Films of the Year 2017

After my move to Hong Kong last year, my movie-watching habits underwent a big change, no more cinema à volonté, as used to be the case in Paris and the choice of movies available in regular runs is a great deal more limited. Consequently, I have watched the majority of my films on the small screen in 2017, which is the direct opposite of how it used to be. I have also decided to throw out the window my stipulations for consideration – anything that I managed to see in 2017 that isn’t more than two years old is eligible (hence, the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour makes an appearance here). What I have seen has been cobbled from a number of sources: regular cinema releases, film festivals (which are particularly vital in Hong Kong for getting to see certain art-house films) and online resources such as Netflix, Mubi, and iTunes (having access to a French account has been a particular godsend). It’s a new departure for me but this is the way the vast majority of people in the world consume their films these days, constrained as they are by lack of proximity to cinemas or family and parental commitments. With the increasing involvement of Netflix and Amazon and other online companies in film production and distribution, the state of film itself is also likely to depend greatly on domestic consumption. Netflix ruffled feathers in France at the Festival of Cannes for refusing to give two of the films it had in competition, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, French theatrical releases, which led to the the rules being changed to prevent non-cinema released films competing in future. It remains to be seen whether this is going to be of any concern to recalcitrant distributors though.

The year was notable for a surprising indie success at the Oscars, with Barry Jenkins’ low-budget Moonlight edging out the more fancied La La Land in chaotic circumstances. This was widely viewed as a corrective to the “Oscars So White” controversy the previous year when people of colour were conspicuously absent from the nominations, and there was a sense that Academy voters were thinking a little further afield. Arguably of bigger consequence, though, was the fallout from the Weinstein scandal when one of the most powerful men in Hollywood was brought down after decades of the most horrendous abuse, bullying and blackmail, which caused some promising actresses to disappear entirely from sight after falling foul of him. Though Hollywood is a notably more centralised power structure than other national cinemas across the world, the problem is far from confined to the US, and other stories are beginning to emerge, from France to Korea, many of which are, in hindsight, none too surprising. We now know that the gatekeepers of the film industry were actively engaged in coercion to keep troublesome elements out, which, in turn, has had a deleterious effect on the quality of film, which, in Hollywood, at least, has being becoming increasingly formatted and conservative since the 1970s. The benefits of Weinstein’s “largesse” were always overstated – for every fostering of a Tarantino or Soderbergh, there were half a dozen forgettable middle-brow Oscar fodder productions – but there is some reason for hope that a significant change in the personnel in the film world will create fertile ground for a genuinely different type of film. Cultural production is often as restricted in its vistas as in its access –- the field of produced culture for many people generally resembles a view through a keyhole of a door you can never expect to pass through – so anything that changes this will be welcome.

As for those films I did see in 2017, there were some very good ones, though, I have to say that only a dozen or so will be remembered for a long time to come. It might be simply my luck to have missed out on some better films or it might be coincidental. Still, there’s enough in the following list to keep one entertained and hopeful for the year to come.

1. Sieranevada –– Cristi Puiu (Romania/France) 173 minutes

Puiu remains one of the most enigmatic major directors currently working –– a creator of dense, challenging but consistently rewarding films, yet wilfully resistant to any potential mainstream success. Sieranevada is only his third film in more than a decade (after the equally brilliant The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Aurora), and it goes out of its way not to draw audiences in –– there’s the throwaway non-sequitur title, the near-three-hour running time for a film that is mostly dialogue set in the confined spaces of a Bucharest apartment (the few breaks from that setting that there are take place in the even more cramped confines of a car), and a series of narrative decoys, red herrings and cul de sacs that litter the plot.

