As we inch closer to awards season (yaaaasssss!), here are some films you might hear more about (and some you won’t).
1. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project seems well-poised to become this movie season’s Moonlight. In a delapidated castle hotel that happens to be in the shadow of the happiest place on earth, William Dafoe plays de facto guardian to children whose mothers and fathers are engaged in the everyday hustle of just trying to survive. Baker takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to the children’s experiences, consistently emphasizing their resilience in the face of untenable circumstances. Families are forced to temporarily relocate to another hotel every 30 days to avoid establishing residency. Food comes primarily in the form of leftovers from a local diner which employs one of the children’s mothers. In one of many heartbreaking scenes in this film, a child’s toys are given away to other children at the hotel when his dad tells him they simply don’t have room in their small, beat-up car for the boxes. Dafoe is the hero (or antihero) of this film, although there’s a frustrating limit to what he, in his role of hotel manager, can do to actively improve the children’s circumstances. Time and again he puts metaphorical Band-Aids on dire situations and tries to shield the children from the worst people in their lives, which, in some cases, includes their parents. The movie doesn’t provide many answers to solving these systemic problems, but excels at not pandering to us in the manner of some other films that tackle poverty as a subject. There’s no duex ex machina ending here, just as there isn’t for the vast majority of children who grow up in poverty. When the proverbial sword of Damocles falls on one particular child’s situation, we are left simply to share her uncertainty. The Florida Project’s final, controversial scene starkly reminds viewers the ending we want for these children is unfortunately as much of a fantasy as anything portrayed in attractions in Orlando’s surrounding theme parks. But it doesn’t have to be. The Florida Project is a strong contender for Oscars and a film we’ll be hearing more about in the next couple of months.
Perennial movie villain Willem Dafoe finally gets to play a good guy in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
2. If you think Greek tragedy as an art form is dead, Yorgos Lathimos is here to call your bluff. In the follow-up to 2016’s surreal dating comedy/tragedy The Lobster, Lathimos brings us The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a straight-up horror film inspired by the Greek myth of Agamnenon and Iphagenia. In Killing, Colin Farrell is a heart surgeon married to an opthamologist (the ever-detached and rational Nicole Kidman). Together, they’re a perfect picture of modern American affluence, with a teenage daughter, a son and a McMansion in the Philadephia suburbs. Their utopia is severely disrupted when Martin (played by the young Irish actor Barry Keoghan) accuses Dr. Murphy (Farrell) of killing his father in a case of medical negligence. The Murphys lives descend into horrifying chaos (I have a high tolerance for gore on screen, but there were scenes in this film where even I had to look away) and ultimately Martin gives Dr. Murphy the choice of saving his family by committing an unspeakable act. The film is anchored by strong performances from Farrell and Keoghan (the latter was also a standout in this year’s Dunkirk). Sometimes I’m never quite sure how Farrell’s career trajectory took him from his SWAT/The Recruit/Miami Vice days to indie darling, but as a film viewer I’m grateful he had some professional failures if only so he could wind up where he is today. Killing of a Sacred Deer is a narrative that will stay with you long after leaving the theater, as its core theme — that the success of some Americans is built part and parcel on the subjugation and victimization of others (and that at some point, the piper comes calling) — is a salient and haunting one.
Barry Keoghan exacts revenge on Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
3. As a superfan of both the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and the 1983 Ridley Scott film based on it, Blade Runner 2049 was one of my most anticipated films of 2017. Set 30-some years beyond the original, 2049 follows agent K (Ryan Gosling) in his hunt to track down and de-commission previous generation replicants. K comes to suspect that a rogue replicant (Rachel, the android who falls in love with Harrison Ford’s Agent Decker in the original story) gave birth to a child before her “death.” The core mystery of the film is where that child is in 2049 and what should be done with him or her. I won’t write too much more about the plot to avoid spoilers, but it’s refreshing to see Harrison Ford “show up” for a film that actually requires something of him (in the past twenty years, he’s mostly been relegated to staring stoicly at the camera or offering occasional “old man” zingers). I’ve rarely been as excited about a director as I am about Denis Villeneuve, and it proved a very wise decision to hand over the keys of the Blade Runner franchise to him. The result is an unbelievably effective depiction of an eerie, futuristic dystopia (clearly rooted in Dick’s novel) that serves as a fitting setting for examining the big questions about what it means to be human. 2049, in the Blade Runner universe, also isn’t a particularly good place to be female. “Real” women have all but been driven out of society, in large part replaced by androids and holograms that can easily be commodified and controlled by men. In an early, telling scene, Gosling’s computer girlfriend morphs from 1950s housewife to supermodel in evening wear to a “chill girl” in sweatpants, all at the touch of a button. The overall narrative has an ultimately strong, positive message when it comes to women — by the end of the film, it’s clear they’re actually the saviors of this future.
