Personal Ballot for 2017, Pt. 2: Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Documentary Feature, Original Screenplay, and Adapted Screenplay

Best Supporting Actress

  • Carmen Ejogo, Roman J. Israel Esq. – We start the supporting actress lineup with what might be the most dizzying act of rewriting one’s role from what’s on the page. Carmen Ejogo has a tough row to hoe in Roman J. Israel, Esq., handling a near-spontaneous admiration towards the title character, so inspired by his story in a way that gladly invites the interpreter to fall madly in love with him while acting as the Dorian Gray painting reflecting Roman’s growing moral rot in contrast to her political and romantic resurrections. It’s almost too easy to see the idea this woman is supposed to represent rather than an actual character, but Ejogo works hard to create a specific person through modulating all of the above elements and showing how they inform who Maya already is rather than what she means to Roman. Romance between the two from either side is saved for a spontaneous gesture in what one of them knows to be their last encounter, a gesture Maya is pleasantly receptive to but not enough to override the dramatic tension before and after it. Maya’s not just impressed and surprised by Roman but occasionally flabbergasted and irritated by his tics and actions. Ejogo finds a basic posture of weariness that quickly shifts to attentive, receptive engagement with her conversation partners, and is wholly committed to her activism even as she harbors uncertainty about how much she’s really able to do. Her ability to convey all of this relies heavily on what Ejogo is able to do with her face and line readings, the ways she conveys confidence and openness and confusions through stutters and pauses and subtly radio-appropriate emotional inflections. And she pulls it off marvelously, performing detailed character work that allows Maya to exist as a full, engaging personality in and of herself.
  • Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird – I know I’ve mentioned on other sites before that Laurie Metcalf’s is my favorite nominated performance of the year, but it bears repeating. She gives Marion a real POV, connecting emotional rich chords between short scenes and making her character’s iminent poverty a real concern as well as a mask over her anxieties. You can’t even see the harpy Marion superficially reads as under all the layered detail and underplaying Metcalf imbues her with, though she’s also willing to make this woman a pill. She’s athletic in warm and loving moments, not just with her daughter but with her family, her patients, her coworkers, her daughter’s friends. The joy in her face watching Larry unwrap his Christmas present, as she bursts out laughing at the gift she got him, is completely infectious. Her conversations with Lady Bird illustrate different facets of their constant yet mercurial relationship, making it abundantly clear how she could love her daughter without always liking her. The sight of her sewing Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving dress in the middle of the night has made me cry every time I see it, as pure and uncomplicated an example of the effort and love Marion has and gives for her daughter in spite of their tumultuous relationship as we (but not her daughter) are graced with getting, one that makes the whole film richer because of it. And yet, she keeps this woman somewhat distanced, not in that 20th Century Women people don’t know each other way, but in the way a hard person is secretive. No one is wrong in their take on Marion, but Metcalf refuses to unmask this woman’s core outside of character appropriate beats, to brilliant effect.
