Midwest Film Journal 2017 Roundtable — Part One

Although each member of the Midwest Film Journal is encouraged to publish an individual Year in Review, we thought that the structure of a traditional list or top 10 alone was limiting. Every year, there are at least half-dozen movies that everybody wants to include on their lists and some additionally interesting choices get left by the wayside.

So we’re starting a tradition here at MFJ, a roundtable where questions selected through discussion are answered by every member of the team who has an answer.

Today’s post covers:

  • Favorite Character
  • Favorite Original Concept
  • Least Favorite Film
  • Favorite Local Festival Film
  • Most Underrated Movie

 

Favorite Character

 

This is probably cheating considering his initial appearance in Prometheus, but Michael Fassbender’s David from Alien: Covenant holds the key to my cold, dead heart. It should worry me that of all the characters in the latest and least-loved installment of the Alien franchise, the one I relate to the most is a mad Frankensteinian robot who is both lonely and deeply misanthropic, but what can I say? The whole point of Covenant is that humans are stupid and they deserve to be supplanted by David’s perfect organism. This is a thesis I can’t argue with in 2017. (Aly Caviness)

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Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi puts to rest any doubts about Mark Hamill’s ability to carry a dramatic role. I don’t know why those doubts have ever existed, but I’m glad they’re gone. The hero’s journey has a prescribed formula, but what happens after? That’s an answer that rarely satisfies as much as the initial journey, but it’s one Hollywood has had to find answers for as audiences demand infinite Star Wars and Marvel and seasons of television. Rian Johnson was given the responsibility of figuring out why Luke would turn his back on everything and, in partnership, with Hamill he crafts the strongest goodbye to a cultural icon I’ve ever seen. (Evan Dossey)

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There are likely more nuanced characters I could have chosen from this year, but I don’t think there are any more badass than Bradley Thomas in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Played with shocking determination by Vince Vaughn of all people, Bradley (never Brad) is the kind of hulking and nondescript piece of meat that you might not look at more than once if it wasn’t for the glaring cross tattooed on the back of his bald cranium. An early and oft-discussed scene gives us everything we need to know about him: After learning of his wife’s infidelities, Bradley proceeds to tear her car apart with his bare hands in a stunning display of rage. Afterward, however, he sits down with her to have a clear-headed discussion, devoid of any finger-pointing, about saving their marriage. He’s a man capable of swift and devastating violence, but he’s also concerned with doing what’s right. Make no mistakes: S. Craig Zahler’s film never pretends to be anything other than an exploitation film, albeit one with a beating heart. As Bradley brutally tears his way through prison inmates, that heart is never lost. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Denzel Washington is the sort of actor who certainly has cried after superstardom … but I’ll be damned if I recall anything before his title character in Roman J. Israel, Esq., an irrefutable unsung treasure. Anyone referring to conversational high-hats as “enemas of sunshine” deserves your time … whenever you catch up with him. Imagine Steve Urkel born in the 1950s, retreating from tormentors into jazz and social justice and, instead of transforming into Stefan Urquelle, indulging morally thorny inclinations to “get his” after a long, lonely lifetime of regret. So slump the shoulders on which Washington carries this film for Dan Gilroy, who finds as much empathy for Roman as he did disgust for Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Long before Roman cashes in, he weeps. It’s not a shameless plea to return to activist litigation. It’s not even someone hitting his lowest point. It is a man realizing his lowest point awaits. For all his principles, Roman knows the reason he avoided spotlights for so long is the worry he might have succumbed to temptation when he, and his causes, had more to lose. What a delight to see an acting institution unto himself a character of oft-unspoken complexity. (Nick Rogers)

