(This list is based on UK release dates and festival films without a 2018 release date)
I’ll cut to the chase: 2017 has been a superb year for films. The blockbusters have been brave, the foreign films have been fantastic, and The Boss Baby wasn’t actually that bad. Though note that while the year’s films have impressed, the people who play a part in making those films haven’t exactly done likewise. If 2016 was the year when celebrities died a hero, 2017 was the year where they lived long enough to see themselves become a villain, with allegation after allegation Wein-staining the names of Hollywood hot-shots. So here’s a welcome tonic: the celebration of the best that 2017 has to offer.
One of the main problems with a top 20 list is that it can never be definitive when you haven’t seen every film that year. I’ve seen over 150 films eligible for this list this year and is still not enough; there’s bound to be films I’ve missed that would’ve made it on this list. Those films include: The Ornithologist, Your Name, The Levelling, The Death of Louis XIV, God’s Own Country, My Happy Family, Certain Women and The Other Side of Hope.
Still – I’ve seen enough films this year to have a considerable amount of HONOURABLE MENTIONS. Aronofosky’s mother! is a divisive film but one where no viewer can deny its ambition; it’s a stunning, shriek-inducing nightmare, in the best way possible. Distant Constellation is perhaps the best documentary I’ve seen this year, presenting a sobering, contemplative look at an old folk’s home, while The Untamed is perhaps the best tentacle monster movie this year, presenting a sobering, contemplative look at… er, homophobia? It wasn’t the only foreign film to just miss out, with Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World, a tension chamber and wholly underrated piece on interaction *almost* making the cut.
Mudbound was a superb (and satisfyingly different) take on racial politics down south, and The Love Witch rekindled the 70s sexploitation aesthetic to a tee. Wonder Woman was the best superhero film of the year, because 1) Gal Gadot, 2) It didn’t show contempt of its own genre a-la Logan, and 3) Gal Gadot, and, lastly, 20th Century Women was a joyous and quietly powerful insight towards a fleeting snippet of late 70s America.
Now onto the list.
20. ON BODY AND SOUL
My top 20 begins not with a bang but with a whisper, as On Body and Soul’s two introverted leads attempt to connect in spite of their clear disconnect from the rest of the world. The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale takes a dangerously ludicrous conceit – two people share the same dream (of deer in a forest, surrounded by gratifying isolation) – and turns it into something genuine, concealing its profundity much like its characters conceal their feelings. This is not, however, your twee indie romance: cows are gutted, bathwater is bloodied, and Alexandra Borbély’s character does the dirty with a soft toy. It adds a unique, sharp quality to proceedings, its moments of contemplation interrupted by intervals that would seem surreal if it didn’t fit so snugly into the world director Enyedi creates for us. It’s not so much boy-meets-girl as boys-tries-to-meet-girl-again-and-again; there’s something satisfyingly punchy about how little On Body and Soul cares for typical romance, the tropes played out in the heads of its unlikely couple and inevitably abandoned with each interaction.
19. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
I remain one of the few dissenters of Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort, The Lobster, but here he finds good use for his deliberately deadpan dialogue and penchant for squirmish scenarios, fashioning a horrifying Greek tragedy on favouritism, blame, justice, and how to eat spaghetti (most horrifying of all, it’s absolutely hilarious). Colin Farrell’s family is put under the cosh by Barry Keoghan, a revelation in his role as God (Old Testament, most likely). Perhaps Lanthimos’ most impressive instinct is to rid the narrative of reason, and focus on the interactions and reactions of each character: lines that may initially seem non-sequiturial morph into anything but (Farrell mentions his daughter’s period to balance the attention given to his son during a party talk, but this favouritism devolves into quite literally a matter of life and death). And even if you don’t manage to reconcile the outrageous (though linear for Lanthimos’ standards) plot, there’s solace to be found in the grim humour of Keoghan biting a chunk of flesh from his arm and shouting ‘It’s metaphorical! It’s metaphorical!’
