Thursday, 4 January 2018

Top 11 Biggest Surprises (2017)

2017 will likely be remembered for a lot of things: First full year of the Human Jaffa as the U.S. President, a series of sexual abuse allegations that made us all question our “heroes”, some of the worst box office returns in the history of Hollywood, Andrew Tate being an absolute fuck-knuckle, and that's just for starters. However, at least in the context of what I do on this blog, 2017 came to mean something a little different: Namely, it was one of the most consistently surprising years since I starting doing this. Never before have my expectations been so efficiently worked around, resulting in a lot of films during the year that I never would have guessed would be as good (or as bad) as they were. Which films genuinely turned out better than I suspected going in? Let’s find out. Here’s quite possibly the most apt year to do this for: It’s the Top 11 Biggest Surprises of 2017.

I’m putting this one right at the bottom because, for the most part, this is what I expected it to be: A parade of annoying characters doing stupid things in the vain hope of getting a reaction, any reaction, and for the most part, all it got out of me was a heavy feeling of irritation and mild disappointment. That is, until I started delving into the soundtrack. I have a dead-set appreciation for good use of licensed music in films, so imagine my surprise when this film turned out to have one of the best all-round soundtracks of the year. Through a combination of great licensed picks to some pretty good original music from members of Rage Against The Machine, this is like finding a chunk of solid gold inside a sewerage drain: Yeah, it’s tough getting to, but honestly, I think it’s kind of worth it. Worth getting the soundtrack, at least; the film at large still sucks.

With how often I rail against what the public often considers ‘chick flicks’, I’m still kind of shocked that I managed to gel with this one as much as I did. Sure, it carries some of the same “makes it easy” dramatic moments I’ve come to expect from the sub-genre, but right from the start, the way it went into the creative process of filmmaking and the influences of coming from a predominantly creative family (something the writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer must know plenty about as the daughter of one of the reigning queens of the modern chick flick Nancy Meyers) struck a chord with me. Add to that a pretty refreshing take on a cinematic romance, one informed by questions over what is ‘cinematic’ or even ‘romantic’, and some damn good acting from its more-than-capable cast, and you have a rather pleasant film. Far better than other crap like Rough Night that we got during the same year.

After sitting through Peter Berg’s last two films Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, I thought I had a decent handle on the guy’s approach to storytelling: Two-act structure, with all the build-up in the first and all the pay-off in the second. I also had a decent handle on why I’m not particularly fond of it, especially with how lame both of those films turned out. Enter Patriots Day, which threw a monkey wrench into the works of my understanding. Eschewing his more recent fare’s structure for something a bit more traditional, his skill with character and inspired-by-actual-events emotional resonance shines through to deliver a story that, honestly, is worth keeping in circulation. With how predominantly Islamophobic a lot of arguments around terrorism are turning out (that is, provided that you focus more on skin colour than actual ideology), seeing Berg change-up his prior norm for something narratively smoother yielded some very positive results, aided by how he managed to keep the aspect of extreme radicalisation well in mind to avoid unneeded gnashing of teeth.

Anyone else getting sick of time loop stories yet? I mean, we’ve been getting a serious influx of them after Edge Of Tomorrow hit it big in all regards, and the storytellers involved appear to be quickly running out of ideas on how to make that premise work. With this and the rather laughable title in mind, I wasn’t expecting anything worthwhile out of this one. And yet, this turned out to be rather fun and not nearly as tired as I would have expected. It shows a form of genre-savviness that admits that this story archetype is well-worn by now, and yet a willingness to toy around with the specifics to try something new. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s got some decent emotional moments, and it manages to make the main conceit feel like something more than just the latest off the assembly line.

Japanese animation takes a lot of artistic cues from Western animation, particularly Disney, meaning that a lot of anime characters weirdly don’t resemble Japanese people. When the casting of Scarlett Johansson was announced, Japanese audiences applauded the idea… as do I, given how well this film turned out. While I could just hand-wave away the whitewashing criticisms this garnered before it even came out (which have actual rational reasons to question for a change), the film itself is about whitewashing. Scarlett Johansson portraying a Japanese woman in the film is an actual plot point, with whitewashing as far as a production choice being used to continue the franchise’s themes concerning technology and how its proliferation affects humanity. Even without getting into the rest of the great cast, the excellent visuals and the solid action scenes, that one aspect, far as I’m concerned, gives this film a reason to exist and even to be studied. Max Landis is still a dick for how he tried to justify this, but there are logical reasons to vibe with the film proper. Then again, I've voiced love for The Human Centipede in the past; the fuck do I know about logic?

