Last year, recounting my favorite movies of the year, I spoke of how the movies saved me from a year of changes and uncertainties both personal and global.
Another year later, another year older, I find myself still here. Alive, leading a relatively stable life, having gotten through my one full year living in New York. If change and uncertainty defined my 2016, then “steady as she goes” defined my 2017 as I found new jobs, made new friends, and visited new boroughs.
And, of course, I saw new movies. A lot of them.
Thanks to a less chaotic year (and thanks to MoviePass, which pays for itself in this city after two thirds of a movie), I have seen more movies this year than I have since my first year writing for Film Misery. I’m not sure if this means it’s been a great year for movies—though I’ve certainly seen a fair share of terrific movies—or if it means the increasing library of streaming content makes it easier to watch movies without having to put on pants. More likely I’m living in the most cinema-friendly city in the country, and I took full advantage of it this year.
A year from today I’ll be living someplace else, so I guess I’d better take advantage of NYC’s cinematic offerings (and MoviePass’ unsustainably low fee) while I still can.
POINT OF ORDER: I qualified movies for the 2017 calendar year the way I often do: by using their official release date listed in Box Office Mojo. Ordinarily that’s not a problem, though one movie in my Top Ten had an ambiguous enough release schedule some have instead count it as a 2016 film. Perhaps I placed it in the wrong year, but I care more about recommending a movie I love than the peculiarities of release dates.
Notable Films I Did Not See:
The Non-Movie of the Year:
I owe my summer to David Lynch. I owe my year to Twin Peaks: The Return. For one hour a week he returned to my screen to show off what he had to say about television’s alarming propensity to revive dead properties (and sometimes, dead characters) to relive old times. Twin Peaks ended prematurely, yet its haunting ending and its influence on television as an artform ensured it would never be forgotten. But Lynch, seldom one to indulge easy sentiment, returned viewers to his beloved universe as if we’d wished for it upon a monkey’s paw. Twin Peaks is back, yes, but something is wrong. Something rotted from the inside. Cruel, punishing, malevolent. And no, I’m not just talking about Dale Cooper, whose fragments of his self have been scattered for a quarter-century. This is everything we’d wanted, but how can I be so unsatisfied?
As allergic as Lynch is to easy emotion, he also defies easy interpretation—or, well, any interpretation. Beyond bafflement, I’m not sure this Twin Peaks inspires any universal response. Were I to venture a takeaway for this show, it proffers the definitive argument you really can’t go home again. Sometimes we get fleeting glimmers of the familiar—two deliberately crowd-pleasing moments toward the end made me cheer like nothing I’ve seen this year—but each joyful minute must necessarily follow hours of bewildering imagery, and scenes that apparently make sense only to David Lynch. And following that joy is more misery.
Twin Peaks: The Return is as grim and blackly comic and moving as any artistic work I’ve seen this year. It’s also the most virtuosic. Lynch, after ten years of doing whatever it was he did after Inland Empire, remains as assured about his tone, his mastery of the uncanny, and his skill with the camera has in no way grown crusty. I hope he doesn’t wait another decade to surprise and horrify us. But if his next work is even half as powerful, I’ll sit here, patiently, a Dougie-like smile on my face as I wait.
Runners-Up: The Spongebob Squarepants Musical, The Good Place, S-Town, Big Little Lies, Better Call Saul
All-Star of 2017
In her astute April profile for Buzzfeed Anne Helen Petersen speculated why, after three decades of appearing on movie screens, people seem repeatedly surprised by Nicole Kidman‘s ability to give astonishing performances. As if the Oscar winner were revealing inner potential previously unseen. While the profile (rightly) frames the moviegoing public’s struggle to move beyond a condescending image of her as some “thoroughbred horse, a piece of porcelain… a pre-Raphaelite angel,” Kidman has been busy forging one of the most peculiar and image-challenging filmographies of any working actor in Hollywood.
