Short Cuts: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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We last saw Scottish director Lynne Ramsay at a place of organized chaos: 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a deeply uncomfortable, sensory-assaulting narrative montage about the twisted hell of parenthood that dropped us directly into the head of arguably the strangest character Tilda Swinton has ever played. That Ramsay went so long without another feature was not according to plan: rather dramatically, she quit the director’s chair of the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun on the first day of production. Lawyers descended—Hollywood has chaos of its own.

With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay returns, dialing back but not abandoning the chaos of Kevin for a lean, intense 90-minute thriller that retains her taste for haunted subjectivity. That haunted subject here is Joaquin Phoenix, starring as a bounty hunter who specializes in rescuing children from sex trafficking rings. Much of his performance lies in physical transformation: the character is part action hero and part wreck, muscle-bound but lumpen, showing a layer of flab and a paunch, his hair an uncombed tangle and his face obscured by a mangy beard. Physically, he seems fairly impervious to pain, as action heroes are. Psychologically, it’s clear that, whatever wound he hopes to heal by doing what he does, it isn’t working. But he’s good at it, and so is Ramsay. She and her team do well with the simple art of cinematic murder: the placement of a dying man, or a pair of broken glasses, or a hallway with something dreadful around the corner, is all very meticulously composed. (The plot bears surface similarities to Taxi Driver, but a more direct Scorsese link is the way Ramsay sets a scene of Joaquin Phoenix beating men with a hammer to the tune of a classic pop song).

The real question is whether the film finds an adequate social and psychological context for its action—that is, if it can transcend being an exercise in sophisticated, aestheticized violence. That question deserves an answer both passionate and ambivalent, because some of the film can fall into the arthouse trap of looking or seeming more artistic than it is. But between Phoenix keeping a low volume and Ramsay’s taste for flash cuts, it opens itself nonverbally; like the film’s troubled, introverted hero, the camera keeps catching details that echo and resonate. The coup, I think, comes in the withheld nature of the climax, which twists the conventions of a salvation-through-heroism arc both cleverly and soulfully, and suggests that perhaps genre tropes, Scorsese’s needle-drops included, are enough of a social context of their own. On those terms, it works fantastically as one of the better films of 2018—a film whose existence examines different kinds of detachment. And so it understands the multiple connotations of the title: a movie-hero covert operative, a dissociated trauma victim, and a lonely soul who, in the scheme of things, may not even make a difference. Its setting may be the dark city of film noir, but pair it on a shrewd double bill with Shane or The Searchers, and you might realize that Ramsay got to make a western after all.

✬✬✬✬✩

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You Were Never Really Here is available on home video and Amazon Prime. Cheers to their distribution arm for treating films right.

Short Cuts: UNSANE

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Could Steven Soderbergh ever really retire? Our most prolific and eccentric of Hollywood insiders rather suddenly announced his retirement five years ago, and cooler heads cautioned us to wait and see. The retirement turned into a “sabbatical”, which turned into directing two seasons of The Knick. His hiatus from feature films officially ended after four years—i.e., the average time we wait for a non-retired Paul Thomas Anderson to make a film—with last summer’s Logan Lucky. And even if you missed it, which I did, you didn’t have to wait long for his next release: Unsane, a thriller shot quickly and in secret on an iPhone 7.

