Greta Gerwig, queen of indie cinema, has been in a dozen films about tentative young women trying to figure out the next steps of their lives. The best of these, like Frances Ha and 20th Century Women, balance a light tone with serious introspection, while the worst, like Greenberg and Lola Versus, devalue Gerwig’s character as either a prop or a caricature. Having taken part in so many versions of that particular archetype, Gerwig is uniquely suited to turn back the clock to 2003 and make her own film about the kind of person some of her characters might’ve been in their teenage years. By also turning the protagonist into a rough approximation of herself, Gerwig can also construct a deeply specific coming-of-age story with an anti-indie sensibility. For all the focus on the titular Lady Bird in Gerwig’s immaculate directorial debut, she’s only one grounded and affecting character in a film packed with them. No props or caricatures here, just love for everyone that graces the screen and a film that is impossible to not fall for.
Brett Morgen splices together dozens of hours of previously-unseen footage of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in 2017’s best documentary. Jane is devoted to ten years of Goodall’s early career, through her recruitment by famed paleontologist Louis Leakey and the successes and failures of her personal and professional life. Intercut with present-day Goodall putting wry cappers on events, the doc works as nature footage and excels as a first-hand account of misogyny within a family unit and in the whole of a society.
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund makes big, heady films, and The Square is certainly one of those. Ostlund’s Force Majeure began with a split-second decision and played out its ramifications over the proceeding runtime, interrogating the bargains that families make with each other and nothing less weighty than what it means to be a man. For The Square, he turns his eye towards himself and creators like him, asking what is and isn’t art while also poking fun at the lifestyle of exactly the kind of person who would ask such a question. Each scene is about many things, both for the characters and for broader society, making The Square the kind of film that encourages the viewer to try and divine what it is the director is trying to say. That kind of intellectual work lands side by side with a film that constantly entertains in absurd conversations or broad set pieces, making The Square a delight across all cinematic avenues.
Irish playwrights and auteurs Martin and John Michael McDonagh have been responsible for some of the most memorable morality plays to hit theaters in recent years. John Michael’s Calvary is a definitive ‘good man in a fallen world’ post-recession tale, and Martin’s In Bruges resuscitated Colin Farrell’s career on its way to cult status. Of the two brothers, Martin experienced the McDonagh family’s greatest success with his roiling hit Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. An angry film for angry times, Martin McDonagh turns tragedy into righteous fury and blinkered obsession, while taking stabs at a conservative flavor of political correctness that praises figures of authority and state power. There’s also grace in the small Ozark town at the film’s center, but its inhabitants have too many excuses to shun it. Three Billboards is complicated and conflicting and often times at odds with itself. McDonagh’s utilizing some raw power in a less-than airtight film.
Author-turned-screenwriter David Remnick’s young adult book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and its Martin Scorsese-filmed adaptation Hugo reveled in the simple sight of an inquisitive child taking in the world around him. With Wonderstruck, Remnick and director Todd Haynes exchanges a Parisian train station and Georges Melies for New York City museums. Like Hugo, Wonderstruck is an utterly earnest film made by someone who doesn’t deal in that realm. Neither Scorsese nor Haynes typically feature characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, with the former more comfortable in macho self-delusion and the latter in sexual repression. Maybe it takes a director who’s got a gift for liars and obfuscators to make Remnick’s brand of independent young protagonists pop off the screen. Wonderstruck might be out of Haynes’ wheelhouse, but it’s a welcomed change when the product is as endearing and beautiful as this.
With Thor: Ragnarok, the last of three 2017 Marvel films, the dominant superhero studio fully commits to idiosyncratic directors instead of the workmen guns-for-hire they started their extended universe with. No more Alan Taylors or Louis Letteriers churning out empty eye candy. Instead, Marvel has turned the keys over to weirdos like James Gunn and the refined vision of Ryan Coogler, and their films are all the better for it. Taika Waititi, the director of Ragnarok, splits the difference between the two, borrowing the wacky space opera flare from the former and the stealth critique of great powers from the latter. Waititi also happens to be the strongest comedic director Marvel’s worked with, and it’s no surprise that he would make a raucous action flick on par with something like Midnight Run or Hot Fuzz. That Ragnarok can be so much fun while also being about something beyond capes and magic powers marks it as one Marvel’s best outings.
Mad Greek genius Yorgos Lanthimos opens his latest film with an apt metaphor for his consistently stellar work. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a surgeon, and the film begins with his POV at work, staring into an open chest cavity as the heart inside pulses away. It’s just tissue and viscera, sparked by ion gradients. However, what appears to be mechanical contains mystery and incalculable value, much like Lanthimos’ penchant for having his actors deliver flat expository dialogue that still communicates depth and humor and meaning. His latest is another jolt of idiosyncratic black comedy pumped into the cinematic bloodstream, as vital as any element or amino acid.
In a year where escapism from the news cycle was desperately needed, escapism in the best films of 2017 took the form of extreme emotional catharsis. Whether that meant the unleashed ecstatic nightmare of mother! or Raw or the free-flowing tears induced by Logan Lucky or Coco, the biggest reactions from the year's best worked on a primal, gut level. Quieter intellectual films like Phantom Thread or Lost City of Z didn't take up nearly as much air as the reaction to the more elemental Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That gap between what works subjectively in the moment and the objective feeling of certainty that one's watching masters at work means that the year might not have as many all-timers as other years. Revisiting Logan in the future might dull its sharp edge and bring out more of its flaws, but in the year that was, the heart needed some reinforcement, whether it came from animated orphans or mutant Mexican girls.
By Jon Kissel
The following are five each of my favorite male and female performances in 2017. There are plenty more to choose from, but Daniel Day-Lewis seems too obvious.
By Jon Kissel
As the MMC's Best of 2017 week continues, we move onto the year's best scenes. Some of these weren't in the best films, but the spark of genius can show up in a movie made by my favorite director or in a film that gave me a rage headache. The more spoiler-y these get, the further down the list they are.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.