Halfway Mark: The Best Films of 2017 (So Far) — Pt. 2
Drawing equally from classic colonialist adventure films like Gunga Din and gritty, revisionist efforts like Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z manages to weave an exciting tale of adventure and exploration that still has room for depth and artistry. Based on the true story of Col. Percival Fawcett, a British explorer who undertook numerous trips into the Amazon rainforest in search of a lost city he called Z, the film balances elements of adventure, war drama, character study, and historical epic with an unsurprisingly deft hand from writer/director Gray.
The cast, including Charlie Hunnam in the lead role, as well as Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland and….Franco Nero again? Huh. Well, anyway, the cast all do a fantastic job at the demanding task of portraying characters throughout multiple stages of their lives, and the film creates an atmosphere that’s equal parts wonder and introspective melancholy. It shouldn’t come as any surprise when, in future years, The Lost City of Z is ranked among the greatest adventure/exploration films. (Thomas O’Connor)
If the promise of a Polish musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale The Little Mermaid set against the backdrop of an ‘80s strip club and featuring two murderous man-eating vampire mermaids who form a pop band while trying to find a way to America sounds like something you want to see, than The Lure is definitely for you. The first feature directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska is the horror/musical/romance/ comedy/coming-of-age adult fable I never knew I wanted!
The film, which won the award for best debut at the Gdynia Film Festival, is undoubtedly the strangest movie to appear on our list. It’s bizarre from start to finish, occasionally gruesome, and it even features several musical numbers written by Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska of the Polish band Ballady i Romanse. It’s been called the best Goth musical about killer mermaids ever made, and it clearly uses the mythical creature as a means of addressing misogyny and chauvinism – but The Lure is best described as a visually extravagant exploration of femininity and girlhood. (Ricky D)
Kristen Stewart has received countless, even historic accolades for her role in this fantastic film, but this overstates its difficulty level in that she really only has to play herself in this bruising deconstruction of her persona. Her Maureen sits in the shadow of the celebrity employer she hates, curating a husk of a public image separate from her truer self. Her particular style of acting, a consummate naturalism that oscillates between fidgety and effortless cool, makes her ideal for a work with these meta concerns. In its more mundane moments of sharper focus, the film’s tone is as weary-yet-nervous as Maureen, embodying the quiet turmoil of the Worker, a utilitarian slave to situation under capitalism. This tension tightens up as the film makes incarnate its metaphoric body/soul separation, genre hopping as Stewart does from arthouse to supernatural.
Maureen is also a medium waiting for a ghost from her past, hazarding more hostile ones and half alive herself, allowing Assayas the opportunity to pull out some serious genre filmmaking chops. Maureen’s interest in paranormal-inspired abstract art gives him an exciting tension to play with in blending these modes and crafting frames our similarly abstracted lead glides through. Stewart centers these common and fascinating shots in a haunted house or mopeding down a Paris street like a true specter, with shallow digital focus fuzzing her surroundings into nondescript shapes and darkness, herself a liminality of genre, fame, and diegesis. Overstuffed but executed with unwavering control, Personal Shopper is a welcome addition to a woefully underappreciated legacy: that of the masterful mess. (Molly Faust)
Pregnancy horror may not be as popular in the mainstream as slashers or backwoods horror, but it has given birth to a slew of great films, including the recent Prevenge, a pitch-black, blood-soaked thriller, and phenomenal first feature by Alice Lowe. In the low-budget British horror film (which Lowe also wrote), the actress plays a woman named Ruth who is eight months pregnant and goes on a killing spree, murdering the people she believes are responsible for the death of her boyfriend. The twist here is that Ruth is acting under the instructions of her homicidal unborn child with whom she has a telepathic link. Speaking in a high-pitched voice, the fetus paints a nihilistic view of the world, convincing her mother that people are cruel by nature and only interested in serving their own selfish needs. The plot is skimpy no doubt, but Prevenge is best described as a series of satirical sketches, dissecting the social dynamics between a mother-to-be and the various men and women who come into her life. Most of the film’s horror comes from the jitters of watching Ruth commit cruel acts of graphic murder, but the scares are more psychological than visceral. Ruth is carrying a whole lot of grief, and the most frightening aspect of Prevenge is the way in which she loses total control of her mind and body. Her pregnancy dramatically alters her appearance and psyche, and throughout the film she adopts a different persona for each of her murders until she is barely able to recognize herself.
