My Best Films of 2017 (Part 1)

2017 was a politically worrying and volatile year, but in the movie world there were titles like Wonder WomanProfessor Marston and the Wonder WomenWonderstruck, Wonder Wheel, and just plain old Wonder. So was it a wonderful year cinematically? I think so. Having seen close to 100 films, from over 30 different countries, I got the sense of film still being very much alive in its power to tell stories of all kinds from around the world, and many very good films even failed to make my top 20 — which actually is a top 24, because why not.

Some of the things movies did well last year: Summer tales, teenage confusion and longing, dealing with the refugee crisis both explicitly and more obliquely, the US in the era of Trump depicting its own underbelly with empathy and dignity, bringing back high-concept movies with a dash of ’80s nostalgia, and out-Hanekeing Haneke. Here’s the first part of my top 24 of 2017.

24. Western (Valeska Grisebach)

In Valeska Grisebach’s third film, a band of German workers travel to southern Bulgaria to work on the construction of a power plant. Among them is Meinhard, a newcomer to the group, more laconic and sensitive than the others, and maybe an ex-legionnaire with a pained past behind him. Once the dynamics of cross-cultural tension, between the not particularly tactful German visitors and the local Bulgarian villagers, slowly emerge over disputes regarding the local water supply, Meinhard fancies himself as the go-between. He feels an outsider among his own anyway, so why can’t he go and befriend the Bulgarian community, learn their language, dine with them, even maybe be one of them? However, Grisebach’s meditation on masculinity, group dynamics, inter-community connections and belonging shows nothing to be simple, not even Meinhard’s seemingly amicable intentions.

Grisebach belongs to a group of German filmmakers loosely called the ‘Berlin school’, who emerged at the turn of the 21st century, and have generally combined a naturalistic, unshowy ‘neo-neorealism’ with an interest in exploring the legacy of genre tropes — e.g. the two other most famous Berlin school proponents, Christian Petzold who most recently riffed on classical Hollywood with his wonderful post-WW2 drama Phoenix, or Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights, playing with the buddy and road movies. With Western, Grisebach adds an intelligent contribution to this tradition, updating (as the title hints) the western genre by cleverly using equivalents to its conventions in a totally different setting. There’s the ‘cowboy’ outsider who deep down wants to fit into a community, there’s a symbolic white horse, there’s a flag with all that represents, there’s showdowns, and there’s even a John Ford-esque communal dance — all used by Grisebach to play with audience expectations, in what is often a very surprising film in its refusal to be quite like any other.

23. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)

The fact Denis Villeneuve comes out of something as tricky as a Hollywood franchise sequel with his reputation and auteurist credentials intact speaks volumes. Blade Runner 2049 successfully updates and builds on the universe of the original in evocative and intricate ways. Roger Deakins populates the film with gorgeous imagery as memorable as its predecessor’s, occasionally channeling a Tarkovsky/Stalker aesthetic, especially as we expand out to areas beyond the city. Hans Zimmer picks up the thread of Vangelis’ iconic score, the Pinocchio-esque story of Ryan Gosling’s K does incite as much inquiry about artificial identity, memories and what it means to be human as Scott’s original, and the main plot arguably pushes further in its political ramifications.

Its box office failings have already been well-documented, and they no doubt have to do with it being too ‘slow’ or ‘arthouse’ for audiences expecting something else. But there’s nothing wrong with being a fascinating hybrid. As for the criticism of its representation of female characters, much seems unwarranted, even at times disingenuous. The world of the movie is a dystopia (and indeed it is one that our current world is not too many steps away from) and to show misogyny does not automatically make a misogynist film — the alternative, to whitewash the ugliness in our world that BR 2049‘s parallel universe is a dark mirror of, would be sheer fantasy. If anything, the real target of such criticisms is not so much the films themselves as the way we consume films, especially purported blockbusters like this one, as mere entertainment machines without giving them any credit as potential forums for debate.

22. The Wound (Inxeba) (John Trengove)

Another film that has stirred controversy around its representation, albeit for quite different reasons. John Trengove’s debut tells a story set in the Xhosa community, and revolving around the ritual circumcision which young male teens go through to mark their symbolic passage into manhood. Certain sections of the Xhosa community have reacted with protests and anger at what they deem an outsider’s look into aspects of their culture guarded with secrecy.

