The Director’s Chair – Steven Spielberg

Every era of film-making certainly has it’s trendsetters and generational voices who rise up and define the movies of their time.  But most of the time, some filmmakers either diminish as their styles conflict with changing times, or they reinvent themselves by adopting a new style altogether.  Very few filmmakers ever retain success all the way through their careers without compromising some aspect of how they make movies.  Those that do change over time do run the risk of alienating some of their original fan base, but if the filmmaker is able to maintain the same amount of quality in their work throughout their careers no matter what film they are making, then they are able to illustrate their versatility and maintain their popularity.  No director in the last half century has managed to navigate the highs and lows of a career in film-making better than Steven Spielberg.  Without a doubt the most successful filmmaker of his time, and arguably the greatest one as well, Spielberg has managed to become a household name over his nearly fifty year career in Hollywood.  And what is remarkable about his body of work in that time is not just the quality of his film-making, but also how well most everything he has made has connected with audiences.  Both as a director and a producer, he is responsible for many of the most iconic films of the last 30 years.  He’s brought characters like Indiana Jones to everyone’s attention; he made dinosaurs walk the Earth again in Jurassic Park (1993); he made everyone afraid to go back in the water again after Jaws (1975); and he made music with extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  But, after creating so many imaginative moments that no doubt shaped the childhood memories of many a film-goer for years, he suddenly shifted his talents away from the realms of fantasy and towards a more grounded reality, all the while still always remaining true to his craft.

The story of Spielberg the filmmaker is one of two different eras, which could be summed up as before Schindler and after Schindler.  While there is overlap between the two eras, with Spielberg experimenting in more grounded dramas in his early career (1985’s The Color Purple and 1987’s Empire of the Sun) and returning to more fanciful films from time to time in his later years (2002’s Minority Report, 2005’s War of the Worlds, 2016’s The BFG), it is clear that his directorial style made a dramatic shift with the release of Schindler’s List in 1993.  The brutal, black and white portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust was the most dramatic cinematic stepping stone that the once whimsical filmmaker had ever made, and since it’s release, Spielberg has focused his efforts as a storyteller towards true life stories with an often moral center at it’s heart.  That’s not to say that he became a different director altogether.  In fact, many of the techniques that he honed over so many years are still present in all his movies; only the subjects have changed.  Stylistically he is just as innovative and creative behind the camera as he’s always been; it’s just now he’s more concerned with more serious subject matters.  Essentially, his vision matured just as his audience did.  Apart from the shift in his directorial tone, his style can also be defined by the gracefulness of his ability to visualize a story.  For someone who had no formal film school education, it is amazing how well Spielberg understands the language of film, in some ways far better than most of his contemporaries.  Spielberg doesn’t show off behind the camera; instead he immerses you into the scene, never directing your eye but instead allowing moments to play out in front of you.  Like other directors I’ve spotlighted here, I’ll be taking a look at the techniques and themes that define most of Spielberg’s work, and illustrate just how much they have contributed to his unparalleled success in the industry.

1.

INSTINCTUAL DIRECTION

Unlike many of his peers at the time, Spielberg did not attend film school (though he had applied very hard to get into USC’s esteemed film program, where his good friend George Lucas attended).  Instead, he had managed to secure an apprenticeship at Universal Studios which in turn led to him becoming the youngest director ever signed to a contract at the studio, at the age of 20.  From this, he developed his skills working on episodes for many of the shows filmed on the Universal lot, which would go on to influence the way he would direct for the rest of his life.  Spielberg, though responsible for some of the most lavish films ever made, is in essence an economical director, working within confines that allow him to retain full control of his work while at the same time grounding him with a sense of restraint.  It’s clear that working on television budgets allowed Spielberg to innovate in order to work around those constraints and figure things out on the fly.  It’s also to his benefit that he is a bit of a film buff himself, and carries a wealth of knowledge about the language of film purely from all the movies he’s scene.  It’s because of this that even to this day, Spielberg is a director that is guided by his instincts on set more than anything else.  He rarely does pre-visualiztion on his movies and instead chooses to block his shots on the day of filming, believing that his best ideas (and they often are) come to him in the moment while he’s observing the environment around him.  This spontaneity is often what makes his movies feel more alive than most others.  A prime example of Spielberg’s instincts manifesting in an unforgettable experience is the Omaha Beach opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  According to Tom Hanks and other actors in the scene, they were basically directed to run up the beach without any warning about what they were going up against, with Spielberg following behind with a handheld camera.  That chaotic situation is exactly what leads to the unforgettable mayhem that we see on screen, but even in less bombastic moments, Spielberg still finds his a way to let the camera absorb a scene in rather than force it through.

