By Tasha Robinson / @TashaRobinson
The year-end list-making urge is powerful. It’s like a nesting instinct — a drive to put things in order, to organize the world into something comfortable and manageable and orderly by assembling the best of everything in one place. For critics, it’s also a rare chance to remind themselves and their readers why they most likely got into this industry — to see amazing movies, to think about them in depth, and to try to call more attention to the industry’s most exceptional, affecting, and sometimes overlooked work. Every year-end best-of list is subjective, and this one is too. Personally, I’m a big fan of ambition, innovation, daring, and beauty in movies, and a film that tries something radical and mostly succeeds is always going to get a higher rating from me than a film that does something conventional and predictable, even if it does it perfectly. With that in mind, here are my favorites from 2017:
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is a riff on Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives, but with a new twist: just as he often did in the well-loved Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele, he draws on familiar genre beats, then injects racial tensions. The script is brilliant, with layer upon layer of nuance and subtle connections. It’s a puzzle that fits together perfectly, as Peele highlights the unspoken social currents in interracial reactions, and makes them uncomfortable and subversively funny at the same time. Get Out is an over-the-top horror movie about a black photographer (played by Daniel Kaluuya) squirming through his first meeting with the rich, liberal family of his white girlfriend, but it’s also an endlessly surprising and beautifully fine-tuned story about microaggressions and racial discomfort, code-switching and coded language, and how the relationships between black and white people have — and haven’t — changed over generations. Get Out includes a terrific cast, some of the cinematic year’s most startling imagery, one of its strongest and most useful metaphors in the Sunken Place, and an ending that feels not just earned, but urgently necessary in 2017.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama, loosely inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, starts off as a kind of romance , then keeps evolving over and over into different stories, each one meticulously crafted and sumptuously shot. Daniel Day-Lewis (in his supposed final role before retirement) plays an aging 1950s fashion designer who caters to high society. Lesley Manville is his sister and manager and minder; Vicky Krieps is a young waitress he adopts as his model and muse. The relationship they form is rich and complicated, but Anderson builds it around their idiosyncrasies and their stubbornness, and once it becomes clear how set both of them are in their ways, the story lays out endless possibilities for how their well-ordered world can fall apart. This is a visually stunning film about fashion, elitism, snobbery, possessiveness, and the ego of an artist, but it’s also about the soft weapons of ruthlessness and politeness. And every moment of it is restrained, calculated, and striking.
David Lowery’s indie meditation on mortality got a lot of publicity as “that movie where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie in one shot,” but months after its release, what lingers about A Ghost Story is its sheer audacity in exploring time, space, and the universe through the eyes of a dead man — or rather, the eyeholes in the sheet draped over his body. Lowery mixes a deliberately cartoony image — a ghost that looks like an extra from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — with a haunting score and an expansive narrative that takes in past, present, and future to suggest that time is a strictly human construct, that the afterlife is what we make of it, that art connects us, and our drives define us. For long stretches, it operates without language, which makes Lowery’s haunting imagery (literally haunting) all the more memorable.
Back at the Sundance Film Festival, Dave McCary’s directing debut, Brigsby Bear, seemed like the earliest possible contender for the Nicest Film Of The Year. Now, in December, it’s still a worthy winner of that made-up prize. A story about a young man (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-scripted) raised at a complete remove from society, that is completely obsessed with a low-rent, quirky children’s TV series called Brigsby Bear, the film follows the format of a fish-out-of-water comedy. But it takes the protagonist’s vast limitations and weirdo obsessions entirely seriously, and finds a solemn joy in his quest to re-create his favorite show with a cadre of new friends. The movie is gently funny and strikingly authentic, and it gets at the heart of what drives a lot of creative endeavors today: the endless appeal of someone with an unabashedly geeky, intense passion for a project, and the willingness to pursue it at all costs.
For viewers who were around when the Tonya Harding assault scandal broke in 1994, a comic drama rehabilitating her image may sound quixotic at best, and downright offensive at worst. But Craig Gillespie’s Harding biopic (his follow-up to the sentimental rescue-at-sea thriller The Finest Hours) is playful enough to be disarming, and slick enough to be compelling, if not entirely convincing. Margot Robbie plays Harding as a lower-class striver whose poverty and lack of polish work against her from the start, in a field where she excels through raw talent and hard work, but still can’t get an even break. Steven Rogers’ script is witty and startling, full of fourth-wall-breaking gags and acknowledgements that this story comes from self-serving, contradictory interviews from figures like Harding’s mother (played with acerbic brilliance by Allison Janney) and abusive ex-husband (Sebastian Stan, looking weedy and dorky and miles off his work as Marvel’s Winter Soldier). The story here may not entirely jibe with history, but it stands as an indictment against media-frenzy snap judgments of complicated stories, and it suggests that there’s a lot more to any tabloid tale than what the headlines suggest.
