Joe’s Top Films of 2017: 20-11

By Josiah Wampfler


20. Gook

Directed by Justin Chon

Gook was a complete surprise that came out of nowhere. Starring Justin Chon, someone who I knew very little about, and directed by him as well, Gook is not only a great film, but a miracle and an inspiration. Made for pennies compared to most Hollywood productions (sub $100,000), Gook looks like it was made for several million dollars, is filled with wonderful performances and manages to authentically tackle an event from a point of view that we’ve never seen before. Telling the story of a wonderful friendship that crosses racial boundaries, Gook is set on the day the L.A. Riots broke out in 1992. As two Asian-American shoe store owners and a young black girl bond, we see a complexity to the issue of race and the city of Los Angeles that rarely gets shown in films.

One of Gook’s main selling points is how damn good it looks. Brilliantly captured in crisp black and white by cinematographer Ante Cheng (Who isn’t even out of film school yet), Gook, impressively, was one of the most visually stunning films I saw last year. It is not overly flashy with its camera movements, but when Cheng and Chon appropriately decide to get a bit more creative and artful in their composition, that is where the film truly shines.

What really anchors the film though are its performances and its wonderful story. Chon plays a man who took over his father’s shoe store when he died and is serious about running the place, but tortured by it. He did well casting himself in the role, because he is brilliant. David So plays his brother and brings an interesting counter point to Chon’s character as a man who knows he wants to get out of the shoe business by being an R&B Singer (An interestingly ludicrous dream). But, the performance that steals the show is from young Simone Baker as Kamilla, the young black girl who loves hanging out at the store. She is strong-willed, precocious and a delight to watch. She, along with her brother in the film (Curtiss Cook Jr.) are going to be two actors to watch in the coming years.

Gook is a triumph because it brings us a story that simply never gets told. It does not water-down the issue of race like so many films do, but presents us with a clear and realistic picture in all its messy complexity. The emotional core of the film is the friendship between Chon and Baker’s characters, but that is just what grounds all of the other interesting issues the film is dealing with. I’m so glad that this film was made and that I was able to watch it. It not only is Gook a wonderful film worth your time, but, as a filmmaker, it is also extremely inspiring. I can’t wait to see what all those involved do next.

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

19. Good Time

Directed By The Safdie Brothers (Josh & Benny)

Robert Pattinson is a great actor. I unfortunately had not been paying much attention to his career after the Twilight films, but he clearly proves he has shed the vestiges of the sparkling vampires of those films with the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. In a completely tranformative role, Pattinson plays a New York City criminal named Connie who decides to rob a bank with his developmentally disabled brother Nick. When the robbery goes awry, the brothers are separated and Nick is arrested and sent to Rikers Island. Nick will not be the last person harmed by being involved with Connie as the older brother searches for a way to get his brother out of jail, leaving a path of destruction behind him for anyone whom he meets.

Good Time is electric. It has a interesting 90s feel to it, with its incredible helicopter shots of Connie racing through the city and the incredibly vibrant neon lighting (And a great electronic score to boot). It has this unique beauty to it, yet New York City also reflects the grimy and grungy state of Connie’s soul. It is thrilling, but it takes time for the little moments to build character and a real emotional core to the film. The Safdie Brothers throughout the film are able to walk a tight line in many different ways. They make some quite poignant commentary on race and our criminal justice system throughout, are able to deliver on some truly surprising twists and turns and brilliantly handle the issue of Nick’s disability in a way that is respectful and truly unique. Though Ben Safdie, who plays Nick, is not developmentally disabled, his performance is not a characiture and by the end of the film we realize that the film is more Nick’s story than Connie’s.

Through a knockout performance from Pattinson that slowly reveals his Connie to be less anti-hero and more villain, Good Time delivers on the complexity it is after. It is a dark and disturbing thriller in all the right ways. I was unaware of the Safdie’s and fairly ignorant of Pattinson’s brilliance before this film, but now I can’t wait to watch more from them. Good Time is certainly just a taste of what is to come for these men.

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

18. Lady Macbeth

Directed by William Oldroyd

Both empowering and revealing, Lady Macbeth is the perfect twist on the period drama. Under the careful direction of newcomer William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth starts in a fairly familiar place making you believe that it may just be a traditional period drama. But, very quickly, we discover the darkness underneath the surface. Buoyed by an incredible lead performance by Florence Pugh as Lady Katherine Lester that feels like watching a major star be born, Lady Macbeth brilliantly shows the complexity of oppression and how quickly the oppressed can become the oppressor. It is a slow descent into the darkness of Katherine’s soul as she attempts to gain her freedom in an oppressive 1860s England. Unfortunately for those around her, she will stop at nothing to fulfill her own desires and she doesn’t care who she has to hurt in the process. With a devilishly entertaining performance from Pugh and the thought-provoking way the film deals with oppression and race, Lady Macbeth easily rises above the rest.

