I admit it, when I was little boy I went through a phase of trying on my mother’s jewelry and makeup. My mother, despite having a full supply of natural brunette hair, even had a brunette wig for me to play with (Was my mother secretly a Saturday night diva?). Though I never stopped using artificial beauty to lure a man, eventually I did put the high-heeled shoes back on their trees and the wig back on its foam bust. There is a little part of me that still fantasizes what it would be like to live beyond gender in la cage aux folles, and here are some drag queen identities I might never dare to adopt:
Semi-professional musicians, if you’ve recently split from the Thursday-Sunday band you formed with some guys from the office, I’m here to get you started again. You might think the old dudes never found your “sound” but my guess is you never had the right name.
Tits ‘n’ Whiskey
The Telephone Bills
Adam & Evil
Perry and the Winkles
Chuck Roast and his Fingerlings
Rock Of Lamb
A Bad-minton Racket
Dave & Buttholes
2 Balls and a Strike
Flyy and the Ointments
Automatic Tune Machine
In 2017 there were at least 800 feature-length, English-language movies released, of which I screened 63. Having seen only of fraction of what came out, I can hardly claim to know which were the “best” movies of 2017. Making a list of my favorites might be fair to the movies I didn’t see, but the expression lacks specificity. Instead I’ve generated a list of movies exceeding my expectations to which any artistic work should aspire:
Art should seek to edify understanding of the human experience, improve intellectual or moral knowledge, and expand contours of the form.
Thus, in order of release date, my list of the most personally edifying movies I saw in 2017.* This is followed by a list of nine films I thought in some notable way failed to achieve my precept.
TWELVE PERSONALLY EDIFYING MOVIES IN 2017
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
A live-action musical fairy tale. Belle, a self-reliant young woman taken captive in a castle by a hideous half man-half beast, looks beyond his ugliness and transforms him into a kind prince. I wouldn’t say this film is a feminist revision, but Belle is an enjoyable, smart heroine. The mosaic of live actors, motion capture and CGI is fascinating, and the musical experience is spectacular.
IT COMES AT NIGHT
In the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic plague, a survivalist family hazards on allowing desperate strangers inside their remote cabin. Mistrust and paranoia intrudes, and heat between the families detonates into barbaric violence. The monsters residing in the human mind are mysterious and terrifying.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Roger Ebert once wrote that sequels are marketing decisions yoked to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. It is evidential that, as the objective of profit precludes substance, the quality of the cinematic experience decreases (For empirical proof, try watching the progressively depreciative first POTA pentology,1968-1973). Somehow the current Planet Of The Apes series defies this rule. Each film has improved over the last in creating compelling stories, intense action, and emotional appeal for the ape heroes.
A British secret agent assigned to recover stolen documents in Cold War era Berlin, uncovers a cauldron full of double crossing international spies. Charlize Theron playing a bisexual, badass, James Bond is just fucking cool. So are the amazing Kung Fu sequences.
A white-collar family man botches his life and earns a prison sentence. Through violent rites of passage, he becomes the leader of a high-stakes criminal gang. The film is adept at presenting the protagonist’s identity transformation, as well as sustaining his long strategy of self-sacrifice, played against other gangsters, in order to protect his family outside of prison. It’s too bad SHOT CALLER was a sleeper in 2017, its business is thrilling and smart.
Attempting to overcome the undying grief of their daughter’s tragic death, an aging and weird farm couple take five orphan girls into their care. The presence of young girls in the house rouses the resentful ghost of the dead child inhabiting a homemade doll. This sounds like the kind of goofy plot that would inhabit an over-ambitious, under-funded freshman effort, but between the solid children’s acting and the filmmaker’s command of the haunted house space, this mid-budge horror succeeds. It is genuinely freaky and well-crafted.
A small-time crook goes to spectacular extremes trying break his handicapped brother out of police custody. What at first seems like a boilerplate heist story, veers into epic Sisyphean failure for the skilled, if unrecognizable, actor Robert Pattinson.
A middle-aged dad touring New England colleges with his teenage son declines into a distressed state of existential underachievement. While not a particular achievement in filmmaking (I think the subject matter would be better suited to the stage), BRAD’S STATUS is well-acted, funny, and genuine. One of the most profound screenplays of the year.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
The futuristic story of a policeman assigned to kill renegade, autonomy-seeking androids. It is bigger in universality, special effects, and plot complexity than its 1982 antecedent, although it does not achieve the predecessor’s bleak, emotional allure. BR49 is among the most stunning visual achievements of the film year and deserving of more accolades.
Frankie, a Brooklyn teenager, spends his summer getting high with his hooligan friends, meeting girls on the Coney Island boardwalk, and experimenting with clandestine gay sex escapades. Lacking confidence and direction, Frankie’s life is muddled by his attraction to men, his straddling of blue and white collar culture, and the creeping expectations of adulthood versus the lingering indolence of his youth. All of this is presented with a spare and sullen indie cinema vibe. BEACH RATS, with its frequently bare chested male actors, may look like a highly-sexed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog adapted for film, but there is also an interesting, inconspicuous story and a beguiling minimalist aesthetic.
