The 10 Best Films of 2017

By Sep Gohardani
By January 9, 2018 July 29th, 2018 Best Of, Features, Film, Reviews

I called 2016 an unpopular year in my last ‘best of’ list, but it’s hard to say that 2017 was any better in a lot of respects. In fact, it was probably worse. Despite worrying political developments (to say the least) and a plethora of other major concerns, especially in the film world with the important revelations about major figures in the industry, films themselves went from strength to strength in 2017, marking it as one of the strongest years of interesting and important film releases in recent times. If this was a response to the battering that the year itself offered us, then it was definitely welcome.

Since it was such a strong year, I’m cheating a little by adding an honourable mentions section so I can talk about a couple of films that just missed out on the list but deserve to be discussed even briefly. Anyway, without further ado, it’s time to take a look at the films that were released in the UK which I chose that stood out amidst the plethora of quality last year:

Honourable Mentions

In any ordinary year, Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’ would have made this list. A mark of Wheatley’s unique directorial perspective, it subverts expectations and relishes in its confined environment. Consistently funny in its absurdity and boasting a razor-sharp wit, it makes great use of its excellent ensemble cast, which features the likes of Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson as well as Wheatley favourite Michael Smiley, as they all become embroiled in a gun fight that is unlike most in cinema. The constant cacophony of bullets failing to find their target is matched by the amazing barbs traded between those that are fighting, and the insanity as the situation spirals out of control becomes more enjoyable by the minute . A worthy, and valuable action-comedy that always retains that unique Wheatley streak.

Anchored by an excellent performance by Sonia Braga, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s ‘Aquarius’ is a wonderful and heartfelt film as it explores concepts of family, relationships and nostalgia. Braga plays Clara, a woman who lives in the Aquarius beachfront apartment complex in the Brazilian city of Recife. Conflicts arise with developers seeking to replace the complex, and through the lens of that potential change Filho examines her life in both the past and the present, interweaving with it a subtle examination of Brazilian society. Beautifully filmed and with a stunning central performance by Braga, it is by turns funny and affecting, offering a smart look at the importance of family and the spaces that contain those vital memories. Much like ‘Free Fire’ the film only misses out because of the strength of its competitors but it was definitely one of the highlights of a fantastic year.

A small mention must also be given to Trey Edward Shults’ excellent chiller It Comes At Night’, a film that makes the most of its surroundings to create a claustrophobic and highly affecting experience, definitely putting it up there with the best horror films of recent years. As it is though, I have rambled for too long about films that didn’t even make the list, so without further ado…

10. ‘The Levelling’

The study of a family relationship set amidst the backdrop of farmland in Somerset, Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature is an excellent, understated examination of broiling agony and resentment that simmers with barely contained anger. Ellie Kendrick is famous for her role in ‘Game of Thrones’, but here she is exceptional as main character Clover, a vet in training who returns to her family farm in the wake of her brother’s death. She soon comes across her father Aubrey, played by David Troughton, who seems distant and barely interacts with her while she attempts to piece together what exactly happened to her sibling, all while attempting to help on a farm where one disaster seemingly follows another.

Leach’s realist style gives the film a weight and texture that maintains its atmosphere, which clouds every shot with a grim sadness. Its understated nature is its true triumph, and Leach’s stark portrayal of farm life helps to emphasise its themes of familial tension as the complexity of those relationships is laid bare, as slowly and painfully as it is for the characters. An extremely accomplished debut by a fine filmmaker.

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9. ‘My Life as a Courgette’

Some films could take a lesson from ‘My Life as a Courgette’, a gorgeous little animation that packs as much in to its 65 minute runtime as many films attempt to manage in three hours. Whether you see this film in the original French language or its English dub, it remains a superb work that deals with dark themes through the lens of its adorable main character, emitting humanity like a shining beacon. Each of its characters is beautifully well-rounded and interesting even though it doesn’t take much time to set them up, and they even manage to subvert your expectations and prove to be a lot more than they first appear in that time too. Heartfelt and powerful without ever becoming trite or overly saccharine, the way the film explores its themes is admirable.

There is authenticity in the stories of the children that make up so much of it, and particularly in the case of main character Icare, a young boy who ends up in an orphanage after an accident involving his alcoholic mother. His struggles through coming to terms with what happened and what comes next are intelligently portrayed, and come amidst the backdrop of the other children, who are all dealing with similar backgrounds. The stop motion animation is beautiful and director Claude Barras, making his feature length debut, imbues his models with an impressive emotional range, while screenwriter Céline Sciamma continues to prove what a talent she is.

