It’s everyone’s favourite time of year, top 10 season. Or maybe that was a month ago. Whatever. You know the drill – I go on Aussie release dates. Anything with a first wide release in 2017 is eligible (festival only releases with a wider release on the horizon are not included). Straight to VOD/Netflix stuff is eligible. That’s about it really.
There was a bunch of stuff I loved this year that didn’t quite make this list. On the drama front Jeff Nichols’ continued his incredible recent run with the beautiful Loving, Salma Hayek gave maybe the performance of he year in Beatriz at Dinner, Patti Cake$ gave us something different in the coming of age space, The Lost City of Z was grand ol adventure combined with a touch of social commentary, T2 Trainspotting was way better than any far overdue sequel has any right to be, Colossal combined chilling domestic violence with Kaiju, Sofia Coppola proved her endless radness with the excellent The Beguiled, Battle of the Sexes seems to have been underestimated by all and gave us a fitting portrait of a sporting revolutionary and In Dubious Battle had the biggest scope of any of James Franco’s literary adaptations and is perhaps the best.
Franco also delivered The Disaster Artist, one of the better films in the comedic realm last year in a pretty strong year for the genre. Ali’s Wedding was the best Aussie film and best rom-com of the year, though The Big Sick gave it a run for its money on the latter front, Hasan Minhaj Homecoming King was a mix of heart, storytelling and hilarity, whilst The Lego Batman was maybe the comedy of the year, far exceeding its overrated predecessor. There are some action adjacent flicks on the list below, but add to that the best Fast and Furious film in 11 years with The Fate of the Furious, the criminally underrated John Wick 2, the rightfully beloved Wonder Woman, the kickass spy beats of Atomic Blonde, the daft so bad it’s good silliness of Geostorm along with the more cerebral crime action found in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. There’s loads of horror below, but add to that It which was a huge hit and the dual space terrors of Life and Alien Covenent. Also a joy in outer space was Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets which was probably the most beautiful film of the year. Finally two lone rangers in weaker areas for the year: I Am Not Your Negro was the best doco film aside from the one on my list whilst Coco was an excellent animated effort from Pixar.
10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It’s impossible to know how this film will play in 5 or 10 years time. But I had to include it here to acknowledge my favourite filmgoing experience of the year. A 6am session on opening day, mates and champagne on hand. Of course, that does not equal an ace film – I had seen the so-so The Force Awakens the same way. But in a year of pretty solid blockbusters, nothing was as exhilarating as this film. I’m generally a liker not a lover of Star Wars films, but I loved this one. Rian Johnson delivered something that operates within the broad framework of what the franchise required, but the film still feels distinctively his. This is big budget mainstream filmmaking somehow imbued with an exultant quality. Artistry abounds, from the diverse cast to the dynamic shooting and design elements that have always been the series’ strength
9. Song to Song
This is film as atmosphere as really only Terrence Malick can do it. For me he is a master, but I can also totally understand those who struggle with his work. The characters are archetypes, moving through a vague set of relationships and interactions and the acting is able to convey what Malick is going for. Ryan Gosling seems to struggle a little, but Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender are able to play these archetypes without being overtly wooden. Mara is especially good, simply projecting some levity into the obliqueness that swirls in the film. A film about intimacy above all. Recalls it and suggests it. Makes you reflect on it.
We continue to see more artistic approaches in documentary filmmaking. There is the risk, seen in a number of films this year, that can lead to the heart of the film being obscured by stylistic flourishes. With the rotoscoped approach here though, director Keith Maitland makes craft service the story. It is inspired in that it allows the talking heads to appear as they did when the shooting occurred, way back in 1966. It also helps to avoid the clunkiness inherent in re-enactments. Not to mention the moments where these interviewees switch to their real-life selves in a way that make them feel like emphatic payoffs. Maitland also weaves in real black and white footage from the day throughout to ram home the real, genuine horror of it all. Harrowing, emotive, sad and brilliant stuff.
7. The Girl with all the Gifts
There are horror films below that I have grouped because they feel new and the voices behind them are innovative. Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with all the Gifts, doesn’t feel like that, in fact it feels like an update of Romero’s Day of the Dead in many ways. But the result is one of the best zombie films ever. Opening on some kids being held in a military facility and shifting to a guerrilla transit across a zombie-ridden London, this is grounded and real genre filmmaking. The young lead Sennia Nanua is really wonderful in a difficult role utilising an exaggerated, slightly inhuman physicality. She is well supported by more seasoned artists such as Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine. The film uses the iconography of the war film throughout to emphasise the battle between the two parties. Super bold ending too.
6. More of this please
There’s a long way to go, but one really welcome trend in 2017 was African-American directors bringing to the screen really different tales of the African-American experience. You can see two more of those much higher on this list, but I wanted to highlight these two as well, which are masterful examinations of history and lived experience.
Denzel Washington’s Troy acts almost as a cipher for the entire modern history of African Americans here. Oppressed and beaten down repeatedly, the result is a character that is hard to like, but impossible not to watch. And it’s thanks to that performance and character that this deep, specific portrayal of an experience takes hold. One that we don’t directly see play out, just the result. In addition to Washington, there are exceptional performances from Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson here. Films and characters don’t need to be uniformly pretty, likeable or sympathetic. They can be more complex than that. This entire film revolves around one deeply flawed individual, what has impacted him and how he comes to impact those around him as a result.
