If you thought that 2017 was a bad year for movies, then you weren’t paying attention. Beyond the half-dozen that popped up every week on your “movies this weekend” search engine enquiry was a treasure-trove of well-made, richly-storied films; and some of those toolbar blockbusters were pretty damn good, too. You may have had to work a little harder to see the documentaries (this year yielded a bumper crop) and foreign films, but in a city like ours there’s no excuse to sit through a mediocre movie. Here are some of the highlights.
1. A Ghost Story
A film about memories, the vastness time, and our desperate need to own and to cling onto our little piece of history, David Lowery’s film is one long lonely heartbreak. There isn’t much to the plot: a young couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) moves into a house, loves and bickers the usual amount, and then he is killed, tragically and suddenly, within spitting distance from it. He becomes a ghost – the kind you imagined as a child – with a long, trailing white sheet and two black circles for eyes. “We do what we can to endure,” he says. Lowery takes us into the future and then on a journey back through time as the Ghost tries to connect with his wife. That’s when our own insignificance truly registers, somewhere between covered wagons and skyscrapers. But there is optimism too, in the way our little, everyday actions contribute to the fabric of earth’s story. Beautiful film. (Honourable mention: The Shape of Water, an occasionally brutal but consistently beautiful film about a mute woman and a merman.)
2. Lady Bird
An achingly relatable relationship between mother and daughter, courtesy of first-time director Greta Gerwig, who knows a thing or two about angst-riddled female characters. Christine (Saoirse Ronan) adopts the name Lady Bird in her hurly-burly quest for self-expression and identity but her world-weary mother (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf) keeps getting in the way. Lady Bird navigates a bitingly funny and bittersweet year of firsts as she applies to eastern schools in order to escape life in Sacramento. For me, the tears started during the “do you like me?” conversation in a thrift shop and never really stopped. Be warned. (Honourable mention: Logan, a surprisingly great but endlessly bleak X-Men movie about a chosen family of three.)
3. The Post
It starts with a typewriter in the jungle and results in 4,000 pages of stolen government papers about the callous mishandling of the Vietnam War. The result is a moral quandary for Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), owner of the Washington Post: with her paper perpetually second-fiddle to the New York Times, does she run the top-secret material, risking jail time and the recent public offering of the paper to investors? While her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) cries “the only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” Kay weighs her options. There are some beautiful typesetting scenes and vintage newsroom bits for those of us old enough to remember such things, but I predict everyone will get misty for this elegy to a time when the truth mattered, before the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” (Honourable mention: Marjorie Prime, a film buoyed by a superb ensemble cast about a woman who spends her final days in conversation with a hologram of her dead husband.)
4. Get Out
An entirely original conceit from first-time director Jordan Peele that seamlessly welds horror and humour with some hard truths about race relations in America. A girlfriend (Alison Williams) brings her boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) home to mom and dad but has left out the fact that he’s black. No big deal, she insists. It’s a very big, insidious, profitable and cultish deal, as it turns out, and you won’t see what’s coming. Who knew getting woke could be so much fun? (Honourable mention: They Come At Night, about family dynamics that get personal after the apocalypse.)
5. Baby Driver
The slickest film of the year is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort as a preternaturally talented getaway driver working off a debt to crime boss Kevin Spacey. But as the players in the heists get more dangerous (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal) and Baby meets the girl of his dreams (Lily James), he starts looking for an exit. Every scene of Wright’s film is a wonder of choreography, from Baby’s walk to the coffee shop to the jaw-dropping car chases, symphonies of revving engines and squealing tires. (Honourable mention: Blade Runner 2049, a beautifully immersive, otherworldly tale that never leaves L.A.)
6. The Florida Project
A marvel of kid acting, or lack thereof, Sean Baker’s touching film about children living a dangerous, hardscrabble existence within spitting distance of Disney World does double duty as entertainment and as a serious social statement. At a budget motel run by kindly Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the kids roam freely from dawn until dusk, a joyous, sun-drenched brand of freedom that would be perfect were it not tainted by the struggles and vices of the adults around them. Little Brooklynn Prince is a gem, and Baker makes us all wish we could be kids again. (Honourable mention: Menashe, about a hapless widower fighting to parent his son against the strict rules of his ultra-Orthodox community)
7. Lady Macbeth
What starts off as a tale of feminism in hoop skirts quickly devolves into something far sinister. Catherine (Florence Pugh, excellent) becomes Lady Leicester when she’s married off and sent to live with a judgmental father-in-law and an impotent and cruel husband. Instructed never to leave the house, Catherine has no company, not even books to stave off the creeping madness. A new groom (Cosmo Jarvis) crosses the line, and Catherine is only too ready to embark on an affair, to the growing terror of her maid (Naomi Ackie). The film becomes a challenge to see how far Catherine will go to secure her lover as lord of this miserable, isolated manor. (Honourable mention: God’s Own Country, the tale of one man’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and self-loathing on a farm in rural England.)
No warm cups of tea, no cosy home fires burning: writer-director Christopher Nolan throws his audience into the war zone and it never lets up. Surrounded on land and picked off by German bombers the second they board destroyers, more than 400,000 British and Allied troops await their fate. The incongruity of how such a scenic beach, with the safety of home within sight, became a place of death and desperation is ever-present. Nolan’s skill here lies in his ability to keep up the intensity with the myriad ways in which these young men died trying to get off the beach, and the moments of heroism big and small that defined them. (Honourable mention: The Lost City of Z, a true, epic journey into the Amazon’s heart of darkness)
France’s Academy Award entry for 2017 takes place in the orbit of Act Up, the AIDS-activist group in Paris in the early ‘90s, during a time when France had twice the number of HIV cases as England or Germany, a whopping 6,000 new cases a year. It’s a race against time for these men, women and children (one mother attends with her 16-year-old son) as T4 cells – and optimism – decline.
Amidst all the strategizing, meetings with pharmaceutical companies and street protests is the relationship between Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) as one of the men declines in health. There’s heartbreak aplenty amidst this delicate balance of life and death but cause for optimism too as these young people take indifference to task. (Honourable mention: Thelma, a terrifying tale from Norway about what happens when you release a girl from a hyper-religious home out into the wild.)
A secretary with no degree and no scientific training was invited to join a scientific expedition in Gombe, Tanzania, in 1957.
With no research to go on, there was no knowledge and therefore no fear of being attacked, though Jane Goodall’s mother did accompany her at one point. And when wildlife photographer Hugo Van Lawick joined her, nature did the rest.
In equal measure the story of Gombe’s beloved chimps as of the woman who pioneered the longest continuous study of animals in their natural habitat in history, the believed-lost footage of a 26-year-old Goodall from the early 1960s is illuminating from beginning to end and a technicolour dream. (Honourable mention: Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s searing examination of the refugee crisis.)