Culture

In This Grim Year, At Least We Had Film

A look at the movies that offered hope — or escape — in 2017.

By Dorothy Woodend 29 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

What a weird time to be alive.

To put it mildly, this has been a rather difficult year. Coming on the heels of the U.S. election trash fire, there were mass shootings, floods, superstorms, a couple of genocides, forest fires, and so on and so forth. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few horrors, but after a while it is hard to keep them all in your head. It was a veritable assembly line of awfulness, one dark chocolate nightmare after the other. No matter how many you stuffed down your blouse, or inside your cheeks, they still kept coming.

But, on a brighter note, it was a very good year for film!

This is the season when everyone and their various family pets have compiled their top 10 films of the year. The parakeets favour Lady Bird, while the hound dogs have a thing for Logan Lucky. The usual suspects popped up with somewhat frightening regularity on critics’ lists and in awards categories. And to be fair, Lady Bird, Get Out and The Shape of Water are all excellent, and deserving of the accolades piled on top of them.

But they’re not the only films out there. There is a veritable universe, a great speckled expanse of cinematic night sky, as far as the eye can see. You gotta start somewhere though, so let’s dive in, and start splashing about.

Things got off to good start early in the year with a swarm of powerful documentaries including I Am Not Your Negro, Angry Inuk and Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Director Bill Morrison’s Frozen Time is particularly worth revisiting. Really, you could watch this film dozens of times over and still glean some glorious new fact. The film is jam-packed with curlicues of history, diversions, curios, oddities, and such footage — one could keel over. It is an embarrassment of riches, filled with ravishing bits of cinema, from newsreel images to films from the silent era. More than a compendium, it is a time capsule of the previous century, and a reminder of what movies are capable of — holding history, like a lit flame.

If you would like to see some of these films again, you’re in luck. The Vancity Theatre is featuring a selection throughout December, including Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, School Life and Big Time.

This was also a good year for entertaining junk, with films like Baby Driver, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I, Tonya, and yes, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

In amongst all of this bounty, there were a number of singular moments that jumped out, crossed the blood/brain barrier and embedded like viruses. These moments of genuine surprise weren’t limited to “quality” films. They popped up all over the place from Girls Trip to Netflix series like Big Mouth. I have rarely seen anything that broached the horror and hilarity of puberty quite like this animated series. Occasionally, it tripped over into a form of almost pornographic surrealism. I still don’t know if I am appalled or bemused, or stranded somewhere between these two polarities.

Colour me surprised by The Post. Steven Spielberg’s latest doesn’t hit Canadian theatres until January, but it’s already been released in the U.S., where the reviews have been uniformly strong. It is very much a Spielberg movie, filmed like Indiana Jones meets hot lead type. Sentimental, and occasionally corny as hell, but gosh darn it, the stuff still works. There is something about old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism that just gets me in the gut. This film is brimming with the stuff. If you love the idea of plucky reporters bringing down the government, then get your tickets to the show, sonny. Tricky Dick is going down.

On the flipside of the powerful and privileged folk who populate The Post, is another group of U.S. citizens, dwelling on the fringes of society. The Florida Project is extraordinary, not only for the story it tells, but more so for the atmosphere it captures. The tale of Moonee and her buddies, her hurricane of a mother and the poor put-upon caretaker of the ghastly purple hotel that they all call home is a world unto itself. Complete and total.

Like Sean Baker’s earlier film Tangerine, which stomped through the streets of rancid LA in broken down stilettos, The Florida Project is a poem of motion. The camera plods along at the same height as its young protagonists as they look for fun and danger in equal measure. Also like Tangerine, The Florida Project is a reminder that underneath the siren call of the American Dream, tattered and stained, but somehow still flying, there is something else. Some form of identity composed of bravado, pride, despair and a certain bone-hard type of defiance. Nothing makes this more apparent than the film’s final escape sequence, a plunge into fantasy that shatters your spirit into a million kaleidoscopic fragments, glittering and spinning in the hard Floridian sun.

The unique ability of cinema to conjure up a profound and distinct sense of place can feel akin to magic. This kind of voodoo is readily apparent in Call Me by Your Name, where the quality of the light becomes another character in the story. Whether it’s the velvet darkness of endless summer nights or dappled green garden sunlight filtered through trees, it is distinct and immediate as perfume. If you let it, it will waft you back to your own long lost summers, when love infused the warm night air and vespertine breezes moved through the silken evenings.

There were even more lovely bits and fragments, snared in the net of movie memories this year.

The sound of a Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, heading over the English Channel in Dunkirk.

The opening scene of Baby Driver, a roaring ode to the rhythms of power, speed and skill that summon up a wolf howl of appreciation. The rest of the film had its moments, but this one beautifully orchestrated sequence of squealing wheels and zippy car chases was almost enough. I could watch it for hours, and feel happy about the world.

Or a good bout of raunchiness with your best girlfriends.

When Tiffany Haddish stepped up in Girls Trip, no one was quite prepared for such a fearless example of rampaging id. The film was so much treacle wrapped around a few raucous set pieces, but Haddish was something else. In quick summation, the story concerns a group of friends (the Flossy Posse), who reunite for a trip to New Orleans, with the intent of drinking, tripping and binging on men. Along the way, there are the usual womanly squabbles and makeup moments, but Haddish’s performance easily overpowered the entire film. Whether she was peeing on people or fellating a banana, there was a wild joy that lifted off the screen and invaded the senses. And, really, who hasn’t wanted to pee on a few folk, and then gallop off into the night.

In a year that was simultaneously on fire, drowning, blown away and shot to pieces, who didn’t need some small bit of escape — to drift about in the warm summer sunshine, to trip balls on hundred-year-old absinthe, or, to take to the stars to fight for the rebellion?

But after all this endless watching, until you feel like you’ve grown pale and weird, a Gollum-like creature with giant staring eyes and sharpened teeth, are there any larger conclusions to be drawn? I don’t know if there is a direct effect, I think it may be cumulative, gradually wearing you down, like water on rock, carving a groove in your heart and your soul.

This year made certain that one’s faith in the future was severely shaken, and that there wasn’t much to replace it with. Except, there was. Those storm-the-barricades moments, when the presses rolled and people stuck up one defiant fist and used it to hammer down the darkness, came pouring out of the movie theatres, in a flood of messy, irascible, contrary humanity.

The one thing that is most apparent when times are hard is the necessity to fight for and find joy, whenever and wherever you can. I don’t mean it in a facile or trivial fashion, but as a form of armament and fuel, to protect you from harm and light your way forward.

Happy holidays, Tyee folk, one and all!  [Tyee]

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