Below you’ll find my favourite films of the year. I’ve stuck to the eligibility criteria I’ve used over the last few years: new films released in Australia in the calendar year. Anything expecting a proper theatrical release in 2018 – even if it’s appeared in film festivals this year – doesn’t qualify as. This is to ensure consistency; for example, I haven’t seen Phantom Thread but have seen Lady Bird. I understand fellow Aussie critics impulse to go by American release dates, but given some of the delays we experience (for example, 20th Century Women, a 2016 film, didn’t come out ‘til mid-2017 here) I’m sticking to a more representative list.
All this sounds like I’ve been stressing deeply over what films do and don’t qualify, but in fact it’s the opposite! 2017 was the first year in a while that I haven’t felt obliged to try and see everything. I’m yet to see films like God’s Own Country and On the Beach at Night Alone despite hearing great things and having online access to these films. In past years I’ve watched 400 – 500 films; this year I’ve only just cracked 300.
That’s partly because of real life getting in the way (I started a new job this year), but it’s also a conscious choice to try and stress less about movie writing as a job, and treat it more as a hobby. It’s not like there’s any chance of becoming a professional full-time critic in this day and age, so why stress? After five years doing this writing business, I’ve realised that it’s been a stress guided by earning money more often than it’s been a fun hobby, and I’m making a gradual, incomplete effort to rectify that.
Anyway, enough about that. Onto the films!
My Top 20 Films of 2017
One of the biggest cinematic surprises of 2017 was how much I enjoyed (most of) the comic book movies on offer. Not a single caped crusader made their way into last year’s list, but these three films each – in their own way – realised the potential of a sub-genre increasingly stymied by its adherence to formula. Logan, for all its hard-R pandering, found true pathos in a form that too often ignores the idea of consequences. Thor Ragnarok let the inimitable Taika Waititi fling his play-dough around the MCU playpen to hilarious effect. And while Spider-Man: Homecoming didn’t provide anything we haven’t seen before, Tom Holland breathed new live into a superhero most thought had past his prime.
(Yes, I’m afraid Wonder Woman isn’t on my list – I found it serviceable and charming but that’s about it. Glad that everyone else seemed to love it, though.)
I went in with tempered expectations for both Dunkirk and Paddington 2, a pair of admittedly very-different films. The former brushed the dust off a director who’d become reliant on expository dialogue by producing a heart-poundingly tense glimpse into the maelstrom at the heart of war. Granted, the temporal gambit wasn’t entirely effective, but it felt real in a way no other war film has for me, with its grand images creating mythic sweep and fragile humanity. Best of all, it trimmed down the dialogue to the bare minimum, operating as a pseudo-silent film for much of its runtime. Paddington 2, meanwhile, took the inspiration of great silent comedies of an earlier era to craft something head-and-shoulders above its charming predecessor. Warm-hearted and propulsively entertaining, it’s undeniably one of 2017’s greatest films.
The Origins of America: Jackie and Mudbound
The omnipresence of Trump in contemporary discourse has spawned hundreds of reviews and thinkpieces about how a film perfectly comments upon or encapsulates the orange-hued autocrat and everything he represents. Some of that writing was excellent; most was facile. Neither Jackie or Mudbound were about Trump, but they were about America – and, of course, Trump’s rise is the inevitable end of the arc of America exceptionalism, inequality and – perhaps above all – racism.
Anyway, I digress; beyond all the politics, these are just superb films. With Jackie, Larraín turns the valorising Hollywood biopic inside out and reveals the visceral realities of man – or this case, woman – becoming myth. Portman perfects an absurd tightrope of the performance, capably mimicking Jackie while emphasising the artificiality of her performance throughout. Set in a similar era but an entirely different locale, Mudbound reveals another underside to America’s mythology: a dark-hearted origin story steeped in muck and ravaged by racism, along with the legacy of slavery and war.
Remember that for about half-a-decade after Pulp Fiction when we had to suffer through a homogenous string of fast-paced Tarantino clones that, without fail, missed the mark? Good Time takes the core of those films, strips out the ‘cool’ nonsense, adds an incredible Oneohtrix Point Never soundtrack, and makes it fucking work. This a killer crime film, populated with idiots and dropkicks, none more incompetent than Robert Pattinson’s compellingly-unlikeable protagonist. There’s some savage commentary on race lurking in the mix, but this is primarily an excellent example of original cinematic craft.
Good Time has received plenty of attention from critics, if not awards bodies, but Only the Brave has been underappreciated in every corner. Its subject matter – red-blooded, red-neck firefighters from Arizona – might be to blame, but make no mistake, this is no über-masculine, nationalistic piece of propaganda. Unlike the comparatively thin Logan Lucky, Only the Brave makes an effort to understand its characters and their culture – its flaws and features alike. That the film transforms into a wrenching tragedy is just gravy.
The best encapsulation of American culture circa 2017 is without doubt Get Out, though, if nothing else because it’s a fuckin’ horror movie. Jordan Peele sliced into the subcutaneous tumour of contemporary racism and captured what oozed out with chilling veracity. Not my favourite film of 2017, but certainly the most important.
