Enough has been written about the entirely uneventful and nondramatic year that was 2017 (Please note the sarcasm dripping from those words), but not quite enough has been written about 2017 as a year in film. Gem after gem was released in a stretch of twelve months that just didn't seem to stop answering the trash fire of real life with increasingly rewarding escapes from it. Roger Ebert once said that film was a machine for creating empathy. In a year that really needed the stuff, here were the best films I had the pleasure of seeing.
Lady Bird, the best film of 2017, is a film that displays the range of compassion and human emotion. It finds comedy in the awkward and uncomfortable places of an older adolescent girl's experiences. It locates the gravity of the drama when events within those experiences go awry. There is both a specificity and a broadness to the character that is genuinely inspiring. Film characters should not be so easily defined by how empowering, either specifically or broadly, they are. There is, though, a difficulty in seeing how young women everywhere won't find this character empowering to some degree. There must, by the simple laws of likelihood in nature, be someone who finds something within themselves in Lady Bird. Her experiences are too universal not to be recognized in the experiences of the everyday, 17-year-old girl looking toward the future and seeing only uncertainty.
That's the beauty of writer/director Greta Gerwig's film: The events of whatever narrative there might be (It certainly isn't confined by one in the traditional sense) might be modeled by her own life, which is where the specificity comes from, but the filmmaker understands that we all see ourselves in other people. Her mother wants her to stay close as she chooses a college to attend. Her father just wants her to be happy. She meets two boys who end up being disappointing in different ways and makes two best friends with very different philosophies and lifestyles. There's even more here, every avenue explored thoroughly and satisfyingly within a compact, 93-minute frame. It isn't too much weight for Gerwig to bear, and it certainly isn't for Saoirse Ronan, whose tremendous performance avoids making the quirks and tics within the character of Lady Bird some sort of joke. Like all of us, Lady Bird is discovering how she fits in while being her best self, and her film, a masterpiece about the baby steps that start this journey, understands that, sometimes, it takes a little work even to get to the baby steps.
Call Me by Your Name
The boy is experiencing the first love that every young person, at some point in his or her life, has experienced - the thrill of the initial attraction, the wracking nerves of the first confession, the peaks and valleys of getting to know that person he or she holds dear. The man has clearly experienced that already, and hindsight guides him to keep himself guarded. He has lived - only a few years longer than the boy, sure, but enough to know that the guard upon one's heart should be as tight as a corkscrew. And still they fall, for those are the ways of the heart. This is a truth that director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name understands with its every limb and fiber. Their lives extend surely beyond the final credits. It is a rarity that we find ourselves not only wondering where these characters are headed but genuinely concerned for their welfare. Here is that rarity.
The Shape of Water
Here is a film that should not have worked by any means: A mute woman, who works as a janitor in a top-secret government lab, falls in love with the fish/man hybrid creature kept in a saltwater tank and plots its escape. Keeping time with this unlikeliest of love stories, made convincing through its performances (by Sally Hawkins, luminous as a woman who cannot communicate as ideally as everyone around her, and Doug Jones, in another example of his impressive physical acting under layers of makeup and practical effects) is a Cold War thriller element, a rock-solid sci-fi yarn, a sometimes-violent revenge fairy tale, and, most improbably and beautifully, a musical for exactly one scene that lifts the viewer temporarily off his chair. Sincere, earnest, goofy, frightening, somber, tragic - the screenplay by Vanessa Taylor and director Guillermo del Toro is, quite literally, everything. The Shape of Water shouldn't work in any given second, and it works for all of them.
War for the Planet of the Apes
I had to grapple with the concept of hyperbole this past July, because I believed then (and believe now still) that War for the Planet of the Apes is among the greatest blockbusters of all time and wondered how to sell this idea without sounding overtly hyperbolic. The achievement on the part of co-writer/director Matt Reeves (as well as his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback) is a tremendous one: He handles combat warfare with the aplomb of the filmmakers of yore who popularized it. He balances the tough and brutal twists and turns in the storytelling with the skill of a great tragedian and then, just when the viewer might be wishing for something to provide levity, introduces entirely organic comic relief that never interrupts anything (and, when it comes to being funny, succeeds greatly). Those are the broad achievements, and then there are the more specific ones - for instance, the technological innovation (specifically, the motion-capture technique, performed once again by Andy Serkis, in the lead role of Caesar, and certain members of the supporting cast) that was, it turns out, only hinted at in the previous installments of this franchise.
