Continuing my countdown of my favorite films of 2017, a really amazing year at the movies.
Turkeys of 2017!
Unlike the pros, I don’t usually get paid just to go to the pictures so I don’t voluntarily lay down cash to see films that look awful. So I won’t claim to have seen the worst of the year. Well, at least not to the end, as I switched off CHiPs after 15 wretched minutes.
But I did see two films this year so stinking that my least favourite film of 2017 is a tie between a multi-million dollar theatrical dud and a cheap-ass DTV movie by a once renowned director on the skids.
Cinema turkey: Justice League
If you like looking at Gal Gadot’s behind, Justice League is the best movie of 2017. It’s like they attached a custom made steadycam rig to her bottom.
I case of doubt, I thought the movie was atrocious. Could $300m not pay for some extras? At one point the entire population of Metropolis appears to consist of two policemen.
This film is so fucking stupid I was disappointed they didn’t include Superdog and Bat-thing in the lineup. I’m convinced the movie would never have been good, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have looked quite as terrible if Snyder had been around to supervise post. All the Whedon reshoots are painfully obvious and I am sad to say all completely terrible.
In 5 years James Franco will be making a movie about Justice League, and probably winning an Oscar for playing Snyder and Whedon.
On Demand turkey: Tomboy (aka The Assignment)
So bad that if I didn’t know it was a (sob) Walter Hill film, I’d think it was an Uwe Boll movie.
The worst thing about this terrible, action-free, action flick is that it takes a really offensive premise (hoodlum given a non-consensual sex change operation in revenge for killing a surgeon’s brother goes on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge) and makes it incredibly boring.
Pre-transformation, lead Michelle Rodriguez looks exactly like Michelle Rodriguez with one of those stick on beards used in Team America: World Police made out of shaved pubic hair.
Anyway, enough of that. Here are my top 10 favorite films of 2016 in reverse order:
10. The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s raw, slice of reality, a portrait of lives on the edge set in and around a Kissimmee hotel was a terrific follow up to his breakthrough movie Tangerine. Both films are clearly the work of the same artistic voice, but couldn’t be more different.
Again using a largely non-professional cast, Baker’s latest film was about a young single mother and her daughter. Bria Vinaite is brilliant as the mother hustling to make rent on the motel room that is her home, Brooklynn Prince is sensational as her daughter. Rather than being depressing, the film finds joy and humour by seeing the situation from the point of view of the child. Willem Dafoe gives an understated and affecting performance as the Motel manager.
It’s a wonderful movie, although rambling and apparently plotless, it builds up a huge emotional charge which Baker uses to detonate your heart in the final scenes.
9. Call Me by Your Name
Perhaps the best thing about Luca Guadagnino’s glorious film (from a James Ivory screenplay) is that it doesn’t feel like a ‘gay’ romance, but simply a romance. No film this year has captured the intoxicating feeling of falling in love as well as this.
Set in Italy in the nineteen-eighties, seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls head over heels for an older visiting American Oliver (one-man Abercrombie & Fitch summer ad campaign Armie Hammer). The film has such a hazy, sun-drenched atmosphere that it isn’t until very late on that you realise you are watching some kind of masterpiece, just when it rips your heart out.
While Hammer is extremely well cast in this, it is Chalamet who really impresses, brilliantly capturing a teenager at the point where his sexual and personal identity is fluid. Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father gives one of the most impressive supporting performances of the year.
It’s a film you just want to elope with.
8. Lady Macbeth
William Oldroyd’s period drama finds a young woman (Florence Pugh) trapped in a loveless marriage to a cold older man finding sexual release and personal freedom when he leaves the home for an extended period. There are complications, however, on his return.
There is a Kubrickian horror lurking in every perfectly composed but slightly off-center shot composition of Lady Macbeth. A mean, malevolent but very low key thriller that blows the British period drama genre to pieces. Pugh delivers on the promise she showed in Carol Morley’s The Falling and is clearly one of Britain’s most exciting young actors.
Katheryn Bigelow again demonstrates her absolute mastery of the thriller genre with an unbearably tense film about the 1967 Detroit race riots, focussed on an incident where racist police officers terrorised the largely African American occupants of a motel. The middle section of the film, plays like a home invasion horror film, a racially charged Straw Dogs. It is almost unbearable to watch. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Will Poulter as the lead racist cop is genuinely terrifying.
Detroit was not a hit, while clearly a liberal film, it is pitiless in its outlook and its pessimism. While it takes place in the 60s, it is clearly a film about Trump’s America, and one with no time for comforting platitudes. Most liberal filmgoers like crusading films to make them feel better about themselves and validate their life choices. Detroit absolutely does not play that game.
Easily the best example of blockbuster cinema this year, Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary war film examined a pivotal event in the history of the second world war, the evacuation of the stranded British Army from the French harbour town of Dunkirk in 1940.
Nolan uses three different timeframes to portray his story, the soldiers on the beach during their days trapped there, the largely civilian boat crews crossing the channel to evacuate them, and two RAF pilots racing across the sea to engage the Luftwaffe over a matter of hours. These three stories, land, sea, and air intersect with each other leading to a point where they conjoin. It is a typically tricky and cerebral approach from Nolan, and he uses minimal dialogue to tell it.
