My top ten films of 2017

 

Most of the films I see at the cinema are good, often very good, and mostly excellent. That is thanks to the insight of critics and the adopting of a moderately elitist approach in choosing my viewing. As you can see from the below though it isn’t all miserabilist Central European art cinema. Note the list reflects when I saw the film not when it was released. Right off we go.

1. Graduation

Director Cristian Mingiu’s study of endemic, everyday corruption in his native Romania, and the lengths to which a parent will go to secure the future of their child, is an intricate, intelligent masterpiece, with echoes of Haneke. Adrian Titieni plays a surgeon with secrets, and fraught relationships with daughter, wife and mistress. Following an attack on his daughter, (played by Maria Dragus), the day before her British university entrance exam, our surgeon is forced to call in favours to help her get through, but only with her complicity. This tragic set-up permits a queasy, gripping journey through personal and social morality. Astounding stuff.

2. Elle

Another uplifting tale. Not really. This time from the hand of Paul Verhoeven. A rape revenge black comedy with the magnificent Isabelle Huppert in the lead. It is intended to provoke. It succeeds. Ms Huppert is a divorcee who is the unlikely head of a video-game company. She is attacked and raped in her flat but, because of her past, does not go to the police and seeks to track down the assailant herself. Through it all Ms Huppert’s character remains brisk, brusque and unlikeable. Hard to imagine anyone else being capable of, or wanting, to take on the role. The tone is as unsettling and inflammatory as it sounds, and I don’t know how to resolve the ugly contradictions here, but it is one of the single best performances I have ever seen on screen. You’ve been warned.

3. Blade Runner 2049

I know there are many who found this a ponderous, portentous, pretentious bore, and it was a box office “disappointment”, but I loved it. It looks stunning, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, sounds amazing thanks to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, the cast, by and large, is at the top of their game, and the story has much to say about the human, no make that, post-human condition and the nature of consciousness. It is way better than the original. The plot, “orphan” sets out on a journey to discover his true identity, is as old as drama itself, so it works, and director Dennis Villeneuve knows it works.. It you just want 100 minutes of CGI crash, bang, wallop with more plot-holes than a warehouse full of Emmenthal, then you have plenty of choice elsewhere. If you want to see what sci-fi cinema is truly capable of, look no further.

4. The Levelling

Now I am guessing that this won’t appear on too many other best of 2017 lists. It should. Hope Dickson Leach had to scrabble around to get the funding for this, her feature length debut. I pray that, given her extraordinary talent, this won’t happen again. Clover, an immensely thoughtful performance from Elle Kendrick, is a vet student who returns home to crusty Dad, veteran David Troughton, after the mysterious death of her brother. Secrets seep out, and the stunted relationship between father and daughter is probed. The film also offers a rare insight into farming life and economics. It is beautifully put together, though this is no Arcadia, more folk horror. Yet still, as with Graduation, ruthlessly naturalistic. Seek it out.

5. Detroit

A vital and fearless polemic from director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, which pulls no punches in its telling of real life events at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit race riots of  1967. Hand held cinematography from Barry Ackroyd follows the confrontation between racist cope, led by one Philip Krauss, (an extraordinary performance by Will Poulter), seven black men and two white women, that ended with three murders at the hand of the police. The film is bookended with the events that led up to the “incident”, and the court cases and repercussions which followed. It is powerful, gut-wrenching stuff which will make you very angry and leave you wondering how much has really changed in America since those dark days.

6. Mother!

Bonkers stuff from director Darren Aronofsky which somehow works. Home invasion horror meets eco-catastrophe parable with Javier Bardem, as a writer with severe block, and wife, Jennifer Lawrence, doing up his childhood home after a fire, whilst trying for a baby. A knock at the door. Ed Harris turns up followed by his wife Michelle Pfeiffer, then their grown up sons and soon what seems like the whole world ahead of the apocalypse. Unsettling, bewitching, laugh out loud funny, brilliantly shot. I can’t wait to see it again.

