The Best of Cinema 2017

•January 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Of the 37 films I saw in theaters this year, these were my ten favorites.

10. Okja

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Bong Joon-Ho’s attraction to fantastical premises with real world consequences produces its greatest fruition here, largely thanks to the emotional core between Ahn Seo-hyun’s determined performance and the beautifully realized super pig.

9. Phantom Thread

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Daniel Day-Lewis’ assumedly final cinematic performance is one of microscopic precision, and Vicky Kreips nearly matches him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s most straightforward film to date, an elegant exploration of the multilayered dynamics between artist and muse.

8. Lady Bird

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Making its claim as an essential entry in the pantheon of coming of age stories, Greta Gerwig’s effortless directorial debut feels both deeply personal and completely universal,  in which the trials and tribulations of adolescence are ideally encapsulated in Saorsie Ronan.

7. Last Flag Flying

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Postwar trauma and grief are notoriously difficult subject matter, but Richard Linklater gracefully manages a delicate balance between grave emotion and needed moments of levity, with his trio of veteran actors all committing nuanced and layered portrayals.

6. A Ghost Story

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Elliptical and meditative, David Lowery’s exploration of the afterlife is less a narrative and more a spare and poem, examining the fleeting intimacy of home, and the enormity of time.

5. Personal Shopper

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Kristen Stewart’s enigmatic and offhand nature yields a career high, as her second collaboration with Olivier Assayas both haunts and provokes in this slippery genre bender.

4. The Post

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Pursing moral obligation in the face of heavy opposition has been a theme of late for Steven Spielberg, and he gives it a vigorously thrilling cinematic thrust in the world of investigative journalism, purposely intentioned to hit the zeitgeist, and mindfully spearheaded by Streep and Hanks.

3. Blade Runner 2049

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If the 1982 classic was the appetizer, Denis Villeneuve’s stunning sequel is the main course, retaining just enough ambiguity with a fascinating premise on the future of humanity, brought to life with extraordinary visual world building and shouldered by the reliably refined Ryan Gosling.

2. Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s audaciously structured film is a rare vision of the immediacy of war, dispensing with blood and gore and instead fixating on sheer tension and the near certainty of death, bolstered by marvelous technical contributions and an unflinching ensemble.

1. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

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Diving headfirst into the merits and perils of both defying the past and forging a new future, the latest entry in the greatest soap opera of all time has polarized its rabid fan base like never before, and it’s a credit to Rian Johnson’s unwavering insistence on pushing the narrative and characters into unexpected territory that this Star Wars film will be fervently discussed for years to come.

Honorable Mentions: Coco, Logan Lucky, Song to Song, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wind River

Overrated: Wonder Woman

Underrated: Free Fire

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Review: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

•December 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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It might be the most popular film series of cinematic history, but Star Wars has a long history of defying expectations. From the very beginning in 1977, George Lucas proved many doubters wrong (including himself), with a film that was deemed far too strange and idiosyncratic to be bankable. But after Star Wars proved to be a massive hit, Lucas didn’t rest on his laurels. Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi dared to show the capacity for Luke Skywalker to succumb to the darkness within himself, and even more stunningly bring Darth Vader back to the light. Years later, the prequel trilogy fully explored the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, showing how the fear of loss can transform an innocent boy into a tyrannical fascist. And now with the sequel trilogy, we’ve already seen how our old heroes are no longer the same characters we remember from the original trilogy . Not only does Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi build upon the rock solid foundation of The Force Awakens, but it also continues defying expectations in its narrative and characters, perhaps fundamentally changing our perception of the galaxy far, far away.

The Resistance may have destroyed Starkiller Base at the end of The Force Awakens, but there’s no time to celebrate. The First Order is lashing out with a fury, coming straight for our heroes’ base as they try to escape. Meanwhile, far away on the planet of Ahch-To, Rey  (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) at long last, desperate to bring him back into the fight. However, what she finds in Skywalker is not resolve, but resignation. Consumed by guilt and failure over the fall of Ben Solo, Luke has no intentions of helping anyone, and has closed himself off from the Force entirely. Now feeling more isolated than ever, Rey’s greatest test not only rests in confronting Luke, but also turning to an unexpected confidant. On the other end of the spectrum, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) finds himself equally conflicted in a different way. Having just killed his father, Ren believes he’s proven his absolute worth to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and yet he finds himself chastised. Smoke begins doubting whether Kylo is indeed powerful enough if he suffered a defeat from a mere scavenger like Rey. Humiliated and completely insecure, Kylo now goes to extreme lengths to make himself a worthy successor to the legacy of Darth Vader.

