Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Films of 2017

The countdown has already begun on Twitter

25 - Ismael's Ghosts (Arnaud Desplechin)
Ismael’s Ghosts is wild, unpredictable, overstuffed and maddeningly inconsistent. I adored it. Nobody makes sprawling, messy films like Arnaud Desplechin and his latest freewheeling adventure had me utterly enraptured. Mathieu Amalric, of course, stars as the dishevelled, neurotic filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (the name marks this as a spiritual sequel to Kings and Queen) whose life is thrown into turmoil by the reappearance of his ex-wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who disappeared twenty years ago and has long been presumed dead. That storyline is just one of the balls that Desplechin is keeping in the air, though, and he’s prone to abruptly switching focus to a subplot involving Ismael’s brother (Louis Garrel), also the protagonist in the spy thriller that Ismael is writing, or Carlotta’s attempts to reconnect with her past life. Desplechin doesn’t draw any clear distinctions between past and present, fantasy and reality, and it often feels like he’s simply discovering the film as he makes it; every new scene is a bold leap into unchartered territory. I saw the director’s cut and I can’t really imagine this film being any shorter – it already feels packed to bursting point as it is – but to be honest, I’d have been willing to spend even longer in the Arnaud Cinematic Universe.

24 - Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
There’s a fair chance I would have loved Lucky under any circumstances, but the passing of Harry Dean Stanton just a couple of weeks before I saw the film is inseparable from my reaction to it. The taciturn, ornery, cigarette-smoking and coffee-drinking Lucky couldn’t have been played by any other actor, and the fact that the film is about an old man confronting his mortality makes the confluence of actor and role deeply moving. But it would be wrong to assume that I’m overrating this film for sentimental reasons. Making his directorial debut, the great character actor John Carroll Lynch tells this story with a simple elegance, allowing the pace of the movie to fall in step with Lucky himself, and the script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja is full of humour, poetry and sadness. But above all else, this film stands as a tribute to character actors in general. Aside from Stanton, there are appearances from Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr. and Barry Shabaka Henley, among others, and David Lynch pops up for a couple of priceless scenes. Watching these two old friends sitting side-by-side, discussing a troublesome tortoise, is one of 2017’s most indelible and touching images.

23 - Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
There have been plenty of tiresomely snarky comments directed at Christopher Nolan over the past six months for his request that people seeing his film in the best possible format, but there’s no doubt in my mind that watching Dunkirk on a beautiful 70mm print was one of the cinema experiences of the year. The stunning scope and clarity of Hoyte van Hoytema’s images continually took my breath away, particularly in the sensational aerial sequences, as we watched two planes do battle against the dizzying and beautiful backdrop of an endless sea and sky. Nolan’s decision to explore his subject from the perspectives of land, sea and air makes sense, although the choice to have these three narratives running simultaneously and on different timelines occasionally feels too fussy. Nevertheless, each of the individual strands of the film contains a number of compelling mini-dramas, and they come together beautifully in the final third. Dunkirk is immersive, thrilling and finally quite moving, and it’s an astounding feat of practical filmmaking that, yes, deserves to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.

22 - Ma Loute (Bruno Dumont)
Bruno Dumont’s mid-career swerve into comedy continues to be one of the most surprising and delightful directorial changes of pace in cinema history. His new tale of slapstick and cannibalism Ma Loute is even more absurd than his hilarious 2014 miniseries P'tit Quinquin, with Dumont employing an unusually starry cast (Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and then pushing them to give the most cartoonishly over-the-top turns they can muster. But these unexpected casting choices serve a purpose, drawing a clear distinction between the upper-class characters and the lower-class ones, who are all played by his usual motley crew of first-time actors. Does any director cast more interesting faces than Bruno Dumont? The standout here is the corpulent Didier Després, who forms a great Laurel & Hardy-esque partnership with Cyril Rigaux as the detectives investigating a series of disappearances, and whose frequent tumbles down the sand dunes never stop being funny. The relentless eccentricity of Ma Loute can be exhausting, and the abrupt switches of tone – from knockabout laughs to bloody violence – don’t always come off, but I’m happy for Bruno Dumont to keep making ‘em laugh for many years to come.

