From stories inspired by real events to an unconventional love story, these are the movies that define 2017. If you missed them at the theaters, they're still worth watching.
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Two families: one black - the other white, are "Mudbound" in the Mississippi delta after World War Two. Their grimness is relieved by a loving mother and the bond between a couple of soldiers with a shared experience that transcends race but only for a while.
"Over there I was a liberator," a black veteran tells his white counterpart, "people lined up in the streets waiting for us. Sometimes, I actually miss it."
Mary J. Blige makes a stunning switch from music to movies as a matriarch who must keep her own family out of harm's way and take care of a white couple's kids. Her husband tells her, "I don't want you workin' for them" to which she replies, I won't be working for them, I'll be working for us."
Amid complaints of a lack of diversity on the big screen. "Mudbound" is a harsh look at the daily challenges of segregation. Amid complaints of a lack of opportunities for women behind-the-camera, director Dee Rees lets her actions speak louder than her words by hiring a female crew because, as she told me, "as a writer director I wanted to hire females. I think it was important to have women. It wasn't just tokenism. It was women who are the best at what they do."
The Darkest Hour
"The best" is what this list of my top ten is all about. Take Britain's "Darkest Hour" which came at the start of World War Two. Gary Oldman, playing Britain's Prime Minister is favored to win the Oscar as Best Actor even though in real life, the star looks nothing like Winston Churchill. It's all in the delivery!,
"We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be," he thunders and continues with, "we shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender."
Oldman makes you forget anyone else who's ever played the great man.
The woman who ran "The Post", publisher Katherine Graham, didn't get her due on the big screen until now.
The year is 1971 and The New York Times has published "The Pentagon Papers" that reveal the U.S. Government knew there was no way to win in Vietnam but kept fighting anyway and lying about it for 30 years. A Federal judge stops publication of the papers and the editor of 'The Washington Post,' played by Tom Hanks urges Meryl Streep, as the owner, to risk prosecution and publish what The Times cannot - even they all could go to prison for doing that.
When I ran into Hanks with his wife, Rita Wilson, the star reminded me, "if there was one tip of the pyramid At The Washington Post, it was Katherine Graham. Why was she the only woman who ran a Fortune 500 company? What was she the only woman in so many of those boardroom meetings? Those questions are ripped right out of today's concerns."
And, director Steven Spielberg shows the need to talk truth to power at a time when real journalism is called 'fake news' -which is another reason why his movie seems so relevant now.
All The Money in the World
"All The Money in The World" is about power, business, and family. The man with all that money was the world's richest: J. Paul Getty. So, why was he so hesitant to pay ransom when his grandson gets kidnapped? The answers are intriguing.
As the real Getty put it, "I have 14 grandchildren. If I start paying ransoms I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren." His words are echoed by Christopher Plummer who plays him in this movie.
Getty sends an ex-C.I.A agent played by Mark Wahlberg to try and help his mother, played by Michelle Williams, free the boy and his training kicks in as the kidnappers up the ante and cut-off the teen's ear to show they're serious:
"You need to pay the ransom," the former spy tells his employer, but the billionaire won't budge telling Wahlberg's character, "I do not have the money to spare."
It's a tribute to director Ridley Scott that he was able to replace Kevin Spacey with Plummer after spacey was accused of sexual assault, and Scott also deserves praise for creating real suspense even though the outcome here is known.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Just as certain are the reasons a mother puts up "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri."
"My daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago," explains Frances McDormand as the mom, "it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folks and eating Krispy Kremes to solve actual crimes."
So, she pays for outdoor signs hoping to provoke the chief, played by Woody Harrelson, to take action. He tells her he'd, "do anything to catch your daughter's killer. I don't think those billboardsis very fair."
Mom is more than a match for him and his racist deputy, portrayed by Sam Rockwell who tells his mother the McDormand character is "tough as an old boot."
His performance is so effective that Rockwell's win at The Golden Globes made some critics squeamish about rewarding him for such a distasteful role.
The film is not a whodunit, we're not too concerned about who killed her daughter...or how...or why. The concerns here are with the aftermath of murder rather than the crime itself.
Our next film: "Get Out" seems like a mix of horror and humor, but writer/director Jordan Peele has transcended a mash-up of genres to give us a unique take on our troubled times.
Early in the film we see an African American male (Daniel Kaluuya) with his Caucasian girlfriend (Allison Williams) on the way to meet her parents. One of his pals phones to warn him about the town where he's headed telling him, "apparently a whole bunch of brothers been missing in this suburb."
