This week we start our two-week long celebration of the 2018 Winter Olympics by chatting about I, Tonya, the new mockumentary style film from director Craig Gillespie. The film seeks to evoke a sense of empathy for Tonya Harding (we think) and establish some background about her upbringing and life both before and after the memorable attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan that she is forever tied to. We talk through our feelings about the film’s tone and whether or not its constant depiction of abuse was effective or just exploitative, as well as much more.
What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:11
(Both – Favorite Winter Olympic Sports)
(Aaron – Peter Rabbit)
(Patrick – Under the Sun)
(Both – Super Bowl LII Movie Trailers)
Despite all of the turmoil oozing out of Hollywood this year, 2017 still managed to supply us with a bevy of wonderful films to enjoy. I feel like a lot of blockbusters rose to the next level this year, and as always, there were plenty of fantastic independent films to balance everything out. My top 10 of the year is indicative of this balance.
As always, there were a handful of potentials I just haven’t had a chance to see yet, either due to lack of time, or due to the geographical restrictions of living in the great tundra that is Maine, where we aren’t typically privy to early releases. So, some of the buzz worthy films that I haven’t yet peeped… The Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Wonderstruck. I’m sure there are a few more, but these stand out for me at the moment.
Shuffling the top 10 deck was difficult this year, simply because there were so many excellent films to choose from. I seriously feel that many of my 11-20 list could easily be considered for higher standing. But, as they say, you have to be prepared to kill your darlings.
I’m not going to regale you with any commentary on my “not quite” top ten (ie: 11-20), but I’ll list them, and you should know that all are fantastic and should be on your cinematic radar.
19 Beauty & the Beast
17 Baby Driver
16 Gerald’s Game
15 The Big Sick
14 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
13 Brigsby Bear
11 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
And the top 10…
10 – LOGAN LUCKY
Steven Soderbergh comes out of “retirement” to give us Ocean’s Eleven with rednecks, but he never cheapens the experience with tired cultural cliches. Okay, there are a few tired cultural cliches, but they don’t drag the film down. The characters have depth and the actors are all in on this madcap adventure which finds them plotting to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the 4th of July. What could possibly go wrong?
9 – STRONGER
This is the film Patriot’s Day wishes it was. Choosing to focus less on the capture of the perpetrators of the cowardly bombing of the Boston Marathon, Stronger instead follows the story of bombing victim Jeff Bauman, played here with ferocious abandon by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the struggle of coming to terms with being thrust into the spotlight as a symbol of hope for an entire nation.
8 – WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The rebooted Apes trilogy comes to an end with one of the most heartfelt and well crafted war movies in recent memory. This series has gotten better with each installment, hitting all the right notes in the telling of Caesar’s story. The special effects are unmatched. And I’m coming around to the idea that Andy Serkis deserves some recognition from the Academy for his motion capture work.
7 – Get Out
It’s not often you find a horror film getting so much attention during the awards push, but Jordan Peele’s take on race relations in our society disguised as a genre film is simply outstanding in its structure. Funny, scary, and poignant- wrapped up in a tight script, Get Out is a breath of well intended and needed fresh air- conveying a necessary message in our current cultural state.
6 – WONDER WOMAN
With undoubtedly one of the best scenes of the year- as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) ascends to her rightful place as warrior princess in the Battle of No Man’s Land, a female icon is finally emblazoned into the fabric of cinematic geekdom. Director Patty Jenkins was without a doubt the right choice to bring Diana’s story to life on the big screen, and to see the impact on the faces of empowered women and girls is easily one of the hallmarks of the 2017 cinematic year.
5 – THE DISASTER ARTIST
Based on the making of the 2003 “Citizen Kane” of bad movies, The Room, James Franco deep dives into the persona of eccentric writer/director Tommy Wiseau and the calamity that surrounded the production of his cinematic oddity. Watching The Room is highly recommended before jumping into The Disaster Artist. Having that context greatly enhances the appreciation for what Franco achieved…..Oh, Hi, Mark!
4 – A GHOST STORY
A deeply moving look at grieving and loneliness, A Ghost Story will not be for everyone. Each scene is a haunting portrayal of loss, shown from both sides of the equation- the living that must move on, and the dead that cannot. This is a deeply emotional and affecting film, shot in a way that can often be uncomfortably slow of pace. Those with a lack of patience may struggle, but if given a chance, this is a film that will resonate on a deep level.
