Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2017

As always this is my list of favorite recent -ish crime flicks I saw for the first time in 2017. They're not strictly 2017 releases.

Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve - Put aside the terrific work re-creating and then expanding upon the beautiful aural and visual aesthetics of the original as well as the high-wire proposition of paying homage to what came before without being precious about it and we're still left with an immensely satisfying detective story. The detective, K, is a replicant, a synthetic, subservient-class human, whose job is exterminating those of his own kind who don't submit to their prescribed societal roles - whose refusal to submit to their own destruction because they make the rest of the populace nervous may be their only crime. As with Deckard in Ridley Scott's original, K finds this work depressing as hell, but he does it just to go on living himself. The moment K hesitates to perform his duty he knows he'll be destroyed. K plays at having the type of human existence he's probably only seen in old-fashioned media - evidenced by the interaction he has with his own pet A.I. Joi, a sub-sub-class of intelligence set apart from replicants by not even having a body only a holographic image which 'she' can alter to best please K (she appears momentarily in a variety of classically submissive female outfits from 1950's style housewife to geisha drag, until she senses K's mood is best matched). When K buys her an upgrade that allows her to be mobile rather than harnessed to the hardware inside his apartment she is overjoyed in a manner that could be calculated capitalist programming or it could be something else - we're not sure. - SPOILERS AHEAD - K's latest assignment is an important one, a potential 'world breaker' according to his commanding officer - human remains discovered buried on the premises of another assignment turn out to belong to a woman who had given birth - a startling realization when it is further revealed the mother was none other than Sean Young's Rachel from the original Blade Runner. Replicant's aren't supposed to be able to reproduce and if there's a half human or fully biological replicant in the world that news could prove catastrophic for the status quo. K's got to find the (now adult) child and destroy it. When a series of clues including supposedly implanted memories begin to lead K to believe that he is Rachel's child the revelation destroys his ability to remain subservient. He is still looking for the truth, but no longer as a cop - he's turned his back on his masters and become his own person in an instant... and that is the point. As with the is-Deckard-a-replicant? question debated now for decades, the answer doesn't matter, it's the question that does. When it is discovered that he is not the child he is looking for it doesn't matter, the belief that he could be has awakened a yearning to be free and that yearning, that aspiration, that hope that he could be more has itself elevated him to that status. Likewise Joi, when she realizes she is about to be deleted has an emotional response that doesn't really make sense for a mere product - does nothing to entice the consumer to re-up and purchase another model - and reveals that she too has real emotion, and ambition and dare we say it? - Love. These questions about class tease the edges and warm the sterile cool of the images, but the investigation, and more importantly the character of K, is compelling enough reason to take a tour of the at once familiar and exotic world of the near future, while the emotional payload lands soundly. Cast is strong with special honors to Dave Bautista whose brief supporting role at the film's beginning sets the emotional tone so well.
Brave Men's Blood Olaf de Fleur Johannesson - The oldest film on this list (2014) qualifies because it's recent and only just come to my attention. A sequel to City State, you don't have to have seen the first (I haven't) to appreciate this story of a Reykjavik internal affairs investigation into police corruption and Icelandic organized crime. It starts with young and ambitious Ed Exley-esque Darri Ingolfsson flunking out of intense tryouts for an elite military program. Disgraced he takes a position in the police department where he lives forever in the shadow of his father, a legendary and respected cop. He takes an assignment with IA that includes a top-secret second level investigating an IA superior and what follows is a cat and cat and cat and mouse who's really a cat game of dirty and dirtier deeding, line-crossing, loyalty-breaking, and ultimately corruption-to-survive that leaves no one untouched. Top-tier gangster/cop fare with brutal violence and high production value.

