It’s not easy coming up with a list of the ten best movies of any year, let alone one as rich in worthies as 2017. Still, nothing gets a good film debate going like a ranking, and so we here at Goomba Stomp have finalized* our picks for the cream of 2017’s crop. We’ve covered a ton of films this year, from major theatrical releases to the plethora of film festivals, like Sundance, TIFF, and Fantasia, so there were some tough choices to be made. No list is perfect of course, and there will always be some disagreements, but in the end this list is a fairly accurate reflection of our staff favorites. Enjoy, and if you haven’t seen some of the film’s below, what are you waiting for?!
*In case you’re wondering, the content and order was determined by polling our Sordid Cinema staff writers, then compiling the data by assigning points depending on a film’s rank within each personal list. Rest assured, it’s a highly scientific process that delivers solid, unbiased results.
Editor’s Note: While it is impossible for our writers to see every movie released this year, I felt we should mention that although we are all huge fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, none of us have had the chance to yet see Phantom Thread, since it has not yet been released where we reside.
10 (Tie) – The Shape of Water
For years, a distinction has existed between the English language and Spanish language films of Guillermo del Toro. The American works are either direct adaptations of comic books (Hellboy, Blade II), or so outlandish that they might as well have been (Pacific Rim, Mimic). The Spanish and Mexican films are more austere films that combine del Toro’s love of the macabre and the fantastic with an unabashed sense of love. With his newest film, The Shape of Water, del Toro has managed to synthesize his impulses to create one of his most satisfying works to date.
The ever-charming Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works on the night-shift cleaning staff of a government research center in the midst of the Cold War. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is her only friend among the janitors, as well as her sign language interpreter to the rest of the world. When Elisa comes across a mysterious amphibian man (del Toro regular Doug Jones) who is being experimented on by the malicious Strickland (a gloriously over-the-top Michael Shannon), she at first feels compassion, then desire.
A lesser filmmaker would have portrayed Elisa as a tragic figure robbed of her voice, but del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor wisely depict a woman perfectly at ease with her life — she has all the voice she needs, but it’s up to others to listen. Hawkins is augmented by a fantastic cast, including an excellent (if small) role from Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name).
Del Toro was inspired to make The Shape of Water because of his childhood disappointment with Creature from the Black Lagoon, in which an inter-species love story is cut short by bloodthirsty humans. His new film works as a corrective, and his passion is evident (he depicts Baltimore in the early 1960s with as much love and care as he does the amphibian man). The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, and like the best fairy tales, it reminds us of our own childhood wonder and hope. (Brian Marks)
10 (Tie) – Baby Driver
Like every Edgar Wright movie, the director’s latest feature takes a ludicrous concept and runs wild with it. Six movies into his career, he delivers a wildly energetic movie that not only entertains from start to finish, but follows its own set of rules without ever losing focus on what matters the most: characters. The result is brilliant, an unexpected mishmash of genres that shouldn’t blend so well together, but does. Baby Driver is the director’s most ambitious work to date — a wildly successful romantic heist comedy fueled by a killer soundtrack.
Here Wright’s use of music has a reason to exist, since the titular character needs his melodies for practical reasons. After surviving a traumatic car crash in childhood (killing his parents), Baby is left with permanent tinnitus, and in order to counteract this condition, he scores his everyday life. Baby Driver has it all: non-stop action, comedy, suspense, romance, a star-making performance from Ansel Elgort, and all the twists and turns of a classic heist movie. Credit Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss for the razor-sharp editing, and Bill Pope for his luscious photography! This is Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order. (Ricky D)
10 (Tie) – mother!
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is quite possibly the most controversial film of 2017. Many critics called it the worst movie of the year, while others who sung its praise defended the film tooth and nail. Awash in both religious and contemporary political imagery, Darren Aronofsky’s allusive film opens itself to a number of allegorical readings, and depending on what you take away, you’ll either love it or hate it. The press release promised a home-invasion thriller “about love, devotion, and sacrifice,” and in several interviews Aronofsky referenced climate change, war, famine and how awful humans not only treat each other, but the planet we live on. It’s also a surreal, feverish nightmare about relationships and the creative process centered around a dysfunctional couple.
