Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani star in The Big Sick.
Maybe it’s the escapism, putting my mind into a different scenario each time the lights dim and the credits begin. Perhaps it’s the shared experience of seeing movies with others. After all, scientists say we all tend to blink at the same time when we sit together watching movies. But for whatever reason, I’ve been drawn to movies all my life at an almost obsessive level.
I have been writing various versions of these film review pieces for decades and I think it’s partly because I become so immersed in whatever I’m watching, that a piece of me feels like it’s playing a part in the actual movie. Sometimes it feels as though I’m a bit player, just out of camera range. That explains why I don’t do horror films; I empathetically feel all the tension and violence. The Oscar-nominated Get Out was a real struggle for me. Seeing Dunkirk in true IMAX with Dolby multidimensional sound also might not have been my smartest move. It was too vivid, too in-your-face, in-your-body even. I guess I like being a part of it all, unless I’m in danger and can’t hide underneath my seat quickly enough!
So here we go with my picks from the past year. I promise it won’t be too scary, violent or intense.
My favorite film of 2017 was The Big Sick, followed closely by The Post.
For me, The Big Sick is a perfect movie. Written by Kumail Nanjiani (from shows like Silicon Valley and Portlandia) and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, (comedian and former therapist), the movie chronicles how the couple met, dated and survived a real-life big sick. Early in their relationship, Gordon became seriously ill and was put into a medically induced coma — the stuff of great comedy!
In the film, she’s portrayed by Zoe Kazan, who makes continual appearances in my favorite film lists. And her parents are played by long-time greats Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Kumail plays himself. It’s a cultural back and forth, closely mirroring their actual relationship as Nanjiani manages his Pakistani family’s expectations for his life and love.
The Big Sick is funny, first and foremost, but it also blends in strong emotional themes, difficulties breaking away from expectation, modern love and terrorism. There’s a joke in the movie that I’m still not comfortable with, but it’s daring and lands perfectly. I almost wish you didn’t know anything about the movie or its backstory. I didn’t when I first saw it and it felt sweet, powerful, incredibly funny and — like I said — perfect.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in The Post.
How could I, a recovering journalist, not include The Post at the top of my list? A political coverup; newspapers fighting to reveal the truth; government secrets — this kind of stuff only happens in the movies </sarcasm>. The film is centered around the release of The Pentagon papers, a massive trove of classified documents detailing failures and coverups in the Vietnam War. The Washington Post was struggling to be a national player and had to play catchup with the New York Times, who published the initial parts of it first. And even though this all happened more than 45 years ago, the events feel somehow even more pertinent today.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep play the two main characters, the editor and publisher of The Post. But aside from those perennial powerhouses, there’s a lot more to like in the movie. Several different comedians play serious roles, including Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), David Cross (Arrested Development) and Zach Woods (another Silicon Valley star). It’s packed with stars and delivers a compelling storyline that even non-journos will enjoy.
Christopher Plummer and Dan Stevens star in The Man Who Invented Christmas.
I’ll admit that seeing The Man Who Invented Christmas around the holidays might’ve influenced my decision, but this movie is great fun. Even though it takes historical liberties, the film centers around how Charles Dickens — eager for some renewed success after a few sophomore flops — came to pen A Christmas Carol, “the timeless tale that would redefine Christmas” as IMDB puts it.
Dan Stevens, the son-in-law who died in a Downton Abbey car wreck, plays the harried Dickens and Christopher Plummer is his fictitious/real-life Scrooge. He comes up with the idea to write a holiday tale, just six weeks before Christmas, 1843. Supposedly, back then, it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now, (Boxing Day and Easter were far bigger). Dickens is said to have changed all that. We follow the author as scenes and people around London inspire him while his family and servants vex him, but they also save Tiny Tim from certain demise.
Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.
I honestly still don’t know what to make of I, Tonya. “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was just a punchline,” star Margot Robbie explains in one of several monologues delivered straight to the audience. The movie, as the opening title says, is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Harding, the ice skating misfit of the late 80s/early 90s, is portrayed mostly sympathetically in the film, even though society still equates her with the crowbar attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.
I was fascinated by how my remembrance of the events began to change while I was watching the movie. I was beginning to feel sorry for Tonya Harding almost a quarter of a century after the fact. Then Margot Robbie delivered a gem straight to the camera, “It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”
Now, I don’t know how I feel about her. But that process in my own gut makes for an outstanding movie too. Allison Janney, portraying Harding’s mother, was — as usual — absolutely perfect, this time as a tyrannically evil skating mom.
Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game.
Turning to another sympathetic or unsympathetic female sports figure — depending on your perspective — Molly’s Game tells the tale of real-life skier Molly Bloom, who ran a high-stakes poker game before being busted by the FBI. Written and directed by the phenomenally talented Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom), you just know this movie will crackle with exceptional writing and fast-paced, back-and-forth dialog.
Jessica Chastain, in the title role, is incredible at delivering Sorkin’s lines and is razor sharp as an unattainable prize in a spoiled, rich men’s game that included movie & sports stars, business titans and Russian mobsters. If you’ve seen Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, you’ll know the type of character she can pull off. Molly is the natural extension of those characters.Christy Lemire said it best on RogerEbert.com, “Despite her cynical, detached demeanor, she’s a force of nature in a blowout and a bandage dress — impossible to stop watching and listening to as she narrates giant chunks of “Molly’s Game” in wryly humorous fashion.”
When she’s finally caught, who could possibly ask for a better lawyer than the one played by Idris Elba? And yes, there’s an overbearing parent in this one too, though he eventually feels redeemed. This time it’s Molly’s father, played by Kevin Costner.
