Happy New Year to all! To kick things off in..well maybe not style but a distracting 15mins, here are my final choices for the best films in 2017. Jeez it feels so long ago already! Narrowing these down into set numbers was a difficult one as I’d say all of these could easily be number 1 on certain days, so despite our predilection for strict lists take the placements here as nothing firm, all you need to know is that for me these 10 films represented the cream of the crop from last year. Enjoy and here’s to a 2018 filled with even more astounding trips to the picture house!!
10. 20th Century Women
Sometimes there are those films that, for whatever reason, just grab you. Perhaps its the mood you’re in, or the setting you watch it in, but a films power can be exponentially felt when the universe lines up to allow it to overtake you. 20th Century Women was just such a film. One I missed on its original release back in Feb, but one I rushed to watch once it hit DVD, due to the overwhelming positive reactions and solid trailer I had a hankering to see it for myself. Alone, relaxed on the sofa, lights down and mood low I found myself utterly transfixed by the gentle profundity offered by director Mike Mills’s work. Lacking any real narrative thrust it simply details the teenage life of young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he experiences the emotional and physical upheaval that adolescence provides. Lacking a father figure he instead is raised by 3 women, mother Annette Bening, local crush Elle Fanning and live in lodger Greta Gerwig. The real potency of the film lies in their performances, flawed, vulnerable and richly sketched but also in the evocative script penned by Mills himself. The way he intercuts the present (or 1979 as it is in the film) with a solemn narration of where these players will end up in later life gives the film a poetic melancholy. Managing to grasp the immutable power of time and age whilst never losing itself up its own arse. It is insightful without being pretentious, charming without being twee, and funny without being smarmy. It seeps into your soul and moves you to your core. I adored it.
Key Moment: A dinner table gathering turns awkward, funny and moving as it moves to a conversation about periods, sex and femininity. The generational gap between the 3 women given startling clarity.
9. Get Out
Who would’ve thought that one of the most relevant, clever and subversive genre flicks of the year would hail from Jordan Peele, one half of silly comedy duo Key and Peele. Get Out took the world by surprise, to the tune of $250 million, and struck a piercing dart into white America in a time when racial tensions were just beginning to boil over. Its tale of Chris (a strong Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend’s parents in their upmarket estate is loaded with sharp observations about white privilege, but the real success here is how Peele backgrounds all this within a hugely entertaining package. Big laughs, jolting horror (the sunken place is a starkly simple yet terrifying visual effect) and shrewd pacing keeps the film from never feeling preachy. In fact it is only on a second viewing where you can truly appreciate the subtleties of Peele’s script, cleverly teasing and pulling on strands that unravel themselves with breathtaking unexpectedness in the final act. The balance of tones and genres here marks Jordan Peele out as a true find for the future. Get Out was never designed to be a comment on any particular event or political administration but in being released at this time and with this President it cannot help but feel like THE film that will define 2017, a symbol that whilst things have evolved there are still deep rooted flaws that need to be wormed out.
Key Moment: Chris’s first visit to the Sunken Place is a terrifying, wondrously shot sequence, anchored in some truly expressive facial work from Kaluuya. We can’t feel just how horrible it is for him, and yet his face tells us all we need to know.
8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It goes to show just how divisive a work The Last Jedi is that making a Star Wars film part of my top 10 would probably generate some controversy. Rian Johnson was always a rather brave choice to tackle Disney’s billion dollar franchise but it proves just how focused they are on giving space for directors to bring their own voice that The Last Jedi truly feels unpredictable. So much so that I wasn’t actually the biggest fan on first viewing. It felt not quite right, the modern slice of humour throughout, the unusual tonal shifts, the off kilter pace and a reliance on character rather than action (although there is still ample enough of that) made it feel Star Wars but a little to the left. It is only on second viewing (which to be honest always works better with SW as the anticipation is stratospheric) that its real genius slides into view. This is not a middle finger to the traditions of Star Wars past as some vocal fans have bemoaned rather an evolution. Plans are afoot to have this franchise go on indefinitely (Johnson himself is spearheading a new trilogy of films outside of the established universe) so in order for things to move forward walls have to be shattered. But for all this talk of change, this is still Star Wars at its core. The childish sense of wonder, the practical menagerie of creatures, the hopeful optimism and the warm kinship between its characters. For once this is a SW film that lets its characters actually breathe and build dimensions (as much as I like The Force Awakens it is primarily an action narrative film). Sure it tears apart built up mysteries from Episode 7, but too often we forget that we do not own this world it is down to the artisans who enrich it to steer us where they desire. Not to mention this is by far the most beautiful, well edited and thoughtful Episode of the lot. The beauty of The Last Jedi is I have absolutely no idea where the saga goes from here, but I cannot wait to find out. Oh and Mark Hamill is fucking phenomenal in this film!!