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He doesn’t have superpowers or an exciting mission to accomplish, but Willem Dafoe’s Bobby in The Florida Project is a compelling warrior nonetheless. The manager of the Magic Castle motel in Orlando, Bobby could easily be bitter about his lot in life. But he tackles his daily tasks with the utmost dedication. He goes above and beyond for the people he serves because he knows most of them aren’t just visitors on vacation – they’re lost souls looking for a home. You can’t take your eyes off Bobby as he radiates with warmth and treats the motel guests like family. Whether he’s pushing pedophiles off the premises or painting the walls a happier color, he does everything from the bottom of his heart. He’s an ordinary guy, but he’s also a wonder to behold. (Sam Watermeier)

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Favorite Original Concept

 

Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal has long since fallen off the radar, but it’s one of the more inventive films that’s stuck with me through 2017 — and it might even be more relevant now, post-Weinstein, than when it was released widely in April. I appreciate films that illustrate how frustrating it is to be a woman who is angry in a society where it is never acceptable for women to express their anger. Colossal not only does that, but it’s also a pretty decisive takedown of The Nice Guy™ brand of toxic masculinity, showing just how insidious it can be when a woman is trapped in a relationship with a man who refuses to take “no” for an answer. The fact that Vigalondo uses Godzilla-esque monsters controlled by his main characters (played by Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis) to personify the ugly feelings that are so much bigger than their bodies is a kooky stroke of genius that I’m not sure any other film matched this year. It’s such a shame this film came and went so quickly. (Aly Caviness)

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I have a two-fer for this category. I wrote about A Ghost Story at length in my year-end post, but the movie’s take on the passage of time from the perspective of a trapped, regretful spirit is bold. On the flip side, Personal Shopper is a ghost story about the person left behind to mourn. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) refuses to leave Paris, where her brother died, when a mysterious person starts sending her cryptic text messages. Whether or not the texts are from her brother beyond the grave is something you’ll need to watch the movie for, but take my word for it: it’s a unique and empathetic take on moving past traumatic loss. (Evan Dossey)

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Using cannibalism as a metaphor for freshman-year overindulgence and experimentation? Sure, why not? Raw – the other great female coming-of-age film from 2017 – also happens to be the year’s best horror film. A natural continuation of the New French Extremity that peaked in the early Aughts with masterpieces like Inside and Martyrs, Raw has something meaningful to say about the human condition while delivering genuine shocks and nastiness at every turn. Along with last year’s The Witch, this is one of the most astonishing horror debuts in recent memory, and at least one of the best horror films about French veterinary school ever made. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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One assumes 80 seconds, or about 13 Vines, is the limit for any piece of entertainment about a silent guy in a gorilla suit named Sylvio. One would be wrong. Sylvio gets 80 outstanding minutes from its title character facing the consequences of accidental TV fame for exactly that which he tries to avoid – breaking things. As … himself (?), Sylvio Bernardi channels the silent greats before him, physicality his only tool to distinguish amusement from animosity. Akin to Brigsby Bear, a close runner-up here, Sylvio ruminates on the difficulty of resurrecting empathy and creativity after it’s been lost to unproductive rage. But this is its own wonderful lo-fi marvel of puns, parodies, pantomiming and poignancy. Sylvio goes for the throat of easy-answer indie quirk while also getting a lump in its own. (Would I watch outtakes from The Quiet Times with Herbert Herpels, Sylvio’s milquetoast puppet show? You bet.) So, not just the story of a man inside a gorilla suit pantomiming a man … but one who later pantomimes an even smaller man – a metafictional matryoshka that miraculously never gets lost in its own maze. Plus, Sylvio’s computer is a Banana IIGS. I mean, come on. (Nick Rogers)

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Who’d have thought that the architecture in Columbus, Indiana – of all places – would serve as the foundation for such a rich, thoughtful drama about loss, spirituality and soulmates? Columbus,  Kogonada’s directorial debut, is a visionary masterpiece – the work of a true auteur. I can safely say I haven’t seen anything quite like it. As Evan said, watching this film is like meandering through an art museum and looking inward as you sit in the quiet, delicate space. Best of all, it proves that there is plenty of movie magic in the Midwest. And it’s a testament to how inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places. (Sam Watermeier)

