Has it been a good year? Not if you are in the independent distribution sector; not if you buy foreign language films to show in the UK; not if you’re the BFI and your longed-for new Film Centre lost its funding; not if you’re the Cannes Film Festival who got embroiled in a row with Netflix and, frankly, lost.
Yet Cannes’ loss was Venice’s gain, the Lido playing host to the major launches of the year and a selection of the highest quality. It was good if you were Tricia Tuttle, newly promoted Artistic Director of the London Film Festival, who had a wonderful programme at her fingertips.
It was the year the #MeToo movement took to the red carpets in the wake of Weinstein, presaging a shift in critical assessment and, hopefully, in the production of movies and ushering in a new era of female film making opportunity. One hopes.
Anyway, despite the fact that everyone’s really talking about the TV series they’re watching right now, there were plenty of good films around, even some great and important ones and perhaps a couple of instant classics.
Here are my favourite 20 counting down 20 to 11:
20 Rampage – Dwayne The Rock Johnson showed his box office muscle, able to drag a film across the line like Charles Atlas with the weight of the budget on his shoulders. That’s a rather mixed metaphor, but apt for this monster movie mash-up that’s also very funny and silly, about a genetically mutated gorilla, wolf and alligator converging on Chicago. A proper blockbuster, with a real movie star at its centre.
19 A Ciambra – A slice of southern Italian neorealism, set among a Romany community in Calabria, and filmed among a real-life family. The mix of documentary and coming-of-age adventure about Pio, a 14-year-old kid who has to become his family breadwinner. Wonderful stuff, with bags of local flavour and great faces.
18 The Happy Prince – Rupert Everett’s directorial debut was a lovely suprise. Of course Rupes was terrific in the role he’s been heading toward for years, but the film itself was beautifully and confidently put together and mined a real sadness behind Oscar Wilde’s final days in exile in Paris, tortured by his love for the awful Bosie, his gay shame, his public pillorying and his desperate impecunity.
17 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – I know this one feels like longer ago but it dominated last awards season until being pipped at the post on Oscar night. Nothing could eclipse Frances McDormand’s performance, however. Loved the script, the zingers, the obscenities, the quirks (even if they sometimes felt too much like lines from a Martin McDonagh script) and I loved the combustibility of the material. How The Shape of Water beat it, I’ll never know.
16 120 BPM – Again a film I first saw in 2017, which is the only reason it’s not higher up this list. A fantastically moving yet inspirational picture of activism set among the dying AIDS community of 90s Paris and their brand of ACT UP, who took matters into their own frail hands. Robin Campillo’s direction is up-close and naturalistic but also bursts with fantasy sequences, demos, chatter warmth, sex and heartbreak.
15 A Fantastic Woman – A wonderful, defiant, mysterious performance from trans-actor Daniella Vega stares out from the screen in Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning film from Chile, about a Santiago singer barred from the funeral of her older male lover by his shocked family, and by a society mistrustful of this person who doesn’t fit the norms. Lelio also impressed with his Hendon-set orthodox Jewish lesbian drama Disobedience this year, but A Fantastic Woman is hard to beat.
14 Apostasy – I was impressed with Dan Kokatajlo’s frank, low-budget family drama when it won the IWC film maker bursary last year but I was thrilled quite how well it did with audiences on wider exposure. Set among Manchester’s Jehovah’s Witness community where the director himself grew up, it’s a film of subtle exploration and thoughtful probing rather than outrage and anger, as a family of a mother (Siobahn Filleran) and two sisters is broken apart by the younger daughter’s (Molly Wright, excellent) refusal of medical help for her anaemia as well as the older daughter’s increasing forays into the secular world and her being “disfellowshipped”. A film about faith and conviction of the kind rarely seen in British cinema.
13 Skate Kitchen – Directed by Crystal Moselle, this teen coming-of-age skateboard picture swept me away with its lightness of touch and soul-soothing empathy for the girls at its heart. Camille is from Long Island and keen to be accepted by the cool girls in Manhattan’s skate parks. The music, the camaraderie, the banter, the bonding, the rivalry – it all made me want to run away and join them. Even tho I’m rubbish at skateboarding.
12 Loveless – harshest film of the year, with ice in its heart, is Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Russian disappearance mystery, about a feuding couple in the throes of a bitter divorce forced to team up when their son goes missing. You have to admire the slow and steady progress of scenes, the details of modern Russian life, the venality, the bling, the bitterness, the cold, the lack of love. It is superb film making from one of the very best directors in the world at the moment.
11 Faces Places – what a joy was the re-instatement of Agnes Varda at the top of the cultural agenda this year, with her Honorary Oscar, her BFI season, her 90th birthday and the release of this Oscar-nominated documentary, made with the photographer JR. She became the hottest film maker around, with T-shirts and legions of new fans. And the film is a rare and cherishable delight, about ordinary people reclaiming their towns and villages, their professions and family histories and rediscovering a sense of worth through giant photographs of themselves plastered over their houses and factories.