25th 12 - 2017 | 13 comments »

Confessions of a Film Freak 2017

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By Roderick Heath

2017 was a grim and unforgiving trail of frayed nerves, last straws, seething frustrations, angry determination, righteous retributions, downfallen tyrants, and general, brawling discontent. And that was just the queue waiting to get into see the latest Star Wars.

Beyond the climes of the movie theatre’s deceptive deliverance from care, 2017 was also a year of learning to live with deeply galling realities and relearning how to fight them. Inside those theatres, the signs of an altering zeitgeist I’d been feeling for a couple of years now became more definite. Try-hard blockbuster franchise extensions and wannabes started bombing and underperforming and outpaced by horror movies, musicals, and Jazz-age detective stories. Nothing quite made sense about this year, which made it both bewildering but also, aesthetically at least, consistently cheering. There was some hot garbage and a lot of very ordinary work about, but what was good tended to be good indeed.


Get Out

Appropriately for a year when rich disgust for and exhaustion with the arrogance of some of society’s winners broke out in blazing rage, one notable theme vibrating like a bass-note through the year’s films was a theme of working stiffs, plebs, hicks, and sundry victims making ploys to rob something of value, even if only self-respect, from under the noses of the powerful or resisting their directives. This imperative linked movies as diverse as Logan Lucky, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, Ghost in the Shell, The Assignment, The Limehouse Golem, Good Time, Get Out, Lady Macbeth, Beatriz at Dinner, Song to Song, A Cure for Wellness, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, American Made, John Wick: Chapter Two, Thor: Ragnarok, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Fate of the Furious, Star War: The Last Jedi, The Post, Nocturama, and Brawl on Cell Block 99.


Logan Lucky

Property, attempts to penetrate it or maintain it and keep someone out of it or in it, became battlegrounds for these struggles, often twinned to images of characters stepping over the boundary, half-willingly, of zones into illegality and proscribed behaviour. The protagonists of movies like I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Good Time, Logan Lucky, Tramps, T2: Trainspotting, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, and Star War: The Last Jedi were confronted by the citadels of their enemies’ security, demanding they crack codes for entrance and triumph. Some, like the characters of The Beguiled, It Comes At Night, Nocturama, and Lady Macbeth, found such citadels far too comforting once achieved, and abused the privilege. Others, like the captives of Get Out, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, A Cure for Wellness, Beauty and the Beast, Personal Shopper, My Cousin Rachel, Thor: Ragnarok, A Ghost Story, and Song to Song, found themselves claimed as property, subsumed into the furniture for the betterment and entertainment of others, obliging them to hold onto their identities and resist the blissful call of oblivion of the self. Good Time made telling gestures towards indicting its underclass protagonist’s mindset as colonised by his oppressors, in his stated belief that theft and causing ensuing havoc was in some way an honest form of entrepreneurship compared to relying on welfare. Others struggled to hold onto their property and the delineations offered against a chaotic and frightening universe, from the bleary and shell-shocked farmers of The Levelling to the miscreant threesome of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women who almost find their idyll destroyed by forgetting to lock the front door. Marjorie Prime and Blade Runner 2049 conjectured a near future when people might subsist forever more as a part of their household electronic systems.


Ghost In The Shell

Characters who found themselves created or refabricated as twisted and enraged chimera tried urgently to give themselves complete form and meaning. Their number included the hapless hero/ine of The Assignment, the methodical but quietly, existentially desperate invention/inventor of Alien: Covenant. The broken/reassembled superheros of Justice League. The flesh-refashioning antihero(es) of Split. The splintered personas of Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. The human wreckage left over after riot and calamity in Detroit. The wordless yet endlessly expressive heroine who finds the key to properly reshaping herself in The Shape of Water. Rey and Kylo, the inheritors of a collapsed world in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The avenging cohort of Murder on the Orient Express. The lost child warriors of It and exiles on Main Street of Good Time and Baby Driver. The self-directing gender-ambiguous scion and lunk-headed outcast trying to escape French society’s bloated corpse in Slack Bay


The Assignment

Some hunks of shameless pulp got me through the first part of the year, including Zhang Yimou’s visually rhapsodic The Great Wall and Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island was a divisive work that I confess to enjoying hugely, and whilst admitting Vogt-Roberts’ movie references and period flourishes were entirely too familiar, the debuting director revealed genuine dynamism in his action staging and an amusing nasty streak that made it a true-hearted revival for its iconic monster star. Walter Hill’s first directorial outing in several years, The Assignment, saw the light of day not long before a film he produced, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, also hit theatres. Both movies proved telling late-career totems from those two restless old pros, explicitly mocking their own status as by-products of artistic whim and commercial necessity through cruel mad scientist figures within their narratives, toying with characters and grafting together chimera for the sake of sparking new, anarchic sensations. Scott’s bigger budget helped him but his material also fitted the notion of redrafted excursions in madcap creation and destruction, whilst Hill’s shaggy dog story could barely be bothered sustaining its flimsy story but delighted in rambling along with its villain and hero/ine’s exiles-in-society viewpoints.


Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper was another auteurist Ikea kit, one that set out to give pivotal actress Kristen Stewart a vehicle to both exemplify and mock images and notions of movie stardom, and as long as it was meditating on Stewart’s louche and multifarious impersonations it was riveting. But it was also beset by an annoyingly scattershot script unable to decide on a proper framework for its ideas, if it really had any beyond the imperative to watch Stewart masturbate in designer duds. Stewart’s former costar and object of ritual shaming for the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson, meanwhile continued proving himself with a vengeance in two films this year, filling out the cast of The Lost City of Z with a crafty period turn and then pivoting for a livewire role as a New York reject in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Good Time. Good Time confirmed the sibling filmmakers are major talents with a riveting study in the chaos ensuing from a bank robbery by two brothers, one of them a shambling, bewildered developmentally-delayed man-child and the other a shark-like survivor, brilliantly played by Ben Safdie and Pattinson. It felt, in its way, like a better sequel to Blade Runner than the official follow-up released this year, in its evocation of a New York submerged in darkness, both crammed to the gunwales with human flotsam yet also littered with cavernous wastelands.


Berlin Syndrome

Adam Leon’s Tramps, one of the year’s small gems, made for a shambolic rom-com echo of Good Time as it tracked two prickly young losers chasing down an illicit shipment they’ve lost and falling in love in the process, facing down their own internal blocks and dogging identities along the way. Two films by Australian filmmakers dealt with captivity and sexual abuse, Cate Shortland’s third feature Berlin Syndrome and Ben Young’s debut Hounds of Love. Hounds of Love invaded the dankest corners of suburban humdrum to depict a teenage girl’s ordeal in the hands of a psychopathic sex criminal and his enabling, desperately needy wife. Young did a fine job communicating terrible straits without indulging his perverts, and gained good performances from a game cast. But the characterisations and the pretences to psychological thrills were as blunt as its second-hand suspense-mongering. Shortland’s companion piece, on the other hand, was overlong and finished with a whimper, but managed to delve into the increasingly twisted dynamics of captor and captivated with a lucid and disquieting intensity, unfolding as a globetrotting fantasy turned to Sadean nightmare where the worst and most insistently tempting fate of all is to let one’s identity dissolve into the logic of someone else’s will.


Free Fire

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire blended his folk-history interests and feel for freaky situational drama for a Stateside debut executed in a more playful if no less violent key. The result sported great ensemble work from a plucky cast and sustained its essential gimmick of staging a movie-long shoot-out waged by low-rent criminals and half-assed rebels with surprising grace. But it never realised suggestions of a deeper theme tracing fault-lines of loyalty in the atomising cultural precepts of the 1970s, and the chirpy tone kept it from feeling as cumulatively tough and ruthless as it should have proved. Steven Soderbergh returned from his brief retirement from directing, likening his own status as renegade alternative mogul to his hero’s via Logan Lucky, a spry comic heist film that played out as auto-critique and lampoon of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s high-life fantasias and sported some splendidly relaxed performances. The trouble was, as well as being impeded by some over-indulged asides and supporting turns (I’m looking at you Seth McFarlane and Hillary Swank) and a baggy, overlong narrative, Soderbergh’s hymn to plucky everyfolk felt beset by the same kind of self-conscious “sincerity” seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.


