Caveats: I am desperately behind with this year’s slate of foreign films (sorry, Diane Kruger), and have yet to see Coco, which I am told would be in my top ten.
1. Phantom Thread: P.T. Anderson’s dark comic examination of a mid-century couturier has been a divisive work among viewers. There is a consensus that the film is beautiful with a shaded performance from Daniel Day-Lewis in what he claims to be his final role. (I’ll believe that when Cher actually retires.) The film begins as a rather nostalgic, languorous view of a staid, repressed fashion designer with a set of odd neuroses and a prim sister who runs the front of his couture house. He discovers a new muse waitressing in a local pub and begins to craft a new line around her. The third act, however, clearly goes off these classical Hollywood rails and the film delves into Oedipal fissures that cut through the relationships of this triad. For some, the jarring exploration of complicated sexual desire may not fit what feels like a Merchant-Ivory film, but this rather shocking tonal shift demonstrates why this will remain a standout work within Anderson’s catalog and indicative of his approach to narrative and sexuality.
2. Mudbound: It has been reported that this penetrating look at sharecroppers’ lives in the Mississippi Delta around the second World War faced few offers for distribution deals when it was on the awards circuit. Some have argued that this was because several studios did not feel that there was a sufficient audience to see in theaters a two-and-a-half-hour film that can be rather bleak and trying at times. Netflix bought it and aired it on its streaming platform, providing viewers with a chance to watch it at their leisure. The film succeeds in its evocation of its context. One feels mudbound while watching it, the thick, dark mud of the Delta is everywhere. In addition, the air hangs heavy with outright brutal, violent racism. The perceptive representation of specific forms of white privilege is masterfully handled by Dee Rees’ adaptation and able, sure directorial hand. To put it one way: you will need a shower after viewing, both to scrape off the mud that you are sure is caked on your back and in your hair, and to scrub the vile prejudice that you have experienced for that 150 minutes.
3. I, Tonya: “The Tonya Harding Story” would be a wonderful Lifetime movie. It could have been cast with former stars from daily soaps and had an earnest portrayal of “a girl born on the wrong side of the tracks, tempted by the alluring world of competitive figure skating.” Director Craig Gillespie threw that playbook out the window and crafted an ironic send up that interrogates our fascination with fallen celebrities and the myriad ways we deem it suitable to label and dismiss categories of poor white people. The film does not try to answer the questions of who knew what when. Rather, it constructs a narrative through the web of lies, deceit and narratives individuals construct that contradict the stories they are well aware are being told of the same event. Allison Janney gives a one-note performance of Harding’s ill-tempered mother, but Lord have mercy, what a note it is. Janney maintains a consistent disregard for her child at the same time as holding an unfailing certainty in her self-righteousness.
4. The Disaster Artist: I am just as shocked as you are that I have included James Franco’s directorial telling of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film that I have held dear to my heart for almost 15 years. This could have gone so wrong in so very many ways. The piece manages to maintain the hilarity of the world’s best worst film while demonstrating the earnestness of the filmmakers involved. Clearly, the best shots in the film are the side-by-side recreations of scenes from the Room. “Oh hi, Mark.”
5. The Post: This is the anti-Trump movie that your Aunt Rita has been asking for all year. She probably even wore her pink pussy hat to the theater to see Queen Meryl and Tom be directed by Spielberg. The film was impressively thrown together and filmed in a matter of months. The wooden performance of Hanks can be forgiven only if you have never seen Jason Robards as Bradlee in All the President’s Men, but you are treated to a captivating bit of theater by Ms. Streep as she (gasp!) plays a woman who has little capability of being decisive. The final shot linking the Ellsberg paper SCOTUS decision to Watergate is such breathtakingly good cinema that I stood and clapped in my living room. It is just so satisfying.
6. Lady Bird: Oh, there are stories to tell about Sacramento. That’s neat. When did Laurie Metcalf become a celebrated tragedienne? She won a Tony this year for an imaginary sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and could win an Oscar in March. I still only think of her as Roseanne’s sister. She does give a shaded, nuanced performance of a mother that has a tumultuous, troubled relationship with her daughter. Saoirse Ronan goes from the beatific angel she played in Brooklyn to a pretentious, contemptible teenager, but manages to elicit sympathy because she is just that darn good.
7. Victoria & Abdul: I don’t care what anyone says about empire nostalgia or the historical inaccuracies in this film. I have no patience for the hateful things people say about Dame Judi trying to reclaim lost glory for replaying the part that gave her an initial taste of Hollywood respect and glamour. She has never lost any glory! I do not care what any person says to disparage this film. I will watch this movie again and again. I will laugh in the same places and get choked up at the end every single time. Judi can do no wrong.
8. Three Billboards…: Martin McDonagh is a strange man. I have now seen two of his films and three of his plays. His aesthetics of violence are interesting but troubling. There is a Tarantino flavor to them: cycles of violence are dictated by revenge. But in Tarantino, the bad guy is always defeated, there is a moral universe of right and wrong that can be known. McDonagh does not think the cycles can ever end, nor that we can know what is necessarily right and wrong. This adds an interesting, complicated nuance, but he never pushes the question to understand exactly what purpose is the violence serving: if we cannot always know what is right, then why does everyone continue to be the aggressor (and everyone is an aggressor in McDonagh’s world). I cannot say I loved this film, but it leaves you with a plethora of questions. And Frances McDormand, even more than Gal Gadot, is the heroine we need this year.
