We’ve reached the end of our brief year-end wrap-up with our Staff Picks of the best films of 2017.
Unlike previous years, we’ve imposed no real constraints here (other than an arbitrary TV/film divide imposed by one insistent editor), so what follows are lists that go far beyond Australian theatrical releases or strict world premiere dates.
You’ll see quite an unusual range of films listed by various contributors. A taste: a socialist musical about Joan of Arc, a landscape film shot on an iPhone, a Maōri film with eight directors, and, of course, John Wick: Chapter 2.
Conor Bateman: A trend that will undoubtedly emerge over the lists in this piece is the prominence of festival-only titles. Out of the fifteen films I have noted below, only four got an Australian theatrical release. Perhaps tellingly, though, is the fact that I only saw one of those four during its theatrical run (Kenneth Lonergan’s grief-fuelled Manchester by the Sea). Local festivals really do define the year in cinema for me, whether that be the relatively mammoth offerings of Sydney FIlm Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival, or the bold programming of Queensland Film Festival.
Earlier this month, critic Simran Hans took to Twitter to talk about the metrics of end of year lists and it stuck with me. Ranking art is a mostly silly proposition, and the act of listmaking is, for me, more about discovery than asserting the unequivocal importance or quality of certain films. I have only watched two of these fifteen films more than once: my pick of the year, the Safdies’ thrilling Good Time, and Bill Morrison’s beautifully dense and rewarding documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time. The rest, then, are chosen purely based on the impact each of them had on me (or, as Simran puts it “walloping me in the face upon first viewing”).
Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path, a beguiling film about engaging with personal and collective history, blindsided me at MIFF in August. It’s also home to my favourite music cue of the year, less because of the song itself (clue: Flume-related) but the way it comes out of nowhere, is all consuming, then cuts off, having no real impact on any sequence that succeeds it. The unusual triptych of Western, Song to Song and The Woman Who Left are all beautifully realised character studies: Grisebach, like Schanelec, is concerned with German history but here it is manifested in a sympathetic, middle-aged tradesman wooed by rural Bulgarian beauty; Malick’s film, as I wrote in June, is a “woozy love heptagon… anchored in [Rooney] Mara’s almost tragic story of self-discovery”; Lav Diaz’s accessible 228-minute film (yes) about justice and power in the Philippines was a very powerful experience, due to its patience and intimacy, as well as Charo Santos-Concio’s brilliant performance.
I did not expect to be so taken with Glory, the Bulgarian film about a lost watch that my co-editor Jeremy Elphick praised at Locarno midway through 2016. It’s a very dark political comedy that, rather than veering into the absurd, plays things mostly straight. Bureaucrats, politicians, and the renegade press all cop it in this one. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark plays similarly to The Dreamed Path, spinning out from one seemingly straightforward premise (a young filmmaker researching the 1976 Thammasat University massacre) into a surprising and fractured look at contemporary Thailand. Nocturama also changes tack — after a supremely tense opening third, the young GAP model-looking ‘terrorists’ hole up in a high-end shopping mall, directly invoking comparisons with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Bonello’s film doesn’t leave much middle ground: you’ll either see it as a hollow piece of controversy bait or a probing look at the distance between political ideology and action in a neoliberal world.
- Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)
- The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec, 2016)
- Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
- Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)
- The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, 2016)
- Glory (Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva, 2016)
- Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
- By The Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)
- Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
- Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016)
HMs: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016), The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2016), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Colo (Teresa Villaverde, 2017), My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, 2017).
Jeremy Elphick: I’m finding myself agreeing with Conor more and more these days. I don’t understand why, I don’t know what’s changed, but I know that I hate myself for it.
Specifically, I agree with the idea of discovery as being one of the more valuable parts of this list-making process, and I genuinely believe that there’s a lot of value in the weird ephemeral snapshots and vague artifacts of self that these lists become a few years after they’re written. I look at lists I made a few years ago and see in them cheap imitations of ‘taste-making’ publications I was reading at the time. I can’t wait to look back at this list in five years and scream.
