2017 in Cinema : Part 11 – The Top Ten

So after what I believe is close on 25,000 words in the previous ten articles, we finally come to my top ten for the year. In this list are a few films that I didn’t anticipate would feature when I first saw the trailers, an actress that also appeared in my bottom ten list (the first time that’s happened since I started doing these four years ago) and an actor who features in my top ten for the third year in a row.

So let’s get it out of the way, and as usual I apologise for any formatting issues.

10) Baby Driver

Cast : Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez

Plot : Baby (Elgort) is a highly skilled driver for Doc (Spacey), a criminal mastermind to whom he owes a lot of money. Baby finally works off his final job, that despite the unstable wildcard that is Bats (Foxx), and he plans of running away with Debora (James), a local waitress with whom he develops a strong bond. Doc soon calls him in though saying that just because they’re now even, that he’s not out.

They are planning another job, again using Bats and two others that Baby has previously worked with in other jobs. Everything seems to be going to plan but Baby has no interest in completing the job, and on it he sets about a plan that will turn the entire team against him, especially Buddy (Hamm).

Why in this position? Much like my favourite film of 2014, “Nightcrawler”, I had virtually no intention of seeing this as it didn’t look exciting at all, but circumstances meant I ended up going to see it and to sum up how I feel about this film very quickly, had it not been for a really slow and tedious thirty minute period that was the filling in the otherwise excellent sandwich, then “Baby Driver” could have potentially been my top film for the year.

Everything fell together nicely in a brilliant opening and one of most exciting third acts I’ve seen in recent years, but it was just that middle bit that ruined it. You’ve been invested in the characters throughout, and it’s just a shame that half an hour turned this from a solid 9/10 into an 8.

The characters are built really well, you feel pretty much most emotions throughout, such as a brilliant joke about someone who had a tattoo saying “hate” on his neck, but wanted to improve his job prospects to turned it to “hat, because who doesn’t like hats?” That bit made me chuckle a bit. It had all of the right tools to be brilliant, much like a lot of other Edgar Wright films.

The ending is not overly predictable as the main antagonist turns out not to be who you think it will be and that was quite refreshing.

 

 

9) Wind River

Cast : Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham

Plot : Following on from the death a local girl on a Native American Reservation, the police call in the FBI to help investigate. Jane (Olsen) is the chosen agent and she is soon paired with local expert Cory (Renner). She initially struggles with the cold and the attitude of the locals.

As time goes on they uncover new clues that might lead them to the killer, but it also brings into question the local community and their values.

Why in this position? : Much like the film “Hell or High Water” by the same director, “Wind River” is a story that is told almost like a high-stakes action film that is being told to you by a placid man. There is a very distinct calmness to the whole affair and it is gripping.

Renner and Olsen are fantastic, which is made even more remarkable given the generally calm and relaxed pace of the film. Both of them feel like genuine characters, especially Olsen’s Jane, who has to get over the judgmental attitudes of the local women straight away.

There isn’t really a lot to say about this really, it is just one of those films that you should watch.

 

8) Denial

Cast : Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott

Link to my full review

Plot : Back in the early nineties there was a war of words between historians Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) and David Irving (Spall) in relation to whether the holocaust really happened. Irving confronts Lipstadt at a presentation she is giving, and later starts legal proceedings against her due to comments made about him in her book. Weisz spends her time defending herself from not only the press and the London based survivors of the holocaust, all whilst trying to find the proof for her legal team, headed by Anthony Julius (Scott) that Irving is what he appears, a Hitler-sympathiser that is trying to embarrass the Jewish people rather than just another racist.

The case starts with Irving representing himself, and over the subsequent weeks Lipstadt has to prove that Irving has lied on numerous occasions, therefore meaning that what was said was not libellous.

Why in this position? : This is a rarity in film as it an extremely rare example of the BBC making a good film. “Denial” is a very good film that focuses on the characters in a courtroom situation, and the fight for the truth, but what I liked about “Denial” is that it shows that the truth is subjective, and this is what makes Irving a very dislikeable antagonist. It’s simple, yet impactful storytelling.

Don’t go into it expecting a twisting plot that leaves you on the edge of your seat, it’s not that in the slightest. What it is however is a movie that will get you emotionally invested and on some levels very angry. I won’t claim to know the ins and outs of the whole case, after all, I didn’t even know that this was a real case until the film had began, but it got me far more engaged that a lot of similar films did.

