Ruud’s Rankings: The Top Ten Films of 2017
The Oscars, Hollywood’s annual self-congratulatory wing-ding, is ready to air this coming Sunday evening, so it’s time once again for the obligatory “top ten” list. Let me first issue a disclaimer: I did not see all of the movies that came out this year. First, I skipped a lot of films that looked pretty awful and were getting terrible reviews from just about everybody. I also skipped pretty much all animated movies, mainly because my wife refuses to go to them with me, the spoilsport. As a result I did not see Coco, nor did I see Loving Vincent, both of which may have had a chance to make my list. Though there may have been another reason I did not see Loving Vincent: I don’t remember it coming to Central Arkansas, or if it did, it wasn’t here long. So there is another large category of films I didn’t see: foreign films, small independent films, or films that some executive somewhere decided didn’t have a market here, and so did not come or stayed for such a short time that I couldn’t get to them. So, for example, I did not see the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name, which very likely may have made my list. Still, I suspect I saw more movies this year than about 99 per cent of you all, so I’m gonna go with that.
As I wrote last year, if you read my reviews with any regularity, you know that my criteria tend to be more literary and less technical than a lot of film critics, simply because of my background. But I value a well- structured plot, interesting and well-developed characters, well-written dialogue, great acting, and interesting ideas more highly than cinematograph, editing, and visual or sound effects, though I’m certainly not indifferent to such things. With that in mind, here is my offering of the ten movies that, in my opinion, were the cream of the crop for the past year:
- Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
A film that in many ways suffers from comparison with the more memorable and innovative Dunkirk, Wright’s film, which centers on the same dark hours of World War II, when all of continental Europe had crumbled before the Nazi war machine and England was in danger of losing its entire army, is nevertheless a sound achievement. This is chiefly because of Gary Oldman’s phenomenal portrayal of Winston Churchill. Oldman has to be the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for lead actor for this role: it’s often easy to overlook Oldman’s performances because he is such a consummate actor that he disappears into his roles, so that you don’t even realize there’s an actor there. He does so here, so that I’ll always believe it was Churchill himself I heard saying “Will you please stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you?” Essentially a biopic in the vein of Spielberg’s Lincoln, providing a telescoped view of the protagonist’s character and personality through an examination of his actions during a single critical moment of his life, Darkest Hour focuses on Churchill’s appointment as Britain’s Prime Minister during the darkest moment of her history, when many in parliament were clamoring to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill steadfastly refuses to negotiate, though it takes the remarkable escape from annihilation at Dunkirk to give him the opportunity to rally the British people with his rousing “We will fight the on the beaches” speech. “What just happened?” asks one member of parliament after that speech. He receives a reply that sums up the film: “He mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.”
- I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Speaking of Oscar-worthy performances, Allison Janney’s turn as the foul-mouthed, bullying mother of Olympic skater Tonya Harding is almost certain to bring home the gold statue this Sunday. Margot Robbie as Harding herself is brilliant as well playing the first American woman to land a triple-axel in competition who was to become the most hated woman in the world. The film is also interesting in its nonlinear narrative structure, designed around documentary-style interviews with Harding, her mother, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Harding’s “bodyguard,” Gillooly’s delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). From these we get a running commentary on events as we witness them, and at one point even have Harding breaking the fourth wall when, running Gillooly out of the house with a shotgun, she turns to the audience to say “I never did this.” The storytelling technique makes it difficult to decide what the truth actually is. Beyond this, as I commented in m recent review, the film has a lot to say about cable news: “the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, just coming into its own in 1994, to over-report and oversimplify stories, to craft them into the kind of hero-villain fictions that entertain audiences, and thereby to irresponsibly try cases in the media.”
