By Alan Mattli
The year is over – time for the best-of lists to pour in; time for me to throw my own picks for the best films of the year into the mix. It may be excruciating to choose favourites – arguably even “anti-art”, as New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum puts it – but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to the process every single year, again and again. In 2017, I didn’t even struggle to find a clear film of the year, which, as regular readers of my lists will know, has become something of a rarity recently.
All in all, 18 films made it into the circle of year-end favourites, some of them being holdovers from the 2016-17 Oscar race. As always, my list doesn’t abound with current critical darlings because works like Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, The Post, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have yet to open theatrically in Switzerland. Eight honourable mentions (highlighted in bold) will set the scene before I present you with my choices for the top ten films of 2017.
In what was an unusually unremarkable year for animation – it was the year of The Emoji Movie, after all –, three films stood out: first, there was The Lego Batman Movie, which did not quite make the cut for this list, but which does boast one of the best comedy screenplays of the year. Second – Pixars’s Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina, and the French-Swiss claymation drama My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette), directed by Claude Barras and written by the great French writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood).
Both films manage to balance a life-affirming tenderness with a healthy dose of darkness. Coco, more so than any other Pixar movie, revolves around death and the question what remains of a deceased loved one, cannily combining a classic Disney plot with a beautiful celebration of Mexican Día de Muertos holiday. The result – an infectiously colourful, unabashedly emotional ode to cultural pluralism – is up there with certified Pixar greats like Finding Nemo (2003) and Inside Out (2015).
Zucchini, meanwhile, is a sober, unexpectedly deep exploration of childhood trauma – a drama in the vein of François Truffaut in the plasticine guise of child-friendly family entertainment. The movie opens on its protagonist accidentally killing his alcoholic mother and, in the 65 mesmerising minutes that follow, doesn’t shy away from addressing topics like forced deportation and child molestation. But at the heart of it all, there is a quiet insistence on empathy and hope, the belief that community and mutual understanding go a long way in making a world full of horrors a better, more hospitable place. To see that vision realised in such a simple, poetic way is truly an achievement.
A similarly modest call for humanity can be found in Ceyda Torun’s heartwarming and slyly perceptive documentary Kedi, in which she aims (and succeeds) to capture the magic of Istanbul’s feline inhabitants. Armed with an elaborate camera set-up, Torun chronicles the everyday life of seven of the hundreds of thousands of street cats that roam the Turkish metropolis. Cat lovers will come for and delight in the animal protagonists and their quirks and antics, but what they will experience on top of that is a loving, soulful portrait of a vibrant and open city and its people. Torun’s interviewees are women and men of different generations, classes, and backgrounds – yet what unites them is their profound love for the cats they see and, quite often, feed every day. Kedi does not claim to deliver a recipe for world peace – or even one to navigate Turkey’s current political strife. Instead, it is a reminder to take note and enjoy the little things in life – to stop and appreciate the meditative power of a cat’s purr. In times like ours, this is sound advice.
Three equally excellent, if decidedly less harmonious films, which stood out in 2017 are comedian Jordan Peele’s debut feature, the horror thriller Get Out, Bertrand Bonello’s enigmatic Nocturama, which deals with young-adult disillusionment and terrorism, and mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s controversial biblical allegory starring Jennifer Lawrence as an amalgam of Mother Earth and the Virgin Mary.
While the brilliantly written and directed Get Out, with its satirical deconstruction of predatory whiteness and culturally ingrained racism, feels like the perfect genre companion piece to the essential writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nocturama – which is available on Netflix, by the way – offers a distanced, chilling look at societal dysfunction. Without an unequivocally clear indication of motive, Bonello’s protagonists commit a series of attacks on Parisian landmarks before hiding out in a shopping mall, where they’re unceremoniously hunted down by special forces. Like Get Out, the film excels at mercilessly turning the screw, using narrative minimalism to maximum effect.
But it’s mother! that claims the title for strangest release of the year. Aronofsky’s claustrophobic, ultimately horrifying vision of human wickedness and fanaticism may take its cues from the Bible, but the way it opens them up to – and, in some cases, abruptly shuts them off from – a wide range of possible readings is simply astonishing. I’ve long been wary of the hailing of Aronofsky as a visionary, but with his latest offering, he has shown himself to be a master provocateur that might even have impressed a Luis Buñuel. In mother!, we are reminded that sometimes a film doesn’t necessarily have to answer its own questions, as long as the questions themselves are compelling enough.
Then there was Personal Shopper, another deeply unsettling genre bender. A never-better Kristen Stewart plays a celebrity’s shopping gofer who moonlights as a medium – a premise which director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) molds into a fascinating amalgam of horror, thriller, and social drama. While not quite as alien (and alienating) as mother!, this film, too, is driven by a pervasive atmosphere of dread and unease – a feeling that is not allayed by Assayas’ cold, matter-of-fact staging. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Finally, I would be remiss not to give a shoutout to Albert Serra’s costume drama The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV), which delivers exactly what its straightforward title promises: we bear witness to the slow and decidedly undignified demise of the Sun King himself, the most iconic of French monarchs – played, appropriately enough, by the legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud, most famous for his star-making turn as young Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959. Léaud, now 73 and a globetrotting veteran of world cinema, turns in a towering performance, possibly the year’s best, as the self-styled divine king standing – or rather, lying – face to face with eternity. And on top of this acting masterclass, Serra’s film is also an incisive chamber play about the absurdity of hereditary power, ending on a line fit for the annals of wry wit.
THE TOP TEN
The best musical produced in 2017 was never really billed as one at all. After bringing his unique visual style and sense of humour to the zombie film (Shaun of the Dead), the buddy cop movie (Hot Fuzz), and the sci-fi comic book adaptation (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), British director Edgar Wright turned his sights on the heist thriller – and swiftly combined it with the jukebox musical. Baby Driver tells the story of a young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort), who drowns out his tinnitus with the pop songs he plays non-stop on his iPods, falling in love whilst being forced to participate in increasingly risky robberies. The plot is heartfelt and affecting but standard fare. However, it’s directed to perfection by Wright, who stages car chases, shootouts, and even simple planning sessions like a master conductor – in sync with the soundtrack. A look at the opening scene, set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”, suffices to get an idea of the brilliance on show here, though it’s the climactic blends of image and sound – most notably the inclusions of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” by Barry White, and “Brighton Rock” by Queen – that prove to be the most breathtaking. Baby Driver is a dizzying exercise in polished, exact filmmaking, and it might just end up as a revisiting favourite of mine.
Manchester by the Sea
Were it not for his irregular output, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan would probably rank among contemporary American cinema’s masters, up there with, say, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee, and Wes Anderson. But alas, he has only directed three films since the turn of the century, each of them a critical darling – You Can Count on Me in 2000 (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay), Margaret in 2005 (which wasn’t released until 2011), and Manchester by the Sea in 2016. Manchester serves as a reminder how much poorer US cinema would be if Lonergan weren’t around. Even though it’s one of the saddest films shown on Swiss screens in 2017, the family drama – revolving around a loner having to take care of his teenage nephew after his brother’s untimely death – is also unabashedly funny in all the right places. Coupled with a brilliant cast – the kind that makes you appreciate ensemble awards –, this makes for a wholly engrossing film that, even at almost two-and-a-half hours, never feels overlong or overbearing. It may be emotionally taxing – the central tragedy that permeates every single exchange in Manchester by the Sea is truly devastating – but Lonergan’s outstanding script and his quiet, assured direction see us through and offer us something, if not comforting, then at least cathartic.
La La Land
Ever since Damien Chazelle’s homage to the classic Hollywood musical was wrongly declared the Oscar winner for Best Picture last February, La La Land has become a bit of a joke, with often sarcastic comments being directed at its characters, its at times confused inner moral logic, and its striking whiteness, given its reverence for jazz. These are all valid criticisms, to be fair, but even so, it’s still a damn fine movie. It’s a beautifully made labour of love by Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, whose catchy tunes are at the heart of many of the film’s most magical moments – from the zest of “Another Day of Sun” to the screwball charm of “A Lovely Night” to the show-stopping gorgeousness of “City of Stars”. La La Land is infectious filmmaking, sweeping you up as it moves from set piece to set piece, whose little imperfections you only start noticing at second or third glance – and by that time, you’re too caught up in the cinematic fantasy Chazelle, Hurwitz, and DP Linus Sandgren have conjured up to really mind. This is not a flawless piece of art by any stretch – but it is a perfectly persuasive play on, as one song puts it, “the Technicolor worlds made out of music and machine” that ruled mid-century Hollywood. Add to that a clever rethinking of common musical and romance tropes and you get a ridiculously entertaining movie whose plentiful charms are almost impossible to ignore. (Read my full review.)
I am a big fan of films dealing with history, memory, and the legacy of icons. So Pablo Larraíns Jackie, which centres on Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy (played by an extraordinary Natalie Portman) in the wake of her husband’s assassination in 1963, probably had an unfair advantage this year. Still, it continues to haunt me more than twelve months after first seeing it. This is not your usual historical drama; it is to, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) what current awards season fringe candidate Darkest Hour is to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – shunning traditional storytelling and, to a degree, even characterisation in favour of an associative, non-linear narrative that stresses personal experience over grand historical truths. Jackie is postmodern cinema with an emotional edge, painting a portrait of a woman in limbo: out of political power but still privileged, grieving – the shots that killer her husband in Dallas literally echoing into the present – but astutely aware of the historical gravitas of the moment. Ultimately, Larraín, undoubtedly informed by the dictatorial mechanisms he witnessed in the Chile of his childhood, is most interested in how events become what we think of as history, how an amorphous past is shaped into stories on which the movements and opinions of the future are built. Was JFK a great president, or do we merely mourn the potential he never got to fulfil? These questions provide the intellectual foundation to a film that is at the same time deeply personal and profoundly moving. This is what historical cinema should aspire to be.
Kathryn Bigelow’s vérité-style thriller about the murders of three black men at the hands of the police during the 1967 Detroit riots is probably the most shocking film of the year. In it, Bigelow, who teamed up with journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal for the third time in a row, brings the intense immediacy of her Oscar-winning war movies The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) to the topic of racism and police brutality. The result is a harrowing procedural of torture and duress, which has raised quite a bit of debate over the border between stirring shock value and exploitation. This is a vital discussion to be had, and there is definitely a case to be made that in Detroit, the pain of its black protagonists takes precedence over the social and political ramifications of the story that is portrayed. What prompted me to nevertheless include Bigelow’s film on this list, its formal accomplishments aside, is that while it may be behind the times thematically in the U.S., it is the kind of work that much of Europe still needs to see more of. Racism and especially the idea that police officers are not inherently good and moral are still issues that a lot of people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and elsewhere tend to brush off as “left hysteria”. So although Detroit may not break any new ground in America, it does add to the conversation about American white supremacy overseas – and it does so in disturbing, unflinching imagery. (Read Zeba Blay’s article about the film’s thematic shortcomings.)
2017 has been a great year for debuts: there was Jordan Peele’s excellent Get Out, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which is receiving all sorts of praise, and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (Grave in the original French), which is weird, stomach-churning, and wonderful. Like Personal Shopper, this film comes at the horror at its core from a deceptively drama-like angle, even if its setting – the first week of the semester in a drab Belgian veterinary school built in the brutalist style – conveys a sense of unease from the start. As we watch the film’s vegetarian protagonist, played by the superb Garance Marillier, develop a taste for human flesh, Ducournau expertly mixes surrealist elements with subversive body horror. Amid the almost fetishist portrayal of bloodied body parts, Raw also seems to be making a statement about the policing of women’s bodies as it strips the female body of the inherent eroticism more than a century of film history has ascribed to it – thus essentially dismantling the infamous male gaze. In truly taboo-breaking fashion (and with its fair share of pubic hair and eczema), the film champions the right of women to simply be a body in space, without the cultural compulsion to be aestheticised or turned into a mere symbol. Raw, which premiered in Cannes in 2016, proves to be a prescient film for the year of #MeToo – a sharp, uncompromising affair that works poignant feminist themes into an exceptionally canny take on the horror genre. I, for one, cannot wait for Ducournau’s next venture. (Read my full review.)
I Am Not Your Negro
Based on notes, essays, and letters by James Baldwin, most notably his unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House and dedicated to the lives of the assassinated civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., I Am Not Your Negro is a stunning collage of the thoughts of one of post-war America’s foremost intellectuals. Directed by Haitian filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck (Lumumba, The Young Karl Marx), the documentary-cum-cinematic essay combines Baldwin’s writings, read out by a tremendous Samuel L. Jackson, with a wide variety of footage: from contemporary still and moving pictures of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to more associative imagery, which hints at the continued relevance of Baldwin – who died in 1987 – and the persistent validity of his clear-sighted analyses of white supremacy. You’d expect such a project to come across as cobbled together and overly messy, but once the final thematic wave rolls over you – footage of Baldwin himself cutting to the heart of what the n-word actually means –, you realise how smartly I Am Not Your Negro has built its case. It is at once an homage to one of the brightest minds in American history, a shout of anguish and anger over the fact that since Baldwin’s lifetime little has changed in terms white supremacy in the U.S., and a rousing rallying cry to pursue true justice. “I’m a man”, Baldwin reminds his readers and viewers – this should not be a radical statement. And yet, it was, and in many ways still is. (Read my full review.)
