Continuing our end of the year series, writer and producer Robert Chandler picks his favourite films of 2017 for Screenwords.
1-LAST FLAG FLYING
It won me over. I was cautious. A somewhat sequel to The Last Detail, one of the great American films of the early 1970s, a film that dealt with life and the inevitability of death, through the journey of three young soldiers: two of them, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, escorting the third, Randy Quaid, across country to a military prison. Last Flag Flying is a “somewhat” sequel because it features the same three men in essence, thirty-five years later (they have the same character traits, but their names are slightly different). Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan. FLAG has Bryan Cranston in the Nicholson role, Steve Carell in the Randy Quaid role, and Laurence Fishburne in the Otis Young role. The men come together and collide when they have to transport a son’s corpse across country. FLAG takes its time. It knows it’s about character and it doesn’t deviate from this. One of the men needs to grow up; one needs to find joy, which is to say an understanding of his life, so he can move on; and one needs to have his faith tested. It is not quite a masterpiece, but it is a good film and sometimes a good film can be enough. It was a gamble to take one of the sacred works of American cinema and then dare to show us what happened to its characters in later life… would the metaphor of the first film still hold its value? Should we really be fucking with this? What would Jack say? Thankfully, it works. It never drags, and it is a pleasure to share the company of the three men at this vital stage in their lives. Of the three, I’d say the acting was won by Laurence Fishburne. Last Flag Flying was co-written (with Ponicsan) and directed by Richard Linklater for Amazon Studios.
2-THE BIG SICK
Kumail Nunjiani’s independent, autobiographical film, written with his wife, is true and honest and heartbreakingly good. An American-Pakistani Muslim man meets and falls for a white American woman. Their families clash. It’s too true to life to be labelled by genre and this is one of its strengths. It is not quite a romantic comedy and the marketeers didn’t really know how to sell or promote it. It provides great, great dramatic roles for Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents of the girl… telling stories like this and providing great dramatic roles for actors like Hunter and Romano is the kind of thing big studio films should be doing and sadly no longer do.
Excellent kaiju movie that isn’t actually a kaiju movie but is about a young woman, played winningly by Anne Hathaway, dealing with her issues and finding out who she really is. The film never deviates from exploring the protagonist’s needs, and never once panders to the men in the story, all of whom want something from her. The same could be said for the film which never delivers the monster-on-the-rampage film fanboys might be wanting or expecting, but instead stays with the woman. It even gives us a male character with whom male viewers are encouraged to identify, a nice-guy everyman bar-owner, played with precision by Jason Sudeikis. The bar-owner carries a heartful of unrequited love for the Hathaway character, and male viewers are encouraged to share his anger when Hathaway elects to sleep with one of his better-looking friends. However, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo stays true to his story and follows Hathaway’s path. Male viewers might feel as hurt as the bar-owner at what she does… and maybe that’s why it flopped at the box office. This is a masterful film. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) isn’t fit to tie its shoelaces.
I felt manipulated and raw by the end of it. But it was about the Mercury Space Mission and so it kind of had me at hello, and then it went and delivered an emotionally compelling story about three black women mathematicians/scientists working for NASA, suffering the bigotry and prejudice of being black and female in a microcosm of privileged white men, who were, funnily enough, attempting to leave the gravitational pull of their world to journey out into the wider cosmos. Kevin Costner gives one of many great turns in this third phase of his career as the patriarchal leader with liberal tendencies. (See other great Costner performances playing flawed, headstrong father figures in Man Of Steel and MOLLY’S GAME). However, the excellent performances from the three leads, Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, made me want more from the film… and left me feeling the story might have been better served as a 13-parter on Netflix or Amazon.
Jordan Peele’s complex and funny horror movie about racism that tips over into a Grand Guignol finale that is part ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) and part THE FROZEN DEAD (1966). Some didn’t like the ending, but I did, and wondered where else could it go? Big, big love for this film. A terrific performance from Allison Williams as the white girlfriend, who maybe shouldn’t be trusted.
When the trailers first played in the theatres, people groaned and booed. Do we really need another Spidey movie? Well, we did. This one makes up for the terrible Amazing Spider-Man 2 with a nippy and funny feature directed by Jon Watts, delivering on the directing promise he showed in his debut only a few years earlier, Eli Roth’s Clown. A strong performance, too, from the irrepressible birdman, Michael Keaton, as the Vulture. It wasn’t an origin story (hoorah!) and it dovetailed beautifully with the bigger Marvel universe, with some lovely comedy moments coming from Spidey’s relationship with the Avengers through his appearance in Civil War. Go, Spidey!
Aaron Sorkin showing he can direct as well as write… a true story about a woman who will not accept defeat, whether as a world-class Olympic skier or the host of a series of high-end poker games. Great performances from Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba (Idris got a standing ovation in Toronto at the premiere) embellish a wordy and impactful screenplay from Sorkin, who shows us that, yes, you can open a film with a lengthy voiceover monologue, and then continue to run a lengthy VO through key scenes in the film. The cheek of it! And he makes it work. A superb directorial debut.
Michael Keaton gets all the best roles simply because he is one of the great actors. The Founder is perhaps too much a “Wikipedia movie” to be truly wonderful but watch it and enjoy Keaton’s mesmerising performance as the “founder” of the MacDonalds fast-food chain. The film asks viewers to decide whether they trust him or not, whether they even like him or not. Keaton rides out the complex ambivalence of his character with assurance, screen-charm and glee.
Stephen King’s IT came along at just the right time to build on the love for the mighty Netflix series, Stranger Things, which borrowed heavily from King’s works, notably the first half of the novel that featured a clown called Pennywise. IT became a huge box office success. I saw the film at my local cinema in Aldershot and was delighted to see it full of people of all ages. A couple to my right screamed (I heard one of them confess it was their “first horror film”.) The atmosphere was electric, and never let up through the film. A film about people, not about malevolent supernatural clowns, and this is why it works wonders.
An almost great superhero movie with teeth and a very strong performance from Jackman at its centre, let down only by James Mangold’s need to draw too much from George Stevens’ Shane (1953) instead of giving his hero his own worthy epitaph.
Films I enjoyed but didn’t make the grade: SILENCE (misplaced empathy), DUNKIRK (gloriously empty), WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (no human heart), WONDER WOMAN (inconsistent), THOR RAGNAROK (undermined by its humour), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (ravishing but undercurrent of sexism).
Films I wish I’d seen in time for this list: THE SHAPE OF WATER, THE RED TURTLE, EX LIBRIS, OKJA, LADY BIRD, THREE BILLBOARDS, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, LADY MACBETH, I AM NOT A WITCH.
Films that were simply not good: JUSTICE LEAGUE, BABY DRIVER, BAYWATCH.
Robert set up his own film company, Space Age Films, in 2008 following a long career as a writer, director and producer in television, live events and animation. He is executive producer of the Netflix tv series, The Deep, and has a slate of film and tv drama in production and development.