This is simple film-making done right.

Also, on a side note, Rachel Weisz becomes the first person to star in a film that has featured in both my top and bottom ten for the year.

 

 

7) Fences

Cast : Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby

Plot : Troy (Washington) works as a garbage man to support his family but still remains bitter that he never made it to Major League Baseball, which he blames on race. He is supported by his loyal wife Rose (Davis), but he shares a strained relationship with his son Cory (Adepo), who dreams of being a professional American-footballer and is on the verge of earning a scholarship at a college.

Cory’s constant disobeying of his father’s orders strains the relationship further, but the family is forced into further turmoil when it emerges that Troy has had an affair and that his mistress is now pregnant. Can the family survive this revelation?

Why in this position? : I didn’t know going into this that the film was based on a play, but the influences are there throughout as the vast, vast majority of the film takes place in the house and garden that the family lives in. Events that happen to a lot of the characters, such as Troy ruining Cory’s dreams and his affair with the mysterious woman happen completely off screen, meaning that you need to rely on the conversations that the characters happen to understand what’s going on and they succeed tremendously.

The character of Troy is an interesting one because you are under no illusions whatsoever about the motivations of the characters and why he does what he does, but whilst you understand the need, he is simply not a likeable character. He clearly loves his wife but has an affair, provides for his son but treats otherwise treats him like garbage, has a mentally handicapped brother than he obviously cares for but secretly seems to resent for moving out and stopping a source of income, and blames his failed baseball on race even though it was heavily likely that he never got a shot at the big time due to his age.

In terms of pure acting, “Fences” is arguably the strongest film that I saw during the year. Viola Davis in particular stood out, especially when she finds out about Troy’s affair. The pure emotion from her was fantastic.

 

 

6) Stronger

Cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr, Lenny Clarke,Nate Richman and Clancy Brown

Plot : Jeff (Gyllenhaal) and Erin (Maslany) are an on-off couple and have recently split up yet again, but that doesn’t stop Jeff trying a gesture of being there at the finish line when she finishes the 2013 Boston marathon. He stands near the finish line on the day but a sudden explosion sees him lose both his legs. Unaware that he was actually there 9it is established he struggles to keep promises), Erin sees his picture on the news and rushes to the hospital.

Jeff tries to make light of the situation, nicknaming himself “Lt Dan” (a reference to Gary Sinese in Forest Gump). His overbearing mother (Richardson) tries to get him as much coverage as she can as she thinks that will help him recover, but it has the opposite impact and sends him into a PTSD like state. Things are further complicated when Erin finds out that she is pregnant.

Why in this position? : A really late entry into the top ten sees Jake Gyllenhaal feature in it for the second time in four years. “Stronger” was everything that a drama of this nature needs to be. It is engaging, emotionally excellent and well-acted. This is one of two films about the Boston marathon in this top ten list and to be fair, neither outshines the other and I struggled to put one higher.

“Stronger” just got me. Right from the opening you realise that Jeff wasn’t perfect to begin with and this makes him a compelling character as media act like he is a true hero. His struggles away from the camera are what drives this story, as do his continuing recovery efforts.

I’m so glad that I subscribe to the Chris Stuckmann Youtube channel as this movie was barely advertised in the UK, meaning I’d have probably missed it.

 

 

5) Patriots Day

Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan

Plot : It’s the day of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is reluctantly placed on the finish line to get back in the good books following a suspension. The day seems to be going well until Dzhokhar (Wolff) and Tamerlan (Melikidze) plant bombs in the crowd that injury and kill several people.

Richard DesLauriers (Bacon), a special agent of the FBI, takes control of the investigation and (relatively) quickly figures out who the bombers are, making them public enemy number one, but a high-jacking of a Chinese man’s car in an attempt to escape makes it very hard for them to escape.

Why in this position? : Peter Berg is very quickly becoming one of my new favourite directors. Last year’s “Deepwater Horizon” was great and took me completely by surprise, and whilst I heard that “Patriots Day” was good, I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did.

Let’s start with the obvious, this isn’t a pleasant film in many ways. It is very gory and unforgiving. You see a lot of blood, guts and violence, but given what happened you can’t argue that that’s not realistic. I also love that most of the characters are shown as having several dimensions, with one of them surprisingly being Dzhokhar, who whilst going along with the idea of bombing the marathon, has reservations, which in many ways humanises him. I think that’s what a lot of films like this forget, the people who do things like this are human to, and whilst it is deplorable and he (spoiler) eventually gets everything he deserves, you do have a minor (very minor) sense of sorrow for him.

