The last thing the world needs is yet another critic’s list of the 10 Best Movies of 2017. If you need a guide to the worthwhile films you missed (or want to check your taste against the so-called experts), peruse any film publication’s website. (I recommend Sight & Sound).
My inclination is to instead catalog the moments, the scenes, the bits that stayed with me weeks and months later. Sometimes they stick like annoying songs you hate but can’t get out of your head, so be advised that at least one of my Top 7 is from a movie I disliked.
Call Me by Your Name
The passage of the year involved a breathtakingly spoiled yet awkwardly self-conscious teenager, a fresh peach, and, eventually, the lad’s charismatic, self-confident and older male lover. The sequence is photographed and paced to focus and amplify the teenager’s desire, ungainliness, neediness, vulnerability and sensual awakening. If it makes you uncomfortable, the film has succeeded in making you share his experience (or cast you back to your own). Either way, the scene encapsulates the movie.
A portrait of a society that adopts a bizarro-world veneer of normalcy to conceal its loathing and covetousness of black people, Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy gives us white privilege in its ultimate demented distillation. The moment that nails the surreal, disturbing nature of the setting -- a large country house where a black man is meeting his white girlfriend’s family -- is the zombie-like black groundskeeper running full tilt at the erstwhile hero before veering off into the dusky distance.
Take any of the numerous instances when Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding sits in her kitchen, looks straight at the camera and explicitly or implicitly dares us to disbelieve her version of the events that made her famous. Let’s be blunt: She’s challenging us to dismiss her as white trash and to withhold our empathy. Alison Janney’s direct addresses to the audience, as Tonya’s heinous mother LaVona, are also embedded in my cerebral cortex.
The Florida Project
Similarly, the images I keep from Sean Baker’s candy-colored, neo-neorealist mother-daughter saga are of faces: Brooklynn Prince conveys childish enthusiasm and candor along with calculated manipulation as the irrepressible, undisciplined Moonee. Hailey (Bria Vinaite), her desperately amoral mom, is scarcely more mature or capable of hiding her emotions. Like Tonya Harding’s mother, Hailey bulldozes through every drop of audience goodwill by the last reel. Moonee, however, transcends our judgments. She’s a child; she is blameless.
Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary’s gently touching fable imagines a sheltered young man forced to acclimate to the real world. Resisting the pressure to forget the fictional characters and sci-fi world that his parents created for his benefit, James writes and films a new chapter in the Hallmarkish but never mawkish fantasy -- with the help of new friends. Unfamiliar with digital effects, James devises an explosion the old-fashioned (analog?) way, to the shock of his collaborators and (inevitably) the cops. Brigsby Bear can be interpreted at varying points as a savage dig at the masses who worship the mythology of Star Wars (Mark Hamill has a small role) or as an affectionate hug to people who bond over alternate universes populated by trustworthy heroes.
An art installation provides a framework to consider morality as a social experiment, but it is the questionable behavior toward one another outside of the square that concerns Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund. The centerpiece of his quietly confrontational film is a black-tie fundraising dinner for the museum at which a bare-chested performer, in the guise of an aggressive primate, puts his artistic integrity above the conventional norms of polite society. Östlund’s integrity is such that he extends the scene, and several others, beyond the point of audience discomfort.
Two unsmiling men, dressed in black, purposefully step off a train somewhere in the Hungarian countryside shortly after World War II. What is their business? Their beards and long coats suggest they are Jewish; they look like emissaries from the 19th century. To the station master and other bystanders, the father-and-son duo could be exemplars of justice or, worse, avenging angels. With barely a line or two of dialogue, writer-director Ferenc Török introduces a mystery and stimulates acres of tension -- grounded in a black, white and gray epoch of history we are aware of. And if we aren't, we soon will be.