So tough, and yet so tender. I sat in a darkened theater and was held in thrall, during a special showing of Jacques Demy's “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” last January, by that final wintry meeting between romantic leads Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. An attempt at cordiality is coolly rebuffed, and yet you feel love for the characters in every single frame and (sung) line of dialogue of this candy-colored musical.
No other filmgoing experience in the year that followed matched that dexterous high-wire act of bitter and sweet, but a handful of 2017's new releases came close. One of them, Luca Guadagnino's “Call Me by Your Name,” is already starting to feel like it will stand the test of time, and even though I'm not wheeling out the “c” word (classic) or the “m” word (masterpiece) just yet, they have indeed crossed my mind at some point.
Once again I find myself getting ahead of myself. It's something I've done quite a few times during 12 months that often felt longer than three years. For instance, James McAvoy's showy (and impressive) turn as an abductor with multiple personalities, in M. Night Shyamalan's uneven “Split,” felt like it graced local screens in 2015.
The incident-heavy news cycle became an interminable drone for many people fed up with the string of calamities that befell the United States in general and South Florida in particular. The slew of releases that made their way to area theaters sometimes reflected that cycle of ill portent and corrosive rhetoric, but more often provided an escape from it, whether through world-building tentpoles (a triple dose of Marvel and a double dose of DC Comics) or heralded festival titles that didn't even have U.S. distribution at the time they screened locally. (I'm looking at you, nicely rendered Romanian drama “Scarred Hearts,” which would, thankfully, go on to be picked up for distribution.)
This bottomless barrel of product sometimes became too much for this reviewer. Apologies are, again, in order for my dry, output-free stretches in the past two years. Now you know what my New Year's resolution is going to be.
Of course, it wasn't all gloom and doom. 2017 actually started out with a bang, with an edition of the Miami Jewish Film Festival that gave (impeccable lineup) as good as it got (widespread community praise). Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg mixed things up and continued to defy viewers' expectations with his eclectic programming. (It was during the fest that “Scarred Hearts” got picked up, to which I say well done!) Shteyrenberg even scheduled some live musical and dance performances before film screenings that neatly dovetailed into the picture being shown that night. All in all, a satisfying banquet of celluloid.
Just don't ask me what I thought of this year's Miami Film Festival; I was out of town for most of its duration. (On the bright side, I didn't get kicked out of the one industry reception I attended. I suppose that counts as progress?) The event, which no longer has “international” in its title due to rebranding, whatever that means, did yield a showcase for a new voice I want to hear more of: Xander Robin. The South Florida-bred, Brooklyn-based director's black-and-blue, tart-but-sweet debut feature, “Are We Not Cats,” gave a fresh spin to typical “Amerindie” romantic comedy fare. I don't see I'll ever see hairballs in quite the same way again. The film's MFF premiere, at O Cinema Miami Beach, also doubled as a valentine to low-budget, independently produced cinema.
Speaking of O Cinema, 2017 saw the hometown theaters on better footing than on previous years. I've been relentlessly critical of, say, past decisions to program mainstream studio offerings at the expense of smaller films in need of the TLC the O folks could well have offered in terms of finding them an appreciative local audience. But it seems that trial-and-error period has given way to a more confident, more thoroughly eclectic roster of films. Improvement acknowledged.
The O founders have also been shrewd enough to continue to partner up with other events that are particularly compatible with their regular audience. Case in point, O Wynwood hosted another gore-soaked edition of Popcorn Frights. The horror-themed festival gave fans, and quite a few out-of-town visitors, a bloody good time, even if, admittedly, not every entry was a home run. There's also the matter of an initially highly touted title, starring an A-lister, that abruptly became a “dark” screening for reasons that must stay off the record. I won't name names, but the unfortunate turn of events was made even more lamentable by the fact that the movie in question, while not much of a horror film, turned out to be good. Sadder still, this feature was dumped in multiplexes later this year by its clueless distributor.