I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver immersed itself in the same water as Logan Lucky and betrayed many of the same reflexes, but spurned corny social commentary in favour of trying to properly analyse how we live now in our endangered yet chitinous bubbles of mobile culture, swinging with kinetic force and concision through genre modes from thriller to musical to retro dream, a slick, solid, smart entertainment that also served as a proof of love and life for cinema and music. Macon Blair’s I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. also took on the conceit of an ordinary person’s plunge into the underworld that sees them gain new grit and power in their ordeal, and although not nearly as slickly made, the smart casting of Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, and fitful manifestations of a strange sense of humour, made it a likeable little success.


Marjorie Prime

Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime saw one of current American cinema’s most cerebral and conceptually gutsy filmmakers straying into potentially fascinating territory, in portraying a near-future in which artificial intelligences might become friends, helpers, and memory pools for the aging and the damaged. But the material, in spite of its sci-fi concerns and sometimes elegantly dreamy tone, was ultimately an archly affected exercise in talky theatre and moneyed navel-gazing, Almereyda’s direction too detached from the decay and pain of the flesh to properly counterpoint the robotic algorithms of the dialogue, and the ending suggested dismayingly that quasi-immortality might await the rich through their fabulous Oceanside villas. Lovely work from Lois Smith and Geena Davis, regardless. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water proved a unique by-product of its creator’s fervent imagination, daring to act out the implicit sexual element in many a classic monster-menaces-girl tale but play it as a wistful fairy-tale for grown-ups, diffused through elements of period fantasia and satire. Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem sounded like great fun in abstract, a Victorian-era serial killer hunt that mashed together period figures like Karl Marx that, like The Shape of Water, tried to say something about our social evolution through the veil of retro fantasias and dark dreams. But the result was such a flagrant, shapeless mess that it ran out of steam long before its absurd final twists played out.


Columbus

Kogonada’s Columbus was a subtle, intelligent, if rather too wispy piece, depicting the alienated son of a great architect connecting with a young woman who’s clinging on to her current life to keep her wayward mother on an even keel in the titular Indiana town. Great performances by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson made the experience worthwhile, even as the project as a whole ambled about as listlessly as its characters, and the direction failed to make any real capital out of the interest in architecture as amphitheatre for living. Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner set itself up as the consummate age-of-Trump critique, as it pitched Salma Hayek’s plucky, naively good-natured caregiver against a roomful of snobs holding court before John Lithgow’s monstrous tycoon; good performances could not dispel the air of strained contrivance and corny simplification – its heroine could not even be afforded a taste of enjoyment of celebrity gossip lest she seem less saintly.


Brawl on Cell Block 99

Still, that seemed like a model of crisp and attentive realism compared to one of the worst films I watched all year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that managed to mishandle everything it set out to analyse – small-town life, the fallout of crime, the agony of injustice, the gestures that save people from their own private hells – and filled in instead with a parade of would-be rah-rah speeches, ridiculous gestures, dialogue, characterisations, and plot details, and laboured, “outrageous” black comedy, all directed with the grace of a hippopotamus trying to breakdance. It’s a truly amazing movie that can make me never want to see Frances McDormand or Sam Rockwell on screen ever again. S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl on Cell Block 99 had a curiously mirroring theme in charting a Job-like protagonist’s descent into hell for the sake of protecting family, although Zahler’s played out as work of diamond hard modern genre smithing. Bones were smashed, faces peeled off, hell raised, in the year’s finest sequence of purgative catharsis, although Zahler doesn’t quite know when to quit yet.


A Ghost Story

I disliked David Lowery’s debut work Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which struck me as a bunch of borrowed art movie postures. His follow-up this year, A Ghost Story, saw star Casey Affleck was obliged to spend most of the film wearing a sheet, and threatened in abstract to an overblown music video for some feels-peddling indie band, particularly in overly-cute touches like Affleck’s subtitled exchanges with a neighbouring house’s ghost. And yet Lowery’s vision proved doggedly interesting in studying time and place as a way of being and seeing, in a manner that ultimately earned its run time, its hero effectively rendered a blank to himself and our eye by Lowery’s central conceit, finding a new way of looking at history’s surreal march. Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal similarly blended naturalism and fantastical metaphor as Anne Hathaway’s boozy heroine found herself incarnating as a city-stomping monster and battling with a would-be suitor with the same mysterious talent. Like too many of this year’s movies, there was something crass about its would-be clever metaphors, and a fatal lack of the internal logic needed to make its loopy ideas persuade.


The Big Sick

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth fitted the mood of the year almost too well as it described in excruciating detail the determination of its antiheroine, set up initially as a figure to be cheered to victory over evil patriarchs and cruel period mores, only then to mortify in charting her willingness to sacrifice anyone to the cause of her own good, leading to an unflinching punchline that refused to let anyone off the hook for enjoying their privilege. Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick took on a deeply personal subject based on the immediate experiences of its writers, the romance between a conflicted Pakistani-American comedian and his WASP girlfriend, tracing the faultlines of cultures and genders. But I found the central romance excruciating, the cultural commentary old-hat, and Showalter’s direction listless. The remarkable pairing of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as a pair of frazzled Midwestern parents did however provide, as long as they were on screen, one of the year’s most charming films within another film. Once-reputable director James Foley took on the thankless task of extending the Fifty Shades of Grey series with Fifty Shades Darker, but what once had a sheen of filthy, campy entertainment now just seemed desperately pseudo-naughty, and I turned it off long before it was over.


My Cousin Rachel

Taking place in a similar key of slow-burning passion if bearing no other similarities, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled tackled Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, and, more by implication, Don Siegel’s 1971 version, with a feminist twist on the material. But I found it the biggest dud of Coppola’s career to date, a ponderous and anaesthetised playlet lacking the hothouse evocation, so essential to the tale, of twinned opposites of daunting plenty and fatiguing shortage driving its characters mad. Assured performances did stand out. By comparison, Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, although never living up to its Hitchcockian pretences, proved more intriguing and successful as it blurred the lines between its male protagonist’s obsessive tendencies and its eponymous female’s native ambiguity, to the point where by the end one could feel you’d seen two entirely different movies depending which interpretation you took. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express proved one of the year’s more surprising hits, and as a lushly entertaining immersion in retro class and whodunit ritual staged with happy immodesty by its ageing wunderkind director-star and enthusiastically acted by a cast of authoritative pros and eager newbies, it struck me as it seems to have struck the audience, as an offering of decent escapism from the bawling, pulse-provoking paraphernalia of 2017.


Blade Runner 2049

Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River repeated elements of his scripts for Sicario and Hell and High Water whilst transposing the setting from the rugged environs of the Tex-Mex borderlands to the rugged environs of Alaska, tossing together flinty, grieving frontiersman Jeremy Renner and out-of-place FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen and then failing utterly to make anything interesting of the pairing, and offering a mystery that proved much less thrilling (or socially pertinent) than Sheridan would have us believe. Only Olsen’s good performance distinguished proceedings. The moment of 2017’s cinema I approached with the most trepidation was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, as Villeneuve, one of my bêtes-noir in current film, took on the task of fashioning a sequel to Ridley Scott’s singular 1982 classic. Villeneuve presented an endless succession of lovingly crafted yet conceptually inert images tied to a storyline that managed somehow to render Scott’s techno-noir universe tepidly cliché. One great scene, in which Harrison Ford’s stalwart Rick Deckard was confronted with the refashioned form of his dead lover, touched the kind of operatic splendour the film otherwise chased unsuccessfully, whilst Ford came close to a career-best performance. Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell was a far better tribute to Scott’s film, conveying a sense of alienation and dysmorphia with far more economy, tossing in some fluid and spectacular action sequences in the process, to offer a spare, semi-abstract, melancholic action movie without succumbing to self-importance.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets beckoned in its trailers as an island of fanciful, decorative genre splendour, and it was that, certainly. The film’s opening scene, tracking the development of humankind’s engagement with the universe from tentative tin cans in the void to mighty floating cities filled with alien flotsam, was an almost perfect piece of cinema. But after that lay only Besson’s monumental folly, passing off desperately frenetic tomfoolery as exciting action, a dull and incoherent plot as a great adventure, and two distracted and terribly miscast leads as worthy swashbucklers. Matthew Vaughan, who once seemed a promising cinematic punk, offered a sequel to his rude and raucous 2014 hit Kingsman: The Secret Service with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But the result was a perfect study in the law of diminishing returns, the original’s gall and vivacity swapped out for incredibly tired jokes, wasted actors, and a general air of enervation, like watching a drunk at a wedding who thinks he’s the life of the party urinating in the punch.


