(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Gay for the Gold Again?

A collective gay and straight gasp was heard around the world last February when the gay-themed independent movie Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture over the more expected La La Land. It was doubly surprising since La La Land was initially, mistakenly announced as the winner.

Needless to say, there will be more stringent controls at this year's Oscar ceremony on March 4th. There is also another chance for a gay-themed film to take home the big prize. Call Me By Your Name is all but assured of being nominated for Best Picture, and no particular 2017 movie is considered a front runner at press time. Other likely nominees include Dunkirk, The Post, The Big Sick and Lady Bird.

As I've been determining my choices for the best films of 2017 (see below), it is clear that there were more great releases last year than in several previous years. Many of my fellow critics agree and have been expanding their traditional top ten lists to recognize additional worthy movies. This has not only been the case for mainstream productions but for a greater-than-usual number of memorable LGBTQ-themed films as well.

In addition to the ballyhooed same-sex romance Call Me By Your Name, Chile's A Fantastic Woman and South Africa's The Wound are finalists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A Fantastic Woman features an acclaimed performance by trans actress Daniela Vega as a woman reeling from her lover's sudden death. The film is currently nominated for a Golden Globe. The Wound, meanwhile, is a hard-hitting drama about two secretly gay lovers who are helping with a traditional initiation of younger men.

I had hoped that the French AIDS drama BPM (Beats Per Minute) as well as Tom of Finland (from Finland, appropriately enough) would have made Oscar's final cut. Both are excellent, insightful and moving. Britain's gay love story God's Own Country could be recognized in other categories since it is an English-language film. Frequently described compared to the modern gay classic Brokeback Mountain, it recently won a number of British Independent Film Awards.

Battle of the Sexes is probably this year's most widely-known LGBTQ awards contender. A recreation of the 1972 tennis competition between lesbian champ Billie Jean King and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, it stars last year's Oscar winner Emma Stone and former Oscar nominee Steve Carell. Both are currently up for Golden Globes for their gutsy performances here.

Here are my picks for the best movies of last year, which I have expanded from the typical 10 to 16 since some of equal excellence share similar themes, settings or plot elements:

1) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: I was blown away by this searing yet ultimately humane chronicle of an angry woman seeking justice for her murdered daughter. Frances McDormand could win her second Academy Award for Best Actress, while co-stars Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell as well as director-screenwriter Martin McDonagh also have a shot at the gold.

2) Dunkirk and Darkest Hour: Two extraordinary, pulse-pounding dramas that quite coincidentally cover the same World War II events from different perspectives. Acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, who has not been nominated for an Oscar before, might deservedly win this year for the former. As Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman is virtually guaranteed to win Best Actor.

3) The Shape of Water, Okja and Wonderstruck: A trio of unique fantasies that owe more than a little to the 1980's films of Steven Spielberg. Two of them feature Spielbergian child protagonists and, unusually, two of them feature leading characters who are deaf and/or mute. The Shape of Water is hands down 2017's queerest movie, but all three are visually stylish and unforgettable.

4) Columbus and Lady Bird: A pair of dramas that spotlight two offbeat American cities: Columbus, Indiana and Sacramento, California, respectively. These are the settings for the coming of age of two young women as well as an adult, Asian-American man (beautifully played by Star Trek's John Cho) coping with his father's declining health. The singularly-named Kogonada and actress Greta Gerwig both make assured, accomplished directorial debuts.

5) mother!: Darren Aronofsky's audacious, near-brilliant theological/ecological thriller was poorly advertised and widely misunderstood. Now on home video, I encourage thinking adults to check it out as well as the full-throttle performances of Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and a deliciously sinister Michelle Pfeiffer.

6) Get Out and Mudbound: Very different but equally incisive depictions of the African-American experience. The first is a contemporary horror-comedy, while the other is a World War II-era drama about black and white sharecroppers in the South. Both are riveting reminders of how far our nation has come and how far we still have to go when it comes to race relations.

7) Colossal: A hard-to-describe but rewarding sci-fi satire involving an aimless woman (Anne Hathaway, giving one of her best performances to date) who discovers she has a monstrous avatar that is tearing up South Korea. Simultaneously heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek, it shouldn't be missed.

8) BPM (Beats Per Minute): This first-hand account of France's answer to America's ACT UP is set in the 1990's and similar to such previous AIDS-themed films as And the Band Played On and Longtime Companion. It is just as moving, angry and inspiring as well as just as good as those earlier, important efforts.

9) Kedi: Yes, I'm a cat lover but even the feline-averse can appreciate this joyous documentary about stray cats who essentially have the run of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. It ultimately reveals the essential inter-dependence humans and felines have had for thousands of years.

10) Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok: The Amazing Amazon finally got her first big-screen adventure, starring the wondrous Gal Gadot. It was everything a comic book movie should be: exciting, funny and romantic, plus a timely anti-war message. Meanwhile, Kiwi director Taika Waititi infused the latest Marvel epic with a more subversive attitude and welcome dose of camp, with Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum providing much of the latter.

In short, 2017 was a great year at the movies! Here's hoping 2018 will be just as strong.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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