- The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
I wasn’t as enamored of this movie as the Academy was, and thought the thirteen Oscar nominations the movie garnered were a bit extreme, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be somewhere on this list of the best movies of the year. Del Toro weaves a magic realist horror-romance with this film, created a post-modern fairy tale combining, as I said in my review, “the paranoia of cold-war monster films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon with folk tale motifs familiar from Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince.” With a protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely woman unable to speak, who is best friends with a lonely gay man Giles (Richard Jenkins) in 1962 America, the film follows Eliza’s friendship and ultimately her relationship with an amphibious fish-man. Yes, it’s as weird as it seems and yes, it’s probably a metaphor. But again, as I said in my review, “In the end, this is definitely a film worth seeing. In combining a fascination with horror and the monstrous with a tone of fairy tale romanticism, in addition to its beautiful visuals all tinged with a bluish-green hue, this is a quintessential Del Torian film. The ensemble cast is one of the most impressive of the year, with Hawkins’ memorable hauntingly waif-like Elisa (brought to life without her saying a single word) leading the way, and Jenkins’ repressed and lonely Giles painfully sympathetic as well. Both deserve their Oscar nominations…It is certainly a good looking, well-acted film. It is certainly not a run of the mill Hollywood production, but surprises, delights and even astounds by turns.
- Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
Like several other films on this list, this was a film that rose above the formulaic requirements of its genre. In this innocent-eye initiation story Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leaves her home among Amazons in quest of her arch enemy, the god of war Ares, who she believes is behind the horrors of the first world war. As I wrote in my review, The film’s greatest asset is its star: Gadot is beautiful and formidable, but passionate and sympathetic like no other DC protagonist before her. This Gadot was worth waiting for. [Chris] Pine is likeable and believable as the American spy—indeed, the lone American is ultimately the noblest of the film’s male characters (a rather forceful contradiction of Fox news’ contention that the film is anti-American)…. But perhaps the greatest triumph of this film is finally, that Hollywood rarity, a woman director—and Jenkins has not made a feature film since her acclaimed Monster in 2003—has successfully delivered a big-budget blockbuster action movie, and one that, unlike most superhero films, has a heart.”
- Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Gerwig wrote and directed this episodic semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a high school senior yearning to leave her hometown for the sire ca of college in New York City. In many ways it is a traditional “initiation story,” but it transcends its genre in a number of ways, notably with its brilliant mother-daughter acting team of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. But it has even more going for it. As I wrote in my review: “But what actually raises this film above the level of the genre is not the plot, which is pretty typical, nor the acting, which is not, but rather the treatment of the adult characters—those creatures from the other side of the Great Divide whose main purpose in films like this is usually to act as straight man to the jokes, or obstacles to the achievement of the New Society that the kids are striving for, or to act as impotent bystanders while the we-know-better kids save their world. But here the adults are real people who have lives and feelings of their own that do not simply revolve around the teenagers as the center of the universe. …Most significantly, there is Lady Bird’s mother Marion…. Metcalf has been nominated for a Golden Globe for this film, for playing a demanding, loving, frustrated and passive-aggressive mother to perfection. Like the other adult, she has a life of her own, a life troubled by overwork and financial worries. Marion’s relationship with Lady Bird is truly the core of the film, providing the glue that holds the episodic school year together. Gerwig knows exactly what kind of power mothers can exert over daughters with passive-aggressive comments that prick at their psyches and get them worked up like spurs in a horse’s side, and Metcalf delivers the perfect tone and expression. This is the relationship that has to work itself out in the film, and I won’t provide any spoilers about exactly how that happens. Like another of this year’s best movies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this film recognizes that life does not contain great moments of closure when all questions are answered, and the participants’ fates are settled. So don’t expect a compete resolution. This is a film that rises to transcend its genre.”
- The Post (Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg directing Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a journalistic political thriller? What’s not to like? Though there seems to be a direct correlation between the story of the Pentagon Papers and contemporary conflicts between the press and the president, here’s what I wrote about the film in my review: “Still, the film makes no obvious or blatant references to contemporary events. Essentially the movie is one of Spielberg’s recent historical political thrillers, like his Bridge of Spies or even Munich, but it also very consciously belongs to the genre of films about investigative journalism that stretches from The Front Page and His Girl Friday through Call Northside 777 to Zodiac and The Paper, ultimately to Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar winning Spotlight. While Spielberg’s film does not rise to the level of the undisputed classic of this genre, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), The Post is a noble and notable addition to this hallowed list. The scenes that focus on the old time linotype machines and hard-copy print runs, especially at a time when printed newspapers are losing readership daily, give the film a nostalgic feel, as if we’re back with Charles Foster Kane—whose line “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” is echoed in Hanks’ line as Ben Bradlee, ‘My god, the fun!’ as he glories in the midst of his working on the story of the Pentagon Papers.” So yes—see it for the fun!