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8. ‘The Salesman’

Wrought with complexity with a searing script and wonderful performances, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi continues to prove what an excellent filmmaker he is with his Oscar-winning film The Salesman, a work that resists simplicity. Farhadi makes a point of rejecting the easiest road for his characters to go down every time it shows up, deciding instead to portray how morally ambiguous and confusing even seemingly black and white situations can end up being. Farhadi’s film revolves around a couple, Emad and Rana, who are married and work in the theatre together, currently appearing in a production of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. An earthquake causes the couple to be without a place to live, and when a friend finds them a new place, it seems like a godsend. However, as they start to find out more about the previous occupant of the place, events conspire that lead to a very traumatic event.

Farhadi’s set-up is intriguing and the way in which he plays with his audience has a Hitchcockian sensibility to it, willing to twist and turn expectations with ease and skill. In typical fashion for him, though, this is also a film that explores the nature of humanity, and particularly the capacity which someone has to forgive or seek to take revenge, as well as the idea of shame. ‘The Salesman’ is a highly intelligent and powerful character study of the ilk that you would expect from a filmmaker who revels in making them.

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7. ‘Call Me By Your Name’

The coming-of-age film is a great and oft-maligned genre, and Luca Guadagnino’s film, an adaptation of a novel of the same title, exhibits many of the reasons why it can be so great. Set in the 1980s, it is the tale of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a seventeen year-old American boy living in Italy with his parents, and his romance with a graduate student guest of the family named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio’s feelings for Oliver move from indifferent to enamoured as the film progresses, and Guadagnino handles it with care and delicacy as Elio comes to terms with who he is and the fact that he feels these things for a man who, as far as he can tell, isn’t interested in that way at all. Instead, Oliver is seemingly more keen on the women in the area.

James Ivory’s script is beautifully written. Every conversation resonates, even if it’s about everyday life or the nature of the academic work that Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elio’s father, is doing with Oliver. It layers and contextualises Elio’s world, one of wonder and beauty around every corner. Indeed, the country side in which him and his family live is magnificent on its own and almost another character in its own right, but it’s the way Guadagnino intermingles those conversations with those Elio has with Oliver as they develop their relationship that makes it work so well. Chalamet portrays Elio excellently, giving him a sense of teenage arrogance imbued with naiveté, while Hammer is exceptionally charming as Oliver, their chemistry helping to guide the film along, but Guadagnino revels in the atmosphere, in the lush greenery of the Italian countryside and its quaint towns, providing a backdrop that feels right for a story that revels in its love of the arts as much as its main characters. A delight.

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6. ‘Get Out’

One of the year’s most important films, Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ is a film packed with ingenuity and a deeply unsettling central theme that it explores incredibly effectively, leading to a cinematic experience that both thrills and worries. Its wider themes feel particularly resonant in the recent political climate, though much of its message can be taken in general terms and hints at underlying hypocrisy and an insidious societal racism that goes way beyond recent times. The film’s ability to terrify while also exploring those themes is why it’s such an excellent work, its barely hidden social critiques exploding on to the surface with a powerful force as plot twists shock and intensify proceedings.

Daniel Kaluuya gives a fantastic central performance as Chris, an African American young man heading to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), and hoping her family accept his race, which she reassures him they will. Peele lays the groundwork for the film from the very beginning, and its opening sequence ratchets up the tension before we seem to be dropped in to a completely normal situation that is almost fit for a romantic comedy. From that opening sequence on though, it is clear that something’s not right, and each subsequent scene is laden with a brilliantly judged sense of trepidation.

The film also contains moments of black comedy to join and exacerbate that sense of trepidation, and Peele’s background as a comedian means his sense of timing is perfect, that pitch-black humour is never misjudged. Nevertheless, that humour led the Golden Globes to nominate the film in the ‘best musical or comedy’ section this year, somewhat farcically. When Peele was asked about this, he said “I submitted it as a documentary.”

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5. ‘La La Land’

Damien Chazelle already proved his quality with his previous film ‘Whiplash’, its musicality matched by its intensity. His follow-up is much less like a war film, replacing the bombastic with the nostalgic in this endlessly charming study of the journey for artistic fulfilment and dreams that, in all likelihood, may never come true. Bolstered by another stunning score by Justin Hurwitz and some great songs, this musical exudes heart while retaining that lyrical sense of musicality that ‘Whiplash’ had, though in completely different circumstances.

Where that film was gritty and unforgiving in its portrayal of the path to greatness, this film is a lot less cynical, allowing its characters to float across the screen, though never shirking away from real emotions. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are brilliant in the lead roles, and their portrayals of artists striving for greatness ring completely true. Neither are perfect human beings, nor are they meant to be, and that makes their story, and the journey the film takes them on, all the more worthwhile.

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4. ‘Wind River’

As a screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan has already proven himself to be extremely talented, penning both the excellent ‘Sicario’ and last year’s equally great ‘Hell or High Water’. Making his debut behind the camera for this film, Sheridan maintains that quality effortlessly, crafting a film that carries the same weight as the above two, and not only captivates, but carries an intelligence and sense of gravitas that elevates it to another level.

