My countdown of the best films I saw in 2017 gets to the business end of things (Part 1 here), with 16 fantastic films in order of preference, picked among the many I got to see in 2017 — it was a tough job cutting it down. There are also films I saw a bit too late to include, such as You Were Never Really Here, that I may well save for a 2018 list… Some more things that 2017 did very well: languorous summers, odd couples, comebacks by great female directors, and scenes involving deer, although ironically not The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
16. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
This clinical and cynical retelling of the Iphigenia myth pits an affluent, reputed surgeon (Colin Farrell showcasing his deadpan skills again after The Lobster) against a very peculiar teenage boy (Barry Keoghan in probably the most disturbing performance of the year) who is going to invade not just his life, but his family too, forcing a moral dilemma of utter perversity on their shoulders.
Few 2017 films were as unnerving as the latest from the contemporary virtuoso of weirdness, Yorgos Lanthimos. While the premise lies somewhere between Greek tragedy, Haneke, and Pasolini’s Teorema, Lanthimos pushes audio-visual mastery worthy of Kubrick. The wide-angle lens shots for home interior scenes, the formally precise tracking shots down corridors, the seemingly unmotivated zoom-ins and -outs; Lanthimos uses these tricks for no specific reason other than turning up the unease dial. Janne Rättyä’s blood-curdling accordion chillers on the soundtrack, and Nicole Kidman’s bizarre turn as the surgeon’s creepily calculating wife, only add to the something’s-not-quite-right feeling. If this doesn’t get under your skin, you have one thick hide.
15. Get Out
The talked-about movie event of the year was the debut of a comedian-turned-director, Jordan Peele, who also clearly has a film-lover’s passion for horrors and thrillers. Expertly blending those two genres with on-point satire, this hit all the right buttons in its exposé of a certain type of African-American experience (Peele may not have been joking too much when he called it a ‘documentary’) that has long been an elephant in the room.
By making a subversive retelling of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, with sprinkles of Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby and, that man again, Haneke, Jordan Peele has crafted a film as pleasurable for its twists and turns, as for its skewering of the liberal white middle-classes’ implicit racism. It is that very stereotype, of the liberal whose fake veneer tries too hard to display not being racist, that is sent up so perfectly here. One of the best lines of the film is the girlfriend’s father exclaiming, full of self-congratulatory smugness, “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could!”, as if another Obama term somehow would have made the USA a post-racism nation. Politically timely, gripping, often unexpectedly funny, and again a great genre film with something to say.
14. The Other Side of Hope
In 2017, several absolutely necessary documentaries dealing with the Syrian Civil War came out: Last Men in Aleppo, City of Ghost and Cries From Syria, but how to deal with this crisis through fiction? The film we needed came to us from the Finnish king of deadpan morose, Aki Kaurismäki. At the heart of it is an odd couple. Khaled (a Syrian refugee seeking asylum as well as news of his sister from whom he was separated during their trans-Europe journey) and Wikström (a Finnish middle-aged man who’s quit his dead-end job and his alcoholic wife with a plan to break into the restaurant business) meet in the asphalt jungle of Kaurismäki’s Helsinki with surprising results.
What Kaurismäki manages to do is put in human (and cinematic) terms one of the most significant global crises of our age. There’s plenty of Chaplinesque camaraderie for the down-troddens of this world. But there’s also no shying away from shows of bureaucratic micro-aggressions and impotence in helping those who most need it, as well as despair, that other side of hope, in the face of real-world horror. But most of all there’s humanity, in the Finns who do try their best, with honour and courage, for Khaled, and in Khaled and the other asylum seekers he befriends. Oh and an adorable dog. And as always in Aki’s films some superb musical interludes, from Finnish blues ballads to a traditional Syrian saz solo.
13. The Florida Project
Or The Other Side of Disneyworld… Just a short distance from that dream-selling resort is The Magic Castle, a very purple and slightly run-down motel managed by the often exasperated but thoroughly compassionate Bobby (Willem Dafoe in a heart-warming, unpretentious performance). Here a group of kids are spending yet another gloriously languorous summer, wasting time away, spitting on cars, and exploring abandoned housing slums. Their parents are people often struggling to get by, and, in the case of six-year-old Moonee, hers is a single mother who makes many a bad decision.
