Ah, what a time to be alive. Don’t you just truly, genuinely, appreciate the fact that you and I (and everyone reading this joint) are all awake and breathing right now after what the world has put us through this year? Everything from Trumpocalypse to hurricanes, to mass shootings and refugee crisis, from Harvey Weinstein to the fifth Transformers movie – 2017 is a banner year for pure, unadulterated shitstorm. On top of that, personally speaking, it’s also the year I’ve departed from Brexitland. That’s right, I’m now living sunny side-up along the sparkling shores of Lisbon, continental style. Thanks, Theresa.
So to emerge out of 2017 alive, functioning well and writing in this blog must be a cause for celebration, no? But what the previous year taught me, unequivocally, is that no matter how many clusterfucks the world is ready to throw at you, be sure to greet them with laughter, acceptance and the desire to make happy memories. Which reflects on the choices of my best films of 2017. One look at this list and you’ll notice the themes of love, memories and loss softly resonating through the works of directors aspiring to leave a mark. A Quiet Passion, Blade Runner 2049, Jackie, A Ghost Story and Call Me By Your Name all deal with time, love, legacy and existential purpose, all subtly reminding us to behold and cherish the simplest aspects of life. To learn to stop and breathe. Gaze and observe that view around you. Be with nature. Read and write with your heart. See a film, old and new. And think responsibly but feel deeply.
And in a time when humankind might be a heartbeat away from being nuked from the face of the Earth, especially when we have nations’ leaders behaving like goddamn toddlers, cinema is more important than ever. It is our awakening, our enlightenment. The best films here prompt us that memories are what we all have as beings, so continue to make good ones.
Actually, scrap that. Make the best memories you can ever have. That should be the goal of every living being on this planet.
But first, relish the Best of Cinema: 2017 Video Tribute to get you into the mood for films.
The Honourable Mentions:
The Disaster Artist
dir. James Franco, USA
dir. Sofia Coppola, USA
dir. Kogonada, USA
My Life as a Courgette
dir. Claude Barras, France
dir. James Mangold, USA
The Main Attraction:
dir. Eliza Hittman, USA
Eliza Hitmann’s quiet and unassuming sophomore feature belongs to a small canon of films exploring the crisis of masculinity, a theme that couldn’t be any more relevant in today’s age when our societies’ patriarchal structure are revealing cracks more than ever. Beach Rats is centred on a youthful Brooklynite, who’s part-gym bunny and part-daddy cruiser, attracting ladies by day and discreetly hooking up with older men by night. There’s absolutely clarity in Hittman’s portrayal of profound confusion here, with Harris Dickinson’s terrific characterisation of the brooding, budding Frankie, mixing bro-level athleticism with some devastating vulnerability. Rarely has male insecurity been portrayed with such sad resonance onscreen, with Hittman flipping the coming-of-age drama around its head, where the deeply conflicted and sexually beleaguered protagonist emerges not with wisdom, but with even more bewilderment.
dir. Todd Haynes, USA
Todd Haynes’s latest seem to have been brushed under a carpet where award season voters have mostly forgotten to tread on. Sure, it’s not Carol. How could one possibly top a cinematic perfection like Carol anyway? But Wonderstruck is wonderful, one that quietly sneaks and steals your heart when you least expect it. This is Haynes at his most optimistic, simulating a beautifully woven narrative that threads time, memories and cosmic connection together, creating a tapestry that’s richly melodramatic and genuinely poignant. In fact, this feels like a great, forgotten Frank Capra movie, played with huge emotions against a magnificently constructed New York in both the 1920s and 70s. Paired with an exquisite cinematography and sublimely lush score, we are blessed with the holy trinity of Haynes, Lachmann and Burwell, all working their most pristine talents to give us a good old-fashioned tearjerker that can put a lot of Hollywood melodramas to shame.
