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Someone on Twitter quipped (I do not remember who, otherwise I would credit them) that 2017 had a small handful of great films which were better than anything released this year. However, considering films just a small step below that tier, 2018 had a much larger pool to choose from. I found that to be the case myself, with over twenty films I could easily have included in my top ten. This was actually one of the hardest yearend lists I have ever put together, given the lengthy list of very good movies I had to narrow down.
An overused quote by Graham Greene states that films should depict the world both as it is and as it should be. Almost all the films below feature a world broken in one way or another whether by pollution, absent fathers, PTSD from the Iraq War, mental illness, or child abuse. At the same time most of those movies feature some form of beauty and hope, whether it be the bond between a boy and his dog, a girl and her father, or a son singing pop songs with his mom.
I think I made a better effort this year than usual to catch up with as many titles as possible, but some things inevitably slipped through the cracks (Cold War and Blindspotting). If a film is not included, I either didn’t see it or didn’t care for it as much as the thirty-five here.
Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):
A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Lean on Pete, Thoroughbreds, The Rider, Minding the Gap, Roma, Shoplifters, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Death of Stalin, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, 22 July, Shirkers
20. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) – Jenkins’ third feature film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Alternating between flashbacks of an innocent childhood friendship blossoming into a touching romance and the harsher present day realities of being black in America, Baldwin’s story through Jenkins’ camera is both a witness to injustice and a celebration of love and family.
19. Annihilation (Alex Garland) – Deeply indebted to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Garland’s intoxicatingly beautiful sci-fi film about survival and the quest for the perfect organism takes equally awe-inspiring and terrifying turns as its scientist protagonists confront the alien world of the Shimmer.
18. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami) – Kiarostami’s final film, this beautiful recreation of twenty-four paintings and photographs invites reflection on what happens just outside of the frame, asking us to look beyond what we see in front of us and imagine the stories behind each work of art.
17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) – A love letter to Fred Rogers, a man who saw everyone as his neighbor and used television as a means of living out his Christian faith with as wide an audience as possible.
16. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni) – A debut feature from Nyoni, she poignantly captures the injustice spurred by fear and bigotry when a young African girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and forced to live in a state-sanctioned witch camp. A fantastic performance from Maggie Mulubwa as Shula reminds us of the freedom and joy a child should have in life and the tragedy of that being taken away.
15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) – The “true story” of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down and out author who takes her agent’s advice to find a new career a little too literally and begins forging letters from deceased celebrities and then selling them to make ends meet. Marielle Heller’s comedy walks the fine line between sympathizing with its unethical protagonists without ever romanticizing or rationalizing their behavior. More pointedly, the film strongly criticizes the greed and superficiality of a society which gives Lee an outlet to use her talents in a criminal way, while acknowledging what a waste of a vocation that is.
14. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) – The second comedic telling of a true story on this list, Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70’s provides not only a brutally hilarious mockery of KKK, but a celebration of Stallworth’s victory over one racist segment of society. At the same time, Lee does not let us forget that racism is still alive and well with deep roots in decades of white entertainment that have been subconsciously absorbed for over a century. Drawing powerful parallels to the current climate, the comedic arc of the film reminds us that racism has been overcome before, and with effort can hopefully be overcome again. (full review)
13. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker) – Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the year, and unquestionably one of the most joyful and fun films of the year, this sequel and prequel to the 2008 musical is not only better than its predecessor but a great standalone film in its own right. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet, in his own top ten write-up, extensively draws from my favorite film of last year, asking what each of his favorite movies loves and pays attention to. The answer for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is: families, forgiveness and reconciliation, friendships, babies, mothers, grandmothers, courageous independent women, exposing and ridiculing sexism, Greece, Cher, singing, dancing, and of course, the music of ABBA. (full review)
12. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Another labor of love, the meticulous detail and craftsmanship from Wes Anderson reveals a love of canines, Japan, the films of Kurosawa, and haiku. It also shows a love of justice and compassion through its fable-like story about how we treat refugees, the sick, and the outcast. For a film which takes place in a world overrun with pollution, in this stop motion world of Wes Anderson, beauty and goodness abound in more ways than imaginable. A haiku:
We need outcasts to survive.
Green tea and puppies. (full review)
11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rotham) – The most inventive and enjoyable superhero film since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly The Incredibles, the multi-verse approach to a Spider-man origin story provides kids of all backgrounds with a superhero they can look up to. Focusing primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to become New York’s only Spider-man, the world building introduces some of the most delightful surprises of any film this year, and the animations pop off the screen recreating the effect of watching moving comic book pages. To borrow a quote from another great animated film: not everyone can be Spider-man, but Spider-man can come from anywhere.
