It was a very good year.
(At the movies, anyway.)
We entered 2017 with unprecedented uncertainty — many of us with dread and despair. That’s why films about oppression, intolerance, and grief populated my Top 10 of 2016. They represented what I was feeling and thinking about at the end of last year.
At #2, Jackie perfectly captured my shock and bereavement at the November 2016 assassination of the United States. I topped my 2016 list with Moonlight as a beacon of hope for the future — a plea that straight, white, Christian male power wouldn’t trump the rest of us at every turn for all eternity. (Miraculously, and through no help from Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway, the Academy agreed.)
The “when America was great” anti-Semitism in Indignation. The sexual violence against women in Elle. The “fire first, ask questions later” militarism in Arrival. The inward-facing homophobia of Closet Monster. OJ: Made In America‘s deep examination of intricately gnarled systemic injustice, all about how a bad man can play the media to get away with murder. Even Everybody Wants Some‘s blissful, nostalgic blindness of straight white dudes who just want to play ball and get laid. As it turns out, my Top 10 of 2016 was a pretty stellar playlist for 2017, too — a year in which we saw Nazi uprisings, religiously motivated immigration bans, transphobic military policies, nuclear pissing contests between the American president and North Korea, and a ceremonious purge of sexual predators in Hollywood. The year’s horrors are too numerous to mention. (Imagine trying to make that “Top Ten” list.)
But we lived through all that — most of us — and, starting this year, our entertainment begins telling that story. 2017 was the last year that the upheaval we’ve faced is not directly reflected in our movies (besides The Post), since most 2017 releases were underway well before January’s inauguration.
My Top Ten lists are more blatantly personal than most. I consider the writing, acting, and overall craft of a film, of course, but I’m most impressed by those that speak to what we’ve experienced throughout the year. My 2016 choices were pretty political; in 2017, I was drawn to films with more elusive messages and less obvious parallels to numbing headlines we’ve grown accustomed to confronting every day. Still, these films create a dialogue with their audience, and with each other, about the moment we’re living in.
Amidst the past year’s chaos, I found respite in stories of purpose and perseverance. Men and women driven toward something. Missions. Obsessions. Urges. Maybe they don’t know why, or maybe there isn’t a reason. Many movies from many years are driven by such quests, but as we’re coming out of 2017, it feels more important than ever to drown out the cacophony and go with our gut. That’s been hard to do lately.
We’re being assaulted from every angle. Many of us are still defensively crouched. We’ve had to adapt. We’ve learned to accept the unacceptable at a debilitating pace. Daily discouragements and ever-escalating outrage threaten to lead us astray from what really matters. If you’re like me, you know what you want; you’ve been moving in that direction all your life. There is a story you’re telling the world, one you hope to be known for. So good riddance, 2017… with any luck, we won’t be remembered by this.
Here are my ten favorites films of the year.
“I need you to survive the night.”
In a vacuum, I might have selected Detroit as 2017’s awards season heavy-hitter. A tense and moving retelling of the city’s explosive riots and deadly aftermath, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit debuted exactly 50 years after these actual events. The film is violent and relentless, but the what’s more horrifying is that it feels ripped fresh from 2017’s headlines, despite its 1967 setting. Police brutality against African-Americans has not changed, at all, in 50 years. Justice has made zero progress. Welcome to that horror movie.
In its first act, Detroit shows unrest in the titular city and introduces us to characters who should not be part of this story. John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes is a security guard trying to make peace between his neighborhood’s black youth and white law enforcers. This often means swallowing his pride and accepting the bald-faced racism of the cops. Algee Smith’s Larry Cleveland Reed is a rising star in the soulful Motown act The Dramatics. They’re about to have the biggest night of their careers, until the gig is waylaid by civil unrest. Will Poulter plays Krauss, a white cop who shoots a young black looter in the back with a shotgun and easily shrugs it off as a slight error of judgment. One would hope he’d be reprimanded and suspended from duty; instead, at his hand, more black lives shatter.
The standoff between the police and their “suspects” takes over the second act, with Bigelow’s trademark dread and tension breathing down our necks the whole time. It’s riveting, troubling, and all too plausible. Detroit‘s last act is devoted to the aftermath, showing us how something so clearly wrong in the moment can be distorted and obfuscated in a courtroom. The lesson is that black men get away with nothing, and white cops get away with murder.
Several men who commit no crime are killed in cold blood. That’s tragic, of course, and it’s an awfully familiar story. Where Detroit excels is in exploring these events from a less-considered angle — the costs of police violence on survivors. Dismukes, who deescalates the violence in the Algiers Motel as much as he’s able, is treated like a criminal rather than a hero as he’s questioned by white officers afterward. A family grieves for the son they lost to senseless slaughter. Most poignantly, Larry Reed finds his life cut short not by a policeman’s bullet, but by his outrage at America’s corrupt criminal justice system.
Larry Cleveland Reed is quite clearly destined for stardom when we meet him. If things had gone differently in Detroit that night, who knows how far he might have gotten? He isn’t, in the end, a mortal victim of racist cops, but he is a spiritual one, and that’s no less tragic. Krauss and his cronies see black skin no differently than a prison jumpsuit, and a lot of white people (including the judge and jury who exonerated the cops) saw no real fault in that. The Algiers Motel incident came out because white policemen couldn’t fathom that a group of black men actually may not have committed a crime. Larry makes it out of the Algiers alive, but what good is that when the same thing might happen again and again?
The costs of police violence against African-Americans are far greater than the victims who make headlines. Survivors rarely make the news, but they live with the consequences. A black man doesn’t have to be in a white officer’s line of fire to know that he could be, someday, much more easily than a white person — and that if he was gunned down, America’s justice system would accept it as collateral damage. This systemic disease is bad enough to affect countless black lives — not just the ones that are over. Larry Reed makes beautiful music that most people will never hear because one unimaginably harrowing night derailed the course of his life. The same has happened to many other men and women we’ll never hear about.
Some say Detroit “wasn’t her story to tell,” because Kathryn Bigelow is white. That backlash is bullshit. Two white women were held hostage alongside seven black men in the Algiers Motel, because in 1967, being a woman of any color put you at a disadvantage in a room of white men. (Has that changed?) Both were stripped naked as they were interrogated, though Bigelow tones that down a bit. Should Bigelow focus more on the white women’s suffering? Should she refuse to make movies unless the protagonists have white skin she can “identify with”? This criticism is racist; it spits in the face of Black Lives Matter, which aims to unite black people, white people, and all other people against systemic oppression of African-Americans.
Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to earn an Oscar for Best Director, is well-qualified to tell a story about being at a disadvantage against a straight white male majority group. The only prerequisite for an acclaimed filmmaker to take on Detroit should be a belief that unnecessary killing of black people is just as bad as unnecessary killing of anyone else. America needs more than just black voices calling for change through art. It needs white voices like Kathryn Bigelow’s, and all other voices, added to the uproar. A white woman made a film with fully realized black characters, one that didn’t filter them through the eyes of a “relatable” white protagonist. Detroit is not about how the 1967 riots affected white people, or how a white person stepped in to make things right. It trusts audiences to agree that the black characters are enough. Isn’t that what we’ve been asking Hollywood for?
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is 2017’s primary conversation piece on being black in America. It uses humor and horror tropes to point out the very real racism hidden beneath the pretense that Civil Rights solved the bulk of the problem in the 1960s. It was written and directed by a black filmmaker, slipping important ideas into slick entertainment. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Detroit and Get Out couldn’t both exist. But Get Out goes down easy. It ends on a high note. It’s fun to watch. None of this is true of Detroit, the real deal when it comes to horror. Bigelow forces her audience to see, hear, and feel America’s racial nightmare like never before, as close as crawling into someone else’s skin as film can get. Most Caucasians will never know the experience without seeing Detroit — and, I guess, most Caucasians don’t want to know it, based on the film’s cool reception at the box office.
And I get it. Detroit isn’t a good time at the movies. It offers neither distraction nor escape. Unlike hard-to-watch films about slavery, like 12 Years A Slave, or white supremacists, like Mudbound, there’s no pretense of distance between then and now. Detroit isn’t something that happened; it’s something that’s happening. If you ask me, seeing Detroit is every white American’s responsibility. Because we’re part of a system that allows people to live with the real fear that Detroit could happen to them, and too often, turns a blind eye when they stop living with it, thanks to a trigger-happy, racially biased cop. As long as that’s true, don’t we owe it to those people to at least consider that experience for a couple of hours? If you can’t sit through Detroit, it’s because you can’t be bothered by other people’s suffering. By another reminder that not everyone is lapping up the same comfort and privilege you are. You’re the reason this hasn’t changed in fifty years.
Detroit, set in 1967, depicts an uprising of American citizens calling for much-needed change against an oppressive system; shows us women, being abused and exploited for “daring” to say no to white men; shows us black men shot by white men who go unpunished; shows us how the odds are stacked against anyone whose voice isn’t represented in the majority. In other words, Detroit is 2017 in a nutshell. What a shame.
