2017's Top Films
Looking back on 2017 brought to mind Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles) classic line in The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Does chaos breed exceptional art? It certainly felt that way this year. Sometimes the movie theater could serve as a refuge from a world that appeared to be falling apart, and sometimes it reflected that world. Either way, it produced excellence on both the big-studio and indie side, as evidenced by my Honorable Mention list:
War for the Planet of the Apes
My top ten list all offered something new, whether it was people whose stories had not been told, or tackling familiar subjects from a fresh perspective:
10. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig) – Harvey Pekar once said that “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Gerwig must believe that, as she creates something special out of what on the surface, is a very ordinary coming-of-age story. She gives her characters warmth, depth and humor. The tone and tenor of the family arguments ring true to so many people. Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan fit their mother-daughter roles perfectly. You can understand and sympathize with each side. Metcalf and Ronan make the most out of the razor sharp dialogue, but their quiet scenes are just as powerful. Bill Henry always said that actors turned directors have a special gift in bringing out the best from their cast, and that’s certainly true with Gerwig. Her time as the “It Girl” of indie films may have just been a warmup to her work as a writer-director.
9. Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina) – Pixar’s glory days were so successful, both critically and commercially, that it’s all too easy to view their more recent output as underwhelming by comparison. But Coco belongs in the group with Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Up. Like those seminal films, Coco presents a full, vibrant and exciting world, filled with both large flourishes and tiny details. The film takes its own singular path, drawing from Mexican folklore to create the “Land of the Dead,” a beautiful, colorful place. While the story and characters are, in many ways, uniquely Mexican, they touch on universal themes such as duty to family vs. following your own heart. Coco also challenges assumptions on both a narrative and cultural level. The music stands on its own while serving as an expression of character. By making a Mexican story both specific and accessible Coco is as groundbreaking as Black Panther.
8. I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie) – I remember the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal unfold on live television. But even if you didn’t know a thing about it, you would enjoy I, Tonya. There’s no universal truth in this story, so Steven Rogers’s script embraces the conflicting points of view. Rogers and Gillespie deftly weave in questions about class and popular expectations. They show sympathy for the characters while never losing a critical eye. Margot Robbie immerses herself in the lead role, in scenes both on and off the ice. Her own athletic prowess, plus seamless CGI, make the figure skating scenes completely convincing. It’s Allison Janney, going against type as Harding’s acerbic and cruel mother, who steals every scene. Gillespie keeps the film at a brisk pace throughout, and lets the audience come to their own judgments. I, Tonya crackles with humor, insight, and bite.
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh) – More than any other film from 2017, Three Billboards captures the anger and fear gripping America. More specifically, a distrust of those around us and a belief that our institutions have failed to protect us. Frances McDormand’s searing portrayal of a mother out for both justice and vengeance feels so authentic that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing that part. Sam Rockwell serves an effective counterpoint to McDormand, as a police officer just as angry and violent, but with no direction. Woody Harrelson brings a quiet strength to a man futilely striving for peace and decency. McDonagh skillfully builds audiences assumptions, and then sets about dramatically subverting them, taking the story and characters in unexpected directions. That we willingly go along is a testament to the talent of McDonagh and his collaborators.
6. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter) – The Big Sick begins as a typical romantic comedy, with a meet-cute and an awkward courtship between two unlikely lovers. Thankfully, screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are interested in something more. Drawing upon their real life love story, they first broaden the tale into a culture clash between Najiani’s (playing a loose version of himself) traditional Pakistani family and his feelings for the non-Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan). Then they remove Emily, as her character slips into a coma. When Kumail meets Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) the film goes into uncharted territory. The Big Sick takes the time to develop the relationship among the three of them. Kumail’s growth as a person feels earned not forced, likely in part because he was drawing on what actually happened to him. The film also has fun with overcoming stereotypes, both of Pakistanis and of the stand-up comedy world that Kumail occupies. Hunter and Romano, as the bigger names, earned more of the acclaim, but Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents add just as much to the richness of the story. The Big Sick redefines what a romantic comedy can be: different and fresh.
5. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (dir. Steve James) – James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) excels at telling personal, intimate stories while folding in larger themes. In this case it’s the Sung family, which runs Abacus, a small community bank primarily serving New York’s Chinatown area. Somehow Abacus became the only bank criminally indicted as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Other, much larger banks, who actually precipitated the crisis, got away with fines or nothing at all. James takes the time to get to know the Sungs, illustrating how they are dedicated to growing and protecting their community (the patriarch was even inspired by George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life). So the hammer coming down on the bank, (based on the action of one rogue employee) becomes that much more devastating. James deftly layers the Sungs’ hardship with questions about how other financial institutions got off so lightly. Other filmmakers have covered the 2008 meltdown, but none have presented it in such human terms.
4. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro) – Seeing The Shape of Water, you can’t help feeling that all of the skills and talents del Toro developed, and all of the themes he’s explored throughout his career, led to this film. Del Toro fills The Shape of Water with his affection for old Hollywood, and his affinity for outsiders who don’t fit in “normal” society. Each frame is an exquisitely detailed work of art, like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale come to life. Del Toro also cast the film perfectly. Sally Hawkins can convey more with just her face than other actors with pages of dialogue. Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, and the great Doug Jones (not the Senator) all create vivid characters. While the film is set in 1962, it feels as timely as ever with questions about nontraditional love.
3. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees) – Other than The Shape of Water and possibly Dunkirk, Mudbound was the 2017 film that most deserved to be seen on a big screen. Unfortunately it was generally confined to television due to Netflix’s shortsighted distribution strategy. Mudbound has a John Ford epic scope reminiscent of his classics The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. Rees, who adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel, sets two families, one white and one black, trying to live off the land in rural Mississippi post-World War II. The film brutally depicts how racism divides people who have more in common then they realize. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell have a chemistry that drives the film, while Mary J. Blige lends a gravitas to her role as the matriarch of one of the families and the nanny for the other. Rees takes a risk by switching narration and point-of-view among six characters, but she pulls it off by keeping a strong grip on the narrative thread.
2. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (dir. Alexandre O. Philippe) – A documentary about a single scene, how could that possibly work? When it’s the shower killing in Psycho, quite exhilaratingly. Philippe explores every aspect of those seminal moments, from the storyboards, to the shooting to the editing to the music. He even covers how Hitchcock tested stabbing various melons to get the sound he wanted for a knife cutting through Marion Crane’s flesh. While Phillipe is thorough, he’s also playful and irreverent, keeping a sense of fun throughout. He enlists a wide range of guests, including Guillermo del Toro, Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Walter Murch, to illustrate the power and the influence of that scene. The deep dive becomes a master class on filmmaking itself, while Phillippe also broadens the scope to show the impact of the shower scene on Psycho, Hitchcock’s career and film in general. For anyone who loves Hitchcock, or for that matter, loves movies, 78/52 is a must.
1. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker) – As he did with his earlier film Tangerine, Baker finds the common humanity of those on the outskirts of society. In this case, it’s the “hidden homeless” families who live month-to-month, in some cases day-to-day, in cheap tourist motels. This could easily be a dirge, but Baker finds the life, laughter, and even the joy in this world. He’s helped by Brooklynn Prince, a six-year-old star in the making, as Moonee, a girl who has her run of that motel and the others in the outskirts near Disneyworld. In Prince’s hands Moonee is a precocious, fun scamp whom adults just can’t say no to. Prince has a charisma, energy, and ease on camera that most adult actors would kill for. Baker shoots much of the film from Moonee’s vantage point in a very naturalistic way, echoing classic neorealism Italian films of the late 40s and early 50s. He gives the film a firm sense of place, with its own customs and pressures. Bria Vinaite, as Halley, Moonee’s mother, has an easy chemistry with Prince. Halley is hardly a normal, or even capable mother, but seems to work for Moonee until she takes things too far. Willem Dafoe turns in career-best work as Bobby, the hotel manager and unofficial caretaker for its longtime residents. Thanks to Baker and his cast, by the end of the film you feel like you live there and know these people. Roger Ebert said that movies are empathy machines, and The Florida Project proves his point beautifully.
March 1, 2018