Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

10 more winners on 2017 screens


Scene from director Jakob M. Erwa's Center of My World.

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The second half of our top films of 2017 begins and ends with young men in love (Germany's "Center of My World," Britain's "God's Own Country.") The other entries range from Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," with its Oscar-contending leads, to a strikingly original African American horror tale ("Get Out"), a warm and wise coming-of-age comedy ("Lady Bird"), a sad-funny Vietnam-era postscript ("Last Flag Flying"), a revealing tale of transsexual life in Cuba ("Havana Transit"), and two docs and a narrative about police-related urban violence ("The Force," "Whose  Streets" and "Detroit.") Among many positive trends, 2017 was a banner year for women, both behind and in front of the camera.

"Center of My World" A best-selling German novel is the basis for a randy schoolboy's misadventures. Phil (newcomer Louis Hoffman) returns home from French-language camp to discover that his spirited sister and eccentric mother have stopped speaking to each other. The boy's life is enlivened by the appearance of dark-haired hottie Nicholas (Jannik Schumann) as a troublesome object of affection. Phil's present troubles alternate with slo-mo flashbacks to a utopian childhood playing with his twin sister. The story is punctuated with snippets of nudity from an attractive ensemble. In German with English subtitles.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri " In this darkly comic drama from the irreverent playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, Mildred, a grieving mother (an incendiary performance from Frances McDormand), leases three billboards outside her small town aimed at provoking police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into finding the person who raped and killed her daughter.

Things come to a boil when the chief's deputy (Sam Rockwell), an emotionally retarded bully egged on by his vengeful invalid mother, is drawn into the case. Warning for violence against fragile humans, a trademark of McDonagh's work on stage and screen. "Three Billboards" features a ferocious battle of wills between two Oscar-worthy characters. McDormand and Harrelson have never been better.

"Get Out" Former comic/first-time African American director Jordan Peele draws comparisons to "The Stepford Wives" with a horror tale that finds a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) invited to meet his white girlfriend's parents. Peele has noted in press chats that he was prompted to create "Get Out" by the racist events he observed while Pres. Obama was in the White House. "Being an African American, I have never seen my perspective in a horror film. 'Get Out' has my worst fears realized as a black man in this country, from the evil white girl who's been lying to you to the lacrosse stick. Those things are foreign to me." 

"Lady Bird" This coming-of-age comedy tracks the bumpy adventures of a Catholic high school girl (Saoirse Ronan) as she struggles to escape her Sacramento life with a smidgen of dignity and the hope of landing on her feet in Manhattan. Lady Bird, who lies and cheats without hesitation, can be charming when it suits her, but it seldom does. On the plus side is a romantic fling with a fellow drama nerd that turns sweetly platonic when he abruptly stumbles out of the closet. Writer-director Greta Gerwig's plan involves Ronan and Laurie Metcalf squaring off as a feisty daughter-mother combination. Kudos to "Call Me by Your Name" co-star Timothee Chalamet as a wickedly bad-boy prom date.

"Last Flag Flying" Richard Linklater offers a kind of poignant sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 Navy-buddy saga "The Last Detail." Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, former Navy Corpsman Larry "Doc" Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Rev. Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Director Linklater lets Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne provoke laughter and tears as they assume one of war's most wrenching burdens.

"Havana Transit" Daniel Abma's engrossing doc begins with three adult transgender women in an elevator. The talk is candid and hilarious. The occasion is the annual visit of two plastic surgeons from Belgium and the Netherlands to perform sexual reassignment surgery on five lucky Cubans chosen by lottery. These women-in-the-making, and at least one new guy, discuss how the prospect of surgery and the elaborate bureaucracy of the still-Socialist Cuban government are both liberating and stressful.

"Whose Streets" Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis demand we shed our emotional and mental baggage and assume the fears and risks of being a working-class African American trying to survive in racially polarized suburban St. Louis, MO that's 80% black, but controlled by a white minority and police armed with tanks and counterinsurgency weapons. At the height of the protests that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown, we hear a SWAT team commander yelling at protestors from the safety of a tank, "Return to your homes!" only to produce the agonized reply from a community resident, "We are home!"

"The Force" Pete Nicks' Sundance Award-winning doc covers a time (2014-16) when Oakland residents were debating the reliability of their police services, and whether a modern police department can ever fairly protect its minority citizens. Nicks' 2012 doc "The Waiting Room" sensitively covered the care offered Oakland residents at Highland Hospital, the city's public charity unit. Here he patiently tells his tale about reform at the Oakland Police Department as newly elected Mayor Libby Schaaf cleans house in the wake of officer-involved sexcapades.

"Detroit" In 1967 the "Motor City" was the affluent center of the American economy. Then a series of traumatic events set the town on a downward spiral. Director Kathryn Bigelow recreates the racially tinged events at the notorious Algiers Motel, which a trio of brutal cops terrorized under the excuse of locating a sniper. Bigelow dials up the tension as the cops, led by a vicious psychopath, terrorize the place.

Scene from director Francis Lee's "God's Own Country"

"God's Own Country" Francis Lee directs a British male farmyard romance. John, a hard-drinking Yorkshire lad, has his routines upset by the arrival of a Romanian day laborer. With a tough home-life sparked by a dad waylaid by a second stroke, John has been drowning his sorrows at the local pub. Leads Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu have a sizzling onscreen chemistry.

(Correction: The film "Alabama Bound," featured in the Top 10 column last week, has two co-directors, Carolyn Sherer and Lara Embry. When the film originally played at Frameline, Embry's name was mistakenly left out of the festival catalog.)


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