  • Elizabeth Olsen, Ingrid Goes West – The caricature of the self-absorbed vampire of a social media socialite is already starting to feel stale to this millennial. Indeed, Olsen doesn’t shy away from what’s vapid, antagonistic, manipulative, and manufactured about this woman. For all the film’s scenes of self-destructiveness, violence, and emotional abuse, there’s nothing more debasing than watching Taylor Sloane art direct a gas station attendant into lying on the ground to get a better shot of her and Ingrid. But Olsen also graces Taylor with affability and presence with whoever she’s interacting with, the kind that could win millions of followers from strangers but alienate a husband. Her SoCal Boho affectations are clearly grafted without being off-putting, and she’s able to convey both an organic interest and wariness in Ingrid as well as a natural timeclock on how long she’d actually bother hanging out with any new person. And, most crucially, she shows us a real, thinking person and the decision-making behind her adorning all these mannerisms and friends and accessories, rather than an empty shell of a woman who doesn’t “exist” beyond her Instagram account. There’s a self-awareness in scenes like her inevitable confrontation with a manic, bullying Ingrid: if Plaza’s performance is too unhinged for the audience to believe her accusation that she and Taylor are in any way similar in how they manufacture their lives, Olsen’s rebooting silence and vocal cadences show that her character recognizes this shared behavior on some level. “Cathy Whitaker for the Instagram crowd” initially reads like a bananas comparison for these films, characters, and actresses, but if no one’s mistaking Olsen for Julianne Moore yet, sheworks comparable wonders in vastly different projects, rewriting her character into someone recognizably human and making the satire all the more savage as a result.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!– I don’t necessarily stand by my original comment that Pfeiffer’s performance is so effectively realized as to feel outside “the ouroboros narrative engulfing the film”, but I’d like to reword it a little bit. Rather: Pfeiffer’s dexterously shaded performance goes farther than any of her costars to suggest a full character that feeds into the unstable atmosphere and prismatic allegory Aronofsky is going for. She’s perfectly attuned to the heightened reality of mother!, making her antagonism perversely entertaining without limiting the impact of her psychological battering or tipping into camp. Spending almost all of her scenes in different states of drunkenness, carnality, childlike pettiness, affection, and deep mourning, Pfeiffer plays the part like she’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’sMartha invading poor Honey’s house. Her gestures are loose yet aggressive, her line readings and facial expressions changing mood on a dime. But she also carves a real history of mothering two warring sons and caring for a dying man she deeply loves, fandom for an artist she doesn’t consider enough of a person for her to fully respect his privacy, all of which making her condescension towards and criticisms of Lawrence’s character more potent and inexplicable. Her last, haunted look is as indelible a goodbye as any character is lucky to get, but it’s an even better finale for a nimble, intelligent performer that’s contributed so fully to her film that the following hour of chaos must still escape her shadow and fill the void of her absence even as the house literally comes crashing down.
  • Allison Williams, Get Out – Unlike Ejogo and Olsen, the great achievement of what Allison Williams does in Get Out is not that she reimagines her role as written so much as she fulfills the balancing act her character must walk with utter believability, in large part by not adding much more than what’s written on the page. Neither belaboring Rose’s affections for Chris nor giving off any obvious signals for distrusting her, her bonhomie with her man is completely convincing, though there’s still something about her that keeps us from totally putting us at ease. She’s a watchful and attentive listener, a confident assuager of Chris’s anxieties while simultaneously undermining those concerns (“So you’re just so sexy people are unplugging your phone?”), and believably undergoing a liberal awakening as she’s seemingly caught off guard by the latent racism of her family and their friends. And yet, her reveal as part of this cabal is equally plausible and pulled off with just as little fuss. The display of Rose’s “real” personal style and affectations are as casually played as her Cool Girl persona in the beginning, highlighting what a tight grip the Rose character (and, by extent, Williams) has been keeping on her vocal inflections as well as her physical and facial gestures. That control is only more pronounced in scenes where Williams makes Rose even harder to get a read on (the phone call with Rod, that last grin, “You were one of my favorites”), and even more pronounced after seeing the film on multiple viewings. Consistently self-effacing, emotionally readable and insouciant yet somehow remote, it’s an astonishingly durable performance of one of the year’s trickiest, most chameleonic characters.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project – I remember watching the trailer for The Florida Project, absolutely convinced that “Have a nice a day!” – “Love you Bobby!” – “I love you too!”, surely some goodbye in the final minutes of the film against that gorgeous cloudy sky, would drive me to tears when I saw it in context. Catch my surprised ass when this exchange showed up twenty minutes into the film, and actually concluded with Bobby tossing a rejoinder at another unseen tenant. But in this interaction, and throughout Willem Dafoe’s whole performance, he imbues Bobby with a mundane kindness and patience that’s constantly shaded with weariness and anger. You can see these elements modulating depending on who he’s talking to. Bobby is usually kinder to people than they deserve, but he still knows how much leniency and reprimand he owes the two kids who get ice cream on the floor of his lobby, the petulant mother of one of those children, the albatrosses that have stumbled into the entrance of the parking lot, the old man loitering by the kids. Even by the standards of the film’s looseness, Dafoe doesn’t really have an arc to play so much as a constant at the hotel that’s doubtless seen the stories of every one of his tenants before and his still as lenient as he can be while refusing to be knocked out. He evokes the history of a man tirelessly trying to do right by the people in his care for as long as he can keep it up, as well as whole life outside the hotel in scenes by himself and with his briefly seen son. An astonishing act of acting as being, amidst a highly naturalistic tone and an uneven ensemble that Dafoe seamlessly blends in with and fully enhanced.
  • Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name – I’ve seen people categorize his as a leading performance, given his centrality to the narrative as the focus of Elio’s desires and instigator of his self-discovery. Fair point, though I’d argue the sheer amount of time he’s not onscreen is enough to qualify him to the supporting derby without accusing Hammer of fraud. Indeed, one of my favorite things about Hammer’s performance is that he keeps Oliver so aloof to Elio and to the audience, transmitting his charisma on a low but palpable frequency. Nothing about Oliver is begging for attention, which makes Elio’s fixation on him somehow less placcable even as Oliver’s very American charm, genuine intellect, curiosity, and universal handsomeness present themselves as obvious triggers. Hammer refuses to make him feel more obviously and overwhelming charismatic, deftly negotiating between a removed but pleasant character without turning him into a cipher or an object for Elio’s fantasies to be projected upon – though he’s not not playing that, either. This refusal to overwhelm, I think, helps to keep the story framed squarely around Elio’s self-actualization rather than turning it into the tale of predation that detractors have claimed it is (to say nothing of the contextualization in the film’s actual narrative). Hammer is also able to show us what this relationship means to Oliver as it progresses from submerged courtship to joyful consummation to spoken and unspoken goodbyes. It’s a fantastic negotiation of code-switching from a character who capably plays to the people he knows are watching him without every looking like he’s playing to them, realized by an actor who shows as much of this man as his film demands, in all sorts of ways.
  • O’Shea Jackson, Ingrid Goes West – I’m admittedly a sucker for well-played earnest, sweet boyfriend and husband characters, but it’s hard to find a good man in the movies, and nearly impossible to imagine one existing in an unforgiving satire like Ingrid Goes West. There’s a lot stacked against Dan when we meet him: the unapologetic geekiness, his instant puppy love and subsequent leniency toward a character we as the audience know absolutely doesn’t deserve it, a lead performance from Aubrey Plaza that’s a little too forceful for its own good. And yet, O’Shea Jackson makes his character come together magnificently without a trace of condescension. He nails that tone of effortless California breeze, and tempers his crush on Ingrid with genuine disappointment and anger when she fails him. The backstory about his love of Batman and the various ways it’s informing his life as an adult are surprisingly poignant when he lays his cards on the table, as is his refusal to make Dan an idiot even when all avenues allow him to make this dude an unsympathetic joke. He also coaxes a warmer performer out of Plaza that still lets Ingrid keep her hard edges, convincing us of his infatuation without inviting pity when she inevitably abuses his trust or inviting derision when he gets past those betrayals. It’s an unexpectedly warm, quiet performance that fully recuperates the character as scripted without betraying what the film needs of him.
  • Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya – “If you talk I’ll fucking kill you” Jeff Gillooly practically whinges at his bullet grazed wife, who he shot, the both of them sitting in his car as a cop approaches Jeff for speeding wildly down the road so he could take her to. A hospital? One hopes so. Before the sequence leading up to this moment, the present-day Jeff, blanched, says with shamed embarrassment that what you’re about to see didn’t actually happen. Herein, I think, lies the key to what makes Sebastian Stan’s performance such a remarkable feat; capturing a much quieter but no less severe form of self-delusion that grips the other characters while fully dodging caricature and building up from a core idea about Jeff, making every version of him equally plausible. He’s practically a textbook Nice Guy, his quietness manifesting as kindness and victimhood to himself and violent abuse sprung from notions of emasculation to literally everyone else. His fond memories of Tonya and warm, dopey grin in the interviews connects to the lovestruck teenager, the fear and impotence he describes when recalling her abuse of him borne of the same well that leads to him frequently beating her and driving across so many state lines just to yell “No, Tonya, fuck you!”, to say nothing of his role in the runaway trainwreck that is the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Stan scales his performance to properly support Robbie’s star turn while functioning perfectly in I, Tonya’s tilt-a-whirl of tones and necessary Bigness, fully sculpting a character on an equally precarious tightrope as his leading lady with less screen time to do so. Jeff Gillooly may be a different man depending on who ask, but Stan makes all of them equally plausible and fully coherent.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name – Practically the platonic ideal of a film-enhancing supporting performance carried out with seeming ease by an intelligent character actor, Michael Stuhlbarg’s buoyant well of emotion gifts Call Me By Your Name with a reservoir of lived in, deeply felt emotion. His love of history and the arts is infectious whenever shares a new discovery, developments about his and Oliver’s work, or a fact about something that may or may not need the backstory he’s providing; His eagerness to work with Oliver and their blossoming camaraderie keeps the grad student conceit from collapsing on itself once the narrative starts heating up; His love for his family is deeply and poignantly felt in the ways he interacts with his wife and son. But Stuhlbarg also knows how to shade and modulate this so that his performance always leaves room for what Chalamet and Hammer are doing while refusing to make Mr. Perlman a one-dimensional, light-hearted figure in scenes like reprimanding Elio for not wearing the right shirt when guests arrive, or the comedically blank expression on his face as he fails to keep with a conversation between his wife and her parents in Italian (which he can speak, but maybe not that fast). And, most crucially he layers his conversation with Elio after Oliver has left with so much longing, fondness of memory, melancholy, and love and possibly even jealousy for his son that it becomes something inspirational because we see the pain Mr. Perlman went through himself as much as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, not just in this speech but in the overflowing warmth that’s radiated from him for the entirety his performance up till now.

Best Documentary Feature

  • Dawson City: Frozen Time, dir. Bill Morrison – Dares to begin with the immense hurdle of trying to convince us that the city of Dawson really has any redeeming values after one of the earliest title cards reveals that the Trump fortune began from the best of the whorehouses in the best of the ramshackle shantytowns built for Gold Rush travellers heading to Dawson. And yet, even if the town of Bedford Falls is plagued by craggly, greedy Mr. Potter, there’s still a lot of wonder in it. If anything, the severity of that impact kept me awake and in-tune to the film’s ideas about the historical impact of one city, often by pure accident. The developments of the city are not always tied to the growth of Dawson’s film industry – in fact, as time goes by, it looks as though all the movies in Dawson is doomed to ruin simply because the growing town just has nowhere to put them. Brilliantly scored and edited, Bill Morrison makes the roots spreading out of the growth of one town in Canada, finding a way to measure its cumulative impact on the world had it not been there just by showing how difficult it was for the city in itself to thrive. It’s a miracle that Dawson City survived the Gold Rush to become the city it is now, it’s a miracle that the hundreds of film reels buried under a hockey rink were discovered in pristine, restorable condition for the world to see, and it’s a miracle that Morrison showed how thoroughly their fates were intertwined, and made such an indelible film from it.
  • Last Men in Aleppo, dir. Feras Fiyyad – Looking back in my archives, Last Men in Aleppo is very much the film I’m most surprised I never wrote about until now. I remember tweeting that the film depicts “modern day hero” (or something along those lines), but I don’t know how comfortable I am saying that now. Yes, these men are going above and beyond in harrowing circumstances to keep their city as intact as possible. The fact that one of the two men we follow is constantly debating whether he should take his children across the border despite the hellish limbo he knows immigration would lead to doesn’t change the people he saves. Director Feras Fayyad goes out of his way to make the moments of joy these White Helmets have count without stepping into hagiography, and even more importantly does nothing to heighten or hide the wreckage and dead bodies these men are constantly having to sort through. I don’t know how many dead babies we see in this film. Less than they do, surely, but the impact of that sight, of its reality, is never dulled, nor are the wounded children and bits of adults and however many kinds of blast victims we see these men pull out of the rubble, living or dead. One of the White Helmets meets with the surviving members of a family he helped rescue, polite to all of them (especially the children) but uncomfortable at the praise he’s being given. He doesn’t know what to do with it, and neither do I. Yes, I think, they’re heroes, but it’s a flattening term next to the life-risking bravery, increasingly uninhabitable living conditions, personal dilemmas, and political crises that Last Men in Aleppo is wrangling with at all times.
