Holiday Movies 2017-18: Dickens, Division, Family, Forbearance—and One Lump of Coal
This article was originally published on January 12, 2018.
The annual holiday movie season, running from mid-November through the new year, usually offers a smorgasbord of worthwhile films—and 2017 was perhaps richer than most.
So here’s a little help with the cinematic choices at your local multiplex—or in your living room—over the coming months:
The Man Who Invented Christmas (Parallel Films, 2017)
Although it left most movie-houses long ago, this gem about the writing of A Christmas Carol is well worth grabbing when it becomes available for smaller screens later this year. Dashing Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) plays Charles Dickens, and Christopher Plummer plays his most famous Christmas character, as the author struggles to complete his beloved holiday book in a mere six weeks.
But the real star here is screenwriter Susan Coyne, whose script carefully delineates Dickens’s life while layering in plenty of Christmas Carol references, too. In fact, Coyne goes so far as to suggest that the famed British writer must find a way between Scrooge’s stinginess and the spendthrift ways of his own real-life father, John. Fittingly, the redemption of Scrooge and of the troubled Dickens comes together at the end of this very seasonal triumph. Rated a family-friendly PG, this film is a must for Christmas Carol fans. (PG)
Coco (Pixar, 2017)
In 2009, Pixar’s Up hit pay dirt with a family film about the lifelong love of a childless couple who happily grow old together. How countercultural is that?
Eight years later it’s assembled yet another animated treat that swims against the current—the tale of a Mexican boy who’s accidentally whisked off to the land of the dead and can’t come back unless he’s willing to give up his own dreams of musical superstardom. As it turns out, a tragic family history has caused all his ancestors to hate music, and they won’t give the blessing necessary for his return unless he promises not to pursue this career.
At first, I was put off by the “family above all” emphasis; after all, some folks in our society would even put family before God. But as World magazine’s Megan Basham wisely pointed out, Coco undercuts the usual tendency in such films where absolutely everything—including family—must make way for the protagonist’s all-important hopes and dreams. It really is a salutary reminder that one’s own desires do not trump the needs of others. And then there’s that ending, emphasizing the importance of one’s elders—and the redemption available through both music and sacrifice. Another winner from Pixar. (PG)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lucas Film Ltd., 2017)
Viewers are sharply divided over this eighth entry in one of cinema’s most profitable franchises. Detractors found it rambling and improbable, with too many plot twists and not enough reverence for the clear-cut good and bad of its predecessors. This critic, however—along with many others—enjoyed the surprises, the never-know-who-to-trust vibe, the ice-cool visuals (how ’bout those blood-red salt crystals!) and the excellent cast: a magnetic Adam Driver, a world-weary Mark Hamill, newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, and the mesmerizing Daisy Ridley, possibly the strongest performer this long-running series has given us. I also liked the way its clear-eyed skepticism undercuts the goopy New Age metaphysics that gummed up some of the earlier episodes. (PG-13)
Downsizing (Paramount, 2017)
A woefully misguided flop from the usually reliable Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants). Here, Payne abandons his slice-of-life milieu for a wildly improbable tale in which countless humans are shrunk to five inches to save on natural resources—and to benefit from the multiplied value of their money when living on a smaller scale. Yet, before he can even get this absurd premise into second gear, the writer-director veers off into an awkward meditation on philanthropy and compassion. It’s a worthy message, but none of it works: the film simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. Were it not for a dazzling performance from Hong Chau as a Vietnamese amputee, Downsizing would be an absolute bomb. (R)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (Blueprint Pictures, 2017)
This critically acclaimed movie has an awful lot of swearing—nearly 100 f-bombs by some counts—and an awful lot of misery, too. It focuses on a grieving mother (Frances McDormand) whose teenage daughter was raped and killed. Since police have made no progress in the case, the angry Mildred plasters accusatory anti-cop messages on three local billboards, inadvertently setting off a minor civil war in which one reprisal tops another in violence and cruelty.
Yet writer-director Martin McDonagh eventually offsets the grief and bloodshed by forcing both characters and viewers to recognize that at some point you have to let go of your anger, your hatred, and your vengeance. The message of love and empathy blooms fragrantly for all its subtlety—aided by superb performances from McDormand, the under-recognized Sam Rockwell as a racist deputy, and Woody Harrelson as a beloved sheriff with an uncanny knowledge of what folks need to hear for their own healing—and for that of his broken little town. (R)
All the Money in the World (Scott Free Productions, 2017)
Surprise, surprise: A fiercely suspenseful tale that has virtually no action whatsoever. What it does have is a hair-raising real-life story (with the usual Hollywood embellishments) about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson in Rome in 1973. Veteran director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, The Martian) keeps the whole thing so low-key that you can scarcely believe how agonizing the final scenes are as we wonder whether young Paul will be okay.
Christopher Plummer will likely nab another supporting-Oscar nomination for his work as Getty, especially since he came in at the last minute—well after the film had wrapped—replacing Kevin Spacey in the wake of sexual-misconduct allegations. Scott and crew reshot all of Getty’s many scenes in a mere nine days; and I can’t even imagine how they pulled it off, especially considering all the costumes, co-stars, and complicated location shooting.
Though it also stars Mark Wahlberg and an excellent Michelle Williams as the stricken mother, its strongest work is from young Charlie Plummer (no relation) as the kidnapping victim. Kudos also to David Scarpa for a smart, edgy script laced with pithy insights about money and privilege. Among its many triumphs is a telling meditation on the burdens of wealth. I can’t think of another movie that will make you so glad you aren’t rich. (R)
Wonder (Lionsgate, 2017)
Based on R. J. Palacio’s bestseller, this spellbinding tale concerns young Auggie March, a boy with a big heart but also a horrific facial deformity that nearly scuttles his entrance into private school after years of education at home. Buoyed by sensational performances—especially Julia Roberts as Mom and Izabela Vidovic as Auggie’s older sis—the film deftly sidesteps manipulation and artifice by focusing on everybody’s problems, not just Auggie’s. Simultaneously painful and inspiring, it may be the best movie ever made about bullying. Several viewers told me they spent most of the film in tears—but a lot of this was happy crying, so that’s a good thing.
My favorite film of 2017, Wonder is very family-friendly despite its edgy subject-matter; even kids down to ages six or seven seem to love it. (PG)
Despite the ongoing flood of franchise films, action movies, crass R-rated comedies, and big-budget spectacles, there’s still plenty of tasty and thoughtful cinema out there.
Here’s hoping the 2018 holiday season is similarly fruitful.
Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, teacher, and speaker in Central Pennsylvania. You can learn more about him at his website, www.josephwsmithiii.com.
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