Wednesday 5 July 2017

My 25 favourite films of 2017 so far: Part Two #10-1

After yesterday's appetiser, here's the main course - my top 10 favourite films of the year so far. To be considered, movies had to have been released into UK cinemas between 1 January and 30 June 2017. Releases exclusive to VOD, Blu-ray and DVD did not qualify for inclusion.

10. Prevenge
Director: Alice Lowe UK release date: 10 February
Director/writer/star Lowe makes the tricky art of comedy-horror look easy in her filmmaking debut, shot when she was seven months' pregnant. She plays Ruth, newly widowed and bearing a child that exhorts her to take bloody revenge on those responsible for her partner's death. Yes, it's funny (Lowe earned her comedy chops on the likes of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, so how could it not be?) but Prevenge is also joyously grisly, at times channelling the likes of Rosemary's Baby and
Andrzej Zulawski's deranged Possession to great effect. I can't wait to see what she does next. 

9. I Am Not Your Negro
Director: Raoul Peck UK release date: 7 April
Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, Peck's fascinating documentary about black novelist, playwright, poet and activist James Baldwin focusses mainly on an unfinished book - Remember This House - which was to feature his memories of three great black American leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, as well as ruminations on US history. Baldwin - a startlingly brilliant orator and formidable intellect - knew all three men well and stood by horrified as one by one they met violent ends during the 1960s. As a result there's a mixture of anger and sadness in Peck's film, feelings perfectly articulated in Baldwin's oratory, particularly lines such as: "The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story." Bringing Baldwin's writing bang up to date, Peck shows us how that story hasn't got any prettier.

8. Personal Shopper
Director: Olivier Assayas UK release date: 17 March
Kristin Stewart reunites with Clouds Of Sils Maria director Assayas for this strange and horror-inflected meditation on grief and loneliness. Stewart is an American living in Paris and working as a general dog's body for a ghastly celebrity model. She is also a medium, desperate to make contact with the spirit of her dead twin brother, who has passed away following a heart attack (she shares his condition). A lengthy scene in which Stewart goes to London and back again on Eurostar, all the while exchanging texts with a mysterious person or entity, is Assayas at his most playful and audacious. 

7. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle UK release date: 13 January
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can't sing or dance like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds but this musical love letter to old Hollywood, romance and jazz is utterly charming. Gosling's a struggling pianist, Stone an unloved actress, but the pair's passion for each other acts as rocket fuel for their ambition and self-belief, much improving their career fortunes even as the relationship founders. Yes, it's corny and whilst Gosling and Stone certainly have chemistry, their actual relationship is oddly chaste. That said, the song and dance numbers are mostly terrific (especially the opener, Another Day Of Sun), and Chazelle serves up a bravura ending a million miles from the saccharine-fest I was expecting.

6. Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele UK release date: 17 March
Anyone who only knows US comedian Peele from his part in last year's limp cat comedy, Keanu, is likely to be knocked out of their seat by this whip-smart combination of horror and satire that has its sights firmly trained on the notion that, since Obama, America is a post-racial society. British actor Daniel Kaluuya is in a mixed race relationship with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) and one weekend she takes him to meet her moneyed, progressive parents at their remote country estate. They're initially friendly but clearly uncomfortable in his presence and that soon gives way to something far more sinister. Peele (previously best known in the US for the Key & Peele sketch show) puts liberal white America under the microscope and really doesn't like what he sees there.

5. Raw
Director: Julia Ducournau UK release date: 7 April
"Visceral" is a word thrown around by film critics to describe any bit of old tat with some violence in it these days. It's a word that has lost its power through repetition but one that nevertheless fits this extraordinary French cannibal film like a bloodied glove. A teenage vegetarian (Garance Marillier) is made to eat a rabbit heart as part of her initiation at a veterinary college and soon develops a taste for meat, including the human variety. Ducournau's unsparing film can be viewed as a straight-no-chaser horror flick or a coming of age yarn about a young woman transitioning into dog-eat-dog adulthood, but it adroitly juggles many other themes too, including sexual awakening, teenage rebellion, and sibling rivalry.  

4. Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins UK release date: 17 February
Jenkins' Best Picture Oscar winner is probably too subtle for its good at times and it certainly took me a couple of watches before his movie's considerable charms inveigled their way into my heart. But, once you get past those early doubts, Moonlight is a beautifully judged and entirely powerful piece of work boasting great performances (especially Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and Alex R Hibbert) and superb storytelling. It follows the same character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life as he strives to come to terms with his difficult upbringing and also with his sexuality. It's a delicate, low-key film, and I was therefore astonished - but delighted - the Academy gave it the nod over La La Land.

3. The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook UK release date: 14 April
Sumptuous adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel, The Fingersmith, which relocates the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea. As part of a criminal scheme, a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri), is sent to work for a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) betrothed to her repulsive uncle (Cho Jin-woong). Instead of fleecing her employer, however, she falls in love with her and the two commence an affair. The Handmaiden is all about deception - during the film's three separate chapters, it time and again picks the pocket of your expectations. Park deliberately withholds information and skews perspectives, making for a discombobulating ride that keeps you on your toes every step of the way.

2. Manchester By The Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan UK release date: 13 January
Excoriating, heart-rending drama starring Best Actor Oscar winner Casey Affleck as a grief-stricken janitor returning home to the titular Massachusetts seaside town following the death of his older brother. There he has to confront a terrible secret from his past whilst struggling to forge a path into a more hopeful future. Director Lonergan's sharp script balances the bleakness with occasional stabs of wry humour, Michelle Williams is dependably superb in a supporting role and Affleck turns in one of 21st Century Hollywood's great performances. You'll cry, you'll laugh, you'll cry some more. You'll carry on crying until you realise everyone in the cinema is looking at you...

1. Elle
Director: Paul Verhoeven UK release date: 10 March
An outrageous and audacious revenge fantasy of sorts which sees Isabelle Huppert's icy video game executive raped in her Paris apartment before commencing a strange and erotically-charged game of cat and mouse with her attacker. It's an incredibly divisive film that no one seems to entirely agree upon. Is it suggesting that women secretly like sexual violence? Or is it an anti-rape statement skewering the male need to subjugate difficult, powerful women? On the surface, Elle is only a short walk away from the likes of Basic Instinct (director Verhoeven's 1992 potboiler starring Sharon Stone) but it's a far more complex and rewarding work than that, helped enormously by Huppert's total immersion in one of modern cinema's most unreadable characters. Oh and, SPOILER ALERT, I think she knows who her attacker is from the moment she first lays eyes on him.

Finally, a few mid-year awards...
Best straight to VOD/DVD/streaming film: Macon Blair's I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore on Netflix.
Most pleasant surprise: Matt Damon is miscast as a grizzled mercenary and the quality of the CGI is variable but The Great Wall gives good blockbuster. 
Tip for the top: Julia Ducournau, the director of Raw (see #5), is going to be HUGE.
Worst film: Take your pick from Assassin's Creed or Power Rangers (although I'm yet to see Transformers: The Last Knight).
Biggest disappointment: Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is a lot of fun but hardly worth all those five-star reviews. See also Toni Erdmann.
Most ill-advised acting choice: Jake Gyllenhaal as a grotesque Aussie TV animal-wrangler in Okja. Ruined the whole film and reminded me of Robert De Niro's similarly OTT turn in The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Not a good look, mate. 
Wish for the rest of the year: That adult fans of comic-book movies finally start to engage their critical faculties and stop declaring every bit of super-powered tat that comes their way  "awesome" or "amazing".

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