Hello, my children! Welcome back. Were your holidays filled with joy and charity and goodwill towards all living things? I hope so! And I hope you aren't freezing to death right not in the cold!
Anyway, welcome to 2018. How best to ring in the new year, writing-wise? Well, how about some movies? I have nothing to reflect on about 2018 yet - I mean, I've got a cold and I'm sick, so that's my only yarn - and hey, awards season is up soon! So...
Without further ado, I give you my top ten of 2017!
10. "Gerald's Game"
Remember when I talked about this movie's scariness? I fear that may have taken away from its wonderfully humanistic soul. Because really, aren't the best horror movies those with a beating, human core? The Exorcist uses an exorcism to tell a tale of a priest finding salvation through one last good deed, and a mother venturing to the supernatural to save her child.
Psycho is the story of a boy who tragically couldn't escape his mother's toxic influence. Gerald's Game is one woman's being boxed in with her demons with no way out except that of a bloody solution - though the real death is keeping her traumas quiet, of letting them dwell in her head. At least this makeshift prison of a getaway house's bed and handcuffs allows her a dialogue with those traumas that lead to a breakthrough. By being trapped in hell, she can escape purgatory at last.
Director Mike Flanagan's claustrophobic atmosphere does indeed make us feel like Jesse's in a limbo between life and death, where every light and shadow is hers, waging war. And that's not even mentioning the triumph over the bonds of masculinity that entrap girls and women every day.
A horror equal to being left handcuffed to a bed to die. Carla Gugino's performance of a lifetime is just the cherry on top of a multilayered, unique story that hints at a great new direction thrillers and horror stories can take from here on out - and the soul they will hopefully embrace.
And again, like Gerald's Game, last time I discussed this movie, it focused on its horrifying aspects. While Gerald's Game horror is its foundation, Dunkirk has a whole other plethora of things I can rave about. How about the fact that Christopher Nolan has finally - thank GOODNESS - eschewed the laborious, often clunky exposition that's bedecked many of his other projects, even his most iconic works.
Maybe the masterful facial acting, delivered by mostly newcomers nonetheless? For a director who usually is consumed by cosmically grand ideas, the tiniest gesture here - a look, a movement, a foot shuffle - exists as a human movement of gargantuan proportions, intensified by the mass vortex of death and fear on the beaches of Dunkirk. Do you see, film directors?
Do you see what happens when you don't arrogantly brush off critique, but absorb it and blend it with the best of your techniques (here, the magnificent and epic staging of Dunkirk, a tangible (literally!) stage of history brought vivaciously to life)? You get stuff like this! I'm nearly tempted to tell you not to bother, now that it's out of theaters - this was the experience of a lifetime, built to be seen like a grand circus exhibition of old.
But then I'd be doing a disservice to a story that illustrates the chilling namelessness and highly impersonal nature of war and soldiers, where comrades are nearly tallies to be crossed off by bloodthirsty enemies. Someone said it's impossible not to make a film that glorifies war, I forget who; but I think Nolan's come pretty damn close.
8. "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi"
I am a big Star Wars fan, so let's get that out of the way. Never has a mythos successfully blended as many cultural touchstones like this franchise, whether it be a Shakespearean tragedy, classic adventure, or the heroics found in the darkest of wars across all seas and times.
But like all franchises, no matter how fundamental to the American pop culture upbringing it is, it is just a franchise. It risks growing stale, boring, or falling in love with itself to exist as nothing more than a fan's love letter. For that, I'm baffled that legions of disgruntled fanboys want the film to be a slave to its own mythos and formula rather than doing something truly bold.
They'll never be satisfied, and I'm so relieved Rian Johnson knew that and ran with it. This is a ballsy franchise entry, it's a ballsy deconstruction and reconstruction of everything about this series, and I'm surprised Disney actually let it happen. This film dared to do stuff I never thought the series would do.