3 – THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Having worked for Disney for nine years, this story felt very close to home for me. Knowing there were pockets of people living far beneath the poverty line mere minutes from the front gates of the Happiest Place on Earth make me feel equal parts ignorant and culpable. This film is an unflinching look at people living day to day in the shadow of a world that has essentially left them behind. Yet, in all of its squalor, the spirit of six year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends is rooted in an innocence that is often as hopeful as it is bleak.
2 – I, TONYA
Margot Robbie is fantastic as figure skating’s bad girl, Tonya Harding. Director Craig Gillespie shoots the film in a way that accentuates the zany humor of the scandal surrounding the 1992 olympic games, but he never cheapens the awful abuse levied against Harding by her family and her on again / off again love interest, Jeff Gillooly (here portrayed by Sebastien Stan). Harding, while not completely innocent, is treated mostly as a product of her environment, unable to free herself of the bad influences in her life, and she comes away here as a mostly sympathetic figure. Allison Janney, as Harding’s Mom, is a stand out.
1 – LADY BIRD
In what seems to be a renaissance of coming of age films, Lady Bird raises the bar even further, perhaps to a place unaccessible for whatever comes next. Greta Gerwig’s scriptwriting is so tight, it’s difficult to find any flaw in the narrative of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, all at once head strong and in search of an identity. Her contentious relationship with her mother Marion (an award worthy Laurie Metcalf) provides the crux for everything happening on screen. The result is a heartfelt and sometimes difficult look at love and familial relationships, told in a refreshingly honest way.
Steve’s first cinematic experience dates back to 1972, when his Aunt took him to see Dumbo at Buffalo’s historic North Park Theater. With the seed planted, his love for movies has blossomed into a full time obsession over the years, and he will happily engage in conversation about all things film related, especially the works of Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino. He also manages to find time to keep current on the plethora of great television shows and comic book series, and build upon his retro vinyl collection.
He lives in South Portland, Maine with his wife and a menagerie of small furry pets. When not engaged in the latest pop culture phenomenon, he spends time working on creative writing projects or updating his personal blog, popcornconfessional.com. Follow him on social media at facebook.com/popcornconfessional/ and Twitter@woosterbbb.
The end of the year brings grading and reflection points for both the school teacher in me and the film critic. Looking at the online Trapper Keeper portfolio called Every Movie has a Lesson, I published 126 full film reviews in 2017, topping last year’s 114 and setting a new high mark. When I did my website’s first “10 Best” year-end list in 2011, that number was 53. Humming along with press credentials, festival access, and being part of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle as a recognized awards-voting body, I can’t even remember what 53 feels like.
Even at 126, I feel like I left plenty of opportunities on the table living in a big market with a great reach of films. For the purposes of a proper “10 Best” list, short of not making it to The Disaster Artist, Mudbound, and Molly’s Game quite yet, I feel sound about 2017 and have no problem calling it a fair to middling year. By this teacher’s math and reflection, 2017 < 2016 < 2015. Give me the likes of Sicario, Creed, Brooklyn, Spotlight, Room, La La Land, Jackie, Moonlight, A Monster Calls, and more compared to most of the 20 films listed below.
Focusing back to now, only three of my “so far” picks from this past June made the final ten this year. Here’s my definitive list. True to my website’s specialty, each film will be paired with its best life lesson. Enjoy!
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2017 AND THEIR LESSONS
1. LADY BIRD
This was like watching a no-doubt home run off the bat of a muscle-bound slugger fly over the stands and out of the park. Like that home run crack, Lady Bird’s effect was unmistakable. I knew it as soon as film made contact. From that opening car ride argument between surefire future Oscar nominees (if not eventual winners) Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird was going for something reinvigorated conventions and oxymoronic cadences with the coming-of-age film framework. (full review)
BEST LESSON: PUNCHY WHIMSY— All of Lady Bird’s conflicts and clashes build to swelling peaks of emotion and legitimate feels. Gerwig’s film is one heck of a debut and shows that a good cry and awkward laughs do go together when assembled with truth and care. When it hits, my goodness, it hits. When it charms, by golly, it charms. Few films this year can tout such towering achievements of writing and performance to create such a genuinely satisfying experience.
