As popular cinema grew ever more mainstream and dominant throughout 2017, in a year when even the political realm became more corporate and corrupt (who thought that could be possible?), the small arthouse films that appealed to me the most also got riskier and more ambitious than usual. When the artistic stakes are higher, it makes sense that this type of counter-balancing would take place, a kind of aesthetic resistance and survival instinct, which is also a refusal to give in to market demands, saying that artful movies aren’t going anywhere, and saying it more demonstratively and provocatively than in prior years.
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story lingered with me longer than any other movie that I saw in 2017. Even while I was watching it at the cinema, I knew that would be the case. Framed in a square with rounded corners in the center of the screen, to evoke the look of old printed snapshots from photo albums, the movie is a valentine to the idea of time, as well as a bold and resonant excavation of the meaning of time. On its quiet and undisturbed surface, it’s a story of grief, and one that many people who chose not to see the film thought was driven by a gimmick. A ghost under a flowing white sheet with eye-holes cut out of it haunts the home that Casey Affleck’s unnamed character shares with Rooney Mara’s unnamed character after Affleck’s character dies in a car crash early in the film.
Long, silent scenes in which the camera doesn’t move at all set up the action of the tale, as it were. The body of Affleck’s character, seen from a distance across the room, lying under a white sheet at the hospital. Mara’s grief-stricken character, sitting alone on the floor of their dark kitchen, methodically devouring an entire pie over several minutes. These scenes are not meant to try the viewer’s patience, but to put us in the characters’ mindset, and to begin to ask what it means for minutes, hours, days, and years to pass, both in the presence of others and in the absence of others. And an image that might seem sentimental elsewhere — the ghost repeatedly attempting to scratch open a painted-over crack in a wooden doorframe, in which Mara’s character has slipped a secret note — felt perfectly logical and moving to me.
When the succession of humans isn’t in the house, the ghost is never alone for too long. It can see another ghost in a similar predicament in the house across the way, and the two ghosts can even communicate with one another, at least for the audience’s purposes. Because this is a film that’s better to watch knowing less than more, I’ll leave the movie’s other rich details and innovations unexplained, except to mention that the film’s ambitions deepen and quicken when the entire movie pivots and the ghost cascades through time and space, only for time and space to loop back on themselves until the experience of the film circles into a seamless whole and vanishes all at once. Few films work on poetic association and pull it off, but this one does.
God’s Own Country, a British debut directed by Francis Lee, was the best gay-themed movie that I watched over this past year, and not just because everything turns out fine for the two central characters in the end. Set in the austere and rolling hills of Yorkshire, it’s the first gay movie since Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake that’s so fully formed by its immersive landscape and atmosphere. The story follows Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who’s become increasingly withdrawn and dissatisfied from living and feeling entrapped on his family’s remote sheep farm. A fast and discreet encounter with another young man after a livestock auction near the start of the film shows that Johnny’s not comfortable with anything more than casual sex, though a conversation with a female friend of Johnny’s outside of a pub also suggests that he has been somewhat openly gay, if also obviously self-stunted by his rural environment.
The appearance of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a young Romanian man who comes to help out on Johnny’s farm, gradually changes all of that, and the film draws its intimate power from the slow dance of attraction in which the two men become entangled. It’s impossible not to compare the film to Brokeback Mountain, of course, and God’s Own Country alludes directly to its predecessor not only thorough sheep-herding, but also via articles of the men’s clothing that are shared and left behind. In a film whose dialogue is often spare, subtle and precise symbols convey more readily what the two men are feeling: repairing a stone wall together that they nonetheless remain on opposite sides of, an abandoned sweater that Johnny pulls over himself, echoing a riveting earlier scene in which Gheorghe protects a tiny lamb in a way that nudges harshness into tenderness. While I felt the screenplay ran out of road a bit by the end (an it’s an end that also seems a bit too easy to me), the film’s performances are beautifully calibrated, and Josh O’Connor’s transformation as Johnny struggles to re-emerge from himself is remarkable.
Unlike the two previous films, there’s very little that’s quiet in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Starring his current real-life girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, the movie has been almost universally lampooned and reviled, with just a brave handful of critics coming to its defense. It’s definitely the most demanding and artistically ambitious movie that I saw in 2017, as well as one of the funniest and most brutal films of this past year. The laughter and horror that I felt while watching mother! at the cinema were so close to each other that they sometimes almost coincided, and I haven’t experienced a film in a very long time which has accomplished that. Aronofsky also references everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Rosemary’s Baby, yet he still manages to create a film that’s rarely derivative and totally unique.