Characters are freed from their iconic perceptions, and allowed to exist as people - Luke Skywalker is a metaphysical collection of beautiful acting, melancholy reflection on that shift that gives the film such pathos it eclipses the other installments by far. I think this was the first Star Wars movie to yank tears from my eyes. There's a scene involving hyperspace halfway through that certainly made my jaw drop, but I won't spoil anything.
Developments burdened by fan speculation and formula don't give in to those speculations but shrug them aside with breathtaking gusto and unpredictability. Its explicit refute of a past which has been a slave to tradition, breeding repetitive mistakes in return, stir thoughts not only the series so far but on the application of myth-making in general - and in turn, makes this chapter iconic in ideas and imagery.
So add that to America's legendary tale, and you've got something that's endlessly exciting and a door to untold ways to continue many more iconic franchises.
Oh, and let's face it, none of the other Star Wars movies were ever this funny - in an organic, natural and zippy way to boot! Ah. Organic laughs. Good stuff.
7. "Lady Bird"
We take good editing for granted, that is a fact. This film's editing is nothing short of a miracle, throwing us into both whirlwind of memory and the roaring wave of adolescence. And that's only the first thing that came to mind when I think of this film's marvelous aspects.
Everything here would be painfully rote in the hands of lesser storytellers, but director Greta Gerwig knows better. I think what I found most exciting was that above all, Gerwig knows that growing up is breathless - beliefs are rung around, time flies and events occur like nothing, and people come and go save for a few.
I haven't really seen that in any other coming-of-age, which really go for either the mundane nature of that life stage or the aimless adventure of youth; more than pointing out that novel angle, directing it is a whole new feat. Hell, I haven't even reached the film's shining trump card, its core elevating to it to one of the all-time greats in terms of character study and depictions of a familial relationship.
Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson and her mother Marion are two halves of one of cinema's best duos ever, and it's even sweeter that it's a mother and daughter that we're free to witness with the narrative not imposing anyone else on their development. Sure, this is Lady Bird's tale and dozens of characters drift in and out of her life, but Gerwig lets their relationship revolve around really just them: their words, their fights, their reconciliations, their similarities, and suddenly we have a portrait of intergenerational gold.
Of course, it's proudly mother-daughter, and so we have something both universal and specific to one family relationship. Like Penrose steps, it's a cycle that loops back around to itself, to the understanding we strive to create between our parents and children - not so much a problem, but a journey, that never ends. And therein is why this film is one of the few to have 100% on Rottentomatoes.
6. "Get Out"
This might just be the movie that perfectly, grippingly, ingeniously is the embodiment of 2017 zeitgeist. The fear of being a minority even - perhaps especially - amongst those who claim to be your friends and protect you from their fellow oppressors. When you know you cannot escape from the all-consuming system because that system has infiltrated nearly everything or everyone around you. I don't think I can count on one hand all the movies that capture a year AND put out a whole bunch of terrors, laughs, terrific performances, thrills, and cheers all at the same time.
This is lightning in a bottle. We may not see it like for a long, long time. Also, the last time I discussed this film, I never pointed out how ridiculously entertaining it is. Not because it doesn't trust its audience to grasp its razor-sharp commentary on modern-day race relations - but because everyone is on top of their game. Delroy Lindo makes sure his comic relief is perfectly hilarious.
Lead actor Daniel Kaluuya doesn't just grasp the nuances of a black man who wants to give the system the benefit of the doubt for just a weekend, he turns every small action into a lunge for survival. Cinematographer Toby Oliver fills every frame with tremendous depth and power, to let the continuous dread creep towards you.
Director Jordan Peele - God, good for you, man - lets his comic timing translate beautifully to the pressure cooker of tension that builds to a nearly unfathomable degree. No, I don't think the acclaim lies solely in this film's timeliness, though you'll never see me not praise that. I think the acclaim lies in the fact that it's a goddamned excellently made movie.
5. "The Lost City of Z"
How can you not love a movie that acknowledges the inherent flaws of an archetype - in this case, the bold explorer - and uses that to create an introspective analysis of why we hold such people to regard we do now? This could have been a slick, but pointless and boring throwback were it not for that compelling central idea. And thank heck for that, because then I can gush about the sheer style on display here. Wow! Talk about transportive.