  • Raising Bertie, dir. Margaret Byrne – Are you, like me, baffled and tired by the constant stream of profiles surrounding the inexplicable decisions of that holy grail, the white working class? How about this antidote right here, Raising Bertie? Originally conceived as a portrait of three students in an alternative education program in the black, rural town of Bertie, North Carolina, the film sticks with them until the program suddenly has its funding taken out from under it. Margaret Byrne deftly crafts a portrait of a completely vulnerable community and the young men she’s elected to follow without succumbing to editorializing on the decisions they make, fully aware of the power schemes that have left them where they are without editorializing those either. It’d be foolish to say these connections speak for themselves, but Byrne’s refusal to point at any one “reason” for why what we’re seeing is happening allows a whole host of poignancies that could’ve been dulled or overdone from emphasis. None of these boys grow up to be the people the were hoping to be; some wind up becoming closer to circumstances they wanted to escape. We see the roles women in this community wind up having as they try to keep The Hive Learning Program alive, try to keep their boys in high school after repeated grades and frequent absences, as well as how fathers and father figures affect who these boys end up wanting to be. The prisons in the area outstripe the school by a terrible margin. Raising Bertie shows us all of this, played in a deeply humanist key, and allows it to resonate all the more because of it.
  • Starless Dreams, Mehdrad Oskouei – (From my original review) It feels unfair, after Oskouei has gone so far into showing them a full, rounded, multifaceted people that I keep referring to them as, well, “them”, or “the girls”, or something along those lines. Faces, statements, expressions, conversations, all of these stick with me more than their names. Is that fair, that the combined impression of their lives affected me so much and yet the only name I can remember is a number? Would they give a shit? Maybe it’s short changing the girls to think they don’t care, but they clearly have bigger things to worry about. Oskouei probably might care, given how much attention he put into giving them so much humanity and such a rounded presentation of their lives. But he also works to make each girl identifiable and keeps track of them, so that when each one is focused on we know who they are. This is the girl who killed her father; this is the one who loves her husband; who is waiting for her grandmother; who ran away from home; who doesn’t want to go home. We know who each one of these girls are, not just by their faces but by their stories, even if we can’t remember their names. The story of all of them perhaps carries more impact than their individual ones, a treatise on Iran and its families and its criminals through the stories of girls who end up in prisons like these, all of them aware of how they got there and what they could’ve done to avoid it. All of them aware of what they have to do to never come back. All of them making a life for themselves, a community for each other, trying to make the best of an impossibly difficult situation.
  • Whose Streets?, dir. Sabaah Folayan, co-dir. Damon Davies – “But what about the police’s perspective?” asked another student in my documentary class last semester, completely missing the point of Whose Streets? during our in-class discussion the day after we saw it. And then the rest of us had a very strong conversation that was actually about the film! Whose Streets? is as much a diary of the anti-racist activists of Ferguson Missouri as much as it is a fleshing-out of those activists on the streets and with their families. The fact that so much of the footage Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis utilize is from cell phone videos and personal cameras makes the film feels as involving and in-the-moment as Last Men in Aleppodoes, though where that film is crystallized by its subjects contemplating decisions and trying to stay survive their environments, the core of Whose Streets? is blistering anger and weariness combined with the need to keep moving forward. So much footage from so many sources makes the film feel like a self-portrait of a revolutionary movement, as breathing and outraged and alive as its members. But we also see the tired heart of that anger as parents try to raise their kids right and fight to leave them a better world, the collateral damage as protestors we’ve come to know over the course of the film are kicked out of their apartments or arrested for no explained reason, and the inexplicable media coverage brought into even harsher scrutiny by way of the film’s own point of view. It’s as potent a treatise on race in present-day America as Get Out is, fully aware of the underexplored perspectives of its subjects and giving them justice.