2.

THE SPIELBERG ONER

Which leads to the most interesting single technique in Spielberg’s arsenal; the oner.  This is a shot that normally would be broken up into several different shots, but instead is allowed to play out with simple pans from one subject to another, alternating between stationary framing and moving framing.  This is different from the more famous long tracking shots, which often call more attention to themselves.  Spielberg’s oners often last no longer than a minute or so, but still represent a careful construction of visual storytelling that manages to relay all information to an audience without ever cutting away.  There are many amazing examples of Spielberg using this technique in all sorts of movies; whether it’s in having his actors move across the setting while delivering dry expositional dialogue, or having one action play out in the background while another is being framed in the foreground.  Most of the time, Spielberg uses these short little scenes to establish his settings and immerse the viewer into the moment, like Oskar Schindler’s introduction at a night club in Schindler’s List, or allow his actors to comfortably perform a scene without it having to be interrupted by a cut, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ lengthy monologues in Lincoln (2012) or Richard Dreyfus finding himself immersed in sculpting his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  And this is a technique that stems back to his television days, because it allows him to work with less set ups for shots, which ultimately makes the shoot less expensive and less time consuming.  Oddly enough, his most complicated and prolonged production, Jaws, features some of the best examples of this type.  When production issues regarding the mechanical shark plagued the shoot, Spielberg worked around it with using simple “in one” shots.  There’s a remarkable one where the camera remains stationary in front of the actors, but is positioned on a moving ferry, allowing the background to change while the camera remains still.  The famous reveal of the shark is also a wonderful example of getting everything in one shot for maximum impact, with Roy Scheider focused in the foreground and the shark appearing without warning behind him.  They are short, but effective, and almost unnoticeable most of the time, which is a testament to Spielberg’s skill with how he uses his camera’s eye.

3.

WILLIAMS, KAHN, AND KAMINSKI

Most directors usually have their common collaborator who more than others have contributed to forming the characteristics of their signature style.  Most often it’s an editor or a cinematographer or a go to actor that helps define a director’s body of work.  Spielberg has uniquely kept his core group of collaborators intact for pretty much most of his career, pretty much through all departments.  He often refers to his crew as a second family, and indeed his whole filmography is filled with the same names filling the final credits, showing his comfort with people he can trust on every project.  Three collaborators in fact stand out as the ones who have done the most to define what makes Spielberg’s film what they are.   The often least heralded but still fundamentally crucial part of Team Spielberg is his editor, Michael Kahn.  Kahn has edited all but one of Spielberg’s films since Close Encounters, and is the one that most closely works with Spielberg through the storytelling process.  Spielberg has often referred to him as the twin he never had, because of how like minded they are when it comes to finding the story through all the shots that they’ve assembled.  Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski partnered up with Spielberg much later, first joining the team on Schindler’s List.  Since then he has cemented what you could say as being the look of a Spielberg film, which often has a silvery glow to it with bright lighting, stark contrasts, and cool saturation of the colors.  This style has been very helpful lately with Spielberg’s shift towards grounded historical features, because of the more naturalistic texture it brings.  But, of course Spielberg’s whole body of work would have felt a whole lot different had it not been for the magnificent musical scores provided by the legendary John Williams.  Arguably the greatest film composer of all time, Williams is responsible for majestic, iconic epic melodies, and many of his best work has been saved for Spielberg.  I still get goosebumps when I listen to the Jurassic Park theme, and “Slave Children’s Crusade” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is probably my favorite piece of music from any movie ever.  Spielberg’s talents as a director are great enough, but it makes it even better when you’ve got the best help in the biz by your side.

4.

