2017 may have been the year a sociopathic vaginal assaulter assumed America’s highest political office. But it was also a year that saw Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman spectacularly thrash German soldiers, Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton take down East German cops, and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie fight off alien warriors and the hordes of Hela.
This juxtaposition is not a coincidence. This terrible political year has seen stories utilized to reinforce old prejudices and avoid having those prejudices contradicted. But the films honored here show that actually the lying that’s part of a story’s DNA is at its best a medium for capturing a greater truth about human nature.
Part One: Feature Films
Graduation—2017’s Feature Film of the Year comes from Cristian Mungiu, the director of the classic “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.” Its dramatic dilemma may revolve around the lengths father Romeo will go to assure daughter Eliza’s future in the wake of an assault. But the ultimate conflict pits the shreds of Romeo’s honesty against the Romanian societal corruption and hypocrisy he’s internalized in his life. For American audiences, Mungiu’s film delivers a powerful cautionary tale about basing society’s functioning solely on “favors” and “connections.”
Nocturama—2017’s second best feature film disturbingly challenges viewers’ willingness to condemn or sanction terrorist acts. The film may follow a multicultural group of terrorists mounting a campaign in present day Paris. But director Bertrand Bonello deliberately withholds any information about the group’s motivations or aims. This lack of information disturbingly inspires viewers to create rationalizations to justify either the group’s acts or the group’s destruction. Bonello’s film raises the ultimately unsettling question of what the viewer’s feelings about terrorism say about the viewer.
Mudbound—Dee Rees delivers one of 2017’s two most memorable examinations of America’s racist legacy. Her novelistic film follows the sometimes intertwined fates of the white MacAllans and the black Jacksons in Mississippi Delta from World War II onwards. This is the film Americans need to see to truly understand what’s hidden behind Southerners’ bland claims of preserving their racist history. Such cultural preservation means for a start accepting that white peoples’ welfare automatically takes precedence over black people’s welfare. As Rees shows, the far more insidious aspects of Southern white racism continue beyond penalizing blacks for saying “no” to the pettiest white request.
Sieranevada—Ceremonial delays and mishaps may be a source of everyday annoyance. But in Cristi Puiu’s epic, the delays and mishaps befalling a family memorial service for a departed patriarch are the stuff of dry comedy. The resulting physical hunger-related flare-ups of temper open up various family members’ emotional hungers. These psychological hungers range from the comfort of religious tradition to the alleged superiority of life under Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s heel. Ultimately, Puiu delivers an effective comic critique of the state of Romania’s national soul.
Okja—“Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho strips the sentimental glop out of the “little girl trying to save a beloved pet from death” story. Little girl Mija may love her genetically altered pet super-pig Okja. But when Mija senses adults are trying to screw her over, she’s nobody’s cutie. What befalls Okja on the path to the slaughterhouse seem little different from what humans do to convert real-life animals into meat products. Bong’s film may not turn every viewer into a vegetarian. However, it might hopefully leave viewers aware of the price of maintaining their meat addictions.
I, Daniel Blake—Ken Loach’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning film powerfully indicts the systemic inhumanity now baked into Britain’s public assistance programs. Mixing absurdity, frequent humiliations, and moments of tragedy, Loach attacks a bureaucratic mindset based on assuming people seeking public assistance are somehow failed human beings. Nothing epitomizes this sorry situation better than public assistance bureaucrats not caring that the title character possesses a life-threatening heart condition. That disabling problem is less important to them than Blake’s efforts at seeking work.
The Florida Project—This justly acclaimed drama from Sean Baker may not directly criticize economic inequality. But its “last stop before homelessness” motel setting makes that point just fine, especially given the motel’s relative proximity to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. 6-year-old Moonee may imaginatively find ways to turn her dire surroundings into sources of play, but the viewer never forgets just how tenuous the child’s situation is. This impression gets reinforced by the increasingly desperate measures Moonee’s single rebellious mother Halley uses to provide even a modicum of economic stability. Incredible performances by Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinante (Halley), and Willem Dafoe (as motel manager Bobby) give this film both heart and tragedy.
