Vincent's Views

2017: Review of the Year

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A little late, it’s time to re-pile stuff in front of the Christmas decorations, resume speculation about summer holidays before realising way too late that the prices have risen, and to reflect on the previous year in film. As always, there was far more I wanted to see than I was able to due to time and money constraints, with my total of 2017 releases (in the UK) coming to a grand total of 51. Even working from such a small sample, however, 2017 was a brilliant movie year, in terms of the sheer range in quality that helped me appreciate afresh just how much is out there. From Oscar upsets to Marvelous blockbusters, long-mooted sequels to alluring animation, 2017 offered much and delivered more than it disappointed. Of the 51 releases I saw, these are my top twelve, in musical form:

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve Ragnaroks

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Eleven Hidden Figures

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Ten runs with Logan

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Nine men in Moonlight

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Eight Blade Runners

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Seven pregnant mothers!

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Manchester By The Six

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Five Red Turtles

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Four Wonder Women

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Three Handmaidens

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Two Detroit riots

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And escape from the beach at Dunkirk.

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And now, with review tweets and full access to my archive, here are Vincent’s Views of 2017 in full.

Top Twelve

  1. Dunkirk

A ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly tense, mercilessly immersive triptych on trauma, time and terror.

  1. Detroit

A harrowing, immersive, unflinching portrait of prejudice, brutality, societal tension and being the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  1. The Handmaiden

An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.

  1. Wonder Woman

A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.

  1. The Red Turtle

A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.

  1. Manchester by the Sea

A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.

  1. mother!

An exquisitely unhinged, utterly delirious, relentlessly deranged, headlong charge into unmitigated chaos.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

A spellbinding, suffusive, mind expanding exploration of identity, humanity and mediation.

  1. Moonlight

A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.

  1. Logan

A brutal, melancholic and intimately violent portrayal of running from and living with your past.

  1. Hidden Figures

An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.

  1. Thor: Ragnarok

A colourful, eclectic, highly Antipodean adventure of friendship, memory and powers old and new.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Murder on the Orient Express

A crisp, clockwork lattice of motives, suspects, histories and ethics, engineered into a probing investigation of morality and balance.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

A whipsmart high school action comedy of superpowered growing pains.

  1. Lady Macbeth

A beautifully composed, exquisitely restrained portrait of devastating disruption.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

A wonderfully wacky and dizzily dazzling space opera of wit, warmth, adventure, family and reconciliation.

  1. A Ghost Story

A subtle, enveloping, achingly sad tale of grief, isolation and the experience of time.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

An overlong but still thrilling multi-stranded space chase of divination, intuition, legends, legacies and lightsabres.

  1. Kong: Skull Island

A thrilling ride through the wild side that reminds us of our place in nature.

  1. My Cousin Rachel

A ripe, sumptuous Gothic romance of obsession, ambiguity and multiple planes.

  1. It

An atmospheric and genuinely scary tale of fear(s), friendship, nostalgia and growing pains.

  1. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle

A gleefully absurd, riotously funny, thrillingly immersive action adventure of nostalgia, identity, growing pains and working together.

  1. The Limehouse Golem

A ripe, grisly period murder mystery of roles both social and theatrical.

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

A overly portentous but visceral and at times orgiastically violent film of faith and courage under fire.

  1. La La Land

A vibrant, colourful medley of nostalgia and dreams both lost and won.

Solid Offerings  

  1. War For The Planet Of The Apes

A coldly beautiful, brilliantly realised and unrelentingly grim epic of grief, revenge, cruelty and compassion.

  1. Wind River

An atmospheric, muscular and very cold thriller of borderlands both geographical and societal.

  1. Miss Sloane

A gripping, twisting and enthralling journey through corridors of power and landscapes of laws, ethics and conscience.

  1. Atomic Blonde

An achingly 80s, super slick and stylistically bravura period spy thriller of crunchy action, double-crossing and neon.

  1. Patriots Day

A compelling if inconsistent collation of coherence and chaos within community.

  1. Justice League

A somewhat unbalanced yet stylish, witty and punchy super smackdown of power, fear, courage and the strength of unity.

  1. Get Out

A gripping, thrilling and disturbing horror of racial attitudes and oppression.

  1. Assassin’s Creed

A visceral, enthralling exploration of mind, body and the cinematic space.

  1. Baby Driver

A slick, funky heist thriller with musical flow albeit an imbalance of grit and sentiment.

  1. Tommy’s Honour

A gorgeous, moving drama of family and class, and the most compelling film you may ever see about golf.

  1. Unlocked

A twisting, gripping and gritty espionage thriller that just avoids collapsing under its own contrivance.

  1. Life

A cine-literate, thrilling and suitably grisly space body horror.

