Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2017

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

Below you will find lists of my favorite films of the year, divided by documentary (nonfiction) and narrative (fiction) formats. Not all the movies mentioned have received a significant theatrical or online release in 2017, though most of them did; a few may still be looking for distributors after making their festival rounds. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie (whether for BmoreArtFilm Festival TodayHammer to Nail or this blog), the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. In the case of one film (noted, below), I only wrote a brief capsule review of it within a film-festival recap, and I link to that write-up, instead. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film, I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page. If I later write a review (for films not yet out in wide release), I will change that link to my own review.

If a film that you, yourself, saw and liked is nowhere mentioned here, then it is possible that I did not see it (or saw it and liked it, but not enough to include among my favorites, or saw it and, of course, did not like it). As many films as I watch every year, I cannot possibly see everything. If you have questions about any omissions, feel free to comment and/or send me a note. And really, what separates the “Top 10” from the “runners-up” is very little. If you’re in my Top 20, in other words, I like you very much.

Enjoy! Over the next week, I will continue to publish other “best of” lists, for acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 10 Documentary Films of 2017 (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 Narrative Films of 2017 (in alphabetical order):

2017 Documentary Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

2017 Narrative Film Runners-Up (in alphabetical order):

*Note from 1/9/18 – recent allegations about Franco’s sexual misbehavior now complicate such a nomination. It’s still a really solid movie, however compromised the director.

2017 Documentary and Narrative Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Worst Films of 2017 (in alphabetical order):

Stay tuned for more posts in the week ahead …

1 Interview + 1 Review @hammertonail: Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) & “Miracle on 42nd Street”

Hammer to Nail ran two pieces of mine this week: an interview with Greta Gerwig, conducted back at the Middleburg Film Festival, in October, in the company of Mae Abdulbaki (of Movies with Mae), Hannah Buchdahl (of Chick Flix) and Leslie Combemale (of Cinema Siren); and a review of Miracle on 42nd Street, a documentary I saw, in November, at DOC NYC. Here are the links:

Enjoy!

5 Reviews + 1 Interview @filmfesttoday & @hammertonail: “Downsizing,” “The Greatest Showman,” “The Other Side of Hope,” “The Post,” “Soufra” + “The Strange Ones”

Over the past week, both Film Festival Today and Hammer to Nail published five reviews of mine, plus one interview: Downsizing, The Greatest Showman, The Other Side of Hope, The Post, Soufra (seen at DOC NYC), and The Strange Ones (the interview, conducted at this year’s Maryland Film Festival). Here are links to all 6 pieces:

Enjoy!

“All the Money in the World” Delivers Decreasing Returns

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017)

In case you missed it, there was some drama on the set of All the Money in the World within the last two months. Or, rather, to be more precise, director Ridley Scott reconvened the movie’s actors to recreate the set, which had long been wrapped. Following the many claims of sexual harassment against Kevin Spacey, Scott deemed the actor’s presence in the film, as billionaire John Paul Getty, far too toxic for the box-office prospects, and so recast and reshot Christopher Plummer as Getty. The good news is that the octogenarian Plummer (Beginners), is excellent, as always, and though I initially entertained myself trying to imagine what the movie would have been like with Spacey in the role, there are no lingering traces of the man in the current cut: the expunging was seamless, in other words. The less good news is that the film has other problems – unrelated to that character – deeply embedded in the script (by David Scarpa, The Day the Earth Stood Still remake). What starts out as an alternatingly fun and chilling period thriller quickly devolves, in its second half, into a rudderless mess.

“Inspired by true events” (from a book by John Pearson) – as an opening title card tells us – All the Money in the World tells the story of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III – called Paul – the grandson of the original J.P., the  “richest man in history” (as we learn from another title card). When his grandfather refused to pay the ransom money – for many reasons, including greed and his belief that to do so would mean that the rest of his grandchildren would then also be kidnapped – things went south, and though Paul was, eventually, rescued, the emotional and physical costs for him (including the loss of an ear) and for his family were high. “All the money in the world” cannot save you from corruption of the soul and heart, apparently – a good lesson for our time (and for all times), in which Republicans believe that the wealthy need more money than they already have – for sure, but not enough of a thesis to carry the movie forward when its plotting falls apart.

