In many ways 2017 has been an incredible year for cinema, a time where art has often outshone the adversity of the industry’s infection of creeps and bullies. In the mainstream box office, we’ve seen mid-budget movies like IT take on powerhouses like Transformers and win, while in the independent sphere there seems to have been an increased level of representation across the board with Moonlight winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards and the likes of Get Out becoming huge hits (despite being wrongly categorised as a Comedy by the Golden Globes – remember, “it’s a documentary”). Streaming services have also upped their game with Netflix releasing Okja and breakout documentary hit Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, and Amazon have released Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea. Blockbusters were changed forever too, as Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman proved once and for all that women can make money at the box office, that males will watch females in lead roles, and that women absolutely can be just as successful as men in the mainstream, setting records for achieving the highest grossing opening weekend of any female directed film and the highest overall gross of any film directed by a person of the female gender. In this article, I shall break down all of these great and important movies into a top 10 list based on their quality as pieces of art, so I encourage that you do the same (and let me know of the choices you disagree with) in the comments below.
Disclaimer: In order to be eligible for this list, a film must have been released to UK audiences in the 2017 calendar year.
10. Wind River
Taylor Sheridan followed up his screenplays for critically acclaimed movies Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) with a third tense and beautifully constructed screenplay in as many years, this time also taking the reins as director for Wind River starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner. Kicked on by an intense and moving score constructed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this investigative thriller set in the mountains of Wyoming used its premise of an FBI agent attempting to solve a murder as a means of re-emphasising cinematic discussions surrounding the treatment of Native Americans – this time in the modern context, particularly regarding women – and explored themes of masculinity, humanity’s relationship to nature and, in a more subtle sense, America’s relationship with the world. As has been the case in much of the current surge of great Sheridan works, Wind River was grounded by characters who were fundamentally flawed, gifting the picture a fitting sense of darkened, almost poisoned reality, while visually portraying a suffocating blanket not unlike the lack of hope present in the characters’ journeys and personal struggles. Taking kindly from directors Sheridan provided screenplays for in the past – most noticeably Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), whose poise and sense of timing was clearly an inspiration – the director managed to create a story that seemed felt rather than witnessed, a truly immersive thriller with fantastic work in all aspects.
9. Get Out
Comedian Jordan Peele made his directorial debut with this 2017 surprise horror hit, and given the flair and originality of his presentation, it’s likely that he’ll become one of the more sought after filmmakers in the industry in the coming years. The director, who worked from his own script, told his tale with a poise not often seen in first time filmmakers, and respectfully used Get Out to offer a commentary on the United States’ treatment of minorities, specifically black people, throughout history and in the current political landscape. Playing out somewhat like a ‘Black Mirror’ episode crossed with 2012 horror The Cabin in the Woods, and starring Daniel Kaluuya and Bradley Whitford who starred in each of them respectively, Get Out was a useful metaphor for the plight of the black man in both liberal and conservative white areas of the US, and worked to highlight the insecurities and injustices of the contemporary political landscape.
8. 20th Century Women
Mike Mills’ drama about a mother’s relationship to her son in the midst of huge social change at the end of the 1970s and the differing mannerisms of the generations of women she has surrounded her small family with, is a triumph of storytelling and performance that Annette Bening should certainly have been more greatly appreciated for during awards season. The actress, whose career grows more and more unlikely to throw up a bad performance as the years pass by, was a joy to behold as she delved into her character, portraying someone that was greatly appreciated but also the source of much frustration for her loving son, the writer of the film’s original material. 20th Century Women presents the female journey at three key stages of life – sexual awakening, finding one’s self, accepting mortality – in a manner that doesn’t feel contrived or patronising, nor fake or down-trodden, but instead celebratory of ordinariness and reassuring of how little some big things can matter and how much some small things seem to.
7. Toni Erdmann
A comedy unlike any other in 2017, Toni Erdmann was celebrated across Europe for its sensational, layered story of a woman coming to terms with herself through interactions with her unwelcome father. The Maren Ade picture, which so wonderfully excelled in its quirkiness, was a character study that grew into a commentary on multi-nationalism and the growing divide between generations as caused by technology and a growing emphasis on individualism, and was wonderfully awkward courtesy of the classy performances of Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. Toni Erdmann may have you rejoicing in ways you may not have done for a long time, and it makes sure to earn every inch of investment you hold towards it, with its near 3 hour run-time never seeming to be overly long.