Good Time - Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie - Robert Pattinson plays Connie a street kid who appears to survive by his wits pulling scams and stealing when he needs to to take care of himself and his hulking, slow-witted, man-child of a brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie). When Connie and Nick rob a bank Nick gets caught and sent to Riker's Island where Connie fears terrible things will happen to him if he can't immediately bail him out (and we're given evidence that this is a real concern via snapshots of terrified and confused Benny caught up in violence among the other prisoners and the guards). Most of the money Connie got away with is worthless, marked by a dye pack that explodes inside their getaway Uber ride in a kind of low-rent, hilarious version of the same scene from last year's Triple 9. The rest of the movie is a desperate one-night quest to free his brother by any means necessary - trying to raise money by begging from an older, rich, emotionally-clingy girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), breaking his brother out of the hospital when he learns Nick's been injured and sent there for care. Too many really great surprises to spoil by going further, but by the end we're exhausted, exhilarated and torn in our opinion of Connie - he's so focused on doing well for his brother, for which we warm to him, but his instincts lead him to victimize and use absolutely everybody else whose path he crosses and we're duly impressed by his relentless determination and ability to think and act quickly while wondering how he made so many dumb-ass decisions in the first place. This one's the anti-Baby Driver crime flick of the year - one's a fun fantasy about demi-god criminality, just slick and exaggerated and making obvious big moves for your heartstrings while the other is a gnarly, grimy, genuinely thrilling and heartbreaking portrait of a much more realistic class of criminal - scared, desperate, not too smart, but has the guts to make a move. (By the way, you're allowed to like both. I do.) As with their previous street culture drug drama, Heaven Knows What, the Safdies prove they have an excellent eye for casting and locations helping sell the whole thing - strong work from Barkhad Abdi, Necro, Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

The Handmaiden - Park Chan-wook - After the twisted gothic English-language effort Stoker, Chan-wook is back to twisty operatic Korean revenge pictures with this stately period piece set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. What begins as a confidence scheme turns into a love story and a revenge thriller and, as usual for Chan-wook, does not unfold in a strictly linear fashion. Four major characters switch point of view chapters to add dimension to everything previously shown until the simple crime story has become increasingly icky and simultaneously sweet. Don't let the measured pace of the opening chapter fool you - or rather do let it fool you, but don't give up on it - because as the story unwinds you may get whiplash from the hairpin turns.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore - Macon Blair Melanie Lynsky holds the center of this slippery flick with such dexterity she directs the audience through each tonal shift and development so easily you'd be forgiven for missing how terrific she is. You'd know she was good, but that's not enough. She's really, really good. As is the script and deft directorial touch by Blair. Her apartment being robbed and the lack of motivation to do anything about it by the police are the last assaults her dignity can withstand before she's spurred to take action against the tide of rampant assholery she feels afloat in. She begins to recover some of her property and in the process runs afoul of the crew of scuzzy thieves that ripped her off. Things go from sad and funny to thrillingly dangerous to horrifically violent and right back around without ever mis-stepping and that is a miracle. Maybe the most quintessentially 2017 movie of 2017 (at least for lower-middle-class suburban white folk like me).

Message From the KingFabrice Du Welz -  After appreciating the horror of Du Welz's The Ordeal and the horror/crime combo of Alleluia (which I named one of my favorites in 2015) I was well-primed for the Belgian director's first straight-up crime film and English-language debut. This time the horror is less in your face, but no less horrifying, as Chadwick Boseman works his way from the basement to the penthouse of a sick little sexual exploitation ring in Los Angeles... hmmm.... maybe this one is the most 2017 movie of 2017. Nothing new or particularly inventive about this one, it's just some class- one Get Carter-type underworld revenge opera with all the important elements: men reduced to muscle and women their sexuality - trading on the only things of value they have, a bad man, a dead loved one, class warfare, pornography and sadism. It doesn't go full-dark. Jacob King is no Jack Carter - he's a hero-type - but goodness it's nice to get something in that vein that's thoroughly modern and not pastiche/homage. And Boseman wrapping a bicycle chain around his fist before fucking up some fuckers who deserve it is one of the most memorable images of the year.

