We are well into the global film awards season now and the new year is nearly a month old, however I thought I would compile my favourite films of last year. I’ve done this for the past few years, and 2017 was no exception. The criteria is pretty simple. The films listed has a UK release date between 1st January and 31st December 2017, and they are only films I have had the chance to see. There may be other hidden gems out there, but my work-life balance means that I cannot see everything that comes out in the cinema. So in reverse order…
10. Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Loving tells the story of an American couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, who were instrumental in the case that overturned state laws that outlawed interracial marriage (see the 1967 US Supreme Court decision, Loving V. Virginia). The film turns the focus towards the marriage between Richard and Mildred, rather than on the procedural court battle which took place during the mid-1960s. Joel Edgerton’s, who plays Richard, and Ruth Negga’s, portraying Mildred, acting stands out in this romantic period piece. Dynamic and subtle, the exasperation Edgerton and Negga display at just wanting to live their lives against the political backdrop of the court case shines through in the faces of both actors. This is also reflected, I feel, through the lack of dialogue and the quietness of scene set pieces. An excellent addition to a recent canon of film that has depicted important moments in the Civil Rights Movement and social change of 1960s America (Selma, 2015; Freedom Summer, 2014; Detroit, 2017).
9. Fences (dir. Denzel Washington)
Denzel Washington received a Best Actor nomination recently for his role in the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq, however earlier in the year he directed this film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning stage play. Viola Davis deservedly picked up the Best Supporting Actress award at the 89th Academy Awards for her role as Rose Lee Maxson, wife of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), though in my view should have been in the Best Actress category. Accolades aside, Fences takes us to a working-class neighbourhood in 1950s Pittsburgh, where Troy has reached a point in his life where he questions the decisions he has made. Rueing his own inability to become a national baseball star (integration of black athletes into the sport came too late for Troy), his acrimonious relationship with his son Cory, infringes on Cory’s attempts to make the big leagues of college football. The film very much retains that feel of a stage play in its structure, but this is not to its detriment at all. It transfers to the silver screen well, and the tension that builds throughout sets the film up well for some unexpected interjections in plot.
8. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
Other reviews have contributed some mixed thoughts on The Death of Stalin. Some flagged up how it was less comical than it was dark and bleak, while others praised its writing and acting. And this week, officials pulled the premiere of the film in Russia amidst concerns over its content and satirical depiction of political figures, citing also that the release coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. When I went to see The Death of Stalin, I went into it feeling well versed in Iannucci’s brand of comedy (loved The Thick of It, and still find Alan Partridge funny decades later). It seems that my other cinema-goers in the screening did too and there was that feeling that we are all laughing along together at the same gags and scenes. I felt that it was well-paced, carefully researched, and slickly satirical. The darker undertones did catch my attention, and it made me wonder why this episode in recent history had not been dealt with on screen in such a way before now.
7. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
Get Out has received awards recognition this season, and rightly so. I watched a screening of Get Out while I was on a research trip to Seattle, back in the Spring of 2017. Horror is not a genre I am particularly drawn too, but on a Saturday afternoon when the archives were closed, I thought I would give it a go. At pretty much the same time a year earlier, on my first archival visit to Seattle, I had the exact same thought process as saw the brilliant Green Room. History repeated itself. Get Out, which follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, visiting the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) at their family home. This racial-horror does not take long to turn absurd and creepy as a series of events unfold in which race is thrust fore and center. The film is smart in its plot, and is chilling to watch. As good horror does, it tests our psychological reaction to the human condition from beginning to end. Tense is an apt word to choose if asked to sum up the film in one word.
6. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
I went to the cinema to see Manchester By The Sea a couple of times when it came out in the UK early last year. I have a soft spot for films which hone in on small-town America. There is something about the setting and the people who inhabit these towns and communities which reveal a lot about the American experience. Set in a sleepy Massachusetts coastal village, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has his remit of responsibilities increased suddenly when his brother dies of cardiac arrest, and Lee becomes the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Manchester by the Sea deals with a multitude of topics in one go – grief, loss, growing up, blue-collar life, and purgatory. I recall at the time of its release, and subsequent awards nominations for last season’s ceremonies, there was a lot of talk around Casey Affleck. However, its Lucas Hedges who is the real acting talent in this film. Lonergan brings out the best in Hedges, and the film benefits from strong character development and use of flashbacks. By no means a uplifting watch, but certainly a terrific piece of American cinema.
5. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)
When it comes to films falling unduly under the radar, 20th Century Women tops the 2017 list. Annette Benning stars as Dorothea Fields a fifty-something single mother, raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in Southern California, amidst the backdrop of 1979. She’s aided in her task by Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited photographer, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and neighbour. Dorothea, by being in the company of both Abbie and Julie reflects on her own life, as she tries her upmost to guide Jamie through his adolescent years, in a household often devoid of male role models. There is a richness to the film which comes through from a combination of attention-to-detail setting and costume, natural performances, and a relatable story of parenthood and growing-up. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film is ‘a tribute to all mothers, all parents and guardians, all homemakers in the specific and general senses, as more than mere protectors and sustainers—as creators.’ He’s spot on, and nothing sums that up more than the scene in which Benning’s Dorothea remarks to Abbie that she gets to see Jamie ‘out in the world, as a real person,’ whereas Dorothea says she ‘never will’ as his mother. It’s a powerful moment in the film as Dorothea sees a photograph of Jamie, enjoying himself with friends on a night out, in a situation in which a mother would never be present.