  • The Work, dir. Jairus McLeary, co-dir. Gethin Aldous – (From my original review) It’s the masculinity of these anxieties that gives the film and the session it depicts so much strength. All of the demons these men are facing are essentially rooted in how they are or aren’t fulfilling their ideas of what a man should be. One is grappling with his inability to meet his own ridiculously high standards of how he should be treated by himself and others; One struggles with the abandonment he felt from his parents and his gang members; One is trying to become the parent his dad never was, while another man contemplates suicide as his young son is kept away from him by the boy’s mother. It’s about fathers and sons, and the ways that men are bound by societal expectations from being able to reckon with their emotions in such a basic, painful, genuinely stunting way. Even as they try and downplay their feelings – why is being dismissed by my father giving as much pain as a man who never knew his dad? – their wounds are treated with legitimacy and earnest care. Seeing these men shepherded through their revelations by men who’ve been in prison for decades is a powerful sight, watching men from all stripes of life giving their most passionate and patient efforts to help bring their groups some kind of closure is an endlessly affecting sight.

Best Original Screenplay

  • Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird already wins points for telling so much story in such a short time frame, compressing an entire year so fully into 90 minutes. Gerwig has a real knack for writing swift, economical scenes that still manage to be rich with feeling and story beats without seeming perfunctory, accruing emotions and motivations as it goes. Characters are written in distinctive measures that still leaves room for actors to play with their parts. Comedic and dramatic beats are dexterously handled without leaning too heavily in any one direction. The central mother-daughter relationship is tougher than most films usually allow, in part because we see how both women hurt and support each other as well as the genuine love, misunderstanding, and pride – to name a few factors – that goes into any one jab or question or olive branch. Their relationship is never easy, even in candid moments like Lady Bird asking her mother when the right time to have sex is, or their conversation dress-hunting for prom. But Gerwig also sees the different relationships between father and daughter, husband and wife, how each one relates to the college graduated brother and his girlfriend living on their couch, and what Lady Bird wants for herself by switching friends and interests so casually and without regard for who she’s leaving and joining. By seeing the characters and their trajectories so completely, even when we barely see them, Lady Bird pulls off the nifty trick of being unpretentiously small and completely expansive in how fully it sees the conflicts and narratives inside that smallness.
  • The Ornithologist, João Pedro Rodrigues & Joao Rui Guerra de Mata – Finds the right balance between existing as a series of vignette encounters that are simultaneously tied to and inform a whole host of inchoate themes. Either religious inquiries about the self and one’s place in the world have never been sexier, or sex has never been more spiritually informed. Even as the film becomes a stranger and stranger object, the screenwriters made these events both internally coherent and organically situated in an evolving story. The characters are given just enough details and layers that they, too, come across as individuals that are stitched to the film’s ideas rather than ciphers. There’s also a subtle awareness of the absurdity that underlines these encounters, though the screenplay is dexterous enough with tone that the spectacle of an unusual band of hunters is undermined both by their unexpected target and the fact that said target barely acknowledges being hit by an arrow. There’s a sense of loneliness too, as we frequently see Fernando by himself studying birds who study him back, his travails with human characters only ending badly. The screenwriters not only balance these tones and ideas elegantly in their narrative, but they refuse to make too much sense of it or explanation of it, especially as the idea that Fernando must rediscover himself is given new dimensions in the film’s final scenes.
