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Top 20 Films of 2018: #19- Paddington 2

I have a real frenemy relationship with my own expectations. They have their uses. They’re good for making predictions and they’re fun to gossip with. Still, when all is said and done, I consistently root for them to look stupid. I live to see them proved wrong. I love seeing my cinematic expectations get crushed. Is there any feeling better than being surprised by a film? We inevitably bring certain expectations into the theater with us. For as much as I try to clear my mind of any prejudgments and extracurricular baggage before a screening, it’s impossible to keep my overly active brain from forming some premature impressions about what it’s about to watch. Predictions about the film’s quality, thoughts about the source material, suspicions about who the movie is catering to, and feelings about the director and actors’ past work. There may be no better example of me wrongly saddling a film with expectation and prejudgment than Paul King’s 2014 film, Paddington. Prior to its release, the Internet had itself a field day mocking the films marketing, and I can’t deny that it was a lot of fun to witness at the time. The film’s posters showed the delicately drawn cartoon bear now rendered into an uncanny actual bear though what initially appeared to be hideously misjudged CGI. The sweet little ursine looked nightmarish. His fur was realistic to the point of feeling fake and his beady bear eyes peered out with lifeless, alien apathy. Memes flooded the Internet, transporting this ursine member of the Uncanny Valley into various classic horror movie posters, where his dead-eyed stare felt perfectly, hilariously at home. The marketing was a terrible joke, and beyond that many assumed the movie itself would just be no good. That it would take a gentle, whimsical figure of child literature and plug him into the latest homogenous piece of slapstick spectacle. Another crass, CGI-infested product in a cinema landscape littered with it. The knives were out for Paddington and we all had our reasons. We all ended up being very, very wrong. Paddington turned out to be a remarkably winning, charming little film. We weren’t just wrong about its general quality, but also about its very nature. What was expected to be crass and garish was genuinely heartfelt, creative and fun. And the little bear mocked for his creepy lifelessness has now turned out to be one of the most sweetly vivacious, heartwarming characters in the whole of 21st century cinema. Paul King’s first Paddington film far exceeded the expectations set for it. And, for as much as I was now prepared for Paddington 2 to actually be good, it utterly obliterated whatever expectations one might attach to a sequel to a surprisingly good family film starring a CGI bear. Paddington is a fine, fine film. Paddington 2 is an instant classic. A new masterwork in the family film genre, fit to be uttered in the same breath as Babe.

The story structure of Paddington 2 is a thing of simple elegance. The first film was about how Paddington (Ben Whishaw, making unflappable kindness subtle and interesting), a young Peruvian bear being raised by his adoptive aunt and uncle, leaves the Andes to fulfill his Aunt Lucy’s longtime dream of seeing London. Paddington was about a kind little bear setting off for a new place and finding a new home and family with the Browns. The Browns. The Brown household consists of gruffly accommodating accountant Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), kindhearted illustrator Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins, channeling the same effortless tenderness that made her so terrific in The Shape of Water), their teenage children Jonathan and Judy, and their tartly funny no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Bird (the great Julie Walters). Paddington was about the polite, diminutive bear winning his way into the Browns’ hearts, finding a new home, brightening the world around him through his soft-spoken positivity, and tangling with a colorful villain. Paddington 2 is more of the same in the very best way. What these films have going for them is vibrant color, confident charm, and gently side-splitting humor. Part of what makes Paddington 2 such an improvement over its lovely predecessor is that there is no need for table-setting. London is now very much Paddington’s home and Paul King has more time to spend just enriching his world and its inhabitants, through wit, emotion, and splendidly choreographed spectacle. Another way Paddington 2 improves on Paddington is through a tremendously fun and interesting villain. The first film’s villain was a depraved and chilly taxidermist with a vendetta, played in a perfectly good performance by Nicole Kidman. In Paddington 2, antagonist duties go to Hugh Grant, having the time of his life and giving quite possibly the performance of his career. Grant plays Phoenix Buchanan, a once-celebrated London stage actor now mostly forgotten and relegated to appearing in wonderfully humiliating dog food commercials. Paddington runs afoul of Phoenix when he finds a beautifully ornate and very expensive pop-up travel book of London that he wants to buy for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. Aunt Lucy’s dream was to visit London and Paddington sees the book as a small way of helping her experience that dream. The rub is that Phoenix Buchanan knows the book is also secretly a treasure map, and finding its riches is the only way he can finance his long-delayed one man comeback show. Paddington gets a series of jobs to try to earn money for the book, while the vain, selfish Phoenix Buchanan connives to steal it from the store. Eventually, mishap and misunderstanding land Paddington in prison for burglary, while Phoenix remains free to carry out his treasure hunt. As he does everywhere he goes, Paddington makes unlikely friends in prison, including a curmudgeonly bruiser of a chef named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson, brilliantly funny). While the Browns try to clear Paddington’s good name, Paddington transforms a maximum security prison into a charming, pastel-tinted luxury spa all through the power of cheerfulness and marmalade sandwiches.

And, on paper, maybe that all sounds like too much sugary sentiment for any one film to have on its hands. Perhaps it all sounds like having nothing but marmalade (or mah-mah-lade, as Knuckles hilariously pronounces it) for a meal. There is precious little irony in Paddington 2, which is one way that a film can temper its sentimentality. Paddington 2 is absolutely dripping in good-natured, kindly emotion. And somehow it all works. It works by leaning into its unabashedly earnest nature. It is probably ten times more sentimental than I can convey in words, and it all completely and totally works. It doesn’t just function, it soars every level of filmmaking. It succeeds in the same way Singin’ In the Rain succeeds. As it turns out, you can make a great film that is utterly saturated in sweetness and joyful emotion if you are smart and fearless about how you approach it. Our intrepid hero is unafraid of being judged for his kindness, his thoughtfulness or his sincerity and the movie follows his lead. Like Singin’ In the Rain, Paddington 2 is an open-hearted, joyous feast of color, sound, and comedic setpieces. Paddington 2 is unfiltered joy in cinematic form. It radiates generosity and good humor from its every frame. It journeys into a dank prison because it knows that whatever sorrow is in there doesn’t stand a chance against it. The gloomiest raincloud is powerless in the face of its benevolence. Almost every character is charming and nice. Most of the movie’s sourpusses quickly succumb to Paddington 2’s onslaught of kindness and good will. And the film’s one outright villain is hysterically funny and a consistent hoot to watch. Paddington 2 is just too confident and purposeful in its joyfulness to ever feel saccharine. It rallies love, warmth, sweetness and color and marches them into battle against the forces of darkness.

In our fractious times, rife with discord, bigotry and trolling, kindness starts to look more and more like a radical act. One of 2018’s big success stories was Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers documentary, Wont You Be My Neighbor?. I like that movie quite a lot, but I think Paddington 2 is fighting for the same cause with quite a bit more flair. Paddington 2 has a sharp, witty screenplay full of insightful lines, but the most instantly iconic may be the mantra Paddington picked up from Aunt Lucy and that he passes on to the stubbornly petulant Knuckles McGinty. “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” In its sweet, effervescent way, Paddington 2 is out to fight back against the notion of kindness as weakness. It is about love and selflessness as sources of strength and courage. There may be no better example of virtue as something powerful than when Knuckles insults Aunt Lucy and Paddington give him one of his aunt’s patented hard stares. It is a fixed, unwavering look of disapproval. It is not outwardly aggressive, but it is unflinching in its moral censure. When someone does wrong by you, you do not need to insult them or harm them back, but you let them know they have acted out of turn and you do not back down. As Knuckles blanches in discomfort, Paddington explains, “My Aunt Lucy taught me to do them when people have forgotten their manners.” This is a scene of genuine power. I found myself tearing up a bit. And then I shook my head and laughed, remembering that time five years ago when I mocked that Paddington poster for not appearing emotionally expressive enough. Just look at him now. There may not be a single facial expression in all of 2018 film with more simple, expressive power than that hard stare. Paddington 2 announce that we should feel resilient in our decency and never look back. When we find rudeness and spitefulness out in the world, we don’t have to respond with more negativity. But we should not hesitate to make hate squirm.

