BY MILOS STEHLIK
It seems to me that 2017 was a pretty awful movie year—at least I have very little memory of it. This changed in the fall when, after Labor Day, there was a sudden explosion of interesting films (and no, I am not speaking about the latest installment of Star Wars). Speaking of this, certainly Hollywood long ago discovered that it’s safest to get us hooked on one kind of candy—it’s best to keep feeding us similar flavors, rather than trying anything new. Rhubarb twizzlers, anyone?
From the first part of the year stands out one brilliant masterpiece that too few people have seen (and shame on you! There is no excuse if you haven’t seen it because your life is not as full as it could be): Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. The film focuses on the daughter of a well-placed physician, challenged in her graduation exam (on which her acceptance into Oxford depends), when she is assaulted. Mungiu, surely one of the smartest filmmakers alive, takes a simple incident and turns it into a film of moral and ethical brilliance, a study in compromise and complicity.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights of films I found worth seeing this year. Some of these I saw at film festivals and are yet-to-be-released, but you should have a chance to get to see them soon. But first, a question to myself: What, exactly, is a film worth seeing? I think one good measure is if, after having seen it, you would happily commit to seeing it again.
I think Sean Baker’s Florida Project is sheer astonishment and stays with me now for months after having seen it. I also liked Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, which was shot in L.A. on an iPhone. Tangerine is the gritty drama about the friendship between two sex workers, one of whom is transgender and discovers that her boyfriend and pimp have been cheating on her. It’s a film in which the low-tech and low-budget worked for the director, as he used the challenge to give the film dimension and style.
In the new film, The Florida Project, Baker, who I believe is emerging as one of the most original dramatic filmmakers working today, chooses an equally seedy milieu: a transient, pay-rent-by-the-week hotel, set in the backlot of Disney World. Like all the best films, The Florida Project is about many things: it’s a wonderful look at childhood. The film’s main protagonists are six-year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince in an astonishing debut performance) and her sassy mother, Halley (Bria Vinai, also great), during one summer.
It’s a summer filled with challenges (mostly financial), with mischief, and creating happiness in a life on the margins. But—and this is the astonishing thing—we are drawn into this world, which is foreign to most of us, and as we fully embrace these characters as they find and create joy amid insecurity and uncertainty, Florida Project becomes transcendent. It’s a film that begins to change us, on the inside.
The Florida Project flies squarely into the face, not only of the franchise action-hero films that take up so much screen space but in over-produced and lazy films like Steven Spielberg’s recent effort, The Post, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks notwithstanding, and that well-crafted, special-effects-burdened but ultimately inane Blade Runner 2049.
I think audiences are beginning to realize that they have a greater choice in what to watch than ever—and surprise, joy, and meaning are more likely to be found in the films made by filmmakers who have something original, even personal, to tell (and have to fight hard to be able to tell it).
This is perhaps a good reason why a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, first shown at the Telluride Film Festival, has attracted so much attention. It is not, in my view, a great film by any means, but its story of the teenage daughter (Saoirse Ronan) and her family—mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and father (Tracy Letts)—growing up in what Lady Bird calls the “Midwest of California” (Sacramento), rings true of everyone’s experience. The fumbling romantic encounters, the strict Catholic school Lady Bird attends, and the struggle to find and define oneself are universal experiences which the film captures with sharp observation, great dialogue, warmth, and humor.
This is certainly helped by terrific acting, particularly in the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, and I would argue that Laurie Metcalf’s is an Oscar-worthy performance. The film is marred, somewhat, by what is a rather thrown-together, “how in the world do we get out of this situation?” kitsch ending, but the substance is certainly there.
Last night, I finally caught up to The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s fable about Elisa, a mute, lonely janitorial worker at a high-security government lab in 1960s Baltimore. Here, Elisa discovers the lab’s secret: an amphibian creature captured by the lab, called The Asset.” The creature, which turns out to have intelligence, is tortured by its captor, Col. Richard Strickland (a great acting turn by Michael Shannon), and as Elisa bonds with the creature and orchestrates its escape, we are thrown into a beautifully-realized, nostalgic world of the Cold War. The Russians, it seems, are interested in the creature, too, and have a spy in the lab to help them.
You could argue that there is nothing new here—it’s a classic Beauty and the Beast story—but what makes this film different is the nuance of the milieu as a period piece, and del Toro’s realism in deliberately not making this a film for children, with some frontal nudity, sexual openness, and a cynical comment on the military.
Nick Searcy, as General Frank Hoyt, who oversees the lab, is a good parallel to George C. Scott’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Octavia Spencer is an amazing joy to watch as Elisa’s sassy janitorial comrade-in-arms and friend.
There is much to be said for Dee Rees’ film adaptation of Mudbound, Hillary Jordan’s first novel, a film which the theatre-unfriendly Netflix premiered at only one theatre in Barrington in the Chicago area before consigning it to its streaming service. The film’s embrace of Jordan’s literary language is not always successful, but its core story of racism in the Mississippi Delta during World War II is both poignant and powerful, not the least for its great performances by Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and, in particular, Garrett Hedlund.
Two documentaries also stand out: The Thirteenth, Ava du Vernay’s provocative film essay that relates slavery with the modern prison-industrial complex, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which takes as its central construct the relationship between the late James Baldwin and three friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This film is remarkable for the way it invokes Baldwin’s sheer intelligence and the beauty of his language; he was smart. The fact that he felt he had to live in exile to escape America’s racism is a national shame.
