Jan 28, 2018

Favourite Films of 2017

The best film I saw in 2017 was one I saw right near the beginning of the year. That film was the memorable and truly moving Moonlight. It was a beautiful, gentle, emotionally powerful film about coming of age and coming out. Great performances matched by stunning photography. It would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, a win truly deserved. Other films I was moved by were the beautifully observed Manchester By the Sea and A Ghost Story. And Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk proved that big budget films could also be emotionally strong and intelligent. My greatest joy in film last year would have to be 20th Century Women, a strong favourite of mine that I believe should have received more acclaim. Two other films that I totally enjoyed, but just missed out on my top ten, were Baby Driver and Get Out. 
1. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins.
Moonlight is subtle greatness and heartbreaking reality. It is tender, raw, emotional and completely essential. Trust me, this slow burn of a film is a solid and stark reminder of the reason cinema exists. Set in a poor housing estate area of Miami the film is told in three parts as we follow two young men at three stages of their lives. Chiron is picked on by bullies from a young age. His mother is addicted to drugs and he is already questioning his own sexuality. He is befriended by Juan, a drug dealer who tries to give him some direction in life. His best friend Kevin is his true ally. As Chiron and Kevin grow older we follow their struggles and their conflicts. Everything in this film is first rate. Acting is nuanced and heady, music is delicate and effective, cinematography is understated and yet glorious. It deals with finding a place in the world for yourself, overcoming your fears and standing up for yourself. It is incredibly subtle and this only makes the impact even greater. This film is grace and heart personified.

2. Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to a masterpiece that holds its own in every single way possible. It is a visual masterpiece that is startling in its design and unique in its execution. It is unlike any film that you will see this year. The first Blade Runner was a Ridley Scott classic, a brave original that has stood the test of time. This sequel takes place in Los Angeles in 2049. The city has become even more doom laden, miles of grey skyscrapers beaten down by seemingly terminal rain. The city has been become a mixture of strange pleasure and stark desperation with replicants seemingly around every corner. Blade Runners are, in this edition, tracking down the previous replicants that have 'gone rogue' Ryan Gosling plays one of the very Blade Runners. His journey is deep into the heart of this society, encountering opposition at every turn and also discovering secrets about his very life. It's a long film that moves slowly but the visuals are so bewildering that it never overstays its welcome. Roger Deakins' cinematography is beyond perfection and Denis Villeneuve proves again that he is an extraordinary director. His use of sound is a trademark of his films and the sound here is outstanding as is the doom laden soundtrack. Gosling is superb as the stoic lead and there are very strong female performances at every turn. It is a complex dark film that is not one for a 'fun' afternoon at the cinema. At times the story is obtuse and convoluted but it's such an exactingly exhilarating ride that I was there for every single moment.
3. 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills.
20th Century Women is quite simply a very special film. It it teeming with humanity and honesty, filled with beautiful observation and endearing humour. Mike Mils has created a film that is warm and glowing, he is clearly in love with characters. Set in 1979 Santa Barbara it is clearly a strong portrayal of a group of women with different challenges and struggles and how they deal with them. The cast is uniformly excellent with Annette Bening especially strong as the central character Dorothea, a divorced mother trying to figure out the best way to raise her teenage son. Surrounded by other strong women this film is a very honest portrait of the female place in the world. Beautiful dialogue is matched by a great soundtrack that totally captures the times of the film. I wish more were like this, concentrating solely on the human drama of life. With great writing and acting this film pushes all the right buttons.

4. Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan.
Dunkirk is a supreme cinematic achievement, a spectacular film. Intense, relentless and powerful. Christopher Nolan has created a film that will hit you hard and often. The remarkable and true story of the the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 is told with clarity and high craft. It is certainly Nolan's take on the war genre, with focus on the stakes at hand rather then long drawn out character development. There are three strands to the film. Basically land, sea and air told in a non-linear fashion that works seamlessly. There is no fat on the film, we step straight into the action as every bullet, bomb and air raid is felt. It's about survival and anxiety and Nolan manages to have that feeling infused through out the film. We know the outcome through history and yet each second and minute is brimful of tension and drama. The lead actors are newcomers and they do a fine job and the cinematography is spectacular. But the true star is the flawless score by Hans Zimmer. Its syncopated beat just adds to the tension and drama, delivering consistently through out the film. Dunkirk is a fine addition to the canon of great war films.