It's special - I feel like I've been thrust not to the time period itself, but to the time when this period was so commonly told. Thus we get a new age critique with an old-fashioned window, and we're thrust into a beautiful, dreamlike in-between. That blend of time periods translates into the film's blending of history and myth, and the intoxicatingly mystical odyssey of Percy Fawcett's Amazonian obsession begins. Studios, you know, when you let Charlie Hunnam talk in his natural accent, it truly does give him plenty of leeways to turn in fantastic performances.
And Robert Pattinson? Maybe it's cause he looks like a deranged version of my brother in this, but I love him here. He has this quiet observance, pushed out through those great feral eyes of his. Talk about remarkable restraint yet such remarkable scope! This movie feels huge, but never indulgent. No massive set pieces, which actually help each jungle detour feel more coherent and unified. Romantic, but never cloying.
Give it to the score, give it to the succulent cinematography (they aped Lean and Herzog, and made it into their own beast), or the wonderful dreamlike consciousness that permeates the entire story. Half mythic, half true, the film is at once a testament to Percy Fawcett's indomitable psyche, and a haunting descent into the depths of his obsession.
The third act is both haunting and serene in how it plays like some sort of final apotheosis for Fawcett - a man now fully consumed by his legend, bringing his son into the family's jungle domain and welding into one.
4. "John Wick: Chapter 2"
Right? Yeah, imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when this climbed so high on the list. I wouldn't attribute it only to the technical skill on display here - dizzyingly coherent and flourishing fight choreography, a precise impressionistic color scheme - but the world building that the technical skill serves in a grander scheme.
The coloring and framing are made as the guide to John's further descent into the hellish criminal underworld, and that choreography serves as horrifyingly straightforward exhibition of the killer monster he thought he was, no longer. Every sequel should strive to do what JWC2 does with the bombast it imports.
That interesting hit man mythology from the first? Expanded to an international degree! The complexity of a bad man who thought he was good, forced to be bad again? Left spiraling downward until our protagonist has become a straight force of death! I've never seen an action film commit itself so much to being mythic.
Just look at that image cap! It's beautiful, and quite frankly, leaves me with a deep desire to see more myth-making like that. It'd be a criminal underselling to call this an action sequel; it's an exploration of the modern hitman, having been so elevated into a godlike figure, blown up tenfold. The tragedy hits like opera.
Characters aren't there just for plot, but to inhibit the worst, best, and complex of this world. John Wick Chapter 2 isn't just one of the greatest sequels I've ever seen - it's a hopeful glimpse into the future of the poetic blockbuster.
Plus, rule of thumb: if you have Ian McShane as the manager of a hotel for assassins who actually has untold power over quite possibly the entire world, your movie automatically has like, three stars.
3. "The Florida Project"
Where there is grandeur, there is destitution. Where there is magic, crushing realism dwells around the corner. Where innocence thrives, cruelty waits to overwhelm it. The Florida Project doesn't follow a specific set of themes, only those guidelines. And in a country as woefully imbalanced - economically, morally, and societally - as America, Sean Baker's sophomore effort might be the most damning and most heartfelt portrait of that imbalance thus far.
How can we go somewhere and savor the luxury of artificiality when there are living and breathing people suffering in that very area? It's a sobering question, one I'm sure the right-outside-Disney Floridian setting of the movie hits many of us hard. There's no straight answer, only a variety of attempted answers that those suffering try their best to fix.
And until that higher echelon decides to break the imbalance, nothing's going to happen - but at least the children don't have to know that just yet. At least they can find a little magic in their lives. Brooklynn Prince, starring as our feisty, troublemaking, eternally optimistic (no, she never gets cloying, as she's plenty flawed and desperate in equal measures) protagonist Moonee serves as half of a doomed duo, alongside Bria Vinaite as her self-destructive, forever young teen mother Halley.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that these two are newcomers and holy shit, could they have fooled me into thinking they're master veterans. Prince carries this movie on her tiny little back, bringing us along on her misadventures like an impish circus master.