SENTIMENTALISM

Spielberg can cover a wide range of emotion in his movies, and can make anything from childlike wonder to harsh, gritty terror a part of his narratives.  But, at the end of the day, he is an optimist who wants to leave his audience with a sense of hope for the human condition and a level of comfort as they leave the theater.  Some have argued that Spielberg’s films stray too much into a sentimental tone, sometimes making them a bit too saccharine and diminishing the power they could have had if Spielberg had been a little more cynical with his stories.  It can be argued that Spielberg sometimes reaches a bit too far by indulging in some sentiment.  This is very true in some of his lesser films, which often feel burdened by some of Spielberg’s indulgences, like the tonally confused Hook (1991) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).  Most of the time it shows the director trying extra hard to create what many refer to as the “Spielberg moments” which often are emotional moments punctuated with a small touch of whimsy.  They are often Disney-like in their execution, and can at times feel out of place.  But, when a “Spielberg moment” lands, it is quite often magical.  You can’t help but love the wonder he brings to the first moment you see the dinosaurs close-up in Jurassic Park, or gaze in amazement as the mother-ship flies over Devils Tower in Close Encounters.  He even brings needed sentiment into darker moments, like the girl with the red coat in Schindler’s List.  But perhaps his most powerful use of sentimentalism can be found in E. T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  From beginning to end, it is a story of a boy bonding with an alien creature and creating a deep friendship that ultimately must end.  Telling this story through the point of view of a child, Spielberg had to make it as sentimental as possible, because of the childhood innocence involved.  And because of that, the sentimentalism is very potent and elevates the story, making it almost fairy tale like in it’s execution.  It also connects the audience so deeply with the characters, and by the end, the movie has earned it’s sentimental payoff, with one of cinema’s most emotional finales ever.  It may be a weakness sometimes for Spielberg, but at the same time, no one does sentimental on film better than he can.

5.

FANTASY AND HISTORY

Spielberg may have written much of film history himself with the movies he has either directed or produced over the years, but he himself is informed by an appreciation of what cinema has been able to accomplish in all the years prior.  He has said that the things that influenced him the most have always been cartoons and historical epics, and those are certainly apparent in the movies he has made over his career.  He loves fantasy and humor, which he attributes to the magical beauty of Disney animation and the zany mayhem of Looney Tunes shorts.  And many of his more fantastical films often carry with them a cinematic language that feels akin to animation.  At the same time, he also felt inspired by Hollywood historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, which illustrated how cinematic wonder could be derived from even grounded, true life stories.  It’s these two areas of inspiration that have defined Spielberg’s interests as a filmmaker.  He’s either Spielberg the dreamer or Spielberg the historian, and oftentimes, they feel like two different roads running parallel with each other.  He goes back and forth, but each one represents two very different directions for Spielberg, while at the same time feeling like they are from the same mind.  You do get some movies that overlap, like the gritty science fantasies of Minority Report  and War of the Worlds, as well as whimsical grounded dramas like The Terminal (2004) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).  But, often, the director is at his best when he sticks to one direction at a time.  It’s especially interesting when he maneuvers effortlessly from one to another, sometimes in the same year, like 1993 with both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.  Lately, he favors the dramatic over the fanciful, with some of his movies like Munich (2005) hitting some shockingly gritty depths that you never would have imagined from the sometimes playful director.  But, it’s a testament to a filmmaker who is committed to making his choices of film more than just satisfying towards his indulgences, but also thoroughly honest to what they need to be, whether they transportative or informative.

I for one cannot imagine a life without a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg.  The man is just a machine that keeps churning out one cinematic milestone after another.  Imagine where cinema would be without movies like JawsE.T., or Jurassic Park and all the innovations they made along the way.  He also sparked conversations worth having with his insightful historical dramas.  A much needed spotlight was cast on the memories of Holocaust survivors after the release of Schindler’s List, and since then so many more of them have shared their own stories, making an essential document of one of history’s darkest moments all the more detailed.  World War II veterans were also finally able to have their true, horrific experiences finally realized on film with Saving Private Ryan, and allow for many of them to finally open up about the true costs of war that they had seen for themselves.  And even beyond the movies, Spielberg is a tireless champion of cinematic innovation and expression.  Indeed, most other filmmakers my age can attribute much of our own inspirations to one or more films that Spielberg has had his hands in.  He is not one for flashiness, but his impact on all cinema is undeniable.  We all have that one “Spielberg moment” that is forever ingrained into our psyche, whether it’s the bicycle crossing the face of the moon in E.T., or the ripple in the glass of water from Jurassic Park.  And the while he is a director that has matured over time and gotten a bit more serious, he’s still one who embraces the innocence of the past and finds ways to liven up his movies with a sense of wonder, no matter what story he is telling.  Even in these next couple months, with his new film The Post opening wide this week and Ready Player One only a short couple of months away, he is continuing to fulfill both aspects of his style in ways that are both satisfying to him and his base of fans.  We are likely to see that continue for many years to come, and it’s great that our generation has had a voice like his so linked to the concept of film as being both art and entertainment, which in turn has become the driving method of our modern cinematic world.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2017