9. Manifesto: This little-seen art film from Julian Rosefeldt cuts and pastes over two dozen manifestos from prominent artists of the last two centuries into 13 monologues for Cate Blanchett to perform. Each situation is unique and provides Cate the Great (why isn’t she a Dame yet?) an opportunity to demonstrate why she is one of the greatest actresses alive. I actually don’t know if Meryl could pull this off as gracefully and in as controlled a fashion. These 13 different characters were filmed over twelve days, for god’s sake.
10. Patti Cake$: A young Jersey girl on the more zaftig side wants to be a rap star. Yawn, you say? No, you are in for a treat. A diverse and wild set of characters sets out to put together her first EP with some beats provided by a nihilistic teenager who eschews hip-hop for punk and an Indian pharmacist who provides his own rhymes. There is a clichéd mother character trying to keep her daughter from pursuing the same dreams that she witnessed crushed years ago, but the ending scene where both are vindicated is just truly heartwarming. At least one song from this romp should be nominated for an Oscar. Also, watch for the unheralded return of Beverly D’Angelo. For an additional delightful, underseen indie of the year: Ingrid Goes West provides a witty yet sensitive portrayal of a woman obsessed with those she cannot have.
11. The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola’s remake of a Clint Eastwood vehicle clad itself in millennial pink and propped up Nicole Kidman in one of her numerous comebacks of 2017. The film queers the original by privileging the women’s experiences over Eastwood’s as the previous vehicle had portrayed the original women as closer to harpies than humans. However, the original had a breathtaking scene where Geraldine Page imagines Eastwood as a battered Christ fallen from the cross that links her religious upbringing to her sexual identity. Couldn’t we have allowed Nicole to reinterpret that?
12. A Quiet Passion: Terence Davies’ telling of the life of Emily Dickinson is a bizarre bird. The dialogue is written in Dickinsonian meter and slant rhyme, which for the first twenty minutes is jarring and often painful. Once you grow accustomed to that (or if), the film turns into a penetrating psychological portrayal of one of our greatest poets, who was both constrained and liberated by her situation. She published only a handful of poems while she was alive, and since she never chased fame her collection of poetry was one of the truest collections ever amassed by a visionary simultaneously repressed and freed by a society that shunned and from which she herself recoiled. Cynthia Nixon, who has been shut out from awards consideration, should truly be a leading contender.
13. Call Me By Your Name: I had abnormally high expectations for this movie and they weren’t quite met. I shouldn’t blame the film for that, but I just left with a sense that there was a bit of a missed opportunity here. This film, penned by James Ivory, directed by Luca Guadagnino, could have been a sumptuous erotic view of young men in love in the Veneto. It came off to me more like two frat boys fumbling around in the dark.
14. Get Out: Clink clink. I am still sure that some white people left the theater thinking: wait now why was Brian Williams’ daughter dating that man? There are academics in American Studies programs across this country who will be spending their career examining this flick. This and The Big Sick did point to the abilities of genre films to speak to wider cultural issues in serious ways that could be accepted as serious films.
15. The Big Sick: Here was the rom com we needed for the year of #MeToo. Was Kumail always a stand-up guy? No. Did he treat his future wife rather shabbily? Yes. Did his mom, played by an ever-forceful Holly Hunter, disdain him for such missteps? Yes, rightfully so. Here we had a strictly genre movie that managed to speak to a wide(ish) audience about some serious political and cultural concerns and not sacrifice comedic timing or character delineation.
16. Shape of Water: A pretty film, intentionally derivative with allusions to the Black Lagoon, Astaire-Rogers, and Alice Faye. Richard Jenkins gives a delightful performance and shows us again why he should be cast in more films. Octavia gets to be a sassy janitor. And Sally Hawkins is mute. (I thought she was deaf at first which I found confusing because I kept thinking why do these people keep talking to the back of her head?? She can’t hear YOU!) Is the creature a metaphor? And what is driving Michael Shannon to be so evil? I wished parts of it congealed better.
17. The Florida Project: An interesting film that suffered from an ending that felt false and tacked on (and shot clearly on an iPhone). I had thought Willem Dafoe was gliding to his first Oscar on this balanced performance that gave us a male character who protected the motley crew of tenants in his motel, but pushed them to help themselves. It was a character seemingly devoid of toxic masculinity, but now it seems that one of our most toxic male characters in a toxically masculine movie (Sam Rockwell in 3 Billboards) may beat out Dafoe. That would be a shame.
18. Darkest Hour: We have all seen this movie before, at least thrice on PBS. Churchill hated Hitler. We get it. He saved Britain from the brink. We get it. Britain would have capitulated without Churchill. We get it. He was ornery. We get it. Give Oldman his lifetime achievement Oscar now. The makeup is very good. I don’t understand how they got his jowls to move and bounce like that.
19. Wonder: No one is celebrating the fact that Julia Roberts had her biggest hit since Ocean’s 11 in this touching adaptation of a young adult novel about a kid with a facial deformity facing loneliness, banishment and bullying, yet emerging triumphant. This is the type of movie that we don’t see much of anymore, earnest, intentionally manipulative, but a well-made movie. It is not art, but if you aren’t crying at the end, you may not be human.
20. Wonder Woman: Why not?