Pessimism was at the core of Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi masterpieces, Alien and Blade Runner. The former imagined the future of capitalism as a new industrial age, torn open by the primal, phallic savagery of the xenomorph. The latter imagined our future as a dense maze of oppressive advertisements and empty-eyed androids.
Decades later, is it any wonder those stories continue to resonate? Covenant isn’t a failure of a slasher film, as some have interpreted it, but rather an unnerving attempt to get us to see the world through the eyes of androids: humans as crude fodder, grist for the mill. That not everyone appreciated that from a blockbuster is understandable. Similarly chilly is Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, which trades the crowded intensity of the original for an antiseptic emptiness. This is our future, one way or the other: manmade monoliths haunted by the ghosts of who we once were.
Song to Song is a modern Malick masterpiece; his digressive take on modern life had mixed results in Knight of Cups and To the Wonder, but here’s he’s perfected his craft. There’s an intuitive, gestural beauty to this film, where emotional arcs are condensed into the briefest of touches and allows his camera to delight itself in the bacchanalian beauty and sour corruption of the music industry. A triumph, though surely not for everyone. For me, though, it was transportative; almost spiritual.
T2 Trainspotting isn’t so much about the music industry as about music – how it comes to encapsulate our past hopes and our present dissatisfaction. Rather than attempted to recapture the jagged energy of his original film, Danny Boyle transforms this sequel into an entertaining yet insightful reflection on ageing and ruined ambition, after one’s lust for life has faded away.
These three films offer enigmatic, evocative treatises on adolescent and adult identity; yes, through a queer lens. The queerness of Personal Shopper is largely implicit, as it plays with the eroticisation of experimenting with gender and appearance; it’s a film with more answers than questions, a film about how our selves are tied up with the past and technology and industry in ways that are complicated and contradictory. It’s defiantly weird, more interested in challenging its audience than coddling them; and, of course, Kristen Stewart is superb in that biting-her-lip sorta way. Raw is a cruder, gorier equivalent, trading ambiguity for viscerality (and then some); a blood-splattered coming of age that understands the true horrors of going to university.
What’s left to be said about Moonlight? A modern masterpiece that deserves all the praise – and awards – its earned. Buoyed by soaring emotions but crafted with the kind of experimental precision so few films of its pedigree attain. Call Me By Your Name is almost on the same level, if far less ambitious; even beyond its perfect performances, I could watch Sayobhu Mukdeeprom’s footage of Italian villas and sun-dappled countryside for days.
(Honourable mention: the flawed but warm The Edge of Seventeen. Note that Lady Bird – which certainly fits this category – will rank highly on next year’s list, given it’s a February 2018 release in Australia.)
My Best Film of 2017: Nocturama
I spoke before about trying not to stress about writing; to accept failures and compromises as part and parcel of this hobby/side-gig/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Yet I’m pained about my failure to write on Nocturama, a singular film that’s burned itself into my mind since seeing it at this year’s Queensland Film Festival. That a film ‘about’ terrorism could present such a bold abyss of ideology, to turn its mirror onto our own politics and their withered roots! That a film could be shot with such consistency, such beauty, such powerful compositions – images that demand to be paused and luxuriated in. Ah, I’m not worthy; I need to steel myself and watch it again and then, perhaps, I can write on the best film I saw this year.
The Best Whatever-You-Want-to-Call-It of 2017: Twin Peaks: The Return
I’d planned to include this on my year-end list long before the heated ‘is it film or TV or both?’ debate hit social media; a debate that’s theoretically interesting in the sense that it allows us to redefine or reconsider the boundaries between two incredibly permeable media but that, in practice, reduces to ridiculous reduction ad absurdum arguments and an inability to approach the opposing argument in good faith (so, the internet.)
Whatever you want to call Twin Peaks: The Return, it’s head and shoulders above any other visual media on the big or small screen in 2017. It’s a masterwork that, if there is any justice, will prove influential for filmmakers and television producers alike for decades to come. We’ll be talking about this in one hundred years, mark my words.
5. Sweet Country
4. Swinging Safari
3. The Commuter
2. How to Talk to Girls at Parties
1. Lady Bird
Best “New to Me” Films of 2017
The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 2: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima
9. The ‘Burbs
8. Vacant Possession
7. My Darling Clementine
5. The Red Turtle (This possibly qualifies as a 2017 film in Australia?)
4. The Marriage of Maria Braun
3. Dangerous Liaisons
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley
Best Performances of 2017:
Rooney Mara (Song to Song)
Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Cynthia Nixon (A Quiet Passion)
Brooklyn Kimberly Prince (The Florida Project)
Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
Ami Tomite (Antiporno)
Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)
Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name)
Hugh Jackman (Logan)
Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer)
Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks: The Return)
Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
Elle Fanning (The Beguiled/How to Talk to Girls at Parties)
Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip)
Rebecca Hall (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women)
Elizabeth Marvel (The Meyerowitz Stores (New and Selected))
Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
Samara Weaving (The Babysitter)
Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Hugh Grant (Paddington 2)
Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Jason Mitchell (Mudbound)
Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name)
Taika Waititi (Thor Ragnarok)