The Top Ten
10. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – After we witness a shocking and brutal murder right as the film opens, it seems like the trial which hangs over most of The Third Murder should be foregone conclusion, especially since this is the culprit’s second murder and he comes across as anything but repentant. However, the truth is far more complicated than it initially appears, as Kore-eda examines the corruption of the Japanese legal system where lawyers care more about an easy explanation than a true one. The title’s meaning isn’t revealed until the film’s end, when it provides a sobering commentary on the destruction of human life, whether it be by a criminal or by the state.
9. The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois) – Like Cuarón’s impressive Roma, The Guardians tells a story of fatherless children in a world torn apart by violence. In this case the violence is WWI, and Beauvois focuses on the ways that life at home away from the front changes as each character does what they believe necessary for survival. That naturally reveals the best of some characters and the worst of others as prejudices are either confirmed or altered. The film’s similarities with Beauvois’ previous feature Of Gods and Men becomes apparent as a more noble path is celebrated by the protagonist’s refusal to return evil for evil, even as the war and its hatred moves closer to her and those she loves.
8. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker) – One of the most brilliant films of the year, Madeline’s Madeline is an unnerving case of life imitating art imitating life. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a typical rebellious teenager seeking her own identity as she works after school with an experimental acting troupe in NYC. Idolizing her fellow actors and reviling her mom, Madeline is naturally vulnerable to being exploited and lashes out at others while trying to pursue her acting vocation. The film’s hypnotic editing underscores the value Madeline rightly places on her work while simultaneously emphasizing she may not be the best judge of who is looking out for her well being. The film makes the importance of vocation clear, while also showing the dangers of putting anything ahead of people as it reminds us that “creating art” is not an excuse for objectifying human beings.
7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) – A film that puts the gallows in gallows humor—in one scene quite literally—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises six vignettes on the subject of death in the old West. There’s a logical progression to each of the vignettes, from gunslinger to bank robber to traveling showman to prospector to pioneer to bounty hunter. Moving from outlaws to “more respectable” characters, the Coens make clear the one thing that connects everyone is death, as they satirize Western tropes in delightfully and wickedly funny deconstructions. The subversive storytelling invites us to reflect on the nature of our stories while simultaneously reminding us how those stories originated in the first place.
6. First Reformed (Paul Schrader) – This dark night of the soul story has been the darling of most Christian and secular critics for 2018, and the acclaim is richly deserved. A modernized version of Bergman’s Winter Light, with strong influences from Diary of a Country Priest, The Sacrifice, and Taxi Driver, First Reformed is a challenging examination of a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, pastor of a dwindling First Reformed church in upstate New York, pointedly and literally asks, “Can God forgive us,” after being confronted with the catastrophic damage done to the planet by humanmade global warming and the silence of many Christian leaders in response. Despite the scathing critique of a capitalist Church more concerned about prosperity than souls, Schrader is not interested in tolling the death knell for American Christianity, but instead champions the ways which Christian faith can make a difference in the world by standing with the outcast and caring for the least of these, while acknowledging the pain of watching many Christians do the opposite.
5. Paddington 2 (Paul King) – “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it!” That line from Mr. Brown summarizes the winsome charm of both the titular bear and this sequel to his 2014 cinematic adventure. This entry improves on the original in every way with its homages to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, one of the best production numbers of the year, glorious storybook-like production design, and outstanding supporting performances from the entire cast, with especially fabulous work by Hugh Grant. Embodying his Aunt Lucy’s mantra, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington celebrates joy and love wherever they’re found, from the care of his adoptive family to touching the souls of hardened criminals.
4. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – There’s a shot fairly early in You Were Never Really Here when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD Iraq War veteran who now works as an efficient hitman, is worried a kid saw him as he collected his next assignment. After being reassured he’s fine, there’s a shot of the empty doorframe after he leaves. It summarizes both the importance of invisibility in his line of work and his depression telling him it would make no difference in the world if he wasn’t here. A chance to rescue a young girl from a child prostitution ring provides an opportunity for Joe to make the proverbial difference, but depression, trauma, and violence do not wash away that easily, especially in a line of work which feeds upon all three. A sliver of hope is present throughout the film, however, as the relationships between Joe and his mother and the young girl form a contrast to a bleak world.
3. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis) – Given my amicable indifference to most of Denis’ past work, my love for this is as surprising to me as anybody. Featuring a phenomenal performance from Juliette Binoche as an artist desperately searching for a meaningful relationship, often with some of the most toxic men she meets, Denis structures a clear progression to the same place where the film began. Functioning almost as an inversion of the traditional romantic comedy arc, the film reveals the shallowness of genre clichés as it gives all the agency to Binoche’s artist as she learns happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development or progression.
2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) – I described this to a friend as King Lear from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan, retold as a vicious dark comedy. That description is overly simplistic, but it underscores the fine line between comedy and tragedy that The Favourite walks so brilliantly. A speculative, yet not implausible, version of events that led to the shift of power in parliament toward the end of Queen Anne’s reign, games of political intrigue have rarely been portrayed as darkly or caustically as the manipulation and backstabbing here. With Olivia Colman as the monarch, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies competing for her favour, the trio of actresses all give fantastic performances, and the ruthless portrayal of the court’s corruption provides the perfect backdrop to expose the price of vanity and envy. (full review)
1. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – The one film that has stayed with me more than anything else I’ve seen this year is this heart-wrenching tale of survival of a father and a daughter living in the Oregon woods as a means of the father coping with his PTSD from serving in the Iraq War. The inevitable conclusion hangs over the entire film, bookended in the first and last shots. Each time the protagonists depart another home, the pain of broken connections and relationships becomes greater and greater until the final separation demonstrates that humans are meant to leave a trace. Completely devoid of villains, the film is anything but an exercise in tragedy, as it instead celebrates the generosity and compassion of people from diverse walks of life who all want to do their best to help, even as it acknowledges the reality that that help is not always possible.
Award season is upon us, and it is once again the time of year when film critics share the films that meant the most to them over the previous year, and naturally, I don’t want to miss out on the fun. 2017 was an unusually busy year for me with a move across the country, and a few more films than usual slipped through the cracks – so I delayed posting this by one week to try to catch up on a few more. However, The Breadwinner and Call Me by Your Name are two major films I still need to watch.
2017 was also the year of #metoo, and recognizing the humanity of the downtrodden and those who have been systematically repressed by society for years, and that theme played out in several major films of the past year, including likely best picture nominee The Shape of Water, Anne Hathaway’s ambitious star vehicle Colossal, and the brilliantly unnerving Get Out.
Another major theme of this past year was the idea of questioning our heroes and reexamining what it means to be victorious, which very notably played out in the year’s most anticipated film, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That theme was also prominent in The LEGO Batman Movie as well as Christopher Nolan’s grandiose blockbuster Dunkirk.
Finally, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly blurred the line between cinema and television, but I still believe it should be classified as the latter; otherwise I would just list every episode as the top 18. I jest, but only partially.
Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):
The Greatest Showman, The Wedding Plan, I, Tonya, Mudbound, Baby Driver, Columbus, Wonder Woman, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowtiz Stories (New and Collected), Good Time, Lady Macbeth, The Big Sick, Hunter Gatherer, The Work, Son of Joseph
20. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczyńska) – A modernized take on The Little Mermaid, setting the classic fairytale in a sleazy nightclub in Soviet Poland. Emphatically not a film for all tastes, this horror/fantasy/musical mashup is an impressive display of light and music capturing the danger and excitement of coming of age in far less than perfect world.
19. The Florida Project (Sean Baker) – Mostly shot from the perspective of six-year-old Moonee, (an outstanding Brooklynn Prince) Sean Baker’s deeply compassionate tale about the cycle of poverty in a Florida housing project just outside of Disneyworld captures the joy and hope common to kids even as it details the injustice of a painfully broken world.
18. A Ghost Story (David Lowery) – A meditation on time, grief, and moving on, the use of a fullscreen aspect ratio boxes the viewer into a world where a deceased husband is forced to watch time unfold in the home where he and his wife had blissfully lived, as he learns to live there as a ghost.
17. Get Out (Jordan Peele) – Both a horror film and a satire, Get Out simultaneously explores the frightening nature of racial relations in America and exposes the shallowness of liberal white people who pretend to be allies while perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
16. The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) – A seemingly simple and normal act of selfishness ends up having unexpected repercussions when an unknown girl ends up dead. Jenny, (Adèle Haenel) a doctor at a local clinic, feels particularly responsible and begins a quest to find the girl’s name so she can be buried in a grave and her family can know what happened to her. This effort to repair some of the damage ends up revealing a much more widespread tragedy of all the ways we fail our societal responsibility to one another.
15. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve) – An unnecessary sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, but a brilliant one that respectfully builds on the world of the original film without ever trying to surpass it or engage in derivative fan service, the next chapter in the world of replicants takes a simple yet thrilling mystery and explores human nature, memories, and how we treat others in a world where machines and humans are viewed as commodities. The alternate future is as chilling here as it was in the original, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the bleak world menacing and breathtaking.
14. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) – A beautiful and haunting fairytale about giving a voice to the voiceless and repressed, The Shape of Water merges fantasy and civil rights for the least of these in moving and powerful way. Sally Hawkins gives a powerhouse performance as a mute cleaning woman who risks everything she has to help a strange creature from the Amazon whom most of the world rejects as a freak, because she sees someone as broken as she. While a little heavy handed at times, del Toro’s film is nonetheless a splendidly filmed reminder of the value of the most vulnerable in our society. (full review)
13. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) – Arguably Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and unquestionably his most hope-filled, Dunkirk is a celebration of an unorthodox heroism that finds victory in retreat, capture, and loss. Crosscutting effortlessly between three timelines on land, air, and sea, Nolan places the viewer right beside the soldiers and civilians as they all do what they can to survive and to rescue the allied troops from the impending threat of the marching Nazis. Even with big name stars such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, no character stands out as the humanity and value of all the characters is equally important. (full review)
12. The Post (Steven Spielberg) – Thrilling newsroom drama about the importance of freedom of the press and the first amendment, Spielberg takes deadlines and interviews and turns them into life or death stakes that are as riveting as the best actions scenes he has ever directed. He also does not shy away from showing past failures of news outlets and still insists that it is essential they be allowed to do their jobs without censorship. As Katherine Graham, Meryl Streep as phenomenal as the reserved owner of the Washington Post making her way in a male dominated world and proving her small family paper is a major news outlet that won’t be intimidated by any corrupt politicians.
11. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) – Contrary to what many of this film’s detractors have claimed, this is not a film about redemption and how everyone has their own demons and how even the most racist scumbags deep down are good people. This is a film about damnation and how a perfect model for righteous outrage allows herself to become as corrupt, ruthless, and violent as the monstrous racists she claims to despise. Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, initially earns all our sympathy in her quest to protest the injustice of the local police department, but her understandable anger soon erupts out of control as the film escalates into a full-blown Greek tragedy. It’s a painful cautionary tale, but one timelier than ever. (full review)
The Top Ten
10. My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß) – A moving and intimate look at the dynamics of a family across generations and genders and the struggles and expectations that occur when one member wants to move out from the tight-knit unit. As we witness the different ways family members often take one another for granted and the tole that can take, frequently changing dynamics make us reconsider our own preconceptions. Masterful use of long takes with handheld cameras are incredibly effective at making the viewer another member of the family as the film invites us to observe and reflect on the dynamics of how we interact with our own family members.
9. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas) – An intense and beautifully filmed, genre shifting work of art about grief and the ways we deal with it (or don’t). The entire film is basically a MacGuffin, or several, as Maureen (a phenomenal Kristen Stewart) works in Paris as a personal shopper solely for the excuse of staying there to try to communicate with the spirit of her deceased brother. However, until she comes to peace with his passing and the unusual heart condition which also affects her, the materiality of her career, the unnerving mystery she gets caught up in, and the possibility of other supernatural entities haunting her, will be as meaningless and shallow as Hitchcock’s famous trope, which is why Assayas’ brilliantly detailed focus on those seemingly important subplots makes the narrative abandonment of them in favor of something greater all the more potent.
8. The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola) – Meticulously crafted and gorgeously filmed, Sophia Coppola does a fantastic job of letting the tension within an all-girls Southern boarding school slowly simmer into a toxic boil during the Civil War after they invite a stray Union soldier into their domicile. Exploring the notion of Southern hospitality gone awry and human susceptibility to be beguiled by the easiest solution to our problems, the selfish ulterior motives for doing the right thing slowly create cracks in the picturesque world the Southern women have envisioned for themselves. When the third act erupts into full-blown melodrama, Coppola skillfully drives the film all the way to its memorable final shot.
