2017 was a hell of a year, America. I know you know this. There are a lot of movies I didn't see, and I'm a little sad about that, but in the end, I chose the movies, for the most part, that I thought would buoy me, one way or another. There were movies I didn't see that I thought might, in whatever moment, sink me. And so it turned out that there were a lot of weekends when we could have gone out but didn't.
Anyway: not all of these movies are great movies, but I'll tell you the ones I loved and why. A star (★) means that this was a movie I thought was worthwhile. No stars means I have a thing or two to say about the film, but do not, for whatever reasons, recommend it.
★ Hidden Figures: It took us a minute to get to this film. Honestly, the deciding factor was how much both my parents loved it. So I went with that in mind--my father loved it for the science, my mother for the story. I loved it for both. This is not a great film, but it's a great story, and I loved seeing it.
★ Paterson: This film was like a long drink of cool water. It's a movie about a poet, beautifully played by Adam Driver, someone who writes and has a job and a marriage and an apartment and is a regular at a bar and so forth. The work that he does with words is a ground note that sounds through his days. I thought that this movie did the wonderful work of suggesting how writers think with words, phrases, sentences, line breaks, sound. A true beauty.
★ 20th Century Women: I loved this movie. It broke my heart. It was a love letter to women of all ages, and I loved how it represented a big, messy, headstrong life--times three--from the point of view of a boy, a point of view which did not seek to dominate but to observe and to love. Beautiful.
Fences: Glad to have seen this, in part to become more familiar with the play, which I imagined would be magnificent. I would have loved to see these performances on a stage. The film, however, was stagy. Splendidly acted but stagy.
★ The Founder: I watched this on a plane, I believe coming back from Scotland. I can't vouch for that. However, I found it to be pretty fascinating and absorbing, an American story with all the dimensions of America that fascinate, appall, even sicken. And yet--not in the least a trudge to watch. A special valentine to Nick Offerman, who enlivens every role he takes.
★ The Big Sick: My memory is that this film got a lot of love just in advance of its release, then people wanted to pick at it a little. But it's a good film. It's funny and sweet, and one of the big pluses is Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents--so soulful and beautiful. Loved this film.
★ Personal Shopper: I loved this--a friend who's a film professor found this to be flawed, and sure, I agree, at least in theory. But I was mesmerized by it. It was creepy and beautiful and thrilling by turns. I loved its meditation on loss. Kristen Stewart is superb in it.
★ Florida Project: An indelible film. The little girl who plays Moonee, Brooklynn Price, the central figure of the film, is unforgettable as the full-of-play and mischief child, living in a rent-by-the-week motel with a mom who's scrambling to make a life for herself and her little girl. Scruffy and gritty, but nonetheless full of magic. I knew, I planned for, whatever form the heartbreak would take at the end of the film, but I was nonetheless unprepared for how it broke my heart. So, so good.
★ Wonderstruck: Another beautiful magic trick of a film, binding two time periods together through two gorgeous performances by children. One, Millicent Simmonds, is from Utah, and she is beautifully cinematic. This film could be seen and enjoyed in a multiplicity of ways by families, or by anyone, really. Worth seeking out.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: I saw this film twice, once with the historian, once with the historian and my son. It has its pleasures, chief among them the three starring performances. I love Frances McDormand, and because she is formidable, it was easy for me to miss what was wrong with the film, including its troubling politics, and a casual racism that is flirted with, a sleight of hand that gets more difficult to ignore the longer you think about it. I love Sam Rockwell, too, but as, by now, many people have pointed out, you're expected to invest in the recuperation of his racist character, while simultaneously never being invited to care one whit about the characters he has damaged. It's a testament to how good he is that you might not notice right away. This is a film that declined in value for me the further away I got from it.
★ Lady Bird: It is a perfect thing, this film. Like many comedies, people can pick away at it, but I found it beautifully constructed, with performances that were so dimensional and so subtle that I could take almost endless joy from it. The beauty of Saoirse Ronan and her entitled rage. The absolute splendor of the meaning Laurie Metcalf can wreak from the mere tilt of her head. Let us not forget Tracy Letts, who has given us joy in so many films this year. I know I will enjoy this film for years to come.
