02 January 2018

My top 10 films of 2017

It's been another grand year of film adventures. I watched 182 films in 2017, and here's the best of the crop, including two great films featuring pint-sized lead actors, two top New Zealand documentaries, and capped by a shameless and compellingly charming underdog story straight outta New Jersey.

1. Patti Cake$

I knew I had to see Patti Cake$ the moment I read the festival blurb recording the moment the Cannes crowd heard the film's lead actor Danielle Macdonald speak at a Q&A they 'gave an audible gasp when she answered her first question because no one had a clue she was Australian let alone not American'.

There's no question that this quest-for-stardom music flick traverses the most hackneyed of cinematic cliches - the embattled outsider with a heart of gold striving to overcome adversity with the help of their plucky, wacky friends and a huge helping of sheer talent. In lesser hands this would be trivial, forgettable material. But with Macdonald director and writer Geremy Jasper has a legitimate, stone-cold star. There's never a moment in Patti Cake$ that leads the viewer to disbelieve her tremendous ability with a mic and a rhyme. Her rapping performances are quite authentically superb, and that's from someone like me who has little knowledge of the musical genre. And whereas a film like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire can coast on a serviceable lead performance by Gina Carano thanks to her eye-watering martial arts talents, Macdonald is the complete package here because in addition to rapping like a boss she also acts with commendable talent.

I won't spoil the audacious climax of the film, but this is that most treasurable of offerings, a true crowd-pleaser in every respect. Don't be surprised if you see Macdonald at the Oscars, or at the very least performing at the Grammys - assuming they can devise something PG-13 for her to rap, that is.

2. Dunkirk

In a masterful display of epic war-movie filmmaking from Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk fills a huge gap in the WW2 canon by telling the hallowed and mythologised tale of the grim months of 1940 in which Britain was dreadfully isolated and facing seemingly certain defeat at the hands of totalitarian foes. With Johnny Yank still an unbearably long 18 months away from getting around to entering the war, Britain and its Commonwealth fought on alongside the doomed French and Belgians, scrambling to save the army that could spell the difference between security and fascist hegemony.

Nolan understands the precariousness of the situation and the sheer implausibility of what became a totemic British act of defiance in the face of incredible odds. His film is unbearably tense yet profoundly exciting, it's intensely patriotic yet eschews all jingoism, and in a theatre of war deluged with 400,000 men it remains recognisably human and character-driven in scale.

In avoiding the lantern-jawed cliches of war movie heroism, Nolan tells one of the most honest and believable war stories I've seen, on the land, on the sea, and in the air. (The film does take the dramatic licence of somewhat overstating the importance of the 'little ships' in the rescue, but that's entirely understandable given the public fascination with that aspect of the story).

Given the horrors of shipwrecks - of which there are plenty in this film - and the sheer unstoppable force that strangled that unforgiving French coast, Dunkirk is a fine example of why so many war survivors could never speak of their experiences. In this celebration of what is, in effect, a famous and bloody retreat from certain capitulation, the only victors are those who survive, whatever the cost.

3. Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web

You don't have to like Kim Dotcom in the slightest to be impressed by the scope of Annie Goldson's stellar documentary. While the biographical aspects of the sorry Dotcom tale are strong, the broader implications for the entire way society consumes intellectual property are particularly intriguing. Particularly telling is the example given of the early rise of Dotcom's Megaupload, when a recent University of Kansas graduate tells a reporter friend that her campus was abuzz with sharing free movies on the site, and that it was her lecturer who first turned her onto it - a clear sign that the social impact of this type of sharing was mammoth and permeating every corner of the world.

Goldson has assembled a formidable collection of international interviewees to augment the expert insights of the Herald's David Fisher, including Jimmy Wales, Moby and Glenn Greenwald. And whether or not you think Dotcom is guilty of the crimes he's been charged with, his case has been handled diabolically by the New Zealand authorities at seemingly every stage. The questionable granting of New Zealand residency (potentially with the ultimate intention of handing him over to the Americans), the ludicrous overkill of the January 2012 raid on the Dotcom mansion (which was conducted using faulty warrants), the police's illegal cloning and sharing of his entire evidence file with the FBI, the illegal surveillance by the New Zealand security services (which was later patched up by highly contentious legislation) and the eventual court ruling that he was eligible for extradition to the US but not for the charges originally laid against him, the five years it's taken to even get this far ('justice delayed is justice denied', after all): these all add up to a picture of a New Zealand justice system seemingly taking its orders from overseas and bending its rules to suit.

Throughout, Dotcom appears as a charismatic chancer punching way above his paygrade - a low-level crook who made millions while Hollywood refused to adapt its business model to reflect changing technology.

