2017 movies like Get Out didn’t predict the future.

The Movie Club, 2017

The Year’s Best Movies Didn’t See Into the Future. They Saw What’s Always Been Here.

The Movie Club, 2017

The Year’s Best Movies Didn’t See Into the Future. They Saw What’s Always Been Here.
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Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2018 11:52 AM

The Movie Club, 2017

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Entry 2: The year’s best movies didn’t see into the future. They saw what’s always been here.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Universal Pictures.
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Universal Pictures.

Dear Clubbers,

Thank you, Dana, for wasting no time in acknowledging the elephant in the room. Actually, the elephant is an extremely intelligent animal with a sense of community and a capacity for love, grief, and perhaps even empathy, so let me rephrase: Thank you, Dana, for mentioning Donald Trump, whose shadow will doubtless lie heavily over this darkest-timeline edition of the Movie Club. Let me get right to your 1967 question, since it pertains indirectly to He Who Shall Not Be Gotten Rid Of By Jokes, Memes, or Insults. This year, I replanted one foot in ’67 while trying to keep both eyes on 2017, and what that game of Movie Twister brought to mind was how tempting it is to over-narrativize any single year of movies. As the spring 1968 Oscars approached, nobody in Hollywood or in the film-critic world—even those who very much appreciated Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and In the Heat of the Night—was looking at those films and saying, “Obviously these constitute Year One of the decadelong Hollywood renaissance to come!” Most people, in fact, assumed the year’s best movies were outliers.

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So when I look at 2017’s movies, I’m wary of lumping them together as the starting line of the Resistance. For one thing, Dana, as you note, all of the films we’re discussing except The Post were green-lit before the 2016 election—and even The Post couldn’t anticipate the resonance of a plotline about a woman in a male institution finding her voice at last. But beyond that, I’m working to remind myself that perhaps we’re not in Year One of anything. The world that Trump started to unbuild in 2017 is the same world that helped build Trump in 2016 and before. In a sense, we’re in Year Nine of an American nervous breakdown that infected the country after Obama’s first inauguration, and all that changed in the last 18 months is that the latency period of the virus finally gave way to something worse.

Pop culture doesn’t solve things, doesn’t fix things, and isn’t a substitute for protest or policy—but it can galvanize, focus attention, crystallize feelings, and make the remote more real. Therefore, I am all for Steven Spielberg making The Post as a head-on response to a propaganda-obsessed administration’s relentless attacks on a free press. It is not cheating, or being “manipulative” (an empty indictment since it describes literally every movie) to want to create work that’s immediately inspired by what you’re feeling or seeing or reading about—nor is it too on-the-nose to want your audience to get your point rather than to congratulate itself for subtly intuiting your point from the hints you deftly concealed. Sometimes it’s fine to be direct. The only failure is to make a bad movie, and I think The Post is a very good one. Probably only a veteran cast and creative team could have moved so quickly and effectively, and to me the hesitation, concern, and the-hell-with-it-I’m-driving-over-this-cliff emotion flickering across Meryl Streep’s face before she says “Let’s … go” as Spielberg pushes in on her is one of the year’s true applause moments. If you’re going to do this kind of movie, do it with an A Team like this one. (By the way, what are we to make of the fact that the only 2017 filmmaker faster on his feet than the 71-year-old Spielberg was Ridley Scott, who spent his 80th birthday doing reshoots? I want their vitamins.)

But 2017 was largely a year of younger directors making extraordinary marks, and they deserve credit not for seeing into the future but for seeing into the present. When the Golden Globe nominators classified his film as a comedy, Jordan Peele, in probably the year’s single most retweeted filmmaker statement, replied, “ Get Out’ is a documentary.” And he sort of wasn’t kidding. One of the most exciting things about his film is that it toggles from reality to comedy to sociology to horror in ways that suggest the borders between them are so porous as to be meaningless. Get Out wasn’t made either in psychic anticipation of TrumpWorld or in misaimed expectation of the HillaryVerse. It was about this world, because there is no other. What Peele tells us is that this threat, this menace, this evil has seemingly benign manifestations but also deep roots; it has been here all along, in different forms, for centuries, just waiting for us to look at it.

Look at it seems to be the marching order that many of my favorite 2017 movies share. One of them, Dee Rees’ tough, generous, and beautiful Mudbound, feels fuller and richer each time I remember it. It’s the story of two families, one white and one black, on a smallish plot of Mississippi farmland in the 1940s. Their lives converge in a horror generated from both outright bigotry and the blundering, incautious acts of people who, in the words of one character, are just “trying to be nice.” The film does not offer the “It’s really nobody’s fault” comfort of tragedy (spoiler: It’s somebody’s fault), but what moves me the most about Rees’ screenwriting approach is something I usually think is a sign of defeat: narration. Rees, working with co-writer Virgil Williams from a novel by Hillary Jordan, assigns portions of the voiceover in Mudbound to half a dozen different characters, allowing you—no, forcing you—to reposition yourself constantly: Who owns this? Who can finally take possession of our American story? The answer, that custody must be shared, feels like a profound political statement, and also a hopeful one. Rees makes you confront horror—look at it—but one of the many unexpected pivots of Mudbound is that, ultimately, she forgoes the bleakest possible ending in favor of a final scene that forces the audience away from the comfort—and it is a kind of comfort—of complete nihilism and toward something more challenging. (And Dana, I would contend that by choosing the ending he chose for Get Out, Peele does the same thing.)

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By contrast, I, Tonya and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, two films that initially impressed me with the quality of their acting and the aggressive conviction of their storytelling, have shrunk for me retrospectively in part because of what they avert their eyes from. I’ve been thinking of both films as part of a white-anger trilogy alongside (or beneath) The Florida Project. And the go-for-broke performances of both ensembles are unimpeachable. But I, Tonya only works by making an abstraction out of Nancy Kerrigan—an actual human being who was the victim of a brutal planned physical assault. The movie’s Kerrigan is just a notion, a blurry sketch of the all-American privileged princess that is supposed to represent everything Harding can’t have and can’t be. You don’t have to know her; you don’t have to care; you just have to view her as a stand-in for the unfairness of life. But if I, Tonya demanded that you confront the ugly reality of what was done to her, the depressing folk-heroization of Harding would be a much steeper climb.

Same thing with Three Billboards. Again, it’s not the manipulation that I mind: In his plays and movies, Martin McDonagh is absolutely unashamed about using his characters as devices to explore ethical dilemmas or ideas. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But this film opens in the aftermath of two events—the apparent police torture of a black man in custody and the rape and murder of a young woman—that exist entirely to position Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) one way—she’s a grieving mother, he’s a monster—so that McDonagh can then spend the rest of the movie undercutting the perspective he’s lured you into. But could you go on Dixon’s journey if the black man he tortured was a person rather than a construct? If the film began with the vivid scene of brutality it only ever refers to? I doubt it. McDonagh’s fascination with guilt and sin and redemption and faith is real, and Three Billboards is very interesting as a questioning-Catholic movie, but less so as an American one. In the United States, in Missouri, in 2017, you can’t use race and rape as gimmicks or setups. As a writer, I can’t help but admire McDonagh’s fearsome skill in remorselessly jerking his audience into a new emotional state every 15 minutes (most directors can barely do it once per movie). But both films, in different ways, depend for their effectiveness on saying Don’t look at that. And this year, that feels a bit like a failure of nerve.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten to Elio and the Giant Peach! I hope we can talk about all the gay movies this year. Because my own gold-embroidered caftan is just back from the dry cleaner’s.

Flowingly,

Mark