I can already tell that this is an unpopular opinion, given how many Worst of 2017 lists this film has already wormed its way into. However, not only do I not agree, I genuinely think this film hasn’t been given its fair due. Aside from its rather tenuous connection to the original, with a cameo from Keifer Sutherland who may or may not be the same character he played before, the way the filmmakers approached the prospect of remaking what is ultimately just an okay film actually worked out rather nicely. The cast is solid, the characters are engaging, and the writing takes a more ambiguous tone with the story that honestly fits the narrative better, resulting in a film that I would rank as being better than the original. Then again, I seem to be one of the few people alive who will admit to liking Joel Schumacher nowadays, so make of that what you will.

An annoying Valley Girl in the body of Jack Black… hilarious, right? Yeah, that’s pretty much all I went into this film with: A sense that this was going to be yet another unnecessary follow-up to a weirdly prominent piece of pop culture. However, what I didn’t count on was the fact that a) most of the main cast are actors that can be banked on, even in outright awful productions, and b) the writing is actually funny. Damn funny at that, taking the idea of these people being fictional avatars and having a bit of metatextual fun with the results. It even includes a small tribute to Robin Williams’ character from the original, making for a nice reprieve from the usual “Oh god, not him too!” feeling that so permeated this year. For the rather light piece of entertainment that it is, I had fun with it.

Now we’re getting into the more long-term bouts of scepticism. As soon as the shonky costumes for the Rangers were released online, I got an immediate feeling that this was going to take something I still love to this day  and completely miss the point. Well, while it definitely came across like the production and the story were at odds with each other, the end result is still pretty good. A combination of superhero revisionism, looking at how much our idea of a “hero” has changed since the Mighty Morphin’ days, with a surprisingly learned understanding of what made the original idea work in the first place, this felt like it belonged to the larger canon. Maybe it’s got something to do with how dire the two other theatrical Power Rangers films are, but as a modern depiction of the teenagers with attitude, I think it works quite nicely.

This is one hell of a change-up from the kind of films McG is most recognised for. Leaving his comfort zone of serviceable but incredibly bland popcorn action, his entry here into the realms of horror-comedy resulted in one of the most all-out fun viewing experiences I had all year. It showed a real sense of fun about its own workings, playing around with the usual slasher film tropes to create some incredibly fun characters, and when it stepped into character drama, it actually worked. McG has never been able to make a film like this before, one that’s not only good but consistently good, and I can only hope that this isn’t his only foray into the world of splatstick.

#2: Cars 3
Even with how lauded Pixar continues to be to this day, the Cars/Planes franchise has always been a major black spot on their history. Watching the first two Cars films will likely give you enough car puns to induce a potential overdose, not helped by the presence of Tow “Kindly Fuck Off Already” Mater, and the Planes films will make you never want to watch another movie ever again. So, what the hell happened here? Establishing a previously-unseen sense of focus and intent to make us care about the characters involved, this turned out to be a really good bit of sports drama. It’s actually funny, it’s actually moving, it’s actually exciting, and it benefits from this newfound creative self-reflection Pixar and Disney as a whole seems to be going through, as this film almost feels like an apology for what came before it. Apology accepted, and I never thought I’d say this, but could we get more of these movies now that they’re actually good?

This is the kind of idea that comes around only through a haze of cynicism; a notion that audiences will swallow literally anything served up to them. This is what allowed the monstrosity that is The Emoji Movie to be released. However, even with how much I had to be convinced that this was even a real film in the first place, it showed yet another production by Dreamworks Animation that has no business being as good as it is. Aside from having some of the better one-liners out of the entire years crop (I’m still giggling over Alec Baldwin talking about how cute Chiweenies are), it showed an understanding of how people tend to commoditise love as if there’s a finite supply of it that made for a solid viewing for families, not just children. Considering they went on to give us not only a very impressive Captain Underpants movie, but are well underway to give us the third instalment of the studio’s lauded How To Train Your Dragon series, it seems that this is a sign of even better things to come. Of every film that made this list, this is the one that genuinely made me hopeful for what was going to come next; a rather fitting start to a whole new year.

So… yeah. 2017 was a rather unprecedented year in a lot of regards, and it yielded some honestly solid features. However, this is only one-half of the whole story; tune in tomorrow when I go over the films that didn’t do nearly as well when held up to expectations.

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