9. LADY BIRD
“I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.”
Ultimately, we’ll look back on 2017 as a significant year for women. That’s true of the movies, too. The Best Actress race is fierce, with Meryl Streep, Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, and Margot Robbie dominating awards chatter as women who rise against the wrongdoing of men. Female filmmakers are still talked about like exotic birds, but Dee Rees and Eliza Hittman made good-to-great films in 2017 (Mudbound and Beach Rats, respectively). Meanwhile, Patty Jenkins helmed the critically and commercially successful Wonder Woman, the third biggest movie of the year. (And, to date, the only DC “Cinematic Universe” movie that’s better than the flu.) Two of my Top 10 films this year were directed by women, as was one more in my Top 15.
Greta Gerwig is the fifth female to be nominated for Best Director. Only one woman has ever won. Kathryn Bigelow deserved her Oscar for crafting a terrific film, but one thing that helped her get it is that she “makes movies like a man.” What that means is that she doesn’t make romantic comedies, and her films aren’t always about women.
It’s true that there’s nothing identifiably feminine about most stories Bigelow tells, or the way she tells them. There shouldn’t have to be. In an ideal world, filmmakers of all genders make thoughtful movies about people of all genders, and we don’t have to pretend like it’s shocking that Wonder Woman could be both a good movie and a hit. Films like Point Break, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty are influenced by Bigelow’s personal experience, part of which is being a woman, but it’s easy to imagine similar movies on similar subjects coming from male directors of her caliber. However, I don’t believe a male director would or could have delivered us Lady Bird. That’s part of why fans are so in love with this movie.
It’s not like a female has never told a compelling coming-of-age story. Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge Of Seventeen and Marielle Heller’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl are recent examples, while Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgmont High and Clueless are older ones. Is Lady Bird so different? Well, none of those were frontrunners at the Oscars, so either the times have changed or the movies have. Either way, it’s a win. Greta Gerwig’s gender is an unfortunately large part of the hype surrounding Lady Bird, a fact that often threatens to dwarf discussion of the film itself. At the same time, it’s invigorating to see filmgoers embrace a female auteur and her personal, woman-driven story. Female filmmakers should be free to direct whatever they want, but it’s promising to see one become a hit without help from Batman and Superman. (Lady Bird could easily be a superhero name.)
Lady Bird doesn’t exactly pass as a Greta Gerwig Origins Story, but it is largely autobiographical. The title character’s “real” name is Christine McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school from the “wrong” side of the Sacramento tracks. She wishes desperately to be none of those things.
Lady Bird‘s mother-daughter dynamic gets the brunt of attention from critics. As Marion McPherson, Laurie Metcalf doles out concern and killing blows in equal measure. Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird fires the same right back. Neither of these women is ever right or wrong, exactly. They feel how they feel, and react accordingly — and it never feels like Gerwig is shepherding them toward any particular arc. The dynamic has more texture than virtually any other big screen relationship can cram in in a couple of hours. Gerwig’s characters are as fully realized and familiar as if we’d spent years getting to know Marion and Christine on a beloved TV drama.
The relatable love-hate mother-daughter relationship is at Lady Bird‘s core, but the film is really a tableau of every noteworthy experience from Christine’s last hurrah in Sacramento, a year in the life of a girl who’s about to leave everything we see behind. Lady Bird is episodic — which, in this case, is downright flighty, just like a teenage girl. Christine forges new romances and friendships, none of which are built to last. She dates Danny, a sweet guy she stares a stage with, played by Lucas Hedges. The love connection doesn’t work out, as so few heterosexual unions formed in drama class do. But Christine and Danny forge an even deeper bond — before he vanishes from her life. This is very much something that happens in real life. Next, Christine moves on to jaded “bad boy” Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet. These romances begin with the storm of any teenage infatuation and end just as abruptly, as does a short-lived friendship with Jenna, the popular girl played by Odeya Rush. It’s all very teenage in its brevity. These connections feel like they’re the beginning of something amazing… and then they’re just not. Anyone who has ever invested heavily in a new partner or friend, only to watch it fizzle, should relate. It’s only Christine’s more consistent but less transcendent friendship with nerdy Julie, played by Beanie Feldstein, that feels like it might stand the test of time.
Shame is a primary motivator for Christine’s yen to get out of town. Her family is lower-middle-class, especially now that her father is out of work, and she spends the whole movie trying to ignore and escape her class. There’s an aspect of social climbing in both of her flings, and certainly in her friendship with Jenna. New York speaks to her because it’s the opposite of her humdrum, average life. The “Lady Bird” moniker is Christine’s attempt to come off as more unique and interesting than she actually is.
Like Gerwig at this age (presumably), Christine wants to be an actress — but only for about a week, before she moves on to something else. She has a hazier sense of purpose than most of my Top 10 protagonists. She knows she wants to get out of town, but is less clear about what she’ll do when she gets there. It could be drama or a math scholarship or a cute boy that takes her away from everything she’s known — she’ll settle for these, or anything else. In a way, hers is the most relatable quest of all; we’re as driven by the lives we don’t want as the ones we do. It’s difficult to articulate what one wants, and much easier to decide: “not this.” Like countless teens before her, Lady Bird doesn’t want to get a regular job, get married, and raise kids in her hometown. She doesn’t know what else is out there, but it must be better than this.
Though Lady Bird is technically her solo directorial debut, I’ve been a fan of Gerwig the auteur for some time now. The Noah Baumbach-directed and Gerwig co-written Frances Ha and Mistress America are fantastically funny depictions of millennials’ reluctant entries into adulthood. Lady Bird is partially a prequel to those films, though Gerwig’s presence behind the camera adds a lived-in, natural quality that’s all her own.
Lady Bird would be too precious if Christine’s career in the arts was a given, or even seriously viable. Because, hey — it worked for Greta Gerwig! It’d be an insufferable film if it took the character as seriously as she takes herself. Instead, Lady Bird plays out as constructive criticism from Gerwig to girls who might be in her old shoes. Gerwig is kind and patient to her characters, but she also lets her proxy be naive and obnoxious, rather than the know-it-all teen girl trope we expect from movies. Lady Bird has no discernible talents, besides defiance. I probably wouldn’t bet on this character to “make it” the way Gerwig did. Lady Bird notably doesn’t end with a tearful goodbye at an airport, the kind of ending that suggests our heroine is off to live well and be fine. Instead, Christine’s first stab at college life is a disaster. When, after her first college party, Christine wakes up in the emergency room after some drunken misadventures, I knew I’d fallen in love with Greta Gerwig all over again.
It’s possible Lady Bird takes place in an alternate universe, where Gerwig imagines an entirely different future for herself. But assuming Christine is on roughly the same trajectory as Gerwig, what’s fascinating about Lady Bird is how little of its plot matters. Neither Danny nor Kyle will remain a major player in Christine’s love life. She’ll probably never speak to Jenna again. She’s done with high school, and therefore also done with the mentor figures played by Stephen Henderson and Lois Smith. She’ll stay in touch with her family, of course, but she’ll do some remotely, so the day-to-day details of their lives matter less. Lady Bird is a snapshot of a life that’s ending, containing the same details you or I might remember from that year. None of it has much consequence, because Christine knows what she wants from the moment we meet her — to get out. Lady Bird would be a different movie if Christine were truly gifted or very smart, but Gerwig gives us zero indication that her proxy’s future is bright. More likely, she’ll become Frances Halladay, then Brooke Cardinas, adrift on the wrong side of youth.
One thing is certain. There’s a more important story headed Christine’s way after this one ends — that’s almost always true of college, which typically does more to shape the direction of our lives than high school. Many people destined for success like Gerwig’s don’t display even a hint of it until college. The point is, anything could happen to Christine McPherson. Lady Bird is the story before the story, but in quiet moments — like Christine’s decision to go to the prom, with or without Kyle — she takes steps to determine her future. She’s not letting any guy stop her from living the life she wants, and we sense she’ll continue to put herself before the men in her life at every turn where it matters. If she didn’t do that in Lady Bird, she’d never make it out of Sacramento and become Greta Gerwig, or whoever she’s meant to be.
Nobody sees as much potential in Christine as she sees in herself, but that conviction is all she needs to take the first big leap in her journey. In Lady Bird, it’s not the outcome that matters, but the courage to go your own way and see what happens. Maybe Christine flames out in college and is back in Sacramento by Thanksgiving. Maybe she discovers a previously unknown passion for architecture, or the Italian language, or podiatry. Maybe she meets the love of her life freshman year. Maybe it’s a man. Maybe it’s a woman. Maybe she becomes an actress after all, and maybe she eventually spins this portion of her life into a beloved Oscar-nominated coming-of-age masterpiece. Lady Bird is all about the possibility.
8. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”
My favorite films of 2017 center on characters who experience a higher calling of one kind or another. While watching Call Me By Your Name, I got the sense that discovering and/or fully embracing one’s sexuality is an undeniable mission of its own. A person may struggle to deny it for years, but at a certain point — or perhaps with a certain someone — it can no longer be rebuked. Elio’s attraction to Oliver is so strong, it feels like a calling.
Call Me By Your Name is freed from the shackles of homophobia, AIDS, and other overly familiar “coming out of age” movie tropes — especially given its setting in the 1980s. But gay romances have been stripped of these trappings before — in Andrew Haigh’s captivating Weekend, for example, another tale of intimate attraction between men that lacks any stakes besides the bruising of the heart. Still, many audiences and critics see something in Call Me By Your Name that’s a revelation.
Maybe it’s because Call Me By Your Name isn’t technically a gay romance. It’s a bisexual one. In true European fashion, writer James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino don’t define anyone’s sexuality. There are three significant male characters, and all three have apparently had romantic entanglements with men and women. Is Elio gay? Is Oliver? Call Me By Your Name actually depicts all three male characters in successful relationships with women, and though all express a longing to also be with men, their heterosexual pairings aren’t meant to be seen as the ultimate tragedies. Elio and Oliver are free to choose each other, or someone else. Another man? Another woman? That’s beside the point. In Call Me By Your Name, lust goes beyond binary definitions. Gender is incidental — it’s a story of two people drawn to each other. There’s no reason to believe their sexual orientation has any say in it.
Of course, a lot of gay men in movies date and sleep with women. Brokeback Mountain saw both men leading double lives, lying to their wives and families while sneaking off to the woods for a rendezvous with their real partner. But Brokeback Mountain was a tragedy, which made it clear that the time and setting were barriers for Jack and Ennis’ blossoming romance. Call Me By Your Name, however, sets up an Italian paradise that is consequence-free for a gay romance. There’s no reason Elio and Oliver couldn’t make it work, if they gave it a go. Their villa is secluded, they have plenty of money, they have the support of Elio’s family. At worst, they’d face some harsh words and disapproving looks from the town’s older citizens. That’s no more reason for these two men not to be together than any two men.
Elio and Oliver are as free as anyone to pursue a relationship. They just… don’t. That’s tragic, too, in its own way. The great, straight love stories tend to be set against sweeping backgrounds (Gone With The Wind, The English Patient, Titanic, Casablanca), often spanning decades. They, too, often avoid a happy ending for the central lovers, but usually it’s because of war, or disease, or an iceberg. It’s much rarer to see a romance, gay or straight, that comes to an end without reason. But they do. Sometimes love stories just stop — though the feelings may still linger a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why Call Me By Your Name is so heartbreaking — not because Elio and Oliver can’t be together, but because one of them just decides not to.
Call Me By Your Name is almost sensual in its craft. Luca Guadagnino might just be Europe’s best travel agent. The cinematography is lush, the writing is exquisite, the performances are gorgeous. It’s one of the most immersive, transportive love stories to grace the screen in ages, and it really pissed me off. Do I believe two beautiful young men could fall in love, entirely free of judgment, jealousy, or any significant conflict, during a picture perfect summer in Italy in 1983? I mean, I guess… I’ve bought wilder premises. Elio and Oliver have the kind of dreamy love affair most people only ever dream of, and though it is apparently over by the time the film ends, even the breakup is pretty dreamy. I was pulled in very deeply by certain aspects of Elio and Oliver’s story, but the sublime circumstances pushed me back outward. It’s just so perfect, I almost started missing the AIDS.
(I would hate these dudes on Instagram.)
Then came the ending, Call Me By Your Name‘s immaculate conclusion, with Elio sitting by the fire, crying for his lost love through the closing credits, so intimate and relatable for anyone who’s ever had been heartbroken by a lover moving on without them. I’ll gladly go to bat for it as one of the all-time great movie endings.
And even that pisses me off, because as sad as Elio is in the moment, he’s still better off than virtually any other gay man in 1983, let alone 2017. As tired as the cliches have become, there is a reason so many coming out stories feature bullying, abuse, alienation, disease, addiction, exploitation, and betrayal. It’s because they’re part of the story for millions of gay men. The movie makes this point — Elio and Oliver are very, very lucky to have found each other. If Call Me By Your Name ended with them riding off into the sunset, it would be too sickly sweet to stomach. Elio and Oliver’s relationship may be picture perfect, but at least that perfection isn’t sustainable.
In the exceptionally conceived and crafted long take that serves as the film’s final shot, we fully feel Elio’s melancholy. But Call Me By Your Name allows his mourning to be momentary. He’ll be sad for a while, left with a few bittersweet memories, but he’ll be okay. He’s charming, attractive, intelligent, in a great home with a loving family. There’s no reason to think he won’t soon meet another guy or girl and have another sweeping romance.
By the end of the credits, Elio’s tears have dried. Fair enough — but it stings, for those of us still crying.
“Do you ever get that feeling, when you wake up in the middle of the night, that there’s something with you in the dark?”
My contentious relationship with Call Me By Your Name‘s Italian fantasia is counterbalanced by Rift, a stark tale of two ex-boyfriends’ tense reunion. Here, the picturesque backdrop in a remote European location is not Italy, but Iceland. Here, Call Me By Your Name‘s infuriating summertime beauty is replaced with foreboding cliffs and cold that can kill you. Rift is about the end of a relationship between two men, rather than the beginning.
There’s an age difference between Einar and Gunnar, Rift‘s handsome young lovers, just as there was with Elio and Oliver in Call Me By Your Name. Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson) is the younger, hopeful romantic who wants the relationship to move forward. Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) is slightly older, more practical, and more reluctant. We catch glimpses of them during the summer, in happier moments, and we imagine their courtship might have been just as lovely as the one in Call Me By Your Name. But the sun has set on all that when Rift begins.
Gunnar is dating another cute, needy young blonde when he gets a despondent voicemail from Einar about “something” in the dark. Einar is known for his dramatic drunkenness, and he’s made vague threats about ending his life. Gunnar drops everything and drives out to the frosty farmland where Einar’s parents own a cabin. The two exes spend most of their time cooped up in this enclosed space together, so what ensues is reminiscing, bickering, flirting, drama, threats, confessions of past trauma, and the potential for reconciliation, plus ghosts and murder. Oh… did I not mention Rift is a horror movie?
Rift begins with an announcement that it’ll be a “red Christmas” — that’s Icelandic for the opposite of a white one, but it’s still awfully foreboding, and just one of many signs that trouble is brewing. A door in the cabin won’t stay closed. Einar sleepwalks, wandering out into the frigid night air without clothes on. A red truck appears and disappears under mysterious circumstances. Someone knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Gunnar gets a curious warning about hitchhikers… and another, but thieves… and another, about an old man in town with a bad reputation. Einar tells Gunnar about Leemoy, the imaginary friend he had as a child, who once attempted to kill him. Einar’s mental health is questionable; there’s a chance he might hurt himself, or someone else.
You can try to figure out these and other Rift mysteries if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Erlingur Thoroddsen’s film is a mood piece. All interpretations are fair game. Without spoiling any surprises for those who’ve yet to see it, here are some things the twists and turns in Rift made me think about.
Being gay is scary. It’s isolating and lonely. You realize you are different than most people around you — there’s something about you they’ll never “get.” Every gay person fears their sexuality at some point. Even in the most supportive environment, there’s risk of revulsion and rejection. Of being left out in the cold. Of being unloved. Everyone confronts that at their own pace. Rift takes place in a threatening environment, isolating its protagonists in a cabin; one even hides in a closet at one point. He wants the door to close, but it won’t. Someone always tries to get in before you’re ready.
Embracing one’s sexuality means a loss of innocence. That’s true whether you’re gay or straight, though being gay might complicate it. You leave childhood behind… but it’s not that cut and dry, is it? Our childhood haunts us, enticing us to go back to a time when we felt safer, because we knew less. It is tempting to chase the past, and see how far back there you can get.
Love takes time to get over. Relationships haunt you longer than you’d like. You relive the best and worst of them in memory. Internally, you may even continue them, finishing conversations that never ended… imagining the things you could have said or done to work it out. In order to truly move on, you need to confront both inner demons and ghosts from the past. Only then are you ready to let another person join you on the ride.
Many gay men chase youth. Long after straight peers have left the trappings of youth behind, many gay men try to look and act younger than they are. Sometimes, it’s more literal — he might use old photos on a dating app and shave a few years off his age, impersonating an older version of himself. Not everyone who says they’re young is young.
Sex and death are intertwined for gay men. A lot of it has to do with AIDS, and maybe that’ll taper off someday. Because of societal stigmas, though, gay men frequently put themselves at risk — meeting a sketchy stranger in an abandoned place, or hooking up with someone even though you know it won’t feel good. Sexual trauma is common amongst gay men, especially those that don’t have much support. These dark experiences lurk in new relationships. You may not talk about it, but it’s there, coloring the intimacy you share — perhaps even staining it.