Wonder Woman

Truth be told, much of superhero business this year left me in general discontent, be it speciously earnest (Logan, Wonder Woman), straining to be light-hearted and fanciful (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), or a broken-backed product of misaligned auteurism and studio second-guessing (Justice League). James Mangold’s Logan set out with an interesting brief, to give Hugh Jackman’s beloved incarnation of the most popular X-Men hero a farewell in a gritty neo-western. A lot of folk seemed to like it, but I found tedious on a dramatic level and pungently disappointing as an action-adventure movie, obliging its protagonist to struggle through an endless reiteration of the same damn reluctant saviour act he went through a half-dozen movies earlier. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was well-made, and star Gal Gadot proved born to play the role with some sturdy support from Chris Pine. But the film struggled with a bog-ordinary script that lacked effective conflicts, never seemed as flavourful and pulp-epic as the material and setting promised, and fell away to nothing by its end. Gadot returned months later in the second Warner Bros.-DC entry for the year, Justice League, a work that felt like looking upon wreckage of Egyptian colossi in desert sand, signs of great ambition and scale shattered and jumbled and lost to history.


Thor: Ragnarok

Over at Marvel, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tried to top its predecessor for lysergic colour schemes and flip humour, and wisely turned to Kurt Russell for a dash of charisma and gravitas in playing a twinkle-eyed but black-hearted planetary consciousness. But the storyline had no ideas, and the try-hard efforts to make everything seem all roguish and larkish and then finally big-hearted only seemed forced and puerile. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, was greatly superior, for at least its spasmodic moments of scallywag humour and overripe spectacle were truly enjoyable and well-composed. But the film just couldn’t annex the zone of scrappy, hand-crafted ‘80s entertainment it so anxiously wanted to ape, obliged to waste time on franchise-servicing buddy comedy and letting down the specific space opera pleasures of this corner of the Marvel fantastical universe. Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming was an utterly perfunctory and anonymous entry, only elevated at all by a good villain turn from Michael Keaton and the smart-mouth poise of Zendaya.


A Cure For Wellness

Horror cinema had a great year at the box office, providing a sturdy counterpoint to the shakiness of the blockbuster flimflam. Jordan Peele’s Get Out benefited fortuitously from the ornery mood abroad after Donald Trump’s election victory in its deployment of a very familiar genre story, involving mind control and theft of identity, mediated through a wry lampooning of black anxiety over white liberal hypocrisies. Peele displayed formidable formal gifts for sustaining unease and thrills even whilst provoking laughter, and the whole experience was a great lark as long as you didn’t look too hard at its plot mechanics nor expected its – ah-hem – skin deep satirical points (hey look, a black guy acting like a white guy – gold!) to effectively mesh with its more personal sense of endangerment. Thanks in part to the expert performances of Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya, the theme of romantic illusion and betrayal finished up wielding far more kick than its broader socio-cultural targets, finding its climax in the image of Kaluuya’s assailed hero with fingers wrapped around his sphinx-like lover’s throat in bewildered rage. Gore Verbinski returned to the horror genre with A Cure For Wellness, a film that wanted to stand as a gleefully sick exercise in high gothic style in mashing together Suspiria, The Magic Mountain, old Boris Karloff vehicles, and Verbinski’s own established love for slithering aquatic things. But Verbinski’s relentlessly heavy hand turned what should have been a steadily ratcheting exercise in disquiet to a parade of phobic perversity and overbearing visuals.


It

M. Night Shyamalan continued his resurgence with Split, a Twilight Zone-ish tale of madness and kidnapping that proved Shyamalan is most entertaining when letting the mischievous, malicious, downright weird side of his imagination off the leash, handing star James McAvoy perhaps over-abundant opportunities for theatrical bravura in playing a psychologically fragmented supervillain; the result was both enjoyable but more than a little disquieting in its blithe use of schizophrenia and sexual abuse as cheap gimmicks. Andres Muschietti’s first half of a bifurcated adaptation of Stephen King’s It was a big hit that recapitulated the potency of horror in general and King in specific at the box office. But it left me utterly cold, as King’s lumpy but ambitious novel was translated into a showy, repetitious, shallow ghoul-fest that reduced its cast of troubled, young outsiders into an array of dull and poorly-served stereotypes. Trey Edward Shults, who made an eye-catching if annoyingly overemphatic debut a couple of years ago with the crypto-biographical family drama Krisha, returned with a swerve into genre territory with It Comes At Night, an attempt to make a movie almost entirely in a key of foreboding survivor angst and festering hysteria, like a George Romero flick with the zombies cut out. Shults’ interest in depicting clannish self-defence and rituals of protection and expulsion hardened into a consistent theme and his clipped, eerie visuals provoked tension, but his style proved ultimately merely onerous, and his story crises and character behaviours too often felt contrived.


Raw

Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves was a far better venture into similar territory involving the supernatural blended with over-the-shoulder glances at childhood trauma and quotidian mysticism than It, depicting a teenage girl’s efforts to expiate her brother’s accidental death and becoming involved with some backwoods necromancers and long-suppressed blood feud. Osgood Perkins intrigued with another tale of adolescent angst shading into infernal bloodshed and mystery, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but although he sustained an effectively creepy mood and tone of unforgiving alienation, his serpentine storyline and games of perspective never quite stopped feeling like a magpie’s nest of gathered tropes. Julie Ducournau’s Raw likewise took as its basic matter a teenage girl thrust into the disorientating surrounds of institutional schooling and discovering monstrous impulses in herself, and aimed for a brand of tragicomic, deeply sick body horror. But once again, the film never added up to much, because its metaphors felt both too obvious and insufficiently developed, never generating a flicker of real fear or authentic dark revelry.


The Mummy

Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy proved the instant stuff of Hollywood cautionary tales, proposing to kick off a franchise extrapolated from Universal Studio’s classic monster movie roster but falling afoul of a misbegotten Tom Cruise action vehicle. It was doomed to be one of the year’s whipping boys, and indeed it languished with an insufferably dumb plot and a tone far too detached from its nominal gothic forebears. But it also sported a couple of well-handled set-pieces and some intermittently effective images, the striking if wasted presence of Sofia Boutella as the title monstrosity, and the spectacle of Cruise and Russell Crowe beating each-other up. Just who you cheered for in that contest would possibly reveal interesting things about your psychological profile. Boutella also provided a jigger of class in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, her radium eyes with wincing cool providing a momentary flash of emotion before landing in the sack with Charlize Theron for the year’s most gleefully uninhibited sex scene. A pity the film around them lumbered through a series of well-choreographed yet resolutely unexciting action scenes and tortuously convoluted espionage charades that aimed to unite the James Bond, Jason Bourne, and John LeCarre strands of the spy movie, only to fail utterly. Leitch had jumped ship from the John Wick franchise whilst former co-director Chad Stahelski helmed John Wick: Chapter 2 solo. This time Keanu Reeves’ steely antihero was plunged into a spiralling trap where his omnicompetence as a killer proved to only worsen his situation, and the movie was a surprising improvement on its predecessor.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower was doomed to be the measly also-ran in the face of It‘s success as a film of a beloved Stephen King property. It was certainly a prime example in how not to do this sort of thing, a style-free, flavourless distillation of King’s dense web of mythology and metafiction into something that pretended to be an epic adaptation but looked like it ought to be filling a Wednesday evening timeslot on the SyFy Channel. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were cast in potentially thrilling roles as cosmic adversaries and yet completely wasted; a moderately exciting shoot-out finale did at least save the experience from being a total waste of time. Guy Ritchie, who suggested surprising new levels and a sense of style on his great The Man From UNCLE a couple of years ago, backslid into smug and torpid laddish humour, corny directorial gimmicks, and stolen fantasy movie tropes when he tackled the energetic yet uniquely tiresome King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Amongst other crimes, Ritchie’s film managed to concatenate all of the root sagas’ great panoply of female archetypes into one dull character, and belittle whatever was left of the other essential aspects of the legends, and actually succeeded in surpassing Sword of the Valiant as the dullest Arthurian movie ever.


Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry was far too arch and tonally unfocused in trying to recreate a certain brand of earnest, magic-realist kid’s movie from the ‘80s, but it didn’t deserve the fascinatingly savage reception it met either. Rian Johnson ascended to the pinnacle of current Hollywood franchise management to offer his twist on the Star Wars saga, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, to the clamour of both wild praise and disgruntled confusion from different quarters. It wasn’t Johnson’s attempts to critique and deepen the social context of the saga or his brusque approach to inherited infrastructure that bothered me, so much as how he did it, continuing and exacerbating the series’ decline into a mere martial melodrama with added teen soap dynamics, the mythopoeic edge and holistic conceptualism of George Lucas’s films falling by the wayside along with another poorly served old hero. The filmmaking was still tremendous in tactile force, but the palette dismayingly reduced.


The Lure

Likely to keep ahead of it as the year’s biggest money-spinner if only because of The Last Jedi’s late release, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast got family bums in theatre chairs and surely became an instant fixture in many a kid-ruled living room, but was also generally dismissed as a shadow of the 1991 Disney film it was a remake of. Having never seen that version, I found this one tolerably jaunty and entertaining thanks to Condon’s lashings of good-humoured campiness, and the game cast did their best to drown out the clang of Disney cash registers. But Emma Watson’s weak vocals and the determined neutering of Dan Stevens’ beastly antihero badly thwarted its impact. An infinitely more interesting contemporary spin on the musical was Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which revised another Disney-claimed fairytale property into an art-punk soft-core fantasia with a stony centre regarding desire and the desire to change ourself to fit our ideas of what other people want us to be. Jeffrey Walker’s Dance Academy was an old-school you’re-going-out-there-a-nobody stage melodrama about recovery from injury and the need to balance artistic excellence with personal fulfilment, but it was foiled on all levels by remarkably bland filming and acting.


xXx: Return of Xander Cage

F. Gary Gray took on the Fast and Furious franchise for an eighth instalment, once again sporting Theron, this time in full villainous mode conveyed with such ice-eyed relish and taunting sinuosity she almost but not quite succeeded in keeping afloat a series that really should have shut down an episode earlier. Star Vin Diesel also subjected himself to reviving another of his old franchises whilst his training session buffness held out, returning for DJ Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, a film that at least had the decency to be enthusiastically ridiculous, and sported a finale that went for, and delivered, iconic girl-power action moves. The year’s best action movie hands-down was Korean director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess, a ferocious headlong dash into some of the most astounding action set-pieces ever shot, matched to a narrative that wheeled with surreal bravura through the ages in its eponymous lady’s life as a string of inhabited roles finally colliding with painful truths.


Battle of the Sexes

The year’s sexual-romantic highpoints in film tended towards the outré, or at least beyond the normcore, including forbidden love between woman and fish-man in The Shape of Water. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name aimed for a lush, oddly old-fashioned take of wistfully recalled young romance with a queer twist. As with Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash last year, the film testified to the director’s talent for conjuring well-observed behaviour for his actors whilst failing to knit it all together into anything substantial, achieving less a Wong Kar-Wai-ish memory-dream than a haute-bourgeois tourist ad for the pleasures of lounging about the sun-kissed campagna with people with good muscle tone. The film’s real subject, the part played by one’s parents, or not played, in letting you become your true self was only breached right at the end. Angela Robinson’s intelligent, nuanced, swooningly romanticised take on the real-life ménage-a-trois that gave birth to the year’s biggest hero, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, was a movie that, unlike Guadagnino’s, did something with the theme of intellectual characters confronting, analysing, and eventually transforming the meaning of their transgressive erotic impulses. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes tackled similar territory in portraying Billie Jean King’s struggle with her burgeoning sexuality whilst taking on the jovially absurd Bobby Riggs in their famed sporting match-cum-media huckster carnival. Simon Beaufoy’s script was replete with excruciating point-underlining dialogue and the finale’s potential for intimate drama was badly hampered by having to recreate the match whilst avoiding its stars’ lack of athleticism. But the good acting backed up the directors’ unforced empathy for the specific complexes of all their characters.


Song To Song

Terrence Malick’s hitherto unheard-of rate of work saw him release his second film in as many years, Song To Song, a defiantly shaggy venture into the Austin music scene that nonetheless proved a quintessential Malick work in its themes of romantic disaffection and creative burn-out and sell-out. Whilst it’s probably Malick’s least successful movie in a while, it was still a dazzling, intriguing, vigorous labour worthy of a filmmaker half Malick’s age. Danny Boyle went romping around the old neighbourhood with T2: Trainspotting, a film that attempted the tricky art of both wallowing in its characters’ nostalgia for the good old days whilst also trying to find a way to release them from that trap. Boyle and his reassembled cast gave it a valiant effort, but nothing about the new adventures of this bunch of skivers proved as dramatically arduous and thrillingly indecent as their days of being wild. At the other end of the socio-economic scale but no less smothering in studying insufferable self-involvement were Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers, this year’s official entries in the Fake Woody Allen Movie stakes as portraits of the thick-shelled bourgeoisie, with Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy a redacted third entry.


The Disaster Artist

Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip attracted some utterly bewildering praise for its day-glo antics and sassy clichés. Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul saw Judi Dench return to the role of Queen Victoria, this time with Stephen Frears’ unshakeably professional poise apparent in snappy edits and choreographed camerawork to back her up, but only for a trite buddy comedy and once-over-lightly study in imperialist angst. As if taking pity on Jessica Chastain after she sweltered her way through last year’s silly fake Aaron Sorkin movie Miss Sloane, Sorkin himself wrote and directed a vehicle for her this year called Molly’s Game, an interesting if stagy and absurdly overlong portrait that made some gestures towards describing American enterprise as a symptom of rather than outlet for deep-seated neurosis. Try as they might, Chastain and costar Idris Elba couldn’t help but seem as overripe as their dialogue. Doug Liman’s American Made chased a similar overtone of critique as it cast a game Tom Cruise as the fatally naïve, swashbuckling pilot at the heart of the Iran-Contra affair, whose dalliances in espionage and drug and arms smuggling are painted as a natural by-way for someone chasing the American Dream. The film itself belonged to a school of cheery, scabrous, can-you-believe-this-is-true Goodfellas knock-offs, and finally felt far too shallow to be memorable. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist delved more boldly into queasily amusing, art-imitating-life fare, as he likewise took on a true story revolving around an ironic realisation of all-American ambition, this one recounting the strange journey of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero from wannabes to living jokes to cult heroes. The result was a great laugh and a biting portrait of ego and need colliding with money to create a masterpiece of badness, and also an intriguing if ultimately failed attempt to extrapolate a deeper exercise in role-playing and artefact recreation, as Franco’s direction was too straightforward to properly realise it.


