Best and Worst films of 2017

It’s been a quiet year for me this year for a combination of reasons: uptick in social things and ultimate, watching a huge number of films for school, and perhaps being a bit pickier when forking over my $10 (Reading) – $17.50 (Lighthouse Cuba). I’ve only seen 48 new releases this year, which is a smidgeon below par. While 2017 has felt like a better than average year for film, no film has earned a 10/10 from me on IMDb this year, and no repeat cinematic viewings. There also hasn’t been anything quite as awful as Victor Frankenstein, or a Pigeon Sat on a Tree Branch. Rounding up 2015 and 2016 I felt the need to champion truly amazing films that had been overlooked in all awards discussions and critical round-ups, but this year I think my top half-dozen films have almost all also been well received generally. I base my list on what I saw as new, not a strict 2017 release date, which means 11 films from my haul are technically 2016 releases.

First, the stinkers:

Live by Night

How you make a film about prohibition-era gangsters running rum through Cuba into a boring and turgid mess would have remained a mystery without this utterly nonsensical piece of garbage. Well done for answering a question literally nobody had.

Rough Night

Traditionally, a comedy should have at least a single laugh in it. I’ve got no basic problem with the plot – which was asinine – or making “inappropriate” jokes – I laughed until my face hurt when watching Bad Santa [2003] – but I need some kind of comic timing, some kind of rhythm of expectations being subverted. Taking that cast and making a movie that laugh-free takes a truly special talent.

The best films of year in ascending order of global box office:

Colossal [Nacho Vigalondo, US$4,470,506]

I’ll need to revisit this in a few years and see whether I’m right, but this feels like the perfect film to capture the base problems of the patriarchy and its psychology, and seems like the perfect film for this moment in time. This film lifts the best parts of genre concepts to tell a story about real-feeling people and their struggles. the juxtaposition between the fantastic appearance of the Kaiju and the superbly real characters is a hugely difficult balancing act that the film absolutely pulls off.

The Florida Project [Sean Baker, US$5,978,874]

About 20 minutes into this film I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it at all; there hadn’t been anything I could recognise as a plot, instead presenting as a series of vignettes about the desperate plight of a child and her unemployed mother living in a motel on the outskirts of Disneyland. But as the film unfurled, I recognised that there was a powerful and compelling story – it just wasn’t happening to the protagonist, but to her mother. This allows the film to show its story of human drama while avoiding the usual pitfall of this genre of systematic sadism toward its characters. The characters have our sympathy, but never our pity. In short, neither telling, nor showing, this film artfully suggests.

The Villainess [Byung-gil Jung, US$8,818,918]

This is a film which defies precise genre categorisation: a melange of high-octane action with stunning choreography and stunts, an underworld spy movie with every twist you’d expect, a psychological thriller about trust and relationships, and a romance. A list of films to which it owes a debt would be pointless, because it doesn’t borrow widely, it steals outright and perfects everything it grabs.  This is the apogee of genre film making, confident, self-assured, controlled, and precise. It’s also notable, at least to Western eyes, for placing powerful women front-and-centre within a genre context.

Get Out [Jordan Peele, US$253,750,109]

By now I probably don’t have to explain to anyone what this film is about or what makes it one of the best musicals or comedies of 2017. I can’t remember another film which has so consistently appeared on year round-ups; still, if it picks up any of the Oscars it merits, I’ll be surprised.

La La Land [Damien Chazelle, US$431,690,689]

This was the first film I saw in 2017. I have retained a powerful sense memory of the film opening into a full razzling-dazzling musical set piece that I think would stand alongside anything in the history of musicals. I felt a wave of simple rapturous joy which never receded throughout the film, which somehow managed to at the last minute deconstruct the genre’s troped-t0-death happy ending into something that I found genuinely touching and moving. I’ve had plenty of people explain to me what they didn’t like about it over the course of 2017, but nothing anyone has said has trumped the pure joy I felt.

And finally a special mention, for Blade Runner 2049. It wasn’t a film that worked for me, but I think it’s been by far the film I’ve discussed the most. I think this is a film whose reputation and importance will slowly grow over time, as the staggering level of talent applied to make it becomes more evident on subsequent viewings.

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Murder on the Orient Express [1934]

Spoilers, obviously. But you’ve had 83 years to read it…

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi [2017]

Given the sensitivity around films of this scale, everything is behind the screen.

