The 17 best films of 2017…that I actually saw in 2017

Do I begin with some cliche sentiment about how 2017 sucked? Because I can.

I don’t really want to though, so instead of that how about we just jump in?

Wait.

Crap.

I almost forgot.

I didn’t see EVERY movie this year, partly due to my location in the country (limited releases are not kind to Midwest audiences) and mostly due to my limited time. I sure did see a lot over the course of 2017. Just not everything.

Movies I still need to see but didn’t before the end of the year:

Call Me By Your Name

The Florida Project

The Killing A Sacred Deer

Mudbound

The Post

Coco

Good Time

Paddington 2

The Blackcoat’s Daughter 

Probably like 100,000 more I’m forgetting. 

So yeah, hopefully I get to all of those in the near future. I’m oh so sorry I could not get to them before now. Speaking of, here are some movies that I DID see and really liked HOWEVER I lack the time, resources, inclination, etc. to write about them all. I do wholly recommend you check them out though because they’re all great (in my opinion).

Some honorable mentions:

Brigsby Bear

Free Fire

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Wonder Woman

American Made

It

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Lego Batman Movie

John Wick: Chapter 2

Personal Shopper

Colossal

1922

It Comes At Night

War for the Planet of the Apes

Detroit

Wind River

Ingrid Goes West

So see those movies as well, please.

Now can we start?

Oh yeah.

I excluded documentaries from this year’s contenders just because it was hard enough ranking all of the movies I did write about. I saw a lot of great docs this year (Icarus, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, Casting JonBenet, to name just a few) but…well, my time.

So…

Some movies I really liked in 2017…

Some may even say they were my favorite…

Some…

Including me…

MY 17 FAVORITE FILMS OF 2017 (that I actually saw in 2017)

17. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. II

Full review here.

It seems like there’s a lot of shade out there directed towards the second volume of James Gunn’s Guardians saga. I, for one, loved the hell out of it. (It also made me ugly cry but that’s neither here nor there really.) I’d stake my claim that the first is a stronger movie it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure, it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release. The first was a mission statement; the second is the fulfillment of a promise.

16. Logan Lucky

As much as I loved all the new treats 2017 offered, sometimes you can’t argue with the classics. Logan Lucky not only represents Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking (after a remarkable 4 year retirement) but also his return to a genre he helped revitalize with his rebooted Oceans franchise in the first decade of the 2000s. Like any heist flick worth its weight in salt, the movie sports a memorable cast of enduring, memorable characters (matched by some of our best and brightest acting talent to boot) and its script is more concerned in the “why” than the “how” in why they need the money. We have Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as a pair of smart, soulful country bumpkins at the heart of it all, Riley Keough as their plucky sister/wing woman, Daniel Craig in a career high as a batshit criminal mastermind (who necessity to the plan is somewhat complicated by his current incarceration) and many, many more.

15. The Big Sick

I’m a big fan of a movies with perspective, and The Big Sick is about as personal perspective you’re going to find in an outright comedy this past year. A large part of that probably has to do with the script coming from real-life couple Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (the latter also stars), and is loosely based around their real-life experiences during the first year of their relationship. Now interesting anecdotes don’t always universally translate into interesting movies to be sure, the film makes use of some dramatic licenses with its characters and throwing obstacles larger than the typical ones the dating scene tends to produce. A common theme throughout this list is a fresh take on a borderline-stagnant formula; in this instance, the romcom.  From the offset, this may seem like a standard romantic comedy. The main conflict being Kumail’s fear of upsetting his traditional Pakistani family by bringing home Emily (played here by the ever-charming Zoe Kazan), a white woman, rather than finding love with a Pakistani woman through an arranged marriage. While the two hit it off, the split as Kumail doesn’t want to risk losing his family. One may expect something like that to hit near the tail end of the second act; here, it occurs in the first as this movie spins into something much more. No spoilers to be found here. This is a movie that’s best enjoyed as a blank slate (i.e. skip the trailer I’ve included below…).

14. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

There sure were a lot of actors-turned-directors in 2017. To be fair, many of those that made the jump also at least had some pretty successful turns as screenwriters as well meaning they at least have a firm grasp on what constitutes a structurally sound movie. Macon Blair, a mainstay of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, steps into the chair for the first time with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a movie that is very much “of the moment.” A woman’s deep dive into an existential crisis, the inciting action of this wildly unpredictable romp is a simple theft. From there, we touch on everything from modern day gender dynamics to the very foundation of societal norms. Featuring standout performances from the likes of two former Peter Jackson collaborators, Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, it’s a movie defined by drastically different tones, something that is often attempted but rarely executed as well as it is here. Think of it as the Three Stooges by way of the Coen Brothers. Much like a Reese’s, it’s two great tastes that inexplicably taste great together.

13. Raw

Raw’s thesis statement is as follows: “An animal that’s tasted human flesh isn’t safe.” It comes midway through, from a father who has yet to discover the dark craving that has utterly upended both of his daughters’ lives. Julia Ducournau’s French horror film gained a weird reputation as a gross-out cannibal gore fest. While not TECHNICALLY correct (the best kind of correct), it detracts from the often striking yet beautiful story at its center. We have Justine (Garance Marillier), a first-year veterinary student. She’s a classic overachiever, vegetarian and virgin. All three come to play in a big bad way as the movie proceedings in which she goes from demure, self-righteous innocent to feral, sex-craving beast. (Did I mention the movie’s French?) This is only complicated by her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumf), who suffers from the same cannibalistic  urges. For Justine’s struggle is whether to succumb to these primitive urges that overtake her after her fateful first bite (easily the most insanely uncomfortably horrific scene in the film), or whether to follow her ingrained moral code in the face of unholy temptation. It’s a struggle we all go through at one point or another, just hopefully not to these extremes. Raw only cements my opinion that horror may just be the best genre for all up-and-coming directors to cut their teeth. Here’s hoping this isn’t Ducournau’s last contribution. 

12. mother!

It’s a giant biblical allegory. It’s a cautionary tale on the threat of global warming. It’s a creative type’s manifesto on the process of being creative. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! wears a lot of hats, and clearly that’s not everyone’s cup of tea as reflected by its 69% RT score. It’s a movie designed top-to-bottom to provoke its audience, encompassing all of recorded history and beyond within the confines of a single house. Our perspective is contained exclusively to our titular young, unnamed mother (a career high for Jennifer Lawrence), either by keeping her in frame or shaky first-person POV shots. There’s an unspoken tension from frame one that only grows and grows as the film continues. Arguing what it all means is part of the fun, but it’s a movie best experienced as pure sensation as everything ebbs and flows, a roller coaster plummeting you at 500 miles per hour, culminating in the most insane third act you’re likely to see in a major release for quite some time.

11. Dunkirk 

Recounting Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French Allied solders from northern France off the beaches of (you guessed it, Dunkirk) – Dunkirk gives us three interwoven sections (air, land, sea) that all unfold over different lengths of time. I’d compare watching it to reading three chapters of a novel simultaneously, all of which eventually converge on a single, solitary word. Unlike most war movies which are about winning, Dunkirk is all about survival. (Never before I have I seen a movie capture quite so distinctly the terror of an air assault before as the stranded soldiers can only can fall to the sand, all in the small hope of not being torn to shred by the enemy planes.) I may not have cared for his last couple of flicks (largely in regards to their plots), but Christopher Nolan still stands nearly peerless in his cinematic craft and technique. He’s a style all unto himself, as all the best directors are. He and his team are the rare few in big budget studio movie-making still allowed to work and innovate in environment defined by micromanagement.

10. Gerald’s Game

Dark Tower aside, 2017 was really strong year of Stephen King adaptations. Within a two month time period, we got 1922, Gerald’s Game and It; all of which could have been contenders for my year-end “Best Of” list. Gets the edge if only for being A) topical and B) a more impressive feat given the limitations of its source material. Give the original novel a read and one discovers very quickly that it would be one hell of nut to crack onscreen as much of it takes place inside the mind of our main character, who is handcuffed to one location for a majority of the proceedings as her husband lays dead on the floor. Thankfully, co-writer/director Mike Flanagan is up to the challenge, thanks in large part to Carla Gugino and her compelling performance, which effortlessly pivots from panic to grief to despair to rage, sometimes all at once. I’d go so far as to say she delivers her first Oscar-worthy performance here, a shame given the Academy’s penchant for over-looking strong performances in genre fodder. The same goes for Flanagan, who in any other race would be up for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a movie that really benefits from his signature directing style. If he opts to tackle more King in the future, I wouldn’t protest. 