Last year, Closet Monster was amongst my Top 10 favorite films for the way it introduced macabre elements into the typical coming-out-of-age movie. Rift does the same with a gay breakup story. “Horror” is a heavy-handed way to describe it — the film is suspenseful and sometimes very scary, but it also takes a lot of breathers for dramatic moments. We get to know Gunnar and Einar very well, enough to trust that neither of them is as sinister as the environment around them seems to be. In this isolated winter cabin, after the bloom of their relationship has worn off, they confess deep, dark secrets they never had the nerve to confront when they were together. There’s still love between them. The foreboding atmosphere is equally appropriate for the horror film and the breakup drama — Rift bridges the gap between both.
Rift has twists, but fans of “gotcha!” endings will be disappointed if they expect M. Night Shyamalan-style tidiness in the end. Plot mechanics take a backseat to Rift‘s eerie, doom-tinged mood. This is a gay romantic drama cloaked in horror tropes that elevate the stakes of whether or not Einar and Gunnar reconcile to literally life or death. (Because that’s how it always feels, isn’t it?) In addition to their crumbled love story, Gunnar and Einar have older traumas to reckon with. One shares a near-death experience that’s partially to blame for his emotional dependence; the other shares a tale of sexual abuse that might as well be ripped out of Kevin Spacey’s little black book. Maybe, if they’d shared these secrets when they were together, they wouldn’t have had to part. Will this change things between them, or is it too late?
Despite Iceland’s gay-friendliness, queer Icelandic cinema is a rare beast; Rift ranks as one of the most unique and stylish gay films from any country. In a good year for gay dramas, Rift ended up being the 2017 love story I could connect with, despite some of its darker twists (or, more likely, because of them). For me, this chilly, wintery antidote to Call Me By Your Name‘s sun-soaked summer love was exactly what I needed to embrace both films — the nightmare to Luca Guadagnino’s gay dream. I’m sure someone out there had a picture-perfect gay romance like the one in Call Me By Your Name, and good for them. But if Elio and Oliver’s summertime cavorting left you out in the cold, try Rift. It’s Call Me By Your Name over ice.
6. PHANTOM THREAD
“For the hungry boy.”
I was fortunate enough to see many great films from 2017 in the presence of the people who made them, getting insight into my favorite stories and performances from major talent like Darren Aronofsky, Jessica Chastain, Margot Robbie, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Steven Spielberg. My favorite, of course, was seeing Phantom Thread with Paul Thomas Anderson. I find something to appreciate in all of Anderson’s movies, but his last two weren’t easy to warm up to. I like The Master and Inherent Vice a lot, but I wouldn’t say that I love them. They’re no match for Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and Boogie Nights.
My early thoughts on Phantom Thread ranked it similarly as a Top 20 movie, but not a Top 10 movie. As its title suggests, however, it managed to sneak its way in after all, partly thanks to my faith in Anderson. I’ve only seen Phantom Thread once, but I suspect this film will grow more intriguing upon repeated viewings. Anderson’s films are inherently rewatchable, no matter how portentous or dense they may seem. And Phantom Thread looks and sounds exquisite — if there’s a single frame of this film that isn’t perfectly composed, don’t tell me.
Phantom Thread is a romance, but not a conventional one. It stars three-time Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis, probably our most revered living actor, opposite Vicky Krieps, a Luxembourghian actress most American filmgoers had never seen nor heard of. Day-Lewis is known for towering performances, bombastic method acting that could easily blow costars off the screen. It’s almost cruel to cast him alongside an unknown like Krieps and expect her to carry half of the movie.
But that dynamic plays out in the film itself, as world-renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock woos a mild-mannered waitress named Alma. There’s nothing exceptional about her, as far as we can tell, which might be what Reynolds likes about her. He’s used to using and discarding women as lovers, muses, and models. Alma, too, seems poised to be shattered by this brute.
But Krieps holds her own against Day-Lewis. And so does Alma.
Phantom Thread is, perhaps, the most thorough examination of toxic masculinity in 2017. Aside from his couture talents, Reynolds has few redeemable or endearing qualities. He displays a hint of charm in early flirtations with Alma, but it’s soon replaced by domineering demands and callous coldness. What she sees in him is a mystery.
Alma is an enigmatic character, with no ties to anyone or anything (that we know of) until she’s invited into the House of Woodcock. Some critics interpret that as sexist screenwriting — because, yes, plenty of female characters exist solely to dote upon dynamic male leads. But Anderson is too clever to trot out such cliches without commentary. He sets us up to expect nothing of Alma, just as Reynolds doesn’t. He doesn’t ask about her desires, or needs, or her background, so neither does this movie.
In this way, Phantom Thread plays as a kind of parody of male-dominated dramas. Alma is almost absurdly under-developed, but we’re meant to notice this, even if Reynolds doesn’t. We may never know why Alma sets her sights on infiltrating the House (and heart) of Woodcock, but her conviction is clear. Publicized as Day-Lewis’ swan song, Phantom Thread declines to deliver another true tour-de-force from Oscar’s golden boy — he’s good here, of course, but the role isn’t at the same level as his Daniel Plainview or Abraham Lincoln, and it isn’t attempting to be. Instead, the dynamo hands the movie to the mousy waitress. It’s a wry commentary on expectations of leading men and their “supporting” women (and I’m not just talking about the movies).
Krieps doesn’t command the screen like Day-Lewis. She has no cutting quips, nor ostentatious monologues. There’s not a single moment that really bares the character’s soul to the audience. Still, this woman is clearly Phantom Thread‘s protagonist — a first for Paul Thomas Anderson. Alma is Anderson’s “phantom thread” — weaved seamlessly into a prestige film sold entirely on the talents of two much-revered men. Phantom Thread is a hush-hush, low-key story of female empowerment, with Alma threading herself into Reynolds’ life just as Krieps quietly steals the movie. The film reveals itself as not a breathy romantic drama, but a black comedy mocking the roles men and women have learned to play over the years, in both life and film.
Look at Phantom Thread from one angle, and its female characters revolve entirely around the whims of one man. Alma stands by Reynolds during his most appalling behavior. His sister, Cyril (a delightful Lesley Manville), similarly spends every waking minute tending to Reynolds’ needs. The movie is filled with women who lavish praise on Woodcock’s dresses, and who will spare no expense to own one. But isn’t it really Reynolds Woodcock, then, whose entire life revolves around women? He can’t get through the day without Cyril making the most basic decisions for him. He’s unable to rid himself of Alma when she begins disrupting his perfectly ordered life. He’d be penniless without the women who buy his designs. The ghost of his deceased mother still looms large over his life. He plays the part of a brutish man’s man, but he’s not really in control of anything.
Some critics have speculated that Anderson, not Woodcock, is the toxic male in this picture, with the renowned dressmaker a thinly disguised proxy for the renowned filmmaker. But Reynolds is so absurdly commandeering, Anderson couldn’t possibly be holding the character in high regard. In Woodcock, he’s mocking his own self-serious “artsiness,” using a man who is completely bankrupt without his talent.
Woodcock demands perfection in every fragment of his life, but he takes pleasure in none of it. He has a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way and he’d be lost without the servants, muses, models, seamstresses, customers, and sister who enable his work. He insists on luxury and perfection within his fastidious House, but only his patrons benefit from it. His time is spent crafting gorgeous dresses, but he has no appreciation for the women who wear them. It’s almost as if he doesn’t even see them. There is a great irony in this tale about a misogynist who devotes his entire life to the creation of women’s clothing.
Woodcock’s art is joyless, no matter how exquisite. It’s Alma who breathes life into his staid existence, who gives him the hunger and passion he’s been missing. To dominate a brute like Day-Lewis, Krieps has to be playing one of the strongest females of the year. The woman in the dress is no man’s plaything.
“We build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you — or maybe just a couple of people. But you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.”
A ghost story feels apt for a year in which so much that we thought was buried has come back to haunt us. (For example: Nazis!) Like an actual ghost, A Ghost Story has an intangible, incorporeal quality. No amount of watching could ever quite grasp it. No review could ever sum it up. That makes sense — few stories have a bigger scope than this one. A Ghost Story encapsulates life, death, love, and time in unusual and unforgettable ways. (It’s the anti-Collateral Beauty.)
The story itself is as simple as can be. We meet a man named C. He dies, and then he’s a ghost. He has a chance to move on to the “Other Side,” but decides to stick around a while. At first, this is because he wants to be near his girlfriend while she does grief-stricken things like listen to sad music and eat an entire pie in one sitting just so she can vomit it back up. As time goes on, C’s reason for staying grows less clear. He isn’t bound to this house. He can come and go as he pleases. C probably doesn’t know what he’s waiting for… but what else is there to do when you die?
