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

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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.

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The Death of Stalin

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor

Director: Armando Iannucci

Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows


In the opening scene of The Death of Stalin, a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is listening and informs the head of the radio station Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) that he would like a recording. Andreyev realises to his utter terror that the concert is not being recorded and now he must make one in the time it will take Stalin’s envoy to arrive for its collection. This means convincing famed pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an avowed critic of the Soviet regime, to perform the whole concerto once more, sending the secret police to abduct another conductor after the first one is rendered unconscious, and pulling people off the street so that the acoustics sound right. They go through all these astoundingly absurd lengths in order to comply with the General Secretary’s request, so absolute was Stalin’s terror and the country’s fear of him. I knew going in that I was about to see a farcical satire, but I could never have imagined just how agonisingly dark that comedy would be.

As Stalin receives the recording, enclosed is a note from Yudina outlining all of the ways that he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note he laughs, then starts coughing, and then collapses. After Stalin is discovered the next day, the members of the Central Committee are alerted. They include security chief Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Also part of the committee is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who Stalin added to his list of enemies just the night before. With the Soviet leader now on his deathbed, his advisors resolve to act quickly in order to consolidate their authority in the power vacuum that is to follow. Key ingredients to a triumphant succession and securing control over the USSR are the Red Army, led by Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). As factions arise and plots are conspired, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose.

The Death of Stalin is a farce in the same way as Dr. Strangelove. It takes a deeply frightening story and finds humour in the absurdity of it all; the nightmarish circumstances, the deranged logic of the events that transpire, the malicious nature of these characters, and even in the awful tragedy of this brutal regime. It works on the principle that people are funnier when they are being serious and sincere, as opposed to when they’re trying to be funny. There is enough distance between us and the past that we can recognise the behaviour and thinking of these characters, whether they be the calculating opportunistic conspirators, the blind ideological loyalists, or the terrified and powerless subjects, as being ridiculous without much exaggeration needed. When the most feared and dangerous man in the world is completely immobilised on his office floor lying in his own urine and nobody will even suggest that he might be dying for fear that he might recover and punish them for their treachery, you’ve got to laugh.

It works because the characters are all played realistically as subjects of the pressures and anxieties that characterised Stalinist Russia, all shrouded in an emotional fog that prevents them from seeing their predicament as the disturbed comedy that it is. The ensemble Iannucci has assembled is stellar and each actor assumes their meaty role beautifully. Beale shines as Beria, a conniving figure whose devious gears start turning the instant Stalin is discovered and wastes no time in sinking his claws into Stalin’s appointed successor, Tambor’s hilariously vain and spineless Malenkov. Buscemi is great in his turn as the intensely anxious Khrushchev, so edgy and stressed in his attempt to stay on top of things that you swear he’ll have a stroke himself before it’s all over. Palin is comic gold as Molotov, the feeble yes-man who will go along with his government’s every whim unfailingly (even when those whims concern the question of his wife’s loyalty). Also worthy of note is Isaacs as the buff, gruff and tough Zhukov, a man of action who doesn’t particularly care who succeeds Stalin and will go along with whoever has the best deal.

Iannucci has previously distinguished himself with his TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep, both about politicians and spin-doctors, made up of some combination of ambition, incompetence and nastiness, navigating the turbulent world of government, publicity and demographics. With The Death of Stalin he takes his brand of comedy to new heights. Unlike before where a cock up for Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer could result in a media embarrassment or a political loss, here a cock up means a bullet in the head. Thus the schemes are more diabolical, the scrambling is more desperate, and the self-aware reflection is more alarming than ever before. The regime of Stalin was a truly horrendous, unbearable time and this film shows us just how appalling it could get through a wickedly dark comedic lens. As with Dr. Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, things get so horrible, chaotic and devastating over time that by the end you won’t know whether to laugh or pull your own hair out.

★★★★★