Its horror roots are as old as Dr. Caligari: a woman who may or may not be crazy gets involuntarily committed to a mental institute where someone may or may not be after her. From there, it descends from clammy to lurid, stopping along the way for Soderbergh’s recurring theme of money as the blood pumping through America’s veins. But the less revealed, the better, because a large part of the film’s suspense is whether its pieces will actually come together or go flying decadently off the rails. As a genre experiment, it uses the idiosyncrasies of its tech to wonderfully eerie effect: the digital grain, the blooms of light, the warping of the depth of field, the uncanny clarity of an HD close-up with little or no makeup—everything that seems “off” is very much in the film’s service. The choice of format and framing can put you at an almost immediate unease, and so many unbalanced compositions feel like miniature prisons of their own. Like most Soderbergh films, it doesn’t swing for the fences; its aspirations are to tinker, needle audience expectations, and provide entertainment for perversely curious cinephiles who wonder how the idea of “a movie” (one with a narrative, a genre, a star, etc.) can end up on screen feeling like such an anomaly. It works as well as it does because it’s the sort of potboiler that wouldn’t want higher production values if you offered them and would roll its eyes at you, as contemptuously as its heroine, if you asked if it was “art.” But there’s a long, storied history of respected filmmakers being influenced by disreputable, low-budget pulp. So if you’re wondering what a 21st century equivalent of those cult 1950s/60s/70s B-movies would be—brash, formally inventive, so trashy in some ways but clever in others, bouncing progressive politics off of pure exploitation—Unsane is it. So get a phone and get cracking; formal control is cheap.

 

Short Cuts: THE DEATH OF STALIN

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In The Death of Stalin, Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev. He doesn’t sound like Khrushchev—he sounds like Steve Buscemi. He doesn’t look like Khrushchev—he looks like Steve Buscemi with a shaved head and a prosthetic nose. And all of this is very much to the film’s appeal. When addressing recent history, particularly real-life figures who already have sizable media footprints, a drama has to overcome that nasty, hairy thing called verisimilitude. But comedy can whack verisimilitude across the face with a rubber chicken and still get at the truth, especially if the truth is absurdity. The director is Armando Iannucci, and anyone familiar with his previous work—BBC’s The Thick of It, its 2009 spinoff movie In the Loop, and his leap to America with HBO’s Veep—will know what to expect: a comedy set in entrenched government bureaucracy, where ships of state are manned by hapless, childish, recognizably human fools whose convictions are spotty and who can only try their best to avoid a very British kind of embarrassment. Only here, the stakes are raised, because we are in the dead center of Soviet power grabs, and such embarrassments are staged with violent round-ups going on in the background. In our own time, when anxious leftists might wonder if incipient authoritarianism is too incompetent to succeed, a pitch-black political comedy is a deliciously dangerous prospect: an uncomfortable reminder that it’s perfectly possible to trip and fall ass-backwards into a dystopia.

All of which makes the The Death of Stalin as disappointing as it is clever, because it is not quite the movie it could be, especially given the talent involved. The verbal flow that never stopped crackling in In the Loop and The Thick of It has become repetitive in comparison. The style has shifted from on-the-fly, quasi-documentary chaos to the semi-ironic production values of a “serious” period piece, and it leaves the film halfway towards limbo. The comedy lacks the consistency of Iannucci’s best work, the intrigue lags far behind the banter, and the pivot from dark laughs to terror isn’t seamless, as if the film’s distance from its characters and narrative is torn between short skits and dire consequences.

What that leaves you with is a long string of nice touches, like a stock scene of two politicos conspiring as they stroll through a park, only to pass by two others doing the same; or Michael Palin giving a rambling speech that leaves a table full of yes-men teetering back and forth, confused whether he wants them to vote yay or nay. The Death of Stalin feels more sincere and well-observed in such little human absurdities than it does when the time comes to face history, and I wonder if Iannucci’s lens is best suited to a mundane republic rather than a dystopian dictatorship. In the end, I’m not sure we have anything more than we started with, not even a fully satisfying realization of the idea that authoritarian regimes, like sitcom plotlines, tend to reset back to zero after the last one has ran its course. If drama has its pitfalls, so does comedy, and satire faces the challenge of somehow acting glib and provoking engagement at the same time. Make no mistake, The Death of Stalin has barbed moments that tease and wink and bite—enough to be worth the price of admission. But I wish the frenzy of the film could match, let alone illuminate, the satire playing out in every day’s headlines.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The Death of Stalin is available to rent on iTunes, where their curators made it an Editor’s Choice. Godspeed.

