So, did it meet my expectations? Definitely. I can’t believe writer-director Ryan Coogler is only 31, and that Michael B. Jordan (also 31) has been in so many great roles already.
I couldn’t help noticing the similarities to Wonder Woman. Hotly anticipated origin stories of beloved but neglected characters, both featuring hidden utopias, badass bands of female warriors, and powerful but conflicted scion-heroes at first uncomfortable with their power and soon disillusioned by unveiled secrets.
And like Wonder Woman, I think the critical hype got just a little too far ahead of the final product. But here are a few things that stood out:
Editing. For a long time I’ve pined for an action movie that doesn’t resort to filming an action scene in jump-cut shaky-cam chaos. This one still does, especially in the final act, but the casino fight scene early on is a thing of beauty. Seemingly in one take, the camera flows through the action steadily and lets us behold the combat as if we were there. More of this please!
Music. I’m thankful it’s not just more Superhero Action orchestral noise, but a creative mix of hip-hop, African-style percussion, and vocal flourishes.
Cast. The bland Martin Freeman aside, they got a crazy-good cast here, with Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, and Michael B. Jordan providing most of the energy and charisma. And though I think he’s perfectly fine here as T’Challa/Black Panther, surely Chadwick Boseman isn’t the only black actor available for the Black Male Icon roles. Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall weren’t enough?
I saw it Sunday morning of opening weekend. We got to the theater a little before showtime and the lines at the box office were crazy long. Quickly found out that our desired showing was sold out, and the next one was in 3D. The last 3D movie I saw was Avatar, which was cool I guess, but the 3D was kinda dark and blurry from what I remember.
Not the case with Black Panther. The image was crisp and bright, and the wide shots had a cool miniaturized look (not sure if this is common to 3D movies or not). Regardless, I was happy to donate the surcharge to help its monster opening weekend.
The overarching theme of the year in film, to me, was Wonder Women. Not only was the Wonder Woman film good, but in a year when badly behaving men dominated the news, I’m grateful there were so many richly drawn female protagonists who ran the gamut of strong, vulnerable, funny, and complicated, and who made their movies better.
I mean, just consider Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, Elizabeth Olsen in Wind River, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project, Jenny Slate in Landline, Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus, Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, Meryl Streep in The Post, Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to name a few.
As with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, I hope #MeToo and the new Time’s Up campaign in Hollywood lead to positive change in cinema. (I just realized all the aforementioned actresses are white…) The world benefits from different kinds of stories being told in fresh ways by people who in a different time wouldn’t be able to tell them. More power—and funding!—to those people.
So many films from this year have stayed in my mind. Ranking them felt as arbitrary and borderline sadistic as ranking works of art actually is. I almost took the coward’s way out and listed them alphabetically. But in a bid for clarity and uniformity with my previous best-of lists, here are my favorite films from 2017:
1. The Florida Project
No joke: Brooklynn Prince for Best Actress. Her very real chops as a 6-year-old allowed Tangerine director Sean Baker to wrangle from her a well-rounded, film-carrying performance as Moonee, a wily, incorrigible kid tromping around unsupervised in a low-income motel community. The fragmentary, mosaic-like narrative structure might have dragged a bit here and there, but it also created images that pay off later in the film, like Moonee in the bath. Very well done, with an ending that slams like a motel room door.
2. A Ghost Story
“Casey Affleck in a bedsheet” is technically what most of the movie consists of, but that ain’t the half of it. Focus too much on that and you’ll miss a beautifully shot, melancholic, slyly funny, and mercifully concise meditation on the slipperiness of time and memory. How mesmerizing it is to follow a ghost that is unstuck in time. Pairs well with Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here.
It’s become a cliche to laud the technical advances in film animation, especially from Pixar. But damn: this is a resplendent piece of work, and one that elicited a rare theater-cry from me. With music, family, memory, and a young boy playing a stringed instrument at the center, this makes a great companion to 2016 favoriteKubo and the Two Strings. The soundtrack is available on Hoopla for free with your library card.
4. The Lego Batman Movie
Holy Joke Density, Batman! Like The Lego Movie, every moment is packed with something: action, humor, meta-humor, color, or heart. How is it that an animated superhero movie accomplishes this way better than most human ones? I suppose I should be annoyed by another [Insert Brand Name Here] Cinematic Universe, but I’ll revisit this one any day. After all, friends are family you can choose.
5. Get Out
I don’t like watching horror films, so I was planning on skipping this until the universal acclaim compelled me otherwise. So glad I did because there’s a lot more going on than cheap scares. Speaking of scary: if this is writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut work, what does he have in store for the future?
Another debut, from film essayist Kogonada, this gorgeous film calls enough attention to its subjects—the modernist architecture of Columbus, IN, and the two sudden companions who take it in—to captivate viewers, but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit. That’s usually a good formula for great cinema. Bonus points for the library references.
The only movie I saw twice in theaters this year. What I found powerful about the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land. Nevertheless, she persisted.
In a film that’s so short and efficient (by Christopher Nolan standards), Nolan still captures the full scope of war: from the smallest stories of individual soldiers trying to survive and do their duty to the haunting grandness of thousands of soldiers trapped on a beach awaiting their doom. The interweaving timelines from the air, land, and sea might confound at first, but a second viewing confirms they fit snugly together, and build dramatically towards (78-year spoiler alert) the successful evacuation, or Miracle On Sand as I’m calling it.
An eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover. It’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself. Now how about a documentary just on Jeff Roth and the Morgue (pictured above)?
Doug Nichol, a commercial and music video cinematographer, finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes in this documentary about the “People’s Machine” and the people who love them. Between talking heads of famous typers and a reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto, Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.
Just missed the cut: I, Tonya, Wind River, mother!, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Quiet Passion, The Shape of Water, and Lady Bird
I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.
The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.
Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.
And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.
On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within the bleak Zach Synder DC Universe.
(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)
That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.