Less successful than MJFF and Popcorn Frights, at least in its Miami edition, was OUTshine, aka The Film Festival Formerly Known as MiFo, aka The Event That Used to Be Called the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Even though it boasted plenty of strong contenders for an opening night slot, organizers opted to kick things off with the rather toothless coming-out Irish film “Handsome Devil,” because nothing says Miami more than pale-skinned boys playing rugby. On top of that, the fest held opening night festivities at Miami's Scottish Rite Temple, which may very well be a swell venue for a swanky soiree, but as it turned out, a fairly disastrous one to show a film. A reliable source described audio levels so deafening at the gala screening that they prompted some walkouts. A good time, it would seem, was not had by all.
But as far as queer cinema goes, it was mostly good news during 2017. How strong was the quality of LGBT fare that came out this year, you asked? I could confidently fill out a top ten list and still have to leave out solid contenders. The problem for quite a few of these films remains one of exposure and distribution. For example, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's sparkling, sexually frank romance “Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo” only opened commercially in South Florida at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. (A lovely venue that breathes love of film. Thank Welles for them.) Surely there's a Miami-Dade arthouse bold enough to show a movie that opens with an 18-minute gay orgy at a Paris nightclub. Is there?
Summer brought the usual mix of whiz-bang bombast and quieter counterprogramming at the movies. I suppose this is the part where I congratulate Christopher Nolan on his big wins from the Florida Film Critics Circle. We gave the “Inception” auteur's technically accomplished World War II chronicle “Dunkirk” the two big awards, Best Picture and Best Director. And this is the part where I liken Nolan to that brainy but remote, somewhat aloof boyfriend who finally opened up emotionally, only to retreat into his shell once more. There's a lot going for “Dunkirk.” A bracing immediacy, a visceral pull and an ensemble cast that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It also left me cold once the lights in the IMAX auditorium came back up. I appear to be in the minority in thinking “Interstellar” was a breakthrough in Nolan's body of work. “Dunkirk,” to me, felt like a step backwards in the evolution of the helmer's emotional maturity. To these eyes, the obsessive craft on (ear-splitting) display was in service of an important story with a rather hollow core. It's perfectly fine, but year's best material? Come on now.
And then fall came, and all was right in the movie world. Mostly. The cinema gods bestowed one of the better final quarters of a movie year in many a moon. The gems didn't stop with the MFF's Gems showcase. They're still opening at a theater near you. Three of the films in the following top ten have yet to open locally. One of them might not even make it to these shores until February (!), and one of them screened at the Key West Film Festival but, as far as I know, did not open commercially down here. Just goes to show you, sometimes it pays to go the extra mile to seek out top-drawer cinema.
And, to me, “The Florida Project” is as far from “good” as you can get. It's no accident that there hasn't been a mention of Sean Baker's child's-eye view tale in these paragraphs. The film (let's call it “The Kissimmee Atrocity”) opened to rapturous reviews across the country but, tellingly, its reception in the Sunshine State, where this rancid slice of class tourism is set, was sharply split between those who despised it (guilty), those who adored it and those who thought it was merely OK. If I ever get around to listing the worst films of 2017 (spoiler alert: it's sitting at the top of that list, or should I say bottom?), I promise to go more in depth as to why “The Kissimmee Atrocity” elicited such revulsion on my end.
But we're here for the films that gave me goosies, not the ones that robbed two hours from my life. Let's hear it for movies that hit you with harsh truths, but also envelop you in a warm embrace. Let's champion the storytellers who put their characters through the wringer in a way that you feel their struggles, but also their triumphs. Say three cheers for those painful epiphanies, because they make life worth living, even in the darkest of times.
She went into the wilds of Africa to look closely at chimpanzees, and in the process, an English girl fascinated by animal life changed the way we looked at primates. Jane Goodall is no stranger to the documentary treatment, but what makes Brett Morgen's vibrant portrait so special is that it unearths previously unseen footage, culled from National Geographic's archives. of the primatologist as a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Tilda Swinton. Morgen combines these lush, saturated images with present-day interview footage of the now octogenarian pioneer. An engulfing Philip Glass score propels a film that ought to resonate even with viewers who might not call themselves animal lovers.