The film is all this and more, but in my eyes mother! is first and foremost a horror film, and like any good horror film, it’s one that gets a rise out of you — makes your palms sweat, your eyes widen, your jaw drop, and your hands grip on tight to the armrest. It’s a piece of taboo-breaking cinematic insanity, and something you’re sure not to forget. And like all great horror movies, it’s a movie that grabs your attention and dares you to look away. (Ricky D)
9 – It
Stephen King’s 1986 magnum opus about a deranged murdering clown named Pennywise who haunts the children of Derry, Maine has now been adapted twice, to varying degrees of success. The latest adaptation, which lingered for a half-decade in pre-production, represents the first time It has been brought to the big screen (the first was a television mini-series) and it’s among the best Stephen King adaptations ever made — not because it is scary (because, truthfully, it isn’t), but because director Andrés Muschietti’s vision is extremely funny, entertaining, and most importantly, heartwarming. At 135 minutes, It covers only the childhood half of the book, saving the adult portion for the upcoming sequel, set 27 years later. The decision to split the movie in two was a wise move on the part of the studio, as it allows the filmmakers more time to flesh out both the story and the large cast of characters. As with Stand By Me, another Stephen King adaptation, what sets It apart from most modern Hollywood horror films is the stellar cast. In fact, the best parts of It have nothing to do with the cackling manifestations of the murderous Pennywise, but with the camaraderie, bickering, and curiosity among these kids, who unlike many on-screen teenagers, actually seem like real kids.
It is far from a perfect film, but the underlying allegory of these characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood gives the movie emotional weight — and regardless of if we get to know these characters or not, It is a chilling examination of what it’s like to grow up living in fear, be it the onset of puberty, or something deeper and far more disturbing, such as neglect, abuse, discrimination, poverty, and/or violence. In fact, the film’s true villains — older kids like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and adults like Beverly’s abusive father or Eddie’s controlling mother — are monstrous themselves. Of course, this is still a horror movie, and when the children begin to disappear, our group of young heroes is faced with their biggest inner demons when they square off against Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries. Emerging from the long shadow of Tim Curry (whose interpretation of Pennywise is the biggest highlight of the TV mini-series) is Bill Skarsgard who does a marvelous job stepping in as the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a knack for terrifying kids. Thanks to the combination of these performances and Muschietti’s direction, It is not only one of the best movies of 2017, but one of the best horror movies ever made. (Ricky D)
8 – Blade Runner 2049
Though coming off a bit more replicant than human, Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous and mesmerizing vision of the near future couldn’t help but stand out from from its 2017 peers. Making a sequel to one of cinema’s all-time science fiction masterpieces must have been a daunting task, but Blade Runner 2049 does an admirable job picking up where Deckard left off, even if it doesn’t quite meet its predecessors lofty ambitions. Set 30 years later, 2049 follows Ryan Gosling’s K as he slowly uncovers a secret about the nature of replicants that may change the world. Along the way there is a bit of mystery, smatterings of existentialist philosophy, and a smorgasbord of visuals to feast one’s eyes upon.
The extraordinary sights and sounds of Blade Runner 2049 are more than enough to sustain the film through its methodical approach. Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a talented team of art designers have outdone themselves, painting a rich, colorful world of decay, the oppressive gloom masked by orange sandstorms and holographic neon billboards. This is not the gritty Los Angeles of the original; a slick veneer projects surface beauty, but it doesn’t take long for the rotten insides to stink. Special mention must also be made of Hans Zimmer’s pulsing score, a mix of synthesizers and what sound like revving engines — it’s a sensory experience like almost no other in recent memory. The potency of the story will probably fade, but the images and ambiance will likely stick. Blade Runner 2049 may not quite reach for the sci-fi stars, but it certainly shines like one. (Patrick Murphy)
7 – The Florida Project
The Florida Project continues director Sean Baker’s realistic depiction of the unfortunate, but with a heartfelt look at the way our futures are shaped. The film pushes Brooklynn Prince into the limelight as another child star that hopefully maintains the same bravado throughout her career that she embodies in this. All the while, Baker captures the innocence of a child, as well as the factors that influence the person they’ll become — and whether that’s a good or bad result is up to you. Anchored by a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe as a motel owner reining in a community of the lower class and less fortunate, The Florida Project shows the depravity and the goodness that can be found within the cracks of society. Utilizing bright colors in frequently ignored locations gives the film its sense of hope, where it would otherwise be easy to grab hold of desperation and let it drag you to your lowest lows.