It’s enough to turn most people off but those who choose to stick with this tale of a family airing their grievances with one another on the 40th-day anniversary of the pater familias’s death will find an enthralling feast of a film that is as technically astounding as it is dramatically robust. The occasion is an Orthodox ceremony that will allow the soul of the dead man pass into heaven (this, continuing, in a way, the purgatorial theme of Mr Lazarescu) but the family have their own baggage weighing them down. The dead man’s sister-in-law is grieving her husband’s infidelity, there are skeletons emerging from various closets, a young cousin disturbs the peace by introducing a strung-out Croatian friend, and one earnest in-law is trying to foist conspiracy theories gleaned from YouTube on the congregation (the film also takes place three days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015). To compound the film’s difficulty, the plot rarely goes anywhere (in this sense it is quite different from Cristian Mungiu’s superficially similar Graduation), but it is the constantly quizzical air of observation, with the camera hanging out of reach of much of the action, and the grim humour that is repeatedly mined from first-class ensemble performances, that make Sieranevada a compellingly strange delight.

Sieranevada trailer

2. Aquarius –– Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil/France) 140 minutes

Mendonça Filho, after his impressive debut Neighbouring Sounds, returns with another film set in his native city of Recife in which real estate plays a central role. In this case, that role is filled by the titular Aquarius building which is earmarked for demolition; however, one of the occupants, a redoubtable ageing writer Clara, played by Sônia Braga, refuses to move out, instigating a standoff with the building’s developers, including the scion of the family, Diego (Humberto Carrão), and also her own children, who think it’s a battle she’s never going to win. She, having beaten cancer, has other ideas. Aquarius is a parable of corruption and resistance in Brazilian society which gained extra resonance by being released at the height of the soft coup against President Dilma Rousseff, which Mendonça Filho and his cast were very vocal against. It is a gripping piece of political cinema, where the perennial Country of the Future is continually dogged by the remnants of its past. And, in Sônia Braga, it has got one of the performances of the year.

Aquarius trailer

3. Toni Erdmann –– Maren Ade (Germany/Austria) 162 minutes

Maren Ade’s 2016 Cannes hit is a rather hard-to-classify comedy. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny but there is a constant mirthful levity throughout that ably undercuts the films more serious message of generational neglect. In a way, this is analogous to the manner in which the ageing hippie Winfried (Peter Simonischek) gate-crashes his uptight careerist daughter Ines’s (played by Sandra Huller) business assignments by donning the outlandish disguise of the titular Toni Erdmann. It’s at times an excruciating comedy of manners, and at others, a work of looming melancholy, in which you sense that things are never going to work out in a way that Winfried’s well-meaning DIY comic therapy is intended. Perhaps the most impressive thing of all in a very impressive film is the way the narrative voice is steadily maintained through a tour-de-force of performative representation. It all comes together brilliantly in the film’s standout scene (the greatest use of Whitney Houston ever on screen) and you feel you are witnessing something you really shouldn’t see but nonetheless can’t divert your gaze from.

Toni Erdmann trailer

4. Get Out –– Jordan Peele (USA) 104 minutes

For a film that carries echoes of numerous predecessors, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, as well as European films like Pasolini’s Theorem and Marco Ferreri’s La Grande bouffe, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut still feels like a genuine original. Like Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, it embodied better than any other film the strained racial polity of Trumpian, post-Obama, America. And what is particularly marvellous about Get Out is its conceptual elasticity – it is at once a dark comedy of mores, a discursive interrogation of racial politics and a very arresting horror film. It will offer plentiful meat to academics for years to come as much as it will appeal to aficionados of low-brow cult films (one commentator notably highlighted how, having seen it separately with predominantly black and white audiences, he noticed that each laughed at significantly different things). Peele directs with the right amount of brio for a box-office friendly production, and Daniel Kaluuya, in the role of Chris Washington, the young black photographer beset by his white girlfriend’s eager-to-please family, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