The plot itself centres on Xolani (played by singer and writer Nakhane Touré), a lonely factory worker in the city, who returns to his rural roots once a year to help perform the ritual he went through himself as a teen. But the real reason he comes back is to spend a few days with his childhood love Vija, a married man who projects a far more aggressive masculinity. Vija does not seem to share Xolani’s feelings in quite the same way, though he willingly continues their sexual relationship. Tensions begin to rise when one of the young teens, a gauche city slicker who may be gay himself, discovers their dangerous secret. The ritual is the backdrop to the story, so as much as anything, it seems to be the gay element that has caused fuss among certain sections of the Xhosa community. That Trengove, as a White South African is an outsider looking in, is neither here nor there given that he has collaborated with a predominantly Xhosa cast and crew in bringing this project to screen. Importantly he treats the characters with a respectful awareness that members of the Xhosa community can have their own complicated human stories to tell, and the themes of divided identities and of societal pressure on what masculinity should and must be are universal. If this incites some uncomfortable but necessary introspection, then all the better.

21. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

When the real world of politics has out-satired satire, what is there left to do for the satirist? Well, Armando Iannucci (writer-creator of In the Loop, and the TV shows The Thick of It and Veep), whose caustic exposés of the political world have been so in sync with the contemporary atmosphere until reality overtook fiction, has found his own answer: go backwards in time and serve up one of the funniest and most refreshing historical films in ages.

Stalin (played as a cockney by Adrian McLoughlin) rules over the USSR with an iron fist and an atmosphere of all-consuming paranoia. Heads are falling everywhere. Molotov (Michael Palin, great to see him back in such a part and film) has denounced his wife just to keep his life. Khrushchev (an excellent Steve Buscemi) notes down what jokes the great leader did not laugh at just to keep track of what type of repartee might put his neck on the line. But eventually and unexpectedly, Uncle Joe meets that great leveller, Death, and once the dust settles and they realise it is safe to admit the ex-ruler of the Soviet Union was actually mortal, the apparatchiks break out into the inevitable, Machiavellian battle for control of the Party. Hilarious in the most pitch-black of ways the film’s depiction of the ensuing political carnage may be, to its credit it never loses sight of the very real human cost, millions of lives, and ugly realities at stake in this perilous and unpredictable moment. It’s predictably fast-fire in its dialogue, it has an outstanding ensemble cast, and is also a pretty terrific history lesson, scary in how plausible it actually comes across as a take on the Kremlin’s behind-the-scenes struggles for power and survival — in fact who’d be surprised if, again, reality was even weirder than this.

20. Okja (Bong Joon-ho)

Meet Mija and Okja. Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) is a young girl who lives on a farm in South Korea, with her granddad. Okja is her pet mutant super-pig and best friend. Okja also happens to be the genetically modified product of Mirando, a multinational corporation whose labs have developed Okja’s breed as the supposed answer to world hunger, but more accurately as a way to fill their CEO’s bank accounts with a devil-may-care attitude to any kind of ethics or animal rights. Having grown up in a natural environment for the pre-decided ten-year period, now comes the time for Okja to leave the farm and return to Mirando labs in order to be transformed into food and $$$. But a global corporation is about to get a hefty challenge from one little girl (and a mysterious organisation of underground radicals headed by Paul Dano) who won’t let her best friend go without a fight.

After a minor misstep with Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho returns to what he does best, namely achieving the seemingly impossible challenge of fitting three or four different films into one and making it work. Like Alexander Payne’s DownsizingOkja is a high-concept, tonally diverse 2017 film dealing with state-of-the-world environmental themes, but where Payne falters in the tricky balancing act, Bong pulls it off. Okja is a heartwarming friendship story, a rollercoaster ride of thrilling fun, an intelligent anti-greed satire that might leave you considering vegetarianism as a life choice, occasionally moving and sad, as well caricaturesque in a bonkers way (c.f. Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Tilda Swinton’s performances). That mainstream big-budget fare can actually be thought-provoking, anti-establishment and even, shock horror, have a message like this and BR2049 do, rather than just the endless conveyor of empty franchise flicks, is actually a very welcome development.

19. Happy End (Michael Haneke)

When Amour came out, it seems quite a few people forgot how brashly provocative Michael Haneke truly is at heart (just watch The Piano Teacher or Funny Games if you need reminding) and felt he was ready to politely withdraw into a ‘Grand Old Master’ sarcophagus. Other filmmakers (as we shall see later in this list) under his influence, have stepped in, channeling his aesthetic and tone, pushing the maestro one step nearer retirement. Now with his latest film, a panorama of a bourgeois family in Calais dealing with a plethora of varying crises as the refugee crisis lurks in the background, many accuse him of merely retreading old ground.

