Skip to content

Phantom Thread to The Post: 2017’s Best Movies

phantom-thread1

Ok, I’ve given out my Frettsies for the year’s best performances and picked 2017’s 10 Worst Movies, so you know what that means. It’s time for my Top 10 list! Click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

10. Dean I’d say writer-director-star Demetri Martin’s sardonic comedy was the year’s most overlooked movie, if not for the next two films on the list. It’s a sweet, smart love story between a father (Kevin Kline, note perfect) and his son (Martin) made with the singular tone and style of a born storyteller.

9. Mr. Roosevelt I’d say writer-director-star Nöel Wells’ sardonic comedy was the year’s most overlooked movie, if not for the next film on the list. It’s a sweet, smart love story between a comedian (Wells) and her titular dead cat, made with the singular tone and style of a born storyteller.

8. Patti Cake$ I’d say writer-director Geremy Jasper’s sardonic comedy is the year’s most overlooked movie… because it is. I don’t know why it didn’t bring in more $, but I didn’t  have a more viscerally exciting experience this year than watching and listening to Danielle McDonald’s Durty Jurzy rapper take lyrical flight.

OK, now on to the movies that have gotten the respect they deserved…

7. I, Tonya Margot Robbie and Allison Janney delivered the year’s most potent one-two punch as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding and her disgraceful yet somehow lovable mother. I, Bruce, found this movie gut-bustingly funny and strangely moving.

6. Get Out Jordan Peele’s social satire-slash-thriller is so scary-funny, it’s funny-scary. Also, I’ll never look at someone stirring their tea with a spoon the same way again.

5. The Post The only flaw in Steven Spielberg’s de facto prequel to All the President’s Men is its title. It was briefly called The Papers, which worked on at least two levels — as a reference to The Pentagon Papers, but also to The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which played key roles in breaking the story. (And I’m not just saying this because I freelance for The Times.) As Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep establish a crackling, Tracy-and-Hepburn-esque chemistry, and Spielberg is in the same classic, good old-fashioned movie mode that made Bridge of Spies and Lincoln so satisfying.

The-Post-header-620x420

4. The Florida Project A child’s-eye perspective on poverty that makes a motel on the outskirts of Disney World look like both the happiest and the saddest place on Earth, Sean Baker’s bracingly unsentimental drama features revelatory turns from Willem Dafoe as a flawed father figure and young Brooklynn Prince in one of the most natural performances ever given by a child on screen. And it ends with an artistic flourish that is nothing less than exhilarating.

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Frances McDormand is a national treasure. Martin McDonagh’s deep, dark comedy gives her the role of her life as a grieving mother who pursues the truth about her daughter’s death with a destructive fury, and she’s surrounded by an equally formidable ensemble: Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Nick Searcy. What an embarrassment of acting riches.

2. Phantom Thread The breathtaking symbiosis between writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis reaches its apotheosis with this fictional film that seems profoundly autobiographical for both of them. It’s the story of a man (in this case, a 1950s British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock) who’s so single-minded in his quest for perfection that he almost can’t function. The fact that this is allegedly Day-Lewis’ final film only adds pathos to the plot, which takes several unexpected turns I will not spoil after Woodcock becomes fixated on a new muse (the remarkable Vicky Krieps). Every detail, from Lesley Manville’s dry, subtle humor as Woodcock’s co-dependent sister Cyril to Jonny Greenwood’s sweeping score, is perfect, as Phantom Thread explores the mystery of love in a completely mesmerizing fashion. Fittingly, I’m not quite sure why I love it so, but I do.

And the year’s No. 1 movie is…

The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork manages the seemingly impossible feat of evoking classic monster movies, musicals and romances while simultaneously creating something wholly original that could only come from his brilliant, idiosyncratic vision. It’s a fish-out-of-water story crossed with a fish story, pureed in a Bass-o-matic. Oh, and that cast — Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, the always-wonderful Richard Jenkins, the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg, and yes, Nick Searcy  — they slip into their roles as seamlessly as Doug Jones dons his scale-tight suit. You can’t put your hands around The Shape of Water, but if you can’t feel it in your heart, you must be an amphibian.

 

Advertisements

Oh, mother! Oh, Baby Driver! 2017’s Worst Films

mother

It might not be a coincidence that two of my Top 3 most-read blog posts of 2017 were 5 Reasons Why Baby Driver Sucks and 5 Reasons Why mother! Sucks. Coming in between them was NY Asian Film Fest: Serial Killers, Porno & More! which probably reflects the popularity of the word “porno” in Google searches more than a deep interest among my readers in Asian cinema. One could theorize that “sucks” is an equally SEO-friendly word, but I’d like to think it’s because so many readers agree with me about these self-indulgent cinematic atrocities. Yet Baby and mother! were far from the only creative crimes perpetrated at our nation’s multiplexes this year. So here’s my Bottom 10 list. (Click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.)