  1. The Great Wall

A grand, visceral and sometimes witty monster movie with plenty of bang if lacking in awe.

  1. Call Me By Your Name

A beautifully transnational, intense yet never melodramatic portrayal of youth, sexuality and awakenings.

  1. Baywatch

A baggy, overly referential and yet surprisingly funny buddy comedy of sun, sand and silliness.

  1. The Zookeeper’s Wife

A sometimes moving but ultimately uneven Holocaust drama of compassion and cruelty towards our own and other species.

  1. Churchill

A handsomely mounted if somewhat repetitive home front political drama.

Disappointments

  1. Beauty and the Beast

A sometimes sweeping if rather disjointed musical fantasy romance.

  1. Fences

A somewhat stage-bound domestic drama of family and racial tensions, elevated by powerhouse performances.

  1. Ghost in the Shell

A visually arresting if narratively cumbersome sci-fi thriller of memory, identity and technology.

Turkeys

  1. Lion

An over-determined, clumsily directed and ultimately anemic cosmopolitan drama of loss.

  1. Live By Night

A handsome but hollow period gangster film.

  1. Alien: Covenant

A gory, sumptuous but overly panicked sci-fi horror of ambition and hubris.

  1. The Mummy

An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.

  1. The Dark Tower

A limp, lifeless, messy squandering of great potential.

  1. The Snowman

A ham-fisted and mechanically clichéd thriller that is more creaky than creepy.

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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If you’re of a certain age, you will likely have memories of Jumanji from 1995, in which Robin Williams had to deal with various animals erupting from a board game. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle pulls off the impressive feat of acknowledging the original film while also stamping out its own identity. This is partly due to the reversal that Jake Kasdan’s sequel/relaunch performs, in which the central characters are sucked into the video game version of Jumanji. Jungle japes ensue, to very funny effect, as animals attack and game challenges present themselves. The film also delivers on the character front, as the four protagonists are a Breakfast Club type collection of high school archetypes, yet written with enough care and affection that they develop in unexpected and effectively human ways. The central performers are a great bunch, in each case playing against type in ways that are not only funny and dramatic, but also raise interesting questions about the nature of identity. Highlights include Spencer (Dwayne Johnson) ‘smouldering’, as well as Bethany (Jack Black, yes, really!) teaching Martha (Karen Gillan) to flirt. Parts of their characteristics are programmed by the game, but the central fours also maintain their teenage identities and sense of self. This creates intriguing tensions: how much of who you are is constituted by your body, how much by your experience and how much by your social role? By posing these questions but never allowing them to overwhelm the adventure, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is the most enjoyable type of blockbuster – one with brains and heart to match its thrills and spills.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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There is a tension within the latest instalment of the Star Wars franchise. On the one hand there is the industrial behemoth and immense legacy that is Star Wars. On the other hand there is writer-director Rian Johnson, coming from a background of independent filmmaking that includes Brick and Looper. This tension creates problems and also benefits. The biggest problem is the film is overly long and, despite having the structure of a chase thriller, Johnson presents three parallel plot lines, one of which is overdone and lessens the overall tension. This narrative baggyness is partly due to the apparent need of new Star Wars films to pay homage to what has come before, as much of The Last Jedi echoes The Empire Strikes Back while its third act is reminiscent of Return of the Jedi. Competing against this homage is Johnson’s innovations, such as this film largely picking up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens and his allowance for characters to ponder their choices, whereas JJ Abrams largely had characters making decisions at hyperspeed. These innovations are also a major benefit, with new directions for this most hallowed of cinematic sagas. The mythos and history of the Force is explored in more depth than previously seen, especially in terms of the hubris and failure of the Jedi. Explosions rock the drama both internally and externally, as ships explode in true Star Wars fashion, and interpersonal strife plagues both the Resistance and the First Order. Perhaps the most ferocious battles rage within the souls of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), both trying to forge a place for themselves within a chaotic galaxy while (F)orces pull them in all directions. The overall result is mostly a creative and dramatic success, The Last Jedi delivering as a thrilling space chase of legacy and identity, with a surprisingly egalitarian subtext.

Justice League

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After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.