The trip home to meet his girlfriend's parents turns very dark indeed and "Get Out" is that rare movie which is entertaining and enlightening and still being talked about a year after it made a fortune in theaters. I asked Betty Gabriel, who has a role as a maid in the picture, why has it resonated? "I think we're all aware there is rampant racism and xenophobia in the country," she responded, "and it all came to the surface, yes, this year; and that's why it's so resonant."
The 'Me Too' Movement has also made "Lady Bird" the right movie at the right time by the right person. It is the first film by actress Greta Gerwig - who stayed behind the camera and wrote a script inspired by her own journey to New York City.
Saoirse Ronan, who stars in the title role, told me it was a real advantage having a performer as a director and this performer in particular. "She really nailed it in every sort of way when it came to editing, casting, music, the look of it, Ronan told me as she picked up an award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role from New York's Film Critics. "Everything is kinda pitch perfect," she concluded. An opinion shared by many!
The movie begins with an argument between two strong personalities: a daughter-played by Ronan, who calls herself "Lady Bird," and her mother played by Laurie Metcalf. Mom wants her to stay close to home - which is Sacramento, California: "With your work ethic, why don't you just go to city college," says mother to daughter just before the daughter hurls herself out of a moving car!
Right then, only a few minutes into the movie, I was hooked: my mind and my heart totally open to the journey of a young woman in search of her own identity. According to the filmmaker, "Lady Bird" is a reminder that one person's 'coming of age' is another person's 'letting go'....
The Shape of Water
"The Shape of Water" is being called weird but wonderful -- bizarre but beautiful: a fable with a unique relationship at its heart.
A creature, who is intelligent & capable of understanding emotions, has been brought to a top secret government lab during The Cold War half a century ago. Custodians played by Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins do their best to stay out of the way of a mean boss made menacing by Michael Shannon. "She deaf?" he asks referencing Sally's character. "Mute," replies the co-worker, "she can hear you." The boss tells them, "you clean the lab. You get out."
But, they are still around - when a mobile tank arrives with a 'river god' inside. What the men see as a monster, Elisa (Hawkins) regards as a kindred spirit telling a friend, "when he looks at me, he does not know how I am incomplete."
Guillermo del Toro has made a masterpiece that is in many ways an alternative to the traditional Hollywood blockbuster - both more intimate and more ambitious- in the way he transcends theobvious to tell a most unusual love story.
The story of "Dunkirk" left me breathless with excitement because it is the closest we can ever come to living through World War Two. Director Christopher Nolan says that was his intention, and he, "really focused on that as being one of the most important aspects of the film: putting the audience in that seat."
Nolan, who revived the "Batman" franchise with "The Dark Knight," makes the best use of the giant IMAX format by not using computer generated imagery to tell the story of Dunkirk from the air...land....and sea. Tens of thousands of small boats were sent from Britain to France to evacuate 400,000 troops trapped on a beach: surrounded by Nazi troops intent on world domination.
This is one movie to see on the big screen if at all possible.
"Hostiles" is another. It is savage...and soulful. A lament for the dead... but also a hymn of hope provided those left alive can face their own hatred. Star Christian Bale told me, "this is a western that ain't your mum and pop's western. It's not a sorta black hat / white hat - good cowboy / bad indian, propaganda western."
Bale is lean and mean as a U.S. Army captain forced to escort his sworn enemy - Chief Yellow Hawk' - home to die. Wes Studi gives life to him in a movie directed by Scott Cooper, and Studi praised the filmmaker for going, "to great lengths to understand not only the language but a lot of the values inherent in the different cultures" of Native American tribes represented here.
Just before the turn of the 20th century the west is still wild. A family is slaughtered by Comanche warriors leaving only Rosamund Pike's character alive to be rescued by the captain and his men. The actress' goal was easy to understand but tough to execute. As she puts it, "my main thing with playing this character was trying to do an honest representation of the most unimaginable experience."
Her performance so real, the emotions she tapped so deep, it is tough for Pike to talk about it more than a year after filming. "Oh my god. It still gets me," she said to me wiping away a few tears.
At the heart of this movie is a gradual reconciliation between two bitter enemies who are forced to face danger together in order to survive - which is just one reason it touched me so deeply.
Not many critics agree with me that "Hostiles" should be my favorite film of last year, but I just call 'em like I see 'em.
So, which film was your favorite? Head to my Facebook page and tell me!
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Sandy Kenyon's 10 best films of 2017