MOTOE-Trailer-release-website

10. Murder on the Orient Express I’d call Kenneth Branagh’s punishingly slow we-know-whodunit the year’s most needless remake, but there’s an even worse one coming up on this list.

9. Wonder Wheel Woody Allen at his worst. And I saw Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

8. Fifty Shades Darker Anybody excited for the upcoming conclusion of the trashy trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, after enduring this flaccid sequel is a true masochist.

7. Table 19 Is it a formulaic rom-com? Or an mumblecore squirm-com? Neither — it’s more like being stuck at a really bad wedding.

6. Justice League It fell between the portentiousness of Zach Snyder and the snarkiness of Joss Whedon (who took over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy), and the profoundly mediocre result was anything but super.

5. Beauty and the Beast See needless remakes, above.

4. Baywatch And you thought Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was going to be Dwayne Johnson’s lamest pop-culture retread of 2017? Not even close.

3. mother! Can Jennifer Lawrence sue Darren Aronofsky for subjecting her to this brutally awful experience? Better yet, can I?

2. Baby Driver It wasn’t Kevin Spacey’s most egregious offense of 2017. But it was close. (I’m talking about his toupee! What did you think I meant?)

Fan_AnselElgortKevinSpacey_

And yes, there was a worse movie this year than mother! and Baby Driver

The Snowman! And yet my post, 5 Reasons Why the Snowman Blows, didn’t generate much traffic. Are people not interested in Michael Fassbender movies? (The evidence is mounting.) Or is “sucks” just a better headline word than “blows”?

Correction: The Snowman both sucks and blows.

The Frettsies: My 2017 Movie Awards

ShapeOfWater4

Most people I know are ready for 2017 to be over, but to my mind, it was a particularly good year for movies, which made the selection of my quasi-annual Frettsies for the big screen’s best performances especially challenging. Maybe that’s why I have cited so many performers for more than one film. (Hey, they’re my awards, I can make my own rules.) Click on the highlighted links for fuller reviews of the films. Without further adieu, here are the nominees… and winners.

Best Supporting Female Actor

Hong Chau, Downsizing

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Cathy Moriarty, Patti Cake$

Lois Smith, Lady Bird and Marjorie Prime

And the Frettsie goes to… Lois Smith, for her lovely turn as a sympathetic nun in Lady Bird and her shattering work as a woman losing her memory (and a reanimated version of the same character) in Marjorie Prime. At 87 — and more than 60 years after her film debut opposite James Dean in East of Eden — Ms. Smith is at the top of her game, as she proved in this SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&A I moderated with her.

Best Supporting Male Actor

Bill Camp, Hostiles, The Killing of a Sacred Deer & Molly’s Game

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World and The Man Who Invented Christmas

Nick Searcy, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Landline  (the one I was in, not the one with Edie Falco)

And the Frettsie goes to… Christopher Plummer, for masterfully playing two variations on the same theme, miserliness, as Money‘s J. Paul Getty (replacing Kevin Spacey and no doubt giving a much less hammy and prosthetics-free performance) and Christmas‘ Ebenezer Scrooge. Oh, and he’s even older than Lois Smith, at 88.

christopher-plummer-replaced-kevin-spacey-to-deliver-an-oscar-worthy-performance-in-the-thrilling-all-the-money-in-the-world

Best Lead Female Actor

Stephanie Beatriz, Light of the Moon

Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game and The Zookeeper’s Wife

Sally Hawkins, Maudie and The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

And the Frettsie goes to… Sally Hawkins, for her heartbreakingly beautiful portraits of two disabled women who communicate deep emotions, Maudie‘s arthritic artist and The Shape of Water‘s mute cleaning woman. A close second goes to Jessica Chastain, for her dazzlingly diverse roles as a poker shark in Molly’s Game and the leonine title character in the criminally underrated WWII drama The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Sally-Hawkins-Maudie-The-Shape-of-Water

Best Male Lead Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Sam Elliott, The Hero

Ethan Hawke, Maudie

Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

As tempted as I am to give the Frettsie posthumously to Harry Dean Stanton, who died at 91, shortly before his bittersweet swan song Lucky was released, it goes to… Sam Elliott, a relative youngster at 73. Still, he brought a lifetime of experience to his tailor-made role as a mustachioed, gravel-voiced movie cowboy facing a showdown with his own mortality.

legendary-actor-sam-elliott-explains-how-he-almost-f-ed-himself-out-of-a-career.jpg

Come back soon for my lists of the year’s 10 best and worst movies!