David Lowery’s film, starring Casey Affleck under a sheet and only Casey Affleck under a sheet for most of its running time, should be celebrated first and foremost for not being absurd. The premise alone is a hell of a risk. Audiences easily might have just laughed at this silly, pathetic-looking spirit. (The special effects here rival a 5-year-old’s Halloween costume.) But we don’t laugh. He inspires profound sadness. By stripping away any view of the Oscar-winning actor within, C becomes an Everyman (or Everyghost), allowing us to project our own thoughts, hopes, and fears about the afterlife onto his form. A Ghost Story might as well be a silent film; the visuals and music say what dialogue never could. Watching it is more like walking through an art gallery than seeing a movie.
Lowery shows us snippets of C’s life before death — he’s a musician who wrote a melancholy track (played by Dark Rooms’ “I Get Overwhelmed”) about being left behind by a lover. Later, C and M fight about leaving their current house. C wants to stay, for reasons he can’t quite articulate. They shared so many memories here. M wants to go.
So C’s afterlife isn’t an accident. He always wanted to stay behind instead of move on. He’s so consumed with nostalgia that he’d rather hold onto the past than see what the future offers. In this way, A Ghost Story is a tantalizing metaphor for looking back instead of forward. The Other Side might be fantastic, but those who can’t let go of history will never know. A lot of people still stick with what’s familiar when they really should move on. You don’t have to be dead to relate to Affleck’s specter.
With a $100,000 budget, a running time of 92 minutes, and a square aspect ratio, A Ghost Story is smaller than other features in practically every way, but the punch it packs is epic. The longer C stays on Earth, the less his existence means anything. He is the only person who sees the world the way he sees it. He is the only one who cares about what he cares about. By the end of A Ghost Story, we learn that the whole world is haunted — not by spirits, necessarily, but by what happened before we came along, countless events we’ll never know. What’s precious to us goes unseen by everybody else; we tear down what is sacred to someone, somewhere in time, to build something that’s important to us. M has a habit of leaving notes in places no one will ever find them; she leaves one in the house after she moves out. C spends hours, days, and years trying to get it out, trying to know a part of M she intended to keep to herself. For C, this little scrap of paper tucked into a hole in the wall contains the Meaning of Life. Whatever’s on it takes away any last reason to exist.
C leaves his sad song behind. M listens to it once, remembering him, sadly. Maybe that’s it — the entirety of his impact on our great, big world in a three-minute piece of music that only one woman ever heard. Some achieve the glory they seek; others never will. A Ghost Story dramatizes the remnants of our purpose in life, what’s left after we fail to become who we wanted to be, who we could or should have been if fate were less cruel.
As its title would suggest, A Ghost Story is terrifying — but not with the usual “boo”s and “gotcha”s of a typical supernatural tale. This ghost story forces us to confront the cold, sad fact of our own meaningless mortality, and that’s spine-tingling as fuck. The past is done with us — there’s nothing to do there but dwell. Time will forget C once he’s gone, just as it forgets all of us in the long run, whether we achieve what we set out to do in life or die trying. Everyone eventually becomes a phantom. Then, after enough time, even the ghost is gone.
4. I, TONYA
“I look like someone who had a way out of this shit, and fucked it up.”
Throughout 2017, the news cycle was dominated by Donald Trump — until, suddenly, it wasn’t. In the last quarter, a different story broke, one that newly defined our year. The belated takedown of Harvey Weinstein was one of few true triumphs over the past year. It exposed an ugliness in Hollywood, perpetuated by too many entertainers, emblematic of a more widespread problem in America itself. These weren’t exactly upbeat headlines, but the narrative that emerged was monster after monster being dragged out from under the bed. Unlike Trump’s continued wretchedness, a holdover from the 2016 news cycle, the fall of Hollywood’s pervy dominoes was exclusive to 2017. The result was a media storm so mighty, only a few scandals could compete — one, of course, being the saga of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
In 2017, everything 90s is new again. Tonya is this year’s O.J. I saw I, Tonya several weeks before its release, in the early days of Hollywood’s own Hurricane Harvey. It was the perfect time to cement I, Tonya as the most 2017 movie of the year.
I, Tonya takes places in the 80s and 90s, uses lots of music from the 70s, and is stylistically more akin to GoodFellas than any sports movie. It also doesn’t feel like it could have been made any time but now. Writer Steve Rogers and director Craig Gillespie rebuild Tonya Harding from the ground up, showing us what shaped the woman the media made out to be a monster. I, Tonya‘s Tonya is no monster. She’s no picnic, either. Politely, you could call her difficult, but being difficult is no crime… except in the world of figure skating, where every woman as a pretty, pretty princess. Tonya never was, and was never going to be… but she tried. In I, Tonya, she’s a tragic heroine, who, through some combination of her own flaws and everyone else’s, became America’s favorite punching bag — until women like Marcia Cross and Monica Lewinsky stepped in to deflect those blows. As a skater, Tonya Harding is exceptional — because she can land triple axels and because she skates right through the stereotype of a typical ice princess. As a human being — well, Tonya Harding could use some therapy.
She’s cruder than most women. Her knocks were harder than most. Her mother is a devil woman. Tonya isn’t even half as vile. As vividly as Tonya is written, and as splendidly as Margot Robbie plays her, the most surprising thing about I, Tonya is that it recasts Tonya Harding as an Everywoman. Some of the details may be specific to the most notorious figure skater who ever lived, but her predicament is all too familiar. Tonya suffers at the hands of impulsive, short-sighted, ego-driven men. Domestic abuse isn’t the worst of it. At the hand of a few stupid men, Tonya Harding is forced to abandon the only dream she ever had, the saving grace of her bleak life. The men who did it to her barely even notice what they’ve done to her. They get off easy.
I, Tonya isn’t interested in providing answers about Harding’s involvement in Kerrigan’s attack (or “the incident,” as it is referred to here). Its narrative is split between several points of view, none of which sound totally reliable, all of them rooted in truth. What the characters do and say in this movie is totally unbelievable; it’s also totally true. (Okay, maybe not totally true, but the weirdest stuff really happened.) I don’t know if I believe the real-life Tonya Harding, but I know I believe Tonya Harding as played by Margot Robbie. The performance is electric from moment one. You don’t dare take your eyes off her for one second of this film.
The entire cast is perfect, from Sebastian Stan’s pitiful Jeff Gillooly to Paul Walter Houser’s even more pitiful Shawn Eckhardt. Tonya’s husband and self-proclaimed bodyguard are total losers. Eckhardt’s deluded grandiosity provides the film with too-good-to-be-true comic relief. (It’s true.) Then there’s LaVona, Tonya’s vicious, complicated mother, a role likely to win a Allison Janney an Oscar. In some ways, the role is a gimme — Janney gets to spit some of the juiciest, foulest dialogue of the year. (It’s hard to not be great while shouting “Lick my ass, Diane!”) She’s a villain, for sure, and a lot of actresses might have let that be that. Janney, though, never exactly shows LaVona’s hand. We suspect simultaneously wants the best and worst for her daughter at every turn.
Gillespie’s filmmaking is as bratty and unhinged as his protagonist. The script is peppered with fourth-wall-breaking treats — some for comic relief, and others that take big risks. Tonya narrates Jeff’s violent abuse while it’s happening. That has caused some viewers to believe that Rogers and Gillespie use domestic abuse as a punchline. These scenes are darkly funny, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also deadly serious. For women like Tonya, getting hit is an everyday chore, like washing the dishes or taking the garbage out. Every battered woman should react in horror to abuse, taking it as a sign that things can only get worse. They should leave, and never come back. But a lot of women don’t. Getting the shit beat out of them is all they know. Tonya is a hell of a skater — she’s tough, but not strong. She stands up for herself on the ice, but fails badly at it in her personal life. This isn’t a flaw in the filmmaking — it’s a flaw in the woman.
As positive as the outlook for women is in 2018 (comparatively speaking), we can’t pretend that the public shaming of many famous men means all men will be held accountable for their crimes. Tonya Harding was famous; so are many of today’s accusers and accused. It’s enough of a struggle for them — what about those who cries for justice go unheard because no celebrities are involved? Tonya Harding isn’t a lucky woman, but she has more options than a lot of abused women do. And she still fails. I, Tonya is an unconventional exploration of the costs of domestic abuse. It is also, in part, the story of millions of marriages that aren’t physically violent. How many women have given up careers for the men in their life? How many of them really wanted to? By and large, women in America have been indoctrinated against standing up for their own rights. They’re taught that compliance is ladylike. Ambition is unattractive. Speaking up means being a bitch. This toxic view of femininity is what allowed Harding to be cast as a ruthless psychopath instead of a person who probably made some mistakes. Men can bash a woman’s knee in — they’ll be punished, but they won’t be damned. And if a woman cuts corners to get ahead? She may as well be a serial killer. I, Tonya is slick, funny, and wildly entertaining. It also happens to be a tragedy about the systematic subjugation of women in America. Most probably won’t see a lot of themselves in Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding… but they should. This is hardly one woman’s story.