★ Wonder Woman: Lucky me, that I got to see this film with my son. He had already seen it, but he knew that it wouldn't be the historian's thing, and that I would love it, so he invited me to come. I expected to enjoy it but did not expect to be so moved by it. Gal Gadot is truly remarkable, her beauty fiery and intelligent. I'm enjoying Chris Pine these days, too, in side-kicky roles, totally present and, it must be said, piercing blue eyes that, whatever, okay, they work for me. Anyway, this is a film that needed to be made and is gorgeous and worth every penny they need to pay GG for the sequel, since they clearly underpaid her for this film.
The Hero: Sam Elliott is an icon, first of all. And this film gets at at least some of why this is the case. In terms of elegies to iconic actors of mostly western roles, I prefer him in the last couple of seasons of Justified, even though this film is certainly competent and affecting. If you love Sam Elliott, just watch Justified. And also, of course, The Big Lebowski.
I, Daniel Blake: A fine piece of agit-prop from Ken Loach that I felt cleansed and scarified after watching. As argumentative and didactic as it is, it does a pretty good job of showing the logic of late capitalism as it plays out in people's lives.
★ Dolores: Tremendously galvanizing and inspiring, and also frustrating and inspiring of a deep soul-search. How shall we live, when there is so much to do? Dolores Huerta made decisions that it would have been very hard for me to make, and it was hard for me not to feel judgmental about her decisions, but then I think: what about the work she did? Who would have done it, if it had not been for Dolores? It's entirely worthwhile to see the film to engage in this kind of questioning.
★ Get Out: One of my favorites of this past year--so sharp, so smart. So dread-inducing, so discomfort-provoking. It's a film so entirely relevant to this moment, and it might feel like an interrogation if it weren't so totally entertaining. Special props to Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener for being super creepy, and to Daniel Kaluuya for being perfect and for getting the (white) audience to identify with his character fully, and also feel implicated in what's happening. So good.
★ A Ghost Story: This movie is a deep and unhurried meditation on loss. By 'unhurried,' I mean meditative but also, yes, slow. And Casey Affleck is wearing a sheet for 75% of the movie. With all of that, I still recommend it. I've never seen a single thing like it, and there are images and scenes from the film I'll never forget. It's a work of art, and it works at soul-level.
★ Beatriz at Dinner: I saw this movie twice, and I found it riveting and heartbreaking. Salma Hayek has maybe never been better, in my opinion, and the ineffable John Lithgow was so perfect as the entitled tycoon/entrepreneur who was nonetheless a fairly compelling character. Connie Britton is also perfect as Hayek's client who thinks of herself as a good person, and who isn't exactly a bad person, but definitely a compromised person, albeit a person with absolutely gorgeous hair, which--let's be honest--is never not the case. I think this movie was flawed, but I think its flaws actually are part of why I liked it. It was one of my favorites of the year.
The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola, I love you and I will never ever not be grateful for The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation and even Somewhere. But you cannot make a movie set in the Civil War and not have it be at least a little bit about slavery, and if you try, it will be morally compromised. That's all I can tell you about this film. Anything else that is good about it--the cinematography, for instance, or the acting--is beside the point.
★ The Lovers: The wonderful Debra Winger and the excellent Tracy Letts (and the great Aiden Gillen and Melora Walters) all in a comedy, sort of, about love and letting go. All the things you could say--like about how a sex comedy with middle aged people is so refreshing, blah blah blah--are not really what's good about this. It's really just so good to see these splendid performers in a complex story.
★ Wind River: Things about this are wrong, like, telling this story from the point of view of the white guy, even if the white guy is Jeremy Renner. But here's what I liked about this film: that it's a story about sexual violence that doesn't make it pretty. That it takes as its canvas the bleak Wyoming wilderness. And, aside from a couple of clunky parts, the writing is very good. I rank Taylor Sheridan's films (he's written a bunch, performed in some, and directed this movie) thusly: Screenplay for Sicario #1; screenplay for Hell or High Water #2; performance as Danny Boyd in Veronica Mars, the TV show, #3; director/writer of Wind River #4. I would say that the directing was better than the writing in Wind River. Anyway, I still am a fan of Taylor Sheridan. And if you haven't seen Veronica Mars the television show yet, for the love of everything good in this world, just watch it already.
