BEST OF 2017
Movie Picks by Peter N. Dudar
Author of “ME AND LIL’ STEVIE”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was an era of cinematic expansion, it was an epoch of mindless formulaic regurgitation. It was 2017, and I found myself staring at the silver screen in the same wide-eyed wonder as when I’d previously discovered it as a child. This year was all about sequels and reboots, which is why the originality of this year’s best-of-the-best feels so refreshing and fills me with such hope for things to come. Don’t get me wrong, some of those sequels and reboots were gratifying in their own way…carrion comfort food to feast on after a long night at work or on those weekends when nothing else is really going on. So, here’s my list of favorites from this past year.
The first great thing I saw this year was the reboot of Stephen King’s IT. This one really could have been my favorite, but it had several drawbacks for me before I even set foot in the theater. Foremost, I loved the early 90s miniseries enough that I didn’t see the pressing need for a reboot to begin with. After all, the miniseries really nailed a solid adaptation of the novel, had a decent cast, and Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise scared the holy hell out of me. We understood that there were concessions and compromises to be made when it was filmed; after all, it was prime-time television and there were censors to please and standards and practices to be followed in order to present that big of a story in a two-part series. The result was a fun, serviceable horror film that was satisfactory at that time. This year’s reboot started from scratch. Director Andy Muschietti shifted the story from the 50s to the 80s (putting it under the microscope of the same generation that is currently eating up shows like STRANGER THINGS), split the story into two feature length films (with a solid R rating), and took liberties with the characters, dialogue, and story arcs. And it works fabulously well, excepting that I’m now in this parallel universe of nitpicking the best parts of each film and wishing I just reread the novel. The newer IT is tremendously scary and a fun ride, but they’re just not the characters I’d originally fallen in love with.
One of my favorite Netflix discoveries this year was a foreign film from Mexico. Director Isaac Ezban’s 2015 film LOS PARECIDOS (THE SIMILARS) is a black-and-white suspense thriller that came barreling like a runaway bus from THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The story is about strangers converging in a bus station during a dark and stormy night. Some of the strangers are stranded and desperate to get to their destinations, which ramps up the tension as a bizarre illness sweeps through the station, turning each person there into an exact replica of the original man who’s trying to get to the city where his wife is giving birth to their child. This movie is so intense and cleverly produced that I felt mesmerized by the story in spite of some of its illogical plot points. I highly recommend this one, particularly for a dark and stormy night, just to enjoy the full effect.
COCO is the new Pixar masterpiece from those fine folks at Disney, and I have to confess that I felt like a kid again as I sat with my daughters and took this one in. The beautiful thing about Pixar is that they tell stories that cross the barriers of ethnicity and culture to give us something truly original and spectacular, and this one may just be my all-time favorite. Miguel is a little boy who desperately wants to follow his dream of becoming a musician in spite of oppressive family dynamics that mean to keep him imprisoned to a life of working in the family’s shoe business. All that changes when the boy accidentally curses himself by stealing the local musical legend’s guitar from his grave during Dia De Los Muertos. Miguel finds himself in the afterlife, trying to solve the mystery that is leading him to believe that dead celebrity Ernesto is actually his great grandfather and get back to the land of the living again. COCO delivers all the pathos and drama you could want from a family flick, wrapped up in some of the creepiest and most captivating animation I’ve ever seen. It’s a perfect movie.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Yeah, back to the sequels/reboots. This third (and final) piece of this APES trilogy takes Caesar and his simian soldiers to their satisfying conclusion, with the fall of human existence here on earth. This trilogy tosses aside all the clever metaphors and social commentaries that Rod Serling presented with his adaption of the Pierre Boules novel, but we’re still left with a solid, thought-provoking series with great characters and simply gorgeous cinematography. Looking back to the beginning of this year, I’d geeked out at the preview for this one, along with the trailers for KONG: SKULL ISLAND, ALIEN CONVENANT, and PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN V: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was the only one that lived up to the hype.
Andre Ovredal’s THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE was a movie that got a ton of props on social media, and I really wanted to see it before writing this column. This film is one of the best, most original horror films of this year, and I’m glad I got to view it in time. It concerns a father/son team of coroners who perform an autopsy on what appears to be a murder victim. Only, this “victim” has some supernatural secrets that turn what should have been a by-the-numbers procedural into a living nightmare. This one creeped me out royally, and I suspect it will have a very long shelf-life due to fans constantly singing its praise.
My other big Netflix discovery was Colm McCarthy’s 2016s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. GIRL is a post-apocalyptic zombie story concerning a young girl named Melanie, who along with the other children, are survivors of a fungal infection that turns humans into zombie-like killing machines. These children are the missing link to finding a cure, but in the war-ravaged planet, time for finding that cure is quickly running out. This film elevates the zombie subgenre the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2015 film MAGGIE did, in diverting the horror element of the film from being a mindless mob of zombies to storylines and character arcs based on love and loss and grieving. I loved this one.
My favorite horror film of 2017 was GET OUT. I missed its theatrical run, but managed to catch it on DVD. This one is an absolute masterpiece of suburban paranoia, grounded in the same mastery as filmmakers like Hitchcock and Polanski. Writer/Director Jordan Peele (one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele) gives us a nightmare glimpse into the decadence of white privilege in this unnerving tale of love, betrayal, and absolute cruelty. Not only does the story feel authentic in its presentation, but Peele has created great characters that he truly puts through a psychological wringer before the story is done. His high-tension story is also layered with some very tender, touching moments, as well as moments of absolute hilarity to keep the movie balanced. It’s a truly original film that works on every level…the kind of movie I hope Hollywood takes a good long look at before flooding theaters with more cookie-cutter sequels and reboots.
Honorable Mention: MOTHER! A lot of friends within the genre have been going on and on about how great this movie is. I really wanted to love this one, but the best I can do is just acknowledge it to be a very original and very disturbing piece. At face value, nothing that happens within the movie makes much sense. People’s actions and motivations seem far-fetched and dishonest. But when you strip away the veneer to the metaphors the story is supposed to be addressing, the film takes on a life of its own. The film concerns the wife of a struggling writer, and the lengths she goes through to help him get back to writing and be successful. And when he does achieve that success, it rips her life apart. My biggest frustration with this metaphor? Almost every writer I know is an anxiety-fueled introvert that would NEVER be anything like Javier Bardem’s character. Those writers that are fueled by this level of narcissism tend to be pariahs, and are the exception rather than the rule.
Beyond Film: I cannot sing enough praises for MIND HUNTER. This Netflix miniseries gives us a look at the nativity of the FBI’s Human Behavior and Psychology department. After all, we couldn’t have Hannibal Lector or CRIMINAL MINDS without this dramatization of late 60s/early 70s interview sessions with psychopaths like Edmund Kemper, et al. The show is upsetting and often disturbing, but aside from the subject matter, it’s also a decent period piece with great characters and solid writing. Also on Netflix is Season 2 of STRANGER THINGS, which I found to be much more satisfying than Season 1. The boys’ club has grown one member larger with the introduction of Mad Max, a rough and tumble gal who causes conflict between Dustin and Lucas. This show was addictive binge-watch crack for me. Finally, on Amazon Prime was a genre show called LORE, based on a very successful podcast concerning dark myths and urban legends. LORE dramatizes these stories for proper consumption in one-hour episodes, with each story being well produced and captivating for folks who crave darker stuff. My only complaint is that the show’s narrator (and producer) Aaron Mahnke delivers his material in a shaky, uncertain voice that does little to add to the suspense.
And yes, I loved STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. Happy New Year!
© Copyright 2018 by Peter N. Dudar