Journalism drama drawn from true events and key players surrounding publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. I’m usually uncomfortable with movies mounted on political bias, even when the bias accords with my own sentiments. However, what the U.S. requires right this second is an elementary refresher on the necessity of an independent press to investigate tyranny, and for reluctant influencers like the late Katherine Graham to be bold. Most impressive in THE POST is Meryl Streep’s ability to employ the shortcomings of her character so genuinely in an otherwise heavy-handed chronicle. THE POST isn’t made with a sense of environment like the great, paranoid ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, but it earns its credentials being both exciting and apropos.
THE STRANGE ONES
An adult man and a teenage boy pretending to be brothers on a road vacation, are revealed to be running from a bizarre secret past. Viewers familiar with the dream motifs of Russian fillmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky may discover themselves on a similar metaphysical plane, questioning the certainty of what’s real or imagination. The surrealistic atmosphere, furthered by disturbing subject matter, gets progressively darker as does the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, playing the adrift teenager. He is an overlooked prodigy. THE STRANGE ONES is an overlooked prodigy.
Worth mentioning that the creepy tension is enhanced by an excellent electronic score by same composer of the similarly excellent IT COMES AT NIGHT.
Honorable mentions: GET OUT, BEFORE I FALL, CREEP 2, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, SHAPE OF WATER, MOLLY’S GAME
and now… NINE DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2017
Speeding toward you, BABY DRIVER looks like a stellar cast and a unusual take on heist genre (the getaway driver’s POV). Going away you might realize you raced pass any substance to see a lot of faux-hipsterism, overacting, and improbable robberies.
Certainly the task of creating an epic experience out of the WWII British evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air looked worthy in writing. The raw elements of any of these three coterminous stories as a stand alone project would have made for a good movie (except for the air one). Unfortunately, what came out the other end of this massive endeavor was a dull, meandering, emotionally dry, muddle.
I was told by I had to read the novel to get IT, which I tried and found IT, like the movie, both incomprehensible and lightweight, except protracted over hundreds of tedious pages. So to you ITidots, who love this thing, mazel tov. I’m bored.
I dig surrealism as much as the next avant-gardiste, and I thought act one of Mother was intriguingly weird. What happens in the second act is an absurd abandonment of aesthetics that serves the filmmaker’s desire to shock, not to edify.
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The first KINGSMAN movie was a successful James Bond for millennials. GOLDEN CIRCLE is Kingsman for people who are shallow and easy to amuse.
BETTER WATCH OUT
The Home Alone movies of 1990’s, specifically the casual, cartoonish violence appear to be the object of critique in this dark comedy. What they have produced here is something simply trashy, sadistic and unfunny.
JEEPERS CREEPERS III
Like other Creeps, I waited fourteen eager years for the next chapter of this literate, idiosyncratic horror series. JCIII is not just a let down – it’s insulting, uncreative junk.
Maybe there is retrospective humor to be found in the imbroglio of the 1993 Nancy/Tonya figure skating incident. I don’t see what’s funny in 2017 about a man smashing a woman’s head into the wall to the beat of a Dire Straits ballad. Such video collages with music from the period seem to fill-in for the filmmaker’s lack of figure skating i.q. Also, I would like to mention that the athlete to whom this movie gives disadvantaged bonafides was sent to the Olympics twice by the elites that were supposed to be discriminating against her, and yet she still conspired to maim Nancy Kerrigan. I TONYA is a skewed, irresponsible, alteration of Harding’s story. It is also not a particularly creative movie.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
The intent of dark comedy is to create humor out of non-humorous subject matter, such as ridiculous and ironic human behavior in the wake of young woman being raped and murdered in fictional Ebbing, MO. It is a big ask for the audience to empathize with these flawed characters, but we are also are expected to give a humor license to policemen’s racism, homophobia, brutality, willful neglect, and incompetence. We are asked to tolerate all these offenses for the final justice of a racist policeman being given a mulligan by the surviving mother and the two together beginning a vigilante roadtrip as if they were Hope and Crosby. THREE BILLBOARDS produces some fine acting and dramatic poignancy, but at a time when America is perhaps starting to listen to the voices from embedded cultural oppressions, this movie is dreadfully tone deaf.
*Arbitrarily all selections are feature length. Also, 12 and 9 is of no significance. These were movies that stood out to me most positively or negatively.
With gratitude to Maria Popova, from whose February 22 article on Brain Pickings I pilfered the following (and to George Spencer, who turned me on to the wonderful Brain Pickings), here is some priceless wisdom from one of my literary heroes, Henry Miller.
(What I love about these notes is that they’re aimed by Miller only for himself—without a glimmer of self-consciousness, nor even for a moment intended for public dissemination. Here is a writer lashing himself to the mast, though not too tightly, as he bears down on what would become his first published novel, Tropic of Cancer.)
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no new material to Black Spring.
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it the next day.Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
In the February 1935 issue of Esquire magazine, an article by Ernest Hemingway appeared that was titled ‘Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter.’ In it, Hemingway reeled off 17 books, all of which he “would rather read again for the first time […] than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”That list can be read below.(Source: Esquire, Feb. 1935; Image: Ernest Hemingway, via.)