- War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
This may seem an odd choice to appear so high on this list, and the Academy saw fit to nominate the film for just one award, in visual effects. It is certainly deserving of such an award: as I said in my review, “Andy Serkis, who first introduced audiences to the astounding possibilities of motion-capture technology in his creation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is nothing short of amazing in creating Caesar—there is not a single moment during this film that you do not believe wholeheartedly that Caesar is real.” But the film has much more going for it than special effects. Again, as my review noted, “Some have called the film an allegory. It isn’t, by a strict definition of the term, for an allegory is a narrative in which abstract concepts are represented as physical objects or characters. But it is certainly true that the film’s story recalls other familiar narratives and invites comparisons through biblical, literary or historical allusions. One of these, perhaps the most obvious, is the narrative of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt under Moses. The apes flee war and slavery, led by their charismatic leader Caesar, the new Moses. There is no Sinai experience or handing down of a new Law, but there is a sort of “Red Sea miracle” late in the film, and the recreation or mirroring of those events does create a good deal of sympathy for the apes and for Caesar, just in case you were inclined to root for the humans. The “let my people go” inference all but forces us to think of the apes as those “people,” and to believe, like them, that all reasoning beings should be free. Nor is it a coincidence that the Exodus experience, as evinced in old spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” was used by slaves in the old South to parallel, even to represent in coded language, their own plight and drive toward freedom—for many Americans perhaps a stronger incentive to sympathize with the enslaved apes in the film. The humanizing of the apes is also a reverse parallel to the tendency of nations—or at least of their governments—to de-humanize other peoples whom they have decided to categorize as enemies. Such dehumanization—categorizing certain groups as “less civilized” or “more barbaric” than we are, justifies our actions when we oppress, enslave or annihilate them. There is no doubt that dehumanization of Jews, categorized as “vermin” by Nazi propaganda, ultimately made the Holocaust possible. Thus it is not surprising that the apes in the movie are locked up in a camp that bears a striking resemblance to Dachau or Auschwitz—all that’s missing is the “Arbeit macht frei” sign on the gate. Contemporary political rhetoric that suggests Muslims or Mexicans/Mexican Americans are somehow inferior, less civilized, more barbaric, than we are allows the denial of their civil rights to be seen as acceptable. It’s no accident that the Colonel in this film is using slave labor to build a wall.”
- Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
While I liked this film when I saw it, I like it even more now, having spent months going back to it in my mind. I think it’s the kind of movie that gets better the more you think about it. Aside from the spectacular scenes of the thousands of soldiers on the beach, the most remarkable thing about the film is its innovative storytelling technique. In telling the story of the improbable rescue of 400,000 British and allied troops from massacre at the hands of the Nazi war machine in 1940, Nolan chose a nonlinear narrative, and as I wrote in my review, does so “from three different perspectives: One view is through the experiences of one lone, frightened British private named (what else?) Tommy (played by young newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is just trying to get out of Dunkirk and go home by any means possible. A second focuses on Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), the civilian skipper of one of those small recreational craft (the “Moonstone”) commandeered in Dover to cross the channel and help ferry men from the beach. The third point of view is that of RAF pilot Farrier (played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy, disguised in a helmet that covers his face for the entire film), who gives an aerial perspective of the whole situation, while blasting at German warplanes bent on sinking as many Allied vessels as possible. Nolan alternates between these three perspectives, but the narrative is more complicated than that. Each of the three perspectives is set in a different time frame as well. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film when the graphics identify each story. The first, Tommy’s story, is called “The Mole” …. This section is given the timeframe “one week.” …The second section, “The Sea,” follows Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who hops aboard on a whim, as the three of them cross the channel to ferry men home. … This part of the story, we are carefully told, has a timeframe of one day. The third timeline, “The Air,” lasts just one hour, and focuses on Farrier and two other spitfire pilots chasing German warplanes across the sky, Farrier trying to save as many soldiers as he can while fighting against time and a damaged fuel tank as well as the Luftwaffe.…This triple perspective has the effect of forcing us to see the overwhelming experience of Dunkirk not as a simple story with a single narrative arc, but as the complex event that it in fact was. It also forces the viewer to be more actively involved in the process of the story, not unlike a postmodern novel.”
