Top 5 Movies of 2017*
*Australian release dates
|The reason I didn't get to the movies as much in 2017.
5. Miss Sloane
Say it with me now: N-A-S-T-Y W-O-M-A-N!
I've always been fascinated with lobbying as a profession and the relationship between lobbying and politics, and Miss Sloane only increased my fascination. What I enjoyed most about this movie, other than Chastain's commanding performance, is that it was intelligent. It examined the gun debate from both sides and demonstrated how political and deep vested interests run. We've known and witnessed for decades how timid politicians are in standing and declaring against the behemoth that is the NRA, but what I wasn't as familiar with is the tactics that are used to exploit and muddy the water. Many people I talk to see the need for gun and even constitutional reform as common sense. Miss Sloane aims to broaden our horizons and delve into how difficult change is to implement from within D.C.. (Note: I'm a lot more convinced these days by arguments for change from the bottom up. Bring about cultural and social change towards firearms, what freedom means today, individual rights and the common good, and our reading and understanding of the Constitution in the 21st century through education. If we seek to bring these changes through educational institutions and local communities then perhaps we will see real generational shifts.)
After watching Chastain's brilliant performance in Zero Dark Thirty, it was a no-brainer that she deserved to get the nod for this character-driven movie. It's also about time we see more films that depend on powerful leading actors/roles, roles which are intelligent and three-dimensional, go to females.
Oh, this might also be the first John Madden movie that I actually enjoyed. Don't get me started on Shakespeare in Love! Credit needs to go to the writer, Jonathan Perera, whose dialogue-driven script is Sorkin-esque and acts as a compelling hook.
At some point outliving those you love has to take its toll. This eternal truth is what Logan explores.
I don't know who was able to convince the honchos to go with an R rating, but it is what the franchise has been missing. If you are going to do this character justice, then you have to venture past the gruff voice and occasional swear word, and delve deeper into his psyche and grim outlook.
In the midst of this barren, almost dystopian world - think Mad Max: Fury Road, comes a young mutant who will once again unleash Logan's animalistic rage while simultaneously triggering his desire to not let another mutant walk his path. This young mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen), is every bit the equal of Wolverine and this is put to the test with eye-popping fight scenes that might top those in Deadpool. (Mangold aced the 'show don't tell' test.)
Interwoven through this dark tale is a return-to-Eden hope that develops slowly and methodically. This allows Logan to further challenge the superhero genre and give Hugh the finale he deserved.
3. Blade Runner 2049
The original Blade Runner popped my cinematic cherry. After watching Ridley Scott's visionary masterpiece, I started to understand that not every movie is good. It also served as my first foray into the entertaining genre of film noir.
Director Denis Villeneuve was taking on a movie steeped in cinematic and philosophical lore, and for the most part, he surpassed expectations. Villeneuve maintained the dystopian noir and philosophical elements that made Blade Runner a classic. He also was able to add to this desolate future and make viewers feel uncomfortable in this capitalist wasteland. Villeneuve's masterstroke comes in the lead Blade Runner, K (Ryan Gosling), who has gone from embracing his role in this slavish society (to "retire" old Blade Runners) to questioning his existence.
Some have said the movie, which stretches for over two and a half hours, is too long. I beg to differ. Blade Runner 2049 had to be introspective and contemplative, with K slowly piecing together the meaning of his dreams and purpose.
And, once again, the ending doesn't disappoint.
I first learned about the horrendous ordeal Jesuit missionaries experienced in East Asia - especially Japan - in 2011 when I wrote an essay about the Latin Church's Counter-Reformation and the Jesuits. The primary sources, those which have been translated, are harrowing. Even angry atheists would cry out in empathy when reading about the torture and unspeakable pain these men endured.
When I learned that Martin Scorsese - who has a fascinating relationship with the Catholic Church and spirituality - was finally taking on Shusaku Endo's novel, I tried to get my hands on any and all developments. I knew Scorsese had wanted to make this adaptation, it just seemed to be a bridge too far. Now I get it. Silence is beyond intense. Your senses are invaded from the opening (torture) scene, and you'll feel as if you are crouched alongside Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), praying for respite, by the end.
