Movies: Top Ten 2017
Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age gem, Lady Bird, garners big Stone praise amid a cluster of small diamonds about outsiders, loss and the elusive power of hope
By Jay Stone
- Lady Bird: Pretty well the best time I had at the movies this year came from this small, exquisitely observed story that we’ve seen a million times: a young woman comes of age in a small town, fights with her parents and dreams of glory in the big city. But writer/director Greta Gerwig — drawing on her own life — turns this familiar material into a sweet, caustic, and authentic tale of growing up, aided by great performances from Laurie Metcalfe as the exasperated mother and Saoirse Ronan as the complicated young woman. A true gem.
- The Florida Project: Filmmaker Sean Baker takes a step up from his previous movie (Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone) but doesn’t sacrifice any of the grit in the story of people living on the edge of the American dream, in every sense: they inhabit a welfare motel within sight of Disney World in Orlando, Fla. A cast comprised of mostly first-time actors, lead by the preternaturally talented seven-year-old named Brooklyn Prince (and aided by a quiet turn from Willem Dafoe as the motel manager) turn this into a documentary-like study of hope and hopelessness.
- I, Tonya: We think we know the story of Tonya Harding, the figure skater who was somehow involved in a 1993 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, her rival for Olympic glory. But director Craig Gillespie gives us a new view of what really happened, and turns it into an examination of class, abuse, tabloid media, and one woman’s search for love. Margot Robbie is extraordinary as Tonya, the trailer park woman who had the talent, but not the requisite glamour, to succeed, and Allison Janney almost steals the show as the year’s second memorable mother, an abusive harridan who carries a parakeet on her shoulder.
- Dunkirk: A war epic from Christopher Nolan that looks at an unforgettable event of the Second World War, the evacuation, by private boats sent from England, of hundreds of thousands of troops who were trapped by the German enemy on the northern shores of France. Told from multiple points of view, thrums with the tension of this unlikely rescue mission, best summed in Mark Rylance’s performance as a British fisherman whose carry-on spirit turns him into the kind of everyday hero — the bulldog tenacity under the greengrocer exterior — that won the war.
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: This blackest of black comedies, from filmmaker (and sometime playwright) Martin McDonagh, takes many unexpected turns; indeed, it might take too many to believe. Nevertheless, it’s an irresistible study of fierce anger from the third of our mothers of the year, Mildred — played with unrelenting determination by Frances McDormand — who wants to know why the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his idiotic, racist deputy (Sam Rockwell) have yet to solve the sadistic murder of her daughter. It’s a grim topic, but the movie mines it for dark fun: a guilty pleasure.
- The Disaster Artist: The story of how the famously horrible film The Room — a would-be romantic tragedy from a bizarre, otherworldly filmmaker named Tommy Wiseau — came to be made. James Franco, who also directed, does a hilarious impersonation of Wiseau, whose Goth pallor and vaguely Transylvanian accent make him seem like a cross between Count Dracula and Johnny Depp. It’s the kind of a movie that is ripe for cruelty (laughing at The Room at midnight screenings has become a cult exercise), but in the end, it’s a triumphant kind of celebration of the unquenchable passions of the artist, even if he’s terrible.
- A Quiet Passion: Terence Davies is a British filmmaker whose movies brim with the sad desperation and subtle artistry of an Emily Dickenson poem, which makes him the idea director for this beautifully melancholy drama about her life. Cynthia Nixon is wonderful — by turns passionate, lost, and mad — as the 19th Century poet who gradually withdrew from public life as she became more ill. The illusive beauty of her work is matched by Davies’ storytelling, which moves forward in tableaux that give us hints of how difficult it was to be a confined woman in a repressive world, but to see eternity from a window.
- A Ghost Story: Casey Affleck — who is mostly seen under a sheet, with eyeholes cut into it like a cheap Halloween costume — stars in David Lowery’s supernatural meditation on death. It’s not a horror movie, but rather a speculation on what happens after we die. In the case of C (Affleck), he stands invisibly in his rural home and waits, for what we are never sure. Meanwhile his widow, M (Rooney Mara), laments, then moves on, leaving the ghost behind. The scene where she eats an entire pie, in real time, is perhaps the most telling examination of grief in movie history.
- The Post: Steven Spielberg’s newspaper movie seems almost beside the point: it’s about how The Washington Post followed the lead of The New York Times in publishing The Pentagon Papers — detailing how the U.S. government lied about the war in Vietnam — in 1971. But it’s about issues that resonate today, including freedom of the press, the power of women, and a dislikeable president. Spielberg manages to turn subtle arguments about competing interests (informing the public, making a profit, protecting national security) into high drama. Plus, we get to see Tom Hanks and Maryl Streep sharing the screen for the first time, which is alone worth the price of admission.
- The Square: This Swedish film from Ruben Ostlund, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, was one of the least enjoyable movies of the past year. It’s on the list because it is also unforgettable and because it is so aggressively unenjoyable that you are drawn inexorably into its complex world. It’s the story of the director of modern art museum in Stockholm who sets up a controversial exhibit: the clash between “real life” and “art” becomes both uncomfortable and bleakly funny. In the movie’s astonishing centerpiece, a muscular actor portraying a Neanderthal man disrupts a fancy-dress dinner. You’ll squirm and hate every second of it. And isn’t that what the film-going experience is all about?
Read Jay Stone’s Movie reviews in the Ex-Press archive and Rotten Tomatoes.
THE EX-PRESS, February 1, 2018
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