My top seventeen films of 2017

This year has been a bit of a bumper for good films. Putting together a list, yet again, I realise there are so many I haven’t seen. Here’s those that I have, a top seventeen and the order in which I liked them. Plus a rather large number that I am yet to see, but want to, and have heard good things.

1. Get Out

Off-kilter and deeply unsettling. The first two thirds of this film puts certain deeply held prejudices into stark focus. Little micro-aggressions of racism that people of colour experience, in a way that white people simply cannot comprehend. This film achieved big at the box office, from a miniscule budget – doing strong numbers in the States. Frightening, vital storytelling.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

Taiki Waititi is an odd man. This is not an understatement. His past work includes a documentary style vampire film, What We Do In The Shadows and a highly unusual road chase movie Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Then Marvel gave him a superhero sandpit in which to play. The result is Ragnarok, the funniest, strangest film to come out of a studio that’s seventeen films in.

3. Baby Driver

Edgar Wright left Ant-Man over creative differences to go and make this. Silver lining and all that, because this is, by far, Wright’s best film. It’s practically a musical, in terms of how effortlessly and brilliantly songs are weaved into its DNA. And the performances across the board are surprising and inspired. A helluva lot of fun.

4. A Monster Calls

This came out New Year’s Day 2017, so you can be forgiven for forgetting it. But you shouldn’t, because it’s one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve ever seen. Utterly heart-breaking stuff from director Juan Antonio Bayona.

5. Moonlight

Oscar winner (eventually), this film should be on your ‘must watch’ list. A big break for director Barry Jenkins, with outstanding performances from all three leads, playing the same man at three key points in his life. Languid, dreamy, painfully well observed.

6. Logan

It’s nice that director James Mangold got another crack at Wolverine as a character, because he could finally create the film he wanted to create, with the studio giving him a huge amount of freedom. The result being a very much stand-alone X-Men film, but also the best Wolverine story by some distance. And a fitting send-off for Jackman in the role.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2

The first Guardians film had little expectation, but surprised everyone, particular in terms of comedy. And then came the difficult second album. It doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first film, but there’s loads of good stuff in it, and it comes darn close to topping the first.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, two chaps that had a crack at the role. Neither are as good a fit as the latest bloke, Tom Holland. It helps that this film is now part of the MCU and Iron Man’s inclusion adds a nice wrinkle to Peter Parker’s progress as a hero; in that Tony becomes a sort of surrogate father figure. Plus, Michael Keaton as a bad guy. Someone you’d want in any movie, if you can get him.

9. mother!

Darren Aranofsky is no stranger to controversy. He wrote this script in what he described as a ‘fever dream’, with star Jennifer Lawrence reportedly throwing it across the room after reading it and telling the director there was something wrong with him. Only to later say he was a genius. This film works on many allegorical levels and granted, it’s a tough watch, but a visceral one from an auteur filmmaker.

10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Coming from a background of indies such as The Brothers Bloom, Brick and Looper, Rian Johnson was an interesting choice for Disney, in terms of continuing the story of Luke, Leia and the gang with all that force stuff. It’s hugely polarised a small portion of the internet but still opened to the second biggest weekend in movie history, so it can’t be that bad. For me, I thought it was a great story and possibly the best of the new films yet.

11. Wonder Woman

Finally, DC came up with a movie that was less of a CGI-fest, although they couldn’t resist descending into this territory come the film’s final third. Luckily, the rest of the movie was more progressive and engaging, and all the fish out of water stuff with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince was a delight. It also gave us a female superhero as the lead of a blockbuster for the first time, one that has gone on to inspire countless women and girls around the world.

12. Free Fire

Ben Wheatley, as a director, is no stranger to dark stories and messed up visuals. And he’s always had mostly a British cast to work with. As his name has grown everyone wants to work with him now, and this film represents his biggest, most A-list cast to date. So what does he do? Stick them all on the floor in a dirty warehouse crawling around shooting at each other for an entire movie. Hilarious and genius.

13. Hidden Figures

This film is about racism AND sexism. It tells the story of the amazing work done by three women of colour who worked at NASA during the space race with Russia in the ‘60s. All three were instrumental in some of NASA’s biggest achievements at the time. Definitely file under ‘feel good’ movie, but it’s also one that highlighted the true story of three women who dealt with ingrained racism and sexism in the most magnanimous, humbling way.

14. Blade Runner: 2049

Living up to the original film must be a tough gig, and it’s a brave director that takes on the challenge of giving us a sequel, but Denis Villeneuve, hot off of films such as Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners, thought himself up to the challenge. It helped that he had the legend that is Roger Deakins on cinematography duty. It’s too long, but a decent sequel and Gosling was a good fit.

15. The Lost City of Z

Based on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, and his forays into South America and the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city. The film is too long, but takes its time setting everything up, and has a real Apocalypse Now feel about it at times. Recommended.

16. What Happened To Monday

Netflix release, this film went under a lot of people’s radars but it’s pretty darn good. Starring Noomi Rapace it’s a sci-fi set in a world where families are only allowed one child, due to the population. Willem Defoe’s character ends up with seven identical girls, which he names after each day of the week. On their name day they take turns going out into the world. So Monday goes to work on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday and so on. Then Monday vanishes. It’s up to the remaining sisters to discover what happened. Outstanding performances from Rapace as all of the sisters.

