Tim Cowlishaw

December Madness: Now THIS is a Final Four

In Additional Facetime on January 1, 2018 at 6:32 pm

I viewed fewer movies this year than usual and thought about skipping the annual top 20 list. Then came the December film rush, the best I can recall in years. Now I have 4 films that I feel deserving of a No. 1 award. So if you don’t like the order of the top four, well, I’m not wild about it, either, only because I think both “Molly’s Game” and “Three Billboards” deserve better. But this is where we stand. And here we go.

1. “I, Tonya” — Can’t begin to describe all the things I like about Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya Harding or especially Allison Janney as her mom, who gives Lady Bird’s mom a strong race for Best Portrayal of the Worst Mother figure of the year. But let me just remind you of one thing — 48.5 and 64.

That was the TV rating and the share that Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan produced at the ’94 Winter Games. Those are numbers LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant in Game 7 could never approach. Those are numbers the Cubs in Game 7 of their first World Series in a century did not approach. At the time, it was a higher ranking than all but two of the 28 Super Bowls played. And — AND — this was tape delay of an event held four hours earlier in which many knew the outcome.

To suggest that we were caught up in the drama of Tonya vs. Nancy and the suspicion that Harding was responsible for an attack on Kerrigan weeks earlier is to understate the case wildly. We all knew who Jeff Gillooly was. In fact, as the actor portraying him in the faux documentary film states “I was a verb.”

Robbie is a revelation. She has never looked, well, worse while giving such a perfect portrayal. And beyond all the humor and the craziness, I love how they managed to mic the skating so that you hear the skates slashing through the ice. Figure skating from on high looks like a graceful, beautiful thing to behold, and we forget that it’s three minutes of sheer power, endurance and athleticism on top of all the pressure that hangs on every leap.

This film made an incredible leap to get past the film I was certain I would rank first. Which, of course, was…

2. “The Shape of Water” — Sally Hawkins doesn’t utter a word (except for one dream sequence) and yet you’re cheering for her and the creature to somehow survive, perhaps even share their love somehow although we know it’s against all odds. I would watch and listen to Michael Shannon do almost anything like, say, read a sorority president’s email (oh wait, he DID that) and he is great as the antagonist determined to keep the creature he discovered in South America out of Russian hands in this early-’60s Cold War setting. Don’t sleep on the performances of Richard Jenkins or Michael Stuhlbarg (he will always be Arnold Rothstein to me although the former ‘Boardwalk Empire’ may be the most prolific actor in Hollywood.

3. “Molly’s Game” — One of five films I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News this year, and I didn’t go expecting to love it. I have on again/off again feelings about Aaron Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue, but it works beautifully with the highly intelligent Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her father (Kevin Costner), not to mention the lawyer she hires (Idris Elba) after the FBI arrests her and cleans out her bank accounts for running poker games that her original lawyer described as “mostly legal.”

4. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — Frances McDormand carries the film as the aggrieved mom unsatisfied with the small town police department’s inability to solve the rape and murder of her daughter. But I really hope Sam Rockwell gets recognition in a supporting role, a lousy out-of-control cop who makes a remarkable transformation in the course of the film. The top 4 ranked films here are all driven by women which, in itself, is great. While I have made it clear that I always watch the Oscars but no longer worry about them because they make such flawed decisions on a consistent basis, I am curious about the Best Actress category which will be the key category this year — If Robbie, Hawkins, Chastain and McDormand are nominees, Meryl Streep is probably a lock for “The Post” (not yet in Dallas) and so is Saoirse Ronan of “Lady Bird.” That’s one too many without considering any long shots. I feel for whoever gets left behind, but rest assured it won’t be McDormand, whose intensity is frightening in this film.

5. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” — Give credit to director Yorgos Lanthimos, who never makes it easy on the viewer. I liked the first half of “The Lobster” but thought it lost its way once the characters disappeared into the woods. This strange film about a family of doctors and an odd teenager who has become a friend since his father died in surgery performed by Colin Farrell never loses its way even if it makes you cringe at the conclusion Farrell reaches when forced with the choice of killing a family member in order to save the rest. A film so strange shouldn’t possess moments of unbearable sadness but when the doomed children speak to each other, this one does.

6. “Detroit” — Thought this would do much better at the box office, although I suppose revisiting the Detroit riots of ’68 doesn’t have everyone grabbing the car keys to get to the theatre. Like other Kathryn Bigelow films, it’s intense and overlong and I thought there was a flaw in the key scene in which ruthless Detroit cops are trying to get someone to confess to shooting at them. But you’ll never look at the kid from “We’re the Millers” (Will Poulter) the same way after this film. You can feel the sweat pouring off the cops and the suspects on this hot Detroit night. It’s a reminder of how far we have come (sometimes not very) and how far we still have to go.