2. I, TONYA
In a fierce performance, Margot Robbie proves without a shadow of a doubt that she is a talented actress beyond her bombshell looks. From the director of Lars and the Real Girl and the writer of Stepmom (I know right?), the dark comedy, pushed often by Allison Janney’s Oscar-worthy rants, fuels an unconventional sports film and true story American dream saga with kinetic sizzle. It’s the wildest and brashest film I saw this year. (full review)
BEST LESSON: EVERYONE MIGHT BE TELLING THEIR TRUTH, BUT NO ONE IS TELLING THE REAL TRUTH–The true merriment of I, Tonya is the trying to sniff out the bullsh-it. Many of us remember witnessing the tabloid history unfold on television before our very shocked and captivated eyes in a era before the 24-hour news cycle. Even know the fate of the characters, this film’s spin of such events will glue you to the screen preparing for the suspense of possibly observing a few chapters of “what really happened.” Who’s right and who is full of it?
From what I can tell viewing the year-end lists of fellow critics, this one is going to be a unconventional choice and I don’t care. I see a great deal of perfection in the whimsy and introspection of Wonderstruck. Artful to no end, I cannot help but compliment the care and consideration given to the Brain Selznick source material from a skilled filmmaker like Todd Haynes stepping into PG material in a manner as impressive as Scorsese doing Hugo. In a landscape where people are craving rich and compelling films for family audiences instead of mindless animated entertainment, I adored what this film accomplished. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE MAJESTY OF MUSEUMS— Both in the novel and in film form, Wonderstruck is a love letter to museums, their history, and their continuing presence as authentic experiences. It starts with one person gathering a collection of interest, a “cabinet of wonder” if you will be that in a single room or an expansive complex, and deciding to share it with a larger audience. In the present-day of Google, Wikipedia, content apps, and innumerable virtual experiences, there should always be a place for the tangible and real wonders right before our eyes in museums. Calling them magical is not enough and calling them antiquated should be a compliment and not a slight.
4. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The closing chapter of what has quietly become one of the best film trilogies of all-time (it’s that good as a sum total) elevated the impressive soaring themes, blockbuster action, and the performance-capture brilliance of Andy Serkis that have enraptured myself and many others. Serkis, present and emoting in every scene behind the finished special effects, deserves the Oscar for Best Actor even if he doesn’t stand a chance against the stigmas towards the technology. No film this year hit me the full roller coaster of feels like this one, from heart-stopping thrills to blubbering tears. (full review)
BEST LESSON: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE— Due to the increases in peril and consequences, this is a repeated lesson from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that is cemented even further in this third film. Both primate species love their families, cling to their homes, and possess tangible feelings and emotions that drive their actions and personalities. “Humanity” doesn’t have exclusivity to those behaviors in this fictional world anymore.
5. THE BIG SICK
The Big Sick, written and inspired by the real-life duo of Emily V. Gordon and leading man Kumail Nanjiani, offers wide hopes that smart romantic comedies are still possible since their 1990s hey-day and that they don’t require man-child actors and full-on toilet humor. When people have asked me this past year for a no-doubt winning movie suggestion or hidden gem to entertain them for any occasion, The Big Sick has been my top recommendation for its maturity and humor while still carrying the right heft of drama to keep it honest. In my eyes, this was the best screenplay of the year and I hope the Oscars notice. (full review)
BEST LESSON: FIND SOMEONE YOU CAN BE OVERWHELMED BY— This lesson is going to sound like one of those “find someone who looks at you the way so-and-so looks at such-and-such” memes, but captivating ga-ga devotion is a real draw. The film uses the word “overwhelm” when it talks about measuring such love and it couldn’t be more spot-on advice. Love has its own rules and it’s just as hard to keep as it is to earn.
The directorial debut of character actor John Carroll Lynch stands on this list as the “Little Engine That Could.” Far from a blockbuster and puffed with zero muscles for Oscar bait on the 90-year-old frame of its star Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky is a straight-shooter of writing and performance brilliance to make cantankerous endearing. In different hands, this would be a Coen brothers quirk-fest or a Grumpy Old Men farce. Instead, Lucky plainly might have the most heart of any film on this list, and that’s saying something. (full review)
BEST LESSON: ACCEPTING MORTALITY— Nothing is permanent and the biggest truth to be told is the finality of the human condition. No matter the level of your faith or depth of character, misgivings about your own ephemerality are inevitable feelings we all share. We would all be so “lucky” to reach our nineties to have that revelation.
