With 2017 having just passed into history, it strikes me as a particularly good year for cinema. Putting together a list of the year’s 10 best narrative features is usually a fairly easy task for me, with a few obvious stand-outs and perhaps a little bit of uncertainly over the last few films on the list. For 2017 my first run at a top 10 resulted in a list of 20 films. Taking the bottom 10 out felt like pulling a tooth for each film. On top of that I am not a full-time critic, and there are numerous 2017 releases that either have yet to receive an Australian theatrical release or which I simply failed to find time to watch. If there is a great film from 2017 not on my list, it’s a solid bet that it’s missing for one of those two reasons.
Those short-listed films that sit just outside of my top 10 are all exceptional movies, and I encourage you to track them down if you haven’t already and check them out. In alphabetical order they were: Daguerreotype, Free Fire, Hounds of Love, Kong: Skull Island, My Friend Dahmer, Rabbit, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Villainess and Wonder Woman.
The Disaster Artist was an odd project from the outset: an adaptation of a non-fiction book on the making of The Room, the widely claimed ‘worst movie ever made’. The Disaster Artist is not simply a tremendously funny comedy, or a career high point for writer/director/actor James Franco; it is a celebration of the Hollywood dream, and despite capturing the sheer insanity of aspiring filmmaker Tommy Wiseau it never demeans or mocks him.
When I reviewed the film last month I wrote: ‘Through his performance Franco makes him a complex, elusive personality. We cannot explain away his behaviour, which is both childish and eccentric, but we can appreciate his vision, drive and ultimately his heartbreak when audiences laugh at his film. It’s a critical creative move, since it avoids turning The Disaster Artist into a hit piece. It treads a spectacular tightrope, making Wiseau a humorous character but, against all odds, a weirdly likeable one too.’
It has been a while since a Thai film impressed me so much that it made my top 10 for the year, but Bad Genius was an exceptional movie. A story about a group of high schoolers cheating on their university entrance exam, it was plotted like a heist movie and styled like a Danny Boyle film. Once you moved past the superficial elements, however, it became clear that Bad Genius was not about cheating anywhere near as much as it was about class.
In my review for FilmInk, I wrote: ‘As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the labour of one group is being used to prop up the status of the other; as it is in the classroom, so it is in Thailand more broadly. The film even finds time to take a few relatively savage pot-shots at the private school system and its methods of fleecing socially aspiring parents dry.’
Lion did the festival circuit back in 2016, as well as received an awards-qualifying run in the USA, but it was only in 2017 that this powerful, beautifully written drama was made properly available to Australian audiences. It is the best Australian film of the year, something doubly impressive when you learn that it is director Garth Davis’ first feature. The story it tells – a young Indian boy, separated from his family and adopted by an Australian couple, who tries to find his home via Google Maps – seems unbelievable, but of course it is adapted from a true story.
In my review, I wrote: ‘Lion tells a very personal story, and Davis has left an admirable amount of room to let its full emotion impact play out. It looks phenomenal, thanks to Greig Fraser’s strong cinematography. That is an essential aspect of the film, since at key moments it relies heavily on the audience recognising the geography of Saroo’s home town. It is well performed and beautifully written. Come the local awards season I expect it may well clean up. Certainly it deserves to.’
Japanese cult film powerhouse Takashi Miike knocked it out of the park with the flashy and popular adaptation of the popular manga. It is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the original work, and in his 100th directorial feature Miike draws heavily on the classical 1960s ‘chanbara’ films of Hideo Gosha to bring the violent, visceral samurai adventure to life.
In my FilmInk review, I wrote: ‘The action looks good, and is presented on a wonderfully over-the-top scale. The film’s first sword-fighting sequence pits Manji against about a hundred or so mercenaries and bounty hunters. That is the first fight: the film manages to top it for scale before the credits roll.’
Everybody grows old, but rarely do we get to see it fictional characters. Danny Boyle’s sequel to Trainspotting somehow reunited all of the key talent – cast and crew – to revisit the cast of his 1996 smash hit two decades further into their lives. When Trainspotting came out, it resonated with an entire generation. Now, 19 years on, it resonates again: forcing the audience to confront their own life choices while they watch Renton, Sickboy and Spud do the same.