9. “Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool”
Call this charmer the 2017 squeaker, and not because this loving portrait of Golden Age star Gloria Grahame's twilight days as the (much) older girlfriend of a struggling young actor showcases the Oscar winner's breathy, high-pitched voice. It's because I caught this affectionate tribute at the very last minute, and I'm so glad I did. That Annette Bening is terrific as the Tinseltown beauty should come as no surprise, but for the life of me, I can't remember the last time her co-star, “Billy Elliot's” Jamie Bell, was so good, or so adorable. Here's hoping Sony Pictures Classics knows what it's doing as the film opens across the U.S. in early 2018, because this valentine to Hollywood's ability to make film lovers dream big, beautifully directed by Paul McGuigan, merits being discovered.
8. “The Post”
Stop it. You heard me, fellow critics who sneered at Steven Spielberg's disarmingly Capraesque look at how The Washington Post's publisher and editor defied the Nixon administration when the Pentagon Papers first surfaced. Your claims that this gripping ode to the power (and responsibility) of a free press is self-congratulatory themselves smack of smug self-satisfaction. You got all frowny-faced at the way screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer lay out all the pieces in easily digestible, exposition-heavy morsels, but from where I'm sitting, the streamlining worked to keep this riveting yarn chugging along like a freight train. To which you point out how boring and off-putting the entire affair all felt to you. Boy, you sure told me. Thank you for letting me know how wrong I am for thoroughly enjoying this lively piece of Americana. Now go stream some overrated movie on Netflix, like, say, the astonishing overpraised “Mudbound,” and leave me alone. And pass the popcorn while you're at it. (Psst, well done, Uncle Steven.)
7. “Brimstone & Glory”
Once a year, the Mexican city of Tultepec holds two events that highlight what it's best known for: as a purveyor of fireworks. During the National Pyrotechnics Festival, brave souls light up tall structures, called fireworks “castles,” for a display that eerily brings to mind Burning Man. But the real fun happens the next night, when residents cart around “bulls” made of materials like wood and hard papier mache. Then they set off thousands of fireworks inside their creations. In the middle of a crowded street. Documentarian Viktor Jakovleski knows this subject matter doesn't benefit from a long, drawn-out approach, and at just over an hour, his exhilarating burst of pure cinema thrills, informs and make you giddy before (smartly) flaming out. This keeper, made by the team behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” became quite the sensation at the Key West Film Festival back in November. Here's hoping the rest of South Florida is given the opportunity to find out what the fuss is all about.
It might look like misery porn set in Africa, but don't judge this book by its cover. Senegalese director Alain Gomis' musically driven character study depicts plenty of suffering and more than one unfortunate turn of events. But it also seduces you with its textures, surreal flourishes and stimulating mix of sights and sounds. As of this writing, it is one of nine international titles shortlisted for the Foreign Language Feature Academy Award. I'm rooting for this absorbing import to go all the way to a win on Oscar night. (It's scheduled to open, along with fellow African Oscar contender “The Wound,” at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Jan. 19.)
5. “God's Own Country”
The moody sheep farmer isn't too fond of tending to the sheep. The Yorkshire lad, big-eared and boyish, drinks himself into a stupor to dull out his inner screams. And he bangs the occasional guy, because physical needs must be met. Then his dad hires a Romanian farm hand who is really good at tending to the sheep. He's good company; just don't call him a gypsy. And, yeah, he's really handsome. The pale Brit can't help but stare at his new workmate's smoldering good looks. Wait, is he staring back? Johnny and Gheorghe tussle and roll. They bond and disrobe. They convince you that Francis Lee's deeply moving rural romance is more than the English answer to “Brokeback Mountain,” even though parts of this exceptional debut feature play like a response to that film. Leave the sad endings to a country song, Lee appears to convey in a movie set apart by a respect for land and affection for two young men who might just be made for each other. (Kudos to OUTshine for premiering it during their Fort Lauderdale edition this fall.)