While the film is primarily focused on Brooklynn Prince’s character and how she spends her days, the greatest impact comes from how her mother’s actions and behaviors influence and affect her daughter. You learn to dread the moments spent with the mom, but realize that decisions she makes are born out of a place of perceived desperation. And at the same time, you learn to love the relationship between the mom and daughter because it’s pure and real. The complications exist within their lives, but they power through them, even if it means dragging each other through the mud to get to the endpoint. The Florida Project mines the mother-daughter relationship for those brief moments that are relatable. It lets you care about its characters without having to like them, in a situation that is sometimes difficult to find joy within. The movie then caps itself off with one of the happiest tearjerker moments of the year, which is why it stands as Sean Baker’s most fully realized film. (Christopher Cross)
6 – Good Time
Good Time had the best score of the year — that’s not debatable. Brooklyn composer Oneohtrix Point Never amplifies both the grime and the tension of the Safdie Brothers’ film, supplying a droning, screeching backdrop that is both tripped out and deathly urgent. Which makes sense; Good Time, and Robert Pattinson’s performance specifically, has a druggy unreality that seems tailored to the Adderall generation. It is purely energetic, propulsive, and unrelenting.
Not that Connie, Pattinson’s idiot-savant wannabe bank robber, would know anything about drugs. A defining wrinkle of the character is his inflated sense of superiority, the way that —for instance, after botching a bank robbery — Connie will lecture others about behavioral standards. He is, in actuality, a completely unlikable character, beyond even his pretensions. He is toxic, dragging his disabled brother into criminal schemes and preying on anyone he can to avoid the consequences of those schemes when they inevitably fail. This is who the Safdie’s align us with, asking us to stay with Connie has he spirals downward into the New York City night. If not truly pleasurable, the film is compelling in the way that a high wire act mixed with a car accident would be compelling.
Pattinson meets the bar set by Oneohtrix Point Never, transforming his lithe physicality into something more jagged. His movements lack grace and veer toward the arbitrary; he either can’t or won’t sit still. His face fills the frame throughout much of the movie, allowing us to see every dumb new idea dawn in his eyes as he hatches them. Good Time is the realization of the Safdie Brothers’ sensibilities, but it flows through Pattinson, who encapsulates the film’s live-wire energy with his performance.
There were bigger films, more optimistic films, more rousing films, and films with more to say than Good Time in 2017, but the Safdies’ movie, more than any other in the year — Dunkirk included — moved me to the literal edge of my seat early and refused to relent. It is experiential; you live through Good Time, rather than watching it. (Michael Haigis)
5 – Call Me By Your Name
Director Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name stirs the senses, breathing life into first love and heartbreak. Timothée Chalamet (Miss Stevens) is Elio, a young man adrift in the summer of 1983, before Oliver (Armie Hammer of The Social Network) comes to intern for his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Italy. The film’s playful decadence flows with an enchanting ease, as well as an enveloping score that brings us into the moment. Chalamet whips the teasing, temptation, and frustration of early flirtations into a mesmerizing enthusiasm, while Hammer’s assertive charm knocks down the audience’s guard. A knowing intimacy creeps into their interactions, and Elio’s interest transforms into confusion, euphoria, borrowed time, and inevitable heartbreak. Chalamet’s eager affection and dynamic emotional articulation define the movie, drawing us ever further into a world that briefly belongs to them.
Hammer and Chalamet expertly channel two men magnetically drawn to one another, lost in the physical and mental freedom of youth that is yet to be completely tethered to commitment or expectations. They are shown to be deliberate, intellectual, and aware of the complexity of their feelings for one another — traits not readily associated with romance. Call Me By Your Name embraces the fervor of an insatiable sexual pull, while skillfully honing in on what makes Elio and Oliver’s relationship something special. As Elio’s father, Stuhlbarg vividly delivers tender insights that are as uplifting as they are wrenching. Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) lovingly builds a serious film about meaningful attraction and the tenuous control we have over circumstance. (Lane Scarberry)
4 – Lady Bird
Portraits of youthful aspiration rarely come so authentic and honest as the sometimes touching, often funny, and always charming Lady Bird. Set in the Sacramento of her teenage youth, Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story contains the types of off-beat observations and unflattering comic scenarios she has written into previous leading roles, but never has this offbeat “character” worked so well; perhaps because this time it isn’t Gerwig performing it. That task instead belongs to Saorise Ronan, who goes beyond merely doing her best Gerwig impression, and crafts a bitingly sharp version of an aspiring young artist who deeply believes herself to be something greater than what she currently is — or may even be capable of.
