Momentary Cinema’s Review of the Year 2017 in Film – Part 1

The team at Momentary Cinema (JJ McDermott, Alan Matthews and Robin Stevens) have decided to form our review of the year in film through a discussion format. Now, this format did not have us sit down and have someone record our nerd-ish ramblings. That would be difficult considering that there is a non-conforming, geographical issue with our whereabouts, and as this is not a financially profitable endeavor, making our whereabouts geographically conform together would be silly. Instead we used the inter-web and a thing called email to make this work. I hope it has worked. The review will be in two parts. Firstly we had a natter about the Oscar winners, the big budget movies, some indie offerings and film craft. We also chatted about the films that had impact in 2017. The second part will focus more on our choices of best and worst from the year (there will also be a small section on TV shows). We are happy to hear your views too so please feel free to leave some comments below if you wish to contribute to the discussion.

The Oscars

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JJ: As usual, the films that won awards at the Oscars were not the best films I had personally seen in the year leading up to it – Hunt for the Wilderpeople; I, Daniel Blake; Graduation; Paterson and The Lobster were all overlooked. Having said that, I enjoyed La La Land, was at times mesmerised by Moonlight and was deeply moved by Manchester by the Sea.

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JJ: La La Land was a crowd-pleaser – a musical love story, but even more, it was an intelligent musical love story. Great acting, particularly by Emma Stone, but unfortunately the contrivance of story went above and beyond in the end and there was quite a bit of snobbery in there.

Alan: Hollywood loves to love itself. La La Land felt like old school Hollywood. I remember seeing some review where they were pointing out how many of the movies that made it to the Oscars this year were actually about filmmaking in general or Hollywood in particular. There is a danger that the whole thing might one day vanish up its own arse.

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JJ: It is heading that way alright. What about Moonlight? I liked it because it brought a love story of two male homosexuals to the mainstream and offered it in a unique and sometimes spellbinding way. Somewhat pretentious but at most times engaging and again, great acting. I would enthuse that it absolutely deserves its triumphant status.

Alan: I saw Moonlight at the cinema mostly because it was an Oscar winner. To be completely honest I’m not sure why it won. The first two acts of the story were interesting and emotional as much from the quality of the acting than how they were shot. The third act just died for me and no matter the quality of the filmmaking it just didn’t have the story chops to make it over that last hurdle. Rather than carry on the conviction of the ideas expressed in the first two thirds, the last third reduced it to a simplistic and awkward love story.

JJ: Manchester by the Sea was a strange one. A solid but difficult drama about grief (with an ounce of humour to get through it). I really liked the challenging material, all very real and human to the core, and again, every actor in this was superb, not just Affleck who won all the plaudits. But the masculine aggression and the sympathy we are intended to elicit for Affleck’s grieving soul is something that never sits quite well with me. I think Michelle Williams as his estranged wife is too much overlooked, and for what reason that is I have no idea…

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The Blockbusters

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Alan: The tent-pole movies this year were a disappointing lot as far as I’m concerned. There were some gems in the mix to keep the public interested though. But Logan was the only one which tread new ground. It was sharply written, took its time and wasn’t afraid to mess with more complex issues. Also the action was sparse and interesting, it didn’t rely on massive visuals and thunderous noise. It was also organic to the plot.

JJ: I watched Logan on a plane so the version I saw had cut out a lot of the gruesome stuff. I was still surprised by the level of savagery. Not to get all parent-preachy, but this was a very adult film. I never expected that. Still, it was admirably complex and had a very pessimistic and dark undertone – synonymous with the Wolverine character I suppose. Let’s be truthful here, the only X-men film I had seen before this was Wolverine so my background to the story is limited, if not totally ignorant. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy Stephen Merchant playing a sickly albino and Patrick Stewart in a very poignant performance.

Alan: If you only see one X-Men movie… I suppose Logan. Or X-Men First Class. Or, shit, I suppose you should really see Deadpool. You know what? See some more X-Men movies. But not Last Stand. Never Last Stand.

Robin: I really liked Logan – by far the best of the franchise. I think the emphasis on story and focus on the relationships between a few main characters, rather than endless special effects and a never-ending list of “magic” showdowns, was refreshing. It showed that fantasy films, too, can benefit from a good script and fine acting.

Film Box Office

Alan: Thor Ragnarok was a little nugget of pure entertainment. I mean the jokes were at times a little relentless but the whole thing was just a fun night out at the cinema watching a big spectacle. The other Marvel moves, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider Man Homecoming, were also solid and entertaining movies. I wouldn’t have believed that there could have been another entertaining Spiderman movie – there have been so many of late (none of which managed to be all that amazing).

