Last night was the 90th Academy Awards, which celebrated the best films of last year and rewarded THE SHAPE OF WATER with Best Picture; since this marked the unofficial end of the 2017 cinematic year, what better time to count down my favourite films from the year that was. Though I obviously haven’t seen everything I’ve wanted to (missing mostly documentaries and foreign language films, alas!) my top ten is still – in my mind – strong enough to encapsulate the year, with a healthy mix of populist blockbusters and esoteric indies: my taste in a nutshell. It wasn’t an exceptionally strong year for film, but it did improve on 2016, which only had a few standouts amongst the throng; 2017 was much deeper by comparison. This was also the year that the auteur got his groove back, with no less than five notable directors delivering career-best, or close to it, works. From nonlinear war epics to vulgar allegories, here are my top ten favourite films of 2017:
(Julius Onah, 2018, USA)
One of my favourite cinematic sub-genres is “freaky shit happens to a diverse group of astronauts in space”. ALIEN obviously set the mould and perfected it, but there’s been a 30 year-plus history of effective additions to the form. EVENT HORIZON! SUNSHINE! INTERSTELLAR! I’ll even stan for lesser examples, like PANDORUM and LOST IN SPACE. There’s just something about the combination of sci-fi ideas and horror imagery that appeals to me on a base level – I can’t fully explain it. But suffice it to say that I’ll see anything and everything that falls within this narrow classification, no matter how poor the reviews or cheap-looking the production. So when Netflix announced, via Super Bowl commercial, that they had acquired the latest CLOVERFIELD sequel/spinoff from Paramount, about a group of diverse astronauts in a space station who start to experience some seriously freaky shit, and would be making it available for streaming immediately after the game, I was sold.
(David Wain, USA, 2018)
Taking its title from a paraphrased line in John Landis’ ANIMAL HOUSE, the 1978 paradigm of frathouse films, A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE is, at its core, a comic biopic of Doug Kenney, a comedy writer who co-founded the magazine National Lampoon in 1970 and died only ten years later in an accidental fall/possible suicide off a cliff in Hawaii. In between, he helped create a media empire that expanded from an underground magazine to books, radio, television, and cinema, including the aforementioned Landis classic and the VACATION series, and discovered or promoted some of the biggest names in American comedy of the 20th century, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner. But Kenney was, above all, an anarchic and irreverent comedian, willing to do anything and everything to get a laugh, including mocking subjects previously thought off-limits and wading into the treacherous waters of dark humour; a conventional biopic of him is not exactly in the cards.
(Jaume Collet-Serra, USA/UK, 2018)
Easily described as “NON-STOP on a train”, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Irish star Liam Neeson (after UNKNOWN, RUN ALL NIGHT, and the aforementioned airplane thriller), THE COMMUTER is another Hitchcockian homage from the pair, though not in the self-aware manner of Brian De Palma. A B-movie with A-list talent, it draws from Hitch’s ridiculous 1951 film STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (as well as other locomotive-based thrillers like THE NARROW MARGIN and even MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) in its depiction of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation via the devious machinations of an unfamiliar acquaintance, in this case portrayed by a smirking Vera Farmiga. Neeson has played this type of role before (indeed, these days it seems it’s all he plays), but he’s never quite as ordinary or everyman as the script calls for: he’s always an ex-cop, or an ex-mob enforcer, or an ex-CIA agent with a particular set of skills. THE COMMUTER is no different, and it’s precisely Neeson’s superhuman abilities in a quotidian role that prevents the film from becoming a middlebrow classic in the Hitchcockian mould.
(Jordan Peele, USA, 2017)
Horror movies – especially the great ones – are all about subtext. This genre, perhaps more than any other form, heavily relies on metaphor by employing their fantastical monsters and otherworldly fears as allegories for whatever is troubling society at the time. The Xenomorph in ALIEN represents sexual violence. The Thing in THE THING symbolizes AIDS. The Brundlefly in THE FLY exemplifies the ravages of old age and, again, AIDS. Etcetera. It is thus unsurprising that Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, the debut horror feature from the sketch comic, is brimming with subtext. Only it would not be fair to call it subtext precisely, as the film operates almost entirely on the surface level, with little-to-no hidden meanings or metaphorical symbols. Concerning a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time, it is a cautionary racial tale, with the dangerous white liberals standing in for… dangerous white liberals. In GET OUT, the subtext is the text.
(Danny Boyle, UK, 2017)
Nineties nostalgia is so hot right now (just this month, new versions of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, POWER RANGERS, and GHOST IN THE SHELL hit the big screens), so it is of little surprise that 1996 cult favourite TRAINSPOTTING gets the twenty-years-later sequel treatment. Picking up two decades after heroin junkie Mark Renton (the ageless Ewan McGregor) betrayed his friends and walked away with £16,000 of drug deal money, the oddly-titled T2 TRAINSPOTTING (seemingly a slight against James Cameron) finds fellow addicts/criminals Spud (Ewen Bremner), Simon aka Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) in pretty much the same place they’ve always been – scraping by a harsh existence in the slums of Edinburgh. Returning from a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, Renton reenters his friends’ lives ostensibly to make amends, but his seeming contentedness masks a cold truth about his own life. “Choose life” was the sarcastic slogan of the original film, referring to Renton’s long-winded monologue and cynical mantra about the world, but here the real meaning of that statement is interrogated and scrutinized.