20th Century Women is cleverly posited in the 1979. The cast of characters together cover a large part of the twentieth-century (and beyond) in their lifespans. 1979 is a year in which the recent past of 1960s counterculture, the Vietnam War, and political scandal are still in the memory, but it is also a moment in which the world stands on the precipice of an overwhelming cultural, social, and political evolution to come – the Reagan years, the birth of the internet, the end of a looming possibility of nuclear war, and the reality of HIV/AIDS. President Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech never sounded so right and so apt, and its inclusion in the film made me feel that Carter was very much a President before his time. Despite all of the political and world affairs, 20th Century Women reminds us that the hand of motherhood transcends all of those years and events.
4. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Moonlight will perhaps be remembered as the film that came out victorious following the confusion surrounding the awarding of Best Picture at the 2017 Oscar ceremony. But it ought to be remembered as a bittersweet coming-of-age story for the decades. Heralded by some as a masterpiece, Moonlight follows Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami, through three stages of his life – a child, a teenager, and an adult. The film grapples with themes of love, lack of a father figure, and survival. In writing this review I was at pains to sum up the crucial role in the film of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer and male role model in Chiron’s life, succinctly for the shortness of this synopsis. But as A.O. Scott of the New York Times deftly put it, Juan ‘evokes clichés of African-American masculinity in order to shatter them.’ I watched Moonlight whilst I was on a transatlantic flight and found it to be deeply moving, despite my state of mild disorientation and tiredness. I need to re-watch it as it’s a film which deserves multiple viewings.
3. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Like with Get Out and the horror genre, I am also not a frequent viewer of war dramas. World War II, and specifically the evacuation of Dunkirk is a well-trodden topic in film and television. However, in this skilfully arranged offering, Nolan weaves the timelines of three sets of characters involved in various, yet interrelated, perilous situations of the Allied evacuation. ‘One week’ follows a group of British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) awaiting the arrival of the Royal Navy to take them to safety. ‘One day’ tells the story of the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk, the weekend sailors who aided the exodus, and centres on Mr Dawson’s pitch to bring the stranded soldiers home, with superb acting by Mark Rylance at the helm. ‘One hour’ charts the efforts of a clutch of Spitfire pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) who sought to keep the rescue ships safe from the skies above. Time is an oft-used concept by Nolan in his films, and here he expertly crafts a series of narratives into a broader one of survival and impending fear. Dunkirk is a war film, but it is also a drama hinged on suspense and tension.
2. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
A quarter of a century after the release of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, and 30 years on from the events of that film, Blade Runner 2049, follows K (Ryan Gosling) a blade runner who discovers evidence that could plunge an already upended society into further strife and war. The film returns us to a dystopian Los Angeles and expands on an already rich and curious universe which had been mapped out in the original Blade Runner. Like the Deckard of 2019 (i.e. the 1982 film), Gosling’s K too is an enigma, and a subtle commentary on the relationship between human, replicant, and in this installment, artificial intelligence too. The media reporting surrounding Blade Runner 2049 had a tone of the anti-climax to it – a big budget film which disappointed at the box office. However, the events that accompanied Blade Runner 2049 mirror that of its predecessor, which was considered a flop at the time. Similarly though, both stand as terrific stalwarts of the sci-fi genre. Blade Runner went on to garner acclaim and a devoted cult folling. Blade Runner 2049 meanwhile is an intelligent blockbuster, which for me, completely immerses the viewer in a new episode of futuristic noir.
One final point which ought to be said is that cinematographer Roger Deakins has crafted another visual delight. The city streets of dystopian Los Angeles, flooded with rain, really feel dinghy and ominous. The vibrancy of the neon signs and life-like projections are spellbinding. When K ends up in a Las Vegas that has been reclaimed by the desert, the eeriness of its emptiness gives the film a rich texture. Deakins, for me at least, has cemented his place as the most important cinematographer of today and the recent past. He should have picked up an Oscar for Sicario (2015), and for No Country for Old Men (2007), and for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)… the list goes on. Hopefully the Academy will rectify those oversights this time around.
1. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
What is there left to say about La La Land which has not already been said by everyone else? It’s quite simply a love-letter to the musical genre of Hollywood of yesteryear. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling captivate from the very first scenes as Mia and Sebastian. I remember sitting in a screening of La La Land back in January 2017 with a tinge of anticipation. So much had been billed for this film and would it live up to its ordained benchmark? I knew from the moment the last commanding note of the ‘Another Day of Sun’ dance number on a Los Angeles freeway sounded that what I was about to see was going to be great. Chazelle et. al had me hook, line, and sinker there on in. It’s story and themes are nothing truly original, but they are told perfectly. La La Land indulges in the historic adage that Los Angeles is a city for the dreamers and the failures, the go-getters and the re-inventers. Wrapping up that familiar message in musical form works well here.
One of my favourite scenes is the one which brings Mia and Sebastian together on the heights above Tinseltown as the sun is setting. Everything that this film oozes – love, promise, throwing back to the Astaire/Rogers era, the intimacy of the moment – is brought together in this one scene. Yes, the singing and the dancing is not perfect, but who cares? That’s the whole point of the film – nobody is perfect, and everyone has their flaws. I’m beginning to lose count of the amount of times I have watched this film now, at least five times in the cinema and many more at home. This one will be up there leading the pack of films that defined the 2010s no doubt. ‘Here’s to the one’s who dream.’
And there you have it. My subjective top ten list of films that I watched in 2017. I did not have room for some other films which I enjoyed, such as Wind River, or Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. I did manage to steer clear of some of the clunkers though (Paris Can Wait, and The Circle). Until next time, I’ll end with a link to the La La Land soundtrack on Spotify. Enjoy!