Get Out trailer

5. Faces Places (Visages, villages) –– Agnès Varda, JR (France) 89 minutes

There were some dreary churls who grouched about an established filmmaker like Agnès Varda resorting to crowdfunding to finance this documentary, presumably depriving younger aspiring directors of funding. Never mind the fact that even the most respected 89-year-old directors can have equally severe difficulty persuading financiers to support their projects. It’s just as well someone came up with the goods because the resultant collaboration between Varda and the wilfully enigmatic French street artist and photographer JR is a miracle. The pair travel around small towns in France finding suitable locations for JR’s Linotype blowup prints, enlisting the help of local residents and workers. The whole thing has an indelible cartoon charm – the pair of filmmakers, six decades apart in age, have an easy rapport that suggests they’ve been friends forever – undercut by sadness (a scene where Varda visits a former home of her late husband Jacques Demy is particularly heartbreaking). It is also a wonderfully deft commentary on the public reception of art and culture. Up there with Madame Varda’s finest films. Long may she continue.

Faces Places trailer

6. I Am Not Your Negro –– Raoul Peck (France/USA/Belgium/Switzerland) 93 minutes

James Baldwin hasn’t exactly been neglected since his death in 1987 but he certainly appears to have stepped into the background. A recent revival of interest in his work has been particularly timely and you get the impression that he was only waiting for the right moment to become part of the discourse again. Peck’s essayistic adaptation of Baldwin’s unpublished manuscript Remember this House continued the renewed interest. The subject is ostensibly Baldwin’s reminiscences of his slain friends Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evans but the pendulum keeps swinging back to the present day, three decades after Baldwin’s death. With footage of Baldwin interlaced throughout (particularly his famous debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge in 1965) the film has an unlikely immediacy that is compounded by the fact that the writer’s work remains increasingly vital in the age of Trump, the alt-right and Black Lives Matter.

I Am Not Your Negro trailer

7.Jackie (USA/Chile/France) 100 minutes/Neruda (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain) 107 minutes –– Pablo Larraín

Larraín accomplished two firsts in 2016, making his first film in English and his first biopic, Jackie, an account of Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband. Like most successful biopics, this slice of a life lived rather than an expansive overview, works. Natalie Portman seems like a fairly obvious choice to play the former First Lady and, in a way similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Truman Capote, once you get over the eccentrically authentic accent, she inhabits the role perfectly. The film is as much about the annoyingly detailed arrangements that continually encroach on one’s grief in the wake of death as it is about the historical events themselves. Stéphane Fontaine’s wintry photography conjures up the distant, somewhat over-textured fabric of the 60s and it circles around the beleaguered Jackie in the most claustrophobic fashion.

Jackie trailer

Larraín continued with the genre in his home country of Chile, with a film focusing on its greatest poet, Pablo Neruda. Tackling a figure of such stature is usually doomed to wooly middlebrow failure but Larraín flips the genre by turning it into an absurdist caper, in which Neruda (Luís Gnecco) is pursued by the fascist police chief Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). Having Bernal, the younger, more familiar star, play Bernal is also particularly effective, in that it challenges the audience to identify with the villains – a pertinent point given the complicity of film in the historic rise of fascism. Neruda is both breezier and darker than Jackie (it was also a personal project as opposed to a job for hire, which the American film was). The tone matches the cheery bohemian nonconformism of the poet himself but the sinister clutches of the State are never far away. And for all the resourcefulness of his escape, Neruda was ultimately caught, following the military coup of September 1973.

Neruda trailer

8. Lady Macbeth –– William Oldroyd (UK) 89 minutes

Adapting Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District was an inspired way of opening up new ground in the well-worn terrain that is the English period drama, and director William Oldroyd turned in a remarkably polished work on a budget of a mere £500,000. More than just a handsome production, Lady Macbeth is a brilliantly chilling portrait of murderous aspiration. Newcomer Florence Pugh gives one of the best breakout performances in years as the icily resourceful Katherine Lester, who learns to draw advantage from her loveless marriage to a middle-aged drunkard. Oldroyd and his screenwriter Alice Birch fashion a drama that is more knowing and devious than your average costume film. In this particular instance the past really does feel like a different country, certainly different from the one we have seen on screen before.

