Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2017

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  The time that I point out that this list includes films from 2016 that I saw in the cinema in 2017 so they totally count, and also there are a bunch I didn't get round to so don't complain about the lack of Get Out, The Florida Project, The Big Sick, It, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Wonder Woman etc.

10. The Night is Short, Walk On Girl (dir. Masaaki Yuasa)

Cinema is a great medium for getting across the atmosphere of going on the lash.  And a particularly good example of how a wild night out can feel like the most glorious nonsense is this piece of glorious nonsense. 
   It’s at heart a straightforward tale – a university student has been at a wedding reception and decides to turn her evening out into a full-on epic drinking session across Kyoto.  Also at said reception is her classmate, who’s been infatuated with her and has decided that tonight’s the night to confess his feelings.  So he now finds himself trying to keep up with her across the city – across a festival, book fair, acting in a pop-up guerrilla play and more.
   The film captures the anything-can-happen spirit of a night on the tiles perfectly, helped along by an incredibly distinctive art style that comes across as the midpoint between anime and bande dessinée, allowing for the switches from semi-realism to full-on oddness to flow naturally.
   It does take a little while to find its groove, but by the end all the bizarre subplots mesh together beautifully, calling to mind Satoshi Kon’s classic Tokyo Godfathers as the spirit of the city at night makes improbable coincidences possible.  Just like a good night out.

9. Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi)

This is one of those feelgood dramas that scream “award bait!”, that if they weren’t based on a true story you’d dismiss as inherently ridiculous.  The story of three black women working at NASA in the early ‘60s and how they proved indispensable for the space programme, it’s one of those films that you can pretty much guess how each scene is going to go.  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter.  It’s hugely entertaining, sometimes infuriating, beautifully acted and slyly witty.  And if there’s one year that needed a film that might as well be called Black Women Being Awesome, it’s 2017.

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)

The Force Awakens was terrific fun.  But, as I opined two years ago, it was also essentially a remake of the first Star Wars.  Happily, the leftfield appointment of Brick and Looper director Rian Johnson to helm the follow-up (making him the only person outside of George Lucas to retain sole writer-and-director credit of a Star Wars film, fact fans) produced a film that was almost manically determined not to retread old ground.
   Since it’s still quite a recent release, I don’t want to dig too deep into plot details, but a lot of my enjoyment came from its gleeful upending of Star Wars tropes.  Between them, Poe’s actions and the character of Benicio del Toro’s criminal pointed out the flaws in the Han Solo character archetype.  Then the two most uninteresting parts of the new trilogy’s slightly forced mythmaking – 1) What Is Rey’s Ever-So-Mysterious Parentage and 2) Whoever Could This Supreme Leader Snoke Chappy Be Beyond “The Emperor, But Andy Serkis”? – were given the shortest of shrifts that they deserved.  The result was something that’s become distressingly rare – a big tentpole blockbuster movie that actually felt like a movie in its own right, one where anything could happen and long-term plans were chucked in favour of forging a proper narrative and artistic integrity, rather than an extended trailer for the next big tentpole blockbuster movie.
   It didn’t hurt that it was easily the most beautiful instalment of the Star Wars franchise either – the scenes on the planet Crait, where a thin layer of salt covers a bright red crystalline rockbed, have deservedly featured heavily in the marketing, but Johnson’s an absolute master of getting light at the right angle.  There’s a shot of Mark Hamill with a sunset to his left that illuminates his eyes in such a jawdropping way that it might be my single favourite piece of cinema this year.

7. The Limehouse Golem (dir. Juan Carlos Medina)

A pleasingly old-fashioned thriller (see also My Cousin Rachel, which almost made it onto this list), this adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 crime novel sees  Scotland Yard inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) investigating a serial killer dubbed the “Limehouse Golem”.  When music-hall star Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is arrested for poisoning her husband, Kildare starts to suspect that said dead husband was the Golem and races to prove it and simultaneously acquit Elizabeth before she is hanged.
   Tapping into a rich seam of penny dreadful ambience, it’s a hugely atmospheric movie anchored by two standout performances – Douglas Booth, who I’ve only ever seen playing vacant posh boys, is excellent as real-life music-hall star Dan Leno, providing a sort-of narrative backdrop to the tale, but the real star is Cooke, turning in one of the performances of the year.  I’d say watch out for her, but she’s already the female lead in a forthcoming Spielberg – Ready Player One, to be precise – so she’s going to be big news quite soon.  And she thoroughly deserves it.