21 - Jawbone (Thomas Q. Napper)
This was perhaps the surprise of the year. I’ll admit that I went into this screening with low expectations – haven’t we all seen enough boxing movies about unlikely comebacks? – but Jawbone won me over with its honesty and sincerity. It also succeeds because it’s not primarily a boxing movie. This is a film about addiction, with Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) facing a bigger battle with his demons outside the ring than any he could face inside it. Harris drew on his own experiences of battling alcoholism and living on the streets for his first screenplay, and the whole film possesses the unmistakable authenticity of the lived experience.  An actor who has always been so good at suggesting the vulnerability that lies under a tough veneer, Harris is very affecting as the ex-youth champion boxer who has thrown his life away and is desperate for a chance to turn it around, and his work is complemented by the heartfelt performances from Michael Smiley and Ray Winstone as the two mentors helping him get back on track. Jawbone is tough, tight and extremely powerful. Released without much fanfare at the start of 2017, it might just be the best British film of the year.

20 - You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
What a difference great artists make. It’s easy to imagine You Were Never Really Here being just another thriller in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. The elements are all so familiar: a troubled ex-soldier now working as a vigilante-for-hire who gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to rescue a kidnapped girl. What distinguishes the film, and elevates it into something unforgettable, is the contribution of three unique talents. As the hammer-wielding protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix gives a commanding lead performance – tough yet wounded, mostly silent but incredibly expressive – while Jonny Greenwood’s electrifying score ratchets up the tension. Above all else, though, the film is graced by the brilliance of Lynne Ramsay, who finds audacious and surprising ways to shoot every single scene, continually confounding our expectations. It’s a welcome return from one of our boldest and most distinctive filmmakers, six years after We Need to Talk About Kevin and after the fiasco of Jane Got a Gun (a prime example of what happens when a real director is swapped for a hack). You Were Never Really Here feels pared down to the bone, a film that doesn’t waste a moment as it unfolds through impressionistic images and piercing flashes of violence, which almost all happen off screen or are hidden in Joe Bini’s scalpel-sharp editing. It’s an astonishingly beautiful and brutal picture.

19 - BPM (Robin Campillo)
The political and the personal are one and the same in Robin Campillo’s BPM (or 120 Beats Per Minute). His ambitious and passionate new film follows a group of ACT UP activists in the early 1990s as they protest the French government’s handling of the AIDS crisis, and while the film can sometimes feel unwieldy and wayward, it’s compelling because it expresses the urgency of what it means to fight for a cause when your life is literally on the line; the central characters in the film are in their 20s or, in one case, a teenager, and they already know they don't have much time left to make a difference. As in The Class, which Campillo co-wrote with director Laurent Cantet, the film is energised by the debates between these young activists, as they argue over the best way to make their mark and the right language to communicate their message. BPM is also a deeply involving love story, with the relationship between HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his HIV negative partner Nathan (Arnaud Valois) giving the film a strong emotional through line. I was bowled over by Biscayart’s performance. His Sean is so alive and charismatic, and it’s heartbreaking to see that vitality drain out of him as he loses the battle against his disease.

18 - Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)
No other film has come closer to capturing the unimaginable scale of the current refugee crisis than Human Flow. The frequent drone shots of refugee camps are harrowing and overwhelming (has anyone utilised drones as skilfully as Ai Weiwei does here?), but crucially, the director also takes us to ground level, into the camps, and alongside the refugees as they trudge for miles in the hope of finding shelter. The film may not tell us anything we didn’t know before in terms of the incredible number of people who have fled their homes and are currently seeking refuge somewhere in the world, but seeing it on this scale and gaining an intimate understanding of their plight is valuable. The film is a reminder that these are just ordinary people, who didn’t ask for any part in the conflict that has torn their homelands apart, and who just desire same basic necessities and comforts as any one of us. Human Flow is full of resonant details, but the most devastating moments are related to the countless children we see, many of whom have been born in camps and will live their whole lives there, with no access to education and no hope to change their futures. The film is a record of a catastrophic failure of humanity.

