Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

A popular refrain on Twitter in the last months of 2017 has been, “2016 was when all your favorite celebrities died, 2017 was when all your favorite celebrities died to you.” Separating the art from the artist when it comes to the terrible things our favorite artists do can be tricky, depending on the individual. In the last third of the year, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Brett Ratner and Louis CK were only the most significant of this year’s controversial celebrities when it came to sexual harassment and assault allegations, and for many people, it forced a complicated relationship with some of those individuals and the work they did. For myself, Spacey was the most difficult one, because he has been among my very favorite actors since I first paid attention to him in “The Ref” and “The Usual Suspects.” Now, I find myself in an awkward position of wondering whether I can really ever watch those films again (“The Ref” is a holiday staple), and one of his latest films is also one of my very favorite films of this year. That is one of the significant questions I find myself asking about cinema at the end of 2017.

This was also a year in which I did a lot of looking back at not just cinema history, but my own personal history with films. I continued to add episodes to the Sonic Cinema Podcast, and have started to find my personal voice with each new interview and discussion with friends and filmmakers. I discovered a great podcast about the movies of the 1980s called ’80s All Over, which in itself, has not only inspired me to finally watch movies I haven’t watched like “Blow Out” and “An American Werewolf in London,” but the way that hosts Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg have done retrospective 10-Best lists for the year led me to come up with, easily, my most personal movie list to date, highlighting the 40 films that have most shaped my first 40 years. I discussed those 40 films in an episode of the Sonic Cinema Podcast that can be heard here.

All that being said, it’s time to put to bed the calendar year of 2017, if not the movie year. As always, there are films from this year that I haven’t seen, whether it’s because of just missing them in theatres, or that they haven’t been released in Georgia yet. (“The Disaster Artist,” “The Shape of Water,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Post,” “The Beguiled,” “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” “Wonder” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” are just some of them.) That means a definitive 10 Best list for the year is not possible just yet, and there will, no doubt, be Oscar potential films to catch up on until the big night at the end of February. There will be changes in how I make my way to that night on here, though. I’m at the point where predicting nominations and giving the Oscars much consideration is not really of interest to me anymore. I will still try and do final Oscar predictions the weekend of the Oscars, as well as release my final 10 Best list for 2017, but before that, I have other ideas for how to spend my time bringing fresh content to Sonic Cinema than just doing Oscar posts, and it’s going to be part of the evolution of the Sonic Cinema Podcast. I hope you’ll like what I have in mind.

As has been the case the past couple of years, I will not be doing a strict list of my best, or even favorite, films of 2017 right now, but rather, run down the films that meant the most to me among the new films seen during this calendar year, be they for artistic or entertainment reasons. I’ll also be acknowledging some of my favorite performances and soundtracks of the year, as well as going through the 10 movies I cannot wait to see in 2018. I hope you enjoy!

Movies That Made the Biggest Impact of Me on 2017
=“Baby Driver” (Directed by Edgar Wright)- This is gonna be the all-timer for me from 2017. It was immediately my favorite film of 2017 when I watched it opening night, and Edgar Wright’s music-driven action thriller rocked my world again months later. That being said, I was nervous about rewatching this after Kevin Spacey’s harassment allegations tarnished him for me, but in fact, it made it easier for me to hate how his character bullies Baby (the wonderful Ansel Elgort) back for “one last job” after Baby is ready to go straight, and start something new and beautiful with Debora (Lily James, all warmth). Wright’s film is brilliant in every way, from the way he cast it to the choreography to the way he uses Atlanta to the way he uses music to get into the heart of this story, and make it sing. I was so excited after watching the film again that I had to record my thoughts after my December viewing that felt so refreshing when this movie held strong, and stayed the winner of the year for me.

=“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Directed by Rian Johnson)- There’s a lot of “new” involved with this ninth film in the “Star Wars” franchise to make someone uncomfortable, but it’s the emotional pull of this film that trumps everything else. The relationship with the Force seen in Luke, Rey, Kylo Ren and Leia gives the film a spiritual dimension that builds on “The Force Awakens,” and recalls the scenes of young Luke training with Yoda in “Empire Strikes Back.” The “Looper” director and his cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, shoot the action in this film with tight close-ups and shot composition that make us feel like we are there as the Resistance has its back to the wall against the First Order. And leave it to John Williams, 40 years after his first excursion to a galaxy far, far away (and at 85 years young, to boot), to continue to thrill me and move me to tears with his symphonic brilliance. Lucasfilm gave Johnson the reigns for a new trilogy as he was finishing “Last Jedi,” and for good reason- he is one with the Force, and the Force is with him.