Sharply shrinking the comic book genre’s towering current scale down to the marrow inside of its bones, James Mangold’s Logan nails the western motifs to make one of the best comic book films of all-time. For me, this movie is like what young songstress Ella Mae Brown did to slow down with Bonnie Tyler’s 80s classic “Holding Out for a Hero” a few years ago. This is energy boiled down to bold substance, making something rightly stoic as the conclusion for Hugh Jackman’s lovable anti-hero. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE POWERFUL NEED FOR FATHER FIGURES— Loganopenly creates a parallel with 1953’s seminal western classic Shane and it is an ideal thematic pairing. Alan Ladd’s reluctant gunfighter and Jackman’s Wolverine embody the fight for the defenseless as well as the influential father figure role of this lesson. Laura is another Little Joe and but one more person Logan leaves a positive mark on in his world. Tales may be written on the actions of heroes, but the personal connections they build and leave behind are where the real legend lies.
8. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Sean Baker’s sprightly dose of youthful fantasy mixing with socioeconomic reality was one of the few times I’ve ever gone back to a review and changed my rating after some thoughtful reflection. This film went from a four-star film to a five-star one on the strength of the impact of that aforementioned storytelling and emotional mix. The level of empathy stoked by this film’s fire is off the charts and I cannot help but respect that. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE CAPACITY TO FEEL EMPATHY— The crucial emotional response The Florida Project demands of its viewers is empathy. If you can’t find that, if you turn your nose, close your eyes, and refuse to accept that this kind of American lifestyle exists, you are missing the hard truths, the teachable moments, and the larger points being presented. Become compassionate enough to remove the negative prefixes from Mother Teresa’s quote of “unwanted, unloved and uncared for” when it comes to addressing poverty. Take her advice and start in your own home and community.
9. PHANTOM THREAD
Five years ago, after beating my head senseless over the pretentiousness of The Master, if you would have told me I would have a Paul Thomas Anderson film in my “10 Best,” I would have said you were nuts and wondered how the sequel to Boogie Nights could have been achieved. Yet, here we are and Phantom Thread is the real deal. Exquisitely crafted and intensely nuanced, I was impressed like I’ve rarely been. If this the last ride of Daniel Day-Lewis, he leaves us with a gem. (full review)
BEST LESSON: “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT CAREFULLY”— This quote from Lewis’s Reynolds, the peak of the film’s trailer, sent in the direction of his new muse could be echoed in dozens of aspects of one’s life. Mundane activities could become effective and even artful with an extra level of paid care and consideration. At the same time, there is an unsettling level to that rigidity. Often there is a missing flexibility to perfectionist who cannot get over themselves or adjust their idiosyncrasies.
10. LOVING VINCENT
In terms of sheer creation of a finished piece, Loving Vincent might be the most miraculous film of the year and greatest technical achievement as the first entire oil-painted feature-length animated film. 125 painters combined their efforts on over 65,000 canvases shot on film to create this incredible achievement. Beyond the art, the enriching whodunit drama of investigating the final days of Vincent Van Gogh backed by Clint Mansell’s rich musical score create storytelling worthy of all the work. (full review)
BEST LESSON: INTERPRETING AN ARTIST— Subjected to ridicule and criticism from a young age to his last, Van Gogh’s talent and purpose were always questioned before the established reverence that followed his death. Another Van Gogh quote in the film reads “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” Sometimes artists are not peaceful souls. The few people that did realize his greatness in the moment were not enough to save his.
When I can, I dip my toe into the world of short films and I’m beginning to love the art form and the efficiency of its skill. Merely scratching the surface of this form of film medium, among the handful I saw and reviewed this year, Not Yet was a five-star gem. Picture one of those expressive and imaginary Pixar shorts that open their films and apply live-action human emotion to it That will give you a taste of Not Yet. My full review has a link to the short for you to see for yourself. I promise nothing but smiles.
BEST LESSON: THE IMMENSE CHALLENGES OF CHEERING SOMEONE UP— Some folks are tough nuts to crack in the cheer department. Add the physical drain and toll of illness into that equation of happiness and the challenge is even greater. Self-deprecating humor in this situation often works in spades, but there’s one action that’s even better: Love. In Not Yet, you have a man that unabashedly loves his wife with every ounce of willingness and companionship. Love always wins the best cheers.
DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud member and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends. Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.