From a quality perspective, 2017 was arguably the best year for movies since 1999. All you have to do is consider the films and performers recently nominated for Academy Awards; there isn’t a stinker or clear front runner to be found. This will be the most competitive of Oscar races in a very long time.
The big catch with most of these movies is that they’re not ideal for family consumption and largely appeal to adults more concerned with “art” rather than “entertainment.” I myself prefer an even mix of both and would like to make you aware of some flicks that fit this description which might have slipped through the cracks. All offer a welcomed alternative to animation (a.k.a. visual pacifiers) and loud, though well-marketed superhero movies which often aren’t very good or are inappropriate for children.
The first and best of these is “Gifted” which came out in April and immediately went on my top 10 list (eventually finishing in fifth place). A less intense hybrid of “Good Will Hunting” and “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Gifted” focused on Mary (Mckenna Grace), a preteen math savant with a deceased mother and deadbeat father living with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans). Neither impressed with her own skills or the idea of traditional schooling, Mary adores Frank and living in Florida yet she becomes the center of a custody battle between Frank and his chilly, emotionally-bereft Bostonian mother (Lindsay Duncan). Taking lots of twists and turns before it concludes, “Gifted” is a heartwarming and inspirational classic.
The same can be said for “Megan Leavey,” the true story of the title character (Kate Mara), a young woman with no direction in life who, in a fit of desperation, decides to join the armed services. Almost immediately regretting her decision, Megan soon catches a glimpse of Max, a German Sheppard being trained to detect explosives and she becomes smitten not only with Max but the idea of contributing to the war effort and improving her station in life. The movie wisely avoids making any kind of political commentary regarding the current Middle East war situation yet unabashedly celebrates the thoroughly selfless men and women (and dogs) putting their lives on the line every day in order to keep us safe.
Another canine comes into play in the far more light-hearted “A Dog’s Purpose,” a variation on the “Look Who’s Talking” franchise and “Heaven Can Wait.” Josh Gad provides the voice for a number of dogs spanning decades that all die and become reincarnated in other vessels. The dogs’ experience a gamut of emotions — both good and bad — yet (they) never give up. It is an excellent parable to life on a human scale and is presented in a way that can be appreciated by wise toddlers, untainted preteens and non-jaded adults.
Released in early fall was “Wonderstruck” from director Todd Haynes, a great filmmaker best known for the more highbrow titles “Far From Heaven,” “Safe” and “I’m Not Here.” The most intellectual of the films included here, “Wonderstruck” tells the story of two children — a girl from the 1930s (in black and white) and a boy from the 1970s (in color) — who are both deaf. Each child travels unaccompanied to New York City with a desire to find answers to questions they have regarding their origins and must overcome several roadblocks and hurdles which each handles far better than most adults ever could.
In addition to being a great year for films, 2017 also gave us smart and intelligent movies where child characters were the leads and not merely regulated to the background or to provide “cuteness.” The best example of this was “It,” the hard-R rated adaptation of the epic Stephen King novel of the same name first made into a 1990 TV mini-series. While “good,” this version of “It” was hamstrung by outdated broadcast standards which effectively neutered the production and rendered it largely inert.
That said, even the new film couldn’t fully adapt the novel in earnest without it receiving an “NC-17” rating yet was still able to capture King’s intent so well that Warner Brothers had King introduce it while offering the highest possible praise — something he had never done before.
“It” is a movie about child characters but should never — under any circumstances — be viewed by children. The decision by Warner Brothers to even release a film such as this was a bold move yet it paid off in spades. In mere days after release, “It” became the highest grossing horror film ever made.
What Hollywood needs to do with future productions is to continue making movies that don’t treat children as cut-out cardboard backdrops or cheap comic relief but more as fleshed-out, three-dimensional lead characters. Today’s children might not be “smarter” than those from generations past, but they are certainly more attuned thanks to the constant barrage of media choices afforded them. These movies don’t try to reconstitute traditional, old-school “family values” but they nonetheless offer up invaluable lessons everyone can appreciate, even those put forth in “It.”
If today’s children’s parents want to keep up while still remaining somewhat grounded and “hip,” they need to have everyone turn the phones off, dim down the lights and share some quality time together on the couch with popcorn and have something inspirational beaming back to them from the screen.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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