Friday, 29 December 2017

My 17 Best Films of 2017

As awful as 2017 turned out to be, it was undoubtedly saved by numerous trips to the movies. Here's the best of what kept us sane.

17. It

A good deal of hype, along with a suitably creepy marketing campaign, saw expectations for the first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's work reach a pitch in advance of its release. Fortunately, audiences were not disappointed. Helmer Andrés Muschietti's It is an engaging and triumphant take on a seminal title, one replete with equal parts horror, humour and ambition, likely to amuse as often as it induces palpable discomfort and outright terror. 

King's narrative still freezes the blood. In 1980s Derry, Maine, a band of friends (harvested from the best bits of The GooniesE.T. and Stand By Me) is terrorised by a malevolent presence that has long stalked their town. Taking whichever form is most likely to terrify its victims, the spirit's go-to manifestation is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an undoubted leader in fanning the flames of global coulrophobia. With his staring eyes, tufts of orange hair, twisted grin and Renaissance-era wardrobe, Skarsgård's portrayal is stunning, if not downright odd – a wicked, cruel, occasionally hilarious emissary of evil that will harry the rest of fitful sleepers everywhere. Sweet dreams.

16. Logan 

Having played the Wolverine in a host of X-Men titles since 2000, Hugh Jackman hung up his claws and bowed out in 2017 with the spectacularly violent Logan, a final instalment in the otherwise underwhelming trilogy dedicated to the character. The Wolverine director James Mangold returns to the fold and recalibrates his approach, dispensing with the relatively sanitised populism that had held Jackman's inner maniac in check for 17 years. His was a wise decision.

Given that Logan is an ornery loner with anger issues and retractable metal blades in his fists, he has always appeared slightly stunted in various cinematic outings. Mangold releases the shackles here, unleashing Jackman as a foul-mouthed agent of destruction, cutting his way (quite literally) through a swathe of bad hombres to a bloody finish. Thankfully, the savagery is far from gratuitous. A touching story of friendship and sacrifice underpins everything, not least Logan's attempts to shield ailing mentor Charles Xavier (a pitch-perfect Patrick Stewart) and young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) from a nefarious paramilitary group. Stripped down to the bare bones, and eschewing the assumptions of its genre DNA, Logan was a thrilling surprise.

15. Silence

An apogee of Martin Scorsese's ever-evolving relationship with religion, Silence's long gestation (Scorsese started adapting Shusaku Endo's novel in 1990) imbues it with an austere air every bit in keeping with that of something long considered the auteur's passion piece. Ostensibly focusing on the trials of Portuguese Jesuits in 17th-century Japan, its weighty overtones and ideas of devotion, contrition and faith are largely unavoidable. 

Given the director's past penchant for archly cinematic grandstanding, such a mix of religious fervour and spiritual symbolism could have fallen into the realms of the ridiculous. It is anything but. The idealistic padres are plunged into an unforgiving landscape, one that immediately tests their learning and adherence to the power of the almighty. Blessed with an impressive central trio – Andrew Gardfield, Adam Driver and the white whale of the story, Liam Neeson – Silence is an arresting chronicle of tribulation and torment. Aesthetic excellence aside, it's no easy watch, but, with a multitude of urgent questions demanding equally urgent answers, it is an essential one.

14. John Wick: Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves's unthreateningly named assassin returned to screens in 2017 trailing the same rage he marshalled two years ago, while deftly switching roles from apex predator to fleeing prey. In sole command, following the departure of John Wick co-director David Leitch for pastures new (Atomic Blonde), Chad Stahelski oversees a heightened, refined version of chapter one. Drenched in a rich neon glow and throbbing with unholy savagery, the world is expanded, feeling infinitely more dangerous. 

Like another Reeves epic, SpeedChapter 2's ferocious pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build up Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane fixer can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.

13. Wind River

Jeremy Renner produced arguably 2017's most understated performances in Taylor Sheridan's desolate frontier fable. As a crime thriller and wintry mystery, Wind River satisfies on both fronts. Sheridan penned the equally superb Sicario and Hell or High Water, two pictures bristling with the poise that makes this so compelling, and, like the former, a female focal point (in this case, Elizabeth Olsen's callow FBI agent) serves as a vital ingredient.

