Great art leaves a mark.
The best films aren’t just pieces of entertainment, even when they’re designed to be. They hit us hard either in the head or the heart, sometimes both, and this stays with us long after the closing credits have rolled. Of course, you could say the same for bad movies. But the good ones, and I mean the really good ones, add to you. They don’t diminish you or take anything away from you like bad movies do. They’re like gifts that become a part of you, in the subtlest to the most profound of ways. It could be some kind of inspiration or insight, or just a reinforcement of what it is you love about movies in the first place.
I do realise that I might appear to be overselling my choices for 2017’s best films. And some of them are going to be controversial. But believe me when I say this: the following films made a major impact on me, and in all the best ways. Some of them made me think about human nature and big existential topics. Most of them made me feel deeply. And all of them still managed to be immensely entertaining.
After the disappointment of having two of his movies on this year’s Worst Of list, it gives me great pleasure to see Ridley Scott redeeming himself here. Based on the true story of the infamous kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s grandson, this film further cemented the notion that Scott can only be at his best when he is working from rock-solid material. If he was handicapped by an eleventh-hour replacement of star Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer, it sure didn’t show on screen. Plummer was excellent in the role of the notoriously miserly Getty, eschewing the expected “villainous” portrayal for something more complex and therefore more intriguing — a man who was incapable of seeing life as anything other than cost versus opportunity, and family as possessions. It was already there in the script but the veteran actor gave it extra dimension. Michelle Williams was just as good as the mother, all jangled nerves kept in check by a steely resolve. As per his reputation as a master visualist, Scott captured the look and feel of the 70s perfectly, all the while maintaining a steady grip on us with taut pacing and an unrelenting sense of peril for the kidnapped child. It’s easily his strongest work in a decade.
I loved Sean Baker’s last film “Tangerine”, so the anticipation for “The Florida Project” was high. It didn’t entirely live up to the lofty standard he previously set, due to an abrupt ending that made the narrative feel incomplete and the underlying theme unfulfilled. Which was a shame, because the rest of the film was simply delightful. Baker excels at portraits of marginalised communities, and this was a candid snapshot of low-income families living transitory lives in America’s motels. His film put a spotlight on how the pure innocence of children is sometimes their only protection against the desperation and depravity of the adult world. The characters felt totally authentic, with the standouts being Willem Dafoe’s kind-hearted motel manager, and the little girl played by Brooklynn Prince, one of the most amazingly natural child actors I’ve seen in a while. Charming yet sobering, this film left me grateful for the normal childhood I enjoyed and for whatever I have in my life today.
While everyone raved about the solid but unremarkable “Wonder Woman”, the real MVP for the superhero genre in 2017 was a film that quietly challenged and upended the genre. “Logan” was superior in almost every regard, from writing to directing to acting, right down to the hard R-rated action. While it honoured its comicbook roots, the film made things very clear that it had outgrown them. It used its central characters to examine adult themes like culpability and mortality in a decidedly adult manner. Refusing to fall into formula, it was a sci-fi Western, a road movie, and a dysfunctional family drama all rolled into one. And where the genre demanded world-ending stakes, this one insisted on keeping the focus small and intimate. In doing so, it gave us the most personal superhero movie ever made. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman delivered career-best performances, with the latter clearly artistically energised by the chance to finally do justice to Wolverine. The X-Men fan in me salutes him for accomplishing that, and the Cinephile in me thanks director James Mangold for proving that even the most populist, escapist fare can be approached with an arthouse mentality and still work beautifully.
As I was watching the insanely choreographed and jaw-droppingly executed opening fight scene of “The Villainess”, the first thought that struck me was that this would’ve made an awesome Black Widow solo movie. The second thought that immediately followed was that no way in a million years would Hollywood ever have the balls to do something this outrageous. Which is why we should be thankful for South Korean Cinema. It really is its own unique animal. Part schmaltzy soap opera romance, part bloodthirsty revenge thriller, the two wildly disparate halves not only complemented each other, they turned out to be essential to why the film was so damn compelling. It’s a testament to this nation’s refreshingly eccentric sensibilities and the filmmakers it produces. In this case, stuntman-turned-director Jung Byung-Gil, who orchestrated the intense violence with a delirious but always lucid eye, and steered his cast — led by an emphatic (and hawt) Kim Ok-Bin — always on the right side of melodrama. It was the best action film of the year.
