Let’s face it: 2017 was the annus horribilis for cinema.
It started back at the Oscars with the most terrible envelope mix-up in the ceremony’s history. Granted, it made news all over the world, and it meant that an extraordinary movie, Moonlight, went on to triumph.
Yet that triumph was still overshadowed by the manner in which it was announced, and the coverage that followed for days after was more focused on an accountant called Brian than an unlikely, beautiful indie film about a black man’s sexuality.
Even at Cannes, the movies were eclipsed by the rumblings of a business argument around Netflix and if their films should be allowed into competition if they couldn’t screen in French cinemas before going online. Two movies, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, were effectively struck from the Cannes race before it had even begun, making it a very muddled way to celebrate 70 years of the world’s greatest film festival.
Assembling some icons from the festival’s glorious past merely served to remind how old, white, male and grey cinema had become. For the first time I could remember, the future of cinema looked as doddery as the past suddenly did.
At the Venice Film Festival, it was the same story. No female film makers, just old white men, from Stephen Frears to Robert Redford, William Friedkin and James Toback.
And then came the hammer blow, the revelations leading to the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. The sex scandal centred around the self-styled mogul’s bullying and alleged raping of actresses and associates brought Hollywood to its knees. It’s the biggest story in its history. But it’s got nothing to do with cinema.
On it rumbled and on they tumbled – Toback, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey who, following allegations of his unchecked sexual behaviour, was ignominiously airbrushed out of an entire picture by Ridley Scott, the whole thing reshot and re-packaged in just 5 weeks.
The behaviour of the movie industry seems to have ignited an entire reappraisal of society’s patriarchy. It would be encouraging if the movie world were leading the way by example, but it isn’t. Not yet, anyway. For now, it is frozen, cowering, ashamed. But maybe soon, quickly, the films will go some way to make up for how people, women in particular, feel they have been treated in Hollywood.
So it’s not been a great year in the movies and the pictures themselves have hardly made up for it. A lot of bloated, unoriginal, tired old crap has floated past. Sure, people have done their jobs well and the bums have sat on seats – UK cinema attendances are up – and bought their popcorn and pick’n’mix. But what’s on most screens most weeks is for the most part even less nourishing than what’s on sale in the foyer.
How long will audiences put up with the same diet, I wonder? Am I to get enthused by anything in the top 20 grossers in the UK (see Charles Gant’s table here. Other than Dunkirk and La La Land, there’s hardly an original idea in there at all, apart from Sing (which is cute) and The Boss Baby (which isn’t). I suppose It was something new, and that’s to be encouraged.
Look, it’s long been the case that sequels, cartoons, re-boots and franchises dominate the charts. But I do feel like they bludgeon you into submission. Ok, so Fast and Furious 8 was ok. The Last Jedi (Star Wars 7) I came to accept, which means purists probably won’t like it. Another Spiderman allows yet another swing at that old chestnut. And hooray for Wonder Woman, of course, for being what it was – a slightly more feminist take on the superhero genre. But it was still a superhero movie.
No wonder the people that order and re-order this stuff are tumbling down in Hollywood.
So were there any delights? I’ve found this year’s Top Ten harder than usual to compile so they’re unabashedly a list of my favourite films, rather than any unbiased assessment of quality. I limit myself to films that were released in the UK in 2017, which does throw up anomalies with current awards nominations titles and other critics’ lists, many of whom use the criteria that if they saw it in 2017, it counts.
But for me, these were the highlights, 10 – and 10 bubbling under- films that have lasted in my mind’s eye and played on. I’d happily watch every one of these again. I’m not sure there are many future classics here, but they each have energy, distinctiveness, a boldness of approach and something to say about who were are and what’s going on.
I revealed the list on BBC Radio London today (Dec 28) and you can listen to the show again, with the tunes, and obviously with Robert Elms at the helm, too. Without trying, I seem to have assembled a lot of films reflecting on the black experience, which is apt in the post-Moonlight world – and of course that film could well be on the list (and probably at the top, too) but I think we dealt with it last year and around the Oscars so much that it feels like it belongs to an older list, as well as on a higher plane.
