I’ve cut back a bit on film-watching in recent years, aiming for a slightly more balanced and healthy existence, but movies are still a huge part of my life. Here’s my top 10 of 2017, plus a few personal recollections of the year, and 13 older films I ‘discovered’ in 2017, and which you might like too.
Parts 1 (books) and 2 (gigs, shows and exhibitions) of the year in review are up on those links.
My 10 favourite films of 2017
It's been a great year at the cinema: I rarely see a new film as good as this year's #3, let alone two even better, and there are so many up-and-coming directors doing interesting work. This list is based on films which received a general release in the UK this year, so it includes some films from last year's London Film Festival. To read about some of the best movies coming up next year, including Guillermo del Toro's masterwork, The Shape of Water, you can go here.
Bubbling under (but still marvellous): Christine, The Beguiled, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Tower, Call Me By Your Name.
10. Paddington 2
Director: Paul King
Cast: Ben Whishaw (voice), Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Glesson
They did right by Paddington again. The prison sequences are all kinds of lovely. Full(ish) review.
9. Battle of the Sexes
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman
A hugely uplifting, entertaining movie, with a typically dynamic central performance from Emma Stone, who inhabits the character of Billie Jean King almost entirely, as the tennis legend breaks away from the sexist tennis establishment, confronts the fact she's a lesbian, and gears up for the eponymous match, opposite self-styled 'male chauvinist pig', the shy and retiring Bobby Riggs. Full review.
8. The Salesman
Cast:Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajadhosseini, Mina Sadati
An utterly compelling moral thriller from the writer-director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, about a couple (Shahab Hosseini and Taranah Alidoosti) whose marriage is thrown into turmoil by the hand of fate, as they prepare to appear together in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It contains a late shock so well-executed that it made the person next to me in the cinema do a little fart. Now that's movie-making. Full review.
7. Tickling Giants
Director: Sara Taksler
A wonderful documentary about 'the Egyptian Jon Stewart', Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon who becomes a TV satirist and national hero following the Arab Spring. As the political climate festers and the military intervene, his potshots at authority start to divide the revolutionaries, leading to protests, boycotts and threats, but he and his staff remain unyielding – at least at first. After one of the writers says she doesn’t care about the outcry, a colleague asks if she’d care to provide a more diplomatic answer. “Yes,” she replies. “I don’t give a shit.” I expected Tickling Giants to be insightful and powerful, but not such fantastic fun as it is, and if you’re worried that Egyptian humour won’t translate across language and cultural barriers, you couldn’t be more wrong. Full review.
6. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran
The first sequel that feels like a film on its own terms. It's also a tremendous antidote to gung-ho macho heroics, plays deliriously and drolly with our expectation of good-bad guys, and features the coolest new series vehicles since Return of the Jedi's speeders. I wrote this piece just after emerging, dazed and happy, from the cinema.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
A profoundly powerful polemic that forces you to view the African-American experience through the piercing gaze of writer, thinker and activist James Baldwin, who speaks with authority, insightfulness and a broiling anger about the way his people have been exploited, abandoned and killed by their own country. It's a superb film in itself, and it also turned me onto Baldwin's writing, which has been one of this year's greatest joys, and changed the way I look at myself and the world. Full review.
Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
An astonishing drama, based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which tells an archetypally American story in the manner of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller, but does so to elucidate the African-American experience, which as 13th so eloquently expressed, is the result of decisions that have never been in their hands. It's both extraordinarily original and utterly timeless, with a polemical power that comes along rarely, and two of the finest performances in years. Full review.
3. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Rothe
The problem with contemporary musicals is the undercurrent that says: “Isn’t this wacky, we’re doing a musical!” It was musicals’ everyday nature, their centrality to the national psyche that made them so magical. Somehow Chazelle has made that live again. Full review.
2. Certain Women
Cast: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, James LeGros, Jared Harris
A film of unwavering, unflinching honesty and quiet poetry – from Williams’ piercing, scarcely likeable performance to that shot of a rogue truck tumbling off the road – a gift from a filmmaker at the very peak of her powers. Full review.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
An enveloping, once-in-a-lifetime film about the constancy, malleability and complexity of human nature, the pain and ecstasy of love, and the world's vicious but not quite unrelenting assault on the weak. Full review.