dir. Joon-ho Bong, USA/South Korea
Trust Joon-ho Bong for delivering a barnstormer. His Studio Ghibli-inspired adventure has all the sheer mixture of comedy-horror-excitement of The Host, the socio-political commentary of Snowpiercer plus a batshit Tilda Swinton. Honestly, who doesn’t love a batshit Tilda? Okja is definitely our new favourite surreal action-adventure that blends the best of Miyazaki with the childhood sentiment of Spielberg’s cinema, nailing the spectacle of a great rescue movie that’s enriched with a heartfelt plea for animal welfare. Make no mistake, Okja is an all-out attack on the meat-packing industry and coporations that soullessly mistreat creatures in the goddamn name of profit, but it’s one that’s made with craft and grace. Bong is also wise enough to portray activism as a self-perpetrating force, unconsciously taking the limelight away from the real issue that is animal cruelty. You’d definitely think twice next time you eat that fucking fast-food burger.
dir. Jordan Peele, USA
Let’s face it, the horror genre has become a cheap schlock joint as of late, if not a bargain basement of empty thrills with nary an inch of a brain nor resonance to spare. That’s why Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a welcome game-changer, a ruthlessly efficient genre workout that initially builds on common tropes and then blows them all away, for good reason. What’s more, it dares to be political, illustrating what it means to be black in Trump’s America. Racism, which is terror in itself, comes into sharp focus here. That even when the film veers into slasher territory in its latter half, Peele ratchets up Hitchcockian tension and cinematic finesse the barely concealed malaise and hypocrisies in American suburbia throughout, as if The Stepford Wives has been remade with 2017 socio-political resonance in a country struggling to get past through its racial identity.
dir. Darren Aronofsky, USA
Darren Aronofsky’s latest may be a divisive one, but it’s allegorical cinema at its riskiest, pulling off a mode of filmmaking that’s all too rare in an industry that plays too safe. The exclamation mark in mother! makes a clear point – at least half the running-time is spent vociferating all of humanity’s worst offences in a house that was once a sanctuary of tranquillity. Sure, it’s unapologetically loud, brash and bellicose, but where many of the film’s detractor targets Aronofsky’s unsubtlety in his metaphors should be praising him for making such strenuous efforts in portraying the anxieties and conflicts of our age. The last hour alone displays some of the most astonishingly provocative filmmaking that serves as a blistering treatise to our species that’s hell-bent on destruction. One day when Mother Nature wipes our asses off this Earth, don’t say Aronofsky didn’t warn you.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
dir. Martin McDonagh, USA/UK
Who doesn’t love a magnificently outraged Frances McDormand brewing up a storm in midwestern America? Taking its cue from McDormand’s turn in Olive Kitteridge, Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy of retribution places its incensed firebrand, mother of a rape-and-murder victim, to unleash hell on her town’s inept police officials. Anyone unfamiliar of McDonagh’s tone of voice won’t appreciate the film’s wild seesaw between the blackly comic and abhorrent racial politics, but beneath the larger-than-life storytelling, the anger and trauma of its central character feels real and resonant. Mildred’s fury may be amplified for the cinematic stage, but McDormand makes her damn inspiring, her no-holds-barred, gallows humour masking a world of grief and pain, single-handedly clawing authorities from their holes of incompetence and apathy.
dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia
Chances are, you won’t have seen a more morose film last year than this Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. Yes, it’s depressing as fuck, but also incredibly focused in its purpose. And this is from the director who’s given us cinematic treatises of life such as The Return, Elena and Leviathan. Loveless is up there as one of his very best, narrowing his unapologetically bleak worldview on society’s nucleus. Here, family is a non-entity. Mere broken shards of bitter relationships that are better off swept and dusted. There are moments of such unrelenting pessimism that you’d probably need a thousand Disney movies to pick yourself up afterwards. What seems a critique of broken marriage and divorce becomes something more – like Leviathan before this, Loveless is Zvyagintsev’s cri de coeur for collective empathy on the real victims of our society’s unchecked hubris, the children that disappear without a trace. This is socially conscious cinema at its most vital.
On the Beach at Night Alone
dir. Sang-soo Hong, South Korea/Germany
Rarely do films these days understand human loneliness as much as this Hong Sang-soo micro-masterpiece. On the Beach at Night Alone is a perfect, melancholic ode to a time in anyone’s life when everything fails and nobody else is there but yourself. Hong stares at the Truth of Human Existence and makes us confront it, too. That sooner or later, we will all need to learn to be comfortable with our own company, our loneliness and sadness. That beneath all the love, friendships, acquaintances and families we have, our own solitary being is all there is. There’s also the other Truth that this is maybe Kim Min-hee’s world and we’re just living in it – after her turn in The Handmaiden and appearing alongside Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera, she sublimates inner turmoil into a masterclass performance that’s both luminous and saddening.