 

Does the New Jumanji Sequel Suck?

8002_5858

True confession: Even though I recently wrote an oral history of the original Jumanji for The New York Times, I’m not a huge fan of the movie. I was too old when it came out in 1995 to care about a kiddie comedy starring Robin Williams and a bunch of computer-generated monkeys. More than 20 years later, my expectations were even lower for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel of sorts reteaming Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart from Central Intelligence, a movie that looked so stupid I didn’t even see it.

Well, surprise, surprise: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t suck. It’s not exactly good, but it goes down painlessly enough. It bears almost no relationship to the original, except that it’s about a game (this time, it’s a video game) and the characters sometimes speak in rhymes. There’s a passing reference to Alan Parrish, the late Williams’ character, but it’s more of an inside joke than a plot point.

In fact, the film has more in common with The Breakfast Club than Jumanji. A group of disparate high-schoolers — a nerd, a jock, an outcast, and a princess — gets thrown together into detention. (Wait, where’s the rebel, you ask? He shows up later.) They’re magically sucked into the titular game, but instead of jungle creatures like elephants and rhinos storming through their small town, as in the original, they’re transported to an exotic locale where they must complete a mission to return a jewel to a jaguar-shaped rock formation’s eye.

Okay, it sounds lame, but the screenplay finds amusing variations on the idea that each of the teens has chosen an avatar very different from their own personalities: the geek is The Rock; the jock is little Kevin Hart; the outcast is bad-ass babe Karen Gillan; and the princess is Jack Black. Johnson shows new range and vulnerability, and Hart proves once again, as he does in his stand-up act, that he can make unfunny material sound funny through the sheer force of his delivery. Gillan is a smart and sexy revelation (perhaps because I’m not a big Doctor Who guy, and I’ve never seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, so I had no idea who she was). And Black gives his most gut-busting performance since the criminally underrated Nacho Libre.

The versatile Bobby Cannavale is wasted as the token villain, and Nick Jonas doesn’t bring much to the table as the fifth member of the Breakfast/Jumanji club, who joins the story in mid-stream. But director Jake Kasdan (reuniting with Black and Colin Hanks, who has a key cameo near the end, from another lost classic, Orange County) keeps the story moving along swiftly and doesn’t let the action overwhelm the comedy.

Will Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle change your life? No. Is it a decent way to kill two hours? Yes. Plus, it gives you a reason not to talk to your relatives over the holidays. That’s a whole different kind of jungle.

Is Romance Dead at the Movies?

Call-Me-By-Your-Name-Movie

Maybe this is why I’m still so single, but the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 2017 is The Shape of Water, a love story between a mute woman and a fish-man. In an attempt to remedy that situation, I saw two new films touted as great romances, Call Me By Your Name and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Unfortunately, both felt even longer than their complete-sentence titles.

That’s because I didn’t buy the central relationship of either story. Sexual chemistry, both on-screen and off, is a highly subjective business. I was swept away by the lighter-than-air dynamic between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in last year’s La La Land, but my fellow Cranky Guy Bret Watson thought they struck zero sparks.  (He also found The Shape of Water “soggy.” Remind me why we’re friends again?)

So despite all its critics’ group awards and Golden Globe nominations, I call bullshit on Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic mega-turd A Bigger Splash was my least favorite film of 2016, and while this is an improvement, it’s mostly because of two actors — and they’re not the love interests. As a 17-year-old American spending the summer of 1983 in Italy with his family, Timothée Chalamet builds on the promise of his performance in Lady Bird; he’s a young actor of rare sensitivity. And as his professor father, Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s also great in The Shape of Water — have I mentioned how much I love that movie?) proves he can render even the most ludicrous dialogue believable. Not only does he have to give a speech about the etymology of the word “apricot,” but he tells his boy, who has a fling with a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying at their villa, “Feel something you certainly did.” Who is this guy, Yoda? Oy.

We’re supposed to believe that the bond between Chalamet and Hammer is one for the ages. Why, because we see them riding bikes and swimming endlessly? Sure, it looks like fun, and Chalamet captures the exquisite pain of first love, but Hammer is as bland and colorless as baking soda. (Full disclosure: I may have disliked him so much in this movie because he reminded me of Todd, my roommate on a class trip to Mexico I took in 1983, when I was the same age as Chalamet’s character. Todd never took off his Walkman, and when you asked him what he was listening to, he’d always say, “Yaz, of course” in the most obnoxious way imaginable.)