It figures that it would take one of Europe’s most accomplished directors to make one of the most bitingly perceptive films about the continent’s current crises. (Ruben Östlund tried and failed with his overpraised Golden Palm winner The Square.) Following his perhaps most tender film, 2012’s Amour, Austrian Michael Haneke’s Happy End is a darkly satirical drama that centres on the corrosion within a high-society family based in and around Calais, the site of the injustice that is the “Jungle” refugee camp. At the helm of the story, we find an aging, suicidal patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a ruthless businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert), and their extended family, including a diabolical girl (Fantine Harduin) who evokes the children of Haneke’s White Ribbon (2009). There’s something rotten at the core of these people, the film appears to say, leaving it up to the viewer to decide just who exactly “these people” are (the French? Europeans in general? White people? Rich people?). It’s difficult to pinpoint why Happy End works as well as it does. None of its considerable venom seems to be directed at a singular goal. Rather, the film seems to decry a general state of things, a climate of entitlement, arrogance, and self-involvement that permeates Western Europe. It is what makes the protagonists blind, or at least numb, to the plight of others – be they the clandestine workers they employ on their construction sites, the working-class immigrants who serve them their tea, or the inhabitants of the “Jungle”, who have seen unimaginable atrocities in their countries of origin. This elite, according to Haneke, is far from liberal – it’s just another iteration of the aristocrats who have been toppled countless times before. (Read my full review.)
The Other Side of Hope
In 2011, Finnish master director Aki Kaurismäki garnered international attention – and even some mild Oscar buzz – with Le Havre, a touching comedy-drama about the friendship between a Gabonese child refugee and a French bohemian. This year, he presented his follow-up at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was warmly received and won him the Silver Bear for Best Director. After that, however, The Other Side of Hope disappeared into obscurity: people didn’t talk about it, it didn’t make any lists, and it didn’t prompt any renewed interest in Kaurismäki’s body of work. This is a shame not least because Hope is his best film since the Oscar-nominated The Man Without a Past (2002), maybe even his best ever. Like Le Havre, it’s set in a port city (Helsinki this time) and revolves around a young refugee’s relationship with an older local. But whereas the former movie deals in political vagueness – the city of Le Havre is a timeless fantasy, the Gabonese main character more a symbol than a character –, Hope is firmly rooted in the here and now, Kaurismäki’s fondness for Cold War-style set decoration notwithstanding: its refugee character, played by Sherwan Haji, is a young man from Syria, who at one point gets to tell the full, harrowing story of how he ended up in the markedly multicultural Finnish capital. His bid to find his missing sister as well as a new home eventually leads him into the path of a classic Kaurismäki character – a middle-aged loner trying his hand at a new business, with moderate success. But as is often the case with this director, it’s not the story that makes The Other Side of Hope an exceptional film. It’s the tone, the marriage of laconic humour and a deep sense of morality, humanity, and empathy, that makes this film one of the best cinematic treatments of the refugee crisis yet. (Read my full review.)
For the last nine months of 2017, the top of my end-of-year list didn’t change: The Other Side of Hope was the best 2017 production, Moonlight the best Swiss release of the year. For me, there is just no way past Barry Jenkins’ breathtaking Best Picture Oscar winner. It’s the best release of 2017, the best production of 2016, ranking among the best films not only of this decade but of this century. With a budget of just four million dollars, Jenkins and co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney have created a film that is stunning both formally (those colours! that score!) and narratively. Moonlight tells the three-part story of Chiron, a black boy from Miami whose mother (Naomie Harris) is addicted to crack cocaine and who finds a father figure in the drug-dealing Juan (Mahershala Ali, justified winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Initially played by the quietly excellent Alex Hibbert, we check back in with Chiron twice more; first when he, as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), falls in love with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and later when he is an adult (Trevante Rhodes). In these times, one is tempted to stress the political dimension of this gorgeous film – as I did in my original review, which is definitely not one of my better ones. The parallels between Chiron and boys like Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, himself a Floridian, are there, but they are not the focus of this film. They are associations evoked not because Moonlight is about “Black Lives Matter” but about black lives – “the dignity, beauty and vulnerability of black bodies”, as New York Times critic A. O. Scott put it. Once those are acknowledged, the “matter” should follow automatically, one would hope. (If it were that easy, there would be no need for BLM in the first place, of course.) Jenkins achieves these trains of thought without ever resorting to any kind of overt commentary. His film remains squarely focused on his superbly realised characters and their own everyday challenges, their long, measured exchanges a testament to the beauty of human interaction. After five viewings, I still cry at the kindness of Juan, lament the unfairness of the path Chiron is thrown onto, and smile a melancholy smile at the conversation at the heart of the third act – and after all is over, I remain as speechless as the first time I saw it. I cannot hope to do justice to all the layers of this beautiful and moving masterpiece. I am in awe of those writers who did, from Hilton Als to Vernon Jordan III to Nijla Mu’min. I guess this is what great art does: it inspires such emotion that you feel the need to talk about it endlessly without ever feeling you’ve captured its essence. This is why Moonlight is one of the best films I have ever seen.