There is good stuff, at first, however. Scott’s early montages explaining Getty’s accumulation of wealth and power (thanks to Saudi oil, among other things), intercut with the present-day (1973) kidnapping and family drama, give the first half of the film an energy that promises great rewards, a promise thereafter unfulfilled. The performances are mostly first-rate, fortunately. Michelle Williams (Certain Women), as Paul’s mother Gail – who married into the family and then antagonized them by divorcing her husband, addiction-prone J. Paul Getty, Jr. – especially shines as a woman desperate to save her son, and who must accept all manner of indignities to get even a fraction of the ransom money. French actor Romain Duris (The New Girlfriend) is also fine as one of the Italian kidnappers, and Charlie Plummer (King Jack, and no relation to Christopher) holds his own as the miserable Paul. Mark Wahlberg (Patriots Day), sadly, as Fletcher Chase, a former CIA operator now turned helpmate to the old man, though he tries to make the most with a woefully underwritten part, is all but superfluous.

And then there’s Christopher Plummer, who makes up for so many of the script’s deficiencies, though there is only so much he can do. He is magnetic, holding our attention throughout. By the end, I didn’t care any more how Spacey would have done the role. This is Plummer’s and Williams’ movie, and their performances are the reason to see it. You don’t need “all the money in the world,” it turns out; two great actors will suffice.

“Call Me by Your Name” Moves, Even As It Disturbs

Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

Based on the 2007 book of the same title – by author André Aciman (who plays a small role in its adaptation) – Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a romance set in the summer of 1983 against a backdrop of lush, halcyon Italian landscapes. The lovers in question are 17-year-old Elio – of Italian, French and American heritage – and 24-year-old Oliver – all American – the graduate student who arrives to work with Elio’s academic father at the estate he shares with Elio’s mother (which she inherited). Both men appear straight, at first, and have no problem attracting members of the opposite sex, but soon their strong mutual attraction sends them tumbling into an all-consuming passionate affair. Beautifully photographed and movingly performed, Call Me by Your Name is not without some fraught narrative issues, though its strengths make it well worth seeing.

Italian Director Luca Guadagnino is no stranger to passion. Indeed, heightened emotions are his wheelhouse, at least as witnessed by his last two features, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash (the only two I’d seen previously). Here, he plays it coy, at first, holding back on the melodrama and allowing his two fine leads – Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird), as Elio, and Armie Hammer (Free Fire), as Oliver – to develop their rapport through gentle glances and easygoing repartee. When they finally consummate their relationship, Guadagnino continues to show restraint, cutting away from their intimate moments and returning to linger on their happy, post-coital expressions. All the while, the lives of those around them progress on their own trajectories, sometimes colliding with theirs, always in motion. It’s a fully realized world, inclusive of all the characters.

Still, I was troubled by the age gap between the men, particularly since Hammer looks far older than the character he plays, and Chalamet far younger. There is a built-in power imbalance in how they meet – the one an experienced man-of-the-world, the other a boy on the cusp of manhood – that gives me pause in celebrating what is otherwise a lovely coming-of-age, coming-out tale. Certainly, Guadagnino presents the story in nothing but the most reverential terms (though I am hardly  the only one to notice, and discuss, the problem), but I could not shake the unease I felt at the potentially predatory set-up. Yes, the age of consent in Italy is far younger than it is in most of the United States, so nothing legally improper happens on screen, but given our current national conversation about older men preying on younger women (thank you, Roy Moore!) – well, all women (and some men) – I suspect there may be others who feel some of what I did.

Thankfully, both Chalamet and Hammer deliver such fine-tuned, heartfelt performances that we are mostly just swept up in their ardor. They are not alone, joined by such other terrific actors as Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water), as Elio’s dad; Esther Garrel (L’astragale) as a young woman whom Elio initially pursues; and Amira Casar (Planetarium), as Elio’s mom. Stuhlbarg, especially, is given a juicy supporting role, though I wish his final speech to his son – lovingly supportive of the relationship with Oliver – were shorter and less expositional. It’s a moment where Guadagnino and his screenwriter, James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame), lose control of their heretofore masterful self-control. But the movie truly belongs to Chalamet and Hammer, the former’s face the last thing we see, in close-up, as the movie ends with his final stare into a roaring fireplace, devastated by the knowledge that summer is over, and life must go on. Flawed and troubling in places though it may be, Call Me by Your Name is still a powerful cinematic experience.

7 Reviews @hammertonail: “Big Sonia,” “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” “Creep 2,” “Island Soldier,” “Kedi,” “Love Means Zero” and “Quest”

Last week, Hammer to Nail published seven reviews of mine: Big Sonia, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Creep 2 (the only fiction film among this batch), Island Soldier (seen at DOC NYC), Kedi (also seen at DOC NYC), Love Means Zero (also seen at DOC NYC) and Quest. Here are links to all 7 pieces:

Enjoy!

“Ferdinand” Charms and Irritates in Equal Measure

Ferdinand (Carlos Saldanha, 2017)

If you are a parent with young children, you could do a lot worse than take them to see Ferdinand, the new animated feature from Blue Sky Studios, the same company that gave us the Ice Age franchise. Like that series, this movie charms in many places, even while irritating in others. For every poignant moment, there is another pointless montage set to a contemporary pop song, or a dance-off, or some other silliness. Perhaps those are meant to keep the adults entertained, but they had the opposite effect on this viewer.

