I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last dusted this thing off, but everyone knows that I can’t resist a cheeky list, so here’s the films I liked most in the last year.
First of all, I debated doing this list as a top 15 or even 20, due to 2017 having a lot of strong films. So before we do get tucked into our main course, I’d like to do a sort of amuse bouche in the form of an alphabetically ordered list of the films that almost-but-didn’t-quite make the cut:
- Alien: Covenant
- Blade of the Immortal
- David Lynch: The Art Life
- The Florida Project
- Good Time
- Twin Peaks The Return: Part 8
Right, with that done… on to the main!
10. Wind River
I’ll turn out at this point for pretty much anything Taylor Sheridan puts his name to. I loved the shades of grey intensity of Sicario and the death of the Old West myth making in Hell or High Water. If that last was Sheridan’s cowboy film, here he comes along with the other side of the coin, a film about modern Natives. But far from the comparative good time antics of bank robbers and cops, this is a slowed down piece, a murder mystery bookended with sobering epigraphs about how many Native women go missing or are murdered every year in unsolved cases. It’s a character piece too about how grief can transform the life of a parent. But Sheridan is also not afraid to bring the action when he needs to, and uses it here like a gut punch, in a climax that left me breathless.
Do we officially call this IT or IT: Chapter One now that it’s made enough money at the box office to ensure a sequel in two years, a Pennywise prequel, an interquel film where the Losers’ Club navigates college, and probably some ill advised Avengers style crossover where they all team up with Roland Deschain, Jack Torrance, and Christine to go kill Stephen King or something. Seriously, this film did gangbusters, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s just so lovable. Each of the young actors, especially Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis, are going to be huge stars. And somehow, against all odds, the film is great too. It’s enough to long banish the memory of the awful-aside-from-Tim Curry miniseries, and if Andy Muschietti can keep this up, he might dethrone James Wan as the king of big budget horror flicks.
8. The Big Sick
It’s not often I feature a comedy on an end of year list. They tend to be films I watch once or twice, then never again, aside from a few that manage to break through like National Lampoon’s Vacation or Chasing Amy. Pound for pound, The Big Sick has my favourite comedy screenplay since Chasing Amy, and I can only assume that it’s because the whole thing is just so honest. For writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon to relive what must have been one of the most difficult chapters of their lives, and pull such a funny, heart warming, and emotionally affecting film out of it ensures it will join the relatively small pantheon of my favourite comedies.
7. John Wick: Chapter 2
Look, sometimes films make the list because they have themes that resonate deeply, long past the end of their runtime. Sometimes it’s because they have a story and characters that affect me emotionally and that I can relate to on a personal level. But sometimes, a film just makes the list because it’s so damn fun. If John Wick was a modern 80s action flick, Chapter 2 takes everything it did right and turns it up to eleven. The choreography and world building are ridiculously on point, and Keanu Reeves, who seems to be undergoing a renaissance, plays the role of Wick himself with an assuredness that feels earned. These films, and this character, are going to be iconic for my generation in a way that characters like Rambo were for the generation prior. Sheer good time spectacle should never be underestimated, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is a perfect example of why.
6. Get Out
If anything has become evident, 2017 is Get Out‘s year. Regardless of what happens at the Oscars or any other award ceremony, Get Out is the film that 2017 will come to be remembered for in the years to come. It’s a huge debut from director Jordan Peele, equal parts hilarious and terrifying, the satire bites deep into our culture and the racism that is still so prevalent in our society.
Horror is a genre that is often looked down upon as producing trash, so to see Get Out embraced as it has been is wonderful.
5. A Ghost Story
Less a story as promised and more a slow, thoughtful meditation on the passage of time and how that affects grief, A Ghost Story might just be the most moving film I saw from 2017. That it comes together as well as it has even seems like a miracle, given the disparate elements its made up of. A ten minute sequence of a mourning Rooney Mara eating pie on her kitchen floor, a long stretch where all of the dialogue is in unsubtitled Spanish, a glimpse into a far flung future where mega corporations exist within tower blocks hundreds of storeys high.
The only thing that keeps me from placing it any higher on my list is a sequence just after the halfway mark, where a drunk man monologues about the theme of the film. I’m not sure if it was intended as satire or commentary upon itself, but it felt to me like the theme being patiently explained to members of the audience maybe too slow to catch on, and took me out of the film for the five minutes or so it took up. But otherwise, A Ghost Story is an exceptional piece of character work, and a very worthwhile experiment.