America has never been perfect, but the last couple years have taught us that we’ve got a longer way to go than we thought. “Look how far we haven’t come!” could be our new national anthem. In 2017, I read comments — lots of comments — that called Harvey Weinstein’s accusers “sluts” who got what they deserved. These people aren’t even passionate defenders of Harvey Weinstein. They probably just found out who he is. But to them, women speaking out against abuse boggles the mind; the only way to rationalize it is to make them the ones who’ve done wrong. Anything else would force them to examine their own lives for a moment, and they certainly don’t want to do that. We’ll judge someone else — anyone else — before casting blame on ourselves. Boys will be boys, and women will be whatever the boys want. That was true for centuries, and change is hard. Women who dare step out of their place will be burned at stake. (Yes, I’m basically just talking about Hillary Clinton right now.) Harding earned some of her bad press, but the amount of bile we spewed at her was way out of whack. Do you know the name of the guy who actually hit Nancy Kerrigan in the knee? Well, shouldn’t you?
I, Tonya wasn’t made in reaction to Harvey Weinstein or the 2016 election, of course. It just happens to be a potent time for us to reexamine the way we treated Tonya Harding, and why. This is not a woman who got what she deserved. The media made a monster out of Tonya Harding. We let it happen, because we didn’t know any better back in 1994. In 2017, roughly half of us know better, so maybe another 23 years will eradicate any trace of this notion that any woman who isn’t a saint is a sinner. I, Tonya is dressed up as a sassy black comedy, which works because it’s funny as hell. It’s also one of the boldest, most important films of the year, even if most of America doesn’t get that yet. It’s still 1994 where they are.
2017 was an eventful year for cineastes. It marked the first time Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson have ever released a film in the same year. That’s a big deal if you consider them the two most exciting American auteurs of the 21st century, as many do. Phantom Thread was Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film in a decade, while mother! was even more special — a chance to let an already-gonzo filmmaker really let his freak flag fly.
I called I, Tonya “the most 2017 movie of 2017” because it focuses on an abused woman, some dumbass men, and the American press’ complicity in her damnation. Mother! tells a surprisingly similar tale, though more abstractly. It’s so abstract, the average American walked out of the theater with no clue what they’d seen.
But mother! is also the most 2017 movie of 2017, in a more meta way. No film was more polarizing. Audiences were firmly divided between camps: mother!-lovers and mother!-haters. And oh boy, did they fight. You could practically hear the haters chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!” (Yes, I’m declaring mother! the Hillary Clinton of movies.) The chaos, the cacophony, the decline and destruction… the man, basking in the limelight, and the woman, hopelessly trying to preserve it all, whose good sense goes ignored. Mother! is the movie that best captures the spirit of 2017.
If you haven’t seen it yet, let that be a warning.
Aronofsky acolytes knew he was going for broke when he titled this latest film with a lower case m and an exclamation point. Not even his bombastic 2010 Best Picture nominee demanded to be referred to as black swan! Whatever we were getting in mother!, we knew it was for us.
We were right. Aronofsky didn’t disappoint his fans; he just pissed off a lot of people who’d probably never heard of him. Mother!‘s wide release was basically Paramount looking to pick a fight with mainstream moviegoers, who spent their money expecting entertainment and got high art instead. Mother! earned the elusive “F” CinemaScore from the general public, which only made those of us in the not-so-general public love it more.
(For the record, The Emoji Movie got a “B” CinemaScore. Let’s not pretend that the general public has any say in what makes a movie “good.”)
Would anyone argue that we just witnessed a great year for nuance in America? (Donald Trump, maybe — but he doesn’t know what “nuance” is.) In accordance with the times, mother! is not subtle. It ends in an exclamation point, and I like to think 2017! does, too. The film is a provocation. It does not want your “B+” CinemaScore. It does not care for your Academy Awards. It does not exist for your glassy-eyed consumption, nor to tuck you in bed on a Tuesday night. The media seized on mother!‘s perceived “failure” and it went down as a flop. Financially, that’s right. But as a piece of art, the film did everything it aspired to do, much more than most movies dare to dream about. Mother! is quietly adored by many of us, even if it ends up being defined by its spectacular stumble in the public consciousness. Given what passes for mainstream success these days, maybe it’s lucky to be misunderstood.
Mother! is Aronofsky’s first film since 2014’s Noah, which also had a wide release. (Only three of Aronofsky’s seven films have done so. Even his biggest hit started in limited release.) Mother! and Noah are both drenched in religious themes and iconography, though only one makes that explicit in the text. Mother! is an allegory, obviously. Exactly what it’s an allegory for is up for discussion… but not debate. There’s no definitive reading of what mother! is “about.” The answer is D) All of the Above. (And then some.) It’s a synthesis of biblical elements paired with more modern concerns, like celebrity and sexism and climate change. It’s the 21st century in a blender — do not touch until blades come to a full stop!
Want to hear something funny? In 2017, Darren Aronofsky faithfully adapted the Bible into a major motion picture, and mainstream audiences hated it — because it didn’t make any sense! We live in a time when reality is distorted to fit preconceived beliefs. The beliefs are not questioned; it’s the facts that have to prove themselves. The Bible has never made a lot of sense, taken literally. It is full of contradictions and raises a lot of questions, though many would argue that it contains all the answers instead. People believe that, instead of what’s right in front of them, because they’ve been told to and deviation is scary. It’s perfectly 2017 that when they’re confronted with the same story in a different package, they reject it offhand and declare that it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. I doubt this was Aronofsky’s master plan for the movie, but it’s a pretty good prank all the same.
The God figure in mother! is an artist — a poet, to be exact. He’s played by Javier Bardem, and his doting wife is played by Jennifer Lawrence. She loves him as much as anyone ever could, but he still looks elsewhere for admiration. He is idolized by fans who are about as rabid as Aronofsky’s. The conflation is fucking brilliant, giving the film a nifty hall-of-mirrors effect. How autobiographical is mother!? Aronofsky clearly identifies with The Poet. Some critics have cried foul at this self-deification, but to me it’s clear that Aronofsky’s digging deeper than a vanity project ever would. Mother! is the exact opposite of masturbatory — it’s a scathing self-critique.
Aronofsky is “God,” but mother!‘s God is a long way from admirable. He’s a total fucking asshole. His wife does anything to please him, and he doesn’t give a shit. Spectacularly, in 2017, Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson released the exact same movie, though they’re also completely distinct. The Poet is a lot like Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread. His wife is a lot like Alma. Both are slavishly loyal, though they have no reason to be. The bland babe with no desires of her own, except to please the Great Man in her life. How many movies end with a kiss — with a male hero getting a woman as a “reward” for a job well done? It’s practically a requirement.
Aronofsky and Anderson aren’t glorifying their 2017 doppelgangers, however — they’re lambasting them, unleashing something very personal and deeply ugly from within. In 2017, two of the most highly acclaimed men in Hollywood took a long, hard look in the mirror, and at the women they’ve used, abused, belittled, ignored, or taken for granted along the way. Of course, neither filmmaker could have known that all the men in Hollywood would be forced to do this very thing last fall, between mother! and Phantom Thread‘s release dates. Before the Weinstein story broke, Anderson and Aronofsky had already begun a cinematic discourse about how talented, powerful male artists treat women, on and off the screen. They didn’t need the shame and scourge of sexual abuse to tell these stories. They just happened to do it right before the industry itself decided time was up. Phantom Thread and mother! use misogyny to tell two of the most feminist stories of the year.
Aronosfky and Anderson take opposite approaches to their finales. One woman quietly triumphs in the power struggle, while the other sacrifices literally everything to satisfy her “hungry boy.” What they have in common? The man is the antagonist. This is her fucking story.
Midway through, mother! leaves “kooky” behind and goes full-on bonkers. We knew the filmmaker behind Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan was capable of going to this extreme, but we never thought a studio would be reckless enough to give him the money to actually do it. (Thanks, Paramount!) Jennifer Lawrence gives a hell of a performance, which is impressive because she’s not playing a character, per se. The crazier things get, the more Lawrence is an Everywoman, thrown to the wolves by male pride. It’s a much older story than the Bible itself.
The Poet is worshipped for what he writes. His wife is a domestic artist. She puts as much care and consideration into their home as he puts into his text. Eventually, she gives birth to their infant son — the ultimate act of creation, one no poet or dressmaker (or male filmmaker) will ever know. Making a home, creating a life? That’s art, too, but it requires approval from only a select few, not the masses at large. The Poet’s fans clamor for a manufactured miracle, destroying the real miracle that’s right in front of them. It’s the same hypocrisy as those who worship God, but refuse to preserve the Earth He supposedly made for us.
If mother! had been released a couple months later, perhaps the allegory of a woman sacrificing everything to feed the male ego would have resonated more. In Aronofsky’s one-of-a-kind vision, Mother Nature herself raises a hand in the “Me Too” movement… and in the movie’s climax, time is definitely up. Female bodies create life; they’re critical to mankind’s survival, and so is the planet Earth. But that doesn’t stop men from ravaging them — squeezing them for all they’re worth, discarding them when there’s nothing left. It’s never enough. The Poet has all the love he needs in his very own home, but that doesn’t stop him from destroying that in pursuit of a shinier, more sensational glory. The worst part? He’ll never know how wrong he was. Being wrong wasn’t part of the story he was told.
