If cinema provided an honest – and immediate – reflection of our culture, 2017’s films might have been riddled with the kind of division, irrationality, attentionless and fear we see regularly on social and in the media. Fortunately, the year had a lot more to offer than twitter spats and warped identity politics (at least most of the time).
For British cinema-goers, 2017 began with the sparkling charm of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. A brightly dressed and entrancingly choreographed film to shine through in a crowded age of conveyor-belt blockbusters. The image of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling tapping their way across the purpling LA skyline – giving warm odes to Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, Singin’ in the Rain and more – is cinematic escapism at its whimsical best.
Chazelle’s willingness to pit love against the pursuit of one’s passion in La La Land meant not everyone accepted the film’s mutually appreciative finale. Had the film arrived at the exhausted backend of the year, those sick of the 2017’s regular stream of emotional blows may have responded with the same blistering criticism that greeted Darren Aronofsky’s Mother. A film that, I believe, was wrongly panned for being creatively daring and ambitious – two qualities we should encourage rather than dismiss as being pretentious.
Striving for Love
Conflicted love of a different kind was on display soon after in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. A coming-of-age tale that gave a style-drenched look at one young man’s struggle with his identity.
As well as being on the right end of a calamitous Oscar’s mix-up, Moonlight set a lofty standard for the year’s New Queer cinema. Call Me Your Name told a hampered love story against the enchanting backdrops of classicalism and rural France. Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, on the other hand, dealt with such issues in urbanised and machismo setting of Brooklyn, New York.
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country focused less on the difficulties of being openly homosexual – and more on an unlikely love-story born out of the bitterly cold and windy Yorkshire hills. A stirring (not just the pot noodles) film that was befitting of an impressive year in British cinema, which included the shining additions of The Party, Breathe, Their Finest and Paddington 2.
But the true jewels in the crowd came in the form of gripping family drama The Levelling and chillingly bloody period piece Lady MacBeth. With this, British audiences can celebrate the emergence of behind-the-camera talents like Hope Dickson Leach, Francis Lee and William Oldroyd.
Women Lead the Way
Pugh’s commanding lead performance in Lady MacBeth was typical of a year that women dominated – and excelled – on the big-screen. All in a year that horrifying Weinstein revelations came to light and rocked Hollywood.
Natalie Portman’s delicate portrayal of Jackie Kennedy would have been an Oscar shoe-in most years. Her scene discussing the purpose of life with John Hurt – who was one of the great actors 2017 sadly took away from us – provided one of 2017’s most tender moments.
Quirky Technicolour tale The Love Witch showcased impressive female talent as Samantha Robinson (another exciting breakout talent to watch out for in 2018) gave a unique lead performance to bring multi-talented director Anna Billier’s (whose fingerprints are on every frame of this delightful film) vision to life.
The ever-lovable Emma Stone won game, set and match in Battle of the Sexes. While female dominated casts shared flirtatious glances across the dinner table in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, let out honest confessions around the dinner table in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, shyly engaged in conversation at a diner in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, and drunkenly had fun in Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip.
Kristen Stewart, who was brilliant as an exhausted teacher in Certain Women, reunited with Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas for a fascinating Parisian thriller titled Personal Shopper. In a film of deepening intrigue, Stewart showed yet another level to her talent as she gifted us a stunning solitary lead performance. It will be exciting to see how Stewart (without Assayas) will try to top this exceptional work in 2018 and beyond.
Rooney Mara bravely took on the deeply troubling subject of paedophilia in Benedict Andrews’ Una. The actress played a troubled victim who finds herself in the confides of a labyrinthically warehouse with her abuser (played by Ben Mendelsohn).
Mara, who like Stewart can stake a claim for the best actor of the moment, also captivated in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story – a film of audacious concept and immaculate execution. Mara eating a pie for an unbroken four-minute shot – and remaining utterly captivating while doing so – says all you need to know about this meditative and ethereally beautiful work.
A Pile of Superheroes
In contrast to the quiet elegance of A Ghost Story, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins wowed audiences with their empowering film Wonder Woman. The film’s critical and financial success proved to any doubters that women – in front and behind the camera – can carry the weight of big blockbuster superheroes.
On the topic of superheroes, DC failed to live up to the hype (once again) with their woefully assembled movie Justice League. Despite having Batman, Wonder Woman and others at their disposal, DC’s Justice League was overshadowed by Marvel’s more light-hearted offerings of Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2.
Although none of them hit the (antithetically dark) comedic heights of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin and the exhilarating action of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, they all made for comforting popcorn preludes to 2018’s highly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War.
The pick of the superhero pile in 2017 might just have been James Mangold’s Logan, a John Wayne-worthy swansong for Hugh Jackman’s clawed cowboy Wolverine to stride into the sunset.
There was an unlikely hero to be found in German cinema this year. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, already set for an imminent US remake, presented almost three hours of ingenuously silly humour in a comedy that saw father (Peter Simonischek) make bumbling attempts to reconnect with his daughter (Sandra Hüller).