Boasting Sheridan’s usual ability to create well-rounded and interesting characters, the film is ostensibly a murder mystery but is also a lot more than that. Set in the freezing climes of Wyoming, it explores the plight of the Native American population on reservations there, and the effect the climate has not only on the population, but on law enforcement’s ability to investigate serious crimes, casting in harsh light the realities the Natives have to face. While the likes of Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are excellent in the film in the lead roles, the landscape of Wyoming plays an equally important part in creating the atmosphere, while Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ chilling score creates a sense of foreboding that starts to grab at you from the very beginning and never lets go.

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3. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

This, in short, is a vital film. Raoul Peck’s crucially important documentary offers a stark portrayal of racism in America, and does so by unflinchingly comparing the situation in the 1960s with now, showing that in the grand scheme of things, society hasn’t come anywhere near as far as it should. Based on civil rights activist James Baldwin’s unpublished manuscript ‘Remember This House’, the film blends together television excerpts of Baldwin talking at various events and film excerpts that are relevant to his opinions, all while Samuel L. Jackson narrates the film as Baldwin, reading his words and relating them to the pictures on screen. Jackson is fantastic in the role, imbuing the words with a gravitas that allows them to exude their full power, and doing so with a level of humanity that makes those words genuinely resonate on an emotional level.

The film doesn’t flinch at seeking to uncover the unwritten rules of society, as Baldwin muses about his relationship with films and those around him, reflecting upon how in most scenarios the racism towards black people in America is simply an accepted fact, a part of popular culture that goes beyond mere politics. He also discusses fellow members of the civil rights movement, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King to Medger Evers, and their varying perspectives on how to rectify the situation, along with the way they were received, and ultimately all killed. It’s a heartbreaking and riveting journey, and one that is of urgent importance, such is the harrowing truth with which it examines American race relations.

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2. ‘The Handmaiden’

Based loosely on ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters, Park Chan-wook’s excellent erotic thriller ‘The Handmaiden’ revels in its ability to play with expectations as Chan-wook’s nuanced, well-rounded characters manipulate and deceive each other to reach their eventual goals. The film unfurls like a tapestry, and a beautiful one at that, each frame exuding the prominent themes of betrayal, pleasure and passion that make up its highly captivating story . Chan-wook has always had an idiosyncratic streak, and the way in which he plays with his audience is reminiscent of his previous works like ‘Oldboy’. In this film, which is divided in to three parts, he makes use of its period setting to set the film up a certain way, only to continually twist it to become something completely different, and extremely engaging as a result.

Ostensibly the tale of a pickpocket hired by a conman to work as a noblewoman’s maid in Japanese-occupied Korea for his nefarious purposes, it soon becomes a lot more than that, but not before some excellent and intelligent performances from a sterling cast who are able to keep up with the script’s delicate intricacies and portray their characters’ shifting emotions with aplomb. It’s a film that is easy to get lost in as the film sweeps the viewer along in a tide of perfectly crafted moments. Through its eroticism Chan-wook explores themes of pornography, shame and sexuality intelligently, allowing the film to be disturbing when it needs to be and truly heartfelt in other moments. A stunning work.

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1. ‘Manchester by the Sea’

It’s tough to describe the way in which ‘Manchester by the Sea’ manages to express the difficult emotions that it explores, but writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s beautiful and heartbreaking film does it wonderfully. Simmering with grief and anger throughout, the film’s realistic and affecting portrayal of loss and emotional suffering is harrowing and gripping, the subtlety with which it accesses these feelings remarkable. Central to this is Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler, a handyman who works in Boston and whose past catches up to him when he returns to his quiet seaside hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lonergan directs the film with an unassuming touch, allowing the elegant shot-making to set the scene and his roiling, powerful but very human script to portray the heartbreak.

The film is not just heart-rendering though. Indeed, it is often funny, and revels in the real, quiet moments that bring the humour. Pivotal to this is Lucas Hedges’ performance as Lee’s nephew Patrick. Hedges is a revelation in the film, and his portrayal of a teenager whose anger and sadness also boils under the surface is played to perfection, providing the perfect foil for Lee. Some of the best interactions in the film come between the two, their feelings being coaxed out indirectly through arguments about seemingly inconsequential things that grow in importance with the degree of their emotional meaning, the humour often a consequence of their inability to quite access each other’s real feelings.

One moment where these feelings are made explicit is in a fantastic scene between Lee and Michelle Williams’ Randi. Souls are laid bare and the stark truths and reasons for the anguish are made even more clear, Lonergan making sure to imbue each word with pain. Rarely has cinema captured that kind of emotion so well before. The film makes no explicit, melodramatic effort to move the viewer, instead the emotion bursts almost painfully out of each character like a barely contained volcano, that sense of despair one that they try to keep away but can’t. It is for the clarity and realness of that ability to access grief that Lonergan’s exemplary film is my favourite of a fantastic year for cinema in the UK.

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