Veterans like Willem Dafoe, who plays a hotel manager that knows these two will be separated by Halley's arrested development and knows he may be the only one in some semblance of power watching out for these people. Yeah, he kills it, honestly, using that longstanding uneasiness to bolster an unequaled warmth.
At once a tale of economic disparity and class hierarchy, at other times a beautiful glimpse at fleeting childhood innocence, The Florida Project is an American fairytale - for better or for worse - and needs seeing. The ending, by the way, left me in tears.
Speaking of movies that made me leave the theater with fresh tear marks on my face! And yes, seeing Mexican culture so faithfully and proudly brought to the helm of a big screen blockbuster is an incontrovertibly wonderful thing to witness, and I don't care what anyone says. This movie's proof of why diversity is not only the morally correct strategy but a pragmatic illustration as well: it brings perspectives that wield wonders, ones that narrow-mindedness might have obstructed.
The afterlife customs scene might be one of the most joyously creative wonderland holes to go through since the bathhouse of Spirited Away. It was at that scene I knew Pixar wasn't trying just to make a high product adventure, but to craft something iconic on top of that.
That's not even getting into the fact that this story runs on emotion, rather than logic - a welcome respite in today's age of nitpickers, verbal spectacle being the new trend, and snark held as the most valued character trait - and is all the better for it. I mean, this film simply cherishes the feeling of a story, not the mechanics of it. How many other $150 million+ budgeted flicks have you seen where the climax involves a boy sorrowfully singing his great-grandmother a song in order to help her remember a family member long gone?
Yeah, I know, I'm choking up thinking about that too. Like Disney's Moana, Coco takes full advantage of the inherent power of the musical language as expression, backed by a cultural bedrock. And it'd be one thing if the world of the dead was only a sumptuously realized piece of imaginative explosion, but better yet - it takes us on one of the most universal explorations of death and memory without ever becoming too grim or too childish. I was afraid Dia De Los Muertos would merely serve as a pretty backdrop to help Pixar check off their global tally, but there are such honesty and examination here that's missing from most art house films. Honesty is the keyword - I never felt manipulated into feeling the way I did.
There's true passion on display here, and an electrifying look at what blockbusters could be made with flaring heart and soul. I'd namedrop some of the film's incredible songs for you to listen to in order to whet your appetite but the truth is, I hope you go into this adventure as blind as I was.
I promise, I PROMISE, that one of these days, you'll see a movie everyone recognizes - and go 'ah! A real crowd pleaser!' - but you know, it's the ones you discover on your own, that sneak up on you, almost privately alongside a select group, that grip you most. I didn't even see a trailer for this movie, my best friend (Yeon Ju, for the record) invited me to a screening at the New York Asian Film Festival and I said eh, why not!
This Filipino gem is at the top of the list, for one solitary reason: it's got all of my favorite stuff. Simple as that. It's not as painterly as John Wick, heartrendingly cathartic as Coco, or unabashedly raw as Lady Bird - but it doesn't need to be. We have a dark, but transformative coming of age of a young woman as she combats - and ultimately refuses to be a part of - a horrible cycle of violence.
We have rampant police corruption swamping our other young protagonist's first few days on the force, echoing the fascist slam of Rodrigo Duterte's iron-fisted rule of the country in real life. We have a co-existence between humanity and nature, infested and challenged by each other, in a war that never ends. We have another battle in the form of cynicism versus innocence, the former trying its best to snuff out the latter. Cycles, hope, nature, animals - all my favorite things. Oh, yes, and the movie juggles all of these near perfectly.
You'd think so many themes would weigh down the plot (which, by the way, concerns the paths crossing of a young girl and rookie policeman after she shoots down a government protected eagle in her woodland home, amidst a troubling local police case) but the filmmakers make sure to have that exposure reflect our protagonists' entry into a darker world, resulting in a dizzyingly raw journey into night. Its topics and settings are so specific that I can't help but cherish my experience watching this film as a strike of lightning. If you stumble upon it, I truly hope that specialty comes your way too - it's a hell of a film.