We’ve come to one of our most prickly categories now, picking through the best films Hollywood offered this year and deciding what’s truly praise-worthy in terms of both its messages and content. These aren’t films that the whole family will necessarily want to sit down and watch. But these films resonated with us.
Again, we’d love to know what you think, too. Pick your favorite among our nominees or, if you think we whiffed on one, choose your own. Let us know your own favorites down below, on our Facebook page or on Twitter, if you’re so inclined. You’ll have until Feb. 21 to vote. Winners will be announced March 2.
Darkest Hour: The Miracle of Dunkirk was a surprisingly popular theme in 2017. We’ve already talked about one Oscar-nominated take on the tale, rooted in the very sand and salty sea where the action took place. Meanwhile this film, Darkest Hour, takes us off the beach and into the halls of power—across the English Channel to London, where the blustering and controversial politician Winston Churchill has been elevated to Prime Minister. His unenviable task is to lead and inspire a country facing the greatest threat to its autonomy since Napoleon: Nazi Germany. Darkest Hour doesn’t stint on showing Churchill’s many flaws, including a certain penchant for morning champagne and fine cigars. (His language can be rough, too.) It gives us a picture of the man who, at times, expresses self-doubts. But in the end it lauds Churchill’s greatness and uncovers what made him so great: An unbridled belief in the rightness of the cause, and unshakeable confidence in the English people and an unmatched mastery of the English language. Spurred on by an incredible performance by Gary Oldman in the title role, Darkest Hour is a drama worth many a moviegoer’s time.
Gifted: The film introduces us to Mary, a precocious 7-year-old girl. She’s been raised by her loving uncle Frank ever since her mom, a math genius, died when she was just an infant. Frank has shouldered the responsibility and, well, joy of being Mary’s sole guardian. But there’s a bit of a wrinkle in their happy family mix now. You see, Mary has started going to school. And when the teachers realize that this tyke is a bit of a math prodigy herself, having already mastered calculus by first grade, they think she should go to a special school for gifted children. Mary’s manipulative grandmother swoops in—threatening a court case to force Mary into that special school and move her way from her uncle. In fact, pretty much the only person who hasn’t gotten a say in what should happen with Mary … is Mary. This small sweet film has a few headshake-worthy bits: some rough language, some hit-the-bar adult drinking and the suggestion of premarital sexuality. But by the time the credits roll, Gifted delivers a warm, heartstring-plucking message about our inbuilt need to love and be loved. It proudly proclaims the self-sacrificial, life-changing joys of family.
Goodbye Christopher Robin: Winnie the Pooh may be a beloved childhood classic, but Pooh’s adventure didn’t immediately begin in the Hundred Acre Wood, and it certainly didn’t come without its share of heartbreak. Alan Milne’s a former soldier-turned-playwright who, when he returns to London, finds the noise and bustle and very scent of the city take him back to the trenches of World War I. When he finally escaped the chaos of the city to a beautiful cottage near, you might say, a hundred-acre wood, he’s inspired by the setting. And his son. And by a small stuffed bear. Milne wants to help people see the world in a different way—not through war torn glasses. He wants to help them see the joy around them as he learned this very thing from his son, Christopher Robin and Christopher’s very special friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. In this film, we’re taken through the history of how Pooh bear and all the rest came to be—but we learn that even as Milne gave countless children a picture of an idyllic childhood, he unintentionally stripped away that very childhood from his own son. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a poignant, beautifully-told story about war, fame and the importance of imagination. But most importantly, it’s about the sometimes difficult love shared by a boy and his dad.
Maudie: While Sally Hawkins has earned scads of praise (and an Oscar nomination) for her work in The Shape of Water, I think she’s just as good in this little-seen drama—and unlike Shape of Water, she keeps her clothes on throughout. In Maudie, Hawkins plays Maud Lewis, a woman crippled by arthritis and underestimated and demeaned for her entire life. In a desperate attempt to get away from her own family, she becomes a housekeeper for a gruff fishmonger who says perhaps two words a week (if he’s feeling particularly loquacious). Most of us would be depressed if we filled Maud’s awkward shoes. But despair isn’t in Maud’s character. Slowly, she begins to paint—filling the fishmonger’s drab, unheated shack with riots of primary-colored birds and flowers. When she runs out of walls to paint, she turns to postcards and stray wooden boards, and she eventually becomes one of Canada’s most famous folk artists. Based on a true story, Maud’s quiet grace sweeps us away into a world that’s at once brutally stark and strangely beautiful, and it leaves us with the most unlikely of heroes.
Victoria and Abdul: You wouldn’t really think of a queen as being lonely. I mean, she’s the queen. But even royalty is susceptible to the most common of emotions, and in some ways, the throne and crown separate you from many a would-be friend. In this retold tale, Queen Victoria welcomes into her lonely palace an Indian by the name of Abdul. He’s told, as every servant is, to never look into the eyes of the queen. But instead of listening, Abdul steals a furtive glance, unknowingly turning the entire British Empire on its formal ear and sparking an unusual, and much-needed, friendship. While this film does contain a wee bit of language and a few drinking scenes, Victoria and Abdul masterfully tells the story of Victoria and Abdul’s most unlikely of relationships, all while revealing the mountains of racial stereotypes that plagued 19th-century England. And it leaves you with the feeling that friendship is worth more than all the palaces in the world.
(All movie capsules written by Adam Holz, Bob Hoose, Kristin Smith and yours truly.)