JJ: Thor Ragnarok was definitely a nugget! As you mention in your latest post on DC and Marvel films Alan, the difference between the two studios is that Marvel has earned its position to make a film like this, while DC plays catch-up, seemingly attempting to replicate everything their opponents do. The key to Ragnarok I believe is Taika Waititi as director. He was given creative freedom to the parts where it could be expressed best – in the comedy and the little nods to his home country in New Zealand. The character of Korg deserves his own movie but then again, I imagine the jokes might dry up after a while.

Alan: Yep there was a bit of creative flair about the direction and style of Ragnarok. I might be out on a limb here but did it remind anyone of Flash Gordon? No? Oh well. Just you know, all the weird nonsensical space shit and the colourful gladiator fighting and stuff. Jeff Goldblum is great but he’s no Brian Blessed. “Second wave! Die!”

JJ: Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum in a film of this scale is like manna from the gods. We must hold it close and treasure it when its offered. I think his moments in film are becoming equally as memorable as Brian Blessed’s….too controversial?

Alan: The Fate of the Furious is just… just…how do you describe something like that? It is like Top Gear had a baby with Wile E. Coyote. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ leaned out of his car and kicked a torpedo out of the way. And that’s all you need to know.

JJ: Sounds awesome. I have seen three trailers for films with ‘The Rock’ in it this year and they could all be the same movie for all I know or care – his default pose is ‘leaning out of a car’.

Alan: Yeah, but he like KICKED a torpedo!

JJ: Fair enough.

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Alan: Dunkirk was a shame. It just didn’t do anything for me except give me an uncomfortable and confusing movie experience. The sound design seemed specially constructed to induce bowel movements.

Robin: I liked Dunkirk, and it is perhaps the one film I wish we had discussed more in terms of film craft, and use of propaganda in public consciousness. I think this film focuses on ‘the legend’, so everyone in it is just a bit-player contributing to the legend (the central character). That was innovative, I think. Its strong technical points, for me, are 1) the photography, which is really impressive. But I have to say that I wasn’t sold on the time-lapse sequence. For me, it was a little distracting. 2) I also liked the soundtrack and sound effects – designed to put the audience on edge and give a sense that the audience can’t escape it (I get that you [Alan] and some others were irritated to hell). Nolan repeatedly goes from quietness to wall of sound, Beethoven style. He also uses the same ‘symphonic’ construction in visuals too – quietness to mayhem or stillness to flickering movement – widescreen to close up; much of it in binaries. I think it is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, so I get why some people dislike it; and maybe it works in places but not in others. I found the scene near the end where the spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) runs out of fuel, but still manages to turn, shoot down a plane and then land on the beach really pushing credibility. I rolled my eyes at that point. It is not a cinematic masterpiece, and not everything works, but there is impressive technical craft at work I think.

Alan: While carefully considering the points you have made and in the spirit of this informal discussion I can say, no, Dunkirk was a warmed-in-the-sun-and-melted mess, a tragic waste of an opportunity to tell an epic tale. If Dunkirk had been a piece of writing it would have been like falling asleep on the ‘E’ key. Like this eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

JJ: It felt like a waste of an opportunity but then again, they will probably make another one at some stage…with the legend placed even further from the truth. I didn’t think Dunkirk was all that bad. It was a good cinematic experience. But, and I don’t say this too often, Kenneth Branagh was the problem. His smarmy presence left me cold and his portrayal as an apparent hero was just gawk-inducing.

Alan: Pirates of the Caribbean needs to stop. Just stop. The last of the good will has long ago burned out.

Robin: Aye aye; t’has become a shipwreck.

JJ: It just needs a Netflix spinoff series…to steady the ship so to speak!

Alan: Bollocks to that, watch Black Sails. This is currently THE pirate TV show to watch. Let us not infect the small screen with what Pirates of the Caribbean has become.

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Robin: Wonder Woman. Hmmm … okay, rubbish story, silly script, but harmless fun. Good to see a female hero kick arse. I’ve seen it once; that’s enough. But maybe I should add: I find every super hero film has a silly premise – they are pure fantasy – good guy beats bad guy. A lot of women I know like this film. They liked seeing a female super hero take centre stage for once. So, yeah, good to see that Hollywood is dragging itself into the modern world.

JJ: Agree with you here Robin, Wonder Woman was not pants at all. She is a woman and she kicks arse and we need to have more of this in mainstream films…a lot more. Other than that, it was a decent film– at times very enjoyable and the story always seemed to be in control of its destiny. But on the whole, it’s just nothing new, is it? Comparing it to Thor Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 from this year, it lacked any distinct humour or wider variation on the generic superhero vs universe-threatening force.