Call Me By Your Name

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Call Me By Your Name is a sweet and delicate romance that makes a virtue of understatement. The film possesses the ingredients for an emotionally overwrought melodrama: the summer of 1983; an abundance of bright fashion and music; a picturesque setting in Northern Italy, complete with orchards laden with fruit (itself laden with symbolism); a teenage protagonist undergoing a sexual awakening; an array of pretty young people with a variety of tongues; constant sunlight that turns water into shimmering light; a handsome newcomer that everyone adores. Yet despite the potential for histrionics and yanking at heartstrings, director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel is a masterclass in restraint and implication. Teenage Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls for visiting student Oliver (Armie Hammer) as his true sexuality emerges, but Elio also pursues girls seemingly by rote. Oliver’s response to Elio’s affection is by turns dismissive and receptive, the audience’s confusion mirrored by Elio’s uncertainty. Yet even in its most affecting moments, Guadagnino opts for long takes and delicate composition rather than melodrama. The film is often very funny and frequently touching in its portrayal of the discomfort of young love while also being explicit in its sexual content without resorting to lurid leering – indeed the love scenes are often amusing and affecting in their awkwardness. Despite this, Call Me By Your Name is less a comedy and more a bittersweet drama of a beautiful, encapsulated time, during which a love bloomed that was perfect because it existed only in a pristine yet contained moment.

Blade Runner 2049

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There is a key moment in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when a character learns an important truth. The moment features two figures captured in a two-shot that silhouettes their profiles against a richly textured background. This instance encapsulates the film as a whole, as every frame is saturated with meaning, craft and beauty. Set thirty years after the events of the original film, Villeneuve’s follow up is not a sequel that we needed but it is one that fans of the original deserve, as BR2049 pays homage to the original, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, while also staking out its own territory. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s story of cop K (Ryan Gosling, developing his taciturn roles in Drive and Only God Forgives into something all the more eerie) searching for answers in a dystopian California builds upon the first film and explores many of the same questions about humanity and identity, what it means to be a person, what is the influence of voice, embodiment, obedience, views of self and other. Brilliantly, BR2049 takes these questions in new directions, raising issues of what constitutes procreation and the importance of digitization. Production designer Dennis Gassner and the visual effects team go beyond the huge advertisements of the first film with giant 3D projections in the Los Angeles of 2049, while interactive AI and immersive holographic environments appear throughout the film. Blade Runner 2049 therefore continues to explore the tension between what is real and what is artifice, a line that is progressively blurred and distorted. Interestingly, the film is reminiscent both of the original Blade Runner as well as more recent science fiction such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Her. The recurrence of these themes and tropes demonstrates the eternal recycling of concepts in science fiction, yet BR2049 never feels stale or like something we have seen before (even though, in a sense, we have). The central uncanny conceit operates on a narrative, thematic and stylistic level, and even in the very substance of the film.

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Roger Deakins is the true star here, his exquisite visuals spellbindingly beautiful while simultaneously laden with portent. Yet these images are themselves ephemeral, data that has no more physical substance than some of the characters in the film. The viewer’s reaction therefore mirrors the characters. Just as K gazes at holograms with a mixture of wonder and bitterness, so does the film invite awe tinged with scepticism. Some of this scepticism can spill over into criticism – the film’s length and languorous pace is not to all tastes, while aspects of the principal antagonist add little to the proceedings. It also sidelines exploration of its female characters in favour of male questing, which is a shame because the female characters often suggest intriguing alternatives. But overall, these are minor quibbles in a film that largely delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and will likely be analysed and debated for another thirty years.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

It

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It arrives laden with expectations, both for those familiar with the Stephen King novel as well as the TV miniseries. Whether viewed by fans of these earlier versions or newcomers, the key question is does Andy Muschietti’s cinematic rendering offer anything new or, indeed, effective? The answer is a ferocious YES, as It lures you into a world of growing pains, cine-literacy and major jump scares. Set in 1989, rather than the 50s of the original, the film is shot through with affection for its cast and indeed being a teenager at that time. References to Gremlins, Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 pepper the film, as does the spirit of adventurous youth found in Stand By Me (also adapted from a Stephen King original). The central group of the Losers are familiar from film convention – the tough girl, the troubled leader, the token black kid, the hypochondriac, the smart mouth, the Jew, the studious fat kid – but none of these are a postmodern cipher simply there to reference other films. Rather, they all have relatable problems, often associated with their parents who range from dismissive to overbearing to abusive. There are also social issues including bullying and racism, which have the cumulative affect of an unsympathetic world in which the only thing you can count on is your friends. Therefore, the close bonds between the Losers are convincing and affecting, and their shared terror as they encounter Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is all the more involving. As Pennywise, Skarsgård is never less than unsettling and at times outright terrifying. Muschietti steadily draws the viewer in, with wide angled shots capturing the kids in menacing expanses, while Pennywise and his ominous balloons are framed in tighter shots that express his intrusion into the kids’ space. The clown’s appearances sometimes prompt gut-wrenching jumps, all the more effective because of the preceding drip feed of malevolence. Yet the strongest impression of the film is one of friendship rather than fear, our plucky heroes bonded through their mutual fear and camaraderie. It is a good film to jump at, but perhaps a better one to enjoy with friends.