My annual film round-up, in which, as usual, I pick out 20 films to highlight, the only requirement being that I saw the film during 2017, regardless of when it was released.
I watched just under 300 films in 2017, a little more than usual, and I enjoyed so many of them that limiting myself to 20 was a challenge. Because of this, I’ve left a few obvious candidates off: much as I enjoyed them, you don’t need me to recommend big-name pictures like Logan, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok or Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Hopefully you’ll find my list a worthwhile read regardless.
A look at how George Lazenby briefly became James Bond, equal parts dramatisation and interview. The reenactments of Lazenby’s memories are wonderful, funny, risqué and surreal, while the interview segments with Lazenby, still a magnetic and imposing presence at 78, are sweet and touching. Worth watching even if you’ve no interest in the Bond franchise itself; Becoming Bond may at heart be a tall tale, but it’s perfectly told.
Kelly Reichardt’s previous films have tended to be quiet and unassuming, intensely focused on character above all, and Certain Women continues this theme, meandering in and out of the lives of a handful of Montana women: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams are all at their best; the film is poignant, charming, and strangely enthralling.
Antonio Campos’ biographical drama concerning the public death by suicide of 1970’s news reporter Christine Chubbuck is an understandably dark piece, and Rebecca Hall in the title role turns in a painfully believable portrayal of depression. An intense watch, straightforwardly presented.
While the marketing for Colossal suggested a light-hearted, quirky kaiju flick, in which Anne Hathaway could somehow control the movements of a giant monster appearing on the other side of the world, the film turned out to have unexpected depths and startling performances. With a narrative taking in alcoholism, depression and, through a terrifying, playing-against-type Jason Sudeikis, physical and emotional abuse, Colossal is smarter and more important than its wacky trailers let on.
The Death of Stalin
Some cognitive dissonance is needed for this one, as, while The Death of Stalin is brilliantly funny, the reality of the period was one of despair, violence and torture. Nonetheless, this is excellent: a complex story, a witty script and hysterical performances from the entire cast, from Jeffrey Tambor’s dimwitted Malenkov to Steve Buscemi’s scheming Khrushchev, from Andrea Riseborough’s willfully ignorant Svetlana Stalin to Jason Isaacs’s thunderingly brash Georgy Zhukov. A genuinely brilliant comedy; the actual morality of enjoying this, though, I’ll leave to you.
Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut is an unsettling story of schoolgirls, dance troupes and an inexplicable wave of seizures, with superb performances from an all-child cast, largely made up of non-actors, and a score that’s like nails down a blackboard. Treading similar ground to 2014’s The Falling but significantly more accomplished, The Fits is a captivating and surprising work.
A slow-burning, faintly-Hitchcockian post-World War I drama, presented in a beautiful black and white, Frantz is a film of secrets only cautiously revealed. With themes ranging from remorse and guilt to hatred and forgiveness, to say too much here would ruin the mystery; be assured though that this is a sensitive and sweet film, gently performed.
The Girl With All The Gifts
A great adaptation of a great book, The Girl With All The Gifts is a resolutely British zombie story that feels vaguely like 28 Days Later by way of John Wyndham. Paddy Considine, Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton give strong support to the star of the film, Sennia Nanua as the infected child Melanie whose ability to (mostly) control her undead urges could hold the key to the future. A tense story, briskly told, and enjoyably bleak.
I’ve got a lot of time for Robert Pattinson who’s appeared in my lists before thanks to Cosmopolis and The Rover. In Good Time he disappears into the role of Connie Nikas, a wiry, wired New York thief who spends an increasingly-destructive night trying to free his mentally ill brother from prison after a failed bank robbery. Perhaps the most exhilarating film I saw all year, Good Time barely stops for breath as Nikas propels himself through the film, inexhaustibly driven by his love for his brother and his rage at how society treats them both. This is a bracing but grainy and grimy film, all lurid neon and John Carpenter-style electronics on the soundtrack, all set in a part of New York rarely filmed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore
Macon Blair, who acted previously in Blue Ruin and Green Room, now directs this unassuming dark comedy thriller that sees Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as a pair of hapless neighbours trying to recover stolen goods after a burglary, politely raging at a world largely uninterested in helping. Taut, acerbic, quietly funny and occasionally shocking.
Pablo Larraín’s Jackie isn’t just another historical biopic, but is instead oppressive, intimate and claustrophobic. Natalie Portman gives a career-best performance as the grieving Jackie Kennedy, simultaneously fragile and hard, and Mica Levi’s unconventional score gives the whole film an unsettling, grasping quality. An uncomfortable piece, but I was transfixed until the end.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
An impeccable character drama I’ve found myself returning to more than once on the strength of the performances from Raúl Juliá and William Hurt as prisoners sharing a Brazilian jail cell, one incarcerated for political reasons and the other for sexual offences. The contrasts and interplay between Juliá’s macho leftist revolutionary and Hurt’s soft-spoken, cross-dressing romantic forms the backbone for an intense and suspicious relationship that the film gradually both chips away at and reinforces, as both men try to bring the other to their own side. More than 30 years on, the film still feels new.