At its core, Prevenge is a brilliantly conceived meditation on prepartum anxiety and extreme anguish. What’s more, Prevenge comes from a place of personal experience, since Lowe directed this unsettling and equally amusing thriller during an 11-day stretch in the third trimester of her own pregnancy. It may sound like a gimmick or a novelty act, but it isn’t. That Lowe herself was with child during the production only heightens the raw nerve of proceedings. Prevenge comes in the midst of what’s shaping up to be an exciting time for female horror-auteurs. It may not be the first film about a woman being compelled to murder by her fetus, but it is the first that comes from the point of view of a woman working behind the camera. It’s hard to think of any modern film that better captures the nightmare side of pregnancy. One of the finest horror films made this decade, and blessed with some evocative camerawork by Ryan Eddleston and a superb synth-based score from electronic duo Toydrum. (Ricky D)
The Red Turtle
It’s surprising, and perhaps a testament to how limited most filmic storytellers are, that more films don’t try to exploit the possibilities of working without dialogue. Dialogue-free films face no language barrier, no need for subtitles or dubbing, giving them an obvious advantage when it comes to distribution (The Artist should really have acted as a major clue in this regard). Co-produced by Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle was last year’s requisite “Best Animated Feature nominee no one’s seen,” though in fact it was likely the best of the bunch. An allegory as wide-open for interpretation as the sea itself, Michaël Dudok de Wit’s film takes a half-dozen small pivots that shouldn’t be spoiled for unassuming viewers; needless to say, this is not just another story about a man getting marooned on a strange island, or some kind of rote survival story. De Wit is much more interested in exploring notions of isolation, community, family, shifting priorities, and the appropriate scope of a life fully lived than in retelling some Robinson Crusoe myth. Beguiling and mysterious, The Red Turtle is a cleansing, calming exhale amidst sound and fury. (Simon Howell)
After a string of failures so egregious that they became an industry-wide gag, M. Night Shyamalan has bounced off the ropes with his last two efforts, The Visit and Split.
The latter was a serious shocker for a number of reasons. First off, dropping the film in the cinematic graveyard of January set it up to be doomed right from the outset. Next, the concept of a man inhabited by 24 distinct personalities as a central gimmick seemed like the very recipe for a flailing, overdone performance.
Luckily though, observations liked these turned out to be almost totally baseless, as Split is Shyamalan’s most consistent and successful film in over a decade. James McAvoy’s killer performance as a mentally disturbed time bomb anchors the film wonderfully, and always keeps things tense and unforgiving. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor Joy continues to show that she’s not a one-trick pony after her scene-stealing work in The VVitch, pivoting effectively off of McAvoy’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink character(s). Showing both vulnerability and aggressiveness, Joy makes both elements work organically for her character, and nearly supplants McAvoy as Split‘s MVP.
Finally, Shyamalan dials back the ridiculous high concepts of his many flawed films to create something more simple and digestible, and it works out very well for him. This is the return of a filmmaker that drew comparisons to the likes of Steven Spielberg with his first efforts, and can hopefully soar to those heights again some day. (Mike Worby)
The Girl With All The Gifts
If you are a fan of zombie films but think the genre is out of fresh ideas, you might be interested in checking out Colm McCarthy’s smart and engaging The Girl with All the Gifts. Based on M.R. Carey’s novel, Girl echoes the best of George A. Romero, Danny Boyle, and Robert Kirkman, all while finding time to create its own set of rules in a zombie-plagued post-apocalyptic future. The specifics of the girl in question are laid out in the first act: Melanie is something altogether new in this world – a zombie with a conscience. She lives in a research compound with other, similar children, held prisoner and forced into a daily routine that is a cruel, dystopian childhood nightmare. The inmates, referred to by the guards as “abortions,” are chained to wheelchairs and used as lab rats. By cutting up the children and studying their brains, the scientist hope to find a cure for the zombie contagion that apparently has reduced most of world’s population to flesh-easting monsters. As expected, Melanie escapes and tries desperately to find a new home. Much like the early seasons of The Walking Dead, a good portion of Girl takes place on the road, but tonally the film recalls Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Throw in the military aspect of Day of the Dead along with some truly interesting new ideas (no spoilers here), and what you have is one of the smartest horror films in years. (Ricky D)
The debut feature from Brooklyn-born writer-director Michael O’Shea tells a quieter, more deliberately-paced story than what we are accustomed to seeing in most horror films, but it’s a decision that ultimately pays off in the end. The Transfiguration has been called the best vampire movie since Let The Right One In, and like Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 sleeper hit, The Transfiguration gradually reveals itself to be a coming-of-age tale featuring occasional bursts of bloody violence amid a seemingly doomed romance between two adolescents. But putting aside the Swedish classic, George A. Romero’s Martin is perhaps the most overt inspiration for The Transfiguration, with writer/director Michael O’Shea stripping away the supernatural elements of the usual vampire movie for a stark realism. This is not a horror film per se, but a dark drama in which a self-imposed curse is the only escape from a neighborhood ridden with crime. The Transfiguration belongs to the lineage of vampire films from the 1970s, where the metaphor no longer focuses on sex but instead explores a psychological disorder. And by setting the film the housing projects in Queens, New York — and making his protagonist a young, black, teenage boy trapped in a system primed to neglect him — O’Shea creates a film far more interested in themes of poverty, race, and class. Ultimately though, The Transifugaration works best as an exploration of the trauma of grief. (Ricky D)
Like a shallow catch-up conversation with a former friend not seen in many years, T2 Trainspotting doesn’t really have much to say beyond simple reminiscing, but simply seeing the four men from one of the most blazingly energetic and original films ever made brings enough nostalgic feelings to the surface to elicit both shades of youthful spirit and a reminder that time catches up to us all, that the world eventually turns. Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud have progressed so little since we last saw them that they come off as former heroin jocks stuck in a rut of adult failure, reliving teenage glories instead of evolving as human beings.
