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During times of roiling political and social unrest, artists and entertainers often feel compelled to create provocative works that seek to expose its causes and inspire an angry populace to rally together. These works are often sharply subversive in that their goal is to entertain but also to yank back the dark curtain on those weaselly wizards attempting to manipulate the rest of us into being nothing more than nodding bobble-heads of docility. Hollywood has a significant power to influence people’s perceptions and thereby change the country for the better — or worse. At best, they prompt Americans to keep the conversation going about what is wrong in the country and what we need to do to fix it. And they point out that the villains aren’t always those in power, sometimes it’s our own see-no-evil complacency. As Pogo famously says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The year 2017 has been the most politically contentious and divisive year in decades, and Hollywood has produced its share of profound movies and television shows that reflect the shaky state of the union and shakier state of our minds. But the nobility of the art doesn’t always match the actions of the artists. Even as the industry has given us thought-provoking films that challenge social and political convention, some depraved industry insiders have propagated the very behavior the films tacitly condemn — the exploitation and marginalization by the powerful of the powerless. The upside is that from now on, those who talk the talk will also have to walk the walk. Ideally, that shouldn’t affect how we judge the works, but when people lose respect for those making the movies, the power of the films’ messages is compromised.
For the record, great art can sometimes just be great fun, without any obligation to denounce, decry or devour the Big Issues. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar — except when it is also a stinking hunk of tobacco harvested by exploited locals, hawked by immoral Big Business, and destructive to the health of smokers and everyone around them.” Something like that. Anyway, the point is, a movie or TV show doesn’t have to be political to be good, and this year has had some terrific examples of both socially insightful and just-plain-fun works. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen everything that’s come out so my list is personal rather than exhaustive.)
10 Best Movies Actually About Something
1. I Am Not Your Negro
A documentary that was technically released last year to qualify for the Oscars, but which actually reached most of the country this year. So, by the power vested in me by absolutely no one, I’m including it on my list because it is such a powerful and insightful exploration of racism through the eyes of one of America’s most eloquent writers, James Baldwin, as he details the lives and deaths of his three friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. This riveting film serves as a stirring and bleak reminder of how far we still have to go.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Written and directed by one of the most original voices in films, Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges), Three Billboards presents a cast of deeply troubled characters struggling with debilitating guilt while desperately seeking redemption. The film also subtly examines how violence is America’s go-to remedy for problems, whether inflicted on others or self-inflicted. Emotionally touching yet also very funny, the story shows an inspiring compassion for human frailty.
3. Get Out
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, this suspenseful film works as both a horror movie and social satire as dark as anything Jonathan Swift or Joseph Heller wrote. The theme in American politics this year has been about attempts to silence dissenters by calling them liars, hindering their vote and telling them they can’t kneel during the national anthem. Get Out addresses that theme in a frightening and memorable way.
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar) is still bending time to tell a story, this time re-creating the improbable rescue of hundreds of thousands of trapped Allied soldiers by a fleet of brave civilians on private boats. The film never glorifies war, but rather details the savage desperation for survival contrasted with the demands of duty. However, despite its undeniable impact, the film disappoints a little in its decision to not include the many people of color who were also fighting at Dunkirk. By not showing the numerous soldiers from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and India, the film continues the tradition of marginalizing their significance in the war effort.
Directed and co-written by Dee Rees, Mudbound tells of a white family and black family in rural Mississippi during the early 1940s whose interactions lead to tragedy for both. There’s a certain inevitability in stories about American racism that leave us feeling drained, possibly because we find ourselves 70 years later telling the same sad stories with the same inescapable outcomes. The mud that both families live in serves as a glorious symbol of our basic human vulnerability that binds us together.
6. The Disaster Artist
This might be the most daring and subversive movie of the year. Oddly, most reviewers seem to think this is a conventional story about a couple of innocent outsiders chasing their Hollywood dreams and how people should never give up on those dreams. It’s actually the exact opposite. James Franco directs and stars as real-life Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious man of wealth and a celebrity wannabe who doesn’t have the brains or skill to make it in the movie industry, so he uses his wealth to make his own movie (The Room), widely considered the worst movie ever made. His film is so bad that it becomes an international cult classic, giving him the fame he so arrogantly craves. I’m not saying this is a deliberate metaphor for Trump, but it certainly addresses this notion so prevalent in American culture now that everybody deserves to be a celebrity simply because they exist, not because of their talent, hard work or intelligence. Wiseau is a non-deserving dreamer who never changes, realizes nothing and sees movies as an excuse to work out his personal psycho-dramas of melodramatic emotions. In that way, the movie is bold, relentless, insightful, hilarious — and true art.
