VH 2017: FILMS OF THE YEAR

2017 has been a funny old year for films. There’s been plenty of good films. In fact, there’s been a handful of great films out in the UK. Many of these came from known sources or brought about nostalgia. But it was the smaller films this year that brought the greatest surprises, and shine an exciting new path for cinema to go down…

10) Paddington 2

Perhaps the best sequel to a major release in quite sometime. Returning director and co-writer Paul King has done what so many sequels try and fail to do, he’s amped up everything that was right the first time without it feeling rehashed.

All Paddington wants to do is buy a pop up book of London for his Aunt Lucy for her birthday. So simple and it could have been the plot of one of the original stories. That word “ludicrous” also sums up the tone of the film in the most brilliant way. The cast both returning and new all look like they are having the best time. Befitting of his character Phoenix Buchanan, Hugh Grant steals the show. With the gag rate well and truly turned up King and co-writer Simon Farnaby manage to squeeze more moments of jeopardy and drama. For every smearing of marmalade in the face there are brilliantly executed scenes of emotion.  I welled up on three occasions. Damn these eyes.

9) Okja

Film as its best, has the power to inspire, to influence to change minds and I’d bet that Okja might result in a fair few people deciding to go for the vegetarian option. The first collaboration between The Psychopath Test‘s Jon Ronson & Snowpiercer‘s Boon Jong-ho, Okja is more than just a cute commentary on the meat industry, it’s more than just a cute CGI creation, it’s more than just Tilda Swinton’s interesting wig & acting choices, it is a movie with genuine heart.

Built around the relationship between the titular pig-thing and a young Korean girl (a relevatory Ahn Seo-hyun), what works so well is that aswell as being a wickedly funny, well-paced and exciting film, this relationship is better illustrated than any number of similar films and using less dialogue and  without resorting to cloying sentimentality. It’s so good, you might find yourself forgetting that Okja isn’t real.

8) A Ghost Story

Selling a concept to a film company is hard enough at the best of times. Selling one which involves a recent Oscar winner standing mutely under a sheet pretending to be a ghost for 90 minutes is a wholly different beast. Yet under the guidance of writer/director David Lowery, A Ghost Story manages to delve deep into the mysteries of human existence and the futility of life, all perceived from a dead individual’s perspective. Throw in a bucket full of love, grief, loss, longing and a blunderbuss of temporal acceleration and A Ghost Story stays with you long after the closing credits. The concept may be adventurous, but the execution is something not far off genius, with few films having ever mixed sadness, desire and the argument between predetermination and existentialism is a way so invigorating yet totally lacking in pretension.

7) The Handmaiden

Based on Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’, director Park Chan-wook transports the story to 1930s Japanese occupied Korea. Sook-hee, a thief is hired by con artist “Count Fujiwara” to persuade the recluse, heiress Lady Hideko, to marry him. At first its is her disturbing uncle who is obsessed with Japanese culture and certain genre of books, that stands in his way, but over time Sook-hee and the Lady become very close, changing more than one characters’ plans. The film is essentially an erotic psychological thriller that unfolds over a three-act structure with a love story at the heart of it. With its twists and turns coupled with exquisite costumes and design, every part of the story is dripping with elegance even including the infamous basement with its sinister objects. A cinematic beauty that keeps you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the end.

6) The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an astonishing tight rope walk that somehow manages to balance one of the most egregious periods of dictatorial tyranny with Python-esque absurdity. In the aftermath of Stalin’s sudden and unexpected death, his toadying and sycophantic cabinet squabble for the right to lead the country in the wake of its most infamous leader. The Thick of It creator, Armando Iannucci, writes and directs a film that mines humour from our most defensive reflexes as he shoots the most hilarious mass murders you will ever see on celluloid. The cast is an embarrassment of riches with Steve Buscemi playing court jester Khrushchev, Jeffery Tambour as the conceited Malenkov, Jason Isaacs as the gruff Zhukov, but top honours must go to Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria, a man so odious and malicious, he could have easily have surpassed Stalin in the despot ranks were he to take over from him as General Secretary.

5) Baby Driver 

While the likes of Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk and The Handmaiden handled heavy themes and complex drama in such a successful and meaningful way, it was refreshing to find a film this year that conducted its material with a lighter touch, executing it with a flourish here and a glimmer of cinematic hope there. This film is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. A love letter to films like Walter Hill’s The Driver, Wright also managed to imbue his own, original and technically audacious flavour into the mix with an unwillingness to play by the rules of conventional filmmaking. Editing the action to the music that features throughout, filming all the car chases in camera and reuniting with a classical Hollywood style romance between the film’s two leads, Ansel Elgort and Lily James, Wright forms a masterclass in just how to craft a film that’s helplessly entertaining yet never strays too far from innovation. While it may not be the best film of 2017 overall, according to our list, it easily tops the list for best action movies of the year.

