The Best Films of 2017
It has been a year. In 2017 there was a lot for film fans to contemplate, but in what they say on the screen and in the wider film business. Month after month, entertaining, challenging and interesting films found their way onto Irish screens, either from Hollywood or any number of our own talented Irish directors. It was a year where the sickeningly pervasive culture of abuse in cinema was thrust into the headlines by brave survivors no longer willing to suffer in silence. It was also a year in great filmmaking, where talented, diverse directors were given the opportunity to show their talent, several for the first time, where performances transported us just as believably to the far-off future, the underprivileged, overlooked present and even outside the fluid realm of time altogether. This is Film In Dublin’s list of the best films of 2017, the films that moved us, entertained us, opened our eyes and otherwise expressed everything that cinema is meant to be, in a year that showed that cinema doesn’t always achieve those lofty ideals behind the scenes.
The Irish release schedule can have its frustrations, keeping us waiting for films that have been seen, loved, and discussed endlessly on the other side of the Atlantic, building the anticipation ever higher. Moonlight however, was well worth the wait. The film is an emotional and empathetic look at the life of young Chiron as he grows up and his sexuality develops in an unforgiving, underprivileged Miami environment. It’s a film with a poetic heart, words and images rhyming and resonating beautifully under Barry Jenkins’ guidance. Mahershala Ali deserved every accolade he received for his wonderful performance, and Naomie Harris and Janelle Monaé deserved still more, two sides of a matriarchal coin, each equally fascinating to watch, the anchors of a film that’s wonderful in every way, a film that somehow gets even better when those anchors are cast off and the film sails towards an exceptionally powerful yet understated climax, where Chiron can finally even begin to contemplate the answer to a simple, impossible question: “Who is you?”
An improbably expensive sequel to the 1982 flop-turned-cult-hit was probably destined to achieve a similar status, and Blade Runner 2049 is every bit as dense and interesting and beautiful and frustrating and opaque as its predecessor and then some. Setting aside the science-fiction for a second, the film is cinematographer Roger Deakins’ masterpiece, an array of beautiful environments, meticulously designed buildings and rich colours, as deep a frame as Deakins, who surely should win the Oscar this time, has ever put together. As Blade Running LA detective K hunts down Harrison Ford, what he actually finds are a lot of questions about the nature of humanity, questions that big budget films rarely bother tackling, but which Denis Villeneuve seems determined to inject into his genre-fare. K also um, actually finds Harrison Ford, and the ol’ crank has never been better on his odyssey to poignantly de-mystify his 80s action icons. Running over 3 hours, there’s a lot to discuss about this film, including idealised, docile depiction of femininity. And whether the film actually needs to run over 3 hours. But cinema with as much going on as this, as meticulously assembled yet still flawed, without doubt inspire discussion among film fans until the real year 2049 comes along. Provided we make it that far.
Its impossible not to be swept up in the aspirational spirit of The Farthest, Emer Reynolds superb space-faring documentary. Telling the story of the Voyager missions as the shuttles journey through space, photographing far-off planets and eventually making their way out of our solar system, this is a documentary that takes pride in a formidable human achievement and looks to the future with an optimism that is improbably persuasive. Mixing enthusiastic interviews with scientists from the mission, archive footage and some well-crafted ‘recreations’ of the shuttles in action, The Farthest thoroughly and entertainingly delves into its subject-matter. Its images, from Reynolds skyward cinematography to the photos captured by Voyager I and II are as moving as they come, and in a year that was very kind to science fiction, this fictional film of science embraced the positive spirit of the genre even better than most.
“Stay woke”, Childish Gambino implores over the soundtrack in the early going of Get Out, a warning to truly kick off Jordan Peele’s exceptional feature film debut as director. After those lyrics and the images that follow in the rest of the film, it would be difficult for anyone the message is being directed towards to be caught sleeping again. That it has been included on the Best Of lists of so many white critics is either an indication that we’re finally starting to get the message Get Out imparts, or that we really, really not quite yet don’t. Like all great horror, its scared of more than monsters and violence (though it does have monsters, and they are violent), but of things more banal, more present, and just as insidious in our society; the commodification of black bodies and minds by the privileged, and the dangers posed by those that insist that they’re on your side even if they’re say, engulfing and imprisoning you in a cage of your own mind. We get it. We’re not like the bad ones…right? Evocative and engrossing, with a slew of exceptional acting performances that are in unfortunate danger of being overlooked (get Daniel Kaluuya an Oscar nom asap), Get Out is as good an example as you’ll find of a genre film effortlessly outshining many a self-serious prestige with similar messages, delivered worse. If the film were merely as scary as it is, or just as funny as it is, or only as insightful as it is, it would still be a worthy addition to this list, as a seamless combination of the three, it’s one of the very best, not just of the year but of the decade.
Home Again is a confident debut that gives fresh life to the Hollywood Melodrama. Rather than following the typical rom-com formula of getting our protagonist through a rough patch by introducing some man candy, this film is dedicated to expressing and celebrating female joy. Rather than punishing Alice for hubris and pushing her into a fall from grace, this is a film that lets her find her feet after a difficult time and make the choices that will make her happiest, which isn’t tied to the decisions of any of the men in her life. There are no small parts, only small actors which Lake Bell proves in her turn as an entitled WASP who hires Alice to redecorate her daughter’s play room. She is hilarious and ridiculous yet entirely believable.