Director Danny Boyle tries to spice things up with hints of the stylish virtuoso filmmaking that brought these friends bursting onto the cinematic scene, but the overriding sense of the slowness that comes with age hangs heavily over the proceedings. An oddly by-the-book heist story strangely anchors people for whom anarchy used to reign, but its safety fits the theme: everyone involved is too old to have the same relevance they once enjoyed. By clinging to the past, T2 Trainspotting shows what kind of pitiful future is in store for those who stop swimming upstream. As a sequel it certainly falls short of the original, but like a typical 20-year high school reunion, there is melancholy poignancy to be found in the meandering trip down memory lane, and though the visual examples of world-weary middle age on display are a little sad in their lack of vivacity, it’s still pleasant to be among friends who can remind us that the fire of life once burned bright, even if its destined to soon be extinguished. (Patrick Murphy)
Film enthusiasts often roll their eyes at the mention of upcoming horror movies or a new installment in a franchise that should’ve ended several entries prior. It’s easy to understand why big studios want to stick to their popular brands, but in the process they have damaged the genre in a way that seems irreparable. Over the years we’ve had heroic attempts at saving horror, such as 2011’s You’re Next and the mesmerizing It Follows (2014). Between 2016 and this year, The Void takes the pole and carries it even further.
Written and directed by industry veterans Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, The Void is a refreshing little piece of nostalgia that manages to remain modern. Viewers are greeted with a confusing realistic chasing scene, a hooded figure, and then deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) and the excitement of being an officer in a small town. He comes into contact with the only fugitive from the aforementioned chase, and seeing he is hurt, rushes him to the nearest hospital. What follows is a regular Lovecraftian tale (more akin to The Shadow Over Innsmouth than The Call of Cthulhu), cleverly told through a steady pace and practical effects.
The Void might not be as revolutionary as its predecessors, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a time where everyone seems to be using digital effects. Its plot doesn’t attempt to be more than it can be, and the practical effects are fitting and well-executed, making it the best horror film the year had to offer thus far. (Gabriel Cavalcanti)
Win It All
Win It All manages to charm and thrill in equal measure, but the film’s most impressive achievement how efficiently it uses its small cast and simple plot to do both. Eddie (Jake Johnson) is addicted to gambling, and when he loses a large sum of money entrusted to him by a criminal friend, he has to win everything back or flee – or worse. Johnson provides most of the charm in the film, his third collaboration with director Joe Swanberg. The actor calls on his considerable experience playing stunted man-children, employing an everyman likeability and self-deprecating humor that imbues Eddie with the earnestness to convince his family – and the audience – that he is struggling to change, even when he might not be.
Like the other golden-hearted underachievers that Johnson has portrayed, Eddie endears himself to the viewer. It’s impossible to resist investing in him, and each of his stumbles sting with a disappointment lessened only by the potential of the character and the appeal of the actor. Jo Lo Truglio and Keegan-Michael Key appear in supporting roles as Eddie’s brother and Sponsor, respectively, to suffer each of Eddie’s relapses and push him toward stability. Lo Truglio and Key, with their comic sensibilities, work well as both exasperated foils for Eddie and capable sparring partners for Johnson in the film’s largely improvised sequences.
Swanberg pilots Win It All with an economical sensibility, focusing squarely on Eddie as he attempts to survive his ordeal and seize a second chance to live a stable life working for his brother and dating Eva, a nurse he meets early in the film. Occasional graphics appear on screen to highlight how much money Eddie is either up or down (mostly down), and to give the film’s climactic sequence an added sense of urgency. Mostly, though, Win It All treats the specifics of Eddie’s dilemma as a microcosm of his arrested development. The film is about Eddie gambling one last time to save his life, and more importantly, to live a new one. (Michael Haigis)
Wonder Woman doesn’t quite transcend the superhero genre as it checks off a long laundry list of big blockbuster Hollywood movie requisites, but there is so much to admire here that it’s easy to see why so many people across the globe fell in love with this film. Sticking to the basic setup of the early-’40s DC comics written by William Moulton Marston (except for maybe changing it from World War II to the First World War), Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg give us a film that is a refreshing change of pace from a superhero realm, one that’s more often than not concerned with creating a cinematic universe rather than telling a standalone story. While the final big action sequence in Wonder Woman is a messy and an overwrought CGI extravaganza, Wonder Woman at least has plenty of humor and a ton of heart. Meanwhile, Matthew Jensen’s cinematography heightens every scene, while the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams does a superb job of ratcheting up the tension. The real reason to see this film, however, is for Gal Gadot’s charismatic performance. Gadot succeeds against heavy odds, turning in an iconic performance and placing herself alongside Christopher Reeves as one of the best casting choices in cinematic history. (Ricky D)