Visually the film is excellent and it brings you right into the world. There is a shootout in a small street somewhere that lasts for about 15-20 minutes and it is captivating because of the effects employed.

Finally, I think one of the key aspects to why this works so well is the soundtrack. Music like “Nightcrawler” a few years back, the music adds to the picture as a whole, and whilst the music in the aforementioned is there to draw you into the LA nightlife and the further descent into madness of the character of Lou, the acoustics in “Patriots Day” act as a tension builder, and it works so well.

 

 

4) Gifted

Cast : Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan and Octavia Spencer

Plot : Following the death of his sister, Frank (Evans) has raised his niece Mary (Grace) and has home-schooled her. She one day has to go to regular school and although initially annoys her teacher Bonnie (Slate) with her know-it-all attitude, it soon becomes apparent that she is a maths prodigy and they encourage Frank to enrol her in a special school, but he refuses as he believes that she should be allowed to live a normal life as that’s what his sister wanted for Mary.

Frank’s mother Evelyn (Duncan) soon finds out what is happening and takes him to court for custody of Mary after he refuses. Mary meanwhile is conflicted about the situation, but desperately wants to stay with Frank.

Why in this position? : In many ways this reminded me a lot of “Captain Fantastic”, which was my favourite film of 2016, and I found myself drawn into the story which has a similar message and debate about what is best for a kid. The films looks at whether it is more important for a kid to have a chance to be a kid, or whether it is more important to have them realise their potential there and then, regardless of whether it is in the child’s best interests of not.

For me I still don’t really get why maths is as important as they claim it is, especially as some of the characters act like it is the be-all and end-all of life, and that is one of the reasons that “The Man Who Knew Infinity” really irked me last year, but “Gifted” doesn’t have anywhere near the same issues and treats it with respect.

Chris Evans should stick more to straight acting like this, rather than the cheesey characters he plays in other genres of films, but the true stand-out star of this is Grace, who puts in the best performance from a child seen since Jacob Tremblay in “Room”, and probably even longer than that.

“Gifted” isn’t in your face, it is simply warm film that is highly enjoyable and that is why it ranks this highly.

 

 

3) John Wick 2

Cast : Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Common, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne

Plot : John (Reeves) finally gets to go home following on from getting his revenge in the first film, but he is immediately visited by Santino (Scamarcio), who demanded he fulfils a blood debt. John declines and Santino responds by destroying his house. After a meeting with Winston (McShane), the head of a hotel chain of choice for assassins, John realises that he’ll never be able to have peace unless he does the job.

John visits Santino and finds out that his target is Gianna (Claudia Gerini), Santino’s sister. Killing her means Santino will take her seat at the table of assassins. He performs the job, only to find out from Santino’s mute assistant Ares (Rose) that he is to be killed. She fails herself so Santino sends out the assassination contract for John’s life to every assassin in New York.

Why in this position? : Let me just start by sharing a thought that I had whilst writing these mini-reviews. This is the fourth time I’ve done a top ten of the year, and this is the third time that a Keanu Reeves film has found its way into my top ten, with the only exception being 2014. The previous two being 2015’s “Knock Knock” and last year’s “Neon Demon”, although his role in that was relatively small. Reeves excels in this simple, yet effective action film in which anyone you see on screen might be an assassin, upping the ante even more.

“John Wick 2”; was a film that I had pretty much no intention of seeing, it was literally just so I could fill a few hours before a booked train home. I’m glad I had that time to kill.

I’m not a big action film fan, but I was genuinely surprised by “John Wick 2” due to it’s brilliantly choreographed, fast paced set pieces in a neo-noir setting. Visually and acoustically this film is masterful. Even the little things are done with such precision that attention to detail that it’s almost impossible not to appreciate it.

There are scenes where you genuinely feel that John’s life is in danger and that is something that is very uncommon in many films. None of the antagonists feel wasted, they all feel like they’re a genuine threat to his life, and that is something that I can’t praise enough.

 

 

2) Hacksaw Ridge

Cast : Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey

Plot : Desmond (Garfield) has been brought up in a very religious home that has been in turmoil since his traumatised father Tom (Weaving) returned from war after losing all of his childhood friends. One day he meets Dorothy (Palmer) a nurse at the local hospital, and the two start a relationship. Desmond however believes it is his duty to help fight the Nazis, and so he signs up to the army as a medic, intending to save lives instead of taking them.