A lot of the films in my list were seen abroad at Locarno Film Festival, and hopefully they’ll make it to local festivals next year. On that note: this is the first year without the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF), which last year screened several of my favourites films mere months after they premiered at overseas festivals. Its absence is felt in the festival landscape here, especially as a stark reminder of how integral festivals are for smaller films making it to Australia at all. Anyway, cutting to the chase – there’s no ranking here, but I think these 12 films were my favourites of the year:
Milla (Valérie Massadian, 2017)
Ourobouros (Basma Alsharif, 2017)
Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, 2017)
Meteorlar (Gürcan Keltek, 2017)
Good Luck (Ben Russell, 2017)
Qing ting zhi yan (Xu Bing, 2017)
Railway Sleepers (Sompot Chidgasornpongse, 2017)
Le fort des fous (Narimane Mari, 2017)
24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)
Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)
Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time (Behrouz Boochani, Arash Sarvestani, 2017)
A final note: I was lucky enough to see two of my favourite films from last year — The Dreamed Path (dir. Angela Schanelec) and By The Time It Gets Dark (dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong) — again this year in a cinema. Rewatching them was one of my most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of this year. I also feel a lot more comfortable calling the two films my favourites of 2016. The moral of the story is “rewatch movies you love!” or something like that.
Jessica Ellicott: These are the ten films that stayed with me the longest in 2017, in no particular order. More good comedies in 2018 please.
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017)
Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017)
Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, 2017)
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, 2016)
H/M: Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017), Closeness (Kantemir Balagov, 2017)
Luke Goodsell: 2017 was a strange year for the moving image. For me, as it was for others, the year’s most singular viewing experience was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, a deeply affecting, transformative work that — while ostensibly unfolding in the medium of serial television — went a ways to finally dissembling the borders between formats, particularly in an era where we watch so many films on home screens, and mini masterpieces unfurl within absurdist internet clips, gifs, music videos, or short experimental works (a shout out, as ever, to the likes of Michael Robinson, whose Onward Lossless Follows ranks among the best of the year’s output).
Hollywood’s blockbuster machine proved dangerously defunct, and the year’s best big, brazen entertainments landed either via carte blanche Netflix auteurism (Bong Joon-ho’s Okja), an embrace of the genre’s inherent trash (Kong: Skull Island, xXx: Return of Xander Cage), or a willingness to upend pop cinema’s received legacies to make way for a new generation (Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
As usual, Australian screens were best served by festivals, and it was at least heartening in this context — and in my own role overseeing MIFF’s Critics Campus — to see an emergent film writing culture still energised by the possibilities of the form, whatever shape it may take.
Here are some of my favourites — that weren’t Twin Peaks: The Return:
- Still Life (Maud Alpi)
- Milla (Valérie Massadian)
- The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani)
- The Silent Eye (Amiel Courtin-Wilson)
- John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski)
- Get Out (Jordan Peele)
- Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
- Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
- The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)
H/M: Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson), On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo), Raw (Julia Ducournau), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig).
Ivan Čerečina: This year, I didn’t get around to seeing a lot of what I would have liked, so this list has no pretence towards being any kind of survey of what happened in film in 2017. In fact, I saw 8 new films this year that I liked – pity about Faces, Places… – and I listed them in rough order of preference:
Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa)
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)
Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory (Mohanad Yaqubi)
Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie)
Exercises of Memory (Paz Encina)
Silence (Martin Scorsese)
El Mar La Mar (J. P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonetta)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Of the big releases, I thought Good Time was exceptional, thanks in no small part to the visceral effect produced by its buzz-saw synths and synthetic smears of light and colour, which strangely enough brought me right back to the moment I first hit play on “On Sight.mp3” in VLC Media Player in 2013. Aside from provoking this involuntary trip down memory lane, the Safdies also managed to incorporate some relatively nuanced reflections on race into their fatalistic heist film, probably a timely rejoinder in a genre that overwhelming focuses on (heroic) white crime. I appreciated Silence’s ambition more than anything, and by modelling itself after the Big, Serious, European Art House cinema of yesteryear – how can you not think of early 60s Bergman? – it (refreshingly) in no way resembled the Big, Serious, European Art House cinema of right now. I wasn’t fully on board with Get Out, but there were some pretty superb, sharply critical moments (the botched handshake etc.) created through Peele’s talent for comedic timing that he exhibits throughout the film.