We come to the close of a pretty turbulent and unpredictable year when it comes to the movies and Hollywood.  If you’ve read anything regarding the industry itself this last year, you will undoubtedly have followed the countless career ending scandals that have rocked Hollywood, and all the fallout that has come after in the wake of such revelations.  This was also a year of highs and lows at the box office, but for the most part pretty low.  Grosses were down from the year before as the summer season failed to hold it’s own like it usually does every year.  We also saw the largest merger to ever take place within the film industry, as Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, creating the largest single media company in the world, but with the worry of many layoffs happening because of the redundancies within the company because of such a deal.  Couple this with a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized and you got the makings of a generally miserable year for many people, both in and outside the industry.  But, there were plenty of positives to come out of 2017 as well, especially with regards to diversity within the industry.  This was a groundbreaking year for female directors in particular.  Patty Jenkins broke every record that a female director has held at the box office with her incredible handling of DC’s Wonder Woman, a smash hit that was deserving of every accolade it received.  Sofia Coppola also became the first American woman to win the directing honor at the Cannes Film Festival (and the first in half a century) with her new film The Beguiled, and we also saw acclaimed films from Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) this year.  Comedian Jordan Peele even managed to turn genre films on it’s head with his politically charged horror flick Get Out, which also has been extensively praised.

Like every year since I started writing this blog, I will be counting down my 10 favorite movies of the year.  My choices are based mostly on how well I responded to these movies while watching them and by how well they left an impression on me afterwards.  Entertainment value is certainly a key ingredient, but there were others here that lingered in a good way that made me appreciate them a lot more after I had time to think about them.  In addition, I will also be sharing my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year.  Before I begin though, I’d like to run down the 10 movies that were close to making my list, but came up short.  My honorable mentions, in no particular order are: Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, Coco, Detroit, I, Tonya, Get Out, The Post, John Wick: Chapter 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver. And with that, let’s look at the best movies of 2017.

10.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Directed by Martin McDonagh

The English playwright turned director, McDonagh, has won plenty of raves for his pitch black comedies like In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  But instead of bringing his sardonic wit to a crime thriller set in an ancient European city or on the outskirts of Hollywood, this time he has instead applied his talent to a character study set in the American heartland.  The movie’s at times is a little drier and methodically paced than his previous work, but his ability to deliver some knockout dialogue is still present in this very original comedy.  I imagine that McDonagh’s screenplays are just as fun to read as they are to listen to.  He is a master with character dynamics, and the most thrilling part of the movie is not knowing what each character is going to say next, because oftentimes it’s the last thing you would expect.  I also love the way that he builds this community within the film, showing the town of Ebbing as a character in it’s own right.  But the film’s shining star is definitely Frances McDormand as the grieving mother who takes to extreme means in order to turn up the heat on an inept police department that has yet to solve the murder of her daughter.  Talk about an unpredictable performance, because McDormand is a firecracker of a character in this movie, delivering one of her greatest performances yet.  I could watch her spout out poetic profanities like she does in this movie all day, and she is easily the best possible mouthpiece for Martin McDonagh’s off-kilter wordplay.  Rounded out with an excellent cast including Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, this is yet another strong effort from one of my current favorite writers.

9.

LADY BIRD 

Directed by Greta Gerwig

This is one of those movies that grew on me over time.  At first, I didn’t know how to feel about the movie.  It’s not particularly groundbreaking in any way.  It’s a coming of age story that we’ve all seen done a million times before.  So, what was about this movie that made it linger in my mind so long after?  What ended up making this movie special is the very personal way in which it is told, and surprisingly, I found myself relating very strongly to it.  Actress Greta Gerwig drew heavily from her own life when crafting this story, and the passion she put into it is palpable.  The movie manages to be a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California; something I never thought I would see on the big screen.  But the part of the movie that I loved the most was the very detailed way that it showed the experience of being a middle class kid going to a private Catholic school.  I myself went through the exact same thing and what Gerwig does so well in her movie is to show the anxieties of living within these social confines.  Of course, there’s the desire to express oneself freely despite the strict morals of your religious academic setting, as well as the stress of trying to keep up appearances just so you could fit in better with your more affluent and straight-laced fellow classmates.  She captures that so well through her titular main character (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) and makes her a fully rounded character who seeks to break free of her life, and yet comes to learn how valuable that life experience really is.  It made me reflect more on my own Catholic school upbringing, and made me remember the experiences I had during that time and how those have shaped me as well.  I may not have been just like Lady Bird herself, but I certainly knew people like her, and was probably just like some of the people she crosses paths with throughout the movie.  It’s a fantastic debut by Greta Gerwig, and one of the most subtle and tender movies of the year.  It may be a familiar song, but it’s perfectly tuned and sung beautifully.

