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For the Love of Cinema

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Moviegoers in 2017 were treated to more evidence that American cinema has become a stinking, rotting carcass of what it once was.

But the current awards season offers signs of hope.

With a few exceptions, most of the films in this year’s crop were not unwatchable. In fact, some were exceptional, though it would be a stretch to come up with 10 that deserve Best Picture accolades. Even naming five was a challenge, which is why I included two from types not normally considered for that category—a documentary and an animated film.

The following list offers proof that beneath the mindless, crass commercialism of American moviemaking, a heart still beats.

1. “The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker made headlines in 2015 with his iPhone-shot “Tangerine,” an emotionally raw and guerrilla-style look at a couple of transgender sex workers, played by trans actresses, working Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard. With his follow-up, “The Florida Project,” Baker elicits the most convincing portrayal of the year from amateur actor Brooklynn Prince, who plays 6-year-old Moonee, a kid living in a purple motel with her mom and other tenants on the brink of homelessness. For his portrayal of a frazzled but soft-hearted motel manager, Willem Dafoe was recently nominated for a Golden Globe. As with previous efforts, Baker employs classic neo-realist techniques rooted in landmark Italian films like “The Bicycle Thief” to paint a child’s-eye view of poverty and desperation in the shadow of the happiest place on earth, Orlando’s Disney World.

2. “Dawson City: Frozen in Time

Haunting ambiance underscores this singular documentary about a town in Yukon, Canada, where a treasure trove of long-lost films from 1910 through 1920 was churned up by a backhoe. A final stop on the movie distribution chain at the time, Dawson became a de facto film depository, a rarity considering 70 percent of silent films are lost because of the combustible nature of the era’s silver nitrate stock. With “Dawson City: Frozen in Time,” director Bill Morrison opens a portal to the past, presenting images that haven’t been seen in 100 years. Alex Somers’ evocative score complements ghostly images returned from the grave, disfigured by chemical erosion and water damage, shadows of shadows.

3. “Lady Bird

Mumblecore grad Greta Gerwig delivers one of the greatest directorial debuts of the modern era with her poignant and amusing “Lady Bird.” Sure, it’s another snarky teen coming-of-age story, but Gerwig wisely keeps the snark to a minimum, instead zeroing in on relationships like the one between Lady Bird and her loving but overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf). Two-time Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan deftly pivots between bravura and vulnerability, elevating the usual teen concerns—friends, boys, parents, college—to a level of stark emotional veracity. Gerwig’s years as an actor and lately as co-writer with director Noah Baumbach show glorious fruit in a debut that arguably sets a new standard in its genre.

4. “Loving Vincent

While some dispute whether Vincent Van Gogh really shot himself in an Auvers wheat field on that sunny summer day in 1890, no one questions the artist’s genius. And if they do, they will be convinced otherwise by “Loving Vincent,” hand painted by over 120 artists in the textured, impasto style of the tragic post-impressionist. Many of Van Gogh’s late-career masterpieces come to life in this animated story of a young man seeking the truth around the artist’s suicide. At a time when animation is defined by an antiseptic digital sameness, the dazzling analog approach of “Loving Vincent” marks a timely return of the head, heart and hand to the genre.

5. “Get Out

The year’s second-best directorial debut comes from Jordan Peele, whose suspenseful “Get Out” is a socially insightful popcorn movie that digs at the pernicious truth about prejudice in an America that has blithely called itself postracial. Trump’s presidency has only highlighted the principal themes of this story about a black man who spends a weekend at the home of his white girlfriend’s parents, only to be ensnared in a racist conspiracy. “Get Out” wisely uses popcorn instead of pedagogy to make its point; and by embracing the trappings of its genre, this timely B thriller transcends its limits. Unabashedly populist, smart and relevant, “Get Out” makes a fun night at the movies its primary goal.

Jordan Riefe
Contributor
After studying Mandarin in post-Mao China, Jordan got into the film business as a camera assistant working with directors like...
Jordan Riefe

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