Alan: Wonder Woman was proof that telling a good and simple story with fun characters can still make for a good movie. It didn’t shake the pillars of heaven but it did hit all the marks for pure entertainment. Just don’t think about it too much. Also I think they’ve hit gold with casting Gal Gadot. She somehow managed to convince in the actions scenes while being charming and likable at the same time as well as being extremely beautiful. It almost doesn’t seem fair.

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Robin: I saw most of War for the Planet of the Apes during a flight. Excellent special effects, but I am a bit bored by it all. The humans are bad, the apes (most of them) are good but desperate. There’s a battle, then another battle and then… another battle – just like in the previous films. Sure, it’s done well and the apes have personality, but this story has been stretched about as far as it can be. I didn’t get to see the end of the film, but I’m in no hurry.

JJ: Just as context to the Planet of the Apes franchise: there have been NINE films since the original was released in 1968 (one being a remake of the first one) as well as a live action TV series and an animated series, both from the 1970s. The original cannot be touched in my opinion, even though the recent ‘reboot’ attempts have been fine, I just don’t really care. It is hilarious how ridiculous the titles have become. What next? The Humans from the Planet Formerly Known as the Planet of the Apes?!

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‘Independent’ films

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JJ: I just haven’t got around to seeing many new indie films this year but then again, they usually find their way to me via recommendations later down the line. Like for instance Personal Shopper, Toni Erdmann and Paterson were all released at film festivals last year but were only shown over here in Australia this year. These three in particular stood out for me. Personal Shopper had somewhat of an interest with the mainstream because of Kristen Stewart (her of unfortunate Twilight fame) but this is actually a very understated and simple horror film, if it can even be deemed horror. There is no spoilers in stating that the film firmly believes that ghosts are a thing (not unlike A Ghost Story) and their representation here is quite original. The ordinariness of the whole thing too, particularly a scene involving texting, is the film’s greatest power. Well worth a gander.

Robin: I really liked Maudie. It is an embellished autobiographic account of Maudie (Sally Hawkins), a disabled and very poor Nova Scotia artist and her illiterate and belligerent husband (Ethan Hawke). Most people don’t watch these small-budget films, with their emphasis on dialogue and human drama, and often lacking spectacular visuals. And that’s a shame, because the narrative is completely engaging and the long camera portraits capture all the body language and nuanced meaning. When just two actors can keep you engaged for an entire film, you know it has got something.

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Robin: A Ghost Story is another of my favourite movies this year (top six in about twenty-four). It’s slow-paced, well filmed and poignant. Large parts of the film are without dialogue. This could have been mind-numbingly dull, but it isn’t. The director David Lowery manages to capture enough emotion and curiosity to follow a ghost in his long journey of waiting…waiting…whose existence is built on a longing for a memory which might just evaporate. The use of sound is excellent.

JJ: I watched it very recently and I was fully absorbed in it. It is exactly as you describe, short on dialogue, but brilliantly filmed. It simply and effectively weaves around to construct something very meaningful and beautiful. I found it to be a refreshing thesis about death and love.

Robin: The Beguiled should be watched with the sound turned down and dialogue added after sucking on a helium balloon. A lot of effort was put in by director Sophia Coppola to capture ‘the aesthetic’, which she does at the cost of drama. Beautifully pointless.

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JJ: I don’t know if you can describe a film that had a $4.5 million budget and is shown at the Sundance Film Festival these days as an independent film, but for the sake of this conversation, I am going to discuss the debut feature from Jordan Peele, Get Out, as such. This was one of those satirical premises for a horror film that evokes reflection as much as it does scares. The focus here is on a mixed-race relationship between two young Americans that goes south pretty fast when the guy has to do the whole ‘meet the parents’ thing and spend some time at the girl’s childhood home in the country. The sub-text is simply about race in modern-day America. It is very disturbing but there is an undeniable power to it and all of the characters, particularly the girl’s brother and parents are portrayed very well.

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Film Craft

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Robin: Blade Runner 2049 is probably at the top of the list for me; it is an excellent film in terms of film craft. This is a film where specialist technical craft help the narrative rather than substitute for it. I loved the set design. Scene after scene it was very atmospheric and moody. Lighting, sound and editing are all excellent. The special effects are innovative, and lend heavily in support of a major theme in the film – the differing levels of reality or simulated reality; so I especially liked how an Elvis hologram cut in and out of image, as a kind of flickering simulated existence (based on past reality) and non-existence. Beautiful scene. 

JJ: I agree and so does Alan – his review from last month has a good discussion about its visual effects and craft. I have a huge fondness for panoramas and vistas in film and so I particularly loved those images of the waste dumps and the abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the city.

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Robin: Loving Vincent is spectacularly brilliant for its hand-painted animation – Van Gogh style. A real achievement in animation craft. But the script is sadly lacking. It feels contrived – to slot in multiple painted characters from various Van Gogh paintings. The sound is odd too – it just doesn’t match the phenomenal visual display of paintings brought to life.