Key Moment: Rey, Ren, Snoke, an unexpected turn and one of the best lightsaber fights yet seen, makes this moment a heart stopping sequence in a film full of them.
7. La La Land
One of the very first films I saw in 2017 happened to end up as one of the best, proof if ever there was that this year was going to be one for the books. And what a way to start the year. La La Land is a film coated in romance, wonder and symphonic charm. On the surface a simple story; boy meets girl, boy dislikes girl, boy and girl eventually fall in love, career and life get in the way, but given palpable notes of complex melancholy. Although romance is the predominant focus in the opening half, it gives way into a delicate exploration of creative fulfilment. The ebb and flow of coupling that can provide us with the strength to achieve so much but masks the eventual difficulties in maintaining that career/romance balance. All that and director Damien Chazelle wraps it up in a stonking musical, filled with big numbers and heartfelt rhapsodies. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling build on that rat-a-tat-tat chemistry that endeared us to them in Crazy Stupid Love, while also showcasing some very fancy (if lovably imperfect) dance moves. Managing to connect with audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have sought out a musical, thanks in no small part to its modern sensibilities married to an affectionate embrace of those soft bathed Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. One of 2017s most joyous concoctions.
Key Moment: That final look between ex-lovers, dripping with feeling, longing, sadness and ultimately joy for the life shared and the confidence gained. Devastating and hopeful at the same time.
To anyone who claims that comic-book movies are all the same, all gravity defying destruction, universe building mythologies and broad characterisation, just make them sit down and watch Logan. A western at heart, set in the bleak Mexico desert with nary a person in sight, only the scorching heat and sparse vegetation for company. We see the once legendary Wolverine greying, drinking and barely keeping together. Angry at the world, whilst removing himself from it. Spending his days caring for an aged Professor X (Patrick Stewart, wondrous-cussing up a storm and crippled with ailing dementia) and awaiting the chance to escape once and for all out into the sea. Unfortunately into his life comes Laura (Dafne Keen-primal), a seemingly new mutant in a world wherein most mutants have died off. Hunted by a mysterious company with ties to Wolvie himself, he begrudgingly decides to help her when trouble comes a calling. Logan is remarkably mature, and not just due to the insanely violent gore, but through theme and character. This is a story of legacy and death, for a so called immortal man Logan wants nothing more than to pass away with peace. Of course being the fabled X-Man, life doesn’t have that in store for him. Refreshingly James Mangold (who also directed the underrated The Wolverine) only subtly references the previous films, content to let the audience themselves bring in the baggage that comes with having known this guy for over 15 years. Hugh Jackman has never been better in the role, owning the ferocious violent moments just as capably as the quiet times when his body begins to finally fail him. For those who’ve watched this character through the years, the final moments are unbearably emotional but ultimately beautifully fitting. A remarkable send off for a defining cultural icon.
Key Moment: Those final words as his body finally gives up, looking up at Laura and seeing the truth, “so this is what it feels like.” The audience tears begin.
5. War for the Planet of the Apes
I’m just going to come out and say it but the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy stands alongside Bourne and LoTR as the best trilogy this side of the Millennium. What started out as a potential eye-rolling prequel/reboot in Rise of the Planet of the Apes actually became a film of heart, soul and insane technological wonder. Dawn only built from this starting point, revealing that this tale of talking apes was in reality a complex treatise on humanity itself. Caesar (a triumph of performance and visual effects) battling with what it means to lead, to fight and to love. Andy Serkis cutting through the computer generated wizardry (another triumph of these films is that they never call attention to the remarkable wizardry it just becomes the norm) to deliver a performance of staggering depth, usually through nothing more than his eyes. Matt Reeves (who also directed Dawn) manufactures the finale, War, into something akin to a Biblical epic. Large scale vistas provide the spectacle but in reality this is a War of the soul. Caesar driven to madness after a maniacal General (Woody Harrelson-also stupendous) murders his wife and son. What’s surprising for a big Hollywood blockbuster is how quiet this film is, outside of two action scenes that bookend the film, the majority is delicately paced and focused on character. Aided by Micheal Giacchino’s beautifully simple score War takes turns that may be far too dark for those expecting no nonsense thrills, but for the rest of us it provides a nuanced emotionally satisfying end to a truly miraculous trilogy.