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Addison [1884]

Joseph Addison is not a household name – but three hundred years ago, he was a fairly influential man of letters kicking around the Restoration. He wrote a few poems, a few plays, held a few political offices, but what he is remembered for by those who do remember him is his collaborations with Richard Steele on The Tatler and The Spectator; which are probably not household names either. They were magazines, effectively, something like The New Yorker, Atlantic, or Rolling Stone of today, containing more commentary than raw unprocessed news information. I picked up a kind of Greatest Hits when I was studying the Restoration while Reading English as an undergraduate. They weren’t on, or anywhere near, the syllabus, but I’ve never had too much trouble convincing myself to buy and read a book on the off-chance it might be useful to me later. And so these last ten years I’ve been carrying around in my head an impression of a man of letters, waiting for some concrete use, the way I periodically think I should liven some of my writing with inserts from Pope’s Essay on Criticism. I have been starting to feel lately, particularly when reading the likes of Matt Taibbi, that time may be coming.

The Restoration has always been one of my favourite periods of English literature because it was a time when writing was the battleground in which matters of politics and morality were fought; a battle that’s not too hard to discern in our current media, in which reportage often has the whiff of a political press release. John Dryden, my favourite Restoration poet, wasn’t merely a Poet Laureate, he was a powerful foot-soldier in a political war. Addison was a partisan in that fighting, but half a generation later, Samuel Johnson wants to cast him not in that light, but as one who rose above the fray. In his Life of Addison, Johnson portrays a man who brought a sharp mind to the problems of the day, and intervened as an arbiter of taste, the perfect neoclassical mind, which is I think how many people subsequently view Johnson himself. But aside from this big-picture impression of a mind in an era, I have to admit to not really knowing that much detail. While on holiday in Oamaru, I stumbled across a biography of Addison and it was not too hard to convince myself to spent the $3. The edition I bought was the 1909 “Pocket Edition” of the 1884 “English Men of Letters” volume on Addison. A millennial reading a Victorian about a Neo-classicist seemed like the perfect level of distance to get a proper perspective on everything.

Courthope’s writing is clear, sprightly, and precise: it’s a genuine pleasure to read. I buzz-sawed through the 170 pages of 6-pt font in just a few hours. It’s obvious though, that the immediate details of Restoration political history were expected to be at the Victorian Gentleman’s fingertips, as Courthope is perfectly happy to allude to people and events without any context. He’s offering context and analysis, not raw biographical information. It’s plain that he expects the reader to be passingly familiar with Addison, Pope, Samuel Johnson, and the modes and mores of the period generally. What’s striking about his critical passages, compared to a modern prevaricating postmodernist, is that he’s absolutely prepared to make clear-cut judgments of literary value: this is good, this is okay, this is bad. These judgments are made with complete assurance that they aren’t going to be questioned or subject to modification. I expect they’re largely on the money too, inasmuch as we should be judging at all.

Addison, like many politically-aware people of this day grappled with the issue of party politics, and the conclusion he came to was this:

There cannot, a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give to the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and to their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and only so, but destroys even common sense. Spectator #507

This is nothing more or less than an answer to the value of an arts education. You think you’re reading a series of satires on the common condition of 18th century man [sic] while in fact there’s a fairly complete political education bundled along for free. I think this is one of my other favourite aspects of the Restoration: there were surely genius specialists, but those engaging in writing pursuits tackled many fronts. Courthope’s argument is that while Addison was a Whig, he was motivated not by party loyalty but by sensing that they were the lesser of two evils:

But he would have repudiated as vigorously as Burke the … stupid and ferocious spirit, generated by party, which would deny to opponents even the appearance of virtue and intelligence. Addison, 169

Reading a life of Addison at this spectacularly dysfunctional moment in democracy is a panacea: as broken as world democracy is right now, it surely can’t be worse than during the Restoration, and men like Addison found a way to reconnect vehemently held opposing views in art and in politics. This balancing act seems to be what’s necessary today. We’ve become so partisan and dogmatic that the very basis of agreed facts is in pretty shabby shape. A book like this isn’t going to change the world, but it’s a window into the life of someone who played their part in that endeavour.

