The time of year is nigh when critics dump their 10 Best Lists on the world, and the various organizations and guild awards are awarded. And, being a person who never finds a trend he won’t at least dabble in, I’m joining the fray. But, rather than do a 10 Best List, like most individual critics do, I’m going to do mine as an actual award, similar to a critics group. Why do it this way? Because it’s my blog and I do things my way over here.
Better, because I’m not a professional critic, and do everything here at my own expense, you should give what I have to say extra gravity. After all, I did not see any of these films via critics screeners or free screenings, and I did not get anything labeled “For Your Consideration”. Rather, I actually paid my own money to see all these films in a theater – for the most part – and since I have skin in the game, that makes my opinions more valid than the rest.
So, without further ado – it’s The Last Blog Name On Earth 2017 Awards!
Best Picture – A Ghost Story
Since I saw it back in the summer, A Ghost Story has been my #1 film of the year. It did not climb to that peak as the year went on, but commandeered it and would not let it go. Yes, I saw everything else, wondering if something might usurp it, and while a couple came close – The Florida Project, my wife’s favorite movie of the year by a country-mile, was close – nothing really sparked me on the same level as A Ghost Story.
Telling the story of a ghost trapped in his house, waiting in vain for his mate to join him, A Ghost Story paints a portrait of longing and sadness that is painful, exciting, and hopeful. Where another filmmaker might have made a straight-ahead ghost story with this material – or as straight as could be – by dumping jump scares all over it and saying, “Done!” Screenwriter/Director David Lowry has bigger notions in mind. He’s not interested in the momentary haunting, but in the generational haunting. The millennium of haunting. Which means that while the film hit me emotionally – admittedly, there was a pretty serious death in my family this year that probably made me ripe for this film – it also challenged me intellectually, demanding I use some of my cerebral energy on the meaning of death and the nature of time. In the end, that’s the kind of movie I want to see again and again.
That all said, I’m the first to admit that a 90-minute film, without much dialog and lots of long, ponderous takes, including an epic five-minute long scene of a character grief-eating the hell out of a pie, which is all used to tell a very elliptical story, is not for everyone’s tastes. The same could be said of The Tree of Life from a few years ago – all except the pie scene, which is A Ghost Story specific. But while these movies may not be to everyone’s liking, there are going to be people who are just blown away by them and for me, A Ghost Story was the most moving, most mind-blowing film I’ve seen in years.
Best Director – Tie – Sean Baker, The Florida Project; Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
In many ways, the Oscars, and Oscar equivalents, award Best Director based on who did the ‘most’ directing, or whose direction was most apparent. Whose film was the biggest, the hardest, the most visually stylish, or flashiest. That’s why a film like Spotlight can win Best Picture, but loses Best Director to A.G. Inarritu for The Revenant. One is certainly more likely to ‘stick’ in the mind and have lasting emotional resonance, while the other has the visual flair. It’s also why John Ford won Best Director four times, but George Cukor, et al, basically had to direct musicals to get any love.
But I’m not the Oscars and while there were many films I think could win for ‘most’ or ‘hardest’ directing – Dunkirk comes to mind – there were two directors who put together such wonderful ensembles, and got such amazing work out of them, that I have no choice but to drop my Best Director Award on the both of them.
Sean Baker’s oeuvre is decidedly outside the mainstream. His previous films include Starlet, about the fairly boring day-to-day life of a low-budget porn-star, and Tangerine, about a day-in-the-life of two trans sex workers in L.A. Neither got wide releases, nor set the box office on fire, and while Tangerine proved resonant, it’s likely the only reason it got noticed in the first place was the gimmick of having been shot so beautiful on an iPhone. That it was a good movie seemed almost beside-the-point.
Against that background, that The Florida Project, about the disparate families living in poverty in a motel near Disney World, is his most mainstream film really says something about where he’s coming from. His usual modus operandi seems to be to use real people instead of professional actors whenever he can, and that he still manages to find compelling performances within these novices is a real testament not only to his ability to find talent in the raw, but also to what sort of talent Hollywood misses by casting things with such bland uniformity. The Oscars might not recognize that as good work, or good direction, but I do.
Much the same can be said for Greta Gerwig and Lady Bird. Yes, she’s coming from a more mainstream place, and uses a company of fairly-name brand actors to populate her film, but her orchestration of it, and the way she threads the emotional needle of the story, cannot be dismissed. Sure, she does not make a film that will wow you visually; rather, she wows you with the performances she elicits, especially those of Laurie Metcalf and, honestly, the underappreciated Tracey Letts.
Best Actor – James Franco, The Disaster Artist
A few years back, Franco did a movie called Spring Breakers. His performance there, his magnetism, and the way he just went for broke, knocked me out. As a result, I declared him Best Actor. The Oscars ignored it.
This year, in The Disaster Artist, Franco knocked me out again, but for different reasons. In one sense, the two films, and characters played, share a same outré sensibility feel, and in both he commits to the performance. But unlike his work as Alien in Spring Breakers, his Tommy Wisseau in The Disaster Artist is not a bananas kind of performance. It’s not meant to kid, or caricature kid the real-life Tommy Wissaeu, the auteur behind one of the best bad films ever made. No, in it’s own way, it’s intensely subtle, and is filled with so much longing, disappointment, neediness, and pathos, that I could not look away. Where others might make a buffoon of Tommy Wisseau, Franco gives him a heart.
Best Actress – Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
Many would not give an award to a little kid, arguing children essentially play themselves, and the director merely makes the movie around them. Or, they argue, the performance wasn’t so much given as manipulated. Even as most performances are not given, but manipulated to some degree or another.