BPM (Beats Per Minute)—Turning the frequently contentious workings of street-level politics into riveting drama is a difficult task to pull off. Robin Campillo accomplishes that challenging feat in this dramatization of the 1980s activities of ACT-UP Paris. “Fighting for our lives” becomes more than just rhetoric given the period’s socially acceptable homophobia and the awareness of ACT-UP members’ mortality. Campillo’s film captures both the thrill of pushing back against societal homophobia and rejecting through one’s acts the expectation of going gentle into that good night.
The Shape Of Water—The title of Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite gothic romance might answer the question “What is the shape of love?” Water’s fluidity underscores the point that there is no single acceptable or fixed way of having a loving relationship. As the film’s 1962 Baltimore setting suggests, America is on the verge of undergoing a sea change in various social relationships. But it’s a nice touch that heroine Elisa’s sexual relationship with the fish man feels more loving and richer than that of the villain’s traditional nuclear family.
Get Out—2017’s other memorable look at America’s racist legacy used horror tropes to make its points. Jordan Peele’s approach doesn’t trivialize its subject as much as show the accepted racial status quo’s potential for horror. While Peele takes a slow burn approach to developing the film’s central horror, the buildup allows alert viewers to find more than a few parallels with long-standing flashpoints of racial friction in America. But viewers unwilling to shake certain preconceptions will miss Peele’s insights.
Lady Bird—Greta Gerwig may be the latest director to do a dramatically comic coming-of-age story. But her unique spin features a lead character having a love-hate relationship with the major influences in her life: Catholicism, her hometown of Sacramento, and her caring but exasperated mother. Lady Bird’s path to finding a degree of acceptance and equanimity among all these important influences involves her making some big mistakes. But such moments as “Lady Bird and her best friend treating communion wafers like snack crackers” makes her sometimes snark-filled path to maturity fun.
That Trip We Took With Dad—Unless you attended Cinequest 2017, you probably missed catching Anca Miruna Lazarescu’s touching historic comic drama. The travails of the Reinholtz clan capture the difficult life choices forced by being stuck between an oppressive status quo and promising social change. The clan’s trip to East Germany for the father’s necessary brain surgery is only made possible by eldest son Mihai’s work as an informer. But the promise of Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring soon creates an opportunity for the Reinholtzes to avoid returning to Romania. Lazarescu’s film gently points out that “loving freedom” may sometimes be less important than “loving family.”
Dunkirk—Christopher Nolan’s World War 2-set film masterfully immerses the viewer in the stresses and terrors of surviving war. Its three story strands and three time period structure do skimp a bit on individual characterization. But that shortcoming is balanced by the film’s effective immersion in such experiences as the difficulties of waging dogfights or the lingering fear of being trapped on Dunkirk’s beaches. Director Samuel Fuller famously said, “The real glory of war is surviving it.” Nolan’s film shows that aphorism is particularly true in a situation when survival seemed truly dubious.
Paterson—Jim Jarmusch’s portrait of a week in the life of both the city of Paterson, New Jersey and a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) has echoes of the late Harvey Pekar’s neo-realist comic “American Splendor.” Driver Paterson may lack Pekar’s neuroses or his talent for kvetching. But both men do share a remarkable ability for transforming life’s mundane experiences into art. Jarmusch one-ups Pekar by adding such characters as a single-minded dog and a woman obsessed with the black-and-white color combination.
Honorable Mentions: The Big Sick, 1945, Columbus, Baby Driver, King of the Belgians, Brigsby Bear, Gook, Your Name, The Light of the Moon, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Faces Places—Describing 2017’s best documentary may make it sound as casually unimpressive as “Moby Dick”’s plot. Basically, French New Wave legend Agnes Varda and co-directing photo-muralist JR travel through the French countryside, meet ordinary people ranging from the inhabitants of a mining town to a shift of factory workers, and make photo murals of them. Yet “Faces Places” possesses special and unique qualities: its love of human curiosity, its frequently playful tone, its celebration of the apparently mundane in life, and the joy of seeing skilled artists of two different generations happily collaborate. Famed director Jean-Luc Godard does come off looking like a tool. Then again, Varda fans seeking their cinematic cat fix will have their desires sated.
