In A Year Of Heartbreak And Reckoning, 12 Films Remind Us Of Cinema's Greatness

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 10:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our critics have been making their 10 best lists. Here's film critic Justin Chang with his.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The film world will remember 2017 as a terrible year of reckoning as the widespread allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood power players triggered a wave of similar revelations in every sphere of political and cultural influence.

Observing the fallout from Los Angeles, the home of the movie industry, it was hard not to feel sickened, heartbroken and ultimately numbed by the deluge of accusations. It was also that much more of a relief as a critic to be able to surrender to the movies themselves. I loved so many of them this year that I wound up settling on 12 favorite titles, which I have ranked as a series of thematic pairings. Good movies speak to us but also to each other, and in a year marked by stirring calls for solidarity, it feels right to be reminded that greatness is rarely a solo achievement.

My favorite movie of the year is "Call Me By Your Name," Luca Guadagnino's rapturous Italian summer of love romance starring the remarkable Timothee Chalamet as a bookish 17-year-old who falls in love with a visiting graduate student played by an impossibly dreamy Armie Hammer. It's an overpoweringly sensual piece of filmmaking that finds an almost Hitchcockian suspense in the push-pull of feelings that can't be publicly expressed. What stays with you is not just the movie's exquisite imagery but it's piercing, melancholy wisdom about the fleeting nature of pleasure and desire.

I'm parrying "Call Me By Your Name" with my No. 2 film of the year, another sun-splashed coming of age story. "The Florida Project" is Sean Baker's drama about a 6-year-old girl named Moonee, played by the astonishing Brooklynn Prince, and her life in a three-story motel complex on the outskirts of Orlando. Shot in retina-searing sherbet hues, it's one of the most wrenching and thrillingly alive avocations of childhood I've ever seen.

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is next on my list. This is an exquisite chamber piece starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a superb and possibly final screen performance as a 1950s London fashion designer. It's a hypnotic, darkly romantic comedy about creative genius, domestic fulfillment and the inherently combative relationship between the two. You might say the same thing about my No. 4 choice, "Mother!" Darren Aronofsky's magnificently unhinged horror-thriller-cum-biblical allegory starring Jennifer Lawrence. A lot of people couldn't abide it, but the cinema needs more of Aronofsky's mad, beautiful vision, not less.

At No. 5 and No. 6 are two films about the role that communal spaces play in the human quest for knowledge. "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library," from the master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, spends more than three riveting hours exploring 11 of the library's 92 branches, building a case for this great institution as a cornerstone of the city's social and intellectual life. It would make a lovely double bill with "Columbus," a soulful and contemplative first feature from the Korean-American writer director Kogonada. It stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as two people finding conversation and companionship as they tour the awe-inspiring modernist architecture of Columbus, Ind.

I'm not sure what insanity compelled me to pair Terence Davies' gorgeous Emily Dickinson biopic, "A Quiet Passion," with S. Craig Zahler's brutal prison thriller, "Brawl In Cell Block 99." But beyond their superficial differences, both movies are, in the end, about two uncompromising individuals retreating from society and descending fearlessly into their own personal solitude. They feature two of the year's best performances, from Cynthia Nixon and Vince Vaughn, respectively.

And they're both surprisingly funny. In this scene from "A Quiet Passion," Dickinson, played by Nixon, exchanges some wry banter with a friend played by Catherine Bailey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A QUIET PASSION")

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) Will you go with us to church, Miss Buffam?

CATHERINE BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Of course not. Going to church is like going to Boston. You only enjoy it after you've gotten home.

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) We are to pray for the repose of our late pastor's soul.

BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Doesn't that rather depend on where it's gone?

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson, laughing) We shall become fast friends.

BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Of course we shall. I'm irresistible. Everyone says so. When the new pastor does arrive, you must point him out to me.

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) So that you, too, may be saved?

BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) No, so that I will know whom to avoid.

CHANG: Young, college-bound women and the overbearing parents who love them - however imperfectly - lead my choices for No. 9 and No. 10. You've probably already heard about "Lady Bird," a pitch-perfect comedy that announces Greta Gerwig as a terrifically deft feature filmmaker and affirms Saoirse Ronan as one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. You may have heard less about "Graduation," a gripping moral thriller written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, who turns a story of assault and academic dishonesty into a grim indictment of corruption in his native Romania.

The final two films on my list are both summer blockbusters, and each one is an inspired marriage of the old and the new. "War For The Planet Of The Apes," directed with stark, wintry elegance by Matt Reeves is classicism at its most cutting edge, full of skillful digital illusions that compel our awestruck belief. Christopher Nolan's World War II epic "Dunkirk" is more like old Hollywood avant garde, A throwback to the glory days of 70 millimeter filmmaking that audaciously bends land, sea and air - and also time, space and narrative - to its will. Together, they offer strikingly complimentary visions of what Hollywood filmmaking can accomplish.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Jennifer Egan, whose novel "Manhattan Beach" is on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's 10 best list. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.