A 2017 Retrospective

As it's the 2nd of January and I've not watched any films yet this year (slacking...), let's begin with a recap of my vague top 10 films of 2017 (within the confines of our set defitions [see previous post] etc. etc.). This will, with any luck, be the most superficial "here is why I like this film" post on this blog for some time.

10. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)

What is life like on the other side of the fence to The Most Magical Place On Earth? Sean Baker's superlative tableau of poverty in a roadside motel in Florida absolutely lights up with the glee of the children living in it. It's a film of more contrasts than that: the bright pinks and purples of the motel against the bleakness of life within; the beautiful wide shots of the children walking across derelict tourist traps; the seemingly innocent, out of place shots brought together in an absolutely crushing narrative reveal; and was there a more divisive ending to a film in 2017? I firmly come down on the "excellent" side of that debate.

9. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)

A touching meditation on grief and letting go, A Ghost Story lives up to the simplicity of its name: adorned in only a white sheet with cut out eyes, Casey Affleck wanders through the home that was once, and is again, his, seemingly unable to move on. The film is at its best when it says nothing at all; one scene features a monologue which lays out Lowery's central thesis, which is admittedly kind of welcome at the time, but ultimately is perhaps unnecessary. Take instead the wordless conversations or the pie eating, and find within them what's really worthwhile here.

8. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon write a romantic comedy about themselves on twin foundations of cynicism and sentimentality, and somehow it works perfectly. Setting itself partly around Nanjiani's fictionalised stand-up career, The Big Sick is sharply funny on the surface with a beating heart underneath, with excellent starring and side performances (especially amongst Nanjiani's fellow stand-ups, not least Bo Burnham) directed with nuance by Showalter, who keeps a somewhat surreal premise superbly grounded.

7. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Sadly destined to be "the Oscargate film" in the annals of history, Moonlight is so much more than that. A triptych of the romantic yearning of a gay black man and how we force ourselves to hide that part of us away, with notes of Wong Kar-Wai in its cinematography, Moonlight manages to cover both the universality and specificity of these themes, neglecting neither the specific context and circumstances that causes such inner conflict in its protaganist, nor closing it off from a viewer of any race, gender, or sexuality.

6. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

A sweeping adaptation of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, translated to Korea in the early 20th century, The Handmaiden is not typically what you'd expect from Chan-Wook, a largely non-violent erotic psychological thriller full of twists and turns that leave you wondering if you ever quite knew what was really happening.

5. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)

There's a lot to love about Dunkirk. I could talk about how phenomenal the 70mm/IMAX presentation of it was, or how sublimely Nolan interweaves the three narratives and timescales, or how effective the general lack of dialogue is, or the dogfight sequences, or anything like that. But that's not what I really remember when I think of Dunkirk. I think of two things: of how Nolan uses (or rather, doesn't use) the recurring ticking of the clock to punctuate the end of one character's journey towards the end of the film; and of how, where almost any other director would end the film as the triumphant montage set to stirring strings finishes, Nolan throws a curveball into the mix, smashing to a close-up of Tommy, unable to process what's going through his head, and cutting to black there. That odd little coda, all of maybe 5 seconds, elevates Dunkirk in a way I simply can't describe. So I'll stop trying.

4. World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)

Unsurprisingly, Don Hertzfeldt manages to outclass almost every feature length film of 2017 in only 22 minutes. Where the first installment seemed like it was a high watermark for Hertzfelt's boundless imagination, The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts outdoes it in every dimension. The animation is even more breathtaking, without losing his unique stick-figure style; the sheer concentration of speculative fiction ideas, each of which could carry an entire film, is astounding. And more than any of that, it carries with it a heart and soul beyond its sci-fi outer layer and beyond anyone's expectations. That he was able to pull this together from field recordings of conversations with his 5 year old neice is nothing short of a miracle, and neither is this film in general.

3. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

"Summer 1983, somewhere in Northern Italy" - so reads the caption at the beginning of Call Me By Your Name, and no further explanation is needed. These characters are who they are, they are where they are, and you'd do best to let this film just wash over you, taking in the sumptuously shot landscapes, the longing looks between Hammer and Chalamet, and the stunning remix of Sufjan Stevens' "Futile Devices". Has there ever been heartbreak like young Elio's at the end of Call Me By Your Name? Has there ever been such an excellently portrayed range of conflicting emotions as Timothy Chalamet in the film's lingering final shot, a shot that I still find myself thinking about months later.

2. A Monster Calls (dir. J.A. Boyana)

Beautifully adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, A Monster Calls is the most heart-wrenching film of the year for me, hitting me right in one of my emotional sore spots. I saw it in a preview screening at Bath Film Festival and left the cinema an emotional wreck. I returned to see it again on its general release, confident that I was protected from its impact by knowing what was coming. How wrong I was.

1. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

I know. No, really, I know. But I'm absolutely unapologetic for this. From the opening Another Day Of Sun onwards, my jaw was on the floor, overwhelmed by pure Technicolor sensory overload. Chazelle is an absolute master at shooting musical performances, as he deftly demonstrated in Whiplash, and manages to keep the plates spinning throughout La La Land with grace. It's unfair to say the film rests on the charms of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, although they undoubtedly bring something special to the table. And then, that ending sequence. It's an absolute rollercoaster, which pulls the rug out from the ending you thought and hoped you'd get, then pulls you through all the reasons just why that ending would have been wrong. A masterstoke from one of the most promising young writer-directors around.

Honourable mentions

In alphabetical order, to avoid difficult decisions: