Thursday 4 January 2018

My favourite films of 2017 #10-1

Body snatchers: Daniel Kaluuya's Chris is in big trouble in Get Out

We've reached the final leg of our journey through my favourite films of 2017 and some of you are probably going to want to biff me on the nose for omitting certain movies from my top 40 list. Call Me By Your Name? Admired it more than I liked it – couldn't warm to either of the main characters. Good Time? Robert Pattinson's superb, but it isn't a patch on the Safdie brothers' previous movie, Heaven Knows What. Blade Runner 2049? Beautiful visuals but an unnecessary sequel that bored me to tears. Star Wars: The Last Jedi? Probably my favourite SW film since The Empire Strikes Back, but it only really clicked in the final hour. And that's the beauty of film – there are no right or wrong answers. Like what you like, watch what you want. As long as you enjoy it, it's really none of mine nor anyone else's business. That said, feel free to remonstrate with my choices in the comments. I have a thick skin, I can take it...

10. 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, loneliness and, quite possibly, madness. Stewart is Maureen, an American living in Paris and working as a general dog's body for Kyra, 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). Maureen's life is sad and absurd; discussing ectoplasm-spewing spirits one minute, writing huge cheques for her employer's obscenely expensive outfits and accessories the next. 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 audacious.

9. mother!
Director: Darren Aronofsky  UK release date: 15 September
The year's most divisive film fully deserves its reputation as Noah director Aronofsky serves up a feast of religious allegory, radical green politics and Grand Guignol. Javier Bardem is Him, a poet who lives with his young bride, the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), in a big, beautiful, isolated house she has renovated from scratch. Their seemingly idyllic existence comes under threat with the arrival of Ed Harris and his wife Michelle Pfeiffer, spinning out of control altogether when Lawrence becomes pregnant and Bardem attracts a cult following, who not only turn up at the house but move in and start smashing it up. And just when you think matters have got just about as unhinged as they can, we career into an hysterical final act that'll make you question your sanity (or Aronofsky's). Love it or hate it, mother! takes more risks than any film I've seen this year and nearly all of them pay off spectacularly.

8. I Am Not A Witch
Director: Rungano Nyoni  UK release date: 20 October
In I Am Not A Witch, Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Nyoni gave us one of the year's most startling feature debuts, which she wrote as well as directed. It's a surreal social satire set in the country of Nyoni's birth and focuses on Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a nine-year-old girl accused of witchcraft, who is shipped off to a "witch camp" in the Zambian desert. The camp is populated with women of all ages and, like Shula, they have all been interned on spurious charges. Attached to a long white ribbon and bulky spindle, like the other prisoners, Shula is told if she ever tries to escape she will be cursed and transformed into a goat. She is soon noticed by a government official who exploits her supposed abilities to his own ends. Nyoni's target is the misogyny that exists in Zambian society, with an added wrinkle... witch camps are in fact real and she visited several in Ghana and Zambia during research for the film. Mulubwa gives a restrained performance well beyond her tender years, while Nyoni's writing is full of acerbic wit.

7. Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins  UK release date: 17 February
Jenkins' Best Picture Oscar winner is probably too subtle for its own good at times and it 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), superb storytelling and seductive visuals. It follows the same African-American character, Chiron, at three different but crucial stages of his life – child, teenager and man – as he strives to come to terms with both a difficult upbringing (Harris plays his crack-addict mother, he has no father) and his sexuality. We've all seen moving love stories before but Moonlight is a rarity – an on-screen exploration of masculinity and homosexuality that is warm, intimate, and sensitive.

6. 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.

5. The Florida Project
Director: Sean Baker  UK release date: 10 November
Baker's follow-up to 2015's Tangerine (aka the movie filmed on an iPhone) is set in the Magic Castle, a Floridian motel just a hop, skip and a jump from the nearby Walt Disney World resort. Intended for tourists, it is also home to a great many low-income, short-stay families including, in this case, single mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Precocious Moonee spends her summer days getting into scrapes with her friends, Scooty and Jancey, while her mum desperately tries to make ends meet. The irony here, of course, is that the motel and its surrounding area is a wonderland of fun and frolics for the kids but a penniless nightmare for Halley. Likewise, the garishly-painted façade of the motels may make them look like part of the Disney empire but the grim reality is light years away. Baker's visually sumptuous film – which doesn't overly concern itself with matters of plot – makes you laugh, makes you think, and isn't afraid to break your heart too. Willem Defoe, as the motel manager, hasn't been this good in years.

4. 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. Those reports of walk-outs and fainting at its festival showings only tell half the story because, underneath its blood and guts, Ducournau's film has smarts to spare.

3. Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele  UK release date: 17 March
Anyone who only knows US comedian Peele from his part in 2016's limp cat comedy, Keanu, is likely to be knocked out of their seat by this whip-smart combination of horror and satire that tackles the notion that America, even under Obama, was ever 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) combines Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to give us a startling piece of work that puts liberal white America under the microscope and really doesn't like what he sees there.

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 as Affleck's estranged wife, while the actor himself turns in one of 21st Century Hollywood's great performances. The scene in which the pair bump into each other in the street, and the full weight of their shared history and suffering bears down upon them, is not only extraordinarily moving but also genuinely upsetting.

1. Elle
Director: Paul Verhoeven  UK release date: 10 March
A provocative revenge fantasy of sorts which sees Isabelle Huppert's icy CEO,
Michèle Leblanc, raped in her Paris apartment before commencing a strange and erotically-charged game of cat and mouse with her attacker. It's a divisive film that no one seems to entirely agree upon. Is it suggesting that women secretly enjoy the experience of sexual violence? Or is it an anti-rape statement skewering the male need to subjugate difficult, powerful women? For me, Elle entertains both notions, but seeks to discuss them as part of something else – the way in which his characters exploit, degrade and hurt each other on a regular basis, and how such behaviour ultimately coarsens and cheapens their relationships and society in general.

On the surface, Elle is only a short walk 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. Based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian, Verhoeven's film toys with viewers' expectations – at what point does Huppert's character Michelle really know the identity of her rapist? Is she telling the truth about a terrible incident from her childhood? Is she a sociopath and as much a villain as the man who attacked her? Ultimately, though, this is a film about violation, sexual assault being the most extreme form of that.

With one notable exception (Michele's son, Vincent, played by Jonas Bloquet), the characters here are all pretty ghastly – from the cheating husband of Michele's best friend to the gold-digging gigolo who moves in with her mum, from the sleazy meme guy in her office to Michele herself, a rape victim who, in her day job, is happy to develop, produce and sell a video game containing repulsive images of sexual assault.

The veteran Dutch director's point seems to be that his characters (and, by extension, we, the viewing public) step all over each other's needs and feelings so much, all the time, that it has become normalised – almost a default setting. Moreover, eventually, we come to not just accept it and expect it, but perhaps even to like it. A chilling thought upon which to end...

2016 - The Witch (director: Robert Eggers)
2015 - The New Girlfriend (François Ozon)
2014 - Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

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