7. The Big Sick
Funniest romantic comedy of the year.
8. Lady Bird
Quirky but heartfelt coming-of-age story.
Powerful courtroom drama featuring a young Thurgood Marshall.
10. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
A witty and complex coming-of-age story, except for middle age.
6 Best Movies Just for Fun
These are movies that had no agenda but to be vastly entertaining. And they succeeded admirably. No one does this kind of imaginative, funny, spectacular movie better than Hollywood.
1. Wonder Woman
2. Thor: Ragnarok
4. Spider-Man: Homecoming
5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
6. John Wick 2
Best New Television Shows of 2017
Over the last five years, television has eclipsed movies as the go-to art form for those seeking stories that explore the human condition with thematic depth and emotional honesty, while providing sheer entertainment value. With some recent series, it’s like watching a great movie every episode. Here are some of the shows that gave me remote-control carpal tunnel syndrome.
This binge-worthy crime drama features Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as a married couple whose corrupt pursuit of the American Dream destroys their lives. Kinda like Scarface from Scarsdale. They reflect an America who traded conscience for cash, progress for passivity, morality for upward mobility. Their attempts to rebuild their family trust while staying one step ahead of a drug cartel, the law and local hillbilly criminals creates a modern noir classic.
2. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of Gilmore Girls and the brilliant Bunheads) created this comedy-drama that may be the funniest and most feminist show on television (along with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Chronicling the rise of a female stand-up comedian in the 1950s as she evolves from perfect Jewish-American wife and mother to bawdy social commentator, the show features witty dialogue and stand-up routines that are searingly incisive. Her coming of age reflects the country’s own maturation from blind trust in authority in the ‘50s, to questioning everything.
This literary Western has everything a fan of the genre could hope for: fast guns, ruthless villains, disaffected Buffalo Soldiers, tough women, romance and shoot-outs. But it is so much more: an intelligent exploration of moral codes, gender roles, race relations and capitalism. The characters are all richly nuanced, especially Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) as the Ahab-like outlaw whose reaction to what he interprets as a godless universe is to appoint himself the arbiter of morality, and Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a single mother who’s faced the same unfair hardships as Griffin, but who still hangs on to her humanity.
4. Dear White People
This satirical show focusing on students of color at a mostly white university is a clever and witty dissection of race, youth, education, politics and sex.
5. Stranger Things 2
Even though it didn’t have quite the pizzazz as the first season, the supernatural shenanigans of Eleven and her nerdy boy band continue to entertain and creep out.
6. I Love You, America
Sarah Silverman is one of the funniest, smartest and most dynamic performers around. This new show tempers her sharp social commentary with her compassionate love of humanity. There will be laughs — but there will also be a gentle tolerance for those who might not think like you.
Set in 1977, this crime drama focuses on how the FBI formed its profiling unit. The real standout moments are the fascinating and skin-crawling interviews with serial killers as they describe their crimes and justifications. Equally fascinating are the two men and one woman who struggle with the horrific nature of their work and the devastating effects it has on their personal lives.
8. Big Little Lies
It’s a challenge to make the audience care about the personal problems of overprivileged helicopter parents who seem to be reaping the inevitable results of unexamined entitlement. But this drama about four women grappling with learning who they really are outside of society’s rigid expectations of who they should be exceeds that challenge. The murder mystery element is a somewhat clunky and contrived plot device, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching these characters (played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern) evolve beyond the confines of their domestic identities.
This is the weirdest, most unusual, most unpredictable superhero show ever. And the most fascinating. Although it takes place in the Marvel Universe and features one of the lesser-known X-Men, Legion is a surreal exploration of the mind of a man with unlimited power whose been locked up for years as a schizophrenic and only now is beginning to understand who he really is and what he’s capable of.
10. Sneaky Pete
Giovanni Ribisi stars as conman released from prison who steals his cellmate’s identity to avoid the gangster who’s after him. But the identity he adopts comes with a large boisterous family with problems of their own. Watching him develop affection for the family and use his conman skills to help them is pure joy.
Yeah, I know that Atlanta and The Good Place aren’t new this year, but they are so good, so original and so funny, that I’m sneaking them in here anyway. You’re welcome. In addition to them, Seth Rogen’s Future Man is a hilarious pastiche of sci-fi adventure that is surprisingly touching at times.
So, there they are. The films and TV shows that helped me get through an emotionally and spiritually trying year in which the news headlines were more outrageous than any comedy or drama Hollywood could conjure.
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