But Sean Baker’s film never judges, being satisfied to mostly show things from the fancifully innocent, albeit mischievous, perspective of Moonee and her friends, keeping the film always feeling breezy even when emotional tragedy is not far off. Baker steers the film away from being anything like poverty porn with immense skill, directing extremely natural performances from the children, and spiking the hardships with comic moments (a Brazilian couple who mistakenly booked the Magic Castle instead of Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom hotel was one ironic highlight). He also finds time for the best symbolic use of helicopters this side of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and caps things off with a sudden note of unexpected fantasy and grace at the very end.
12. Good Time
(Benny and Josh Safdie)
If Robert Pattinson still had to convince anyone of having shed his vampire skin, this movie should pretty much close that particular debate. Full of twitchy energy channelling the Pacinos and De Niros of the golden 1970s, his performance as Connie, a no-good small-time delinquent whose ridiculous bank robbery plan has landed his mentally handicapped brother in jail, is a revelation. We follow Connie, on one long night from hell in which he tries to break out his beloved brother. With the suave, smooth-talking skills of a conman, he thinks he can fix any situation yet only ends up making everything gradually and inexorably worse.
To say we follow him on this one-night odyssey is not quite right. More like we’re propelled, at breakneck pace, through an electrifying rollercoaster ride of nocturnal NYC atmosphere, neon, TV glares, amusement parks and Sprite bottle MacGuffins, all galvanised by a pulsating score by Oneohtrix Point — which recalls the Tangerine Dream soundtracks of the 1980s, adding to this neo-noir’s retro vibe. It’s the relentless momentum, confidently stylish use of frenetic technique, and Pattinson’s charismatic anti-hero turn that make this such a thrill. And you may just find yourself conflicted about the moral ambivalence of brotherly love on display, if you ever manage to catch your breath that is.
Speaking of rollercoasters, did the movies in 2017 provide anything closer to a fully immersive VR ride than Dunkirk on the big screen? I doubt it. This was an experience you exited shaking the mud off your clothes and the sand out your boots, with Hans Zimmer’s relentless score still ringing in your ears. Nolan has brought us as close as possible, in ways only this medium can, to what it was like being one of the hundreds of thousands trapped on French beaches in 1940, with the turning point of the whole world at play in some abstract big picture, and locked in a primal fight for survival in the immediate moment.
Every person in this large tapestry of urgency and suspense is connected, almost into one collective organism, by the inter-cutting between three different stories and timelines: a few days on the beach, 24 hours at sea, and one hour in the air. What’s amazing is that Nolan does this with pure cinema, so visually based and so economical in dialogue and exposition (the very things that held back Interstellar) — something rare, refreshing and perhaps even radical in the context of big-budget commercial cinema (it’s also a reminder that Nolan is actually a fan of, and influenced by, silent cinema). This is a visceral tour-de-force that uncompromisingly has to be watched in a movie theatre.
10. 120 BPM
Paris, the early 1990s. The AIDS crisis has been decimating the gay community for a decade already, to nationwide indifference and institutional neglect. Act Up are a group of activists who engage in direct action, shock tactics, impromptu sex-ed for high-schools to tackle chronic under-education and even misinformation, group discussions, health reports, attacks against big pharmaceutical companies…. All with the overall aim of waking people up to the crisis and forcing those who can to do more about it, and all portrayed by 120 BPM through extremely naturalistic acting and documentary-like attention to detail — reminiscent of Laurent Cantet’s The Class which Robin Campillo co-wrote.
Campillo, who himself joined Act Up in 1992, creates a clear-eyed reconstruction of the times, never neglecting the group tensions and clashing viewpoints that emerge. But he also enmeshes his film between the political, the collective, and the personal and individual, by zooming in on the burgeoning romance between two members, to finally tenderly heart-breaking effect. Not merely angry and poignant, it also has humour and humanity to spare along the way, and a stand-out nightclub scene where specks of dust in the club gradually and abstractly morph into microscopic visions of the killer virus — again the personal and political are inextricably embedded. Campillo’s film is a celebration of the will to live, and a timely reminder of the urgency and energy of activism.
9. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Indonesian Spaghetti Westerns with a feminist revenge story may be few and far between, but Mouly Surya’s genre-bending marvel of a third feature has much more than novelty going for it. Marlina lives amid the hills and dusty land of Sumbal, and her husband has recently died — he’s glimpsed, mummified in the corner of her home, in a hypnotically enticing opening scene. One night, a gang of bandits, thinking her to be easy prey, barge into her house intending to rob and rape her — they even announce this upon entering as way of a greeting. But they didn’t count on Marlina — human and vulnerable but also fierce and stoically resilient — making use of her machete and trusty poisoned chicken broth.
