The 10 best movies of the year, so far — Part II

In July I scared up a list of the 10 best movies of 2017 up to that point. (That list is here.) Since then, the Oscar-bait season has commenced and the year is almost a wrap. I’ve caught up with some of the movies I missed earlier and saw many of the new batch, though I have yet to see raved-about titles like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lemon,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

For now, here’s the second installment of the best movies of the year, so far:

1. “Lady Bird” — By turns a sweeping and intimate coming-of-age dramedy of devastating charm, heart and honesty, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut stars a phenomenally nuanced, preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior grappling with the usual: budding hormones, blossoming opinions, bristling anti-authoritarianism and a mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) with whom she’s at crippling odds. It’s familiar ground, but Gerwig and Ronan whip it into a consistently fascinating, funny and profoundly felt journey that’s not easily shaken. Indeed, it’s intoxicating.

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2. “The Florida Project” — Ugly yet beautiful, soaked in blazing Day-Glo Floridian hues and druggy homeless miseries, Sean Baker’s affecting follow-up to his 2015 stunner “Tangerine” celebrates the anarchy of childhood as told through the impish eyes of a little girl named Moonee (jaw-dropping newcomer Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a long-stay motel with her bedraggled (and be-drugged) mom (the superb Bria Vinaite, a kind of Courtney Love doppelgänger at her mascara-running worst), where she forms a pack of fellow summer-break youngsters who raise hell to the perpetual consternation of motel manager Willem DeFoe, who’s at his fuming best. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s illuminating and something of a tour de force, with a miraculous denouement that swells the heart with hope.

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3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — A teenage girl is raped and killed and months later the case is still not cracked. The girl’s fed-up mother (a ball-busting Frances McDormand, who will get an Oscar nod) rents three blood-red billboards that accuse the local police of ineptitude in handling the case. No one is happy about it, especially the police chief (the reliably riveting Woody Harrelson) and his loose-cannon underling (crackpot genius Sam Rockwell). As Tarantino once was, writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) is a master at balancing dark humor and bloody crime kicks, seamlessly blending violence and whorling emotional textures. The film is streaked with a Coen-esque unpredictability that’s whiplashing and totally winning.

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4. “Good Time” — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dirty, dangerous two-bit criminal, who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The lo-fi film, by the gifted Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”), pulls you on a thrilling run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it exhilarates as it harrows. Co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie’s performance as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother will cleave your heart.

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5. “Jane” — There’s heartache, too, in this absorbing documentary about famed chimpanzee expert/primatologist Jane Goodall, which is composed of hitherto unseen film from her decades in the African jungle, as well as family home movies. Goodall comes off as a winsome Mother Teresa, trying to preserve her hairy pals and the planet to boot, and the footage often grazes the breathtaking (and heartbreaking). Caveat: Along with primates dying of terrible diseases, there’s a nauseating burst of internecine chimpicide on display. It’s brief, but brutal.

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6. “Wind River” — Taylor Sheridan, writer of the gritty near-masterpieces “Sicario” and  “Hell or High Water,” tackles another noirish crime drama for his fine directorial debut, which starts at a chug but gathers velocity for an uncommonly intelligent thriller about people and place. After a brutal rape and murder on a remote Native American reservation in snow-socked Wyoming, a green FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to take the case. She’s joined by a compassionate local wildlife officer (a soulful Jeremy Renner) and soon they are deeply, and dangerously, entangled in the crime’s harrowing complexities. Sheridan’s a superior writer — the dialogue is terse and crackly — and his instinct for mood is unerring. Somber, but bracing.

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7. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” — This bizarro documentary peek at the extreme idiosyncrasies of an overly committed artist — in this case the mercurial Jim Carrey — is as squirm-inducing as it is enthralling. In the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Carrey portrayed daredevil comedian/performance artist Kaufman, but he pulled a full Method stunt, refusing to step out of character after “Cut!” was yelled. Kaufman was the apotheosis of strange — inscrutable, volatile, scarily unpredictable — so Carrey’s on-set behavior as “Andy,” seen here in rare footage, rattled, roiled and enraged crew and co-stars. Director Chris Smith interviews Carrey today, and the actor explains his reckless impulses. Or at least he tries. (On Netflix)

