Years ago now, some friends of mine were at a shooting range taking some target practice. They were alone in the place, except for a pair of women, one of whom was hurriedly re-familiarizing herself with the operation of her pistol because, as she had very openly explained to my friends, her estranged husband was soon to be be released from the penitentiary and she needed to be ready.
At some point, her paper target came loose from the clips attaching it to the motor-controlled overhead cord upon which it travels down-range and then back to the shooter. She called this to the attention of the others in the room (fortunately limited to her companion and my very deferential friends) and then ducked under the shooting bench, scurried down range, re-secured the target and resumed her practice.
On the face of it, this could be seen as fairly innocuous. But to me, perhaps because I've spent so much time observing the unsafe firearms handling of others, it is a chilling incident on a number of different levels: it speaks to the undercurrent of violence that so definitive exists in so many lives, it suggests the illusion of security and it reminds that our relationship to one another, more than any institutional measure, is the material the social contract that keeps chaos at bay is written upon. And, depending on the room, some days that material isn't so wrong.
What does all this have to do with movies? Not all that much, admittedly, but there is a connection. The shooting range incident sprang to my mind as we almost solemnly rang in the New Year. It struck me as an apt metaphor for 2017 as a year. I haven't fully sorted out where we all (the readers of and contributors to this "liberal rag," in the words of one letter writer) feature in the scenario, whether we are the kind-hearted bystanders, the victim of previous violence anticipating more or, even less hopefully, the perforated target settling on the dusty floor. Whatever our role, safe to say that living in 2017 was a discomfiting, occasionally surreal experience.
This outlook colored my opinion as I sat down to consider the cinema of the year just past. The larger events of the year had somehow made me forget the content of its art but, as I began compiling a list, I noticed a great number of remarkable movies and in them, as in the groundswell against abuse and tyranny that appears to be starting, reason to be hopeful. Seemingly against all odds, 2017 presented us with a wealth of thoughtful, artful, midsize movies, tent-pole entries that discovered humor and humanity anew, deeply satisfying sequels and frequent doses of difficult truth that, more often than not, resolved into meditations on the importance of kindness and community.
I've not left myself much room, so here follows a list of some of my favorites:
Of the sequels, John Wick: Chapter 2 and Kingsman: The Golden Circle each offer re-entry to and expansion of deliriously enjoyable but strikingly different cinematic worlds. Both revel in their violence and so clearly are not for everyone, but I find each sublimely satisfying in its own way. Similarly, Star Wars: The Last Jedi breaks the mold for Star Wars movies, creating a new but intimately connected trajectory for the franchise. It represents a monumental achievement in story craft alone; the fact that it pissed off the purists so much makes it even better.
Large-scale comic book movies, for so long so stuffy and over-blown, took a turn for the funny and raw and feminist this year, and it was a very good thing. Thor: Ragnarok and Spiderman: Homecoming essentially reinvented their franchises with jokes and liveliness (who knew that's what we love about comics?!), while Logan closed out a run with a raw, grim, hopeful humanity almost unseen in other X-Men entries. And Wonder Woman should have surprised no one with its resounding success; it's about goddamn time.
And then we had a run of smaller-budgeted but no less ambitious movies peppered throughout the year, of a sort the demise of which I've been lamenting (wailing, rending my garments, really) for years now. Baby Driver, Edgar Wright's finger-popping, eye-candy, future-forward throwback car chase movie has as many detractors as it does fans, but should be appreciated if only for its sound design and editing. (I'd say the haters just don't know what they're looking at, though). Logan Lucky also synthesizes some genre tropes but transcends them all, representing a return to form for Steven Soderbergh. The Big Sick, a breakout for Kumail Nanjiani, pulls off the impossible, reinventing the romantic comedy as something with genuine depth and nuance. Lady Bird does the same for coming-of-age stories while highlighting the ennui and drift of the quasi-generation caught between X and Millenial.
Wind River and Good Time did dramatically different but perhaps equally effective things with the action genre, both leaving indelible marks on the psyche. Get Out, which many hold up as the movie of the year (and they're not wrong) defies description, a psychological thriller for this moment in time. Mother! continues to be almost universally reviled, but I admire it for its consummate craft and ambition. The Disaster Artist turned maybe the worst movie of all time into a finely observed, accessible, big-hearted meditation on fame and friendship. And The Shape of Water (which hasn't come yet, but soon!) might be the most pointed, potentially allegorical, lyrically crafted one of the lot. Guillermo del Toro's lovely, bloody fable about connection and persecution is a subversively well-crafted take on contemporary life; a violent and redemptive triumph set against the paranoia and xenophobia of the Cold War.