As you go on out to the lobby for some popcorn or Sour Patch Kids, here are some fun thoughts that popped into my brain from other Oscar contenders.
In Call Me By Your Name, a song by The Psychedelic Furs figures prominently in the background of two scenes. The movie was set in 1983, when the Furs were big. But what made me smile were the initial lyrics of the song Love My Way, “There’s an army on the dance floor …” I laughed because both times it was playing, one of the stars, Armie Hammer, was out on the dance floor.
Speaking of Call Me By Your Name, actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays the kind, understanding father of fantastic young star Timothée Chalamet. He’s also in another Oscar nominated film, The Shape of Water, playing the Russian spy. If that’s not enough, in The Post, he plays the New York Times Executive Editor. I wonder if that’s a record, appearing in three Oscar-nominated films in the same year? Jack Nicholson has appeared in 10 nominated films, but over four different decades. Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks have each been in nine throughout the years.
Seemingly not to be outdone, Timothée Chalamet also stars in Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, this time as Saoirse Ronan’s love interest.
Sam Claflin, Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy star in Their Finest.
As with Zoe Kazan, when a film includes Bill Nighy, you can bet I’ll find it and probably love it. Even though Their Finest was released in Britain in 2016, it didn’t show up across the pond until April of last year. Set during the early stages of the London Blitz, as the Germans bombard England, we find scriptwriters racing to tell heroic tales about everyday Brits in order to buoy the parched souls of their countrymen.
Yes, this year was packed with films from this exact same time, (Darkest Hour, Dunkirk), but the ensemble cast of Their Finest made this one my favorite, by far.Gemma Arterton portrays a former secretary who’s newly minted as a scriptwriter in a male-dominated, ego-driven war propaganda office. There’s comedy, tragedy and even some incredible songs, one of which performed by Nighy, Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go. And just because I can, the other song that enraptured me from the movie was They Can’t Black Out The Moon, about enjoying the total nighttime blackout Londoners had to endure during the blitz.
Gal Gadot stars in Wonder Woman.
Maybe superhero movies aren’t your thing; goodness knows, they are almost inescapable at the cinema lately. But I think you may want to give Wonder Woman a second look. As the Hollywood Reporter calls her, she’s “the world’s most well-adjusted superhero.”
Gal Gadot, in the title role, is a commanding presence on screen as a peace-loving female warrior up against a patriarchal war machine. Throw in a healthy punch of humor and good vs. evil and you have all the requisite ingredients needed for a fun, feminine-powered film.
The movie delves into her origin story on the all-warrior women island of Themyscira. (If you’re looking for the actual origin story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women — a biopic dealing with the guy who invented her back in the 1940s — was also released in 2017.)
Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts star in Wonder.
Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, Wonder Wheel and now Wonder. You could say it was a Wonder-full year (sorry!). Remember the kid from Room, Jacob Tremblay? He returns as a child with a disfigured face who has to endure going into the public school system for the first time. Parents Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts are extremely empathetic in this sweet and loving movie.
Overcoming obstacles, friendship, kindness and other warm themes play roles in the film and there’s really nothing bad you can say about the movie, unless you think it’s too schmaltzy — which I definitely don’t.
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell star in The Battle of the Sexes.
I was alive and cognizant back when Billie Jean King played tennis against notorious male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, (though I almost wrote Bobby Fischer — confusing my early 70s bombastic Bobbys). So I was very curious to see how Battle of the Sexes treated the match between a Number One female tennis player and a has-been hustler.
They aced it! When I first saw the previews, I couldn’t believe I was looking at Emma Stone; she inhabited Billie Jean’s persona. I was even more transfixed by, “wait, who’s that playing … no, it can’t … yep, that’s really Steve Carrell.”
As my man Adam Graham at the Detroit News wrote, “Battle of the Sexes gets its retro right.” I loved seeing how far we have come as a society since 1973, and yet how far we need to go. The movie, just like the match 45 years ago, was a real crowd-pleaser. And I can never get enough of Sarah Silverman, who played publisher and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman.
Three Billboards, Our Souls at Night, The Greatest Showman and The Shape of Water round out my Top Ten Favorite films of 2017.
Picking my tenth favorite film of 2017 has been a difficult choice for me. If I don’t mention The Greatest Showman, my musical theatre family will disown me. Hugh Jackman and company made this movie — inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum — visually and aurally entertaining. Our Souls at Night, starring a reunited Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, was a lovely, quiet film about two aging neighbors finally connecting. There’s nothing not to like in this one and I highly recommend Netflixing it.
And yes, two powerhouse Oscar contenders, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserve a place in the Top Ten. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer really stand out in a movie that defies genres. Is The Shape of Water science fiction, fantasy, horror, political, romance? I can’t answer that, but it’s a truly unique ride. Billboards brings together stellar performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. And as you probably already know, it tells the story of a fictional mom in a fictional town who puts up billboards, taunting/imploring the local police chief to solve her daughter’s murder.
AS THE CREDITS ROLL
There were two more films released in 2017, but I hesitate even now to mention them. They intrigued me; I’ve shared them with friends & family; they fill me with wonder (there’s that word again) and they’re each only about a minute long. They were released by the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE and were first mentioned in the New York Times in December. Apparently our government has been studying UFOs for some time now and has shared a few of our encounters. Two videos were released in 2017 and supposedly more are on their way. I can’t wait to pop some popcorn and see what the universe has in store for us.
Two screenshots from videos released by the D.O.D. showing “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon” that The Pentagon is studying. “My Gosh,” exclaims a fighter pilot as he sees “a whole fleet of them.” The declassified footage comes to us courtesy of To The Stars … Academy of Arts & Science.