A third documentary, which I found riveting, is Whose Streets? by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. An account of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in the wake of the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, what makes this film so original is that it is told entirely from the perspective of the people of the community, on and of the streets. No voice-over narration here, no star turns, and no long speeches by officials. We are made to see what the residents saw, how it felt, just how over-blown and out-of-touch the police response became to what started as an initial outpouring of grief.
The most astonishing film of the year is certainly Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow, a film that Wei Wei shot over the course of a year in 23 countries. 65 million people have been forced from their homes, facing famine, war, and, increasingly, climate change. Wei Wei visits them in camps as they arrive on the Greek or Italian islands in boats ever in the danger of sinking, on their heroic journeys on foot through the Balkans. He finds, astonishingly, beauty in their faces, humor in their outlook, amazing courage, and dignity. The film is like a shot into your heart and gives you, as an audience member, the courage to face the current atmosphere of xenophobia, ostracizing, or denigrating of others.
I was irritated by the press notes for the film Hostiles—it would have been best if I had not read them, particularly the statement of the film’s director, Scott Cooper. In the statement Cooper talks about how he wanted to revisit the Western genre, meaning he wanted to be the next John Ford or Akira Kurosawa. Good luck. In Hostiles, a hardened Christian Bale is entrusted with taking a dying Cheyenne chief from a fort in New Mexico to a reservation in Montana. Historically-accurate bands of renegade Comanches threaten the long journey, further complicated when Bale picks up Rosamund Pike, the grieving widow whose family was killed during a Comanche raid.
This is a dark, politically-correct Western, to the point of having the precise dialogue spoken by the Cheyennes at the turn of the century. Native American advisors including Chris Eyre, whose early film Smoke Signals was once the great hope of an indigenous Native American cinema, helped with the accuracy. Hostiles is a well-made film, though I don’t think it delivers anything new, its political correctness notwithstanding. The point: if you are so concerned about authenticity, why not realize that NO white filmmaker can truly represent the Native American experience and just let a Native American filmmaker MAKE this film instead of marginalizing him with “Special Thanks” in the credits?
I am not personally a great fan of the last period of James Ivory’s sappy, sentimental career, or the film Call Me By Your Name (a very pretentious title, the meaning of which you’ll understand if you see it), which Ivory was initially supposed to direct until he could not be insured because of his age. Luca Guadagnino, he of I Am Love with Tilda Swinton, stepped in, to create this inter-generational budding romance between 17-year-old Elio and Oliver, a decade-older post-doctoral student working with Elio’s father. They meet at Elio’s parents’ house in Italy. You get the picture: espresso on the terrace, fresh fruit, swimming naked in the pool, and so on.
The new film by Todd Haynes, Wonderstruck, came and disappeared to, this time, being streamed on Amazon, but deserves viewing, not the least for its beautiful cinematography by Ed Lachman. Parallel stories of two deaf children, the virtually dialogue-less film is set in two different time periods in New York. As the two children go on their interior journeys and search for their parents, for identity, and understanding, the film is filled with bits of pure magic.
It’s taking a long time to get movies which were finished and had their festival premieres more than six months ago onto movie screens. Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, which premiered in Cannes in May, marks the return of model-actress Diane Kruger to a German-language film. Kruger plays the loving wife of a travel agent who becomes victim of a neo-Nazi terrorist bombing. The film has now had the release postponed until February.
Michael Haneke’s Happy End, also premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, stars Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant in the story of the Laurent family of Haneke’s previous L’Amour a decade or so later. In their hometown of Calais, they are in the construction business. Set against the backdrop of refugees assembled in Calais as they try to flee to England, the Laurent family confronts a moral and spiritual crisis. The film, which proves that the often dour Haneke does have a sense of humor, is wonderful for its acting and is opening in Chicago soon.
Other films from 2017 to watch for in 2018?
Loveless, the brilliant feature by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, best-known for his Leviathan, is the edge-of-your-seat portrait of moral corruption in contemporary Russia through the lens of a married couple with a single child at the brink of an ugly divorce whose lives are up-ended when their child disappears.
The Other Side of Hope by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (now at the Music Box) is the quirky, often funny, and heart-warming story of a Helsinki shirt salesman who buys a restaurant as he and his employees join together to save a Syrian stowaway.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool follows the real-life romance of actress Gloria Grahame and her late-life affair with Peter Turner, an English actor. Jamie Bell and Annette Benning co-star.
Foxtrot, an Israeli film that opens on March 9, is directed by Samuel Maoz, and certainly qualifies as one of the best films of the year. Controversial and attacked from the right in Israel, the whimsical story of a soldier in the Israeli army charged with guarding the lonely road in the middle of nowhere, the film builds to a powerful climax critical not, I think, of Israel, but of the insanity and moral corruption of military institutions everywhere.
The Insult, which opens in March, starts out as a simple conflict between the owner of a small auto repair shop and the foreman of a construction project next door and escalates into a tense courtroom drama in which the modern, unresolved history of Lebanon and its complex religious and ethnic factions are on view. Ziad Doueri directs.
Let me end with a film that my own Facets premieres on January 12th. Wait For Your Laugh is a wonderful tribute to show business history. The story of Rose Marie, who went from Vaudeville to Vegas, Broadway, movies, and nightclubs, to a pioneering role as Sally Rogers on the Dick Van Dyke Show. The film, narrated by Rose Marie, is a look at show business when life seemed richer, simpler, and more fun. The 94-year-old Rose Marie planned to come to Chicago for the screening. Unfortunately, she suddenly passed away a week ago, but leaves behind a remarkable legacy.