Earlier this year, as winter was doing its slow fade, something happened in the world of movies you don’t see too often: A film arrived out of nowhere to become a fast-break phenomenon, lionized by critics and flocked to by audiences. I’m talking about Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (#2 on my 10 Best list), which was made on a tiny budget ($4.5 million!) but became, virtually overnight, a seismic pop-cultural event.
For a moment or two, a movie owned not just the multiplexes but the conversation. It was thrilled to, talked about, granted the hot-potato status of a sociological wake-up call. For a moment, the concept of “niche culture” felt like it was being left in the dust. Something similar happened six months later, in the middle of the summer, when Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (which didn’t make my list — to me, it was an awesome spectacle but too remote) rode a veritable tidal wave of critical and popular enthusiasm.
Yet let’s just come out and acknowledge that this sort of thing now happens with dramatically less frequency than it used to. When you ponder the landscape of cinema as it exists today, it can feel as if a movie like “Get Out” or “Dunkirk,” and — indeed — the holy trinity of popularity, acclaim, and relevance, which used to go such a long way toward defining movies as an art form, now lines up about as often as an eclipse.
To me, that’s a heartbreaker. Yet a lot of people might say, “Get over it.” More than ever, there’s a casual acceptance among moviegoers of the division between popularity and acclaim: between the mainstream and the art-stream.
We’ve seen this reflected, quite strikingly, by a subtle chemical change in the kinds of films that now dominate the awards season. The Academy Awards, for most of their existence, used to be all about hitting the middlebrow sweet spot. Two or three decades ago, a tasteful big-hit tearjerker like “Wonder” would have been a shoo-in, and when the honors went to movies that were true works of art, like “The Godfather” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Schindler’s List,” you’d better believe that they were movies enjoyed by gargantuan audiences.
All of that is now changing. It began to shift dramatically around the time of “The Hurt Locker” (the lowest-grossing best picture winner in history), and by now, when the tastes reflected by the Oscars, or even the Golden Globes, turn out to parallel, with eerie precision, the tastes of the Independent Spirit or the Gotham Awards, it’s easy to be nagged at by the sensation that quality in movies is becoming more and more of a rarefied and even boutique thing, severed from the pulse of the mainstream embrace.
I raise the issue because it’s destined to haunt any film critic, in 2017, who’s compiling a 10 Best list. The dream of movies (the nature of them) is to extend outward; that dream suggests movies that masses of people can, and will, embrace. Yet the dream of movies (the nature of them) is also to extend inward; that dream suggests movies that will connect with increasingly fragmented cults of passion. Does that make the connection any less meaningful? I have no easy answer. I just know that the movies on my list are the ones that spoke to me the way that movies always have: with glowing emotion, and with cascading force. My desire, as always, is that those films will speak to many others.
1. “Lady Bird”
In her first solo outing as a writer-director, Greta Gerwig doesn’t just tell a story. She does something far more exquisite and remarkable, creating a drama with the exhilarating moment-to-moment transparency of life as it’s being lived. As Lady Bird, née Christine, a 17-year-old parochial-school senior with pink red stringy hair and a bone-deep belief in the purity of her sometimes reckless passion, Saoirse Ronan creates the year’s most indelible character, a girl of unapologetic lightning fervor who’s funny, doleful, furious, and heartbreaking. What Lady Bird comes to see, and what the movie communicates in each nervy and authentic scene, is that everything that happens to her — and, by implication, to all of us — is more than an experience. It’s a gift.
2. “Get Out”
Jordan Peele’s dizzying racial horror thriller takes as deep a dive into the psychology of African-American experience as just about any film you could name, yet it’s no liberal message movie; its cosmic joke is that liberals are part of the problem. Daniel Kaluuya, as a photographer who travels upstate with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her “enlightened” family, roots this nightmare in an all-too-plausible paranoid terror. The film has an outsize dread coupled with a lacerating insight that allows it to play like vintage Polanski written by James Baldwin, with a menace somewhere between that of the Twilight Zone and “F–k the Police.”