The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post offered another of its director’s profiles in courage from the recent past, recounting Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s gutsy collaboration to print stories on the Pentagon Papers. The movie was consciously conceived and executed by its director in a manner akin to the journalistic sprint it celebrated, relying on reflexive skill and professional savvy to spit out a story under a deadline that anyone can still read and comprehend, and it works beautifully if unsubtly in that spirit, spurning the cool investigative tone of Spielberg’s recent work for outsized theatre. Kathryn Bigelow returned for her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Boal with Detroit, a nominal portrait of the calamitous 1967 riots that beset and hollowed out that city, but which chiefly focused on a gruelling, galling recreation of the Algiers Hotel incident. Bigelow’s fearsome technique remained unequivocal, and the film succeeded as a deep immersion in power’s abuse and the toxic legacy of racial and economic prejudice. But the project failed to live up to its great promise, particularly the mooted chance to say something more enveloping and original in the subtextual linkage of the occupation and repression of the city to the occupation of Iraq and War on Terror as studied in the filmmakers’ previous movies, and the last third of the film skirted too shallowly over the business of surviving such trauma.


Dunkirk

Similarly immersive in aesthetic if more traditionally uplifting, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk launched a pummelling cinematic blitzkrieg upon its audience, for a movie that proved once and for all that Nolan is a peerless filmic artisan with absolutely nothing interesting to say about history, politics, or human nature, reducing warfare to a string of well-staged yet utterly calculated survivalist skits, resolutely failing to match even the much briefer but infinitely richer Dunkirk vignette in Joe Wright’s Atonement. For his part, Wright finished up cowering in the shadow of the same achievement as he returned to that milieu for Darkest Hour for the sake of renewed prestige, in an account of Winston Churchill’s first, stormy weeks in office as war leader amidst the calamity of Nazi onslaught. Gary Oldman’s surprising, vigorous impersonation of the portly PM wasn’t sufficient to make up for a one-note screenplay and Wright’s tired directorial showmanship.


Our Time Will Come

Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest touched on the same epoch once more whilst focusing on legendary days of the British film industry’s renaissance in adversity, for a mildly enjoyable romp that nonetheless managed to tick off every cliché in the current middlebrow movie handbook. Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come looked back to WW2 in Hong Kong as a moment of transformation, even liberation, for those swept up in the whirlwind, finding amidst the rubble of an age a string humanist epiphanies, from mothers bickering over the correct protocol for a wedding to a moment of angry and offended personal confrontation between men caught on opposite sides of war, in trying to grasp just why such conflicts seem to engage human identity on its most profound level even when the cost it exacts finally becomes unbearable. Only lackadaisical pacing and shaping foiled Hui’s lush cinema.


Slack Bay

Bruno Dumont, who made his name with dark and dour movies, continued a recent shift towards playful magic realism and free-form genre play with Slack Bay (Ma Loute), a study in period French social concerns pushed to absurdist extremes, including aristocrats inbred to freakishness and peasants turned cannibal, Jacques Tati and Chuck Jones cohabiting with Zola and Celine, and sporting the year’s most delightful extended joke in gender-bending – until it stopped being a joke. The movie weathered Dumont’s breakneck tonal shifts but not his final drifts into affected zaniness in lieu of a genuinely inspired way to tether his ideas together. Alain Guirardie followed his remarkable study in desire Stranger by the Lake with Staying Vertical, a far more fitfully engaging mix of deadpan character comedy and eccentric fantasy with lashings of anarchic sexuality, as it followed a wandering bisexual writer’s flailing efforts to cope with creative crisis and sudden responsibility as a father and lover to several arbitrarily needy country folk.


Graduation

Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling likewise journeyed into a farmland setting and saw not a world of pastoral peace but a zone of murky, exhausting engagement with nature’s meanness and humanity’s flailing in the face of it. Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire contended with the same basic theme of human unease before the boding threat of the natural world and its imminent revenge for being disrespected, positing the acceptance of responsibility and real awareness as the only cure. Herzog’s style was as muscular as ever, and though his script was sophomoric in its fabulist flourishes, it still added up to a surprising statement from its oft-caricatured director. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation was a return to the sort of eye-level engagement with dire personal straits that propelled his 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days after his epic survey of religious fanaticism in Beyond the Hills, charting a portly, middle-aged doctor’s efforts to secure his daughter a ticket to the good life in Britain and extract her from the sink of corruption and moral slovenliness besetting their everyday lives. Mungiu’s most cunning and interesting achievement here was in setting up what seemed to be a message movie but finished up being more a character study that considers how that character helps defines a society as a whole.


Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama translated Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed into an argot of detached and sardonic, brand-aware modernism, as it depicted a gang of disparate young radicals who set out to perform a coordinated series of terrorist attacks around Paris, only to find themselves immobilised and then immersed in the distracting comforts of consumerist plenty as they hide out in a ritzy department store. The result was a fascinating but uneasy achievement, as its critique of contemporary radical possibility and its retardation by the colonisation of our dreams by commerce was obscured by Bonello’s refusal to define his protagonists and their various trips in any depth, which meant that it kept verging on a superficial these-kids-today lament. Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV charted the title event with a bleak yet witty sense of the remorseless decline of the flesh mocking human pretence and pomposity, utilising the prone form of Jean-Pierre Leaud to comment also on the twilight of an age of cinema as well as a canvas for depicting life’s outermost shoals. The experience was, probably by design, alternately painful, mesmeric, and dull. As to whether Serra’s harvest of epiphanies was equal to the time expended on it, I’m not entirely sure.

Performances of Note:

John Cho, Columbus
Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime
Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant ; Song to Song
Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Rebecca Hall, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Mark Hamill, Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name ; Free Fire
Bella Heathcote, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Don Johnson, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Ellie Kendrick, The Levelling
Jean-Pierre Leaud, The Death of Louis XIV
Teresa Palmer, Berlin Syndrome
Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
Bob Odenkirk, The Post
Raph, Slack Bay
Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express ; Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
David Troughton, The Levelling
Vince Vaughan, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Sigourney Weaver, The Assignment
Allison Williams, Get Out
Zhou Xun, Our Time Will Come
Ensemble: Baby Driver
Ensemble: Detroit
Ensemble: Good Time
Ensemble: The Lost City of Z
Ensemble: The Shape of Water

Favourite Films of 2017

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s second, greatly superior attempt to revisit and revise his foundational work saw him roam through a catalogue of genre influences and tropes whilst striving to restore the charge of ferocious nihilism implicit in the material, in a movie that adds up to a freewheeling summary of both Scott’s late career obsessions and the history of the horror genre. Michael Fassbender’s elegant, witty central performance(s) saw his character David emerge as a truly great villain in contemporary storytelling.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

The crime movie as dance flick, musical as melodrama; Edgar Wright’s playful concoction tried to capture the private joy and intensity of young love – for music, for the ideal partner, and for learning how to orchestrate the world, even whilst learning the crueller lessons in the price the world claims something back.

Ghost In The Shell (Rupert Sanders) / The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou)

I’m counting these two together because both were unfairly hobbled long before they even came out but represented fruitful matings of Eastern and Western aesthetics, and moreover because they were both much more enjoyable and infinitely superior as cinematic experiences to many an overblown blockbuster released later in the year. Sanders’ film found intelligent ways to contend with its own cross-cultural mutt status and beef up its action whilst maintaining the bleary, dissociative textures of its source material. Zhang’s was a contemporary DeMille epic, a utopian vision of collective action that lacked a script to match its images, but gave its director ample scope to turn the CGI action film into a state of pure colour and motion.

Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie)

New York filmmaking frères Benny and Josh Safdie stumbled into something like the mainstream through casting well-known faces like Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Barkhad Abdi, but remained true to their creed as portraitists of co-dependent weirdos in dire straits, their fierce brand of artful realism delivered as a form of action painting. Good Time, nominally a contemporary twist on a classic sort of streetwise melodrama revolving around fraternal responsibility and spiralling consequences of life mistakes, also wielded a sharp political subtext critiquing conservative rhetoric, exposing the Robin Hood pretences and clannish loyalty of its protagonist, who’s assimilated the rhetoric of individualist bravado as rooted in disdainful disregard for the common good.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)

A film that views both human grief and agricultural degradation on the same analytical level, this terrific little debut explored the aftermath of a young farmer’s suicide and its impact on his deeply repressed father and his alienated, exiled sister. Leach’s depictions of animal life surviving deluges hover in dreamlike abstraction whilst its humans experience a plunge into putrid realism clinging like dung to the their boots. But it’s the film’s theme of moral implication that refuses to let anyone off the hook for the collapse of systems human and natural that really speaks to the moment. Although nominally belonging to the same strand of cool British naturalism as Lady Macbeth, it was a polar opposite in cumulative message.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)

Transplanting Nikolai Leskov’s novel and pruning it down to a hardy stem, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth analyses brutality on many levels with a cold and exacting eye, dispensing with tony psychology to look instead unsparingly at human activity as a form of zoology, in competition for dominance, breeding rights, and living space. A look at period mores that suggests that you don’t have to be crazy to rebel against a corrupt social order, but it certainly helps.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

James Gray’s fastidious restraint and shaded emotional palette constantly retards his chances of ever finding popular favour, but here proves cumulatively magisterial with his mixture of biography and meditation on lost time, exploring the life of Percy Fawcett as he sought out signs of lost civilisations even as the one about him shuddered and toppled.

