Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2017

Like 2016, 2017 was a mostly terrible year that was also, however, a pretty great year for the movies. (I sincerely hope I don’t have to keep repeating some variation of that line in the years to come.) 2017 was a year of rage and resistance – both the capital-R and the lowercase kind – exemplified by the tsunami of #metoo; in a perfect-storm, zeitgeisty way, it also happened to be an exceptional year for women in movies, on both sides of the camera. We saw strong, well-drawn female characters brought to glorious life by actresses of all ages as well as female directors and writers who showed both that they could run with the big boys and that they could make “women’s stories” compelling to all genders. While many of my favorite films over the years have been centered on women, this may be the first time where my #1 film was also written and directed by a woman and found a wider audience that loved it as much as I did. Could we be on the cusp of a real sea-change in Hollywood? Here’s hoping.


Much about Greta Gerwig’s funny, poignant coming-of-age film is familiar cinematic territory, from the bright but restless high school girl (a luminous Saoirse Ronan) at its center to the milestones and rites of passage she undergoes, whether it’s her tentative forays into love, sex, or joining the popular kids, college applications, the school play, senior prom, or friction with her parents. But in Gerwig’s hands it all feels fresh, partly because she neither dwells on any one episode nor tries to impose an overarching message or moral-driven narrative. Rather, the effect is more like a collection of snapshots, each one representing a vivid memory of something that helped shape Lady Bird’s character. And at least one or more of them is bound to strike a recognizable chord with most viewers. For me, it was the relationship with her parents (beautifully played by Tracy Letts and Lauren Metcalf), especially her mom: “Lady Bird” nails the kind of mother-daughter dynamic where intimate confidences and heated arguments occur with equal frequency, where affection and criticism are inextricable from one another, and where “I love you” is never said but always understood. I laughed, I cried, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.


How can a movie be so offbeat and yet so old-fashioned at the same time? Apparently that’s what happens when Guillermo del Toro channels his childhood cinematic fantasies. Part dark Cold War thriller, part fabulist creature feature, part love letter to Hollywood's Golden Age, but above all a gorgeously filmed fairy-tale romance, “The Shape of Water” shouldn’t work as a whole – yet it utterly does, and is a pure delight to watch. (Well, apart from a few squicky body-horror moments where I had to look away; this is a del Toro joint, after all.) The linchpin holding it all together: a transcendent Sally Hawkins, in what may be the best mute performance since Holly Hunter in “The Piano.”


Yes, it looks like made-to-order Oscar bait (Spielberg! Streep! Hanks! Historical yet politically current subject matter!). Yes, the writing is often overly on the nose and preaches to the choir. Even so, “The Post” does a bang-up job of making what could have been a dull legal lesson about the Pentagon Papers both inspiring and entertaining. Contrary to those who dismiss it as by-the-numbers Spielberg, I think this is his best-directed film in years, deploying all his cinematic skills to infuse flair and suspense into the nuts and bolts of the journalistic process. And while it’s being promoted as a pro-free press, speak-truth-to-power film, its true focus and strength lies in the story of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the Washington Post’s first female publisher, who learns to find her voice in a male-dominated world in which she’s aided but also trapped by her own privileged social position. Streep is fantastic as Graham, as is Tom Hanks as legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee; their evolving dynamic alone is worth the price of admission.


For a film that received generally positive reviews on its initial release, “Detroit” seems to have been left by the cultural wayside. It shouldn’t have been: Kathryn Bigelow’s take on one of the flash points of the 1967 Detroit riots was easily the most powerful and harrowing film I saw last year. Unfortunately, it was pretty quickly derailed by poor box office and widespread blowback for presenting what others saw as an insensitive and/or inadequate, white-blinkered perspective of a thorny subject. I disagree strongly with the latter criticisms; while the film might not capture all facets of the structural and historical racism that made the Algiers Motel incident possible, for me, at least, it was an effective and all-too-timely reminder that the horrors it depicts – of unchecked police brutality, the racial inequities of the justice system, and society’s failure to hold both to account – are still very much with us today.


Like many of Olivier Assayas’ other films, “Personal Shopper” is tantalizingly elliptical and elusive, yet paradoxically stays with you - haunts you, as it were – long after you think you’ve finished puzzling it over. That’s only fitting for a tale of a medium (Kristen Stewart) who thinks she may be communicating with the spirit of her recently-deceased brother. What ensues is spooky, sometimes scary, even fleetingly violent, and ultimately answers very few of the questions you may have about what is going on here. The beauty of the film is how it gradually brings you to the realization – perhaps only after watching and having a chance to reflect – that the answers to those questions are beside the point. “Personal Shopper” is less a ghost story than a state of mind, a delicately etched Portrait of a Bereaved Young Woman, as well as a meditation on the interplay between the material and spiritual planes of existence.