Darren Aronofsky’s complicated parable — equal parts Bible retelling, climate-change metaphor, and examination of fame — has been memorably divisive, with audiences either decrying its obviousness or completely missing the symbolism. But love it, hate it, or dismiss it as overstated allegory, it’s hard to miss what a tautly-made film it is, and how it uses music, set design, visual effects, and performances seamlessly to build an unnervingly nightmarish scenario. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a woman (credited only as “Mother”) who wants only to be alone with her older, famous writer husband (Javier Bardem) in the house she refurbished for them. T hen his fans come flocking, and everything changes. It’s a startling and confusing film the first time through, especially for viewers who walked in expecting the scary-but-safe home-invasion thriller the ads seemed to suggest was coming. But watching it again, with the proper expectations in place, it’s easier to see how Aronofsky turned a brilliantly complicated script into a visceral horror story that works on many levels. And Lawrence and Bardem give terrific performances as the couple having radically different experiences as their world falls apart.
Director Hayao Miyazaki has once again backed down on his plan to end production at Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, the home of memorable movies including Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, and many more. But when the studio wound down, it left enough staffers homeless that it made sense for them to form a new outlet of their own. Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the first feature from the fledgling Studio Ponoc, looks and feels like a Ghibli film on every level, but it isn’t just a cheap imitation of greatness — it was made by Ghibli veterans, and captures the feel of the studio’s gorgeously detailed, handcrafted animation and its lively, yet so often melancholy, characters. Mary follows a young girl who runs across a powerful magical plant that grants her access to a Harry Potter-esque world of witches and wizards. She embraces the adventure without understanding the consequences, and ends up in over her head. But as in so many Ghibli films, where experience and knowledge fail, courage and a good heart count for a lot. And like Ghibli’s work, this winds up being a story suitable for children, but thoroughly enjoyable for adults.
This grim story, set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, also involves a young girl who’s in over her head, but it’s much darker and less child-friendly. Directed by Nora Twomey, who co-helmed The Secret of Kells, and animated by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, home of Kells and Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner isn’t as elaborately designed as those films, but is drawn with the same dizzying visual layers, vivid colors, and wild beauty. Set in 2001, the film centers on 11-year-old Parvana, a girl who disguises herself as a boy when her father is arrested. Because the laws say she, her sister, and her mother can’t leave the house without a male escort, they’re left to starve without her father, so Parvana has to become the family breadwinner and escort. In the process, she accesses an easy world of freedom where she isn’t constantly being judged and abused — until she tries to find out what’s happening to her father. This is a painful story about the human cost of oppressive religious regimes, and the horror of a system that allows bullies to mask sadism as piety. But it’s also a fiercely uplifting story about protest and resistance, and about fighting back at all cost. The fairy tale woven through the story, told by Parvana, is particularly gorgeous and heartbreaking.
Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical drama stars Saoirse Ronan as a Catholic schoolgirl trying to pin down her own identity in her senior year of high school, as her angry, hurting mother (Laurie Metcalf, in one of the year’s best performances) tries to push back against her decisions. It’s a scrapbook-like collection of thoughts and scenes — Ronan’s character, who renames herself Lady Bird, fumbles through a few romances, loses a friend and makes a new one, joins the school play, applies for college, and undergoes other little personal rites of passage. It’s a closely observed, quietly emotional film about a girl strong-willed enough to throw herself out of a car on the highway to escape an annoying conversation, but still sensitive enough to have her heart broken by boys, her mother, and her family’s poverty. Ronan, still one of the best young actors working today, draws sympathy for Lady Bird even when the character is being a bit of a brat; she’s so clearly trying to fumble free of the world’s expectations and learn how to be herself. Yet the film’s quirky specificity makes this common plot arc feel fresh, unique, and endlessly surprising.
The year where Wonder Woman finally got her own live-action feature film (and a tremendous one at that) was also the year where writer-director Angela Robinson finally managed to find funding for her behind-the-scenes look at the comic. She comes to it through its creator, William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), and the kinky, polyamorous relationship that informed it behind the scenes. Robinson examines how Marston, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their eventual lover Olive (Bella Heathcote) lived by principles that shaped Wonder Woman’s story, particularly by exploring bondage, submission, and bisexuality. But she gets there through a passionate, spirited personal drama that’s lovingly shot and exceptionally well-acted. As the trio navigate their mutual desire, Robinson does something surprisingly uncommon in cinema: she makes sex look like fun, like something that can be joyous and silly and playful as well as passionate and intense. Extending their relationship to show how it affected the comic is a pop-culture bonus that gives Professor Marston more dimension, but even without that connection, this would be a winning film, a look at the difficulties of maintaining an unconventional relationship in a judgmental world, and at how following convention isn’t nearly as important as finding a stable, sustaining, mutually satisfying partnership.
