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The heroes of Hollywood

A O Scott, The New York Times , Dec 30 2017, 21:38 IST
A Fantastic Woman

A Fantastic Woman

There was a lot to feel bad about in 2017: plenty of reasons to take offence, get angry, go numb or feel sick to your stomach. If that sentence bummed you out, I'm sorry. (It was an epic year for dubious apologies, too.) But I'm not sorry about this list of the movies - a top 10 and a second 11 - that made me feel other, better ways. Not always cheerful, but enlightened, moved, surprised and gratified. In bad times, we tend to ask too much or expect too little of art, pretending it might heal or save us, and dismissing it when it doesn't. Its actual function is much simpler: it keeps us human. That's what these movies did for me this year.

The Florida Project

The promise of an independent, socially conscious, aesthetically adventurous homegrown cinema is spectacularly redeemed in Sean Baker's latest feature, which managed to be both the most joyful and the most heartbreaking movie of the year. Steeped in the gaudy materialism of Central Florida, animated by Brooklynn Prince's gleeful spontaneity and anchored by Willem Dafoe's deep craft, the movie already has a feeling of permanence. Prince's Moonee has earned a place in the canon of US mischief alongside the likes of Eloise and Tom Sawyer.

Lady Bird

In a high school production of Shakespeare, Christine McPherson is cast as "the tempest." "It's the titular role!" says her once-and-future best friend - one of many odd, funny and perfectly apt lines in Greta Gerwig's sort-of-autobiographical coming-of-age story. In its titular role (Christine prefers to be called Lady Bird), Saoirse Ronan is an utterly convincing US 17-year-old, and everyone else in her hectic world is just as sharply and sympathetically drawn. The film's gentle, affirmative view of friendship, family life and adolescent sexuality is the opposite of sentimental.

Get Out

Jordan Peele wrote and directed the inescapable movie of 2017, a work of biting anti-consensus film-making that broke box-office records. Part of the film's genius is the way it splinters the mythology of US racial healing and then reassembles the shards into something lacerating and beautiful. Possibly conceived as a mordant punchline to the Obama era, it may turn out to be the inaugural blast of insurgent cinema in the age of Trump.

I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck's documentary uses James Baldwin's words to paint a portrait not only of the writer in his time but also of the ideas that stretch beyond his work into our own troubled moment. Baldwin wrote about US racism - about the lethal and insidious power of whiteness to distort the nation's ideals and threaten its humanity - with unequalled vigour, humour and insight. The movie is painful because the truth is painful.

Faces Places

But the truth can also be delightful. Which isn't to say that strong, bitter emotions don't have a place in the latest auto-documentary by Agnes Varda. In her late 80s, accompanied by a 30-ish artist named JR (who is also credited as director), Varda roams the French countryside, searching out the remnants of a once-vibrant working-class tradition. Contemplating some of the sorrows in her own past and the precariousness of the European present, she keeps gloom at bay with her resilient faith in the power of art to conserve and expand human dignity. Every second of this movie proves her right.

Phantom Thread

There are movies that satisfy the hunger for relevance, the need to see the urgent issues of the day reflected on screen. Paul Thomas Anderson's eighth feature - which may also be Daniel Day-Lewis's last movie - is emphatically and sublimely not one of them. It awakens other appetites, longings that are too often neglected: for beauty, for strangeness, for the delirious, heedless pursuit of perfection. I've only seen this film once, and I'm sure it has its flaws. I will happily watch it another dozen times until I find them all.

A Fantastic Woman

Sebastian Lelio's portrait of Marina, a transgender woman mourning the death of her lover and facing the hostility of his family, is at once bluntly realistic and ripely melodramatic, polemical and poetic, pointed and, well, fantastical. Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, doesn't show up on the screen right away, but once she does (singing a torch song in a nightclub in Santiago, Chile), the camera never leaves her for long. What it finds in the planes of her face is some of the glamour of old-time movie stars - hints of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Anna Magnani and Lauren Bacall - and even more of the emotional authenticity that made them stars in the first place.

Graduation

The kid-goes-to-college movie has emerged as a minor US genre. This year's examples include Lady Bird, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Brad's Status, all of which offer gently comical perspectives on a familiar rite of passage. Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, offers a grimmer view. A provincial doctor wants his daughter to attend a university in England and is willing to compromise his ideals to ensure that she can. A family drama and an ethical thriller, Mungiu's film is an indictment of the everyday corruption that festers not only in Romania but everywhere. Selfishness has become the supreme social value.

A Quiet Passion

But not so quiet, really. As Emily Dickinson, Cynthia Nixon is forthright, sometimes abrasive, often funny and never less than a thrilling company. Terence Davies's blithely unconventional biopic glides through Dickinson's life with poetic compression and musical grace, illuminating both her temperament and the austere, intellectually intense 19th-century New England environment that nurtured and constrained her gifts.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Never has human extinction seemed so richly merited, and rarely has digital ingenuity been put to such sublime use. The third instalment in the revived series is an epic of national founding, with echoes of the Aeneid and the Book of Exodus. Sombre and exciting, the film, directed by Matt Reeves, shows how large-scale action film-making can explore political and moral matters without bogging down in pretentiousness. Andy Serkis remains the key to the enterprise. His performance as Caesar, spanning three movies, is one of the great feats of acting in modern movies, a breathtaking fusion of technological magic and solid thespian craft.

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