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)

None-more-New-Zealandy writer/director/actor Waititi has had quite a year.  He got chucked the job of coming up with a Thor movie that people would actually remember a year down the line (no offense to those who worked on the first two enjoyable-but-instantly-forgettable efforts) and came up with a very, very funny comedy/homage to ridiculous low-budget ‘80s Saturday morning cartoons disguised as a superhero movie that featured Jeff Goldblum at levels of Jeff Goldblumminess hitherto unseen by mortal eyes.  And in casting himself as a genial rock monster, gave himself a great wank joke and the immortal line “PISS OFF, GHOST!” as a bonus.  But that film is not on this list.  Because I saw his film from last year in the cinemas in January so it counts for my 2017 film list. 
   The tale of moderately-wild-child orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) who is adopted by rural couple Hec (Sam Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata), only for tragedy, accident and misunderstanding to result in Ricky and Hec being mistaken for fugitives, ending up in a national manhunt.  More comedy than drama (though the drama bits are excellently done), it’s a funny and touching tale with some deceptively clever moments of cinematography (the “time passing” montages in a single tracking shot are genius) and Dennison is a heck of a find.  (Pun slightly intended.)

5. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)

It’s a cannibal film.  But it’s French, so it’s a sexy cannibal film because of course it is they’re French.  Although, honestly, “sexy” doesn’t quite get it right – it’s a deeply sensuous film.  It’s the tale of introvert and strict vegetarian Justine (the quite brilliant Garance Marillier), who is starting university away from her smothering parents – specifically, the same veterinarian school her elder sister Alexia (the equally fantastic Ella Rumpf) attends.  As part of an unexpectedly vicious round of hazing rituals, she’s required to eat a raw rabbit’s kidney.  Her reluctant consumption of it initially brings on disgust, then an allergic reaction – then an ever-more-thrumming craving for meat.
   As I ruminated a few years back with regard to Blue is the Warmest Colour, there’s nobody quite like the French for luxuriating in the pleasures of food.  Raw’s a film all about the textures of things, how something feels when you hold it in your hand.  Then put it in your mouth.  Even if it’s a severed finger.  It probably should be off-putting, but the only bit that disgusted me was when Justine was throwing up hair (an unfortunate side-effect of her habit of chewing her forelocks, an early indication of where her tastes will take her).  The stunning cinematography helps here, making the rather bland brutalist school grounds look remarkable through gorgeous lighting and lingering close-ups.  Basically, it’s the most beautiful film about cannibals you’re likely to see.  Sensuous is definitely the word.

4. Moana (dirs. Ron Clements & John Musker)

There’s nothing quite like a good Disney film.  That piquant brew of adventure and safety, delivered with beautiful images and brilliant music, that makes you feel nostalgic and seven years old even if you’re in your thirties.  And Clements & Musker are pretty much the modern-day masters of the form, having given us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules on the trot.  And even their relative failures (Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog) still have plenty to recommend.  So their first attempt at a CG feature certainly sounded intriguing.  And certainly delivered.
   The titular Moana is a chieftain’s daughter, drawn to the ocean despite the fact her father has forbidden long voyages.  Events conspire to send her off in a one-woman boat to find demigod Maui and deliver an island goddess’ heart back to her.  It’s a pretty straightforward story (albeit with a brilliant twist at the end), which I suspect was deliberate to allow the majority of the audience to catch up with a relatively unfamiliar Polynesian setting.  It looks, of course, spectacular (this is one CG film where CG is actually necessary to get the best result across, thanks to the watery setting), the songs by wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda are joyous, the cast are brilliant (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, in the title role, is a real find) and it has a scene where a giant crab voiced by Jemaine Clement sings a glam rock song that utilises Clement’s famed David Bowie impression to its utmost.  What more do you want?

3. Logan (dir. James Mangold)

I’m not sure about the recently-announced takeover of Fox by Disney – because in the last couple of years, Fox has taken the Marvel Cinematic Universe model and absolutely run rings around Marvel’s efforts.  An MCU product will almost certainly be hugely entertaining, but it will also likely be largely interchangeable, to the point where it feels like you’re watching a series of feature-length episodes of the same TV show.  Meanwhile, since 2016 we’ve had three X-Men movies and two TV shows, each of which are entirely distinctive from each other – traditional superheroics in X-Men: Apocalypse, meta-black-comedy in Deadpool, 70s-flavoured freakouts in Legion, fugitive thriller in The Gifted and this third and final Wolverine movie, which is a Western without the hats.
   Logan could quite easily have gone spectacularly wrong.  Pushing the violence and language into 15-rated territory could have come across as trying too hard and setting it in a mutant-free future could have been overly depressing.  But it’s elegiac rather than maudlin, brutal rather than immature.  It’s an elegant farewell for the figure that arguably launched the superhero cinema that dominates today, an excellent coda to the X-Men saga as a whole and a film that, while linked to others, stands proudly as a work of art in its own right.

2. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park)

After an excellent detour into English-language territory with the juicily gothic Stoker, Park, undoubtedly the king of Korean cinema, heads back to his homeland, but with an English novel in his back pocket.
   Said novel is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a tale of a pair of Victorian con artists out to seduce and defraud an heiress, only for the female half of the duo to fall for the heiress for real.  Park transposes the setting to 1930s Korea, when it was under control of the Japanese, and the result is a feast for the senses.
   If Raw is sensuous, The Handmaiden is full-on hedonistic.  Every shot is sumptuously composed and the cast throw themselves into it body and soul.  Tae-ri Kim is fantastic as the titular Sook-hee, a veteran con artist who poses as a handmaiden to the regal yet secretly trapped Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, also brilliant).  The plot does slightly hinge on deliberately withholding key information from the audience for maximum dramatic impact (I haven’t got round to watching it a second time yet, so don’t know how that’ll affect repeat viewings), but it’s a tense and surprisingly funny tale, filled with little touches that charm.  (The subtitled version has its own brilliant touch, with characters’ words written in white or yellow to indicate if they’re speaking Korean or Japanese.)  The result is a film that lasts well over two hours without you noticing, because you’re so drawn in.  I picked up the special edition on Blu-ray, with a director’s cut that bumps it up to almost three hours.  Can’t wait to have the time to luxuriate in it.

1.       A Silent Voice (dir. Naoko Yamada)

A story of bullying, disability and two separate characters attempting to commit suicide, A Silent Voice is also funny, charming and utterly heartwarming.
   We kick off with downtrodden teenager Shoya wavering on top of a bridge.  He doesn’t jump, and we follow him as he tries to pick up a life he thought he was leaving behind.  Intercut, we see him as a prepubescent – the swaggering, boisterous class clown, always with a grin on his face.  What happened?
   What happened was Shoko, his new classmate.  Profoundly deaf and unerringly friendly and good-natured, she is slowly turned into the butt of the joke by several of the other children – but when matters come to a head, Shoko moves schools and Shoya is offered up as scapegoat and head bully to appease the adults.  Ostracised and left severely introverted to the point where he finds it hard to even look others in the eye, he bumps into Shoko again following his attempted suicide and tries to make up for his behaviour by befriending her – but can, and should, he be forgiven?  And to what degree are his old classmates to be held responsible?
   A Silent Voice tackles difficult themes with dexterity and grace.  Shoya’s not a devil, he’s not a martyr, even he doesn’t know what his just desserts should be.  His classmates react to re-meeting Shoko with a mixture of guilt, denial and honesty.  And Shoko herself is not an angelic cipher – she’s as fallible as anyone else.  With the exception of one slightly daft moment where a character is able to waltz out of an intensive care ward in the middle of the night unchallenged, it’s brilliantly written.
   And the visuals match the writing.  Yamada’s taken lessons from the Makoto Shinkai school of animation: make everyday settings look unbelievably gorgeous with heightened colours, lots of playing with light and extreme close-ups.  The result is a movie that is frequently breathtaking to look at, and leaves you with a huge smile on your face by the end.

Special Bonus Awards!

Best Accidental Upstaging of Another Movie

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a real-time playout of a chaotic firefight in a warehouse, and the result is entertaining and an interesting experiment but nothing especially great.  A few months later, along comes Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which also features a chaotic firefight in a warehouse, but does it in three minutes perfectly syncopated to that “Tequila!” song and proves to instantly be more entertaining and memorable than Wheatley’s effort.  Oops!  Sorry Ben!

The Tiny Dennis Waterman Award

The Little Britain character’s motto of “Write the feem toon, sing the feem toon,” was evidently taken very much to heart by Anna Biller.  In her sumptuous Hammer-esque throwback The Love Witch, she writes!  She directs!  She produces!  She designs the sets and costumes!  She makes much of the sets and costumes herself, by hand!  She writes a song sung by a harpist near the beginning!  She probably does a bunch of other stuff too!

Most Forgivable Oscar Snub

Moana really should have won the Best Animation Oscar.  The decent but hardly incredible Zootropolis did instead.  But Zootropolis is literally “Why Racism Is Terrible: The Movie”, which is a lesson America apparently still needs to learn.  So we’ll let it off.  (Actually, I suppose Zootropolis shares that title with Get Out.  There’s a double bill for you.)

The “Did James Gunn Have Something to Do with This Movie?” Award

The delightfully shlockly The Belko Experiment sets its Gunn-based stall out early (he wrote and was originally going to direct it) with Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn both turning up in the first ten minutes.  All that’s missing is a blast of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and/or a Little Jimmy Urine cameo.

Most Hilariously Half-Arsed Recapping

Sword Art Online:Ordinal Scale is set between the second and forthcoming third seasons of the TV show.  The writers attempt to provide a bit of backstory in the opening minutes to anyone who isn’t already caught up, but you can almost hear them saying, “Bugger it, it’s only fans watching this innit?” after about three sentences.

Best Inadvertently Distracting Production Design

Appropriately enough, as anyone who’s read the books will tell you, The Dark Tower has all sorts of brilliant Stephen King nods hidden in the costumes, sets and general backgrounds.  To the point that I wasn’t really paying attention to the end of the movie because I was scanning the t-shirts of the extras for every last Easter egg.

Best “Hey!  It Wasn’t Terrible!” Movie

The long-gestating live-action Ghost in the Shell could quite easily have been wretched.  So it was a delight that it was actually genuinely pretty good.  Not great, but certainly worthwhile.


Seriously, it’s not on the top ten but you need to see The Villainess.  It’s the best “how the actual beggary did they film that” action film since The Raid 2.

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