30 December 2017

My Top 5 Movies of 2017

The flip side of all the travel I've been doing this year is that I've had only limited time (and money) to spend on movies. Some of long-haul flights I took did allow me to catch up on films that I wanted to see at the cinema this year, but I only managed 18 cinema visits, and saw a further 18 films (some of which were re-watches) at home or on planes or buses. I did my best to see as many of this year's major releases as I could and also caught a few indie films, especially when prompted my free (preview screening) or cheap (Peckhamplex) tickets. Next year, I'm going to try to do better.

1. Moonlight. I went to see Barry Jenkins' remarkable film — which chronicles in a clever triptych structure the youth of a gay, African-American male growing up in the projects in Miami — at New York's iconic Angelika Film Center not quite knowing what to expect. Or, rather, I thought I knew exactly what to expect, but Jenkins confounded my expectations with its beautiful, melancholy and utterly moving coming-of-age tale. The performances are powerful, the three distinct sections fit together perfectly and this genre-defying film stayed with me for days. By turns heart-breaking, uplifting, intimate and all-encompassing, Moonlight gripped me throughout its 1h50 running time and left me wanting to spend more time with the central character in Jenkins' harsh but sensual world.

2. Dunkirk. Like Moonlight, Christoper Nolan's Dunkirk is also a story in three parts, but this time they are intricately interwoven and — because this is Nolan — they also take place over different timescales that range from one hour to one week. The central story is the odds-defying evacuation of trapped Allied soldiers during the titular World War II battle. Owing in part to the fact that World War II was covered in neither my GCSE history nor A-level (early-modern) history syllabuses, it wasn't a story I knew much about before watching the film, but I think that made Nolan's storytelling even more dramatic. There are some fantastic performances, including from RAF pilot Tom Hardy's sole visible eye, shellshocked soldier Cillian Murphy and especially Mark Rylance who, as usual, steals every scene in the most understated of ways as the skipper of one of the hundreds of civilian boats that were crucial in the rescue operation. Visually stunning and with a haunting score from Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk was rather overwhelming and definitely the kind of film you should watch on as big a screen as possible (I saw it at the Gloucester Cinema in Massachusetts, a rather low-tech venue where I also happened to see Jurassic Park, some 24 years earlier).

3. Call Me By Your Name. I had hoped to watch Luca Guadagnino's Italy-based coming-of-age story at the London Film Festival, partly because I was so impressed with Armie Hammer's performances in the two films I saw him in during last year's festival, Free Fire and Nocturnal Animals but I couldn't get a ticket. Instead, I finally caught up last week at a packed screening at the Peckhamplex. In the film, 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is spending another summer with his academic parents at their villa in a small northern Italian town. Each summer, Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a graduate student at the villa as a research assistant and this year, it is the turn of tall, handsome, confident Oliver (Hammer). Over the course of the summer, the friendship between Elio and Oliver grows, as does Elio's own confidence and sense of self, gently encouraged by his cultured, liberal parents. Call Me By Your Name is beautifully shot and perfectly captures those lazy dog day afternoons of the southern European summer. It's a slow-burner, for sure, but builds up momentum without you noticing, and by the time it reached its crushing conclusion, I was completely captivated. Both Hammer and Chalamet were very good, and there's a certain monologue during the final act that Stuhlbarg nails.

4. The Death of Stalin. Armando Iannucci's darkest of dark comedies, The Death of Stalin, was just what the world needed in 2017. The film offers a depiction of Stalin's final days and the chaotic aftermath of his death, as his advisors circle, posture, plot and betray. It is a funny film, and there is a cracking script that crackles with energy, as well as some top-notch performances (Isaacs and Buscemi were particularly good) from the ensemble cast, most of whom seem have impeccable comic timing. Of course, many of the laughs are more nervous chuckles at the absurdity of what is happening, and at times, you do wonder whether it's even appropriate for you to be laughing (which is precisely the point Iannucci is trying to make, I'm sure).

5. The Handmaiden. Not to be confused with The Handmaid's Tale, Chan-Wook Park's film The Handmaiden is based on a novel by Sarah Waters called Fingersmith, although I only found this out after watching the film. Park's most famous film Oldboy is an all-time favourite of mine and I also enjoyed his English-language film Stoker. Based on these past experiences, I was expecting The Handmaiden to be both twisty and violent and it certainly delivered. It's hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling the film, but it centres around two young women in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea. One woman is a wealthy heiress, who is kept in isolation by her uncle on her large estate. The other is hired as her handmaiden, but has other intentions and plans for the heiress too. At almost 2h30 long, The Handmaiden kept me gripped throughout with its clever, unexpected volte-faces, leaving the viewer in a constant state of uncertainty about whom to trust and with whom to sympathise. Park is a master storyteller and this film is well worth seeking out.

NB: I did later read Waters' novel, but enjoyed it somewhat less than the film — perhaps because I knew what was coming.

The complete list of films I watched this year is as follows (re-watches are in italics:

- Silence
- Children of Men (home)
- Sing Street (home)
- Hidden Figures
- Boys Don't Cry (TV)
- Lion
- Hacksaw Ridge
- State of Play (home)
- Jackie
- Hell or Highwater (plane)
- Florence Foster Jenkins (plane)
- Moonlight
- Elle
- Personal Shopper
- Fargo (home)
- The Handmaiden
- My Cousin Rachel
- Olympus Has Fallen (home)
- To the Bone (home)
- Inception (home)
- Loving (plane)
- Fences (plane)
- Dunkirk
- The Circle (home)
- A Ghost Story
- Mother!
- Breathe
- Battle of the Sexes
- Blade Runner 2049
- Baby Driver (plane)
- Hunt for the Wilder People (bus)
- Logan (plane)
- Bad Moms (plane)
- The Big Sick (plane)
- The Death of Stalin
- Call Me By Your Name

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