As we reach mere hours on the ticker for what was in no small way, a truly challenging and traumatic year for so many of us, wanted to make sure there were some words regarding the year's largest film releases, and the truly clear thread that has arisen from them. Unlike so many years past, where the overruling echoes of individualism had been the primary message to take from mainstream blockbusters, 2017, even more than in the latter years if the Obama administration, espouse something far more concentrated, and occasionally radical than has ever been espoused this side of the more rambunctious 1970s. This is a year that started off with a debut so assured, frightening, and impactful, that everything that has come since hasn't been capable of silencing its runaway success. Soon after, major tentpole releases found themselves openly challenging the fandoms that made them possible, leading to not only push back with greater force than imaginable, but highlight a strong sense of awareness never before considered. A film landscape seemingly ready to not only speak truth to power, but to even challenge some of the industry's own dominant philosophies.
I could spend more time on Watiti's often terrific Thor: Ragnarok, and its built-in subversive kick against colonialist rule, but I really wish to concentrate on this small handful of "soft reboots" or latter day sequels, as they have largely embraced what I speak of in no small way.
And what makes them especially surprising, is how they mostly come from voices who have been with us for years. This isn't some case of one generation out to usurp the other, no matter what pundits and reactionaries would have one believe. These are voices from generations who could very easily have treated the year with a sense of philosophical one-upmanship, or a belief that the world is to be taken back to a mythologized past in order to save it. Most of these harken to a world that has been long in need of some true, and often difficult self-examination while the damage continues to pile up around us all.
Not unlike Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, we are ever firmly placed precariously between the worlds of individualism versus community. America, has throughout its history been a living, breathing, growing manifestation of this debate. But rarely has grand scale commercial cinema been so willing to become a part of the narrative where we are at last willing to talk about the toll of personal glory, and what it means for future generations. And while these films certainly do not break matters down into simple Bedford Falls/Pottersville platitudes, they do offer up some long delayed challenges to many common perceptions of the powerful and the communities around them.
5) Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Dir. James Gunn
Now this one came like a freight train to the sternum. Not content with merely echoing the runaway success of Perlman & Gunn's brilliant retooling of a lesser known Marvel property, the second adventure sees our heroes, still very much as outsiders. But as outsiders who are themselves so as products of abuse. The film delivers the same comedy action goods, but this time is more than ready to delve deep into what makes this motley crew of lovable losers so relatable and compelling. And what comes out, is a shockingly frank examination of toxic masculinity, its effects on children, and what it means to confront your ego in the name of family. It's an unexpected voyage into the nature of what makes such character types so appealing, and yet so repellent at times in an era where such behavior finds itself widely embraced online, where so few people are capable of saying such things into the faces of others. And that's the most astonishing part. This is a film franchise with its own borderline regressive baggage (consider Drax at times), and yet it does take the time to make clear that these guys are likeable, because quite frankly, we've all known them at one time or another. Even so, the story unfolds allowing us to consider the whys, and what could be possible once we consider some introspection. Now imagine fantastical ones who are forced to air it all out, even when it renders them more ordinary than we once thought. More than just a funny, exciting victory lap featuring a scene stealing Michael Rooker.
4) Blade Runner 2049
dir. Denis Villaneuve
Now this one is a little trickier to explain as the original classic's backdrop in itself contains its own mildly right-wing reactionism in regards to its still jaw dropping future hellscape vision, complete with fears of eastern influences, and population shift. But what comes out of Villaneuve's assured, potent follow-up, is a continuation where these individualist aims have come at ultimate cost to the remaining people and machines of Earth. No longer simply hunting humanoid replicants, but now seeking to actively destroy any evidence of the possibility of a new species in a post-manmade world, is a terrifying place to start. The questions regarding what defines human remain, but have exponentially increased in complexity, now that we are largely following machine protagonists. The second film at last displays the sheer breadth of destruction male dominator culture has wroth upon the world, with only the sickly, the dying, and the programmed to play along with their landscape, as if this is what it has always been. Through the eyes of detective Constant K(Ryan Gosling, in a brilliantly low key performance), and those he meets through his journey into a forest of corruption and danger, we are also given a glimpse into a culture's obsession with being a "chosen one", and a deep dive into what constitutes life. Not to mention some carefully considered poetic allusions to self-definition in a world that has long been on auto-pilot. There are no ideal humans, because they are either gone, or are "little people". He is countered by "villanous" replicant, Luv, who herself sees no way out of the individualist cage. She may be dangerous, but consider the distant, isolated towers she comes from, and the abusive father she has grown to represent. She becomes something of a tragic remnant of a world that seems destined to eat itself alive. (No wonder Off-World seemed so ideal) Virtue and selflessness remain rare commodities, when all one has is a hope that the world won't collapse upon us all one day. 2049, is a vision of a world where the Trumps of the world have long since won, and the very act of giving beyond yourself, is a revolutionary act. A place where even the smallest hint of light, is liberation.