But it is Renner who distinguishes himself. A solitary wildlife hunter, sullen as he is gentle, he elevates Wind River with a quiet resolve, the necessary bridge between the distinct worlds of federal authority and native custom. He and Olsen range across the tundra of the titular Indian reservation, determined to bring to justice those responsible for the rape and murder of a local woman (a real-world theme worthy of attention). Sheridan uses this strange match to blend hard-boiled noir and naturalistic motifs, skilfully rendering a visceral, genuinely intriguing drama of no little depth.

12. The Beguiled

The American civil war forms the backdrop of Sofia Coppolla's bewitching psychological drama, a remake of the Clint Eastwood-starring 1971 original, which was itself a reworking of the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. A significantly more sober affair than the earlier iteration, Colin Farrell fills out the Eastwood-shaped space by imbuing his wounded soldier with a knowing, raffish air that spreads and creeps, like a drug, through his staid Southern refuge. Both his nemesis and saviour, Nicole Kidman's stately headmistress balances the impact of his arrival at a secluded Virginia girls school.

While its evocative milieu and quiet foreboding do much to stir the emotions, Coppolla's direction remains spare. She weaves her spell with grace and a sure hand, resisting the urge to rush towards her conclusion. Exquisite to behold and laced with sexual, political and societal tension, The Beguiled's trump card is an utterly brilliant showing by Kirsten Dunst, whose entire form bleeds sadness, regret and unwanted solitude. 

11. It Comes at Night

As Trump and Brexit tear at the fibres of reality, our appetite for consuming dystopian fiction continues apace. Trey Edwards Shults's sophomore directorial effort is a spartan and chilling hellscape of a movie, presented free of context and armed with the assurance that its atmosphere alone is enough to draw in an audience. He is not wrong. It Comes at Night is almost majestic in its bleakness, offering rewards aplenty for those willing to invest. 

Not a film that sits easily in the horror annals, in spite of its trappings, this is placed in a world where an unspecified disease has ruptured society. How far its toll extends beyond the isolated forest homestead of paranoid Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is never revealed. It almost doesn't matter: The immediacy of their predicament is clear. Raiding outsiders, the spectre of sickness, dwindling supplies and the arrival of a questionably motivated young couple, Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keogh), are concerns too pressing to afford space for anything else. With a searing performance from Edgerton to the fore, Shults ratchets up the pressure with slow, steady abandon, rumbling towards a conclusion as deliberately opaque as the rest of the tale.

10. The Lost City of Z

Little seen but fascinating, this account of explorer Percy Fawcett's Amazonian odyssey during the early twentieth century enjoyed limited financial success in spite of its grand framing. A meagre box office haul is no indicator of quality, however. The ever discerning James Gray brings his keen eye to an adaptation of David Grann's 2009 book focusing on Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his search for a lost metropolis somewhere in the vast, unknowable reaches of the South American jungle.

Gray's film is absorbing and often imperious. It burns slow, possessed of a quietly swaggering certainty, unfolding as it sees fit. The spectacle is often located in humble themes – family, class, pride and the terrible price of obsession – and admirable confidence shines through in powerfully straightforward aspirations. As with the celluloid adventures of the 70s and 80s, The Lost City of Z pulls off the trick of being both aloof and engaged, Gray's sumptuous style finding form in the rainforest's deafeningly naturalistic soundscapes and the terrific cast's minimal exposition. 

9. Baby Driver

If style alone decided success, Baby Driver would have crushed the opposition before its first track played out. Such is the unfettered joy at the heart of Edgar Wright's outrageously entertaining heist caper that its whip-smart plot winds up as a somewhat unnecessary addendum. The marvellous cast (Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal) delivers in spades, Hamm, in particular, bringing much of Don Draper's charisma to bear as a surprisingly complex antagonist.