7. The Florida Project

Another visual feast. Director Sean Baker has set his tale of America’s dispossessed, literally on the other side of the tracks, just next door to Walt Disney World. Halley, an astonishing debut from Bria Vinaite, does what she needs to to support herself and daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince). Motel manager Bobby (William Dafoe) does what he can to watch over them. It doesn’t end well. Yet most of our attention is focussed on the brilliant blue skies and pastel pink architecture of their motel block neighbourhood, seen from the point of view of sassy 6 year old Moonee and her friends. This may not look like a damming indictment of the gap between rich and poor in America but that is exactly what it is. Along with Graduation and The Levelling it is the film her that sticks longest in the memory.

8. Manchester by the Sea

Another film that doesn’t shout at you but is no less effective for that. Kenneth Lonergan has written and directed a film about one man’s grief and his opportunity for partial salvation. Just as well that that man, Lee, is played by Casey Affleck whose performance is jaw-droppingly good. To make it really work though, it needed Lucas Hedges, who plays his nephew Patrick, whose guardian Lee becomes after the death of his brother, to act up to his level. The past filters through the present, there are moments of lightness and pathos, but no simple resolutions. Make sure to see it.

9. The Death of Stalin

Satire is the most difficult genre to pull off it film. Especially when you are writing about a country and a time which has been endlessly satirised by its own people. Armando Iannucci is a master of the art but this was still his most ambitious project to date. It is blackly and bleakly hilarious.

10. Toni Erdmann

One more father-daughter relationship to set alongside Graduation and The Levelling. A few more laughs here though not always of the most expected kind. As always the best comedy flows from tragedy. Sandra Huller plays Ines, a high flyer posted to Bucharest. Dad Winfreid, played with relish by Peter Simonischek, follows her. She humours him and sends him on his way. But, with nothing to go home for, he stays and assumes an alter ego as a life coach, Toni Erdmann, with bad wig and buck teeth. Through a series of cringe-worthy, but strangely uplifting scenes, we see Dad and daughter emotionally reconciled. Apparently writer/director Maren Ade whittled this down to a still leisurely 160 minutes. Suggest the DVD extras will require their own disc. Loved it.

The Death of Stalin film review ****

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The Death of Stalin, 26th October 2017

There have been a lot of clever people born in Scotland. In fact there was a time at in the second half of the C18 when it was the smartest place on Earth, the Scottish Enlightenment. All right maybe I exaggerate a bit but not by much. Certainly, in David Hume, Scotland turned out one of the greatest thinkers of all time. There have been many dazzling intellects since then and I would put the satirist Armando Iannucci up there with them.

Many of AI’s early collaborators, (Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and Stewart Lee, all big heroes in my world), have gone on to create some marvellous work but AI is the creative with the greatest reach. After The Day Today, the original Alan Partridge shows, (still the funniest comedies I have ever seen), and his eponymous C4 shows, he went on to the masterly political satires, The Thick of It and Veep. His first film was the Thick of It spin off, In The Loop. The Death of Stalin is his second film as director, and was co-written with David Schneider, (who the Tourist, bizarrely, hung out with many years ago), Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. This might be his best work yet.

Political satire is a tough gig. Especially in a world where, as is oft remarked on a daily basis by the commentariat of both established and social media, our politicians seem bent on acting in a way that defies satire. I suspect that this “oh they all grubby, corrupt, clownish, incompetent shysters”, or whatever variation you want to put on that from whatever your political perspective, is a refrain as familiar as Western style democracy itself. However, it does seem that the behaviour of our current crop of leaders in these democracies is particularly eye catching, reflecting their need to satisfy our own narrowing attention spans and mask their own impotence, in a world where capital and labour are increasingly mobile. Other than creating the conditions for the continued explosion of global credit, and orchestrating the mood music of cultural (in)tolerance, our politicians don’t really get up to much.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t tempted to make things happen and that is where we must be vigilant and prevent them doing anything too silly (let’s be honest we are falling short at the moment in the UK and US). Satire is an important component of that vigilance. Taking the piss is a ruthlessly effective way of drawing attention to the ineptitude (or worse) of our leaders and, if it does its job properly, is generally difficult for subject and audience to ignore. A society without satire is a damaged polity. So this is why AI is such an admirable chap in my book.

