Another year draws to close and with it plenty to take stock of. It is has been a funny old year, socially, politically and culturally, but one rife with major upheavals. 2017 became the year of intolerance, the year where Hollywood almost collapsed under the weight of some truly shocking behaviour (RIP Kevin Spacey’s career), the year in which, thanks in no small part to one Mr Trump, words lost all meaning. Outright lies, flagrant stupidity and bigotry became the norm, hate seemed to have finally overpowered love. But the abused, the harassed and the broken were given new strength by this almost overwhelming onslaught, taking ownership of who they are and standing up for what is right. There is a reason Wonder Woman destroyed all at the box office, 2017 needed the cinema more so than ever, and Hollywood answered, providing films of levity, insight and empowerment.
In my personal world 2017 was a huge sea change. I witnessed my family going through immense challenges, ones they’d never faced before, and they did it with humour, grace and noble bravery. I found myself more proud to be a part of the family than ever before. This year is also when I found my heart captured, discovering a relationship with a girl who inspires me, excites me and makes every day an insane joy. It has provided me with a new perspective on life, romance and yes even films. Her energy, empathetic nature, and intelligence, coupled with a delightful sense of humour and inspiring strength are like a shot to the heart. The possibility of where we will go in 2018 thrills me no end, not to mention the fact she is willing to enter the chaos of cinema with me, without judgement. Anyway enough with the full on cheese, let’s dive into the films that left me breathless this year. It is a sign of rich choice that it took a long while for me to drill down into 20 favourite films, with some I was at pains to remove. Just a handful that missed out are; Wonder Woman, Loving, It Comes at Night, Lego Batman Movie, Split, Hacksaw Ridge, Hounds of Love, the list goes on..But for me this top 20 represents the best of what 2017 had to offer, a mix of huge blockbusters (more than ever the big budget movies had actual personality this year..well except Transformers) foreign films and low-fi pieces with immense heart. Goodbye 2017, a great time to be at the movies…
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was like a piercing animalistic slice to the throat. Incendiary, vital and challenging cinema. Detailing the true life events of the Detroit riots in the late 60s where a suffocating societal build up of racial tensions exploded with devastating effect. The opening hour is immediate, detailed and exhaustively covers many players in this dark tale. But Bigelow saves the true fireworks for a mid section of unrelenting tension, as a number of black individuals find themselves brutally tormented by the local police force, led by a none more fierce Will Poulter. Come the final act there is an almost physical reaction of relief, but it is weighed down by the realisation that justice would never come to fruition for these poor innocent folk. A film frighteningly and sadly relevant for our times.
Key Moment: Jack Reynor’s cop unexpectedly and horrifically realises that he has drastically misunderstood what his fellow abusive cops have been playing at.
19. Baby Driver
After his unfortunate experience with Marvel, Edgar Wright decided to get to work on a project he’d be planning for years. A so called action musical, wherein his lead character, the titular Baby, would need a constant stream of music playing in his ears to drown out a crippling tinnitus therefore soundtracking the entire films events to whatever he had blaring out. An idea that could’ve very easily gotten very old very fast, and at times yes it does get a little too up its own cleverness, but for the most part Baby Driver is huge huge fun. The eclectic soundtrack leads the way but Wright has ample help in his terrific cast (Spacey is a highlight-although it’s tempered knowing that this is now his last screen performance), killer (in-camera) action and heartfelt streak. There is a dizzying confidence to Wright’s work here, just watch for all the little clever touches in the opening credits number, and its rat-a-tat energy was like a blast to the face during its sandwiched release between Transformers 100 and Pirates 5! Bad luck Marvel, but good fortune to us.
Key Moment: The opening bank heist, beautifully staged, grippingly exciting and wonderfully timed to The Jon Spencer Band’s Bellbottoms. This scene marked Baby Driver out as something you hadn’t quite seen before.
18. Toni Erdmann
I know what you’re thinking, can a nigh on 3hr German comedy starring an overweight old guy really be one of the best films of the year?! Well it can be when it’s done with this much care, warmth and yes laughs, the Germans can do comedy-who knew?! Ostensibly about our lead hero morphing himself into the eponymous Toni Erdmann (all buck teeth and slightly unhinged party talk) in order to wean himself back into his distant daughters life. But it is so much more, a look at family politics, ageing, workplace sexism and female discontentment, with added wanking onto cupcakes (I’m not kidding here). Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek are wonderful as daughter and father, conveying so much with very little. It never offers easy answers or neat endings but it reaches emotional heights when you least expect it. Brilliant stuff.
