Happy New Year from all at Magic Lantern-and to kick start this year Simon Wardell, our guest blogger, shares his top picks of 2017. Agree or disagree we would love to know-get in touch in all the usual ways.
The harder I have to scout around for a theme to encompass my films of the year, the better a year it must have been. Few things are worse than the movie industry following trends, so saying that my top dozen of 2017 could be, mostly, united by their cinematic ambition, I feel we’ve been blessed with a diverse crop. There are several love stories, and a couple of father-daughter relationship dramas in the list but then, when aren’t there?
Let’s start with ambition. Christopher Nolan has never been lacking in that quality and Dunkirk provides it in bundles. From the plot’s three interwoven timescales to Hans Zimmer’s ominous, rumbling score, it is a relentless, tense experience and, in the director’s beloved Imax format, almost overwhelming. Equally in-your-face is Mother! (whose exclamation mark is well merited), in which Darren Aronofsky throws a barrel-load of metaphors at pregnant wife Jennifer Lawrence in a surreal world contained within a disorientating octagonal house.
Lawrence’s committed performance is matched by Florence Pugh’s in Lady Macbeth, a stark, dark period drama in which her young wife fights back against her patriarchal surroundings with the few tools at her disposal. Manchester By the Sea is full of great acting, with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams the beating, aching heart of the piece. But with a script of such quiet power from Kenneth Lonergan, they couldn’t go far wrong. Affleck (or at least someone pretending to be him) also appears in A Ghost Story. Writer-director David Lowery challenges us to glean depth in, and care about, a spectre only ever seen under a white sheet with two holes for eyes, as the excellent Rooney Mara does the more obvious job of grieving for her dead husband. Her pie-eating scene is a killer.
Love, familial and romantic, swirls around several entries. Moonlight has it all – drug-addicted mothers, surrogate fathers, sexual awakenings – wrapped in an episodic structure that gives time and space for arresting images and unspoken intimacies. A worthy Oscar winner. Philip Larkin’s anti-parental lines sprung to mind while watching Toni Erdmann, wrongly promoted as a comedy. There is a farcical element to Maren Ade’s German drama, certainly, with one house party as excruciating as you could wish for, but it’s the ebbs and flows of the relationship between Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller as a shambling father and his uptight daughter that make a heart-breaker. Less extrovert, but no less affecting, is the great Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, in which a minor setback leads a principled Romanian doctor down a slippery moral path as he just tries to do the best for his daughter.
On the romantic side, critics’ favourite Call Me By Your Name from Luca Guadagnino lives up to the plaudits. On the surface, the coming-of-age story of a privileged, cultured teenager one hot summer in Italy doesn’t inspire confidence but it is done with such grace, subtlety and beauty that you are seduced by it, just as Timothée Chalamet’s Elio is drawn to Armie Hammer’s confident older man. Self-awareness is also the theme of God’s Own Country, an understated love story between an introverted Yorkshire farmer’s son and the Romanian migrant worker hired to help during lambing season. It’s all the more interesting for their being gay not becoming an issue.
Finally, two joyous films of very different stripes. Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a proper comedy, with the political chaos created by Uncle Joe’s demise offering many opportunities for the Thick of It writers to bring out those glorious creative insults they are famous for. Finally, you can’t fail to enjoy The Florida Project, despite the financial hardships faced by the motel residents depicted. That’s because we’re down with the kids, specifically Brooklynn Prince’s six-year-old Moonee and her pals, following at child’s-eye level their imaginative games and tricks and explorations in a society they can just about forget isn’t doing them any favours.