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by Sam Juliano

After a few weeks of hectic film going in theaters and on-line I finally completed my Best of 2017 list.  As I did the year before I have compiled a Top 20 to accommodate the strong year in the cinema that transpired and have added an honorable mention scroll for films that contended for the previous twenty.  Including the Tribeca Festival, Tavernier retrospective, other theatrical mini festivals and online viewings of 2017 films I managed to see 212 films, the vast majority 2017 releases, of which 90% were negotiated in theaters.  With the demand of other writing commitments I am unable to provide capsules assessments, but am willing to engage on any of my selections in the comment section and on other threads.  Of the Top 20, seven (7) were US made.  As always the eligibility for the list comes down to the matter of what date the films open in the USA:

  1.  A Quiet Passion (Great Britain) Terence Davies
  2. BPM, Beats Per Minute (France) Robin Campillo
  3. The Shape of Water (USA) Guillermo Del Toro
  4. Lady Bird (USA) Greta Gerwig
  5. Loveless (Russia) Andrey Zvyagintsev
  6. The Death of Louis XIV (France/Portugal)  Albert Serra
  7. Call Me By Your Name (Italy)  Luca Guadagnino
  8. Frantz (France/Germany) Francois Ozon
  9. The Lost City of Z (USA) James Gray
  10. The Phantom Thread (USA) Paul Thomas Anderson
  11. Coco (USA) Lee Unkrich
  12. The Behemoth (China) Zhao Liang
  13. A Ghost Story (USA) David Lowery
  14. The Square (Sweden) Ruben Ostlund
  15. The Son of Joseph (France) Eugene Green
  16. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Ireland) Yorgos Lanthimos
  17. Dunkirk (USA) Christopher Nolan
  18. Thelma (Norway) Joachim Trier
  19. Graduation (Romania) Christian Mungiu
  20. God’s Own Country (Great Britain) Frances Lee

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by Sam Juliano

Big Cat, little cat  is handsome, silhouette-laden monochrome minimalism applied to surprisingly powerful emotional effect. Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth collaborated back in 2010 on an equally resonant work about death and the cycle of life, City Dog Country Frog which that year was being seriously posed for Caldecott consideration at numerous children’s book forums. I dearly love the earlier book, and I regard Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, little cat just as passionately. My wife and I are long time cat owners, and we’ve gone through this sadness more times than I’d like to remember.  Cooper, a veteran author-artist has with this square-trimmed work fully realized the old adage less is more.  Yet, the artistic unity, superlative use of white space, and attractiveness of the style both hits home with young readers and adults fully attuned to the concept of emotional simplicity.  Beneath all the familial/pet camaraderie Cooper’s book is anchored by a somber underpinning.  It is an all-too-telling reminder to those who have come to regard their beloved felines that no living creature can eclipse life expectancy, or at least rarely too far beyond the time clock status quo.  Nonetheless, this spare story about friendship largely dwells on the domestic bliss which develops when new additions alter the normal functions of solitary existence.  The “old” cat is understandably bigger and all-too-familiar with the the house regulations.  He gives the new charge, imagined in solid black, some ‘how to’ lessons, showing him the food and water bowls, litter box, a spot for rest, and some advice on how to behave.   Cooper’s double page close-up canvas of the grown cat and kitten cuddled negotiated in black, white and background beige is sublime and the most potent depiction of bonding.  A series of comparative vignettes showing the kitten’s growth till it even surpasses that of the house’s weathered civet, conclude in a striking titular alteration: Big cat, bigger cat.

The cats lived in the city and every day there was “work”.  Their “cooking” is waiting near the refrigerator to be fed, “cleaning” is licking each other as cats are prone to do, climbing on couches, “hunting” which constitutes watching an outside bird feeder and its erstwhile residents, and “making plans” which lead to a daily five minute ritual of tumbling and turning in playful immersion that is too often misinterpreted as an old-fashioned alley fight.  again Cooper uses white space to astounding effect, painting a double page canvas more spirited than anything full color can accomplish.  But keeping it as simple as is pictorially possible the emotions culled are more resonant.  And the power of suggestion, so artfully employed by cinema master Val Lewton in his low-budget 1940 genre features is so much more effective than showing every detail.  Kids particularly are best served by tapestries that spur their own visionary potential. Continue Reading »