Read Full Review Here

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

17. Strong Island

Directed by Yance Ford

Strong Island is such a striking film because, even though it revolves around a murder, it is not your typical crime documentary. In the film, first-time director Yance Ford investigates his brother’s murder, but we never see the killer’s face and his name is never spoken. When William Ford was shot and killed in 1992 by a white man, the case never even went to trial, and it has haunted the Ford family for years. Through extremely emotional and powerful interviews with his family and friends, Yance Ford explores the racial dynamics that led to the murder and the ultimate failure for the grand jury to indict. And though William’s case, we see parallels to more recent incidents of racial bias and the toll unjustified deaths like these take on families.

Strong Island, because it is so personal, hits home more than almost any other documentary I have seen. It is completely heartbreaking and incredibly revealing, really showing us the aftermath of a situation like this. It is as frustrating as reality, never giving us the answers and justice we desire. Yance Ford has crafted a visually unforgettable and incredibly emotional cry for justice for people of color in this country and the many families that have lost loved ones to racial violence. Hopefully, that cry will be heard.

Read Full Review Here

Currently streaming on Netflix

16. Dunkirk

Directed By Christopher Nolan

If Christopher Nolan hadn’t proven he was a complete master of the medium of cinema already, he certainly does so with Dunkirk. A visual feast and an insanely immersive experience, Nolan has crafted a surprisingly subversive war film in which our heroes are not the ones mowing down hundreds of people, but men just trying to survive. In Dunkirk, survival is its own type of heroism.

On every level Dunkirk is impressive. That starts with some wonderful performances from Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Fion Whitehead that really help to bring a good deal of emotion into the film. Nolan is able to completely immerse us in the experience of these characters, despite there being very little dialogue. That immersion is buoyed by all the other technical aspects of the film. Hans Zimmer’s incredible score completely melds with some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard in a war film. The score drives the entire movie forward, seemingly ascending upward infinitely and it uses and reacts to every explosion, gun shot, and footstep in the soundscape. All of this comes together with incredible visuals from Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. I have only seen Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX and it is a film that makes the case loud and clear for the importance of the theatrical experience. Through great CGI and insane practical effects, Nolan is able to create incredibly authentic war scenes all captured on a gigantic canvas with a beautiful color palette. With Dunkirk, Nolan finally received his long-waited Best Director nomination from the Academy and damn… It is well deserved.

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

15. mother!

Directed By Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a film that is many things to many people. Interpretations of its meaning are myriad, as are reactions to its content. It is sad that it did not perform better in theaters because it was easily one of the best theatrical experiences I had last year. Part horror, part comedy and all batshit insanity, mother! is one of the most original films I have seen in years. Both in its plot and its presentation, Aronofsky has crafted a film that is maddeningly ambiguous and downright uncomfortable. I could not love him more for it.

Laughter is how I greeted the credits when they rolled on mother!. I wasn’t laughing at the film in a disparaging way, but because I needed to. Comedy comes from building up tension and anticipation that ends in a cathartic release. For two hours, Aronofsky builds that tension and the credits are his punchline. Much of that tension comes from one of the biggest horror aspects of the film, which is how damn uncomfortable it is. Through much of the film, people just keep on walking into the house and Jennifer Lawrence’s character is as confused and annoyed with them as the audience. These uninvited guests keep messing with her house and this affront to common courtesy feels as horrifying as any monster or demon in any other film. And besides the guests, the way Aronofsky chose to shoot the film is also a major part of what makes us feel unease. For much of the run time of the film we are in extremely tight closeup on Lawrence. So, not only are we connecting with her every feeling about all these people invading her space, but we also start to realize that we are invading her space as well.

The film is buoyed by some incredible performances as well. Javier Bardem is maddeningly likeable as a character we really want to hate. Michelle Pfeiffer delivers a deliciously catty and playfully devious performance. But, Lawrence is the one who sells the film. She gives what I believe is the best performance of her entire career in, easily, the strangest film she has ever done. She should have been nominated for all the awards for this one, because she is next-level incredible. From start to finish, Lawrence’s performance and Aronofsky’s intruding eye make mother! one hell of a ride. It is one of the most unique film experiences of last year and, I daresay, one of the most unique films of all time.

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

14. I, Tonya

Directed By Craig Gillespie

I, Tonya doesn’t fit neatly into any categories. Neither a biopic, conventionally speaking, or a full-on comedy, the film smartly eschews most conventions and does its own thing (Much like its main character). From the very start, director Craig Gillespie makes clear that this is based on true events, but the truth of the matter is very much in question. Taken from various interviews, no one may ever truly know what happened leading up to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident and I, Tonya is comfortable with that. That’s because Gillespie isn’t after the truth of the events, but a higher truth about how Tonya Harding became both the first American woman to land a triple axle jump and a woman accused of having a fellow competitor injured. All of this centers on a truly revelatory story of abuse.