You can read my review here.
Presented to clamour at last year’s Cannes, and presented to silence on this year’s Netflix, there are a Brazilian reasons why you should see Aquarius; though the most important is Sônia Braga. She plays Clara, an aging mother refusing to let go of her residence that’s due for demolition (and with it, her past). Aquarius is at once stirring and scathing, its swells of music brimming with the nostalgia Braga clings to, while its narrative a direct indictment of the state of politics in Brazil. The ending may not exactly satisfy (simply for the fact that it’s a little too satisfying for such a clever film), but everything leading up to it is glorious, from its giddy San Junipero-esque opening to its gently furious character study. Zoom ins and zoom outs centre their gaze at Braga, and she commands the screen. She’s the past in miniature, stubborn and melancholic, her residence a temple within which each of her memories exist. The film rests on her shoulders, and Braga more than obliges.
17. GOOD TIME
Don’t let the title fool you: this isn’t a good time, it’s a great time. Though not for Robert Pattinson’s Connie, who attempts (emphasis on ‘attempts’) to stage a bank heist with his brother. The bank heist goes awry (the film’s only moment you can predict) and his brother is locked away. Thus follows a night of blood, drugs and mistaken identity, as Connie desperately fights for his rescue. In less careful hands, the affairs of the night would come across as implausible, but the Safdie brothers ground their film by stripping it of its inherent melodramatic elements until only its brutalist edge remains. The score pulsates and the camera indulges in the closest of close-ups, exposing a loosening of Connie’s grip on proceedings. But perhaps Good Time’s most interesting dynamic is the relationship between its two brothers – one born out of both love and selfishness. Are Pattinson’s feelings towards his brother genuine, or does he reconcile his crimes with fabricated goodwill? Good Time doesn’t give you a straightforward answer, though its stirring ending is telling. Pattinson sells it magnificently, a figure entrenched in neon-lit grime.
16. LA LA LAND
There isn’t an ending capable of stirring quite as powerful an emotion this year as that in La La Land. The film may have lost out to Moonlight in farcical circumstances at the Oscars, but that’s just following the long list of superior recent runner-ups (see: Gravity, Boyhood, The Revenant). Fittingly, it shares these films’ unreasonable swathes of backlash – talks of racism, Hollywood glorification, etc, that simply aren’t true. So I’ll sing La La Land’s praises. Gosling’s character isn’t a white saviour – John Legend’s stance on revitalising the jazz genre rung true for most of the film. And Hollywood isn’t glorified – Stone may be successful, but think of all those disillusioned singers in ‘Another Day of Sun’ that we ignore for the rest of the film . Yes, on the face of it, both these complaints are true, but by voicing these complaints, people are failing to recognise a much deeper and more thoughtful film than they give credit for. And an audience who remains stubborn in reading La La Land at face value still cannot deny that ending’s impact: a gut-punch of the senses and a melancholy hotpot of incredible production.
15. THE HANDMAIDEN
A Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee, hired by a con-man that acts under the guise of a Count, is sent to work as a maid for a Japanese heiress in order to throw her in a looney-bin and take her money. Sounds (relatively) simple, right? Okay, not really, but this synopsis is still child’s play compared to the actual proceedings. The first time I watched Park Chan-Wook’s twisty, intoxicating thriller, I thought it was a riotously enjoyable film that was a little too clever for its own good. Giving it a rewatch, it becomes clear that The Handmaiden is just clever: lace-laden layers upon layers of commentary. Its a study on objectification that forces the viewer into the role of an objectifier. It weaves 1930s themes that apply to the modern porn industry, utilising ornaments as visual motifs for the transformation from subjugation and oppression to freedom and self-discovery. It parallels the relationship between the Japanese and the Korean with the relationship between its men and women. And yes, it’s still a riotously enjoyable film, realising a narrative that’s funny, emotional, and genuinely goosebumps-level surprising.
