In 2017, Hollywood soldiered on in the determined belief that big budget blockbusters can drag audiences away from the prestige television couch.
Unfortunately, there was no joy for the uninspired Blade Runner 2049, which bombed at the box office, or Justice League, which proved how stale DC have become.
But when Hollywood thought outside the box — employing Taika Waititi to direct Thor: Ragnarok, or greenlighting a King Kong remake that thumbed its nose at tradition — the results were like a tonic.
The Weinstein scandal cast a shadow over the final stretch of the year, though new possibilities may emerge in the power vacuum that follows his exit — hopefully for more crossover gems like Get Out, and definitely more female directors like Kelly Reichardt.
Away from the US, the French continued to release great work, and in those countries beyond Western Europe, where cinema is increasingly daring and innovative, great movies continue to surprise.
In alphabetical order, here are my top seven:
Kelly Reichardt’s astounding, immaculately crafted film shouts in whispers. A drama of subtle inflections, it unfolds in three chapters, each with female protagonists, set against a cold, arid Montana landscape.
Laura Dern plays a lawyer who contends with a mentally unstable man who has been cheated out of a compensation claim.
Michelle Williams is an unhappily married woman and mother trying to convince an elderly neighbour to give her a pile of sandstone blocks for her new house.
Lily Gladstone is an indigenous ranch hand who falls in love with a teacher at a local night school (Kristen Stewart).
These may seem like everyday set-ups that border on the banal, but in a way that’s reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s minimalism.
Reichardt’s eye for detail locates the drama, humour and quiet desperation of each story, proving she’s a filmmaker at the top of her game.
The film barely received a release after its 2016 festival run, but track it down online — it’s one of the finest examples of contemporary American indie cinema.
My Happy Family
It’s not easy leaving the life you know and starting again, especially if you’re a wife, mother and daughter in an extended family who lean on you.
But this absolute gem of a film with its ironic title invites us to take the leap with protagonist Manana (Ia Shughliashvili), a 50-year-old woman who, for too long it seems, has been putting her own needs behind everyone else’s.
Moving into a small flat in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, with a balcony view of lush trees and a fridge that she stocks with cream cake, Manana embarks upon an audacious adventure, resisting her family’s protests, guilt trips or bribes.
Directing duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß masterfully build this drama of family secrets and midlife crises with a superb, multi-generational cast.
They’re wonderfully framed by breathtaking, fluid cinematography that swirls around the chaos of family arguments and breathes deep the joy of solitude.
My Happy Family is a standout of the year for how it perceptively depicts the crossroads of middle age — especially for women — and a society in transition between centuries old tradition to a more liberal, though not necessarily less problematic future.
Few films have risen to the challenge of documenting the paranoia and perversion of homegrown terrorism in the contemporary West.
But in French director Bertrand Bonello’s thriller (bought by Netflix at the Cannes Film Festival for exclusive release on its streaming platform) anonymous young terrorists with vague motivations become a potent and tragic symbol of contemporary political violence.
After an opening that sees them moving about Paris in a highly coordinated but almost robotic fashion setting off a series of bombings, they hide in a closed department store to wait out the police sweep.
Ironically surrounded by the trappings of the society they wish to destroy, they begin to act like kids again, trying on clothes, listening to music, but with a surprising lack of remorse or understanding of the reaction they have provoked.
The film is a carefully constructed hall of mirrors within which Bonello shows us the horror of anger without empathy, and the State as the most terrifying player of all.
It is a pitch black allegory for our time.
Kong: Skull Island
It was a toss up between this and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok for best Hollywood action movie this year.
But director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ twist on the King Kong story edges out the Marvel film, probably benefitting from the fact it doesn’t have a comic book straightjacket to fit in to.
The film riffs loosely on Apocalypse Now, creating a pastiche that’s both poignant and irreverent. In fact, stop laughing for a moment and you might ponder how this is actually a very potent anti-war film.
The first sequence is set to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and references some of the elements of the iconic opening of Coppola’s movie: slow-motion rotors, palm trees, orange explosions. Then it’s suddenly cut short by a palm tree flung in the opposite direction — nature hits back!
From here, the movie barely misses a beat and the cast, including Samuel L Jackson and Tom Hiddleston, play their characters on a satirical knife edge that’s comic and occasionally tragic.
Kong takes no prisoners, and why should he?
This film proved that cinema — and what’s more American genre cinema—still speaks powerfully to the present moment.
It’s a deliriously good horror movie from director and comedian Jordan Peele, shot by Australian Toby Oliver, that speaks to the confusion and disappointment of race relations in the US post Obama.
To the question, “How did things get so bad?” it’s a suitably twisted response.
A black man (Daniel Kaluuya) accompanies his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to her left-leaning parent’s place for the weekend in leafy upstate New York, a premise that recalls Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
But soon — thanks to a creepy set-up in which the family’s black servants appear with glazed-over expressions and Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are unsettlingly inquisitive as the parents — the film heads into the paranoid terrain of Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives.
The latent racism of the white middle class characters becomes, erm, not so latent, and the film becomes a meld of cringe comedy, psychological thriller and body horror, making superb use of a contained location and cast to point beyond the screen at uncomfortable truths.
The Lost City of Z
With a blink-and-you-missed it release window, this epic adventure about British Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett is an example of a filmmaker working in a classical tradition at a very high level.
Writer-director James Gray (The Immigrant) is one of the most talented American filmmakers, though he came under fire for transforming a man who historians insist was an inept, even racist figure into a heroic and progressive trailblazer.
Whatever the reality, as a highly fictionalised cinematic work, the film has a breathtaking scope and beautiful cinematography.
A stoic but intense Charlie Hunnan plays an obsessed, idealistic man hunting for a ruined city somewhere in the humid gloom of the rainforest. Robert Pattinson, stepping out of the spotlight, plays his bedraggled offsider.
The film employs many of the clichés of the jungle adventure, but it transforms them into something sublime.
On the surface, Kristen Stewart is an actress who seems to have a narrow range of gestures, inflections and tones.
But with the right director and in the right context, her presence fills the frame and — like many great screen actors — you can’t look away.
Her second collaboration with French writer-director Olivier Assayas is a case in point. She plays a psychic who’s also a personal assistant working for a mostly absent German celebrity.
Her job involves traveling between London and Paris buying (and sometimes trying on) glamorous clothes for her employer.
But the absence of her boss mirrors another, deeper gulf — that of her dead twin brother.
Personal Shopper is partly a ghost story, partly a slow burn thriller, but also a metaphor about the career limbo that swallows up the best years of many people lives.
Depending on your sensitives, it also has one of the most intense or absurd extended texting scenes in cinema history.
Stewart is captivating as a young woman wandering through her life, almost as a ghost herself, and Assayas proves a director worthy of her talent.
Topics: arts-and-entertainment, film-movies, actor, director, united-states, georgia, france