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. Addison and Steele: Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator. Edited by Robert J. Alllen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Courthope, William John. Addison. London: Macmillan, 1909.
Johnson, Samuel. Johnson. Prose and Poetry. Edited by Mona Wilson. Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1966.
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Hancock [2008]

Iron Man [2008] was effectively where the modern Super Hero film kicked off, and with it came a certain kind of super-hero story design that I think has found its way into a relatively dead end, and for which I think neither Marvel nor DC have an alternative: the climactic battle. The structure that Iron Man perfected ends with a fight between the hero and their own negative reflection. The further a film can distance itself from this trope the more successful and dynamic that encounter becomes, but in our over-determined over-familiar sense of the Super Hero story it has something of a stranglehold, to the point where Wonder Woman [2017] felt the need to end with that trope despite everything about that encounter running directly against the whole design ethos and meaning of the rest of the show. If you haven’t punched evil in the face, how can you say you’ve really defeated it? This is not an old problem! In fact it’s a problem that Alan Moore already solved with Watchmen [1986], and it’s an indictment on virtually everything in the last decade of Marvel-inspired films that nobody with sufficient creative control to break the template seems to have noticed that. But it needn’t have gone that way, we could have followed Hancock instead, and produced a humanist line of super hero films more interested in character than conflict.

Spoilers follow, for Iron Man, Watchmen, and Hancock. Continue reading

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Revisiting Blade Runner [1992 re-release]

I recently re-watched this in preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049 (review forthcoming), and judging from my Facebook “news” feed, so have a lot of other people. I’ve been a little surprised to see a quite negative stream of commentary emerging around the seeming incompleteness of it. I’m not sure whether that means “our” reception of films has changed, but for most of my life the default position I’ve seen is that its elliptical qualities are what makes it a masterpiece. Mark Kermode summed this up on his blog recently by arguing that it was really amazing that even the two directors couldn’t agree on a central structural conceit: is Deckard a replicant? My answer to that question has usually been a glib one, which is that it depends on which “cut” of the film you’re watching. Continue reading

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An Emotional Response to Lucifer [Episodes 1-3]

Occasionally one encounters a piece of fiction so staggeringly ill-judged as to transgress the border of the misanthropic, the production of which in any civilised society would be an actual crime. I can’t say for certain that Lucifer taken as a whole is such a fiction, but on the basis of the first couple of episodes, nothing would surprise me less. The irony of such a staggeringly awful show is that I can only conceive of it having been made after a talentless producer literally made a pact with Satan. With something so catastrophically miss-formed it becomes hard to know where to begin the reckoning.

For the sake of starting somewhere, the biggest question of purpose I have is: do we really need absolutely everything to be a police procedural? It absolutely boggles the mind that given the Prince of Darkness as the lead character, the best thing they could think of was making yet another “weirdo assists police” show – in the last few years we’ve had The Mentalist, Castle, and basically Blacklist and Elementary. More broadly, there must be 50 police procedurals on TV at the moment. It’s been renewed for at least a third season, so there must be an appetite for it, but then again, MacDonalds is trying to open an outlet in near the Duomo in Florence so… The crimes they investigate in the first few episodes are also beyond mundane; at least Castle opened with an inventive gimmick or two.

Cliche veritably permeates every aspect of the show – there’s a kind of sparky dislike from the lead woman detective over the godawfully annoying enforced side-kick… do you think they’ll end up falling in love? I’d bet my eye teeth they end up together. The unpopular ex-husband reeks of “going to turn out to be corrupt” too. So far in the first couple of episodes there’s no sign of the overly-tough boss with a secret heart of gold, so there’s at least that. That sense of “not even trying” extends to all the jokes about how nobody believes he’s the devil, or that he’s immortal. It’s not that there isn’t a vein of something interesting there, but this show just seems content to gesture off to the side and say “and if you want a good joke about that, tell it yourself”. Poor DB Woodside didn’t get that memo, I think, doing his best to bring a bit of menacing gravitas – but some random angel threatening Lucifer with some unspecified penalty… it just doesn’t have any emotional heft to it. It’s like two children endlessly repeating “I know you are, but what am I?” Nobody cares, alright, just SHUT UP!

More serious is the blatant, absolutely ridiculously in-your-face creepiness of the overt sexualisation of everything.  Lucifer’s schtick is basically mind-control to induce sexual desire. Luckily Game of Thrones has come along to raise the bar on disturbing rape culture to an unattainable height, and this is marginally less freaky than the Almighty Johnsons, so that’s a win? But put it this way, Tony Soprano was about the worst human being to headline a TV show until Breaking Bad, and even he didn’t start trying to sleep with his therapist for 3 or 4 seasons. There’s obviously some studio exec somewhere who thinks you can just lather sex all over a show and that’ll make it edgy and fun, but if so, they’ve face-planted by trying to do a sex comedy line while hanging onto a kiddie-friendly rating – kids find sex hilarious, dontchaknow, better make sure they can tune into this!

Somewhere in LA there are a group of people who all thought this was a good idea and worked really hard to make it happen. That absolutely boggles my mind. It’s not fun, it’s not clever, it’s not sexy.

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