The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

2017 Year in Film: Favorite Characters

Welcome to the fifth annual Year in Review posted on this website, as well as the first time the year in review has managed to be published within the year that’s being reviewed. Over the next five days, we’ll be looking at all sorts of highlights (and more than a few lowlights) of the year that was 2017 at the cinemas. It was a bit of an odd year in a number of ways, which plenty of films finding themselves having to contend with the shifting role of art in a world that many (myself included) believe has gone mad. Perhaps in part of this, 2017 felt rather mediocre for a good two-thirds of the calendar before shifting into overdrive for traditional awards season. It could be a case of recency bias, but you’ll see a lot of representation from the second half of the year over the rest of this week.

We begin as always with a look at ten of my favorite characters in cinema this year, the roles and performances that stick with you long after the credits have rolled. Come back tomorrow and throughout the rest of the week for even more insight into another year spent at the movies.

Oh, and for those reading this on the day it was published, Merry Christmas!

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The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) - mother!

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“I know what it’s like when you’re just starting out, and you think you have all the time in the world, and...you know, you’re not going to be so young forever”

It was tough deciding between Michelle Pfeiffer’s catty, slinky take on the Biblical Eve and Kristen Wiig’s bonkers cameo late in the film, but Pfeiffer is such a force on screen while she wages war on Jennifer Lawrence’s house and life in the early parts of mother! that it’s impossible to deny her. She exists (like nearly everyone in the film exists) to make Jennifer Lawrence’s life a living hell, so bold and forceful in the way she walks into a house that isn’t hers and immediately takes it over and treats it like her own. She is a living, breathing ball of microaggressions, flaunting her sexuality in front of a woman frustrated by her husband’s inability to give her a child, and playfully taunting her for not having a child yet. Her personality also internalizes a specific understanding of Eve in pop culture (that of the trickster who manipulates Adam into eating from the tree of knowledge), one that may or may not accurately reflect the Bible, but Aronofsky isn’t particularly interested in accuracy here. What he needs to tell his story is exactly what Pfeiffer dishes out, a livewire of a performance that reminds us just how good she can be when someone gives her a role worthy of her.

[My review of mother!]


Katherine (Florence Pugh) - Lady Macbeth

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“Through hell and high water I will follow you”

Shrinking violets held under the thrall of a powerful patriarchy is a theme oft repeated in film in general, and 2017 in specific, but there’s nothing shrinking about the violet at the center of Lady Macbeth. Florence Pugh has come flying in out of nowhere with this delectably sinful turn as the young wife of an impotent brute who falls in love with a servant and won’t let anything stand in the way of their relationship, no matter how many lines of decency and morality need crossing. The title of the film foreshadows some pretty clear implications about the type of character she plays, and the film hinges on Pugh’s ability to sell the addicting freedom that comes from being on her own when her husband leaves her at home, and the belief that she can, will and must do whatever is necessary to keep the life to which she has grown accustomed. In a year that has seen the likes of Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread, Garance Marillier in Raw and Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper (not to mention the higher profile female performances sure to receive Oscar recognition), it takes a lot for a new face to make such an indelible impression. But that’s exactly what Pugh has done here, bringing to life the femme fatale of 2017.


Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) - Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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“And all her friends and helpers are sorority girls who have spanking parties and everybody fights Nazis and rides in an invisible plane?”

I'm not entirely convinced that we deserve Rebecca Hall. Not really. Rarely is she thrown in with the best performers of her generation (male or female), but every single time she shows up on screen, she is so alluring and enticing in whatever part she has that she instantly becomes the thing you remember walking out of the theater. In the case of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Angela Robinson’s kinky biopic about the three-way relationship that led to the creation of Wonder Woman, Hall gets to have all sorts of fun as the wife of Professor William Moulton Marston, an uninhibited intellectual without all that much interest holding her tongue. But the genius of Hall’s performance and the character she brings to life is the real pain and insecurity that lurks below the surface. The jealousy that she can’t quite tamp down when she sees her husband lusting after a younger woman. The love she begins to feel for both of them and the fierce protectiveness that comes from that. It’s a remarkable portrayal of what was surely a remarkable woman, and yet another fantastic performance in a career full of them.

