Variety Critics Weigh in on the Year in Film

For better or worse, it was an eventful 12 months in the world of Hollywood cinema. From Harvey Weinstein’s downfall and the evolution of the MeToo and Time’s Up movements to how they affected the role of women in the biz, there was nothing banal about big-screen entertainment . To analyze and compartmentalize this oft emotionally charged year, Variety posed three questions to a panel of our critics and film journalists.

1. How do you rate the 2017 slate against those of previous years?
2. What was the biggest scandal or most-talked-about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of film this year made you stand up and cheer?

Andrew Barker
Senior features editor

1. I’m always bad at this, because if it wasn’t for the ever-swelling mass of year-end award ceremonies (I would only be moderately surprised to learn that my two dogs have started their own film critics society), I would have a hard time distinguishing different cinematic years. One of my absolute favorite films I saw in 2017 was Sebastian Lelio’s “Disobedience,” which won’t actually be released until 2018. Another 2017 favorite of mine was Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” which came out in 2016, but I just never got around to it until recently. For me, these will always feel like defining films of the year 2017. And who could tell me otherwise? As Thomas Mann wrote, “Time has no divisions to mark its passage.” Have I dodged this question adequately?

2. The flood of sexual misconduct revelations that began with the fall of Harvey Weinstein don’t just comprise the biggest Hollywood scandal of the year, but probably the biggest Hollywood scandal of my lifetime. The number of people who were hurt and/or saw their rightful careers taken away is staggering. And even for those far outside the industry, this ongoing awakening has forced all of us to start grappling with just how deeply our own ideas about heroism, power, money, sex and love were forged by films created by profoundly broken men and the rotten culture in which they thrived. How much of this brokenness and rot is embedded in the films themselves? How much of it is embedded in us?

3. Greta Gerwig’s note-perfect musical choices, and her Nobel-worthy use of the word “titular.” Agnes Varda proving she remains the most youthful woman in cinema despite being 89. Paul Thomas Anderson measuring out the life of a relationship with the clinking of coffee spoons. Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis sticking the landing on a trilogy whose technological achievements will probably be discussed in film schools 20 years from now, even if they went relatively under-celebrated in their own time.

Peter Debruge
Chief film critic

1. I always feel like Pollyanna answering this question. Whereas so many critics grouse about “a weak year” in cinema, I can’t help but see the glass as overflowing. Consider this: Among studio movies, Warner Bros. trusted expert craftsmen Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve to deliver such visionary tentpoles as “Dunkirk” and “Blade Runner 2049,” respectively, while Paramount had the guts to back Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” — a wildly ambitious apocalyptic allegory disguised as an arthouse horror movie. Even the Star Wars, DC and Marvel franchises, which seem to be operating on auto pilot, steadily churning out new installments on schedule, have carved out room for unconventional filmmakers to take the reins, employing Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”), Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), and Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”).Also, how can anyone complain about a year that introduced us to Tiffany Haddish and Timothée Chalamet?

2. I call it “The Reckoning,” as those who have abused their power are made to atone for their behavior, sometimes reaching decades into the past. Many of us had heard whispers of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misconduct (virtually impossible to verify), and others had been accused/outed as sexual harassers (Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes), but it wasn’t until the double-whammy of the New York Times and the New Yorker exposés last fall that the industry finally mobilized to address its most malignant cancer — the way that gatekeepers (bosses, executives, stars) exploit the dreamers that showbiz attracts. This was not only a much bigger story than any had imagined, but a turning point, forcing the subject into the open and inspiring a movement. As a direct result of the Weinstein news, I’ve had countless conversations about sexual harassment, the Hollywood “casting couch” phenomenon, and gender disparity in the workplace — and that’s a good thing, because it means that proactive changes are finally happening. To this day, incredulous people ask whether this will all blow over. The short answer: #TimesUp.

3. The surprise last-minute Oscar win for “Moonlight.” I was watching the show with Franklin Leonard (who curates the Black List) and April Reign (who hatched the #OscarsSoWhite meme), and we nearly lost our minds when “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz recognized the error and called out the correct winner from the stage. I don’t have anything against “La La Land,” mind you, but that kind of upset seemed inconceivable given the much-vaunted oversight by PricewaterhouseCoopers (who, it turns out, were directly responsible for the flub). This unprecedented win demonstrates that the Academy can look past its own identity to celebrate cinematic excellence — not just in terms of skin color, but also the scale of the project itself, since so many of the members belong to the studio system (and tend to favor epic pageantry), whereas “Moonlight” is such a beautifully personal, low-budget labor of love. From “Get Out” to “Lady Bird,” this year’s success stories carry on that tradition.

Owen Gleiberman
Chief film critic

1. There are movies that hold up (or look better) with the passage of time, and movies that don’t. This year’s slate of Oscar nominees includes more than its share of films that, I predict, will hold up gloriously. Take “Lady Bird,” my favorite film of the year. A decade from now, after Greta Gerwig has established herself as one of the boldest powers in Hollywood since the ‘70s (mark my words), we will still look back at her solo directorial debut as a landmark movie: one that told a teenage girl’s story with an extraordinary new voice and sensibility. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is another landmark, so ahead of the curve in its chilling racial satire that it begs to be seen again and again. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2018 really did mark the moment when a certain progressive independent consciousness took over the Oscars. What I do wonder about, in terms of how 2018 stacks up to previous years, is whether what we used to think of as the mainstream center can hold — whether megaplex moviemaking will still, going forward, express the primal artistry of storytelling, or whether it has now gone over to a global-franchise pop-fantasy concept of movies that leaves little (if any) room for the mysteries of art.