17. okja

Okja, this year, was one of those modern oddities, in that it was released exclusively on Netflix and featured an A-list cast, including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal. It tells the story of a world where food is scarce so a corporation grows super pigs. A girl becomes attached to hers and fights to save it from slaughter. Directed by Bong Joon-ho it’s supremely strange but lovingly told.


There’s also a rather hefty list of films I have yet to see. These are:

Dunkirk
Lady Macbeth
The Meyerowitz Stories
Call me by your name
The Florida Project
God’s Own Country
Personal Shopper
The Shape of Water
Mudbound
Raw
War For The Planet of The Apes
The Death of Stalin
La La Land
John Wick: Chapter 2
Logan Lucky
The Beguiled
Detroit
Elle
Jackie
The Handmaiden
Paddington 2
Manchester by the Sea
Split
Lion
Prevenge
The Love Witch
Collosal
My Cousin Rachel
Patti Cake$
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
A Cure For Wellness
Gerald’s Game

Is ‘mother!’ Aranofsky and Lawrence’s best work?

Ok, so here’s a thing. Darren Aranofsky has made another movie, and it’s one that’ll divide people, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s be honest, this should come as no surprise to us. For anyone that’s seen his past work, he hardly pulls punches when it comes to provocative imagery, challenging subject matter and intensely troubled characters. Requiem for a Dream anyone? Black Swan? Noah? The utter mind-bender that was The Fountain? Hell, even The Wrestler wasn’t a walk in the park (although it’s his most accessible work to date.)

And with mother! it’s fair to say he’s upped his game – or at least let off the shackles. I mean, I can only imagine the discussion with the studio… ‘You want to do what Darren? Er, ok. Wait, hold on. And now you want to do that? And that?! C’mon! You DO realise that Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in the world and you want to put her through the absolute wringer?’

Because he really does. And some people, understandably, just can’t handle it. Plus critics are split, with many having reacted strongly (both good and bad); which is probably to be expected with an auteur’s work, but you still want people to see your movie and mother!, at the moment, is just about breaking even.

We also have to remember that word of mouth is a powerful thing – and critics are probably putting some people off, which is a shame. One even said that this is the most ambitious film to come out of a major Hollywood studio since Kubrick died. Which may well be true, but it’s fuel to the fire really, as a lot of people would take that comment as bad rather than good. Moreover, this is a film that’s also now part of a very small list, having achieved Cinemascore’s famous F grade, which only gets given to a piece of work that ‘goes out of its way to artfully alienate or confuse audiences.’

And this all has me wondering… do we as moviegoers just want films that are too safe these days? With superhero fodder galore and juggernaut franchises like Fast and Furious and Transformers going from strength to strength, and mind-numbing comedies being churned out all too often, I half suspect we’ve all become excessively comfortable, safe in our cotton wool bubble of mediocre expectancy. Which means that filmmakers like Aranofsky are vital to cinema, as bubbles must be burst as often as possible. Break the wheel and be anarchic with your stories Hollywood. Confuse us and make us nervous. We need it now more than ever.

And with mother! half the reaction it’s gotten might be because of the themes Aranofsky explores: nature and the environment, religion, humanity, celebrity and so on – and the incendiary way in which he does it. I mean, his approach does err on the side of mad visionary. For example, it’s been said he wrote the screenplay in five days in a kind of fever dream, and that Lawrence threw it across the room in disgust after reading it. But then, after reflecting, called the director the next day to tell him he was a genius.

And this kind of makes sense, misunderstood in his time and all that. A type of story-teller people aren’t going to get first time, nor should they. Also, people are people. When we don’t understand something we invariably default to anger and confusion. Plus, anything to do with religion (in this case Christianity) is often a powder-keg for a lot of audiences.

So as you might expect, story wise, this kind of film is best experienced cold and with little background, so I won’t say much. Other than the basic set-up is mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live alone in a house, which she’s busy decorating. He’s a writer, but with writer’s block. Then a man unexpectedly visits (Ed Harris), and he’s quickly followed by a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer); both of whom quickly become progressively more unwelcome house guests as the story unfolds. To the point where the final third of the film descends into utter insanity.

As for our way in, we follow events from mother’s point of view – and the camera sticks with Lawrence for most of the movie. Twisting and turning through the house, akin to the cinematography in Birdman. Often with the camera up as close as you can get, right in her face, picking up every little reaction and reminding the audience that not only is she beautiful, but also a pure soul, yet in pain and increasingly confused and angry with these house guests, frustrated at Him for not acknowledging her needs.

Bardem plays his part well too, allowing a lot of his natural charm to inhabit the character. But, lest we forget, he can do menace with the best of them, and this raises its head from time to time, leaving mother more confused than ever. She just wants his love and it never seems enough. And the interplay between the two of them in these type of moments is heartbreaking. Indeed, this could be the best performance of Lawrence’s career – more raw than Silver Linings Playbook (for which she won an Oscar) and more intense than Winter’s Bone (for which she was nominated).

She’s since said that this role took a lot out of her, and she doesn’t expect she’d take a similar part for a long time. Which is more than understandable. Ultimately, this is an Aranofsky film, so if you’ve seen any of his past work you’ll have an idea of what to expect. If you haven’t, go in with an open mind and interpret from the story what you will. Just know it won’t be an easy watch.

 

 

 

Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

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Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

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On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

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Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

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