Documentaries are rarely served by the documentarians themselves appearing in front of the camera. Overheated navel-gazing ensues, or less irritatingly, they fail by being less interesting than the subject they’re filming. The exception to this is Agnes Varda, a distinctive and unique presence who is welcome to talk about herself onscreen for as long as she wants. In her beautiful Faces Places, the iconic French director teams up with youthful photographer JR for a trip through a lesser-seen France, far away from the streets of Paris. The unlikely duo bring joy wherever they go, both to the blue-collar inhabitants of the countryside and to the viewer.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film for me is The Master, and his latest, Phantom Thread, is masters all the way down. Masters on the way out, masters continuing their brilliance, and new masters emerging into the mainstream. Daniel Day Lewis stars in what he claims is his final performance, putting a restrained cap on an expressive and dominant career. PTA continues to make surprising idiosyncratic films finely tuned to his voice, distinct from the homage and imitation of his superlative early career but of a piece with a resume that marks him as the greatest director working in film today. Co-star Vicky Krieps, an unknown Luxembourgian actor, also emerges in one of the finest performances of PTA’s filmography, standing toe-to-toe with Day Lewis and forcing him to share the film with a person whose name on a poster could someday soon reap the Day-Lewis-ian levels of anticipation. A film about perfectionists by perfectionists, Phantom Thread lives up to the high standard that’s come to be expected from PTA.
The 19th film from Pixar studios, Coco, takes liberally from the animated masterpieces that have come before it. Outliving one’s usefulness is here, as it has been in the Toy Story films. A magical moment of Proustian recall evokes personal favorite Ratatouille. A theme of reunion runs through Coco, as it did in Finding Nemo/Dory and The Good Dinosaur. This kind of connection to Pixar’s artistic past is anything but a crutch, especially when Coco itself is dedicated to keeping the past alive. This applies to the characters within Lee Unkrich’s and Adrian Molina’s beautiful film and to Coco itself, another Pixar masterwork that slots in next to the studio’s many other highlights.
In Margot Robbie’s brief career, she’s played the wife of a camera-addressing unreliable narrator and she’s had a memorable camera-addressing cameo. In I, Tonya, she gets to be the camera-addressing unreliable narrator, bringing as much desperate passion to the role of Tonya Harding as her former screen-husband Leonardo DiCaprio brought to Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Besides sharing Robbie’s presence, those two films have much in common, from the incriminating finger it points at the audience to Craig Gillespie’s aping of Martin Scorsese’s propulsive style. Scorsese is constantly in the margins of I, Tonya, but this is no kneecapping insult to a master’s patented form. I, Tonya has a big heart towards its real-life inspiration and its cinematic one as well, a combination that sits comfortably next to the derision and disgust the film holds for this peculiar tale’s less sympathetic characters. Of course, whether or not Tonya Harding herself is a sympathetic character remains an open question.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.