4. Summer 1993

An expertly realised evocation of a momentous summer from the director's own past, as orphaned six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is taken to the Catalan countryside for a new life with her aunt and uncle and her tiny cousin Anna. Wiry, inquisitive and puzzled, Frida struggles to adjust to her new environs and the family struggles to adapt to this newcomer, half insider, half outsider. As a simple depiction of childhood, familial kindness and learning to get along, this is hugely effective, finding particular joy in the small and utterly genuine interactions between Frida and the cherubic, playful little Anna that pepper the film. So many of the episodes depicted have the ring of true memories to them, and as Frida's story and that of her family emerges one can't help but be impressed with the performances of all involved.

5. Baby Driver

A finely-honed heist flick that sees Edgar Wright deploying his directorial verve in the service of a well-worn plot, taking it on interesting new tangents thanks to the lovingly-chosen soundtrack that scores almost every beat of lead character 'Baby's criminal exploits. While the getaway scenes are suitably spectacular thanks to top-flight stunt driving, it's the musical cues that give Baby Driver its soul and spirit, setting it apart from generic car films. And the genuine chemistry between Ansel Elgort's Baby and Lily James' Debora is a pleasure to watch - they will both emerge from this film with greatly burnished acting credentials. There are minor quibbles about the ending and the choice of actor to play the antagonist role, but the film surpasses any minor criticisms in its headlong embrace of sheer fun and its authentic, believable heart.

6. Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve has succeeded in constructing a fine addition to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner canon, in this unhurried, cerebral amalgam of recent sci-fi techno-paranoia such as Spike Jonze's Her and Alex Garland's Ex Machina. The film looks spectacular on the big screen, aiming for and often achieving a Kubrick-style surreality, while the soundscape is every bit as crisply targeted as the original's synth score suggested. Its ensemble cast performs well under Villeneuve's measured, restrained direction, offering the chance for scenes to play out gracefully without resorting to traditional sci-fi action bluster. There's also some commendably creepy robot love thrown in for good measure. If there's more story to be told, here's hoping this isn't the Aliens or Terminator 2 creative zenith of this tale.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

You may have heard of this one. My main take-home message was the potentially game-changing first use of the word 'spunk' in a Star Wars script. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed TLJ a great deal, particularly on the impressive IMAX screen in Auckland. But on second viewing the relative simplicity of the dialogue did become more noticeable. Did Rian Johnson intentionally keep the reading age of the script low, to maximise the potential audience?

8. Pecking Order

I can definitely recommend this New Zealand documentary following a year in the life of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam & Pigeon Club (est. 1865). My workmate from Christchurch tells me it's populated by 'very Canterbury types', and despite having never lived there I can definitely see what she means.

While the exploration of the intricacies of competitive poultry exhibitions are interesting and well handled, and bring back strong memories of the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best In Show, as with most good documentaries it's the human stories underpinning the chicken preening that give the story its emotional heft. Aside from the lifelong fascination many of the film's subjects find in their birds, all is not well in the Club, with ageing president Les Bain finding insurrection in the ranks and finding himself ill-equipped to deal with dissent. So the lead-up to the national competition in Oamaru is shot through with tension and bitter infighting in committee rooms, which will be very familiar to anyone who's participated in such institutions; sadly, sometimes the people rewarded with office in recognition of many years of participation don't possess the skills to lead a disparate bunch. Equally, the young challenger who seems to possess the right skills to modernise the club is beset with the traditional New Zealand aversion to confrontation and is reluctant to put himself forward if it'll mean a stoush. Throughout, it's the youngest members (in their teens) who are the most sensible, as the old birds scratch and claw each other over seemingly petty disputes.

In this fine, strong local documentary my only niggling point of difference is that the filmmakers signal too strongly that the film is quirky and not to be taken too seriously through their choice of music cues, punning intertitles and graphic design. Viewers can work this out for themselves. But that's a minor complaint: this is very good work and gives townies like me a glimpse into a mysterious rural pursuit that's seemingly changed little since the 1860s.

9. A Date for Mad Mary

An object lesson in how to make a small film with a big heart, A Date For Mad Mary works in every respect - dramatically, comedically, narratively and visually. The tremendous Irish cast led by Seana Kerslake as loose cannon Mary offer believable and memorable performances and the film provides a glimpse into the motivations and challenges of a determined young woman seeking a 'plus one' for her best friend's wedding, with the slight impediment that she's got anger management issues and has only just emerged from a six-month jail term.

10. The Florida Project

Featuring a very fine juvenile performance from little six-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly and a compelling tale of motherhood on the breadline, The Florida Project offers the social realism of Short Term 12 and the naturalistic child acting of Boyhood, mingled with a nuanced depiction of those left behind by the American dream. And it only serves to emphasise the architectural crimes that seem to have been perpetrated on the unsuspecting urban environment of Florida.

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

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