Memo to Harvey Weinstein: Don’t eat the mushrooms.
As 2017 fades and we grapple with remarkable changes in the movie industry (and elsewhere), it’s encouraging to note that the eviction of men such as Weinstein has been accompanied by a wave of movies about women contending with sexism and worse.
In three of them, women strike a blow against toxic masculinity by serving men toxic mushrooms. The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth, and a third I won’t identify, as it is a major spoiler for a major Oscar contender.
Movies about women upending the patriarchy are mushrooming, and they account for some of the year’s best.
If the catalyst for the #MeToo movement was Hollywood, then Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game is set at ground zero. It’s the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a competitive skier felled by injury who heads to Hollywood and ends up operating a high-stakes poker ring dominated by powerful Hollywood men.
Money, fame, power, alpha male ego — they create a minefield for Bloom, mapped smartly by Chastain and writer-director Sorkin, who surely know the territory.
Down the socioeconomic ladder is I, Tonya, opening Dec. 22, another true(ish) story, this one about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, played by Margot Robbie (who also produced). It’s an extremely edgy black comedy that chronicles the way Harding endured various forms of abuse and exploitation — from her mother (Allison Janney), her husband (Sebastian Stan), and tabloid media that covered and actively amplified the lurid story, set at the dawn of the Age of Truthiness. The movie has been accused of doing the same thing, but Harding herself likes the finished project.
A more subtle tale of women countering male privilege can be found in The Post, which opens here next month. A timid Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) inherits control of the Washington Post just as the newspaper, exposing the contents of the Pentagon Papers, faces legal and possibly existential challenges from the Nixon administration. The legal action provides suspense, but Steven Spielberg and Streep lend significant weight to the parallel story of Graham standing up for herself in the male-dominated worlds of Washington media and politics.
More subtle still is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, also opening locally next month, about a fussy and dictatorial dress designer (Daniel Day Lewis in, reportedly, his final role) whose habit of consuming and discarding fashion models is reversed when he becomes involved with a woman (Vicky Krieps) who matches his drive, his talent, and perhaps his need for control.
The Dunkirk movies
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk revived old-school moviemaking spectacle, shooting in actual physical spaces in a wide-screen format without special effects, making daring (some would say confusing) choices in storytelling and editing. If you can follow the intersecting stories, you’ll find an inspiring tale of individual and community action in the face of institutional paralysis.
Gary Oldman has a wonderful time playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, rallying his countrymen and his king in the face of a German invasion. My favorite Dunkirk movie, though, was Their Finest, the story of a London woman (Gemma Arterton) hired to write female characters for WWII propaganda movies, and who ends up heading the production of a romanticized account of the evacuation.
The movie is an overlooked marvel, full of first-rate performances, including Bill Nighy as an aged leading man contending with the indignity of his first supporting role. It’s also a story (written, directed, and scored by women) about a woman making her way in a world of male privilege, doing so with guts and smarts and talent.
Can’t We All Get along? No.
So says writer-director Jordan Peele in Get Out, a horror/comedy hybrid about a black man (Golden Globe-nominated Daniel Kaluuya) who visits the posh, apparently liberal family home of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) and ends up (spoiler alert) walking into a racist ambush. Peele has denounced attempts to categorize the movie as a comedy, but I laughed pretty heartily, at Lil Rel Howery’s heroic TSA employee and also at Bradley Whitford as the master of the house, a virtue-signaler who collects African art and wanted to vote for Obama three times. The movie has many clever ideas — for instance, that the way we respond to racial cues amounts to a kind of cultural hypnosis. But there is some irony in the fact that Get Out would surely be touted by Dean Armitage as his favorite movie.
Harder to shake was the horror movie It Comes at Night. No laughs, all horror — in a post-apocalyptic world, two heavily armed families strike an edgy truce to pool their resources. Can compassion trump suspicion, the ethos of every man for himself? Don’t count on it.
Ugliness bubbles very close to the surface also in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s scabrous story of a woman (Frances McDormand) driven to extremes by the unsolved murder of her daughter, prompting a war with local police (Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson). The movie contains shocking discourse, but it’s about our shocking discourse, and the shocking things some cultural/political adversaries might have in common.
Can’t We All Get Along? Yes.
After all of that, affirmation of the enduring idea of America as a melting pot is most welcome, especially when presented as appealingly as it is in The Big Sick, based on Kumail Nanjiani’s own experiences as a comedian and son of devout Muslim Pakistani immigrants who falls for a white woman (Zoe Kazan). It’s a romantic comedy about a fellow led by love into a no-man’s-land between two cultures. Only love can get him out.
No family feud was more memorable, or more memorably resolved, than the mother-daughter battle in writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, likely to earn Oscar nods for Gerwig and stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Gerwig’s movie has a keen sense of the lives of adolescent women, and the way the search for self can drive parents crazy.
The movie also quietly showed how economic realities helped shape that conflict, a thread teased out in The Florida Project, a humane, funny, and gritty look at transient families living in a Florida motel. In a year marked by tension between the genders, is was heartening to see Willem Dafoe as the motel handyman who ends up being everybody’s de facto spouse, brother, father, and rebellious uncle.
The documentary-like The Florida Project (amateur performers mixed with professional actors) and its fond look at people on the lower rungs of society has a French cousin in Faces Places, a warmhearted documentary about filmmaker Agnès Varda, 89, joining video artist JP on a road trip during which they use ordinary French citizens as the inspiration for mural art.
Finally, proof that we can all get along can surely be found in the communal pull of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opening this weekend in what has come to be regarded as an unofficial national holiday. That experience, I think, is at the root of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, about the making of a bad movie, 2003’s The Room. Hollywood was the first place to embrace The Room, a movie that has survived, and thrived, in midnight screenings the world over. As Netflix and Amazon draw more filmmakers on a forced march to other platforms, Franco and a host of Hollywood filmmakers use The Disaster Artist to celebrate the way even a movie like The Room can bring people together, in the warm glow of the big screen.
Gary Thompson's favorite movies of 2017
- Lady Bird
- The Big Sick
- Their Finest
- Molly's Game (in area theaters Dec. 25)
- The Post (in area theaters Jan. 5)
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- Faces Places
- The Florida Project
- The Disaster Artist