Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Best of 2017 So Far

As I look back on 2017, I find it is time to search for my Ten Best Films of 2017 So Far.  I say 'So Far' because I have a lot more films to watch, which means that this list will be updated.  However, at the moment I have 50+ films for this year, so it seems as good a time to look back.

Now, I should point out that as this list consists of films I have seen, my list may differ from other of my fellow reviewers.  I can't judge a movie I haven't seen.  So, with no further ado, let's go over My Ten Best Films of 2017 So Far from Ten to One.

I despair sometimes about the state of Christian cinema.  Sometimes they can be good (War Room) sometimes they can be shockingly awful (God's Not Dead 2).  Just because I am a Christian does not mean I will give a faith-based film a pass, but I won't condemn it offhand either.

The Case for Christ is a bit of a misnomer, given that the film does not set out to make an actual case for Christ.  Instead, it's a biopic of a good but flawed man, Lee Strobel, and his journey from atheist to believer.  It is his journey to Him, and while it is clear that Strobel's investigation led him to Christ, it is also the portrait of a sinner, no different than you or I, with his own struggles and issues.  Strobel's everyman qualities makes this not a screed for Christianity but the story of one man's spiritual journey.

It also helped that it had actual actors who may or may not be Christians.  It was a professional production intent to tell a story, not a sermon.

09.) Dunkirk

Unlike other war films, Dunkirk does not focus on heroics.  Far from it: its on-the-ground manner focuses on the unnamed soldiers' fears and desperation as they fight to live another day.  Yet we don't see hysterics or defeatism.  Instead, Dunkirk relies on a lot of quiet strength, both visually and story-wise, slowly moving towards making these men not superheroes but ordinary men and boys, caught in terrifying circumstances but determined to hold on.

We don't get big moments or big names (even One Direction pop star Harry Styles' debut is not played up, a marketing curiosity).  Sometimes the characters don't even have names.  That allows for a focus on the collective experience without making them shadows.  Dunkirk honors the men at this crossroads of history without making their experiences fodder for war-cheerleading.

It is an homage to literal courage under fire.

This animated tale of forgiveness and tolerance moved me emotionally, even if it felt rather long.  A Silent Voice drew attention to the issue of bullying and physical disabilities without being mawkish or lecturing.  Instead, despite being animated, it proved remarkably lifelike and authentic, a story about the power of forgiving and forgiving yourself.

With beautiful animation and a compelling story, A Silent Voice will move viewers to a deeper level of understanding and compassion for both the bullied and the bulliers.

07.) Jane

The first of three documentaries on my Top Ten List, Jane is a portrait of a true pioneer and icon: Dr. Jane Goodall.  Using recently-rediscovered footage shot by her future husband, Jane is a tribute to a heroine for all ages, who ventured into so many unknowns: unknown field, unknown region, unknown territory for a woman, and made scientific breakthroughs.  Jane is lifted up by a brilliant score from the legendary Philip Glass and with Dr. Goodall looking back with the same grace and dignity which she has led her life and work.

At a time when the rage is to make all-female reboots of classics (Ghostbusters, Lord of the Flies, Ocean's 8) and male characters are changed to females (Doctor Who, The Greatest American Hero) to have 'representation' and 'equality', when we're told that these are needed so 'little girls can have positive role models',  I would suggest showing these little girls Jane.  Goodall did not need to talk about 'gender equality' or 'representation'.

She went out and did it.

This true-life story about the J. Paul Getty III kidnapping found itself embroiled in scandal when Kevin Spacey, having completed his work in the film, was accused of sexual assault by a group of men when they were boys.   Spacey was immediately replaced by Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty, the parsimonious oil tycoon who would not pay to rescue his favorite grandson.

I think Plummer was better as Getty, though perhaps we will never have a chance to see a comparison or the Spacey performance in an alternate version.  However, regardless of the scandal, All the Money in the World itself is a tremendous effort, a riveting and tragic story with sharp performances by Plummer and Michelle Williams as the distraught mother batting all sides to save her child.

The second of three documentaries to make my Top Ten List, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 makes the case that the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the four officers involved, and the ensuing riot that occurred as a result were not isolated incidents, but instead the end result of decades of police response and growing unease among the races.

The chaos, horror, violence and heroism of those dark days are chronicled with interviews and archival footage, reminding us that these issues are still haunting us, the road from Florence & Normandy leading to Charlottesville.

A bit of a companion piece to Dunkirk, Darkest Hour goes to the highest levels of power in those critical days and months of Britain's entry into World War II, when the fate not just of the Empire but of democracy itself faced its greatest peril up to that point.  With a tour de force performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour also has strong work from Kristen Scott Thomas as Clementine, the woman behind the man.

It may not be the final word on this iconic Briton, but Darkest Hour does give us not just the lofty speeches but also the more quiet moments of his early days as Prime Minister: the anxiety, the concern, the political maneuvering all around him.  We get an idea of who this man was, and more importantly, what kind of people the British were as they began the ordeal of a second world war.

03.) Coco

As a Hispanic, I look carefully on matters of representation.  Coco may be in part inspired by the idea of having more minority characters (Mulan, The Princess & The Frog, the upcoming Aladdin remake and even the Beauty & The Beast remake of this year), but it also has a universal appeal because of its themes of family and tradition.

Coco has spellbinding animation, a cute albeit familiar story, down to the 'shocking' twists that aren't shocking, and is hampered by mostly forgettable songs (Remember Me...I don't).  Despite its familiar beats and somewhat predictable story, I still was emotionally moved by Coco and don't find shame in admitting I shed at least one tear at the end.

02.) The Work

The third of three documentaries to make my Top Ten List, The Work has been shamefully overlooked by both the public and The Academy, failing to make the final list of potential nominees. This documentary about prison reform and rehabilitation is shocking, raw, honest and deeply, deeply moving.

The temptation to see the Inside Circle Foundation program that The Work chronicles as some kind of New Age hippy-drippy gibberish is there.  The program at one point does have some New Age music playing, and candles are lit.  The film, however, forces you to look at these hardcore convicts at Folsom Prison for what they are: men, men with emotions, with pains, with their own issues apart from the brutality of some of their crimes.  The same goes for the civilians who are allowed to participate in these group therapy sessions.

The Work is a powerful document to the transformative power of being authentic, honest, and open about who you are and as powerful a nonfiction film as I will see this year.

The DC Extended Universe has had a bad run.  Poorly conceived, poorly thought-out, poorly executed, poorly received.  All but one of the DCEU films has been popular with both audiences and critics, and that same film is the only one that is actually good.

Again, going back to the idea of 'representation', what better representative of females can there be than Wonder Woman?  Sure, there's Mother Teresa, but we haven't had the definitive biopic of her yet.  Wonder Woman was not encumbered by the dead weight of the Extended Universe.  It was an origin story that made sense, that had genuine characters, and that had both action and heart.  Gal Gadot was born to play our Amazonian Princess, a characterization that showed Diana to be highly intelligent and compassionate, honest, strong, caring, and a lover of justice. The film  does not skimp on the action and even allows for genuine moments of comedy to pass through.

Wonder Woman is a Heroine For All Seasons, All Ages, and All Genders.

If I had a daughter, I would tell her that Wonder Woman makes for a better role model than the Thirteenth Doctor. 

Next Time, My Ten Worst Films of 2017 So Far.

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