In my review for Lady Bird, my favorite film from 2017, I started a new annual tradition. I like to call it the Damp Face Award. The honor goes to whatever film leaves me with teary eyes for the greatest percentage of its runtime. A film can win the Award through sadness, humor or naked emotion, but any film wins is probably going to have some combination of all three. The Damp Face Award favors laughter and pathos, two qualities that I value highly in my films. This year saw no shortage of emotionally strong work, but Paddington 2 wins the 2018 Damp Face Award handily. It is a film of bottomless heart and wit. I cannot overemphasize how very, very funny it is both verbally and visually. It is also an overwhelmingly poignant film. Paul King’s family opus is tremendously fun and inventive, from the prison shenanigans to Phoenix Buchanan’s amazing, endless stream of costume changes when committing his crimes. But the film’s stroke of genius for me is that its central story arc is so simple and generous. Paddington loves his Aunt Lucy dearly, appreciates here years of support and sacrifice (the film smartly opens with a flashback of Aunt Lucy rescuing the orphan cub Paddington from a Peruvian river), and wants to give some portion of that kindness back to her. It is the reason that Paddington 2 can be the giddy, colorful, digressive whirligig that it is and still feel so grounded and cohesive. Paddington 2 is about the power of simple, selfless acts and it is about being grateful for the people (and bears) who love us. Without spoiling anything, the film concludes with a small act of kindness so genuinely heartfelt and overwhelmingly meaningful that any list of the decade’s best endings would be incomplete without it. It is such a refreshingly simple; a gesture and four words. Realizing that this little moment was what this entire film had been building toward completed walloped me. It felt so perfectly scaled to the compassionate little family film around it, but I was unprepared for its power. Even in very good family films, one does not expect moments this intimate, emotional, and well-observed.

I’ve been telling anyone who asks and a few who don’t that my favorite quality in 2018 cinema is how hungry the filmmakers seemed. The great works of the past year left me with a lot to think about and unpack, and that is what reviews are for. But they also felt so immediately satisfying in the moment I was watching them. There’s a feeling almost beyond words when a film is clicking into lace while you’re watching it. I chalk it up to conviction and exuberance, and there were few films in this or any other year with as much infectious exuberance as Paddington 2. It’s an infectiously exuberant film about the transformative, transportive power of infection exuberance. And that’s not just something it’s selling to its audience. Paddington 2 is also its own most loyal customer. It is a symphony of goodness that builds and builds upon itself. It is a rare and beautiful thing to find a family film with this degree of zest and directorial prowess. The same goes for sequels. And that rare quality becomes even more astounding when we factor in that this is a sequel to a family film based on a very British children’s book series about a talking, marmalade-loving Peruvian bear exploring jolly old England. I have no conceivable idea of what the expectation is or should be for a film like that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe that’s as it should be.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #20- A Star Is Born

It’s always fun to look at my yearly Top 20 and identify patterns and present-day applications; themes that stand out across multiple films and messages that speak to the world we live in. That said, while there are a number of recurring ideas across 2018 cinema (cycles of abuse, familial histories, the ever-presence of classism, and the continuing struggle over racial inequality), what really defines 2018 as a year in film  for me is that it just tasted so incredibly good. Regardless of genre, what I found in my film-going year was a wonderful abundance of flavor. The defining feature of this year’s cinematic menu, from the most heartwarming comedy to the most austerely despairing indie drama, was a sense of luscious, swaggering vitality. It was a year with gumption, brio, and full-throated spirit. In that context, having a film as marvelously sumptuous as A Star Is Born begin my year-end list feels fitting. Bradley Cooper’s stirring directorial debut is a fine banner carrier for a year that had no shortage of swagger. A year full of relationships writ large and with infectious flair. Of old ideas carried out with such infectious panache, they made you want to forever ban the use of such a presumptuous and dismissive term as “old ideas”. 2018 saw such disparate and well-established breeds as the Western, the space exploration period piece, the teen coming-of-age film, and the workplace comedy approached with originality, yes, but more than anything, with splendid faith in the ability of rich characters, poignant emotion, and keen ideas to spark life into the most familiar genres. Such a wealth of the year’s films trod old roads while allowing us to feel like we have never noticed them this way before. It is altogether fitting that Bradley Cooper’s arresting and heartfelt riff on an oft-told story should start off this set of reviews, not only because it is such a sterling example of how to make an old form feel fresh, but also because revitalizing old forms is practically the film’s mission statement. Late in A Star Is Born, one character opines to another that all of music is really only some combination of the same twelve notes played out again and again. It is not all that often that music, film, or any other art form sees some radical new development. Most artists will inevitably find themselves using tried and true methods to tell their stories. What matters then is not so much the old song itself as the small, emotional nuances of the singer. The modulations and phrasing and where the singer allows her voice to crack and strain with vulnerabilities. Originality and innovation are fine things and we should always honor those who seek to push art forward in bold new ways. But there is also something to be said for those who can find inspiration within the lines of what already exists. When an artist performs an old standard with true conviction, there is no such thing as the same old song.

The notion of finding new life in an old-fashioned story is an important one for A Star Is Born, not only because it belongs to a long-standing tradition of stories about fame and the rise and fall of artistic fortunes, but because it is also no less than the fourth iteration of this particular cinematic property. The kinds of music the two romantic leads play has changed between versions of A Star Is Born. And in the earliest version, from 1937, the two leads were not musicians at all but rather actors. But the basic skeleton has always been that an older artist, famous but well past the zenith of his career, finds and helps to establish an undiscovered female talent. The films are about the relationship between the two leads, the joys and trials of fame, and balancing success with artistic integrity. More than anything, the hook is always that we are watching the ascension of a new star while a former star falls, beautifully and tragically, out of the sky. We first meet our old star, alt-country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, in a splendid mixture of histrionic swagger and subtle nuance that may as well be the film in miniature), at a concert where is he is already years into tumbling from his peak. He plays “Black Eyes’, the first of A Star Is Born’s numerous strong songs, and he sounds very good. Still, he is plainly drunk and staggering his way through the motions. The number cuts off midway through to a flurry of flashbulbs, as Jackson slips into the protection of his limousine and bottle of scotch. Slurring his words, he asks his driver to find him a bar somewhere in the nameless city he has just played to. He ends up in a cozy, dimly lit drag bar on the night of its weekly cabaret show. Here we meet our second star, Ally (Lady Gaga, in a powerful, confident, and subtle performance), a young, recently divorced Italian-American woman living at home with her working-class father (Andrew Dice Clay, lending lovely humor and shading to a small role) and putting in shifts at a thankless catering job to pay their bills. We gather that this cabaret night is probably the one release valve in a never-ending grind of frustrations and narrowly missed opportunities. Ally is a tremendously gifted singer and performer, as she demonstrates to the audience and to Jackson Maine when she strides across the bar to give a fiery, deliciously vampy rendition of “La Vie En Rose”. Jackson is instantly blown away and he asks her friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos, who played one of Alexander Hamilton’s friends in Hamilton), to take him backstage for an introduction. Their chemistry and shared love of music is immediately apparent, and so the meeting quickly turns into an impromptu date that climaxes with a heartfelt, breathlessly intimate conversation at 2:00 AM in an empty supermarket parking lot. Here Jackson shares the details of his dysfunctional, blue-collar upbringing and Ally reveals the first glimpses of her stellar songwriting talent. Within what feels like twenty-four hours, Jackson has invited Ally to meet him on tour in Arizona, where he invites her onstage to sing a full arrangement of the song she showed him on their first date. That song is a blazing chart-topper called “Shallow”, which has now gone from being a massive hit in a raved film to being a massive hit on the real world Billboard charts. The moment where Ally must summon the courage to take the stage is one of the most breathtakingly, breath-holdingly rapturous in any film this year. Lovers and detractors of A Star Is Born cite this moment as the film’s blissful apex, and it should be. In a film about two careers and lives, one soaring toward its peak and one plummeting to its inevitable demise, it only makes sense that the brightest moment would be that brief span of time when their arcs cross with one another. Where the film goes from there is increasingly less ecstatic and joyful as Jackson grapples with his addictions and professional insecurities, and as Ally faces the compromises that are part and parcel of mainstream success. Some see that dip in euphoria as a detriment to the film and I will concede that A Star Is Born is probably never quite as exquisite as a sheer piece of filmmaking in its back half. On the other hand, that seems entirely the point. This old story is very much about a kind of artistic hangover for both of its protagonists. The moment when the artist either loses their relevance never to get it back or when they catapult to such wild heights of success that the act of creating and performing can no longer be as joyful or sweetly uncomplicated as it once was. If “Shallow” feels like an Eden that the rest of the film can never quite return to, I would argue that is very much by Bradley Cooper’s design. A Star Is Born is a lot of giddy, heart-swelling fun in all of its spectacle and romance. But it is also finally a tragic melodrama, and anyone taken aback or disappointed by its descent into dysfunction, jadedness and sorrow has forgotten the very specific old torch ballad that Gaga and Cooper are crooning. Bradley Cooper has radically revitalized this property, but the song is still the song.

