Who cares whether the best movies are “timely”?

The Movie Club, 2017

Does It Really Matter Whether the Best Movies of the Year Are “Timely”?

The Movie Club, 2017

Does It Really Matter Whether the Best Movies of the Year Are “Timely”?
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Jan. 3 2018 4:02 PM

The Movie Club, 2017

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Entry 4: Does it really matter whether the best movies of the year are “timely”?

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Meryl Streep in The Post, and Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out.

Stills by Merrick Morton - © 2017 - Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Justin Lubin - © 2016 Universal Pictures, and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox.

Dear Clubbers,

Thanks for a conversation so good that it’s distracted me from the depression of running out of holiday leftovers. Truly: Finishing all the apple pie is an occasion that, in my household, merits a moment of silence. I’m really going to miss that pie.

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And I’ll surely miss the year 2017 in movies, if not the year 2017. There’s a lot of great stuff on the table so far: a call from Mark to circle back to a wonderfully robust year for queer film, a suggestion from Dana to sift through the multiple endings of Get Out, a query from Amy about what to do with messy movies in a messy era, and calls from all around to make sense of movies with regard to the era itself. All completely vital—but I should confess upfront that the best thing about the winter holiday and start of the new year, for me, is getting to take a break from the year’s movies. I spend 340 out of the 365 days of the year riddled with dumb guilt over “only”  having seen 200 of the season’s movies. And then I spend the magical period from Dec. 22 to about late January, circa Sundance, being completely over that guilt. I watch a ton of movies over the course of that month but very few from the past year: My Christmas gifts to myself are rewatches, blind spots, and the chance to marathon enough director filmographies on FilmStruck for me to feel like I’m making up for all the money I’ve spent on my oft-dormant subscription. Unwatched 2017 screeners, meanwhile, are currently collecting dust on my desk.

All of this is to say: The movies we spent the most time loving or debating this year are, in a way, already history, mingled in with all the other movies we’ve seen from previous years, ready to be forgotten, rewatched, remembered, canonized, or best yet, discovered for the first time, for years and years after their release, via Blu-rays, torrents, art house retrospectives, Netflix, and pan-and-scan adaptations with commercial breaks on TV. Mark your calendar for the anniversary pieces we’ll be writing in 5, 10, 20, (or in Mark’s case!) 50 years, God willing. But for the most part, these movies are all about to stop being 2017 movies in favor of being the movies of the era, broadly speaking, each an index of the styles and ideas—cinematic and otherwise—that bind the disparate tangles of the time into what’ll get remembered as the moment.

I kind of love that. The most wonderful thing about watching older films right now has been the chance to see 2017 movies, which are still fresh on my mind, in this broader context. It’s like watching 2017 movies through the lenses of 1971, 1995, or 1943, rather than just the usual bad habit of watching movies from ’43 and ’95 through the lens of 2017. For the first time since seeing it in theaters in 1995, I watched Die Hard: With a Vengeance, a movie in which Jeremy Irons makes Bruce Willis stand on a street corner in Harlem wearing a sign that reads, “I Hate Niggers.” Loaded—but this movie is premised on racial misunderstanding. Was there a big-name franchise action movie in 2017 that was quite as racially aggressive, off-the-walls, and entertainingly well-made as that classic? And would we make that movie today? Maybe not, but there was Joshua and Benny Safdie’s extremely contemporary Good Time, an even better film that, in its own way, pays tribute to the New York crime movies of yore and their characters’ nihilistic ethics and gritty misbehavior, but in ways that only a project produced outside of Hollywood in 2017, with a cinematographer as innovative as Sean Price Williams and music as electrically wild as that of Oneohtrix Point Never’s, could pull off.

Meanwhile, last night, I rewatched Elaine May’s pitch-perfect 1971 comedy A New Leaf and wondered whether any comedy I’d seen in 2017 was quite as formally dexterous and thematically mischievous as May’s masterpiece. Maybe not—but just as May remains one of the enduring writer/director/actors of her era, so too has Greta Gerwig—in films like Mistress America and Frances Ha, both of which she starred in and co-wrote—become one of ours. Gerwig’s directorial breakout Lady Bird is only the most recent and perhaps most ample proof of what was already a clear trend. And I don’t know that I saw a stretch of 40 minutes in a 2017 movie as astonishingly made, idea-rich, and prone to making me fall in love with Hollywood movies as the opening stretch of another recent rewatch, Martin Scorsese’s Casino. But aren’t the last 30 minutes of James Gray’s turbulent, romantic The Lost City of Z, a sprawling movie adventure of the kind that’s hard to get funded by Hollywood these days, comparably sublime? I can’t wait to rewatch Gray’s movie in 20 years.

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One of the best things we can do as critics working in the Trump era is to remind people that we don’t always experience history through the art of the moment. At least, we don’t have to. It’s possible that one of the best films on the Trump era is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a movie released in 1940. It’s possible that Get Out would’ve been even more suited to the Reagan era—the Willie Horton era—fresh on the heels of blaxploitation, in which case, to Dana’s point, maybe the tragedy of the alternate ending, in which Daniel Kaluuya’s character does get arrested by the police, would’ve been the more adventurous choice. These questions extend to the very art of movies, not just their politics. Despite our best efforts (and despite the hunger of audiences online for only the hottest, most incisive takes), we don’t always understand the true value, whether topical or formal, of the art that’s right in front of us. What Moby-Dick, my favorite work of art in any medium, meant to the scornful audiences who ignored it in 1851 is not the same as what it meant a full century later, in the midst of the Cold War, which is when that novel finally started to make sense to the culture at large. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is likely no Moby Dick, but what excites me about that movie and its reception is the swath of room we’ve all left for it to change our minds. That movie is begging for future reconsideration.

Plenty of this year’s consensus favorites, meanwhile—Call Me by Your Name being a significant example—left me just a little bit cold for exactly the opposite reason. As much as I dug CMBYN both times I saw it, it is very much a film I’ve already stopped being curious about, especially compared to a less-heralded but (to my mind) richer queer movie from this year, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats.

Speaking of the politics of 2017 movies, in the realm of queer cinema, Beach Rats has proven somewhat controversial for feeling retrograde, being the story of a sexually fraught young man that ends with violence, rage, and confusion, rather than—like CMBYN—a generous sense of self-acceptance. The narrative of these two movies, which both premiered at Sundance last January, has been that Beach Rats is not the kind of movie we need right now, as if the closet were something that could go out of fashion, rather than the enduring social condition that it is. For me, Beach Rats is a movie whose emotional underpinnings and images feel always just out of reach, too personal for me to access them fully, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps me coming back. CMBYN, meanwhile, gives me almost everything I could possibly want yet, somehow, seems to close the book on itself. I like it. But it’s such a love letter to everything I want to see onscreen right now that what I mostly wonder is whether a future version of myself will still feel that he needs it, and if he doesn’t, whether the movie will have much else to offer me. Time will tell.

“Timeliness is next to godliness,” said no one ever, and yet in the reception of these two movies—and movies like The Post, Get Out, even Three Billboards—timeliness, relevance, and being politically of the moment is more than a small part of the conversation. Even our conversation! But how much does any of that matter, really?

Still craving pie,

Kameron

K. Austin Collins writes on movies and pop culture for Vanity Fair.