3. “Oklahoma City”
A documentary that blisters with more cathartic relevance than any documentary in a decade. It brilliantly investigates, from every angle, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and the gripping conclusion it comes to is that Timothy McVeigh, the 27-year-old Gulf War veteran who killed 168 people that day, wasn’t “crazy” so much as he was the disturbed quintessence of the new right wing. The director, Barak Goodman, offers a chillingly dramatic and well-reported look at how McVeigh’s thoughts and actions emerged out of the alt-right movement (though it hadn’t yet been named that). The film connects the dots from Ruby Ridge to Waco to Oklahoma City to the mainstream cult nihilism of the Trump era. The message: Be very afraid.
|Variety’s Best of 2017|
4. “The Florida Project”
Sean Baker has always been a filmmaker who can whittle down a situation to its no-frills emotional essence. There’s a beguiling directness to how he takes in the world, and he raises that technique to a new pitch of wide-eyed humanity in this tale of a 6-year-old girl and her rebel-vagabond punk-vamp mother, living in a lavender flophouse motel on the outskirts of Walt Disney World. The setting is bare bones but weirdly magical, and so is the movie. It features brilliant performances from Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, and Willem Dafoe as well as a final scene that will wrench itself into your memory.
5. “The Disaster Artist”
What does it take to make a movie so terrible that it’s sublime? “The Room,” Tommy Wiseau’s midnight cult hit of the early 2000s, is a film of unfathomable operatic badness, but it’s awful in a way that’s so ridiculously revealing of its creator that it overlaps with the primal purpose of art. James Franco’s delirious comedy does for Wiseau and his flamboyant train-wreck soap opera what “Ed Wood” did for Edward D. Wood Jr.: It finds the innocence, and ironic passion, in a man who is basically a scoundrel of ineptitude. Franco, speaking in a marble-mouthed East European accent, shows you the cracked glory of believing in yourself even when that belief is based on nothing at all.
6. “Faces Places”
Agnès Varda, the world’s youngest 89-year-old filmmaker, is an artist who, more than ever, can take a snapshot that reveals the big picture. Here, she does that literally, teaming up with the graffiti-artist-turned-stunt-photographer JR (a kind of Gallic version of Banksy). The two drive his camera van through the French countryside, where they meet the farmers and workers who toil there and turn them into beautiful crazy oversize images of themselves. Do they make them larger than life? No. As large as life.
7. “Logan Lucky”
If I told you that this was Steven Soderbergh’s most wryly captivating heist thriller since “Ocean’s Eleven,” you might say “So what?” (Most audiences did.) Yet it’ a rousingly entertaining caprice, styled as a redneck caper set in Trump country, and whether it’s saluting or condescending to the home-grown bumpkins at its center — Channing Tatum as a downsized laborer, Daniel Craig as a snaky varmint of a demolitions expert — is kind of a moot point. It’s doing both, okay? These scallywag desperados execute a racetrack robbery with such loopy, banged-together ingenuity that the droll thrill of the movie is watching them turn ignorance into inspiration.
8. “Call Me by Your Name”
You might call Luca Guadagnino’s film a “rapturous” love story, but its exquisitely ripe atmosphere of exploratory sensuality is delivered with an observational cool as precision-cut as Eric Rohmer’s. That’s because it’s really a spy movie: the tale of a mutual seduction — between dreamy, bookish 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and tall, suave, mysterious Oliver (Armie Hammer) — in which everything that happens is treated as a tradecraft secret. Watching this lush erotic romance unfold, we’re really seeing Oliver’s clandestine spirit give way — through Elio — to a life lived out in the open.
Boris (Alexey Rozin), a saddened Teddy bear of a man, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), beautiful and knife-edged, are a Moscow couple who are counting the days till they can get divorced. But then their 12-year-old son disappears. In an American movie, the quest to find him would have brought the two closer together. In this coldly gripping X-ray of the new Russia, director Andrey Zvyagintsev uses their search to reveal a desperate, clawing, hungry yet acquisitive society that is fast losing its empathy. It’s not just a drama, it’s a diagnosis, capturing the blunted emotions of a newly frigid world order.
10. “I, Tonya”
If you want to know just how distorted tabloid culture can get, try asking someone — anyone — if Tonya Harding, in 1994, literally bashed her Olympic rival and former friend Nancy Kerrigan in the knee. Most people will say yes. But she didn’t, and Craig Gillespie’s cheekily audacious sports drama is a testament to the twisted, hidden humanity behind the trumped-up headlines; it’s like a biopic directed by the Coen brothers of “Fargo.” Margot Robbie, in a revelatory performance, makes Tonya the female version of a Dirk Diggler/Henry Hill scuzzbucket rebel, one who wears her demons on her purple sequined sleeve. And Allison Janney plays Tonya’s witch of a mom with a nicotine-stained hatred that’s never less than magnetic.