Best and Worst of 2017 Films

The Year’s Best (So Far)

Note: These do not include films I would have loved to see but didn’t come anywhere near me and whose names I have forgotten. Also movies like “Get Out” which got excellent reviews but which I have yet to catch up on, and ones like “Post” and “The Darkest Hour,” which sound like surefire Oscar-bait but have yet to open where I live.

1. Lady Bird – In Greta Gerwig’s autobiographical coming-of-age film, Saouise Ronan (likely) completes her trilogy of Oscar nominations. Portraying a Catholic high school senior and reluctant resident of Sacramento, Calif., Saouise spends the movie sparring with her mother, Laurie Metcalf, who is juggling financial worries, a full-time job and a depressed husband (Tracy Letts), as she learns the same life lessons most onscreen teens learn but in an unexpectedly fresh way. (Note to Oscar presenter – it rhymes with inertia.)

2. The Big Sick – In Kumail Nanjiani’s and wife’s Emily Gordon’s autobiographical film of how they met, fell in love, and then had their relationship tested by a twist that involves a hospital – and seems too bizarre to be true. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play the parents of Zoe Kazan’s character (the girlfriend) and also do a great job.

3. It (2017) – You’ll float, too in this remake of Stephen King’s horror novel – but first you’ll get the pants scared off of you, as you watch Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) gleefully terrorize the small town of Derry, with only a band of brave young “losers” to foil him. With a sequel to come to do full justice to this tome.

4. Dunkirk – In my review, I struggled to come up with a verb that appropriately described my viewing experience. “Enjoyed” and “rewarding” seemed tasteless. “Grueling but worthwhile” is closer to watching this two hour plus film about how Belgian, France and British soldiers are rescued from seemingly inevitable disaster by the Germans in World War II.

5. Patriots Day – Great retelling of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, starring Boston native Mark Wahlberg, and a good cast, including J.K. Simmons as a police officer seeking justice.

6. Good Time – Uneven but deserves full marks for originality. Robert Pattinson plays a lowlife criminal who drags his mentally challenged adult brother (Benny Safdie) along on a robbery – then proceeds to make a stunning array of wrong decisions that might have worked anyway in a Hollywood movie, but sadly not this one.

7. Hidden Figures – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae play a real life trio of African American women who made a crucial difference in the American space race and smashed some glass ceilings at NASA in the sixties. Wholesome enough for the whole family to watch. (“I like her digits,” is not a pickup line.)

8. The Promise – Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale play a love triangle in the film set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Moving and suspenseful depiction of the Turkish Armenian genocide.

9. Marshall – Josh Gad plays a lawyer who is forced into teaming up with Thurgood Marshall (at the start of his career), played by Chadwick Boseman, in order to take the case of a black chauffeur accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Textbook courtroom drama, but it holds your attention from start to finish.

10. Battle of the Sexes – Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King in this depiction of the titular tennis match with Steve Carell. An unexpectedly large portion is devoted to Emma’s relationship with the tour’s hairdresser, but there’s still plenty of tennis. Since Carell’s take is more goofy than sinister, Bill Pullman does the honors as a textbook sexist villain.

And the Year’s Worst (So Far)

Note: These do not include films I actively went out of my way this year not to go anywhere near including “The Emoji Movie,” “The Book of Henry” and the film version of “Baywatch,” most of which I’m sure would have easily made this list had I done so. Again, there’s no significance to the numerical listings. I’ll stop at six to avoid depression.

1. It Comes At Night – After a black-humored Monty Python reference to kick off the film, the movie’s pace turns sludgy, as Joel Edgerton, playing a father trying to protect his family during a dystopian plague, is reduced to haranguing his unexpected guests to never open the Chamber of Secrets.

2. The Circle – Emma Watson plays a cipher in the future who is at first thrilled to get a job at the high-tech “Circle” but – amazingly enough comes to realize that Something Sinister is going on which May Impact Society Negatively as a Whole. Unlike say, the Harry Potter series, her book character (based on the Dave Eggers bestseller) is not fleshed out at all, perhaps handicapping the concept from the start.

3. Just Getting Started – Not so much blatantly bad as simply a failure to launch and a colossal waste of all cast members (including Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo). Scenes follow one after the other without much tying them together or with a genuine payoff, in this film about a man in the Witness Protection Program who discovers that his new rival at a retirement community may be involved in the Mob.