Where Wright succeeds above all else, of course, is in executing a phenomenally slick actioner that pays homage to the genre without ever ripping it off. Indeed, Baby Driver went unchallenged by its 2017 peers – none could compete with its signature brew of stunt work and strutting fearlessness, all underpinned by a fluidity of purpose. As getaway driver Baby (Elgort) motors to the beat of a continuous soundtrack used to drown out the tinnitus inside his head, Wright's instinct is to carry us along for the ride, the tunes scoring and directing the weaving, drifting vehicle for this singular vision. 

8. War for the Planet of the Apes

The third chapter in a rebooted franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes ups the ante from films one and two, delivering a bold and brilliantly imagined sci-fi epic that builds on the foundations already laid. Anchored by more than one  performance – most notably Andy Serkis's breathtaking depiction of hyper-intelligent alpha chimpanzee Caesar and Woody Harrelson's swivel-eyed villainy – the picture completes the not insignificant task of outdoing its accomplished predecessors.

From a technical standpoint, War is an astonishing feat. If incumbent director Matt Reeves prefers not to linger on the brilliance of his film, favouring plot over bombast, its merits are no less obvious. This is a story revolving around a group of CG simians that never once seems as if it is riffing on the wizardry required to bring that cast to life. It is no stretch to conclude that these look and move like the real thing, with every single detail, from their matted, sodden and snow-sprinkled fur to their squat and shuffling movements, rendered in agonising detail. Sorrow, fear and contentment inhabit their eyes. It is stunning stuff. 

7. Get Out

One could be forgiven, in the first year of the Trump assault on decency and progress, for failing to foresee the oncoming racial polemic in a below-the-radar horror flick created by comedian Jordan Peele and featuring Josh from The West Wing as its creepy oddball. It is in that slyness, however, that Peele's Get Out unfurls its secrets. The freshman director spins a vivid yarn, by turns amusing, grotesque and uniquely horrifying.

To detail the premise is to sell out its core enigma, though, needless to say, Daniel Kaluuya's watchful lead is right to be wary of spending the weekend with girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) plainly bonkers parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). On a deeper level, Peele interferes with our ingrained assumptions, placing the action, with its controversial conceits of invasive prejudice and violence, within an unexpected setting: not the sweltering post-Jim Crow American South but upstate New York, all crisp temperatures, pastoral shades and white Obama disciples. 

6. Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck's haunted and nuanced work as the tortured protagonist of Kenneth Lonergan's frigid family tale rightly secured him a Best Actor gong at the Oscars in February. Affleck's trick is to conjure a well of profound sadness that flits back and forth across his otherwise stoic visage, the weight of the past and the bracing demands of the present dragging him to places that jeopardise his delicately balanced emotional and physical comfort. 

Manchester by the Sea thrives in unpicking the fabric of familial ties, Affleck's lonely janitor finding himself the legal guardian of an orphaned nephew (Lucas Hedges). It is a film keen to inhabit the spaces between its coterie of flawed, rounded, broken people – each is damaged, none are beyond hope. Upon a flinty, salt-stained New England canvas, Lonergan paints a parable of raw human experience best exemplified by Michelle Williams's heart-stopping supporting turn. 

5. Detroit

In a year when America's fetid undercurrent of racism exploded to the surface with the gleeful inducement of its toddler in chief, Detroit seemed an incredibly topical contribution to 2017. Overseen by Kathryn Bigelow, it ripples with the immersive intensity that defined both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, locating those elements not in some blasted foreign war zone but in that most American of locales: Motown. 

Police maleficence and civil unrest are the obvious and dominant factors here, but Bigelow's movie wields a darker edge, one of systemic bigotry. In 1960s Detroit, law enforcement and rioters clash – the backdrop is the lopsided dynamic between the state and those on the outer fringes. John Boyega stands out as the security guard caught up in the careening, unchecked malice set off by Will Poulter's power-tripping beat cop. The parallels between past and present alone are propulsive. It an essential testament of how brutality and racial animus commune to undermine the progress we hope to make. 