The Challenge—2017’s second best documentary is Yuri Ancarani’s beautifully enigmatic portrait of Arab falconry in the 21st century. Modern technology from customized motorcycles to portable video cameras brings new ways to pursue and appreciate this centuries-old sport. Ancarani’s images at time border on the hallucinogenic, as seen in a Jumbotron television set placed in the middle of the desert. But the marriage of ancient tradition and modern miracle memorably comes together in the film’s falcon cam finale.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992—2017 marks 25 years since the events of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. John Ridley’s riveting chronicle of the Uprising and the events leading up to it utilizes lots of talking heads and period footage. The wide pool of interviewees seen in the film go beyond LAPD cops and South Central residents to include Korean shop owners, the lead prosecutor in the trial of the Rodney King cops, and even the commander of a National Guard unit. Even accounting for some interviewees’ contradictions and self-serving rationalizations, Ridley creates the doom-laden sense of an urban explosion that was destined to happen.
The Road Movie—Yes, Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s film collects Russian dashboard camera videos uploaded to YouTube. But the cumulative effect of watching these sometimes jaw-dropping videos is suspecting that only the functionally insane drive on Russia’s highways. Within the film’s brief running time, viewers see everything from someone apparently driving through a raging forest fire for the lulz to the strong possibility of Russian soldier-style road rage. Even without the crazy person on the hood sequence, these real-life incidents serve as a disincentive to drive in Russia.
Kedi—Ceyda Torun’s delightful documentary is a love letter to Istanbul’s centuries-old relationship between humans and street cats. The aphorism “If you live in Istanbul long enough, you will have a story about a cat” may summarize that relationship. But Torun’s film shows the truth of that saying by introducing some of the unexpected Istanbul citizens who have cat stories. “Kedi” also treats viewers to gorgeous images of such cat activities as finding gulp-inducing sleeping spots or defending their turf. In a world filled with mediocre cat videos, Torun’s film is a masterpiece of cat pron.
Chavela—Legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas turns out to be 2017’s most unforgettable human documentary subject. Not only was she an incredible path-breaking Mexican ranchera singer, but her lovers included Ava Gardner and Frida Kahlo. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s loving documentary captures both the musical electricity that made Chavela a legend and the largeness with which she lived her life. Alcoholism nearly destroyed Chavela, but she managed to step back from her personal abyss. Equally amazing is a comeback brought about by director Pedro Almodovar’s love of Chavela’s music.
Stranger In Paradise—Guido Hendrikx’s fascinating documentary hybrid takes a different approach to challenging attitudes regarding European treatment of refugees. Instead of abstract discussions of the three current schools of thought regarding refugee treatment, these viewpoints are put into practice. Three different groups of refugees participate in exercises showing how a particular viewpoint would affect their chances of getting into an E.U. country. The refugees’ unfiltered reactions show why better refugee policy needs to be based on empathy for the desperate people affected.
Brimstone and Glory—Viktor Jakolevski’s beautiful and dazzling film introduced American viewers to an extreme festival going experience. At the annual National Pyrotechnics Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, participants build firework castles as tall as a decent television station antenna. Other participants happily risk getting burned or worse by stray fireworks. Jakolevski’s film might inspire more reckless viewers to visit the Tultepec festival themselves. For the rest of us, “Brimstone and Glory” provides an entertaining taste of this explosive experience.
I Called Him Morgan—Quite a few talented artists have also been terrible human beings. Kasper Collin’s film finds an ironic real-life take on this familiar story. Helen Morgan, the common-law wife who helped jazz great Lee Morgan get through heroin addiction and resume his musical career, would also end the jazz great’s life and career in a notoriously public manner one snowy New York City evening. The reason behind this shocking crime is revealed in the film’s treasure, a rare audio cassette interview with Helen Morgan. But viewers will also be piqued enough to rediscover Morgan’s music thanks to this film.
Plastic China—At its elemental level, Jiuliang Wang’s film follows two Chinese families involved in China’s homebrew plastic scavenging and recycling industry. Garbage imported from Europe and the U.S. provides both a source of income and even fragmentary exposure to Western culture. Yet the film quietly challenges complacent viewers’ assumption that this is a beneficial arrangement. A chance for a far better life than scavenging plastic may be lost to one subject. Exposure to the chemical fumes resulting from burning plastic for heat will ultimately kill several unknowing subjects.
Honorable mentions—Revolution In Four Seasons, The Venerable W, Guangzhou Dream Factory, Intent To Destroy, Bogalusa Charm, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr StoryFiled under: Arts & Entertainment