Speaking of melodrama, here is a film that managed to confound or piss off a sizable amount of critics and the paying public. People just did not know what the hell to make of “mother!”. So they rejected it with a fiery hatred normally reserved for beloved pop culture properties (more on that later). Personally, I think it is the most misunderstood and underrated film of the year. Its crime, if any, was being aggressively weird. Which was precisely what I loved about it. But it wasn’t crazy for the sake of it, because there was a method to its madness. So, contrary to the accusations, it wasn’t guilty of being indecipherable. The story was very clearly a biblical analogy mixed with an environmental message, with Javier Bardem playing a version of the Old Testament God, and Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Nature (hence the title). Sure, there were some abstractions and deviations, but in the same way Picasso defied conventional depictions of the human form, director Darren Aronofsky defied conventional storytelling in favour of something more akin to stylised performance art. And I adored every minute of the fever dream experience. More!
I confess that before this, I’d never heard of filmmaking duo the Safdie brothers. Then I watched “Good Time” and I went, “Holy shit, who ARE these guys?” That’s one of the joys of being a movie lover. Discovering new creative voices that excite you. Joshua and Benny Safdie are relatively new to the scene, but they sure know how to grab an audience by the eyeballs and never let go until the ride’s over. And what a ride this film was. Most of the story set over the course of one night, it centred around a bank robber whose attempt to break his brother out of police custody saw him spiraling into a series of misadventures. Like “The Florida Project” this film was populated with characters that felt dropped in from real life, with Robert Pattinson the only hint of “movie-ness” to this. That said, Pattinson was almost unrecognisable as the bank robber, his leading man charisma rather effectively redeployed in the form of a shady, unpredictable vibe. At turns darkly comedic and nail-bitingly tense, the film got me rooting for this criminal and his criminal behavior despite the blatant wrongness of it all. Its hypnotic command over us also had to do with the neon-drenched visuals and 80s-style electronic score. I can’t wait to see what the Safdies do next.
Sadly, “Colossal” was one of the year’s most criminally underseen films. Heralded early on at film festivals, it sank without a trace upon release. It’s sad because it’s one of the year’s most strikingly original films. Genre-bending seems to be a recurring theme among my choices this year. In this case, it’s as if Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo saw “Pacific Rim” and decided to do a mash-up with an indie drama. He pulled it off so well it made me go: why didn’t anyone think of that before? “Colossal” had a wonderfully mercurial quality that it maintained the whole way through. Just when we thought we had the film figured out, it would go in a direction we didn’t see coming. If you haven’t watched it, I won’t spoil anything. Let’s just say this is a gem well worth discovering. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis were superb, both playing completely against type to great effect. While the metaphors were heavy-handed, they felt appropriate here since they were literally larger than life. And for the record, the giant robot vs giant monster stuff was way more engaging than “Pacific Rim”.
Anyone who goes into a Martin McDonagh film claiming to know how things will turn out is either psychic or lying. The Irish writer-director has a knack for unpredictable stories and characters (“In Bruges”), and his latest was no exception. Inspired by a real-world incident, “Three Billboards” revolved around a mother who put up a series of public messages aimed at local law enforcement for failing to solve the brutal murder of her daughter. In someone else’s hands, this would probably have played out as a straightforward crime procedural. McDonagh used this as a jumping off point to weave an intricate tale of human frailty in all its hilarious, embarrassing, poignant glory. And along the way, make shrewd observations about our innate need for justice and closure. The director also coaxed an acting tour de force out of his entire cast, from Frances McDormand, to Woody Harrelson, to Sam Rockwell. Somebody please hand these people some shiny gold trophies.
“The Room” is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Since its release in 2003 however, it has gained cult status around the world, with fans regularly throwing viewing parties and quoting its legendarily awful dialogue. Both the movie and its creator Tommy Wiseau even boast a following amongst Hollywood celebrities. So it wasn’t surprising that someone would make a film out of this. What was surprising was how good the film turned out to be. It would’ve been so easy to take the mean-spirited route and spend the whole time poking fun at the man and his movie.
Director & star James Franco instead decided to come from a place of genuine affection, empathy even. “The Disaster Artist” wasn’t just a behind-the-curtain account of how Wiseau and his actor buddy Greg Sestero made the movie. It was also a really sweet story of friendship, and a tribute to the moviemaking industry in general. Not everyone in this business is good at what they do, and even fewer get to do it at all. Franco addressed that pain of rejection alongside the exhilaration of just being part of something bigger than yourself. They still found plenty of room for poking fun, resulting in some of the year’s biggest laughs. But while the jokes were unavoidably at the expense of the mind-bogglingly clueless Wiseau (a very convincing Franco), it never felt exploitative or insulting. This film was obviously made with lots of love, and this kind of positivity is not only infectious, it’s sorely needed right now.