Short Cuts: THE 15:17 TO PARIS

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A little while ago, a group of friends and I were talking, and someone asked, when you hear the name “Clint Eastwood” in 2018, do you think of the movie star, the director, or the political figure who rambled against an invisible Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention? The obvious answer, to me at least, is the movie star: we live in a visual media culture, and there are too many years’ worth of ponchos and Magnums to be supplanted by anything else. Yet the three Eastwoods—the icon of badass masculinity, the filmmaker who digs below the surface of American heroism and violence, and the guy who voiced support for Trump (a decision that’s aged worse in 2 years than Eastwood has in 88)—can’t and shouldn’t be taken apart. To try to separate one from the rest would do a thoughtless service to his body of work. Because whatever his blind spots, Eastwood is generally a filmmaker who asks you to think—at least, right up to the point he asks you not to.

His latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, comes with a trailer-ready hook: the reenactment of a thwarted terrorist attack on a train in Europe, starring three Americans who stopped it in real life. (“A true story, the real heroes” the poster succinctly reads). The scene of the attack itself—which, whatever else it may be, is one of the best shot and edited sequences I’ve seen this year—lasts only fifteen clammy minutes. The rest of the film is devoted to filling in their lives—three friends from Sacramento, two in the military—that led up to it. The comparison to the Audie Murphy films about World War II is both obvious and more interesting the more you think about it, since Eastwood isn’t concerned with the war heroes’ trip “to hell and back” but with their ordinariness. Even their military service is shown largely as routine. Their act of heroism is presented as stemming from a learned mixture of moral decency and physical discipline.

As actors, how do the real heroes do? Not bad, actually. Congenial presences, one and all—certainly not that natural, but even a seasoned pro would have trouble with some of the lines they’re given, and there are plenty of seasoned pros in the cast to prove that theorem. So the film is a cinematically awkward piece of work, but one that, like a conservative Rossellini, values narrative polish less than a low-key, insistent purity. Among other things, this is an ideologically informed vision of how a swath of America views itself: a world of God and guns, where men are men, war isn’t taboo, and duty provides purpose. Much of it plays like a wholesome industrial film about how to live a meaningful life—and that meaningful life is far from what Eastwood so derisively termed “the pussy generation.” Accordingly, that low-key purity will, depending on your political persuasion, either serve as a moving affirmation (awkwardness and all) or a chance to look at the world through the goggles of an ideology that feels left behind by those liberals in Hollywood. (And I must admit, my curiosity in adding this to my Netflix queue is more the latter).

The chief fascination, then, is to watch where the lines are drawn. In one scene, a young boy who dreams of enlisting in the military has a Full Metal Jacket poster displayed prominently in his bedroom. In lingering on the poster, does the film acknowledge the irresolvable complexities of Kubrick’s view of a soldier’s life, or does it negate them entirely? There’s room for either reading; it all depends on what you bring. The films’ other villains, running a distant second behind terrorists, are snide public sector bureaucrats. “My God is bigger than your statistics!” a hero’s mother says to one early in the film. On an individual scale, it’s a fine and noble sentiment for a single mom to express in defense of her son. On the macro scale of 2018 culture wars, it does a fair job of explaining why our body politic is a vomit-stained alcoholic unwilling to admit it has a problem.

So by the end, you should have noticed that, as much as the film reflects on origins and choices, it is strikingly unreflective about terrorism itself. It is an act of evil, certainly, but one which The 15:17 to Paris leaves almost completely in the abstract: uncomplicated, existing outside of a political context, embodied by a scary and silent foreign face, having no real origin of its own, simply a force to be met with force—two cultures that show no signs of coexisting. As I said, Eastwood tends to be more thoughtful than knee-jerk criticism would suggest; a more crass director would tease the terror attack with a kind of loud stomp instead of his somber tone. But more than the meditations on the ordinary becoming heroic, or the revival of WWII cinematic idioms for a messier American century, or a masterclass on how to film claustrophobic action, those dualities are the takeaway. Within the world the film celebrates, there is plenty of room for nuance, subtlety, contemplation, diversity, novelty, immaturity turned to growth, naivety turned to wisdom, expectations defied, and misconceptions corrected—in short, all the necessary ingredients of humanism. But Eastwood’s humanism, and you could just as easily say America’s as well, will come with stringent borders and boundaries. And it won’t extend beyond them.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The 15:17 to Paris is now available on home video. Star ratings these days are almost pointless.

