‘Battle of the Sexes,’ looked at gays in sports.
Critical rankings of the best of 2017 in screen.
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
2017 was a year of wonder.
We wondered what happened to our political systems. We wondered if there were any men who wouldn’t be accused of sexual misconduct. But there were good wonders, too.
Like Wonder Woman — both in her own, record-breaking original movie and the much lesser Justice League; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, about the radical psychologist who invented a superheroine; Wonder, the heart-warming, string-tugging story of a boy with facial deformities; Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s best tragedy and most cogent expression of his craft in more than a decade; and Wonderstruck, a magical meander through the interconnectedness of those who mean something in our lives. We were lucky.
And we got to see Lucky. And Logan Lucky. And Logan. We saw a movie called LBJ about LBJ, and a movie called Lady Bird that was not about Lady Bird. Bad TV shows (CHiPs, Baywatch, Power Rangers) became bad movies. There was The Greatest Showman and the lamest Snowman, a Boss Baby and a Baby Driver.
But it was the idea of wonderment that resonated most, because we look to movies to sometimes make some sense of the world around us. To relieve us from gloom, make us care, inform us, entertain, give hope, tell a story and most importantly treat us with respect — for our time, for our intelligence.
I screened countless (well, I counted, but let’s not get in the weeds) movies in 2017 — some, though technically released in 2016, did not open in North Texas until this year. The ones that stuck with me left me with a sense of anticipation — sometimes of dread, sometimes of hope, but either way got my heart racing. Any Top Ten list is inherently arbitrary, even if informed. It’s a comparison of inherently unequal things. Nobody will probably agree with all my choices, or the order. But it wasn’t hard to remember these films, and what they meant to me. And what I expect they will mean to others for years to come.
10. Beatriz at Dinner. A dour but spiritually centered massage therapist (Salma Hayek, in a career-best performance) is inadvertently invited to a business dinner among well-heeled captains of industry and sets off a series of uncomfortable confrontations, especially with the blustery Trump-like developer who may have ruined her family. Woke, insightful, darkly comic social satire from Mike White and Miguel Arteta, approximating the stinging symbolism of Luis Bunuel.
9. I Am Not Your Negro. The best documentary of the year was this profile of the great gay intellectual and writer James Baldwin, whose insights into racial politics — which got him labeled a radical in the 1960s —have borne out to be prescient, measured, incisive. In the world of Black Lives Matter, Baldwin was a visionary, which this film movingly conveys with narration of his actual writings (perfectly read by Samuel L. Jackson).
8. Coco. The year’s best animated film, it should come as no surprise, is from the geniuses at Pixar, who have the uncanny ability of taking prosaic stories about ordinary characters and turning them into extraordinary portraits full of heart. This colorful tale set on Dia de los Muertos and the unseen world of our departed ancestors overflows with heart and family affection.
7. The Shape of Water. A host of out outsiders — a mute woman (Sally Hawkins, in the clear Oscar frontrunner), a black woman (Octavia Spencer), a gay man (Richard Jenkins) and, peculiarly, a fish man (Doug Jones) — struggle to make a difference during the Cold War, while Russian spies wander the halls of science untouched. Guillermo del Toro’s dreamy fantasy — part political thriller, part modernizing of The Creature from the Black Lagoon — plays like E.T. as re-written as torture porn and directed by Woody Allen. All of those are good things.
6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ flatly disturbing style owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick, but his twisted take on modern life is all his own. Like last year’s The Lobster. This film operates in a netherworld of sci-fi and hard reality, where the act of a surgeon comes back upon him and his family in disturbing ways. Singular and unsettling, you can’t look away.
5. The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman may be the only legit movie star of the day who can pull off old-fashioned musical comedy panache and seem sincere and authentic. He’s a stand-out as circus pioneer P.T. Barnum but not the only one in this wholly satisfying modern musical from director Michael Gracey. Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson and Keala Settle all show magical talent in the genre. It’s the most delightful musical since Moulin Rouge.
4. Victoria & Abdul. Late in her dominant reign Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, natch) strikes up an unlikely friendship with an Indian Muslim named Abdul (Ali Fazal), and brings him into her inner circle, shocking the priggish courtiers, politicians and family who object to the platonic but unconventional friendship. Stephen Frears may well be the most insightful director of mismatched pairings and public-be-damned iconoclasts in film today (perhaps ever). He usually deserves more credit than he gets, including this lush, funny, touching and finely acted biopic.
3. Wonderstruck. Two stories — one told silently in the 1930s in black-and-white, one told with dialogue in the 1970s in color — unravel side by side, as a deaf-mute girl (Millicent Simmonds) rebels against the expectations and limitations of her day and a young boy (Oakes Fegley) searches out the father he has never known. The way the stories converge, and comment on our enduring institutions, the fungibility of love and the cosmic whirlpool that unites us with those we are meant to be with, is lovingly told by director Todd Haynes in 2017’s most underrated film.
2. Battle of the Sexes. In the year when women stood up against sexual predation, including by a pussy-grabbing chief executive, this historical sports comedy-drama about the focal point of the early feminist movement and resistance to “male chauvinist pigs” — amazingly, a tennis match between the world’s top female player and a middle-aged has-been male — told a history as well as a coming-out story, and portrayed the seemingly villainous showboating hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in a sympathetic light. As a lesbian romance (between Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough), it’s also tender, lovely and captures the dangerous excitement of self-discovery. The result is unlikely — a gay sports movie — but also deeply wonderful.
1. Call Me By Your Name. Luca Guadagnino’s woozy romantic drama tells more about character with a brush of skin and a lingering glance than most Hollywood films do with three pages of dialogue. This sensual exploration of a 17-year-old boy (Timothee Chalamet, who deserves the Oscar) and his longing for an older grad student (Armie Hammer) is tactile and alluring but never salacious. It captures the essence of the arc of desire — urge, touch, sex, love — like few films since Brokeback Mountain, and is hands-down the best film of the year.
11.–20. The Big Sick. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The Post. War for the Planet of the Apes. Suburbicon. The Disaster Artist. Beach Rats. BPM. Get Out. Tom of Finland.
21.-30. The Only Living Boy in New York. Beauty and the Beast. Detroit. Wonder Wheel. Molly’s Game. Lucky. Novitiate. Lady Bird. Good Time. The Square.
Performances: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, The Post; Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water; Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards; Hong Chau, Downsizing; Kamail Nanjiani, The Big Sick; Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck; Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner; Emma Stone and Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes; Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime; Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan and Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer; James McAvoy and Betty Buckley, Split; Jim Belushi, Wonder Wheel; Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Molly’s Game; Timothee Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name; James Franco, The Disaster Artist; Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt, Lucky; Melissa Leo, Novitiate; Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird; Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, Victoria & Abdul; Hugh Jackman and Keala Settle, The Greatest Showman; Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes; Mary J. Blige, Mudbound; Allison Janney, I, Tonya.
Bottom Ten. Picking the worst movies is much harder than picking the best. There’s a bit of natural selection: Really bad movies often don’t get seen, or are avoided by serious critics; and what makes a film bad is debatable — a high-budget blockbuster can be equally as rotten as a low-budget flop, and vice versa. So when dredging for the worst of the worst, I’ll often turn the hardest eye on films where those involved should have known better; where there was unrealized promise; where the comedy was unfunny or the thrills cheap and toothless and dramas with no drama. By those standards, these ten films were definitely among the rottenest I saw this year (roughly from worst to worster):
Justice League; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales; Baywatch; The Snowman; Lemon; The Mummy; Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House; All I See Is You; Kong: Skull Island; The Great Wall.