3) Wonder Woman
dir. Patty Jenkins
You know, my feelings about some of the story notwithstanding, there is absolutely no denying the seismic intensity Jenkins' first leap into the majors has left upon the cinema and cultural landscape. Even when the film follows what is pretty much a mostly familiar origin tale, the initial battle on Themiscyra, her first days into the world, and her walk into No Man's Land, remain some of the most painterly examples of their type. On top of this, the very nature of Diana's interplay with the world of men, and the creeping realization that the nature of evil isn't something to easily label and destroy, are powerful counterpoints to so much of superhero cinema, let alone the action film. There is also a grand respect for those who wish to protect others regardless of skill or power that flows through much of the piece. It's as if for a brief moment, the now deathly limping DC Cinematic Universe was asleep for a moment, and suddenly remembered what made such iconic characters so enduring. That it wasn't so much a matter of might making right, but of considering the cost of war, and the value of self sacrifice. While in no way a slam dunk in terms of story, Wonder Woman has its heart largely in the right place. And a lot of this is due to having picked a cast and crew that truly cared, and were up to the task in making sure we witnessed it.
2) Star Wars The Last Jedi
dir. Rian Johnson
It's been two solid weeks, and it's impossible to overstate just how important this one was to me. Both a shattering reconfiguration of the ongoing updated Star Wars saga, and an ode to the more humble fantasy serials of the past, it's a reckoning with years of identity confusion backed by a script, cast, and story that rivals the very best the franchise ever had to offer. Being the third of these films, the initial two of which while decent in their own right, gave me no clue as to how well this one would pan out. Even while singing praises of Lucasfilm choosing Rian Johnson for directorial duties, the expectation still wasn't apparent. And now, more than ever, the gamble could not have been a better one. Few franchises have yet to call to question their own fandoms, but if there was ever a gauntlet to be thrown with some of the best turns against one's own worst tendencies, I would never have imagined it would be this one. At last granting focus upon the very reasons for seemingly endless "star wars", and the dreams of the young, longing to change the world for the better despite the shortcomings of their legends, and even "legends", The Last Jedi, is bursting at the seams with reckoning. It's almost whiplash inducing just how easily its seems to juggle failure with optimism, sobriety with hope. And yet it all works to largely satisfying results as the young remnants of my own youth, begin to find definition in more complex, messy fashions than we ever did. And there's so much hope to mine from this alone. When we acknowledge our failures, understand that the souls of many are far more important than one, and sum up the courage to save others despite them, that is an ideal worth giving for. And that is why for me, TLJ is the Star Wars climax I never knew I needed.
1) Twin Peaks The Return
I could go on about this one for days, but we won't.
At the marrow, the very notion of returning to a beloved story is often a cynical, capital driven enterprise. Let's be honest about it. More often than not, there is absolutely no good reason for a sequel to exist, save for a few more dollars from the public ATM. Which is why David Lynch's announcement via tweet of a return to his and Mark Frost's television landmark, felt like a bit of a hard record scratch from an artist who would never do anything unless it came from a personal place. So when the production began, and the secrecy machine began in earnest, my attention was at full alert not unlike so many longtime diehards. What it turned out to be, was an eighteen hour event that will likely go down in history with the greatest of the medium. An unrepentant, atmospheric, frightening, hilarious, and frustrating voyage across an American landscape so alien, it could only reflect the one I see a small portion of every day. With the mystery of "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" now converted to "Where's Special Agent Dale Cooper?", the cinematic event of the year is less a continuation of the ABC network groundbreaker, and more an epic expansion of Lynch's entire output in the wake of his Peaks feature film, Fire Walk With Me(1992). And as such, the dreamscapes of this vision, both quirky and nightmarish are in full bloom, featuring much of the original cast, and a huge cadre of new faces representing what has happened in the two decades since that fateful final episode in June of 1991. Greater still, is The Return's bullish willingness to illustrate an America that has fallen in that time to forces that were long in motion before the little northwestern town's beloved homecoming queen was found dead, wrapped in plastic. And what emerges through every sumptuous, enigmatic moment of this saga, is the reveal that America has indeed been pulled apart by too much self, too much want, too much dearth of what made this simple town so easy to love in the first place.
But the tragedy goes deeper, implying that Peaks' plight, is America's. And that no amount of wishful notions will bring it back. To 2017 David Lynch, nostalgia (even the nostalgia he himself tends to thrive on creatively.) has become something of a toxic presence. A gateway to something safe on the surface, but only functions as a balm as entropy remains ever at our doorstep, always itching to come in. We as viewers could only wish for a return to that which grants us peace and familiarity, but even this over time renders itself an impossibility. Time is ever on the move, allowing us more to reflect and act, but as long as we continue to wish for our heroes to return, it's almost a guarantee that they will never be the same people we once looked up to, or projected ourselves onto. And what Lynch & Frost seem to suggest here, is that the future is not to be in the hands of the chosen, but in the hands of those most willing to meet it every chance they can. Not people with special abilities, or skills, or designations, but all of us.
Our homes ever being only as clean or as safe as we make them. Ensuring it for others over time. Because we are but visitors, and nothing is forever.