The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska) / The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

I count these two films together because both are versions of the same story, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. But each gave this starting point a gleefully weird, divergent spin. Smoczynska’s work suggested what Anderson’s story might look and sound like if a Jesus Franco joint interbred with a Beach Party movie. Whilst not all of Smoczynska’s flourishes worked, she managed to restore the grief, perversity, and an appropriately pained sense of the cost to be borne in denying one’s true nature, inherent in such source material. Del Toro rendered his transgressive concept not just sweet but very close to square, stripping out any feral power and punkish disquiet from his ode to interspecies love. But his fable-like frame allowed his eye to wander his conjured historic landscape, be it to contemplate the false offerings of consumerist priests to the steel idols of a new technological age crumbling before the power of the flesh and its call for transformative passion.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)

Cramped by a low budget and familiar foreshortening problems of the biopic, Angela Robinson’s recounting of the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston and the two women he formed a harmonious and loving life with nonetheless rivalled The Shape of Water as the year’s most romantic film, depicting shifting states of being and self-realisation through fantasy. Robinson pulled off the tricky feat of combining an essentially interpersonal drama with qualities of an essayistic film, contemplating Marston’s creation and its inspirations with a touch keen, like Marston’s lie detector, to the faintest, but most revealing murmurs of the heart.

The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung)

Destined for cult classic status purely on strength of its jaw-dropping, hyperbolically violent, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? action sequences, The Villainess backed up its formal gusto with a whacko storyline about a vengeful young gangster’s moll recruited as a superspy after slaughtering her lover’s killers, only to find she’s been played hard, making its protagonist’s schismatic existence a gruesomely, expansively theatrical experience lampooning the roles we play in life and society at different stages of life.

Would Be On This List If I’d Seen It In Time:
(to be updated)

Runners-Up

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott)
Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)

Notable & Underrated

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Dig Two Graves (Hunter Adams)
The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog)
Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
Song To Song (Terrence Malick)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Tramps (Adam Leon)

Disappointing & Overrated

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
It (Andres Muschietti)
It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Guy Ritchie)
Logan (James Mangold)
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts)
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Staying Vertical (Alain Guirardie)
T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

Crap

Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughan)
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)

Blind Spots:

After the Storm ∙ Apprentice ∙ Barracuda ∙ BPM (Beats Per Minute) ∙ Clash ∙ A Fantastic Woman ∙ First They Killed My Father ∙ The Florida Project ∙ From Nowhere ∙ God’s Own Country ∙ Heal the Living ∙ Hermia & Helena ∙ Hostiles ∙ Icaros: A Vision ∙ Indivisible ∙ Ingrid Goes West ∙ The Killing of a Sacred Deer ∙ Lady Bird ∙ Lovesong ∙ Lucky ∙ Marshall ∙ Menashe ∙ mother! ∙ Mudbound ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Phantom Thread ∙ A Quiet Passion ∙ Sieranevada ∙ The Son of Joseph ∙ The Square ∙ Suburbicon ∙ The Woman Who Left ∙ A Woman’s Life ∙ The Women’s Balcony ∙ Wonder Wheel

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2017

The 4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth)
Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
The Bamboo Saucer (Frank Telford)
Black Caesar (Larry Cohen)
Cabiria (Giuseppe Pastrone)
Castle of the Living Dead (Michael Reeves et al)
Children of the Damned (Anton Leader)
Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki)
Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak)
Erik the Conqueror (Mario Bava)
Images / 3 Woman (Robert Altman)
Kid Galahad / The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis)
Legend of the White Snake (Shirō Toyoda)
Mansion of the Ghost Cat (Nobuo Nakagawa)
Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee)
My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer)
Nightmare (Freddie Francis)
The Passionate Friends / Hobson’s Choice / Summertime (David Lean)
Pierrot le Fou / Made in U.S.A. / 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her / La Chinoise / King Lear / Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
Los Olvidados / Susana / Ascent to Heaven / The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz / Illusion Travels by Streetcar / Viridiana / Tristana / That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel)
Queen Cristina (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Street With No Name (William Keighley)
Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio)
Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Underworld / The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg)
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)
Waxworks / The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón)


3rd 03 - 2010 | 9 comments »

First Look: Wikio Rankings for March

Every month, Wikio gives one of its blogs an exclusive chance to break the news of its top rankings for the month. This month, Ferdy on Films was chosen to publish the results, and we’re pleased as punch to have moved up to #11 in the rankings. I’d like to think that the Film Preservation Blogathon and our new look contributed to our higher profile. Rod and I will continue our striving for excellence, and we congratulate the other worthy bloggers who have made the top 20, including our good buddies Greg Ferrara and Ed Howard:

1 Deadline Hollywood Daily
2 /Film
3 MTV Movies Blog
4 Cinematical
5 FirstShowing.net
6 Twitch
7 Film School Rejects
8 Cartoon Brew
9 Trek Movie Report
10 Busfilm
11 Ferdy on Films, etc.
12 The House Next Door
13 Some Came Running
14 ASIFA – Hollywood Animation Archive
15 Upcoming Pixar
16 The IFC Blog
17 Cinema Styles
18 Michael Sporn Animation – Splog
19 Observations on Film Art
20 Only The Cinema

Ranking by Wikio

Tags:

24th 08 - 2009 | 22 comments »

The Ferdy 500: A Few of Our Favourite Things

champagne_toast.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath

You are about to read the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. When this all started back in December 2005, I had no idea how long it would last or what directions it would take. I knew that I enjoyed writing film reviews: indeed, the first reviews on this blog were copied and pasted from a film discussion board I frequented, a place film congregants who bolted from the New York Times Film Forum in protest—including Rod and the hubby—met to discuss films, fight like a dysfunctional family, and express outlooks that became as doddering as the participants who voiced them forgetfully for the 15th time. I was no longer the film neophyte who came to them looking for information and guidance several years before. I had the moxie to think that I knew enough about movies to tell other people what I thought about them without fear of becoming a laughingstock. Looking back over the 500 mainly substantive posts that comprise Ferdy on Films, I can honestly say that there is little that seems hastily digested, little I would take back, and actually a few moments of grace—my review of The Quiet Man is my own personal favorite—that any writer or commentator is lucky to achieve.

If I had been the sole critic on this blog, my “offroad” approach to film reviewing (or as Rod calls it below, the “Oxfam approach to world cinema”) might have doomed the blog to the backwaters where I hunt for new kinds of films to view. It has been my great good fortune not only to have such a brilliant writer and analytical mind in Rod to bring some real scholarly heft to Ferdy, but also his enthusiasm for mainstream movies. Thanks, Rod, for going where no 50ish woman should ever have to and bringing back such enlightening tales from the front as The Dark Knight and a double-feature of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer/Transformers. Rod’s double-features are always well-considered, from his comparison of the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s imperfect, but ambitious remake to a pairing of two Gus Van Sant films, Paranoid Park and Milk, giving me an appreciation for changes in style over time as well as a more well-rounded look at directors who have and are continuing to make a mark on the cinematic landscape.

