12 months ago
2017 has been the year when national news headlines contained more compelling cliffhangers than theatrical movies – don’t get me started about how kickass the small-screen stories were. Often it’s been genre films – coming-of-age, horror or heist – that slip in an unconventional message while being more broadly entertaining than teachable arthouse fare. Here are my favorites in no particular order:
Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age-in-Sacramento dramedy is a love-hate letter to growing up in suburbia – as if Joan Didion was the awkward teen. It’s also a mother-daughter crisis movie that resonates with that horrible hard-won truth: separation is as hard for left-behind mothers as it is for rebellious daughters craving freedom in a distant creative kingdom called New York. As someone who’s seen the dynamic from both sides now – as a mother and a daughter – no other movie captures this intense time in which the child is coming out of her chrysalis and the mother is confronting her own obsolescence. Gerwig, who wrote and directed, drills deep with Irish star Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn, Hanna) collaborating in perfect tune. And Laurie Metcalf shines as the mother shouldering the family load.
I like my beefcake with a side of humor. Opening this superhero action-adventure with Chris Hemsworth’s mighty, mighty Thor dangling from a chain before an evil lord, his muscleman speech disrupted by his awkward spinning away from his captor, sets the wacky tone for the freest Marvel comic-book movie in years. I give all credit to director Taika Waititi (also voice of Korg), whose vampire mockumentary Things We Do in the Shadows is one of my favorite recent comedies. The blockbuster only proves that there’s still a lot of creativity possible in these studio behemoths – especially when tapping the potential of an all-star cast including Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch and a nutty turn from new villain on the block Jeff Goldblum. Ragnarok on, Waititi.
Sally Hawkins merits a Best Actress Oscar – but the Academy will likely nominate her for playing the mute amphibian-lover in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Meanwhile, it’s in Aisling Walsh’s character-driven drama about arthritic Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (1903-1970) whose struggle to express herself through paint in a backward time, gives Hawkins the kind of role that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for My Left Foot. Paired with Ethan Hawke as a dour fisherman, Hawkins’ Maudie is a moving profile in private courage and a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform daily life.
Anyone with a teen who’s seen The Fault in our Stars knew that breakout Ansel Elgort is the real deal – he just needed a lead in an adult vehicle. Put the lanky New Yorker behind the wheel of a car in Edgar Wright’s music-driven heist film and he proves he can handle the big-boy pants of stardom. Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) has a talent for spinning genre films into hugely entertaining and humanistic pop culture adventures – and Baby Driver proves he can continue without sacrificing his soul to the Hollywood hit machine.
If you have not yet seen this drama, boot up Netflix and watch it right now! Dee Rees (Pariah) directs a tale of two soldiers – one black, one white – that return from WW2 transformed by the experience and ill-suited to conform to the prejudiced racial dynamics of rural Mississippi. The empathetic script – co-written by Rees and Virgil Williams based on Hillary Jordan’s novel – uses multiple narrations to give a choral sense of the humans living on the racial divide. Panoramic yet intimate, Mudbound offers a masterclass in screenwriting in and of itself, but casting an almost unidentifiable Mary J. Blige as the black matriarch, along with Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks makes this indie drama resonate in any year.
The Rape of Recy Taylor
Who’s Recy Taylor and why is her story important? Leave it to documentarian Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story, By Sidney Lumet) to parse the many layers of racism, sexism and institutional bias in a small Alabama town where everybody knew each other by teasing out the story of Taylor, an African American wife and mother and member of the community gang-raped by six young white men ON HER WAY HOME FROM CHURCH! Buirski works on the granular level – eking out the narrative of that horrific 1944 assault – as well as showing how, against a bigger backdrop, black women including Activist Rosa Parks became the bulwark of the Civil Rights Movement.
In this harrowing, hysterical pop biopic, one of the great blonde versus brunette rivalries– that between Olympic hopeful figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Olympian rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlyn Carver) – takes a major twist on the tabloid sports story we thought we knew. A comedy of class and, yes, domestic violence, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya goes deep behind the headlines to show Harding as a hardscrabble underdog with a violent mother (a brilliant Allison Janney) and abusive husband (Jeff Gillooly). Robbie dominates like she never has before in an against-all-odds portrait of an ultra-talented athlete tripped up by poverty, snobbery and violence.
City of Ghosts
The power to tell one’s own story drives this eye-opening war documentary by Michael Heineman (Cartel Land). In Syria, the town of Raqqa liberates itself from the Assad regime only to fall prey to ISIS. How do the resistance fighters – known as RBSS or ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ — expose the truth in their hometown to the world at large using the tools of smartphones and the internet? In turn, it’s those very tools that make it so difficult for these citizen journalists to hide from their antagonists outside of Syria. New technology and old prejudices battle in a you-are-there nonfiction narrative that takes viewers deep inside war-torn territory with guides whose humanity and bravery shines through.
What frightens us depends on who we are and our position in the societal food chain. Jordan Peele’s hilarious and horrifying debut starts with a common trope: an African American, Chris (Daniel Kuluuya), heads home for a meet-the-parents weekend with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). But something is rotten in suburbia as Chris gradually discovers that her parents (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford) and their country club cronies have a racket going that doesn’t involve tennis balls but the bodies of black men and women. Peele examines contemporary race relations while stirring everybody in the audience to identify with Chris and yell “get out!” before covering their eyes with a sweater.
The image of a vegetarian snacking on raw chicken cutlets is not the most disgusting thing about Parisian Julia Ducournau’s retch-worthy college student coming-of-age horror film, now readily available on Amazon. While it might have flown under the radar when it premiered theatrically earlier this year, the story disturbs on a number of levels recalling early David Cronenberg as vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) joins her older sister at the veterinarian college also attended by their parents. After an excruciating rush experience where upperclassmen force the shy Justine to consume raw meat, she gets an insatiable hunger for flesh and an education in life. Sophisticated and thrilling, the shocker uses its cannibal theme to explore the relations between children and parents, sisters and the quest for identity that defines freshman year.