The year in critical viewing
Amidst the sound and fury of an industry in upheaval, inspiring cinema could be found everywhere – if you knew where to look
Convulsed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the fall of Kevin Spacey and the rise of #MeToo, the film industry often seemed too distracted by off-screen issues to offer up a clear critical narrative in 2017. Did the year belong to the box-office success of Wonder Woman – or to the fan backlash against The Last Jedi? In the midst of the sound and fury, inspiring cinema could still be found everywhere, in places as obvious as a massive war epic and as unlikely as an unassuming little doc. Here are my Top 10 films for 2017 – and the order is merely alphabetical.
A Better Man
Having failed to notice this Canadian documentary at the Hot Docs festival back in May, I watched it because a friend posted a link on Facebook: A Better Man is more a social achievement than an artistic one. More than 20 years after they broke up, filmmaker Attiya Khan convinces former partner Steve that he should go on camera to discuss – with a psychologist present – the way he used her as a daily punching bag during their youthful live-in relationship. He won't reveal his background or last name; we don't know his current status, but the courage it takes both parties to try healing makes for a remarkable film. Lawrence Jackman co-directs.
Blade Runner 2049
Quebec director Denis Villeneuve pulled off a notable coup when he successfully directed the sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic Blade Runner. The story, set in a dystopian Los Angeles where Ryan Gosling's agent "K" must assassinate wayward replicants, convincingly extends the original and brings its themes forward to the present moment – that is, 2017. And the many tips of the hat to the previous film are clever and graceful. Neither clone nor rogue, this is the rare replicant that truly merits its existence.
With this international co-production, director Nora Twomey translates the book of the same name by Canadian author Deborah Ellis into one of the year's most effective pieces of animation. The Breadwinner, about a young girl named Parvana in Taliban-controlled Kabul who must disguise herself as a boy to provide for her family, touchingly exposes the practical realities of life under that misogynist regime. The sharp animation also neatly integrates a story-within-the-story, a fairy tale of sorts drawn in a folksier style.
This 2016 film didn't appear in Toronto until early 2017, and then flew under the radar when awards season hit. Director Kelly Reichardt loosely ties together three short stories by the American author Maile Meloy into a subtle look at a new kind of lonesome cowboy as she follows four independent women in rural Montana. There is not a line of exposition in her admirable script; she leaves the audience to figure out where these women are going – with help from a stellar cast of Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone.
Not many of us know what war feels like, but surely what Christopher Nolan produced in his 70 mm, shot-for-Imax Dunkirk gets close to the experience. As the British desperately attempt to evacuate their troops from the beach at Dunkirk, fear, confusion, self-preservation and the odd spark of heroism play out. Adding to the fog of war is Nolan's intriguing three-part structure, alternating between one week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the air.
This was my coup de coeur of the year, a deceptively whimsical doc from veteran French filmmaker Agnès Varda and the large-scale street photographer JR. Together they travel rural France in his van/photo booth taking giant pictures of the locals and displaying them in public places. The film gradually emerges as a delicate consideration of aging and change on the one hand, and celebrity in the era of the selfie on the other.
The Florida Project
To tell the story of a summer in a welfare motel a stone's throw from Disney World, director Sean Baker took his inspiration from the Little Rascals. The antics of a trio of kids lead by Brooklynn Prince's sassy Moonee make this the rare film about poverty that does not condescend to its subjects nor numb its audience. There's also an Oscar-worthy supporting performance from Willem Dafoe as the motel caretaker.
Jordan Peele borrows from Hitchcock to create a small psychological horror movie that he then uses to further his own satirical ends. In a standout performance, Daniel Kaluuya plays the friendly black guy brought home to meet his pleasant white girlfriend's wealthy but oh-so-liberal parents. But all is not what it seems in this welcoming household staffed by oddly vacant black servants. Peele succeeds in making his sharp expose of white liberalism simultaneously scary and funny – and important, too.
The offering may sound painfully familiar – this is a small movie about the tense relationship between an artsy girl in her last year of high school and her judgmental mother – but the touch of writer-director Greta Gerwig, always delicate, sometimes surprising, lifts Lady Bird well above the standard coming-of-age drama. Saoirse Ronan is note perfect as the earnestly questing Christine (who would rather be called Lady Bird) and, as the mother, Laurie Metcalf does exquisite work revealing all the love and humanity in a character who never has anything nice to say.
On the festival circuit, European critics raved about Ruben Ostlund's wacky Swedish art-world satire; North Americans were much less convinced by the odd flashes of surrealism in a darkly comic and rambling drama about a modern art curator caught in a marketing scandal. Still, The Square has stayed with me all fall. Visual artists are usually portrayed as mad or heroic geniuses on film; a movie that dramatizes the tense contradiction at the heart of the contemporary museum world, where elite institutions are built on transgressive art, is an arresting thing.
All you could ask of the doc experience: informative, entertaining, poignant – and globe-trotting, too. Canadian filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum takes viewers from the streets of La Paz, where Bolivian shoe shiners are so ashamed of their trade they wear ski masks to hide their identities, to a high-end boutique in Tokyo where patrons quaff champagne while they wait for the perfect polish.