My Top 19 Movies and TV Series for 2017

 

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily widely distributed.   Of the 45 reviews, here are my favorites.  It was much more difficult than in past years, since this year was absolutely stunning as was 2016. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre. I could not limit my choices to only 10.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri”: A BOLO for Justice” (December 17 review)  Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, takes us along Mildred Hayes’ journey as she deals with the unsolved murder-rape of her teenage daughter. Golden Globe 2017 Winners for best drama, actress (Frances McDormand), and supporting actor (Sam Rockwell).

2) “Lady Bird”: A Girl’s Flight From Home (December 3 review) Seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, brilliantly played by Golden Globe 2017 Winner Saoirse Ronan navigates parent-child dynamics and the social complexities of her Catholic high school upbringing in Sacramento, California. Director/Writer Greta Gerwig does not let the film drift into a saccharine coming-of-age story.”

3)The Florida Project: Finding the Magic Kingdom (November 7 review) The Florida Project A sad, funny, happy, heart-breaking and most of all, unforgettable story of the secrets a child may have who lives in poverty near Orlando, Florida and Disney’s Magic Kingdom..

 4) The Big Sick: A Prescription for Love (October 16 review) Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for.

 5) The Salt of the Earth: Drawing with Light (August 13 review) Perhaps the most startling experience in watching this documentary is the beauty that is embedded in the tragic and cruel situations of this journalistic photographer’s subjects. Each black and white photograph is a meditation, not a representation, and a record of his emotional response.

6) Wind River : Chilling and Icy, Drifting in the Snow (October 1 review)  A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding.  She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs.  That is the opening hook in the true story of Wind River.

7) Loving:The Right to Choose (March 13 review)  Based on the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia finally invalidates state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary couple–to change the fabric of the nation.

8) 13th: Not a Lucky Number (April 23 review) This Academy award-nominated documentary opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

9) Pure: A Torn Soul (April 9 review)  20-year old Katarina is determined to flee her dreary grungy life, bullied by tormenters at school and neglected by her alcoholic prostitute mother. Everything changes when she hears a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, opening up a new world to a soul aching for an intellectual life.

 PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

10 Merchants of Doubt: Certainty Nonetheless (September 26 review) This film is about the tactics used repeatedly by pseudo-experts to mislead the public about scientific findings critical to commercial products or practices.

11) The Staircase: A Fall to the Bottom (October 30 review)  The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a legal bestseller, but also an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire justice system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

 12) Bordertown: New Boundaries in Scandinavian Noir (July 23 review) The brooding, dark environment –like all great Nordic Noir —underscores the underbelly of nasty psychopaths and their heinous crimes. Bordertown is also a drama about family in which crime disrupts and plagues the family’s attempts at intimacy and communication.

13) Land of Mine: Made for You and Me (April 17 review)  A harrowing depiction of what many consider to be Denmark’s worst war crime. This film powerfully conveys the Danes’ bitterness towards the Nazi occupation, a rage so terrible that dismembered or exploding young boys were an acceptable, if uncomfortable, consequence.

14) The Accountant: A Hidden Asset (April 3 review)  A brilliant forensic accountant is demanded by organized crime syndicates around the globe, a high functioning Asperger math savant. There is an intense backstory of family dysfunction and a tragic family dynamics which switches to humor, at moments, for relief.

 15) Zero Days:Weaponizing Cyberspace (March 27 review)  A documentary that sounds the alarm about the world of cyberwarfare, and the weaponizing of the Internet, the computer-as-weapon. Stuxnet, the cyber espionage attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010, results in unintended collateral damage to massive computer systems outside of Iran, some of which belonged to US and Israeli allies.

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

16) Ozark: A Stark, Dark Thriller (September 20 review) [Netflix] This mini-series showcases a couple relocating with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

 17) The Keepers: Another Spotlight (July 1 review) [Netflix]  In this true-crime documentary, The Keepers explores the 1969 death of 26-year old Catholic nun and Baltimore schoolteacher Sister Cathy Cesnik and touches on 20-year-old Joyce Malecki’s murder four days later. Both slayings remain unsolved. The cover up that follows has echoes of Spotlight .

18) The Wizard of Lies: Decades of Untruth (June 12 review) [HBO] Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies  is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess.

19) Handmaid’s Tale: In Service of Democracy? (May 14 review) [Hulu] Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death.

Note: Both Hidden Figures and Fences would have been included on my list of all-time favorite movies for 2017, but after receiving so many awards, including 2016 Academy Award nominations and winners, these two movies have not been mentioned them in this list. I assume most blog followers have seen these two films by now. I was rather late–seeing both movies in January 2017. If you haven’t seen both of them, they are must-see films for everyone!