4. “Brigsby Bear”
Arrested development has rarely been treated with the care director Dave McCary and star/co-screenwriter Kyle Mooney approach the brainwashed (and pure-hearted) geek at the heart of this touching comedy. TV viewers might recognize Mooney from his current stint on “Saturday Night Live,” where McCary is a segment producer, but there's nothing iffy or lame about this perceptive portrait of a grown man confronted with a steep road toward deprogramming. What happens when he discovers the couple he calls Mom (Jane Adams) and Dad (Mark Hamill, in the other major screen performance he gave this year) are not who they say they are, and that the cheesy children's series he watches daily is all an elaborate experiment, unfolds in all kinds of fresh, unpredictable ways. This movie made my heart glad, and it also brought out my inner child. In a perfect world, it would be in contention for major awards. So why haven't you seen it?
3. “A Quiet Passion”
Few portraits of literary figures have captured the interiority of the writing process the way Terence Davies does in his austere, handsomely mounted take on the life of Emily Dickinson. But could any performer do justice in capturing the celebrated poet's fierce intelligence while retaining her vulnerability? Cynthia Nixon proves she's more than up to the challenge. Her marvelous performance that should be talked about as a bonafide awards front-runner but has, unfortunately, barely made a blip outside critics groups. She headlines an impeccable ensemble cast that helps bring mid-to-late 19th Century New England to life in a way that initially makes it seem like Davies is entering Jane Austen territory. And then, like he does in almost all his films, he subjects his female protagonist to enough suffering for three lifetimes. In this case, the film's depiction of the kidney disease that would claim Dickinson's life makes viewers feel the torment deep in their bones. (In case you're wondering, I totally mean all of this as a compliment.) The result is another master class from a world-class filmmaker.
2. “Blade Runner 2049”
As someone who was nearly put to sleep by “Arrival” and was underwhelmed by “Prisoners,” it had become a foregone conclusion that there would be plenty to pick apart in a “Blade Runner” sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve. Nearly three hours later, I emerged from the theater, convinced I'd seen one of the most fully realized visions of a dystopian future in a major studio release and, oh, could I please have some fries with my words? All my trepidations about this heady mix of film noir and existential sci-fi vanished as I became engrossed in the quest of a bioengineered police detective, played by an ideally cast Ryan Gosling, to unravel a mystery that not only pays homage to the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the basis for the first “Blade Runner,” but also evokes the work of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky and even Alfonso Cuarón's “Children of Men.” Detractors felt it could have retained the storytelling economy of Ridley Scott's original, but the broad canvas Villeneuve has created here, brought to life by a peerless production team that includes cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, is rich and complex enough to justify the longer running time. It also showed Villeneuve's romantic side, and it turns out to be the perfect contrast to the somber gravity that tends to get out of hand in his work.
1. “Call Me by Your Name”
A sublime love story. A wise coming-of-age tale. A vividly rendered European travelogue. Luca Guadagnino's splendid feast is all that and a bag of chips, but to hear the haters go on (and on) about it, the film is a quaint, snail-paced 80s trifle done in by a musty nostalgia for the period and a frustrating coyness with all matters sexual. Never mind that it captures those first stirrings of lust and infatuation better than many movies of its kind. Never mind that stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer convey volumes by mere gestures and body language. Never mind how Guadagnino uses a 17th century Italian villa as essentially a secondary character and invites us to become familiarized with every nook, cranny and sighing floorboard. Never mind how the Northern Italian countryside is photographed in a way that encourages viewers to lose themselves in these young lovers' courtship. Never mind how it asserts that romantic fulfillment leads to a jumble of contradictory emotions. Never mind that the film ends in an extended closeup of such delicate potency it makes you fall in love with movies all over again. But never mind all that. This is a wildly overpraised disappointment that's not worth a moment of your time and deserves to be shut out at every single award ceremony. Are we clear? Well, no. I can't wait for the toxic politics surrounding this film and its release to go away so that we can just appreciate it for the stellar work of cinema it is.
And let's hear it for the next 10 films, here listed in alphabetical order: “Battle of the Sexes,” “BPM (Beats per Minute),” “Faces Places,” “A Ghost Story,” “The Lost City of Z,” “My Happy Family,” “My Life as a Zucchini,” “Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo,” “Phantom Thread,” “Raw.”