My Favourite Films of 2017
1 Call Me By Your Name – Italian director Luca Guadanigno created the sumptuous sexy atmosphere of an Italian summer mansion and brilliantly captured the heady days of summer infatuation. Timothee Chalamet makes a memorable splash as Elio, the 17-year-old falling in love for the first time and Michael Stuhlbarg has his best moment since A Serious Man as his classicist father, in love with the torsos of antiquity. This is a layered coming-of-age drama about everlasting love and broken dreams, Tune: The Psychedelic Furs, Love My Way
2 Get Out – Daniel Kaluuya, congratulations. The London boy managed to annoy Samuel L Jackson by carrying off this part, as Chris, a black boyfriend being taken home to meet the white liberal parents of his girlfriend, the lovely Alison Williams from Girls. Her parents (including an excellent Catherine Keener) – and their friends – are overly welcoming and when we find out why, it’s one of the great shocks of the year. Also very funny. and worrying. This is part satire, part horror, part comedy, all very smart and daringly close to the bone from debut director Jordan Peele.
3 Graduation – Romanian director Cristi Mungiu is one of the top talents in world cinema (up there with Russia’s Zvyagintsev). He won the Palme d”or for abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and could have done it again with Baccalaureat, called Graduation in English. Centres on a doctor in a provincial Romanian town (Cluj) who tries to influence his daughter’s grades while having an affair with her teacher. It’s about institutional corruption and it simmers with violence, collapse, inky black humour while it wrestles with moral quandries and consequences – a complex, thrilling, superbly acted film, directed with deceptive control and power.
4 Lady Macbeth – Stylish, invigorating British period drama starring the revelatory Florence Pugh as Katherine a young woman forced into marriage in a blowy Northern mansion in the mid-19th century. Christopher Fairbank is particularly impressive as her father-in-law, furious that all his Fleurie is missing. William Oldroyd directs with stripped back, modern energy and gets the atmosphere perfectly, as Katherine grows into a vengeful monster, but one we admire – almost.
5 Detroit – Kathryn Bigelow delivers a knock-out of a film based around the Detroit riots of 1967, and the ensuing Algiers Motel incident, a tense, churning stand-off which occupies the final half of the film with almost unbearable tension and shocking bigotry. Will Poulter is great here, as is John Boyega – we can be proud of our young British stars. The film shows the damage on lives of institutional racism, particularly through the emotional impact on aspiring singer played by Algee Smith, whose big night as part of the Dramatics is ruined by the riots. Tune: Your Precious Love, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
6 I Called Him Morgan – Jazz docs are hard to get right but Swede Kasper Collin nails the mystery and the beauty of so many jazz stories with a look at the life and death of trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan. The story is told by a fragments of an interview with his lover and killer, pieced together like a jazz detective noir, using music, memory and archive (particularly photography) to reconstruct an era, enter a subculture and understand a life, two lives, in fact. The music is, of course, outstanding. Tune: Art Blakey, Dat Dere
7 I Am Not Your Negro – Haitian film maker Raoul Peck excels with an extraordinarily powerful doc about James Baldwin, the eloquent New York writer and activist who puts an intellectual power into the civil rights struggle. The cumulative effect of Baldwin’s TV interviews, Peck’s examinations of American racism and black marginalisation are shocking and brilliant, full of righteous anger but brimming with ideas and observations searingly relevant today.
8 Mudbound – Epic family saga of the Mississippi mud, telling the story of two families, one white, the other black living side by side on unforgiving farmland, particularly filtered through the experiences of soldiers returning home after WWII. The ensemble cast including Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Mary J Blige are all excellent, as is Dee Rees’ quietly outraged direction. It’s a slow build to a shattering finale, intriguingly done, and its photography deserves a bigger screen than Netflix.
9 I Am Not A Witch – Bold, distinctive British debut from Rungano Nyoni, set in Zambia, where a young girl is banished from her village on pain of being turned into a goat. She’s sent to an enclave of women accused of being witches and becomes a tourist attraction as well as being used to settle local disputes. Extraordinary images, powerful performances and a light, absurdist humour mark this one out.
10 Aquarius (featured image) – Brazilian bombshell Sonia Braga stars as a well-known local music journalist Clara determined to hold onto her beach front apartment in Recife. An astute, sexual and political tale from director Kleber Mendonca Filho, whose brilliant debut Neighbouring Sounds this echoes and builds upon. And what a great vinyl record collection she has. Tune: Toda Menina Bahiana by Gilberto Gil