By Jim Slotek, Kim Hughes, Liam Lacey, Karen Gordon and Bonnie Laufer
In the spring of this year, a rag-tag group of career film critics started a blog dedicated to keeping the conversation alive in a world where super-heroes have largely muscled real people off the screen.
We’ve seen plenty in the months since, covered the Toronto International Film Festival, been accepted as Tomato-meter worthy on Rotten Tomatoes, and had a good time as often as not.
Here, we each look back at 2017 and pick the best, worst and most disappointing dates we had in a dark theatre.
The Shape Of Water: Let Guillermo del Toro’s sense of wonder loose, and even a basic beauty-and-the-beast monster movie becomes a visual feast (there’s hardly a frame in the film I wouldn’t gladly hang on my wall). Most awards-season movies are utterly depressing, but my heart always belongs to the feel-good entry. Sally Hawkins is just eccentric enough to be a worthy heroine for this Civil Rights era fable and, as the insane government bad-guy, Michael Shannon gives us “creepy” beyond what I thought he was even capable of.
The Mummy: An overstuffed mess of effects that cared so little for its subject matter that it got the hell out of Egypt (and moved the senseless action to, um, England) so fast you’d have thought terrorists were after them. The movie tanked so badly, Universal abandoned plans for a spin-off Dark Universe series of its famous monsters. Most inadvertently funny moment: When Russell Crowe (as Edward Hyde) gets set to fight Tom Cruise and sizes him up, observing, “You’re a younger man…” Actually, Cruise was born in ’62 and Crowe in ’64. Yeah, Tom’s in better shape. But to put this line in the script was hilariously vain.
Last Flag Flying: I had every reason to be excited. (A), It’s a Richard Linklater movie, and I have loved everything he’s done from Slacker to Before Sunrise to Boyhood to Everybody Wants Some!!. And (B), it’s putatively a sequel to The Last Detail, the terrific 1973 Hal Ashby film with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. But this story of a Gold Star dad with a spotty service record (Steve Carell), who reunites with two ex ‘Nam buddies (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) to transport his son’s body home, starts in melancholy mode and goes downhill from there. The story doesn’t so much unfold as wallow.
I Love You, Daddy: Not disappointed in the movie itself, but in its banishment from release (except via illegal download). It’s actually worth seeing as a note-perfect homage/update of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and as a talking point. The unintended context of Louis C.K..’s fall from grace in the sexual harassment shit-storm of 2017 only makes the story more real (considering it’s about men with self-serving rationalizations for their unacceptable behavior towards women). John Malkovich is utterly convincing as a 68-year-old director with an appetite for teenage girls – charming with his innocent-sounding philosophical spiel. Guys like this don’t carry signs that say, “pedophile.” I’m not sure what Louis thought he was making, but he made something very revealing.
The Florida Project: Director Sean Baker’s unblinking look at American life on the margins is harrowing despite its surface whimsy and candy-coloured veneer. Because Baker presents his doomed young mother protagonist without a back story, audiences must view her as society does: on stark and unforgiving first impression. We wouldn’t care at all were it not for her vibrant daughter Moonee, nailed by kiddo actor Brooklynn Prince. How many brilliant Moonees have been extinguished by the arbitrary nature of where they were born? That haunting question pulses through this powerful film.
A Bad Moms Christmas: It wasn’t the costliest, highest profile or most egregious dud of the year (take your pick among Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, Justice League, or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword for those dubious honours). But no other film made me genuinely remorseful about the time I wasted watching it, and sincerely mortified for the all-star cast ensnared in this mess. A stern lesson in the dangers of trying to capitalize on a surprise success with a rushed and dollar-driven sequel.
Downsizing: I’ve liked pretty much everything director Alexander Payne has ever done and Downsizing’s novel premise held tantalizing promise. But Payne’s sprawling conceptual ambition drives the film off the rails, undermining his original point (the tentative relationship between humans and their environment, both literally and figuratively) resulting in a thematic jigsaw puzzle missing essential pieces.
Get Out: Ingenious, bold and overdue, bi-racial comedian Jordan Peele's satiric horror movie premiered at Sundance in the same week as Donald Trump's inauguration. And it captured the shock of the year when the facade of American post-racism was demolished. From the opening scene, which evokes the Trayvon Martin murder, the film progresses to a set-up that echoes the comic optimism of Meet the Parents or 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? A black Brooklyn photographer (Daniel Kaluuya), travels to the rural home of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams of Girls), to meet her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) - part of a coven of secret-agenda white liberals to rival those in Rosemary's Baby or The Stepford Wives.
