By Michael O’Sullivan
The Washington Post
In an art form that thrives on sequels, any film, any actor, any director that still retains the capacity to surprise is an anomaly. Here are 10 of this year’s movies about which I can honestly say, “I did not see that coming.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Melissa McCarthy’s performance in this acerbic little gem of a movie — directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and co-written by Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) — comes on the heels of “The Happytime Murders” and “Life of the Party,” which are only the latest two crushing disappointments in a string of lousy movies starring the actress. Playing the real-life Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer who turned to forgery when her writing career dried up, the actress delivers the performance we’ve been waiting for, a low-key, Oscar-worthy turn as a bitter and unvarnished misanthrope. McCarthy isn’t back. She goes someplace she’s never been before.
In a year when the highest-grossing documentary was the uplifting profile of Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” it may be that viewers have grown tired of polemical nonfiction. “Science Fair” profiles a group of teenage contestants at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair. A prizewinner at festivals from Sundance to SXSW, the film includes traditional surprises (including the identity of the ISEF winner, which is unexpected for at least two reasons). But the most surprising thing is that the film — with its implicit critique of an anti-science White House — is actually political. Or rather, that it’s both political and the feel-good film of the year.
The year’s best plot twist, hands down, is best not described, even with a spoiler alert. But this perfectly constructed magic trick of a movie introduces a story about the relationship between a frazzled new mother (Charlize Theron) and the hyper-confident “night nanny” she hires to help out (Mackenzie Davis, in the title role), only to pull the rug out from underneath the whole thing. That it does so without disturbing a single piece of plot “furniture” makes for an impressive feat of writing, directing and acting.
Paul Schrader, whose résumé includes the screenplays for “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” has a spottier track record behind the camera than in front of the keyboard. But the writer-director’s latest film, a somber and at times surreal drama about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) who experiences a spiritual crisis after the death of a man he was counseling, is a return to peak form — and early Oscar buzz — for the filmmaker. You wouldn’t be alone if you had written off Schrader as a contender. But you would be wrong.
“Bad Times at the El Royale”
The premise of seven random strangers who meet at a Nevada motel on a stormy night, including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm) and a soul singer (Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, in an astonishing turn), sounds like a recipe for cliche. But this noirish lark from writer-director Drew Goddard never goes where you expect. Maybe that’s to be expected from the Oscar-nominated writer of “The Martian,” the writer-director of the meta-horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods,” and an acolyte of Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams who got his start writing for Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” before graduating to Abrams’ “Lost.”
Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has called this remake of the 1977 giallo-horror cult classic the polar opposite of his multi-Oscar-nominated gay love story from last year, “Call Me by Your Name.” In an interview with The Washington Post, Guadagnino described that 2017 film as a look at the importance of family and “Suspiria” as an investigation of the “terminal consequences of a terrible mother.” In the space of 12 months, no other director has made such an extreme about-face. Guadagnino’s latest film is the stuff of Freudian nightmares – and enough to erase every warm memory of “Name.”