And speaking of Wonder Woman, that live-action film was the strongest and most satisfying superhero movie in a year with plenty of them. Director Patty Jenkins pulls off one of the most difficult jobs in 2017 cinema: she follows the DC Comics movies line of keeping the story grim and heavy and uncertain about humanity’s relationship to heroes, but she also charts her own course, bringing in improv to loosen up the dialogue, and giving Wonder Woman a little wry humor that makes a world of difference. Turning any real-life actor into an outsized comic book hero is hard, but Gal Gadot seems to have been born to play Wonder Woman: she has the athleticism and the presence, the imperious confidence and warm approachability. But Jenkins also lets this Wonder Woman enjoy her powers and experience some joy in life, even as she’s taking her responsibilities seriously. The final CGI face-off is the only disappointing note in this standout film, which considers the relationship between humanity and its heroes without dragging the film down into a philosophical morass. It’s a thrilling movie, and a strong foundation not just for future DC movies (Wonder Woman certainly improved Justice League a fair bit), but for woman-driven superhero movies as a whole.
James Franco’s transformation into writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau is the centerpiece of this comedic look at the making of Wiseau’s The Room, and it’s a good deal of the appeal. The shape of the story, about a young man (James’ brother Dave Franco, as Room co-star Greg Sestero) who falls in with an ambitious outsider and then discovers the downside, is pretty conventional. But the details make this movie — the endless bizarre claims and terrible decisions Wiseau makes, the way his deeply strange personality infects everything he touches, and the so-bad-it’s-celebrated midnight movie that results from his attempt to become a famous filmmaker. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber embellish the truth in places where the truth is more interesting, and slap a pat, rushed conclusion on the story. But The Disaster Artist is still monumentally funny and just a wee bit tragic, and it features an astonishingly Wiseau-like performance from James Franco, who clearly came to the project from a place of love rather than garish parody. As a companion to The Room, this movie is invaluable.
Robin Campillo’s exploration of the Paris wing of the AIDS activism group ACT UP covers a lot of ground. As he covers the group’s contentious but remarkably well-ordered meetings, his movie feels like a documentary about AIDS in the early 1990s, and the different angles of attack different groups brought to bear on the health crisis in France. But when he tracks a romance between two ACT UP members (one HIV positive, one negative, both vividly aware of that fact), BPM starts to feel more like a gay coming-of-age movie like Blue is the Warmest Color, or a loss drama like Longtime Companion. In all three modes, the film is immersive and vivid, with an ensemble cast bringing across the passion and anger of mostly young, mostly queer, HIV-positive activists facing down death, channeling their helpless anger into action, and fighting to make their last days meaningful. But Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is a particular standout as Sean, an angry young man who’s central to the cause, and slowly succumbing to the disease. Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot (credited with “collaboration on screenplay”) get into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to keep an activist movement going, especially with a lot of strong personalities and conflicting agendas in play. But Campillo also tracks the tragedy of public ignorance and apathy, and of young lives cut short. It’s a sprawling film, but even at its most diffuse, it’s guaranteed to stick in the memory.
Edgar Wright’s gloriously revved-up iPod musical Baby Driver is sometimes candy-colored and candy-weighted, with more style than actual impact. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a heist movie for the MP3 age, more concerned with how its protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort), experiences his internal world of pop music than how he interacts with the world around him. The soundtrack he’s constantly pumping into his ears gives Baby Driver its verve and energy, particularly in an early sequence where Baby bops down the street, with the words to the song he’s hearing incorporated into the world around him. But Wright’s film is also a functional, traditional heist movie, complete with conflicting agendas, a crew of untrustworthy specialists (Jon Hamm is a major highlight), and a scheme that falls apart. Baby Driver has its issues, especially with the dull by-the-numbers romance that motivates Baby’s end-game. (It’s not that much different from the equally bland fantasy romance in Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, but that film constantly lampshaded its hero’s shallowness, whereas Baby Driver seems to find Baby authentically too cool for school.) But its sheer subjectivity is a lot of what makes the film unique. It’s a joyously, unabashedly solipsistic fantasy that ultimately breaks down when it encounters the real world, and the pure fantasy elements and the way Wright undermines them are both part of the fun.
Slipping quietly into theaters in January 2017 after a late-2016 awards-qualifying run, Michael Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-nominated fairy tale is a remarkable piece of animation that plays out almost entirely without words. It follows a shipwrecked man to an island, where his attempts to escape are blocked by a giant turtle; from there, the story unfolds with the dreamlike logic and sudden surprises of a fable. Made with the advice and backing of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, but remarkably different from anything they’ve produced, The Red Turtle feels much like a French art comic, complete with sumptuous visuals, rich colors, a focus on mundane and telling details, and a story that follows reasonable paths to outlandish ends. It’s uncommonly beautiful, and its melancholy, reflective tone can be lulling. But de Wit still finds plenty of excitement and intensity in the man’s struggles for survival, and what comes after.
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The 15 best movies of 2017 – The Verge
By Tasha Robinson / @TashaRobinson