Most interpretations of mother! that I’ve read and heard since watching the film skitter along the allegorical surface of the movie; Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents Mother Nature, some viewers think, and how she’s been exploited by human beings. Others mention the biblical underpinnings of the farcical plot in the film’s first half, when Ed Harris’ character brings his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, to visit the home where the god-like figure of Javier Bardem, a reclusive poet, resides with his young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence. It unfolds as a strange comedy of manners until the two sons of the visiting couple crash the party, setting the second half of the film into motion with an act of violence that’s clearly intended to be likened to the story of Cain and Abel.
Beyond that point is where the film gets interesting and the metaphors go deeper. Although I don’t think Bardem’s character is a stand-in for Aronofsky himself as director, the film certainly does transmit messages about authoritative male power in that creative context, alongside and in contrast to how women (and particularly Hollywood actresses) get treated by audiences and the publicity machine of moviemaking: adored, sexualized, worshipped, scrutinized, shunted aside as time passes, then brutalized by the cult of celebrity as they age. (I couldn’t help thinking how this movie was made just when Hillary Clinton was being savaged in the press, the ultimate misogynistic takedown of a woman in a position of power.) The film’s most brilliant stroke is that the cult of celebrity becomes an actual uncontrollable cult, a cult that dismantles the entire house piece by piece and utterly invades the central couple’s privacy, to put it mildly. All of this unfolds as the mass violence of the past century stampedes across the screen in ways I’ve never before seen on film, and in ways I’m not sure any other director could achieve.
My favorite documentary of 2017, and the easiest film to love this past year, was Faces Places (or Visages Villages in French), directed by filmmakers and street photographers Agnès Varda and JR. A smart combination of a road movie, odd-couple comedy, and public art project, the film traces the journey of JR’s traveling “photography truck,” which produces larger-than-life printed images directly from a slot on the side of the vehicle. The pair drive from town to town through the French countryside, finding everyday people to photograph and meaningful stories to tell, always with some sort of humanistic or political slant. Then, they wheat-paste their large-scale images onto particular surfaces for particular reasons, creating outdoor art installations that may last for years and attract widespread attention, or become ephemeral within a brief period of time.
Early in the movie, the filmmakers encounter an older woman in an industrial town, who staunchly refuses to move out of her home and vacate it for developers. Because she’s resided there for nearly her entire life and now lives alone, her story immediately resonates with viewers; we feel like we know her in only a matter of minutes, just in time for her face to be emblazoned across the front of the building that she has a right not to leave. Three wives of shipyard workers in a port city also see their images blown up to gigantic sizes after they pose before towering stacks of multicolored shipping containers; their stories are as just as significant as those of the men who surround them.
Agnès Varda herself is a legend of French New Wave cinema, a contemporary and close colleague of Jean-Luc Godard (who has a certain kind of unflattering cameo late in the film), so her own personal stories are equally important in the documentary. After sharing her recollections of friends and artists from her youth, she and JR undertake one of the most memorable photography projects of the film, affixing a long-ago image of one of her deceased friends to the side of a military bunker from World War II that fell from a cliffside to the beach below, only to become upended and permanently lodged in the sand. She remarks how her friend (the late fashion photographer Guy Bourdin) now appears as if he’s in a cradle, just like he belonged there.
On the same day (Thanksgiving) that I saw Faces Places for a noon matinee at The Quad cinema in New York City, I went back to see another excellent documentary later that night. I had stayed a bit longer in New York to watch a preview in Union Square of the much-anticipated gay movie Call Me by Your Name, which left me more than a little disappointed, so right afterwards I walked back over to The Quad to watch Brimstone & Glory, Viktor Jakovleski’s dazzling short documentary about the Mexican town of Tultepec’s annual National Pyrotechnics Festival fireworks extravaganza. To go from the relative lack of expected fireworks in Call Me by Your Name to the abundantly real fireworks of Brimstone & Glory provided me with exactly the boost that I needed, accompanied by an intense soundtrack of percussion that had me drumming away on my pant-legs in the otherwise empty theater.
In addition to showing how the residents of Tultepec spend many months of each year manufacturing their fireworks by hand, the documentary focuses on both parts of the fireworks festival: the Castles of Fire, and the Burning of the Bulls. The first part of the festival, attended by thousands of spectators annually, features enormous ten-story towers of fireworks with many spinning parts. We climb up these towers with workers (who are wearing tiny portable cameras on their hats) as they’re being constructed, and we even see one tower get struck by lightning in a storm and begin to go off prematurely. The second part of the festival is much more interactive, with spectators carrying and running with piñata-like bulls the size of trucks, packed with and trailing fireworks, which the onlookers all then chase and dance in the wake of. A team of medics treats the injured who’ve been burned or gotten hot cinders in their eyes, including young children, who then jump right back in to chase the bulls some more, a community ritual in which they want to partake. To be amazed by such daring footage captured so close up and wonder how the filmmakers did it lifted me out of the theater and into the sky.