2. THE LOST CITY OF Z
“The jungle is Hell… but one sort of likes it.”
The stories that spoke to me in 2017 touched on the intangible allure of our purpose and passions, whether those dreams are realized or not. The Lost City Of Z is the one that’s specifically about that.
There are moments of mayhem in the jungle, but this isn’t an adventure film in any traditional sense. The quest for Z takes a backseat to what drove one man to seek it out in the first place, and what demanded he pursue it to such an end. In a broader sense, it’s about the unknowable madness that makes us spend our lives as we do.
Do we choose our purpose, or does our purpose choose us? Percy Fawcett would lean toward the latter, and I do, too.
The Lost City Of Z is the true story of military man Percy Fawcett, whose drunk father left him a bad name. Despite his accomplishments in the British Army, Fawcett is unable to transcend his tainted roots to earn the respect he’s due. He flails, unsure what to make of himself. Percy is happily married to Nina, a loyal but independent-minded woman (for her time) who shares Percy’s thirst for adventure. But that’s not enough for a man who wants to do great things in the world. When we meet him, Percy Fawcett is a man in search of an obsession — and then one finds him.
The Royal Geographic Society asks Percy to mount an expedition to Bolivia. It will take him out of England for years, put him in constant danger, and comes with its fair share of hardships — but he is assured that it will also give him the social status he so craves. Leaving his wife and young child behind is inconvenient, but there’s no way he’s not going. In most societies — England in the early 20th century, especially — a man is not measured by the happiness of his home. Percy Fawcett must go for glory, even if it’s halfway across the world.
Fawcett finds artifacts that hint at an ancient civilization. This flies in the face of current English assumptions about South American “savages.” Pursuit of this “lost city” is no longer merely about social climbing. It’s Percy Fawcett’s destiny.
But Fawcett is more convinced that the City of Z exists than anyone else is. What he’s found is not enough to go on — it’s entirely possible that the “lost city” is one man’s delusion, a jungle fever dream. The more naysayers claim this to be the case, the more determined Fawcett is to prove himself. Finding the City of Z becomes the singular purpose of his life, overtaking his need for approval from high society, and outweighing his role as a husband and father. Why is this quest so important to him? Well… why is anything?
This is a tale of the passions we pursue, regardless of how little sense they may make. This year, Phantom Thread and mother! also drew parallels between brutish, misguided artists and the men behind the cameras. For me, though, James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z is an even more compelling allegory for creative storytelling. Fawcett chases something only he is certain exists. A myth. A vision. Nina believes in her husband. Eventually their kids do, too. Fawcett also finds an ally in fellow adventurer Harry Constin, played by a bushy-bearded Robert Pattinson. But their small crew faces skepticism from those who hold the purse strings to fund their expedition. There’s also backlash from the press. Finding the Lost City of Z was a Herculean effort, but so was making it. Filmmakers go through hell for years to get others to see what they see.
Many a man fancies himself an adventurer, but few are cut from the cloth that makes him one. Some men don’t have the fortitude, others don’t have the desire. Only Fawcett has unwavering faith in his vision throughout. It’s only through the strength of his conviction that the legend is passed on, enabling him to go back again and again, enticing others to share the journey. Fawcett is an auteur. It’s a potentially deadly line of work.
The Lost City Of Z was the first film I saw after spending nearly a month in South America. I can’t deny that there’s something Z-like about the way it called to me. Gray writes and shoots the film like an old-fashioned epic, a bona fide “they don’t make ’em like they used to” throwback to Lawrence Of Arabia and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Its episodic structure also harkens back to another era. In a lot of ways, The Lost City Of Z could have come straight out of the 1950s or 60s, as is. It’s like watching a classic you never knew about.
In other ways, Gray’s film is very modern. He cannily avoids the naggy shrew and cheerleader cliches that plague most other “supportive wife” characters. She isn’t just cheering Percy on, or demanding that he stay by her side. At one point, she’s ready to be as reckless as he is. (The sexism of the time reminds her that men can be brave and foolish. Women can’t.) In most movies, the sensible wife is an obstacle for the male protagonist. He needs to duck and dodge around her to get to the rest of the film. Since these characters tend to be weak, it happens quickly. In The Lost City Of Z, Nina makes some damn good points. Why is Percy running off to the jungle for years at a time, instead of enjoying the comforts of home, watching his children grow up, letting them know their father? What does he hope to find in an ancient city across the world that’s worth sacrificing everything else?
Nina bickers with Percy, but she never tries to hold him back — even when she probably should. She understands what Z means to him, and because of that, it means just as much to her, too. If she had her way, she’d be alongside him every step of the journey. I’d never been particularly drawn to Charlie Hunnam or Sienna Miller until I saw them play Percy and Nina in The Lost City Of Z. They do some career-best acting here. As their son, Tom Holland is also quite distressingly good.
Gray’s take on the best-selling book is dynamic throughout, but it’s the third act that goes above and beyond what we expect from a jungle adventure. A father’s obsession is passed down to his son. Jack Fawcett longs to help his father fulfill his destiny — not merely out of love, but for the same reason Percy fought so hard to crawl out from under his father’s shadow. Up until this point, Percy is torn between his calling in South America and his family back home. When other men give up on the quest, he gets a chance to bring family to his obsession, risking an even greater sacrifice.
Gray doesn’t pass judgment on his characters. They make dangerous, potentially destructive decisions, but it’s up to us to determine whether the destination is worth the price. Like mother! and Phantom Thread, The Lost City Of Z is interested in the contrasting priorities of women and men. The women devote themselves to the home, to their children, to the satisfaction of their partner (at the expense of their own). The men don’t recognize that. Men reach for something beyond their grasp. Glory, legacy, transcendence… something like that. Curiously, though, these filmmakers end up being more interested in these women than their men.
The quest for Z ends transcendently, intensely, hauntingly, majestically. Christopher Spelman’s ethereal score strikes just the right note for the end of this journey. It’s a destiny beautifully fulfilled and a heartbreaking waste. This might be my favorite ending of the year, if indeed it were the ending, but Gray’s final agenda is Nina’s tragedy. Percy either does or does not find what he’s looking for, but then his journey is over, and he rests. Nina can’t. There are ruins buried deep in the jungle. She’ll never lay eyes on them. She’ll never ever set foot in South America. She only has her husband’s belief that Z exists in the first place. But it calls to her, night and day.
Unexpectedly, The Lost City Of Z has a feminist bent, perhaps the year’s greatest twist. Most adventure stories end on a man’s triumph or failure. Gray hands a husband’s all-consuming obsession over to his wife, and lets it live on in her, with added weight. Men like Percy Fawcett aren’t expected to do anything but seek greener pastures and broader horizons. Women are required to stay, and wonder, and wait. Arguably, that’s the harder bargain.
Percy Fawcett loves his wife and children, but he loves the Lost City of Z more, even though he doesn’t know what it is yet. He may never know. The possibility takes priority over a real, happy life.
1. BLADE RUNNER 2049
“Someone lived this.”
I thought a lot about which film would top my list. Some films had more important things to say than the one I chose. Others better represented topics we were thinking and talking about in 2017. You can measure the “best” movie of the year by many different metrics. At least four other films were the best of the year, in some way.
But I kept coming back to Blade Runner 2049, a genre sequel released by a major studio, made to cash in on some combination of name recognition, 80s nostalgia, and sci-fi’s global appeal. It absolutely floored me when I saw it on the big screen; Blade Runner 2049‘s technical mastery dropped my jaw for a full two-and-a-half hours. Normally, I’m not one to place much weight on spectacle and special effects, but I couldn’t deny their power here. Denis Villeneuve directed films that made my Top 10 lists in 2014, 2015, and 2016, so my astonishment was not at his talent. I was just amazed that a major movie studio let him make and release this movie.
Blade Runner 2049 feels too big for the big screen. Its design is fully thought-through, maybe even moreso than Ridley Scott’s intricately detailed original Blade Runner. The film clocks in at nearly three hours, and when it ends we get the sense that it had more to say. (Of course, I’m salivating for that four-hour cut they say will never be released.) Villeneuve is smart enough not to answer questions posed by the original; it extends them, aging our curiosity by thirty years and finding newer, more complicated ways of asking again.
Villeneuve’s vision of 2049 is an alternate universe, stemming Scott’s visionary depiction of 2019 in Blade Runner. In 2049, Los Angeles is so expansive that the entirety of San Diego is its landfill. The suburbs have been wiped out by climate change, leaving only megacities. Nature is a thing of the past. (These people never saw mother!, I guess.) Plenty of sci-fi movies imagine what our world may look like in thirty years or so, but this one strips away most of what defines us now. There’s no internet or social media in this future. Without those game-changers, Villeneuve’s vision is able to say more about where our world might go.