=“IT: Chapter One” (Directed by Andy Muschietti)- I have never read Stephen King’s massive 1985 novel, but Pennywise and the Loser’s Club have always been favorites of mine in the horror realm because of the 1990 TV miniseries that adapted it first. This year, “Mama” director Muschietti delivered the first of two films based on the film, and the greatest compliment I can give him is that he didn’t play it safe with this story, and did things his own way, much like Bill Skarsgård in his performance as Pennywise, which takes a different route entirely. What resonates the most, however, is what should resonate strongest here- the dynamic between the kids of the Loser’s Club as they have their own run-ins with the evil that resides in Derry, Maine. The two strongest impressions are Sophia Lillis as Bev, the one girl in the group, and Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, whose little brother, Georgie, was murdered by Pennywise. Their emotional arcs focus the story, and drive the motivations of everyone else, and while the film’s stunning box-office (it ended the year 6th overall in North America) still blows me away, when you consider how right it got the relationships with the kids here, its success (on the heels of Netflix’s phenomenon “Stranger Things”) isn’t that shocking.

=“mother!” (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)- Darren Aronofsky is a madman. Or rather, Darren Aronofsky loves exploring madness in his characters. All three of his last films- “Black Swan,” “Noah” and “mother!”- have fever-pitched melodrama where their main characters descend into psychological depths because of their own notions of what is going on around them, and it is absolutely awesome to watch unfold. Here, Jennifer Lawrence’s young wife is trying to be accommodating to her poet husband (Javier Bardem, in some of the best work of his career), but things spin, quite insanely, out of control. While I admired the way he touched on this notion in his Oscar-winning “Black Swan,” I loved it in “mother!,” because while chaos reigns on screen, Aronofsky is completely in control of his technique and thematic material, and the result is, probably, the most hallucinatory film since Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” I completely get why audiences repelled from this movie, giving it a rare “F” Cinemascore, but this movie isn’t easy for consumption entertainment, and with Aronofsky and Lawrence (in the performance of the year) going for broke, I couldn’t help but get enraptured by every minute.

=“The Florida Project” (Directed by Sean Baker)- This movie really affected me. I’m sure most of us who have traveled to Orlando, Florida for vacations at Disney or Universal Studios (or Star Wars Celebration this year, for me) have never really thought about people who are just hanging on by a thread from being homeless who live in the vicinity of these magical tourist locations, and will never be able to really experience them themselves. Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) clearly has, and the result is a beautiful, funny and heartbreaking film about messy lives. We see this way of living primarily through the filter of the kids (namely, Moonee, played with a whirlwind energy and charisma by Brooklynn Prince), we see the parents and grandparents who take care of them, and show different levels of responsibility for them, and we have the motel manager (Willem Dafoe, in one of his finest performances) who rents out his hotel rooms to these people long-term, and seems to take a personal interest in these lives more than someone should. This sounds like a downer of a film, writing about it, but the fact is few films this year are so full of life, and love of life, than what Baker has made here. You won’t see another film like it this year. It’s a beauty.

=“Spielberg” (Directed by Susan Lacy) & “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” (Directed by Chris Smith)- Here are two documentaries about filmmakers. One is my favorite director of all-time, the other is an actor whom I’ve had a love/hate relationship with over the years. Both of these are essential to understanding their subjects. Lacy’s “Spielberg,” for HBO, is as revealing a work about the director of “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Schindler’s List” as we’ve ever seen, and for a fan, it brings us closer to not only the director himself- starting with how “Lawrence of Arabia” challenged him when he saw it as a kid- but his films. It is easily my favorite film about filmmaking and a filmmaker since “Lost in La Mancha.” Chris Smith’s “Jim & Andy” had a different impact on me. I think it’s probably a better film, and a big part of that is in how it centers in on Jim Carrey and his role as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon.” We get a look at Carrey’s method to the madness of when he entered into the psyche of Kaufman for filming, and what Carrey felt after the experience, and it is as naked a look at an artist as we’ve seen in recent memory. I still don’t love a lot of Jim Carrey’s work, but I have a greater appreciation of who he is as an actor and individual. As with Spielberg, I feel closer, as an individual, to Carrey than I previously did. Both are key works for film lovers.

