Harlan's Favorite (and Overrated) Films of 2017

Jan 6, 2018

Margot Robbie lands the triple axel as Tonya Harding in the Craig Gillespie film I, Tonya, one of Harlan's 2017 favorites.
Credit NEON

2017 was, all in all, a good year for movies. The quest for the perfect too often drives out the arrival of the merely wonderful and good in parts. We’ve been hectored by the self-esteem tyrants that we are sublime creatures who deserve only the very best every second of the 24-hour day — in food, clothes, cars, beds, books (whatever they were), TV, and seats at spectacles, music, and movies. The demand for perfect self-offerings prevents us from appreciating what is merely wonderful and good in parts. We short change ourselves that way, particularly when it comes to film. Everyone’s a film critic, I notice, while backing off when it comes to knowing what to make of everything else.

The best films of the year all really said what they meant and meant what they said. I’ve abandoned the idea of the 10 Best lists in favor of remembering what took wing here and there for me. Partly what’s exciting is how films fly together, almost in flocks. There’s industry and energy in when something is on everyone’s mind. That’s particularly true of indie filmmakers who want to say something and don’t have money to do it, more so than Hollywood filmmakers. Who usually have huge amounts of money they can’t risk and so say nothing.

Great Caesar’s ghost, as Perry White used to say in Superman comics, in 2017 Hollywood makes Wonder Woman, another comic book film, this time with a super heroine, and it isn’t content to just score a big pay day but Patty Jenkins itself on the back like it invented estrogen.

Wonder Woman landed just ahead of the MeToo movement, and who knows but that it and Gal Gadot gave some women the courage to speak up, as in “I Am Spartica,” when the slaying of Weinstein, the dragon, took place.

If nothing else, 2017 was an explosion of women gone rogue onscreen -- from Patti Cake$, a Newark show biz story set in the street level rap scene, to Sean Baker’s The Florida Project set in a welfare motel strip outside Orlando, to Todd Haynes’ straight Wonderstruck about New York City’s open arms, to Frances McDormand as one angry mother who puts up Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to get good cop Woody Harrleson and bad cop Sam Rockwell to finally pay attention in this Fargo-lite story to her defiled daughter’s cold case. There was Emma Stone’s reincarnation as Billie Jean King teaching Bobby Riggs what 30-Love really means in Battle of the Sexes, and the great Agnes Varda’s doc, Faces Places, which ends with Varda chasing down old comrade Jean-Luc Godard who breaks the faith. Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game played a good girl ski champ turned poker madam, and young Margaret Qualley broke out of the convent in Margaret Betts’ Novitiate. Speaking of which Girls Trip was a breakout hit, with Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and especially Tiffany Haddish running wild in New Orleans.

Women went rogue on screen in 2017, like Danielle MacDonald in Patti Cake$, a Newark show biz story set in the street level rap scene.
Credit Fox Searchlight

In many ways, my favorite bad girl story was I, Tonya, which rehashed the whack job Tonya Harding-did on good girl Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. You’d think I had a proprietary interest in the film—when I saw it in Toronto, people didn’t talk about it. I led my coverage here with it, and recommended it all fall. With its title nod to the Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius, about the emperor after Caligula, I, Tonya was fresh, funny and brave—brave ironically because it was Hillbilly Elegy on skates: it doesn’t matter if you’re the first woman to land a triple axel in world figure skating competition. if you’re Walmart, the competition is reserved for Nordstrom’s. Would that Margot Robbie, who was drop dead great as Harding, were around a year earlier to air that complaint to Hillary. And while it’s still a dark horse at the Oscars, I say watch out for this one in the acting categories.

Good Time, a kind of criminal 'Rainman' film with Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie on the lam in Queens after a bank job gone bad. A Cannes favorite.

Men in films in 2017 mostly were on the run. Trying to figure out what’s true or valuable along the way. From the furious energy of the Safdie Brothers Cannes favorite, Good Time, a kind of criminal 'Rainman' film with Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie on the lam in Queens after a bank job gone bad, to the intricate search for values in the art museum world of the Palme D’Or winning The Square. The Franco Brothers James and Dave gave us the jaw dropping The Disaster Artist, about the making of the worst movie ever, Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero’s The Room in 2003—which you have to see first on You Tube to get The Disaster Artist. Ansel Elgort floors it one last time in the crazy mad Baby Driver, the illegitimate grand baby of Godard’s Breathless and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. There was Sam Elliot playing tired in The Hero, and Harry Dean Stanton turning in one last great performance in Lucky and then dying at home in Kentucky to give the film a push right before launch. The only real bad guy in film this year was the subject of the doc, Get Me Roger Stone, about the right wing crackpot and political operative, guaranteed to send you off in search of a Canadian passport.