Baby Driver: A pop video cleverly snapped together as a whooshy heist movie, Baby Driver is the slickest and most empty effort so far from English writer-director, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). Every detail of the screenplay - the personality-free hero played by Ansel Elgort, the romance with his generic waitress girlfriend (Lily James), the scene-chewing gangsters (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm), and the supposed exculpatory relationship to his disabled African-American godfather - feels smug, manipulative and a poor excuse for stupid violence. The more I thought about it, the less I thought of it.
The Emoji Movie: a cartoon which hit the nadir of branded movies, promoting phone apps to children. My review: 💩
The Square: In a year where I loved many movies, Ruben Östlund’s satire is still my favourite. He’s set this story in the world of modern art, which is a terrific jumping off point for a movie that is layered with subtext about modern life. The Square looks at everything from ideas about masculinity, to social media, to the way we think versus the way we act in a society. Ostlund has a keen eye for what he’s seeing in the world, and a natural instinct for comedy and the absurd. But he’s not mean-spirited, nor is he wagging his finger at us from on high. He’s made a movie that’s enjoyable as hell, but will send you out of the theatre with lots to think about.
The Leisure Seeker: A piece of dross that misuses its fabulous actors IMO, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, in a film that feels like it was made from puzzle pieces to aim at Baby Boomers. It doesn’t open here until mid-January, so consider yourself warned.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I’ve come to believe that one’s feelings about the Star Wars series come down to expectation and perspective. My favourite is the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope for its imagination, its look and its storytelling that was was specifically modelled on the “hero’s journey”. That depth is what made the series a cut above. And my expectation is, if a movie is going to call itself Star Wars, it will have those values. So I was encouraged by the way J.J. Abrams rebooted the series with The Force Awakens. He set up a terrific scenario with great characters, that had adventure and that sense of the mythic. But writer/director Rian Johnson’s follow up to me was exhausting and flabby, and threw out the gravitas for a new visual interpretation that didn’t land for me. There were some terrific moments in the movie. I still love the new cast, and I thought Adam Driver was especially strong in this one. But for me, it was a disappointment.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Out of 55 films I screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Martin McDonagh’s brilliant movie about a grieving mother who wants answers and revenge, was the one that made me jump for joy.
Frances McDormand is brilliant as Mildred Hayes, who, after months have passed uneventfully in her daughter's murder case, proactively puts up three signs leading into town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the revered chief of police.
Don’t mess with McDormand! No one else can tell off a priest like Frances, and for that alone she should take home an Oscar. Sam Rockwell also turns in another stellar performance as Officer Dixon -- an immature mama’s boy with a penchant for violence, who tangles with the wrong woman. Brilliantly written, acted and directed I’d love to see this movie take home a truck load of gold statues.
Fist Fight: Seriously? Two high school teachers literally stage an epic fight in front of their students? Who comes up with this crap? Stupid, violent and a complete huge waste of time - this film is also one of the most irresponsible movies to be made this year. Just a note - what on earth has happened to Charlie Day? Between his choice to star in this one AND Louis C.K’s cringe worthy piece of garbage, I Love You, Daddy, it will take a long time until I feel the need to watch him on the small screen again.
MOST DISAPPOINTING (Matt Damon edition)
Downsizing: Being a huge fan of Alexander Payne, a man who usually makes insightful smaller scale films, I was massively disappointed with his latest effort. The premise about status-hungry humans who voluntarily agree to shrink themselves, might have started out OK, but very quickly lost my interest after Matt Damon becomes pint sized. His character just accepts the fact that his wife ditches him at the last minute before the shrinking process and doesn’t even try to get her back. Come on Matt, where were your balls? Oh yeah - shrunken! Between this and The Great Wall it’s hard to understand what on earth Matt Damon was thinking in 2017. Must have been enticingly huge paycheques.
Suburbicon: Oh my, Matt Damon. Another film you starred in this year that had me snoring in my seat. George Clooney who has directed some fine films, just lost me with this one. From a disappointing script written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, an attempt to skewer 1950s suburban America, this movie tried to do too much and failed miserably. Maybe good guys don’t always finish first?