5. Manchester By the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Manchester by the Sea is exemplary cinema, an impressive masterclass in the skills of directing, writing and acting. It is sad, humane, emotional and totally devoid of artifice. It is essentially about dealing with grief and adapting to the changes life can wrought upon you. Casey Affleck is remarkable as the man who tragically loses his brother and is forced to look at his life and engage in his past. Set in seaside Massachusetts this is a slow burning film that hums sweetly with life's challenges and pitfalls. There aren't big moments but things occur naturally reflecting life rather than sensational film tropes. Kenneth Lonergan is expert at capturing the foibles of life with realistic and bittersweet dialogue. Aided by a superb cast this film resonates in a huge way.

6. I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck.
I Am Not Your Negro is a blast of angry poetic air that is important, withering and extremely timely. James Baldwin was one of last century's most important writers and this powerful documentary uses his words to brilliant effect. Baldwin was working on a book about his times with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers at the time of his death. Unfinished, the producers managed to gain access to his words which are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson over images of Baldwin and the times he lived in. There are snippets of Baldwin public speaking and appearances on talk shows to boost the drama of his words. It all comes together with devastating effect, providing illumination on Baldwin's recollections and also his thoughts on race relations. Baldwin was an important figure alive and his words live on to be just as important in today's world.

7. A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery.
A Ghost Story is small wondrous film that is a contemplative look at the process of grief. It moves slowly, but it is fascinating and most certainly unique. There is tragedy early in this film and the film examines the process thereafter for the young couple involved. Using a ghost figure in a white sheet might seem strange but it is subtly effective and very rewarding. As sad, it moves slowly with shots hanging on for minutes of inaction but there is so much subtext that it really hits hard emotionally. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are their great selves conveying great emotion with little dialogue. A beautiful score just adds to the merit of this unique film.

8. Song to Song, directed by Terrence Malick.
Terrence Malick is truly a singular film maker. He has made some of the most astonishing films in cinema history. He is a private man who would take huge amounts of time to bring his films to life. Malick still remains private but he is now churning out films quite regularly. With sporadic results to be sure with his two previous films being seriously flawed but still fascinating. His 'latest' film was actually made 4 years ago but it took a while to go through post production. I think it was worth the wait. It is a compelling cinematic event that whilst still flawed is an enraptured and stunning film. There is no one working in cinema like Malick. His film are about image, mood, feeling and not based on traditional narrative or movie structure. I can understand this is frustrating for some people but I believe if you let yourself go for the ride it's a heady trip. Song to Song is set against the Austin music scene and we follow four main characters who are entangled in love and regret. We drift through their relationships and their bitter regrets. The music scene becomes secondary to the emotions of the main characters. It is a film suffused with sad beauty and raw emotion. It is a film of incredible beauty and impeccable design. It is film that is ultimately critical of the hedonistic lifestyle and questions the very reason why we love and how we live. A regular theme in Malick's work. It exists to show beauty in life but also the sadness and despair. He might polarize audiences but cinema would be a different and emptier experience without him.

9. The Big Sick, directed by Michael Showalter.
The Big Sick is a rarity in today's cinema. A genuinely funny comedy that is clever and doesn't resort to cliche. It is a little joy of a film that is totally satisfying. Whip smart comedian Kumail Nanjiani has written a film with his true life wife based on their courtship with basically Kumail playing himself. It's a unique journey as he battles the conflicts of love and family traditions. The humour is smart and gentle and there is romance there as well. The cast is great especially Romano and Hunter as the parents of his love interest. It's refreshing to enjoy a comedy has doesn't resort to the lowest common denominator. A total pleasure of a film.

10. Land of Mine, directed by Martin Zandvliet.
Gripping, essential film that deals wonderfully with the brutality of war. Set in Denmark at the end of the Second World War we follow young German prisoners of war that are ordered to remove landmines from the Danish coastline. This film is superbly acted and expertly maintains tension and drama through out. There is redemption and pathos on show with great effect, resulting in a work of great art and tremendous heart.


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