Her numerous appearances this calendar year—on screens both big and small—are simply an accident of release scheduling. Yet they nonetheless make a collective, convincing case both for her gameness with her material and the precise emotional truth with which she charges any role. That precision is key to her understated delivery in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, where popping from the seams of her buttoned-down demeanor are intense, inconvenient feelings of desire. And it’s hard to think of a less game actor pulling off her character’s black humor in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and, by extension, navigating that character’s choices and conclusions so convincingly.
The apex of Kidman’s year arrived not theatrically, but on television. (And I’m not even talking about Top of the Lake, whose second season I’ve yet to see). With Celeste, the battered wife in Big Little Lies, she brings unparalleled emotional clarity and sensitivity to an emotionally fraught role, one which could so easily have come off as crude or tawdry. Instead, she makes Celeste’s plotline one of television’s most credulous stories ever told about domestic abuse. Kidman gives not just the best performance by any actor on any screen this year. She gives possibly the greatest performance of her career. It’s but the jewel, though, in the crown of an actor as destined for greatness as Cary Grant or Bette Davis were. Hopefully we stop forgetting about her.
Master Moment of 2017
As technology advances, as the smartphone has become less a phone than honorary appendage, how movies and television display the appearance of text messages has grown formally more playful. Perhaps this is for the best; a simple shot/reverse-shot technique can make for a fairly rote interplay between essentially a character and their own hand. No matter how inventive and playful filmmakers get, though, I have a hard time imagining when somebody will match Olivier Assayas’ deceptively straightforward depiction of Maureen’s conversation with an unknown texter in Personal Shopper.
Formally, the sequence doesn’t switch up its pattern much beyond showing text pop up on Maureen’s phone, Maureen reacting, Maureen typing a response, and repeating. Yet what Assayas captures, impeccably, is the staggered cadences and the protracted arc of a texting conversation. The conversation itself begins and ends in fits, as Maureen puts away her phone for a while before coming back to it. But in the scene’s most unsettling moments, Assayas milks the gaze of that phone for every ounce of tension. That we don’t truly know who is sending the phone lends the conversation a unique brand of menace. At the height of tension and menace, we see Maureen hunched eagerly over her phone, at once dreading that ellipsis typing bubble and agonizing over what’s about to be said.
Assayas proves in this scene—along with Kristen Stewart, the only flesh-and-blood character we see—just how effectively cinematic techniques (even the classical ones he employs) can be used to convey the still-novel extension of human interaction technology increasingly affords us. Future filmmakers would do well to study this moment.
Runners-Up: A succession of mourners, BPM (Beats per Minute); The Streep/Hanks/Letts phone call, The Post; A father comforts his son, Call Me By Your Name; Leia lets Holdo say it, Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Danny needs a shoulder to cry on, Lady Bird; How Mom met Dad, Wonderstruck; Diana tries ice cream, Wonder Woman; Miguel sings to his family, Coco; Rose finds the keys, Get Out
Unappreciated Gem of 2017
Usually revenge flicks mean to indulge our queasiest, most reactionary impulses. In all fairness, I guess that’s their prerogative; revenge may be a petty response to anger, but it remains a human one. And quenching such a guilty thirst is at least more ideally accomplished safely within the artifice of fiction. What I love about Jeremy Saulnier’s ultraviolent films, particularly 2014’s Blue Ruin, is how he dares to push those reactionary fantasies to some kind of plausible conclusion that in no way manages to mirror the expected outcome.
Macon Blair, star of Saulnier’s movies and director of this year’s Sundance-hit-turned-Netflix-fodder I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, continues that tradition of interrogating one’s desire for revenge. Blair twists the concept this time, however, by making the revenge-worthy offense far less worthy (a woman’s laptop and silver are stolen), the central philosophy far less cogent (she wants “for people to not be assholes”), and the consequences far more calamitous. Blair’s directorial debut deserved far better than to be hurled into Netflix’s Sarlaac Pit. It is a deeply funny work of absurdist revenge, anchored by Melanie Lynskey’s earnest performance and a sweet supporting turn from Elijah Wood. It ranks among the year’s strongest, most innately watchable comedies, and you should take the time to see it.