—John J. Bennett
Editor's Note: Due to the New Year's holiday, Coming Attractions Theatres, Inc. didn't provide the Journal its schedule of upcoming showings. Check www.northcoastjournal.com to find out what's showing when at Mill Creek and Broadway.
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. Based on a true story? Check. Suspense-thriller? Check. Ex-CIA agent back for one last mission? Check. 70's aesthetic? Check. Offstage drama in which director Ridley Scott replaced the newly-disgraced Kevin Spacey with the perennial whiz bang Christopher Plummer? Check. R. 132m.
DARKEST HOUR. Gary Oldman finally gets the role designed for his acting chops (and literal chops), portraying jowly British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he urges his country to keep a stiff upper lip even as German planes strafe London. PG13. 125m.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. A glossy, glitzy musical about a complicated man. Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, an abolitionist and social reformer who made his money off "freak shows" and minstrelsy. Michelle Williams and Zac Efron also star. Statue of Barnum on the Arcata Plaza unlikely. PG. 105m.
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. The fourth chapter in this horror series with parapsychologist sleuth Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) investigating the scariest thing yet: her childhood. PG-13. 103m. FORTUNA.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Well, this looks terrifying. Another Palme D'Or, entry, this one a psychological horror film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, with Farrell playing a cardiothoracic surgeon whose new mentee Martin (Barry Keoghan) has a secret agenda. R. 121m. MINOR.
THE SQUARE. This Palme D'Or winner, a Swedish satire about performance art, should satisfy your need to feel smart, when really we know you're there to watch Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid's Tale) tear it up, per usual. R. 142m. MINIPLEX
THE BREADWINNER. Animated movie about a young Afghani girl who pretends to be a boy so she can feed her family under the oppressive regime of the Taliban. PG13. 94m.
COCO. Young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) goes on a quest to the Land of the Dead to circumvent his family's generations-old ban on music in this Pixar animated feature. With Gael García Bernal. PG. 109m. FORTUNA
THE DISASTER ARTIST. A good movie about a bad movie (The Room) in which the former gives the latter an empathetic gloss. Starring James Franco. R. 104m.
DOWNSIZING. Matt Damon satisfies everyone's wishes by shrinking to a size proportionate to his talent. Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau and Jason Sudekis can't save a movie whose big ambitions outpace its tiny message. R. 135m.
FATHER FIGURES. Soooo ... basically Mamma Mia but with Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, Katt Williams, Terry Bradshaw and a whole lot of jokes about Glenn Close's libido? Cool, cool, cool. R. 125m. FORTUNA
FERDINAND. A domestic bull sent to a farm tries to get home to his family in this animated adventure. Voiced by John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Cannavale. PG. 106m. FORTUNA
JANE. Documentary about Jane Goodall's personal and professional life in the early days of her work with chimpanzees. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX
JUMANJI: Welcome to the Jungle. A remake of a 1995 Robin Williams vehicle that somehow combines Breakfast Club teen dynamics, body-swap comedies, aggressive hippos and The Rock's skeptical eyebrow? Sure, why not? PG-13. 119m. FORTUNA, MINOR.
JUSTICE LEAGUE. Batman (Ben Affleck) teams up with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and a butched-up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to save the world. PG13. 121m.
LOVING VINCENT. An animated drama in the style of Vincent van Gogh created with thousands of oil paintings and depicting a man's investigation into the artist's death. Starring Douglas Booth and Robert Gulaczyk. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.
PITCH PERFECT 3. Farewell tour for pun-happy franchise whose talented cast (Rebel Wilson, Anna Kendrick) can't seem to synergize plot into satisfying fans. PG13. 94m.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. An ambitious, funny installment of the beloved franchise that should satisfy both mega-fans and fair-weather Wookies. PG13. 153m. FORTUNA, MINOR.
THOR: RAGNAROK. Director Taika Waititi keeps Marvel's high drama but balances it with humor and and a nimble, entertaining story. Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum excel as very different villains. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston. PG13. 130m.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A sterling cast (Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage) does admirable work in a drama about a small-town murder but the film unravels in the last act. R. 115m. MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Linda Stansberry