And the fact that this is fundamentally the same A Star Is Born is really the great achievement of the film. Or rather it’s the notion that we would forget what movie this is for even a minute. The film hits its potentially clichéd story beats with such passion and thunderous force in its first half that we scarcely notice how familiar those beats actually are. There are countless rise and fall biopics. There are countless romances like that of Ally and Jackson Maine. But all that stops mattering in the time we spend with them because they feel so specific and real. It is a wondrous cinematic magic trick to make an audience momentarily forget all the strings of plot and archetype dangling right in front of their faces the whole time. We suffer through a great many flat, uninspired romance films year after year. Audiences clearly have a hunger to see people in love, but so few of the talent Hollywood entrusts to capture love on screen seem to truly have their hearts in it most of the time. There seems to be a kind of disrespectful presumption that the people who want to see love stories are not picky; that, when push comes to shove, quality is secondary and people will get their romantic narrative fix through any means available to them. And, at the risk of sounding trite, I think the grand human emotion that is love deserves a whole lot better than what it gets throughout most of the film year. In its swelling, old-fashioned, star-studded way, A Star Is Born is one of the best films of recent years to capture the scope of what it feels like to fall head over heels for a person. Really, the reason that “Shallow” is such a breathtaking display of emotional fireworks isn’t just that it captures what it would feel like to finally have your moment in the spotlight. It is more than that. It is about what it would feel like to rocket to fame overnight and find the love your life in the same exact instant. It is frankly almost absurd in its delirious wish fulfillment. This is not a subtle kind of love. A Star Is Born’s romantic poetry is not scribbled delicately upon napkins and diary pages. It is written in plumes of pink smoke across the sky and emblazoned in black block letters on the marquees of sold out stadiums. And yet, so help me, there is real nuance here amidst all that jaw-dropping scope. A Star Is Born is a film that feels enormous, yet still has a canny way of filigreeing its large-scale imagery with tiny nuances. This is nothing like real-world romance. It really is the quintessence of a love that can happen only in the movies. But its epicness is also unfailingly intimate in an almost paradoxical way. Somehow, in all its larger-than-life spectacle, its romance feels completely right.

And, really, it’s not just the love scenes. Everything about A Star Is Born balances an almost impossible grandiosity with smaller flourishes. Its lovelorn music world feels like a flashy Technicolor marvel, but one that you can actually imagine real human beings existing in. Its concert stages and music halls feel like Mount Olympuses and also like fond, familiar spaces where performers line up celebratory shots of Jack Daniels just offstage for a little pre-encore courage, and where megastars still huddle together in little pep circles like nervous sixteen year olds about to perform in a high school play. The allure of A Star Is Born isn’t just in how dazzling its world is. It is also about what it would feel like to suddenly call this big, crazy show-biz milieu your own. I cannot recall the last time I saw such a fascinating mixture of spectacle and intimacy. When Jackson proposes to Ally with a ring fashioned from a bass guitar string, it feels totally appropriate for two musicians in love. But that image of the knotted metal chord encircling Ally’s finger also feels huge, like something one might see on a rock ‘n’ roll album cover. I had to think for a moment just to make sure I hadn’t seen it in some Guns ‘n’ Roses music video. That, and every other thing about A Star Is Born, would feel ridiculously bombastic if its emotions were not so sweetly sincere; if its performances were not so beautifully raw, real, and committed. That goes not only for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who both do spectacularly charismatic work, but for a wealth of smaller roles and single-scene parts. From Sam Elliott conveying years of love and fraught history as Jackson’s beleaguered older brother and road manager, to Dice Clay’s proud, lovably embarrassing Italian patriarch, to Anthony Ramos as Ally’s protective and playful companion on the road to fame. The brief appearance of Jackson Maine’s cheerful and capable tour assistant Gail made me imagine an equally fun and stirring film about the backstage life of an assistant to an aging alcoholic rockstar. I could watch a series about the sardonic, loving family of drag show performers at the bar where Ally and Jackson first meet. I think what Bradley Cooper demonstrates here is an ability to make a lavish Hollywood entertainment with all the layered observational quality of a fine indie drama. It is tremendously exciting to think of the trend a film like this could incite. Gloriously big, swooning exravaganzas with sharp scripts and rich, method-style performances. The one time Daniel Day Lewis appeared in a musical (Rob Marshall’s Nine) the results were mixed at best, but maybe Bradley Cooper is the man to make that seemingly incongruous combination finally sing.

My single favorite moment in A Star Is Born is not just “Shallow” but a specific moment within the “Shallow” performance. After Ally finishes her first verse, to ecstatic cheers, she stands agape and overcome and the song begins to build to its bridge of gorgeous, frenzied caterwauling. Ally has been standing at one of the backup microphones downstage. We have just seen her muster up all her courage and will power to even walk this far. Suddenly, Jackson beckons her forward and she makes the fateful walk to the lead microphone. We follow her in a tight tracking shot as she crosses that important bit of space that separates anonymity from stardom. From backup vocalist to center stage diva all in a matter of seconds and steps. There is just something so very satisfying about the blocking of this scene. It made me think about the real physical space that a rising star like Ally would occupy. For as much as A Star Is Born might be a giddy fantasia of the pop music world, Cooper puts exquisite care into thinking about the concrete details of this world. A Star Is Born may be unadulterated romantic wish fulfillment, but, like the very best dreams, it feels palpably real while you’re in it. And, if nothing else, the genuine thoughtfulness and care of how these stage scenes are choreographed gives A Star Is Born one of its very best qualities: sheer, exuberant conviction. Even scenes that don’t feel quite like they might in real life, like Ally’s performance on Saturday Night Live, have an impressionistic kind of emotional authenticity. Maybe this is not what the real SNL studio space looks like, but the details sure feel true. Nervously holding your breath before your first official televised appearance. Standing next to Alec Baldwin in the dark in total silence until the producer gives you both the hand signal to head to your marks. When Jackson Maine is asked to play backup guitar for a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammys, the Roy Orbison banner hanging behind the band looks monumentally large. I thought about all the crafts that go into making something pop visually on television; how colorful and gigantic everything must to be to register for the viewer, and how disorienting and surreal it must be to be surrounded by all of that. The wild, colorful bric-a-brac of show business. And, of course, as A Star Is Born increasingly turns into a story of addiction and self-destructive excess, the feeling of being dwarfed and swallowed up by the glitzy machinery of fame starts to take on the double function of letting us into Jackson Maine’s headspace. It places us in Ally’s headspace too. Stardom must be an intoxicating place to fine oneself, and perhaps even more to lose oneself. In its detailed imagining of the spaces of the music world, A Star Is Born once again feels true to life while also being ten times larger than life.

A Star Is Born is a marvelous work of acting, music, and directorial craft, but what finally makes it such a superb representation of what 2018 did right is that it reminds us that we can go back to wells that are decades or even centuries-old and still find life there. This film is no less than the fourth cover of this specific old story, and this general kind of story has been covered ever so many times more than that. The film is not the tiniest bit ashamed of that fact. It is giddy with delight to add its voice to a long-standing narrative tradition. The myriad hoary tropes set up for it to crash into and trip over turn out not to be stumbling blocks. Instead, it uses them as obstacles to nimbly dash around, leap from and parkour over. Subverting cliché while embracing it is not just part of the show. It is the feature. It is what A Star Is Born wants to offer its audience. I left this soaringly tragic melodrama with an elated tingle in my temples. Bradley Cooper had taken an old song, struck up the band, and roared at the top of his lungs, “Once more with feeling!” A Star Is Born makes formula feel moving and thrilling. It turns cliché into an equestrian course. Having a film this feverish, romantic, compelling, and downright assured in every facet eke its way into my year-end list is a firm declaration that 2018 was the finest film year in quite some time. And if A Star Is Born is not the year’s most altogether perfect film, it makes up for that handily by sounding a galvanizing rallying cry, to all the first-timers, developing talents, and wise veterans we were privileged to see make movies this year. Everybody, listen up. The rookie’s got something to say. Whatever we choose to say should be said with passion, hunger and raw emotion. This old medium of ours is still a baby with its best, most beautiful works ahead of it.  And everything old under the Sun is new again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #1- Lady Bird