 

Short Cuts: ANNIHILATION

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“It’s a bit like The Thing,” a coworker said to me, pitching Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and if you knew him you’d know there’s no greater compliment. It’s a fine comparison for all the isolated paranoia and gooey abominations you’ll witness. It’s also a lot like Stalker and Solaris, a little like Ridley Scott’s Alien, and something like what Scott’s Alien prequels wanted to be. A pinch of 2001 is, naturally, a given. In short, it is solid mystery box sci-fi, where humans saddled with humanity venture into a strange place and face up to the unknown. Here, that place is called “the Shimmer”, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as “the Zone”, but is likewise a mysterious spot on Earth where the rules of time and space—and in this case, genetics—have begun to bend in alarming ways. Almost no one who has gone in has come out, and the area is spreading. So a team of scientists (all women, with Natalie Portman as the haunted locus) head for the center of it, to determine its nature, intent, and weaknesses.

Of course, as with any mystery box, there comes a time to put up or shut up, and on that count, Annihilation actually does pretty well, albeit more for themes than plot. It ends up, intriguingly, as a kind of horror movie where the monster is “life” itself: teeming, cyclical, constantly evolving, and forever outside full scientific understanding. The film turns floral imagery and rainbow lens flares into something genuinely unnerving. It carries itself with a palpable distrust of natural law, and it connects to Garland’s 2015 hit Ex Machina in wondering whether something else might do a better job at being human than us. And like Ex Machina, the worst I can say is that it’s a bag of ideas which hint at more than they articulate, and that beneath its smooth craft and chilly atmosphere, it is more devoutly versed in sci-fi conventions than able or even eager to transcend them. It lacks the emotional richness of Solaris, the philosophical and political resonance of Stalker, and the radical aesthetic shock of Alien. But while those comparisons may sound like a put-down, it’s also a compliment to Garland for being one of the precious few directors in Hollywood today to get away with staging science fiction in such an ambitious vein. The film is itself a genetic hybrid: a Tarkovskian contemplation where occasionally something with nasty teeth pops up for target practice—and it wouldn’t do to say that the film’s identity needs one more than the other. That the studio balked at it—in most of the world, the film went straight to Netflix—is an ill omen. If Garland has a true science fiction masterpiece in him, he’s still working up to it. For now, what a joy it is to find yourself in the middle of a forbidden zone and not be entirely sure where it’s going. And then to have the ending linger.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Annihilation is available wherever you get your TVOD movie fix. Nothing like a close encounter to help you sort out your life.

Short Cuts: BLACK PANTHER

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I know I’m late to the party. The keg is empty, most of the guests have left, and there’s nothing on the dance floor except for confetti. But—since I spent its reign at the box office catching up on Oscar movies instead—I wanted to throw my praise to Black Panther as a roundabout way of addressing the career, now three films old, of director Ryan Coogler. Because as much as we might romanticize or expound upon some ideal notion of an “independent filmmaker”, working on a small scale outside Hollywood’s system and unbound by its idioms and convention, Coogler strikes me as one of those talents who has come into his own by making movies inside the belly of the beast.

Coogler picked up the top prize at Sundance with his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Shot for less than $1,000,000 and midwifed in part by Forest Whitaker’s production company and the San Francisco Film Society, it was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black East Bay native who was shot and killed, prone and unarmed, in Oakland by the BART Police in 2009. The story of Oscar Grant is an all-American travesty, one that we’ve seen play out countless times in the decade since. With a subject like that and an actor as good as Michael B. Jordan, it’s impossible not to have an effect. But as it made the festival rounds, Fruitvale Station also struck me as thin. It offered little insight into how such travesties occur and the system that sustains them, even in a place as ostensibly progressive as the Bay Area. The film did nothing more or less than present us with a sympathetic human being and watch them get killed—which is certainly not untruthful, but barely scratches the surface of what 90 minutes can do. And as for the filmmaking itself, it leaned hard on the kind of cinematic shorthands that make me wish for a good documentary instead of an above average docudrama.