Based on the lovely 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, the film tells the story of a young Spanish bull – destined to die fighting a matador in the ring – who only wants to smell flowers, instead. Scrawny and timid as a calf, he eventually grows into a mighty gentle giant, which of course means that he will, indeed, attract the very attention he wishes to avoid. When a bee sting drives him temporarily mad, sending him crashing through a small town’s central plaza, his fate is sealed: the bullfighting ring it will be.

It’s hard to argue against the powerful message of tolerance and anti-violence preached by the authors of both the original tale and this movie. And though Blue Sky is no Pixar (Coco is still playing in theaters, if you want to see what real animation looks like), director Carlos Saldanha (with the studio since Ice Age) and his team do a credible job presenting the big emotional beats of the narrative. Unfortunately, their attempts at humor – involving German-accented horses (Warum? Ich weiss nicht!), among other things – often feel clumsily shoehorned into the plot for the sake of a stupid joke. Nevertheless, I shed a tear or two, so they’re doing something right. Either that, or the source material is just so magnificent that its brilliance shines through even the lamest of adaptations. You decide.

With the voice talents of John Cena (The Wall), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Anthony Anderson (the father on ABC’s Black-ish), Bobby Cannavale (Adult Beginners) and David Tennant (Kilgrave on Netflix’s Jessica Jones), among others, Ferdinand has no shortage of star power. Does it matter? I have never understood the insistence of casting famous actors in animation, unless they have a particular skill at vocal performances. Everyone here is adequate, but the only actor who really stands out is McKinnon as a scrappy goat training Ferdinand (Cena) for his big fight. Hers is the kind of off-beat humor that is perfect as a counterpoint to the very real tragedy of bullfighting. But German horses? Nein!

Beautifully Designed, “The Shape of Water” Is a Magical Romance Weighed Down by Leaden Villain

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

There is so much to recommend in Guillermo del Toro’s latest cinematic fantasy that it seems a shame not to like it all. With its magical story of an interspecies romance and meticulous, stunning production design. the film, for much of its running time, is a thrilling delight. Unfortunately, too many supporting scenes disappoint, almost all of them involving the villain, played by an over-the-top Michael Shannon (with whom I have had problems before) saddled with leaden dialogue that does not help his one-note performance. So, if one can ignore that character (difficult, since he pursues our heroes), the movie works.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins (Maudie) as Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) woman who works in a mysterious government laboratory as a cleaner, along with Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures), who seems to be her only friend outside of neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor). He’s a disgraced, gay, alcoholic illustrator with whom she wiles away her free time watching classic Hollywood musicals on TV. But then, one day, a new arrival at the lab catches her eye, mostly because he is accompanied by heavy security. And so begins a new chapter in her life.

According to del Toro (among whose films I particularly love The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy), he was inspired by the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Given  that his amphibian man in The Shape of Water looks a lot like Abe Sapien, from the 2004 Hellboy, he has clearly been thinking about this creature for a long time.  Regardless of origin, a half-man/half-fish biped shows up, in the company of his jailor (Shannon, Elvis & Nixon) and a nervous scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man). Whenever she can, Elisa pays him a visit, and something more than a friendship blossoms.

Del Toro has always been obsessed with outsiders and victims of bullying. Here, he once more assembles a team of such outcasts, with Elisa, Zelda, Giles and the creature forming a motley crew against the forces of so-called civilization and order. There is real beauty in the quiet moments between Elisa and her new friend. Hawkins, who makes shyness a powerfully expressive emotion in almost every performance, is riveting, and Doug Jones – who also performed Abe Sapien, as well as the faun and the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth – is marvelous as the creature. Together, they have genuine chemistry, even making charming dance partners in a splashy dream sequence.

But those pesky villains get in the way of perfection. Whether it’s their dreary exposition or the fact that del Toro is just more interested in the central romance, they drag the movie down. Still, I’ll take a half-successful del Toro confection any day over much of what makes it to the multiplex.

Photojournalist Amy Davis’s Shines Brilliant Light on Baltimore’s “Flickering Treasures”

Yesterday, BmoreArt published my review of Baltimore photojournalist Amy Davis’s beautiful portrait of our city’s lost cinematic treasures – movie theaters of a bygone era – entitled Flickering Treasuresand its accompanying “Home Movies: Portraits of Baltimore’s Neighborhood Movie Houses” exhibit at  Gallery CA (first floor of City Arts Apartments, 400 E. Oliver St.). Here is the link to the article. Enjoy!