4) Logan

The X-Men film franchise has been somewhat hit and miss throughout the years. For every X2, there has been an Apocalypse. One thing that has remained stalwart in the last two decades of mutant-based movies, however, has been Hugh Jackman’s performance as Wolverine. Despite the panning of Origins, and the mixed reception of the Japan-set The Wolverine, Jackman has perpetually given the role his own unique gravitas. Of course, keeping one of Marvel’s most blood-thirsty heroes to a PG13 rating has always kept the beast somewhat tamed. And so, when it was announced that the final film for Jackman’s hero would be getting an R rating, excitement began to peak. What we were presented with was a dark, character driven Western, the likes of which had never been seen in the superhero genre, showcasing the talents of Jackman, along with Patrick Stewart and newcomer Dafne Keen. A bloody, emotional, and ultimately heart-wrenching farewell to one of the most iconic screen heroes of the new millennium.

3) Get Out

I’ve heard of a comedy of manners, but a horror of manners? That is the reality that African-Americans face every day as they are forced to navigate the treacherous territory of White America, a place that makes them strangers in their own homeland. This is the message director Jordan Peele wants to the audience to take home from his feature-length debut that shows the audience the dehumanising way society treats minorities through the eyes of a minority being reduced to a gift shop trinket by his girlfriend’s family. The agonising exchanges he has with their upper-class guests as they are keen to emphasise his athletic prowess, his inherent exotic trendiness and his sexual prowess make for far more uncomfortable experiences than any of Saw’s convoluted contraptions could possibly produce. It’s a sickening story that forces us to re-examine how we talk to and treat people who are different to us.

2) Dunkirk

With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan crafted a minimal war film that packed a maximal, immersive punch, making it deserving of its place on this list. Depicting one of the greatest military catastrophes of all time, Nolan’s first foray into the war genre – a litmus test for truly great directors – is bare and raw, tense and shocking. It is also a brilliant exercise in beautifully executed technical ability.  Following three plot strands – the ground, the sea and the sky – that are interconnected but unravel over different periods of time. The cinematography, soaring and swaying in conjunction with the spitfires, is awe-inspiring, especially if experienced in IMAX, whilst the superb score swells and surges with a sheer unwieldy brutality. Nolan’s rejection of grandeur, heroic monologues and lengthy speeches about king and country, make this perhaps the most authentic depiction of the innate chaos of war in blockbuster cinema history. Dunkirk stands testament to the well-known, yet still neglected phrase, less is more. 

1) Blade Runner 2049

As the due date for Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Blade Runner approached, there was a sense of anticipation hanging in the air, but also one of apprehension. Villeneuve had been building a reputation as an exciting movie-maker but recent attempts to revisit beloved science fiction properties had, for the most part, been something of an anticlimax. Star Wars may have found a new lease of life following a pitiful prequel trilogy, but this seemed to be the exception to the rule. After a positive start, the new Star Trek series found itself producing comatose instalments, the Alien franchise plunged headlong down a drain of convoluted philosophy and the less said about the pitiful Terminator Genisys the better. With Ridley Scott’s original held in such high regard, there was a feeling that the man who directed the beguiling Arrival absolutely had to follow that success with another belter and avoid tarnishing the reputation of the peerless Blade Runner product.

A couple of months down the line and the financials don’t exactly make for inspiring reading. At present, Blade Runner 2049 has hardly made enough money to cover its vast budget, but have no fear. Big box office takings do not, necessarily, a classic movie make and financial flops should not be disregarded as cinematic failures. Citizen Kane lost money at the box office on its initial release and Blade Runner itself stalled and was left floundering and misunderstood before reappraisals and re-cuts saw it lauded as a classic.

Mercifully, Blade Runner 2049 has hit enormous highs critically, if not commercially, and will without doubt find itself occupying the top spot on numerous “best of” lists this year, including this one.

The movie-making planets have aligned here and Villeneuve, with immensely valuable support from cinematographer Roger Deakins, writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, along with musicians Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, has created an experience that is enchanting, absolutely all-encompassing and unsurpassed by anything else this year.

Largely eschewing big set-piece action or raucous destruction, the narrative – while incorporating grand scholarly themes – is a simple detective story, played out at a relaxed pace. As the existentially-concerned android gumshoe K, Ryan Gosling radiates a weather-beaten stoicism that is tempered by a sense of melancholy as he wanders through the breathtaking urban sprawl and bleak wastelands of the future.

The practice of Harrison Ford returning to a treasured old character has brought mixed results over the decade but, thankfully, this trip down memory lane is one to savour. It’s a return to an old stomping ground that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor; an elegantly crafted, devastatingly beautiful work of art that was worth the wait and all the apprehension in the world.

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More end of year lists, here: TV, Film, Music.