17 - Let the Sun Shine In (Claire Denis)
How has it taken this long for Juliette Binoche and Claire Denis to make a movie together? Their first collaboration is more wonderful than we dared dream. Let the Sun Shine In is a gorgeous, sensual, intimate comic drama about a woman and a series of men, all looking for love – or sex, or just some kind of connection – and all somehow missing the mark. It’s wry and intelligent in its examination of what people seek in relationships, and as ever, Denis’ great cinematographer Agnès Godard finds the perfect visual language to explore the material at hand. I loved the way the camera seemed to glide between characters as they conversed, and I loved the way she shot Binoche – she has rarely looked this radiant on screen. A more accurate translation of the French title would be something like A Beautiful Inner Sun, and that is as good a description of Binoche’s presence here as anything I can come up with. We should all be thankful that Binoche and Denis are working on another movie together right now, but it will have to be something special to top this.

16 - The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
Sean Baker makes films about marginalised characters and communities in a way that places us in their world, allowing us to see things from their point-of-view. Much praise has rightly been heaped on stars Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite and Willem Dafoe for their performances here, but the unsung hero of the film has to be cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The Florida Project is full of great wide shots that accentuate the strange beauty of this colourful but shabby location, but I love the way Zabe’s camera adopts the perspective of the kids and moves with them; it’s so exciting to see a film that is completely attuned to its characters and the world they live in. This is a film about childhood innocence, imagination and resilience, and Baker (along with his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch) brilliantly reveals the darkness and danger of the poverty-stricken surroundings that Moonee and her friends are oblivious to bit by bit. It builds to an ending that didn’t quite land for me when I first saw the film, but the more I think about this desperate final break for freedom, the more I’m touched by it.

15 - Get Out (Jordan Peele)
An original low-budget film from a first-time filmmaker that became the phenomenon of the year – and deservedly so. We knew Jordan Peele was a savvy satirist from his TV work, but who could have guessed that he would prove to be such a master of form and tone? He has delivered a film that succeeds on multiple levels – it’s simultaneously a riveting genre piece and a complex commentary on contemporary race relations in America – and many of its inventive, off-kilter images have lodged themselves in my memory. Huge credit is due to the cast, particularly Daniel Kaluuya, whose understated, reactive performance is absolutely crucial to the film’s power, and Lil Rel Howery, who contributes welcome comic relief and has an appearance late in the film that had people at my screening cheering and punching the air. In fact, seeing this at a sold-out screening on opening night was one of my most memorable cinema experiences of the year. Everyone went nuts for it, laughing and then gasping as Jordan Peele’s beautifully constructed film toyed with the audience’s expectations, emotions, convictions and fears.

14 - Faces Places (Agnès Varda, JR.)
In an interview before she received her Honorary Oscar this year, Agnès Varda suggested that the Academy’s thought process was “That old lady has been working so continuously for cinema, at some point we should recognize that she worked.” It’s true that lifetime achievement awards are often given to people who have been around for a long time and whose best days are behind them, but Faces Places shows that Varda is as imaginative, passionate and curious about the world as ever. Teaming up permanently sunglasses-clad artist JR. – over fifty years her junior, but driven by the same playful spirit – Varda travels around France, meeting people and taking large-scale photographs of them, and then pasting the images unto walls, shipping containers, trains, etc. It’s a whimsical adventure but it’s also a film concerned with the transience of life and art, the ravages of age, and the inevitability of death. If this is to be Agnès Varda’s final film, as seems likely, then it’s hard to imagine a more perfect way for her to bring her career to a close.

