It feels as though we’re only one tweet away from nuclear war. Our president doesn’t know the difference between chilly weather and climate change. Racists are emboldened by the KKKlown in the White House.
Despite these existential horrors, life continues and, even in some ways, improves. Protesters have found their voice (witness Time Magazine’s “People of the Year”) and banded together in ways perhaps not seen since 1968. To borrow from Interstellar (and, oh yeah, Dylan Thomas), we will rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The cinema of 2017 has been another bright spot in dark times, so bright in fact that I was compelled to add another film to the usual dozen in my Best of the Year list. I agonized over some of the films I’ve excluded: to wit, the enlargement of my “Honorable Mention” section.
At first, I wondered whether the bigger number of excellent films reflected a wish to escape into movies this year. But looking over my list, I see that few of my choices could be considered escapist. Far more typically, these films offered me (and other viewers) the privilege of artistic “double vision,” seeing the world through others’ eyes.
So, please enjoy, and tell me in the “Comments” section about your favorite films of 2017.
It feels right to start my list with a joyous work, one that I described in my review as “visual humanism of the highest order.” Co-directed by Agnes Varda (now 88 years old, and one of the original founders of the French New Wave) and JR (the 33 year old French street artist), the pair traverses France and plies JR’s trade of posting massive photographs of ordinary people on everyday objects. In their eyes, the ordinary are honored as beautiful and worthy of celebration. Their film brims over with charm, humor, and touching reflections on the power of photographs to stoke cherished memories.
First-time director Jordan Peele takes inspiration from the best – Alfred Hitchcock, A Clockwork Orange, The Manchurian Candidate – to craft a horror movie very much his own, that delivers a searing allegory about race relations in 21st Century America. Through the growing creepiness of a black boyfriend’s first visit to meet his white girlfriend’s affluent family, Peele yanks the mask off a nation that is always willing to claim black athletic and artistic achievements for itself, while opposing a people’s striving for equal treatment. (Sound familiar, NFL watchers?)
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors of Jesus Camp, deliver an additional study of toxic religiosity in their latest documentary. In this instance, three ex-Hasidim entrusted Ewing and Grady with access to their lives (and as my review pointed out, formed enough of a lasting bond to show up for the film’s world premiere in Toronto and participate in a teary Q&A). Their stories inspire with their bravery, their courage to flee abuse, and their integrity to engage in critical thinking in opposition to lifelong indoctrination. The broader consideration of New York City’s Hasidic community offers another instance of the pathology inherent to any dogmatic, insular religion; how believing in a personal mandate from the Divine can rationalize atrocious conduct; and the perils of church/state intermingling.
- and 9. Cries from Syria and Last Men in Aleppo
Both documentaries are crucial viewing for anyone seeking to comprehend the civil war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis. Start with Cries from Syria, a masterclass in current events filmmaking for its enlightening clarity. Its intensity results from its reliance on video footage captured by ordinary Syrian citizens and protesters resisting Assad’s murderous dictatorship.
Last Men in Aleppo, if anything, is still more disturbing and gut-wrenching. With a “you are there” vividness, we follow two men serving in the Syria Civil Defense. These are the white-helmeted volunteers who pull civilians (living and dead) from the rubble of the buildings bombed by Assad and his Russian allies. Neither film shies away from showing the grim cost of Assad’s brutality, but Last Men was especially hard to watch, as the survival of the men we observe at work and with their families is not guaranteed. See if your stance on the U.S. and Europe’s refugee policies changes after viewing these two documentaries.
Todd Haynes’ Carol (from 2015) is the superior work, but this is still quite the worthy follow up. And wow, does Haynes have style! Containing two short films within the larger whole film, as well as following two storylines in NYC separated by 50 years, each portion of this quartet is shot in a completely different visual fashion. As it follows two deaf children on their quests, some may be put off by Wonderstruck’s deliberate pacing. But I’d urge you to enjoy the ride, as the payoff at the end more than rewards any attentive viewer.
