© Universal Pictures
Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best. My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year. I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.
Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance. But what the hell? I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.
And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music. Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.
Blade Runner 2049
With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible. He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.
A Dark Song
Films usually make the practice of magic look easy. You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted. The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however. Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time. A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son. It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.
Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange. But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.
© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros
Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing. It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union. Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia. Well, bollocks to that. Dunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.
Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers. They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain). Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below. Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat. And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.
I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017. Well, I lied. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year. It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle. Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script. But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson. “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight. Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.
© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions
The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family. Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks. This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary. The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour. Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man! You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation! Leave, mother**ker!”
For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea. The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic. It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.
© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment
The Love Witch
If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat. Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds. The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality. Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.
© A24 / Plan B Entertainment