13 - Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa)
Austerlitz contains a number of images that truly startled me: tourists milling around, casually taking pictures, chatting, eating their lunch as they gaze at their surroundings. What makes these mundane activities so arresting is the fact that we are at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen death camps, watching as visitors from around the world explore the sites where countless people were murdered just over 70 years ago. Sergei Loznitsa’s fixed camera observes these activities from a distance, but his gaze is objective and inquisitive rather than condemning. It invites us to ask, what is the appropriate way to behave at these locations? What are we looking for when we visit them? How should we present  monuments of death from the past to younger generations? Is the very idea of concentration camp tourism an affront or is it vital to keep these places alive? The static frame contains a constantly moving flow of people, and every time someone caught my eye it prompted a multitude of ideas and questions. What are those people thinking as they smilingly pose for a family snapshot under the "Arbeit macht frei" sign? Do they know its meaning? Does this action diminish the value of them visiting the site? In its formal approach, Austerlitz is one of the simplest films I’ve seen all year, but ten months after seeing it I’m still wrestling with its implications.

12 - Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
It’s so good to see a new Lucrecia Martel movie. Actually, it’s so good to hear a new Lucrecia Martel movie. As always, the soundscape, and what we hear off camera, is as integral to her vision as what we see in the frame. Every scene in Zama immerses us in the time and place that the film’s protagonist, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is desperate to escape from. Martel begins her film by showing us Zama standing upright on the shore, resplendent in his uniform, looking every inch the triumphant colonist, and then we watch as he is undermined, humiliated and diminished in a variety of ways over the next two hours. Whether it is through his increasingly pitiful interactions with the opposite sex or his inability to overcome the infernal bureaucracy that keeps him in his place, Zama just can’t catch a break, and the much of the film is both extremely funny and utterly despairing. The precision and mastery of Martel’s filmmaking is something to behold; every shot is brilliantly composed and the editing establishes a rhythm that I found completely entrancing. 

11 - A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
The classic image of a ghost – a person draped in a sheet, with holes cut out for its eyes – is one we usually see as inherently comical or childish, so it was certainly a risk for David Lowery to place such a figure at the centre of his tale of love and loss. A Ghost Story could easily have been ridiculous, but instead Lowery produced something beautiful, sad and refreshingly original; a film about grief told from the deceased's point-of-view. The imaginative framing and elliptical storytelling grabbed me from the start, and I loved the way Lowery kept taking risks throughout. Every time I thought I had figured out where A Ghost Story was going or what it was driving at, the film took another audacious leap forward, at one point leaping through time and space in a way that I found exhilarating and profound. It's a film that asks the viewer to meet it halfway, to project our own emotions and ideas onto the blank visage of the ghost, and to take this strange journey with it. Those who do so may find the experience to be incredibly stimulating and satisfying. I'll try to avoid saying I'm haunted by this film, but it won't easily leave my thoughts.

10 - Good Time (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)
The Safdie brothers' Good Time is a chronicle of bad decisions. Its central character Connie – played by a sensational Robert Pattinson – is the kind of guy who's capable of thinking on his feet enough to keep himself a few steps ahead of trouble, but not smart enough to consider the consequences of his actions. After a heist and a bungled escape lands his brother in jail, Connie begins an intense and nerve-shredding nocturnal odyssey in an attempt to get him out. Good Time is an electrifying, hallucinatory film that drags us along, helpless, as the plot zigs and zags in unexpected ways. The Safdies are in complete control of their relentless narrative, which is peppered with unforgettable moments. A mid-film case of mistaken identity is shocking and hilarious; a flashback narrated by Buddy Duress is inspired; a late sequence in an almost-empty theme park has a surreal, nightmarish quality. Sean Price Williams' vivid, lurid cinematography gives us a distinctive vision of New York, while the propulsive score by Oneohtrix Point Never ensures our anxiety levels never drop. This is the kind of film that people will look back at in years to come, marvelling that it wasn't one of the year's breakout hits.

9 - Western (Valeska Grisebach)
Western brilliantly captures the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land, of yearning for a place that feels like home. Valeska Grisebach’s film follows a group of construction workers on a project in rural Bulgaria, and she follows one man in particular, who is played by the striking first-time actor Meinhard Neumann. He has a wonderful face, grizzled and expressive, and Grisebach uses faces and body language throughout her film to fill in the gaps created by the language barrier between her characters. The scenes in which Meinhard – more open and inquisitive than his leery and macho colleagues – awkwardly attempts to communicate with the locals, gradually earning a level of trust and friendship, are fascinating and touching. Grisebach’s filmmaking is so perceptive in the way she picks up on tiny but resonant details of human behaviour, and the misunderstandings that can rapidly escalate into full-blown conflict. Western sometimes reminded me of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail; both films are rich studies of men at work in a foreign land, with the female director’s eye casting male arrogance and weakness into sharp focus.

