Mann’s Take: 2017 in Review

by Will Mann

Get Out

Get Out was the movie we didn’t know we collectively needed in 2017, but man oh man, am I sure thankful we got it. Jordan Peele’s (yes, I’m just as surprised as anyone that freakin’ Ozamataz Buckshank/Bismo Funyuns/D’Pez Poopsie/Star Magic Jackson, Jr. directed the best movie of the year) directorial debut is part-horror, part-horror-deconstruction, part-satire, part-biting-racial-commentary. And it’s damn close to perfect. The film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in what is sure to be a star-making turn), an African-American meeting the parents (Bradley Whitford and the always-wonderful Catherine Keener) of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, who is so good that I imagine she’s about to have her pick of female villain roles coming her way very shortly). Rose’s parents live in a countryside mansion in a rural suburb of New York City. But once he settles in, Chris is particularly concerned about the way the family’s gardener (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel), both also African-American, respond to him. And soon, other strange happenings soon convince Chris that things are not what they seem, and that forces at play may be against him.

It’s rare that a film is this scary, this thought-provoking, this well-made, and even this funny all at the same time. Much was written about the film in the forms of critiques and commentary, but on subsequent viewings, I am impressed with how the film forces you to not to think about that by being so damn good. It forces you to watch it and be entertained by it, rather than have the collective critical baggage about it weigh it down. Get Out is a movie I expect I will be returning to many, many times in the future. Moreover, I’m glad the film became such a success, because it feels like a watershed moment in terms of both more-politically-motivated movies and the horror genre.
Get Out is amazing. Get Out is worth the hype. Get Out is proof that Hollywood isn’t in a creative rut, and if anything, that it should be giving more time and attention to telling these kinds of stories. We will be talking about this movie for the rest of forever. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che referenced the film in a recent joke about Omarosa. It is the first of many references to this film I believe I’ll be seeing in the future. Like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars before it, I believe it will soon be a touchstone that people reference in their everyday lives. (Trust me, it’s only a matter of years before a major newspaper compares something to “the sunken place” and everyone immediately gets what they’re referencing.) It’s one of only a few movies I’ve ever seen where what I initially viewed as narrative flaws actually make more sense (and could even be seen as potential strengths?) the more times I’ve watched it. It’s certainly National Film Registry-bound. It’s the movie we needed, but more so this year in particular. I do not possibly have enough good things to say about this movie. Get Out is my favorite movie of the year.

Lady Bird
2014 gave us Boyhood. 2016 gave us Moonlight. But for an unflinchingly realistic, true-to-life coming-of-age story, 2017 gave us a real treat in Lady Bird, the newest film from writer/director Greta Gerwig. Saoirse Ronan excels as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high-school senior trying to find herself in Sacramento as the threshold of college and living away from home moves closer and closer. This movie is downright charming, and as a former high-school drama geek, the depictions of the theatrical productions Lady Bird gets involved with reawakened memories I didn’t know I had. As previously stated, Ronan is simply terrific, but Laurie Metcalf also impresses as Lady Bird’s overworked, overburdened mother, trying to strike a balance between critiquing parent and supportive mom. I also like Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Manchester by the Sea’s breakout young star Lucas Hedges as an early object of Lady Bird’s affection.

Quirky, funny, genuine, and ultimately both touching and endearing, Lady Bird is a movie for all the outcasts, for all the people who struggled to figure out who they were in high school, and for anyone who treasures friendship, family, love, John Hughes movies and the life of a free-spirted individual. So, basically everyone (except probably Donald Trump). In a less competitive year (again, not to be belabor the point, but going up against Get Out would be like swimming competitively against Michael Phelps), Lady Bird would likely be my favorite movie of the year. But in this case, it has to settle for a hard-fought, much-deserved second place.

The Disaster Artist
Full disclosure: I’m probably biased, but I love this movie. I’m biased because I am obsessed with The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s infamous so-bad-it’s-good movie, and have seen it (and in so doing, introduced others to it) more times than I can count. I’m biased because I loved Wiseau’s best friend and costar Greg Sestero’s tell-all book, on which the film is based, which gave the previously unknown behind-the-scenes history of the making of The Room. I’m biased because the book got me to meet both Wiseau and Sestero at a book signing, a truly unforgettable event. (Tommy Wiseau told me “Be good, I KNOW YOU ARE!!!”) And, weirdly enough, the book and my history with it helped me land two very different jobs. Seriously.