6. Manchester by the Sea
A harrowing drama surrounding a grief stricken family learning to cope with the realities of their spiralling lives, Manchester by the Sea was first and foremost a writer’s movie, with screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his work. The filmmaker, who stood in to direct once Matt Damon had departed to film Downsizing, was ultimately the best choice for the role, placing the camera only at the points of his tightly knit screenplay that worked best to enhance the work of his supremely talented cast. The performances of Michelle Williams, Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges were some of the most powerful put to screen this calendar year, a point emphasised by Affleck’s winning of the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar awards for Best Actor, and Michelle Williams earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Actress in a Supporting Role. Manchester by the Sea was by no means a flashy, auteur movie, but as a drama it will be remembered for its powerful screenplay and fantastic performances.
A tale of masculinity and sexuality unlike any other in 2017, Moonlight was perhaps the most poetic movie of the year, with director Barry Jenkins working from real-life experiences and his own stage play to create a film where-in every aspect of the picture from script to setting and the merging of time to the presentation of characters worked cohesively to deliver a sensational portrait of how poverty and hopelessness can take its tole on any one life. Praised largely for its naturalistic presentation, not least in its sensational leading performances from the three actors portraying central character Chiron, Moonlight delivered beauty and power with the utmost grace, landing itself the 2017 Best Picture Oscar in the process.
With the faith of powerhouse studio Warner Bros behind him, Christopher Nolan was able to mark 2017 down as yet another year that he greatly impacted cinema, this time with an original, beautifully shot, dare I say “art-house” war movie. Dunkirk, which was a box office hit, was as close to a silent film (title cards and all) as exists in the modern landscape of mainstream releases, and its choices visually were about as fascinating as any this calendar year. As was the case with Inception, Interstellar and his breakout hit Memento, Dunkirk was a film through which the presentation of time was distorted, a choice that solidified Nolan’s spot in the cinematic landscape as the Auteur of Time. Seen in its best incarnation via the largest of cinema screens, on traditional film reel, Nolan dictated the reception of the picture in a manner that not only rescued the cinema as an events destination but also solidified that his own technical and artistic prowess regarding the role of film reel in movie making was highlighted. Dunkirk was a visual masterpiece that shan’t be quickly forgotten.
Mother! was a masterpiece of storytelling that worked against the conventions of regular Western cinema to place its audience off balance for the entirety of its run-time, appropriately placing us in the same uncomfortable, unknowing position as its heroine, testing our patience and our appreciation throughout. It’s no secret that Aronofsky is a filmmaker who looks to challenge people, and he did so with Mother! in such a way that the now infamous negative response the film received from audiences almost reaffirmed why the film was made, and what the film was aiming to do. Whether you come to understand the film as an allegory for man’s negative impact upon woman throughout human history, or whether you see it as an allegory for our treatment of Mother Earth under God, the manner in which Aronofsky forcibly placed us in the same messy, uncomfortable and frustrating circumstance as his heroine created a greater deal of sympathy for the character (therefore women, or the Earth itself) than any other technique could possibly achieve. Mother! attacked our senses and brought out parts of us we were uncomfortable with, and for that reason this film may not be so well appreciated now but will certainly be seen as a classic in the decades to come.
2. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s erotically charged psychological thriller adapted from Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, was effortlessly presented in context to the South Korean relationship with Japan despite originating as a British period drama, and was presented across three specific point of views played out as three separate acts. The film’s form, which played to great dramatic effect, aided an already fascinating story in such a manner that the picture’s almost obscene levels of visual beauty were exclusively reaffirming of the already existing written material. As has become the norm for director Chan-wook, The Handmaiden was astoundingly beautiful but also thought provoking, and was another entry into the director’s sensational ouevre; the best international film of the year.
Honourable Mentions: A Ghost Story, Lady Macbeth, The Beguiled, Logan, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049
1. La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was a modern classic for critics and audiences alike, finding a cynical, modern tone that contemporary audiences embraced and delivering it with the visual beauty and other-worldly feel of Hollywood’s rich history of classic musicals. Starring modern Hollywood’s most beloved on-screen couple, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the sensational tones of classic musical songs were replaced by the duo’s wispy, seemingly unconfident renditions, illustrating an innocence and relationship-based nervousness that made La La Land the ultimate millennial musical. Borrowing visual cues from the likes of Hitchcock and Sirk, Chazelle’s visual journey was as celebratory of non-musical Hollywood as the concept itself was of classic musicals, and the music – inspired by French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – was a collection of instant classics. In terms of emotion and nostalgia, La La Land was sensational, and though criticisms of the film certainly hold credence, this Damien Chazelle film is our number 1 film of 2017.