8 - The Work (Jairus McLeary)
The Work is the kind of film that's so raw and intimate you almost feel like an intruder just watching it. A fly-on-the-wall account of a four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison, where a handful of civilians are invited to join the inmates to work through their issues together, the film offers up some of the most viscerally emotional encounters I've witnessed in years. When one inmate cries for the first time in years early in the film, encouraged by a fellow prisoner to let out the emotions he's bottled up, his whole body convulses as he sobs. When one inmate talks about his suicidal feelings another embraces him and all we can hear are their hearts beating into their microphones. There is so much rage in this room – at times the men need to be physically restrained – but there is also empathy, patience, and a desire to understand and change. The Work is a stunning film about how poisonous masculinity can be, and how men internalise their insecurity, fear and anger to the point where it can destroy them. It's the most emotionally wrenching film I've seen all year and I found it exhausting to watch, but I'd also describe it as essential viewing.

7 - Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick seems to lose admirers with every new film he releases, but my admiration has only grown for this remarkable artist, who has continued to evolve, to experiment, and to search for new ways to tell his stories. Song to Song feels like the culmination of a trilogy that Malick began with To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. They are films about the beginnings and endings of relationships, truth and deception, paradise found and lost. The narrative is fragmented and scattered; moments and images swirl around us as the four central characters come together and fall apart. By this stage you're either with Malick or you're not, but I feel that everything he has been working through in his previous two features comes off here in a film that  for all of its disorienting curlicues  feels more narratively accessible and emotionally satisfying, striking an effective balance between the exhilarating rush of Emmanuel Lubezki's lurching camera and the quieter moments, such as a beautiful and touching cameo from Patti Smith. Taken together, the three films that Malick has created over the past five years feel like a considerable achievement, and it's shameful that so many cinephiles feel comfortable dismissing him so glibly.

6 - Song of Granite (Pat Collins)
On its surface, Song of Granite is a portrait of the traditional Irish folk singer Joe Heaney, but really it's a film about so much more than that. Pat Collins doesn't attempt to fill in the gaps in Heaney's enigmatic life, and instead he uses him as a vehicle to explore singing itself, as well as the themes of history, language and culture that he has investigated in his previous work. In many ways, this feels like a companion piece to his 2012 film Silence, but it's so much more ambitious, unfolding in three acts, each one filmed in different style by the superb cinematographer Richard Kendrick, as we get glimpses of Heaney's life in childhood, adulthood and old age. Collins doesn't give us any context or assistance as he navigates these periods, and he makes the bold decision to not subtitle any of the Irish-language songs in the film, a move that works brilliantly. Instead of following the lyrics, Song of Granite asks us to really listen to each performance, to feel it, to follow the emotional arc of the song and to hear the specific tones introduced by the singer, and the results can be incredibly rewarding.

5 - Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
In this crazy world it's good to have someone you can rely on. Fred Wiseman never lets me down. His new film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is as engrossing, illuminating and fluidly constructed as I have come to expect from his films. Wiseman's career can be compartmentalised into rough phases, and his recent run of films – At Berkeley, National Gallery, In Jackson Heights – has been largely focused on matters of education, culture and community, all of which lies at the heart of Ex Libris. What's perhaps surprising about the film is the lack of focus on books. Instead, we see how the library acts as a community hub, in many ways a lifeline, for people of all ages and backgrounds. Wiseman's typically unadorned, observational approach takes us from one branch to the next, touching on an astonishing breadth of activities and ideas, and the cumulative effect of the film is incredibly affecting. Ex Libris is a documentary about people doing their best to help others, to enlighten them, to share knowledge with them, and in the current climate the existence of this film feels more vital than ever.