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I have no problem with gay movies. I was in a gay movie. Admit it, that’s an even more convincing argument than “Some of my best friends are gay.” Which they are, by the way. My issue with Call Me By Your Name is that it’s sooo sloooow and boring and pretentious. The guys don’t even get it on until an hour and a half into this 132-minute slog. Then Chalamet has sex with a nectarine, which Hammer later fingers. I try to be an open-minded guy — I had no problem with the butter lube in Last Tango in Paris or the pastry-shtupping in American Pie — but this is a peach too far. (Did I mention I was in a gay movie? Okay, good.)

That leads me, somehow, to Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which runs only 106 minutes but feels twice as long. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell do technically solid work as Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning actress from 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and Peter Turner, a much younger actor who fell for her in the late ’70s. Sadly, this movie is more bad than beautiful, as director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) lets the pace lag and lingers on far too many close-ups of Bening’s face. (“Ooh, look at all those lines!” we’re meant to say. “How brave! Give her an Oscar!”) And again, it’s subjective, but I felt more sexual heat between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude than I did between Bell and Bening.

Maybe that’s why I’m still so single.

Killing for Love: The Murderers I Knew

maxresdefault

Everyone has freshman-dorm horror stories, but I’ve got a real one: During my first year at the University of Virginia, I lived in the same residence hall as a couple who would later be convicted of a double murder that took place while we were dorm-mates. Jens Soering was the socially awkward 18-year-old son of a German diplomat; Elizabeth Haysom was the worldly 20-year-old daughter of a retired businessman who had sent her to an English boarding school, where she said she’d used heroin. When Jens and Elizabeth started dating, people were surprised she chose him. When her parents were brutally stabbed to death over Spring Break at Loose Chippings, their Bedford, Va. home, people were shocked — not because we suspected they were involved, but because we felt so sorry for Elizabeth (and by extension, Jens).

The following fall, when Jens and Elizabeth went on the lam to Europe because police were closing in on them, people were stunned. The duo was arrested for passing bad checks and began the extradition process to the U.S. Jens initially confessed to the crimes, and Elizabeth pled guilty in 1987, claiming she stayed in Washington, D.C. over the long weekend of the incident to establish an alibi while Jens drove to the Haysoms’ home, where she hoped he would kill them. The motive for the murder was unclear; Elizabeth accused her mother of sexual abuse but recanted that allegation.

Before Jens’ 1990 trial, he changed his story, arguing he mistakenly believed he wouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty because of his family’s diplomatic immunity. He said he’d taken the proverbial bullet for Elizabeth, who had been the one to drive to Bedford from D.C. and killed her parents, because he was so blindly in love with her. He said he believed he could spare her life and would be able to reunite with her after he served a few years in Germany, where prison sentences are usually shorter.

Only after Virginia agreed to drop the death penalty was he returned to the States, where he stood trial in 1990. Despite his fresh contention that Elizabeth had slain her parents while he stayed in D.C. — and inaccuracies in his original confession about key details of the crime scene, suggesting that he might not have been there — he was convicted and received two life terms, served consecutively, with no mandatory parole. Because she pled guilty, Elizabeth cut a deal that guarantees her parole in 2030, when she’s 68.

In the years since his conviction, Jens has become a cause celebre, writing manifestos from prison and attracting support from lawyers, a pastor and other advocates. The case has been the subject of true-crime books as well as articles in the Washington D.C. City Paper and The New Yorker. Now there’s the inevitable documentary, Killing for Love, which has just been released on VOD. The sensational title, as well as the melodramatic Amazon plot summary (“What could make an innocent man take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit?”) indicate the filmmakers, Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, buy Jens’ revisionist tale. If you believe Jens didn’t actually murder the Haysoms, Killing for Love (which originally carried the less salacious moniker The Promise) is a confusing title. Should she have been the culprit, Elizabeth surely didn’t do it for love.

The film has a few minor factual inaccuracies: One of Jens’ die-hard backers extols his intelligence by noting he was both a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar and asserts that’s an exceedingly rare feat. In fact, Jefferson Scholars enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences are automatically admitted to the Echols Scholar program. The directors also take a shortcut by using stock footage of the Bruin movie theater in L.A. to represent the cinemas where Jens bought tickets to the films Witness, Stranger Than Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to support their alibis. D.C. locals know Rocky Horror played at the Key Theater in Georgetown throughout the ’80s. These errors can be chalked up to the filmmakers’ status as foreigners, but they raise questions about what else Vetter and Steinberger may have gotten wrong.