8.

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Directed by James Franco

It can never be said that actor/writer/director James Franco is one to rest on his laurels.  Hollywood’s modern day Renaissance man has poured himself into numerous passion projects over the years, some of which are too off-the-wall and impenetrable to ever reach a massive audience.  But his latest project is one made with a lot of love for the subject it’s depicting, and as a result, it’s his greatest film to date.  The movie tells the story of Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious oddball amateur director who created what many claim to be the worst movie ever made, The Room (2003).  The Room has over time developed a cult following, of which Franco and his friends are certainly a part of, and this movie tries to explain the what, when , where, how, and most importantly why this movie even exists at all.  More than anything, it is a love letter to process of movie-making, showing how even the most depraved and dysfunctional of films come from a place of passion for the art of cinema.  The movie has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) in how it breaks down the conditions in which such inept film-making can happen while at the same time humanizing the unorthodox mind behind it.  Franco delivers his best performance to date in a near perfect imitation of Wiseau, managing to find the man behind the enigma.  I also give a lot of praise to the way that he acts alongside his real life brother Dave in the movie; both managing to disappear into character and making you forget they’re siblings.  The movie is especially funny to anyone and at times cringe-worthy to anyone who has worked on a film set, as you see the events of The Room’s creation unfold in some wild, absurd moments.  It may be a tad too reverential at times, but Franco does make you appreciate the glorious process of film-making with this fascinating behind the scenes look at the most notorious film of it’s time.  And all fans of the original film should stay during the credits to catch some added surprises.

7.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 

Directed by James Gunn

At the beginning of 2017, there was real concern about the direction that the super hero genre was going.  Many people thought that genre fatique was starting to set in, and that we were more or less getting a repeat of every cliche in the book with every new entry, and that each film was mainly just there to set up the next.  But, then something unexpected happened; the Super Hero genre had a banner year of excellence in 2017.  Marvel continued to roll along, as both Spider-Man and Thor completely reinvented themselves and saw franchise best box office totals in return.  DC even managed to surprise everyone as they finally got the formula right bringing Wonder Woman so perfectly to the big screen.  But, the best movie of the genre had to be the sequel to Marvel’s shiniest jewel in it’s crown, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Vol. 2 was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie this year, and it achieved exactly what I was hoping for with a follow-up to one of the best comic book movies ever made.  It does lack the novelty of the first, but that’s all that was missing, as everything else was on par with it’s predecessor.  Some people felt let down by the movie, because it stuck too close to formula, which I don’t see as such a bad thing because I loved everything about the original formula, and this movie felt like a great second helping.  James Gunn is carving out his own niche in the Marvel universe with these Guardians films, and they stand as incredible popcorn adventure at it’s finest.  I especially love the way this movie delves deeper into the emotional connections with the heroes, really capturing the family dynamic that is at the heart of the franchise.  It even touches upon heavier themes, like how we define our families and how that in turn defines who we are.  The movie manages to balance the emotional moments perfectly with the zany, laugh out loud moments, and continues to make this series the best out of an overloaded genre that needed some fresh life brought into it.  And greatest line of the year, “I’m Mary Poppins ya’ll.”

6.