(Jordan Vogt-Roberts, USA, 2017)
When film historians look back at this cinematic era, they may discover that Marvel’s THE AVENGERS, released in May of 2012, was the most influential movie of its day and age. Representing the culmination of four years and five superhero films, its massive success reinvigorated the crossover film (up until then resigned to the dominion of creature features and slasher flicks) and spawned the now-ubiquitous cinematic universe. Indeed, hardly a week can go by in Hollywood these days without yet another press release about a franchise property being re-imagined as a multi-film-spanning narrative arc. In that spirit, Warner Bros., not wanting to fall behind the other studios – namely, Disney – and with plenty of pre-existing properties underneath their corporate umbrella, has decided to revive Japanese studio Toho’s Shôwa series begun in the 1950s, when behemoths like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan ruled the screens. Starting in 2014 with Gareth Edward’s GODZILLA reboot, the so-called MonsterVerse is alive and well, continuing with the second film, another inevitable reboot: KONG: SKULL ISLAND.
(Paul W.S. Anderson, Germany/France/Canada/Australia, 2017)
Cinematic adaptations of video games have always had a sketchy relationship with critical acclaim. From the very first film based on a game – the infamous 1993 flop SUPER MARIO BROS. – right through until this past December’s ASSASSIN’S CREED, no video game adaptation has ever scored above 50% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that every single one has been negatively received by a majority of critics. Of course, aggregate reviews are hardly a barometer of actual cinematic quality, merely a cumulation of a handful of journalists’ (sometimes ill-informed) opinions. Case in point: Paul W.S. Anderson and his RESIDENT EVIL series. This long-running franchise, based on the even-longer-running Japanese survival horror game series, has repeatedly been a whipping boy for the critical community, with none of the films scoring higher than 35% on the Tomatometer (RT jargon for their aggregate score measurer). But the movies themselves have ranged from mindlessly entertaining (the non-Anderson-directed sequels APOCALYPSE and EXTINCTION) to playfully meta-cinematic (notably AFTERLIFE and RETRIBUTION, but even the original to some extent), and certainly not deserving of scorched-earth scorn and disapproval. They may be junky, but they’re not terrible.
(M. Night Shyamalan, 2017, USA)
“I’ve been around religion a lot; I went to Catholic school for 10 years and my parents are fairly religious Hindus. I also live in a diverse area with people from all kinds of religions. Still, I’ve never been a big fan of organized religion, but I do like to talk about it because it’s important to me. So I use different subjects — ghosts, aliens, comic books — to have those conversations about faith. What do we believe about the unknown? I definitely believe in something, but it’s very tied to our own power. I don’t like what most religions, if not all of them, say, which is the thing that’s amazing and powerful is over here and you’re completely powerless. I actually feel the reverse: that each of us is super-powerful and we control a lot. My base feeling is the universe is benevolent. Even with this election!”
- Shyamalan, interview with Yahoo!
Any discussion of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film SPLIT must inevitably begin with a discussion of the director’s oeuvre, both due to the unique nature of the film (more, spoiler-y thoughts on this later) and the unique nature of the director himself. Shyamalan is still somewhat of a rarity in this cinematic day-and-age: a mainstream genre filmmaker who both writes and directs, rarely adapts others’ material, and is both consistently commercially successful (SPLIT will be his ninth in ten wide-releases to open over $25 million, and the lone holdout – LADY IN THE WATER – would cross that mark when adjusting for inflation) and intermittently critically acclaimed. His latest continues the (don’t call it a) comeback begun in 2015’s lo-fi found-footage horror THE VISIT, making two positively-reviewed films in a row after a string of five negatively-received ones. From his breakout with THE SIXTH SENSE through his nadir of THE LAST AIRBENDER to his re-emergence as a B-movie master and box office king, his career has never been less than fascinating, and now that he is peaking again, it’s just as compelling to look forward.
(Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016, France/Denmark/USA)
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has flirted with the horror genre throughout his career, but THE NEON DEMON represents his first explicit engagement with the form. Set in a largely nocturnal Los Angeles – one not so dissimilar from the ethereal City of Angels depicted in Refn’s 2011 masterpiece DRIVE – the film concerns a young woman (Elle Fanning) breaking into the cutthroat fashion modelling industry, and the alternating acceptance and resistance she encounters. As the virginal, sixteen-year-old Jesse, Fanning exudes a blankness and innocence instantly recognized as pure, natural beauty by the titans of the industry, inviting jealousy and scorn from the other, older models (played with equal parts icy aloofness and caustic sarcasm by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). Her ascension to the ranks of America’s Next Top Model is challenged, then, by the Machiavellian machinations of a pair of meaty mannequins, as ruthless as they are vapid, setting up the nightmarish drama to come.