I am recently thirty-six years old and I am unashamed to say that I tear up in movies. I tear up in them more now than I did two years ago, which was already considerably more than I did five years before that. It’s been an escalating trend with me. As a young teenager, it would happen with a select handful of films, the most reliable of which was, and maybe still is, Field of Dreams, that lovely plate of steak and potatoes that I still love so well. If I was ever offered a million dollars to cry on cue, humming the closing strains of James Horner’s “The Place Dreams Come True” would be about as reliable strategy as I can name. But as I grow older and ever more in love with the cinema, it takes less and less to make my eyes mist over. I spent the closing hours of one of my dating anniversaries blubbering like an infant to the final monologue of Mrs. Doubtfire on TNT, while my future fiancé lay blissfully passed out and blessedly oblivious to my shameful little display. Now that the dam in front of my moviegoing retinas has completely crumbled, the most liberating revelation has been realizing that it doesn’t take sadness or even a particularly dramatic kind of joy to get the tears flowing. I can tear up at comedies, dramas, thoughtful documentaries, musicals, and droll animated films. And so, just as I did with The Florida Project (my other favorite film of 2017), I have come up with a term to describe my official number one film of 2017. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s lyrical, witty, sweetly observant, and deliriously humanistic high school dramedy, is the quintessential Damp Face Movie TM. What this means is that there was nary a moment in this priceless, compact little gem of a movie where my eyes weren’t dewy and glistening in the best possible ways. To be clear, the Damp Face honor (I am now considering handing the award out annually) doesn’t just go to a film that makes my eyes well up. This is not an award for the film with the biggest cry (which surely goes to The Florida Project’s roundhouse kick of an ending), but the film that holds my eyeballs in a suspended state of emotional catharsis for as much of its runtime as possible. Lady Bird has moments of riotously funny humor, impossibly endearing human interactions, and stirring pathos, and it plays each those notes in a way that is clear, unpretentious, and undeniably affecting. It pirouettes between all its emotional poles with astounding finesse. It glides around them as if there were no distinction between laughter, thoughtful reflection, and melancholy. In so doing, it becomes that deceptively trick, rare thing that only the very best of such films can manage to be: utterly, authentically human. In a year that offered some astounding cinematic achievements, the most jaw-dropping of all of them was just to watch Greta Gerwig walk out on stage with humble, self-deprecating composure and deliver the softest, most unassuming knockout punch in all of 2017 cinema. Lady Bird is a sparkling comedy and an emotional juggernaut fused seamlessly together. It is a tearjerker of uncanny, sprightly effervescence; an intoxicatingly soulful character study to have you smiling through bleary eyes.

 

One of Lady Bird’s finest qualities is that it takes a genre that is not often particularly inspired and reminds us that it can be lively, deep, and invigorating. Every category of art deserves its masterworks, those great entries that remind us that brilliance can happen in any form. Hair metal has its Appetite For Desctruction. The parody film has Young Frankenstein. And now, with full respect to terrific movies like Mean Girls, The Spectacular Now, and Clueless, I believe the high school movie may have just served up its filet mignon in Lady Bird. Lady Bird is simply the story of one year, Senior year to be exact, in the life of a seventeen-year old Sacramento native named Christine MacPherson. She has bestowed herself with the name Lady Bird as a means of carving out some semblance of individuality that she believes her Catholic school and the sprawling capitol city around it do not provide her. In a breezy ninety-seven minutes, we follow Lady Bird through her last year as a high schooler, as she navigates her social world and waits to see what colleges will accept her. Her mediocre grades mean she will probably end up at a nearby public university, but she dreams of attending some lofty East Coast institution where she will be steeped in the kind of highbrow culture she feels her hometown lacks. In an attempt to stand out on her applications, Lady Bird ends up auditioning for the school play with her shy, big-hearted and bookish friend Julie (Jonah Hill’s younger sister, Beanie Feldstein, splendidly sweet and almost unthinkably endearing). She also forms a crush on the school’s best actor, an earnest red-headed young man named Danny (Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges, adding another impressive performance to his extremely promising young career). Lady Bird’s fractious, begrudgingly fond relationship with the city of Sacramento (the city where Greta Gerwig herself grew up) and her efforts to one day escape its orbit are nominally the plot of the film, though Lady Bird is so intuitively an emotional character study that I never think of it in such linear terms. It is more a cohesive, insightful, and funny series of impressions from one fateful year in a young woman’s life, like a delightfully heartfelt and impeccably written collection of diary pages. It is an empathetic assortment of touching, ticklish, and engaging anecdotes that let us in to the good-natured, sometimes pseudo-intellectual, and always rebellious soul of its protagonist. It is also about getting to know Lady Bird’s world and the many people in it, all brought to beautiful, bristling life by 2017’s best ensemble cast. This is a perfectly curated Murderer’s Row of talent, consisting of legends of stage and screen (Stephen Henderson, Lois Smith, multiple Tony-winner Laurie Metcalf, the Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts) and meteorically ascending young talent (Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Timothee Chalamet, not a one of them above the age of twenty-seven, already have six Oscar nominations and numerous critics awards between them). The film is about Lady Bird’s relationships with her family, friends, and classmates. Above all, it is about the fundamentally loving but frequently testy relationship between Lady Bird and her hard-working, persistently critical mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, in a performance of staggering nuance, humor, and gravitas). Marion and Lady Bird both house a complex mixture of pride and embarrassment about their lower-middle class circumstances. This sense is exacerbated by the fact that Lady Bird’s parents have enrolled her in an affluent Catholic school, where much of the student body lives in pristine two-story houses. Lady Bird is the least well off of her classmates and her aging father (Tracy Letts, a warmly self-deprecating pillar of decency, in the year’s most masterful small performance) has just lost his job as a programmer. Lady Bird is an endlessly heartwarming, honest, and funny coming of age story about the power of place and the weight of upbringing. It is about the interplay between the identity that others give to us throughout our lives and the identities we try to give ourselves. It is a clear-eyed and tender thing of beauty. This is simply a high school movie in the same way that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is simply a romantic tour of Paris. Its small, seemingly straightforward package holds a vast world of feeling, vibrant characterization, and human truth.

 

Like Linklater’s Before films, Lady Bird shares a sense of something organically soulful and human. Beyond the clear stakes of their plots, there is a feeling of something rich in the simple act of people knowing each other, sparring with each other, bouncing their whims and wills off of one another. Their apparent smallness in the grand scheme, whether just about two people finding romance or just a young woman deciding who she will be outside of high school and hometown, belies their ability to capture the full weight of life. Films like Lady Bird are reminders that no story need feel small because any life is a poignant and momentous thing to the person living it. To quote Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Beyond their ability to house tidal waves of feeling in teacup worlds, Lady Bird also shares with the Before series a keen sense of place. As someone who has been to Sacramento many times and will soon marry a native of the California capitol, I can personally say that Greta Gerwig’s evocation of this place is sharp, observant and loving. And this is a lovely thing in part because each little corner of this strange, wide world of ours deserves its own piece of poetry. There are a great many places in this world that I have never seen, but I always hope there is an artist out there somewhere working away to capture some tiny, essential piece of the soul of those places. Still, for argument’s sake, let’s say that you have no exposure to the sprawling, creative charms of Sacramento and no expectation that you will ever visit there. In that case, perhaps the extent to which Lady Bird accurately captures Sacramento would be unknown to you and you might ask why this facet of the film matters. You do not know the place and you will not feel those flickers of recognition when shots of the city’s lovely Tower Theater flash by or when a scene plays out in the city’s famous rose garden. This is a tough argument for me to make because I obviously can never divorce myself from knowing Sacramento. I will never watch Lady Bird without having that perspective. And yet, I feel confident in saying that what Gerwig bottles here is a sense of the value and power of a place that transcends familiarity. This goes beyond the need to know Sacramento or to have visited there. The film’s lyrically dreamy editing stitches together impressions of this place that hold their own mystical weight. They are powerful to me not because I have been to these places (or not simply for that reason anyway), but because one can sense that Gerwig has been to these places and that each one of them holds stories and enigmatic meanings known only to her. Lady Bird, like many a great work of art, speaks from a specific place while also keeping one foot in the universal. One need not have lived in Sacramento to grasp Lady Bird’s sweet and caustic dialectic between treasuring home and wanting to journey as far from it as possible; to remember that our childhood homes could be both our shackles and our sanctuaries. The old haunts we grew up around and yearned to be free of were still part of our reveries because how could they not be? They had forged us, with all the pain, discomfort, growth, and strength that word implies. In a beautiful and understated way, Gerwig speaks of home as a place we dream of escaping so that we can lie in a strange bed and dream of returning to it. Yes, Lady Bird is an exquisitely lovely ode to Sacramento. But beyond that, it is among the most sweetly soothing essays ever made about home as salve and irritant, and about wrestling with that complicated tension between gratitude for what it gave us and relief that our worlds eventually expanded past it.