=“Coco” (Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)- Pixar hasn’t really been “must-see” for me recently; I missed both “The Good Dinosaur” and “Cars 3” in the theatres. One glimpse of “Coco” at work, though, meant I wanted to make sure I saw their colorful Day of the Dead comedy in theatres, though, and it landed like a ton of bricks on my emotions. The idea that the protagonist, Miguel, is torn between his passions and his family is not a new one (Pixar mined this in “Ratatouille” a decade ago, while “Moana” did this just last year), but the way Unkrich and especially Molina, who shepherded the project (he also co-wrote the script and some of the songs), make it work on screen was enough to where, the last 10-15 minutes of this film had my waterworks going. This film has many wonderful sights as Miguel feels a pull between the lands of the living and dead, but it’s the way this film is about family, and how it can be brought together by memory, that just destroyed me. Pixar has become masters of making me cry, and this film did it better than even some of their best. It’s a magical experience.

=“Wonder Woman” (Directed by Patty Jenkins)- In the same way that Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” felt like a much-needed piece of escapist tribute to New York City after September 11, I think Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” was a rallying call for women of all-ages, as well as audiences, in general, after misogyny and sexism reared its ugly head in some of the most deplorable of ways in 2016, and it continued to do so this year in American society. (Note: I’m well aware misogyny and sexism existed before last year, but the election of our misogynist-in-Chief seemed to ramp it up to 11.) Gal Gadot had already shown herself more than worthy of the role of Diana Prince in 2016’s “Batman v. Superman,” but with Jenkins (the director of “Monster”) at the helm, and a supporting cast that included Connie Neilsen, Robin Wright and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Gadot adds layers to the character, fleshing this Amazonian God from Themyscira out into one of the most well-rounded superheroes in either DC or Marvel’s on-screen stable. Jenkins directs the action efficiently, although you’ll, no doubt, be talking more about the character beats that define Diana’s story more. When the DC team-up film “Justice League” finally came out in November, Gadot’s Diana was the clear standout ahead of Batman or The Flash or Aquaman, and if you leave 2017 knowing nothing else about the DC Universe on the big-screen, it’s that neither sullen Superman nor mopey Batman are the draws at the moment for DC movie forward. The rest of their lineup is on shaky ground, but Wonder Woman is the beacon of hope we need going forward, and with Gadot and Jenkins getting prepped for the sequel, the character’s future looks bright.

Of course there are more than nine films that stood out to me this year, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include Jordan Peele’s great social horror thriller, “Get Out” at the top of the list, along with Nickolas Duarte’s compelling documentary short, “Jay”, which are just on the outside of the above films looking in. Before I dig into more well-known fair, I have to give a shout-out to the “screeners” I received that made lasting impressions on me, including two shorts by Chris Esper (“Undatement Center” and “The Deja Vuers”); another one by Duarte (“Trouble Will Find You”); two great, spiritual shorts from Debra Markowitz (“The Waiting Room” and “Chosen”) and one from Tofiq Rzayev (“Leftovers”) that show all four filmmakers as lights of excitement and fun in independent filmmaking. Their films were not the only standouts in that area, however, as “The Trouble With Uncle Max” started my year off well; “April Flowers” was a thoughtful, one-sided love story; “To Be Alone” is a collaboration between Matthew Mahler and Timothy Cox that has interesting things to say about loneliness; “PEI Kids: Generation Change” and “The Fourth Kingdom” are documentaries about people on the outskirts of society trying to change it; “Is This Now” looks as emotional trauma healed through art; “I Feel” is a comedic look at couple’s therapy, and “The Midnight Matinee” is a fantastic compilation of horror stories that is tightly wound and well-executed. I could go on, but just that is enough to give you an idea of the superb depth of storytelling I was asked to view, and was rewarded with, throughout 2017.

That right there would be enough to for, at least, a couple of 10-best lists for this year’s movies, but it would still be missing much more that left its mark on me. This doesn’t even mention the trio of entertaining pieces we got this year from Marvel Studios in “Thor Ragnarok”, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”; a juicy Stephen King thriller from Netflix in “Gerald’s Game”; Matt Reeves’s emotional, adventurous conclusion to the new “Apes” series in “War for the Planet of the Apes”; Joon-ho Bong’s heartfelt animal adventure about a girl and her genetically-enhanced pig in “Okja”; Bill Condon’s luminous adaptation of Disney’s animated classic, “Beauty and the Beast”; the third film of an aca-entertaining comedy musical franchise (“Pitch Perfect 3”), and James Mangold and Hugh Jackman’s powerful closing out of Wolverine’s 17-year journey on-screen in “Logan”. I still have a ton of movies to watch from this year, and these are just the ones I reviewed on the site (I have to give it up to Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split”, as well), so definitely listen out for a more definitive 10-best list the week of the Oscars.