PHANTOM THREAD

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Director Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis are two artists that make us wait an extra long time between projects, but when they finally do make something new, it’s bound to be extraordinary.  Things are even more amazing when the two collaborate together, as they did so memorably in my favorite film of 2007, There Will be Blood.  The two have joined forces again in one of the years most surprisingly subversive films.  Set within the fashion world of 1950’s England, the movie has Daniel Day-Lewis playing a temperamental designer looking for a new muse to inspire him to create a new wave of eye-catching dresses for the social elite.  He finds that person in a German waitress (played by Vicky Krieps) he discovers in the countryside near his estate, and the two begin a working and romantic relationship that proves to be more bombastic than either of them ever realized it would be before they met.  The movie feels like a departure at first for the usually dark-edged Anderson, as it starts of as a straight-forward behind the scenes look at the inner workings of a fashion studio.  But, as the movie goes on, the veil of extravagance begins to lift off, and we soon realize that this movie is just as dark, twisted and unpredictable as anything Anderson has made before.  I won’t spoil for you how the plot unfolds, but let me just say that like a hail of frogs at the finale of Magnolia (1999) and the bowling alley murder in There Will Be Blood, the movie takes a strange left turn that I found both unexpected and brilliant, which is a signature of Anderson’s style.   Again, him and Daniel Day-Lewis make a fantastic team, and though I doubt it will be the case, if this is Lewis’ final performance on screen, it’s certainly a great way to go out.  It’s also a visually stunning movie too, and if you are lucky enough like me to have seen it screened in 70mm, you’ll really appreciate the craft that went into it.  Another masterpiece from one of cinema’s most twisted artists.

5.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

One of the most pleasing things to happen in the last few years in Hollywood is the way that queer cinema has become mainstream.  No longer relegated to a fringe sub genre, now we are seeing a flourishing of films tackling stories of gay characters much in the same way it would be handled if the characters were straight.  Moonlight‘s Best Picture win certainly opened a lot of doors, and that continued progress sees another bright star in the form of the gorgeous romantic drama, Call Me by Your Name.  What I really loved about this movie is the delicate and subtle way it presents it’s story.  Following the growing sexual awakening of an intelligent young teen named Elio (played in a career making performance by Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in the Italian countryside, the movie unfolds with an almost aching amount of intimacy.  As he falls for a visiting graduate student played by hunky Armie Hammer, the movie builds a bond that is believable and without a doubt romantic.  Regardless of one’s sexuality, I believe that everyone who sees this will wish their first love had been or will be this magical.  I know I wish mine had.  The real reason this movie lands as well as it does is because of the incredible chemistry of it’s two leads, who make the most appealing of on screen lovers.  In addition to this, director Luca Guadagnino captures incredibly lush visuals of the Italian setting, making you wish you could be there yourself in the sun dappled splendor of it all.  And a special mention should go to the incredible supporting work of actor Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, who delivers a knockout of a monologue, encapsulating in one tender scene everything that a gay youth would want to hear their parent say.  The fact that queer cinema has now come to this point where such an intimate story can be treated as mainstream is definitely progress in the right direction.

4.

MOTHER!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

And now for something completely different.  One thing is for sure, this new movie from auteur director Darren Aronofsky was certainly the year’s most polarizing film.  There was little to no middle ground on this one.  People either loved this movie with a passion, or hated it thoroughly.  I find myself surprisingly in the former category.  Aronofsky is not one to pull any punches, and I found myself watching his new movie with utter fascination, wondering to myself how anyone could have the audacity to pull a movie like this off.  Filled to the brim with heavy themes, the movie does a lot within it’s running time; it’s an environmental allegory, a psychological thriller, a haunted house story, and most surprising of all, a condensed retelling of the Bible and human history with regards to religion.  I think that one thing that put many people off about this movie, among several other things, was the fact that Aronofsky is not very subtle with his intentions here.  You quickly pick up on his blatant messages, and there is little room for deeper meaning.  But, my argument is that Aronofsky isn’t trying to be subtle here.  He explicitly wants to spell out the subtext for us, because these are themes that he seriously wants us to consider while we’re watching the movie.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face for most of the movie, and she perfectly conveys all the fury and frustration one would feel as the increasingly manic events of the movie unfold.  Few other filmmakers challenge his audience the same way that Darren Aronofsky does, and I for one thoroughly enjoy the challenge.  This will probably be a movie that ends up on a lot of worst of the year lists too, and I don’t blame other critics for their distaste of the movie.  Me, though, I embraced this mother! with a lot of love.