Ryan Gosling, continuing his career trend of wearing stylish jackets in films.
4. In a Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek (the titular Beatriz) is a “healer”/masseuse who finds herself stranded at her client’s (Connie Britton) mansion when her car breaks down prior to a session. Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner as a courtesy, where she is introduced to a corporate tycoon (John Lithgow), his wife, and others who work for him. During the course of the meal, Beatriz learns that the immense wealth of her dinner companions is built on the destruction of natural places and the subsequent exploitation of local people and resources. It’s a subject that hits home for her, as her childhood homestead in Mexico was wholly destroyed by a hotel magnate. While the other characters in the film normalize what would rationally be considered criminal, Beatriz stands staunchly as the story’s moral center, reminding us that we all might care a little bit more about our surroundings if we lived million year lives. There’s a strong sense here of Lithgow and company (and by extension, many of our political leaders) fiddling while Rome burns around them. It is only Beatriz who can clearly see the terror and havoc wreaked by their actions — and ultimately it proves too much for her to bear. The film feels (and is shot) very much like a stage play and its “closeness” only serves to elevate the tension. Hayek is a standout and I would put her as a dark horse for a supporting actress nomination.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) takes on a corporate tycoon in Beatriz at Dinner.
5. A Ghost Story is the most perplexing film of 2017. Honestly, I’m still struggling to understand the widespread positive reviews for it. The plot is this: Casey Affleck stars as a ghost in a white sheet who observes his wife (Rooney Mara) after his death. It’s a truly tedious enterprise. Perhaps the slow pace of the film is to allow us to experience time as the ghost does. Whatever the reason, it in no way justifies the ten minute scene where we watch Rooney Mara eat an entire pie, bite by bite. Maybe I just find it unbelievable that anyone can look sad eating pie. Far and away the best part of this film is the Ke$ha (really) cameo. A Ghost Story comes off as a film all too enamored with its own profundity.
Other movies to check out:
- Lady Macbeth – If you’ve ever read Madame Bovary and thought “this novel would be so much better if Madame Bovary were a black widow-style murderer”, then this is the film for you.
- Thor Ragnarok – Turns out the movie I desperately wanted Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be is actually Thor Ragnorok. This is Marvel comics firing on all cylinders, thanks in large part to an unusual directorial choice in Taika Watiti. There’s slapstick buddy comedy, Cate Blanchett channeling Ru Paul in a 3D printed headdress, a stellar fight scene set to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Idris Elba playing whatever the Norwegian mythological equivalent of Tiresias is, and a subtle political message about the plight of refugees. It’s so good, we can officially forgive Tom Hiddleston for his Golden Globe speech and dumping Taylor Swift.Cate Blanchett chews scenery in Thor: Ragnarok.
- A Quiet Passion — This biopic of Emily Dickinson is a literary nerd’s dream. I can’t recommend it if you’re not already enamored with Ms. Dickinson, but really, who isn’t? Cynthia Nixon is well cast.
- Personal Shopper asks Kristen Stewart to moodily stare at the camera for two hours as she deals with her brother’s early death from a heart abnormality and later finds herself accused of the murder of her client, a model she shops for. The story has potential, but the film is just ok and ultimately doesn’t live up to the high-stakes, suspenseful narrative promised by the trailer.
- Dunkirk – In my view, this is still the frontrunner for Best Picture as we head into the holiday movie season. This is certainly a film that requires a big screen, so do yourself a favor and see it in 70 mm IMAX (as a July release, I’m assuming it will return to theaters briefly as we roll into awards season). The cast is unparalleled – two standouts are Mark Rylance as a civilian boat pilot and Tom Hardy as a British airman. Nolan is a director whose films never feel conventional, even when they are rooted in real life events. Dunkirk is nothing short of his masterpiece – it’s the sort of film you can easily imagine Robert Osborn’s successor introducing on Turner Classic Movies 30 years hence.
Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk.