This has not been a good year for movies. I don’t think next year is going to be a miracle year, either, so let’s remember and reflect on the good movies, which bear more of a burden this year than in happier times. Some reflection on what the movies can offer will also satisfy and moderate some of the expectations we bring to the theater.
To that end, I start with the best. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was not only the great achievement of 2017, but a startling change in cinema. Critics have noticed that the movie seems one long third-act, because Nolan takes pleasure in mixing timelines at that point (see “Inception”). But has anyone thought about why he weaves the narratives together as they are? People who applaud Nolan the maker of wonderful and fearful images do not have much respect for Nolan the weaver — or, as they say in Hollywood, editor.
Nolan gave the world “Dunkirk” because he thinks we are again in the same situation. We do not need history lessons to understand the strange fear and ferocious anger that describe our public life. We just turn on the TV or look around.
At the same time, he knows we no longer understand the rhetoric of Winston Churchill in 1940. Too much time has passed, especially without politicians to keep that rhetoric alive. Cinema must now provide an effective translator, because that is the only non-partisan rhetoric we hearken to. So he makes his audience earn the right to listen to that speech. He puts them in the situation of the original audience by terrifying them in a way that focuses on heroism and places at the climax an almost faceless hero who must nevertheless sacrifice for his people.
Nolan is going against the trend in cinema and rewarding the audience that looks for movies beyond animations and the endless superhero serialization he ironically helped revive. The success of the movie, I think, not only vindicates him, but gives America a chance.
Perhaps this stirring portrayal is a better moral education than flattery and self-esteem. At any rate, for people who are not invested body and soul in the Hollywood culture, this is counter-cultural and fairly effective. It deserves support, and we can all look forward to some nominations during awards season, adding prestige to popularity. As always, it’s up to us to support such movies, the last connection between awards prestige and the broad American audience.
‘Blade Runner 2049’
My second recommendation is a less popular movie, although it also made a handsome sum: “Blade Runner 2049.” Although it does not touch on greatness like Nolan’s, Denis Villeneuve—director of last year’s box office and critical-awards hit “Arrival”—is shockingly, incessantly, and unstoppably pro-life. Not for propaganda, but for reasons of art and morality.
Whoever had any doubts about “Arrival” being essentially a movie about a mother’s love for a doomed child need only see how Villeneuve repurposes Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” myth to explore the miracle of birth. Again, the men find it very difficult to understand this part of womanhood, but their understanding of what matters in life, their capacity for heroism and sacrifice, and the insane proliferation of fictitious meanings, in the case of the villain, all have to be understood in relation to giving life. This seems especially apposite at Christmas!
While Nolan’s movie will teach you how to fear, Villeneuve’s will temper you with a combination of disappointment and wonder. The film is long and ugly yet still beautiful and expertly structured around a series of intense scenes. These contradictions are a rare experience in theaters, and the audience didn’t love it that much on first release. Then again, “Blade Runner” was not a box office success, however much it is loved now and influential it has proven.
This new Blade Runner is graced with the opportunity of reviewing the original and of comparing their different emphases on the threats facing humanity and their implied redemptive promise of love and faith. It is also a worthy movie in itself, visually enchanting, and gives us a rare very good performance by Ryan Gosling in the lead role, who finally shows a capacity for nobility and humility.
My third and last recommendation is the new Taylor Sheridan movie, “Wind River.” Sheridan became famous in 2015 for writing the successful and acclaimed “Sicario.” That movie revived America’s drug wars and offered a thrilling view to a disillusioned public of the question of American foreign policy debated between Bush-realism (a role played by tough-guy Josh Brolin, who played the former president) and Obama-idealism (played by an African-American actor who, although he’s not famous, rehearsed Obama’s noble look well).
Then, in 2016, Sheridan wrote and directed “Hell Or High Water,” a modern Western robbery movie that earned four Oscar nominations, including one for himself. This was another exploration of the agony of manliness in contemporary America, this time in the context of the destruction of the virtues of defiance and self-reliance among West Texas small ranchers during the recent economic crisis.
Now, Sheridan moves his search for manliness and noble sacrifice to Wyoming and the Wind River Reservation in freezing winter, where a ghastly murder reveals a victim who strove heroically yet did not prevail. In a time where Americans aren’t confident about the future, we need stories about Stoic heroes like the one Jeremy Renner plays here, especially because it helps us keep a sound perspective on what a real tragedy is and how human beings achieve greatness when the worst things happen.
“Wind River” is the story of a hunter who wants not only to find justice for a murdered woman, but to honor the nobility of a real person, not merely a victim. Telling the truth in this case affirms real virtues even as it means admitting that sometimes circumstances are beyond human powers. Coupled with the harshness of nature that reminds us of the effect of the vast, unfriendly lands of the West on American character, we begin to see in “Wind River’s” protagonist a man looking for faith in this mysterious land. He acts with reverence.
These are the best movies out of Hollywood this year. They are not happy stories, but they all testify to the importance of Stoicism and nobility in times when humanity seems in danger. They all teach that evil times neither justify nor necessitate evil in us, but show us ways to see the good in serving others and finding through love a way to come together in pursuit of justice.
All feature real human suffering to turn the anxiety and confusion of our times into a focused experience of the tragic character of our lives and to allow the movies to offer a human way of dealing with that. These stories are not happy ends, but they all preserve the possibility of happiness—their focus is loving forgiveness, and they all insist that human beings still have dignity even if they are not the most successful or the happiest. These are needful reminders and reassurances.
This was one of the big themes of the year, but by no means the most important. These movies do well what audiences desperately wanted to see in other, more popular sort-of tragic movies like “Justice League” and “Star Wars,” which, because they proved too afraid to confront these questions of loss of human life and tragic suffering, failed to offer audiences anything comparable with the promise and excitement they stirred then disappointed.
But it’s not too late to turn to these better movies, to enjoy filming that is both beautiful and purposeful, actors who inhabit plausible characters, even in shockingly implausible circumstances, and to learn from the plots’ sobering but human moral realism. These movies both deserve and can reward attention and point the way for a better future for Hollywood, as alternatives to an aggressive calendar of ever-more-expensive, ever-more-forgettable blockbusters.