3.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Directed by Sean Baker

This little indie darling has been one of the underdogs of award season so far.  Produced on a minuscule budget with a handful of fresh faced actors, director Sean Baker has made one of the year’s most universally human stories on the big screen.  After making a splash with his last film, Tangerine (2015), which was shot entirely on iPhone cameras, Baker shifts his lens to a different unseen world that proves to be endlessly fascinating.  The movie shows the everyday lives of residents living in a shabby motel on the outskirts of the Disney World property in Orlando, Florida.  You see in this film a light shed on a world you never knew existed, and yet is painfully all too real.  What goes on in the borderlands around the Magic Kingdom are people attempting to soak up some of the business that the park brings to their community, but will sadly never get to experience for themselves in the same way.  They live and work in places pretending to be like Disney World, with bright pastel colors abound, but it all proves to be a false front to what’s really underneath.  And yet, Baker never judges his flawed characters harshly, and in fact he gets us deeply involved in their plight as people, making us feel their pain when everything falls apart by the end.  The mother and daughter at the center of the movie are two of the most captivating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, and the girl especially (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is heart-wrenchingly good here.  Willem Dafoe is also solid as the put-upon manager of the hotel, putting up with all sorts of problems the best way he can.  The movie is very akin to Italian Neo-realism and becomes a fascinating window into this world.  I found myself completely transported by this movie, and more than any other movie this year, it was the one that felt the most honest about the human condition.

2.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this movie when I first saw it advertised.  I’m a fan of Del Toro’s work, but felt that this Cold War era set fairy tale centered around a sea creature like the one from the Black Lagoon might be a step backward for the edgy filmmaker.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Not only is this movie in line with many of the director’s other works (combining a perfect blend of the whimsical and the grotesque) but it is one of the more sublimely executed films that I’ve seen from him as well, undoubtedly making it one of the most pleasing experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.  This is a movie that has everything; it’s got tension, it’s got laughs, it has a remarkably well handled romance at it’s core, and it even manages to fit in a delightful music and dance number as well.  It is also shows Guillermo Del Toro’s exceptional command of genre, as all of these different elements come together in a delightfully rich and full experience.  Sally Hawkins is especially good as the mute woman at the heart of the movie who finds a kindred spirit in the form of an aquatic monster snatched away from his home and kept prisoner in a military laboratory.  Frequent Del Toro regular Doug Jones also does incredible work underneath a lot of makeup, managing to express a ton of personality through simple body language.  And one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, steals the show once again as the sinister G-Man that means to dominate his will over both the monster and the girl, creating what I think to be the best villainous role of the year.  Del Toro delivers one of his best films to date with The Shape of Water, and proves that he indeed can bring his cinematic sensibilities into any kind of genre.  With this and Call Me By Your Name, this has been a year of Hollywood breaking down barriers when it comes to expressing true love on screen.  Who knew the year’s most romantic movie would be between a woman and a creature from the deep.

And the best movie of 2017 is…

1.

DUNKIRK

Directed by Christopher Nolan

All the other movies that made my list had left some effect on me based on either emotional impact or the effectiveness of it’s execution.  Christopher Nolan’s newest feature did all that too, but it showed me something even more.  With Dunkirk, Nolan is showing us all what the cinematic medium is really capable of, by pushing the limits of what you can capture within the lens of a camera.  Dunkirk is a tour de force of film-making on every level, and it was an experience that was never quite topped by anything else this year.  It helps that I saw this movie not once but twice in it’s intended format (projected in 70mm IMAX) and this made all the difference.  It’s a movie that demands the largest screen possible, and thankfully I just happened to have been living near theaters that screened the film the proper way.  Apart from this, Nolan’s recreation of the events of the Dunkirk evacuation are incredible in it’s detail.  He puts his lens right in the middle of the action, giving us a “you are there” feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a war movie before, save for the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  The fact that he manages to do this through the whole movie is astonishing.  He also takes us to all sides of the event, chronicling the experiences of the hopeless soldiers trapped on the beach, the civilians who bravely sailed their private ships into the heat of battle, and the brave pilots who tried to clear the skies as best they could of the menaces from above.  Nolan has topped my best of the year lists twice before (2005’s Batman Begins and 2010′ Inception) so the fact that he’s once again topping my list this year is a real testament to his unparalleled talents as a director.  Dunkirk is a stand out in Nolan’s already impressive resume, and without a doubt the movie that blew me away the most this year.  One of the best war movies ever made, without question, and possibly one of the best made movies in general, in my opinion.

So, now that I’ve shared the best, it’s time to run down the worst of the year as well.  Keep in mind, I usually have steered clear of movies that I know I’m going to hate at the movie theater, so the films here are either on this list because I found myself incredibly disappointed or had no other option than to watch to see just how bad these could be.  So, let’s take a painful look at 2017’s worst.