9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot of split positions on Martin McDonagh’s latest pitch-black dramedy. I guess I found it perfectly in line with a lot of his other work. However I get the criticism without altogether agreeing with it. I favored the unpredictability of everything to be quite honest, along with an emphasis on portraying ever single character as its center with dimension. The movie goes out of its way to muddy our allegiance at multiple turns. Do we root for the grieving, angry Mildred (Frances McDormand) who has purchased three billboards…outside Ebbing…Missouri, in the interest of finding her daughter’s killer while also shaming the local sheriff’s department for what she feels is a lack of effort? The movie definitely positions us to initially. Her grief now calcified into a single-minded, nothing-left-to-lose mission, bulldozing anyone who gets in her way.  Do we emphasize with said sheriff’s department, headed up by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson)? It’s revealed early on that Ebbing’s police department, while populated with knuckleheads and racists, didn’t so much bungle the investigation as run into dead ends due to a lack of evidence. Also Willoughby is a pretty decent guy, sympathetic to Mildred’s plight. Oh, and he also happens to be dying of cancer, something Mildred knew about before putting up her signs. Has grief pushed Mildred past reason? There are no easy answers to be found here and no real resolution either. Given closure is out of reach for its characters, it seems only fair it should be for us as well.

8. A Ghost Story

A musician (Casey Affleck) dies, returns to haunt his wife/lover (Rooney Mara) and their shared house as a stereotypically bed-sheet garbed specter (only visible to us, the audience). He travels the range of space and time, speaking no audible dialogue throughout. That’s pretty much the gist  of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. It’s deceptively simple on paper, but in many ways it is quite possibly the most thematically dense cinematic outings I witnessed in 2017. As our titular ghost is bound to the house, the world begins to move on without him going beyond a simple examination of a relationship beset by grief. It is that, but a lot more. It is a movie that is at once epic and sweeping and still incredibly intimate, touching on fears, thoughts and anxieties that keep many awake late at night. As with any good ghost story, it’s one that haunts the back of your mind long after it’s finished.

7. The Shape of Water 

It’s no secret that Guillermo Del Toro is quite the fan of cinema. The Shape of Water works as almost like a love letter to a life-long affair with the medium from the Mexican maestro. Now his movies have always generally felt like bubbling cauldrons of superfandom to be fair but here it’s as if Del Toro has dropped all pretense, transmitting his obsession by concocting a story that is entirely old-fashioned (with some twists here and there) but aided by modern day movie magic. A riff on the Beauty and the Beast tale, we have a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) falling in love with a towering fishman (Doug Jones, obviously).  She doesn’t mind the scales; he doesn’t speak the language she can’t. You could almost consider this an Abe Sapien spin-off feature given we’ve got Jones playing yet another lovable creature that may or may not stem descend from a Black Lagoon. For those fearing Del Toro’s gone soft, fret not. As with any of his best films, this is a fairy tale meant for adults and there’s plenty of gore and darkness to go around. For my money, Sally Hawkins gives THE performance of the year here, conveying a cornucopia of emotion without uttering a line of dialogue.

6. Logan

It’s about time the X-Men series’ “fluid” continuity was a source of inspiration rather than outright frustration. Cut free from franchise mandates, Logan serves as a poignant, proper cap to Hugh Jackman’s tenure as the cigar-smokin’, claw-poppin’ Ol’ Canucklehead we’ve grown to know and love over the past 17 years. The same goes for Patrick Steward’s Charles Xavier, with both men turning in franchise-high performances and placing their respective definitive stamps on the characters. I pity anyone who attempts to feel their shows, particularly after this (hopefully) last outing. Director James Mangold opts to create an emotional continuity between the two’s long-shared pain. It’d be shallow to say something as simplistic as, “It was better because it was rated R…‘cause blood n’ guts are cool…and swear words.” Sure, seeing Wolverine deliver the severed limbs and viscera after all this time is pretty goddamn satisfying but it’s even more satisfying to see the consequences of a life defined by violence laid bare. It’s spared from the dredge of nihilistic abyss by a combination of new takes on well-worn characters and tender relation shared between Logan and his kind-of daughter Laura (Dafne Keen).