The Death of Stalin, (which is based on a French graphic novel), does not, obviously, address the failings of today’s Western democracies. It instead takes the year of Stalin’s death, 1953, and the Soviet Union as its subject. Now this was a dangerous and vital place to be a satirist. Modern day Russia has not escaped this legacy it seems. In an ironic twist it seems that this very film has wound up the Russian authorities whose ambivalence about the reign of Stalin looks somewhat ignoble. Whilst the film is rooted in a specific time and place it is pretty easy to see the universal message. Our rulers are human. They are consumed by petty jealousies and, in moments of crisis, often care more about plotting for their own positions and careers than they do about the good of the people.

The film opens with a radio broadcast of a Mozart piano concerto overseen by Andreyev (a frazzled Paddy Considine, currently wowing punters in The Ferryman in the West End which is A MUST SEE). Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin who captures the capricious bully with minimal screen time) is listening. He demands a recording prompting a farcical repeat of the concert. The soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a note into the recording critical of the regime which pre-empts the brain haemorrhage which kills Stalin. All of this may have happened. Well maybe not the note. And the concert repeat may be apocryphal. Maria Yudina was certainly a critic of the regime.

Anyway we had already seen Stalin having a boozy boys night in with other members of the Central Committee. By this time the Central Committee had only nominal powers with the Politburo under Stalin making all the decisions. Remember too that the Politburo had been purged before WWII, and filled with Stalin’s lackeys’s effectively leaving him in sole control. However after Stalin’s death the Central Committee regained prominence, and we see how Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) came to power through manipulating the others members of the Committee and orchestrating the murder of the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the NKVD, the secret police organisation which had carried out Stalin’s purges.

Those are the facts folks, but the way AI and his collaborators show these events is blackly and bleakly comic. These are powerful men holding the fate of an entire nation, embarked on a massive political experiment, in their hands, but they are utterly out of their depth. Some of them could be running a family carpet company in the Home Counties, such is their charisma.

Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is an exception. He is just the personification of the Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. He is first to the scene of Stalin’s haemorrhage but his first act is to destroy incriminating papers. His cruelty is effortless. As you might expect this is an inspired performance from, in my view, our greatest stage actor (on his day). It takes a bit of time to adjust to Steve Buscemi’s accent as Khrushchev (AI uses natural accents throughout I think) but his paranoid energy and gradual realisation that he can take power are perfectly captured. Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov, the hapless Deputy who easily yields first to Beria, and then to Khrushchev’s, manipulations. The scenes where Michael Palin’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the great rhetorician, is unsure whether to condemn or embrace his returning wife, are priceless. The rest of the Committee is made up of Paul Whitehouse’s wideboy Anastas Mikoyan, Paul Chahidi’s effete Nikolai Bulganin and Dermot Crowley’s blunt Lazar Kagonovich. Jason Isaacs’s war hero General Georgy Zhukov is gloriously over the top as is Rupert Friend as Stalin’s embarrassing pisshead son Vasily. Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana Stalin as manipulative brat.

This is an outstanding cast and a marvellous script. It is not the laugh out loud humour of The Thick of It or Veep, and the grotesquerie is constrained, though very real. It is in some ways a serious satire, in the sense that what you see is utterly believable even if what happens is not historically verified. It is full of detail and beautifully put together. And the ending reminds us that, beyond the vanity and scheming, these people bear collective responsibility for a violence which decimated a proud nation