Key Moment: A company party thrown by Huller turns into an unexpected nude soiree thanks to an unfortunate misunderstanding, culminating in a loving hug that stirs the heartstrings.
A foreign language one-two but this is far from a good natured comedy, although it is just as unpredictable. Set in a French Veterinary college, Raw follows strict vegetarian Justine (a phenomenal Garance Marillier) as she arrives to commence her studies only to find brutal hazing rituals that result in her eating meat for the first time. What this conjures up in her is horrific, fascinating and loaded with subtext. Mind you debut director Julia Ducournau never lets deeper meanings dominate this unrestrained horror. The director leading her young star down roads that rivet, and lensed through a remarkable palpable clarity. A sequence in which Justine, ravenous with lust, watches topless men play football captures the female gaze better than any film I’ve seen. It certainly won’t be for everyone, graphic scenes of cannibalism and overt sexuality make an odd but effective mix. If you’re willing to go with it though, you’ll be rewarded with a film of stark horror, complex characterisation and chewy metaphors.
Key Moment: Justine gets her very first wax, which is painful enough alone, but things take a twisted unexpected turn involving severed fingers, an inquisitive dog and newfound cannibalism.
16. The Big Sick
A Rom-Com detailing its writers courtship and with the male of the two played by himself (Kumail Nanjiani) The Big Sick may very well have ended up as cloyingly self-centred. The results, however, are far far more endearing. Hugely funny and yet laced through with a gentle warmth, this tells of Kumail and Emily as they battle cultural differences and parental expectations before a mysterious illness places Emily in a coma, with Kumail awkwardly having to build a relationship with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano-both exceptional). The Big Sick never sentimentalises or piles on the romantic cheese, instead these are real, flawed and complex people. Helped no doubt by the fact that most of this actually happened. It deftly subverts usual rom-com cliches, a film not about sweeping romantic gestures but rather the endearing kindness of decent people. Perceptive without being pretentious, funny without smirk and romantic without being cloying. The Big Sick is feelgood cinema at its finest.
Key Moment: Ray Romano awkwardly brings up the subject of 9/11 with Kumail, in the process breaking down white naivety, racial preconceptions and cultural insensitivity whilst simultaneously being flat out hilarious.
15. Thor: Ragnarok
Marvel had a tough year ahead of them this year. Comic-Book film fatigue is becoming a higher and higher risk now, and with no less than 3 films arriving from their stable in 2017 (not to mention 2 from DC, and one from Fox) they needed to prove that they can still justify their incessant cultural encroachment. Fortunately producer Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel used 2017’s offerings to hone just why they’ve been so successful. Singular voices. While James Gunn continued to build on his chaotic distinctive part of the universe in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (albeit to lesser effect than the first), an unusual choice was earmarked for the third outing of Thor, God of Thunder. New Zealand director Taika Waititi. Building off his stormingly hilarious Hunt for the Wilderpeople he was given the chance to bring his offbeat sensibilities to the world of Asgard. And boy did he deliver. Whipping along at breakneck pace, Thor Ragnarok introduces fantastical new worlds (Sakaar is dripping in garish colours and whimsical touches) hilarious new characters (the director himself plays scene stealer Korg) and the balls to destroy familiar settings whilst not to mention permanently disabling the big man himself. A tonal juggling act, and whilst the humour can sometimes overwhelm the dramatic clout, the overall effect is whip smart, funny and coated in personality. For once this feels like there is a sense of daring to a Marvel work, an unpredictability that we can only hope continues into their banner 10 year anniversary in 2018.
Key Moment: Despite being sadly spoilt in the marketing, the meeting of Thor and Hulk is an immensely thrilling fan pleasing moment, and signals the paradigm shift when the film truly kicks into gear.
14. Spider-Man: Homecoming
When Marvel and Sony announced that they would be sharing the rights to Spidey, meaning he could be indoctrinated into the MCU, fans and audiences were thrilled at the possibilities (well Andrew Garfield may not have been as excited). Opting, smartly, to forgo the well-told origin story and skew younger, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was a peppy quip-tastic inclusion into the otherwise serious Civil War, providing anticipation for his eventual solo film. Director Jon Watts (once again proving the Marvel adage of selecting interesting filmmaking voices) succeeds primarily because he is not afraid to go small. Homecoming is refreshing in that the stakes are relatively low key (Michael Keaton’s villain The Vulture just wants to steal things to provide for his family) concerning itself with character above big budget spectacle (although that still remains). In skewering young Watts can actually do a high school film and this decision proves perfect. Inspired by the films of John Hughes, these kids are a diverse, charming and funny bunch. Sharing a believable and likeable bond, with Tom Holland leading strongly from the front with a light on his feet, emotional performance. Seeding in Tony Stark as a background mentor is also a stroke of genius, able to build on the arc his character has been on since the very first Iron Man, whilst never overpowering whose film this is. Homecoming brings the Spider-Man back into play with youthful dynamism and no small measure of heart.