Through a powerhouse performance from Margot Robbie, I, Tonya shows a surprisingly realistic portrait of the cyclical nature of abuse. From the abuse Harding receives at an early age from her mother (played by an incredible Allison Janney) to marrying the abusive Jeff Gillooly (An equally impressive Sebastian Stan), we see a presentation of abuse that is surprisingly able to use both comedic and dramatic elements. The use of comedy is respectfully restrained and does not minimize the abuse, but instead makes a line from Harding later on in the film cut even deeper. After we have seen the full extent of the abuse she endured, Harding addresses the audience directly, telling us that we were her abusers too. Through experiencing the rush to villainize and make fun of Harding in the media through her eyes, we see how true that statement really is. The film may take Harding’s side a little too much in regards to the truth of the actual incident, but it gets at a larger truth about celebrity and abuse that rings quite true.

I haven’t even gotten to the technical achievements of the film, but suffice to say I, Tonya presents this insane story in an incredibly engaging and visually dynamic way. If NBC filmed Olympic figure skating like I, Tonya does, I would watch every single second of coverage. The skating scenes (mainly accomplished through literally having a cameraman skate with Robbie and her doubles with a 35mm camera on his shoulder) are some of the most dynamic sports scenes I’ve ever seen. And editor Tatiana Riegel got an Oscar nomination for a reason. With wonderful performances, a tight script and an exciting visual presentation, I, Tonya is the rare biopic that feels like it brings something new to the equation.

Currently In Theaters

13. War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed By Matt Reeves

War for the Planet of the Apes is an astounding achievement in filmmaking and the best finale to a trilogy I’ve seen since Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. And much like that trilogy capper, War also features an astounding motion capture performance from the great Andy Serkis. Director Matt Reeves renders the world in lush colors and brings a type of controlled, sure-handed cinematography rarely seen in modern blockbusters. The action is electric, but not chaotic. It is a type of filmmaking and a type of story that we simply don’t see on this scale anymore where every single frame is deliberate and every camera move is purposeful. With War, Reeves has crafted a modern biblical epic with apes at its core and, though the filmmaking is clearly inspired by cinema of old, it couldn’t feel more fresh. With War, Matt Reeves has made the new Apes trilogy one of the best of all time.

Read Full Review Here

Currently Available on VOD & Blu-ray/DVD

12. BPM

Directed By Robin Campillo

There were only a handful of films that I cried during last year. There were only two I full-on ugly cried during: To The Bone and the French film BPM. Set in 1980s Paris during the height of the AIDS epidemic, BPM focuses on two men involved in a protest group fighting against the disease. The men, Sean and Nathan, fall in love and form a relationship despite their differing diagnoses (Sean has AIDS and Nathan does not). With incredibly engaging cinematography and wonderful performances from the two leads, BPM captures the hard work that political action requires and shows a loving, vibrant relationship between two gay men despite the complication of the disease. The film does not shy away from showing the joy that these two men experience together, thus making the inevitable darkness that comes for them all the more devastating. Most importantly though, the film pays tribute to the men and women who took a stand against corruption and indifference during a time when thousands of marginalized people were dying. It gives these braves souls their full humanity and tells their story to a world which, especially right now, could stand to hear it. BPM is not an easy film, but it is a vital, beautifully made story that needed to be told.

Read Full Review Here

Currently Available on VOD

11. First They Killed My Father

Directed By Angelina Jolie

First They Killed My Father was one of the most beautiful, devastating experiences I had with a film all year. Through the eyes of five year-old Loung Ung, it shows the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, the love of family, the tragedy of war, the beauty of Cambodia and the resilience of its people. Sareum Srey Moch as Loung gives one of the best child performances of the year and, because director Angelina Jolie cast the film locally, you can feel the authenticity from the rest of the cast as well. That it is also told entirely in the Khmer language adds to that.

Jolie herself was deserving of awards recognition for her direction. The way she captures the experience of this girl, literally putting the camera at her height and viewing the world as she would, it is incredibly immersive and strikingly beautiful. And her clear respect for the Cambodian people and this story shines through. With First They Killed My Father, Jolie and her crew managed to make a film that is not only engaging and technically impressive; They made a film that is important.

Read Full Review Here

Currently Streaming on Netflix

Honorable Mentions

 

For my Top 10 films of 2017, please listen to the Cinema Bros’ Top 10 Podcast HERE

2 thoughts on “Joe’s Top Films of 2017: 20-11

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