Key Moment: The opening human attack on the Ape colony is a triumph of sound design, cinematography and action direction. A Gods Eye view of troubling slaughter that is masterfully controlled.
4. Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (who has, in my opinion, never directed anything less than a great film), scripted by original Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher (and Logan writer Micheal Green), starring shrewd choice maker Ryan Gosling, overseen by Ridley Scott and lensed by the eye of God Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 still faced the prospect of a potential cinematic folly. Belated sequels are for the most part a waste of time and energy, and with this being the follow up to a science fiction classic no less-one that did not lend itself well to a sequel, and you had the recipe for trouble. We need never have feared, for 2049 is a masterpiece and for me actually better than the original (don’t @ me haters I’m not the biggest fan of the first). Overlong most definitely but immensely absorbing. Villeneuve constructs the world with as much lived in detail and evocative stylings as the seminal 1982 film, and in subtle ways builds on it without the need to over explain any of it. This is a film that values its audience’s patience and intelligence, seeding its narrative mysteries slowly and meticulously. Despite the intense furore around avoiding spoilers 2049 doesn’t have that many plot turns, but similar to The Last Jedi there are many in the moment character beats that you should discover for yourself. Gosling is a restrained and captivating lead, his journey surprising and above all else moving. A future set Pinocchio fable, encapsulating heavy themes such as purpose, parenthood, creation and humanity, all wrapped up within Hans Zimmer’s evocative soundscape and Roger Deakin’s astounding visuals. Seriously if it wasn’t for the fact the film is so good, 2049 would make the list simply for looks alone. Sadly like the original the film was criminally overlooked on release, but I’m sure with time it will be as equally revered as Scott’s classic.
Key Moment: Gosling’s K decides to make love to his virtual reality girlfriend Joi, using a stand in Replicant prostitute and the best visual trickery I’ve seen in a long while. You’ll be concentrating so much on the sheer skill involved that you may overlook the tenderness of its portrayal.
3. The Shape of Water
Leave it to Guillermo Del Toro to conjure up a film about a mysterious Mer-creature falling in love with a mute girl and have it become one of the most beautiful, hand crafted and graceful films of the year. Ever the fantastical dreamer, Del Toro has made his most personal film since the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth. Set during the height of Cold War tensions, we follow waif-like Elisa (Sally Hawkins-simply marvellous) as she spends her evenings cleaning the offices of a massively secretive Government science installation, with friend Octavia Spencer, playing..well Octavia Spencer (that’s a good thing). One such night a creature is brought in, crying out in pain and brutalised by the domineering officer in charge, Strickland. Brought to life by a none more fierce Michael Shannon, Strickland is a formidable character. All biblical bluster and unwarranted sexual advancement. Elisa gradually builds a bond with the creature, who is inhabited by long term Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones-giving a performance of fascinating physical dexterity, before electing to set him free. Del Toro gets many things so staggeringly right here but chief among them is the relationships between the different players. Whether that be the gently touching love between human and monster, the sweetly paternal affection between Elisa and neighbour Giles (a superbly playful Richard Jenkins) or the aggressive one-two between Elisa and Strickland. Del Toro takes times to sketch them all out, whilst letting them play in his usual stunning production design, all Victorian mechanics and Golden Age Hollywood backdrops. He intermingles such diverse aspects but manages to coalesce them into a distinctive whole, whether that be the almost musical feel to his staging, or the overt sexuality that is not usually part of his output. The Shape of Water is a masterpiece simply because it champions the monster in us all, that we all deserve love no matter our looks, or our shortcomings. It is a tender, touching and empathetic picture, spilling with sensuality, passion and stunning artistry.
Key Moment: An unexpected segue into a black & white Busby Berkeley musical number, with the real emotional kicker of Elisa’s voice doing what she never thought possible, and the poetic realisation of what this creature has done to her.
2. Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name is intoxicating cinema. Set over one long hot summer in Southern Italy as young Elio (Timothee Chalamet-heart-wrenchingly good) discovers a romantic attraction to travelling doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer-those chiselled looks masking deep vulnerabilities) in town to study with his Professor father. Story-wise that is pretty much all you get, the next 2 and a bit hours we gently watch this two dance around each other, the barely contained attraction gradually revealing itself. Director Luca Guadagnino has always been adept at capturing sun swept beauty (check out his previous A Bigger Splash) but here it is even more sensory. You can practically taste the crisp air, smell the fresh fruit and hear the gentle sounds of summer. It conjures a rapturous mood that only adds to the overwhelming feeling of romance. Wisely the path to their courtship is never portrayed as smooth, but shrewdly the difficulties are also never brow-beaten. You feel Elio’s confusion, his pain and his embarrassment, but they reveal themselves in teenage arrogance or in unexpected moments of sexual honesty (such as the infamous peach scene). Critics have bemoaned the fact that for a film about a gay romance the only sex we see on screen is heterosexual, but Guadagnino is deliberately adding to the power of Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Sex with a woman is passionate for Elio, but it is still not his true self. Only with Oliver can he let down his guard and be truly intimate, and by not showing it Guadganino leaves it private. He decides that that is time for just them two characters, no one else, not even the audience, can be a part of that. Through all this though it is in the films closing moments where things are elevated into masterwork category. Michael Stuhlberg delivers a speech to Elio that is so disarmingly emotional I openly wept, before the very last shot reminds us that for all of the beauty we find in love, pain is just as much a part of that. This is a soaring piece of work.
Key Moment: The aforementioned speech. Words of such tolerance, such wisdom, such affection and such beauty, it leaves you stunned. Micheal Stuhlberg delivering it with quiet deliberate care, in that moment managing to acknowledge Elio’s romance whilst never captioning or judging it. Despite the film not being number one, this is the scene of the year!!
I make no qualms about the fact that I am an unabashed Christopher Nolan apologist. Possibly the finest director working today, and whilst I do acknowledge the flaws inherent in some of his work, the artistry and the skill in which he always delivers is never lost. But for me Dunkirk is his masterpiece. Yes I’ve said that before about Inception, The Dark Knight, Interstellar etc. but here it is not hyperbole but fact. All the usual nitpicks that come with his films (cold emotionally, heavy exposition, plot holes) are completely absent. Dunkirk is a primal, stripped back and deeply moving piece of cinema. The evacuation of Dunkirk was one of the British Military’s most embarrassing failures, the fleeing of 400,000 men from the shores of France after being unable to resist Hitler’s forces. But in that failure lay a victory, the arrival of thousands of ships (fishing vessels, pleasure yachts etc) driven by average joes to rescue the army at its darkest time. Nolan could’ve easily turned this into patriotic chest beating, a sentimental tribute to a moment that above all else was a colossal failure. But he is not interested in such things, he is not even interested in its place in history. What interests him is survival. These are all desperate men, cowardly at times, brave at times, foolish at times, but always human. Heroism has never been Nolan’s go to, even his Batman was born of fear, arrogance and money. And there are heroes here, but in small measures. An unlocked door here, a wilful twisting of the truth there, even the biggest moment of heroics (Tom Hardy’s pilot defending the fleeing troops) is weighed down by his capture by the unseen enemy. War is not about one sweeping act that’ll save the day, but by a series of in the moment victories that may not even directly be witnessed but make all the difference. The way Nolan plays into this is in his biggest filmic coup, the structure. Three stories told over different time periods, one week, one day and one hour. All bleeding into one another with consummate and staggering editorial control. Moments in which we see hero pilot Farrier (Hardy) make the decision to continue on despite no fuel left are given added heft when we see who he saves in other timelines as they inter-mesh. In war, the unseen man may be your greatest protector. This structure also crystallises character, theme and story in unexpected ways. It is never unnecessary showboating. Outside of that there is also the fact that Dunkirk is almost a silent film, dialogue is sparse with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch composing an imposing guttural aural soundscape that only adds to the overwhelming ferocity of their plight.
Immense sound work combined with some of the best photography yet seen in a film (the aerial dogfighting scenes are impeccably thrilling) also made Dunkirk one of my fave ever movie going experiences, for one reason alone, IMAX. Shot in native 70mm IMAX, it looked simply astonishing, filling the giant screen with a crisp clarity that pierced the eyes. Adding in the simply deafening surround sound and the experience was suffocatingly intense, but one I thought may diminish the films immediacy when viewed at home. Having watched it since I can safely say, whilst a differing effect, it still holds up as a phenomenal work, the home release allowing little details to come to the fore that may have got lost in the cinematic maelstrom.
Dunkirk is the best film of 2017 simply because it changes the cinematic form, whilst never forgetting to be thrilling, emotional and entertaining. I could wax lyrical for much longer (I haven’t even touched on the terrific performances) but suffice to say if you haven’t found time to watch this cinematic masterpiece then you’re missing out on not only the best film of 2017 but one that will be studied and embraced for years to come.
Key Moment: Kenneth Branagh’s Admiral stands at the edge of the Mole, his eyes slowly turning to glimpse something on the horizon, the music swells to deafening levels, “what is it?” One word elicits deep pangs of emotive primitive optimism, “Home!”
See you all in 2018…..