Movie Music to Be Moved By in 2017
Ok, I’m just going to say it- this was not a great year for movie music and soundtracks. When two of the best soundtracks of the year are not even two of the most original (Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake and “Pitch Perfect 3”), that can sometimes be a good thing, but when the original soundtracks lack punch and memorable moments, the film year feels lacking, for me. That said, there are a lot of solid musical films, and some that revealed themselves as being better the more one heard of them. By far, the best soundtrack of 2017, thus far, belongs to Edgar Wright’s musical heist film, “Baby Driver”. Music is so ingrained into the experience of the movie that you just roll with excitement listening back to these tracks, and thinking about Wright’s film. This is not just the best soundtrack we got this year, but probably, one of the best song soundtracks of all-time, and that is no small feat, considering the competition from Quentin Tarantino’s films alone. A few years ago, another song soundtrack was one of the year’s finest, as well, and this year, James Gunn followed it up quite effortlessly with the tracks he chose for “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”, which build on the tone established in Gunn’s first film, but also fits with the tone of the story, as well. Moving away from song soundtracks into scores, one movie I’ve seen did a really good job in making both integral to the film with the collaboration of Michael Giacchino and the songwriters of “Frozen” for Pixar’s gorgeous “Coco”. Giacchino wasn’t the only orchestral composer to make his film better, though, as John Williams, once again, brought the galaxy far, far away to life with a beautiful mix of melodies and adventure cues for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. While “The Last Jedi” is my favorite score of the year, though, a second viewing of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” gave me a better chance to appreciate the ethnically-tinged horror sounds of composer Michael Abels’s work, which probably stands as the best score of the year, for the time being. I’m a bit disappointed I don’t feel stronger about Hans Zimmer’s work for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” to give it a more lively endorsement, but it wasn’t until hearing it away from the film that I got a better idea of what he was doing in that film. I felt the same way about the work Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish did for “Blade Runner 2049”, but while it still doesn’t hold a candle to Vangelis’s score to the original film, it does a great job evoking the same atmosphere as you watch it go about its business. Wallfish’s work on “2049” was good, but he did dynamic and powerful work in his score for “IT: Chapter One”, which captured the horrific strength of the Stephen King story. To round out the list (for now), I would hate to not give props to the terrifically crazy Mark Mothersbaugh score for “Thor Ragnarok”, which is one of the few scores I’ve heard this that, upon first viewing, really made a lasting impression. Hopefully, 2018 will have a stronger slate for us movie geeks whom are musically inclined.

Favorite Performances in 2017
There was a lot of great work done this year by actors in a wide variety of roles. There’s usually a great amount of work done, but this year feels particularly plentiful, in that respect. There’s still so much I need to see, so much that’s still on the horizon, that it will feel like an overload on the system, when all is said and done this year. As it stands right now, I think the four who would get my vote on a hypothetical awards ballot would be, first and foremost, Jennifer Lawrence for her amazing and anxious work in “mother!” (Best Actress) and Willem Dafoe as a hotel manager who is helping people in poverty in “The Florida Project” (Best Supporting Actor), then Sophia Lillis as Bev, the lone girl in the Loser’s Club, in “IT: Chapter One” (Best Supporting Actress) and Andy Serkis in his climactic turn as Caesar in “War for the Planet of the Apes” (Best Actor). There’s a depth to the work done by these actors, in very different roles, in very different films, that is startling to watch as they go through the rigors of what life has in store for them. But there’s some considerable depth this year, especially when it comes to female performances, and my year has been brightened by the work done by Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman”; Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as a daughter and mother who are at a complicated time in their relationship in “Lady Bird”; Dakota Johnson in her continued role of Anastasia Steele in “Fifty Shades Freed”; Carla Gugino as the wife handcuffed, both literally and figuratively, in “Gerald’s Game”; Dafne Keen, as a vicious protege to Wolverine in “Logan”; Emma Watson, first as Disney princess Belle, then as a young woman who takes to new social media tech, in “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Circle”, respectively; Frances McDormand as a grieving and determined mother in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”; Julianne Moore as a perky, but lethal, leader of a criminal organization in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”; Anna Kendrick, who closes out Beca’s, and the Bellas’s, story arc with effortless charm in “Pitch Perfect 3”, and finally, Ana de Armas as a digitized assistant for Ryan Gosling’s detective in “Blade Runner 2049”. That right there would help sufficiently set the stage for how rich this year was for acting, but plenty of guys did sterling work, as well, with Javier Bardem (as the arrogant poet in “mother!”) and Hugh Jackman (closing out his time as Wolverine in “Logan”) leading the alpha male pack, before we get really into more versatile performances from the likes of Ansel Elgort as a music-loving getaway driver in “Baby Driver”; Mark Ruffalo‘s finest work yet as the Hulk in “Thor Ragnarok”; Mark Hamill‘s return to his most iconic role in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”; Jaeden Lieberher as the leader of the Loser’s in “IT: Chapter One”; Jason Mitchell as a WWII hero who comes back to the same old discrimination in “Mudbound”, and Daniel Kaluuya as a black man who goes into a bizarre white world in “Get Out”. This isn’t all of the work that stuck out for me, by far, but it’s definitely the finest, and I hope 2018 is just as generous.