I’m serious. Go watch it now.
Runners-Up: Beach Rats, Happy Death Day, Landline, Power Rangers, The Transfiguration, Wonderstruck
Worst Movie of 2017
If Disney has proven nothing else in its ninety-year (and-counting) mission to colonize every nanosecond of the mass entertainment you consume, it’s that a project borne from even the most calculated of motivations might still manufacture a work brimming with creativity and artistry. So when it was announced Disney enlisted director Bill Condon for a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, my favorite of their animated classics, I hardly flinched.
Then I saw the movie.
It’s not so much that Beauty and the Beast is a bad. It’s more that Beauty and the Beast is dead. Dead on the outside, dead on the inside. A ghoulish, soulless, impersonal nostalgia mill whose attempts to resurrect iconic showtunes and indelible characters horrify in unexpected ways even Twin Peaks: The Return couldn’t achieve. The movie is a different beast (heh) from its fellow remakes, which either allowed a great actor to retell the story with fresh perspective (Cinderella) or took a more artful stab at a long-forgotten mediocrity (Pete’s Dragon).
The goal of Condon’s Beauty and the Beast seems solely to recreate the 1991 masterpiece in every way, hoping that alone is sufficient. Perhaps it would have been, had the execution not been so dismal. The plot is carbon-copied, only stretched beyond two hours. The songs are reprised, only performed much terribly. Famous actors inhabit classic roles, only poorly (Emma Watson, an actor I like, has never looked so bored). The “Gaston” song notwithstanding, it seems Condon—a movie musical veteran—can hardly be bothered to choreograph the numbers.
Remakes are in no way an inherent evil; the original film is itself, arguably, a remake. But regarding this Beast, there’s truly nothing there that wasn’t there before.
Runners-Up: The Book of Henry, Bright, Darkest Hour, Death Note, Free Fire, The Snowman
Honorable Mentions (#11 – #25)
Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina) – You know it’s Pixar when even a second-tier product is my favorite work of 2017 animation. If its narrative beats feel overly familiar, Unkrich and Molina transcend formula with stellar music, cultural specificity, and a wrecking-ball ending so predictable, yet so powerful, you don’t even try to step out of its way.
Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan) – Spare, sinewy filmmaking from one of Hollywood’s great over-cookers. Augmented by a novel structure, flawless editing, and replete with moments of pure tension. The purest distillation of everything wonderful about a Christopher Nolan film, stripped of nearly everything we’ve grown weary of. More like this, Chris.
A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio) – An empathetic depiction of the violence inflicted on a body when others believe you’re using it wrong. Those acts Marina endures range from harrowing (physical assault) to quotidian (willful misgendering), but not one of them is made to feel inconsequential. Daniela Vega, who keeps her character’s dignity and self-determination to the forefront of it all, gives one of the year’s finest performances.
The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker) – Cinema’s foremost radical humanist follows up Tangerine with another compassionate, affectionate, not-once-condescending story about economically destitute people and their endearingly bratty kids. Baker allows sympathy for his characters as well as agency, lends credence to hardship without presuming misery, and remembers those ecstatic moments of childhood fun.
Foxtrot (dir. Samuel Maoz) – The first third of this Israeli pseudo-triptych employs cinematography to capture the stifling, bewildering experience of instant grief better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. I’m reluctant to divulge too much plot, because I think surprise here is a most-welcome element. It’s made the Oscars’ foreign film shortlist, and absolutely deserves your attention.
Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) – Impeccably constructed genre entertainment, the consensus movie of the year as ingenious a vessel for its social commentary as the best horror films. It’s one of the few mainstream movies to explore the malevolence of well-meaning whiteness in a genuinely provocative way; a notion far more interesting, frankly, than “racism is bad.” The scraping of spoon against teacup will never sound the same.
Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu) – A small-scale, large-stakes exploration of how we rationalize our morally dubious acts, be it to dismiss the institutions we believe failed us, or to circumvent rules, given more convenient circumstances, we’d ordinarily have no trouble following. Mungiu, among our most essential international directors, brings uncommon weight to the smallest of dramas.
Logan (dir. James Mangold) – The most satisfying superhero movie in a long time (though Wonder Woman was pretty neat too), and not necessarily because it’s grittier or more violent. Like another blockbuster franchise departure to be discussed later, Mangold finds a way to embrace its pulpy roots while finding something real to say about its characters, their disappointments, and their mortality. For Hugh Jackman, it’s one hell of a curtain call for the genre’s best hero.
The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray) – Some have dubbed this biographical account of the British explorer Percy Fawcett as “the woke Indiana Jones.” Don’t assume Gray’s progressive take on Western colonialism somehow dilutes the sense of adventure or discovery. A brisk (perhaps to a fault), transporting, prudent chronicle of a life propelled and doomed by curiosity.
Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees) – An absorbing postwar southern gothic whose humanity outweighs its grimness, though it sure as hell seems like grimness prevails. Dee Rees makes tragedy the central mystery of this tale of two families—one white, one black. When the mystery is revealed, Rees argues the true tragedy is how events brought everybody to that point.
Nocturama (dir. Bertrand Bonello) – A willfully oblique terrorist procedural bound to either frustrate, offend, or transfix. Told from the perspective of roughly a half-dozen young radicals from ethnically diverse and philosophically inconclusive backgrounds, the movie shifts from a hypnotic depiction of process to a subversive skewering of… capitalism? Youth? Ideology? I’m not certain sure, but it’s a helluva ride.
Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas) – Beyond boasting the year’s best scene (see above), this is a gorgeously made ghost story centered by Kristen Stewart’s steely yet vulnerable performance. Hoping this is merely the second effort from a now-essential actor/director pairing.
A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies) – The first half is the best comedy of the year—a deeply wry, deeply dry glimpse at the life of Emily Dickinson as she interrogates the world in her own insular, if nonetheless insightful fashion. If the second half grows necessarily more difficult as that insularity rots, the movie is no less kind in its appraisal of the great American poet.
Whose Streets? (dir. Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis) – A blazing, righteous, clear-eyed account of the Ferguson protestors. An unapologetic advocacy doc told in a style evocative of Barbara Koppel. While its sympathies are unambiguous (don’t expect the “All Lives Matter” crowd to enjoy this), Folayan and Davis allow their subjects to make a case for their wounds, their anger, and their need to be heard.
Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes) – Even Todd Haynes’ weakest films are a cut above most cinema. An overlooked, under-loved children’s mystery unafraid to keep its story rooted in the real world. Pure visual and aural filmmaking. Your kid might be bored stiff, and so might you. That’s cool. But if this movie enchants your kid, it means you’re raising someone pretty special.
Justin’s Top Ten Films of 2017
10) The Wound (dir. John Trengrove)
Trengrove’s little-seen South African gem follows the liaisons between two male Xhosa youth leaders, finding spare moments for each other while counseling teenage boys through their culture’s weeklong circumcision and initiation ritual. With the arrival of one especially reluctant boy—an inquisitive Johannesburg brat pushed into the ritual by a father fearing for his masculinity—his thinly veiled antipathy for his heritage’s sincerely held beliefs disrupts not merely the ritual, but the closeted affair happening behind the scenes. Clocking under 90 minutes, The Wound is as perfect a metaphor for the tangled intersections of masculinity, sexuality, body politics, class, and even colonialism as you’re bound to see this year. It’s also intimately realized, shooting the African landscape in ways that feel alternatively open and intricate, desolate and intimate. It’s worth noting the movie’s depictions are not without critics, but Nakhane Touré’s honest lead performance guides the movie through thorny, difficult questions about how tradition sometimes butts heads with reality.