Marlina never looks or sounds anything less than spectacular. The Sumbalese landscapes are captured in their simmering heat by cinematographer Yunos Pasolang’s widescreen compositions. The blunt, violent scenes of patriarchy getting its come-uppance are super-stylish and could come straight out of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The deadpan humour shines through Marlina’s road trip and the colourful characters she meets: a no-nonsense old woman, headless ghosts, useless ping-pong playing cops, and most of all Marlina’s heavily pregnant neighbour Novi. The score by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani riffs on Ennio Morricone using traditional Indonesian instruments. This was the most ravishing cocktail of art, genre and world cinemas I saw in 2017, underlying a passionate plea for womanhood in the more tradition-bound areas of Indonesia.
8. Call Me By Your Name
Part of cinema’s magic is its ability to make us live parallel lives, projected lives, and here one unforgettable summer in 1983 in Northern Italy becomes ours too. Elio is both mature for his age (smart, worldly, and fluently tri-lingual) and immature (blind to Oliver’s tell-tale signs, decides that he hates that ‘arrogant American’ anyway). Oliver doesn’t exactly help things either, with the carefree nonchalance his archetypal-hunk exterior conveys. No wonder things are initially prickly, and the languorous poolside sessions and bike rides loaded with tension. They have to be patient, and so do we, but the life-changing romance that explodes eventually is all the more powerful for it, as is the inevitable pain, desire and longing that comes with discovering true love.
Guadagnino expertly manages the timing, making us emotional wrecks by the time Elio and Oliver finally peel away each other’s defences. Before then, the lush Italian countryside, gorgeously brought alive in warm pastel colours by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Apichatpong’s regular DoP), and the time-capsule soundtrack of Psychedelic Furs and Giorgio Moroder, embellish the atmosphere. Much has been said of the chemistry between the two leads, but it really is a minor miracle, as is Michael Stuhlbarg’s paternal talk. In fact, running through the movie almost as a second hidden layer, is the perspective of the parents, and watching it all unfold through their eyes reveals a parallel film. Also, that octogenarian James Ivory wrote such a breezy and evocative adaptation of a teenage coming-of-age story is an extraordinary feat.
7. The Square
The Square, 2017’s surprise Cannes winner, is Ruben Östlund’s wilder, darker follow-up to Force Majeure. Christian (Claes Bang) is the handsome and pretentious head curator of a modern art museum that prides itself on being immaculate in all matters of contemporary taste. In a series of vignettes combining the deadpan surreal wit of Roy Andersson, the precision and themes of Haneke, and the deliberately uncomfortable humour of a Larry David or a Ricky Gervais, various plot strands orbit around Christian. There’s the consequences to his ill-conceived plan to retrieve his stolen phone and wallet, a new art exhibit about responsibility and compassion that his museum is about to unveil, the catastrophic advertising campaign behind that aforementioned exhibit, and his sexual pursuit of a journalist (Elisabeth Moss).
What makes Östlund’s film much more than a satire on the world of contemporary art is its remarkable thematic coherence, and its unabashed ambition — perhaps no film asked more questions in 2017. A pair of apes, one real and one an impersonator (who stars in the central set piece), turn the movie into a meditation on just how far removed we are from our simian cousins. Is art what makes us different? But what impact can or should art still have in our times? The Square scrutinises the relationship between art’s role, moral duty and common humanity from just about every possible angle, in ways that few films have ever addressed. Heavy, intellectual stuff? Well, perhaps, and no easy answers provided. No wonder this is proving such a divisive film. Good thing it’s also hilarious.
6. On Body and Soul
Ildikó Enyedi’s return to feature film-making after an 18-year hiatus is a one-of-a-kind romance largely set in an abattoir. Its financial director is Endre, a middle-aged, melancholy man who deals with people with a gruff reticence. New to the abattoir is Mária, the replacement quality inspector, stiff and anti-social to the point of autism, hates being touched, and uncannily possessing a photographic memory. We learn almost nothing of their pasts, but enough of what we need to know of them from their routines at the work canteen. This odd couple seem very different on the surface, but both are unwillingly consumed by shyness and loneliness, wishing for some connection but unable to reach for it. The body does not always do what the heart or soul wishes.