Just the same, I don’t subscribe to any of that bullshit – a good performance is a good performance, no matter who gives it, and how. And in The Florida Project, the absolutely unknown Brooklynn Prince is heartbreaking. Playing the little girl at the center of the world of poverty the film peeks into, she’s magnetic, she’s adorable, she’s sassy, she wise, she’s emotional – it’s almost like she’s playing a real kid. Better, she gives you a sense of hope that the character might avoid the life she seems stuck in, all the while showing signs that she’s just going to repeat the mistakes of her mother. And does all this while holding her own against Willem Dafoe, which is no small feat in this world.
Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Nobody, and I mean nobody, showed more empathy onscreen this year than Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project. As the manager of the motel where people are living out their poverty, he is a fundamentally decent man trying to straddle the line between helping out his tenants, and making sure to create a profit for his superiors. Through it all he plays the role of protector, even as he can’t ultimately protect them all.
As an aside, my favorite scene of 2017 is The Florida Project and it’s made by Willem Dafoe. It’s the one where the strange fellow wanders up to the motel and seems to take a little too much interest in the girls at the playground. Dafoe spots the trouble immediately but, rather than charge at the man like a bull and run him off, he takes a more delicate approach. He gently works the man away from the kids, feeling him out to see what his agenda is and, once he’s got a handle on the man’s game, runs him off with an instant of controlled rage. Hell, if this was the best scene in film this year, the best moment of all is right there in it – the moment Dafoe slaps that soda can away from the stranger is epic.
Best Support Actress – Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
As a parent, I see a lot of myself in parents in movies. I relate and cringe. I see how they push their kids to succeed and understand what they are trying to accomplish, even as they might be misguided – there’s nothing like watching a person in a movie do something you’ve done and realize, “Jesus, I’ve been a jackass.”
Of all the parents this year in film, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts in Lady Bird stuck with me most. Seeing them struggle to make ends meet, to deal with life’s disappointments, to shield their kids from the dangers they see all around, and then deal with the frustration of the ingratitude of those children – well, I could see myself in it. I could feel their regrets.
Laurie Metcalf gave a magnificent performance in Lady Bird in the same way Patricia Arquette gave a magnificent performance in Boyhood. It was small, it was subtle, and never went over-the-top with drama and hysteria. It was perfectly calibrated to the point where sometimes you’d wonder why others so lauded the performance. After all, it’s so natural it looks easy.
But then you see her arguing with Lady Bird about the dress. Or, sitting at the table trying to write the letter. Or, crying in the car after the airport. Only then do you realize, “Hey, she’s really killing it here.”
((BTW, Letts was Metcalf’s equal in this film but won’t get the same sort of love for it, even as he is the consummate supporting actor in the film.))
Best Screenplay – Original – Lady Bird, written by Greta Gerwig
The genius of Gerwig’s script is how she manages to put together a full picture of a year-in-the-life of her character, without it ever feeling labored, rushed, or given short shrift. It was a perfectly constructed piece of work that had no waste in it. Better, it was not simply an exercise in screenplay construction – it was a masterwork of emotional control.
Best Screenplay – Based on Other Material – The Disaster Artist, by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
The book of The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero, tries hard to get inside Tommy Wisseau and show him not as some sort of delusional mess, but as a real person. That said, it had all the elements to make a movie about nothing more than his complete ineptitude and easily could have gone there.
The script for The Disaster Artist, though, wisely turns away from caricature and tries it’s hardest to make the movie akin to a romantic comedy that just happens to involve two men who are not romantically involved with one another. It tries to make a bromance that, yes, has a silly backdrop to it. And for the most part, the screenplay succeeds, giving us an understanding of the rational mind that conceived and shot The Room, and the disappointments and motivations of Tommy Wisseau. It’s a pretty awesome example of managing to find the grace in something that doesn’t seem, at first, to have it.
Best Cinematography – Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story
I suspect the mainstream awards industry love will go to Roger Deakins for his work on Blade Runner: 2049. To be fair, it’s a magnificent thing to look at. Big, bright, shiny, and expansive. But as much as I enjoyed looking at it, I never felt it was the work of a cinematographer as much as the work of a visual effects team. Is that my own bias as somebody on the outside looking in? Probably, but there it is.
Even so, I still find the work done by Andrew Droz Palermo on A Ghost Story to be superior. Sure, the movie has a gimmick – it’s shot square, with rounded corners, giving one the idea they’re watching a Polaroid come to life – but that did not a A Ghost Story from being one of the most visually beautiful films to look at in a long time. If nothing else could be said about the film, the composition was joyous, the lighting perfect, and while The Florida Project has my favorite scene of the year, A Ghost Story has all my favorite images: the ghost in the future in the work site; the two ghosts facing one another from their recently-demolished homes; the pie. If cinematography is the art of photographing things in a beautiful way for the screen, A Ghost Story nails it.
Best Documentary – Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond
I didn’t see a ton of contemporary docs this year, but of the few I did, Jim and Andy stood out. When I saw Man on the Moon years ago – the one time I’ve seen it – I disliked it immensely and determined to never see it again.
So far, I’ve honored my vow.
But after watching is doc, and seeing the lengths Jim Carrey went through to get into character, gave me the idea I was maybe a little too harsh on the film in the first place and should give it another chance. Even if I didn’t.
Incidentally, if you have seven minutes to spare, you should also watch Jim Carrey: I Needed Color. It’s free on the internet and it quite good.
 Full Disclosure #1 – My award gives you no actual award, just the satisfaction of being an award winner. However, if one of these winners gets legit-in-touch with me, we can maybe work something out.
 Full Disclosure #2 – I’ve not yet seen Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, or The Post, so cannot weigh in on their worthiness.