I have felt increasingly out of step with the film blogosphere this year. I am ambivalent about most of the films garnering awards or nomination. Roma left me listless. The Favourite, If Beale Street Could Talk, and BlacKKKlansman elicited shrugs. Black Panther was entertaining, sure, but all superhero movies tend to run together into one endless blur from Aquaman to Venom.
I could just be getting old and cranky, but if so, why didn’t I like The Mule? Potential accusations of critics being contrarian hover over such lists. Does it innoculate me against such charges if I admit to finally being wooed by Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers–three directors whose works normally leave me cold? It feels like when I finally come around everyone else has moved on.
My standard disclaimer for Top Ten lists applies: these were my favorite film experiences of the year, not necessarily the ones I think the most accomplished. The viewing situation
Full disclosure: First Reformed, which I saw at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, topped my list last year, so I did not repeat it here.
10) Love, Simon — Greg Berlanti
My favorite moment in Love, Simon — perhaps my favorite moment in the film year — comes after the eponymous gay protagonist has been unwillingly outed. He approaches another boy at his school and asks him if he is his secret crush. The answer is “no,” but then the other boy tells him that he knows Simon has been having a hard time with hazing the last few days and offers to talk if he needs it. Simon declines, but the mere fact that not every minor character is part of an indistinct homophobic mass makes me appreciate the cultural work the film is trying to do. Simon is not perfect. At times he is crueler to his friends than strangers are to him, and the film mostly calls him on it. (I do kinda wish he had apologized to his sister, but…) Earlier this year I happened to rewatch Sixteen Candles, a teen comedy from my youth that has not aged well. Love, Simon is not perfect, but its heart is in the right place, it is better than most crud about teens, and it allows straight viewers to identify with Simon (at least emotionally) rather than always and only wagging its finger at them.
9) Paddington 2 — Paul King
“If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.”
Paddington actually believes this, and so does his movie. In a key scene midway through the film, we see the effects of the bear’s absence from his adopted community. His absences doesn’t make the economy collapse, but we see that kindness can be the yeast that keeps the whole community from being only half-baked. When he goes to prison, he breaks through the hardened hearts by teaching them to make marmalade. It’s ridiculous, and yet it too illustrates how small changes and kindnesses can ripple through stagnant, sour communities. The world needs more marmalade makers.
8) Lean on Pete — Andrew Haigh
“You can only fall down so many times,” a female jockey tells Charley. This is a proposition the film puts to the test, as a basically good kid learns what happens to humans and animals that are not fast enough, strong enough, or fortunate enough to have someone look out for them. Lean on Pete is one of those rare movies that doesn’t know its a movie and thus manages to move forward outside the parameters of a three-act story. At one point a waitress does a kindness to Charley, and I thought it would be a Les Miz moment, but the suction of poverty and need are greater than
7) Puzzle — Marc Turtletaub
I wrote about Puzzle over at The Porch Magazine. It is about a Roman Catholic housewife (Kelly Macdonald) who discovers she has a talent for making jigsaw puzzles. Whether she can parlay that talent into a broader social sphere or more confident personal identity remains unclear until the last piece of the story is dropped in place. There are one or two speeches about the meaning of life with puzzles serving as a metaphor, but this is mostly a character study. Macdonald gives yet another in a seemingly endless series of underappreciated performances, and Irrfan Khan plays the outsider who is able to see her with fresh eyes and thus help her to finally see herself.
