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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Words of praise for the best dramas of 2017

Gerald Schmitz

This will be my last "best-of" column in these pages, and it has been a privilege to share some thoughts on the passing cinema scene. There’s always lots to lament at the shallow end of show business entertainment. But as the following choices indicate, there is also a good deal to celebrate on the screen.

That said, the film business is in flux. Even with a late box-office boost from the year’s biggest blockbuster, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, habits are changing as digital platforms allow more content to be watched at home. The number of North Americans who go out to movies once a month or more has declined from 28 per cent in 2002 to 11 per cent in 2016. Theatre tickets sold per person have declined to the lowest since the early 1970s before the introduction of the multiplexes. Although some movies like Star Wars (and see Dunkirk below) almost demand to be seen on the big screen, as streaming services like Netflix (110 million subscribers in 190 countries and counting) continue to expand, my New Year’s wish is that more of the best will become accessible to discriminating viewers everywhere.

First Reformed (U.S.)

The subject of my Christmas column, veteran director Paul Shrader’s wrenching drama about existential ethical and political choices in a faith arena is also my choice as the movie of the year. Ethan Hawke gives a surpassing performance as an anguished former military chaplain turned pastor wrestling with private demons while also confronting larger issues of social sin as he ministers to a small historic church that is slated for closure. Amanda Seyfried plays the troubled pregnant parishioner who comes to him for help, and in whose loving concern following a tragic loss is found a saving grace for both.

The Square (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark)

Writer-director Ruben Östlund’s top prize-winner from the Cannes film festival is a savage satire of the contemporary art world that also exposes social divisions and pricks the elite pretensions of a gullible well-heeled crowd of benefactors. Danish actor Claes Bang is terrific as the ultra-stylish museum artistic director Christian, who reacts badly through a series of slings and arrows and more than meets his match in a female reporter (played by the always excellent Elisabeth Moss). The scene of a performance actor aping a gorilla during a posh museum banquet is something else. By the end our amusement almost turns into sympathy for Christian, but not quite.

Loveless (Russia/France/Germany/Belgium)

This bleak family drama from director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) is the next best film from the Cannes competition. In a Moscow apartment 12-year-old Aloysha is an unwanted child, staying with his resentful distracted mother, Zhenya, who is embroiled in bitter divorce and custody proceedings with his father, Boris. Both parents have other lovers. It’s several days before the boy’s disappearance is even noticed. Not an easy movie to watch, but a deeply affecting portrait of the human and social deficits that accumulate when love is lacking.

Lady Bird (U.S.)

This is the best-reviewed American movie of 2017, and deservedly so. Of course it’s not perfect, as I explained in my Toronto festival coverage, and there’s always at least one contrarian, which has knocked down its record rating on a smidgeon from 100 per cent. Still, actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig moving into the director’s chair excels at telling this semi-autobiographical story of Sacramento, California, Catholic high school senior, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, as she begins to spread her wings. Saoirse Ronan is a standout as Lady Bird, as is Laurie Metcalf as Christine’s sometimes exasperated but always loving mom, Marion.

The Big Sick (U.S.)

Rounding out my top five, this Sundance hit, surprisingly snubbed by the Golden Globe nominations, was a sheer joy as movie experiences go. Directed by Michael Showalter, co-written by the husband-wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, it also has the ring of authentic experience. Nanjiani essentially plays himself as an aspiring Chicago comedian (and part-time Uber driver) who has to fend off his traditional Pakistani-American family’s efforts at an arranged marriage. Fortune smiles on him as he falls in love with Emily (wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan), and while tested by the misfortune of a medical crisis that actually happened, their bond not only survives but thrives.

Call Me By Your Name (Italy/France/Brazil/U.S.)

Director Luca Guadagnino’s luminous adaptation of the André Aciman novel is perhaps the year’s most poignant love story. During a northern Italian summer, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the talented son of an American professor of Greco-Roman culture (Michael Stuhlbarg), becomes drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), a handsome research assistant who comes to live with the family for six weeks. A situation fraught with potential for heartache is handled with great sensitivity, eliciting exceptional performances from Chalamet and Hammer; Stuhlbarg as well in a memorable father-son heart-to-heart that eases the pain.

