I thought 2016 was a good year to go to the movies bowling a vicious curve ball right at 2017’s shins. But 2017 has absolutely hit it out of the park. So good has the year been that some tremendous movies failed to make the cut despite being (I thought) near certain top 10 contenders when I saw them. Movies I loved like Logan, Get Out, and T2: Trainspotting just got edged out but a rewatch could make me regret not including any of them so slight are the margins that films in the bottom half of my top 20 are virtually interchangeable.
Here are numbers 20-11…
20. Hounds of Love
This Australian drama based on a true life addiction and murder case was classed as a horror movie but like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, I’m not sure it belongs in the genre.
Suburban couple John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) has abducted, abused and murdered a series of schoolgirls. Their latest victim (Ashleigh Cummings) finds the fault-lines in the pair’s relationship and manipulates them in a desperate attempt to survive.
The film is a lot more concerned with the point of view of the killers than the victim, and has little time for traditional strategies of suspense. Which isn’t to say this is an exercise in sadism, writer/director Ben Young shoots around the scenes of violence and degradation so that you are never in doubt about what is happening, but the audiences noses are not being shoved into the filth.
Ultimately, this is a film about abuse. That is daring enough to have some sympathy for Booth’s character whilst never entertaining any juvenile fantasies that the terror couple are rebels or iconoclasts. A twisted relationship triangle with superb performances from all three actors, dazzlingly shot, is often nearly unwatchable.
19. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has carved out a space as a genuine auteur over since making an international splash with 2009’s Dogtooth. Lanthimos likes to study and disrupt personal often familial relationships in his movies which are claustrophobic and laced with absurdist humour.
Sacred Deer is an extremely uncomfortable experience, a young man (Barry Keoghan) insinuates his way into the family of a surgeon (Colin Farrell) initiating a series of inexplicable events tied to a past tragedy.
Lanthimos encourages his actors to give oddly blank and stilted performances and Farrell has a particular gift for this, bearded and with a slight belly the star is playing far outside his customary Hollywood leading man comfort zone here.
It is Keoghan who takes the film however, despite playing against heavy hitters Farrell and Nicole Kidman, the young Irish actor commands the screen as one of the years most frightening characters: “It’s the only thing I can think of that is close to justice.”
Julia Ducournau’s striking feminist horror film was saddled with stupid festival hype because of reported fainting at screenings. This, the film’s much heralded cannibalism theme, and it being French led many to anticipate a late entry in the French extremism’ sub-genre. However, rather than being the new Cannibal Ferox, this was an elegant and stylish film that deployed shock tactics sparingly if effectively.
Ducournau was much less interested in making a cannibal horror, than in exploring the pressures and anxieties affecting millennial women. Conformity, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and social horror are the themes. Cannibalism is merely metaphorical.
A terrific debut for what is hopefully a major genre talent.
One of 2017’s strangest films, Colossal was marketer’s nightmare and a very hard sell. Essentially a melding of two completely incompatible genres, a Duplass brother’s style relationship drama welded to a giant monster film, the mumblecore Godzilla.
Despite the presence of star Anne Hathaway the film sank at the box office. Which is a real tragedy as against all odds Colossal actually works. Hathaway turns in a sympathetic performance playing a self centred addict, and Jason Sudeikis (an actor I have never liked in anything before) turns his usual ‘bro’ character inside out. Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo is careful to establish his characters in a recognisable reality but makes the move to fantasy seamless.
16. I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s incendiary documentary provides a visual essay using the words of writer and activist James Baldwin to present a searing history of America through African American eyes. Cutting between phenomenal archive footage, interviews with Baldwin, and cutting from and to the idealised vision the American dream presented by the entertainment industry, Peck brings Baldwin’s prescient words and vision to life for a new generation.
15. Wind River
Actor Taylor Sheridan made a splash as a screenwriter with Sicario and Hell or High Water. Wind River is his first film as director and concludes a ‘frontier trilogy’ of films about lives on the fringes of modern America.
In Wind River a professional hunter (he shoots predators to protect livestock) discovers the corpse of a Native American girl frozen in the snow. The young FBI agent sent to investigate then request his services as a guide.
