Today being December 22, it is still far too early in the year for me to come up with my ten favorite movies of 2017. However, as I embark on the final stretch of my annual Oscar season binge, I offer a quintet of films from the past 12 months that the average viewer is likely to have missed but the smart, adventurous viewer will be gratified to have found.
Nearly a decade since the Twilight series took America’s teenage girls by storm, who would’ve guessed that Kristen Stewart—known primarily for having had to choose for a lover between a vampire and a werewolf—would become one of the most hypnotic actresses in world cinema? Yet here she is in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper—a virtually unseen, low-budget thriller from last March—commanding our attention like few performers of her generation can, seemingly with no effort whatsoever. Roger Ebert used to say the greatest actors were those who appear to do the least, and that’s Stewart here, playing a well-heeled personal assistant and spiritual medium desperately trying to communicate with her dead twin brother—a ghost with whom she shares a bond that, like the rest of the movie, is never fully explained and is all the more spellbinding as a result. Available now on Showtime.
Officially a 2016 release, Jim Jarmusch’s characteristically quirky gem premiered in Boston at noon on January 20, and that’s exactly where I was when a certain real estate developer was being sworn in as America’s 45th commander-in-chief. While the timing was mostly coincidental, Paterson proved the perfect antidote to the raging nihilism descending on Washington, D.C., at that time. As Donald Trump bellowed about “American carnage” and the horrors of Muslims and migrants, here was a quiet little story about a municipal bus driver who spends his leisure time writing poetry and hanging out at the bar, silently pondering where his life might be headed. It helps that he has an ebullient—and equally creative—wife (Golshifteh Farahani) waiting for him when he gets home—a reminder that love and marriage are less about material things than a shared commitment that transcends race, class and whether Brussels sprouts are a good thing to bake into a pie.
Before Sally Hawkins took our breath away as a nonverbal janitor who befriends a mysterious sea monster in The Shape of Water, she proved equally captivating in this altogether different cinematic animal, directed by Aisling Walsh, about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. Profoundly shy and afflicted by severe arthritis, Lewis is portrayed by Hawkins as an uncommonly generous, patient and heroic woman who navigates a difficult relationship with a cruel man (Ethan Hawke) through playful manipulation of his weaknesses and, eventually, the discovery of her remarkable—and financially lucrative—skills as a painter. Like Paterson, Maudie is both the portrait of a marriage—in this case, a real one—and also a short treatise on creativity and the unlikely places it can be found.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
It may seem facile to describe a movie about white people as “the Moonlight of 2017,” yet Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s Tangerine nonetheless bears certain key similarities to last year’s surprise Oscar winner and achieves greatness for many of the same reasons. Like Barry Jenkins’s film, The Florida Project burrows into a Sunshine State community that is often ignored—in this case, itinerant poor folks who hole up in cheap motels near Disney World for short periods of time—and luxuriates in the life, struggle, and humanity within. While Moonlight followed its young protagonist, Chiron, through several stages of adolescence, the hero of The Florida Project—a sassy six-year-old named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)—exists entirely in the present and functions as our eyes and ears through virtually every frame of this story. By shooting the movie from Moonee’s point of view, Baker understands—as Harper Lee understood in 1960—that sometimes the best way to understand the difficulties of adulthood is by filtering them through the innocence of a child.
The French guerrilla artist who calls himself JR first came to my attention in the fall of 2015, when he plastered a giant photograph of a man on a diving board along the glass windows of Boston’s John Hancock Tower, roughly 500 feet above Copley Square. No explanation was given; none was required. In the years before and since, JR has been travelling the world in search of interesting people and, as in Boston, taking super-sized portraits of them for display in the most public possible spaces. In this documentary, JR is joined on this quixotic journey by one Agnès Varda, an endlessly inquisitive 89-year-old film director who, along with Jean-Luc Godard, represents the last living remnant of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. If this pairing doesn’t constitute the most delightful buddy comedy road trip of 2017, I don’t know what does.