5. Okja 

In many ways, the online direct-to-consumer model is perfect for Bong Joon-ho. The risk being that his movies may get lost in the shuffle of Netflix’s “MORE, MORE, MORE” release mentality is valid, but it’s here that his movies stand less of a chance of getting cut down or mired in the web of studio politics much like his last film (Snowpiercer) did. The man’s chaotic sensibilities are all over this thing and admittedly not everything sticks; however, I can’t help but marvel at the attempt none-the-less. Part E.T., part Fast Food Nation, part Wes Anderson, part Pixar, part….countless other things, Okja is the cinematic equivalent to a pot luck dinner; everyone brings something unique to the table, and as is the case with good pot lucks, the end result is ultimately delicious. That isn’t to say this movie is free of some heavy handed messages. The social commentary is laid on so thick this time out you may just feel your cholesterol rise at one point or another. When we advance to the more metropolitan area of the film, things start to become all at once more wacky and incredibly dour. And it’s when those two key elements (the whimsy of the country side and the wacky yet bleak, over-the-top metropolis) where things don’t really click all the way for me. Perhaps Joon-Ho meshes these two, from the offset, incompatible sides intentionally. The down home values of rural living don’t often sit well with the cynical crassness of the corporate circus. It might be more than a little blunt, but that could also be the point.

4. Baby Driver 

I really am beginning to doubt Edgar Wright has a bad movie in him, or at the very least, a non-entertaining movie. As with Nolan, Wright GETS cinema in way so few seem to these days, thereby making his movies actual events, an experience worth actually venturing out to the theater to see. Baby Driver is his latest event, and well-worth the price of admission. The level of technique on full display here is next level for Wright as he crafts what equates to mix-tape with a movie happening around it, scored from everything to alt-rock to classic R&B and everything in-between. Literally nothing is superfluous as Wright makes use of every shot, cut, effect and music cue to tie seamlessly in the visual composition as a whole. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before outside of a musical, which you may very well consider this. Against all odds, Baby Driver keeps this near-breathless momentum throughout its near two hour runtime. Much like the work of his buddy Quentin Tarantino (a clear influence here, along with George Miller and Walter Hill), Baby Driver is one of those singular movies that will inspire countless others that follow in its footsteps.

3. Blade Runner 2049

Full review here. 

Wow. Not only do we live in a world were a Blade Runner sequel FINALLY happened, that same sequel is better than the original in just about every single way imaginable. Maybe that has something to do with Denis Villeneuve taking the reigns. Much like Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi, Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher (one of the co-writers of the original film) and Michael Green aren’t concerned with giving fans what they want and instead focus on giving them what they need, a delicate tightrope act to be sure. Whatever it is though it worked like gangbusters. 2049 is very much a story torn from the same cloth as its predecessor but this time the narrative actually matches the quality of its visuals. The world of 2049 feels very much like an expansion to the world we were first introduced to back in 1982 (albeit with a few cosmetic enhancements here and there obviously). The first movie gave us the blue-print whereas the second is here to give us the nuts and bolts. A critical factor in the original’s longevity dealt in its iconic visuals and score, something that’s carried over here exponentially; no surprise really given the astronomical leaps movie effects have taken in the intermedium. It doesn’t hurt that the greatest cinematographer working today (that’d be Roger Deakins) behind the lens, canvasing a future that is all at once sad and beautiful. 

2. Lady Bird 

Hyper-specific. Universally relatable. Lady Bird is a masterclass in the always seemingly-tired but still always proven “coming-of-age” genre. Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s first cinematic effort as a director (she won’t be the only freshman you’ll see on this list) takes place in Sacramento over the course of the 2002-03 school year and is centered around 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) but it feels like it could take place anywhere with anyone of us in the staring role. Gerwig treats Christine’s arc as delicately as a mother bird would, favoring natural tension to arise organically rather than hackneyed or melodramatic. Too rarely does a filmmaker dare to opt for ordinary. And while it’s frequently hilarious, there’s some pretty real tension at its heart too. It’s a movie so in-tune with what it is to be a teenager, you inadvertently feel the desire to pull Christine aside like a parent and tell her to stop rushing to adulthood.