Lady Macbeth trailer

9. BPM (Beats per Minute) (120 battements par minute) –– Robin Campillo (France) 140 minutes

I was initially a bit sceptical about how Campillo would make compelling drama out of the early days of the HIV activist group Act Up-Paris, but it all comes together very well. Right from the off, where the group, which many viewers would be unfamiliar with, is presented with economical concision by putting us in the position of new members, BPM builds up the momentum with aplomb. The long scenes where the members hammer out their strategy in meetings are surprisingly dramatic, underlining the dialectic urgency of waking up a society that was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the interests of HIV sufferers. Some of the film’s more emotional elements tend to the over-familiar but giving such a worthy film some extra commercial ballast is more than forgivable.

BPM (Beats per Minute) trailer

10. Raw (Grave) –– Julie Ducournau (France/Belgium) 99 minutes

In a good year for horror movies, Ducournau’s campus cannibalism film was probably the most instinctively unsettling. Justine, a young student from a strictly vegetarian family, played by Garance Marillier, is, in her first week at veterinary school forced to eat raw meat in a hazing activity. She soon finds she has developed a taste for the stuff, more particularly the human kind. She also learns that her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has herself strayed from the family path. Raw is, for the most part, a theoretical beast (and will provide, ahem, meat aplenty for academic papers in years to come) but it is also a superbly visceral film, one that is simultaneously compelling and difficult to watch.

Raw trailer

11. The Wailing (Gokseong) –– Na Hong-jin (South Korea) 156 minutes

This rollicking yet genuinely scary horror film made a virtue of ambiguity in a most Lynchian way, topping the Korean box office, largely thanks to repeat viewings, by audiences who needed another go to figure it all out. A village police officer, played by Kwak Do-won, investigates a series of strange incidents in which locals are first afflicted with a mysterious rash and then go on murderous rampages. In an extra twist garlanded with historic overtones, the occurrences may be connected to the recent arrival of an elderly Japanese man in the neighbourhood on a fishing trip. Even the most diligent audiences might find it difficult to piece everything together but The Wailing is a top-class atmospheric chiller, and Na, as in his earlier ultra-violent film The Yellow Sea, is a director of some style.

The Wailing trailer

12. A Mere Breath (Doar o rãsuflare) –– Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan (Romania) 67 minutes

This wonderful low-key Romanian docudrama follows, Boyhood-style, a devout rural family, the Sicreas, over the course of seven years. The family are hopeful of a miracle that will allow their daughter Denisa, suffering from spina bifida, to walk again. Religious as they are, parents Dobrin and Lia are not too stubborn to disregard medical science and they undertake long journeys to Bucharest to get Denisa treatment. Religion in films is often portrayed as an intense, all-encompassing experience but Lãzurean-Gorgan shows it as a support and a balm, however ineffective it might ultimately be. The Sicreas are also the best sort of Christians, loving and sympathetic, devoid of the harshness of dogma. There is a evident sadness underlying things, given this is a real family we see develop onscreen, but it does full justice to them.

A Mere Breath trailer

13. Letters from War (Cartas da Guerra) –– Ivo M. Ferreira (Portugal) 105 minutes

The dense multi-phonic fiction of António Lobo Antunes, Portugal’s greatest living writer, is not particularly well suited to cinematic adaptation, and there have been few attempts made to date. Ivo M. Ferreira had a go at a fictionalised account of the letters Lobo Antunes wrote to his wife during the three years he served as a conscript medic in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola in the early 1970s. Though it’s a relatively formless film, it has an oneiric quality similar to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and is arguably more haunting. Miguel Nunes bears an uncanny similarity to the young Lobo Antunes and João Ribeiro’s high-contrast monochrome photography has a shimmering beauty that underlays the ennui of war, which is the film’s main subject. Detractors might say the film will be a bit hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the source material but there is enough in it to make it stand on its own.