I wrote at some length about three films that in hindsight were the strongest I saw this year: Austerlitz, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, and Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory. Through some unconscious process, these films have grouped together in my mind to form a loose trio, each seeming to respond to questions of history, place and image through their own personal alchemies and intellectual filiations. Sergei Loznitsa, under the sign of Chantal Akerman and W.G. Sebald, excavated time from space, adding another layer of memorialisation to a memorial site. Bruno Dumont, following Straub and Minnelli, asked what the dramatic tradition can bring to the question of the nation, and showed what happens when you continue to perform outdoors for an indoor medium. Mohanad Yaqubi, on the other hand, stayed inside, sticking to the editing table and the dark, musty film archives. The resulting film showed that Esfir Shub and post-motorcycle-accident-Godard remain potentially valuable models for filmmakers today, despite what the recent glut of tepid archival filmmaking might suggest. These three films, along with Paz Encina’s Exercises of Memory and J. P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonetta’s El mar la mar, made me think above all – through some other unconscious process – of the resilience of the last few moments of Night and Fog: the conjugation of Jean Cayrol’s text indicting our culture of remembrance with Resnais’ slow track away from the ruins of the Birkenau camp still seems to hang over of a whole current of filmmaking today.
Faith Everard: 2017 was a really good year for film. So much so that not only did I agonize over this list, but I found myself selecting certain favourites that lay outside the scope of my preferred genre of horror. Whether this is an indication of the shifting paradigms of horror and genre cinema, or rather a reflection on my own increasingly diversified tastes, remains to be seen. Perhaps it can be said that greatness has no common denominator.
- Get Out (Jordan Peele)
- The Endless (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
- The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos)
- The Family (Rosie Jones)
- Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
- Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)
- Raw (Julia Ducourneau)
- 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
- Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
- The Untamed (Amat Escalante)
Honourable mention: Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
C.J. Prince: For this year, I’m going with a ‘pure’ list, ie only titles that received their world premiere in 2017.
- BPM (Robin Campillo)
- Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)
- First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
- Life and Nothing More (Antonio Mendez Esparza)
- The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
- Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)
- ManHunt (John Woo)
- The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
- A Gentle Creature (Sergei Loznitsa)
- A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio)
HMs: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler), PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams), Columbus (kogonada), Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor).
Kenneth Kriheli: Art as a coping mechanism achieved a new meaning this year for me, an American citizen. Sure, I’ve always put on music to get me through the minutes and hours, and films and museums and art installations have always been an opportunity to let my mind expand or just space out. But this year really sucked — from the just-begun reign of the Cheeto-Man to the end of the Internet as we know it — and I couldn’t help focusing on how each film I saw tried to deal with that sucky-ness.
We got Women Who Kill and Get Out, a double whammy of comedic thriller allegories about minority identity and its paranoia about its predetermined role in American society. Both the performances and bodies of women evinced emotionally and psychologically piercing portraits of fragilely, even dangerously housed trauma in Una and Personal Shopper. The Red Turtle and Wonderstruck were immaculate, if somewhat fantastical tales of survival deeply rooted in themes of memory, family and loss. And John Wick: Chapter 2 and Last Men in Aleppo showed humanity in utter exhaustion as the question of a normal life became almost like a set-up for a bad punchline. Yet still, while these cinematic feats casted dark shadows, others of equal caliber provided silver linings. Call Me By Your Name, though a bittersweet tale of discreet love not meant to last, was beautifully framed by a atmosphere of the sympathetic people surrounding its two lovers. And that cinematic epitaph, Lucky, delivered to me a dose of sweetness in Harry Dean Stanton, who, among other things, was not busy enough smoking his lungs out to not get up at a child’s birthday party and coax out the most joyous of tears through song.