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8. “Baby Driver” — As an expert getaway driver for a group of high-stakes bank robbers, Baby, as he’s called (a solemn but beat-happy Ansel Elgort), drives like a demon, churning smoke and pulling 50 mph pirouettes to the groovin’ pulse of tunes blasting in his ear buds. Director Edgar Wright has a clever concept — boy wonder drives the likes of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx to turned-to-11 classic rock, funk and soul — but it doesn’t quite take off for a full-bodied narrative. Still, the music’s a kick and you get the best car-chase porn this side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

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9. “Obit.” — “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life,” says New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox in Vanessa Gould’s tonic and info-rich documentary about the technical, curatorial and artistic aspects of writing compelling narratives about those who’ve passed. Zooming in on the august obit desk at the Times and its stable of crack stylists, the movie traces the creative evolution of the form — today obits can be “just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects” — shows the persnickety process of winnowing worthy subjects from lesser ones and unveils the muses behind the writers’ elegant, punchy, even humorous essays. “Maybe it’s macabre, maybe it’s a little morbid,” one writer notes about his craft. This film shows that that is simply not the case.

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10. “Mudbound” — A sharp cast and lavish period detail invigorate this evocative and lushly filmed snapshot of a racially turbulent postwar Mississippi. Director/co-writer Dee Rees describes the relationship between a white family and a black family, which is uneasy at best, thanks to the harsh indignities of Jim Crow rule. Sometimes savage, sometimes soapy, the film aspires to an epic scope, but its made-for-TV feel, a conventional, predictable sheen, thwarts its loftier ambitions. (On Netflix)

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Animals pulling heartstrings

If seeing animals in distress upsets and ruffles you, you may want to skip the new documentary about primatologist and famed chimpanzee doyenne Jane Goodall, simply titled “Jane” (in theaters). While most of this fascinating film is a frank, intimate portrait of Goodall and an enthralling overview of her groundbreaking studies with the wild chimps of Tanzania’s Gombe, there’s enough heartache to plunge you into an unrelenting funk. A sickening wave of sadness rushes over me whenever I think back on it.

(Spoilers follow.)

Maybe it’s me, but watching an old chimp we’ve come to know and adore contract polio, becoming so crippled that he has to drag himself across the ground, no longer able to climb or feed himself, and so ill that his human observers at last shoot him, is unbearable.

There’s the momma chimp that falls sick and dies slowly under the crestfallen eyes of her grown but dependent son, rendering him an inconsolable heap that stops eating and dies two weeks later. If you’re not shattered by now don’t miss the full-blown chimpanzee war between rival groups that leaves the jungle floor strewn with furry corpses. (And then there’s the obligatory scene of a poor lone zebra getting taken down and torn apart by a pride of lions.)

It’s powerful material that makes for a powerful film, one that I fully recommend despite that fact that I carried my heart in various pockets on the way out.

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I’m a softie. Animals make me sad even in the best of circumstances. I worry about them. I wonder if they are comfortable and happy. From the wildest fauna to the most domesticated mongrel, I ponder if creatures get nuzzles and belly rubs, eat tasty and plentiful food, play and frolic, read good books and dance occasionally.

Street Dogs in IndiaStreet mutts, of course, rip me asunder. I’ve seen them all over the world and so many are suffering in some capacity, be it malnourishment or crippling traffic injuries. Almost masochistically I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. Next to the glee of successful adoptions are haunting images of broken, damaged, hopeless animals confined to veal-sized pens. And service dogs for the blind and handicapped — let’s not start. That’s a double-whammy, when I feel terrible for both animal and human.

I enjoy seeing healthy dogs with healthy owners on walks, out and about. But weirdly that wasn’t the case on my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bounding dogs on leashes ambled the city sidewalks and parks. Happy and hale, they were the picture of doggie luminosity. Yet at some point I hoped I wouldn’t see any more dogs on my trip. They were bringing me down, making me blue. I unaccountably felt bad for them, even though they were clearly fine.

This is pathos at its worst. It’s feeling so much that the emotion becomes misplaced. I recommend a strong prescription medication.

Goodall’s puckish chimps buckle me, but it’s a contained anguish. Animals, from the suburbs to the Serengeti, will always disquiet me, reasonably or not. Yet of course they also furnish joy and wonder, comfort and companionship, which can’t be underplayed. Like people, they are prickly conundrums, fascinating if so terribly fragile.