film

My favorite films of 2017

Say what you will about 2017 as a whole, but the films released this last year were a good harvest of cinematic entertainment. I’ll refrain from any sort of top ten lists of the best or worst variety and simply talk about the movies that I saw and enjoyed. Below are the films that evoked the most powerful responses from me, be it slow and meditative science fiction, excellently choreographed action and fight sequences, or simply the films that gave me the largest laughs and the most to dwell on afterwards. As most years there are almost as many, or more, films that I missed due to one reason or another and will likely catch up on later. So if you see a popular film missing I either didn’t think it did enough to merit being on the list, or I didn’t see it. Here’s to hoping that 2018 continues this trend and gives us more quality films to soak up and revel in.

 

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Blade Runner 2049

While this was a good year at the theater, for myself there was no film that surpassed the cinematic glory that was Blade Runner 2049. A sequel releasing thirty-five years after the original film might seem like a detractor for most films, but not here. Director Denis Villeneuve and Cinematographer Roger Deakins (along with cast and crew) have spun a transfixing web of powerful and immense sights and sounds across this science fiction epic. Harrison Ford returns to his lesser known sci-fi icon Rick Deckard and gives us one of his best performances in the last ten to twenty years. Meanwhile Ryan Gosling’s K, the new Blade Runner of 2049, sets out to track down the crimes and mysteries left behind in Deckard’s wake. This film is a slow burning science fiction epic that rapidly escalates the scale apart from the first film’s relatively smaller set of events in the best ways possible. I cannot recommend this film enough, though I know it won’t be every audience’s favorite flavor.

 

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John Wick Chapter 2

Forced back into the world of cordial killers that he left behind ages ago, this sequel brings back Keanu Reeves’ latest hit character John Wick and throws him into a gauntlet of violence and feigned civility. Rarely giving the audience time to soak into Wick’s brooding life after his successful revenge in the first flick, Chapter 2 quickly forces Wick’s hand into fulfilling a blood oath after blowing up his house a few scenes in. This film is a continuation of the surprise success of the first film by allowing what worked there to be thoughtfully expanded upon here. The legend of John Wick hinted at in the first film is realized here by having Wick operate in Italy for his mission, thereby having many people quickly recognizing, and fearing, him. This film cracks open the doors to his old community of killers that was merely peeked at before and it’s a joy to watch Wick do what he does best. If you’re looking for near relentless and creative gunplay in a refined atmosphere then you can do no better than John Wick Chapter 2.

 

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Kong: Skull Island

As a fan of the giant monster movie sub-genre, I always look forward to new and evolving versions of old favorites, and this interpretation of cinema’s most well known giant ape may well be my favorite. The largest Kong yet towers above the rivers and peaks of Skull Island set during the waning days of the Vietnam war in which a few madcap scientists talk their way into a military escort onto the isolated and volatile isle of legend. Once they arrive their suspicions of the giant ape are confirmed as Kong is quick to prove who is King in this untamed land. I love the adoration this film has for it’s monstrous locales and unique creations-this is a film that knows it is first a foremost a creature feature. It doesn’t hurt that the cast involved knew how to embrace the tone, some particularly fun additions were John Goodman as the conspiratorial lead scientist, Samuel L. Jackson’s cynical and bombastic Major Packard leading the military support, and John C. Reilly’s wary but good-hearted WW2 fighter pilot who crash-landed on the island when an aerial dogfight went awry. It’s also worth mentioning that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts maintained his sense of style and kept his cinematic voice intact in a major studio release, that’s no small feat and deserves some recognition.

 

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Get Out

As someone who isn’t all that in love with horror movies, this year gave us two absolutely stellar additions to the genre. The first of which was the outstanding directorial debut of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. What makes this film so magnetic is the way it plays on the real world anxieties that still thread through American racial relationships to this day. Peele slowly settles the audience into unease with his clever use of pacing and throwbacks to some of his most adored film inspirations from the likes of Guess who’s coming to dinner?, The Stepford Wives, and The Shining. This is my preferred style of horror, it never relies on jump-scares or cheap thrills, instead the film unnerves you with each passing minute until the spellbinding hypnosis scenes begin-then the film accelerates the madness only hinted at before. This psychological thriller will likely be among many favorites lists for years to come, and Peele has earned every second of adoration for it.