4. La La Land

The recipient, briefly, of this year's Oscar for Best Picture, La La Land may have missed out on the big prize but such embarrassments should not distract from the whimsical brilliance of Damien Chazelle's LA musical. His follow-up to the scorching Whiplash, Chazelle moulded a charming paean, of superlative style and elegance, to Hollywood's golden age, never stooping to cater to the masses. It retains its appeal, however, thanks to a sense of freshness and the deployment of two charming stars in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Reunited once again, this modern day Fred and Ginger radiate class, each a perfect compliment to the other.

La La Land avoids easy classification: romance, drama, comedy; it hits every beat. The constant strand throughout is the joyous recall of yesteryear. Show-stopping sequences (not least the dazzling opening number on a clogged freeway) abound, balanced by flighty outbreaks of song and dance, and a gripping dreamscape of love found and love lost. Beyond triumphant. 

3. Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan has always been known as an auteur fixed on more than just spectacle. Memento was a grimy mind-bender sporting considerable low-res cool, The Prestige a clever period mystery steeped in the ambience of Victorian London. Even Interstellar wielded a mighty message to sit alongside its visual ambition. With Dunkirk, however, Nolan jettisons the mere telling of a story and chooses, instead, to depict it, completely and without compromise.

An event familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of British history, the rescue of British and French forces from under the advancing yoke of a Nazi onslaught is simply the base upon which Nolan constructs this masterpiece. He wastes next to no time with characterisation or plotting, extraneous elements likely to dilute that which he is trying to convey. As a result, his picture emerges as a slice of thundering and peerless filmmaking. Its relentless march towards an inevitable conclusion – the salvation of thousands from a wind-scudded Alamo – never feels rote; menace and fateful purpose are present in equal measures and in every frame. Boasting a metronomic musical suite that feeds the tension to bursting point and a triptych of intersecting, smartly paced arcs, Dunkirk was 2017's most affecting cinematic experience. 

2. Blade Runner 2049

Unlike Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott relinquished helming duties for the other 2017 sequel to one of his great works, Blade Runner. In the driving seat for Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve (ArrivalSicarioPrisoners) provides a fresh take on Scott's 35-year-old dystopian classic, widely regarded amongst the finest movies ever committed to film. Blade Runner's angular narrative, brilliant as it was, remains an acquired taste. 2049's screenwriting team (including original scribe Hampton Fancher), however, has crafted a broader opus, more accessible yet no less profound or wondrous.

As Ryan Gosling's K seeks the cornerstone of mankind's own evolved existence, a quest that brings him into the orbit of the retired Deckard (an excellent Harrison Ford), every inch of the screen explodes with cinematographer Roger Deakins's breathtaking visuals, be they the sepia hues of a long-lost Las Vegas or the luminous glare filtering through the cracks of Los Angeles's soaking urban hell. The soaring score, too, appears like an old friend, its Vangelis-inspired, synth-infused glory calling forth the ghosts of days past. Remarkably, even the soundscapes of Scott's masterful progenitor have returned, from the shimmering echoes of the Wallace Corporation's edifice-like headquarters to the booming, hissing, groaning hubbub that swirls through the avenues of the looming megatropolis. Villeneuve's endeavours are beautiful and astounding, at once operatic, elegiac and steeped in the essence of all that has gone before. 

1. Moonlight

As baffling as the Oscar night snafu involving a confused Warren Beatty, the Best Picture award and a likely fired flunky may now seem, it felt especially egregious that Moonlight was, even for a brief moment, robbed of its honour. The splendour of La La Land aside, to anyone fortunate enough to have been exposed to Barry Jenkins's hypnotic and devastatingly affecting coming-of-age parable, the truth was all too obvious.

No mere study of repressed sexuality, crippling poverty or absent intimacy, Moonlight is, ultimately, whatever one wishes it to be. Anchored in its opening leg by a transcendent Mahershala Ali and proudly displaying a central character portrayed in three acts by a trio of unvarnished, distinctive young performers, this is a crucial, startling, magnificent film. A towering achievement, truly.