A sharp shock of a drama, one that starts off rotten and festers throughout. Set in 19th century rural England and telling the story of Florence Pugh’s Katherine, who, stuck in a loveless marriage to an uninterested older man, turns to adultery and violence to fill the void. Everyone turns in a solid performance, but Pugh in particular is excellent, a chilling and unforgiving presence.
The baffling, laugh-free presence of an English-accented Seth MacFarlane is the only misfire in Steven Sodenburgh’s otherwise-charming hayseed heist that comes with a witty script, complex storytelling, a real and respectful sense of place, and a brace of fun characters that Soderbergh has an obvious affection for. The scene stealer here is Daniel Craig as the twitchy explosives expert, but Adam Driver’s understated turn as a war veteran amputee deserves a mention as well. Logan Lucky is a blue collar Ocean’s 11 without the smarm.
An adaptation of a play of the same name, and it shows: this film’s strength lies not in flashy visuals or dramatic single-takes, but in the dialogue and the performance. Set in the near future, where holograms act as external memories of deceased loved ones, Marjorie Prime slowly takes us through a series of conversations between the living and the dead. John Hamm is typically John Hamm, with his Bruce Wayne jaw and unshakable voice; Lois Smith, clutching at memories even as she tries to re-write them, is haunting; Geena Davis, on our screens far less than she ought to be, is heartbreakingly hardened. A thoughtful and cerebral piece, beautifully shot and written.
Where do you even begin with a film like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight? Do you write about the impeccable performances of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron as a child, teenager and adult? Or maybe focus instead on Naomie Harris’s transformative turn as Chiron’s mother through the same period? Perhaps I could write about the incredible glowing cinematography, or Nicholas Britell’s mesmerising orchestral score. Moonlight is flawless, a film of exquisite beauty in every aspect; a perfect film.
Train to Busan
A unique zombie story from South Korea set almost entirely on the train from Seoul to Busan. Claustrophobic, darkly comic, a solid emotional core, some Romero-esque social commentary, and train staff with an incredible sense of professionalism, Train to Busan is remarkable.
One of the nastiest and bleakest horror films I’ve ever seen, even as it segues occasionally into a heartwarming teenage relationship drama. Eric Ruffin as Milo, a murdering child who believes himself to be a vampire, is chilling, and the film grimly takes us along for the ride as he kills without emotion and vomits the blood he’s drunk. Chloe Levine as Milo’s abused acquaintance Sophie is just as outstanding as she gradually opens up around him, thinking she’s found a friend. Brace yourself before watching this one.
Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets
The preposterous casting of the perpetually-sickly Dane DeHaan as a philandering space rogue really makes Valerian a hard film to enjoy; not only is there no chemistry between him and the supposed love of his life, his behaviour is that of a whining friend-zoned Redditor than of the buccaneering military genius he’s supposed to be. If you can get past this though, the film has plenty to enjoy. Visually it’s incredible, the action is fun, there’s something new and weirdly sci-fi in every other scene, Rhianna plays a shape-shifting alien and Ethan Hawke is Ethan Hawke. The miscasting of the leads means I can only recommend this with serious reservations, but if you want something to show off your new 4K TV, this is the film for you.
My full review of Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets
War for the Planet of the Apes
Part three in the blockbuster trilogy nobody ever seems to talk about, Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes continues the franchise’s focus on small-scale, personal conflicts set against an apocalyptic backdrop. While the film’s marketing suggested a war in the traditional sense, this is actually a far more focused and intense battle between man and man, with the apes once again just trying to stay out of the way and live their lives. Truthfully, I was blown away by War, a film of astonishing performances not just from returning stars Andy Serkis and Karin Konoval but from newcomer Steve Zahn as the shell-shocked comic relief “Bad Ape”, and from Woody Harrelson as a self-appointed Colonel Kurtz figure, presenting himself as humanity’s last chance to survive. A visually stunning work with beautiful snow-packed cinematography, and the performance capturing by Weta Digital is absolutely the best I’ve seen. A clever, subtle, poignant film, and perhaps the best of the series.
The Man Who Haunted Himself, Hell or High Water, Subway, Fat City, These Final Hours, Little Sister, Hidden Figures, Body Heat, Cut Bank, Get Out, Girl Asleep, Kong: Skull Island, Murder Party