There was family turmoil in greater and darker proportions across European cinema with Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Killing of a Sacred Dear, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World. Perhaps a reflection of Europe’s post-Brexit family fractures, a union going through a drawn out and messy divorce.
Julia Ducouranu’s genre-blending Raw continued this theme with delicious style and Cronenberg-esque body horror. Not to forget, Garance Marillier’s transformative lead performance – one that places her alongside co-star Ella Rumpf and The Graduations’ Maria-Victoria Dragus as Europe’s finest upcoming stars.
Pain, loss and Instagram
Fractured families were also a focus in American cinema. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, set in a frozen Boston suburb, showed a man (played expertly by Casey Affleck) whose emotions had fallen dormant following an unimaginably tragic family incident.
Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River also took to snowy weather to tell the thrilling and tragic story of murder on an Indian Reservation. Sheridan, once again telling stories with reference to the Native’s plight, reaffirmed his storytelling talents after his notably successes on Sicario and Hell or High Water.
The Florida Project, directed by the outstanding Sean Baker, portrayed a poverty-stricken, single-mother family struggling to get by living in a motel. Seen through the wondrous, innocent eyes of our young protagonist (the faultless Brooklynn Prince) this film served up simple truths and poetic beauties. The triumph of Instagram star Bria Vinaite demonstrated (thanks to Baker’s inventive casting) that there is good to be found in our social media distraction world.
Like Michael Almereyda’s stimulating futurist drama Marjorie Prime, Blade Runner 2049 – the eagerly awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic – engaged with themes of family, legacy and memories. Director Denis Villenueve, aided by a well-measured lead performance from Ryan Gosling, came through with an engulfing sequel to satisfy our sci-fi needs in a way that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets unfortunately did not.
Blade Runner’s return was not the only familiar feeling we had in 2017. Power Rangers, Baywatch, The Mummy, Transformers, Jumanji, Chips, Trainspotting, Ghost in a Shell, Kong: Skull Island and xxx3 (the list could go on) all relied on nostalgia and familiarity – but still fell disappoint short. Most were ill-conceived, leaned on loud pomposity, and appealed to cheap base emotions – a bit like a hastily put together Donald Trump tweet.
Of the déjà vu bunch, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and the final instalment of the Planet of the Apes series were the only with enough redeemable qualities to pass. Star Wars: The Last Jedi managed to do something few big franchise films bother to do anymore: keep us guessing. Even still, it ended up dividing opinion for daring to do so.
Christopher Nolan took us back to 50s-like war movies with his bloodless – yet technically faultless – 70mm film Dunkirk. It also marked the on-screen debut for Harry Styles, a name we will surely see plastered on the marquee again in the future.
Fighting Fake News
In a stellar year for documentaries, Brett Morgen gave us a definitive take on Jane Goodall’s remarkable life. With a stroke of luck, Bryan Fogel’s Icarus amazingly uncovered corruption in Russian sport and government. Emer Reynolds took us to the edge of our solar system with her easily accessible science documentary The Farthest.
At the pinnacle of this line-up was a truly brave piece of filmmaking from Matthew Heineman. His film, City of Ghosts, took us to the doorstep of ISIS, risking life and limb in the name of true journalism – a rare notion in a culture under attack from a fast-spreading fake news rash.
In a year that travel bans sparked outrage, Raoul Peck’s I am Not Your Negro brilliantly chronicled the Civil Rights movement, reminding us of the long-standing racial tensions that are still pressing in our ever-volatile world.
That being said, not many of us could have imagined a horror film would provide 2017’s most cutting perspective on issues of race. Especially a horror that does not forget to satisfy all of our genre-needs.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out stands above the frequent clown jump scares of IT, the tension-racking slow crawling camera of Ben Young’s Hounds of Love and James McAvoy’s brilliant multi-persona performance in Split as the very best in the horror stakes. And still, the film speaks to racial tensions on similar level (albeit with starkly different approaches) to haunting scars on display in Dee Rees’ Mudbound, the desperate stagnation of Denzel Washington’s Fences and the relentless pain of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
Above all else, Get Out acts as an example of the power and joy original cinema can bring. The type of creative filmmaker that gave us the thrill-ride of Baby Driver, the flickering animation of Loving Vincent, the relentless excitement of Good Time, the huddling romance of Gods Own Country, the arm-biting craziness of Raw, the thoughtful bed-sheet ghost reflections of A Ghost Story, the seat-fidgeting paranoia of Personal Shopper and swirling aesthetics of La La Land.
I hope for more of the same in 2018. I have a feeling we may need the distraction.
3rd – Stroller Encounter (Manchester by the Sea)
2nd – Pie (A Ghost Story)
1st – Lovely Night (La La Land)
3rd – Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
2nd – Garance Marillier (Raw)
1st – Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper)
3rd – Blade Runner 2049
2nd – The Florida Project
1st – La La Land