Monday, 11 December 2017

Review of the Year: Cinema 2017: 15 Favourite Films


I was only able to cover one film festival - Transatlantyk Festival here in Łódź - in 2017, but nonetheless managed to see a pretty good range of films from all over the world throughout the year: one of the benefits of living in a cinephile's city. Hollywood mainly disappointed or disgusted (on screen and off), but elsewhere there was much to celebrate and to be inspired by. There were some great communal experiences - the shared laughter at Lost in Paris, the shared shock and awe at mother! - but, most of all, 2017's films felt like very private and interior experiences to me, making spaces for reflection that I'm truly grateful for, especially in the current climate. In no particular order, here are fifteen of my favourites of the year (plus extras, disappointments and non-favourites).




A Ciambra (dir. Jonas Carpignano)
Jonas Carpignano's debut feature Mediterranea (2015) was an intimate drama of contemporary immigration experience that combined the humanism of a Vittorio De Sica with the rough sensuality of a Claire Denis. Produced by Scorsese, A Ciambra is a superb semi-sequel that switches the spotlight to Mediterranea's precocious tearaway (Pio Amato) as he comes of age in the Romani community of Gioia Tauro and faces difficult  choices of allegiance.






Frantz (dir. François Ozon)
L’amant double (dir. François Ozon) 
I'd started to give up on Ozon after several lacklustre efforts  (Young and Beautiful and The New Girlfriend, ugh).  But Frantz and L’amant double constituted a terrific return to form that neatly encapsulated the two sides of the director’s sensibility: elegant, earnest classicism, on the one hand, and trashy, sexy cheek, on the other. The films were linked by twisty, but brilliantly lucid, cinematic story-telling, fine performances, and freshly subversive takes on that habitual Ozon theme: the possibility (or otherwise) of substitution and replacement. 





Lost in Paris (dir. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel)
The only film I saw this year that made me weep with laughter, this joyous comedy of City of Lights misadventures serves up some blissful Tatiesque slapstick as it brings together a meek (yet increasingly intrepid) Canadian librarian and a cheerful vagabond in the search for an errant Aunt. With Emmanuelle Riva belatedly proving herself a comedy virtuosa in one of her last screen roles.   




God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)
Francis Lee makes a beautiful debut film here, charting the love affair between an unhappy young Yorkshireman (Josh O’Connor) and the watchful Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) who’s hired to help out on the former’s farm. The pair’s progression from hostility to tenderness is poignantly and perceptively charted, creating a love story of contrasting  personalities to rival Weekend (2011) as well as another fine entry into the growing canon of contemporary British rural dramas. O'Connor and Secareanu are terrific, and there's subtly amazing supporting work from Gemma Jones and Ian Hart; in fact, I'd put this in a double-bill with Tom Browne's Radiator (2014), another great Jones-starrer, that's also among the best British films of the last few years. 


Related image

A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
Rooney Mara is a vacuum, Casey Affleck’s more expressive with the sheet over his head than without it, and the whole thing starts out like an arch hipster take on Truly Madly Deeply. Yet A Ghost Story reveals grander, weirder designs as it progresses, and I gradually found myself captivated and  deeply moved by the odd rhythms and juxtapositions of this singular odyssey through time and space.




Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)
“The whole of life, already framed, right there.” A superb performance from Sally Hawkins is the centrepiece of Walsh’s lovely, low-key biopic of the Canadian “primitive” artist Maud Lewis. As much as a portrait of the artist, the film is a portrait of a relationship, and one that doesn’t shy away from difficult, complicated emotions. To that end, Hawkins is ably supported by Ethan Hawke as the uncommunicative grump of a spouse whose worldview (not to mention windows and walls) is gradually changed by his wife’s spontaneous artistry.



mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
“Baby…?” From domestic unease to full-scale apocalyptic vision, Darren Aronofsky’s latest was by turns chilling, ludicrous and powerful: a delicious slow-burn turned orgy of excess that has a lot on its mind - including creativity, the insanity of celeb culture, spatial transgression and gender roles - as it reveals the allegorical implications at the heart of the house. Richard Brody puts it best in his fine review.




Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosefeldt)
Strange Little Girls Goes to the Movies, as Cate Blanchett slips into thirteen personas to deliver a range of manifestos in settings that are occasionally complementary but mostly delightfully incongruous.  Dada ignites a fierce graveside eulogy while Claes Oldenburg’s “I am for an art…”  provides the basis for  a conservative family’s prayer; in the final section, the focus turns, beautifully, to film, as a teacher offers a lesson that veers from Brakhage to Dogme. What sounds like an exercise in pretension proves to be a surprisingly funny, enjoyable, humane and dramatic as well as a challenging experience, with  Blanchett using the mannerism that’s come to define some of her screen performances to best effect (and with a dose or two of self-parody), as she creates some indelible presences.  “I am for an art…” well, rather like this one, as it turns out.  



                                        Image result for verano  1993 image

Summer 1993 (dir. Carla Simón)
A beautiful Catalonian film that captures the contours of a grief that’s barely been comprehended, let alone assimilated, Simón's movie charts the struggles of  the orphaned Frida (Laia Artigas) to settle into living with her Aunt and Uncle following her mother’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia. Alert to the rhythms of childish play and the casual cruelty that can underpin it, Simón has made a deeply personal film based on her own experience, but one that never feels self-indulgent or that locks the viewer out. The handling of the child actors is beyond praise, with Artigas and Paula Robles (as her little cousin Anna) creating a girlhood double act to rival those in Carlos Sauras Cria Cuervos (1975), Victor Erices The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (a clear intertext for the film), and Dorota Kędzierzawska’s  Crows (1994).