All of the buoyant energy and awkward ugliness of formative years are on display, from the social politics of high school to the ever-increasing urge to break free from the cage of parental control. Lady Bird (as she has pretentiously dubbed herself) can be both magnetic and repulsive in a span of seconds, but Ronan plays scenes of selfishness and egotism with the same matter-of-fact approach as those when she is more considerate of others, and the frankness captivates — even when eliciting winces. Writer-director Gerwig beautifully takes advantage with a script that unveils poignant yearning and tender nostalgia cloaked in quirky wit and uncomfortably real confrontation, while wisely shooting in a straightforward manner that doesn’t draw attention away with shallow indie flash. Bold, brave, and never less than sincere, Lady Bird hits all the right notes without compromising its own song — one of the most melodious of the year. (Patrick Murphy)
3 – Logan
A melancholic treatise on aging is not what one would expect from any corner of the cinematic comic book canon, let alone from a property with the Marvel logo preceding it, but James Mangold’s Logan is just that, a modern day Western that takes a lens to one of the most iconic action heroes of all time. Hugh Jackman’s last go-around as the near-immortal mutant with generations of pain and suffering caked on his metallic claws finds the loner unburdened by the X-Men (a freak accident wiped them and mutant kind out), and burdened with caring for an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, providing a giant performance of confusion and intimacy). Logan’s will to live is minuscule until a chance encounter brings him close to Laura (Dafne Keene), a mutant child with remarkable skills of her own.
Liberated from universe building and a 4-quadrant marketing mandate, the film is almost overwhelming in its violence (the farm sequence is expert in its mounting horrific tension), while providing a profound look at how wanton killing dilutes a person’s soul. In part, it’s a meta-commentary on the X-Men and comic book films themselves, deconstructing how heroes are made, remembered and forgotten in broad strokes, rarely allowed to have the complexities that we mortals ponder day to day. Logan is the anti-comic book film — patient, meticulous, and not eager to please. It’s a heavy experience where the stabs make you cringe, the blood runs a little too real, and the notion of the next chapter is not etched in ink. Logan reminds us that our favorite things end, and that finality can be its own reward. (Shane Ramirez)
2 – Dunkirk
No film in 2017 captured the pure magic of cinema better than Christopher Nolan’s exquisitely crafted thriller about the evacuation of the British and other Allied forces from the French coast during World War II. Dunkirk jettisons many of the storytelling crutches so many war movies have come to rely on, replacing those blunt philosophical speeches and manufactured character moments with the kind of exacting visuals and visceral sound design that communicate precisely everything an audience needs to know about the terror depicted. Not a minute is wasted in exposition; the images tell the tale, taking the medium back to its roots. Through pictures Nolan builds an army of genuine people, their mouths ominously silent, but their eyes and actions instantly relating volumes. His frame then constricts their freedom (and ours), ramping up unease by showing us packed lines of men desperate to escape, crammed onto piers just waiting, looking out to the vast ocean of blue skies and open water that offers something so close, yet so far.
Once it has us wound up, Dunkirk yanks on the thread, unspooling in a furious assembly of bullet pops, swooping dogfights, and fiery sea battles, all working in harmony to support each other. Rarely have I felt so utterly helpless in response to something so simple as the whine of an airplane engine, but Nolan pulls the strings perfectly, effortlessly navigating the peaks and valleys of tension and release. That he does this without a more traditional dialogue-heavy script is especially impressive — a reminder of how affecting cinema can be in its purest form. Dunkirk pushes the action genre forward by looking back, a triumph of filmmaking that dares to believe in the core fundamentals of movies. (Patrick Murphy)
1 – Get Out
In the great annals of horror movie history, there are plenty of examples of backward, racist Southerners being used to amp up the terror in otherwise unremarkable places like small towns or nice Suburban neighborhoods. Get Out seeks to utilize this same strategy, but in a different way. By making the racist bad guys liberals who genuinely think they’re doing a service to the black community, Get Out supplants the idea that racism only exists on the right — or in the South — and forces wearers of the “Good Guy Badge” to take a closer look at their reflection.
With stand-out performances from Daniel Kaluuya (Black Mirror), Allison Williams (Girls), and Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich), Get Out is a surprisingly tight suspense-thriller that ratchets up the tension with great success throughout the entirety of its swift run time.
From Jordan Peele of all people (best known for his sketch comedy series, co-created with Keegan-Michael Key), a film like Get Out is a genuine surprise, and one that has been welcomed by audiences and critics almost unanimously. These kinds of new takes on racism as a plot device — and the place of the horror canon in general — are just what the genre needs every few years to remind folks that there’s still new ground waiting to be uncovered in this well-worn world of recurring horror tropes. (Mike Worby)
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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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