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Least Favorite Film

 

The Mummy. It’s just The Mummy. I tend to avoid garbage movies because they’re never worth my time, and the only reason I saw this at all was because it was free. The Mummy is garbage and Tom Cruise is garbage, and if the universe were kind, it would erase both of them from our collective memory, never to be endured again. (Aly Caviness)

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Justice League sucked. Daddy’s Home 2 sucked. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword sucked. A whole host of VOD movies I watched this year in an attempt to see the most movies from 2017 possible … yes, they sucked. Only one movie truly broke me: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, a movie so twee it made me want to cry. It remained my “worst movie” for the entire year as a benchmark for what I’ve forced myself through in pursuit of higher cinematic consciousness. (Evan Dossey)

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After a successful respite with Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers continues its tarring and feathering of beloved DC Comics icons with Justice League. While last year’s baffling Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice at least showed some signs of ambition (however misguided) by characterizing its heroes as repellent jerks, Justice League comes off like an Asylum knockoff of an Avengers movie. It’s a garish, green-screen nightmare that’s more of a half-hearted shrug instead of what should have been a landmark moment for the DC universe. Ben Affleck’s disinterested performance as Batman is a revealing plea Warner Brothers would be wise to heed: time to grant this turgid franchise a quick death. Except for Wonder Woman. She can stay. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Daddy’s Home 2 was also a top contender for my Best Theatre Experience if only because Evan and I were the only people dumb enough to attend our particular showing. Thus, we could loudly celebrate the wizardry with which I predicted John Lithgow beset by wolves, pontificate on the next new dad (a zero-sense cameo from someone about whom a film was made last year), weep at every gnashed Mel Gibson face, and kick empty seatbacks enraged by this film’s mere existence. OK, the last one was just me. I’ve never felt compelled to do that before. As to the quality, or utter vacuum thereof, in Daddy’s Home 2 itself: I’m fairly certain the National Association of Theater Owners, the National Rifle Association and Fox News Channel helped pay for it. How else to explain a multiplex finale that extols the virtues of the theatrical experience, cautions that a young girl should aim for center mass the next time she inadvertently shoots someone, and foments a general encouragement of a world in which women and young girls are sexually disrespected? Fuck this movie. If you legitimately enjoyed it, take a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror. Maybe slap yourself. Hard. Repeatedly. Several hundred times. (Nick Rogers)

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I don’t know. With its rain-swept setting and cyberpunk musings, Ghost in the Shell bothered me as a lame, lazy Blade Runner knockoff. Justice League was like watching a cocky dudebro make a protein shake. But the only film that made me want to leave the theatre was Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Unlike Evan, I sat through the whole fucking thing. He was wise to bail on this bland portrait of a bullshit artist. Richard Gere is fine, I guess. But I grew quite tired of watching him wheeling and dealing over the phone for two hours. And in the midst of this year’s political chaos, I wasn’t crazy about watching another con man try to weasel his way into a position of power. Sorry. (Sam Watermeier)

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Best Local Festival Film

 

Tatterdemalion, which premiered at this year’s Heartland Film Festival, was a pleasant surprise. As the daughter of two anthropologists, I’ve always had a fascination with folklore and the way it shapes the world for certain groups of people. The modern world has all but erased traditional folklore from our lives, but only if we are fortunate enough to rely on other means to survive. Tatterdemalion captures a community that is both poor enough and remote enough to have no other means of survival besides the stories that have been passed down for generations to protect their inhabitants’ very fragile lives. Most poignantly, this film captures the darker side of folklore, showing with an unflinching lens that superstition leaves no room for compassion, particularly when it comes to lost children. This was probably the smallest, indie-est film I saw this year, and it’s stuck with me in ways that other higher-profile movies haven’t. Even if it only finds an audience in college anthropology classes, it’s worth a watch if and when it appears on streaming services. (Aly Caviness)

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Life at a Swaziland orphanage and an animated version of the fairytale these orphans create merge in "Liyana," a documentary playing at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival.