6) Can You Ever Forgive Me? — Marielle Heller
I was fully prepared to hate Can You Ever Forgive Me? despite, I think, being a couple years ahead of the curve at realizing that Melissa McCarthy is much more versatile and interesting than the roles in which she is often typecast demands. Much like Karen Kusama’s Destroyer, this is a film about an unlikable woman who knows she is unlikable but hasn’t yet lost all vestiges of her former self. It is similarly a film about how the world that its protagonist finds herself in is too often willingly complicit in its own get-rich-quick laziness. A good portion of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about the tension between work and genius, laziness and envy. Is Lee Israel as good a writer as Dorothy Parker? Did she work as hard? Is the difference between stellar success and abysmal failure really just chance? The film is
5) 22 July — Paul Greengrass
I think I may be the only one I know who esteemed this movie. I can’t say I was a fan of United 93, which I thought too soon after the events, but America holds no psychic wounds over a mass killing in Norway. That psychological distance benefits the film, which depicts in harrowing detail both Anders Behring Breivik’s hate-filled killing spree and Norway’s prosecution of him. Hanging in the balance are the souls and health of those touched by that day and the character of a nation that sees its values put to the test not by immigrants but rather by one who hates them enough he is willing to wage a white, Christian Jihad. I’ve said a few times at various venues that in today’s world there is too much easy, political talk about how, if we do such-and-such, the terrorists “win.” Seldom do we ever talk about what makes the terrorists “lose” except in terms of preventing terrorist
4) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — Joel and Ethan Coen
It is easy enough to explain why I like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs more than most fare from the Coen brothers: the anthology format accentuates their strength and minimizes their more tedious qualities. Among the former, I count scenario writing and deft characterization. Among the latter, a tendency towards the garish. Given that those tendencies are still present, it’s harder to explain why I like the film at all. At the end of the first story, the title hero wonders if there is a place where people deal right with one another. That place certainly isn’t the idealized, cinematic, Old West. People lie, cheat, steal, rob. Even the ostensible good guy — the cowboy in the white hat — scoffs at a reminder that liquor is illegal by saying he breaks the law when it suits him. As for the hard working and the innocent — a simple maid who has lost her brother, an armless orator who must be fed by a traveling showman, or a prospector digging endlessly looking for a pocket of gold — they may catch glimpses of a better, fairer world where things work out, but they lack the resources to turn good fortune into lasting happiness. That makes the film sound like a downer, and logically, it is. Yet the moments of winsome beauty and simple pleasure almost seem enough to compensate for the abundance of pain and suffering. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is also
3) Isle of Dogs — Wes Anderson
Before I was a professional film critic, I did rank The Royal Tenenbaums among my annual favorites. But Wes Anderson’s shtick wore me out pretty quick, and I’ve mostly been an apostate in a land where faith in him runs pretty deep. What’s different here?
2) Boy Erased — Joel Edgerton
As I wrote in my review from Filmfest 919, the saddest thing about Boy Erased for me was the utter conviction with which its protagonist entered into his own gay-conversion therapy. The cinematic world is littered with films about hateful people doing hateful things to people they hate. This isn’t a film about them. It’s a film about those who let them. About those who care more for the opinions of their neighbors and friends than the health of their children. It’s also a film about those who have internalized the hatred of others to the extent that they are willing to flirt with their own destruction rather than entertain the question about whether or not those who claim to act in God’s name truly know his will. As with Love, Simon there are ways to interact with the film respectfully and appreciatively even if one isn’t entirely in tune with its gender-identity politics. The path that Jared has to travel to achieve self-acceptance is complicated by sexual violence and fear, and the story actually complicates the nature-nurture debate rather than presupposing its answer. Nicole Kidman plays Jared’s mom, and the way she moves forward while her husband is standing still helps make the film into the story of a family in crisis rather than just a boy coming of age
1) Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville
I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, but somehow I never had the Mister Rogers experience. My appreciation of Morgan Neville’s documentary, then, has less to do with nostalgia than discovery. Here was a man who was a lifelong Republican yet championed public television and was ridiculed at his death by conservative media for his messages of affirmation and love. An ordained minister, Rogers had protestors at his funeral wishing him hellfire and damnation over his ostensible acceptance of homosexuals. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I suspect a lot of people crying at the end of the screening I attended were shedding tears for the state of the world Rogers has left rather than the loss of the world he inhabited. That world he entered into had its problems — in one clip we see a white person throwing bleach into an integrated, public swimming pool — but it at least had some voices in it preaching values I recognize as American and Christian. Today, in the midst of a government shutdown over a wall, it seems ludicrous to believe that a skeptical senator would actually be persuaded to vote for public television funding by the testimony of a television personality. It’s worth noting, too, that one of the first episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is about a mad king wanting to build a wall around his kingdom. Maybe the world doesn’t change all that much as we come and go. Maybe we should focus less of our energy on changing it and more on being kind and loving to the people around us. That way, even if the world we leave behind is no better than the one we inherited, at least the people who lived in it will be the better for having shared it with us.