Robin: Dunkirk, Mother!, War for the Planet of the Apes and A Ghost Story are all strong films in terms of film craft. The contrast of screens and use of sound in A Ghost Story was a real strength to the film. I think the photography in Dunkirk was superb too. I was impressed in how the sound track was constructed around the scenes, like the soft hum violins and distant hum of an approaching stuker dive-bomber, and then they merge – very clever. The special effects in War for the Planet of the Apes were amazing but sadly the film as a whole left me flat.

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JJ: Well, I think The Red Turtle, an animated film from French studio Wild Bunch and Japan’s Studio Ghibli, deserves its place in this section. It is a film of immense craft. It was touch-and-go whether there was a future for Studio Ghibli after Hayou Miyazaki but they have since produced The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There, which are simply beautiful films, after his retirement. The Red Turtle offers something very different from Miyazaki or even Isao Takahata’s previous work but this is down to the work and vision of Dutch writer and director Michaël Dudok de Wit. The story is conceived more as a fable than an action-based story. It has sounds but no dialogue. There are people and animals. We just watch and observe what they do. It is clearly set in a fantasy world (on a small, deserted island), where you are not required to understand the past of the people nor the relevance of the anthropomorphism that occurs. It is a true work of art with some of the most breath-taking hand-drawn animation you will ever see.

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JJ: There was a terribly under-rated, but high budget film made in Spain last year (with the help of Focus Features in the UK) and released more widely this year. It was called A Monster Calls and had Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson on board as actors/voice actor. It was by no means a small film but when compared to the Marvel blockbusters, the budget was nowhere near as high. By this note, it should be commended because it actually boasts some incredible visual effects. The story is in three parts and revolves around a young boy in England whose mother is terminally ill and he must endure the mental stress of this on top of being bullied at school due to his meek personality. The film opens up to a fantasy world in the boy’s mind, where a tree monster comes to him at various times to tell a tale, after which he must form a tale of his own so as to appease the monster (or as the metaphor goes, to lift his mental stress).No single story is animated in the same style as the other. It is a very clever film that triumphantly mixes subtlety of story with big, grandiose effects.

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Film Impact

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Robin: Nocturnal Animals has a disturbing premise, and the story and some scenes affected me, and had me thinking for weeks (because somewhere in my head I wanted to rewrite the ending and make things better). I like the film, rather than enjoyed it (no one enjoys a film like this). The sense of intense anxiety it creates, followed by heart-breaking tragedy and then mind-crazed revenge is well done, but disturbing. And yet this narrative is all in a draft novel. It is sent to the author’s ex-wife, and it clearly represents how he feels about how their relationship ended and the all-consuming impact it had on him – which is powerful but, again, disturbing.  

JJ: Nocturnal Animals did not have as much impact on me but I did think about it for a short while afterwards. I felt a bit cold at the end in fairness. I think we were meant to feel as much disdain for Amy Adams as we were for Jake Gyllenhaal but to be honest, I hate when a film confronts you like that. It is extremely judgey on the part of the director to force us to dislike two characters at the cost of disregarding all that went before. I mean there were some interesting facets to the storyline and the cleverness of the story within the story is noteworthy, but it was slightly overbearing I thought and I don’t think I would enjoy discussing the movie with the director. He sounds like a right asshole!

Robin: Yes, I take your point, it’s not an easy film to watch or enjoy. But I felt for both of them (Jake in the novel; Amy in real life). I thought Jake’s character was a damaged soul who exacted a kind of psychological violence on Amy’s character that reflected the sort of victimhood (psychological ruin) he claimed for himself – or is that reading too much into it?   

JJ: Not at all. We are critics of course.

Robin: Apart from Nocturnal Animals, the films Maudie, A Ghost Story and the documentary Hotel Coolgardie all had me thinking long after I had seen the films, but nothing quite prepared me for Mother! What an amazing film. I’m slightly astounded by several reviews I read after watching this film. It’s as if 90% of the public and film reviewers only watched the trailer….

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JJ: Yes, you are right but at least our reviews of Mother! confirmed that we did not just watch the trailer! I actually felt the impact of Martin Scorsese’s Silence to be equally trying. I am still not sure if this can be described in positive or negative terms. It is not a marvellous film but it is very good at what it sets out to do: reflect upon human faith and belief systems. The acting is of a strong and classy calibre too (Neeson, Driver and Garfield) and the settings in Japan are harsh and beautiful rolled into one. There is much torture and suffering to endure in this but I guess Scorsese is attempting to put us in the shoes/sandals of the sufferer without having to pontificate a pro- or anti- religious agenda. Harrowing stuff!

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3 thoughts on “Momentary Cinema’s Review of the Year 2017 in Film – Part 1

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