Letters from War trailer

14. Between Fences (Bein gderot) — Avi Mograbi (Israel/France) 85 minutes

Avi Mograbi is a long-time thorn in the side of Israeli officialdom and its abuses, and he is also one of the finest, most viscerally engaged makers of documentaries in the world. In Between Fences, Mograbi turned his attention to the plight of African immigrants in Israel, many of whom are corralled in detention centres in the Negev, such as the one in Holot that features in this film. Mograbi teamed up with the activist theatre director Chen Alon to film workshopped re-enactments with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees of their experiences. Though it might be said it is more Alon’s film than Mograbi’s, it is a great piece of collaborative cinema, and the film creditably gives the interned migrants their own say in things. It’s but a modest rejoinder to injustice but an admirable one nonetheless.

Between Fences extract

15. Certain Women — Kelly Reichardt (USA) 107 minutes

One of the most consistent of American directors, Kelly Reichardt adapted the stories of Maile Meloy for this film set in rural Montana. There are three interlaced narratives, one in which a lawyer played by Laura Dern grapples with a unstable client (Jared Harris), another where Reichardt’s regular leading lady Michelle Williams tries to buy sandstone with her husband (James LeGros) off an elderly acquaintance. In the third strand, a young stable hand played by Lily Gladstone enrols in a law night class for no other reason than she finds the out-of-town teacher, Kirsten Stewart, intriguing. Reichardt directs with the deft economy of detail of a good short story but Certain Women is no facile literary transposition, and is a fine film in its own right. It is also particularly gratifying that a number of excellent actresses from different generations are given the opportunity to star in a film that gives due attention to the daily experiences of women. In a year when the Weinstein scandal demonstrated that the evaporating career opportunities for female actors in the film industry was intimately connected with a wholesale system of misogynistic coercion and abuse, Certain Women serves as a possible model for a new type of Hollywood cinema. Here’s hoping we see films like it on a more regular basis.

Certain Women trailer

16. Dunkirk –– Christopher Nolan (UK/USA/France/Netherlands) 106 minutes

Christopher Nolan’s long-gestating labour of love is a far from perfect film and the complaints about the contributions of various groups to the success of the evacuation being unacknowledged – from colonial Indian troops to Scots dragoons and the French at the Battle of Lille – are all valid. Even so, Dunkirk is an admirable film in many ways – the manner in which it tells the harrowing tale of the evacuation of almost 340,000 men using a bare minimum of dialogue and, Harry Styles excepted, putting unknowns in the main roles; Nolan’s trademark bombast is also for the most part reined in. The structure veers a little close to confusion at times but, overall, Dunkirk is to be lauded for its dignified tone at a time when many in Britain are losing their sanity in a vortex of historically illiterate imperial nostalgia. It also manages to underline the parlousness of the evacuation without resorting to the pornography of violence that Spielberg indulged in in Saving Private Ryan.

Dunkirk trailer

17. The End of the Tour –– James Ponsoldt (USA) 106 minutes

David Foster Wallace certainly has his fans and they are seldom shy about letting you know it though I have to say I’m stonily indifferent to the man’s fiction (his essays were however great). I didn’t expect an awful lot from this adaptation of former Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s non-fiction book about the few days he spent with Wallace in 1996, but The End of the Tour is a moving and constantly entertaining work. It definitely helped having the original tapes to garnish David Marguiles’s script but the real wonder here is the casual ease of the performances, by Jessie Eisenberg as Lipsky but particularly the underrated Jason Segel as Wallace. Segel incarnates the loquacious insecurity of the author of Infinite Jest with an amiable sadness. The film is a modest enough enterprise but all the better for that – above anything else, it resembles the best of Richard Linklater’s work, which, for me, is high praise. It’s all the more puzzling that director James Ponsoldt followed it up with one of the worst films of the year, a leaden adaptation of another Gen X literary work, Dave Eggers’ The Circle.