“This is not going to go the way you think,” says Luke Skywalker at a crucial juncture in The Last Jedi. Indeed, this is the operative mantra for the entire film. Nearly every scene plays against audience expectations to one degree or another, setting things up in one way, but often resolving in an unexpected manner. This isn’t to say that the film is full of twists, but rather a fair amount of surprises. Director Rian Johnson has shown a knack in his previous work of taking well worn genre tropes and turning them on their ear, and that savinness pays huge dividends here. Admittedly, a few of these beats take getting used to early on, especially a few early dramatic moments undercut by comedy. However, once the film settles into its groove, the pacing is mostly on point, and an ideal balance is struck between genuine stakes and needed moments of levity. The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars film to date, and at times feels like it, with one somewhat repetitive narrative thread and seemingly two third acts, but its final resolution is cathartic enough to merit the prolonged structure.

The strongest success of The Last Jedi is taking the characters and putting them through the grinder, many of them facing their biggest challenges to date. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has a strong arc in the film, coming to learn what true leadership means, and comes into conflict with not only First Order but his superiors in the Resistance as well. The passing of Carrie Fisher sadly makes this the final Star Wars film with Leia, but her performance is immensely satisfying and even surprising, and ultimately gives the character some sense of completion. Finn (John Boyega) remains unsure of himself, and finds some newfound motivation when he sets off on a crucial mission with Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Rose has suffered hardship in war, and her wild adventure with Finn ends up pushing both characters outside of their comfort zones. Rey’s journey in The Last Jedi is an even deeper process of self discovery than The Force Awakens, and Daisy Ridley once again shines, tapping into a wellspring of emotions as she deals with rejection and the truths of her past. Kylo Ren established himself as one of the most multilayered characters in Star Wars, and now unburdened by his mask in The Last Jedi, Adam Driver truly gets to dig deeper. Snoke comes further to the fore in this film, and Andy Serkis imbues him with a deliciously malevolent presence that distinguishes itself enough from a character like Emperor Palpatine, if not quite matching him. And of course, there’s Luke. In truth, Mark Hamill has given the best collective performance across the entire saga as Luke Skywalker. Hamill has an uncanny ability to say so much and yet do very little. A simple glance from his eyes can communicate entire volumes of unspoken dialogue, and with The Last Jedi, we’re faced with a Luke Skywalker who is far removed from the man we once knew. Suffice to say that Luke’s arc here is perhaps the most profound of all, and possibly changing our perception of the character permanently.

While The Last Jedi is likely to be as endlessly quotable as any of the films, it’s equally visually stunning. The photography by Steve Yedlin follows a bit of a darker color palette, with striking compositions in dramatic moments, and whiz bang athletics when the action kicks in. The locations play a huge part in the film as well, with three new planets serving the film’s structure. Introduced late in The Force Awakens, the island on the planet of Ahch-to is as dizzyingly beautiful as it is treacherous. Finn and Rose travel to an opulent casino in the city of Canto Bight, where crazy hijinks are bound to ensue. It’s another entry in the “hive of scum and villainy,” except this time, all the locals are ridiculously wealthy. Finally, the salt flat planet of Crait sets the stage for a major clash between the Resistance and First Order, and it might be one of the most striking planets in any of the films to date. The thin layer of white salts dust over the top of a blood red mineral crust, portending a potentially traumatic conflict. The creatures in The Last Jedi are also beautifully realized, whether through practical or digital means. The best of these are the avian porgs native to Ahch-To, likely to take their place as the most adorable creatures in the saga to date.

Naturally, action is an integral component of Star Wars (indeed, it’s half the title), and The Last Jedi delivers several hugely satisfying set pieces. While Rian Johnson has never worked on anything of this scale before, you’d never know it by the deft editing and structuring of these sequences. But like all of the great Star Wars action sequences, these scenes don’t exist merely for the sake of spectacle. There are genuine stakes here with character testing moments throughout, especially in the film’s exhilarating second half. One scenario in particular is absolutely bonkers in both its shocking inception and in its shattering resolution. Of course, none of these rip roaring scenes have half their import without sound, and the design here is not only consistent with the high standards of the saga, but also in creating new sounds for creatures, weapons and vehicles. Last but certainly not least, John Williams returns for his eighth outing, providing several new themes while building on old ones. Williams’ music has always been the true heartbeat of these films, and he doesn’t disappoint in augmenting both moments of exhilaration and ones of deeply lasting resonance.

