask most of the times. Mainly that one does not need a facial dis figuration to suffer and feel alienated in this world, and that those who do do not hold a monopoly on victimism.

It’s an all too rare approach for this sort of movies, but one that is highly welcome.

B+

 

Lady Bird

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Lady Bird had me going back to the well of adolescence, to sip on the memories of exuberant passion and exasperation. There are many movies dealing in the maddeningly glorious years of youth, but most of them merely show it; Lady Bird actually feels like you are back at your friend’s house crying over the love of your life while eating cheese.

B