We don’t talk a whole lot about class in America, where we prefer to pretend that we transcend such distinctions. But in 2017, American movies had that conversation, bluntly and hauntingly, and if you spent the holiday season catching up on the year-end crop of Oscar-minded fare, you visited unpolished places. You met unsatisfied people.
They spoke of being trapped on the wrong side of the tracks (“Lady Bird”) or in the wrong sorts of clothes (“I, Tonya”). They tried to paint over their despair, as if a thick-enough coat of a bright-enough pastel could keep the disappointment at bay (“The Florida Project”). They went to creative, even absurd lengths so that their voices might be heard (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) or that they could know the economic security that seemed forever beyond their reach (“Downsizing”).
I can’t think of a previous batch of statuette-season contenders so politically on point and of the moment, and I credit – although that’s not quite the right word – Donald Trump. His rise and presidency have brought so many of the cancers of American life to the surface, where we can no longer avoid them, and the movies reflect that. He’ll be at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards not just as the butt of a gazillion jokes. He’ll be there as an inspiration.
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Yes, some of the movies being celebrated now were first dreamed up or set in motion even before he announced his candidacy in June 2015. But they were propelled by some of the same discontents that he seized on and divisions that he exacerbated.
The themes of the Trump era are the themes of these movies. For racial anxiety, enter the nightmare of “Get Out,” which was released early last year but has roared back onto the radar for best-of-2017 lists. For the tense relationship between the federal government and the media, see “The Post.” “All the Money in the World” presents a self-infatuated plutocrat whose obsession with riches deadens his soul. His surname is Getty, but he may remind you of someone else.
Put these movies together and you have a cinematic syllabus for a course on America right now. All the messes and the monsters are accounted for. And Hollywood, thank heavens, is poised to honor something other than the agonies and ecstasies of its own creative process, as it has done so many vanity-stroking times before (“The Artist,” “Argo,” “Birdman,” “La La Land”). It’s looking outward, precisely when that’s most important.
Part of what it’s seeing is the special burden that women bear and the particular powerlessness that they feel. That’s front and center in “The Florida Project,” whose down-and-out mothers rear children without help from fathers and survive economically by sexually subjugating themselves. In “Three Billboards,” Frances McDormand’s character, demanding justice for her murdered daughter, won’t let the police officers, the Catholic priest and other patriarchs in her small town shut her up and shoo her away. In “The Post,” Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham muscles through a scrum of insistent and often patronizing men to claim her role as the decider. It’s a tale of awakening – and a fitting punctuation mark for a year in which so many women broke their silence.
“Lady Bird,” too, explores gender, but what impresses me even more is its observant take on class. For the record, it’s not about Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady, but about a high school senior in Sacramento whose adoption of that fanciful nickname is part of how she chafes against her station in the world.
She misleads a fellow student from a more privileged background about the splendor and address of her own home. She yearns to attend the kind of private college in the Northeast that she supposedly can’t get into or afford. At every turn, she’s told about her limits. She just refuses to listen, less because she’s gifted with boldness than because she’s graced with youth.
I happened to see “I, Tonya” right after “Lady Bird” and was struck by their shared preoccupation with the self-consciousness, even shame, that Americans who struggle financially are sometimes made to feel. “I, Tonya” frames the famous misdeeds of the Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding as an understandable rebellion against the cruel snobbery that she confronted. If she broke the rules, well, they were rigged against her, or so implies the movie, which has more on its mind than triple axels.
“Lady Bird” was written and directed by a 34-year-old woman (Greta Gerwig) and “Get Out” by a 38-year-old black man (Jordan Peele). Like “Moonlight,” which rightly upset “La La Land” to win the best-picture Oscar last time around, they’re what happens when the pipeline isn’t so conventional and opportunity so cinched. Diversify the storytellers and you diversify the stories. They’re truer to America, which certainly needs the truth.