1. Get Out

I, like many others I imagine, made the mistake of going into Jordan Peele’s directorial debut as if it were a one-joke Key and Peele sketch (kind of like Keanu), reimagining the “black guy meets his white girlfriend’s parents” as a horror movie. But execution is EVERYTHING, and the biggest, biggest, BIGGEST strength of Get Out is how seriously he treats the genre. It’s a genuinely unsettling, surreal experience in which Peele forgoes a lot of easy laughs (and there are laughs to be sure), instead favoring a mounting unease in his hero, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, one of the many on and offscreen involved in this masterpiece that should be under consideration come award season). It doesn’t hurt he’s packed his movie with oh-so subtle foreshadowing and easter eggs that not only rewards multiple viewings, but demands them. Gerwig may have given us a nostalgic teenage dream, but Peele gives us a modern day racial nightmare. Bravo sir. Bravo.

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‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time on what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out for movie this year thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but still not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me, sadists or both. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

For better or worse, ‘Swiss Army Man’ the first wholly singular cinematic experience of 2016

-cracks knuckles-

So…where were we?

I wouldn’t consider this a return from my self-imposed hiatus from reviewing films. I’m still in a state of weird flux as to how to continue with….with….let’s call it “my hobby.” I think tentatively, from here on out, I’ll keep it to movies that I actually have something “different” or “personal”  to yammer on about.

A movie so singular and sincere has emerged from the ether that is practically taunting me to write something about it in an attempt to define it. Like many, I had read the stories earlier this year about a film called Swiss Army Man back when it debuted at Sundance. Overblown headlines casually dismissed the film as “the movie with Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse” and focused instead on audience walk-outs.  The premise alone was enough to pull me in. The fact that A24, a distributer that has already put out two winners and personal favorites of mine this very year (The Witch and Green Room, respectively),  opted to give it a wide release was the final straw in ensuring my ass would be in the seat should it reach Oklahoma.

Luckily it did hit one theater in my area, and while I don’t think it will necessarily set the world aflame given what it is competing against at the local multiplex this summer, it has perhaps the most cult potential of any film I’ve seen this year.

It’s so unique that I dare not really compare it to anything else. I’d quickly classify it as a “buddy travel film” but that would be a disservice to everything it holds. Yes, there are fart and boner jokes. Yes, it gets thematically heavy and almost frustratingly complex. It however meshes those two worlds (the juvenile and pretentious) in such a way that it succeeds entirely in spite of itself. It is at once both a celebration of the absurd and mundane, and I can’t wait to talk to you about it.

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The plot:

“Hank, stranded on a deserted island and about to kill himself, notices a corpse washed up on the beach. He befriends it, naming it Manny, only to discover that his new friend can talk and has a myriad of supernatural abilities…which may help him get home.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I feel as if there is going to be a large portion of people that see this movie and ask, “What the fuck was that?” This is a general reaction that I fully believe was co-writers/co-directors Daniel Scheiner and Daniel Kwan implicit intention of invoking. I can only assume they wear those reported walk-outs as badges of honor given just how intentionally strange their film gets.

The beauty of Swiss Army Man is that, like the multipurpose corpse for which it is named, it is a film that will mean almost anything to anyone. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about raising a child. You could find a movie about the ways broken people help other broken people. It could be about overwhelming loneliness and the power of love and hope. You could even simply view it as just a movie about a lost guy hanging out with a farting corpse and getting into wacky adventures. To me, it was a deeply personal yet completely universal film revolving around themes of growing up and accepting yourself for every little weird fault.

It takes about 5 solid minutes for the film to establish its universe. The next thing you know Hank (Paul Dano) is riding on the titular corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) as if he were a jet ski, propelled by the later’s farts. As far as meet-cutes go, it is hands down the year’s most memorable.

From the get go, this movie rides on whether the chemistry between in its two respective leads. Luckily both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe turn in absolutely stellar performances, which also no doubt come in as their most intimate given just how much poking and prodding the pair do to one another over the film’s runtime. I’d be hard pressed to name a film out of this year that rode so high on the complete commitment of its stars.

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I don’t want to accuse Dano of being typecast, but the man excels at playing lovable weirdoes. That isn’t to say the guy has anything left to prove. After going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, I’m all in for whatever Dano is selling. When we meet Hank, he is literally at the end of his rope as he prepares to hang himself to escape the boring monotony of stranded desert island life. Enter: Manny, who may or may not actually be a magical, talking corpse. Don’t worry. The movie will give you a definitive answer before all is said and done.