7. “Last Flag Flying” — Could have been a glorified buddy pic as three old Vietnam vets reunite for a road trip to bury one of their sons who died in the Middle East. But an over-the-top Bryan Cranston and a subdued Steve Carell prevent any thing of the kind and the ending will surprise you.

8. “Lady Bird” — Coming of age tale, strained mother-daughter relationship…this tale has been told so many times. Has it ever been done with more honesty? Plenty of humor along the way as Saoirse Ronan becomes an actress to watch if she wasn’t already there after “Brooklyn.”

9. “Wind River” — There’s a shootout scene that looks like something from “Archer” with dozens of bullets flying from close range and almost no one getting hit. Put that aside and appreciate the Jeremy Renner performance. Wear a sweatshirt because you’ll feel the Wyoming cold leaking through the screen in this murder investigation that becomes about something much more.

10. “Darkest Hour” — The better Dunkirk movie of the year, Gary Oldman locks down Winston Churchill from the opening scene. After marveling at the make-up job for the first hour, you’ll just enjoy Churchill himself in action the rest of the way and forget that Oldman has anything to do with it. A film that could have been bogged down by talking never does. In fact, there’s one long tracking shot that becomes heartbreaking as we see an English officer reading the telegram from Churchill telling him that no one is coming to save his troops pinned down by the Germans and the camera, after following him through a tunnel of pure mayhem, travels into the sky where the bombs that will seal his and his men’s fate are being delivered.

11. “Battle of the Sexes” — Almost like the Harding-Kerrigan battle, in that younger folks can’t imagine how a country was so riveted in a tennis match between a 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in her prime in the Astrodome. But the way King saw it, the only thing at stake was the future and viability of women’s tennis. Steve Carell (he had a nice year) and Emma Stone (who would have been an easy Best Actress nominee in a less crowded year) do the signature roles justice.

12. “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond” — You can catch this documentary on Netflix and marvel at Jim Carrey one more time as he describes in detail all that went into his inheriting the character of bizarre comic Andy Kaufman for the film “Man on the Moon.” Actors talk about staying in character, and what Carrey did here had to be punishing at times for director Milos Forman and others to deal with, especially when he took on the truly unpleasant Tony Clifton character. Great footage here and a chance to get inside the mind of Carrey.

13. “The Big Sick” — I don’t watch “Silicon Valley” so I knew a lot less about the main character than most in the theatre the night I saw this, who were ready to laugh at his every line. There’s a cliche love story at the heart of this but the film battles through it nicely. The performances by his girlfriend’s doubting parents, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, are gold.

14. “The Hero” — Sam Elliott, who does those memorable Coors voiceovers among other, is an aging actor who does voiceovers here. Not sure another actor could have made this film particularly interesting. I’ve been an Elliott fan since “Lifeguard” and especially since the made-for-TV movie “Murder in Texas,” the adaptation of Tommy Thompson’s terrific “Blood and Money,” the true tale of a murdering doctor in Houston.

15. “Get Out” — Much higher on other people’s lists I know, and there’s not much I dislike about it although I think the complete over-the-top climax diminished the effectiveness of the racism that Jordan Peele so deftly conveyed in the first half of the film. It’s an intriguing film that forces you to rethink why some of the early developments of the film took place, once you know the outrageous outcome.

16. “Dunkirk” — There’s going to be some beautiful sound and photography in any Christoper Nolan film. I’ll watch “Memento” 10 more times before I’ll sit down for another viewing of this confused depiction of the British boats that saved soldiers from the German onslaught at Dunkirk.

17. “Murder on the Orient Express” — Liked this film more than the one I saw in the ’70s that I reviewed for my film class at Richland Junior College (how about that?) but I have one particular issue. In a film peopled with so many recognizable stars and fine small performances, why did every other shot seem to be a close-up of Kenneth Branagh? The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

18. “The Disaster Artist” — Surprised to see this score into the 90s both from critics and audience on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s mostly a one-trick joke of a film until the credits roll when you realize the lengths that James Franco, Seth Rogen and Co. went to do a complete recreation of a Hollywood insiders’ cult film most of us know nothing about.

19. “Ingrid Goes West” — Aubrey Plaza deserved better. Movie has you torn — Is this a comedy or what? — most of the way. Mostly it’s sad. I think.

20. “LBJ” — Not easy to play a bigger-than-life character that’s so familiar and has just been brilliantly captured by Bryan Cranston. Woody Harelson, on a heck of a run that reminds you of the one his True Detective pal Matthew McConaughey enjoyed, does an exemplary job in an otherwise small film by Rob Reiner, determined to portray LBJ’s liberal side and leave Vietnam and the rest of his disastrous presidency to others.

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  1. Hi Tim, I agree with you on Dunkirk. Looking forward to seeing “Darkest Hour”. It is amazing how Churchill rallied the British people in those days before the U.S. involvement in the war.

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