Image result for chavela film
Chavela (dir. Gund and Kyi)
Working against the popular doomed-female-artist mode of Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) and Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? (2017), Gund and Kyi’s doc Chavela is a triumphant rejoinder that, without sanctifying its subject, offers  a loving tribute to the iconic singer who shook up Mexican music with her extraordinary voice and challenging persona. In a film that elegantly combines interviews with footage of the singer’s intense performances, Pedro Almodóvar puts it best, as he describes seeing Vargas perform live: “She was like a priestess: she saw that you’d made mistakes in love, and she saw your deep torments. You felt that shed absolved you of your sins - and then encouraged you to commit them again.”


Image result for my happy family film



My Happy Family (dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross) 
A 50-something teacher leaves her troublesome family and moves into a modest Tbilisi apartment by herself. That action yields funny, painful and surprising results in Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross's perfectly picthed drama, which deals with the always-challenging negotiation between our own desires and the demands or expectations of others. 



Image result for a quiet passion


A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)
Not without some awkwardness - the Wildean pastiche of the opening scenes is a little much  - Davies’s portrait of Emily Dickinson deepens as it progresses, creating a film that ends up as strange and single-minded as its subject. And after her amazing work as the dying matriarch in Josh Mond's  James White, here's another transcendent performance from Cynthia Nixon. 


Image result for insyriated film

Insyriated (dir. Philippe Van Leeuw)
From A Ghost Story to A Quiet Passion, mother! to Maudie, expressive use of domestic space  distinguished many 2017 films that I liked, none more so than Philipe van Leeuw’s distilled and intense drama that documented 24 hours in the life of a Syrian family (and neighbours) holed up in their home during a siege in Damascus.  


                                           Image result for little men film image


Little Men (dir. Ira Sachs)
Though  a 2016 release, I can’t not include Ira Sachs’s superb drama, which I was  able to see for the first time this year, and which was among the films that affected me most profoundly. Shot in the same bright, airy, welcoming style as Love is Strange, to which it forms a clear companion piece, this portrait of a teen friendship tested by real estate market forces was quiet, observant and compassionate towards all its characters. (Imagine if Ken Loach had taken on similar material...)   


Image result for pokot images agnieszka holland



BonusPokot (Holland), The Bekscinkis: A Sound and Picture Album (Borchardt), Centaur (Kubat), The Sense of an Ending (Batra), Paris Can Wait (Coppola), The Eagle Huntress (Bell), Tehran Taboo (Soozandeh), It Comes at Night (Shults), The Lost City of Z (Gray), Heal the Living (Quillevere), La Familia (Rondón Córdova), Wonder Wheel (Allen), Their Finest (Scherfig), Lady Macbeth (Oldroyd), Waiting for B. (Toledo/Spindel).

Favourite DVD Reissues: Daughters of the Dust (Dash), Life is Sweet (Leigh).

Disappointed: The Square (Östlund), Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino), The Florida Project (Baker), The Party (Potter), I Am Not Your NegroGet Out (Peele) (On the latter, God bless you, Armond White). 

Worst:  Wind River (Sheridan), Let the Sunshine In (Denis), Song to Song (Malick), Return to Montauk (Schlondorff), Aurore (Blandine Lenoir).

Still Unseen: DunkirkHuman FlowLady Bird, Faces Places, Phantom Thread. 


5 comments:

  1. Interesting international mix. A Quiet Passion was well done, a film with enough substance that I could rewatch once I've read the poems. Every time I see Nixon I'm reminded of Sex and The City though, nothing against her, just think it was distracting.

    Frantz was believable and well-acted. To me, makes an important, but somewhat heavy-handed case for post-war reconciliation between nations.

    A strong year for horror mysteries I must say with Killing of A Sacred Deer topping mine, and Mother! and Thelma among my favorites too. Noticed you didn't care for Get Out, I'll go read ARMOND WHITE's article. Yet to watch A Ghost Story.

    Lost in Paris looks sweet based on what you wrote and the trailer I just watched.

    What did you dislike about The Square?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked a few sequences in THE SQUARE, but in the end it didn't hang together for me. It accentuated some of the small problems I had with FORCE MAJUERE - mannered tone; those blank-faced daughters - and, while some interesting themes were broached, I was irritated by it well before the end.

      I still need to catch THELMA. LOST IN PARIS is great fun. Armond White goes pretty far on GET OUT but I share a lot of his reservations about it. Looking forward to your list.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for your insightful overviews as always, Alex…a terrific year-end list! I'm with you on A Ghost Story, God's Own Country, and mother! (as well as Call Me by Your Name and Song to Song, at the other end of the spectrum). I'll also look forward to seeing Ozon's L'amant double (and Guaraudie's Staying Vertical) whenever they make it out my way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jason! As often, we're pretty like-minded, especially regarding the bizarrely overrated CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. I notice that SONG TO SONG is turning up on quite a few 'Best of the Year' lists as well... Looking forward to seeing your list soon - and comparing notes in person, of course!

      Delete
  3. Thought Wind River was excellent.

    ReplyDelete