Blade Runner 2049 adds layers of complexity to Scott’s oft-duplicated dystopia, created in 1982. Its protagonist is K, an LAPD-owned replicant tasked with killing off earlier models of his own kind, played by Ryan Gosling. He’s a blade runner, like Harrison Ford’s Deckard in the original, but he’s also a slave. He has no say in how he spends his life. K reports to Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi, who likes him about as much as a human could under the circumstances. (And she has the hots for him because he’s Ryan Gosling.) At home, K has only Joi, his holographic “girlfriend,” who displays an increasingly convincing affection for him.
Brilliantly, Blade Runner 2049‘s future is as defined by how technology doesn’t work as how it does. It’s a deeply broken world, giving us a glitchy Joi, a malfunctioning Elvis, and more than one flying car crash. Tech’s limits sabotage an intimate moment, freezing Joi mid-kiss — a harsh reminder of her artificiality. (In 2018, technology similarly fails us when we try to connect.) In 2049, voice technology has advanced enough that stone-cold villainess Luv can kill a dozen men while getting her nails done, using only a few monotone words. But in one scene, a sliding door fails to open. It isn’t a plot point — stuff just doesn’t work sometimes in 2049, just like in 2018. It’s a detail I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a futuristic dystopia.
The first Blade Runner had cold and callous human characters and “replicants” who were more human than human. It boggled our minds by suggesting that even they may not even know which they are. (And thus, neither do we.) Blade Runner 2049 keeps this trickery humming and introduces an even more artificial being, designed to keep replicants company. (It’s not clear if Joi also works on humans.)
Joi is the evolution of Amazon’s Alexa and other voice tech, designed to do and say what we want when we want it. As played by Ana de Armas, she’s an alluring character in her own right, even though we know she’s only a projection of K’s longing, figuratively and literally. Joi appears to be making her own decisions, based on emotion, and eventually chooses to risk her digital “life” to stay with K. Does that mean Joi loves K, or does she just know that’s what love means to him? She’s a product, meant to be used. Perhaps she has no choice but to sacrifice herself for her master’s pleasure.
This romance between two non-humans feels authentic and manipulative at once. We suspect Joi of being ingenuine, but should we? The Blade Runner series is about the thin line between humanity and artificial life. If a replicant can learn to love a human, why couldn’t a hologram learn to love a replicant? We’re prejudiced against Joi because we’re prone to mistrust technology, but is that fair? If we see K as a “real” character, why should we see Joi as anything less?
In 2049, replicants are so indistinguishable from humans that only a couple of serial numbers can point out the difference. In one scene, the police can’t tell a dead woman from a dead replicant. The difference is that men are woman-born, and thus are believed to have a soul. But there’s no proof. Joshi tells K he’s getting by just fine without a soul, but we can clearly see his soul in Ryan Gosling’s performance. K wants to be loved. K wants to be special. K wants his own name — and Joi gives him one. If what separates humans and non-humans is so infinitesimal, is there really a difference?
Mothers played a big part in my Top 5 films — from the flawed moms played by Allison Janney in I, Tonya and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird to Sienna Miller’s unconventional widow in The Lost City Of Z to, uh, mother! But not even Jennifer Lawrence’s Bible-tinged maternity is quite as divine as 2049‘s immaculate conception. The most significant character in Blade Runner 2049 isn’t really in it. As one might expect in this bleak universe, Deckard and Rachael didn’t live happily ever after. Rachael was “retired” — but not before giving birth to their baby. It’s the first known replicant born without human intervention. All evidence points to K being that miracle child.
Along the way, Joi functions as more than just our hero’s glitchy love interest. She’s also K’s Jiminy Cricket in this twisted take on Pinocchio. He wants to be a “real boy” more than anything, but he knows better than to wish for it. Joi, programmed to know K’s deepest desires, voices hidden yearnings K would never dare speak of himself. She wants him to believe he has a destiny, because that’s what he wants. Without Joi, would he even let himself believe he’s the Replicant Jesus?
Blade Runner 2049 breaks all rules for a modern-day sequel. It’s long and complex and it trusts its audience to think about what they’re seeing. Its biggest star doesn’t show up until 105 minutes into the movie. The marketing may have capitalized on Ford and Gosling as leads, but most other key characters are women, and they’re here to do more than just scream and kiss. Joi joins mother! and Phantom Thread as everything wrong with female characters in mainstream movies — but like them, she’s a winking critique. Blade Runner 2049 even manages to subvert our expectations of its Skywalker-esque “Chosen One” narrative.
In addition to its distinct narrative, of course, Blade Runner 2049 is an astonishing technical achievement, with below-the-line talent firing on all cylinders. Roger Deakins’ breathtaking cinematography, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s pulsingly poignant score, and the most convincing special effects I’ve ever seen combine into one of the most assured cinematic visions in years. Crucially, a lot of what we see is not computer-generated — the buildings are miniatures, the flying cars are real (except for the flying part). Villeneuve’s inspiration for Los Angeles 2049 was “brutal chaos.” The film is dripping with that. It’s a hard, ugly world, but the way it’s shown to us is beautiful. Tiny details everywhere add texture to what we sense and understand about this future. Most eye-popping of all is Sean Young’s brief reprisal of Rachael, a truly unbelievable moment of cinematic magic. It was the first time in a long time I couldn’t believe my eyes at the movies.
As we enter 2018, our outlook on the immediate future is bleak. Not as bleak as the one depicted in Blade Runner, hopefully, but we’re living in a dark moment, and it’s not going to brighten any time soon. This science fiction sequel doesn’t alight on topical politics, but it’s about persistent rays of hope surfacing in a dismally depressing world. As bad as things can get, there’s never no hope. Blade Runner was never Star Wars — mankind doesn’t defeat the big, bad Empire at the end, or even try — but in the truly oppressive Los Angeles of 2049, there’s still love and beauty and meaning to be found in unlikely places. We can take comfort in that.
Is Blade Runner 2049 the only sequel that truly makes the original a better film? Blade Runner‘s storyline feels much more significant, now that we know what happens next. Watching Blade Runner after Blade Runner 2049 is bound to be a different experience, because 2049 adds so much to think about. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is haunted by ghosts like Rachael, plus echoes of our own nostalgia. Rachael was a replicant, so she was never “real.” But Deckard draws the line at an even more artificial version of his old flame. What is real enough? What is too fake? These are the questions we’ll be asking in the future.
K’s story isn’t a happy one, but in the brutal chaos of his world he manages to find love, hope, and meaning. He discovers a reason to live, rather than merely exist. Of course, moviegoers looking for brain-dead punch-and-crunch left bored and disappointed; they’d probably never seen the first Blade Runner if that’s what they thought they were in for. I can’t blame them for expecting a more conventional sci-fi extravaganza, because studios don’t make ponderous, challenging genre movies anymore. Honestly, I didn’t expect to see a movie like Blade Runner 2049 hit theaters ever again. But I’m awfully glad I did.
As I mentioned, the big theme for me in 2017 is purpose, the way characters are called to action and defy safer, sensible choices. The Lost City Of Z‘s Percy Fawcett. The Post‘s Katharine Graham. Detroit‘s Larry Cleveland Reed. Lady Bird‘s Christine. Call Me By Your Name‘s Elio. Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game. Brad in Brad’s Status. P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Tonya Harding. Tommy Wiseau. Winston Churchill. Officer KD6-3.7. In a year of protagonists whose reach exceeds their grasp, Officer KD6-3.7 is the most tragic figure. He’s not even allowed to want more out of his life, let alone pursue it. But he’s human enough that he can’t stop himself. Blade Runner 2049 is the story of a “thing” becoming a man, despite himself. It’s a whole new take on the miracle of birth.
The muse who masters the artist in Phantom Thread. The young man awakening to his sexuality in Call Me By Your Name. The singer with a bright future that’s snuffed out by a few bad cops in Detroit. The spirit in A Ghost Story, waiting an eternity for… what? The lovers, drawn back to the dark past they can’t quite get over, in Rift. The skater, whose only dream is shattered by male violence and stupidity, and nevertheless pays the highest price, in I, Tonya. The teenager in Lady Bird, knowing nothing of what she wants except that it’s not this. The mother! who devotes her life to creating a happy home, only to watch it torn apart by man’s folly. The explorer, beckoned back to the jungle again and again, in The Lost City Of Z. Each of these characters is pulled toward a purpose, whatever it is they feel will give their live meaning in this moment. That’s the luxury of being human, and reasonably well off.
The tragedy of Blade Runner 2049 is that K has no purpose. He’s forbidden from one. K has a function, and a duty, but that’s not purpose. Purpose requires a soul. Eventually, he allows himself to dream, to believe he could be meant for more than what is expected of him. This breaks every rule, goes against everything he’s ever been told. It doesn’t even make sense, really. But K can’t help reaching for it anyway. There’s nothing more human.