What to See in 2018
1. “Ready Player One” (3/30)- Steven Spielberg hasn’t done much in the way of all-out escapist spectacle since “Jurassic Park,” but the last time he did, with the animated “The Adventures of Tintin,” was wild fun. One of the great tentpoles of 1980s geekery directing an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop culture favorite novel is must-see cinema.
2. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (N/A)- Wait, is Terry Gilliam’s passion project, whose implosion was captured so vividly in the 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha,” finally going to make it to screens? Don’t have a release date yet, but after many fits and spurts, Gilliam (“Brazil,” “12 Monkeys”) may have finally pulled this off. I cannot wait to see it.
3. “Black Panther” (2/16)- Marvel has another big year coming up, with “Avengers: Infinity War” (5/4) and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (7/6) coming out during the summer, but no film in their 2018 slate has me quite as jacked as Ryan Coogler’s February film where we learn more about Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa and his home Wakanda.
4. “The Predator” (8/3)- The last time he faced off against this iconic movie monster, he was its first victim as Hawkins. Now, Shane Black is back to this franchise, only this time, he’s co-writing and directing the latest film in the series, which is being treated as a direct sequel to that original film, and I cannot wait for the “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Iron Man 3” and “Nice Guys” filmmaker to bring his snarky sense for action to the proceedings.
5. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (5/25)- The second of the LucasFilm “Star Wars Story” films arrives on the 41st anniversary of the original film, and 35th anniversary of “Return of the Jedi,” as everyone’s favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder gets a pre-“New Hope” adventure film all his own. I honestly don’t know who is under more pressure- Alden Ehrenreich, who is taking over the iconic title role from Harrison Ford, or Ron Howard, who stepped in as director in the middle of production when it was clear original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord weren’t delivering the film LucasFilm wanted. I can’t wait to see what both have in store for us this May.
6. “The Incredibles 2” (6/15)- Brad Bird’s Pixar superhero sequel has been eagerly awaited by fans since the first one won audiences over in 2004. After a stint in live-action that resulted in the flawed “Tomorrowland,” Bird is finally ready to continue this superhero family’s story, and like many others, I cannot wait.
7. “Isle of Dogs” (3/23)- Wes Anderson’s first stop-motion animated film since “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Sold.
8. “Annihilation” (2/23)- The most recent trailer for this sci-fi action thriller starring Natalie Portman, collaborating with director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”), hooked me. I’m curious to see what this is.
9. “Ocean’s 8” (6/8)- It’s a female “Ocean’s 11” from the director of “The Hunger Games” and “Pleasantville.” That’s it, but this cast (Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Dakota Fanning, Katie Holmes, Helena Bonham Carter and Mindy Kaling, among others) is too good to check out. I’m game for it.
10. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (6/22)- With the “Jurassic World” films, it really feels like executive producer Steven Spielberg has his eye on doing mega-budget exploitation films with elements of an infamous “Jurassic 4” script by John Sayles and William Monahan. I can live with that. It won’t be great, but it should be great fun.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

Categories: News, News - General

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