 

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IT Chapter 1

The other surprise horror hit last year was IT Chapter 1. This latest rendition of a Stephen King classic rose to legendary horror movie heights as the highest grossing R rated movie of all time earning close to 700 million worldwide on a budget of only 35 million. With only another lackluster Saw comeback to challenge it’s box office reign roughly a month after it’s release, the film about a killer clown dominated the silver screen for weeks on end. What really made the film stand out from the crowd though wasn’t the scares-which were plentiful and effective, but rather the chemistry of the Losers Club and how they not only interacted with each other, but how they dealt with the overwhelming presence of Pennywise the evil shape-shifting clown. The film was funny, charming, creepy, and intense. If you (somehow) missed this one at the theater, then check out the video release-it’s definitely worth your time!

 

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Wonder Woman

Ladies and gentlemen, they did it! DC films finally made a great superhero movie. Wonder Woman did what neither Batman, Superman, or Will Smith could accomplish- a truly wonderful superhero story. Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins deserve a hell of a lot of credit for infusing some heart and empathy into this dour and sour universe of grisly and uninspiring superheroes. Gadot and Chris Pine shared an excellent onscreen chemistry on their journey through worn torn Europe, they evolved as characters and weren’t used for glamour shots or crude humor. Wonder Woman is the shining light of the DC film universe and I can’t wait to see how Jenkins and crew return to the character in her untitled sequel, best of all though, we can rest assured that she’s in good hands until then!

 

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Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I wasn’t sure how the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy would fare for me, the first was a surprise hit and became an instant pop culture icon. How would James Gunn handle these characters’ evolution and what kind of madcap adventures would they tumble into next? They may not have been chasing a macguffin stone this time around, but we did get a compelling story that dug into some deeper character work for a few of the characters on the team, and they had a far more interesting villain this time around in Ego the Living Planet, who just so happens to be Star Lord’s father.. Kurt Russell, because of course he is. Everything about this film was amped up from the last installment and the world building for the greater cosmic side of the Marvel universe was stepped up in scale as well. This was a visual feast of colors and special effects and the comedy (a detractor for some this time around) worked for me just as much if not more this time around. This was an excellent addition to not only the Guardians story but the greater web of MCU storylines as well!

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

This was my favorite superhero movie of the year, and that’s saying something because this year had some of the best offerings from Marvel and DC yet! Even the Justice League was an improvement overall (though it’s not on this list as it didn’t quite reach the mark for me). Introduced in Captain America Civil War this newest incarnation of the web slinger may be my favorite version yet! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is the youngest web-head thus far and he’s got an innate natural sense of the big-eyed wonder that a younger Parker would have, especially since he’s the rookie in a world of Avengers now. Placing Spider-Man into the MCU allows him to be positioned into storylines and arcs that would have been impossible before now, a feat realized through the perfect use of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark as the guiding hero and moral compass (Something Stark could only accomplish after years of being Iron Man). This was a wonderfully small scale super hero movie and I loved it all the more for keeping things grounded, lighthearted, and funny. There’s also the great benefit of having Michael Keaton playing the Vulture, a C-class villain from the comics that he made all his own resulting in one of the best villains of the MCU since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. I can’t wait to see how this latest version of the Wallcrawler’s story evolves after this!

 

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Thor Ragnarok

Taika Waititi threw out the rulebook with his Thor film and it was all the better for it! I was incredibly excited for this movie since hearing the rumors surrounding the creative team involved and the stories that they were going to adapt with Thor’s third MCU film. Soaked in neon colors, a synthy score crafted by Mark Mothersbaugh harkening back to his Devo days, and paired up with Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk, with a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange-this film had a lot going for it, and everything worked beautifully! Plus, Jeff Goldblum! My ticket was sold to this film the moment I saw that first trailer (Although truthfully I would have seen it without the extra hype anyways). Waititi combined elements of the Planet Hulk storyline with Asgard’s apocalyptic Ragnarok event, all while serving up jokes and surprising character development from our recognizable favorites. This might be Marvel Studios’ strongest year yet, these three entries were the hat-trick of risky features and each of them paid off marvelously!

 

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Baby Driver

As a fan of every film that Edgar Wright has directed I was ecstatic about his next release after his fallout with Marvel Studios over creative differences on the Ant-Man film. This choice ended up being beneficial for everyone involved anyways. The Ant-Man film we got was a small (pun intended) and charming heist film with lovable characters introduced into the constantly growing Marvel movie machine. However, while Edgar Wright’s next project would also be a heist film, that’s where the similarities end. Baby Driver is a fast paced crime flick with music in it’s soul, but more than that the film is intelligently written and Wright’s whiplash editing is as fresh as ever and particularly important to this film. Each scene is dictated by the music that Baby’s listening to at that time resulting in eclectic shootouts set to everything from Run the Jewels to Brighton Rock by Queen. Full of blink-and-you-miss-it easter eggs and populated by an excellent cast firing on all cylinders, Baby Driver stole the summer for me.