 

And in a similar way, Lady Bird is about that same mixture of love, appreciation and rebellion between parents and their children. In the same way that it is the story of Christine MacPherson struggling to define herself as both a Sacramento native and someone longing to be free of that place, it is also the story of who Christine is as both a product of her parental upbringing and as an individual seeking to exist and grow outside of that influence. That is a very, very clinical way of saying that Lady Bird is possibly the most wonderful, wise, and poignant portrait of a mother and daughter relationship that I have ever seen. A lot of the beauty in the powerful parallels and stark differences between Lady Bird and Marion come from the lovely, sharp writing, which can be nakedly emotional and painful but never comes within a sight of cynicism. Even the most heartbreaking scenes of discord come from a place of gentle, honest, humanism. Gerwig has a talent for sharp, cutting dialogue, but her directorial sense could not be more loving and compassionate. As a result, Lady Bird becomes a tender and clear-eyed journey through a remarkably nuanced relationship where we feel both bruised and emotionally secure. Gerwig is aided immeasurably by Ronan and Metcalf, giving two of the greatest performances by any performer in 2017. This is a film that can take us into places of genuine sadness and catharsis without ever becoming shrill or unpleasant. We may dab our eyes with recognition at its hard truths, but the smile is never far from our faces. It is the smile of knowing in our hearts that human beings are messy and sometimes selfish, that children can be myopically self-centered and reckless with their words, that parents are frail and imperfect. That every single person on this planet, be they seventeen or seventy-two, is frail and imperfect. It is the smile of recognizing all that and loving humanity all the more for it. I have watched these fights or been involved in arguments like them myself when I was a stubborn teenager. They are real, raw, and rich with feeling and insight. Each one comes with its share of winces and both characters have their moments where they are completely, cruelly in the wrong. But each scene also carries its share of belly laughs or sweet rays of levity, as in the already famous scene where Marion and Lady Bird pause their quarreling to coo over a dress they both like. And when the momentary squall of drama is done, we move on to a scene of pure comedy. But, regardless of the tenor of the scene, the emotional potency never lets up for a minute. And this is what makes Lady Bird 2017’s Damp FaceTM masterpiece.

 

Five years ago, Greta Gerwig wrote another character-centric classic and also starred in it. It was her now-paramour Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a bittersweet, gnagly, lovingly critical look at a twenty-something dancer losing her boyfriend, roommate, and New York City apartment, and trying gamely to land on her feet. One of the film’s already iconic shots is of Gerwig’s Frances making her way across a New York City crosswalk like the world’s most awkward and exuberant ballerina. She pirouettes and flings her lanky dancer’s body in front of taxi cabs and city buses and turns the act of going down town into an impromptu dance recital. This is maybe the pivotal shot of early Greta Gerwig, when she was just a brilliant writer and actor. She is perched at the exact border between clumsiness and a beautiful, mesmerizingly unsteady kind of self-possession. As Gerwig’s protagonist and autobiographical surrogate, Lady Bird MacPherson is very much like an adolescent Frances. She is a confident, smart young woman and also an awkward, ungainly presence. Pithy witticisms pour out of her mouth just in time for her foot to end up there. I love the Gerwig archetype: a strong, intelligent woman with a New Yorker’s urbanity, a Tatiesque kind of clumsy curiosity, and a distinctly 21st century kind of aimlessness. However, while the classic Gerwig character recipe may be two parts clumsiness to one part grace, I have to say that Gerwig herself is only growing more graceful and composed by the day. Considering she is one of the finest actors we have, maybe the clumsiness was always just part of the performance. With Lady Bird, I am enchanted and amazed to see how she has retained her own ramshackle charm, but refined it into a new luminous form. Any hint of anything even resembling cynicism have been lost and what remains is honest insight into human behavior without a hint of mockery or judgment. Gerwig has retained her love for human fallibility and social mishaps, but as the woman sitting in the Big Director’s Chair, she now brings her own almost impossibly kind sensibility to the proceedings. Greta Gerwig is not Noah Baumbach. She is still curious about human flaws: about pride, brash youthful exuberance, putting on intellectual airs, and trying on new identities as we stumble through life. But she has no interest in patronizing anyone for their mistakes or weaknesses. Lady Bird is a film that loves people for their mistakes and weaknesses. Her observations of life are not sugarcoated because no sugar is needed. The filter of her directorial vision is so unfailingly tender and understanding that her hardest blows do not leave real bruises. They are not intended to cause pain, but to inspire clear reflection. And all of this is just my way of belaboring the basic point that, in a year full of fancy cinematic cocktails, Greta Gerwig gave 2017 its glass of sweet, cold spring water. Lady Bird is simply the kindest thing these jaded eyes took in all year. And kindness is what 2017 needed most.

 

Artists like the Greta Gerwigs and the Richard Linklaters of the world have appealed to me for a long time. I have long had a love for authors, be they writers or filmmakers, who paint in small-scale human colors. I recently realized that I can trace the germ of what makes me love this empathetic, lyrical kind of storytelling back to the first real, honest-to-goodness novel I ever read. I was a tender nine years old and I picked up Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at the Danville Public Library. I finished it and gobbled up Alcott’s Little Men a few weeks later. The feeling of kinship with these kinds of stories and their loping, vignette-style structure was instantaneous and deeply felt. What these novels share with works like the Before series and Lady Bird is a sense that character is really driving the story and that the best kind of plots are just about watching people we like grow and change. Important events occur in the characters’ lives, but there is the unmistakable sense that we would be following these people no matter what was happening to them. What takes place in the story is less important than the fact that we are getting to know human beings; that, for the next two hours or four-hundred pages they are our human beings. There are naturally larger overarching plots, but mostly we are just witnessing these small, richly drawn lives as they are lived day to day. The plot exists only insofar as these lives are moving forward and each new bit of action, be it monumental or trivial, is another sentence, paragraph, or chapter in the story of who these people are. Sometimes the action is seismic, a major moment that changes the characters’ destinies forever. Jo March meeting her husband for the first time or Beth March passing away tragically young. But, just as often, there are brief moments, single paragraph excerpts, that represent little more than the smallest of stones on the pathway of their lives. Maybe it’s just a single pleasant day the March sisters spend playing in the countryside or the week they spend putting together a holiday play. Moments like these may not radically alter the road the characters are walking, but they are just as much a part of that road. In a way, the fact that these tiny moments are not held up as anything more important than what they are makes them feel more precious, more resplendent in their tiny transience. It is no wonder that I love Linklater’s Boyhood with its notion that life is the accumulation of fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moments. I first felt that way myself when I was only nine years old and made my first fond acquaintances with the March sisters. And now, much to my delight, I have learned that Gerwig’s sophomore directorial effort will be none other than Little Women. Based on her first blissful outing as director, I can scarcely picture a more perfect marriage of auteur and source material. Lady Bird filled me with many of the same feelings I had the first, second, and third times I read Alcott’s novel. The film is 2017’s most vibrant, lovingly frayed quilt; a patchwork of deep conversations and foolish misadventures and youthful flights of fancy and joyful, trivial memories. It captures life as a swirl of formative milestones and gleefully ethereal little anecdotes that we may not even fully remember in five years’ time. Gerwig has assembled her own impressions of growing up in Sacramento and sequenced them, large and small, into a raucous, soul-stirring greatest hits album about growing up. Her modest, delicate, charmingly self-effacing opus is full of epic suites, simple ditties and everything in between. Life is made of such stuff.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #2- The Florida Project

There was a moment shortly after finishing my latest viewing of The Florida Project (the third of what will be many to come) when I felt I had really gotten my finger on the right word to describe it. With a ridiculously self-satisfied grin on my face, I scrawled down the words “magical neorealism”. It was a portmanteau of neorealism and magical realism and it felt right in the moment. I would still confidently say that the neorealist tag fits The Florida Project like a glove. Neorealism descends from Italian neorealism, the cinematic style that developed in Italy after World War II, famously advanced by directors like Vittorio Di Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Roberto Rosselini (Rome Open City), and Federico Fellini (in 1950s masterworks like La Strada, before he was anointed with the adjective Felliniesque, which, in its carnivalesque grandiosity, is about as far from neorealism as film gets). Neorealist films famously present the economically downtrodden of society with stark clarity and they tend to draw added authenticity from the use of nonprofessional actors, which accentuates the reality of the films by removing the comforting familiarity of established stars. Bicycle Thieves famously helped cement this facet of neorealism when Di Sica ignored Hollywood’s pleas to use megastar Cary Grant and opted to cast a Roman factory worker with no film resume whatsoever. Neorealism fits The Florida Project, which focuses on people living on the economic fringe and almost exclusively features performers who are nonprofessionals, or who are at least untested in screen acting. The magical realist tag is one I feel less confident about the more I think about it. Unlike recent magical realist films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is nothing truly supernatural or fantastical in The Florida Project. The stuff of fairytale never really breaks us away from the film’s stark, impoverished realities. There are no minotaurs or mystical riddles to solve or magical curses to lift or mythical beasts roaming the landscape. I confess that my little portmanteau is probably, technically inaccurate, but it still feels right to me. There is never a moment of The Florida Project where we truly escape financially depressed Kissimee, Florida, with its myriad low-rent motels, sprawling strip malls, and blighted condominiums, but somehow an aura of strange, uneasy magic hangs over it all. This is maybe the major miracle of Sean Baker’s ingenious, transporting, and shattering third film. It taps into magical realism’s power to comment upon and augment real life without ever retreating into literal fantasy. It is a film about bleak social conditions that finds hope and relief from those conditions, not by poofing them away but by staring ever more intently and deeply at them.