No other film in 2017 was as divisive or generated as much raw emotion as “The Last Jedi”. Love it or hate it, both sides have their respective points of view and I’m not here to try and change anyone’s mind. The beauty of any subjective art-form like Cinema is that everyone is fully entitled to their opinions, as long as they’re well-informed and well-reasoned.
So, where others saw a betrayal of a classically heroic character, I saw depth and complexity being added to a character who had almost none to begin with. For all his genius, George Lucas painted in very broad strokes, and his characters were pretty basic archetypes. In the end, director Rian Johnson still honoured Luke Skywalker as the highest form of hero — one who sacrificed himself for the greater good. Johnson just took the scenic (more interesting) route to get him there. And where others saw abrupt or disappointing resolutions to the set-ups in “The Force Awakens”, I saw a filmmaker who was actually doing us all a big favour by trimming the fat and beefing up the themes and narratives that mattered. The middle chapter of any trilogy is always difficult, and this one stumbled in places. But only ever so slightly, as far as I’m concerned. Ultimately, this film made my heart soar like a bird. All three times that I watched it. I honestly cannot say the same of any other film this year.
And still there were even better films out there last year. I never thought a biopic about a minor figure in a sport I have zero interest in would strike my fancy, let alone end up on my Top 10. Yet here it is. Talk about the power of a great story well told. US figure skater Tonya Harding’s biggest claim to fame was being involved in a plot to cripple her opponent. “I, Tonya” was far more interested in the circumstances and the people in her life that led her to that low point. It was a nasty, slow-motion car-crash of a life, with Harding’s sadistic mother at the wheel. But the film never once sought our pity for its protagonist. It struck a defiant, matter-of-fact tone that allowed the pitch-black comedy to take centre stage. If I wasn’t laughing my ass off, I was shaking my head in horror, often at the same thing.
Aussie director Craig Gillespie’s previous work was decent at best, so this was a quantum leap forward in every way. Visually it was a treat, with the camera spinning around Tonya to mirror the dizzying power of her moves on the ice, or acting as a confessional window for the characters to bare their souls/lie through their teeth. It’s as if Gillespie knew he had a potential winner on his hands and injected it with every drop of filmmaking verve he could muster. His cast rose to the occasion too, with Margot Robbie and Allison Janney giving us some of the year’s most powerful performances. “I, Tonya” was absolutely electric from start to finish, and the buzz still hasn’t worn off.
But in terms of sheer impact, only one film thoroughly blew me away. A sequel that no one thought was necessary (apart from the studio accountants, who ended up being disappointed anyway thanks to its Box Office failure). A sequel that no one believed would be able to live up to the classic status of the Ridley Scott original (itself a Box Office failure).
Guess what? Not only is “Blade Runner 2049” the best sequel to come along in a decade or more, in some ways it is actually superior to the original. Purists may cry blasphemy, but the fact is the 1982 film had a number of glaring weaknesses. Its protagonist was practically anonymous, and the plot was wafer thin. What it had going for it — in spades — was incredible atmosphere, gorgeous visuals, a stunning soundtrack, and a wealth of philosophical ideas. “2049” had those executional and intellectual strengths too, but not its weaknesses. For starters, the protagonist was way more fleshed out. Most of its central characters in fact had complete arcs and embodied thought-provoking ideas, like the tragic Officer K (Ryan Gosling in a nicely layered performance) and his AI companion Joi (a lovable Ana de Armas).
Director Denis Villeneuve knew what was required of him, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Working with the ‘82 version’s screenwriter Hampton Fancher, they led us in a quietly moving meditation on memory, identity, and loss. On the crafting front, Villeneuve let the great cinematographer Roger Deakins outdo himself with some of the most breathtakingly beautiful imagery ever committed to the big screen. It may sound clichéd to call his work here poetry in motion, but that’s exactly what it was. “Blade Runner 2049” is a film I know I will come to love and appreciate even more as time passes. That’s the true hallmark of a masterpiece.
In case you missed it, here’s Electroshadow’s Top 10 Worst Movies of 2017!