 

The Wizard of Lies–Decades of Untruth

 

This HBO TV drama (which premiered on May 20, 2017) chronicles the infamous Wall Street meltdown of financier Bernie Madoff’s $64 billion dollar Ponzi scheme, perhaps the largest financial fraud in US history. Starring Robert de Niro as Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth, The Wizard of Lies  (directed by Barry Levinson) is based on the book by well-known financial journalist Diana B. Henriques.

How did this man get away with such massive fraud for so many years? The Wizard of Lies raises this question as a Shakespearean tragedy, a family saga in which the volatile patriarch father manipulates one son while another son desperately yearns for his approval. This all takes place while Madoff is building a financial empire on smoke and mirrors. In 2008 Madoff was finally arrested.

The Wizard of Lies opens with Madoff already incarcerated and being interviewed by a reporter (Henriques plays herself.) In a series of flashbacks we see Madoff wine and dine extremely wealthy investors. In a cycle of increasingly desperate and deceptive maneuvers, Madoff promises unrealistically steady profits, continuing his Ponzi scheme for years: pitching to family, friends, charitable institutions, whomever can be the next gullible investor.  But profits cannot be sustained.

One of his sons, overwhelmed by his father’s fraud and his part in contributing to it, commits suicide when the investigation by the SEC finally gains momentum. (Madoff was a former NASDAQ chairman and therefore, considered by many as beyond reproach.) The remaining son dies before his father’s indictment. In the end Madoff is a devastated old man serving a prison sentence of 150 years, with no wife (Ruth has divorced him), no sons, no visitors, but still clinging to the belief he has committed no crime.

Many defrauded clients remain nameless and faceless while some of his more desperate victims committed suicide. Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies  is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess. What would we do if given steady profits over many years? Why would we question our good fortune? Why would we ask if the steady positive returns were too good to be true? These questions are left for us to reflect upon.

The Wizard of Lies features a strong cast of seasoned actors that give their best on screen, particularly De Niro and Pfeiffer. De NIro plays Madoff as a deeply delusional sociopath who masterminds one of the largest Ponzi schemes of the century while denying his own criminal behavior.

The ending is satisfying for those wanting to see karma function as it should.

Note: To date about 70% of the money Bernie Madoff swindled has been recovered.

“The Night Of”—A Tale of Darkness

 

"The Night Of" HBO series
“The Night Of” HBO series

In the mini-series “The Night Of,” currently on HBO, the opening scene showcases a mysterious and beautiful young woman who dies and someone goes to trial. Will justice prevail?

“The Night Of” combines elements of the popular podcast “Serial”’ and the  TV series“Oz”. “The Night Of” depicts the horrific conditions endured by Naz Khan on Ryker’s Island, reminding the viewer of “Oz”. And half-truths and damning evidence suggest the Serial podcast about a young Pakistani American teenager, Adnan Syed. Did he or didn’t he—that is the question in both. Both the real-life Adnan and the fictional Naz maintain their innocence, even as more distressing details of the crime surface.

Naz Khan (played by Riz Ahmed from “Nightcrawler”) is a young Pakistani American student charged with the murder of the mysterious young woman from the opening scene. Detective Sergeant Box   (the superb Bill Camp, Tony winner for the Broadway revival of “The Crucible”) charges Naz. A bottom-feeding, grizzled lawyer named Jack Stone (the astonishing John Turturro) is Naz’s legal counsel.

Turturro plays a smarter-than-he-looks lawyer: part-Columbo, part-Monk detective. He’s quirky and wry, his physical awkwardness, and his long trench coat make him as memorable as the more well-known Columbo and Monk. As Jack Stone, he picks at the eczema on his feet with a chopstick as he interviews witnesses and waits to appear in court. Layers of financial and psychological costs are embedded in a justice and penal system Naz and his parents do not know how to navigate. Naz pays the price of not knowing.

We see Naz transform. At first a virginal, studious young man who is naïve and eager, we see his vulnerability preyed upon. We witness Naz feeling cornered, bewildered, and terrified.

“The Night of” features spellbindingly subtle acting with pitch-perfect poignancy and desperation on the part of Riz Ahmed, and steely determination and grit from both John Turturro and Bill Camp, equally matched as dueling seekers of justice.

The connective tissue holding together the evidence both for and against Naz constantly shifts the viewer’s assessment of his guilt or innocence. This dark tale is addictive, deeply moving, compulsive television!

Note: The late James Gandolfini (of “Sopranos” fame) produced “The Night Of” and was intended to be the character Jack Stone.