Speculation is an inherent part of discussing Star Wars, but by the time The Last Jedi concludes, it’s quite tough to say how this saga might conclude. It’s worth reflecting then, upon just how much this film does with not only with arcs of the characters but also the development of the themes of the saga. Star Wars has now firmly established itself as one of the great soap operas of all time, and that is in no way a demeaning classification. This saga has now fully bloomed into what Mark Hamill has called “a multi-generational, modern day myth.” We’ve now seen how multiple generations of people and family members have gone through similar experiences across three trilogies, but what matters are the different choices they make. Ultimately those crucial decisions not only define the characters, but the family as a whole. In The Last Jedi, character trajectories and destinies are fundamentally altered, and more importantly, perhaps the outcome lies not in darkness or light, but somewhere in the middle.

Review: The Shape of Water

•December 6, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Fantasy and science fiction have existed in storytelling for hundreds and even thousands of years, fostering countless narratives that serve as parables for the times in which they are set. Hundreds of students of these genres have crafted stories of their own, and in the modern era of cinema, Guillermo Del Toro is one of these genres’ chief enthusiasts. He employs conventions of these forms of storytelling and adjusts them to his own particular interests. The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s latest foray into historical fantasy, an earnest tale which perhaps doesn’t defy expectations so much as lovingly fulfills them.

In the early 1960s, the Cold War is anything but, and tensions are on the rise between the Soviets and the Americans. Although mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a major government scientific research facility, she isn’t bothered much by the escalating friction abroad. She mostly keeps to herself and her work, until an unexpected presence enters her life. A strange creature from South America was captured and brought to the facility by a government operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon), who employs nefarious tactics to keep Soviet spies at bay. The creature (played by Doug Jones) is human and amphibious in nature, elegantly built and proportioned, but equally deadly if crossed. When cleaning up after an accident, Elisa recognizes a bond with it, and gradually a friendship and perhaps something more blossoms between the two.

In many ways, The Shape of Water is very much Del Toro’s take on the classical tale of a beauty and a beast. In this case, the connection forged between the two is nearly instantaneous, but it springs from emotionally resonant sources. Elisa sees much of herself in the creature, misunderstood and feared by those around her. She takes every opportunity to visit it, and ultimately wants to free it from human shackles. Sally Hawkins’ wordless performance is the heart of the film, communicating everything with gestures and facial expressions. One scene in particularly reaches genuinely touching heights when Elisa passionately explains to her landlord, Giles (Richard Jenkins), why she cares so deeply for this ostensibly strange creature. The creature himself is a marvel of makeup and physical effects, par for the course in any Del Toro film. Doug Jones’ body language enhances the creature even further, offering occasional glimpses of humanity underneath the alien presence. The other members of the ensemble are all quite reliable as well. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, Elisa’s closest friend and confidant at work, as well as the film’s best source of humor. Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist is right in the actor’s wheelhouse of anxious but earnest portrayals, and it’s no surprise that Michael Shannon’s Strickland is the primary villain of the film. Shannon is quite effective (he can do these snarls in his sleep), but some of the narrative detours into the character’s personal life strain to show a human face behind the film’s true monster.

All of the craftsmanship in The Shape of Water is up to snuff with Del Toro’s high standards. Dan Lautsen’s deep focus photography plays right into the film’s aquatic color palette, and marries nicely with visual effects for a couple key underwater sequences. The film’s Cold War era setting makes Paul D. Austerberry’s production design the film’s strongest technical asset, from the sterile and oppressive lab environments, to the unfussy simplicity of Elisa’s apartment. However, despite Del Toro’s firm grasp on the tactile environments, these settings rarely serve a larger thematic purpose. While the Cold War makes for a suitably chilling and austere time period, some of Del Toro’s broader political commentary simply exists for the functions of the plot. Perhaps this is to say that the love story between Elisa and the creature could have taken place in any location and in any era. Ultimately, the central bond is what resonates most, and is Del Toro’s reverential point in crafting this timeless fairy tale.