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

The final installment in the prequel trilogy of The Planet of the Apes franchise follows our main ape Caesar as he leads his clan of apes towards finding a peaceful territory all their own. However the ghost of Koba still haunts Caesar as the remainders of Koba’s faction work for the remnants of the humans’ military forces. This is my favorite of the Apes newest series of movies, the film showcases the most impressive visual effects I have ever seen onscreen with the performance capture of the apes- who we spend a majority of our time with this time around. The story simmers in a sense of ever present dread and tension as the apes must strive against the paranoid and ramshackle remains of humanity. This story depicts more of the brutality of war than an all out assault, though in a delightful turn of events this film accomplishes more in its quietest moments than most blockbusters ever do throughout their run-times. This completes an incredibly strong trilogy that every cinephile should watch at some point, especially if you have a fondness for thought provoking science fiction.

 

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand planets

Despite having a vague science fiction subtitle and lacking some chemistry between the two leads, Valerian and the city of a thousand planets is a colorful and fast paced sci-fi flick that dazzles with spectacle. Directed by Luc Besson, of The Fifth Element and Leon The Professional fame, Valerian (and Laureline) stumble upon a conspiratorial plot aboard the infamous space station “Alpha” and have to traverse it’s many layers, regions, and sectors to find the answers they seek. While this film may be no Star Wars or Star Trek it is a unique enough offering to engage and entertain with its effective world building and absurdly fun technologies in play. If you’re looking for some science fiction fun but don’t want to go see The Last Jedi another time, Valerian should be able to sate your sci-fi needs this winter.

 

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A Ghost Story

This one caught me off-guard. Nearly devoid of dialogue and cosmically melancholy, A Ghost Story is about a young couple in love when tragedy suddenly strikes the man and he dies. We spend the rest of the film with the departed musician as he wanders the earth incomplete in the, literal, sheets of his ghostly form. The film’s aspect ratio, a squared 1.33 Academy ratio with curved corners, add to the nostalgic and intimate nature of the film as the ghost experiences time and space becoming slippery and unrecognizable. This is the shortest film on the list and if you have the patience for it’s slower parts I would highly recommend giving this unique film a chance.

 

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Fast and Furious 8

The Fate of the Furious is on this list because of the pure enjoyment I had with this movie. At this point, I know what I’m getting with this series- cars, explosions, heists, one-liners, punching, and a set-piece that’s slightly more ridiculous than the last installment in the series. It’s a long running series of Saturday morning cartoons for adults, and I’m okay with that. I had a theory with these movies that every other one was going to be not quite as good as the one that preceded it. For example: the first film was (and probably still is the best of the bunch as far as films go) pretty good entertainment, the second I enjoyed but it wasn’t quite as good. Tokyo Drift was excellent- but I wasn’t as impressed with Fast 4 the reboot of the series, while Fast Five was my personal favorite of the series. The sixth was a let down for me while the seventh was pretty good dumb fun. However, this eighth movie in the franchise was another solid entry for me-the curse of the even numbered Fast and Furious films was broken! I quite enjoyed the prison escape sequence between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson, the spy stuff with Kurt Russell and Scott Eastwood as the newbie was jovial, and the twist with Vin Diesel being the villain this time around wasn’t as cheesy as I expected. I don’t know if each new episode will stay as fresh or exciting as the best of the series, but hey, I never expected perfection from my guilty pleasures before-why start now?

 

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Logan

Finally unleashing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine for his final performance, Logan was a different kind of superhero movie. I’ll admit, while I did enjoy this film, it never quite reached the heights for me as it did for so many audience members out there, though the opening and closing scenes were near perfection in execution. Years in the future an old and battered Logan strives to make money as a chauffeur for young rich assholes as he secretly cares for an increasingly unstable Professor X. Things go awry once Laura, his biological daughter created in a lab, comes into the picture. The performances were solid and the action was grisly and entertaining, although personally there were a few too many adamantium claws lodged into people’s faces for my liking. It was a solid film, an ode to Westerns and the Wolverine alike, and a good finale to one of the longest running character performances from comic book adaptions.

