Best of 2017
I have come to reject the idea that we have good and bad years in cinema. That view is usually cultivated amongst those who only follow the outcomes of the major awards ceremonies with their rather unadventurous idea of what constitutes great cinema. Year on year I see exemplary instances of how great cinema can be. 2017 was no exception and not only was I spoilt for choice but there was a real breadth of the types of brilliant films I saw. It is an astounding year in which I find myself excluding moving animations like The Red Turtle or In This Corner of the World, wry political comedies like The Death of Stalin, and something as otherworldly as The Killing of a Sacred Deer from my top 5. Here, after much fraught deliberation, are the best films of the year:
- Call Me By Your Name Luca Guadagnino has now managed to make two of my favourite films in successive years. A stellar follow up to A Bigger Splash, this story of a burgeoning gay romance over a summer in Italy was masterfully accomplished. It avoided so many clichés of gay narratives, had the best cinematography of any film out this year, and it was richly layered. Operating as a romance and a coming-of-age drama, Call Me By Your Name was also a world class compendium of scenery porn. Simply beautiful.
- Letters from Baghdad Now this was something a bit different that I simply had to draw attention to. Neither a biopic nor a documentary, Letters from Baghdad concerned the life and accomplishments of the writer, explorer, archeologist and king-maker Gertrude Bell. The form consisted of actors reading the letters of Bell and her correspondents over archive footage of the Middle East during the tumultuous period when she was instrumental in forming the nation of Iraq. The appeal for this one is admittedly niche, but it was informative and singly intriguing, giving a dense view of a complex landscape and a complex woman.
- Toni Erdmann Possibly the strangest film on this list, Toni Erdmann concerns the efforts of an ageing joker who goes to Romania to prank his Big Oil corporate consultant daughter to teach her to lighten up. Absurd German comedy, as a phrase, probably intimidates most people. The three hour running time will intimidate the rest. But this turned out to be a deeply profound experience. Both myself and the person I saw it with were astounded at how challenging and life-affirming this film was. On top of being raucously funny. I am as surprised as anyone that this film did not take the top spot.
- Elle Easily the hardest film on this list to describe and pitch. Elle is, sort of, a rape comedy. It is an incisively funny and subversive drama, with many many threads. Any one of these plots concerning Isabelle Huppert’s dynamic protagonist would be enough to sustain any other film. And yes, the central thread does concern her quest for revenge against a rapist. In her own ineffable style, of course. But it’s also about her wanton affair with her best friend’s husband, her battle with her son’s partner, her affectionate trolling of her ex-husband, and her dealing with being the daughter of a notorious child-killer. Like I said, a tough one to explain, and every bit as complex in the detail as in the overview. I’m not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it.
- The Handmaiden This really was a competitive year for great cinema but I ultimately had to settle on the film I was most keen to rewatch. In a bizarre and fruitful case of cultural exchange, The Handmaiden adapts Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith but relocates it to a Japanese residence in occupied Korea. Equal parts crime caper, erotic thriller, feminist drama, and romance, this was a rich and varied experience. Filtered through Park Chan-Wook’s provocative and sumptuous directorial style, this film moved effortlessly from sensual scenes, to quite disturbing imagery, to cruelly effective black humour. On par with his earlier masterpiece Oldboy, I cannot wait to see this again.
Worst of 2017
For all light, there must be corresponding shadow. There were many great films this year, no doubt. However, you must never doubt the film industry’s ability to produce something beyond mediocre. Given ample opportunity and astronomical budgets to waste, the studios can birth entities of pure unbridled crapulence. I am sorry to say I was spoiled for choice.
- Any of the crappy franchise fodder This entry is dedicated to not one film. This year I have suffered through film after film of badly plotted, badly shot nonsense churned out by studios trying to hoover up money from brand recognition alone. Some were the umpteenth entries in decaying series, others were abortive attempts to launch new ones. These films didn’t need to exist. There was no shred of quality. They were just wastes of time, ranging from boring to infuriating, where overpaid stars phoned it in hoping to secure sustained income from a franchise cash-cow. Which films you ask? To name but a few: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Justice League, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Mummy, The Dark Tower, Kong: Skull Island, and of course Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets And now we move on to the singularly awful entries on this list. Now Valerian was certainly no worse than some of the most loathsome franchise nonsense that came out this year but one word summarises its greatest sin: disappointment. Luc Besson can be a great director. To have a film so clearly channelling his earlier work, The Fifth Element above all overs, and see it fall so short was painful. The crass dialogue, unlikeable characters and broken plot made it pretty painful in the first place though, so that’s a whole lot of pain in one sitting.
- Viceroy’s House Typically for any review where I take a moral stance, I got some flak for virtue signalling and historical revisionism on this one. Nonetheless, I stick by what I first said: this film is a racist pile of trash trying to sanitise the brutality and vicious incompetence of British rule in India. It drenched everything in gallons of saccharine Downton Abbey conservatism with lashings of mushy romance, and then had the gall to pretend it had something insightful to say about the partition of India and Pakistan. Designed to infuse the viewer with a sense of how well-intentioned and noble the British were through the medium of objectively awful filmmaking, Viceroy’s House was a disgusting effort to airbrush history.
- Fifty Shades Darker Things are darker indeed. We had all the familiar problems of the first instalment with ‘plot’ drivel, the stigmatising of alternative lifestyles, the shallow consumerism, the hateful assumptions made about the audience, and the sheer sexlessness of it all. But this time we had an added layer of awful. The undiscerning viewer had to put up with repeated and wholly irrelevant attempts to depict abuse. Child abuse, sexual abuse and mental issues. Slap back in the middle of your erotic (read: completely unarousing) thriller. The sensitivity and nuance required to tackle this subject matter was sorely absent. Fifty Shades Darker couldn’t even handle a surprise helicopter crash of no consequence and an evil publisher (those are ACTUAL plot elements) so how they thought they could tackle real issues, I simply do not know.
- Transformers: The Last Knight Some may argue that I should have listed this above in the franchise fodder entry, but Transformers: The Last Knight truly has earned its own special place in Hell. So bad that I have to place it below racist propaganda. So bad that I can’t call a Fifty Shades movie the worst film of the year. I had not seen a Transformers film for some years before I went to see this and time had left me wholly unprepared. This film was an insult to sound design, lighting, storytelling, acting, logic and even conscious thought. I cannot remember seeing a more incompetent film in my life. I cannot fathom how a film this bad even gets made. If someone ever suggests watching this film ‘ironically’ for a laugh, cut them.