As the movie continues, we learn more and more about how Hank got to where he is, both physically and psychologically. There is a girl back home, played by the lovely and underrated Mary Elisabeth Winstead, he has a thing for and the movie even plays into the creepier aspects of this, layering Hank’s plight even more past the cliche of the tradition “journey home” arc so common in films. Conversely, Manny comes from a very different play. Where Hank is stuck sorting through his own issues, Radcliffe’s Manny is a completely clean slate. He’s a toddler, ready to know what everything is and how the world works. Soon enough, he blasts through adolescence and becomes corrupted in ways we all do by shame and self-doubt.

Those who’ve dismissed Radcliffe as a “flash-in-the-pan” can officially step aside. Of all the Harry Potter alumni, he’s taken what’d I consider to be the more interesting, multi-faced role choices; this latest, to be blunt, being the best of his entire career thus far (Potter included).

I’m not positive I can even overstate just how good Radcliffe is. When he experiences happiness at the simplest of things, it is utterly infectious. And when the sadness of his coming age and eventual belief that he is disgusting is crushing. It’s the most likable performance from an actor this year so far and as unlikely as it will ultimately be, I’d love to see Radcliffe get some attention next year once awards’ season starts collectively bothering all of us.

While both Dano and Radcliffe give phenomenal performances, they wouldn’t have a prayer without the direction and script of the Daniels. The pair are known primarily for their music video work, including a little bit of magic you may remember from a couple years back…

Swiss Army Man is their feature debut, and I’d be hard pressed to point to an example of a director or directors not knowing any better paying off so incredibly. The Witch, another cinematic highlight for me this year, also came from a first time writer and director – Robert Eggers. Whereas that film felt like it came from an industry veteran in just how precise and nuanced it was in its execution, the Daniels go in the exact opposite direction that will no doubt polarize more than just a few people.  I, however, see their success with Swiss Army Man as a testament to cinema’s fluidity. There is no one “right” way to craft a movie after all. The Daniels saw no limitations when assembling their first feature, and bypassed good taste and convention as the brought it all in; a gamble that could have easily led to a clusterfuck of ideas, visuals and tones. Luckily for us however, they crafted a film is philosophical and juvenile in equal measures, and it plumbs deep emotional and spiritual ideas without ever being pretentious. In other words, it’s a movie with something to teach you but also laugh along side you as it casually tosses around fart and boner jokes left and right. 

Given their most known for outlandish visuals, it should come as no surprise that the film looks as evocative as it is ludicrous. Cinematographer Larkin Seiple takes a $4 million dollar movie and made it look like it cost $40 million. When the modest budget becomes somewhat obvious the Daniels take it up a notch by implementing a handmade style reminiscent of Michel Gondry. 

The music is another aspect that elevates the film past its price range, enlisting Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra to handle score duties. At times, it feels as if the two are mocking/parodying the care-free jungle jams of Karen O’s classic Where the Wild Things Are score. A minor nitpick, but for the most part the film’s score works best when it brazens its own singular, weird path with the exception of two instances when John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park is used to better effect than the fucking Jurassic Park sequel that came out last year!  

This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, and for that its biggest strength (its uniqueness) could also be viewed as its biggest flaw. I’d be lying if EVERYTHING in this film made sense to me. Just because I watch a few movies doesn’t make me an expert and things do (constantly) go over my head. As I said before, there is a lot of interpretation when tackling this movie, and that isn’t for everyone. Hell, I’ve dedicated one day a week where I blatantly try to avoid thinking too hard about a movie. So I can’t particularly fault anyone for not liking this movie as it is REALLY weird and more than a little hefty in its themes. Personally, I like a movie that challenges, enlightens and entertains me. A true triple threat; a cinematic Jennifer Lopez if you will, but recognize that people don’t need really need more than just one of those elements.

Regardless of whether you think you may or may not like Swiss Army Man, I fully recommend you give it a shot while it’s still in theaters at the very least. I can at least promise that you’ll have a wholly memorable experience with it.

It’s a film that’s going to buzz around in your brain a lot longer than the latest Independence Day or Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson vehicle, whether you ultimately liked the movie or not. It’s a movie with real vision and different; something we don’t see much of in a landscape that is largely uniform with sequels, prequels, reboots and all-female re-imaginings.