2. When it comes to evoking the #MeToo movement, or the sexual-harassment scandals that first gave life to it last October, no metaphor can be too large. #MeToo is a revolution, an earthquake, a tectonic shift — one that marks a fundamental change not just in the entertainment business, or in the way that we treat issues of sexual harassment and abuse in every other industry. It marks a metamorphosis in the spirit of American life. It’s about a new vision of equality, about creating a landscape of opportunity that harassment, too often, has been wielded as a vicious weapon against. Behind closed doors, men like Harvey Weinstein didn’t just use their power to terrorize and abuse women — they used harassment as a TACTIC to keep women down in a multitude of other ways. This is, we would all like to believe, the beginning of the end of all that. And that’s why the Hollywood sexual-harassment scandal of 2018 will be talked about for decades to come. It marked the moment when an entire culture finally woke up.

3. A part of me wants to say that I stand up and cheer the groundbreaking voices in film culture that blossomed all around me. Yet what I celebrate most of all is the fact that even as the Oscars are looking, more than ever, like the Independent Spirit Awards staged on a grander scale, the great filmmaking of 2018 expressed what I would call a populist impulse (if I can steal that word back from the forces of Donald Trump). Movies like “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” and “Call Me by Your Name” took us radically inside the hearts and minds of women, African-Americans, and members of the LBGTQ community, but they weren’t well-meaning lectures — they were enthralling entertainments, the most hypnotic dramas of the year. They were movies that said, “Let me tell you a story — a transcendent one.” There are a lot of words that one could use to characterize that impulse, that fusion of spellbinding passion and virtuoso craft. The word I would use — it’s an old-fashioned one — is Hollywood.

Tim Gray
Senior vice president, features awards editor

1. I think it was a good year for film, but we won’t know until 20 years from now. There was no front-runner for best picture. That either means there were no classics this year, or that there are a flood of great films. Ask me again in 2038.

2. I think the #meToo and #TimesUp are the big news this year, after questions of diversity/inclusion in the past few years. But Variety was running articles about better roles for racial minorities in the 1950s, and was asking why there isn’t gender equality in the 1970s. So the big question is whether this is a genuine turning point, or if it’s just another hashtag-fad that will be talked to death, with little genuine movement.

3. The best news was the Oscar attention to genre films like “Get Out” and “Logan.” Maybe it means that voters are thinking outside the box, and not adhering to “Oscar fodder” movies. The most troubling trend: The fact that outstanding dramas like “Stronger” and great performances like Jake Gyllenhaal’s are ignored by moviegoers and awards voters.

Amy Nicholson
Freelance film critic

1. Other years have had higher highs and lower lows. This year’s slate was most exciting for its potential rather than any one masterpiece. (Except for Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” which is flawless.) Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele made strong debuts, but I suspect they’ll both go on to make even better films. In the future, I suspect we’ll look back at 2017 as the year when the voices that will define the next decade announced themselves. We’re at the start of Hollywood’s next chapter.

2. Undoubtedly #MeToo. It’s been thrilling, frightening, overwhelming, and sometimes ugly to hear this overdue conversation get hashed out publicly. Yet, I hope there’s even more talking being done in private as people make a blueprint for how to rebuild the industry.

3. Hooray for low-budget bets! For years, Blumhouse has staked $5 million on filmmakers willing to tighten their belts in return for creative control. Finally, “Get Out” paid out in full with critics, awards attention, and box office cash. Plus, when you look at this year’s best picture nominees, nearly half of them were made for under $12 million — and in the case of “Call Me by Your Name,” a fraction of THAT. High price tags, and the anxiety that goes with them, have kept the industry risk-averse and the Oscars a little bit dull. The Academy has had other small-scale winners like “Moonlight,” but 2017 might be a tipping point during which other companies are rallied to invest — a little! — in unleashing bold, smart talents.

Jenelle Riley
Deputy awards and features editor

1. There were a lot of movies to like, but not many to love. Whereas last year had so much passion behind “Moonlight” versus “La La Land” — with ardent supporters arguing eloquently in each camp — this year feels like a consensus pick will beat out passion. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you have so many quality films competing for the top prize. And you have to love the fact that a fantasy film about a mute woman who falls for an amphibious creature is one of the best picture front-runners. No one can accuse Guillermo del Toro of trying to manufacture an Oscar movie, and yet by being true to his vision, he’s won over audiences and critics.

2. Harvey Weinstein’s long-overdue undoing can be cited as the source of almost every other issue that emerged in people’s minds, from #MeToo to #TimesUp to other artists being called out on their behavior. What’s now upsetting is how every new revelation seems to be met with less and less surprise.

3. Many people will undoubtedly speak more elegantly about the diversity represented on screens this year, so I’ll take a more personal angle and say how glorious it is to see the celebration of two often underappreciated genres — horror films and romantic comedies. The financial success of “Get Out” and “The Big Sick” weren’t unexpected, even though both had unproven stars and small budgets, but to see critics and the Academy embrace such movies was a pleasant surprise. I wish “Big Sick” had continued its awards streak into more than one Oscar nomination, but seeing these films along the circuit was truly inspiring.

Kristopher Tapley
Awards editor

1. I thought 2017 was a good year overall, but with very few major highlights. There weren’t many films that would qualify as the “m” word, but David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” came pretty close to the mark for me.

2. The biggest scandal of the year was the Envelope Gate fiasco at the Oscars — until the Harvey Weinstein story erupted. Naturally, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements took center stage at the end of the year, dominating the discourse and, in many ways, shifting perspectives on some of the films in play.

3. “Wonder Woman” crushing it at the box office and doing, well, wonders for female filmmakers was a cheer-worthy moment. It was also a thrillingly ballsy move for Ridley Scott to replace disgraced actor Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in “All the Money in the World.”

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