- Women Who Kill
- Get Out
- The Red Turtle
- Personal Shopper
- Call Me By Your Name
- John Wick: Chapter 2
- Last Men In Aleppo
Keva York: In no particular order:
Rat Film (Theo Anthony, 2016): Theo Anthony’s free-wheeling essay film scurries between different media and different ideas with the speed and dexterity of the titular pest. Starting with the rather prosaic topic of Baltimore’s rat problem, Rat Film quickly moves into metaphorical territory, vermin becoming a vessel through which to explore systemic inequality in urban environments.
The Work (Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, 2017): Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous documented an intensive group therapy program at a maximum security prison, following the incredibly raw and sometimes violent emotional journeys of a handful of the participants. Watching The Work at MIFF was pretty much a group therapy session in itself, a sense of catharsis palpable in the theatre as the credits rolled.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (Chris Smith, 2017): A fascinating and often discomforting look at Jim Carrey’s deep dive into character for Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon (1999). Behind-the-scenes footage reveals the extent to which Carrey sought to actually inhabit Kaufman, the boundary between performance and personality melting away.
Spettacolo (Jeff Malmberg, Chris Shellen, 2017): Another documentary focused on the muddling of reality and fiction, Spettacolo is set in a tiny Tuscan town with a unique theatrical tradition. Every year, for the past 50 years, the residents have come together to stage a giant play, dramatising current issues. A film as bittersweet as it is beautiful.
The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani, 2016): I didn’t know much about falconry in the Middle East before watching The Challenge, and I can’t say I had learned much about it afterwards, even though the arthouse documentary is ostensibly about this very topic. However, I was quite mesmerised by Ancarani’s decidedly surreal tableaux of decadent excess.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016): I admittedly watched I Am Not Your Negro on a plane, which might in part account for my emotional response to it. But this is an undeniably powerful documentary, anchored by James Baldwin’s achingly articulate words.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017): Jordan Peele approached race relations in America from a very different angle to Peck, but Get Out is no less resonant as a piece of cultural commentary. Plus, it’s both genuinely funny and genuinely creepy – no mean feat.
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016): Personal Shopper is filled with things that shouldn’t work but do – e.g. a story that is equal parts ghosts and high fashion. A 20-minute scene that’s just a text message conversation. Kristen Stewart. I couldn’t quite put my finger on this enigmatic, brooding film, and that is perhaps what I found so affecting about it.
Lastly, I’m leaving the final two slots of my top 10 blank, in deference to a couple of TV programs (Hint: Nruter Eht: Skaep Niwt and N_th_n F_r Y__: F_nd_ng Fr_nc_s) that we’re not counting as cinema even though they were really, really, really good. Also, because I didn’t watch that many new films this year. But mainly the first reason.
Blythe Worthy: Though everyone’s favourite summer film, Call Me By Your Name, began as a collaborative effort between James Ivory and Luca Guadagnino, the two eventually took separate credits. No matter how good on paper a collaboration may seem, they’re always hard to pull off. This year, on the other side of the Pacific, Waru, an experiment in communal Maōri storytelling (produced by eight Maōri filmmakers), was a complete success. Written and directed by Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Chelsea Cohen, Renae Maihi, Paula Jones and Awanui Simich-Pene, Waru’s eight episodes swiftly spiral from classic melodrama to suspense with frequent eruptions of tragedy. The fleet-footed film (running 88 minutes) unfolds around the tangi (a polysemous Maōri word meaning both mourning and singing) of a child’s death at the hands of a guardian. Kinetically-inclined, perhaps because of its use of emerging directors, Waru’s heart beats vulnerably shallow under its skin; the pervasive sense of earnestness in the multitude of voices on screen, never turns into cloyness. At the very least, the performances of Kararaina Rangihau and Merehake Maaka as Waru’s grandmothers, who for ten minutes straight converse solely in karanga (a Maōri word for a ceremonial call), is worth witnessing.
