As the year winds down, it’s time to look back at the cinematic achievements that made life in Trump’s America more bearable. No, I haven’t seen every film of 2017—just a huge bunch of them—so rather than make this a “Best of” list, I’ve come up with a bracing bunch of favorites. Here are my (unranked) picks:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The less you know about this film going into it, the better, because its plot unfolds in eye-opening ways you should discover by yourself. I’ll just explain the title by saying that it starts with a small-town woman renting three billboards asking the local police chief why there have been no arrests concerning the rape/murder of her daughter, and from there it erupts into a maze of darkly intriguing reactions and repercussions.
Frances McDormand is spectacular as the furious woman, and the scene where she tells off a priest—saying that even if he hasn’t diddled young boys, he’s culpable for basically having joined a gang where that is done—is Oscar gold. Also terrific are Woody Harrelson as the police chief in a crisis, Sam Rockwell as the phobic cop who needs to be taught some lessons, Caleb Landry Jones as the somewhat shifty billboard renter, and Peter Dinklage as one of the town’s more decent people. The Martin McDonagh-written and directed film has complex characters who are never quite what they seem and who take sharp turns on the road to a possible redemption. A true gem.
In The Fade
This German thriller is another tale of female vengeance, this time with Diane Kruger as a woman whose husband and son were killed in a bomb attack and who basically becomes a terrorist to fight back. Kruger is a powerhouse.
I never miss a Harry Styles war film. And this one—about the legendary WWII battle for survival—is done in a visceral, swirling style that makes it a pretty safe bet for Christopher Nolan to finally get his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.
A wounded Union soldier winds up at a Virginia girls’ school, and since he’s played by Colin Farrell, all the single ladies develop mad crushes on him, followed by intricate games of jealousy and revenge. Sofia Coppola’s remake (also starring Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) is hypnotically enticing and smart. And this does seem to be the perfect year for female vengeance, doesn’t it?
Call Me By Your Name
As for the guys, they’re finding solace in each other. The Luca Guadagnino-directed Tuscany-set 1980s romance involves a surprising interplay between a professor’s son and the professor’s older research assistant, which is pulled off in a leisurely, immaculately conceived way that’s dramatic and heartfelt. It’s great to have a period same-sex love story that eschews the heart wrenching tragedies of Brokeback Mountain. In this case, homophobia is close to nil and no one is destroyed. There are strong performances by Timothée Chalamet and especially Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg in a heady intellectual setting, though it’s the Psychedelic Furs song “Love My Way” that will stick in your gay craw.
Greta Gerwig partly dug into her own Sacramento youth to write/direct this winning film about a girl who insists on calling herself Lady Bird as she battles a perceived sense of oppression from boys, the theater, and a contentious if well meaning mom. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are priceless as Lady Bird and her mother, and there’s a fascinating gay character along the way, plus a touching scene where two girls unselfconsciously go to the prom as a couple.
Spoiler alert: Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name—two coming-of-age films—both end with the lead character snapping out of their haze and responding to their birth name. One more and it’s a trend.
A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon is wonderful as feisty, longing Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies film about the emotional travails of the 19th century poet, and Keith Carradine is also effective as her stern dad. My only gripe is that Dickinson’s free-floating sexuality–“I think she was kind of equal opportunity,” Nixon told me when the film opened—isn’t addressed.
This is a long, witty Swedish film by Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure), in which a curator (Claes Bang) helps use art as a mirror to people’s misguided trust and narcissism. There’s one lengthy sequence that may be the most uncomfortable one of the whole year—and that’s a good review.
Woody Allen gives us another Blanche DuBois-type of unraveling dame. Last time, it was Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, and here, it’s Kate Winslet as a 1950s Coney Island wife who’s lovestruck by a younger man (Justin Timberlake) and seethes with a very dangerous jealousy as Timberlake’s character shifts his interest onto Winslet’s stepdaughter. The climactic scene where Winslet goes full-throttle delusional is beautifully choreographed stuff. Women’s vengeance again!
Todd Haynes’ film juxtaposes two period stories—the better one in color, the other one in black and white—centering on deaf kids’ attempts to find answers in an intimidating world. The plots are littered with too many coincidences, but the assertiveness of the filmmaking is winning, and by time the two threads meld into a finale that ties all the references together, it’s thrilling.
God’s Own Country
Francis Lee’s first feature is another “happier Brokeback Mountain” about a bloke named Johnny who works on his family’s farm in Yorkshire and whose life is turned upside down when Gheorghe, a hot Romanian migrant worker, turns up for some temp action. Johnny has only had quick, loveless sex romps with men, but with Gheorghe, he finds a frisky partner with whom he ultimately finds tenderness. The movie is raw, accessible, and very hot.
A post-WWII Mississippi farm is the setting for this searing look into racism, peppered with well written interior monologues that illuminate the agendas. Director Dee Rees adapted the Hillary Jordan novel, and Mary J. Blige scores as a wife and mother of a sharecropping family, so please don’t tell her “no more drama.”
Sympathy for Tonya Harding, the trashy-seeming figure skater whose goons bashed competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the knee? Yes, you’ll feel some after seeing this story (told in a faux documentary style) about the way Tonya’s monster mom pushed and belittled her, and the way her husband, Jeff Gillooly, allegedly did her wrong in so many ways.