Real talk: Reviewing films at Indiana festivals is sometimes reminiscent of reviewing community-theater shows in my old job. Some are great. Most feel like the work of folks who don’t really do this for a living. Or shouldn’t pretend that they ever could. Reviewing Liyana for the Heartland Film Festival was a full and unabashed 180 – two films in one, each unfolding with subtlety, sensitivity and strength, and among the finest I’ve ever seen here. Both one of 2017’s best documentaries (from Aaron and Amanda Kopp) and animated films (from Shofela Coker), Liyana follows a Swaziland storyteller helping orphaned youth channel abuse, alcoholism, disease and violence they’ve endured into their own fairytales – a tabula rasa on which to transpose their trauma and address it in a healthy, productive way. It’s a seamless combination of handmade marvel and professional polish – drawing our attention to actual, or animated, musculatures of the young, but already oft-burdened and strong, backs of survivors. We smile with the children during their wildly exuberant imitation of thunder, animals, and monsters and lament the loss and violence reflected therein. An all-timer on the Indiana festival circuit as far as I’m concerned, and kudos to the Heartland Film Festival for this get.
 (Nick Rogers)

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Most Underrated Film

 

Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Pedro Pascal star in "Kingsman: The Golden Circle," a 2017 action-comedy from director Matthew Vaughn and Twentieth Century Fox.

Although its predecessor was lauded as a Bond-for-Now, I actually thought Kingsman: The Golden Circle was far superior. It jettisons the piss-take attitude, embracing the juvenile insanity that makes the dumbest Bond movies the best of that series. Yeah, it’s stupid. Yeah, the CGI is downright terrible. Oh, sure, the Statesman characters were overrepresented in the marketing. Whatever. The chemistry between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is terrific, and the action choreography when they go into battle together is damn fine. (Evan Dossey)

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A powerful and poignant treatise on memory, T2 Trainspotting is director Danny Boyle’s most effective work since 28 Days Later. Tragically, I appear to be alone in that opinion. This belated sequel to Boyle’s masterful second film was mostly met with indifference or mild approval from critics and virtually ignored by audiences. Like its predecessor, T2 (an admittedly awful title) boasts a relentlessly stylized aesthetic that lends emotional and thematic resonance to its many memorable sequences. Seeing these characters return to the screen left me shocked by how much they meant to me in the first place. In the past couple of decades, they’ve grown a bit more mellow and cynical, like most of us do. It’s only appropriate that this melancholy sequel feels the same way. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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If you ever wondered what would happen if Lars von Trier had $40 million to do whatever he wanted – and are sure, like me, that will never happen – you owe A Cure for Wellness to yourself. For starters, only due to its intense, and utterly unsurprising, financial and critical failure is Bojan Bazelli’s stunning cinematography out of awards conversations altogether. Wellness is also both therapy session and burnt bridge for director Gore Verbinski after The Lone Ranger. Here’s a searing commentary on how money and privilege calcifies and corrodes more than it ever enhances or enlightens — doubly enraging this year, especially, or at least it should be unless you’re the sort of asshole this movie is mocking — with so, so very much crazy, unsettling shit kitchen-sinked into one very expensive, handsome and deliberately off-putting film. I don’t get fazed. The guy who made Mouse Hunt 20 years ago fazed me enough for a decade. This film forcibly extracts audible response. At one point, it feels like may never end, and if that isn’t successfully transmitted madness … Will Verbinski ever get the keys to anything shiny again? I’ll believe that Gambit film when I’m leaving the screening. (Nick Rogers)

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Tomorrow we’ll discuss:

  • Best Theatre Experience
  • Worst Theatre Experience
  • Favorite Performance
  • Favorite Soundtrack
  • Best Netflix Release, and
  • Biggest Disappointment

Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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