Then Coogler entered the world of Hollywood franchises with a surprise: Creed, a seventh Rocky movie that none of us realized we wanted, with Jordan back (and brilliant), Sly Stallone tasting Oscar hype, a standout boxing match shot all in one take, and the shrewd showmanship of holding back on playing “Gonna Fly Now” until just the right moment. It was a fine night at the movies, full of vitality, far better than anyone expected from a series that had already “ended” more than once. It was also, uncoincidentally, the sort of material where a little movie-world stylization and melodrama are exactly what’s called for. It pegged Coogler, in an appealing way, as a filmmaker whose natural inclination wasn’t to shake movie cliches but find ways to flavor them.

All of which brings us to Marvel’s Coogler’s Black Panther, in which issues of on-screen and off-screen blackness are put in the service of a mega-budget tentpole with superheroics, gadgetry, banter, and a synergistic tease for the next movie. “Wakanda forever!” cried fans on the internet, in praise of the mythical, technologically miraculous African nation ruled by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, who faces threats from without and within. The film is, by any standard of blockbuster storytelling, near the top of the Marvel corpus. The plot zips along with intrigue, the cast has chemistry, and Coogler shows off his taste for tracking-shot action scenes. It is the sort of movie that invites you to intellectualize it to a certain point and no further, and the way the adventure leans proudly into an Afrocentric focus is fruitful. It presents black identity as a multitude. It handles colonialism, diaspora, mass incarceration, and militancy vs. reconciliation in ways that are not necessarily deep so much as meant to offer a cinematic feeling of release. And in the process, it has Marvel’s first interesting villain (Jordan again), and thus a rare showdown where something more resonant is at stake than merely “saving the world.”

As Black Panther sits pretty among Hollywood’s biggest box office hits, a critic might argue that surely it owes a large part of its success, the title and a few visible Public Enemy posters notwithstanding, to being non-militant. That is, it sets itself up to be joyously pro-black without having to risk the controversy of being (or seeming) anti-anybody. The riposte is that it is political precisely to the degree that it’s packaged for mass consumption. We’ve certainly had black action heroes and superheroes before. (Remember Blade II? It was fun). But I can’t think of another American movie to be made or succeed on this scale while showing such little interest in tempering or balancing a community of black heroes with white teammates, partners, or sidekicks. If nothing else, it puts the lie to the idea that a cast of almost entirely non-white protagonists is inherently a niche movie. (The “almost” belongs to Martin Freeman, as an agog CIA agent who gets pulled in later in the game to be the token chip-in).

For the finale, Coogler returns the film to his native Oakland. A Wakandan airship descends and is met with dropped jaws, as a group of black schoolchildren stop, stare, and come to meet the visitors. It’s the type of scene that’s been happening in superhero movies as long as I can remember—the brief on-screen encounter of the comic book idol and the type of child reader that’s most likely to take their stories seriously. Only here, the child is a racial minority, and the epic hero he is gazing up at looks like him. It is a small coda for such a large spectacle, self-reflexive in its understanding of how, within the film’s genre maximalism and franchise obligations, there’s a desire to stake a claim. If Black Panther is by no means radical, it doesn’t feel insincere either. The closing shots register as uncommonly personal for a series that has been so often marked by uniformity.

Clout in hand, Coogler’s next project is reportedly a film about a testing scandal in Atlanta public schools, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be attending with interest to see how he returns to what might be called “ordinary lives”—it may very well be that Coogler’s strength and usefulness is more as a cinematic crowd-pleaser or myth-maker. The most genuinely stringent political movies deny the kind of unambiguous release that Coogler has proved so adept at delivering. But he has craft and dramatic instincts. He isn’t the first director to come out of Sundance and alternate between the world of movies and the world of our own—and, by all indications, he realizes how the two are more linked than they let on.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Black Panther is now on home video. The virtues are plentiful, but it’s still hard to get used to Martin Freeman with an American accent.