I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s immaculate Phantom Thread, set in the needle trade in 1950s London as the ever genius but temperamental Daniel Day Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, couturier to the ‘uppah’ class, finally meets the woman who can handle him, played by Vicky Krieps, with block headed determination and insight. And Michael Haneke’s French dynasty drama, Happy End, with his Amour father-daughter pairing of French screen greats, Jean Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert.

Then there were the 2017 race films, starting with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a terrific Hitchcockian thriller with Daniel Kaluuya lured into Whitelandia. Get Out is a film I both admire and despair over its subversion of black trust in any America. That was the message this year: Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing Detroit, based on real events surrounding the 1967 riots and the white cop execution of blacks trapped in the Algiers Motel, echoes Get Out. And Dee Rees’ Mudbound captures the moment when WWII ended and the Civil War resumed.

The war movies were basically British and were about Brits re-finding their nerve from WWII, faced with German panzers then, German banks now. Brexit pics, I think of them, led by Christopher Nolan’s exquisitely real-time Dunkirk, with the English army trapped on a beach at the beginning of the war in May 1940 not knowing minute to minute how it would all end. As beautiful as Dunkirk is, and as quietly compelling -- with the exception of a little too much Kenneth Branagh jawline on the coastline—it was one level removed from Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s “Carne Y Arena” (Flesh and Sand) Virtual Reality installation that started in Cannes and moved on to LA and Mexico City, and which put the viewer directly into the southwest desert on a Border Patrol bust. The future of lagging ticket sales at the movies may be hidden in this new experiential virtual reality tourism, I don’t know. What I do know is that Dunkirk paired with The Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman as a ruminative, almost Hamlet-like Winston Churchill finding his resolve and his voice to carry his countrymen, whom he meets in the film’s major conceit in the London tube, into battle after the boys come home from Dunkirk. This is not to overlook Angelina Jolie’s very watchable First They Killed My Father, about the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, and Foxtrot, an Israeli film that is clever, absurd and moving, and returns to theaters in March for a post-Oscars engagement.

Then there are the two coming of age pictures, one I loved, Greta Gerwig’s fresh and deep-feeling Lady Bird, about a young girl going rogue right on schedule at 18, and the other, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. which everyone else loved but me. In Lady Bird, Gerwig’s alter ego Saoirse Ronan grapples with leaving home in Sacramento to go to Columbia University. She’s got hurdles: the nice nuns and fathers at Catholic school, her friends, her lifelong persona really, and her mom, played by Laurie Metcalf who uses four hands, six feet and three faces just to keep up with the spin cycle we call life. Because Metcalfe’s mom hews closer to the model of good mom, she’ll likely steal the supporting actress Oscar from Alison Janney’s junkyard dog mom in I, Tonya. This is Gerwig’s show--finally a perfect film--small and fresh, that earns its place as a generational marker in the line that leads from Rebel Without A Cause, to Diner, to Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and all the John Hughes works that followed. I loved it.

Call Me By Your Name, on the other hand, is a problem film—not because it’s about a summer fling between a young man in his 20s, a visiting classicist, played by a blond Armie Hammer and a 17-year-old boy played by Timothee Chalamet, who also plays the too-cool-for-school boyfriend in Lady Bird. Call Me By Your Name’s adult-teen gay affair is the part where all the beauty and truth live. It’s everything else—led by Hammer’s merely wooden performance -- that strains belief. Set in Lombardy midst a nice Jewish family of academics and their perfect cook and housekeeper. See them smile and laugh and "Mangia-mangia" and look the other way. This is Under the Tuscan Sun for movie night on an octogenarian gay cruise ship. Especially so after Guadagnino changed the end of Andre Aciman’s novel and James Ivory’s screenplay, from a Jewish dad, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, flipping out about the affair to one who gives his son the benediction that everyone in the audience wants for the usually necessary adolescent betrayal of their parents’ values. There is enormous appeal in that, and I appreciate it, I just didn’t buy any place or person in the film, except the broken china doll of Chalamet.