But wait, don’t write off the sly old fox yet. Yes, Haneke is revisiting certain familiar themes: the complacency and self-created isolation of well-to-do people with regards to those far less fortunate than them; the dominance of media in framing our lives and day-to-day interactions; and yes, there’s yet another creepy, sinister child who might well murder animals. There’s of course the expected masterfully controlled compositions and clinical, detached camerawork. But there’s also new twists, or updates, by incorporating the ghostly presence of the refugee camps at the back of everyone’s minds or the presence of the internet through instant messaging and live streaming. However, Happy End really emerges as a fascinating entry into Haneke’s filmography in its humour: it is his most funny, darkly and perversely funny, film. From a karaoke meltdown, and the deliciously wicked discovery of Mathieu Kassovitz’s online philandering by his tech-savvy young daughter, right down to the final ‘happy end’ scene, this film may be a familiar (but nonetheless intelligent and perhaps necessary) skewering of the usual suspects, but at least done with a great dollop of absurdist irony.

18. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)

Would you rather confess to being a witch and be confined in a special camp where you’ll be tied to a tree, or would you prefer to turn into a goat? This is the choice 8-year-old Shula faces in rural Zambia, after villagers report her for witchcraft on the flimsiest of grounds. I Am Not a Witch was one of many great debuts by female directors in 2017, and sees Rungano Nyoni (herself a Zambian although brought up in Wales, so a semi-outsider) tackle the dilemma of the foreign gaze and representation of Africa’s controversies in her own incredibly original way. Because, despite the shocking nature of the premise and its depiction of the oppression of a little girl, and despite the fact that this is based on things that do actually occur in certain areas of Africa, this movie is for the most part a laugh-out-loud satire full of darkly surreal moments that a Yorgos Lanthimos would be proud of.

Mr. Banda, a senior official of the Ministry of Tourism who takes in Shula to exploit her witchy powers in various ways, is more ridiculous buffoon than detestable villain, as most acerbically seen in a scene where he and Shula are invited to a Zambian TV talk show. It’s not just local bureaucracy and traditionalist superstition that bear the brunt of it though, as Nyoni also castigates the uselessness of the foreign tourists who visit the witch camps and find nothing better to do than taking selfies with Shula. All this is rendered with consummate camerawork — Nyoni and Embrace of the Serpent cinematographer David Gallego have created a precise visual style of tracking shots and perfectly framed long-shots, punctuated by bombastic flurries of Vivaldi (which reminded me of Force Majeure). The Östlund/Euro-arthouse connection is not a fanciful link to make, as Nyoni herself has described the work of Michael Haneke as her ‘film school’, but in many ways this belongs to a tradition of African satire going back to the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (see Xala for example). Nyoni too has a great anger about the state of things in Africa, which is why the biting humour eventually gives way to tragedy. But that the sense of humour and surreal satire is there, and so skillfully so, makes this not only a strikingly confident debut but an attempt to give a very different reference point for Africa than the usual straight-faced depiction of misery.

17. Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993) (Carla Simón)

Another great debut about a little girl, Carla Simón’s semi-autobiographical tale is a small miracle of perceptive observation, rich in the local colour of its 1990s rural Catalonia setting, and loyal to its impressionistic child’s-POV approach from start to finish. Frida is a six-year-old orphan, her mother recently deceased, and she is moving from Barcelona to live with her uncle, his wife, and their young daughter, in the countryside. Simple enough to summarise, but in fact we only learn all this obliquely if at all, for all the complex family dynamics are only revealed to us through Frida’s perspective, sheltered by the plethora of relatives around her and inevitably confused by the situation due to her young age. Snippets of adult conversation here and there, a playmate’s parent’s overreaction when Frida grazes her knee, or Frida’s innocent impersonation of her late mother — these are the telling clues that we piece the ‘adult’ narrative from.

If all that is not enough for poor Frida, her real challenge understandably comes in settling in to her new home. Despite the best intentions of her aunt and uncle, Frida has lingering issues about being loved and fear of abandonment. Amid sulks and attention-seeking, she also has a peculiar love-hate relationship with her de facto little sister, and the many scenes of them interacting together alone is where Simón’s direction and sensitive handling of the child actors pays off hugely. Like another recent autobiographical debut about childhood in the 1990s, Zhang Dalei’s The Summer is Gone (2016), this announces a potential great new cinematic voice to look out for. It is also the first of two summer-set films on this list to end on a note of uncontrolled, passionate crying — perhaps filmmakers have been rewatching Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’amour in 2017?


In part 2 next week, my Top 16 of 2017!