Rod’s ability to be comprehensive while still relatively compact astonishes me. His “Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema” is an article I still reference and recall when choosing British films from this period to watch. I also believe his tribute pieces are without peer. Was there a better overview of Roy Scheider’s career at his death than Rod’s? I’m convinced not. Rod’s lengthy series on the films of Martin Scorsese gave our current reigning king of American cinema an in-depth, career-long retrospective in a succinct, accessible way, though Rod’s refusal to gaze again on After Hours, Scorsese’s ’80s affectation, still has me chuckling.

Rod’s great enthusiasm is in horror. I don’t think there’s a style of horror out there, from the eerie classics like Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead to the made-for-television cheese of Salem’s Lot and great European classics, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, that Rod hasn’t covered. There are a lot of film blogs devoted to horror; there are few film critics who can burrow into such an irrational passion with such clear-eyed focus. Rod is never blinded by the light.

I don’t have a particular favorite among Rod’s works, but there are two reviews that have lingered in my mind. His appreciation of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate really opened my eyes to the potential in this rising French director and the full-to-bursting creativity of its star, Asia Argento. The other, Happy Feet, was a rare personal review from Rod that is as close to a self-portrait as he’s ever likely to do here. Thanks, Rod, for all you’ve done for the blog, its readers, and for me personally. A better partnership I could never ask for.

************************

A quick check proves that my first piece for Ferdy on Films was posted in January 2006, barely a month after Marilyn started her blog. My, how time flies. My first post is still one of my favourites, being as it is about one of my favourite films, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. Being a film commentator, or anything, really, on the internet, has its challenges and traps. It is, in essence, the freedom to mouth off in any fashion you want, and it offers everyone else the same opportunity. Everything on the internet is both instantaneously old and yet can live on and on.

It’s perhaps a minor miracle that two people as opinionated, and of often such differing opinions, as Marilyn and I have managed to maintain a working partnership for so long, relatively free of blow-outs and blow-ups. Perhaps it’s the fact that we share a strong level of both enthusiasm and cynicism, distinctly catholic tastes (in the original sense of the word), and don’t mind a fight when it comes around. Gladly or not, we’ve both suffered a lot of fools over the years, but Marilyn’s industriousness gets things done, man! And, oh yeah, I really like reading Marilyn’s writing, when I agree with every word, and even when I disagree with her to the point when the vein on my forehead threatens to burst and my hyperactive salivary glands spew out white foam.

Marilyn has expressed amazement at my own desire to understand pop culture, where Marilyn’s fondness for little-known and diverse foreign films, which, in some of my grouchier moments I mumblingly refer to as her Oxfam approach to world cinema, is that of someone who likes to look beyond the ever-limiting prescriptions of distributors (I won’t use that now so vague and tired whipping post called “Hollywood”), studios, theaters, and mainstream critics, and look for the undiscovered and the little-appreciated, or the stuff worthy of reappreciation. The great boom in independent and international filmmaking, the huge resources of modern communication, a theoretical freedom of choice such as has never existed before, have ironically enabled the continual narrowing of alternatives by the utter cynicism of modern news and entertainment media, mercenary prerogative of corporatised culture, and a general cultural zeitgeist that’s often just fucking lazy. Such phenomena have both compressed and atomised opportunities for getting the news out on the original, the vigorous, and the interesting, not necessarily as opposed to, but surely in addition to, the colossal one-weekend monstrosities and the favoured few darlings of the fanboys.

Plus we just like yapping about movies, dammit!

One irony of this is that I often find myself having to avert my gaze from Marilyn’s commentaries on films that look interesting and will probably never turn up anywhere. I’d be lucky if I’ve seen half of the movies Marilyn has commented upon.

Still, I love that she turned me on to Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England, recognised the disguised Bette Davis movie that is Park Chen-wook’s Lady Vengeance, and so vigorously defends Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. I’ve been much amused by the difference of her opinion of Tom Collins’ Kings with my father’s—it’s a Celtic thing, he insists. I loved that she gave John Hillcoat’s The Proposition the trashing it so richly deserved, approached Ken Russell’s The Devils with such passion, and that she spares some time for some now-underrated oldies like The Nun’s Story and The Life of Emile Zola. Marilyn’s political and feminist button-pushing is always entertaining, and it hits the mark effectively, judging by some of her comments. I meditated for days on her commentary of A Question of Silence and I Spit on Your Grave, worth a dozen whining posts about mixed messages in Katherine Heigl films that passes for a lot of cultural commentary on the internet. And of course, her frontline posts from the film festivals she attends are a cornucopia of interest. I don’t go to film festivals. I can’t afford to.

If Marilyn’s a little bit more the activist, and myself more the self-styled philosopher of our blogship enterprise, well, at the very least Ferdy on Films is, I hope, a site that exhibits strong principles and considered opinion, and fulfils our mutual desire to exist on a mean between accessibility and erudition. With the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, I can’t help but see us at something of a crossroads. Perhaps that’s because we are, indeed, at a crossroads. Real life makes us acknowledge it even in the most pristinely remote corners of cyberspace. Both spirit and flesh can get a bit weak. But there’ll always be more movies to write about.


6th 12 - 2008 | 2 comments »

Our Backstreets #25: Ferdy on Roof, etc.

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December 6, 2008, high noon

Owl%20street%20sign.jpgBy Marilyn Ferdinand

When I’m not watching something on a screen, cooking, eating, or any of the other things I do in my off hours, you might find me out birding. Reports of a snowy owl had my birding buddy Eleanora ready to run out of the house last night. Owling normally is done at night, but knowing snowys are easy to spot during the day, I said, “Curb your enthusiasm.” This charming lady owl was waiting for us today when we got to a building near the corner of Sacramento Boulevard and (get this) Ferdinand Street. I’ve named her Ferdy.

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4th 12 - 2008 | 16 comments »

Our Backstreets #24: Yours Truly

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Over the past few weeks, a few of my fellow movie bloggers have revealed parts of their home movie libraries. They weren’t big show-and-tells, but they provided a glimpse at the person behind the curtain, so to speak. Now, I’ve never hidden my identity or a lot of the details about my life, but I am a bit private when it comes to my home. Not that it’s some kind of sanctum sanctorum, mind you, though the computer room/den comes very close to being a staging area for macabre rituals thanks to the hubby’s delight in collecting gargoyles, mini-guillotines, pagan altar pieces, and other bizarreiana. But I’m ready to show you just what kind of a film geek I am.

As a collector, I’m as piddling as someone who never goes to the movies. I don’t have a lot of books or DVDs. I had a lot of videos, mostly recorded off my TV; it was hard to rent or buy them at a reasonable price for quite a while, so my VCR was once my best friend. I don’t have a lot of memorabilia other than ticket stubs, because I live in a condo without a lot of storage space and I really hate the feeling of clutter. So what you’ll see here represents the items I’ve deemed worthy of taking into my home, some rather randomly, some foisted upon me by others, but mostly because I feel better knowing they are giving off energy in the place I am most relaxed and inspired.

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I have a lot more artwork than I have room to hang it, but this piece will always have a place of honor in my home. The advertising cards are all from films I’ve seen, and none of them ever made a big splash, though most film buffs will recognize them and may have seen them. The card on the right in the second row is my version of historic preservation—the 2001 line-up of films from the late, lamented Shooting Gallery; two of the cards in the frame, The Low Down and The Day I Became a Woman, are from that series. I have the most awesome framer who I’ve been going to for decades, so I’m really pleased with how this looks.

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On to the memorabilia. Above is one piece in a small collection of Rudolph Valentino items that includes a couple of vintage photos and a paper doll collection. I keep the bulk of the collection at work, but this cookie tin kept rolling off my desk, so I brought it home where the hubby has surrounded it with other vintage items from my mother and his.
Now the ticket stubs. Here’s what holds them:

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I can’t show them all to you, so I’ve selected some that have some special interest for me. The first Ebertfest had some beautiful tickets. (They got grayer and more subdued over the years.) A three-piece band from Michigan called Concrete played their own score for Battleship Potemkin. Director Paul Cox did a Q&A about his wonderful A Woman’s Tale.