Margot Robbie is very good as the gal who briefly feels loved when her skating is winning kudos, only to become an international punchline; Allison Janney is perfect as the corrosive ma; and for once, the gimmick of having characters talk directly to the camera is far from annoying. (By the way, Kerrigan is barely in the film as a character. As screenwriter Steven Rogers said at a Rainbow Room Gallery luncheon last week, he thought it was more interesting to focus on the people who thought this scheme was a good idea.)
The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War-era fable has an enchanting Sally Hawkins as a mute woman who tries to save a scaly, misunderstood (but well hung) creature she identifies with. Richard Jenkins gives good gay support, and this would be a sort of retelling of the obscure Liza Minnelli film Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (or just another variation on Beauty and the Beast), except for the sumptuous visuals and score. It’s not much of a thriller—the allegories verge on precious—but the ambience is swell, and there are homages to old movie epics and musicals.
Also: Get Out, The Disaster Artist, Detroit, and many others.
After Dark, My Sweet
Mind you, I haven’t just been looking at movies nonstop; I’ve also taken in some actual humans. I certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to see performance treasure Murray Hill, in blinding plaid, do his annual Christmas show, filling Joe’s Pub with raucous music, laughs, and good cheer.
Murray claimed to be wearing a lot of Spanx underneath that plaid—“Spanx is condoms for chubby people”—as he entertainingly brought an array of guest stars who were backed by the Craig’s List Quartet: Angie Pontani, who did a sumptuous striptease; Maritza Bostic, who stopped waiting tables for a few minutes to deliver a socko version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (She ended up with extra large tips, I’m sure); Nick Baker, Murray’s nine-year-old nephew, in David Bowie hair and makeup, doing a swell “Little Drummer Boy” with Murray (a nod to the Bowie/Bing Crosby duet of the song on TV); and Amy Schumer fave Bridget Everett, who slayed (or sleighed) with a “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duo with Murray, plus a zippy cover of an old novelty song about tree trimming. By the end, when Santa showed up, it didn’t bother me at all that it was actually Murray. In fact, I was thrilled.
Chelsea Piers did a fabulous show at Boots & Saddle, where the drag performer rocks Tuesdays with singing, lip sync, and funny patter. (Chelsea said she was hoping for a Chanukah miracle, specifically that the #2 train wouldn’t go local when she went home.) Best of all, Chelsea showed a clip from the TV show Shade: Queens of NYC, which she’s on, but it wasn’t just any old clip. It was the one where rival drag stars Paige Turner and Tina Burner go after each other with mutual loathing, tearing into each others’ alleged skeeviness, while underscoring their own credits. The scariest thing of all about this showdown is I happen to know it’s real.
At the party for Agatha Christie’s Crooked House at Metrograph, I caught up with a whole bunch of Broadway babies, which solved the mystery of why I was so happy all of a sudden. Wesley Taylor (Sheldon Plankton in SpongeBob SquarePants) was there with Isaac Powell (Daniel in Once on This Island), who told me that his show’s goat actually has an understudy! (And a diaper, though it doesn’t always work, alas.) Book of Mormon Tony winner Nikki M. James was there, telling me that the four chickens who alternate in Once on This Island have the names of Dreamgirls characters. (“Yeah, but they’re all jerk chicken,” I cracked). And another ex-Mormon, Andrew Rannells, showed up, so I congratulated him on the upcoming Boys in the Band revival and told him I’ve long advocated in favor of the play. Mercifully, he told me that director Joe Mantello will not take an embarrassed approach to presenting it. From there, we discussed The Room—the basis of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist—though Rannells said he stopped watching after the breast cancer scene. Yikes. That’s when most fans of the film really get into it.
On a more serious note, Alvin Ailey’s season at City Center provided the expected thrills when I caught up with the troupe Thursday evening. The jazzy pieces—including “Night Creature”, “r-Evolution”, “Dream,” and “The Winter in Lisbon”—were lovely, meaningful, and bravura. A night with Ailey is always so stimulating and elevating that you run out of adjectives by the end of it.
And lastly: Scotland Zeif tells me he helped the Howard Stern Show’s Joey Boots write his autobiography before Joey died last year. (It’s available on Amazon.) “I see Joey’s life as like a gay pinball game,” says Zeif. “Always trying to find a place, but not quite getting there. Then when he almost gets there, becoming self-destructive. I think being closeted really impacted his self-confidence and ability to be stable. But even the sad and tragic parts are done in good fun and his dark humor fills the book. Boots was incredibly graphic and open with me.” Are you ready, Boots? Start talking.
On Broadway: The aggressively weird three-character drama The Children by Lucy Kirkwood is framed by two bleeding scenes, and in between, purposely mundane chatter turns darker, as the characters grapple with fears of aging and issues of responsibility. A nuclear power plant is one of many symbols in the play, set in an English cottage, and the script is also dotted with some hair pulling, slapping, and a wanly executed line dance that’s funny yet intentionally a bit creepy in its lack of affect.
Hints of Beckett, Pinter, and Martin McDonagh pop up in the play, which is well performed by the London cast members Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, and Deborah Findlay. And other than that, I don’t know what to say, children, except perhaps check it out if this sounds like your cup of sour tea. I’ve run out of adjectives!