4. The House – Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler must have done something awful in a previous life to be trapped in this film about parents running a casino to fund their child’s educaton, although they (and their onscreen daughter, Ryan Simpkins) deserve full marks for executing this movie without once looking as if they were considering firing their agents.

5. The Dark Tower – I’m sure this looked awesome on paper. A popular novella from the pen of Stephen King; Idris Elba and Jude Law facing off against each other in an epic battle between Good and Evil, plus a sympathetic young hero (Tom Taylor) – oh well. There’s always “It” to come.

6. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Charlie Hunnam plays the young king in this movie which totally bypasses the more familiar “Sword in the Stone” narrative in favor of lots of brawling, modern language, and special effects. Including a facial mask of glowing coals because – why not? Plays like a cinematic version of mediocre fanfiction.

It might seem that Hollywood has a long way to go before surpassing these films in sheer badness, but there’s always 2018 to meet this challenge. Cheers!


2017: Year of Bad Movie Parents

Warning: These contain spoilers.

“They’re gazebos! They’re bullshit!” – Jack Dylan Grazier in “It (2017).”

Let’s face it.

Twenty-seventeen was a horrible year to be a child character onscreen.

Perhaps this is true of most, but I especially noticed what seemed like a never-ending array of examples of atrocious movie parenting this year. These could be roughly slotted into several categories including:

1. Parents who mean well but are otherwise too overwhelmed to focus on their kids.

2. Parents who are deliberately neglectful and/or abusive.

3. Parents for whom “doing the right thing” winds up having horrific consequences for their children.

(Of course, we still have a month to go, but I think there’s more than enough evidence to arrive at this hypothesis early.)

Grandparents were not excluded either – witness the grandmother in “Good Time” who abused her mentally handicapped adult son and wasn’t real kind to the other non-disabled one. Perhaps matching or surpassing her is the grandmother in “Gifted,” who not only destroys her daughter’s romantic relationship but attempts to put her granddaughter’s beloved cat to sleep while her father is temporarily out of the picture. Though there were also examples to offset these, including Michael Caine in “Going In Style,” who is never too busy for Joey King, despite being at risk of losing his pension. And planning a bank robbery.

Kicking off the year, we had Alexa Nisenson’s dad (Charlie Day) in “Fist Fight,” who spends most of the movie dodging fellow teacher Ice Cube who wants to inflict serious damage on him for revenge, while meanwhile his young daughter frets about her upcoming talent show performance. Then when Charlie finally arrives at her school, she flubs her first attempt (since he’s late) and then decides to rally by performing an R-rated routine directed at her nemesis.

We were also given two onscreen examples of Munchausen-by-proxy Syndrome, first with Amandla Stenberg’s mom in “Everything, Everything” who has convinced her teenage daughter that she has a disease requiring complete housebound-ness, the wearing of interchangeable white t-shirts and limited human contact – at least until a cute guy moves in next door and starts flirting with her (from a safe distance). The second came in “It (2017),” in which Jack Dylan Grazier gets an unpleasant surprise when he goes to the pharmacy to pick up his meds. He wasn’t alone in the movie – “It” was a buffet of bad parent roles from the overbearing to the distant, including Sophia Lillis’s incestuous dad. (Few lines this year are more cringe-inducing than his repeated “Are you still my little girl?”)

In another Stephen King film adaptation, “The Dark Tower,” the young protagonist’s (Tom Taylor’s) mother attempts to have him sent to an institution for troubled youths headed by supernatural killer, Jude Law and his accomplices, forcing him to flee into another dimension. In “The Circle,” a futuristic fantasy in which no dimension of life is free from being witnessed by millions, Emma Watson’s parents have the gall to be sexually active while they’re being filmed 24-7 for their daughter’s project at her new job, thereby mortifying her in front of the world.

A less inventive but perhaps equally detrimental experiment occurs in “Home Again,” in which Lola Flanery’s about-to-be-divorced mom conducts an experiment in which she attempts to see how many men she can invite to stay in their home (including dear old dad) until tension spills over to the point where there’s trouble. (Hint: Three is more than enough.) Young Noah Jupe’s mother in “Sububicon” from the little we see of her appears to be a decent parent, but she expires early in a botched robbery, leaving him at the mercies of his dad (Matt Damon) who may or may not have arranged the robbery, carries on an affair with his sister-in-law, threatens to send Noah to military school, and eventually takes notice of what’s going on next door to reveal himself to be racist.

