In a year when it felt like a lot of film criticism (good and bad) served to parse movies for their messaging — what they said about a particular subject and whether that argument was (politically or socially) correct, worth listening to, or worth making in the first place — I felt like I was reading more about ideas than images. But the discussion of form doesn’t have to be sacrificed on the altar of content, and a few of 2017’s most crucial movies lend themselves nicely to a close visual analysis. Think of these snapshots as a way into the bigger picture.
Call Me by Your Name
The Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom has been responsible for some of the most sublime sequences in recent international art cinema (including the glowing-eyed monkey ghosts from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and his collaboration with Luca Guadagnino on the coming-of-age-in-Italy drama Call Me by Your Name has some stunners as well.
The mid-film sequence where Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) circle each other around a World War I memorial is crucial to pushing the film’s story forward: It marks the moment when two characters who’ve been tight-lipped about their mutual attraction start finding the language to express it. The dialogue is poetic, but what’s truly eloquent is the way the slow, drifting camera movement describes Elio’s hesitancy — how he’s taking the long way around to stating his feelings, with Oliver popping in and out of view behind the monument — while also hinting at external pressures.
There are two upward pans in this five-minute shot; one of the war memorial itself, with its triumphant soldier and tricolor Italian flag, and the other to the cross atop a church. These are twin symbols of of a conservative culture in which some desires require discretion. A lot of Call Me by Your Name is postcard-pretty, but the filmmaking here is beautiful.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a surprise awards-season contender and a genuine art-house hit: a low-budget production with unexpected populist reach. It’s also one of the year’s most imaginatively directed movies. In Tangerine, Baker shot Los Angeles on an iPhone and came up with something skittering and relentless. With The Florida Project, he conjures up a more relaxed but no less uncanny sense of lyricism. Through a combination of superb location scouting, savvy camera placement, and pin-prick-precise editing rhythms, the director finds a way to make a seedy Orlando off-ramp motel live up to its name: the Magic Castle.
On one level, The Florida Project is a work of scrupulous American neorealism, focusing on transient, economically compromised characters whose proximity to the glistening edifices of Disney World serves only to exacerbate their disenchantment. At the same time, it’s highly stylized, to the point of candy-colored caricature, exploiting its backdrop’s fantastic tackiness to create a heightened fairy-tale atmosphere.
When unruly 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) switches off the motel’s generator on the hottest day of the summer, Baker sets his camera far back from the action, framing the Magic Castle like a pink-and-purple dollhouse and turning its inhabitants into angry action figures, emerging from their suddenly un-air-conditioned rooms into stifling heat. The comically detached point of view and subtly sophisticated choreography (all of the film’s major characters come into view over the course of 30 seconds) recalls the refined master-shot slapstick of French master Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a title that could just easily be applied to The Florida Project’s portrait of youthful misadventures.
“Only on a recent rewatch did I realize the extent to which Get Out is a film about faces,” wrote The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins in his roundup of 2017’s best films. He couldn’t be more right. For all the praise that director Jordan Peele has gotten for his debut feature’s twisty screenplay (and a case can be made that the script’s heady mixture of miscegenation, misdirection, and mind control represents a conceptual coup not seen in horror movies since the self-reflexive satire of Scream), Get Out is also superbly well-directed. Peele transforms his actors’ features into canvases through a compulsive use of close-ups. At this point, the shot of Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris languishing in a paralytic trance is iconic (and probably the cover art for some future book about Trump-era genre cinema), but Peele’s most amazingly executed image is Betty Gabriel’s lobotomized live-in-housekeeper Georgina forcing back tears as she tries to convince the houseguest that nothing sinister is going on.
The slight bob of the camera as she goes into her sing-song-denial (“no …no… no no no no no no”) undermines the stability of her claims; the subtly askew eyeline gives us just enough space to scrutinize her expression instead of being fully held by it. This is the finest-tuned bit of acting in an American movie this year, but, due to an arcane Screen Actors’ Guild rule, Gabriel wasn’t nominated along with the rest of the film’s ensemble. How absurd. In the space of 20 seconds, she simultaneously inhabits two adversarial roles — a hollowed-out human vessel and its stowaway controller — and gives Peele’s ingenious, abstract conceit of hijacked blackness an unforgettable face.
A case can be made that the year’s most memorable movie spectre was the bedsheet-clad figure wandering through the widescreen frames of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, but I’d make the case for a more elusive phantom. Near the end of Olivier Assayas’s mostly mesmerizing Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart’s self-styled spirit medium, Maureen, visits her late brother Lewis’s boyfriend; as she waits in the backyard, a young man materializes in the background of the shot, watching her through an open window. The image’s spookiness is bound up in its subtlety, but also its sweetness: The composition makes it seem as if Lewis is an angel perching on his sister’s shoulder. As a commentary on 21st-century social media connectivity and the strange, all-consuming loneliness that goes with it — symbolized by Maureen’s ongoing iMessage conversation with an unseen figure who could be Lewis, a smitten stalker, or a dangerous stranger — Personal Shopper is hypnotic and absorbing. But it’s the way that Assayas evokes heavy, lingering emotions with blink-or-miss-it fleetness that makes him seem like a true conjurer.
Duration is one of the most potent weapons in a director’s arsenal. In The Square, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund isn’t taking prisoners. The 12-minute, centerpiece sequence in which performance artist Terry Notary (a motion-capture actor in the Planet of the Apes franchise) lopes and bounds around shirtless among the tables at a lavish art gallery fundraiser goes on so long — and flies so far over the top — that it hurts to watch. “It’s about the bystander effect,” the director told Vulture, citing the sociological phenomenon that in dangerous or uncomfortable situations, large groups of human beings revert to an animalistic herd mentality.
Within that formulation, Notary’s predatory presence is enough to spook the group onscreen into a kind of cowed passivity. The scene’s power comes from a combination of Notary’s amazing physical acting, Ostlund’s skillful camera movement (which never calls attention to its own complexity even as it’s nearly as athletic and dextrous as its subject), and the integration of deeply dialectical themes — human/animal and civilization/chaos, but also the relationship of art to respectability — into what plays as a single-minded, single-take, stand-alone horror movie. At Cannes, The Square was a controversial choice for the Palme d’or, but it’s hard to imagine that the jury didn’t have Ostlund’s painfully inflated yet still priceless money shot in mind when it bestowed its prize.