Five obsessions that defined my year in movies
My intense infatuation with Awesome Orson flares up every three or four years. This time it was a first big screen viewing of The Magnificent Ambersons that set it off, sending me on a fast-paced journey through established classics (Kane, Touch of Evil, The Trial) and oddities both remarkable (The Immortal Story) and not (Journey Into Fear,
Too Much Johnson). Though Ambersons will never be seen again in its proper state – having been cut by a third against Welles’ wishes before release, with the culled footage dumped in the sea – it also cast its spell on me more thoroughly and enduringly than ever before. I’m still thinking about it now, three weeks later, and I haven’t been able to look at any other film in the same way since. It’s the greatest thing he ever did and, even in its butchered form, one of the key works of screen art, with a look, a feel and an atmosphere – playfulness giving way to an exhausted, defeated malaise – that is like nothing else in cinema.
The big screen
More than half the films I saw this year were at the cinema, thanks to both the BFI’s magnificent programming and a newly rekindled love of the big screen experience. There’s still nothing quite like it, and it’s got me off my arse and out of the house and then back on my arse to catch films I love, that I have on DVD, but that I’ve never quite seen before. After experiencing countless movies ruined by dodgy prints or the Odeon’s laissez-faire attitude to keeping a projector in focus, I’d begun to see digital as a simple solution, especially after the great 4K job done on films like The Third Man. One of my favourite film writers, Ian Mantgani, took me to task a while ago for such naïvete, and he was right. Seeing Minnelli’s The Cobweb on film – the widescreen image tactile, its brash colour scheme turned a touch gaudy – or Ambersons with grain and flicker and the odd scratch, the soundtrack a little screechy now and then, but as it was shot and should be seen, is the ideal filmgoing experience, and one which perfectly polished pixels are never going to be quite able to match. Having said that, if the print is a hissy, fuzzy mess, don't take the piss by putting it on.
As I mentioned in passing in my books review, my friend Jess and I are watching all the films we can find about the Titanic. Our grand experiment is in its infancy, but we have managed Titanic (good), Titanic (great), A Night to Remember (excellent) and Raise the Titanic (absolute shit), and we’ve secured further titles for 2018 already. Next up: S.O.S. Titanic.
There haven't been quite the opportunities to further my Gish fandom that previous years have offered, but I've done my best. I tracked down three more of her films: The Greatest Question (a derivative but persuasive star vehicle), The Cobweb (a big, bold Minnelli soap with Gish in an unusually large supporting role), and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (more a historical curio than A Good Film), and saw a watchable version of her 1928 classic, The Wind, for the first time. Anyway, we're very much in love, even though she died in 1993.
I finished my voyage through the lesser-known works of François Truffaut, drawing the inescapable conclusion that this is one of those rare times the popular canon has it right: some of them were crap. Here's the full list of his 22 features, with plenty of reviews to go with it.
It's also important to mention at this point that IN OCTOBER I MET DANNY DEVITO.
13 'discoveries' of 2017
Perhaps because many of them were on at the BFI, this year's discoveries are perhaps a little less obscure than in previous years (a notable dearth of 1930s B-movies, sorry), especially if you're interested in seeing the established 'classics' of world cinema, but hopefully there'll be a couple that are new to you.
Chloe in the Afternoon (Éric Rohmer, 1972) – The last – and greatest – of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, with businessman Frédéric (Bernard Verley) torn between his marriage to quiet, repressed academic Hélène (Françoise Verley) and the sensual, erratic Chloe (Zouzou), who returns to Paris six years after driving his best friend to the point of despair. Shot in 1.37:1, reinterpreting Murnau’s Sunrise for the sixth time, and equipped with an unreliable, self-justifying narrator who’s obsessed with women, it feels like the summation of the series, and also its cleanest, clearest and most narratively inventive example: full of profound insights and observations wrapped in a light, sexy, playful exterior that simply doesn’t prepare you for what’s coming. Full review.
