As the title of the post suggests, these were the last few movies I watched before I put together Version 2.0 of the “Best of 2017” list. I did watch a few more, but these were the movies that I felt warranted commenting on:
COLUMBUS (2017) dir. Kogonada
At one level Columbus is about two individuals randomly finding each other in the small but architecturally important town of Columbus, Indiana and the friendship they strike up over their unique bond to architecture and the shared pain of trying to take care of their parents. At another level the movie is a sumptuous feast of visual accomplishment as each shot by first-time director is so expertly and artistically composed that the movie frequently causes you to slow down and appreciate its beauty. Taken alone, each of these levels would provide an interesting story worthy enough to carry the movie. But together, the movie becomes something much more astonishingly compelling. First time director Kogonada proves to have not just be masterful in technique, but in conveying emotion and feeling as well. He is aided tremendously by a fantastic cast in John Cho and a revelatory Haley Lu Richardson (as well as a great supporting turn by Parker Posey) who each provide some of the best performances of the year, in what is quietly one of the best films of the year.
IT (2017) dir. Andy Muschietti
Stephen King adaptations are a dime a dozen in Hollywood but usually they are B-movie bargain bin adaptations more interested in schlock and superficially depicting King’s work. So it is a pleasant surprise and welcome relief that 2017’s It takes seriously the deep and dark themes of arguably King’s masterpiece, resulting in what is easily the best Stephen King movie adaptation in two decades. It centres around seven middle schoolers who live in the town of Derry, Maine where children have been disappearing at a rambunctious pace but alarmingly has not caused panic amongst the adult populace. With the adults failing to be concerned it is up to these seven, who have each been haunted by the monster they eventually call “It”, to get to the bottom of this mystery and save the town. And thankfully, the kids are pretty great in this movie, taking a page from Netflix’s Stranger Things (or tapping into our current zeitgeist for 80’s nostalgia) by toeing the line between being smart enough to be a formidable foe for It while also being actual kids who are suitably scared out of their minds by the Derry monster. Bill Skarsgard is also borderline brilliant as the monster, banishing all thoughts of the over-the-top performance by Tim Curry in the same role decades earlier. Skarsgard plays It with a perfect mix of innocence and menace, with the turn between the two making him all the more terrifying. But while this is the best King adaptation in a long time, it is still not without its problems. It is perhaps a little bit too long and yet paradoxically still manages to leave some important themes from the novels out and undercooks some character arcs (Mike, who is arguably the third main character in the book feels particularly shafted). And as with most horror movies these days, the movie has an over-reliance on jump-scares to get its thrills which diminishes in effectiveness the more times it gets used. The same could be said about “It” too, as the monster becomes less scary the more times it appears (although one could argue that is one of the main points of the movie). Despite these minor hiccups, in a year that has already seen some great horror movies come out, It stands out as one of the best.
PRINCESS CYD (2017) dir. Stephen Cone
This little gem of a movie stumbled onto my radar and I’m glad that it did because it is quietly one of the best films of the year. Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick) is a high school student who lives in a contentious relationship with her depressive father and so decides to spend some time with her Aunt, the famous novelist Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), in Chicago. That is the setup for what is theoretically a coming-of-age story, but is much more interested in exploring the way women relate to one another. Pinnick puts in a fantastic performance as the simultaneously self-assured and confused Cyd who emphatically declares “I don’t really read” within minutes of meeting her author aunt yet is completely at sea when trying to understand her own sexuality and interesting. But it is Spence as her aunt Miranda who is absolutely revelatory here. It is so rare in these coming-of-age movies to have a woman who has come-of-age to act as a true foil, herself a paragon of warmth and understanding even if she is willing to push back against her niece’s worldview. Their interactions with one another are easily the most interesting part of the movie as Cyd self-confidently plows into Miranda’s personal life as she tries to get answers for her own life, and Miranda gives as good as she takes. It is just so refreshing to see two complex and fully formed women talk and relate to one another in such a naturalistic way, that it is a breath of fresh air. Other than this central relationship, there are also tangents in which Cyd explores love is a casual and liberated way, while Miranda finds fulfilment in her own platonic relationships and her literary life (with the most compelling scene dealing with this directly). And the best part of the movie is that it is not concerned with artificially tying up loose ends, because it is much more concerned with approximating life and as a result is one of the most quietly exhilarating movies of the year.
ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (2016) dir. Michal Marczak
Back when I was part of a band, we embarked on a marathon recording session for two weeks and at one point we recorded for close to six hours straight, ending at what we thought was an awesome place around 3 a.m. Unfortunately when we revisited what we had recorded that night the next day after getting some sleep, we realized that due to ear fatigue from the night before (a real thing) we recorded some less than stellar material. I say all this to show why All These Sleepless Nights similarly did not work for me. It follows two young people in Warsaw for a period of a year, but only in the window of their presence at various afterparties in the late hours of the night. While intriguing at first, two things become clear very quickly. First, without the context of the actual parties and events that precede it, afterparties look shockingly similar especially when paired one after the other. And second, and more damagingly to the movie, is that late-night interactions share the same quality of being filled with conversations and observations that sound profound when they are made at 3 a.m. but are decidedly less so when played back in the cold light of day. Coincidentally, the cold light of day is when I watched this movie, and as a result was an insufferable bore to me. The only positive is the typically brilliant cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki which was truly gorgeous at times and singlehandedly saved the movie from being a complete waste of time.
mother! (2017) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie comes with the reputation of being the most controversial and divisive film of the year. While Aronofsky certainly earns that moniker for mother! he does so by creating a less-than-subtle allegory that seems obviously pleased with itself, resulting in a aesthetically interesting but ultimately vacuous viewing experience. The movie follows Jennifer Lawrence as the mother, who lives in an isolated estate with Javier Bardem’s Him, who is a poet struggling with writer’s block. She is content to continue fixing up their home, while he is frustrated by his inability to create. After a chance encounter with another man (Ed Harris), he is invited in as a guest by Bardem which sets in motion and ever steadier stream of people who barge into Lawrence’s house all because Bardem seems completely unable to turn anyone away. While the first two-thirds of the movie are a compelling enough fever dream allegory, it is in the final third that the movie takes a turn towards the glaringly obvious. Here what was once subtext becomes unsubtle text as the movie veers into increasingly preachy territory. There is also something going on about the relationship between an artist and his muse which is obviously autobiographical for Aronofsky, but that results in a movie that is probably helpful as a processing tool for him but is much less compelling for the rest of us to watch. The saving grace in all this is that Jennifer Lawrence, who is given not much to do in the final hour or so other than look confused, scared, and frustrated, is such a gifted physical actress that she remains compelling throughout. If only the rest of the movie was not so concerned with trying to shock us into outrage or to pat itself on the back for being seemingly clever, especially since at the end of the day the movie is really not as clever as it would like us to think.