Next Door to Prestige: My Top Films of 2017

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Catharsis. That’s what this year needed—some goddamned catharsis. At a time when any news junkie might reasonably wonder if the decline of western civilization will—to use an inelegant phrase—shit or get off the pot, the reaction of pop culture (and the reaction to the reaction) was a document of its own. Which is to say, in our time, what do we need from media, and how do we get it? In the world of TV, whose merge with cinema is ongoing, it’s difficult to imagine The Handmaid’s Tale causing just as much of a sensation in a warmer political climate. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Wonder Woman as a big cultural moment were it not for a justified, long-building critical mass of desire to see better representation both on screen and behind the camera. And then, of course, there is the fact that Hollywood—our representation machine—is in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which is by no means about or limited to the movie business, but which has seen decades of the industry’s most grotesque skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Something, as they say, has got to give.

Much can be made of the Oscars as an insular popularity contest, a closed election where a community gives prizes to itself. But the public-facing aspect of the Oscars fascinates me as well. It strikes me that the Academy is always hyper-aware that they are not just voting on what they liked most, but that they are effectively recommending movies (or an idea of what movies should be) on a massive scale. The Oscars are a brand, and as movies contend for them, narratives are built accordingly—even if, as is so often the case, saddling a film with a grandiose narrative does the film a disservice. So I must confess that a large part of my curiosity about the Oscars tonight is not just which movie will win, but how a celebration of the movie industry will unfold when no one could possibly ignore all the elephants in the room.

A note on which movie might win. Even as they upped the number of Best Picture nominees to nine or ten, the Oscars generally come down to only two—maybe three, in a competitive year. In this case, it’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri versus The Shape of Water. On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine a film more thematically suited to 2017 than Three Billboards, in which a tough-as-nails woman becomes an avenging angel in a plot that involves sexual assault, racism, and police misconduct, and then ends under a question mark of how anger and trauma should be processed. And yet for so many people I’ve talked to, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards didn’t register with them as cathartic, but as politically despicable, both in the perceived pleasure it takes in violence and in how it turns a racist cop into a redeemable hero. I saw no endorsement of racism or bigotry in the film, but I had problems with it: I found it to be a cartoonishly inauthentic version of the America’s sins, a film whose tonal mishmash and glibness towards pain undercuts how, in the second half and in particular the ending, it actually has something to say. And I have to wonder how much that issue with the film and the more politically charged objections spring from the same artistic source.

As for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, its own politics can be summed up nicely in an early scene where Richard Jenkins sees a civil rights protest on TV and changes the channel to a musical. That is, The Shape of Water will address political injustice and then magically replace it with something beautiful—which is, in a way, its own kind of catharsis. Del Toro has said that he can only approach history through the lens of fables or parables, but in his own films, the fable draws power from the historical context and not the other way around. And, of those two films, I’d easily prefer Del Toro’s, on the basis of both the craft and the purity of its conviction.

“Prefer” may be the operative word, because while there were no shortage of movies worth two hours this year, it wasn’t so easy to feel unequivocally enthusiastic about one, as if fatigue replaced that eternal cinephile desire—a film that makes you jump towards hyperbole—as the order of the day. For a while, I thought this was a year without a masterpiece, before a few that at least come close slipped in at the last moment. Fatigue, in all things, should be shaken off; catch up on what you missed, because this was, like any year, a fine year for cinema. It was a year for feeling old—the goodbye to Harry Dean Stanton, Agnes Varda becoming at Oscar nominee at 89, David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks, Coco tackling death with enough optimism to make up for Disney killing Bambi’s mom, and the fact that even the year’s best superhero movie, Logan, is about getting old. It was a year for the evacuation of Dunkirk (three times over), for resolved gazes towards the future, and for a trio of heroines who want to poison the man in their life with mushrooms. And it was a year where some of my favorite films—ones that grappled with Big Topics—ended on happier notes than their material would lead you to expect. For the sake of surprise, I won’t say which. The catharsis you’ll have to find on your own.