Barry Jenkins’ film is one that takes you out of whatever your life is and immerses you totally in another. As a character piece, each of the three acts totally gives life to the character of Chiron. The fact that is achieved so beautifully with three different performers is testament to the acting, but also very much the writing and directing. Each section interlocks and informs the other, with a true sense of character building up as a result. Both a very specific film about African-American homosexuality, and a character portrait that intrigues and entrances with its subtleties of craft.
5. The Edge of Seventeen
The teen coming of age film is all too often dismissed as being light and unimportant. But this genre is a hard one to nail, especially to bring it to life in a way that speaks to people of all ages, not living a similar experience. Hailee Steinfeld is amazing, incredibly fun and charismatic but bringing a depth to the character all too rare seen in teens on film. She bounces off an excellent Woody Harrelson and Hayden Szeto. The film is also super funny, perhaps the funniest film on this list. Laughs filtered through the awkwardness of teendom, but without ever being nasty about it. Rounded out by an ace script and a soundtrack that features popular songs without ever being forced. Utterly watchable.
4. Call Me by Your Name
By the time I got around to seeing Luca Guadagnino’s latest, it had been hyped to such a level on my twitter feed that was impossible for it to meet. But I was still blown away. As great films do, it surpassed all expectation. Or rather, it sidestepped those expectations. Call My by Your Name refuses to be what we expect it to be and refuses to have the characters make the decisions we are expecting. The film builds slowly, lingering on the push and pull of new personalities adjusting to one another, both in the realms friendship and romance. Yes Timothee Chalamet is excellent, but Armie Hammer is perhaps even better. The film ruminates quite beautifully on the struggle to have the courage, and perceived baseline knowledge, to open oneself up to love. And out of nowhere features the great monologue of contemporary cinema. Complex, beautiful, romantic and sensual.
3. New voices in horror
Driven by Blumhouse and streaming services, I do think we are living in a golden age of horror. A lot of that has been devoted to the same kind of people telling the same kind of stories (but really bloody well). But this year there were some diverse voices telling some fresh stories that I wanted to highlight.
Director Olivier Assayas has been around for about 30 years, so it’s on one level difficult to call his a new voice. But this is horror as we rarely see it, artistic, complex, and subdued; a reflection on forbidden desires, mortality and personal ambition. Perhaps it is due to the fact there is so much going on that the film seems to be forgotten about in discussions of horror flicks. However it is a remarkably effective and creative straight up ghost story. The film effortlessly expands the definition of what we should expect horror to be and conjures scares from places other films really struggle too. It also features perhaps Kirsten Stewart’s finest performance as she continues to show she’s one of the best performers of her generation.
Don’t be put off by the gimmicky focus on people fainting in screenings. The gruesome moments are eye-popping, but there are only one or two of them rather than it being a constant assault. Rather be excited that it delivers on the other focus of the marketing hype – the existence of a female directed feminist cannibal film. The overall unease comes from a generally disquieting vibe rather than grossness or shock. People being flung wildly outside their comfort zone and reacting in peculiar ways. The film focuses on sisterhood, even (or especially), when confronted with forbidden desires. The central performance from Garance Marillier forces you to take on her physical agitation whilst the score mixes in abrasive bursts for emphasis. Thought provoking and surprisingly watchable for a film with flesh eating.
Who would have guessed the year’s best horror film would be from a dude best known for sketch comedy? Incredibly assured for a feature debut, this is frightening and prescient. The connections to racism are pretty bold, in that they are overt in their connection to the story, but in a way that never feels distractingly obvious. Peele’s love for classic horror comes through, repurposing beloved riffs and tropes into something new and bloody terrifying. It is hard to sharply critique generations of insidious, controlling racism whilst still crafting a horror narrative that finds unique ways to scare the audience. And the fact Peele manages this makes him one of the most exciting new directors in the world.
I’ve watched this one a few times now, and each time I am more impressed. The emotional complexity of the central character is unparalleled in the comic book genre, and the result is the best film that genre has ever produced. Realistic vulnerability is at the forefront, definitely not a hallmark of this kind of film. Logan and Professor X are beaten, broken, fuckin over it and forced to go again, though in a totally different way. Everything Mangold puts together here – the score, the realistic bloody violence, the road-film riffs – pays off and enhances the whole. Small and meaningful, with a self-contained story and acknowledgment that worldbuilding can be sparse and still work. A film that you feel on a physical level.
For a long time Logan was my #1 film of the year. And I was totally fine with that, it’s an exceptional film. But Dee Rees’ Netflix original is the best film I saw in 2017 and it’s not even remotely close. Broader in scope than I was anticipating, an almost Shakespearian feeling examination racism filtered through the period around WWII. Rees is storyteller totally in control of what she is doing, artistically jumping between perspectives and using those to build an environment, atmosphere and character history. Incredible performances from the entire cast, led by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige as two family matriarchs. The racism is clearly articulated and chilling. The incredible shock of an African American soldier returning home after fighting for his country, only to find he can’t use the front door of a shop. Builds to a horrifying, yet very well earned, culmination. Powerfully brutal in a way that left me speechless.