dir. Byung-gil Jung, South Korea
My favourite superhero movie of 2017. All your Wonder Womans and Atomic Blondes may be taking all the headlines, but in terms of grit, spunk and sheer balls to execute the unfilmable – hell, even unthinkable – Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess blowtorches any competition and surpasses every single one of our expectations. Sure, it’s not exactly billed as a superhero movie, but this might as well be one, for its seemingly invincible heroine goes through extreme lengths of physical assault, bloodletting Kill Bill-style through the Korean gangland and emerge victorious. The claims of a South Korean Le Femme Nikita is apt – Ok-bin Kim’s sexy yet feral assassin Sook-he catapults from one action sequence to the next with almost unquenchable thirst for revenge and moral abandon, as Jung’s inventive cinematography whirls around her like a hellcat on the loose making this one of the most memorable action films of recent years.
The Florida Project
dir. Sean Baker, USA
Sean Baker is that rarest of directors, a filmmaker who crafts heartfelt paeans to people on the margins, finding humanity in places you’d least expect and then projecting them up wide on our screens, vivid with life’s tribulations yet brimming with such soul. Starlet and Tangerine were only the start, and his follow-up The Florida Project is his best film, incredibly cinematic in its execution and almost documentary in purpose. There are moments here which are imbued with incredibly authenticity, as if narrative cinema has disappeared and we’re left with a camera to observe the dynamics of the six-year old Moonee and purple-swathed Floridian motel in which Baker locates his characters squashed by capitalism. Like the life of its characters, Baker lends a freewheeling flow that’s simultaneously exhilarating and saddening, its episodic portrayal of childhood feels heartbreakingly in-the-moment, devoid of a future.
A Fantastic Woman
dir. Sebastián Lelio , Chile
Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio surges back into the scene, following up the great Gloria with an even more mesmerising character study about a transgender woman enduring social prejudices masquerading as perceived societal norms. Here, it isn’t enough that our heroine Marina suffers with loss of her lover and beset with grief, but there’s an entire system ready to rear its ugly head, subjecting her into all sorts of painful dehumanisation just because she’s a transgender. Lelio’s drama is so steeped in contemporary socio-politics you feel its urgency, and so compassionate in its humanity you feel every shard of discrimination against Marina. But this is not a film without hope. A Fantastic Woman (along with a supreme Daniela Vega performance) rivetingly, even inspiringly, creates a flesh-and-blood character, fully believable and yet complex and mysterious, as she surges through all that hate, grief and injustice to emerge as a stronger woman with a sense of being. Remember folks, love is a basic human right.
dir. Bertrand Bonello, France
If the name Bertrand Bonello hasn’t penetrated your cinematic radar so far, then you better try harder. A purveyor of some of the most intriguing French films of late (House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent), his latest work Nocturama has bolted into provocative territory, and not only because it touches on explosive contemporary politics – metropolitan terrorism – but it dares to criticise our preconceived, collective notions about what drives terror itself. Dispensing explanations and motivations, Bonello plots in astounding clockwork a portrait of highly intellectualised yet ironically hollow youth in rebellion, blowing up several parts of Paris one moment and then burrow in a luxury shopping mall the next. The sophisticated camerawork glides and the editing electrifies, and yet the director defies easy sympathies. Nocturama is unsettling because it neither condemns nor glorifies violence, but rather coaxes our own intellect to try and comprehend the sheer inexplicability of what it’s like to be the youth of today, forever searching for a political expression and lost in modern society’s consumerist and technological ideals that finding catharsis in violence seems inevitable.
4 Days in France
dir. Jérôme Reybaud, France
Think of a Jean-Luc Godard road movie, peppered with philosophical Eric Rohmer observations, with added contemporary gay cruising app Grindr to the fold and you have the quintessence of Jérôme Reybaud’s sublime feature debut Jours de France (4 Days in France). What begins as a playful, picaresque, albeit aimless, trip down country lanes turns bawdily erotic (with Grindr serving as a homosexual’s moral compass) and then ultimately poignant, as our protagonist Pierre literally and figuratively cruises on a road odyssey, bumps into various lives and learns about the unbearable lightness of being. Reybaud’s film has a lot to say about the unstoppable nature of queer desire and the privileged life of the Parisian gay man beset with sexual urges, but its real human wisdom comes from its portrayal of a relationship in crisis. Untethered from his domestic routine, Pierre roams freely, stumbling from one fumbling to the next quick fuck, perennially weightless. His epiphany comes from an aunt’s speech, the second most beautiful monologue in cinema this year, reminding to appreciate time’s fleeting nature and cherish the demands of love, for that gives us our meaning in this seemingly vacuous existence. Not bad for a first feature.
