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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of my favorite movies of 2017, and click here for part two!  And now, onwards into my TOP TEN:

10. It 2017 brought two Stephen King adaptations that I was super-excited about.  Sadly, The Dark Tower was a dud, but It was even better than I had dared hope.  The film is very scary and filled with the sorts of nightmare-inducing imagery that you might expect.  But the reason the movie works as well as it does is that, just as the original novel did, it takes the time to develop every one of the seven kids who are involved in the story, so that by the end you know and care about every single one of them.  There isn’t a weak link in this remarkable assemblage of child actors.  I am almost sorry that the sequel will feature these characters as adults (the original novel tells two parallel stories, but this first film adaptation wisely chose to only tell the half of the story set when the kids were thirteen), because I’d love to see lots more movies with this cast!  Like all the best fantasy or sci-fi stories, the fantastical elements in It are an allegory.  It is a story about growing up, about that moment in which one leaves childhood behind and takes that first, tentative step into adulthood and the wider world beyond.  I was hooked into this film from the first frame until the last.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Baby Driver  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since his vastly-underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a crime against humanity, a fact reinforced by how terrific his long-awaited return to cinemas, Baby Driver, is.  This is a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.  The cast is spectacular (Jon Hamm is a stand-out), the dialogue is razor-sharp, and the film’s score is magnificent, a marvelous array of music that comes together to create a distinct world and vibe for the film.  The main character Baby’s identity is wrapped up in the music he listens to (particularly when working as a get-away driver for criminals) and the music he makes, and so too is Baby Driver the film completely of a piece with the music in its score.  And who knew Edgar Wright could direct action so well??  The car-chase action in the film is extraordinary, visceral and thrilling.  Baby Driver is pure cinematic joy from start to finish.  (Click here for my full review.)

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Josh Reviews A Most Violent Year

In the ripping crime yarn A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of a Brooklyn-based oil company.  As the film opens, in 1981, Abel and his friend and attorney, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), have just secured a great deal: the purchase of an enormous fuel terminal near the East River which will give Abel an enormous leg up on his competitors.  But as Abel’s company has grown, so too have his troubles.  His oil trucks are being hijacked (likely at the hand of one of his competitors) costing him an enormous sum of money and problems with the Teamsters who represent his drivers, and his company is being investigated by the State government for criminal activities.  Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), pushes Abel to fight violence with violence, but Abel has prided himself on not being a criminal like Anna’s father.  As Abel’s situation grows increasingly desperate, what will he be forced to do?

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

First of all, wow, who knew that Oscar Isaac would be in basically everything I’ve watched this month??  Mr. Isaac grabbed hold of my attention with both hands back when I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis (click here for my review), but in the past few weeks he has blown me away with his work in Show Me a Hero (click here for my review) and Ex Machina (click here for my review) and now A Most Violent Year.  (And, of course, Mr. Isaac also has a major role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens!!)  Mr. Isaac’s power as an actor is demonstrated with full force with his tremendous work here in A Most Violent Year.  This is a movie-star performance.  This film rises because of Mr. Isaac’s commanding work, in pretty much every scene of the film.  Mr. Isaac has created a hugely compelling character in Abel, a smart and magnetic personality whose talent and charisma has taken him far from his humble immigrant origins… perhaps too far?  As I watched A Most Violent Year, I was captivated in wondering where the film, and Abel’s story, was going.  Would Abel prove to be the hero of the piece… or the villain?

A Most Violent Year was written and directed by J.C. Chandor.  I didn’t realize until after watching the film that Mr. Chandor had also written and directed the terrific 2013 film All is Lost, the near-silent movie starring Robert Redford, about a man alone at sea in escalatingly calamitous circumstances.  (Click here for my review.)  Wow, Mr. Chandor is clearly an enormous talent.  This is a filmmaker to whom I will be paying very close attention from now on!… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Crimson Peak

A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a source of great excitement for me.  Add to that the idea of Mr. del Toro, a master of horror and fantasy, involved in a haunted house movie?  Delicious.  Crimson Peak has not been successful at the box office, which is a shame because it is a great film, original, clever, gorgeously made, and with some wonderful performances, particularly by the lead trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.  While the film does not approach the quality of Mr. del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s nonetheless a terrific film and a wonderful story.

Crimson Peak.cropped

Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has been raised by her businessman/architect father after the death of her mother when she was just a girl.  Edith dreams of being a writer, but has thus far found only rejection.  Though she has a friendship with a handsome young physician (Charlie Hunnam), she finds herself wooed by a visiting British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America looking for Edith’s father to invest in his inventions.  But Sir Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are hiding a secret, one which will threaten Edith’s life when she joins Sir Thomas and Lucille back in their ancient mansion home, nicknamed Crimson Peak by the locals.

What I love most about the films of Guillermo del Toro is the way that each is an utterly original creation and a fully realized fantasy world.  Each film of Mr. del Toro’s is a peek (no pun intended) into an entirely original universe, with its own rules and unique characters and situations, into all of which Mr. del Toro digs deeply.  Each of his films benefits from an enormous amount of thought and care paid to the world-building of that particular story.  I love this feeling of stepping into a fully-realized universe of the film, one which exists beyond the boundaries of the particular story being told in that film.

