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Some Additional Movie “Bests” of 2017

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As anyone who watches a bunch of movies knows, every year is full of mediocrity; the majority of what I’ve seen will most likely be forgotten by January 1st. Still, there are always certain films and moments that stick, whether as a source of pleasant thoughts, or a scar on my brain. Or maybe they’re just weird. Anyway, I’m no expert at costume design or sound editing, and picking best actors in a year that saw art imitate life when Kurt Russell played a god seems pointless, so I’ve decided to go a different route in awarding merit. We’ve already listed our Top 10 films of the year (which I’ve had my say in), but since any evasion of forgettable mediocrity deserves some sort of recognition, there are a few other movies I’d like to personally single out for their achievements.

I certainly won’t recommend every film below (it’s not that kind of list), but whether what follows was an example of excellence or ineptitude, they all made an impression on me in some way, and that counts for something. With that said, here’s some recognition for the 2017 crop…

Best Western – Logan

Sure, there were some movies with cowboys and gunfights and all that stuff, but did any of them capture the spirit and motifs of the western as well as Logan? Nope. The grizzled mutant gunslinger formerly known as Wolverine and his retired outlaw gang are lured back in for one more job, and set out across the wide-open desert to a better place. Go north, old men! Along the way they fight off dastardly cattlemen posing as a security force, make a pit stop to assist a homesteader with bandit problems, and try to suppress the guilt over the violence they’ve wrought. Recalling such classics as UnforgivenShane, and countless others set against the dusty, Logan gently nails so many genre tropes (right down to an action scene involving a locomotive) that it makes a fitting ride off into the sunset for its titular character.

Best Syfy Channel Movie – Kong: Skull Island

I’m a sucker for cheesy Saturday-afternoon monster movies on everyone’s favorite schlock network. It’s not that I like to mock the silliness; on the contrary, it’s because I love movies so much that I’m endeared toward anyone who gives it their all, even if they fail miserably. I also love monsters. So what would happen if one of these things were actually good? Well, Kong: Skull Island answers that question, showing me the Syfy masterpiece I’ve always wanted — a B-movie with A-level filmmaking. A movie that doesn’t take its ridiculous premise too seriously, yet doesn’t feel the need to constantly elbow the audience with self-awareness. In short, it’s a blast from start to finish, with characters that play it mostly straight (irony and sarcasm are the death of this genre), imaginative compositions, and just the right amount of operatic goofiness. This is how you do it, folks. One of my favorite films of the year, period.

Best Superhero Movie – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Any thought that Star Wars would return to its former mystical, ancient, fairy-tale ways was effectively light-sabered through the chest with The Last Jedi, but that doesn’t mean things are all bad. In a year full of superhero movies that continued to stretch the boundaries of believability with their characters’ super powers, this time the Force wins out. When Wonder Woman somehow survives a massive explosion, or some guardian of some galaxy falls 1000 feet off a cliff, then gets back up like nothing happened, I start to roll my eyes before yawning. What are the rules with these people anyway? But magic space samurai who can project their image to another planet or resurrect themselves and fly kind of works. Kind of. Don’t get me wrong — The Last Jedi is chock full of hilariously ridiculous stuff, but at least the Force has always been portrayed as all-encompassing, so I’ll roll with it. Just give them capes already, Disney, and make it official.

Best Marvel Movie – Wonder Woman

While 2017 certainly reaped plenty of profit for Marvel movies, it really didn’t produce much of anything memorable outside of the outstanding last appearance of Hugh Jackman’s muttonchops. Guardians 2 got lost in its own ambitiousness, Spider-Man’s homecoming felt more like an Avengers road game, and Thor’s hammer has all the weight of cotton candy. Is the formula getting stale? Well, not if you’re DC, who borrowed it for Wonder Woman, and out-Marveled Marvel in the process. Ditching their gloomy universe for something a little more colorful and appealing, DC finally got the hint as to why their butts are being kicked, and connected with fans who don’t want to wallow in mopeyness for nearly three hours. No, Wonder Woman is not as great as everyone wants it to be, but Diana Prince’s first foray onto the big screen still has enough sincerity to go along with the quirky, self-aware humor, and the actual human feeling elevates (at least temporarily) the pupil over its master.

Best Temper Tantrum – mother!

