The calendar may officially have turned over to 2018 now, but that won’t stop us from looking back at the year that’s just gone. In that spirit, here’s five of 2017’s films that stood out as particularly excellent.
I cannot, unfortunately, claim to have seen all of this year’s films, so I’m sure there are obvious choices that escaped me. I’m particularly gutted I didn’t manage to make time for The Big Sick, Detroit, Logan Lucky and Call Me By Your Name, and I’m not sure if Don’t Think Twice even showed up in the UK, tragically. Hopefully by the time 2019 rolls around, I’ll have crossed at least some of those off my list, but until then, head below the cut for my Top Five from this year. Oh, and if you haven’t seen them, consider this your spoiler warning.
It has been a bloody long year, and so it may seem bonkers to think that Moonlight came out in 2017. Of course, for Americans, that’s not true, but as with so many high profile Academy Award contenders, the release was held back several months in the UK and elsewhere to make maximum use of the film’s deserved Oscar buzz. And of course, at the climax of all that buzz, we had the notable flubbing of the Best Picture announcement, and for a minute or so the thoroughly underwhelming La La Land was the winner.
But strip away all that baggage and hooplah, and Moonlight remains an extraordinary film, touching on identity, masculinity, heartbreak, family and isolation. It is an exercise in creating compassion through film, providing us with three key snapshots of a young queer black man as he struggles to understand himself and his place in the world. It is about the choices we are too scared to take, and the connections we fail to make along the way.
The performances are uniformly terrific, with the actors who play Kevin and Chiron (aka Little and Black) through the three time periods able to establish a sense of continuity and growth without it ever feeling like an echo of each others’ performances. It’s also worth singling out the always-fantastic Mahershala Ali, who crafts a subtle, tragic performance as Juan, and Naomie Harris, who astonishingly shot all of her scenes in three days, with no rehearsals.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton created an absolutely gorgeous film, lush and heavy with texture. There’s been some great coverage over the past few years about how conventions in the way movies are lit and filmed can often obscure the subtleties of darker-skinned actors’ performances, but there’s none of that on show here. Jenkins’ camera is intimate without feeling intrusive, happy to hang back and let the story play out, but always there to capture the emotion of the moment.
After the rising criticism facing the Academy over the lack of representation in its Awards, it was perhaps inevitable that we would see a Best Picture nod going to a film focused on the African-American experience. With Moonlight, that Oscar isn’t just a token gesture, but deserved recognition of a truly great film.
Another film that tackled the realities of black life in America, albeit in a very different way, was Get Out, the directorial debut of Jordan Peele. Prior to this, it would have been hard to picture what a “crowd-pleasing examination of racism” would look like, but if you’ve ever sat in a busy theatre during the bloody climax of Get Out, you know that descriptor fits it perfectly. Still, it speaks to Peele’s deft writing and direction that he is able to balance the tone of the film so expertly, weaving in between comedy, horror and, as he describes it, documentary.
You can tell Peele’s background lies in comedy from the way Get Out is constructed. Every line and action has a double meaning, a set-up awaiting the punchline of the film’s twist, and it’s only upon rewatching the film that you grasp the true genius of its clockwork-like precision. Each moment, each choice, clicks into place and while scenes remain terrifying, that terror is tinged with a new meaning.
If all that tight plotting and layered meaning makes the film sound airless and academic, then I’m doing it a massive disservice. As you’d expect from Peele, there is a delicious vein of dark humour and satire running through the film, as well as full-blown (and much needed) tension breaking comic relief from Lil Rel Howery’s Rod.
On top of that, the film presents us with some brilliant performances. Bradley Whitford adds another twist to the affable evil he brought to The Cabin in the Woods, and Catherine Keener manages to radiate a kind of earthy motherhood while still creating a palpable aura of menace. Daniel Kaluuya anchors the film as Chris – it’s always great to see someone from Skins making it in Hollywood, and I’m hoping this proves a breakout role for him.
But the biggest praise has to go to Allison Williams, who turns in a delightfully demented split role, switching from Perfect White Girlfriend to Emotionless, Manipulating Killer on a dime. Eating Cheerios has never been so disturbing.
More than anything, Get Out represents a bold new voice staking a claim in the pop culture landscape. Peele is working on a new version of The Twilight Zone, writing and executive producing Tracy Morgan’s new series, and is also executive producing an HBO series following an African-American man in the 50s searching for his father while encountering the Cthulhu mythos. Peele is exactly the kind of voice we need to amplify in modern culture, so it’s fantastic to see him achieving so much success and recognition, all of it well deserved.
It was a mixed bag year for blockbusters in general, and comic book movies specifically, but Spider-Man: Homecoming really stood above the rest for me. If I try to view things through my Objective Reviewer Goggles, then Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman and Logan may all admittedly be better films, but nothing made me feel the same sense of pure joy as watching Tom Holland’s note-perfect Peter Parker giving an old Dominican lady directions then enjoying a churro as his reward.
I find Spider-Man a fascinating character and, even though I’ve never followed his comic book exploits for any extended period of time, I have a very firm idea in my head of what Spider-Man should be, and how his world should feel. Spider-Man: Homecoming was the first time that a film has come close to capturing the character that lives inside my head, and for that I love it.
I remember getting very excited when I found out that Tom Holland had an extensive dance and musical background, and that excitement ratcheted up to fever pitch when I watched his stunning performance on Lip Sync Battle. Tobey Maguire never inhabited the physicality of the character for me, and while Andrew Garfield came closer, that was one of the few bright spots in those terrible, terrible films. Holland’s performance captures the essential dichotomy of Spider-Man – the awkwardness of a teenager spliced in with supernatural grace and agility – while never losing sight of the fact that Peter Parker doesn’t become a different person when he puts on the mask.
