Top Ten 2017

In order to accommodate the films I liked, I’ve cleverly divided them into three categories: domestic, foreign and documentary. The bigger issue was weighing movies I enjoyed against movies I admired. For once, my choices and the taste of the award-givers weren’t far apart.
1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Every line of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue is fraught and measured, delivered to perfection by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and an equally adept supporting cast. Like a good Coen Bros. movie it is funny and serious, real and surreal, all at once.
2. LadyBird
The oft-told story of a misfit high school senior is lovingly and sensitively told and portrayed, respectively, by Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan.
3. Detroit
You are there in the 1967 race riot, then in the motel as white policemen terrorize their black suspects. Kathryn Bigelow’s meditation on race (one of three, or maybe five, on this list) is not easy to watch, but masterfully made.
4. Get Out
The racially charged setup – white girl bringing black boyfriend home for the weekend – adds a bit of misdirection to a totally fun horror movie with a wonderful ending.
5. Mudbound
Remarkably balanced parallel stories of a white family and a black family, coping, struggling in 1940s Mississippi. Another hard-to-watch reminder that for many, life is hard, often unfair and a matter of endurance.
6. Wind River
The Indian reservation is topographically, economically and psychologically bleak, but in the snowy depth of winter bleak is beautiful – the most visually stunning movie of the year.
7. The Shape of Water
Masterfully directed by Guillermo del Toro, this fantasy set in 1950s America seemed as real and alive as it was charming.
8. The Post
Spielberg takes no chances and it’s reassuring to see the good guys win; but this is no Spotlight or All the President’s Men.
9. The Big Sick
Every year deserves a feel-good romantic comedy, and the Pakistani connection spiced up this pleasant but predictable confection.
10. Battle of the Sexes
A funny and teary, thoroughly enjoyable battle in which almost everyone is a winner, and love in tennis is not a bad thing.
Of the 15 documentaries listed for Academy consideration, I saw five, none of which made the final short list. I can understand the exclusion of four of them, but not the following, which was my highest-rated movie of the year:
What was best: the modest and beautiful Jane Goodall, the endlessly fascinating chimps, the story of the amateur woman being accepted and feted by the scientific community, or the quiet love affair between the ethologist and the photographer? All of them were here, beautifully photographed and cleverly edited.
Foreign Film
This is admittedly a hodgepodge of movies that were released in 2016, or were seen at film festivals, or might not have made the Top Ten but deserve mentioning:
The Salesman
The Distinguished Citizen
Darkest Hour
Their Finest

Phantom Thread – 7

A psychological thriller with Daniel Day-Lewis, a lover and a sister all vying for dominance while his dressmaking art that makes it all possible teeters in the balance. At first I wondered, why make a movie about the Day-Lewis character, except to show off his nonpareil acting skills. What a comedown is Reynolds Woodcock from Abraham Lincoln! But as his shell (think John Saladino) is penetrated by love, no less, the triangle of relationships becomes interesting, if not engrossing. Like so many of the top films of the year, however, I have no idea what happens in the end. And the dresses could have been prettier.

The Post – 8

A skillfully made film that affirms one great value after another: the First Amendment, women’s equality, art over commerce, truth to power and on and on. The trouble is the movie is continually running up against history we know well, raising questions: wasn’t the Post’s story merely a sideshow to the New York Times’s? Not to mention Daniel Ellsberg’s? What did it matter if the Supreme Court was going to let the Times continue publishing in three more days, anyway? Did the Pentagon Papers really change many minds about the Vietnam War? What, really, was the legal threat facing the Post? (As a lawyer – and I could envision myself in my Time Inc. days playing the role of “Roger Black” – I don’t see how the Post could be deemed an “agent” of the New York Times, thus falling within the ambit of Judge Gurfein’s injunction, by relying upon the same source.) To the extent the movie’s core was about Kay Graham’s growth, I felt a bit cheated there, as well. I couldn’t see what led up to her sudden decisive direction to publish in the face of warnings from all her advisers and the uncharacteristic uncertainty of her formerly adamant editor. I suppose her conversation with McNamara was intended to provide this justification, but the way she asked, “What do you think, Fritz?” made me doubt that a newly backboned publisher had been born. I thought Streep was fine (no more, no less), Hanks was no Jason Robards and the fun was seeing how much the bit players were made to resemble the actual historical figures (Art Buchwald, Meg Greenfield, even Floyd Abrams). Then there were the Spielbergian touches – Graham descending the court steps through a phalanx of worshipful young females – that were corny and artificial but still made me cry.

Mudbound – 8

Very hard to watch but a remarkable movie, telling parallel stories of a white family and a black family, coping, struggling in 1940s Mississippi. Life can be very hard (I was reminded of my grandmother’s eking out a living on her farm in West Memphis during the Depression), life can be unfair, and there is both cruelty and kindness in humans. What was most remarkable to me was the balanced presentation: there was good and bad, strength and weakness in almost all the characters. Only “Pappy” was despicable and only the wonderful Carey Mulligan was saintly; the rest were making do as best they could. (Why Mary J. Blige received an Oscar nomination is an artistic, if not political, mystery.) In a year of movies with inexplicable endings, this fit right in; but I suppose after two hours of misery and prejudice in the mud, director Dee Rees felt the viewer deserved a break.