Amid concerns that 2017 provided few new box office records and the knock-on suggestion that cinema itself is therefore in some sort of crisis, the year continued to provide reassurance that creativity was alive and well in the independent market, as an eagerness for inclusivity and the exploration of minority voices proved a wise and welcome source of freshness. As has been the growing trend for a few years now, the source of the year’s most enriching and moving romantic pictures came from films that explored homosexuality. In fact, the cross-pollinating lines of sexuality proved a recurring focus in some of the year’s standout movies.
The film world is largely a liberal one (this is the sensibility that is projected, from my experience), and film itself has proven a vehicle for progression which is precious in times which find the world at odds with itself. The situation is far from utopian. Progression isn’t always evident, and Hollywood has rot within it. Western society is recognising its divisions. Race and gender are our perennial talking points. But film and the respect of it as an art form has the capacity to unite us again. It shows us ourselves, and reminds us of who we are, for better, for worse. And the means of doing so are so diverse. Across genres, across approaches to the medium. Through auteur theory, through essential collaboration, 2017 showed us, again, that the possibilities are endless.
Making the list, then, came down purely to personal preference. The movies released in the UK in 2017 that remained with me longest after the credits rolled. The ones I looked or look forward to seeing again. The ones I want to recommend you seek out. Some will appeal across the board, others will gather more specific audiences. Here they are, and we start with a bit of an oddity and perhaps a tough sell…
25. Wet Woman In The Wind (Akihito Shiota)
A young man who has isolated himself in an effort to become more philosophical finds his life turned upside down when a local prostitute tries to encourage him to break his vow of celibacy. Wet Woman In The Wind is the flagship release from Nikkatsu Studios as they attempt to relaunch their notorious ‘roman porno’ brand of titles from the ’70s; sexploitation and soft-core porno features that were dashed out quickly and on the cheap for a quick return (losing the studio most of its stable of talent). Here, however, the proposition is recast as artfully orchestrated cinema. This film (coming in at an appealingly svelte 78 minutes) makes inquiries about the isolationism of modern Japanese society, and how these tendencies might be tempered by human connection. Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) persists in her playful taunts of alienated Yuzawa (Takahiro Kato), in the process reminding him of his humanity. For a film issued and promoted as merely T&A, it’s actually masterfully composed, thoughtful and even moving. It even fulfills its original mandate; sex scenes are plentiful and, in a fully-clothed exchange in which the two leads fight for control of a staff, genuinely erotic.
24. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman might in fact have been 2017’s most important mass-market film. In light of the events of this year – the viper’s nest of gross misdeeds that’ve been long lurking behind the Hollywood curtain, the dismal perseverance of America’s buffoon in chief etc – Wonder Woman managed to become more than just a movie. Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana Prince became a symbol of feminine defiance. Jenkins’ film appeared before the accusations and admissions went supernova, but one can’t help but wonder if, in some way, she managed to create something of a trigger. While that photo of a little girl reaching up to the film’s poster might be the most important image for cinema in 2017. Wonder Woman captured a zeitgeist, put an idea and an ideal in people’s minds. DC could learn from this one.
23. The Untamed (Amat Escalante)
A Mexican film about a family’s sexual exploits with an alien monster hidden in a cabin in the woods? Escalante’s The Untamed seemed like an attention-seeking ploy for controversy. A live action excursion into tentacle porn? But the reality was closer to the cerebral studies of David Cronenberg filtered through an entirely different cultural eye. Escalante’s film explores the repression of homosexuality in Mexico, while the approach to the sci-fi concept is judicious. What’s more, anyone arriving to see bizarre sexual unions will have more than their fill in an unexpected scene at the site of a meteor crash. Von Trier level audacity. It’s almost certainly not for everyone, and it’s very deliberately paced, but The Untamed leaves an impression and is tough to forget.
22. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Few cinematic experiences in 2017 were as charming as Paul King’s Paddington 2. Now a revamped British institution, the second movie found everyone’s favourite bear wrongfully imprisoned for the theft of a pop-up book, giving King the opportunity to invite a who’s who of UK comedic talent to drop by and help out. With a colour palette and sensibility that recalls the best of Wes Anderson, Paddington 2 revealed itself as a tightly plotted romp, one that improbably also contains Hugh Grant’s most readily enjoyable work in years.
21. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Anna Rose Holmer’s svelte debut is something to behold. Royalty Hightower plays Toni, a trainee boxer who becomes drawn to another extracurricular class teaching street dancing. As she changes vocation, the class experiences an epidemic of fits, causing panic among the young women. Holmer’s film, which makes an abstraction out of blossoming womanhood, mimics the qualities of a silent movie; dialogue is sparse, music is key, Holmer prioritises movement. She studies it. On the basis of this sprightly opening salvo, you can count on hers being a career to watch.
20. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
Anna Biller’s long-awaited second feature didn’t disappoint. Samantha Robinson stars as a recently widowed young witch who moves to a new town to snare a new man, utilising love spells to help her succeed. But love magic is a tangled road. Biller’s film is immaculately designed (by Biller herself; costumes, sets and all), employing techniques and styles that hark back to another age of cinema. Hers is not a cinema of pastiche however; there’s sincerity to the choices, and Biller makes an argument for rekindling the aesthetics she so clearly loves. Like nothing else released in the UK in 2017.
19. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Lowery’s film wooed audiences as Sundance at the start of the year but struggled to find an audience when it landed in limited theatres this summer. It’s a quiet, delicate poem of a film, in which Casey Affleck – deceased in a car accident – mourns the loss of the living. Dressed in a white sheet (see above), Affleck watches his former girlfriend Rooney Mara grieve and get on with her life. It’s an exceedingly patient, painterly experience up until this point, but then the second half sees A Ghost Story soar into hitherto unforeseen places, becoming a cosmic journey through time and experience.
18. Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
Seventeenth doesn’t quite seem high enough for flat-out one of the most enjoyable movies of the year, which I suppose is a testament to the sixteen above it. Wheatley’s latest shouldn’t be taken for granted. This hour-long shoot-out (following a 30 minute set-up) is as much a technical marvel as it is a riotous ensemble character piece. Wheatley makes it all look effortless (the script, co-written with Amy Jump as ever, is a howler) and the soundtrack is cooler-than-cool. It might be all surface, but surface like this is pretty hard to beat. And that cast! Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Cillian Murphy… Give it a shot.
17. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon)
Happy Death Day has comfortably crossed the $100 million mark now. It’s not the first Blumhouse picture of the year to do so (the other one’s still to come of course), but it’s perhaps the more surprising. There was nothing riding on this one. It swept in under the radar with its Groundhog Day-but-horror premise, another no-stakes scare-fest just in time for Halloween. As if Jigsaw wasn’t enough punishment. But Christopher Landon’s film turned out to be one of the year’s best surprises. It’s not scary, but it is wildly entertaining, harking back to late 90’s teen horror flicks which were more about fun than frights. At the centre of it all is a hugely impressive performance from Jessica Rothe; the kind of turn that’ll go unthanked through awards season, but which glues the whole movie together. At least word-of-mouth has done it’s thing.
16. The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
This one’s still very fresh in the mind, but that doesn’t take away from what James Franco has managed to achieve here, transposing the bizarre tale of the making of The Room into something that doesn’t require specific knowledge to enjoy. The film is exceedingly funny, be it through minute observation of abundant oddball character traits or the absurd stranger-than-fiction situations it documents. It’s also a great ode to friendship and the admirable quality of bold creative reach. It doesn’t hurt that Franco himself reaches god-like levels of immersion in his portrayal of Tommy Wiseau. Whether such a thing can ever be deemed flattering is another matter.
15. IT (Andrew Muschietti)
The year’s biggest monster, in more ways than one. IT didn’t save the dire summer season exactly, but it brought it to the end with a jump. The first part in an ambitiously scaled reworking of Stephen King’s famous novel, what Muschietti gets so right here is the interactions between his young leads. It doesn’t hurt in the least that Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a whole other level of creepy, even when held in comparison to the well-remembered version committed to film by Tim Curry. It’s only the first half of the story; the ‘adults’ movie will be with us in a couple of years. For now though, this is a new classic for populist horror.
14. Logan Lucky (Steven Soberbergh)
Steven Soderbergh came out of his deeply unconvincing retirement! For a heist movie! And it was fantastic! The feted independent filmmaker who is most well-known to modern audiences for the Oceans series, flipped things for this one, which championed a ragtag bunch of rednecks and ex-cons for a more working class angle on the crime caper. Soderbergh directs with his established confidence, but his cast are the treat here, boasting the likes of Riley Keough and Adam Driver. But it’s Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig who shine brightest. In an ideal world this is the movie that should’ve owned the summer. Catch up when you can.
13. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
I passed on seeing A Quiet Passion during its cinematic run on the grounds that I had left Sunset Song rather unmoved; a decision I now whole-heartedly regret. Discovering Davies’ latest only recently, its multitudinous merits forced it onto this list. First there’s Cynthia Nixon’s awards-worthy performance as Emily Dickinson, then of course the exquisitely lit interiors that compliment her emotional depth. The greatest charm is the continually pleasing screenplay, which is woven so well with wit and wordplay, only to then floor you with something of dexterous emotional heft. A Quiet Passion is a paean to equality also, as Dickinson struggles for credibility and recognition as her mortality presses against her. It’s a wordy and cerebral piece, but in its stillness and patience a furnace burns.
12. Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Loving looked like odiously overbearing Oscar-bait from it’s heavyhanded trailer, but trust in Jeff Nichols, who handles this true life story of an interracial couple – the Lovings – who were denied the right to return to their home state of Virginia after eloping to Washington DC to get married. Nichols (who wowed last year with Spielbergian sci-fi movie Midnight Special) works with superb restraint, and the subject matter suits his deft approach. Joel Edgerton puts in a measured performance as the tight-lipped Richard, but Ruth Negga was sorely robbed of her best actress award for her work as Mildred. It’s a quiet movie (Nichols films usually are) but a deeply affecting one, proving that you don’t need the kind of bluster falsely hinted at in that trailer in order to pack a punch.
11. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Kristen Stewart reunited with Olivier Assayas (Clouds Of Sils Maria), this time taking the lead role in this supernatural story of a medium (and personal shopper) grieving the loss of her twin brother, who is waiting in Paris for a message from the beyond. What unfolds is tantalisingly open to interpretation, as Stewart’s character Maureen receives a slew of mysterious text messages during a trip to London. What this leaves you with is an extended mid-section of barely any speaking, but with a breathless sense of eerie suspense and even eroticism. Moreover the film is a poignant essay on the dislocated feeling of loss. On first approach it can leave you feeling unfulfilled, however this is one that lingers, and improves on return. A very fruitful partnership.
To be continued…