The metaphysical, Kieslowskian twist here is that, as they coincidentally learn, they both share the exact same dreams every night. Reality falls short for them, but in a literal parallel dreamworld they are a couple of courting deer (as an aside, with Get Out, this and Three Billboards it’s been a pretty good year for deer appearances). It’s a genius touch to what was already an endearingly quirky film. Both lead performances are superb, but it’s Alexandra Borbély’s Mária whose arc steals our hearts, as she struggles desperately but solitarily to break down the barriers of her social anxieties. Enyedi keeps things textural and sensuous, the deer scenes are stunningly shot, the editing creates a rhythm of quiet epiphanies connecting Endre and Mária, and the divide between the physical and the extra-physical is fascinatingly ruminated on. This is one of the most satisfyingly original and eccentric cinematic romances in a long time.
No film in 2017 was more accurately summed up by its title than this one. Andrey Zvyagintsev expands on his already outstanding filmography with this bleak but utterly compelling autopsy of inter-human relations, which, just like his previous Leviathan, clearly has a national allegory dimension. This is a film of two halves, the first setting up the family situation of a young boy, Alyusha, who is the victim of his parents’ divorce — the tragic truth of the matter is that neither one wants him, so solipsistically obsessed are they with their respective new lives and lovers. The second half turns into a Romanian New Wave-style procedural, in which various parties play a part in the search for Alyusha, who abruptly goes missing.
If much of Zvyagintsev’s work was often touted as Tarkovskyan, this time it’s Antonioni who springs to mind. Not just that the midway disappearance of Alyusha recalls L’avventura, but the cold, clinical manner in which he films technological narcissism (has any film depicted the zombie-like nature of people’s dependence on their cellphones with such conviction as this?) and empty, architectural shots, evokes classics like L’eclisse. As we’ve come to expect from his monumental style, Zvyagintsev is wholly in control of all tools at his disposal: the immaculate camera movement, the piano score which turns into a pulsating thud of alarm, the play of expectations like a cat-and-mouse game with the audience, and no doubt the single most shocking shot of the year, one that makes you jump out and lingers long in the memory. No doubt about it, Zvyagintsev is one of the masters of international cinema.
(João Dumans, Affonso Uchoa)
This hidden gem of a film begins by following André, a teenager in an industrialised suburb of South-Eastern Brazil, raising his younger brother alone while his mother is away for work. For about half an hour the film shuffles along with André’s perspective, until he finds the diary of a recently hospitalised itinerant worker, Cristiano. Once he begins to read it, the delayed title card comes in, announcing a re-start, and now the film shifts to Cristiano’s story and his voiceover, as a fragmented memoir of his peripatetic existence.
Cristiano’s drifting from factory to factory, his friendships with fellow labourers, his ill-fated relationship with a middle-class secretary (“I realised how different we are in the end”), burns with the clarity of Great Depression literature like Steinbeck or Dos Passos — for this reason the Townes Van Zandt folk songs on the soundtrack feel so apt. The fact Cristiano’s journal entries are essentially guiding the film is a poignant testament to the power of writing, or any artistic endeavour, as a means of self-discovery. Magical too is the realisation that André is, along with us, discovering how rewarding it can be to empathise with the life of another, to care about discovering their story. Sensitive, deeply genuine, and lyrical right up to its stunning final shot, this is cinema as empathy-tool, and as transcendent record of its own capacity to attribute grandeur to the most unexpected of characters.
3. Beach Rats
Another tale of teenage Summer, but a far more dark and aimless one than any of the others previously on this list. Frankie is the focus of Eliza Hittman’s character study here, a teenage jock with various family issues, who hangs out with his delinquent friends desperately seeking some release for their pent-up energies — smoking weed, pickpocketing passers-by on Coney Island, popping pills, vaping, pumping weights. It’s actually incredibly refreshing to see this kind of under-served character, the iron-pushing jock, be the centre of such a respectful and poetic coming-of-age story, rather than the more common shy teen type.