Without further ado, my top 10 favorite films of 2017. As always, blog rules apply: anything I got to see at a festival or that had its US theatrical premiere during the calendar year is eligible.

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10. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, US)

A ceaselessly witty delight, Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut is head and shoulders above most teen comedies purely by having a feeling of remembrance: it flips through each rite of passage with the chipper speed of an adult who can look back fondly, even on conflict and humiliation. Saoirse Ronan as the spunky, mouthy heroine that Juno couldn’t be in her most ostentatious dreams, and the film lingers as a bittersweet farewell to the idea of a hometown: to hers, to mine, possibly to yours, and resonant for anyone who gets out only to realize that it will always be with you. For better or worse.

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9. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

A slow-burn mystery couches an implosive portrait of institutional decay. That description sounds incendiary, and director Mungiu (who won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) certainly doesn’t hide his feelings about the state of Romania. But his film is also one of deep empathy for those living in a world where personal and political corruption feels like the only answer. No wasted scenes—just a potent hope that the problems of the last generation can be sorted by the next. Winner of Best Director at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, it slipped quietly into a few theaters last April (one was fortunately down the street from me) and is now hiding on Netflix for those who’ll seek it out. Do.

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8. Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France)

Thank god we still have Agnes Varda, because few people set such an inspiring example of how to keep on living and never losing the desire to explore. This documentary on a decidedly whimsical art project, without ever shedding its modest, casual appeal, manages to be movingly about so many things at once: how the world looks if you’re young or old, the relationship between the past and the present, shifting culture in the digital age, the importance and impermanence of what you create, and how anyone or anything can be turned into a work of art. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always generous, it is a small gem that casts a large brightness.

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7. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US)

For much of its 18 hour runtime, David Lynch’s Showtime miniseries revival certainly didn’t feel like one of my favorites of the year. It forever and frustratingly balances between explanation and inscrutability, a string of unresolved threads that occasionally threaten to make perfect sense before diving down another rabbit hole. But for those who took the trip, few works of cinema—yes, cinema—were as fun to explore and debate this year. I’ve seen several theories about our new Twin Peaks, many compelling and none able to account for everything. But while it may be difficult to say precisely what on earth happened, it’s easy to say what Twin Peaks is about: an old-timer’s epic four-dimensional vision of a fraught America at a crisis point, with doubt about whether heroes like Special Agent Dale Cooper even exist.

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6. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US)

Rich in its atmosphere, intrigue, and mood, the new Blade Runner is a hard sci-fi triumph, the best any big-budget tentpole has done this decade in taking a nine-figure budget and a dusted-off 80s franchise and truly doing something with it—even if it paid dearly at the box office. But its central metaphor is, fittingly, a seed of human emotion dropped into a mechanized system, and box office death or not, it earns the right to use it, if only as fantastic show business.

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5. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, US)

Many American movies these days are long, and many aspire to the idea of being “epic”, which they sometimes treat as the same thing. But director James Gray is one of the few voices dedicated to sincere cinematic grandeur, and The Lost City of Z, the story of a lifelong quest for a place that may not even exist, is one of the few American films in recent years to so perceptively examine the passing of time. If it got largely overlooked—a fate that tends to befall Gray’s films—it’s because it seems to exist outside its own moment. But moments pass, and The Lost City of Z will still be there, its details rewarding attention, with a final shot that will stay with you.

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4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, US/UK)

Christopher Nolan’s first triumph after a decade of hyped messes either foregoes most of his weaknesses or turns them into strengths. You can’t trip over exposition if plot is hardly necessary. You can’t trip over characterizations if all your characters need to be are men who face death and fear it. You can’t drown in an editing stew if an editing stew is what the fog of war actually calls for. What that leaves you with is experiential cinema: a distilled version of Nolan’s superbly controlled physical craft, an evocative sea of actors’ faces, a gauntlet of perseverance through some very unheroic emotions, and an ending that’s the closest Nolan has come yet to making his balancing act of tones, ideas, and contradictions signify into something grand.