A standout in the abusive/neglectful parent category are the mom and dad of “The Glass Castle’s” Ella Anderson’s parents, who drag her and her siblings around the US (sometimes in the back of a moving van), teach her to swim by half-drowning her, leave their kids with their creepy incestuous grandmother (another one!), and pimp her out when she’s a teen – in order for her dad to regain a debt. In contrast, Kate Mara’s mom in “Megan Leavey” who misses her daughter’s graduation, only to respond with “Can they hold it over again?” when Kate informs her of her error, seems benign, even though she clearly doesn’t get her kid.

This summer, we also got “The House,” in which Ryan Simpkins’ parents, upon realizing that their daughter’s scholarship money has been pilfered by the town for other funds, gamely embark on a journey that involves turning their neighbor’s place into an underground casino, amputating a neighbor’s digits, and breaking the law in other ways – all in order to make sure Ryan can arrive at freshman orientation in the fall on time.

Other hapless young adults onscreen include Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” whose parents, distraught that he’s seeing a white girl, essentially disown him. At the end, the dad shows signs of détente, but mom is questionable. In “Happy Death Day,” Jessica Rothe is trapped in a time-loop that forces her to relive the anniversary of her mom’s death (and her birthday), and repeatedly rebuffs her dad’s lunch invitation, since she’s trying to evade a psycho-killer. Her dad isn’t told outright of this horror, so he may be excused for his negligence. On the other hand, earlier in the year Zoey Deutch’s mom (Jennifer Beals) in ‘Before I Fall” does not realize her child is trapped in a time loop either, but manages to be a loving parent anyway.

Were there any halfway decent guardians onscreen this year? Well, yes, but the one that stands out is a non-parent: the guardian nun (Stephanie Sigman) in “Annabelle: The Creation,” who valiantly tries to shield her orphan charges (including a young girl crippled by polio and pursued by an evil spirit). And Tom Holland’s guardian (Marisa Tomei) in “Spider Man: The Homecoming”  was also understanding of her ward’s secrecy, even when she happens upon him and his best friend half-dressed. Let’s hope 2018 brings better examples of parenting onscreen. They certainly couldn’t get much worse.

Movie Review: The Big Sick

“The Big Sick” is one of those movies that sneaks its way into the theater over the summer, when all the franchises and blockbusters are battling in a death match to see who will triumph at the box office and sticks around because it’s so good and unlike your typical blockbuster. Like “The Way Way Back,” a few years ago, it’s a heartwarming story of people who the viewer can actually picture running into in real life, but with a sting in its tail. As you might expect from the title, it does feature a major character who becomes seriously, well, sick – and if you prefer to remain in doubt over whether they make it to the credits, I’m afraid that this review contains spoilers.

“The Big Sick,” is actually based on a real-life couple, here played by Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani American who works as a Uber driver by day and a struggling (is there any other kind?) comedian at night, and Zoe Kazan, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who is studying to become a therapist. It’s also based on a real-life scenario – the inspirations for this did go through the whole coma thing, which removed my last objection to the movie: that the set-up seemed a bit Hollywoodish. The two meet after Zoe “heckles” Kumail inadvertently by yelling out something positive during his act; he later explains to her that heckling qualifies as either positive or negative. “What if I yelled out something like, “He’s really good in bed,?” she retorts, which sets off a string of adorable banter, dates that aren’t supposed to really be dates, and finally, a misunderstanding surrounding Kumail’s “secret” romantic life. This refers to the fact that his mother is determined to fix him up with a suitable marriage partner and keeps inviting young women over when he’s there having family meals. (Apparently, there are an amazing number of model-worthy women of the desired ethnic origin all free to be vetted by Kumail’s rabidly eager family.)  When Kumail explains that he will be shunned by his family if he doesn’t follow the traditional path (marriage and law school), Zoe is conflicted, and the two temporarily part.

Spoiler alert! Act Two involves Kumail giving permission (sort of) for Zoe to be put in a medically induced coma, which does not please her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), but eventually, since there are medical complications, this paves the way for bonding between the three. With Zoe temporarily out of the picture, the zaniness is dialed back a few notches, but her parents soon prove to be almost as eccentric as her. There is a happy ending eventually, although there are enough realistic twists and turns on the way there, that “The Big Sick” never feels saccharine. If a movie revolving around a girlfriend in a coma sounds like this can’t be avoided, the viewer is likely to be pleasantly surprised.