The year had hardly begun when Martin Scorsese blitzed us with Silence, his epic tale of a pair of Jesuits enduring horrendous suffering in 17th-Century Japan. It got a critical mauling for its longueurs but if you stayed with it, as is the case with most Scorsese films, it was well worth it.
Most of the high profile films of the year – King Arthur, Logan, Jack Reacher, Dr. Strange, Fast & Furious 8, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, The Kingsman, etc. – left me cold. Spiderman: Homecoming proved to be a welcome exception. Risen gave us a unique approach to the Resurrection.
Handsome Devils had its moments but when you boiled it down it wasn’t much more than Sing Street with rugby. Halal was charming but seemed to have a Pollyanna attitude towards political integration. The theme was handled more professionally in films like A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe.
I thought Trespass Against Us worked except for the fact that Michael Fassbender looked far too gentle for the rough diamond he was called on to play. The Sacred Scripture was a mish-mash that jumped on far too many religious (or quasi-religious) bandwagons but the first half hour was very effective. All the more frustrating, then, that it took such an oblique U-turn afterwards.
Also oblique was Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled. Colin Farrell is no Clint Eastwood but he did his best in a difficult role. You could say the same for him in more intense films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We can be thankful box office bombs like Miami Vice and Alexander scuppered his big budget career to make way for these ‘indie’ gems.
Miss Sloane was too ‘talky’ for me and bit off more than it could chew. Lady Macbeth was the most shocking film I saw during the year for its unrelenting portrayal of venality. On the other end of the scale, Going in Style was a fairly harmless attempt to disabuse us of any generalised views we might have about the elderly – they don’t want to go gentle into the good night – but its gimmicky way of doing this (i.e. a bank robbery) was a rather silly antidote.
The Shack dealt with the attempt of a family to keep the Faith after losing their daughter on a camping trip. Good idea, but I thought it showed misguided trendiness in making the character of God into a jolly black woman.
Moodiest movie of the year? Frozen River. Most pretentious one? Return to Montauk. Most uncomfortable offering? Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song. Most welcome? The long-awaited film of Peter Turner’s brilliant (ad beautifully-titled) book Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
Brian Cox looked more like Albert Finney than Winston Churchill but he still gave a brilliant performance as the growling P.M. in Churchill, a film that had the audacity to be all about D-Day without actually showing a bullet being fired. Dunkirk fared less well with the critics on a number of fronts.
Hysteria was the main mood of 47 Metres Down, a film that managed to straddle the divide between horror and comedy – though I’m not quite sure it meant to. Best biopic of the year for me was the Morrissey one, England is Mine. Almost every frame was a gem.
There were some interesting documentaries made during the year: Emer Reynolds’ engrossing The Farthest, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and Alex Gibney’s
fascinating No Stone Unturned. Another impressive film about the Troubles was Stephen Burke’s Maze. This displayed the two sides of the sectarian divide with equal fairness and still managed to have all the tautness of a thriller.
I loved Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea and was delighted to see him win the Best Actor award at the Oscar ceremonies, thereby denying the more middle-of-the-road performance by Denzel Washington – who looked daggers at him as his name was called out – for the overly-earnest Fences, a standard issue ‘grace under pressure’ story that wasn’t much more than a play with the camera on.
I was disappointed to see Natalie Portman [pictured] lose out in the Best Actress category for Jackie but 2017 was the year of La La Land, Tinseltown’s lump-in-the-throat valentine to the era of song-and-dance.
It didn’t win Best Picture though, despite the efforts of Faye Dunaway, who was involved in one of the most embarrassing gaffes of Oscar history with Warren Beatty before Moonlight was awarded the ultimate prize. Part of the reason it won was an over-payment of the racist debt Hollywood felt it owed black performers over their no-show at the ceremonies the previous year.
Another Affleck, Ben, produced and directed a compelling version of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel Live By Night. This acted like a companion piece to Johnny Depp’s Black Mass in its uncompromising portrayal of the Boston crime world during the Roaring Twenties. Affleck had already adapted Lehane in Gone Baby Gone. The collaboration here was just as riveting. He was less impressive in a quirky film called The Accountant. This could best be described as an ambitious failure.
Violence was to the fore in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Gibson seemed to be doing a kind of revamped version of The Passion here with Andrew Garfield as a secular Christ showing near-miraculous powers of healing on the battlefields of Okinawa. Garfield was also in martyr mode in Breathe, playing a man who became a posterboy for polio sufferers the world over. The film made you think he should be careful about stereotyping. Haloes can become very heavy after a while.
Another film about somebody with a disease, Everything, Everything, had a more whimsical approach to its theme – and a killer surprise at the end. Suburbicon had sets like Photoplay covers and characters like cardboard cut-outs. It oscillated uncomfortably between pointed noir intentions and skewed altruistic tones.
My film of the year was probably Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. It was castigated for its minimalist approach to racism but it succeeded brilliantly in what it set out to do so that criticism was unfair. Unless you focus on specifics you’re making documentaries, not fiction.
My foreign film of the year was Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. Mungiu basically turned the camera on and let the actors do the rest. His ‘long take’ style is immensely effective, as already displayed in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It made you feel as if you were eavesdropping on people in real life: the ultimate in cinema verité.