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3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

If you were to ask me what I thought of Phantom Thread halfway through, I’d have declined to answer. If you asked me after it was over, I’d have praised it. If you asked me three days later, I’d have told you I was in love. P.T. Anderson’s forays into films built from texture and flow reach a peak in this glorious, surprisingly devious psychodrama. As the romance between a pathologically fussy, dominating artist and the never-to-be-dominated woman who might know how to break him, it is—perversely—the only love story this year worth a damn. Part Freudian, part Hawksian, it reveals what it’s about only gradually, while the luxuriant surface and score by Jonny Greenwood carry you away.

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2. Get Out (Jordan Peele, US)

The emergence of Get Out as a major Oscar contender thrilled me for a simple reason: it is the kind of “youth movie” that the Academy has generally been so steadfast about ignoring. Genre films released during the February doldrums aren’t usually treated as the stuff Oscar dreams are made of—but then this scrappy, funny, smart, shrewd, magnificently subversive B-movie caught on. It is a take on race in America for a generation that wants to move the public conversation beyond the normal cinematic cliches, so bless it when something so odd—and so much fun—gets bestowed with prestige.

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1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US)

“I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” the young heroine says. The tragedy of The Florida Project strikes a raw nerve, all the more so because it mashes up tones and ideas in counterintuitive ways that the more Oscar-feted films did not. Director Sean Baker and his cast perfectly nail the balance between comic energy and tragic grime. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. This is a film about freedom, both its giddy thrills and its long drop to the bottom—and one of 2017’s true triumphs of on-the-fly filmmaking.

*****

The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…

After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, US)

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France/US)

Coco (Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina, US)

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France/Spain)

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, US)

Good Time (Joshua & Ben Safdie, US)

Logan (James Mangold, US)

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, US)

On the Beach At Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK)

The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, US)

The Square (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, US)

Short Cuts: THE FLORIDA PROJECT

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As a general rule, children can’t act—and that’s to the great advantage of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, because I’d be surprised if even a quarter of what its young heroes do on screen was heavily scripted or controlled. They are loose and unbound. Living in a low-rent hotel outside Orlando, their characters hock loogies, hustle for ice cream, go exploring, and act loud in the way children do when they’re sugar-high for attention (from the adults? from each other? from the camera?). Like The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), say, the authenticity of their performances lies in the sense of reaction. And the unforgettable potency of the film—its mixture of energy and sadness—comes from the fact that we understand what their characters do not: that they are in dire straits, living at the bottom rungs of the American ladder with scant opportunities and parent figures who are at best impoverished and at worst criminally irresponsible. But playtime goes on, for as long as it can.

Sean Baker was last seen with 2015’s Tangerine, a screwball dramedy about transgender Los Angeles sex workers that he famously shot on an iPhone. It was one of the indie-world darlings of its year, and it attempted quite a high-wire act: that is, if you’re trying to film a screwball setpiece where one of the characters is a bruised, drug-addicted prostitute, don’t be surprised if laughter gets squashed in your throat—and I have to say, I admired the chutzpah of the attempt more than I felt edified by the results. But with The Florida Project, Baker nails the tone between comedy and grime that was so shaky in Tangerine. The balance is superb. The already-stylized colors of Florida, and the way Baker and company frame them, allow the film to feel grounded without settling for the uninspired visual shorthands that make so much social realism blur into indistinction. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little details and vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. The only time, I think, it overplays its hand is with the ending, which makes the symbolic irony of story—that all this doomed innocence is happening just outside of Disney World—too jarringly telegraphed. But the film primes you for that final moment so well that it bothers me less and less. This is one of the best movies about post-Great Recession American life, a film that, with a dextrous emotional palette, both captures and embodies the freedom of living over a bottomless pit. And Willem Dafoe, as the manager of cheap hotel near a tourist trap, may be the most admirably heroic character in a year that included the entire goddamned Justice League.