The saviours of the season
Just as the holiday season brings with it the promise of a better tomorrow, the final few weeks of 2017 may deliver the prestige films discerning audiences have been waiting for
Last year at about this time, Hollywood was in a celebratory mood. By the end of November, 2016, the North American box office had hit $10-billion (U.S.), the fastest that milestone has ever been reached. This time around, the atmosphere is far darker. Not only because of the toxic Harvey Weinstein scandal rightly turning the industry inside out, but because of – what else? – the money, or the lack thereof. This year's domestic gross sits a tad over $8.4-billion, thanks to the poor performance of blockbusters both high (Blade Runner 2049) and low (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
To add to this sense of deflation, the year's slate of prestige films – the movies designed to move you rather than simply move the financial needle – have consistently fallen short of critical expectations (Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, George Clooney's Suburbicon, Dan Gilroy's Roman J. Israel, Esq., Oren Moverman's The Dinner, Todd Haynes' good-but-not-good-enough Wonderstruck to name only a few) while other expected hot properties (Xavier Dolan's The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here) failed to materialize on the 2017 release calendar.
But there is hope. Just as the holiday season delivers the promise of a better tomorrow, the next few weeks may finally deliver the high-quality pictures discerning audiences deserve. These 10 films are The Globe and Mail's picks for 2017's unofficial distruptors – the movies that aim to rewire how we will view the year in film.
The Disaster Artist
Tommy Wiseau's so-bad-it's-actually-bad cult film The Room is not for everyone. Multihyphenate James Franco can also be an acquired taste. So combining these two elements into one movie seems like an idea born out of malice. Yet The Disaster Artist – directed by Franco, starring Franco and co-starring Franco's brother and sister-in-law – is a shockingly poignant portrait of the jealousies that arise when the creative process goes haywire. Franco plays Wiseau, a wannabe actor/filmmaker who refuses to reveal his background, age or source of seemingly unlimited wealth, while brother Dave Franco plays Greg Sestero, the baby-faced actor who fell under Wiseau's spell. Together the two make one of the worst movies of all time, discovering the perils of artistic sacrifice along the way. Franco could have easily taken the mean route here, belittling and exploiting Wiseau's legacy, but instead he trods a more compassionate path. The famous friends he recruits to fill out the supporting cast add an edge of crowd-pleasing meta-comedy. Don't be surprised when Franco's name shows up at this year's Academy Awards – as a nominee, not host, thank God. (Dec. 1)
Dim the Fluorescents
After a strong debut at Utah's Slamdance Film Festival almost a year ago, Toronto filmmaker Daniel Warth's comedy finally gets a hometown release next month. Its story and budget may be small – the narrative focuses on two friends (Naomi Skwarna and Claire Armstong) struggling to make it in the city's insular theatre community – but the performances and directorial vision are colossal. After working on a succession of ambitious shorts, Warth makes an intoxicating feature debut here and cements his status as one of this country's most exciting, raw voices. (Dec. 8)
Call Me By Your Name
If you are suddenly hearing the name "Armie Hammer" thrown around with barely contained glee these past few weeks, it's because the towering actor's same-sex romance is receiving to-the-heavens-and-back reviews. Set in 1983 and focusing on the burgeoning relationship between college student Oliver (Hammer, best known as both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) and 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the drama has been lauded since debuting at Sundance in January. Director Luca Guadagnino is also being tipped for serious Academy Awards attention – which would be deserved, if only as compensation for how the Academy overlooked his last great romantic drama, the 2015 cinematic fever dream A Bigger Splash. (Dec. 15)
The Shape of Water
Even though 2017 saw Guillermo del Toro step away from his two most successful franchises – Pacific Rim and Hellboy, both of which have new, del Toro-free instalments coming out soon – the director is having one hell of a year. His exhibit of curiosities and grotesqueries is drawing crowds at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and his latest drama, The Shape of Water, drowned audiences (in a good way) at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. The Toronto-shot drama, more a gentle Pan's Labyrinth fable than a gonzo Pacific Rim slugfest, follows a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) as she develops a unique relationship with, well, a merman (Doug Jones). Or a mersomething. It's definitely a fishy situation, but please don't judge this movie based on that one terrible pun alone. Michael Shannon co-stars, delivering a typically intense Michael Shannon performance that would intimidate even Michael Shannon. (Dec. 15)