Mr. del Toro is also a master at tying the fantastic elements of his stories to real, human characters, who are always the center of his films, no matter how wonderful the ghosts or monsters or other fantasy creations in the film are.  (As much as I enjoyed seeing Mr. del Toro operate with the first huge budget of his career with Pacific Rim, that film stumbled because it lacked Mr. del Toro’s usual sharp focus on character.)  Though Crimson Peak is also a decently-budgeted film (it is listed on-line at a budget of $55 million, which is a lot more money than many of Mr. del Toro’s earlier films but a tiny pittance compared to most big-budget blockbusters … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Interstellar

When it was first announced that Christopher Nolan would be making an original science-fiction film as his next project, featuring a top-shelf cast and utilizing a blockbuster-sized budget, I was quickly atwitter with visions of a masterpiece.  After much anticipation, Interstellar has arrived, and while it might not be quite a masterpiece, it is a delightfully ambitious, smart, and entertaining piece of filmmaking.

In the near future, a terrible blight has destroyed crops world-wide, shattering the status quo and pushing much of the world back to the levels of subsistence farming.  Coop (Matthew McConaughey) was once a test pilot, but now he’s a farmer and a single parent caring for his two kids, Murph and Fox, with the help of his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow).  But when Coop and Murph stumble across a secret base in the desert that houses what remains of NASA, their lives change forever.  Coop’s former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is spearheading a project that could represent humanity’s last hope.  They’ve discovered a wormhole in orbit of Saturn, and have been secretly launching expeditions through that wormhole in search of habitable planets to which they could relocate what’s left of humanity.  They have one ship left, but no one to pilot it.  If Coop accepts, he might be able to save the lives of his children who would otherwise likely perish on the sickening Earth.  But if he goes on the mission, the effects of relativity will cause his children to be grown by the time he returns.

There is a lot to love about Interstellar.  First and foremost, I am always thrilled to see an original piece of science-fiction that isn’t connected to a franchise.  I’m even more excited when said science-fiction, rather than being an action-adventure shoot-em-up, tries to be a more serious-minded piece of speculative fiction.  Interstellar is 100% in that mold.  Christopher Nolan and his team have set out to create a smart piece of science fiction in the best tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Smart is the key word here.  Not only is the film aimed at smart audience-members (this is not a dumbed-down fantasy), but even better, the film’s whole story is about the importance of science, and of smart people continuing to push the bounds of exploration and human knowledge.  I love that about the film.  Shockingly, in this day and age, so often it seems that intelligence and science are seen as things to be mocked or dismissed.  Interstellar will have none of that.  One of the most striking scenes in the film come fairly early on (long before we get to the incredible outer-space sequences in the film’s second half) in which Coop … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films.  I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.

Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day.  The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces.  The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain.  A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden.  In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.

The film is an incredibly complex piece of work.  For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden.  The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search.  Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing.  It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.

This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention.  The movie does not spell everything out for the audience.  (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.)  There are many characters in … [continued]

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Days of Terrence Malick (Part 4): The Tree of Life (2011)

Yes, yes, I know my “Days of De Palma” series has been missing for several weeks.  Rest assured, I’ve already seen and written about several more Brian De Palma films, and those reviews will be posted on the site for the next several Fridays in a row.  But for now, as part of my “Catching up on 2011” project, it’s time at last to circle back to my “Days of Terrence Malick” series to write about his 2011 film The Tree of Life.

Click here for “Days of Terrence Malick” Part 1: The Thin Red Line (1998), here for Part 2: Badlands (1973), and here for Part 3: Days of Heaven (1978).

The Tree of Life is about, well, that’s sort of hard to say.  The bulk of the film chronicles the life of an American family living in Texas in the 1950s.  Brad Pitt plays the stern father of three boys, and Jessica Chastain (having quite a break-out year after also starring in The Help) plays his wife, the sensitive, loving mother.  We also get glimpses of one of those boys as an adult, played by Sean Penn.  We also witness the creation of the world and an extensive sequence set in the time of the dinosaurs… as well as the apparent ultimate destruction of the Earth and a possible glimpse into the afterlife.

I feel like I might sound somewhat dismissive of the film in the way I wrote that plot summary, and that’s not really fair.  The Tree of Life is a staggeringly beautiful film, and a staggeringly original one.  I can’t think of any other film I’ve ever seen in my life that is at all similar to this film (except perhaps some of Mr. Malick’s prior films).  Narrative and character development are apparently inconsequential to Mr. Malick.  The entire film, start-to-finish, is a montage.  Mr. Malick weaves imagery and sound together in the way of an artisan working an enormous loom.  The film has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, in the fashion of memories that slide together in one’s mind as one thought leads to another recollection leads to another, with no regard for chronological consistency or continuity.  What a bizarre, wonderfully unique way to make a movie!  When The Tree of Life delights it’s in realizing what a unique creation one is watching unfold, and allowing oneself to be swept along by the river of gorgeous imagery of life (and death).

But while The Tree of Life is beautiful and original and transporting, I also found it to be deathly dull and incredibly frustrating.  I really had to force myself to keep watching during the last hour.  I was enjoyably … [continued]