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by Jamie Uhler

Every time I’ve attempted a top 50 records for a calendar year I’ve settled on an ordered 50-6 and then an unranked top 5, which each of those five nearly interchangeable. It’s a format I like, especially for music, where a selected favorite on any given day is usually at the behest of an emotional temperament or desired mood. This year, for a litany of reasons, I decided to set out to explore streaming services and artist friendly commerce sites more (like bandcamp and soundcloud) in an attempt to better track the artist expression of our many resistances and scattered undergrounds that the fallout from 2016 birthed like an army of determined ants set to ‘spur’n. With these avenues tackled weekly throughout 2017 alongside my usual, more mainstream, dives, I saw my number of favorites triple. So instead with this years list you’ll notice a three tiered system, each producing masterpieces by the bushel, but with an attempt by my oversaturated mind to attempt something akin to organization. The first post will be the third tier, roughly albums 50-31 unordered, then the second post will have tier two (30-16; also unordered) and the last post the unordered top 15 in place of the normal top 5. Scouring amounted in helping me hear three times the masterworks and personal favorites I usually do. That, or our artistic resistance is indeed healthy. Assuredly both I’d think. 

(With this being said, my list still overwhelming bares my main rock n’ roll predispositions and obsessions, the raison d’être for the entire form in my eyes: the interplay between a loud guitar [or 2], a loud bass [or 2], and a cracking drummer) Continue Reading »

Craig Gillespie’s trenchant inde “The Florida Project” is Brian Wilson’s #1 of 2017

Brian Wilson, a veteran Evanville, Ill. librarian and past Caldecott committee member is also a consummate cineaste and film and television writer.  For the third third year running he has graced the halls of Wonders in the Dark with his Top 20 after another year of torrid movie going.  His year-end round-up is the first one posted at the site, with a few more to come:

  1.  The Florida Project (USA) Sean Baker
  2. I. Tonya (USA) Craig Gillespie
  3. Lady Bird (USA) Greta Gerwig
  4. Get Out (USA) Jordan Peele
  5. Good Time (USA) Ben and Josh Saftie
  6. The Shape of Water (USA) Guillermo Del Toro
  7. BPM Beats Per Minute (France)
  8. Visages Villages (France) Agnes Varda
  9. God’s Own Country (UK) Frances Lee
  10. Brigsby Bear (USA) Dave McCary
  11. The Little Hours (USA) Jeff Baena
  12. The Post (USA) Steven Spielberg
  13. The Phantom Thread (USA) Paul Thomas Anderson
  14. Lucky (USA) John Carroll Lynch
  15. The Meyerowitz Stories (USA) Noah Baumbach
  16. Ingrid Goes West (USA) Matt Spicer
  17. Columbus (USA) Kogonada
  18. Mother! (USA) Darren Aronofsky
  19. Paddington 2 (USA) Paul King
  20. Personal Shopper (France/Germany) Oliver Assayas

Margot Robbie plays the lead in Brian Wilson’s #2 film of 2017 – “I, Tonya”

Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed “Lady Bird,” Brian’s #3 film of 2017.

 

Jordan Peele’s brilliant and visceral “Get Out” is Brian’s #4 film of 2017.

by Sam Juliano

So he was lofted with her grace
when she, the bird that nobles praise,
thrown gleaming from his hand (her wingbeats raised
into the heartfelt morning air)
and diving like an angel struck the hern.      -Rainer Maria Rilke

In an unusually captivating afterward, author Danna Smith relates fond memories she had as an adolescent going out to “fly” with her Dad at a countryside hamlet uniquely suited to the sport known as falconry.  Conveying the breathtaking sense of exhilaration associated with an activity dating all the way back to ancient times, but reaching a peak of popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages, Smith imparts facts connected from research that would appear to confirm that this outdoor enterprise was not the exclusive domain of the ruling classes as jackals were with the Egyptians, but rather a pursuit subject to species gradation.  Hence an emperor would have access to eagles and vultures, saker falcons for knights, goshawks for yeoman, sparrow hawks for priests and the much smaller kestrels for servants and children.  British film maker Ken Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes, which showcased some of the tenets of falconry in what in a thematic sense was a metaphor for the search for freedom.  Billy Caspar is a teenage boy living at home with his vicious, bullying CroMagnon miner brother Jud and his mother. He has no joy in his life, with both  home and school places of continued emotional pain. His teachers do not, and do not wish to, understand him, and some of the other boys bully him. One day, however, upon observing a nest in an old abandoned wall, he finds a baby kestrel, which he adopts and rears. Not being able to afford to learn how to train it, he steals a book from his local store and the bird becomes the only important thing in his life.  Smith tellingly notes that falconry today faces new and daunting obstacles when she notes the “ever-growing number of roads, power lines, and turbines leading to the dwindling of safe, wide open spaces to fly birds of prey.”

