These were the best films of the year – no debate!
Of course there’s debate, there’s always debate. That’s what makes writing about film so interesting. For instance, I read many great pieces on the brilliance of Blade Runner 2049, but to me it seemed like a sluggish bore with precious little of the original’s poetry. And overall critical fave Get Out didn’t convince this horror skeptic that its social commentary was pointed enough to overcome the dull descent into horror movie cliches.
So you won’t find those films on my list, as adored as they are. But you will find a variety of other joys, some of them critically respected, others ignored or passed over. Here they are (films released in the U.K. in 2017 only):
The first time that the Oscars’ choice for Best Film has matched my own since 2007’s No Country For Old Men. Just like La La Land, its narrative is based on an age-old genre: the Bildungsroman. But Moonlight transcends its genre limitations with more agility than La La Land. Its conception of the fluidity of identity is marked by the graceful flow of its cinematography and the narrative ebbs and flows, all beautifully controlled by Barry Jenkins, whose work on the film so much deserved the Oscar for Best Director over Damien Chazelle. As a study of toxic masculinity coming up against the frightening honesty of love, it’s a story for our age, and for all ages to come.
2) My Life as a Courgette
Delightful; upsetting. I have rarely been as surprised by a film’s tonal complexity – this is in the league of Bambi, The Night of the Hunter, and Blue Velvet. Like those films, this one has moments of sheer childish pleasure, which restore your faith in a medium that is all about childish pleasures, but also contains moments of horror that could be traumatising for young viewers. Set in an orphanage, and with slightly creepy luridly coloured children with heads as large as their hearts, this doesn’t shy away from the potential calamitous damage of growing up and is all the better for it. Yet you won’t see a more heart-warming film all year.
3) The Handmaiden
Another coming-out-of-the-closet film? Good, we can’t have too many. Based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, but with the action transposed to Korea, this is audacious enough to suggest that male-female sex has its limitations, and that female-female sex might in many ways be preferable. In a film about complicated power struggles between the sexes, the heated lesbian sex scenes become symbols of equality in the face of male oppression. It’s steamy, yes, and so lusciously photographed as to be accused of glamorising sex on screen. Yet the final moments are inspiring, and crucial in understanding how this is a great story, and not mere pornography.
4) Manchester by the Sea
Perhaps the story that most people will recall from Hollywood this year is of victims of abuse speaking out against their oppressors. We always knew that Hollywood was full of grim sleazeballs, but the extent of the damage was nevertheless still a big shock. Casey Affleck has long been problematic as an actor/director who stands accused of various acts of sexual aggression towards his co-workers. I know reasonable people who refuse to watch his films because of the allegations made against him. I understand this – the charges really are grave. But in the same way I can still watch Hitchcock or Polanski films without remotely liking the men behind them, I can’t stop myself from marvelling at this film and Affleck’s performance in it. His character is the ultimate antihero – difficult, abrasive, insular. He can’t even chat up women in a bar. Which makes the depth of care you’re made to feel for him all the more remarkable. Director Kenneth Lonergan handles it all with humour and sensitivity, eliciting stellar performances from all involved.
5) The Red Turtle
A gorgeously rendered, tranquil, bleak animation that wordlessly weaves its charm. It has a faith in mankind’s ability to improve its relationship with the natural world that’s never stupid (i.e. hippieish, as in Avatar) or absolute (there are moments of cruelty by man against nature, and vice versa). And there are sequences with all the wonder of an episode of Planet Earth, and with the same moving sense of our species’ insignificance.
6) Call Me By Your Name
Try looking at a peach the same way again after watching this. Such is the magic of film: ordinary objects can be made to take on extraordinary meanings. And the magic of this particular film is in how it takes a potentially sleazy situation, with a 17 year-old falling for his father’s research assistant (an older man), and transforms it into a beautiful summer’s dreamlike illumination of romantic ecstasy. Just perfect in the youthful role, Timothée Chalamet is all gangly charm and pent-up sexual energy, his eyes full of a hope that his summer liaison can last whilst his prodigious smarts let him know that it can’t. It follows close to Summer With Monika and Before Sunrise, not to mention the Grease song ‘Summer Nights’, in showing a love affair that becomes heightened because of the time limit imposed upon it.
This really is the riskiest move that Laura Poitris has ever made as a documentarian. She follows Julian Assange: first respectfully, then questioningly, and finally with a growing sense of disillusionment as the rape allegations and other charges build up against him. It’s an expose of the man’s nastiness that raises an important question over the legitimacy of the Wikileaks project as a whole. Top marks for honesty.
8) A Monster Calls
At first I couldn’t shake the TV-movie-of-the-week feel – we know that watching a parent slowly dying from cancer must be an almost unthinkably awful thing for a young child to cope with, so why do we need to watch a film about it? Isn’t life difficult enough? I think that this film is necessary. For one, it doesn’t sentimentalise its main character: a boy who lashes out verbally and physically against the people he loves. Its fantasy elements, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, deepen the sense of psychological reality by revealing the hidden truths in a child’s mind during a terrible moment of crisis. And one devastating truth that comes towards the end transforms it into one of the most honest depictions of being forced to watch a loved one die that I’ve ever seen.
9) The Big Sick
At last! A Judd Apatow production that cracks my top 10, through sheer force of likeability. It would be as useless to argue with this film’s many charms as to argue with an ex-girlfriend in a coma.
Kathryn Bigelow takes a big step up with this, a look at one particular instance of racially motivated violence perpetrated by the police during the Detroit riots in 1967. Impressively, it eventually zooms out to depict how injustice permeates all levels of the US judicial system. It’s tense beyond belief, and there’s a deeply unsettling portrayal of how private insecurities can be dangerously unleashed in the form of violent bigotry. Particularly unnerving (and brilliant) is Will Poulter, seemingly possessed by the spirit of all of his country’s worst impulses.
11) Toni Erdmann
13) The Lost City of Z
14) The Florida Project
16) 20th Century Women
17) The Salesman
18) Marjorie Prime
19) It Comes at Night
20) A Ghost Story
21) City of Ghosts
24) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
25) Paddington 2
29) La La Land
30) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press