If you ever feel like you’re being lulled into a false sense of cinematic security, like maybe movies don’t respect you enough to tell you what they really think, just watch mother!. A brutal assault to the senses and one’s own sense of self-worth, Darren Aronofsky’s unburdening of his soul starts off as a tense discussion, but ends in an out-of-control outburst unlike anything I’ve seen on the big screen. This isn’t just a lecture about how  mankind — and thus, you — is an utterly selfish, destructive, poisonous plague to everything it comes in contact with; it’s a full-on explosion of passionate imagery that presents the entirety of our apparently disgusting species’ existence as evidence. No one likes being punched in the face, but damn if I didn’t admire the hell out of mother! for having the balls to do it. Watch this with someone you love, so you can see the look of horror on their face before they get up and leave the room.

Best 20-Year High School Reunion – T2 Trainspotting

Nothing reminds us of how awesome it is to be young more than seeing the middle-aged lumps that youths eventually become. T2 Trainspotting is upfront with its fondness for better days, when being a loser junkie was fine as long as you were a charming, energetic loser junkie. Using callbacks that would make the new Star Wars producers blush in shame, Danny Boyle makes this slower, stupider attempt at recapturing magic extremely watchable. Unfortunately, this tactic also elicits constant memories of a far superior film, but it’s still comforting to see the whole gang back together again — even if time has not been kind. T2 is a sad, pathetic high-school reunion in which a collection of former hopefuls has seen their vitality fade into utter disappointment (possibly like ourselves), but their attempt at reigniting that fire makes for pleasant reminiscing.

The Trip to SpainBest Remake – The Trip to Spain

Have you seen The Trip? You know, the one where Steve Coogan and some other British comedian play themselves as they drive across the English countryside, eat lots of food, and do Michael Caine impressions? Or maybe you traveled along on The Trip to Italy, where Steve Coogan and that same other guy play themselves as they drive across the Italian countryside, eat lots of food, and do Michael Caine impressions? If you like pretending that the same movie is actually different, then you’ll enjoy The Trip to Spain, where Steve Coogan and that other guy once again play themselves as they drive across the Spanish countryside, eat lots of food, and do Michael Caine impressions. Whatever. I like these movies.

Biggest Franchise Wrecking Ball – Alien: Covenant

Never has the line “please…kill…me…” been more apt. I’ve written plenty as to my thoughts on why this year’s entry does nothing for the Alien series, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe Covenant does serve a purpose. It takes an eraser to Prometheus, poisons the original Alien by trying to ape it, and finishes the dynamite job started by Resurrection and the AvP movies. The franchise was face-hugged, then impregnated, and now there’s a big ugly monster running around ruining everything. Just let Ripley, the Nostromo, Hicks, Newt, Hudson, and everyone else that behaved like a real person in a real horror situation have a decent legacy, please. Just kill Alien. Or at least put it to hypersleep for a few decades.

Film Title: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Best Movie Made By a 14 Year-Old – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Man, I bet there was a time when I thought VatCoaTP was awesome. I mean super awesome. The kind of awesome you get when two hot young actors fake a love-hate relationship with absolutely zero chemistry but no one cares because they’re hot. You know, the kind of relationship where he says he loves her and proposes marriage basically to get her in the sack, and she feigns disgust but is actually kind of into it? And then in the meantime they fly spaceships, shoot aliens, travel through alternate dimensions in pursuit of a shiny, glowing Macguffin, all while concocting simple emotional conundrums that are so unrealistic that only a tween would nod and think “this movie totally gets me!” Still, it’s got a stupid, good-natured sincerity that one can’t help smile at. I mean, there’s some raw talent on display from this kid Luc Besson that might pay off someday. It’s nice to encourage young directors to pursue their dreams, and this was better than most high school films I’ve seen. Most.

Best Extended Cameo – Blade Runner 2049

Since the whole movie is basically a reminder of the first one, it was nice to see 2049 give in to its base impulses and have Harrison Ford reprise his role as Rick Deckard. Before anyone disagrees with my classifying this as a cameo, I will agree that the role is sizable and has importance these things normally don’t have, but c’mon — Ford’s there to please fans of the original, not because his story is worth continuing. Still, the old man injected some life into a beautiful but sterile world. A comment on today’s youth culture, perhaps? Ryan Gosling is great at playing a robot (which the replicants aren’t, so not sure why they act that way), but he’s totally upstaged by the guy who shows emotions. Who would figure?