So, given all that, I certainly wouldn’t be offended if you thought my praise of this movie was merely rose-tinted glasses for this property that has meant so much to me. But this movie is so much more than what my inner-fanboy desired. James Franco excels as Wiseau, and in a performance that could’ve easily devolved into caricature or mere impersonation, he not only brings Wiseau’s outlandish behavior, but the human side of him, as well. The cast, which includes everyone from Franco-friends Seth Rogan and Alison Brie to the co-hosts of my favorite podcast, How Did This Get Made? (Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael), are all great. (I will say that Dave Franco is serviceable, but the movie would probably be strengthened by a different actor in the role.) As much as I love the book, the movie gets a lot of it right, and that is a testament to the film’s overall quality considering just how riveting the original book is.
The film The Disaster Artist is most like is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, another biopic about a notoriously bad filmmaker. And that’s high praise, considering Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies of all time. But like that film, The Disaster Artist is a well-written, well-acted tour de force that isn’t concerned about mocking the bad art its subject created, but rather using that to tell a universal story about working towards your dreams. Even if the end result is “YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, LISA!!!!”

Christopher Nolan’s recounting of the famous battle of Dunkirk, an evacuation that almost ended British involvement in World War II before it ever really began, is a stirring war epic that stands among the best in the genre. Told from the perspectives of three different aspects of the battle (the soldiers stranded on the beach, the fighter pilots in the skies, and a British citizen sailing his boat to pick up evacuated soldiers), Dunkirk is an impeccable true-to-life documentation of the battle and the people it affected. Nolan uses his skill as a director impeccably to capture the chaos of the battle in some impressive sequences. As someone who saw the film both in IMAX and in 70mm, this movie feels big-with-a-capital-big, almost old-school Hollywood in its scope and scale. I don’t have much more to say because there isn’t much more to say. Dunkirk, above all, deserves to be seen to be understood and appreciated. It deserves to join the ranks of great World War II movies (I might go as far to say is that it’s much better than, say, Saving Private Ryan…?), and it stands as Christopher Nolan’s best film after The Dark Knight.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
It’s hard to think of a more cynical, bleaker movie that came out this year than Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, easily the best effort I’ve seen from writer/director Martin McDonagh. But therein lies the joy of watching it. It feels like the best Coen brothers movie (particularly because it stars Frances McDormand in the lead) that the Coen brothers never actually made. Frances McDormand excels as Mildred, a mother who comes up with an inventive solution to remind the town police about the unsolved investigation to her daughter’s rape and murder: she puts up billboards that challenge the town’s police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to solve it. It features great supportive turns by Harrelson, Peter Dinklage as a love-sick native of the town with the hots for Mildred, Lucas Hedges (having a helluva year!) as Mildred’s son, and particularly Sam Rockwell as an idiot police deputy trying for redemption. I’ve been a big fan of Rockwell’s for years, and I hope that this role serves to establish him as a serious actor in a way previous roles haven’t. This a dark (emphasis on DARK) comedy that nevertheless has something unique to say. There’s a scene where Mildred encounters a deer near one of the billboards that stands as one of the best scenes of anything I saw this year. Riveting, surprising at nearly every turn, and full of memorable performances by brilliant actors, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had in quite some time.

Blade Runner 2049
Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film Blade Runner is in my top 10 favorite movies ever made. Not just a personal favorite, it is also a formative one, as I partially credit Blade Runner with helping me develop a more serious interest in film. When a sequel was announced, I was incredibly skeptical, even raising the possibility that I wouldn’t go see it out of protest. Well, I am happy to say that not only did I see it, but it is in almost every conceivable way a worthy successor to its predecessor. The film follows K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant (that means android) who stumbles upon a vast mystery. At its core is the question of what happened to Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the first film memorably played by Harrison Ford, and his connection to a development that threatens to change the world by disrupting the careful balance between replicants and humans. Blade Runner 2049 is a delight for the senses (gotta love that Roger Deakins cinematography), and proves to be another major success for Denis Villeneuve. This is probably my favorite Villeneuve outing so far, and makes me look forward to seeing more work in the future from him. Gosling and Ford are both great, and I appreciate just how much this movie opens up the Blade Runner universe. Additionally, it has one of the strangest, kinkiest and overall sexiest sex scenes, one that you’ll remember long after you’ve left the theater. In terms of long-delayed but much-anticipated sequel, only Mad Max: Fury Road is comparable in terms of overall quality, as this seems a tier above other legacy sequels like Creed or the new Star Wars movies (more on them in a sec). Whether you love the original as much as I do, or you just want to see what all the fuss is about, believe the hype: Blade Runner 2049 is amazing.

