The Best Films Of 2017

Waru.

Waru.

By Jordan Hamel

Another year over, another swathe of films to reflect on, another fucking arbitrary list. While there weren’t many masterpieces, there was innovation and subversion right across the cinematic spectrum, reflecting the audiences’ growing indifference towards the formulaic approach that a lot of the summer movies offer. While some franchises have fallen victim to this reticence (Transformers, The Mummy) others like the Star Wars and Thor franchises have chosen to innovate, bringing in new, exciting directors to break the mold and take their stories to new and strange places.  

Before we get into the thick of it there are a couple of other things worth noting; the first is that some of our greatest auteurs chose to put their talents to use on the smaller screen this year (shouts to the two David’s for Twin Peaks: The Return and Mindhunter) highlighting the power of the golden age of television, and the second is that there are several films, most notably Greta Gerwig’s biopic Ladybird and Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest collab with Daniel Day-Lewis Phantom Thread, which haven’t had their NZ cinematic release yet but are good chances to be on this list when they do. Anyway, with all that out of the way lets look at some of the best flicks of 2017:

10. Dunkirk

As someone who didn’t love a lot of Nolan’s previous work I was hesitant to see his take on Operation Dynamo. However, he forewent the usual Nolan plot machinations and opted instead to create an atmosphere of tension and unease that defines this film. Nolan opts to split the gaze between land, sea and sky, none of the protagonists are particularly memorable or noteworthy in their stories, but war isn’t about heroes, its about the faceless thousands who endure the worst out of a sense of duty. Nolan manages to remind us of this without swerving into the blind patriotism that has dogged so many recent depictions of war.

9. Thor: Ragnarok

Shouts to the boy Taika Waititi for bringing some much needed humour and fun to the dullest saga in the Marvel Universe. In a world where superhero content and as a result, superhero fatigue are increasing, Waititi was given a blank slate to work with and as a result managed to make something that felt new and ridiculous with a soundtrack to match. Its also hard not to grin with patriotic pride when you hear one of the numerous Nu Zillund accents throughout the film, kia ora Taika.

8. I am Not Your Negro

In all fairness, I could listen to Samuel L. Jackson read the Apple IOS terms and conditions for two hours straight and still be satisfied, so to see him narrate the story of James Baldwin’s life is pretty incredible.  This documentary manages to capture academic and civil rights leader Baldwin’s astute observations of racism in modern America; it confronts, educates and reminds us of how far society still has to go.

7. Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s transition from buddy comedies such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz to a fully-fledged heist film was welcome and successful. While maintaining the essence that brought him fame (thanks in large part to comedic genius Jamie Foxx and sex symbol Jon Hamm), Wright manages to make something as sleek and stunning as the meticulously choreographed car chases that riddle this film. It feels like a two-hour music video, in the best kind of way, the soundtrack is ultimately the film’s biggest plot device and every handbrake, gunshot or piece of dialogue serves as a supplementary rhythm to help make the composition of the visual and aural seamless.

6. The Square

Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square uses the oft-ridiculed and ridiculous nature of modern art and its patrons to create a satire of decadence, greed and all the values that have come to define ‘the cultural elite’. I saw this on the opening night of the 2017 NZ Film Festival and its stuck with me since. It slowly unravels over an often challenging three hours to the height of absurdity, comical or otherwise, where it holds your eyelids open and forces you to look at the logical conclusion of the misguided pursuit of something ‘avant-garde’.

5. Call Me By Your Name

The tale of a summer affair between teenage musical prodigy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and a cocky American student (Armie Hammer) set in sun-drenched Northern Italy. It’s a coming of age story that rises above most others of a similar nature thanks to the performances of the two leads. Through their chemistry and tension they manage to create something intimate, urgent, at times melancholic and ultimately honest.

4. The Disaster Artist

‘You are tearing me apart Lisa!’ perhaps one of the most immortal lines of modern cinema. 

Well, if you’re a fan of the worst movie of all time, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, then it is. I still remember hearing the news several years ago that the Franco brothers were working on an adaptation of a book documenting an actor’s experiences on the set of the ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’. Ever since then I’ve been waiting in anticipation and excitement, and despite my nagging feeling that James Franco was going to mess it up, he nailed it. 

In hindsight Franco was the perfect person to direct and star in this film, like Tommy Wiseau he has delusions of grandeur and cinematic genius. But instead of parodying or mocking Wiseau, Franco manages to draw out his desire and humanity, while maintaining the mystery and paradoxical nature that have made him a cult hero. Also the meticulous recreations of the scenes from the original film and younger brother Dave’s uncanny performance as Wiseau’s partner Greg Sistero give this film a sense of passion and reverence it could have easily foregone.

3. Waru

Waru is composed of eight scenes, each 10 minutes or so long. Together they add up to a portrait of the events surrounding the tangi of a young child. All eight scenes are directed by different Māori women, they tackle loss, redemption and the long-lasting effects of institutional racism and patriarchal structures. This is the best example of Aotearoa story telling I’ve seen in over a decade. Waru’s success on the international film festival circuit is a testament to the need for New Zealand to keep using film not only as a means of embracing our history and community but also to put it under a microscope.

2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

From the Greek nutcase who brought you such indie darlings as Dogtooth and more recently The Lobster, comes the most unsettling thing I saw all year. A meditation on guilt, responsibility and civility that masquerades as a thriller, The Killing of a Sacred Deer serves to make you as uncomfortable as possible while keeping you engaged. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman turn in extraordinarily hilarious performances taking turns deadpanning Yorgos Lanthimos’ signature deadpan dialogue. The robotic nature of every exchange in the film combined with the sense of unease and consequence that festers and spreads throughout the film creates a chaotic, grotesque, absurdist train wreck so perfectly orchestrated you can’t look away.

1. Get Out

Nothing I saw on the big screen this year blew me away more than Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. When I heard that he was set to direct a horror film I had no idea what to expect, maybe a campy 70s slasher homage? Whatever preconceptions I had were quickly displaced as Peele creates a labyrinthine of a story that mixes social critique and inescapable dread. Without spoiling it for those who have been living in a cave all year, the performance of Daniel Kaluuya as audience surrogate not only emphasizes the comical absurdity of the white liberal spaces which he’s forced to inhabit, but also the terror that comes with a gradual but inevitable loss of control. There’s a reason this film was a runaway sensation, go see it already. 

Honourable Mentions: Blade Runner 2049, A Ghost Story, Good Time, Star Wars: The Last Jedi