9) Good Time (dir. Ben and Joshua Safdie)
Have you ever played a video game where the life gauge of your character is depleted to a hazardously low level, and whatever curative spells or tonics at your disposal help only enough to push back that inevitable “Game Over” a few precious minutes? The Safdie brothers’ relentless, armrest-destroying third feature about the resourceful Connie, eager to save himself (and his developmentally disabled brother) from a botched robbery, marvelously captures the desperation of staying one unsustainable step ahead of the inevitable. It is a chase movie replete with hope-draining complications, and soul-sucking solutions. Robert Pattinson embodies Connie’s desperation thrillingly, showing how adeptly he exploits every ounce of privilege and power for another stay of execution. Good Time is an economical, stressful movie about digging the ground for that second shoe to drop another inch deeper, unaware of the grave being dug at the same time.
8) Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
Though it’s equal parts sweet and tart, Greta Gerwig’s astonishingly assured directorial debut is no twee confection. The narrative, depicting the senior year of a precocious middle-class Catholic girl and her difficult relationship to her mom, boasts about as much uniqueness as the nearest #basic white millennial. Yet like all resonant stories rooted in the overly familiar, Gerwig mines the material and unearths something specific and honest, and therefore meaningful. Lady Bird herself, played by Saorise Ronan with inseparable sprite and spite, spends the movie making confident postures about her individuality. She’s either too proud or too unaware to realize just how closely she resembles her own perceived antithesis: a mother (an incredible Laurie Metcalf) not without her own baggage. Gerwig manages a deft, seemingly effortless tonal balance throughout, giving perspective on each character without feeling the need to judge them too harshly. With war, religion, and economic angst ever-broiling in the background, Lady Bird is a personal, affectionate, sharp movie about people figuring out whatever it is that needs figuring out. And, while this well-contained movie encompasses a whole year, Gerwig’s wise enough to understand a year is not nearly enough time.
7) I am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)
The idea of culling thirty pages of unpublished James Baldwin writing for a film, produced for a never-completed memoir on the deaths of his three friends and civil rights icons, is at once an irresistible and terrifying prospect. Tempting as it is to publish the final insights of arguably the 20th century’s greatest American writer—insights on Medgar Evers and Dr. King and Malcolm X, no less—the results could easily have begotten a listless book reading of possibly incomplete thoughts. Raoul Peck’s inventively edited documentary acquits itself with near-immediacy, shrewdly supporting Baldwin’s every insight with archive footage from TV talk shows and debates, grotesque advertising, classic cinema and decades-spanning protest footage, to argue how deeply anti-black racism has seeded itself into American culture and continues to grow. Peck further convinces how that culture comforts white America, enough so that they would resort (and have) to violence to retain that comfort. The bodies of his three friends are proof of that. Peck understands the endurance of Baldwin’s words as much as their prosaic beauty. When Baldwin says “the history of the American negro is the history of America,” Peck’s imagery proves he knows exactly what that means.
6) Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd)
The giddiest pleasure of Lady Macbeth is its ability to deliver what movie marketers often try their darndest to mitigate: surprise.
No movie this year better capitalizes on the slow-setting realization you are not actually watching the movie you originally expected. Oldroyd opens his story of Katherine, a young woman married off to an indifferent husband and an ogre of a father-in-law, as an austere and familiar-feeling prestige drama with gritty feminist underpinnings. Though Katherine expectedly bristles at her societal duties, her impulse toward resistance feels unnervingly caustic. Katherine’s acidic nature becomes destructive, gleefully so, as she indulges every decadence—from boozing it up to fornication with farmhands—to demonstrate how little she cares about the patriarchs in charge of her. Florence Pugh, whose opaque, fearsome determination results in the year’s breakout performance, brilliantly guides that journey from austerity to decadence, before taking it to gloriously horrifying nadirs. Lady Macbeth is trash cinema swaddled in prestige-film sentiments and aesthetics; it’s the year’s great sinful vice.