As a committed Christian, what tore me to pieces was my need to put myself in the shoes of the Christians and asking myself, "Could my faith survive this?" I felt a bit selfish making it about me, but I couldn't stop myself. (I don't suggest others try this as the movie is over two hours and you might break down!) To borrow an old cliche, Silence is a religious experience. Literally.
I often found myself in the shoes of the character some have described as "the Judas figure", Kichijiro (a profound performance by Yosuke Kubozuka). Kichijiro assists two Jesuit priests in their search for a missionary who they have been told has recanted his faith and creed, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Kichijro guides the young (and in many ways ignorant) priests into Japan and then struggles to maintain his faith in the face of local officials who want to stamp out Christianity. Kichijro's reluctance to die for his faith is understandable, and I found it impossible to judge or even scoff at him.
Then there is the character of Inoue (Issei Ogata), a wise and experienced persecutor who sets himself apart by not only torturing Christians physically but also psychologically and mentally. Even a brief lesson in church history will back up the truth that physically torturing and killing believers has not led to the demise of Christianity. Inoue has learned this firsthand and has made it his mission to combat Rodrigues by planting and tending to the seeds of doubt. These scenes were some of the most challenging and thought-provoking, as we too must encounter the silence.
I understand that this movie is not for everyone. However, I still left believing that there is beauty to be found in the devotion, relationships and even in the torture.
1. Manchester By The Sea
The main reason I took to 20th-century modernist literature as a teenager is that things don’t always come full circle. The novels and short stories often end in despair. There were forces at play that didn’t allow the traditional narrative arc to take place. I connected with this and still do. I recognise the scars that won’t ever entirely heal. They often get airtime when I sleep. The blessing is that I get to wake up knowing that I am a recipient of grace. But there are times when I wake and wonder what I’d do if the dreams were my earthly reality. This is what Manchester by the Sea explores through its lead, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck).
This is a perfectly written and set movie. Better known for his stage work, Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed Manchester by the Sea with stripped down and raw detail. The movie follows the moment Lee Chandler is called back to his hometown, Manchester by the Sea, after his brother is pronounced dead. This grief is compounded by Lee’s life-defining loss, which threatens to consume him.
At the outset we find Lee shovelling snow and repairing worn down apartments in a bland Boston neighbourhood. He’s a gritty bloke in a gritty place. However, this opening scene spoke volumes and continued to catch my mind’s eye when the credits rolled. This is because through perfectly placed and timed flashbacks we discover what Lee’s trajectory and outlook were before his unspeakable tragedy.
This brings us to his hometown, where Lee must look after his nephew (Lucas Hodges) while processing his brother’s passing. The relationship between Lee and Patrick acclimates us to the town and gives us some light-hearted and universally relatable moments. It’s a brilliant and subtle touch.
The setting and recreation of the town, which in real life is actually well to do, complements the director’s patient style. Mixed with Lee’s flashbacks, the setting almost emerges as the dominant figure in the movie.
When we come to the flashback that everything has been leading to, there are no words. The decision to focus on the faces of the onlookers was breathtaking. I remember closing my eyes before turning to look at my wife and then 2-month-old baby. From here everything clicks, and we begin to dive beneath the surface and study the mind and inner working of Lee.
“I can’t beat it. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
I watch romcoms with Claire because, well, it puts runs on the board. I can't recall the last one I actually enjoyed. There's something so formulaic about the genre that makes my eyes glaze over and... WAIT! This must be what Claire feels when she walks into the room and sport is on.
The Big Sick is a cross-cultural romcom with a difference. It follows the life of a Pakistani stand-up comedian and Uber driver who lives in Chicago - along with his immediate family - and falls for an American. A caucasian American, no less. This proves to be a problem as Kumail's family expect him to marry a Pakistani woman and maintain cultural and religious practices/beliefs. After splitting with Emily to please his family, Kumail's life is turned upside down when Emily unexpectedly falls sick and is put in an induced coma.