Blade Runner 2049
dir. Denis Villeneuve, USA
After Arrival, one would expect that the long-gestating sequel to one of the most influential sci-fi pictures of all time was surely in good hands. Denis Villeneuve could have botched this. Instead, he’s created a far superior film that Ridley Scott’s original, in aesthetic, form and execution. Hardcore Blade Runner fans would uniformly dispute, of course, but I very much prefer 2049 to Scott’s flawed yet seminal progenitor. Villeneuve transforms a familiar detective narrative into an existential sci-fi noir film, deepening its tracks into a haunting excavation of the memory and the soul. “What makes us human?” is a perennial inquisition in sci-fi cinema, but 2049 supplies it with an aching retort, “But what if we’ve lost our humanity to technology?” Villeneuve wastes neither time nor cinematic framing – with Roger Deakins’s MVP cinematography, infusing majesty in every shot – propelling a philosophical conundrum of the indistinguishable emotional and moral capacities between AI and the human species. But what makes Villeneuve’s 2049 resonate very deeply is his take of Paris, Texas, here movingly transposed as a broken family connection is reconciled by Gosling’s lone survivor, whom, for a brief moment, believed was his sole human purpose, despite his unbeknown artificial origin. It’s incredibly rare to have a blockbuster like this with such depth and soul, suggesting that one day, artificial intelligence might possess more humanity than we, humans, do.
dir. Greta Gerwig, USA
Growing up is bloody hard. Yes, it’s a narrative leitmotif that’s oft-repeated in film form, but Greta Gerwig proves that she can summon up a fascinating and emphatic coming-of-age drama that, despite being steeped in the genre of American high school movies and infused with the French New Wave spirit, feels refreshingly sincere and even insightful. Thanks to Gerwig’s attention to human behaviour, just like in her Baumbach-collaboration in Frances Ha and Mistress America, she creates a protagonist that feels lived-in – flaws, dysfunctions, warts and all. In Lady Bird, puberty is a symptom of a much deeper conflict, a difficult relationship between mother and daughter. Both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf fleshes out their disharmonies so convincingly, every tick and nuance down pat, that by the end, once separated, each feels empty without the other. This is a beautifully observed love letter to motherhood, one that roots it to a universal place. To the difficult, youthful years we’ve spent making mistakes in a place we cannot wait to run away from, the one place that most of us will eventually yearn to go back to.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/USA
The great and incomprehensible ego of Man has been deconstructed innumerable times throughout the history of cinema, but rarely as clinically dismantled as Yorgos Lanthimos did in his new opus The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Those who have bemoaned about the director’s stilted approach are completely missing the point. Lanthimos skewers the anesthetisation of modern suburbia by injecting a hefty, dark dose of good old Greek tragedy to its proceedings, introducing the mythic unknown to the numbing repetition of the scientific mantra. The central couple (Farrell and Kidman both give immense performances) are so deeply entrenched in their professional fields – everything is answerable by tests, scans, checks, advise, ad infinitum – that they’re only capable of seeing the symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause. Those who have subjected themselves to Dogtooth and The Lobster will fully embrace Sacred Deer’s concoction of black humour, deadpan satire and full, agonising terror that’s singularly Lanthimos’s cinematic brand. For my money, it’s the most unnerving film of 2017, worthy of a Kubrick.