Compared to Buñuel’s character-doubling in That Obscure Object of Desire, Hong Sang-soo’s inspired Yourself and Yours lopes along somewhere between the lively pace of an Ephron rom-com and the tango criollo of a Kar-Wai drama. Featuring an unpredictable script with satisfyingly shambolic performances by its leads, Yourself and Yours provides a standalone and sharp-tongued critique of all the well-worn tropes of a rom-com (gossip, comic misunderstandings, betrayal and meet-cutes), as told through the angsty hobble of a lovelorn male artist with a broken leg.
Still Life is a film I’ll mention purely because it has stayed with me the longest since I saw it at MIFF this year. A wildcard choice late-night screening, the film is the first full-length feature from French helmer Maud Alpi, shipped in from the Filmmakers of the Present section of the 69th Locarno International Film Festival. Following the daily chores of an abattoir worker (first time actor Virgile Hanrot) and his friendly mutt Boston, Still Life is not an easy watch, with real abattoir scenes and grisly beyond-abject images concocted by Alpi. What it does do effortlessly, though, is fulfil its title’s promise: time is slowed to a tableau. A cow’s nervous skitter becomes a brooding dance; the day pigs are churned through the abattoir. Their screeches overwhelm and consume the small film, piercing whatever delicate cinematic distance one might desire. With a tantalisingly slow climb to its final crescendo (reminiscent of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God), Still Life gives and takes in equal measure, avoiding the dogma inherent in films of its ilk.
Special mentions: The Florida Project gave me everything I wanted from a Sean Baker film. I got lingering pastel-wonderland images of genteel decay, seeming unending shots of Orlando magic hour, come-with-me childhood adventures and Bria Vinaite’s riot girl born of desperation performance. Valeska Grisebach’s Bulgaria-set film Western furnished itself with the ultimate flawed cowboy figure in a lonely and misplaced construction worker played by Meinhard Neumann. Through the eyes of this risen-John Wayne with engine grease between his fingers, Grisebach provides an eloquent commentary on the foibles of middle-aged masculinity.
Kai Perrignon: What follows is less of definitive list and more of a jumble of films I absolutely adored and others I think deserve more recognition. This meant leaving off some films that I loved (sorry Baby Driver, Logan and Dunkirk), but it also meant getting to talk about weirdo DTV meditations on grief/cage-fighting like Acts of Vengeance.
24 Frames: Sure, it can feel repetitive. Sure, it sometimes feels like academic experiment rather than a full film. And sure, there are too many birds. But all those complaints fall away when that final image hits and the magic of cinema washes over you in a joyous wave. Abbas Kiarostami’s final, posthumous film explains what it is with a title card, and it never changes. It’s 24 still images that are animated for exactly four and a half minutes. A simple concept, sure, but the what the late master does with it knocks me over. Pictures of pictures, frames of frames, nature and animals and people living on before and after the photographs. Each moment a projection of all the time around it, of all the time cinema has to warp and breathe and hold close. We only see people once, and he puts them in the middle ground, a 2D image used to separate two planes and suggest depth, just like the screen of a movie theatre separating the audience and movie. Cinema was to Kiarostami a natural phenomenon, an extension of our eyes and our ears, lovingly placed into the world for us to absorb. He left us with a great gift.