[My review of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women]


Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) - BPM (Beats Per Minute)

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“We’ll keep pissing the state off until there’s a real prevention policy”

It’s staggering to watch someone so full of life lose it in such an agonizing and inexorable way. BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo’s French drama about the Paris chapter of ACT UP in the early 1990’s, presents a wide range of people, some HIV positive, others there to support their friends, as they fight a losing battle against AIDS. Most of these brave souls have a death sentence, and all they want to do is work to ensure that not as many of them have to fight this menace in the future. Sean is perhaps the most vocal and noticeable voice in the crowd, a small spark plug of a man unconvinced by the measures ACT UP leadership is utilizing to get their word out to the people and the pharmaceutical companies dragging their feet on drug trials. His passion and care leaps from the screen, causing him to dominate every scene of what should be more of an ensemble piece. And that work to establish how vital he is to the whole process pays off in the film’s crushing third act when the disease begins catching up to him. No one in BPM is going to win the fight against AIDS. It’s what they do with the time that matters, and Sean lives the life he has to its fullest.


Georgina (Betty Gabriel) - Get Out

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“Oh no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no!”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2017 was Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a movie that just might earn shlock horror peddlers Blumhouse Pictures a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Peele’s genre-bending comedy/horror/social commentary film boasts an excellent ensemble cast featuring the likes of Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Alison Williams, Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield and Stephen Root, but it's relative unknown Betty Gabriel who steals the show as Georgina, the family housekeeper who spends most of the film barely hiding a sinister edge as she torments Kaluuya and cuts off his ability to contact the outside world. But there's a spark or life buried in her somewhere, and as the central twist of Get Out is revealed and Georgina’s true nature is understood, Gabriel's performance becomes all the more layered and spectacular. She has so much that she has to internalize to make Georgina work, and it's a character upon which so much of Peele's social commentary hinges. Get Out is the sort of film that rewards repeat viewings, and having the opportunity to see the full scope of Georgina is sublime.

[My review of Get Out]


Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) - Mudbound

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“Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here, I’m just another n****r pushing a plow”

Much of the power of Dee Rees’ Mudbound lies in the way it depicts a society where slavery is abolished but not all that much has changed. The Jackson family may technically be able to come and go as they please, but in living on McAllen farm as sharecroppers who barely make enough money to scrape by, the prospects of freedom don’t seem as potent as they could be. No one is a better example of this than the Jacksons’ eldest son, Ronsell, who departs to fight for his country in World War II and returns to find that it doesn’t matter what he did as long as the color of his skin hasn’t changed. That dynamic, magnified by the much better treatment of the McAllen boy who went to the same war and fought for the same freedom, weighs heavily on the extremely capable shoulders of Jason Mitchell, coming off a wonderful and vibrant performance as Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton. That pride can’t be beaten out of him, try as those around him might, and he has an inspiring, stoic outlook on life that is only stripped away when he thinks back to the war and the woman he left behind in Paris, all to return to a place that doesn’t respect him. Mudbound is a film built on the strength of its ensemble, and Mitchell comes away from it the strongest. That’s high praise indeed.

[My review of Mudbound]


Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) - The Beguiled

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“What have you done to me?! You vengeful bitches!”

It might be a little reductive to pick the only male character to highlight Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, but Farrell is clearly having all the fun in the world playing this soldier turned coward turned lothario turned maniac that becomes the object of desire for a house full of Southern Belles, young and old alike. He has some big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood (who played the role in the first film version of the novel), but he more than holds his own, wielding his Irish brogue like a saber as he cuts these ladies to ribbons. Farrell brings the sex appeal needed to make the story work, but as the narrative turns to something more dangerous and McBurney something more menacing, he’s more than capable of transitioning his role to match. It’s a fun character, a coward who deserted the war and will do whatever it takes to survive, up to and including nakedly seducing every woman in the mansion, and Farrell brings him to life with relish.


Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) - A Quiet Passion

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"Never play happy music at a wedding, Emily. It's too misleading"

Much of Terrence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion seems to play into that sort of stuffy repressed vaguely Victorian sort of snore-fest that's so often lampooned by the general audience that looks at a movie like The English Patient and wonders how it could be the best movie of the year. But A Quiet Passion is far more playful, subversive and (dare I say) passionate than its surface may imply, and no character embodies that approach more than Vryling Buffam, Emily’s friend and confidant (and eventual partial cause of her reclusiveness). She comes flying into the movie with a reckless and infectious energy, representing a dangerous and alluring freedom that grates against Emily’s strict religious upbringing and sense of propriety. But she's also not all that she seems to be, with her flightiness perhaps causing more trouble than might initially be realized. It's entirely possible to want to question or discount the early moments of A Quiet Passion as being just the sort of film that it looks like it should be, but the script and an excellent performance from Catherine Bailey makes it clear Davies is doing something a hell of a lot more interesting than expectations.


David (Michael Fassbender) - Alien: Covenant

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“Watch me. I’ll do the fingering”

It might be unfair to choose David over Fassbender’s other role in Alien: Covenant, but in evolving his character from Prometheus into the deranged maniac he is in its sequel, Fassbender puts together one of the overlooked great performances of 2017. Ridley Scott’s playful third foray into the Alien mythology was swiftly forgotten, perhaps because audiences were not necessarily prepared for it to fully embrace B movie sensibilities, and David acts as the ringmaster of this bizarre circus. Left to his own devices on an inhabitable planet that is eventually found by the crew of the Covenant, David greets them with open arms that barely conceal his clear god complex, megalomaniacal psychosis and latter era David Bowie haircut. Both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant act as prequels to the originator of space horror, but they also operate on a clear axis of analyzing the notion of creation, both from a religious and artistic perspective. David opens the film with a discussion about creativity and Creation, and has taken that concept to heart, seeking to create life itself and become his own concept of a God. Fassbender is so deliciously naughty and outrageous in Alien: Covenant that it’s a shame he’s been completely forgotten despite creating the single most compelling villain (or is it hero?) in any major blockbuster of 2017.

[My review of Alien: Covenant]


Nick (Benny Safdie) - Good Time

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“Yeah, I’m cold”

I have an almost aching empathetic response to certain depictions of mental illness, especially when it’s taken advantage of in a way the person cannot entirely comprehend as he or she is forced to deal with the consequences of something that wasn’t really their fault. Nick, the brother of main character Connie in Good Time, is just that sort of person, brought along for a bank heist gone wrong and sent to prison when he ran from the cops. The movie is about Connie and his careening experience trying to get enough bail money for a bondsman to get Nick a release, but the emotional core of it lies in watching Nick’s incapability to deal with what’s happening to him. Connie is, let’s be frank, an awful human being in every way imaginable, but he’s empathetic enough to understand that Nick is a better person than he’ll ever be, and he needs to do everything he can to get Nick out of the mess he put him in. Pattinson leads the line in Good Time, but it’s Benny Safdie’s wounded, confused, emotional and vulnerable performance that acts as the glue that holds it all together. Good Time would be a tougher pill to swallow if the audience didn’t understand the desperation that motivates his increasingly terrible actions. And Safdie (who also co-directed, did sound and co-edited the picture) is rather incredible bringing this deeply important character to life.


Tomorrow, we'll continue our trip through the year with a look at my favorite scenes of 2017

Year-End Coverage Schedule

Monday: Best Characters
Tuesday: Best Scenes
Wednesday: Surprises and Disappointments
Thursday: The Bottom Ten
Friday: The Top Twenty