2017 was a great year for motion pictures, even if it was a lousy year for everything else. In the last week, I’ve seen two excellent films from last year (one of which was barely shown in the Bay Area) and revisited one from another great movie year (that was even worse in the real world): 1941.
A Mudbound (2017), Netflix
Two families – one white, one black – struggle on a muddy, waterlogged farm in 1940s rural Mississippi. And not surprisingly, the black family struggles harder. Dee Rees’s epic and intimate picture studies shades of poverty and shades of racism. Not every white person in town burns crosses, but those who don’t rarely object to the rules set up by those who do. Much of the story concerns two young men coming home from war, changed by their experiences and no longer willing to live in a segregated world. They will suffer for that change. Sparse narration by the characters – mostly the mothers – adds depth, exposition, and atmosphere. Beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, who with this picture became the first woman nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar. Warning: Extremely violent in one scene.
A The Post (2017), Grand Lake Theatre
The best Spielberg film of this century so far, and certainly the most important. When Nixon’s White House stopped The New York Times from publishing The Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post took up the job. Publishing top secret documents risked losing the paper; not publishing risked losing America as a free country. Meryl Streep gives yet another great performance as Kay Graham, the socialite owner who must choose between the secure and the necessary. Tom Hanks is almost as good as editor Ben Bradlee, who becomes the voice of journalistic ethics. (One problem: Hanks is never believable as a smoker). Spielberg and his collaborators create suspense in a story whose ending we all know, and catch the feeling of 1971 without overdoing the hippy clichés.
B+ High Sierra (1941), Pacific Film Archive
I’ve seen this one before, but not for a very long time.
A major step in Humphrey Bogart’s climb from supporting actor to star, and one of the first movies where he’s not the villain but the hero – albeit a flawed hero. Bogart plays Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, and when the picture starts, he’s released from prison and sets off to rob a mountain resort. Roy may be a hard and violent criminal, but he has a soft heart, becoming something of a second father to a crippled teenage girl. She’s the good girl. Ida Lupino, who gets top billing despite it clearly being Bogart’s picture, plays the bad girl – the one that’s right for someone nicknamed “Mad Dog.” Warning: The movie contains a very offensive African-American stereotype.