A Ghost Story
The appearance of the ghost as thin figure draped in white, with only two gaping holes for eyes, has approached the comical in its overuse, particularly among family-friendly animation, and so the achievement of writer/director David Lowery's A Ghost Story is considerable in that it returns that iconography to its roots of eerie sadness. The ghost is eerie in how it glides through its surroundings, completely soundless, and in its featureless form. It is sad because we soon realize that this must be a lonely existence, only able to glide, completely soundless, through its surroundings. It is astonishingly effective, especially when the film ultimately embraces a supernatural angle that will not be revealed here. The point of the shift is to emphasize the entirety of time, to examine its impact upon these characters (as opposed to merely the central one), and to ruminate on the very essence of existence. It does so through movement, patience, and introspection.
The Florida Project
It would be going the easy route for The Florida Project to wallow in the despair that exists at the edges of the frame, but co-writer/director Sean Baker is smarter than that. This is a film about childhood that happens to have a backdrop of deepest poverty. The residents of the "purple place," as it is known to the children, have made the hotel (which is actually called the Magic Castle and rests roughly a hundred meters from a certain entertainment complex in Orlando) a kind of settlement. It's a den for the underprivileged, but this is all our young heroine knows in life. The "purple place" might as well be her entire world. What does it matter that this is no place for her to grow up? Baker casts familiar faces against newcomers and, in at least one case, adult film performers to create a facsimile of reality. That is certainly captured by the divisive final minute, which offers two levels of escapist relief.
Those we have lost are always with us, and that phenomenon is literal for a single day of the year in Coco, the latest Pixar Studios effort (from director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Aldrich). The setting is Mexico on el Dia de los Muertos (or "the Day of the Dead" for the non-Spanish-speaking). The land of the dead is an alternate plane of reality: It exists as a mirror of the real world, with the macabre elements informed by the layout of the land of the living. The dead appear as skeletons, though - this being a Pixar movie - the effect rather pleasantly recalls a Halloween costume and not something more genuinely frightening. The surprisingly elaborate plot follows the youngest boy in a family of cobblers. His great-great-grandfather was a musician who left his wife and daughter to seek fortune, and his great-great-grandmother banned the practice. When he stumbles across the musician's guitar, it sends him on a red-blooded, often very funny adventure through the land of the dead. This is one of the great recent achievements in animation.
The Lost City of Z
There is, of course, the fundamental difference between exploration and colonialism. The former primarily functions in the name of science and history, charting paths for the curious among humanity and finding out what it means in the context of the historical record. The latter primarily functions as a means to force upon older civilizations the institution of a new one, often by way of killing the old one in some manner (by genocide or marginalization or both). The Lost City of Z, writer/director James Gray's adaptation of the book by David Grann, examines the thin line between these phenomena, with the hero of the story (Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam in a great performance of restraint and determination) vehemently opposed to the colonialist leanings of his fellows (who would rather pillage the land and build their own civilization) in favor of archaeological exploration (in this case, of a lost city in the Amazon). This film is an astonishment of reverent and relevant themes of human endurance and arrogance.
War is a flat circle in Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan's hypnotic account of the evacuation of 300,000 soldiers from the title commune in northern France over the course of nine days. This isn't so much a dramatization as three vignettes, playing out in tandem but at separate points prior to the event, in which Allied forces attempt to avoid the Axis forces while holed up in an open and vulnerable position along the French shoreline, waiting for warships that seem unlikely ever to make it to them without suffering defeat. Nolan, in collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith, has achieved something notable here, which is to say that the film examines the war experience through controlled chaos and traumatized faces. The film contains a deep well of emotion, into which the filmmaker taps with mesmerizing results.