The End of the Tour trailer

18. Paris Prestige (Les Derniers Parisiens) — Hamé et Ekoué (France) 105 minutes

French rap duo Hamé and Ekoué stepped behind the camera for a hugely impressive debut film, an ostensibly old-fashioned account of an ex-con, Nasser, played by Reda Khateb, trying to go straight, by taking after his brother and setting up his own bar in Pigalle. Nasser has a natural flair for entertaining and organisation but he soon realises going legit in the hospitality field is no easy thing. What is most striking about Paris Prestige (the English title comes from the name of the bar run by Nasser’s brother, Arezki, the sort of grandiloquent name common to neighbourhood dives in Paris) is its carefully detailed realistic treatment of a milieu that is rarely given a proper cinematic focus – there are plenty of films about French people of immigrant background in the banlieues but few of those living in Paris itself (the respective experiences tend to be substantially different). There is a strong echo of Mean Streets in Hamé and Ekoué’s energetic direction; this might usually be a charge of derivativeness but in this case, it is an observation of a just lineage and one that has rarely been seen in French cinema. Khateb, the best French actor of his generation, and one who is only belatedly receiving the acclaim he deserves, is once again, fantastic.

Paris Prestige trailer

19. Graduation (Bacalaureat) — Cristian Mungiu (Romania/France/Belgium) 128 minutes

Cannes regular Mungiu shared the Best Director prize in 2016 for this social drama, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of his compatriot Cristi Puiu. The graduation of the title is the imminent one of 18-year-old Elena (Maria-Victoria Dragus), who will secure a scholarship to Cambridge if all goes well in her final Baccalaureate. In the run-up to the exams however, she is sexually assaulted by a stranger and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) tries to pull strings to get her a deferral. He then becomes consumed in the Romanian national drama of corruption after all his previous best efforts as a doctor to keep his distance from it. It is notable that the film came out just before the Romanian people took a militant stand against corruption in public life, bringing down a government in the process. Graduation is a little inconclusive at times but it is gripping drama.

Graduation trailer

20. The Salesman (Forušande) — Asghar Farhadi (Iran/France) 125 minutes

Asghar Farhadi’s second Oscar win for best foreign-language film was overshadowed by his boycotting of the ceremony in protest at Trump’s Muslim ban, but, even if The Salesman is not quite as accomplished a film as his earlier hit A Separation, it was an equally worthy winner nonetheless. The newer film is a moral drama in a similar vein; a married couple, Emad and Rana, are putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, are forced out of their home after the building is condemned. When they move into their new apartment, Rana is assaulted by a stranger who mistakes her for the previous tenant, who, it transpires, was a prostitute. Emad then resolves to track down the assailant, though this has the unintended consequence of driving a wedge between him and Rana. Despite the film’s title and the intention of Farhadi in exploring themes of humiliation, there is not a great deal of resonance between Miller’s play and the surrounding narrative. That said, TheSalesman is a robust drama, with fine performances from Farhadi regulars Shahaab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti as Emad and Rana. There is also a sense that, where A Separation, in its conflict between more secular-minded middle-class professionals and the religious proletariat, was an Ahmadinejad-era film, The Salesman, with its greater candour in talking about socio-moral matters, is more emblematic of the Rouhani presidency. In Iran, film dances in step with changes in the political climate as much as any other aspect of society.

The Salesman trailer

Also worth a watch:

Arrival (USA) 116 minutes/Blade Runner 2049 (USA) 163 minutes –– Denis Villeneuve

Scarred Hearts (Inimi cicatrizate) –– Radu Jude (Romania/Germany) 141 minutes

Moonlight –– Barry Jenkins (USA) 111 minutes

Manchester by the Sea –– Kenneth Lonergan (USA) 137 minutes

Okja –– Bong Joon-ho(South Korea/USA) 120 minutes

Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces –– Yousry Nasrallah (Al Ma’ wal Khodra wal Wajh al Hassan) (Egypt) 115 minutes

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen) –– Aki Kaurismäki (Finland/Germany) 98 minutes

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) –– Noah Baumbach(USA) 112 minutes

Loving –– Jeff Nichols (UK/USA) 123 minutes

The Day After (Geu-hu) –– Hong Sang-soo (South Korea) 91 minutes

American Honey –– Andrea Arnold (UK) 163 minutes

Django –– Étienne Comar(France) 117 minutes