5) Princess Cyd (dir. Stephen Cone)
The lone weak moment of Princess Cyd, Stephen Cone’s otherwise thrillingly naturalistic drama, involves an element of incidental sexual danger for a woman Cyd, the teenage protagonist, befriends and falls for. It’s a heightening of stakes this movie about Cyd’s visit to her writer aunt in Chicago neither needs, nor proves quite prepared to address. If it feels egregious despite its function to the story, it’s merely because it flies in the face of how perfectly this movie works on the small scale. Cone brings a controlled smallness to his scope of characters. How Cyd and Katie, her barista friend, forge their romantic connection is inherently friendly to cinema (and incidentally, among the stronger depictions of non-binary sexuality I’ve seen). But Cyd’s relationship to her aunt Miranda is this movie’s true heart. Two people bound by blood, separated by tragedy, working as delicately as possible to reconcile their divergent personalities. Princess Cyd is an oil-and-water dramedy served best by its resolute credulity, by its seismic smallness.
4) Faces, Places (dir. Agnès Varda, JR)
To extol the virtues of art often means to speak of its capacity to endure. To cull from the lessons of the past, to weather the trends of the contemporary, and to provide some cosmic link permeating the generations to uncover some immutable fact of the human condition. While that’s all fine and dandy, this beautifully unaffected travelogue makes a convincing case for an art less preoccupied with the eternal, and more willing to embrace the ephemerality inherent to the life that creates it. Varda, among the few surviving titans of the French New Wave, ventures countrywide with a photographer known only as JR to paste graffitiesque prints on old buildings, smokestacks, debris, and stacked shipping containers. Their subjects: whoever happens to live wherever they go. Varda and JR take time to document their subjects’ stories, banal as they may seem, and allow them the chance to witness the finished project.
There is a generosity at the core of Faces Places, made ironically more generous by the fact that the art and its subjects might well be forgotten in due time; wiped from the earth by age, by weather, by memory. But for now, this project means something, because it allows its subjects to see themselves, perhaps for the first time ever, as worthy of art. Because art mightn’t be remembered, doesn’t make the artistry any less pure.
3) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)
It’s a relative miracle the year’s most daring Hollywood blockbuster would come from the franchise with the least inclination to shake things up. With hundreds of millions of dollars and billions of dollars of profits at stake, Hollywood’s towering house of tentpoles increasingly demonstrates the need to mitigate as whatever risk they can find. And sadly, creativity is Hollywood’s riskiest, most unwieldy liability. This is why I seldom find franchise films in my top ten, not even my favorite franchise’s predecessors. And while it overstates things to call The Last Jedi a truly risky venture (some have compellingly argued it’s not risky enough), Rian Johnson kicks down enough of this sandbox’s castles to make this movie a genuinely meaningful departure from what’s come before.
As J.J. Abrams did in The Force Awakens, Johnson first approaches Star Wars like sacred texts in an ancient tree. Yet he interprets the mythos with some sorely-needed irreverence and modernism, lancing its self-seriousness like a boil. Returning characters do not behave quite as expected, or even desired. Characters struggle within their archetypal roles, and they find themselves breaking free. The bad guys deign to have a good point from time to time. Long-held tenets and rules of this movie universe—its exceptional heroes, its foundational myth—are challenged, and even discarded. This is Johnson’s paean to the Star Wars of his youth—of our youth—but he makes the important point Star Wars can’t stay this way forever. To paraphrase with wise words of one classic character in this movie, Star Wars is what The Last Jedi grows beyond.
Most importantly, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars to be about something other than itself. In challenging its inspirational sources, it makes the case true heroism can be mustered through the power of many, perhaps more potently than through the nobility of the few. It recalls those past stories for inspiration, while never forgetting they’re only that. Inspiration to find others similarly inspired, and to create a collective spark in our own galaxy.
2) Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
When he harnessed Adam Sandler’s mercurial rage in Punch Drunk Love, channeling it into something useful, Paul Thomas Anderson proved he had broken free from his Scorsese and Altman influences and found his voice. His voice has since remained so unmistakably his own, it’s impossible to imagine anybody producing remotely similar results for any of his movies. This more than applies to his prickly and peculiar and (deeply, it seems) personal movie about genius couturier Reynolds Woodcock and Alma, the woman who falls under his spell, and then under his thumb. Thread begins as a deceptively austere fairy tale, with Alma embracing for Reynolds’ charms even as his desire to tailor her into the fabric of his own life and existence grows disconcertingly clear. How Alma chafes at his Vertigo-style attempts at transformation, and proceeds to carve her own unique place in the House of Woodcock, comes to a genuinely surprising unfurl.
Like Anderson in real life, I suspect, Reynolds gets called a genius entirely too often. Enough times, at least, to sucker himself into his own delusion, empowering him to craft an existence defined by habit and insularity. And when Alma shows up, she exposes his fragility. Alma’s disruptions are the heart of this wickedly funny costume drama. Vicky Krieps, the movie’s true star, matches Daniel Day Lewis’ increasingly eyeroll-inducing behavior with equal parts exasperation, affection, and fuck-this-shittery. Krieps and a gloriously understated Leslie Manville as Reynolds’ sister, work to make this the rare “great men” movie, made by a “great man” director Anderson, feel all too delighted to puncture its own foundational myth. And while the functional narrowness of the story and characterizations means I should probably stop short of calling the movie feminist (not least because it’s not my designation to make), Phantom Thread’s wry self-awareness makes this the year’s most perverse moviegoing experience. Perhaps it takes a true genius like Anderson to admit the idea of the “genius” is a silly one.
1) BPM (Beats Per Minute) (dir. Robin Campillo)
“Sorry it had to be you.”
A bedridden character tells his boyfriend this late in BPM while waiting, and preparing, for AIDS to consume his body. The starkness of his words fall into relief by the movie’s total absence of another, more common phrase: “I love you.” His words hit even harder, contrasted against how much space queer rights groups devoted this past decade to ensure a sentiment like “I love you” be legally validated. But for those two men, radical activists who fall for each other demonstrating with the 90’s AIDS advocacy group ACT UP Paris, such words are a luxury. Luxury of time, luxury of energy. It’s not that the love isn’t there. It’s just better left to subtext, knowing how their story sprawls well beyond two people in a hospital room.
Don’t let the absence of the word fool you. Campillo’s urgent, joyous portrayal of a community fighting passionately for survival—angrily even—is nothing if not a movie about love. Based on the time Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot spent working for ACT UP Paris, this fictionalized take is (unsurprisingly) a paean, but it’s not hagiography. It operates as a biography of the AIDS crisis, but its narrative scope shares more DNA with Battle of Algiers or Costa-Gavras’ Z than with more personalized AIDS dramas like Dallas Buyers Club or Philadelphia. Campillo’s vision is broader; privileging the experience of the collective body that is ACT UP. His most electrifying moments don’t happen with hospitals or deathbeds or weepy acting—though there’s plenty of that. What electrifies instead is seeing those young, angry activists deliberating weekly in drab classrooms, recapping the successes and the failures of the previous demonstration, brainstorming Gay Pride marching themes, discussing the most precise recipe to make fake blood. It may well be the imminence of death launching these activists to their activism. But what keeps them demonstrating, organizing to the end, is the vitality of a community that must survive them.
Even when BPM narrows its focus—particularly on those two lovers, Nathan and Sean—Campillo never switches from that lens of community. Their partnership, which started with sole thanks to the community they chose to fight alongside, have become two political bodies as part of a body politic. When the movie ends, necessarily with a death, that personal loss is felt. Yet Campillo, whose movie’s structure ingeniously narrows only to bring the story back to the community, ensures that this death feel part of a community. The death, and the preceding life, saddens them. It enrages them. It galvanizes them. And it propels them to act up again.
And afterward, it propels them to the dance club. To celebrate. To fuck. And to love. Because what BPM understands, above all else, is that it takes all these things to keep the march moving forward.