Finally, there are the films you didn’t see: I Love You, Daddy by Louis CK, as a TV writer modeled on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, also about a TV writer, with wild man Charlie Day and Edie Falco replacing Morey Amsterdam and the late Rose Marie. In I Love You, Daddy, Louis CK is working out a lot of stuff with his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, the rut his career has fallen into and first and foremost with his teenage daughter, China (Chloe Grace Moretz) and then as a parent, when China seems to venture into the orbit of his idol, Leslie Goodwin. a great New York film director played by John Malkovich, said to be channeling Woody Allen, whom Guadagnino reportedly asked to play the part. Not a perfect film, but one that lands on the cultural fault lines nonetheless with a great cast, including Helen Hunt, Rose Byrne, Pamela Adlon, and Albert Brooks. When Louis CK this fall owned up to being a workplace wanker, it killed the distribution deal, and the film now lives wherever baby pigeons call home. Nobody’s ever seen a baby pigeon.

Similarly, when Kevin Spacey became radioactive in a tawdry scandal of man boy love, Ridley Scott took his completely finished film, All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty’s grandson in Rome in 1973, and six weeks from its opening date, cut all of Spacey’s scenes as the old man and replaced them with Christopher Plummer — the director’s original choice for the part, by the way – acting by himself in front of a green screen.

I’ve been doing this a long time, and that’s something of a first. I’ve only seen the TV ads lauding Plummer for his great performance. True, there’s something liberating about the digital age’s ability to torch any pretense to the usual cant about the great chemistry the actors enjoyed on set. But to erase the actor from a finished film at the first whiff of becoming persona non grata means that in 2018 we’re standing on the precipice of a brave new world.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the advantage of erasing a player or two on the world stage. But there’s no guarantee it’s all going to turn out well.

FESTIVAL KEY

C- Cannes

S- Sundance

T- Toronto

Trbca- Tribeca

NYFF- New York

SXSW- South By South West

MAYBE THE BEST

LADYBIRD (T)

I, TONYA (T)

VISAGES, VILLAGES (C)

THE SQUARE (C)

DUNKIRK

HOSTILES (T)

PHANTOM THREAD

HAPPY END (C)

GOOD TIME (C)

PATTICAKE$ (S)

THE NEXT BEST

THE DARKEST HOUR (T)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (C)

GET OUT (S)

FOXTROT (T)

WONDERSTRUCK (T)

THE DISASTER ARTIST (SXSW)

MUDBOUND (S)

THE RIDER (T)

LOVELESS (T)

MOLLY’S GAME (T)

THE INSULT (T)

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

BORG / MCENROE (T)

THE HERO (S)

LUCKY (SXSW)

A CERTAIN LOOK

BABY DRIVER

NOVITIATE (S)

GET ME ROGER STONE (TRBCA)

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (NYFF)

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (T)

MOSCOW NEVER SLEEPS

GIRLS TRIP

MENASHE (S)

BEACH RATS (S)

LEAN ON PETE (T)

THE BIG SICK (S)

OVERRATED

WONDER WOMAN

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (S)

A GHOST STORY (S)

OKJA (C)

LAST FLAG FLYING (NYFF)

THE POST

HONORABLE FAILURES

I LOVE YOU, DADDY (T)

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (C)

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

THE TRIP TO SPAIN (TRBCA)

THE YELLOW BIRDS (S)

DETROIT

THE BEGUILED (C)

ROMAN J. ISRAEL

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIF OF OLLI MAKI (C’16)

M.I.A.

STAR WARS THE LAST JEDI

MOTHER!

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

BEEN THERE DONE THAT

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL (S)

THE SHAPE OF WATER (T)

VICTORIA & ABDUL (T)

120 BEATS PER MINUTE (C)

BAD OR, WORSE, DUMB

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (C)

SUBURBICON (T)

DOWNSIZING (T)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (T)

MARK FELT (T)

THE DISCOVERY (S)

THE LAST WORD (S)

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (T)

MY DAYS OF MERCY (T)

A YEAR BY THE SEA

THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NY

DEAN (TRBCA)