  • The Post, Liz Hannah & Josh Singer – I quibble slightly with “loosely based on Katharine Graham’s memoirs” qualifying as an original work, but damn is this a corker of a screenplay. Hannah and Singer do a fantastic job of tracking the arcs of Bradlee’s investigation and Graham’s feminist awakening, finding the right places for their strands to intertwine and deepen and to be set aside entirely for someone else. Everyone is given real points of view for the cast to play and legible arcs when necessary. The dialogue is crackling with Old Hollywood flair, their orchestration of the film’s overall trajectory is as effective as smaller setpiece scenes like Graham’s confrontations with Arthur Parsons or the Michael Cyril Creighton character sheepishly trying to get a stack of documents to Bradlee – they also have a real knack for when to be funny – and the script carries its political ideas with muscular conviction. Dare I say that if the crews in front of and behind the camera weren’t stuffed to the nines with marquee names, and if a certain orange toad wasn’t around making The Post’s ideas about journalistic and political integrity so resonant, the script would pack just as much punch as it does now.
  • Princess Cyd, Stephen Cone – If Netflix’s selection of films are good for a damn thing it’s finding contemporary titles that avid cinephiles would be happy to discover, and anyone who’s been impressed by the crop of LGBT titles 2017 has produced should put Princess Cyd at the top of their queue. Writer/director Stephen Cone has centered his film around two fully-formed, complicated women who are separated by more than a generational divide, and the greatest pleasure of this film is how fully they interact together, surprising each other and themselves with questions about sexuality and art and religion. It helps that the folks in their orbit are crafted with as much attention as he gives to Cyd and Miranda, making every character autonomous while allowing them to grow from their interactions. It’s a different kind of coming of age story, one where niece and aunt are both still exploring who they are, learning from each other amidst serious missteps and surprising moments of connection. It’s a small film, but the kind that sees its characters and their questions about the world so fully and generously without simplifying them or sheering them of tough edges that it winds up feeling as big as The Post.
  • The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi – ‪Between A Separation and The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi has shown an unrivaled talent for creating thematically dense studies of complicated characters wrangling with genuine moral dilemmas. I think the in-film staging of Death of a Salesman smartly balance the task of amplifying the film’s themes and parallels without giving us an answer key for how to understand its ideas. Then again, the script is also capable enough to withhold stating its ideas outright while still leaving us the room to recognize them, even if the characters were performing in a different play. We don’t have to hear anyone say that Emad’s desire to go to the police and subsequent quest to track down his wife’s attacker is more about his own shame at being unable to save her than out of genuine regard for her, even as he tries to comfort her while not completely empathizing with her. The humiliation motivating Rana’s silence is just as deeply felt and quietly articulated as her husband’s, though she becomes reclusive and restless while he begins lashing out at the friend who gave them their new apartment without provocation and has a tense encounter with a misbehaving student that ends on an uncomfortably morbid note. By the time the attacker is revealed, his half-baked explanations and prevarications only making him more pitiably pathetic, Farhadi leaves Emad and the audience pitifully aware of how little anyone has gotten from this grieving, self-appointed avenger’s hunt. It’s an unexpectedly stark last act for a film that’s thrived so far on evoking the ambiguities and paradoxes of its characters, but one that richly suits its thematic concerns and character trajectories.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Matt Greenhalgh – I initially gave this slot to Call Me By Your Name until seeing the actual script that Ivory submitted as his final draft: an overwrought mess that director and actors edited and reworked during shooting. I already struggled writing about the screenplay without crediting Guadagnino and the cast, and it honestly feels easier and just plain right to stan for the achievements of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. I’ll start with the gripe that I wish it spent a little more time in Gloria’s perspective than it does, only going into her headspace in a handful of key scenes. That quibble aside, I’m impressed with how fully the film engages with its wholly different generationally divided romance, not the most important issue but not always an easy road for either person to navigate. Their careers and ambitions are given real weight, and the script makes smart use of its frame story while giving even the smallest characters in each timeline real points of view, particularly Peter and Gloria’s mothers. It tells us as much about Gloria as Peter eventually knows, refusing to cram her whole life’s story into the film or presume him as an audience surrogate to gaze upon her decaying brilliance. Both leads are given rich histories with each other and as individuals outside the relationship for the actors to play and for the audience to respond to. Satisfies as a doomed romance that never tips into melodrama, a two-hander of a love story that never feels cliched, and a portrait of an artist that never becomes a hagiography.