Homecoming also gave us a brilliant villain in the form of Michael Keaton’s Vulture, managing to balance a sympathetic motivation with a terrifying ruthlessness. The blue-ish collar nature of his villainy worked so well with a teenage Peter, and provided the film with a perfect way to maintain the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” vibe that worked so well.
The supporting cast – so important to Spider-Man – was uniformly great, and especially with the young actors playing his classmates, felt like a nuanced and accurate portrayal of modern teens, rather than the posturing 30-somethings who filled up the school in Raimi’s films. I was worried that Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark would overshadow the film, but he was deployed in a very smart way that felt like a relatively organic extension of Spider-Man’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, and did a great job of building an MCU where Spidey can both stand alongside the Avengers and also exist in his own smaller world apart from them.
And guys – he lifted the heavy thing. I genuinely got a little teary in the cinema when it happened.
As I write this, it’s a couple of days after the Golden Globe awards, where women from the film and television industry wore black in solidarity with victims of abuse, and brought activists to walk the red carpet with them and speak to the issues affecting women across the planet. As I noted multiple times in my music write-ups, 2017 felt like it brought what will hopefully prove to be a seismic shift in how we discuss abuse, harassment and sexism.
That makes Colossal an extremely timely film, although you wouldn’t know it from the elevator pitch, or even the trailers. “Anne Hathaway is a drunken mess with a mysterious link to a kaiju menacing South Korea” doesn’t exactly scream that it’s going to be a thoughtful exploration of emotional abuse and the insidious ways men attempt to control women, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be. As well as being a film where Anne Hathaway accidentally destroys a helicopter while drunk.
I have a big flashing weak spot for stories about women in self-destructive spirals, because it’s a role that they so seldom get to play. Men are given the space to be romantic drunks and Bukowski-esque ‘tortured geniuses’ but women are held to unrealistically high standards even when they’re not being made to work twice as hard as men for the same rewards. Asked where the women of the Beat Generation were, poet Gregory Corso said “There were women, they were there, I knew them. Their families put them in institutions.” That double standard still exists today.
All of that contributes to why it’s so exciting for an actress of Hathaway’s calibre to play a role like Gloria. She’s drunk, she’s obnoxious, she’s a terrible partner and, for the opening section of the film, she has no interest in changing any of that. The way the film’s premise forces her to confront not just her own unthinking destructive nature, but also the more malicious cruelty of Jason Sudeikis’ Oscar, turns the kaiju element from quirky foible into an essential metaphor at the film’s heart.
While Sudeikis and the other supporting cast are great, the film’s success or failure rests cleanly on Hathaway’s shoulders, and she proves to be more than up to the task. Gloria could be viewed as a slightly softened version of her character from Rachel Getting Married (which features another terrific performance by Hathaway) but the film also needs her to balance its dark humour and sell the reality of its fantastical premise, all of which she manages to do.
The kind of slightly-grimy magical realism on show in Colossal isn’t something we normally see in film, and with Hollywood seemingly determined to eliminate the mid-budget film in favour of bargain dramas and comedies or mega-budget blockbusters, it’s more crucial than ever that we have films like Colossal, demonstrating why sometimes your dramedy needs a giant lizard to stomp through the middle of it.
20th Century Women
There’s something about 20th Century Women that feels incredibly literary. Perhaps it’s the floating focus, which anchors the story of one young man around three of the women in his life (or should that be the other way around?). Perhaps it’s the kind of drama present in the film, which feels rooted around relationships and real-life problems without feeling mundane or wallowing in misery. Perhaps it’s just because this kind of story is more often told in prestigious novels than films.
Whatever the reason, I came away from 20th Century Women thinking about all the great novels I’ve loved in my life, among other things. That’s not to say that the film is uncinematic. Mike Mills is a great visual director, and there are many beautiful moments in the movie, most notably when the characters take trips along the California coast and the surroundings blur into psychedelia. But the film is uncommonly rich with texture, and creates such a lived-in sense of place and setting that you feel like you could walk out of the characters’ houses and find an entire world there waiting to be explored.
It’s easy to single out Annette Bening in terms of performances, and it’s true that she is marvellous as Dorothea, warm and honest and free-spirited but still, in her own way, damaged and bristling. But praise should go to every member of the ensemble – Greta Gerwig channels her charisma into the punk rock desperation of Abbie, Elle Fanning feels complex and layered as Julie, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann manages to make Jamie feel like more than just an everyteen protagonist, bringing strands of strength and self-awareness to his confused coming-of-age arc. Plus Billy Crudup is there, basically channelling an older version of his character from Almost Famous, which is never a bad thing.
As with so many of the films that I deeply connect with, 20th Century Women also boasts a killer soundtrack, with Gerwig’s Abbie in particular serving as Jamie’s guide to the music scene at the time. The soundtrack draws in Talking Heads, The Raincoats, Siouxie and the Banshees, Devo and The Clash to serve as a aural backdrop to late ’70s California, while older characters contribute tracks from Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Rudy Vallee to the soundscape. All of those disparate threads are pulled together by Roger Neill’s warm synthy score, which feels like what would be playing when a very chilled-out UFO decided to touch down in Santa Barbara.
20th Century Women ended up being my favourite film of the year, and the fact that it seems to have largely vanished from the public consciousness is a great shame. So if you’re reading this – go find it on your streaming service of choice (it’s on Amazon Prime Video in the UK) or at your closest DVD retailer or even your local library, and enjoy the way that a truly great film can transform your day.