A Ghost Story: The spiritual sequel to Hiroshima Mon Amour I didn’t know I needed. David Lowery’s exploration of history and humanity’s place within it is a gorgeous, surprisingly small scale ode to an impossibly enormous thing. It’s portentous, but it’s never afraid to make fun of itself. It’s the work of a very real, very flawed person grappling with their life, their work, and their mortality. There’s a scene towards the middle in which Will Oldham gives a long, bitter, pretentious monologue about humanity’s insignificance that some viewers seem to interpret as Lowery spouting his thesis directly to the audience, but that’s not true. Right behind Oldham’s exhausting bard is the ghost, silently refuting everything he says, silently grieving and existing. We are nothing, but we try to be, and that’s what counts.
The Work: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ documentary about a 4-day intensive group therapy session between inmates of Folsom prison and various volunteers is almost unbearably intimate and earnest. Scene after scene of guarded, sometimes dangerous men breaking down to confront their deepest psychological traumas, screaming and fighting and crying their eyes out. The Work is less interested in analysing the process of the sessions or the social constructs that build up toxic masculinity than it pushing the audience deep into the pseudo-spiritual, painfully vulnerable state that each of these men inhabit over the course of the program. From this framework, Mcleary and Aldous are able to present clean, clear character arcs, but the film itself never feels prepared or calculated. It feels raw and immediate, ready to tear you down so that you can walk upright again.
Nocturama: At its Melbourne premiere, Bertrand Bonello’s thriller seemed to piss off a lot of people, who called its sympathetic portrayal of young terrorists empty and potentially dangerous. But I think there is a distinct difference between depicting purposelessness and actually being purposeless, which Nocturama is decidedly not. Its young heroes are never given a clear motivation for their violent actions because that violence is meant as an expression of pure rebellion. Bonello abstracts terrorism into a series of symbols, information transfers, and actions for the sake of actions – alienation and ennui, smashing together in an inevitable explosion of unformed desire. These kids are fighting back against a system that doesn’t make sense to them, that barely makes sense to anybody – so of course their actions would end up being essentially meaningless. They’re screaming to force meaning back into the void.
Brawl in Cell Block 99: Pure exploitation is hard to find in 2017, but writer/director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) may our newest trash auteur. Whether he actually believes in the near-fascist politics in which his film traffics or he’s just a cynical huckster, Zahler is a master of his craft. Featuring blue-collar wit, a purposefully ugly aesthetic, and brutal nihilistic violence, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a cinematic middle finger that I love dearly.
By the Time it Gets Dark: Anocha Suwichakornpong’s mesmerising meditation on art’s (in)ability to adequately deal with trauma was technically released last year across Europe, but it premiered in enough places this year that I’m calling it one for 2017. Suwichakornpong’s technique is steeped in the juxtaposition between the mundane and the bombastic; sometimes those elements are mixed subtly, sometimes bluntly, but always in a way that knocks the viewer off-balance. It’s hard to follow exactly what happens in By the Time It Gets Dark, but, by the end, that’s basically the idea. At a certain point, pain this enormous and historic becomes impossible to communicate; all we have left is the feeling.
Get Out: Jordan Peele’s incredible thriller has already been written about in a million ways, all better than I could, so I’ll just use this space to highlight star Daniel Kaluuya’s performance, which maybe isn’t getting as much praise as it should because it’s almost entirely reactive. It’s tough to maintain a presence as the quieter of any given pair, but Kaluuya carries the film and articulates its themes by credibly trying to extricate himself from increasingly horrifying situations with a polite smile, all while letting his pained acceptance, fear, and, finally, outright anger play across his eyes. Just phenomenal acting.
John Wick: Chapter 2: If there’s a better action star alive today than Keanu Reeves, I have yet to see him. After years of shining in independent productions but being badly miscast in big budget garbage, he’s finally back in a franchise that allows him to be both a blank embodiment of power and an idiosyncratic weirdo. John Wick: Chapter 2 puts all the first film’s wonderfully bizarre hitman mythology in the forefront, becoming a much funnier, existential, and surreal film in the process. Writer Derek Kolstad is having a blast, and thank god director Chad Stahelski knows how to shoot fights to equal the writing. The best action film of the year.
