Cinema, like all the arts, felt particularly urgent and necessary to me this past year. In the midst of all the sometimes overwhelming shock, rage and fear of 2017, these are the five films that most effectively grounded me back in my own humanity, helped me understand this particular moment in time, and made me remember how beautiful life can be.
5. The Florida Project
Director Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Tangerine is a film of small details and observations. Through the eyes of young Moonee (an incredible performance by Brooklynn Prince, who was six when she shot the film), we live through a hot, humid summer among the motels and tourist traps that dot the area right around Disney World but feel a million miles from the happiness it offers. Moonee and her young mother Halley live a precarious life, scamming tourists out of money to scrape by and living week-to-week at a cheap motel called The Magic Castle.
The Florida Project is a film of tremendous warmth and humor — Moonee is a hilariously precocious child — but it’s also a film in which freedom feels dangerous and terrifying. Halley’s unstable life has led her to build up defenses so strong that she can’t even recognize kindness when it’s staring her in the face, as it does in the form of Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, a motel manager who bends over backwards to help Halley and who is genuinely concerned for Moonee’s well-being. Moonee may spend the days playing with her friends, but she and her mother are living without a safety net, teetering on the edge, and coming away from the film, I felt a reinvigorated sense of anger over how the United States sells visions of magic castles but keeps so many living in want and despair.
Director Dee Rees’ haunting symphony of American anguish tells the story of two families, the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family, brought together by the same patch of muddy, uncooperative Mississippi delta farmland, which McAllan patriarch Henry owns and the Jacksons work as tenant farmers. It’s the 1940s, yet slavery’s repercussions remain inescapable everywhere, and the racial hatred that exudes from Henry’s father is like a cloud of poison, damaging the lives of everyone around him, but some far, far more than others.
Each family sees a son sent to the war, and although life on the frontlines is incredibly dangerous, for Ronsel Jackson (an outstanding Jason Mitchell), there’s a kind of freedom in Europe that he could never have as a black man in the American south, and the friendship he shares with fellow veteran Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund, also wonderful) after they both return from the war shakes both families to the core. Through the intertwined story of these two households, where the women share an understanding of life under willful husbands but are forever divided by race and economic disparity, Dee Rees offers a uniquely illuminating and powerful condemnation of slavery’s legacy, which, it should go without saying in 2017, is still no thing of the past.
(Mudbound is streaming on Netflix.)
Pixar’s latest is possibly the most exuberant film of the year, which you might not expect to be true of a family film that confronts death and loss far more directly than we Americans usually like to confront it. In fact, most of the film takes place in the land of the dead, envisioned here as a dazzling city of vibrant color and bustling energy, complete with infrastructure and bureaucracy and art and music. Young Miguel Rivera, the film’s endearing protagonist, finds himself accidentally whisked to the land of the dead and seeks an ancestor willing to give him their blessing to play music, which is family back in the land of the living strictly forbids. Mexican traditions and folklore serve as the fantastic foundation for this tale of love, music, and family, and Miguel’s awestruck face at the awe-inspiring sight of the land of the dead is one of the most beautiful images to grace movie screens this year.
2. My Happy Family
This understated slice-of-life film from Georgia (the country, not the state) focuses on Manana, a woman in her early 50s who lives under the same roof as her husband, her elderly parents, her two children, and her daughter’s husband. There is absolutely no escape from the expectations constantly placed on her as a wife, a mother, and a daughter, and there never has been. Her entire life has been lived for others. One day, she quietly makes the decision to move into an apartment of her own, and there we see her finally able to carve out moments for herself; to read, to listen to music, to eat cake.
But her decision runs so contrary to expectation that her family reacts with disbelief and anger. Her mother pleads with her that she has no excuse to act this way; after all, she says, her husband has never hit her. Ultimately it turns out that even in the oasis of her new apartment, she cannot entirely escape the expectations of patriarchy. By simply telling a story of one woman in a way that feels honest, natural and true at every turn, My Happy Family says so much about how expectations placed on women to perform emotional labor on behalf of so many others often rob them of the opportunity to live full lives for themselves.
(My Happy Family is streaming on Netflix.)
1. Call Me by Your Name
Where the summer of The Florida Project feels dangerously free — too unstructured, a family coasting on fumes and liable to fall into oblivion at any moment — the summer of Call Me by Your Name feels free in a different way. Safe. Loving. Liberating. To watch this film is almost to feel as if you lived through this lazy summer in 1983 with 17-year-old Elio and his family in northern Italy. Call Me by Your Name lingers in the long summer afternoons, in the early evening dusk.
Elio’s life is forever changed by the arrival of Oliver, a graduate student who comes to work with his father for the summer. As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is a revelation. He moves with the nervous energy of someone who hasn’t yet settled in to his body as it grows and changes, and his face conveys so much of the internal complexity of intellect and emotion that lives on the pages of André Aciman’s extraordinary novel. We understand without him saying a word his yearning for Oliver, his fear of getting hurt, his impulse to reach out in spite of the fear.
As Oliver, Armie Hammer is a wonderful contrast to Elio; confident where Elio is awkward, conventionally handsome where Elio’s beauty takes a particular eye to recognize. Oliver seems at first to be all surface, a matinee idol and nothing more, but Hammer slowly reveals him to be a person of deep emotion and love. How powerful it is to be seen by someone who truly sees you and truly loves you for who you are, even in your most private self. Call Me by Your Name is so much more than a romance film. It’s a wise meditation on what Sufjan Stevens calls, in one of his beautiful songs for the movie, the mystery of love. Why this particular person and not another? And what do we do with our love when the person we loved is gone? Every once in a while, a film comes along that we don’t just admire or enjoy or even love, but that we carry with us as we do our own experiences and memories. For me, Call Me by Your Name is such a film. Its images, its dialogue, its little moments of observation, its depth of yearning and joy and heartbreak live inside me now. This is my film of the year.
Check out all of our 2017 year-end retrospectives!
Carolyn’s Favorite TV of 2017
Ebony’s Comfort Blankets of 2017
Ashley’s Happy Distractions of 2017
Carolyn’s Favorite Games of 2017
Anita’s Most Memorable Media of 2017
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