A Quiet Passion
dir. Terrence Davies, UK/USA
You’d think no one would do Emily Dickinson justice. But the combined filmmaking prowess of Terrence Davies and the sublime acting dexterity of Cynthia Nixon have both given weight and elucidation on the quiet yet deeply conflicted life of one of America’s greatest poets. Eschewing fusty biopic histrionics, Davies digs deep into the drama of Dickinson’s daily life with melancholic Bergman-esque existentialism, often enlivened with a fiercely witty satire on period social etiquettes. The trivialities of human life – manners, courtship, marriage, the social norms – are all eviscerated by Emily’s increasingly isolated existence, an artist forever at odds with the world around her and with herself, a woman who refuses to play by the rules. Time becomes her ultimate enemy, but her passion for poetry made her burn through all of life’s sadness and disappointments. There are moments here with such incredible thematic profundity, and some of the best performances you’ll see, that it’s impossible not to be moved. This is one of the rare fims which truly gets the mind of an artist, burdened by a fulfilment of legacy and the inherent solitude required in art.
dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile/USA
When the world has estimated a Grace of Monaco or Diana film biopic bomb proportions, Jackie waltzed a dark, devastating dance into our screens and snatched all our wigs away (I remember staggering home after the film, making sense of the world). This could have easily been relegated to Oscar-bait kitsch, but Pablo Larráin creates an opus of discombobulating grief and sweeping sorrow, transcending the pitfalls of biopic-making and gave us a Bergman-level of psychodrama that will surely go down as one of the finest of its kind. Larráin (and in turn, Portman’s breathtakingly complex piece of acting) peels layer upon layers of put-upon elegance and affectation, employing a discordant narrative, to unmask the Jackie Kennedy behind that persona, that impeccable couture, to reveal the dichotomy of a grieving widow and master image technician. That after all, this woman understands that politics is Grand Theatre, operating the self-styled legacy of the Kennedys, instilling the perfect Camelot myth to the public despite her private torture and ordeal. It’s a tragic yet protean film, and one that purposefully laments the death of American politics. I don’t think there’s any other film I’ve seen in 2017 that painfully mourns the current state of US politics than Jackie.
A Ghost Story
dir. David Lowry, USA
Death is the only truth, some might say. But what happens after that is infinitely unknowable. David Lowry takes a potentially eyeball-rolling idea this side of Preachville and elevates it into something melancholic and devastatingly existential. The disembodied figure in A Ghost Story drifts through time, memories and space, seemingly unstuck in a dimension where he’s become a passive observer to the course of life, like watching a relentless slideshow without access to the stop button. Lowry might have Kurt Vonnegut in mind, shifting the chronological with the philosophical, with its portrayal of earthbound limbo that’s slightly reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five. But you can be certain there’s no other film in 2017 that stared death on its face, and dared to caress it with the most human of gestures. This is a work of existential cinematic poetry that will bury deep into your lifetime. The cosmic, the intimate and the profound all swirl together into a grandiose sadness of being – the pain of being alive, the sadness of being dead, and the joys of memories we make in-between.
Call Me By Your Name
dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy/USA
In a time of pervading hate (conflict, division, racism, bigotry, you name it), the sheer lack of wisdom in humankind makes for an unnecessary dysfunction, a rift in the progress of our species. 2017 alone has seen plenty of it – and this is why Call Me By Your Name arrives to provide us an antidote to all the noise, all the human hate, all the trivial nonsense, and remind us the absolute necessity of love in a sorrowful world we live in. And in the name of wisdom alone, Luca Guadagnino’s film loftily rose above anything I’ve seen last year. That the desire between two young men, undefined by categorisation (gay or bisexual, or whatever), unfettered by any dynamics of prejudice, are both liberated to explore their feelings and in return, understanding the rhythm of life around them. The timelessness in which Guadagnino locates his heart-swelling masterpiece often feels like a memory, beautifully rendered in a sort of quiet, understated cinematic idyll, painted in sun-dappled strokes, lingering in touches, whispers, soft declarations and honest-to-goodness intimate sensuality. While Elio and Oliver discovers their affections, nature around them hum quietly, in resonance. The entire film, in truth, has no grandstanding moments. It evokes the cinema of Eric Rohmer and André Techiné, all bucolic naturalism, desire and longing. It relies on its own breathing space of acceptance and grace, and a piece of fatherly advise that might be the most wondrous human piece of wisdom about love. That to love and be loved, no matter how fleeting, no matter what pain it necessitates, perhaps is enough. How uncanny – back in 2010, I wrote about my number one film of that year, I Am Love, that Guadagnino’s film was what the world needed back then. This year, love might just what the bankrupt world needs now more than ever. And we have another Guadagnino masterwork to remind us of that.