  • The Lost City of Z, James Gray – ‪It’s amazing to learn that as wild as be trajectory of Percy Fawcett’s life was in his film, it was even more incredible and unbelievable as he lived it. The filmic rule of three trips to the jungle gives it some tidiness, but even so the life of this man and those in his orbit is still remarkably realized without making it any less adventurous, even while adding contemporary touch-ups. Gray is totally attuned to the societal, ancestral, and gender constructs weighing down on Percy’s initial decision to go to the jungle and his preoccupation with being recognized by the stuffy galleries of men in the army and in the Royal Geographic Society. He also captures the shift in Percy away from this want of status and high-society adoration as his fascination with Zed transcends the anthropological into something spiritual and ineffable, and more restless. Gray finds rich trajectories for the supporting characters, none more so than his treatment of Nina. Her role as The Wife Waiting At Home is given greater texture and more self-examination than films of this ilk pretend to invest as she asks to stay in her husband’s life in unexpected ways, and Gray’s decision to hand her the film’s ending is evidence he treasures her as much as he does Percy. Every character is given real attention without resorting to stock typing, letting their wants and duties and legacies feed into the ultimate themes of the narrative rather than serving as a placard for the film’s ruminations on those ideas, a feat all the more remarkable for the unusual and expansive avenues that The Lost City of Z ends up following.
  • A Woman’s Life, Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon – ‪A Woman’s Life may or may not compress as much material as The Lost City of Z, but it sets upon its own mad challenge of fitting so much story into a limited window of time. Its narrative is even more stitched to the power structures that are inhibiting its central character while enabling the men around her to act the way they do, disregarding her after a pleasant courtship or acting brashly despite her advice or revealing a secret she’s wrestling with telling in spite of her protests. The film also skips over moments of revelation, instead keeping us squarely in the fallout and reckoning that these characters must face. Dialogue is as minimal and taut as possible without being elusive, and characters are defined as much by who they are as how societal norms have shaped them, and how they in turn are shaped by people allowed more agency. It’s a brutal, elliptical story that never tips into cruelty towards its protagonist, as economical as Lady Bird without being too inviting, and disarming for how successful it is at achieving its own unpleasant but illuminating tasks.
  • Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick – I remember first seeing Wonderstruck in the theater, fearing slightly that the two narrative arcs would be too hermetically sealed for them to resonate as much as Todd Haynes and Brian Selznick wanted to, even as they followed similar trajectories. But as the stories took on their own distinct trajectories, paces, and characters once they hit New York, I began appreciating how the two narratives were communicating with each other while finding their own peculiarities. Selznick finds a way for the stories to speak to each other without boldfacing their connected threads or themes, and does a good job sketching minor characters as well as constructing the children as being mature enough for the emotional journeys they’re going through without making them tiny adults. It’s not without its stumbles, but the payoffs are wonderfully felt and deeply earned.
  • Your Name, Makoto Shinkai – It’d be one thing if Your Namewas *just* a body-swap film that had a remarkable grip on its comedic elements while earnestly juggling questions about gender, sexuality, tradition, and identity, because *those* are definitely a dime a dozen. It’d be another if it saw the communities, friends, and families its protagonists are travelling between as well as it saw the two of them, showing the development of their relationship through how they meddle in each other’s lives, and how Mitsuha and Taki get better at being each other while changing as well. But then, roughly halfway through the film (maybe even sooner), new dimensions in how these character relate to each other are revealed, and Your Namebecomes an entirely different film altogether. The questions these characters ask each other and themselves, what they mean to each other, and how well they can hold on to them is in a constant state of flux, accruing layers of complicated feeling and rising stakes that don’t feel like overkill. Your Name’s trajectory is often unpredictable, but it keeps a tight hold on multiple tones and genres simultaneously, gratifying its emotional and narrative stakes without taking any easy routes to get there.
Other 2017 Ballots

2017 (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, pt. 4)

Other Ballots

2020 | 2019 | 2018 |

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