The plot travels in directions I wasn't expecting - a major positive for a romcom - and the dry and dark humour is delightful. None more so than the question Emily asks after Kumail and her first hook up, "Were you available for [Uber] rides while we were fucking?"
What I enjoyed the most about The Big Sick is its authenticity. (Note: You can read all about Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's real-life story and relationship, which served as the basis for The Big Sick, here.) Having spent 9 of my first 18 years living in a Muslim country, there's a lot of cultural and social quirks that continue to make me chuckle. Kumail and his family reminded me of stories and discussions that arose at the lunch table at school in Malaysia.
I also really enjoyed Kumail's "one man show"!
Disappointment of the Year: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
|Loving the retro poster!
Was this a case of expecting too much?
I don't think so.
Firstly, I couldn't get over the depiction and role my beloved Luke played. It felt like in Johnson's desire to usher out the old and forge ahead with the new (generation), he's mangled and strangled the life out of one of my childhood cinematic heroes! I don't believe the Jedi who never wavered in his belief in Darth Vader, and in the good of man, could/would act as he did towards Kylo and then go the full hermit. Yes, there's precedence for this sort of thing - I kept wondering what kind of private healthcare Jedis must need! - but this progression didn't do Luke justice. Sure, we can applaud subverting expectations and methods - killing off Snoke was a decent move - but I'm still left wondering what is left for Abrams and Episode IX. If we think back to Empire Strikes Back - still my favourite - did it leave you chomping at the bit for Return of the Jedi?
You are nodding, right?
Now ask yourself if The Last Jedi did the same...
Then there were the befuddling tone shifts, heavyhanded gags and the insane plot. What in George Lucas' galaxy did the casino mission serve? A quirky del Toro cameo and visual spectacular are all well and good, I just think a proper Skywalker lightsaber battle would've hit the spot. If the island mission was just meant to get the adrenaline pumping and leave us shaking our fists at the 1% (Bernie Sanders must've loved the rebels' propaganda ad at the end!), then it should've been cut.
The bottom line is that I just don't care enough for Kylo or Rey to start counting the days for Episode IX.
Let me throw in one positive before I go: THE OPENING BOMBING SCENE!
PS. Did Disney pay off the majority of critics?
TV Show of the Year: The Letdown
I became a father for the first time in 2017. Let me be as honest as The Letdown, I didn't know how I was going to survive after a week of parenthood! Suddenly, the daily tasks I once took for granted felt like negotiating a triathlon... barefoot and naked.
The Letdown, which aired on the ABC in November, quickly became Claire and my weekly therapy session. We'd often have to pause the show and allow ourselves to scream, "YEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!"
If you don't know (and shame on you for not knowing), The Letdown follows a Sydney couple as they navigate parenthood and what it is like to bring a newborn into your existing set-up and lives. Brutally honest and refreshingly funny, the show has depth, passes the sniff test and is fair dinkum. The show examines everything from breastfeeding and leakage to trying to comprehend babies, social isolation and emotional and financial strain. (Note: How the hell does anyone stay financially afloat, let alone thrive, with children in Sydney?? Something has to be done about the lack of wage growth compared to the soaring cost of living!)
Co-creator and star of the show Alison Bell plays the new mother, Audrey, with such honesty and down-to-earth candour that you don't actually have to be a new parent to enjoy the show. In fact, those who aren't parents might be in for even more laughs and "Woah!" moments. I personally relished the character of Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) - Audrey's dazed and confused husband - and
his our many sink-or-swim moments.
I just want to say thank you to creators, Bell and Sarah Scheller, for creating a show that allows everyone to see just how much of a shitshow parenthood can be.
A Handful to look forward to in 2018: Black Klansman, The Incredibles 2, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Sicario II: Soldado.