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

This was the last film I saw in 2017 and it was surprisingly good! This film is a sequel to the Robin Williams led original film from 1995 and I enjoyed the fact that this film didn’t bulldoze over the original but took cues and inspiration from it while crafting a new adventure to enjoy. This time around it is four teenagers that all end up in detention with each other a la The Breakfast Club but instead of talking through their problems together they get sucked into the game reassembled as a cartridge based video game from the mid 1990’s. Each character is put into the body of their chosen avatars, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. Each has three lives and they must solve riddles and best challenges in the jungle to win the game. It was a joy to watch Johnson and Black play against their type while Gillan and Hart were solid in their roles they didn’t have personas quite as large as the other two, though there is some great character work between Hart as the former football quarterback quarreling with the studious nerd within the hulking body of Johnson. This was a welcome surprise and a fun way to end the year at the theaters.

Listed below are the films that I wanted to catch at the theater, but never got around to:

Disaster Artist, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Dunkirk, It comes at Night, The Florida Project, Colossal, Good Time, Logan Lucky, Detroit, Lucky, Phantom Thread, The Post, Dave made a Maze, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Call me by your name, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, & Wind River

P.S. Yes, I too saw Star Wars Episode 8 The Last Jedi, but I felt that this wasn’t the proper place to pile onto that film as it was/is one of the most talked about films of the year. This post is more about the year as a whole and Star Wars gets most of the limelight when it is released anyways. If you want to know my thoughts on that film I have posted a review on the blog as well. Enjoy!

Television

“Twin Peaks: The Return” A Meditation on Auteur Television

*As this is a reflection of the Third, and likely last, season of Twin Peaks-there will be Spoilers. You have been warned*

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Now that David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks has ended we can try to analyze and understand just what exactly it was that he shared with us. Throughout the return’s airtime I often heard the idea floating around that even attempting to analyze David Lynch’s work could lead to courting madness, it was as if every time something enticingly odd happened onscreen viewers would wave their arms about and chime “You’re just being weird for weird’s sake Lynch!”. Personally, I disagree with that notion. While Lynch’s work lives and breathes in the weird and the unexpected, it does not mean it is void of structure and meaning. Like a good book that delves into ideas both ambiguous and abstract, Lynch toys with the fabric of reality in his own constructed worlds, but especially with the accepted “rules” of story structure. I once had a great art teacher that said “You do have to know the general rules as you begin. However after that everything’s in play and you can figure out which rules were inherently meant to be broken. Sometimes you have to burn down the idea to see what works and what doesn’t. Art is subjective after all.”

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At the beginning of 2017 I started watching the initial two seasons of “Twin Peaks” that had originally aired in the early 1990’s and became entranced by the show’s evolving state of storytelling. It had cryptic dreams about otherworldly places and beings, but it was also a murder mystery surrounding the death of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and yet the show weaved the supernatural and the unknown with slapstick moments of comedy paired with a near constant outpouring of intense emotions from many of the residents of Twin Peaks. It was a strange and fascinating microcosm of life. I ended up finishing the series the day that the coveted third season aired it’s first two episodes on Showtime. I might have been one of the few people to ever get instant gratification from the notorious cliffhanger ending of season two and dive immediately into The Return. Oh, what a return it was.

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There are a few major themes that I believe the show was attempting to convey or express. I won’t claim to be an expert of David Lynch’s work, or to even fully understand Twin Peaks itself, but there were some fairly present ideas in this third season. The first, and most important, factor going into this season of the show was patience. There were countless scenes where the camera would linger on an actor’s face as they processed information, tried to remember something relevant, or as they were simply ambivalent about the world around them. Hell, there’s even a scene in one of the recurring locations across all seasons, The Roadhouse AKA The Bang Bang Bar, where a random employee sweeps the floor after closing time for roughly three minutes before we cut to a member of the Renault family answering a ringing phone only to get half the conversation. Not to mention that while fans were anxiously awaiting FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan, who plays a variety of roles here) return to the world of the living to finish the fight against Bob (an evil host spirit of sorts that had been running free over the Earth in a doppelganger body resembling Dale Cooper’s), they would have to wait a majority of the season to see him. What we got instead was Dougie Jones, a brain-fried version of the former agent that haphazardly slipped into a family whose father figure was yet another doppelganger (made by Bob this time) who traded places with the real Dale Cooper who had been stuck in the Red Room/Black Lodge for those last twenty-five years. Yes, I know, this is all very confusing to explain to anyone that has no familiarity with the quirks of the show. Again, I would encourage a hefty spoonful of patience.