He seems to fit in very well at first, forming a bond with most of the other recruits, that is until it is rifle practice and he refuses to partake in the activity, much to the ire of Sergeant Howell (Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Worthington). Desmond is taken to Court Marshall, but he is rescued when Tom turns up with a letter from the local Brigadier General that absolves his son from all possible punishment. Desmond is freed and travels to Hacksaw Ridge along with the rest of the men, but he soon realises that war is far, far more brutal than he could have ever imagined.

Why in this position? : “Hacksaw Ridge” was the fifteenth film that I saw this year and it was the first that I felt could be a genuine contender for my top ten of the year, it’s that good. It starts off a bit slow and takes its time to get going, but once it does it is fantastic, and the scenes of war in the second half of the film are not only well presented, but are viciously brutal. There is no glorification of war and you feel personally angered as characters that you’ve gotten to know over the previous hour or so are all killed off, or are injured to the point where they are barely recognisable.

The performances from the cast are excellent, no-one puts in a bad showing, but I really have to single out Hugo Weaving, who is Oscar-worthy as Tom. Weaving has often played comic-book or science fiction characters in mainstream Hollywood movies, so this is the first time many will have seen him in a role like this, and he, to use to an American term, knocks it out of the park. In a film full of memorable performances, his was still the one I was thinking of twenty-four hours later. To put this in even more context, he is only in the first for about ten minutes overall.

Don’t get me wrong, the film still has some minor flaws here and there. The character of the brother is completely inconsequential to the plot and is never heard of and is rarely mentioned again after he leaves for war, and the film didn’t really need to end with footage of the real-life people in the characters being interviewed in their old-age, that could have been an extra reserved for the DVD, but they are only minor flaws in an otherwise excellent film.

So it comes down to this, 109 movies came and went without finishing in my number one spot. I’m going to come out and just say it, not a single one of my top ten this year would have made it into the equivalent list last year, not even the film that I have at number one. When I look at my top ten from last year, even my number ten choice is (in my opinion) better than my number one choice this year.

That is not to say that any film in this specific list has been bad, far from it. I did genuinely like all of these films and I have rewatched several of them, such as “Hacksaw Ridge” numerous times, but ultimately I struggled to truly get as engaged in any of them as I was for my equivalent top ten last year.

Anyway, I’m going to leave this here and reveal my favourite song from 2017.

 

1, and my favourite film of the year) A Ghost Story

Cast : Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck

Plot : C (Clark) and M (Mara) are a couple that are currently looking at moving out of their bungalow. They keep hearing odd noises throughout their home but never find a perpetrator. One day C is killed in a car accident just outside of the home, but later awakens on the mortuary slab, covered in sheets like a child’s ghost. He slowly makes his way back home and watches and M struggles to deal with his death, although she does eventually move on and decides to move out of the home.

Noticing another ghost in a nearby house, C struggles to find meaning in the afterlife, especially as M finally moves out, but before she does she writes something on a bit of paper and then seals it in a crack in the wall, covering it with paint. Several groups come and go over time as C desperately tries to find out what was on the note.

Why number one then? From a standpoint of pure storytelling, this is arguably the greatest achievement of the year as lines of dialogue are few and often very far between. The ghost of C can’t speak so he can only watch as M gets on with life. His reaction to losing the connection to the house, especially when a Hispanic family moves in soon afterwards, is one that shows just how the character struggles with the afterlife as he searches for meaning.

I also love the time travel element to it and within minutes he goes from purposefully haunting the family to listening into a nihilistic conversation and then to the run down house, all seemingly within a matter of minutes. There is a scene towards the end in which he experiences the initial building of the house and the death of the family that caused it, and within brief seconds he goes from seeing a young girl minutes after death, to her decomposing body and eventually the overgrowth from the field overtaking her body. It really adds to the sense of the gothic nature of the film.

The long drawn out shots really aid in the story telling in such a simply, yet effective way. For example, Mara’s M doesn’t really say a single word after the death of C, and there is a long, very drawn out scene in which she sobs whilst eating a pie, only to then become sick from it.

In a year where so many films went over the top in terms of their stories and presentations, it is the simplest story that hit me the most. Maybe because it is quite nihilistic in various aspects of the story, but that is what makes it memorable.

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