In my review, I wrote: ‘It is, all things considered, about as perfect as one can expect a sequel to get. It presents an unexpectedly realistic future for the characters. They don’t change – no one ever really does, do they? – but it does bring them home. It puts them each where they are supposed to be and, having re-opened the book on Trainspotting, carefully closes it once again.’
In recent years I have failed to remain engaged with 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, which appeared to have started swallowing itself in some horrendous continuity ouroboros. It is why James Mangold’s Logan feels like such a breathe of fresh air. It takes whatever backstory it needs, ignores everything else, and tells a self-contained story of death, fatherhood, family, regret and loss. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman give the farewell performances of their lives. Newcomer Dafne Keen makes an incredible impression. This is the best superhero-based film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s very possible that it may be better.
In my review I wrote: ‘A major reason why the film works as well as it does is that it feels like a proper film, and not just an extended series of action beats and visual effects sequences. The screenplay is measured and thoughtful. The photography is atmospheric and effective. In terms of pacing Logan actually takes its time to illuminate moments of character and emotion, and those scenes feel as necessary to the film as any of the more violent parts.’
A stunning directorial debut for comic actor and writer Jordan Peele, that simultaneous acts like a paranoid horror film and as a critical satire of post-Obama race relations in America. Well-cast, tightly directed and edited, unexpectedly funny in key moments, and just wall-to-wall overwhelmingly effective. This is the year’s best horror film.
In my review, I wrote: ‘Peele sets up an underlying anxiety from the film’s first scene that actually leads the viewer to fear the experience of being black in 2017. That is no small achievement. This is not simply an effective horror film, and it is very effective indeed, it is an incisive and powerful comment on American society. That is what propels it from cool horror flick to bona-fide must-see master work.’
You don’t need my recommendation to watch Logan or Get Out: these are well-marketed, widely available Hollywood productions. Sometimes the best films in a given year are a little more obscure. Beauty and the Dogs, from Algerian director Kaouther Ben Hania, is a perfect example. In a series of beautifully structured chapters – each consisting of a single continuing tracking shot – it follows the experience of a young woman in Tunis attempting to report her own sexual assault at the police. It is a Kafka-esque nightmare: she was raped by a trio of police officers, and the law dictates that before she can even receive a rape exam in the hospital she must report the crime to her local police station – the exact station where her assaulters work. In terms of pacing, content, performance, and particularly its sensitivity to the subject matter, Beauty and the Dogs is pretty much perfect.
In my review for FilmInk, I wrote: ‘This is a hard, dark journey, but it is also a very important film. It tells a story that needs to be told. It opens wounds so that we can interrogate them and acknowledge their existence. Technically and artistically it is tremendous. Its central performance is superb. Sometimes it is important to watch difficult films. Beauty and the Dogs makes that task an awful lot easier on the viewer, by virtue of being hands down one of the finest film dramas of the year.’
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is my all-time favourite film, which is to be honest something of a cliche, but here we are. The idea of producing a sequel to Blade Runner seemed a very bad idea. The chances of nailing its tone and themes seemed too low, and the odds of being a poorly thought-out and disappointing follow-up too high. It was a genuine surprise, then, to discover that director Denis Villeneuve had made a sequel that didn’t copy the aesthetic but instead evolve it, and not simply repeat themes but advance them. This is an intelligent, considered and wonderfully provocative epic. It’s not faultless – for one thing it’s a solid 15-20 minutes too long, and it missteps in casting a sighted actor as a blind man – but its enormous merits overcome those shortfalls and then some.
In my review, I wrote: ‘It does the unthinkable: takes one of the most popular cult films of all time and actually makes a sequel worthy of its name. It strikes me as a film that will, like its predecessor, reward multiple viewings. There is just so much to appreciate and unpack.’
I had started to have my doubts about Christopher Nolan. After an enviable string of outstanding films, including at least two that were my favourite of their year (The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan had started to stumble a little – making films that were critically flawed in execution like The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. This year he returned to form and then some with Dunkirk. It is his shortest film since Following in 1998, and moves at a tremendous pace. It strips away everything that isn’t relevant to the historical moment at hand. It experiments with narrative structure, and pulls it off perfectly. It is a stunning war film, and a technical and creative masterpiece. It is, for me, the best film of 2017 by a solid margin.
In my review, I wrote: ‘The bottom line: Christopher Nolan is one of the strongest feature directors working today, and Dunkirk captures him working at his absolute finest. It is that rare film that deserves to be called a masterpiece.’