7. mother! (Darren Aronofsky) – A horror film fantasy, a Biblical allegory, a contemporary parable on care for the environment, a feminist tale of the injustices society inflicts upon women, a meditation on the nature of art and the artist’s need to create, Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream is all those things and then some. A nameless artist (Javier Bardem) and his doting wife, the titular mother, (Jennifer Lawrence) live in a sort of Eden removed from society, but when his desire for fame brings an increasingly unpleasant stream of guest to their home, the disregard and contempt they all show for mother’s vocation results in a tale about the purpose of art and its corruption. Featuring some of the most bombastic imagery of the year, Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is truly remarkable. (full review)
6. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu) – “I don’t do things like this,” says the school principal in a conversation with a student’s father. The father, a respected surgeon played by Adrian Titieni, responds that he doesn’t either. And yet, the entire film is about his efforts to do such a deed and his rationalizations for it. After an early tragedy, which he is attempting to rectify, it’s easy to excuse his choices, and nearly everyone in the film does. However, that creates and endless cycle of corruption in a society where good intentions are often the closest thing to actual goodness. This portrait of the consequences of sin at all levels of society is not devoid of hope as the film quietly observes its characters, occasionally offering glimpses of a more noble, if difficult way.
5. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi) – Winner of last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, The Salesman did not receive a wide release until this year, and it is one of Farhadi’s most powerful films yet. The imitation between art and life blurs after two married actors are forced to evacuate their apartment and find themselves dealing with an unexpected tragedy, which results from the previous tenant’s dissolute lifestyle. The different ways the husband and wife respond to that tragedy threatens not only to derail their production of Death of a Salesman but to break apart their marriage as well as the husband’s quest for justice becomes less about his wife and more about his own desire for vengeance. The most remarkable aspect of the film is the way it handles questions of forgiveness, reputation, and healing, reminding us to whom those abilities belong.
4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson) – Easily the most imaginative film of the year, and one of the most downright enjoyable as well, Luc Besson’s comic book adaptation is everything that a sci-fi film should be: fun, action-packed, and visually splendid. Besson’s world building demonstrates the full potential of CGI and 3D technology, taking them to dazzling heights previously unexplored. Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan make an unorthodox but thoroughly enjoyable screen couple, as they join Besson for his wild ride across galaxies and planets, which always takes time to appreciate the incredible creatures and places Besson puts on screen along with the importance of mercy and forgiveness. No film this year unlocked the full potential of digital cinema more powerfully than this. (full review)
3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) – An intimate portrait of the tortured soul of an artist, interspersed with several of her most famous works, Terence Davies’ unusual biopic covers the life of Emily Dickinson from her school days to her death, highlighting her tempestuous but compassionate relationships with her father, sister, brother, and other New England socialites. Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Emily is unquestionably my favorite of the year, and Jennifer Ehle’s turn as her younger sister is wonderful supporting work that enables Nixon to play Emily’s moods off Ehle’s quiet and sympathetic presence. Focusing on Emily’s growing agnosticism, insecurity, and sense of perfectionism, Nixon makes us empathize with a “difficult” character who struggles to fit into the world and uses her poetry as the primary means of communicating the longings of her soul.
2. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) – When high-end London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) takes a foreign waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) into his home with the intention of remaking her into a suitable model for his flawless dresses, the Vertigo style tale of a neurotic man controlling and reworking a doting woman takes a delightfully sinister turn as two self-centered people attempt to prove their love for their obsessions in increasingly demented ways. Paul Thomas Anderson seamlessly – pun intended – weaves Jonny Greenwood’s lush continuous score into the film, creating a sort of fantasy world where Woodcock’s neuroses and desire dictate every action. When the continuous score gives way to traditional cues, that world is shaken, and the new one that replaces it beautifully shows the destructive selfishness which permeates the world of an artist who only lives for his desires.
1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) – I’ve made no secret that Gerwig’s directorial debut is my favorite film of the year. But I have now watched Lady Bird four times, and besides always growing richer with each viewing, the one thing that is truly apparent is that it is first and foremost an act of love. Gerwig’s love for all her characters, for Sacramento, for New York, for mothers, for fathers, for theater, for first boyfriends, for Catholic school, for prom, and for best friends shines through in every scene, every line of dialogue, and every frame. As the headstrong, titular protagonist Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal as she chases her dreams and aspirations through her final year of high school, and the coming of age tale reflects an appreciation for all of life’s ups and downs, and the juxtaposition of successes and failures is a reminder of how life is often a funny and heartwarming combination of both. (full review)
A big thank you to Wade Bearden and Kevin McLenithan for inviting me onto Seeing and Believing’s podcast to discuss my favorite film of 2017, while they counted down their top ten films.
(I’m at the 49:14 mark). I’ll be posting my own top ten list in the next week.
Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.
The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.
The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.
“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.
“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.
Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.
However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.
Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).
Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.
Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.
Personal Recommendation: B
Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up
Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.
Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.
In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.
When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.
Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.
However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.
Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.
Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.
The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.
By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.
Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.
Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment