Top 10 Films of 2017

Here are my 10 favourite films of 2017.

10. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright

Baby Driver

An irresistibly enjoyable film made by one of the most inventive directors working today. Bringing together the car-chase thrillers of Burt Reynolds and Steve McQueen and the classic musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Baby Driver is a splendid, song-filled joy ride from beginning to end. Telling the story of a hearing-impaired, baby-faced getaway driver trying to leave his life of crime behind so he can run away with his sweetheart, this is a film bursting to the seams with life and energy. Wright is on top form as he takes through Baby’s musical world with all the creativity and imagination he’s known for. In one scene where Baby is simply walking down the street to pick up some coffee, Wright matches his surroundings with the tone and tempo and song he’s listening to and lines him up with a variety of visual cues. By doing so he is showing us how completely in sync Baby is with the world around him and he brings them together in a perfect harmony. The story itself isn’t anything great, but who cares about that when you’ve got style, character, and heart? This movie has got plenty and it is a delight to sit through. This is an idea that should’ve definitely not worked, but those kinds of ideas are Edgar Wright’s bread and butter. Review here.

 

 9. The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin

This was one of the funniest and most agonising movies I’ve seen in a while. Depicting the death of a man who was so feared by his own people that a simple request for a recording of a radio broadcast was enough to send a studio into pandemonium, The Death of Stalin finds humour in the terror and shows the chaotic, morbid aftermath for the horrifying farce that it was. Plots were schemed, backdoor deals were struck, and shots were fired, all in the interest of consolidating power in this tyrannical state where saying the wrong thing (or even appearing to) will get you killed before you can say “long live Stalin”. Even as Stalin lay their on the urine-soaked floor, nobody even dared suggest that he might need a doctor for fear that he would hear them, recover, and regard them as traitors for their lack of faith. It works because the characters do not realise that they are in a comedy, they are simply subjects of the pressures and anxieties of Stalinist Russia scrambling to get ahead of each other by any means necessary. They hatch their diabolical plans and exploit their hapless subordinates and the humour comes with the ever-rising absurdity, desperation and horror of it all. Iannucci assembles a first-rate cast and together they’ve deliver a comedy so unbearable you won’t know whether to laugh or tear your own hair out. Review here.

 

 8. War for the Planet of the Apes – Matt Reeves

War for the Planet of the Apes

I still cannot believe that a movie about sentient apes fighting a war against humankind ended up being one of my favourite films of the year, but here we are. It is the conclusion to an epic trilogy about evolution, survival, and humanity where it all builds up to an all out war between the humans and the apes, both of whom are fighting for their very existence. It is a costly war for both sides and, when Caesar ends up paying a price that is too terrible and tragic to bear, it becomes about nothing more than vengeance. So it is for The Colonel as well, a leader being confronted with the very extinction of his species and responding in the only way he knows how: blood, revenge, and death. Serkis and Harrelson are both excellent at playing these mirror images of each other, two men (so to speak) shaped by a lifetime of violence and misfortune who no longer have anything left to lost except their humanity. It is a brutal and deeply tragic war, more so because in the middle of it all we can see that the possibility for compassion and co-existence is there, if only things had gone differently. Review here.

 

7. Coco – Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Coco

Based heavily on Mexican folklore and culture, Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual, but one that works wonderfully. Through the story of a young boy with dreams of becoming a musician who ends up meeting his ancestors in the Land of the Dead, the film tells a moving, poignant tale about family and legacy and the power of music to bring people together. Like the best Pixar movies it is complex yet comprehensible, huge yet intimate, and fun yet emotional. It depicts the tale of a journey, again like all Pixar films do, one full of twists and turns, many of which you may very well see coming but which still feel no less touching or rewarding because of it. It captures a tone that you don’t see often in American films (never mind animated or Hollywood films!), one that assumes a distinctly Central-American point-of-view. With the way it expresses its views on spirituality and family, Coco feels like an honest representation of the culture it portrays as opposed to an Americanised version of that culture. The animation is breathtaking, the music is delightful, the performances are wonderful, there is no end to the list of what makes Coco great. It is Pixar doing what they do best: telling great stories to an audience of all ages.

 

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Rian Johnson

The Last Jedi

After The Force Awakens played it safe with its revival of the epic sci-fi/fantasy saga, The Last Jedi has sought to take more risks and take the story into new directions. It was a bold move and I think it paid off. The Last Jedi does more than any Star Wars movie since the Original Trilogy to lead the franchise into uncharted waters and expand on the mythos in unprecedented ways. It harkens to the past and considers the role it does and should have on shaping the present before ultimately passing the torch and moving the story onwards into an unknown but promising future. Along the way it provides us with superb action, enjoyable laughs, and incredible character moments particularly where Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke are concerned. All three characters feel trapped and lost by the traumas of their pasts and through them the film is able to explore fascinating ideas around the themes of legacy, destiny, and redemption. With such sequences as the fight in the throne room and the showdown on the salt planet, The Last Jedi also triumphs as the best-directed, most visually magnificent Star Wars film to date. The Force Awakens left me feeling relieved about the future of Star Wars. Today, The Last Jedi has me feeling excited. Review here.

 

5. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk

Probably the single most cinematic experience I’ve had this year, Dunkirk is truly something to behold. The scale of this film is epically immense and it is bursting with breathtaking images and earth-shattering sounds that will shake you to your core. Telling the story of the 1940 British evacuation from Nazi-occupied France across three separate timelines, Nolan has constructed a masterwork in tension and suspense that perhaps not even Hitchcock could have believed. The movie picks up its momentum from the first frame and never lets it go for a second. Even when it appears that things have calmed down for some of the characters, we can never relax because we know that it’s just the calm before the next storm. There is very little of the brutal war imagery that you might have seen in the likes of Hacksaw Ridge, but the emotional turmoil that Nolan taps into through his characters is so agonising and dreadful that Dunkirk proves every bit as devastating as even the bloodiest, most barbaric of war films. And yet, in all of the film’s sheer range and scale, the humanity is never lost. You feel like you really are there with the characters, which makes you root all the harder for their survival. In the end, when the survivors do finally make it out, it’s almost like you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and now, finally, you get to let out a sigh of relief. Review here.

 

4. mother! – Darren Aronofsky

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother! Credit: Paramount Pictures

Honestly, I keep going back and forth on this one and I debated whether to include it on the list at all. On one hand it is a difficult film to watch; it is antagonistically inaccessible, often grotesque, and relentlessly inscrutable. On the other, it is a fascinatingly crafted and dreadfully compelling film that demands to be watched, analysed, and debated. In the months since the film’s release I’ve talked about mother! to numerous people and have yet to encounter a mild or indifferent take on the film. It is an extreme film and everyone who has gone to see it has had an extreme reaction, both positive and negative. Even my initial reaction, indecisiveness, was extreme. The more I’ve thought and read about mother! though, the less interested I’ve gotten in determining whether it is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ film. It certainly has good aspects; Aronofsky’s direction and Libatique’s cinematography made for a visually engrossing experience and Lawrence was stellar throughout. What’s more important, to me anyway, is that mother! is truly unlike anything else I’ve seen this year (and most of what I’ve seen full stop) and it left me all at once astounded, perplexed, confounded, disgusted, traumatised, and deeply affected in a way that I cannot explain. I will take that over mild amusement any day. Review here.

 

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele

Get Out

Perhaps the most timely movie to come out all the year, Get Out is a film that needed to be released in 2017. It takes the story of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s left-wing, suburban family and turns it into a horror film. It’s a comedy as well, except the subject is so relevant to what’s happening in the USA today that you can barely bring yourself to laugh for fear you might cry. Peele displays an uncanny understanding of what it really means to be black in America today and he unpacks it here in a terribly clever way while still allowing the film to be enormously entertaining. It pays to rewatch this movie because it is only the second (or third, or fourth, or…) viewing that you start to appreciate the attention to detail in this meticulously crafted story with its subtle clues and expert use of foreshadowing. What is immediately apparent on the first viewing though is the eerie sense of dread and uneasiness that Peele is able to convey that takes us from the fish-out-of-water sensation that Chris feels in this setting to his increasingly overwhelming suspicion that something is seriously amiss. If I could only recommend one movie on this list to everyone, it would be Get Out. It’s too good and too important not to watch. Review here.

 

2. Logan – James Mangold

Logan

This was somehow both the Wolverine film I always wanted and didn’t know I wanted. It delivers all the R-rated cussing and bloodiness that the character has always needed to truly come into his own, but it also tells a profound, sophisticated story through the character that raises him to greater emotional and thematic heights than ever before and it provides an eye-opening commentary on the superhero movies as a genre. Logan was of course Jackman’s final outing as the mutant that made him a star and he has never been better. He is old, haggard and disillusioned and the father-figure who once inspired him is now a raving loony who can no longer control his immensely powerful and dangerous mind. When circumstances force him to escort a young girl to the Canadian border, the journey that unfolds is a turbulent one that forces Logan to confront the ghosts and demons of his past and challenges the superhero mythos that has developed in the 17 years since the first X-Men movie in a way that no other movie in this genre has ever done. The character work done with Logan, Laura and Charles Xavier is wonderful and the film’s deconstruction of superhero movies (the never-ending cycle of violence, the paradoxical morality, the inherent trauma of self-sacrificing heroism) makes it the best contribution to the genre since The Dark Knight. This is great and touching a swan song as you could possibly give a character this popular and iconic. Review here.

 

1. Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049

The most visually stunning film of the year and also, I think, the most profound. A common mistake often seen in ambitious science fiction is this tendency to focus on complex, philosophical themes without taking the time to establish an emotional connection with the audience, resulting in a film that feels convoluted, self-indulgent, and empty. Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious film but it is also a deeply moving one with great characters and a gripping plot, both of which add emotional stakes to the themes being explored. It takes the ideas of humanity and existence that Scott’s 1982 masterpiece explored so beautifully and expands on them in astonishing ways, aided in no small part by Deakins’ stunning imagery. Every single frame is a breathtaking work of art and the poetry they bring to the story being told is what elevated this film beyond all the others I saw this year. In the scene where K is approached by a giant hologram at his greatest moment of despair, I was moved not just by the beauty of the image but also by how it perfectly encapsulated the devastation and loss he feels in the face of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is a perfectly crafted film that tells a wonderfully constructed story. Review here.

 

Honourable Mention: Twin Peaks: The Return – David Lynch

rr-21097.r

I could not in good conscience include Twin Peaks in my top 10 film list because it is, despite what Lynch himself says, television. Even so, I still want to take the chance to write about this 18-hour tour de force because I found it to be my most emotionally tumultuous viewing experience of the year. At times I loved it and at others I hated it. Sometimes I felt like I could see the order and meaning beneath all the madness and at others I found myself utterly baffled and completely lost. And yet, no matter how confusing, frustrating, or downright impenetrable this show got, I was captivated by every single second of it. Rejecting the rules of traditional storytelling, Twin Peaks is instead more like a composition of dreamlike images and sounds that follow their own internal logic and it is a series that defies categorisation and convention. Lynch has always been one of those directors who has never had any interest in straightforward narratives or playing to an audience and he has only gotten more cryptic with age. Here he takes countless unprecedented chances with the absolute confidence of a master and has created something truly new, strange and transcendent unlike anything else in the history of television. From the mystery of the Black Lodge to the silliness of Dougie Jones to the darkness of the atom bomb and the evil force it created, this was a wild rollercoaster of a series and was more challenging and confounding than anything I saw in the cinema, but also more fascinating and overwhelming.

Advertisements

War for the Planet of the Apes

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn

Director: Matt Reeves

Writer: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves


No movie about sentient apes has any business being this good. Even the original 1968 Charlton Heston movie isn’t so much a serious, profound picture with deep philosophical and sociological themes as it is a campy and often humorous sci-fi adventure-thriller (albeit an intelligent, well-made one). This prequel trilogy took the ideas raised by the original, modernised them, and has gone on to depict them with a greater degree of intimacy and sophistication than I’d ever have thought possible of a story about talking primates. The film’s allegory of racism, politics, and culture is similarly depicted with a reflective sense of irony, but is far less satirical about it. The conflict between the humans and the apes is more complex, more substantial, and more morally ambiguous and War of the Planet of the Apes goes even further than Rise or Dawn ever did, capping off one of the best Hollywood trilogies of the 21st century.

Two years after The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when the strained tension between the humans and the apes finally erupted into an all-out war, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troops are engaged in a conflict with Alpha-Omega, a rogue faction of the U.S. Army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After releasing some human prisoners and expressing to them his desire for peace, Caesar becomes a subject of personal interest to The Colonel, who subsequently leads an attack on the ape base, killing half of Caesar’s family. From here Caesar sets out on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his closest friends and advisors Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan, Rocket (Ty Olsson), a chimp, and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), a gorilla. Along the way they discover a human girl, rendered mute and simple by some unknown cause, whom Maurice takes into his care and calls Nova (Amiah Miller). They also meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a reclusive chimpanzee who knows the location of the Alpha-Omega base. There Caesar finds The Colonel and faces him in a battle that will ultimately define the fates of both of their species.

The achievement of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was drawing the humans and the apes into war with each other in such a way that we could understand the views and choices of both sides to the point that we cannot even really say for sure who started it. Now its two years later and there’s no clear victor or even an end in sight. Caesar’s main priority is survival, but even after all that’s happened what he really wants is peace and for the apes to be left alone to live their lives. The humans however will not abide co-existence with another species of equal, if not superior, intelligence. Thus Caesar is forced to continue fighting this war and suffer the tragedies that come with it. As soon as his loved ones die by the hands of The Colonel, so does any chance of peace. From there it becomes all about vengeance. One of this film’s achievements is how strongly it depicts Caesar’s turmoil; the despondent grief he feels upon losing his family, the cold single-mindedness he brings to his hunt for The Colonel, the way he loses his very soul along with everything else that gave his life any kind of meaning. The movie makes the narrative decision to stay with Caesar throughout his quest (rather than cutting away on occasion to show us what Woody Harrelson is up to) and it is by following him at every step and seeing all that occurs through his eyes that we are able to identify so strongly with him.

Another reason of course is Andy Serkis who has, perhaps more than other actor in the past couple of decades, almost single-handedly redefined what acting is and can be. The remarkable thing about the CGI complexion they give him is that you can still see the actor beneath it all. The expressions and gestures are all his and are all so genuine that Caesar feels as real and as human as anything else. That he has portrayed this character across an entire lifetime from infancy to adulthood to old age over the course of three movies is in itself an astonishing feat. Here he deftly conveys the kind of forlorn, world-weary melancholy that you only get from those old veteran characters who have been through hell and have carried it with them ever since, the kind that we saw from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Hugh Jackman in Logan, to name a couple. This is a character who deserves to be memorialised in the hall of fame of sci-fi heroes and, if the Oscars were to finally look past the CGI barrier and recognise the actor behind it all, it would be well-deserved and about time.

It still astonishes me that I can watch a war take place between human beings and talking apes and take it as seriously as I could if I were watching Platoon. Indeed, there are echoes of Vietnam in this movie (which, unlike Kong: Skull Island, does not beat you over the head with it) and it is clear that Matt Reeves was especially inspired by Apocalypse Now (there’s even one point in the film where you can see the term ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ inscribed in graffiti). This is especially apparent in Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, a bald, philosophical villain cut from the same cloth as Kurtz and holding a similar heart of darkness (although his goal of building a wall does invite comparison to another figure). There is a parallel between him and Caesar as The Colonel seems to be fighting his own war of vengeance, that being for his species. We learn that there is a virus going round infecting the humans and rendering them mute and primitive, an epidemic that The Colonel intends to stop by executing and burning any and all who are affected. What we see here is a man who recognises that the time for human beings is ending and so has done away with his humanity.

One of the signs of great science fiction is that it provides a reflection of the world as we know it and of ourselves. In War of the Planet of the Apes we see people, humans and primates alike, who are affected by tragedy, pain, and loss and who turn to violence and revenge as an answer, one that inevitably begets more tragedy. We see the fear and aggression that comes with being confronted with that which we cannot understand and with losing our power and control. It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There’s also humour to be found in this film, particularly from Bad Ape who doesn’t understand much of what’s going on. There’s also empathy to be found, this time from the silent Nova and the bond she forms with her simian rescuers. Through her we see the bridge that could be built between the two species, one of compassion and understanding, if only things hadn’t turned out the way they had. This is a great film and it is a great end to a great trilogy.

★★★★★