5. THE DARK TOWER – Stephen King had a bittersweet 2017.  For one thing, the well crafted remake of IT became a record breaking smash hit.  But it sadly came on the heels of this thoroughly disappointing train-wreck.  The fact that they tried to water down and condense King’s epic multi-part tome into a single 90 minute feature is one of the most insulting things that any studio could have done to such a beloved series, and sadly, we may never get the right cinematic treatment that this book series is due.

4. BRIGHT – Thank God I didn’t have to pay to see this one in a movie theater and instead just stream it on Netflix.  This big budget production from the streaming giant has an intriguing premise, a parallel world where fantasy creatures coexist with humans in a modern day, urban environment, but squanders it with a generic and ironically unimaginative story of inner city cops trying to keep a witness alive.  Sure one is human and one is an orc, but the novelty wears thin quickly and the lack of chemistry between leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton makes the experience all the more painful.

3. THE MUMMY – To be honest, it was entertaining to see Universal’s planned Dark Universe marketing strategy fall flat on it’s face with the failure of this first entry, but seeing the whole film itself made for a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  The whole movie just feels like a commercial for all the potential shared universe crossovers that Universal was no doubt planning for the future.  Unfortunately, they never came up with a compelling story to make us want to care.  It shows that you can’t just follow the same beats of Marvel’s cinematic universe and expect the same results.  The only funny aspect is that all those Easter egg teases end up meaning nothing in the end.  The normally charismatic Tom Cruise can’t even muster anything out of this lame cash grab.

2. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – It might seem contrarian of me to hate on one of the highest grossing movies of the year, but I clearly when it first came out how much I despised this movie.  It takes everything memorable about the animated original and waters it down, making it a shallow imitation of what’s come before.  The songs are butchered, the character redesigns are ugly, and the new additions to the narrative make absolutely no sense.  And I’m sorry, Emma Watson cannot hold a tune; her acting is still fine, but oh god is her signing painful.  Disney has had mixed results with their live action remakes so far, but Beauty and the Beast is by far the worst one yet.  Thankfully, it just reaffirms my appreciation for the original, which is still a classic today.  Time, I don’t believe, will be as kind to this travesty.

And the worst of 2017 is…

1. THE EMOJI MOVIE – Without a doubt, the most soulless mainstream movie to come out this year.  There’s nothing that is done right with this movie.  The comedy are terrible, the characters are bland, the story is a joke.  But, the thing that is especially hateable about this movie is the seemingly shallow reason why it exists at all.  It is merely there to capitalize on the perceived “Emoji Craze” that the filmmakers believe is a part of pop culture right now.  I don’t know what they were thinking.  Emoji’s aren’t interesting, they are merely just something there to punch up our text messages.  There’s no drama to mine from that.  The makers of this train-wreck obviously thought they could jump on the LEGO Movie bandwagon and turn any marketable item into a popular film, but they failed to see how LEGO managed to work a meaningful story into it’s movie.  Emoji Movie is heartless, meaningless, and more than anything, just unpleasant to sit through.

So, there you have my choices for the best and the worst of 2017.  Overall, despite my bottom five, this was actually a great year for movies all around.  The box office numbers might not reflect it, but I actually found there was a higher quantity of better made films to come out this year than in years prior.  I actually found this Top Ten list harder to make because there were so many good movies that were pushing my limit of ten.  Any other year, these honorable mentions probably would have shown up higher, but this was a competitive year so I had to make some painful cuts.  Still, all the good movies I mentioned before are well worth seeing, and even some mid range movies throughout the year are also worth your time, like Split, Thor: RagnarokBlade Runner 2049, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  More than anything, it was pleasing seeing so many directors bringing their A game this year, including many established players like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and Darren Aronofsky, along with bright new directorial debuts from Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig.  I am also pleased with the direction the industry is taking, with female directors holding their own in genres that typically have been male dominated, such as what Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman last summer.  And the success of a beautiful love story like Call Me By Your Name makes me hopeful about the future with the stories that Hollywood is ready to tell to the world.  Here’s hoping that 2018 brings us quality entertainment as well as strong box office in the months ahead.  And like always, I will try my best to keep up with it all and look back on the year with a full outlook.  So, have a happy new year and continue to enjoy the world of cinema.