Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 Films of 2017…so far
Phoenix in July always means two things: The year is halfway over, and it’s hot. During hot days, air-conditioned movie theatres become sought after destinations for Valley residents. For many movie fans, including me, theatres are always calling our names, 12 months a year.
Out of the 109 films that I have seen so far this year, here are the 10 – in alphabetical order – that stand out to me as the very best.
“Baby Driver” – Writer/director Edgar Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal in his utterly spectacular and stylish heist picture, in which a 20-something named Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives getaway cars for a collection of felonious types (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and more). A nifty, hip soundtrack synchronizes with intricate robbery plans, burning rubber, squealing tires, and an abundance of gunplay in a movie that resonates a specific cinematic euphoria, not unlike two pictures in semi-recent memory, “48 Hrs.” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Along with the devilishly impressive, criminal choreography, Wright includes a sweet romance between Baby and a virginal waitress, Debora (Lily James), that grounds the movie with an emotional heartbeat. Yes, “Baby Driver” is the most entertaining movie of the year…by a mile.
“Colossal” – Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is just floating through life in New York City, and after her umpteenth, irresponsible episode, her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her, so she moves back home to the small town that she gladly left behind years ago. If Gloria thought that her life could not be more turned around, she slowly realizes that she is linked to a Godzilla-like monster who is causing havoc and panic in Seoul. In his very clever screenplay, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky comedy also shifts its tones in a sudden move that is almost as surprising as the aforementioned plot point. Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis skillfully and artfully dance in their characters’ unpredictable spaces.
“Dean” – Dean (Demetri Martin) takes a love-pursuing risk and finds himself – in a wonderfully comedic visual – dragging his luggage through the soft powder of a Southern California beach. Martin took a risk by writing and directing his first feature film but strikes cinematic gold by crafting the funniest movie of the year, so far. After the death of his mother, Dean struggles for answers while continuously tripping into the crossfire of Left Coast absurdities, as the picture stirs an absorbing mix of humor and angst. Martin includes his own drawings as an added dimension to the narrative, and his thoughtfully-placed illustrations become repeated welcomes for the audience. The film travels in dark places too, so many light moments are laced with cynicism, but that’s all part of the healing process in this heartfelt and hilarious picture. Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen costar.
“Hounds of Love” – John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth) kidnap teenage girls for - apparently - the “sport” of it, as writer/director Ben Young’s camera enters their home and documents the daily, grimy details of the couple’s sick escapades. The picture feels so raw and authentic, it captures a documentary-like feel that crawls into the darkest crevice of your brain and burrows itself into your permanent memory. Vicki’s (Ashleigh Cummings) memory is permanently scarred when John and Evelyn choose her as their latest teen prize, and escape seems hopeless except for one psychological, longshot idea by playing the lovebirds against one another. Creepy, intense and unforgettable, this Australian thriller truly is a frightening gem.
“Maudie” – Sally Hawkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance with her heartbreaking and inspirational turn as Maud Lewis in a biopic about a sweet, immensely determined and talented artist from Nova Scotia. Lewis - a fragile woman, riddled with rheumatoid arthritis - suffered emotional and physical abuse throughout her life, but still decided to move in with Everett (Ethan Hawke), a simple man who uses corrosive anger and blunt insults as his methods of communication. Director Aisling Walsh spends long, important and difficult minutes in the couple’s modest home to build towards an emotional payoff, when life bends in more positive directions through Maud’s cheerful paintings. Bring your tissues for tears of gloom, joy and revelations.
“The Midnighters” – Victor (Leon Russom) is free! After 35 years in prison, this 72-year-old – who displays the effects of extensive confinement through deep etches in his face and pronounced, tired circles under his eyes – is now free. In writer/director Julian Fort’s outstanding step into noir, he asks the question: Will Victor remain free or fall into his criminal habits which could boomerang him back into prison or perhaps, a much worse fate? Russom delivered the single best performance – that I saw - at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival by embracing an empathetic character who tries to make sense of the 21st century, frequently revisits the mistakes of his past and ponders his limited time in an unknown future.
“Norman” – Richard Gere continues his recent streak of memorable performances (“The Dinner” (2017), “Time Out of Mind” (2014) and “Arbitrage” (2012)) with his work here as Norman, a scheming, aging and desperate New York City outsider looking to finally secure a seat at the big boys’ table. Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s fascinating and relentless character study also doubles as a casually stressful thriller, as Norman attempts to turn a $1,192.18 investment into instant access to the connected world of big money and politics by constantly and figuratively knocking on a new door and leveraging the same, tired ones as well. Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Hank Azaria, and Lior Ashkenazi round out an excellent supporting cast who will witness Norman’s winding trip into either redemption or expulsion.
“Raw” – Justine’s (Garance Marillier) parents drop her off at veterinary school, and she feels a bit nervous about her new journey. Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), already studies there and should be an obvious friendly face, but the college feels like a horror show much of the time, as the upper classmen constantly haze the younger students. Under a backdrop of very disturbing, organized teasing, a more gruesome horror show rises when Justine – a vegetarian – acquires her first taste of meat. Writer/director Julia Ducournau weaves an unseemly tale of twisted hunger in a supposed bastion of learning. Filmed in Belgium, this film keeps the audience off-balance through its story of personal despair via an uncontrollable primal urge that crosses an extremely taboo human boundary. A highly effective and deeply disturbing horror movie.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” - Without watching “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), the thought of another Spider-Man reboot screams the words: completely unnecessary. On the other hand, Tom Holland’s playful performance as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man in the aforementioned Captain America picture did lend plenty of excitement for a new big screen adventure with the famous wall crawler. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” does not disappoint! Director Jon Watts flings Peter Parker back to high school and spends lots of screen time there – more than any other Spider-Man film - through a multitude of charming and awkward adolescent moments but routinely hurls him into danger on New York City’s grownup streets too. The film offers some nifty tie-ins to the Marvel Universe, and Michael Keaton is terrific as the complex villain, The Vulture. It’s either the best or second best Spider-Man film, but I’m not sure. I better see it again and again…
“Toni Erdmann” – Sandra Huller is nothing short of sensational as Ines, a hardworking, driven management consultant coping with the constant barrage of practical jokes played by her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who owns a serious case of arrested development. Winfried is simply trying to connect with Ines, but his unconventional methods push her away even further. Writer/director Maren Ade’s 2-hour 42-minute film magically breezes and zips along due to the kinetic, emotional dynamics between father and daughter, and she unlocks deep, soulful themes and comedic twists that constantly surprise. The Academy nominated “Toni Erdmann” for a 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but this unique comedy/drama from Germany did not play in Phoenix until 2017, so I am including on my list. This movie fabulously and unapologetically marches to the beat of its own drum.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.