Cria cuervos (Carlos Saura, 1975) – A miraculous film, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, that plays out on the face of its young heroine (Ana Torrent from Spirit of the Beehive) and exists in that strange place between memory, reality and fantasy, as scenes bleed one into the next, and Torrent recalls her authoritarian, adulterous father, conjures the gentle spirit of her neurotic mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and cautiously negotiates a new, lonelier life in the bosom of her strict aunt’s family. Full review.
Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960) – Jacques Becker's final film is a tough, meticulously detailed and incredibly suspenseful prison break movie, as four men awaiting trial acquire an apparently callow, privileged new cellmate (Mark Michel), while preparing their painstaking, painfully slow escape from the Big House. Cast mostly with non-professional actors (as opposed to unprofessional actors, like Marilyn Monroe) and based on an autobiographical novel by José Giovanni, it works as both a gripping thriller and a socialist allegory about class, co-operation and bourgeois hypocrisy. Full review. I saw Bertrand Tavernier talk about Becker, his great hero,
at the BFI in September.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) – A pulsating, gripping, brilliantly-directed docu-drama about the Algerian revolution, which works as a history lesson, a thriller and a study of a handful of memorable characters on both sides of the battle, all augmented by Ennio Morricone's exceptional score. Full review.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) – For all its rough edges (or perhaps because of them), Soderbergh’s debut still looks astounding. Full review.
Claire's Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970) – The Rohmerest Rohmer film ever (hot French people talking unreliably about love and sex amid beauteous locales), with great acting, stunning Nestor Almendros photography and some of the finest examples of Rohmer defining his characters, their dynamics and his audience's perceptions through understated and apparently effortless composition. Laura > Claire, tho.
Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) – A film full of painterly imagery, complex truths and quiet wisdom that echoes long after the curtain has fallen, and the virtuosic storytelling − hopping between time-frames, mood and media − takes the breath away. Full review.
Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) – Near-perfect biopic of gay '60s playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), focusing on his volatile relationship with live-in lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), powered by a superb Alan Bennett script, and Oldman's best performance. 'Synthesisers by Hans Zimmer'! Full review.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) – We meet Chihiro just minutes after an emotional farewell to her old friends: she’s sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car, as they trail a moving van to their new home. The family stop to investigate what seems to be an abandoned theme park, and soon the parents have been turned into pigs, Chihiro’s life has been saved by a boy who it turns out is a dragon and also a god, and she’s been forced to find employment in a fully-functioning bathhouse populated by ghosts, assisted by a multi-armed man who lives by a furnace with his friends – sentient bits of soot – and under the cosh of giant-headed Thatcher-a-like Yubaba, whose beloved germaphobe baby is bigger than she is. That’s the first 20 minutes. Full review.
Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969) – So much for the tolerant left.
Le deuxième souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) – A violent, grimply poetic underworld epic from Jean-Pierre Melville, with Lino Ventura as a brutal train-robber – obsessed with his own personal conception of honour – who escapes from prison only to be drawn inexorably towards a heist plot. Relatively unknown within the Melville canon, it takes a little while to find its rhythm, but once it does it's stunning, with mesmerising set pieces and several superb supporting characters, including ironic, omniscient police inspector Paul Meurisse, and Denis Manuel as a short-tempered gypsy gunman.
All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940) – An exceptionally classy melodrama, with Bette Davis giving one of her most extraordinary performances as a silhouette of a woman who enters the Duc de Praslin's tempestuous household in Paris of 1848 to act as the governess, falling in love with her master and becoming beloved of his children, before incurring the formidable wrath of his jealous, unstable wife. It's a beautifully balanced and restrained performance, with the star often saying one thing and playing three more, her heroine having to keep her emotions in check, know her place in society and her household, and juggle the conflicting responsibilities to her employers, her charges and herself. She's a character rarely permitted to speak honestly, but yet at every instant we know what she's thinking. Full review.
The Mouthpiece (Elliot Nugent and James Flood, 1932) – Few pre-Code films were ever as sweet and affecting as this one, in which William’s noble prosecutor reacts to tragedy by reinventing himself as an amoral shyster for the underworld (with a moustache, naturally), only to be changed back by the guileless southern office waif (Sidney Fox) he’s been trying to shag. It’s a little clumsy in places, and mistakes audacity for humour, but it’s saved by the performances. Full review.
Thanks for reading.