Instead of a top ten list of movies alone, here are 11 stories from this just-past year that I loved – in novels, television and film.
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
This love story, of two twentysomething refugees infused with magical realism, packs a punch. Saeed and Nadia join others in their (unnamed and newly-totalitarian) country to open a closet door and end up in a faraway country – where they are immediately reduced to mere enemy and economic burden. Hamid’s humanist parable and eloquent writing never let go of Saeed and Nadia’s complex personhood; as this NPR review shared, “there’s not a wasted word” in it. Its sentences and story will break your heart.
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied Sing
This novel reminded me of the profundity and grace in Toni Morrison’s work. I couldn’t bear to start anything new after because I didn’t want to leave its people.
Ward’s prose shimmers and bites. Her lyricism wraps you in. Heat, hunger, hope and grief are palpable on every page. It un-buries deep pain, but also tenderness, among post-Katrina southern African-Americans. Sing, Unburied Sing oscillates between the divergent points of view of young mother Leonie and her teenage son Jojo. It eschews a Rashomon approach (retelling the same scene) in favour of something more fragmented by grief. The technique keeps its two narrators close in proximity but worlds apart emotionally, with ghosts haunting them up to that transcendent ending. Deserving of all the accolades it’s been getting and more.
I’m bored by most TV dramas of “complex” people (i.e., facile narcissists). If I’d avoid them in real life, why would I spend time with them onscreen? Here are my alternates: two well-paced, witty, half-hour shows by smart female showrunners with warmly real women and equal parts funny and sad.
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
Sitcoms have resolvable conflicts, caricatured characters and canned laughtracks, right? Not in Norman Lear’s hands. They’re a Trojan horse, using humour to ask tough questions.
Lear rebooted his original 1970’s hit, One Day at a Time, with hit showrunner Gloria Calderon-Kellet. Today, we get a Los Angeles-based, Cuban-American family: divorced mom Penelope, her feisty feminist teenage daughter Elena, suave seventh-grader Alex and Penelope’s mother Lydia (the glorious Rita Moreno!).
Last January, I took in the show’s warm, forthright take on tough issues. Immigration. Queer female youth and coming out. Sexism and unequal pay. Inadequate support for PTSD-stricken vets. The series wove it all so well, culminating in a bittersweet finale that high-fived hardworking single moms. Season two drops January 26; catch up now.
The popular web series Awkward Black Girl‘s creator, writer and executive producer, Issa Rae, is brilliant and funny on HBO’s Insecure as Issa, a 29 year-old Black woman in a not-great relationship with a nice guy. She works at “We Got Y’all,” a non-profit for kids in inner-city LA, one run by un-woke white liberals.
Insecure focuses on Issa’s rich inner life. She’s juggling romantic prospects, her best friend, Molly, and lots of questions of career versus creativity. Often, Issa’s coworkers’ show their racism not in dramatic moments, but in ordinary, daily exchanges. We see these moments from Issa’s perspective with her curtailed fantasy replies, and then we see what happens when these untellable replies go underground. Ultimately, though, this is a love letter to Black female friendship. Issa and Molly are fun, funny, sad, smart and, in a landscape intent on erasing them, absolutely vital.
My top seven (with one tie) has four films directed by women. Here’s to #MeToo transforming the industry and beyond in 2018!
6. Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (dir. Ann-Marie Fleming)
I saw this film outdoors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre on an unseasonably cool, rainy summer night. Planes flew noisily overhead, and loud sheets of rain drowned out the sound at times. Yet these distractions faded as I watched this love letter to Rosie the poet; to those who are culturally and racially mixed; to Canada and Iran; to those who break walls with words. Come for the hand-drawn animation, stay for the poetry and heart.
5. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)
I’ve been a fan since I saw Rees’ short, Pariah, and her talent shines strong here. Her adaptation has Steinbeckian overtones. Yet she updates Steinbeck to grasp the racist violence structuring the American nation and imagination. I saw Mudbound at TIFF and hope Netflix’s smaller screens don’t hide Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which evokes a landscape of dread and hope. Kudos to Mary J. Blige, who knows much more than she says, weighing her words with her eyes.
4. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)
Such thrilling fight sequences helmed and embodied by strong – in all senses of the word – female leads! I loved this blockbuster’s Nazi smackdown, a plot full of new urgency given real-life American fascism’s rise. I adore star-powered Gal Gadot as hero and heroine, equal parts charming and earnest. My only complaint: I wanted more Robin Wright. Here’s hoping for a prequel.
3. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)
I only love 1930’s romantic comedies. Give me His Girl Friday’s breezy feminine independence over contemporary women kicking their careers to the curb for a man. The Big Sick freshened up the genre and gave me joy. Funny and moving, it featured stellar performances by Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and the dark horse, Ray Romano. I love a movie that makes me laugh and cry equally. A satisfying treat.
2. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Like Moonlight last year, The Shape of Water morphed into something greater that the sum of its parts. An interspecies fairy tale/love story? Sounds weird, and it is. That’s what makes it so good.
Sixties’ Baltimore shows that the mythical “make America great again” era wasn’t even good. A militaristic, racist, ultraviolent masculinity is in charge, one that creates and controls any “others” (racial, sexual and/or female) in its midst – all while perusing The Power of Positive Thinking.
But this film’s merry band of outsiders is not having it. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and sinewy monster Doug Jones exhibit great friendship chemistry. Alexander Desplat’s score buoys them along. So does Dan Laustsen’s oceanic cinematography, which does more nuanced heavy lifting than anything in the strangely flat spectacle of Dunkirk. Finally, there’s a touching meta-commentary on the complex psychological work movies do. We don’t merely view them to escape. They help us understand ourselves. Guillermo del Toro, you love the movies and monsters, and we love you back.
1. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) and Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
Each of these two films is so distinct, memorable and smart, as a revision of the coming of age story (Lady Bird) or the thriller/horror genre (Get Out), that I can’t rank or compare them. They’re both ingenious on their own terms.
Get Out reveals racism’s complicated American core in brand new ways. It eschews cheap targets like southern rednecks to challenge wealthy white Yankees. Peele called his film, provocatively, a “documentary.” Like the magical door of Exit West, Get Out’s “sunken place” offers a horrifying allegory of all-too-real Black pain. That pain is not for white consumption. The mirror spins ‘round to challenge white audiences and validate Black ones. Two small moments I loved: the revelatory Bettie Gabriel-as-Georgina’s pained face saying all those “No’s,” and Daniel Kaluuya-as-Chris’ panic rising while he asks where those damn keys are. So many layers that the film not only holds up, but gets even better on repeat views.
Lady Bird, like The Shape of Water, was deeply infused with empathy. It made me realize how rare this is onscreen (and why I skip so many hyped movies: their people are too simple). Every character in Lady Bird has rich inner lives – or a sense of them. I’ve loved Gerwig’s work as an actress and writer, but her own vision has more breadth and depth than any of her other collaborations. How refreshing to see the complicated lives and loves of white working-class women realized onscreen, both mother-daughter ones and those of best friends. My one caution: I very nearly ugly-cried in parts, including the end, leaving me hiding my face when the lights sprang up. So if you tear up easily, bring Kleenex. Be ready.
Authentic empathy. Keen politics. Intellectual verve. The wisdom of humour. Exceptional screenplays, expertly directed. They’re why I watch, and love, movies. Happy New Year, indeed.