Even though I have given myself until after after the Oscars in March to put together my final Best of 2017 list (due to how hard it is for this amateur critic to actually catch up with all the contenders sans “For-Your-Consideration” screeners and press screenings) there is undeniably a peer-pressure inspired rush to the end of the year to try and catch up with as much as possible. And so, here below are the fruits of my latest frantic, desperate, and futile attempt to catch up with the best of the year:
THE BIG SICK (2017) dir. Michael Showalter
It is safe to say that as a Malaysian who eventually married an American girl while going through a pretty horrific spout of suicidal depression I found myself relating to this movie at a very deep and almost spiritual level. But even though this movie affected me at a hyper-specific personal level, let that not take away from the fact that this is objectively an extremely great movie. Written by real-life couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, it should come as no surprise that the story is somewhat based on their own life. Kumail plays a version of himself, a Chicago based stand-up comic struggling to break into the business when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a local grad-student, after one of his sets. If this sounds like the perfect set-up for a romantic comedy, you wouldn’t be wrong as the movie is frequently hilarious and romance is at the heart of the story. But what sets this movie apart from typical romantic comedy (and maybe the key to revitalizing the stale genre) is the movie’s unflinching tether to reality. The obstacles that Emily and Kumail face on the way to their “happy-ever-after” are not manufactured or imagined but real whether it is the cultural gulf that separates the two or, as the title of the movie gives away, the big sickness that Emily gets stricken with halfway through the movie. The mess that these two is complicated, real, and most importantly is not solved in the two hours we see them. And in Kumail’s voice in particular, we get to hear the perspective of immigrants who face the threat of hearing that they should “Go back to ISIS” or something of that ilk every day and yet still unflinchingly want to be part of America. If this movie is a romantic comedy, it is easily the best one in a decade not least because it truly reflects the realities of life and love in 21st century North America.
GOOD TIME (2017) dir. Ben and Josh Safdie
Two brothers decide to rob a bank which is as basic a premise as you could have for a movie. Except by two brothers decide to rob a bank, it is more like the older brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) coerces his mentally-handicapped younger brother Nick (Ben Safdie) into robbing a bank and things predictably go south landing Nick in prison while Connie escapes. In a desperate plight, Connie plunges into the New York underworld to try and muster up the $10000 bail money to get his brother out. With this bone-thin plot, the strength of this movie falls squarely on the shoulders of Robbert Pattinson and he delivers perhaps the best performance of his career. Between Pattinson in this role and Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper it’s interesting to see just how far these two have come since their Twilight days and we are truly all the better for it. This movie is a suitable coming-out for the directors the Safdie brothers who manage to create a vibrant other-worldly New York to propel their story to its grim conclusion.
INGRID GOES WEST (2017) dir. Matt Spicer
Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an obsessive social media follower tethered to her phone and without a clear sense of actual social relations. On a whim she jumps into a car and heads out to L.A. to become friends with uber social-media star Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), whether Taylor particularly wants it or not. And so begins this film by Matt Spicer who seems to take particular delight in thoroughly skewering millennials, not as some grumpy outsider, but as someone fully immersed in it (Spicer was born in 1984). By doing so, he manages to rise above so many other inferior efforts to portray millennials and millennial culture because he truly understands why we do the things that we do to project our lives digitally. Furthermore Spicer lucked out in perfectly casting both Plaza and Olsen as their respective leads as both of them switch their public and private personas so seamlessly and to great comedic and dramatic effect. But while the film is incisive and cutting towards millennial culture it unfortunately is not very subtle. A dramatic turn at the end especially comes across as contrived and on-the-nose. A more confident director would’ve been able to steer the movie ultimately to a more memorable destination. Much like the social media culture it mocks, Ingrid Goes West is entertaining in the moment but is ultimately nothing more than diversionary and soon forgotten.
A QUIET PASSION (2016) dir. Terence Davies
On the surface a biopic about the great American poet Emily Dickinson sounds like the perfect description of Oscar-bait. Fortunately two elements conspire to make sure that the film becomes so much more than that. The first is the director Terence Davies who through confining most of the proceedings to the Dickinson estate manages to create a pressure-cooker atmosphere even though it is meditatively paced, while simultaneously inhabiting this world with such texture and propulsive language to make domestic life seem vivacious and alive. But if Davies helps create a compelling backdrop, it is truly Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson that propels this movie into one of the great movies of the year. There is a measured control to her performance so that every word and every action in every scene is delivered with pinpoint precision for maximal effect. She makes every scene come alive as she inhabits and disappears into her role, displaying fragility and steely determination with equal conviction and often in the same moment. It is an astonishing performance and it is almost criminal that her name remains absent from any serious consideration for Best Actress. This unsentimental but riveting portrait of an extremely complex woman revitalizes the biopic and suggests the template that might work going forward.
A GHOST STORY (2017) dir. David Lowery
Here is the case of the perfect counter-programming release. When it was released in the summer, it played against mega-blockbusters with its popcorn thrills and surface-level depth, and so this quiet and meditative art film came across as a welcome respite. But having missed its initial release and watched it in the fall where I can compare it side-by-side with other prestige art films the movie just doesn’t hold up as well. Starring Rooney Mara, who is always excellent, and Casey Affleck the movie tells the story of a couple torn apart by an accident with Affleck coming back as a sheet-covered ghost who haunts their shared home. The problem here is that the movie is so deliberately paced as to appear glacial. And while a deliberately paced movie can be affective and compelling, mostly it seems that the pace in this movie is there to fool you into thinking there is some depth to the proceedings when really it feels more like a movie out of the playbook of film school 101. While it is not the worst movie I saw this year, it’s easily the most disappointing due to the high hopes I had going in.
GIRLS TRIP (2017) dir. Malcolm D. Lee
Before I say anything else about this movie let me just caveat this by saying that I, a straight male, found the Hangover movies obnoxious and mostly unfunny. Since humour is pretty subjective, it’s safe to say that most of the girls-gone-wild antics that the ladies of Girls Trip get up to didn’t necessarily tickle my funny bone either. However, as far as these types of comedies go, Girls Trip is pretty good. And the best part of the movie is not the more outlandish and raunchy “R”-rated pratfalls that happen in the movie but rather the way all four of the major leads (Regina Lee, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and a revelatory Tiffany Hadish) bounce comedically off one another creating what is ultimately a fun romp through New Orleans. It is also refreshing to see a comedy that may be filled with easily mockable characters but wastes no time being cruel or mean-spirited to them. Together these four women help the movie soar in its best parts and also help to carry it to the finish line when it makes the prerequisite and ill-advised turn for the sentimental in its final half-hour or so. The movie also has some other severe flaws including its overlong run-time, on-the-nose narration, and a slight over-reliance on miscommunication to manufacture drama. And each of these flaws irked me as I was watching the movie but faded quickly because ultimately what lingers is the deep friendship of these four women which is joyously infectious to watch and is more importantly genuine. And that reason alone is enough to make Girls Trip a journey worth taking.