A Ghost Story (U.S.)

From simple elements Texas writer-director David Lowery has fashioned a hauntingly supernatural tale of love, loss and the inexorable movement of time. When a woman (Rooney Mara) living with her musician husband (Casey Affleck) on the outskirts of Dallas abruptly loses him in a fatal car accident, she is traumatized by grief but also visited by intimations of his presence in the afterlife — visible to us as a spectre covered in a white sheet with two black eyeholes. In this place of their memories are the marks of the transience of human lives, of the spirits of the past, the ever-changing present, and of speculations stretching into an unknowable future. (*Now available on Netflix.)

The Shape of Water (Canada/U.S.)

No one does monster movies like director Guillermo Del Toro. Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with an amphibian-man held captive in a secret 1960s Cold War laboratory. Aided by a troubled neighbour, an African American female co-worker, and a scientist spy who disobeys orders, that bond prevails over the sinister agents of both Uncle Sam and the Kremlin. An adult fairy tale where waters run deep, it’s a visual and acting triumph.

Dunkirk (U.K./Netherlands/France/U.S.)

There was no bigger screen epic — shot in IMAX 70mm with a thunderous soundtrack — than writer-director Christopher Nolan’s retelling of the extraordinary events of May-June 1940 when more than 300,000 British and French troops, surrounded by Hitler’s invading armies and crammed on to the beaches of the Belgian port of Dunkirk, were rescued in a daring cross-channel operation that involved great numbers of small civilian boats. The horror and the heroism are on full display as Nolan introduces many moments of personal life-and-death drama at the same time as conveying the enormity of the situation and what was at stake — for Britain, Europe and the world.

The Disaster Artist (U.S.)

In 2003 the very weird and mysterious Tommy Wiseau, a wannabe actor living in San Francisco, spent millions of his own money and connected with another aspiring actor, Greg Sestero, to make a god-awful melodrama called The Room. But in one of those turns of fortune, tagged as “the worst movie ever,” it’s gone on to become a cult phenomenon. Indeed it’s been showing as a late-night event at Ottawa’s Mayfair theatre for 100 consecutive months complete with enthusiastic audience participation like shouting out lines and throwing plastic spoons at the screen!

The prolific James Franco (146 credits on; 18 in 2017 alone) directs and stars as Wiseau in this hilarious but also oddly sympathetic telling of the making of The Room. Franco nails the role, ably supported by younger brother Dave as Sestero (whose 2013 memoir The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made provides the source material), and by Franco regulars like Canadian Seth Rogen in key roles. Sestero has actually worked with Wiseau again in a very good if definitely offbeat new movie called Best F(r)iends. In late 2017, he was at Ottawa’s Mayfair (a shot of which appears at the end of The Room) to introduce it along with, of course, more showings of that perennial bad-movie favourite.

Honourable Mentions

Baby Driver (U.S.): Writer-director Edgar Wright delivers a fantastically entertaining crime thriller with Ansel Elgort full throttle in the lead role. (Although Kevin Spacey has become persona non grata in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, he is terrific as the underworld boss.)

Blade Runner 2049 (U.S./U.K./Hungary/Canada): Quebec director Dennis Villeneuve pulls off a stunning sequel to the iconic original sci-fi dystopia and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is superlative. Welcome back Harrison Ford too as an elderly “replicant.”

Mudbound (U.S.): Director Dee Rees and a strong acting ensemble bring to life this riveting story of tragic racial divides in rural Mississippi as two Second World War veterans return to their family’s farms.

Get Out (U.S.): African American writer-director Jordan Peele, who had a minor role in a strange 2016 movie Keanu, scored a breakout big success with the sharp satire embedded in this interracial horror movie with a difference.

Novitiate (U.S.): Margaret Betts earned a Sundance special jury award for breakthrough director for this deeply observed 1960s story of a young woman pursuing a religious vocation, the crucible of personal decision coinciding with a time of great change within the church.