4. Baby Driver
It’s pretty clear, or should be by now, that Edgar Wright adores working within genres. I thought we had hit the peak of that with the neon and video game infused Scott Pilgrim, yet I was wrong. Baby Driver is crafted as an ode to both classic car getaway flicks, and musicals. It sounds like it should play like an overblown music video. It really shouldn’t work at all. But somehow it does. Wright infuses the script and characters with such sheer likeability and a sense of fun, I couldn’t help but just go along for the ride from the opening scene.
By the time we came around to the final showdown with the villain hamming it up (I’m sorry) set to the blistering Brian May solo in Brighton Rock, Wright just had me. Watching each of his films in order from Shaun of the Dead through to this, it’s clear just how much he has evolved in confidence as a filmmaker, and especially as a director of action. Baby Driver might just be his finest work yet.
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Disney’s third go round with the Star Wars franchise managed to do something I was worried they couldn’t; it surprised me. The Force Awakens brought the franchise more or less back to where it needed to be; fun swashbuckling space adventures rather than the stuffy political costume drama it had become under Lucas’s direction. And while I feel calling it a remake of A New Hope is too reductive, it sometimes felt it was trying too hard to be like the original trilogy rather than forging its own path. Similarly, Rogue One is a pleasing parade of nostalgic references, but as a film I fear it won’t hold up in a few years’ time due to a fairly rickety story and characters.
The Last Jedi, then, feels like a breath of fresh air for Star Wars and for blockbusters in general. Simply because of a decision made by director and writer Rian Johnson to let the characters be the story. To show that these people set up ably by J.J Abrams aren’t infallible, that they do make mistakes. A common criticism seems to be that a second act detour to a casino planet serves no purpose in the overall narrative, but to say that ignores the effect it has on the characters. Yes, their plan fails. And yes, that’s alarming when we’re so conditioned by years of generic stories to believe that can never happen. But this is character building as storytelling. And now that our heroes (and villains) have learned and grown from the experience, it sets the stage for the final conflict in two years’ time. And I personally cannot wait.
Rian Johnson took the reins and told the story he felt was right, regardless of what the fans thought they wanted. For breaking away from expectations, he has endured a torrent of online abuse. But for me personally, in taking that risk he has crafted an exceptional film, and my favourite Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back. I’m eagerly anticipating what he does with his own trilogy.
2. The Handmaiden
If Oldboy was enough to instantly make Park Chan-Wook a favourite director of mine, The Handmaiden is more than enough to keep him there. At nearly three hours long I was nervous it might get bloated, but it thankfully uses the time to introduce characters I genuinely cared about in the first hour, then spent its second and third acts packing the plot with heart wrenching twists. Every time I thought I had a grip on what was happening, the rug was pulled out from under me and I was forced to re-assess everything that had come before. It’s amazing storytelling from a master of the craft.
And speaking of craft, the film uses space equally well as it fills its runtime. Most of the film is set within a stately manor, which cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung shoots with aplomb, allowing every frame to luxuriate in itself. It’s the best use of a shooting space I’ve seen since Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
Whilst not as outwardly violent as Park’s Vengeance trilogy, The Handmaiden is no less visceral or arresting. I loved it, and I can only see it growing on me in subsequent viewings as I peel back each layer of story and see all the clues left along the way that I missed my first time through. It’s an absolute travesty that this wasn’t even considered for Best Foreign Language Picture at the Academy Awards, and I would happily place it alongside even the Best Picture candidates.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Realistically, even with the best intentions and best creative team in the world (seriously Ridley Scott and Hampton Fancher scripting, Denis Villeneuve directing, and Roger Deakins shooting the thing is an executioner’s row of awesome talent) there was no way Blade Runner 2049 would live up to the legendary reputation set by Scott’s original 1982 cult hit. No matter what, it was always set to have this crushing millstone around its neck; 35 years of expectations, and following up arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made.
So as not to bury the lede any further, I’m just going to come out and say that Blade Runner 2049 is my favourite blockbuster since The Dark Knight, and a perfect example of what a film can accomplish in that budgetary space.
It’s hugely ambitious in a way that many films of this budget just aren’t. It builds on the world of the original Blade Runner with new ideas and new questions, and even teases slightly at answers to some of the bigger mysteries from that first film. And yet despite this expanded scope, the story never loses sight of its personal nature. It’s bigger and wider than the original film, but still manages to keep character and theme at the very forefront. It’s absolutely stunning work, and I can’t wait to watch it again when the blu-ray drops in a couple of weeks.