 

The Florida Project is an ensemble film in some ways with its teeming, perfectly cast tapestry of untrained performers. The only trained exceptions in the cast are veteran Willem Dafoe (in what I am ready to call the finest performance of his obviously esteemed career) and young, ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones (capping off an impressive 2017 trifecta, after performances in Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The first of many miracles of the film is how everyone (inexperienced Floridians, Instagram stars, and high-pedigree thespians alike) blends seamlessly into the same utterly organic whole. Baker makes the rundown motels of Kissimee, Florida bustle with rich, subtle lives. Still, as full of believable people as this world is, the film’s arc truly belongs to two great female characters. The first is Halley (Instagram celebrity Bria Vinaite, in a performance with some detractors, but that I find endlessly powerful in its oscillations between frightened vulnerability and loud, performantive snideness). Halley is an unemployed mother taking on the odd stripper job and illegally selling wholesale perfume to tourists to just barely afford her 30-dollar-per-night motel rent. The other main character, and I would say the film’s unquestionable lead, is Halley’s daughter Moonee, an imaginative, energetic, and altogether unruly six-year old girl. Moonee spends her carefree summer days (likely the last before the school system reins her in) bounding about Kissimee’s overgrown fields, vacant buildings, and parking lots as if they were an enchanted wilderness. The most important, mostly implicit detail of Moonee’s ramshackle world is that it sits on the very furthest outskirts of Walt Disney World. While it is never mentioned in the film, “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s covert working title for the park when it was being developed. The setting of The Florida Project is removed from all the luxury and privilege of the Magic Kingdom, yet close enough to it to still exist very much in its shadow. Kissimee is littered with perpetual reminders of the better life just out of view. Cheap outlet stores promise Disney-branded swag. Halley and Moonee’s regular trips to sell fragrances at the nearby Marriott resort takes them along a road that has been named Seven Dwarfs Lane. At one point, a pair of rich Brazilian newlyweds arrive at Moonee’s little motel, The Magic Castle, in the middle of the night, shocked and mortified to find that this fleabag establishment is in no way a Disney property. The Magic Castle’s most steadfast guardian is its manager, Bobby (the aforementioned, heartbreakingly splendid Dafoe), who not only tends to routine maintenance and touches up its walls with fresh coats of gaudy lavender paint, but also acts as a firm, gentle overseer of the motel’s residents. As much as anything that happens in its lyrical, sometimes heartrending plot, The Florida Project is about the Magic Castle as its own small world of kinship, stalled dreams, fragile hope, and wonder. The idea of this rundown “magic castle” lying just outside the view of so many Disney dream vacationers is something of a stinging social critique, but there is nothing cynical in Baker’s unsparing but loving depiction of this tiny realm and its people. The film is in many ways about Moonee’s childlike ability to see genuine beauty in such a tacky, impoverished place, but Baker sees that beauty himself and wants us to see it too. He presents the sadness and strife of these poor spaces with frankness but The Florida Project is not an act of miserablist wallowing. It is a fond embrace extended to those underseen and barely hanging on in this world of ours. In its radiant love for these people, even for a stubbornly self-destructive soul like Halley, The Florida Project is not simply a very empathetic film. It is pure, undiluted empathy rendered cinematic.

 

To some extent, The Florida Project’s neorealist accomplishments are its least outwardly impressive, simply because of how neatly they fit with past examples of the genre. This is a film about living with the daily drudgery and minutiae of economic strain: scrounging for work, providing for a child, feeding oneself, and coming up with rent. In the tradition of so many past neorealist masterpieces, it is about painting a realistic and suitably sober portrait of a dire situation, in which every misguided decision and impulsive misstep threatens to compound hardship and send it careening toward disaster. Baker presents these rough circumstances candidly. He never allows us to be entirely ignorant of the desperation that hangs over this land. And yet, without cheating, he finds a way to make it all feel lively, engaging and humanistic. He comes to rely partially on Moonee’s vivacity and rambunctious spirit to provide a kind of salve for the hardship. But it should be said that, even if The Florida Project were solely a work of austere neorealism, it would be a particularly humane and emotionally nuanced version of the genre. To put it another way, The Florida Project does not have to become a dichotomy between crushing poverty and the childlike ability to find escape in naivete and imagination. The reason The Florida Project does not need to retreat into literal magical realism, into the refuge of pure fantasy, is that even the purely adult parts of Baker’s world hum with a sense of humor and life. In a way that never minimizes the economic weight they are experiencing, Baker draws these characters with joyful color and unmistakable affection. These are people living at the subsistence level, but Baker finds spontaneity and wit in their interactions. The Florida Project’s adult characters are weathered but not defeated by this bare bones existence. There is a ragged joy and to these characters, and it keeps the spectres of cheap bathos and exploitation at bay. Baker is not gawking at these fragile lives. The Florida Project is the furthest thing from so-called poverty porn. These people are not presented to be pitied or to become easy stand-ins in a lecture about America’s poverty problem. The director shows us these souls with no ulterior motive outside of basic compassion and curiosity. He shows them because they represent real human beings living out in the world, in Kissimee-like towns across the country, and their stories deserve to be heard. Even an aggravatingly immature woman like Halley is rendered with depth and a stubborn kind of nobility. These lives are not easy, but Baker does not show them to titillate us or to bolster a post-recession sermon. They exist because they exist. Understanding and really feeling the unvarnished beauty of that fact is quite possibly the most important element to grasping The Florida Project’s overwhelming emotional power. It is a litmus test for our compassion toward human beings.

 

That said, Baker knows that, even with all the empathy and positive thinking in the world, the austerity of this milieu could be a painful thing to look at for too long all at once. Watching The Florida Project can be a bit like staring at the Sun: glorious, dazzling, and also searing. Baker has no intention of looking away from the poverty and pressure (for the film, with one possible exception, never truly looks away). But he is interested in thinking about how a person, a child in particular, might find some hopeful respite within this place. This is where Moonee comes in, in all her exuberant, cavalier, infectiously profane glory. I could spend entire paragraphs on Moonee’s exquisite characterization and the miracle of Brooklynn Prince’s performance, which, like the film around it, perches effortlessly between neorealist naturalism and grand, heightened emotions. I could spend a full additional paragraph on the astonishing feat of presenting yet another child’s eye view of poverty without ever tipping into the most queasy and problematic kind of preciousness. What Sean Baker and Brooklynn Prince have given us is an almost impossibly candid picture of unruly childhood glee; one which marvels at youth’s optimism and unflagging spirit, but does not pretend that children are untouched or unfazed by the real world around them. It also remembers that children are people, with all the imperfection that implies. Moonee is a reminder that children can be vulgar, myopically self-centered little marauders. She is an adorable, bracingly funny, and very sympathetic character, but she is also a gallingly unrestrained force of chaos. For as much as Moonee is out to steal our hearts away, she is also the kind of child who would probably make the average person blanch if they had to share a city bus with her. In the first minute we spend with Moonee, she has already spat upon the sweet, shy little girl who will become her best friend and is cackling invincibly at the gobsmacked grandmother trying to reprimand her. Her petite pixie exterior seems possessed by the arrogant, braying spirit of some 1920s Chicago gangster. But we do come to love her, and it is through her eyes that this rundown world comes to take on its own jagged kind of lustre. Let me say right here that, for a low-budget film whose central setting is an economically ravaged city, The Florida Project feels lustrous and luminous. This place is a golden-hued frontier to Moonee and her friends, and Baker’s film glows with admiration for their hardy spirit; for the childlike ability to find beauty and adventure anywhere. He is not interested in defanging Moonee or softening her feral fallibility, and he does not use her rosy perspective to smother his film’s hard truths. Even at its sweetest, most purely awed moments, when Moonee is shepherding us through the Magic Castle like a giddy tour guide, shafts of painful, glaring reality pierce the optimistic facade. In that way, The Florida Project becomes the rare film to present a hardscrabble childhood in a way that is both loving and honest.

