Holy hell. At the risk of stating the all-too-obvious: What a freaking scary past year. What a tenuous future. Old Hollywood masters came on strong, responding with masterworks that bristle with passion, energy and social awareness. So did some New Hollywood renegades, creating memorable films that are also knowing, angry, vital and woke.
The very best movies of the year–whether they nod to our cinematic past or raise fists against a bleak future some of us refuse to see as inevitable—are deeply personal cries from the heart. Some of the big takeaways from the 2017 crop of movies include:
1. The Horror Genre: Rumors of Its Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Screenwriter-director Jordan Peele’s wildly entertaining, provocative directorial feature debut, Get Out, proved that a fallen genre–the lowly horror movie—could be funny, bitingly satirical and scary while speaking volumes about America’s racial divide and—despite or because of that—still make bank.
Likewise, writer-director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story dignified all things supernatural again with a melancholy heart-shredder in which the baffled, restless spirit of a dead guy (Casey Affleck) aches for his lover (Rooney Mara), his home and his world, even after they are long gone.
Director Guillermo del Toro co-wrote (with Vanessa Taylor) the weird and touching creature feature The Shape of Water. Not only did the horror fable/love story showcase a remarkable Sally Hawkins performance, but the film made an impact worthy of del Toro’s own finest work. It stands proudly alongside kindred stories like King Kong, Beauty and the Beast and Creature From the Black Lagoon.
With significant segments of the American population feeling justifiably enraged and helpless, certain movies became all the more electric for having tapped into that current.
2. Auteur, Auteur!
In our era of cookie-cutter, anonymous franchises, sequels, prequels and remakes, writer-directors landed some knockout punches with deeply personal fare. What put blockbuster king Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk over the top was how he didn’t just concoct another World War II epic but instead made a searing, heart-in-the-mouth, harrowingly intimate depiction of survival in the midst of horror and the outright blunders of the men in charge. Its contemporary parallels were obvious.
New multi-hyphenate Greta Gerwig scored an audience-friendly knockout with her feature-film directing debut, the fresh and dead-funny coming-of-age story Lady Bird. She made something specific and faintly autobiographical feel universal.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s sensual masterpiece Phantom Thread, a 1950s-era fashion designer’s fascination with his beautiful immigrant muse darkens into a twisted, wickedly funny obsession. With its sumptuous imagery, perverse battle of the sexes and surprisingly rousing bits of suspense, the movie reflects the pure, singular vision of Anderson while suggesting what might have happened if Alfred Hitchcock had ever directed an original by Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg.
3. It’s OK to Be Angry
With significant segments of the American population feeling justifiably enraged and helpless, certain movies became all the more electric for having tapped into that current. In Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand’s character–the grieving mother of a murdered child—spits fire and anger in the face of racist, go-along-to-get-along authorities. Even when she wounds innocent characters and goes much too far, we understand; she rages for every woman who has been marginalized, ignored, patronized. But really, she is a surrogate for the rage in all of us who feel powerless and unheard by those at the top.
The Post, director Steven Spielberg’s crisp, engrossing movie based on Elizabeth Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay, is about the exposure of a massive government cover-up of the waste, lies and disgrace of the Vietnam War through the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Sure, it’s a period piece, but with the current inhabitants of the White House attacking and undercutting the press daily, The Post reminds us that a free press must be protected at all costs.
Maybe the year’s slyest and most brilliant raised middle finger to the prospect of building walls, to intolerance toward others and to lack of empathy and inhumanity, is Faces Places. In the gloriously life-affirming documentary from 89-year-old French New Wave cinema giant Agnes Varda and JR, a 34-year-old street photographer-muralist who serves as the film’s co-director, the unlikely duo form a remarkable friendship while traveling through French towns photographing people, hearing their stories and covering walls with giant-sized photos of them. Although it never overtly mentions politics or doctrinaire points of view, this is one of the most powerful, humane and political movies of all time, rich in the realization of the inevitability of loss but also about the privilege and duties in being alive and aware.
4. The Heart Wants What It Wants
A number of this past year’s terrific movies told great love stories—The Big Sick, The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, The Lovers among them. But it was the heady aura of the romance of Call Me by Your Name that most redeemed and reclaimed the power and pain of head-over-heels, transformative first love as a cinematic subject worthy of celebration.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s evocation of the awakenings of first passions of a 17-year-old American boy summering in Italy is one of the year’s most relatable experiences. The fact that a man is the object of his desire may seem revolutionary, even for certain 21st century audiences. But in the film that venerates all forms of sensuality, the lovers’ homosexuality is highly relevant and yet almost incidental. And that’s what’s revolutionary.
Read all of Stephen Rebello’s 2017 movie reviews here.