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry is clearly a transposition of Smith’s own experiences with her father to a time roughly five hundred years ago, a time of castles, rolling countrysides, thatched huts and armored knights.  It is told in poetic couplets, with the first two lines rhymed and the other two always ending with various applications to, of and around the ‘castle.’  It opens with the simplest of introductions:  This is me.  This is my father.  This is our home and the castle and commences with a scene-specific documentation of a falconry session, one marvelously amplified and enriched by facts surrounding preparation, precaution and normal negotiation of the event.  Smith gives readers the full adventure, doggedly refusing to compromise on all the fascinating details, culled not only from her contemporary episodes but by time-honored reports passed down over centuries. Continue Reading »

Strange Days

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By J.D. Lafrance

Mainstream popular culture’s flirtation with the Cyberpunk genre reached its cinematic zenith in 1995 with Johnny MnemonicJudge DreddVirtuosityHackers, and Strange Days. They all underperformed at the box office for various reasons and with varying degrees of success managed to convey the aesthetics and themes of the genre. The most satisfying film from the class of ’95 was Strange Days, an action thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. Bigelow had already dabbled in the Cyberpunk genre by directing an episode of the sci-fi television miniseries Wild Palms in 1993. She was clearly testing the waters for what would be a full-on treatment with Strange Days. Anchored by strong performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, the film explores some fascinating ideas, addresses topical issues and comes closest of any film at that point since Blade Runner (1982) to translating the ideas of Cyberpunk authors like William Gibson onto film despite a disappointing ending.
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by Sam Juliano

Few things in life are as nagging and uncomfortable as a stuffy nose.  More often than not your breathing is negotiated through the mouth after a runny nose and the ensuing mucus impede the normal coordinated mode.  Taste and smell are mitigated and the voice can be comically compromised.  Usually, the person maligned with the most severe of colds loses interest in doing anything until they are given some measure of medical reprieve.   For a young boy the latter restriction can bring an entirely new meaning to domestic communication when signals are crossed, causing a normally welcome visitor immediate access to one’s unwanted list.  The African American protagonist who is the center of a markedly intimate domestic rhubarb in Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick’s tumultuous Bob, Not Bob! has undergone an attitude and behavioral metamorphosis, one completely reliant on a mother’s unbridled attention.  In Bob, Not Bob! by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, with illustrations by Matthew Cordell, a boy is forced to suspend his favorite activities and rely on parental doting.  Alas not everyone is in his shoes.

Though Little Louie’s prominence in this tale of nasal congestion and all the bedlam it can cause in a household is  abundantly clear on the book’s three member front cover dynamic and end papers of the bawling tot clinging to his mom’s leg he is pictured confidently standing on a rock with one leg on the first page of the text, where the writing duo declare: Little Louie wasn’t all that little.  It wasn’t like he needed his mom every minute of the day.  But all bets are off after a single ah-Choooo! launches perhaps the most memorable sick time spent in a house since Camilla Cream came down with the strangest of maladies in the 1998 Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon.  As a clock ticks and tocks Louie’s mom is shown attending to her charge, carrying a bowl of soup, measuring a dose of medicine and taking his temperature in three minute intervals. Cordell shows Louie in several stages of congestion, but as is the case with just about everyone in the grip of a head cold, it always comes down to the havoc it wreaks on Pinocchio’s most ubiquitous feature.  In such a  lamentable state all normally welcome activities such as coloring, watching television or even shooting baskets with his own wadded up tissues had zero appeal to an especially unhappy camper.  Though a tiny concession to his fondness for hot chocolate   Cordell’s sublime, trademark uncluttered scratch board pen and ink, watercolor minimalism is the perfect tonic for such a “poor baby” scenario.  The exclamatory request for “Bob!,” which readers of course will understand it really for “Mom” because of the heart shaped “O” but also because all young kids with a bad cold want mom around 24-7. Continue Reading »