It’s not clear whether the directors intended an inside reference by opening and closing their film with “I Put a Spell on You,” used to great effect in Stranger Than Paradise, in a not-so-subtle nod to Elizabeth’s supposedly hypnotic hold over Jens. The documentarians also employ the needless gimmick of hiring movie stars Daniel Bruhl (The Zookeeper’s Wife) and Imogen Poots (Sweet Virginia) to read the overheated letters Jens and Elizabeth wrote each other before and after their “little nasty,” as they called the double homicide.

I must confess I’ve always thought Jens was guilty of perpetrating the slaughter, in part because he gave off a vaguely Nazi vibe when I knew him. He wrote an op-ed in one of our college’s papers supporting President Reagan’s much-maligned 1985 trip to Bitburg Cemetery to lie a wreath at the graveyard where many SS veterans were buried. He also lorded his Aryan heritage over two close friends of mine, both of them Jewish, whom he bested in his quest for Elizabeth’s affection. And, as I later learned, one of his “love” letters to Elizabeth depicted a Third Reich-themed sexual fantasy.

But having been an apparent Nazi sympathizer doesn’t make Jens a murderer, and Killing for Love constructs a fairly convincing case that he was a patsy. It puts forth an alternate theory that Elizabeth committed with murders with the aid of an accomplice or two, including a now-deceased classmate who was allegedly her drug dealer. That should raise enough reasonable doubt to merit reopening Jens’ case, but his hopes to be released and returned to his homeland were dealt a serious blow by former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell before he was convicted of federal bribery charges in an unrelated matter. The Supreme Court vacated his conviction, and the Justice Department opted not to retry him, so — unlike Jens — McDonnell never spent a night, much less 32 years, in prison.

In the final verdict, Killing for Love acquits itself well as a captivating entry in the same genre as The Jinx and Making a Murderer. And I’m sure this won’t be the last time this case is revisited — it seems well-suited to being dramatized on Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story or Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: True Crime series.

No matter what, this story will always hit terrifyingly close to home for me. In my second year at U.Va., I nearly shared a two-bedroom apartment with Jens and three other guys from our dorm. One of my aforementioned friends had asked Jens to live with us, but he ultimately declined, explaining he required a private room “so I can make love to Elizabeth any time I want.” Just thinking about it almost kills me.

Does I, Tonya Deserve to Win Oscar Gold?

itonya

If I, Tonya were a figure-skating jump, it would be a triple axel, a feat with such a high degree of difficulty that no woman ever landed it in competition until Tonya Harding came along. And writer Steven Rogers, director Craig Gillespie, and especially producer-star Margot Robbie nail it.

How do you make Harding, who became the most hated woman in America after her associates arranged the knee-capping of her Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, into a sympathetic figure? You start with a script that suggests Harding was just as much, if not more, of a victim than Kerrigan. While acknowledging she might be an unreliable narrator, I, Tonya depicts her relentless abuse at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney, who could add an Oscar to her collection of seven Emmys for The West Wing and Mom with her fiercely funny performance) and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (the solid Sebastian Stan).

Gillespie’s breakneck direction owes more than a small debt to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with its propulsive visuals and deliciously irresistible junk-pop soundtrack, but you could certainly borrow from worse. But it’s really Robbie who deserves the bulk of the credit here. I’ll admit, I was skeptical when I was heard the classy Aussie stunner was cast as the tacky American skater. How wrong I was. Robbie builds on the promise of her shoulda-been-nominated role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious wife in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Harding as she creates a portrait of a woman who’s relentless in her pursuit of the respect she’s undeservedly denied by her family, figure-skating judges and an unforgiving media and mass culture.

The last of these is represented by an ebullient Bobby Cannavale as a producer of the tabloid TV series Hard Copy. Without leaving his office chair during his mockudrama confessionals, the reliably versatile Cannavale once again proves he’s a true character actor in a leading man’s body. I, Tonya‘s biggest scene stealer, however, is Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, whose hysterical delusions of being a counterterrorist international man of mystery are dwarfed only by his appetite for hot dogs.

Nothing on Gillespie’s or Rogers’ spotty cinematic resumes could’ve prepared moviegoers for a film that skates so gracefully on a thin line between satire and tragedy. Like The Disaster Artist, I, Tonya takes the story of an apparent failure and turns it into a triumph. Don’t be surprised if Robbie and Janney pull off upsets of their own on Oscar night.