Here was the best documentary in a year where I saw fewer efforts from documentarians than I would have liked. In any case, entering the world of trophy-hunting was one of the least expected avenues I guessed I would have traveled in 2017, much less finding it one of the most emotionally palpable. We follow a several demographics of people who have made a cottage industry of hunting or otherwise culling resources of wealth from the endangered species in Africa - rhinos, elephants, and lions. The prices are astounding, some entering the six-digit arena, while the horn of the rhino, we learn, is more expensive in certain markets than heroin and gold combined. Director Shaul Schwarz digs deep into unexpected points of sympathy in his subjects (one of which uses the Bible to explicate his reason for hunting), so that a climactic wail of raw emotion comes from an equally unexpected source.
At film festivals, a Special Jury Prize is awarded to a movie that did not win first place, despite the strongly positive critical reaction it received from the judges. Ebert would award this honor in his own lists of a year's best to five titles, listed alphabetically, and so will I. These movies could very well represent the most fun I had in a theater in 2017: Edgar Wright's Baby Driver was an inventive comic gem about a getaway driver wrapped up in a scheme that threatens the lives of those whom he loves, his disposition toward music an engine for the year's most impressive soundtrack. Ben Wheatley's Free Fire gathered a bunch of opposing personalities in a game of tag (with guns!) after a weapons deal in 1970s London goes awry, and the resulting ensemble was one of the year's brightest: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and others. Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, the director's first film out of whatever "retirement" meant for him, saw how the other half steals in the witty, wild adventure of a couple of dumb-lug brothers trying to nab desperately needed cash when one of them is laid off for an insurance liability. Another fun one was Bong Joon-ho's Okja, an unabashed message picture condemning corporate culture that also provided a wonky, film-long chase when a young girl decides to protect the giant hippo-pig creature that'll otherwise be made into foodstuffs. Finally, while Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, of the Disney-housed Marvel universe, had some neato adventures away from Earth, Jon Watts's Spider-Man: Homecoming ate them for lunch with its mash-up of superhero formula, John Hughes breakfast-club comedy, and cliffhanger action, as its titular hero faced down threats on the ground floor.
Here were ten more that I loved, a reasonable list itself in any other given year:
Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts was a boot-leather immersion into the crisis in Raqqa, Syria, as ISIS creates propaganda videos with the look and scope of blockbusters and a guerilla group rises against it to fight.
Jordan Peele's Get Out represented filmmaking at its most sociologically conscious (or "woke," as the kids came to say) in its pitch satire of cultural woes giving a shot in the arm to a genuinely inventive social-horror structure.
Colm McCarthy's The Girl with All the Gifts drops us, blind and dumb, into an apocalyptic landscape where the zombie phenomenon is a global epidemic and a young girl (played by special newcomer Sennia Nanua) holds a secret regarding its nature.
Cristian Mungiu's Graduation was a riveting dramatic thriller about a daughter who is attacked on the eve of a test that might gain her entry into a prestigious university, her arm broken and her innocence lost, and a father who searches for justice in the wrong places.
James Mangold's Logan caught up with Hugh Jackman's X-Men character and Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier in hiding on the Mexico border and paired them with young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) in a grim, violent, surprisingly poetic adventure of discovery.
Claude Barras' My Life as a Zucchini was an animated film not quite ready-made for kids but, at the same time, probably an invaluable experience in the making for them: After accidentally killing his mother, a young boy is sent off to a group home for troubled kids.
Bertrand Bonello's scary, sad, and absorbing Nocturama followed a group of terrorists in Paris, "protesting" against the corruption of capitalist structures by placing bombs around the city, detonating them, killing a few witnesses here and there, and then - get this - parading around a mall while they wait out the police.
Message pictures were common this year, but few were as accomplished as Steven Spielberg's The Post, an account of the Washington Post and its editorship stumbling upon the Pentagon Papers, featuring one of the year's finest ensemble casts.
Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a devastating and blackly funny movie about a mother avenging her daughter's rape and murder by buying out three billboards to taunt the police into doing their job, sending a flurry through the town and its law enforcement leadership.
Makoto Shinkai's Your Name was a heady sci-fi anime treasure about a pair of youths whose minds occasionally switch with each other. I hesitate to reveal more, because the unexpectedly emotional climax hinges on a surprise surrounding the phenomenon of time.
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