Underneath Frankie’s chiselled façade lie sensitivity and secrets, depths which his tribe of friends probably could never comprehend, leaving him to explore them himself through gay hook-up websites and meetings with older men. Frankie has no exemplar, no role model in whose path to follow, to carve out and accept his real self, and being gay remains associated with sleazy secrets, sinking him into a double life. Harris Dickinson is incredible in the main role, giving a just perceptible but constant conveyance of the confusion and shame of his character. Aided by a grainy, gritty aesthetic, Hittman has created an organic, naturalistic portrait of the tribulations in navigating through adolescence, identity-formation, and life itself, so psychologically nuanced that it reaches masterpiece status.
2. Faces, Places
(Agnès Varda, J.R.)
Joyous, soothing, witty, enriching, fun, empathetic, moving. Faces, Places, the docu-film co-directed by the great Agnès Varda and photo-muralist J.R., is all of these. It is also a tribute to the villagers, labourers, farmers and other down-to-earth locals met by the winning combination of J.R. and Varda on their tour de France. And a testament to the power of photography and cinema in capturing dignity and grace in anyone by means of a lens, paper and lots of glue. And a playful homage to the French nouvelle vague, of which Varda and Jean-Luc Godard (who as it turns out plays an important role in the film) are now the last survivors.
Not enough for you? It’s also a delicately wistful meditation on Varda’s life, mortality (she’s now, like James Ivory, 89 years young) and her fading eyesight. But never with even the remotest sniff of dolefulness. After Varda’s eye surgery, J.R. affixes one of his trademark large-scale posters, a photograph of her eye, on the side of a train — “now the train will go everywhere and let my eye see all the things I cannot”, muses Varda with good humour on the voice-over. The two of them have a great chemistry which shines through as they make the whole world both their canvas and art gallery, in the most beautifully contagious way. Oh, and there’s a scene-stealing cat. This is a film to savour, again and again.
My favourite of the hundred or so new films I saw in 2017, Zama, is Lucrecia Martel’s first feature in almost a decade. It stuck with me so much that I watched it a second time the very next day. Martel in her intro to the screening described it as a ‘shot of whisky’, but it’s far more fever-dreamish than that. In several ways, it is a departure from her previous three features: it’s a period piece set in the 18th century, and an adaptation of a novel (a classic of Argentine 20th century literature by Antonio Di Benedetto) unlike her earlier original screenplays.
The title character is a colonial official in the South American provinces, far from Buenos Aires or any other major city, let alone the Spanish homeland of Spain he mythologises. His obsession is rising up the ranks, getting the local governor to allow him a promotion representing at ticket out of these backwaters, but his plans soon descend into a Kafkaesque nightmare of petty bureaucracy, inexplicable misfortunes, sexual frustrations, and a mysterious bandit part-legend, part-demon, who may or may not have been killed – at least a dozen different people claim to have killed him a dozen different ways, but discerning truth from lies or legend proves tricky. Amid this absurdist land without logic nor pity, certain thematic binaries crystallise: what does it mean to feel American rather than Spaniard, what is the exact status of a colony in relation to its ruling Kingdom, what is it like living and working in the provinces far from the activity hub of the city, and most of all is the tantalising carrot of false hopes to be preferred to the bitter pill of hard facts?
Martel’s film follows a series of recent, revisionist South American films tackling the colonial era (Jauja, Embrace of the Serpent, Rey, El Movimiento…) but surpasses all of them with thematic complexity, humour, imagination and technical brio. Few contemporary filmmakers are using sound as fascinatingly as Martel has since her 2001 debut La Ciénaga. The sound design is densely layered, ringing with a subtle cacophony of animal noises, offscreen voices, electronic tones, and creaking sounds, underscoring the claustrophobic cinematography. The recurring music sounds oddly like Hawaiian ukulele, but is actually 1950s Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras, whose gentle riffs play in devious counterpoint to the unsettling nature of the images.
The multinational cast, from Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Argentina as well as members of local native tribes, capture the patchwork nature of pre-national South America before Europeans partitioned it. Two performances stand out, for their brilliance as well as their total contrast to one another: Daniel Giménez Cacho as the pathetically doomed Zama, martyr-like but always enslaved to the mores of formal ceremony, and Matheus Nachtergaele, more like a devil or a sprite, unrestrained and flamboyant. That contrast in fact lies at the heart of this utterly beguiling film, forever in tension and yet perfectly balanced, between something so tightly constructed narratively and formally, and at the same time always on the brink of falling into a dreamlike, hallucinatory, elliptical, inscrutable state. I don’t know how she did it, but long may Lucrecia Martel keep serving us her whisky.