 

I think the guiding principle behind Baker’s approach is just to not shut out any emotional truth. Wonder and innocence do not make poverty and strife go away, and economic depression does not kill all optimism. Baker respects his audience enough to show this world from a wide array of angles and to let us decide how we feel about it. There is no right or wrong answer, but I think Baker wants us to feel as elated and devastated as possible all at the same time. For my part, no film in 2017 made me feel more hopeful and more shattered; more in love with humanity and more thoroughly spent with the full emotional toll of being a person. For what at first looks like a spare, realistic indie drama, The Florida Project is bursting at the seams with every possible emotion. Baker has taken a no-frills setting and a minimal budget and created an absolute kaleidoscope of feeling. This is a film that invites you to bring your own empathy and human outlook to it. Still, I do think Baker may at least offer a clue to his own feelings. I believe that clue comes in the form of Willem Dafoe’s gruff, kind, and heartbreakingly concerned Bobby. The experience of The Florida Project lies somewhere between a frail hope for people, a protective fondness toward childhood’s guileless innocence, and a knowing sadness that life can be unforgiving. Willem Dafoe lets that entire emotional tug-of-war play out beautifully, quietly, and powerfully across the face of this good-natured, fallible handyman. The moment where Bobby intercepts a pedophile wandering onto the motel grounds is simultaneously one of 2017’s most chilling and heartwarming moments. If The Florida Project is about letting some hope survive in the harshest of landscapes, Bobby is the character trying to shelter that hope; cupping his calloused hand around it like a windblown candle. He is the good king of this Magic Castle, but the withering emotional punch of the character comes from how Dafoe lets us catch glimpses of Bobby’s weary, frustrated impotence. Like Baker himself, Bobby is a man who wants to help and protect the denizens of his small, beleaguered, unseen corner of the world. But even in a place this tiny and insular, there are limits to how much any one person can do for another. The Florida Project is about the tremendous power we have to care for each other, to reach out to each other, and to be of good to each other. And it is also about the wrenching sadness that comes from remembering we cannot keep all the pain out. Even the most dedicated handyperson can never fix everything. The children may see Bobby as the all-powerful, benevolent wonderworker of this Castle, but Dafoe’s tired eyes betray the truth to us. We are not in the realm of magical realism. There are no wizards in this place. Only human beings doing all they possibly can and making torn, conflicted peace with where their power stops.

 

There is no real magic in Kissimee, Florida and the fake magic that Disney built decades ago is too far away to be visible on the horizon. The spires of Sleeping Beauty’s castle are far removed from this crumbling place. Nothing about this world could ever be classified as a fairytale. But what Baker, his actors, and his team manage to do is more wondrous to me than anything the Disney experience could provide. They make this barren land of strip malls and dilapidated medical clinics glow. They do all of this with nothing more than a contagious affection for humankind at its best and a non-judgmental compassion for people at their worst. A lot of The Florida Project involves watching people make hard, sometimes cruel choices and rash, foolhardy decisions. Sometimes the consequences of those decisions are so harsh they take your breath away. This is a world where some poor soul is always teetering on the precipice of ruin and loss. It is a world of prostitution, bedbugs, and petty crime. A world where ugly brawls sometimes break out in the parking lots, where only one of the motel washing machines works anymore, and where the closest you’ll ever get to a fancy vacation is flipping off the resort helicopters as they buzz by loaded with the more fortunate. This is a hard world and I left it in gutted silence. But somewhere beneath that, I also felt a strange kind of enchantment that no amount of misery could erase. The film left me with a strange, tingly feeling. It was something halfway between my earliest Christmas memory and my first underage tequila buzz. It felt sweet and pure, and also a little sad and seedy. It felt like magic, but borne out of something honest, painful and utterly real. I still can’t put my finger on what that feeling is. I’ll call it empathy until I find a better word.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #3- Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most luminously stunning film of 2017. This is due in no small part to its beautifully sun-dappled northern Italian location and the myriad ways that cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lets the golden summer light and cool evening shadows caress his camera. For as much natural beauty as the film displays, however, Call Me By Your Name gains just as much of its intoxicatingly lush ambiance from the small details of its interior spaces: well-stocked kitchens, cozy studies, and inviting sitting rooms. Nowhere is the film’s knack for marvelously homey design put to more enchanting effect than in its first minute, my favorite opening credits sequence in any 2017 film. As the rich, soothing piano tones of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction cascade over us, the film’s credits appear in a blue, handwritten scrawl over a montage of photographs of classical Roman statues. The photographs are strewn over a table top and each new cut reveals some small piece of detritus on the table to show a person has been sitting or standing over these prints, looking at them. We see glimpses of train tickets, playing cards, silver coins, glasses (the kinds that facilitate both reading and drinking) and crumpled paper cigarette packs. Call Me By Your Name would contend for the year’s most flat-out gorgeous piece of cinema just by the quality of its camera work and the inherent splendor of its shooting locations, from old villas to shaded stone patios to the rich emeralds of the Italian countryside. But what vaults it into being a veritable dessert buffet of opulent imagery is this keen sense for tiny, perfectly lived-in detail. Call Me By Your Name, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s dazzlingly romantic gay coming-of-age story is about one perfect, hot, hazy summer in one of the prettiest places on Earth and it grasps that the perfect summer days of memory are built just as much from tiny, trivial fragments as from larger moments. Before we meet young Elio Perlman or his family or friends or the young man who will open his eyes to love and to his sexuality, that flawless opening transports us to a place that is utterly specific. We are not simply in Italy. We are in the cool, dim study of this particular old villa, poring over old snapshots of ancient artwork, contentedly waiting out the muggy afternoon hours with a cigarette and an ice cold glass of apricot juice. Perhaps that same glass will hold a little more juice and a splash of Galliano in another hour. It is a masterful setting of place in a film where atmosphere and memories blur seamlessly with the life-altering events they swirl around.

 

The events of Call Me By Your Name take place in 1983. The same scribbly journal text that introduced the credits informs us we are “somewhere in Northern Italy”, and it could just as easily tell us that this is sometime in the 1980s or in no particular time at all. Outside of the occasional period-specific clue (a Talking Heads t-shirt, the recurring appearance of a perfectly used Psychedelic Furs song, some overhead talk of Italian politics for anyone with knowledge of such matters), this is a film that exists just as much out of time as in any specific period. Call Me By Your Name swims in a warm wash of remembrance. The film is not told in flashback, nor does it allow any characters to comment on the story through voiceover, but there can be little doubt that we are looking backward to a formative summer in the life of one Elio Permlan (an astoundingly subtle and effortlessly alive breakout performance by rising screen phenomenon Timothee Chalamet). Elio is a moody, hyperintelligent Jewish adolescent of seventeen years of age. He is spending this summer, as he has spent every other summer he can remember, staying with his university professor parents in a stony, stately Italian villa, staffed with groundskeeper and cook. One staple of these annual holidays is for his historian and archaeologist father (Michael Stulhbarg in a terrific, soft-spoken performance that clobbers you with its sneaky emotional power) to take on a graduate student to shadow him for a couple months and assist him with historical research. Elio awakes one morning in bed with his non-platonic friend, Marzia, to see his father’s latest protégé pulling up the long driveway. The new student is Oliver (Armie Hammer, understated and tremendous), a tall, classically handsome All-American man of about twenty-four. “The usurper,” Elio whispers in French (one of three languages Chalamet speaks in the film) with a wry grin on his face. As usual, the new graduate student will be taking his bedroom while Elio relocates to an adjoining room connected by a common bathroom.. Elio shows the exhausted guest up to his room, where Oliver promptly falls asleep face down on the bed. He sleeps right through house supper, finally emerging at breakfast the next morning. Elio chafes at Oliver’s presence at first. Oliver is an affable, learned young man but he has a blunt forwardness that is unmistakably, inelegantly American. He ends seemingly every social exchange with a terse, informal “Later”. What first appears like itchy discomfort at the new resident scholar, however, gradually blossoms into a grudging tolerance, an amiable acquaintanceship, a fulfilling friendship, and eventually into something more emotionally complicated. To go into description of how the relationship develops would sap a lot of the vibrant, spontaneous juice from the film, but it is a lovely thing to behold, full of humor, rich emotion, marvelously literate dialogue and brilliant acting. Hammer is great and Chalamet’s powerhouse symphony of curiosity, adolescent braggadocio, testy sarcasm, romantic longing, and youthful insecurity is the greatest feat of acting I have seen in quite some time. Call Me By Your Name is a lovely, nuanced gay romance, an achingly tender story of dawning adulthood, and a lush, gorgeously detailed travelogue of every sunny, sweaty, fragrant, and delicious pleasure that a single Italian summer can offer.