Despicable Me 3: perfectly fine and funny, especially with some kids, which is how we saw it. Also, I still get a little charge out of Steve Carrell doing this voice work. And I think minions are basically pretty funny. Sue me.
Spider Man: Homecoming: Saw this for the historian's son's birthday, with a whole theater full of friends and family, and it was a blast. I can remember approximately 3% of it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't wonderful. I'm sure it was.
★ I Am Not Your Negro: I had never heard Baldwin's voice, although of course I had read his writing, here and there. Not only an elegant writer but an elegant speaker, the anguish of his critique cries out. I was riveted by and grateful for this film.
The Lego Batman Movie: Luckily, I saw this movie with grandchildren. It was delightful. A highlight for me was Batman, in the Batcave, eating Lego lobster, which had a crunch redolent of Legos. Well done indeed.
★ Chasing Trane: A lovely film which also educated me about the deep and wide brilliance of John Coltrane. So glad to have seen this.
★ Colossal: I gave this a star because it was so strange but also sort of gripping. Another of the idiosyncratic great Anne Hathaway performances (I like her, but every once in awhile, she takes a great role that's way off her beaten path, and I like her even more). Also, I am a fan of movies where women have outsize powers that they have to come to grips with.
Born in China: One of those Disney 'see the world' movies that are totally worthwhile, especially if...say it with me now...you see it with grandchildren. This had pandas, snow leopards, and golden monkeys. I especially liked the snow leopards, but that was a pretty sad story.
Snatched: Amy Schumer, whom I love, and Goldie Hawn, whom I also love, a lot, in a movie that should have been better. Funny and touching and woman affirming, so good for them. Not as good as Trainwreck, which I basically think is a masterpiece.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul: Grandchildren. Cute and funny and passable. Alicia Silverstone as the mom--I'm glad she's still around.
Wakefield: Bryan Cranston gives a full on whack performance in a movie that is not easy to like because his character is not easy to like. Worth it, I think, for the commitment he gives to it. And for the thought experiment--what would the life you live look like without you in it?--not a super comfortable thing to think about, which is not a bad thing to occasionally do with your movie-going dollar.
War for the Planet of the Apes: Whoa, this movie felt like a slog. Thoroughly well done, but dark and long. Good performances by all the apes, and Woody Harrelson.
★ Logan Lucky: One of the delights of the year. I love-love a heist movie, and this one felt pretty open-hearted. There's a sweetness to it. One of my favorite performances by Adam Driver as Channing Tatum's brother--Adam Driver had a terrific year, what with Kylo Ren and this, and his beautiful performance in Paterson. Kati Holmes is a riot as Channing Tatum's ex. And also: Channing Tatum. Very handsome and extra good in this role. I love the way, in nearly everything, he inhabits his own physical being.
★ Battle of the Sexes: A perfectly enjoyable film, with great performances and a retelling of a great story. I was in high school when all these Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King shenanigans were going on, and it felt pretty freaking meaningful then.
★ Loving Vincent: A glory. The animation in this film was a moving painting, a mesmerizing work of art that also told a compelling story about Van Gogh. Entirely worthwhile.
★ Blade Runner 2049: Why was this film basically forgotten, except for technical stuff, at the end of the year? I thought it was magnificent, from top to bottom. The soundtrack was utterly original--the whole sound design, in fact. Well acted, melancholy and beautiful, and the special effects truly stunned me. There was a scene where the Ryan Gosling replicant character interacted with a hologram that was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
Marshall: This, the third of Chadwick Boseman's worthy biopics, was again interesting and he is something, totally charismatic and able to embody, it seems, just about anyone. So glad he is, I hope, going to be moving on into better and richer territory. However, I'm also glad for each of those stories about compelling American men, and I think he has tremendous gifts. Also, Josh Gad is no slouch as the lawyer Thurgood Marshall/Chadwick Boseman presses into service for the case.
Murder on the Orient Express: Fun, but I also feel like the star of that movie was Kenneth Branagh's facial hair. It upstaged him and everyone else, including the storied train, at every turn.
★ Coco: What a gift. This vivid, full-hearted, beautiful film. My film professor friend says that this has nothing on The Bread Winner, which I did not see and which I regret not seeing. Even if she's right, that doesn't take away at all how beautiful and light on its feet and full of verve Coco is.