4 - Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
I can't think of any characters from a film this year that I enjoyed just hanging out with more than those in Princess Cyd. Stephen Cone's small but beautiful new work is about a middle-aged novelist spending a few weeks of a Chicago summer with her teenage niece, whom she hasn't seen in nine years. Over the course of a breezy ninety minutes we simply watch them tentatively getting to know each other, both learning something about each other and themselves in the process. There are no major dramas, and when a conflict does seem imminent, Cone defuses it in a most unexpected way with a beautifully written speech about how we all find our own happiness and satisfaction, which Rebecca Spence delivers impeccably. Spence and Jessie Pinnick are a joy to watch – two actors working in perfect harmony – and Zoe White's cinematography has a casual splendour, capturing the feeling of a lazy summer afternoon. At times the film put me in mind of Eric Rohmer and at others it recalled Jonathan Demme. This has been a very strong year for American independent filmmaking, but I've seen little to match the generosity, warmth, wisdom and grace of Princess Cyd.

3 - Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I never know what to expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson film these days, although in another way I do know exactly what to expect. I know I'm going to see a film that's beautifully crafted, full of surprises, absorbing, evasive and liable to dominate my thoughts for weeks afterwards. Phantom Thread is an exploration of a toxic and perversely co-dependent relationship, with the retiring Daniel Day-Lewis giving what feels like a nakedly personal performance (the film seems to be partly about his own obsessive pursuit of perfection) and newcomer Vicky Krieps doing sensational work as the quiet young woman who flips the artist/muse dynamic on its head. Phantom Thread can be claustrophobic and tense, full of loaded silences (Lesley Manville can say so much with a single glance), but in Anderson's hands this potentially heavy material is carried off with remarkable elegance, swiftness and good humour. It feels like the director's most refined and disciplined work to date, particularly after the opaqueness of The Master and the shagginess of Inherent Vice, and it's so easy to get swept along with this captivating movie. I already know it's one I'm going to enjoy revisiting again and again.

2 - 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)
"No more Lubitsch," Billy Wilder supposedly said at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral. "Worse than that," William Wyler replied. "No more Lubitsch films." I felt that way about Abbas Kiarostami. I mourned when he passed away in June 2016, and I mourned again this year when I watched his final film 24 Frames. Like Five Dedicated to Ozu and Shirin, this is one of his more experimental works, the kind of film some might say belongs more in a gallery than a cinema, but I found it utterly magical and imaginative, and deeply moving. The 24 frames consist of still photographs that Kiarostami brings to life through digital effects, superimposition and sound, as he imagines life continuing beyond the moment he captured with his camera. We watch as animals and people pass across the frame, we see the weather change, we witness life and sometimes death, and the director's use of offscreen space is as potent as ever. I found the whole experience mesmerising, calming, surprising, witty and – as the frames counted up towards 24 – overwhelming in its emotional force. No more Kiaostami films. I can hardly bear the thought.

1 - Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
I saw Cameraperson right at the start of 2017 and during the past twelve months it has rarely been far from my thoughts. It's a movie made from the fragments of others; off-cuts and out-takes from documentaries that Kirsten Johnson has worked on over the past 25 years, that she has assembled into a kind of visual memoir. The footage was shot all over the world and for a variety of purposes, but Johnson and her superb editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws find a thematic unity among these often extraordinary clips. Cameraperson is a film full of incredible moments, but a few in particular are unforgettable. At an abortion clinic in the United States, Johnson talks to an emotional young woman and throughout the conversation the camera is focused on the woman's nervous hands; at a maternity clinic in Nigeria, a midwife calmly attempts to resuscitate a baby, while Johnson anxiously watches. Motherhood is a recurring motif, as is the constant spectre of death and violence. The film raises questions about the ethics and responsibility of watching and recording other people's lives, but nothing about Cameraperson is fixed or didactic; the film is open for our engagement and interpretation. No other film this year was so alive with humanity. It's one woman's life and it's a glimpse of many lives. It's a unique work of art.