Small Crimes - E.L. Katz - Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a bent cop just out of prison for the attempted murder of a local prosecutor at the behest of the gangster in whose pocket he was quite comfortable before jail. Now out, he finds the world has moved on without him. His wife and kids have disappeared and want nothing to do with him, his parents let him sleep in their basement, but clearly do not trust him and keep civil faces stretched over deep wells of pain and resentment. The surviving victim of his attack is now horribly scarred and dead set on sending Joe back to the death chamber and there's no hiding in anonymity in the small community he's returned to - it seems everywhere he goes somebody openly hates him. Lastly, the gangster whose name he never spoke during his incarceration is on his deathbed and in sudden fear for the state of his immortal soul may be about to confess all of his sins including those that implicate Joe and another kept cop, the scene-stealing Gary Cole. To keep from going back to prison Joe's got to kill the gangster before he can confess while the hating eyes of the whole community are on him. If that sounds like a lot of plot to keep track of, don't worry, coming off his pitch perfect debut, Cheap Thrills (named a best of  2014 by this very blog), director Katz continues to demonstrate a deft touch with exposition, a knack for clearly defining character relationships and for maximizing the situational potential scene to scene. The cast is some excellent talent too - Robert Forster, Jackie Weaver, Molly Parker, Pat Healy, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Macon Blair and the aforementioned Cole who really ought to get a nomination for his work here. Of course the film is an adaptation of the excellent novel by Dave Zeltserman, so don't forget to check that one out too.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh - The investigation into the murder of a small town girl has stalled and fizzled, but the mother of the victim is determined to keep the pain and shame of it all fresh in the minds of the entire community regardless the consequences to friends, family and enemies alike. Frances McDormand leads a ridiculously strong cast whose mission seems to be proving that real hurt can be felt by real assholes and that you'll really care. This one goes straight to the top of my favorite output by either McDonagh brother exemplifying the best qualities both possess - memorable and complex characters with a penchant for caustically profane self-expression and too-frequent-to-be-accidental moments of raw and acerbic humanity. I challenge you to find a member of the expansive cast of characters who's relegated to one-note, whose pain isn't real, faults aren't obvious and yet whose point of view doesn't make sense enough to illicit your sympathy for at least a moment before they do the next terrible thing they're bound to. The final moments offer either slight reprieve to the mounting tensions or a pause at the precipice of greater, fathomless darkness - you decide. Awards forthcoming for McDonagh, McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell if there's any justice in the world.

Trespass Against UsAdam Smith - Michael Fassbender is a thief, less professional than born to it, belonging to a clan of nomadic "traveling" outlaws who follow a strict code of peculiar adherence to religious convictions, chief amongst them - fuck with and fuck the police. Brendan Gleeson plays his father, the group's patriarch, and father and son clash over family loyalties and their solemn duty to fuck with the police. Holy fuck, I love this movie. It's a family drama about criminals rather than a crime thriller, but gets at everything I love about the crime milieu - if not the law of the land, by what do you govern yourself, what do you owe your partners in trespass plus the evergreen father/son and spouse/extended family dynamics. Fassbender wants more for his children, but owes a great deal of what he holds precious to the obstinate, bull-headed good(ish) intentions of his father and their traditions. Not near as dark or thriller-y as Tom Piccirilli's The Last Kind Words, but not a terrible comparison either - they share similar hearts of the matter.
War On Everyone - John Michael McDonaghMichael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård are probably (hopefully) the worst cops in Albequerque - gleefully corrupt, sloppy and fascist - and they'd easy to hate if they weren't clearly enjoying every moment of it so much. When we first encounter them they're in pursuit of a mime with a briefcase full of cocaine. They run down the fleeing suspect with their car and steal the drugs. Next we see them tailing a pair of bad news prison escapees whom they're not interested in catching, but rather following to whatever their next score is and ripping them off. To that end they extort the cooperation of Malcolm Barrett's Reggie X getting him a spot in the heist by violently creating an opening for him. When most of the crew end up murdered Reggie absconds with all the money and they track him down only to discover that it's not them Reggie's afraid of, rather the psychopathic crime boss with the poncy name Lord James Mangan - played with maximum sadistic sleaze by Theo James. It all comes down to a bloody showdown between bad cops accidentally on the right side of things and worse criminals just doing what they do. It feints at heart, it steps on guts and trips over balls to ultimately become a fast and loose, violent and profane, absurd and episodic comedy that succeeds and fails scene to scene on the strength of the script and the chemistry between the cast including Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson, David Wilmot and Paul Reiser.


pattinase (abbott) said...

A few of these are new to me. How did a movie with Fassbender and Gleeson get past me.

jedidiah ayres said...

TRESPASS AGAINST US came out late in 2016 and seemed to disappoint everybody who heard that a crime-family-saga starring those two was coming. It's not THE GODFATHER and it's not a one-big-heist thing... another apt comparison might be calling it a light-shaded companion to ANIMAL KINGDOM

J. L. Abramo said...

Just watched THE GIFT...written and directed by Joel Edgerton...I'm sure you have seen it, but if not...

Anonymous said...

In regard to TRESPASS AGAINST US...I recommend Gypsy Boy.


Anonymous said...

Not to put too fine a point on it...

My grandfather used to threaten me by cursing, "I'll sell you to the Tinkers, you wee brat!"

Tinkers being Irish travelers/gypsies and all that shit.

Crazy bastard. But immigrating and then driving NYC subway trains for 50 years will do that to a man.