Another film that came and went without anywhere near the attention it deserved, Maggie Betts’ astoundingly assured feature debut – about a young girl who decides to become a nun in the ’60s – really got me where I live. While it’s worth seeing regardless of your faith or lack thereof, it will probably appeal most deeply to those who (like me) have a complicated relationship with Catholicism. “Novitiate” plays a bit like a feminine answer to Scorsese’s “Silence,” offering a moving and remarkably nuanced portrayal of both what would draw a girl to such a rigid and closed-off life and why her commitment to it would give one pause. It’s also refreshing to see an excellent, virtually all-female cast, the standouts being Melissa Leo as a particularly autocratic Mother Superior, and Dianna Agron and Julianne Nicholson as more benign, if conflicted, mother-figures. My full review here.


Count me surprised this movie didn’t get more awards traction. The third installment in a loose trilogy of Westerns penned by Taylor Sheridan (the first two being “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”) and the first one he directed, “Wind River” feels at once like a throwback and absolutely current. While its stoic masculine heroes and unforgiving landscapes may be old-school, it tackles a subject that few, if any, traditional Westerns have addressed: violence against Native American women and the lack of criminal and judicial resources to combat it. Sheridan does a great job upping both the suspense and the emotional stakes to elevate what could easily have been just a simple crime procedural; my only major complaint is that the film, while generally respectful of its female and Native American characters, still reduces them to supporting the white male Fish & Wildlife tracker who’s called in to help see justice done. It’s hard to sustain that complaint, however, when the white male savior is played by Jeremy Renner delivering his best performance in years. My full review here.


Fair warning: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is something of a bait-and-switch. You may think you know where things are going as you watch a seemingly imperious, control-freaky fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) make a seemingly pliant, naïve young woman (German actress Vicky Krieps) his muse and lover under the watchful eye of his all-knowing, all-seeing sister (Lesley Manville)…but trust me, you don’t. The film takes some dark and bizarre turns before reaching a resolution of sorts that feels more like a perverse momentary equilibrium. (Hint: it works best if you think of the whole thing as an exceptionally twisted romantic comedy.) It’s not for everyone, but I enjoyed the way it up-ended and then winked at my expectations. It’s also exquisitely filmed, scored, costumed, and of course acted: DDL and Manville, as always, bring their A game, while Krieps proves a real revelation.


No, Denis Villeneuve’s labor of love isn’t as good as the original – it lacks that mesmerizing, hypnotic quality, that dreamlike feeling of being halfway between asleep and awake, enhanced by the iconic Vangelis score, which made Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” so memorable. The script also borrows a bit too heavily from other movies about artificial intelligence (“Her,” “A.I.,” even “The Matrix,” to name just a few) to break any real new sci-fi narrative ground. But it’s still enthralling, because the world it builds is so visually breathtaking and immersive; this is damn near the most beautiful film of 2017, surpassed only by “The Shape of Water,” and just may net DP Roger Deakins an Oscar on his 14th try. It also resonates emotionally thanks to perfectly calibrated performances by Ryan Gosling as the almost-human who wants to be a real boy and Harrison Ford as the crusty relic who still carries a torch for a love long past.


Director Sean Baker may have made a name for himself by shooting an entire, legit, good-looking movie (“Tangerine”) on an iPhone, but his real secret weapon is his gift for capturing the lives of individuals at society’s margins with humor and compassion, and without striking a single false or condescending note. This time shooting on regular film, he focuses on a group of low-income families who live in a motel on the outskirts of Disney World—in particular, one very unfit young mother and her sassy, scrappy, pint-sized daughter who spends her days running hog-wild in what to her seems like a candy-colored paradise. Reality eventually catches up with this duo, but only after we’ve become intimately acquainted with – and attached to – the makeshift community of the so-called Magic Castle and its guardian, the kindly motel manager wonderfully underplayed by Willem Dafoe. The movie, like its main characters, may occasionally feel like it’s overstaying its welcome, but by the end it’ll leave you verklempt.

Honorable Mentions: Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Columbus, The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth, Molly’s Game, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO, Wonder Woman, Gook, The Disaster Artist

Have not seen: All the Money in the World, A Quiet Passion, A Ghost Story, Lucky, The Killing of a Sacred Deer or any foreign films other than The Square, or any documentaries whatsoever – my recurring shame.


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