Despite starring in both Suicide Squad and The Legend of Tarzan, Margot Robbie emerged from 2016 unscathed. But an even bigger surprise is just how much critical goodwill she has generated for I, Tonya, a biopic of ice queen Tonya Harding. A mix of chilly drama and media satire, director Craig Gillespie's film entered this fall's Toronto International Film Festival as a huge question mark and left as an industry darling. When the inevitable Suicide Squad 2: Please Kill Us (suggested title) opens, it might be able to boast an Oscar-winning star – well, two, if Jared Leto's Joker somehow returns. (Dec. 22)
All the Money in the World
One day, morbidly curious audiences might be able to glimpse Ridley Scott's thriller in its original form, with Kevin Spacey playing billionaire J. Paul Getty. Until then – I'm guessing it will be all of two years until Sony decides to release a special "prescandal" cut of the film – we'll just have to settle for Christopher Plummer's take on the real-life ruthless industrialist, who refused to co-operate with the kidnappers who abducted his grandson (Charlie Plummer, no relation). Putting aside the unprecedented casting switch-up, anticipation was high for Scott's film – lately he's only been making one good movie every other project. So the greatly underrated The Counselor was followed by the dreadful Exodus: Gods and Kings, which preceded the fantastic popcorn adventure of The Martian, which was then trailed by the incoherent Alien: Covenant. If the pattern holds, All the Money in the World will be one of Scott's better endeavours. Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams and Timothy Hutton star – for now. (Dec. 22)
Three words: Spielberg, Streep, Hanks. Okay, do you need a fourth? Trump. Because, while this new drama from that Hollywood trinity technically deals with The Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers in the early seventies, its tale of scrappy journalists going up against the Oval Office cannot help but echo the current era. Which is all deliberate, of course, as is The Post's prime Oscar-friendly positioning. A murderer's row of character actors – Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, even a mini-Mr. Show reunion of David Cross and Bob Odenkirk – only add to the promise of old-fashioned Hollywood fireworks. If you're seeing your parents – of any age! – this holiday season, you're also going to be seeing The Post. (Dec. 22 in select U.S. cities; Jan. 12 in Toronto)
Okay, this entry is sliding in on a technicality, just like the one above for The Post. Paul Thomas Anderson's new fashion-centric drama – long gossiped about, and whose trailer doesn't clarify much in way of plot – is opening Dec. 25 but only in select U.S. theatres. It won't be until Jan. 12 that it opens in Toronto, and later still before the rest of the country is able to witness whatever Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice) has stitched together. Now, any Anderson movie is worth obsessing over. But because no other 2017 film carries as much mystery and intrigue as Phantom Thread – it's Daniel Day-Lewis's first acting role in almost five years and possibly his last before he retires – I'm just going to stick it here and hope for the best.
Christian Bale may be making the social-media rounds lately over his extreme approach to playing Dick Cheney in an upcoming biopic (the strategy seems to involve a lot of pie), but the famously intense Method actor may be getting some more positive chatter soon thanks to his role in Scott Cooper's western Hostiles. The drama, which follows a U.S. Cavalry officer (Bale) who comes into conflict with a Cheyenne family in 1892, earned cautious acclaim at TIFF, and upstart Entertainment Studios is working an ambitious Oscar campaign. One hitch: The film is set for a U.S. release on Dec. 22, though a Canadian date has yet to be announced. Come north, Christian Bale – we have lots of pie.
From minute one you can tell that Molly's Game is an Aaron Sorkin script. The dialogue is paced at the intensity of a jackhammer, and every other sentence uttered ends on a twist of the one that came before it. What you might not realize is that this is also an Aaron Sorkin film, as in he directed the movie, his first such attempt. As far as debuts go, Sorkin couldn't have picked a flashier subject: the high-stakes world of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the so-called "Princess of Poker," whose games caught the attention of celebrities, mobsters and the U.S. government. Aside from the always-game Chastain, Sorkin carves out a meaty role for Idris Elba, who delivers a speech midway through the film that is the most Sorkiny of Sorkin speeches to have ever been Sorkined. Listen to it carefully – and try in vain to keep up. (Dec. 25)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
This list is now filthy with technicalities, but c'mon – the latest entry in the franchise that will never die is easily the most anticipated film of the season, if admittedly not a high-tier prestige flick. Still, it will be worth lining up just for Carrie Fisher's final on-screen performance. And for the return of Mark Hamill. And for whatever Oscar Isaac is doing here. And Laura Dern. And Benicio Del Toro. And those cute little alien porg critters. In short, there's a lot to get excited about, and even more to be potentially disappointed by. Lucasfilm, for its part, has already placed its faith in The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson (Looper), securing his talents to create an entirely separate Star Wars trilogy taking place in another corner of the galaxy far, far away.