- The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
This film didn’t come out during Oscar season, and was largely forgotten in the nominations, but was without question the most original and affecting comedy of the year. The film was written by Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and his wife Emily V. Gordon (played in the film by Zoe Kazan) and tells the barely fictionalized story of their meeting, breakup, her life-threatening sickness, and Kumail’s forced intimacy with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) during her illness, and the film turns out to be just as much about their relationship as it is about Kumail and Emily’s. As I say in my review, this is a film that you go to “to get a glimpse of a very real relationship among characters with very real emotions and things to say, all of which is done with a comic tone that just makes you leave the theater feeling good, like, say, some classic screwball comedies. Except, of course, those classic comedies would have never had the girl in a coma. For that matter, they wouldn’t have had a Pakistani Muslim romancing a white American graduate student from North Carolina. The film does have the effect of making us see such a relationship as normal. Kumail is charming and funny playing himself. Kazan is charming and funny playing somebody else, and is a sparkling presence in the film even though she spends half of it in a coma. … Hunter is phenomenal as Emily’s mom, making you feel every bit of her terrified concern for her daughter, her anger at Kumail, her frustration with the medical professionals, her outstanding issues with her husband. And Romano is just as likeable as he was in Everybody Loves Raymond, but adds a depth to his character that he could never show in his TV personality. Together they put together that extreme rarity in current American cinema—a film in which people actually talk to each other, and talk in ways that real people actually do.”
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
This is so obviously the best picture of the year that if it doesn’t win the Oscar there ought to be an investigation. With Frances McDormand turning in her most memorable performance since Fargo, and Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell turning in brilliant Oscar-nominated performances, the ensemble acting in this film is stellar. McDormand and Rockwell should win in their categories, for my money, though it’s possible Harrelson might syphon off some votes from Rockwell, who is absolutely astounding in this film. As I wrote in my review: “McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose frustration over the lack of progress in her daughter’s case leads her to rent three billboards near her home outside of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The first reads “Raped While Dying”; the second “And Still No Arrests”; and the third “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The bold protest is noted almost immediately by Ebbing police officer Dixon [Rockwell] riding by in his squad car. Dixon informs the police chief, William Willoughby [Woody Harrelson), who is just sitting down to Easter dinner with his family. At this point you are almost certain to be making assumptions about how this film is going to progress. Willoughby, you are likely assuming, is an incompetent good ol’ boy running a corrupt police force, and Mildred’s billboards are going to either shame him into solving the case or anger him into stonewalling and carrying out a police vendetta against Mildred and against poor Red Welby… the local advertising representative who has provided the billboards. But one thing this film teaches you quickly is that any assumptions you make are almost certainly destined to be wrong. Turns out Willoughby is as decent a cop as you’re likely to find, in real life or the movies, and he’s well-respected in the town. …And it is from Dixon that we do see some of the backlash we may have anticipated coming at Mildred from the town police. But if you’re hoping to see Dixon get his comeuppance, once again you may be only partly satisfied, but then you may also be surprised. And if you’re expecting this film to be a whodunit and anticipate the kind of closure that a solved mystery gives you in the end, expect to be frustrated. This just isn’t the kind of film that wraps things up neatly, or gives you that warm and comfy sense of closure. More than almost any film you can name, this is closer to real life than a narrative. And in real life there are no neat denouements.”
Honorable Mention: Get Out, All the Money in the World, Spiderman: Homecoming, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.
If you like these reviews, you might enjoy Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, now available from the publisher at https://encirclepub.com/product/the-bleak-and-empty-sea/. Also available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
When word comes to Camelot that Sir Tristram has died in Brittany of wounds suffered in a skirmish, and that his longtime mistress, La Belle Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, has subsequently died herself of a broken heart, Queen Guinevere and her trusted lady Rosemounde immediately suspect that there is more to the story of the lovers’ deaths than they are being told. It is up to Merlin and his faithful assistant, Gildas of Cornwall, to find the truth behind the myths and half-truths surrounding these untimely deaths. By the time they are finally able to uncover the truth, Gildas and Merlin have lost one companion and are in danger of losing their own lives.
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Order from Barnes and Noble here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-bleak-and-empty-sea-jay-ruud/1126958139?ean=9781893035737