Dunkirk felt like an art movie in its ambitions but was a true blockbuster in scale, and for all its intellectual rigour it packed a powerful emotional wallop and was anything but the flag waving, pro-Brexit propaganda some agenda-led critics claimed it to be.
Barry Jenkins masterful indie romance feels like a 2016 film, especially after the Oscars controversy guff, but it was actually released in the UK in February 2017. So it’s in.
Moonlight is a marvel, using three characters to portray the damaged life of a young African American man from childhood to adulthood and his struggle with his queer sexuality. Moonlight was far less concerned with sex than with sexual identity, while Call Me By Your Name felt universal, perhaps because of its extra racial aspect Moonlight felt daring in a different way. Both films, however, are tender and empathic, but Moonlight’s Kevin has a far tougher life than Call Me By Your Name’s Elio.
All three actors who play the protagonist are outstanding, Jaden Piner as a nine-year-old, Jharrel Jerome at 16, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult Kevin, now reinvented as a fearsome gangster called ‘Black’. Terrific support from Mahershala Ali as the young boy’s first role model, a drug dealer who somehow recognises his nature before he does and accepts him (in a noncreepy way), and Naomie Harris as the boy’s drug addict mother.
A ravishingly beautiful and soulful film.
Darren Aronofsky’s films are always divisive affairs, but mother! took this to new heights, enraging many whilst delighting a few. It didn’t really help that the film’s (brilliant) marketing campaign deliberately mis-sold it as a home invasion horror film so effectively that some people claimed it to be spoiled. Audiences were completely unprepared for the high-minded (yes even pretentious) film Aronofsky delivered, and they certainly weren’t down with the utterly nightmarish left turn it takes in its second half.
mother! appears to be about a middle-aged poet (Javier Barden) living in idyllic isolation with his young bride (Jennifer Lawrence) in a large house she is renovating. Their domestic paradise is disturbed by the sudden arrival of a doctor (Ed Harris), then later his wife (Michelle Pfiefer) and then their entire family.
To say more would be to give away too much (even though you probably all know where it goes by now), but suffice to say a jolly domestic farce it is not.
mother! became a hockey puck batted around critics, many adored it, a few hated it. But audiences were largely repulsed.
3. Manchester by the Sea
Another of those films that came out in 2016 everywhere, but 2017 in the UK. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is a quiet masterpiece about damaged people, guilt, and grief.
Casey Affleck (more in a minute) plays Lee, an introverted man prone to sudden frightening bouts of rage. Lee is called back to his hometown by the sudden unexpected death of bother and discovers that his will places his teenage nephew in his care. Through their spiky relationship, we learn of the tragedy that has cause Lee to shut himself off from his family and flee his hometown.
Manchester by the Sea is another film from this year’s crop that is made with tremendous empathy for characters existing on society’s fringes. However, it is also a movie that has the courage to admit that some broken people cannot be fixed.
Affleck won an Oscar for his performance, and he rips your heart out in this. However, despite its chilly setting and tragic plot, Manchester by the Sea is also full of mordant wit and humour.
2. Personal Shopper
I find Kristen Stewart to be an endlessly fascinating screen presence. I could happily just look at her face for several hours as emotions play across it like the shadows of clouds over some forbidding moor. She is the sort of actor that inspires such purple prose, of course whenever you post anything like that you immediately get a number of variations of ‘face like a slapped arse’ as a comeback. Whatever, knock yourself out watching The Rock if you are that way inclined.
In Olivier Assayas’ paranormal drama Stewart plays Maureen, an American working as a clothes buyer in Paris for an odious over-privileged model. It is a job she hates, but she can’t leave the city as her twin brother has recently died and she is waiting for him to make good on a childhood promise that whichever of them died first would contact the other from beyond the grave. Like her twin, Maureen is a medium, but one who is sceptical about the afterlife.
Assayas is a fascinating director, and Personal Shopper is one of his most intriguing films. It initially appears to be a simple character drama with paranormal elements but suddenly turns into a mystery thriller when Maureen begins receiving text messages from an unlisted number. This leads to one of the scariest scenes in any film this year.
1. A Ghost Story
So my top two films of 2017 are both ghost stories, but neither are horror films. David Lowery’s astonishing A Ghost Story has even fewer genre elements that Personal Shopper and is based on a conceit that sounds incredibly twee on paper.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are a young married couple who suffer a tragedy when [SPOILER] he is killed in a car accident. This happens early in the film, and then Affleck becomes a ghost, shrouded in a simple sheet with eyeholes cut in it, like a child’s Halloween costume. Affleck becomes a silent observer of his wife’s grief, unable to interact with her in any way.
This is merely the jumping off point for a film that begins as the most minimal of dramas leading to a natural conclusion about halfway through the movie. Lowery then takes the audience on a journey that becomes quietly epic in its scope.
Despite being draped head to toe in a sheet, and being unable to talk, Affleck still brings a presence to his role (despite rumours that it was mostly a stand-in under there, this was only for a few reshoots). Rooney Mara is terrific in her role, in one of the film’s most discussed scenes a well-wisher leaves her a chocolate pie following the funeral. In a single unbroken take, Mara simply eats the entire pie. The scene is a masterclass in portraying the complexity of grief.
A Ghost Story sounds heavy, and I can’t argue that many people have complained that it is dour and depressing. All I can say is, they are wrong. This is ultimately a film that shows how we are mere specks in a vast and wondrous universe.