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Here’s one from the Silent Summer Film Festival. Do you know that I forgot I saw Twinkletoes? Unbelievable. But going through all these ticket stubs, I saw a lot of film titles I didn’t recognize at all, including, believe it or not Bunuel’s The Milky Way, which I claimed not a week ago to never have seen and, in fact, to have avoided! However, the other two on this page, Lost in Translation (Did I really see that at the Siskel Center? How odd.) and Cloverfield, I remember well.

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Here are a few from the defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture. The significant ones for me are Vera and Whale Rider, which was unknown in the States when I saw it. It didn’t stay that way.

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Below are some different styles of Chicago International Film Festival ticket stubs. I quite like the first ones, with elegant type for the festival name over a grayscale image of the festival logo—Theda Bara’s eyes. By 2004, the stubs were the usual Ticketmaster style they are now. No character. Oh well. The stub for The Exiles is not from the CIFF; it’s sort of my way of bragging that I discovered this film a long time before the hordes of cinephiles who now, thankfully, have easy access to it.

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Finally, I’ve got a smattering of films I saw at the Siskel Center. The tickets not only tell what film was shown, but what series it was a part of; for example, Sound of the Mountain was part of an extensive Naruse retro. The Iberia ticket means a lot to me because Carlos Saura was there for the screening, where I got a chance to thank him for his unique dance films and get his autograph on a VHS tape of Carmen and a DVD of Blood Wedding.

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I like to go to films when I’m on vacation. I had a few stubs from Hawaii, but the photo didn’t come out. I wish I had the stubs from my trip to Johannesburg, where I remember seeing Center Stage and the first X-Men movie. Then again, I wish I had all the stubs over the decades. “What we’ve missed, Lucia, what we’ve missed.”

On to the DVDs. This is pretty close to all of them; a couple of photos didn’t come out. Yeah, I know: “Is that all?” Hey, I’ve got a kickass library collection and Facets to rent from. The hubby is responsible primarily for the horror films and stuff like Mondo Bubba, Dogville, and Dogma. A number of the films have Chinese characters on them; those came from my Shanghai connection.

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I was going to put up pictures of my books, but there are only about 35, and none of them is all that “important.” Nonetheless, I have a few favorites: Silent Star, Colleen Moore’s autobiography, Foster Hirsch’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, and Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.

Whew, I’m glad that’s over! It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to put this out into the world. I don’t exactly know what you’ll make of all this. Let me know. l


9th 04 - 2006 | 4 comments »

Our Backstreets #8: Watching The Birdies


By Marilyn Ferdinand

The rites of spring are upon us, when a young man’s thoughts turn to love, a housewife’s thoughts turn to wardrobe rotation and offloading junk to the Salvation Army, and a birder’s thoughts turn to LBJs and warblers. I fall into the second two categories, but since house cleaning is repetitive and of no interest to anyone besides S. C. Johnson Wax, I prefer to talk about this interest I share with millions of people all over the world that, to a nonbirder, must seem terribly square.

Square it may be, but birders can be as serious about their sport as athletes are about theirs, maybe moreso. I’ll get to the dark side of birding later. First, I will explain about birding. I mentioned LBJs. That is shorthand for “little brown jobs,” usually sparrows that escape everyone’s notice, that is, except the avid birdwatchers alongside whom I frequently stand and hope to overhear an identification. I’m not the type to study my field guides for weeks in anticipation of the biannual irruption of small feathered creaures passing from one place to another thousands of miles away. I am often stumped by the simplest of birds, say, a golden-crowned kinglet, which is among the most delightful of animals drawing breath on this planet. How is it that I can look at this tiny, far-from-shy bird flitting close enough for naked-eye identification and still have to run to my Peterson’s guide, warped and stiff from the time my mother dropped it in some bogland during a thoroughly miserable day of birding—rather, failing to bird—in the rain.

Yet I must say that after stalking the wild bird for more than 20 years, some of it seems finally to have sunk in. I can quickly spot at a distance a bird that just doesn’t look ordinary, and my best guesses of briefly glanced specimens seem to be right more often than not. For example, as I gazed out the window of the Skokie Swift train (named for the chimney swift, a lovely whiskered bird), I spied a bulbous bird with a white breast, a black cap, and naked legs perched in a tree. Clearly not a hawk, because of the legs. There was water around. Must be a black-crowned night heron. Not many novice birders would call that bird. They’d be too cautious and call it a red-tailed hawk despite the legs, or they’d pick out a rarity that, if correct, would have every birder within a four-state radius camping out looking at it or a bird that doesn’t occur in the area. I have made these errors many times, but not anymore.

I also know my habitats. Edge habitat, the place where one type of habitat collides with another, is the best place to spy migrant birds. I can just look at a crowd of bushes or a tangle of naked branches and know I’ll find something I don’t usually see. Rosehill Cemetery is one of my favorite spots because it has a wide variety of habitats all pouring over each other. The open, grassy areas where the grave markers stand are good places for thrushes, better known to most people as robins. Of course, robins aren’t the only type of thrush, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the birds you think are robins aren’t red. More often than not they’re brown-speckled hermit thrushes, who boast a lovely song characteristic of their bird family.

I like to drive along a gravel road barely wider than a path to seek out the smaller birds that prefer its scrubby edges. That’s where I spotted this season’s first yellow-crowned kinglets, not considered much of a find by seasoned birders because of their larger numbers, and the less numerous, more coveted ruby-crowned kinglet. This tiny bird doesn’t seem like a bird at all. It looks more like a new potato with startled eyes and toothpick legs. But then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the patch of red on the top its head, which often is hidden from view. Much to my delight, my ruby-crowneds didn’t seem the least bit inclined to hide their glory from me.

When I reported to another birder who had shown up what I had seen, she said, “Those are good birds.” This kind of comment really gets on my nerves. Birders tend to dismiss the ordinary birds we see every day (robins, house sparrows, rock doves [pigeons], even the magnificent Northern cardinal) and more common migrants (yellow-rumped warblers, phoebes, juncos) as “not good birds” or not “important” birds. My friend Eleanora, who is a near-expert birder, and I had a good laugh when we pursued the identification of a sparrow near the lakefront bird sanctuary while some old male birders told us we were foolish not to have gone to North Pond first to see the “important” eared grebe that had been spotted there. I’m not that kind of a birder, I admit. I enjoy bird behavior more than being able to say I’ve seen a certain bird. I get a kick out of the mating dance of the common house sparrow, the most successful bird on the planet, while still coveting a chance to see sandhill cranes flying high in a V-formation over the south suburbs. I simply enjoy being out in the wind and the sun, away from human commerce, hearing bird songs and feeling leaves and earth pressed softly under my feet.

Not all birders feel as I do. Let me tell you just how serious, how all-consuming birding can be. There is an event called a Big Year that a handful of expert birders decide they will do when conditions seem right. Birders on a Big Year travel all over the United States (there are Big Years in other countries and state Big Years, too) in an attempt to see as many species of birds as they can in a single year. This effort requires them to have spotters all over the country who will call them when a bird they haven’t listed shows up. The Big Year birder then must hop on a plane or drive for several hours, whatever it takes, to get to the bird before it flies away. Mind you, this is a competition that is self-declared, that offers no prize money, that requires each contestant to spend many thousands of dollars, lose many nights of sleep, and brave savage weather in such places as Alaska, to win. All the winner gets is bragging rights. Now THAT’s dedication.

As much as I admire the skill of the Big Year birders, I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. A Big Year is more like bean counting than anything else. Show up, see the bird, add it to the list, await the next call. Me, I’d like to say I saw a bird pick up a twig or piece of lint and know it was going to be used to build its nest. I’d tell you about the house sparrows who always build a nest on my mother’s drain pipe, and how a chick always falls out and how I always pick it up and put it back in the nest. I’d tell you that I saw not one, not two, but THREE yellow-bellied sapsuckers hopping along the side of a tree ready to peck a hole to build a nest. Yes, I really did. l

For insight into the world of competitive birding, I highly recommend The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.

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