14. FREE FIRE
Ben Wheatley is a director who improves with every film, and his follow-up to last year’s brilliant High-Rise is this year’s brilliant-er Free Fire. Taking shoot-em-up tropes and openly mocking them, Free Fire is a genre exercise that’s not afraid to display the ‘exercise’, putting its moustache-plastered characters through the wringer as they battle it out in an abandoned warehouse. The action is gloriously chaotic, the space knowingly ill-defined and the bullets a ricocheting and misfiring mass that makes sure everyone gets injured and no-one dies – until, well, they finally do. The gun-slinging may be chaotic but there’s no mistaking Free Fire’s characters, featuring Wheatley’s most star-studded cast yet. In spite of Armie Hammer and Brie Larson’s presence, it’s Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley that revitalise Free Fire whenever it threatens to enervate. Or perhaps the film’s defiant refusal to tire out lies in Wheatley’s control: Free Fire is expertly structured, giving time to introduce the characters, build up a sublime tension, and maintain it for the next hour. It may be the most straightforward film on this list, but there’ solace to find in simplicity.
Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his longest film yet, Interstellar, is his shortest: a thrilling, stomach-churning tension chamber light on the blood and heavy on the bloody good. His tactics of playing with time to inject his films with an unmatched energy pays dividends here, as land, sea and air are separated before clashing together in a cacophony of metal, oil, and patriotism. More importantly, his achilles heel – clunky dialogue – rarely rears its ugly head, the film’s loudness arising from Hans Zimmer’s mania-inducing score. Though perhaps it’s the quiet after the noise that marks Dunkirk out as another excellent entry in its director’s filmography, the closing imagery as inspiring and jaw-droppingly beautiful as anything you’ve seen this year. Every great director has a war-film under their belt (Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket, Malick and Thin Red Line, etc), and Nolan may just have entered that pantheon of directors if he hasn’t already. The film has its faults – Harry Styles, no matter how good he is, remains distracting, and the fish-in-a-barrel scene jars – but Dunkirk remains a rousing success, and a celebration of the bull-dogged British spirit. Nobody can muster up melodrama like Nolan can.
12. THE RED TURTLE
The second-best animated film this year (spoilers!), The Red Turtle is a Dutch-Japanese collaboration that’s almost about nothing until it’s about something. Simply put, the film is a blank slate, a minimalist recipe of life that gives you the ingredients and tells you to do whatever you want with it. The Red Turtle begins with a man washed up on an island, and his encounter with the titular red turtle forms the first half of the story. There’s little to grab onto from a narrative standpoint, though the magisterial score and lush, painstakingly rendered imagery tides you over. The remaining half then slowly creeps up on you – before you realise it, The Red Turtle transforms from a film about nothing into a film about everything, life – all life – in miniature. It’s a film concerning interaction that interacts with its audience; there’s a reason why its a silent film – the voice is yours to give.
11. PADDINGTON 2
Britain’s unlikely hero comes in the form of Paddington, a bear with a penchant for politeness. 2014’s Paddington was charming, but its sequel is magical, immediately transporting us into its larger-than-life world, where passersby accept the presence of a duffle coat-wearing bear and newsagents can live in rich West London neighborhoods. Paddington 2 is riotous fun from the off, marma-laden with treats: there’s Hugh Grant’s sublime pantomime villain, Brendan Gleeson’s prison chef with a heart (Knuckles, spelled with a capital N), and a whole host of jaw-dropping set-pieces. London comes to life in pop-up-book form, the trees of Peru spring out of a prison cell, and Hugh Bonneville manages the splits between two trains. King isn’t content with just an excellent plot and a hefty emotional core though – no, Paddington 2 has a vital, spirited message of British togetherness, acceptance – heck, there’s even timely commentary on prisons in England. In a state of transition, where Brexit looms, Paddington 2 is both a relevant cry for solidarity and some gorgeously delightful respite.
To read my Top 20 Films of 2017 (10-1), click here.