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Another one of the pillars of The Return that is touched on throughout the season is that of death. This part of the show isn’t just a focus thematically, but one that breached reality for many of the show’s actors. Several key players either died after they had shot their scenes for The Return or had passed away before production had gotten started. From Miguel Ferrer’s character Albert, the ornery yet stalwart FBI agent that worked closely with David Lynch’s Gordon Cole (the in-show director of the FBI) to Catherine E. Coulson’s iconic portrayal of the prophetic Log Lady, many did not live to see the show’s release. Some characters barely even made an appearance due to their health. Doc Hayward, for example, only appeared once to talk via Skype to Sheriff Truman (Robert Forster, not former Sheriff Truman Michael Ontkean) and was never seen again. He was portrayed by Warren Frost, father of Mark Frost who co-created the show with David Lynch. After much thought on the theme of death in the show, I feel that Lynch might see death as more of transitional experience than one of black-and-white finality. We can see this in Kyle MacLachlan’s character arc for Dale Cooper. The character goes through a hell of a lot in The Return and he changes by the end of it, never going against his steadfast nature of goodwill upon the world, but by traveling through either dimensions or parallel earths, he continues onward with motives in his actions and nature, but there is still change. Change is the only constant in the universe after all.

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Another tenant of the series here is the simple act of storytelling. The art of storytelling is alive and well in The Return as many characters tell stories to each other. Some of it is your usual exposition to fill the audience in (Especially useful for Twin Peaks to cover bits and pieces of the monumental quarter-century gap between it’s seasons). Some of it has nothing to do with the characters we know about, but instead about tertiary events and storylines taking place in the world of Twin Peaks. It’s occasionally used to introduce entirely new characters at a moment’s notice and explain their motivations and how they fit into the puzzle, while other times it is only for information gathering. The Monica Bellucci dream sequence in part fourteen is an excellent example of this as it weighs heavily with dreams, imagination, and exposition. In the opening of the episode Gordon Cole tells Albert and Tammy (Chrysta Bell as the new FBI recruit) of a dream he had involving Monica Bellucci. We begin in a black and white scene in which Gordon hazily recalls being at a street-side cafe in Paris. He starts by noting that “Cooper was there, but I couldn’t see his face..” She brought friends and they all sit and share a coffee. As he’s sitting across from Monica she asks him “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” She then looks over his shoulder and Gordon curiously, and with unease, turns back to see a scene ripped directly from “Fire Walk with Me” (The Twin Peaks Movie fitting in between seasons two and three-but also being a prequel to the series), only now in the dream’s black and white coloring, in which a younger version of himself is sitting in the FBI offices as he listens to Agent Cooper tell him about a dream he had, just before Philip Jeffries (David Bowie, whose character plays a big part in The Return and had to be reworked after his death as well) barges in and points a finger at Cooper. He asks Gordon, “Who do you think that is there?” which startles Gordon into remembering that very moment. Given the context of the show up until that point, this scene now carries more weight, and guides Gordon’s thought process towards the truth.

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There’s a great scene near the last few episodes when Norma (Peggy Lipton) has been considering franchising the RR cafe that has become a well known staple in both the town and the world of Twin Peaks. Norma eventually declines this notion, the other locations won’t take her recipes and handle them with care, they are simply looking to take the idea of the Double R and replicate it without taking the time or the details into consideration. The other restaurants follow her recipes only to profit from her success. They ignore her notes to get organic and naturally grown ingredients for their dishes and while this method may secure a firmer bottom line for the franchises’ bank accounts, the final product is devoid of the parts that made it stand out from the crowd. This seems to me to be akin to Lynch laying out his thoughts on the creative process, the migraines of marketing, and selling ideas to those that don’t get what made it special in the first place, and I can respect that.

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Mark Frost and David Lynch made something ethereal with this return to their Twin Peaks property. Particularly so after watching and digesting the final two episodes of the series. Personally, I found this culmination of the show to be incredibly gratifying. I know some of the audience really despised the end of the show, but it’s very nature isn’t new to Twin Peaks. Part seventeen was essentially groundbreaking for a television show, circumventing expectation and giving fans a bit of what they wanted and other things that were likely as unexpected as it gets. I won’t dive into all of the details, some things are best left discovered naturally, but I found it to be somewhat cyclical. A far cry from the cliffhanger that we got in season two. Who needs a resolution anyways? Twin Peaks is now open-ended because it symbolizes the conflict between the steadfast nature of good and the omnipresence of evil. This isn’t something that has an end, but rather an ongoing cycle of the nature of the universe that humanity is tangled in.

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Twin Peaks: The Return was an exciting experience for me because it defied all of my expectations of what a series is or can be, it even defied most notions of film structure. I applaud everyone that worked to make it happen and encourage all artists to create without bounds, we need more originality in our entertainment. Hopefully Frost and Lynch shook people awake from our own dreams so that we too may create something as odd and unexpected as Twin Peaks.