- Call Me by Your Name
I’ll admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to see this film. Director Luca Guadagnino has been hit or miss for me, and his prior film (A Bigger Splash) felt ponderous and pretentious. And the subject matter of this film – a grad student falls for the 17 year old son of his professor – struck me as icky and ill-timed in this year of “me too.” But James Ivory’s script and Timothée Chalamet’s performance as 17 year old Elio are near-perfect in capturing adolescence, with all of its infatuation, horniness, and neurotic insecurity. As an added bonus, the rapport between Elio and his father (played splendidly by the underappreciated Michael Stuhlbarg) nearly brought me to tears with its kindness and intimacy.
Finally! Here’s a traditional Hollywood crowd-pleaser! Everything clicks in Guillermo del Toro’s delightful fairy tale of unconventional love between a mute cleaning lady and a captured sea creature. Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones are terrific as the leads, supported quite ably by a cast including Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg (again!), Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins. It helps, too, that its unsubtle message of accepting and loving the Other couldn’t be any timelier.
Evidently, 2017 was a great year for topical allegories. The latest from writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) is perhaps his best. Jennifer Lawrence also does her finest work here, as the extremely long-suffering wife of a self-absorbed writer, chillingly played by Javier Bardem. A quartet of destructive house-crashers uncannily resembles Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. Their deeds and the crimes perpetrated by the gangs that follow, make it clear that Aronofsky has crafted a powerful parable about the damage we’ve inflicted upon Mother Earth, enabled by the wantonness and indifference of our world’s religions. Mother! has polarized the critics I know, but my family and I were stunned into breathlessness by the time the credits rolled.
Director Robin Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot drew upon their involvement in ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s to create a profoundly stirring portrait of lives where activism and intimacy form a seamless garment. Handheld camerawork gives BPM a documentary feel. But Campillo’s artfulness – as in a party scene where dust motes above a dance floor morph into a microscopic image of an infected white blood cell – reveals how disease and the potential for death spilled into the celebratory and romantic moments of this era.
I was lucky enough to see this drama – covering a week in the life of a Congolese coal vendor – at the Toronto International Film Festival. During the Q&A that followed its screening, director/writer/cameraman Emmanuel Gras stated that his goal in making Makala was “to make [viewers] feel another way of living.” He definitely succeeded. Using non-professional actors (the lead, Kabwita Kasongo, is indeed a Congolese coal vendor), we are immersed in the lives of subsistence laborers we would never meet otherwise. Gras amazingly, organically creates suspense out of Kabwita’s journey to market, showing us his quotidian dangers from the elements, looming trucks, and bribe-seeking cops. Nonjudgmentally and subtly, Gras’ camera pans also show us the tragic cost of Kabwita’s labor, a landscape denuded of vegetation.
One mark of a great work is that it motivates the viewer to dig deeper into a subject. After watching Raoul Peck’s documentary – based upon an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin chronicling his friendships with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers – I spent the next two months studying the life and writings of Baldwin.
Peck’s visual essay is a perfect mirror of Baldwin’s dense, meandering, prophetic style. Like Baldwin, Peck uses American cinematic history to better comprehend black American history. Likewise, the superb editing by Alexandra Strauss blends film stock of Baldwin’s lectures and television appearances; images of King, Malcolm, and Evers; and contemporary footage from locales like Ferguson to show that Baldwin’s words are just as necessary today.
In I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin states that “nothing can change until it faced,” while lamenting America’s immaturity and historical denial, propping up existences “so empty, so tame, so ugly.” In this first year of Trump’s presidency, with the threats posed by Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Mike Pence and his white Religious Right, the continued urgency of Baldwin’s words and Peck’s film are undeniable.
Honorable mention: Bending the Arc, The Florida Project, The House by the Sea, I, Tonya, Jane, Last Flag Flying, Lean on Pete, The Lost City of Z, Spielberg, The Square, Thelma, Whose Streets?, Wonder