Raw: Mis-marketed as gross-out gore-fest (probably to grab some film bros who love a good endurance test but don’t want to see something female focused) Julia Ducornau’s debut feature is a darkly hilarious coming of age story that plays its cannibalism almost entirely for laughs, drawing its real horror from the psychosexual dynamic between sisters. Durcornau’s tendency to prioritise punchiness over narrative momentum hurts the ending, but it makes the rest of her film a blast.
Sleep Has Her House: Scott Barley is a filmmaker who deals in the primordial. With few exceptions, his works are absent of people. When humans show up, they often exist as forces of negative chaos or pain. It’s fitting, then, that the culmination of his work thus far is the first one to feel entirely post-human. In Sleep Has Her House, darkness is a purifier, relinquishing the audience from the sights of a beautiful but terrifying universe, one that never needed us in the first place. Shot primarily with an iPhone and played with significantly in post, Barley creates gorgeous, painterly tableaus of nature and then deconstructs our understanding of them – such as a magnificent shot which pulls back from a waterfall for so long that it becomes a barely visible dot in the vast landscape. Every moment of clarity is dismantled again and again until nothing is clear at all, and we are forced to reckon with the fact that incomprehension is the natural state of something so small as a person.
On the Rocks: An exceptionally bitter and chaotic riff on Robert Altman’s talky comedies, On the Rocks presents a kindly palooka (played by Chase Fein) with a kind heart and a recently deceased father. Unfortunately for this grieving man, his girlfriend Karen (Nichole Bagby) is an insecure wreck, her older sister (Kate Freund) is an angrily supportive echo chamber, her younger sister needs a place to live, his boss is an asshole, his AA meetings have given him a lonely crush, he doesn’t have a bed, his car won’t start, and his new house smells like his dead dad. Best known for their work with Channel 101, directors Ariel Gardner and Alex Kavutskiy have the impressive ability to balance angry misanthropy with real kindness, and On the Rocks thrives in-between those two extremes; systematically destroying Dallas’ spirit and goodness for the majority of the film, only to end in a place of familial, simple comfort. My pick for funniest film of the year.
Revenge: The rape-revenge genre has always held a low place in the hearts of cinephiles, even trash lovers like me.1 Films like I Spit on Your Grave (to cite only the most famous example) have been indulging in the graphic suffering of their heroines and robbing them of agency under the guise of pseudo-feminism for decades. But no more? Coralie Fargeat’s debut Revenge takes the tropes of its chosen genre and subverts them into something genuinely empowering. Early on, the film makes a point of highlighting its heroine’s (Matilda Lutz) control of her sexuality and the entitlement of those who assume property of the same. After the inevitable sexual trauma shifts the picture into a game of cat and mouse, Fargeat allows Lutz to exist as both a classic avenging angel and a real human being, one who maintains her femininity even in the process of being reborn. But what makes Fargeat’s picture great isn’t just that commentary, it’s that she threads that through a gruesome, crowd-pleasing popcorn movie, one that makes the audience cheer every time a bastard gets shot in the gut.
Acts of Vengeance: Isaac Florentine’s biggest strength as a director has always been his simplicity. His DTV action have stood out because he shoots cleanly and doesn’t overcomplicate his framing, allowing the martial arts and cage fighting to be seen in all their badass glory. Never before, though, has he surrounded those fights with a story worth talking about. For the first time, with the help of screenwriter Matt Venne, Florentine tells a story that feels like it matters, even if its broad outline reads like nonsense. Antonio Banderas plays a slick asshole lawyer whose family is murdered, so he takes a vow of silence and joins an underground pit-fighting ring so that he may one day get revenge on the killers. By playing the story beats as simply and sincerely as the fights, Florentine is able to imbue this wacko shit with a real, truthful melancholy. Like Jean Claude Van Damme before him, Banderas holds a ton of post-peak career pain on his eyes, and he sells the heart of this corny story of redemption despite barely saying a word.
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