Wind River is both an excellent crime procedural, and a film about male abuse of women. As such it is one of a number of films that have felt unfortunately timely in 2017. Stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen turn in great performances, although it is questionable whether having a white male lead was the best choice for this material. Especially as one of the most affecting performances in the movie is from Native American actor Gil Birmingham.
Despite this caveat, this is a great thriller with one of the best shoot outs of 2017.
14. Baby Driver
The presence of Kevin Spacey as a crime boss who essentially ‘grooms’ a young man to be his getaway driver has become rather unfortunate element in hindsight, but it can’t quite take the shine of Edgar Wright’s best film.
You heard me right. Baby Driver is better than Shaun of the Dead (or Hot Fuzz). This is the movie where Wright proves that he has become a full spectrum filmmaker. Baby Driver may be candy floss, but it is expertly spun. Ostensibly a car movie, Wright manages to make a simple scene of the main character crossing a street and ordering takeaway coffee as thrilling as the vehicular mayhem.
This is less indebted to Smokey and the Bandit, than it is to Walter Hill’s minimalist The Driver, and the car action is deployed sparingly for maximum impact. There is action and violence, but at its heart this is a sweet confection.
13. War for the Planet of the Apes
The ‘make America great again’ slogan is built on a wilful ignorance of a deeply troubling history. The final part of the new Apes trilogy used science fiction and metaphor to poke some of American history’s rawest nerves, from the genocide of indigenous people, to slavery, and contemporary prejudices.
Finally Ape hero Caesar was able to hold up the entire film without the need for a human hero to act as the audience’s point of view character. This was not only due to the boldness of War’s script, but also a recognition of the astonishing progress of motion capture VFX. The uncanny valley has simply disappeared here, you forget you are watching a ‘synthespian’ and simply see Caesar as a character. As good as the VFX are, they work symbiotically in concert with a real actor’s performance. Andy Serkis as Caesar gives one of the performances of the year.
This was an epic summer blockbuster that played as an intimate character drama. Even the film’s large scale battle scenes are used as a backdrop for a character driven story.
12. The Death of Stalin
Riotously entertaining and consistently hilarious, Armando Iannucci’s film was the year’s best comedy. Nevertheless, it is also an incredibly dark and upsetting film about recent history. Charting the power vacuum caused by the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the political manoeuvring of those in his circle of power.
A fantastic cast including Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Micheal Palin, Paddy Considine, and Simon Russell Beale all used their own natural accents avoiding the cod ruski-isms that usually blight this kind of thing. Simon Russell Beale is exceptional playing Lavrentiy Beria the head of the secret police and one of the 20th century’s great villains.
The only actor who does do an accent is Jason Issacs, who catapults into the film in the last act with a barnstorming performance as Soviet general and war hero Georgy Zhukov. So fearsome was Zhukov’s status and so deep the communal love of the man, that he was the only person who could bluntly tell Stalin what he actually thought. Issacs plays him with a Yorkshire accent.
Some found mass murder, sexual assault and assassination unsuitable and offensive comedic subject matter, but Iannucci, his co-writers, and cast don’t make light of the terror of Stalin’s purges and the paranoia of living on Soviet Russia. If the film sugar coated, or ignored these realities that would genuinely be offensive.
11. Blade Runner 2049
Making a sequel to a film is widely regarded as among the best science fiction films ever made is a fools errand as the makers of 2010 would tell you. Nonetheless, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 joins James Cameron’s Aliens as one of the great sequels to a Ridley Scott film.
Usually sequels feel contrived, retro fitted to continue a story that has come to a natural end. In this case, the matter is even more complicated by the various different cuts and endings of the original Blade Runner. But Villeneuve’s gorgeous film not only found an interesting story to tell. It told it in such a way as to enrich the narrative of the original.
As shot by Roger Deakins, this is arguably the most luscious looking film of 2017. However, it failed to have quite the emotional impact that would have matched its visuals and ideas placing it ultimately outside my top 10.
Next up, the top 10 and my worst films of 2017.