 

There may truly be no way to overstate the tactile, sensory saturation of Call Me By Your Name. It is not enough to say that the film collects dazzling, dusty, and bejeweled images and presents them to us. Luca Guadagnino’s brilliantly assured direction makes sure that we are not simply bearing witness to Elio’s fateful summer but are utterly immersed in it. Refreshed, sated, inundated and dumbstruck by it. It’s the keen sense of the geography of this house, this property, this town, and the verdant, grassy fields and gentle, lolling rivers that surround and cradle it. It’s an intuitive sense for how time passes there, with relaxing breakfasts of espresso and soft boiled eggs in the morning; long, hot afternoon hours skipped away swimming at the river, picking fruit in the orchard, or momentarily escaped from in the nooks of the main house; evenings spent dancing in the dusky cool of the local outdoor discotheque or nightswimming with a crush. Its sense of physical, temporal, and emotional geography is simply impeccable. We spend an unforgettably heady, ravishing summer in this place and with these people, and we leave feeling we know their every detail intimately and intuitively. Call Me By Your Name captures the seductive summer dance between pleasure and boredom. Being an Italian, Guadagnino seems to have an ineffable understanding of the interplay between gratification and anticipation. His film captures desire, carnal and emotional, as both the act of having our appetites sated and the tantalizing moments of having to wait for what we want. Call Me By Your Name is about blissful satisfaction and about the lulls of anticipating that satisfaction. It is a softly, sweetly hedonistic thing; a film that exists in an impossibly rich garden of delights, but also recognizes that strangely arousing and oh so human state of needing more. In Call Me By Your Name, both summer and love are swooning bacchanals, where you can feast more than you ever thought possible while never completely silencing the yearning rumble inside. Elio learns that love in particular is a hunger that cannot be entirely quelled.

 

 

Call Me By Your Name establishes itself as among the most beautiful and emotionally accurate portraits of first love ever put to film. As stated before, it accomplishes this partly through a combination of peerless performances and transcendentally splendid imagery. Guadagnino and his team have gleefully given themselves the challenge of sculpting a cinematic object that quivers with romantic longing. It is a subtle film in some important ways, but it leaves absolutely nothing in the cellar when it comes to dreamy, sumptuous spectacle. At the same time that it excels as a visual object, however, it is also a very literary work of art. James Ivory, a legendary conjurer of romance and prestige, has written a script rich in insight, character, and humor, and he gives the film a novelistic sweep. I bring up both the impeccable visuals and the lovely, lyrical writing in part because they are both wonderful and any review of the film would be incomplete and downright impossible without addressing them. But I also feel that the poetic interplay of images and words points to something essential in the film’s heart. When we meet Elio, he is a very specific breed of bookish, precocious, sensitively cocky teenager, and part of his burgeoning romance with Oliver involves a kind of intellectual fencing match with a sparring partner he feels can challenge and keep pace with him. Any film featuring these  characters, especially Elio, would have to be highly literate. Where the visual and the sensory come in is that Call Me By Your Name is very much about the emotional and the indescribable. It is about the verbal and the intellectualized jousting with and in many ways being overcome by the sensory and the sensual. In one of three songs he contributes to the film, the great Sufjan Stevens coos, “Words are futile devices.” One delightfully tense, emotionally charged scene finds Elio trying to impress Oliver by recounting the history of a World War I monument in the town square. Oliver is indeed impressed, but Elio suddenly blurts out what he really wants to say: “I know nothing, Oliver.” Call Me By Your Name is about a prodigiously smart young man getting his first taste of experiences that cannot be gleaned through mere academia. And all of this may even be overreading and you certainly don’t need any thematic analysis to love Call Me By Your Name as both a work of spectacular visual poetry and of beautiful screenwriting. But Call Me By Your Name is about first love, which means that it is about the lowering of one’s insecurities and intellectual defenses to make oneself vulnerable to love for the first time. And I think it is enough to say that the film has a sharp sense of love as something both verbal and ultimately beyond words entirely. It is about watching the senses gently disarm frail little fortresses like knowledge, theory, and vocabulary, and watching it happen is the sweetest, most fundamentally romantic film experience since at least 2016’s Moonlight.

 

And just as with Moonlight, I could very easily go on for pages and pages about Call Me By Your Name’s intoxicating reverie and peerless acting and beautifully nuanced  writing and unabrasively confident directorial style without ever arriving at the fact that it is a gay love story. But it is very much a gay love story and I want to reiterate that because it is a great and important fact to remember when taking in its myriad pleasures. Call Me By Your Name is a potent, sumptuous force of nature for reasons that are both independent of its characters’ sexualities and inextricably bound up in them. The subject of representation in media comes up a lot in my home, and as someone with a significant number of gay friends, the arrival of a major work of queer fiction like Call Me By Your Name is immensely encouraging. It makes me happy to say that the last six years have given us a small treasure trove of films that are not only frank and empathetic and insightful in exploring queer sexuality, but are also just utterly superlative works of pure cinema. The first to come to mind is Andrew Haigh’s divinely bittersweet Weekend in 2011, followed by the epic emotional wallop of 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color two years later. Then more recently, we have the classically ravishing perfection of 2015’s Carol and the much less classical but no less ravishing perfection of Moonlight in 2016. Three of these stand tall in the top two films of their respective years. Blue Is the Warmest Color, by no means the straggler of this brilliant pack, had the misfortune of being part of the staggering cinematic bumper crop of 2013, which means it has to settle for being the fifth best film of its year. And now Call Me By Your Name has the seemingly modest distinction of being just the third best film of its own year. These rankings really mean little. What is true is that all these films are masterpieces through and through. As with those other perfect gay films, Call Me By Your Name is simply one of the most poetic, passionate, and perceptive romances ever crafted. And if I have spent too much time speaking of its teeming virtues in ways that deemphasize or ignore its status as a specifically gay love story, let me now state unequivocally how wonderful it is that the year’s most perfect romance by leaps and bounds centers on two gay characters. It is the third consecutive full-stop perfect gay romance in as many years and, for as rapturously happy as I am to have this splendid film to return to whenever I wish, I cannot imagine how much it means to a gay person to have this. I do not know how far Call Me By Your Name (and those other aforementioned glorious films) go toward putting some dent in the representation deficit. Masterpieces are obviously nice to have. Still, my fiancé assures me that real representation will happen when gay filmgoers get to have their fair share of mediocrities and perfectly average featherweight trifles each year. In that regard, maybe true representative progress looks a bit more like this year’s perfectly, unremarkably nice Love, Simon than the auteurist pyrotechnics of a Call Me By Your Name. All the same, this film is surely a wonderful thing, for whatever small bit of social progress it represents. In addition to being great cinema, Call Me By Your Name’s very existence is an inherent good.

 

I will bring the matter back to scholarly Elio and his sudden confession to Oliver that his knowledge doesn’t mean all that much. In addition to everything else it does so well, Call Me By Your Name is about as skillful as any film I can name in bridging the perceived gap between cerebral and emotional cinema. It is a brainy film about highly intelligent people, but the wonder is how all that intellect, from discussions of classical sculpting to debates about the etymological origins of the word “apricot”, gets folded into the simmering emotional tone. In Call Me By Your Name, intelligence feels sexy and sex is presented with honest intelligence. It is a film about the dialogue between the mind and the heart; where they diverge, where they clash, and where they dovetail. If you let the film’s current take you in the way it wishes to, you come away in a state somewhere between mentally alert, physically relaxed, and emotionally spent. It presents the heart-pounding rush, woozy confusion, and queasy hangover of love in ways that are sometimes painful but always fundamentally right. Without giving away anything, I will say that Call Me By Your Name begins as a film about the decadent luxeness of a summer in the Italian countryside and ends as an exploration of how much beautiful, overwhelming sensation the human heart can hold. It is a film that is clear-eyed and optimistic about love but not oblivious to the strain that love can put on us. To live and to love is to open ourselves to a universe of sensations and emotions, and not every one of them will be easy to digest. The beauty of Guadagnino’s film is that it is finally about choosing to let ourselves be overwhelmed by life’s wonder, joy, and even pain. We leave the film on both a high and a low, blissfully sated and filled to uncomfortable bursting; swept off our feet and heartsick. Guadagnino leaves us as he leaves Elio. Dazzled, shaken, and emotionally dazed. After a feast of visual and emotional riches, he leaves us a tender moment to reflect and recuperate from all we have taken in. The film softly encourages us to take all the time we need. But it smiles knowingly for the morning when we will wake replenished, with healed hearts and newly charged appetites.