2017 has been an excellent year for debut features; God’s Own Country carefully builds a delicate human story against the harsh backdrop of Yorkshire countryside. Johnny Saxby exploits his position on an isolated country farm to impose emotional distance on everyone he meets. Until Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker, comes to help out during lambing season. The affection that develops between Johnny and Gheorghe is a slow burn, it doesn’t happen as dramatically as we might expect given the striking landscape. Gheorghe’s maturity and strong sense of self allow him to let Johnny come to him, the way you might hold out a hand to deer and stay perfectly still until they feel comfortable enough to get close. From Gheorghe, Johnny learns to be empathetic and kind. He goes from ignoring his elderly father’s requests for help on the farm out of spite to gently bathing him to save him from shame and embarrassment.
There is no doubting that A Ghost Story demands a certain audience. The premise alone, coupled with the fact that it is an ‘arthouse film’, is enough for most audiences to opt for their nearest blockbuster experience. However, while A Ghost Story demands a lot from its audience, it is arguably the most rewarding, interesting and beautiful piece of cinema that 2017 had to offer. Director David Lowry’s third feature film (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) plunges the depths of themes that most filmmakers have devoted their careers to exploring. The ambition and quiet confidence with which it delves into issues such as life, death, memory and time is, quite simply, something to be marvelled at and revered.
Although the premise might seem odd (see Film in Dublin’s review for more), the story brings us on a remarkably emotional and captivating exploration of the enduring and resolute spirit of love in the face of significant loss. Lowry’s supporting team members, Andrew Droz Palermo (cinematographer) and Daniel Hart (composer), aid his efforts in creating a fascinating and emotionally resonant cinematic experience and have more than earned their spots on awards consideration lists across Hollywood (assuming there is any justice in the world!). A Ghost Story is modern storytelling at its most peculiar and finest. Stick with it and it will stick with you long after the credits roll.
On the margins of Disneyland Florida and, indeed, of life, 6 year old Moonee and her friends search for magic around every corner. Oblivious to the harsh realities of their circumstances, the young children play, cause trouble and enjoy their summer as their families move from hotel to hotel in search of work, accommodation and a better standard of living. The Florida Project tackles an issue that everyone should be aware of: the new face of homelessness. Instead of it being an altogether dour affair, we witness this world through the eyes of the children, as they navigate their way through summer without any appreciation for the severity of their circumstances. While we spend the majority of our time on these wondrous adventures, The Florida Project never attempts to sensationalise the issue of homelessness or the problems that these families face. By telling the story through the children’s perspectives, one of the main messages of the film is simply and effectively communicated – reality can corrupt the innocence of childhood. While the night sky has been rented out for the enjoyment of others, the Disneyland fireworks strangely seem to face away from them, as they stare in awe of the magic that they are not able to experience first-hand.
The Florida Project is an absolutely mesmerising film. This colourful and vibrant masterpiece is an ode to the innocence and magic of childhood in the face of difficult realities. To call it an important film is an understatement – the new face of homelessness (being experienced across the world) is explored in vivid detail and with true compassion for the struggles that accompany it. As the old saying goes: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll absolutely adore every second of it.
Screened this year at the Dublin International Film Festival, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is bucket of water dunked on the heads of anyone still unwilling to face the reality of racial inequality, using the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as a mirror to illustrate that the campaign for Civil Rights is not over and that the voices of the movement need to be heard now more than ever. Raoul Peck amplifies those voices with aplomb, as ice-cold as that shocking bucket of water are the veins of James Baldwin, calmly, confidently, firmly going through the facts, whether depicted through archive footage or through his words being delivered with the gravitas of Samuel Jackson. Weaving the depiction of Black people in Hollywood through its facts, figures and archived activists it’s a documentary with an electric energy, as much of a must-see as you’ll get on this list or any other for the year.
Call Me By Your Name
Like so many of the great romance stories, Call Me By Your Name is concerned with the feelings, not the facts, of the love between its leads. Luca Guadagmino’s adaptation of the novel by André Aciman takes its time sauntering through a sweltering summer in 80s Italy, a gorgeous backdrop within which Renaissance Boy Elio falls for his father’s grad student Oliver. Fleeting glances, arm touches, moments between words are more charged between Timotheé Chalamet and Armie Hammer here than through the entirety of many screen romances.
Every element that has made its way onto the screen serves to tap into the emotion of this bisexual affair and lets it spring forth to the viewers, the enticing environment, the gentle music of Sufjan Stevens (paired with catchy 80s eurotrash), the way the camera lingers on Elio or Oliver, replicating how they can’t look away from each other. It all serves to place us so presently in the moment right there with Elio, during a time when the film’s lead likely never felt more present. Few films this year were as empathetic, as sensual (though you might not be able to look at a peach quite the same way again) or as charged as Call Me By Your Name, a beautiful depiction of how first love and true love feels, right on the big screen.