Worst Extended Cameo – Blade Runner 2049

Ford is great as Deckard, but I’m not sure showing him as an old man was the best thing for the character. The mystery at the end of the original Blade Runner complements that film’s themes, a nice tidbit of discussion that can lead to interesting philosophical debates; bringing him back completely dismantles that, and causes the sequel to focus on something that never really mattered that much in the first place. Seriously, finding out what happened to Deckard doesn’t do a damn thing for this sci-fi, and takes a bit of coolness away from a classic. Thanks, 2049.

Get-Out-Header-2_1050_591_81_s_c1Best Homage to The Twilight ZoneGet Out

Get Out has a great premise that recalls Rod Serling’s eerie television series, one that puts society under the microscope with a skewed perspective that exposes some human truths. It also probably would have worked better as a half-hour episode, something leaner and more focused. Though it’s far from a masterpiece (c’mon, get real), it certainly smacks of the same freshness and imagination that The Twilight Zone exhibited week after week in its day. Peele takes on one of Serling’s favorite subjects — hypocrisy — in the sort of creepy satire the world could use more of.

Best Industry Hand Job – [TIE] 78/52 and Spielberg

If it’s your idea of cinematic comfort to watch filmmakers ceaselessly gush over other filmmakers, you can’t go wrong with either of these. 78/52 gets an edge for attempting to focus on just the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, though it loses points for an abundance of crackpot theories that would have felt more at home in the hilarious Room 237. Meanwhile, Spielberg has the best talking heads (who doesn’t want to listen to Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma talk movies?), but misses an opportunity to explore some of the director’s less successful efforts. Regardless, both offer a slice of movie heaven that will be irresistible to cinephiles.

Best Use of the Song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a Movie Featuring Channing Tatum – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The other option was Logan Lucky, which I positively loathed, so really, this was the best option. The Kingsman sequel saw Tatum as a cowboy secret agent who is basically in a coma for the whole movie. It was incredibly stupid, but not as stupid as Steven Soderbergh’s terribly unfunny redneck heist film. I’m sorry, John Denver. you deserved better, but this is what we got.

Best Use of a Prosthetic Hand – Gerald’s Game

If you’ve seen it, you know the scene I mean. It’s called “degloving,” and hopefully I’ll never be witness to it in real life, because it was hard enough to watch in this movie. Also, for those who haven’t seen it, Gerald’s Game is one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and one of the best movies this year. Check it out.

Best Sex Scene – Sequence Break

Sure, I could watch two people get it on, but I’ve seen that a thousand times. Until watching Sequence Break, however, I had never seen a man pretty much express physical love with an arcade cabinet. No body fluids are technically exchanged, but it’s about as close as you can get. Look, I love video games too (I helped found a website called Goomba Stomp for Pete’s sake), but I’ve never, you know, loved them. And the gooey, sticky, moan-y way in which this whole thing plays out had me set down my controller for a few days. It’s a weird scene, man.

Best Emetic – A Cure For Wellness

No film in 2017 made me want to vomit more than A Cure for Wellness. What seemed like a pretty healthy dose of trippy psychological horror at first ended up betraying cinematic sensibilities to the point of being toxic. Seriously, that over-the-top last act poisons the entire experience with such awfulness that I actually walked out of the theater angry, and stayed that way for nearly a week. Even thinking about it now makes my stomach feel a bit heavy. If I ever accidentally drink Windex then at least I know a quick way to expunge it.

Best Actual “Movie” – Dunkirk

Great films these days are often anchored by towering performances or a crackling script, but rarely do we see cinematic work anymore that relies almost solely on the power of what popularized the medium in the first place: moving pictures. Yes, Dunkirk has dialogue (though I wouldn’t call it much of a “talkie”), and the razor-sharp sound effects certainly add to the immersion, but take all of that away and you would still be left with a dazzling array of images expertly assembled into one astounding, emotional, visceral experience. I had gone a little cold on Christopher Nolan after Inception, seeing a director in love more with his puzzle-box stories than the craft as a whole, but Dunkirk changed that completely. This is old-fashioned, masterful filmmaking that revels in the basics, tightly pulling strings like the best movies have done for over a century, but taking them to pulse-pounding new levels. Deserving to be taught in film schools everywhere, Dunkirk was simply the best film of the 2017.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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