★ Disaster Artist: I enjoyed this film quite a bit. What a strange and interesting story, and I loved, at the end of the film, when they showed, in split screen, the parts of The Room that Disaster Artist reenacted. No invented thing can be as strange as what actually happened.
★ The Shape of Water: I thought Sally Hawkins' performance in this film was utterly transfixing. She moved as if she were dancing, always and in wholly imaginative ways. She was the best of a lot of great things in this film, including Michael Shannon (my movie star boyfriend), Richard Jenkins, the lovely sets and designs, the monster, and--my second favorite thing in the film--Michael Stuhlbarg, who had a triple play of excellence this year, with this role, his role in The Post, and his performance as the father in Call Me By Your Name.
★ Thor Ragnarok: I can't tell you one thing about what happens in this movie, but (a) Chris Hemsworth is, don't kid yourself, super hunky; (b) Tessa Thompson as a valkyrie was just excellent; (c) Tom Hiddleston is always, always a pleasure, and very good as Loki; (d) Jeff Goldblum! I coveted every single thing about the way he was decked out for this film, including his superb eyeliner. There were some fights and Thor got pretty banged up. Also, no more fabulous hair. There will be a sequel. I saw this with my cousin and my aunt, we ate popcorn, we had a fine, fine time.
★ The Last Jedi: Whooooboy, have I had some heated discussion that caught me unawares, with friends and acquaintances who hate this movie. Hard for me to figure out why. Clearly, I am not a purist and do not have the correct attitude about this whole Star Wars project. I won't get into it (for instance, I liked The Phantom Menace and loved The Force Awakens, which makes me a heretic and a dummy), but I really did love The Last Jedi. I thought it was visually gorgeous and engaging, with lots of good character work. (I am basically having an argument with the friends and acquaintances as I write these humble words--shut up, friends and acquaintances! I'm trying to write a capsule review of my opinion!) Anyway, I saw it with my two sons, who both liked it too. Strength in numbers.
Movies I meant to see in 2017, but did not (the starred ones were 2017 movies I saw in 2018):
★ Dunkirk: Very glad I finally saw this film. I thought its concept--land, sea, air--was pretty brilliant in depicting the way the Dunkirk rescue went, and I liked very much that the film did not spend too much time, at least not over much, with a character, so that you used the character as your lens for seeing the conflict. It moved spatially, and used, I thought, sound very well indeed. I thought it was quite a wonderful film, very smart, and it felt quite original to me.
The Little Hours
The Meyerowitz Stories
★ I, Tonya: All about the performances, which are excellent to a person. Sebastian Stan, who played Harding's husband, and Paul Walter Hauser, the guy who moron-minded the knee-capping plan, were both quite amazing. I read a lot about this film, including a really wonderful profile of Harding in the New York Times. There's a critique about how it views class, and whether the film lets Harding off the hook. I thought the film was pretty fair-minded, and I thought it had a lot of insight about women, beauty, social class, and the idea of winning in America. I thought it was a worthwhile film.
Pitch Perfect 3
★ The Post: While I was watching this film, for the most part it felt pretty deft. And I was glad to see it, this film, right now, at this political moment. So I'm glad it got made. I'm also glad it didn't win any awards. It didn't need or really deserve to. It was enough that it got to make its statement and be in the mix of discussion. That's this film's real purpose, I think.
All the Money in the World
★ Phantom Thread: Oh, the beauty and weirdness of this film. I loved the detail of it, the attention to the craft of design, dressmaking, and (of course!) its analogue in the work of filmmaking. What great performances, the three leads. What a beauty, an original. So idiosyncratic and so great.
★ Faces Places: Agnes Varda, in her 80s, goes around France with photographer and muralist JR, a very young man, in his van/photobooth, taking massive photos of people who live in the small villages they visit. It is a meditation on art, on age, on loss. It was perfect and completely unique. I'm so glad I got to see this film in a theater.
★ Call Me By Your Name: I feel like my experience of, and memory of, this film, lives in a protected corner somewhere in my heart. It gutted me and made me feel all the way alive. I wanted to see it again in a theater but didn't find the time. To me, it said everything about love and connection, about why it is precious even when it doesn't last. This film is radiant with beauty.