As a caveat, I mention that this list is of the most memorable examples of cinema product seen in 2017-of course, there are many acclaimed high-profile films which have not yet had the privilege of release here in the UK (Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, The Square, BPM, Loveless) or under-the-radar films which may struggle for any significant distribution (All These Sleepless Nights, Foxtrot, Columbus) that could have very comfortably resided on the prominent end of the viewing spectrum if the chance had been available. Even without the presence of the aforementioned films, 2017 certainly was redolent with great experiences-no dearth of inspirational or stirring moments and images existed. In fact,they abounded. In alphabetical order, the first five:
A masterclass in sustained tension without once resorting to crude dramatics-instead embedding it in the very mood of the film-Sophia Coppola’s gender inversion of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 psychological thriller in which an injured Union soldier of the Civil War stumbles onto the grounds of an all-female boarding school, his presence unspooling and releasing a deep wellspring of repressed anger and sexuality, is a marvel of production design-you feel every drip of humidity, are acutely aware of each rustle of dress fabric within the hushed surroundings, each spasm of yearn and frustration from the characters uncomfortably immediate. To the film’s credit, Colin Farrell’s disruptive male energy is not demonised (outside of some ill-judged manipulative behaviour, the dynamics of which are not absent in any of the female players either), complicating the culminating actions taken by the house residents in regards to him. Instead the film becomes an even more intriguing study of an enclosed society’s inability to countenance any interloper disturbing a fragile economy of entrenched customs and rituals. Coppola keeps the frames tight and the shadows firm.
Once you get past the patently absurd high-concept plot, that a troubled alcoholic is somehow, while asleep, releasing a kaiju creature (Godzilla-like) to destructive effect in Seoul (an explanation is offered later in the film), the film’s deeper concerns emerge. After damaging her successful New York career and relationship, Gloria (a freewheeling Anne Hathaway) moves back to her hometown and takes a job as bartender at a local establishment, now run by a childhood friend , who, it steadily emerges, is even more troubled than she is, perhaps dangerously so (a creepy Jason Sudeikis, who sympathetically imbues the increasingly unsavoury Oscar with layers of desperately appalled consciousness ). Behaviour left untreated and ignored shades into concerning fissures of anger, resentment and self-loathing, constricting awareness and reason. Nacho Vigalondo has found a maverick way to study the destructive effects of self-hate, that often personal violence and mess may have far-reaching consequences. Gloria’s journey is to discover a way out of her vortex, saving both herself and the greater globe-and to rid herself of a dysfunction so majestic it metamorphosises into a cumbersome creature run amok.
In a gorgeous, sun-drenched Lombardy, Italy, 17-year-old Elio and the strapping American doctoral student who arrives to work as an intern for Elio’s professor father tease fixedly into one another’s orbit over the course of a summer, igniting a blinding flare of erotic and romantic entanglement, all-consuming and, unsurprisingly, ephemeral, leading to a heartbreak as extravagantly scaled as the passion which preceded it. As Elio, Timothee Chalamet is the film’s most precious asset, an astonishing preternatural performance in which every tremor and spasm of youth and first love is indelibly expressed in body language and gesture-Elio is at once delicate and strong, naive and wise, victim and victor. It’s clear that Elio, in his pursuit of love and passion, is leagues ahead of his partner (and parents), is capable of a bravery and dedication that far outstrips his circle. The astounding concluding held shot, of Elio tending to a fire, would tax the abilities of professional performers twice Chalamet’s age-in bruising close-up, you sense a character defining the sense of self that will carry him through the rest of his life, an individual coming of age before the eyes. A quick mention of God’s Own Country as well, a solid debut film from Francis Lee about a conflicted gay Yorkshire lad working on his infirm father’s sheep farm who begins a tentative relationship with a Romanian migrant worker who arrives to assist with seasonal tasks. Landscape very much determines character and behaviour in this realm, a degree of rigour and brusqueness ruling in a harsh, unforgiving space. What is refreshing in both film’s view of gay relationships is that the biggest impediments to the success of the involvement is not social convention but personal reticence (we are far removed from the environment defeating the leads of Brokeback Mountain). Progress: the tragic is not the inevitable outcome of gay pairings.
Director Sean Baker continues his compassionate studies of those living on the margins of American society with this examination of hardscrabble families trying their best to eke out dignified existences in housing originally built as hotels for the tourist trade to nearby Disney World (in distance about a mile away), which may as well be located on Mars as far as it has any meaning to these souls (the only good it serves is the moment the lead adult character is able to sell off a family package of resort tickets below cost to a gullible British tourist-most likely which he will be unable to claim-something which she’s been able to steal off a client). At one time these now dilapidated, slowly deteriorating spaces, with their tacky, colourful facades once promised fanciful inclusion in the Disney dream (mere fairy dust)-the exhausted, enervated adults have long abandoned any pretence; it’s only the children (especially the resourceful, forthright Moonee) , earnest and not yet calloused, who are able to envision the environment as a playground of adventure, mischief and mystery, despite all evidence to the contrary. In its treacherous final moments, when the bad (in some cases, the only) choices of her mother bring crushing, sudden consequence to both the life of her and her child, the emotional severity letting loose a nearly banshee cry, it’s excruciating to watch-the nervy and startling final shot, a rush of hallucinatory jump-cuts, in which two little girls wilfully violate the parameters of the manufactured fantasy, leavens the preceding devastation and acts as a hearty kiss-off to the forces which would extinguish them, perhaps unrealistic but absolutely fitting. The paucity of the characters’ lives are revealed in casual observations (a conversation about the relative costs of pizza toppings, sneaked meals, sharing of one ice cream cone amongst a trio, for which they have had to panhandle, Moonee sent off for a bath during her mother’s appointments with men), and Baker does not cheapen his gaze with judgement or pity. The performances are collectively searing, raw souls bared on screen-Willem Dafoe projects a profound decency as the manager of the premises, well-worn but trying his best to look after his residents. Despite the catastrophe of tragedy at every turn, the film maintains the look and feel of a fairy tale, rejuvenated constantly by the bruising propulsion of people who defiantly continue to forcefully, rudely live life even in compromised circumstances.
Single-handedly reclaiming the image of a ghost as a sheet-enshrouded figure from the oblivion and absurdity of cliche, this near-experimental meditation on grief and bereavement establishes its own universe of space and time. Casey Affleck’s deceased character, unable to quite let go of his earthly binds, haunts the fringes of his beloved’s life (Rooney Mara, stunned and brutalised by anguish) watching with impotent longing as the years advance, from her initial stages of profound sorrow to the inevitability of moving on past the pain, lost to the insistence of life. He is unable to move off the property, time expanding and compressing in regular sequence (one moment futuristic, then a sudden plummet into the 19th century), a constant presence through many seasons of upheaval, eruptive change and pain, witness to the constancy of natural process. It’s clear the most haunted character on screen is the ghost himself, unable to fathom the unfair, arbitrary conditions which brought him to this perplexed state-sadly, the sole peace to be had is perhaps when the distant loved one finally solves his or her feelings in regards to the lost partner, or perhaps when death finally claims those whose memory is the final tether on Earth. It’s metaphysical, spiritual, unique, uncompromising-the viewer must bring the self wholly to it, this quietly sustained aria of temporal melancholy.
In the next post, I’ll cover the final set of five films.