The Shape of Water
“Mute woman falls in love with the Creature From the Black Lagoon” would sound corny, maybe even offensive if done in the wrong hands. But leave it to the talented Guillermo Del Toro to not only do that concept justice, but have it be easily his best film that isn’t Pan’s Labyrinth. Sally Hawkins is a revelation as Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a mysterious government facility. She lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins, phenomenal), an old recluse who is revealed to be a closeted gay man, and works alongside the sassy-but-supportive Zelda (Octavia Spencer, proving to be one of our most versatile modern actresses). But when Elisa encounters a new monster (Doug Jones) that the government has captured, the two of them bond. As she and her friends try to bust the monster out, the team earns the suspicion of the strict colonel (Michael Shannon) who found and is charged with taking care of the unusual beast. This movie is simply dazzling, and while it is not my favorite movie of the year, it’s hard not to get swept away in the grandeur of it all. It features a production design that is the stuff dreams are made of, the result of some sort of combination of retro-nostalgia and steampunk. Moving, romantic, twisted, creative, gothic, and ultimately the definition of a Guillermo Del Toro movie, The Shape of Water impresses at nearly every turn and is one of the more memorable films to come out of 2017.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Screw the haters. Screw the backlash. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is better than you’ve heard, easily the best Star Wars since Disney took the reins, and one of the best Star Wars movies ever. Period. From an older, gruffer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) training Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the ways of the Force to a series of wonderful, stirring tributes to the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia to the return of my favorite Star Wars character (no spoilers) to the unfolding arc of Rey’s connection to the nefarious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Star Wars: The Last Jedi has something for everyone. No, I don’t think it’s perfect or anything. In particular, a scene on a casino planet goes on for waaaay too long (but subsequent viewings have gotten me to realize that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered). One romance in particular seems a bit forced, and the two participating actors lack a good amount of chemistry. But the closing shot is one of the franchise’s all-time best, reminding me of the resonance the Star Wars series has had for 40 years, particularly with little children. If The Force Awakens was about bringing Star Wars back, The Last Jedi is about recapturing the magic that makes Star Wars what it is. Perhaps my favorite line from the movie can’t just be applied to ace X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), but also to director Rian Johnson: “That one’s a troublemaker… I like him.”

Wonder Woman
Not since Christopher Reeve first got us to believe a man could fly back in 1978 has a DC-comic book origin movie gotten so much right. The movie depicts how Diana, Princess of Themyscira became Wonder Woman, in no small part due to Gal Gadot’s impressive performance as the most iconic superheroine ever created. When Diana meets Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, in what is his best non-Star Trek role to date), a spy who stumbles upon the legendary home of the all-female Amazon race, she escorts him back to the world of man in the midst of the World War I. Her agenda is to stop the god of war, Ares, from corrupting mankind. This quest takes her everywhere from London to the frontline trenches, the latter of which leads to what is easily the best sequence of the movie: Wonder Woman running head-on into gunfire, impervious to bullets. But that’s not the only riveting sequence from director Patty Jenkins, who brought a unique vision to the film. The film is littered with great action, funny quips and rapport, but much like Superman before it, it is the sweetness and tenderness of the story (and particularly the romance between Diana and Trevor, this film’s answer to Clark Kent and Lois Lane) that most endears it to the audience. While the DC Extended Universe seems to be unraveling given critical misfires like Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the underwhelming box office results for Justice League, Wonder Woman gives hope that if done right, DC superheroes (and heroines!) can still inspire great storytelling.

In a year that gave us a bounty of not just superhero projects, but X-Men projects in particular (if you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Legion ASAP!), it’s really amazing just how much Logan stands above the rest. Hugh Jackman gets to do what most long-time superhero actors don’t, and that is have his ride-off-into-the-sunset moment. The film serves as wonderful tribute to Wolverine as a character (easily the best solo-Wolverine project ever) and a brilliant send-off for Jackman (who, to be fair, has played the character for 17 years/9 movies). I love the return of Patrick Stewart as an older, jaded Professor X (not unlike Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, except, you know, the dying-and-also-he’s-90-years-old part). But the performance most worth noting outside of Jackman’s or Stewart’s is that of Dafne Keen as Laura, Wolverine’s adopted clone daughter (just go with it), who is able to hold her own against an Academy Award-nominee and a man who has a literal knighthood because of how good an actor he is. There were very few moments that moved me this year as much as the final shot of the film did. And while subsequent viewings have revealed to me the film’s significant strengths (how ya doin’, Eriq La Salle? Nice to see ya again!) as well as its weaknesses (okay, yes, sure, we get it, you’re trying to be Shane. And also, is it just me or does Laura resemble Stranger Things’ Eleven a little too much in terms of character archetypes…?), I nevertheless hope that there’s a 13-year-old burgeoning cinephile out there for whom this film is as for formative as Terminator 2 was for me.

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