Key Moment: The mid-film reveal of just who Keaton’s Vulture really is is beautifully played out, culminating in a simple scene of two characters talking loaded with troubling menace.
13. The Lost City of Z
I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t that enamoured with The Lost City of Z on first viewing. Beautiful to look at yes, and well performed (particularly Robert Pattinson) but also long, ponderous and seemingly story-light despite its 2 hr runtime. However, after I left the screening it began to play in my mind. Its lyrical tale of exploration, discovery and male purpose slowly and surely revealed itself as something poetic. The tale of true life adventurer Percy Fawcett, who successfully documented the undiscovered Amazon rainforest over 2 trips before mysteriously vanishing without a trace on the third. The Lost City of Z works best on a second viewing, when you know the measured rhythms of its story beats. Charlie Hunman, usually a flaccid dull presence, here captures the subtle devolution of a man into primal instincts. A man driven to be reborn as a famed hero, the fabled city of Z (as he so names it) burning its way into his mind. Akin to David Fincher’s Zodiac, this is a story of obsession told with the same sense of detail, clarity and pace as that masterpiece. The final scenes elevate this into something mythical, earthy and gripping. Will be seen as a classic in years to come.
Key Moment: The final scenes we see of Percy and his young son (Tom Holland) as they await their unseen fate, framed as something hauntingly ritualistic. The forest finally absorbing a man who just wanted to unlock its secrets. It’ll stay with you.
It is a shame that Moonlight’s Oscar victory was overshadowed by the sheer craziness of its wrong-name-read controversy, the ensuing media speak forgetting the real story. That of a tiny independent film centring on a young black man discovering his sexuality against a backdrop of economical strife, parental neglect and societal pressures, winning the Best Picture statuette. Starkly shot in rich blues and evocative light by director Barry Jenkins, who also adapts from the original source novel, and told over three time periods each with a different actor portraying young Chiron. All 3 give phenomenally complex performances, textured and layered but always real. Surrounding them are some A-grade performers, from Naomie Harris’s drug abusing mother, to Andre Holland as Chiron’s path to sexual awakening. Key praise must go to Oscar winning Mahershala Ali, who is simply astonishing as Juan. A local drug pusher who takes a shine to Chiron, guiding him and teaching him, but who, in one powerful scene, realises the effect his style of life has indirectly had on this young lad. The tears on his face will be shared on your own, and throughout in this soaring, powerful picture.
Key Moment: In a film filled with simple quiet moments, it is the scene on the beach wherein Chiron lovingly and desperately realises his sexual identity as close friend Kevin tenderly gives him a hand job.
11. Paddington 2
God this film is simply wondrous. The first Paddington come out of nowhere and turned into an instant family classic, its whimsical wit, heartfelt message of acceptance and good natured charms mixed in with director Paul King and writer Simon Farnaby’s offbeat homemade eccentricities made for a picture that left you with the biggest smile. Surprisingly the sequel never attempts to go bigger or grander (although there are a few action scenes that showcase the enlarged budget) instead opting for the simplest of stories. Paddington just wants to buy a book for his Aunt Lucy’s birthday, unbeknown to him though is this book is of particular importance to one Phoenix Buchanan. A washed up actor who still dreams of being on the stage, and played with utter relish by a never better Hugh Grant. Seriously he is having so much fun here, hamming it up with glee, that you’re left grinning from ear to ear. The whole cast delight, from returning characters played by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, to newbies such as a wonderfully playful Brendan Gleeson appearing in a magnificent prison segment that’s a cross between The Great Escape and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ben Whishaw once again gives gentle life to the titular bear, his dulcet tones conveying the reserved sweetness and cheeky naivety that make him so endearing. It is just nice to find a film with not a bad bone in its body, no joke comes at the expense of someone else, all it wants you to do is have fun and feel good. Who’d thought that the film 2017 needed more than anything else was one starring a talking bear, prison musical numbers and Hugh Grant in a nun’s costume.
Key Moment: Paddington decides to get a job in a barbers. I need say no more, but the ensuing sequence is physical comedy and escalating stakes at its finest.
To be Continued……