Numbers Nine To One:
9). The Death Of Stalin (2017)
Mining the most unlikely topic for side-splittingy black humour, Armando Iannucci (Alan Partridge, The Thick Of It, Brasseye, The Day Today) – turned his scabrous eyes towards 1940’s Communist genocidal Soviet Union – this absolutely sublime farce was an absolute joy to behold. The unexpected Death of Stalin sends his sycophantic (because they had to be, unless they wanted to be executed) posse of cronies and advisors tripping over each other, scheming, bitching, snitching and back-stabbing each other to assume the top spot in an era where saying a single word wrong could earn you an instant death penalty. Sublimely stupid and ferociously intelligent, this was political satire at its very best and depressingly, a lot of it is true as well. Worth watching for the complete lack of Russian accents, none more-so than the General of the Russian Army, portrayed here as a blustering Yorkshire blowhard.
He easily stole the show.
The action was slick, exciting and consistently peppered with surreal humour and Cate Blanchett absolutely chewed up the scenery too .
The character development of The Hulk, Thor, Loki and (hard-drinking) female warrior Valykrie was nicely balanced with action and humour throughout and one major character got a beautifully understated and poignant send-off.
All-in-all, a terrifically entertaining, constantly hilarious and superbly action-packed Threequel – this is the best Thor film to date (and easily the funniest). A terrific addition to the MCU with fabulously naff opening title music, this was one of my favourite films of the year.
7). Wonder Woman (2017)
The DC Universe finally hit third time lucky after the triple misfires of Man Of Steel, Suicide Squad and Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (shudder!) and Patty Jenkins turned in a superb World War II set action-adventure with Gal Gadot overcoming all the doubters as Diana Prince (AND was pregnant during filming!). Chris Pine played the comic foil to hilarious effect and the whole thing was just effortlessly marvellous and thrillingly good fun. Further proof of how great this film is can be found in this Justic League, where Wonder Woman was easily the best thing in that film too. A fabulously fun film that finally steered the DC Extended Universe in the right direction.
6). Paddington 2 (2017)
The Peruvian Marmalade muncher returned for just the most wonderfully warm and cosy British Christmas film imaginable. Writer-Director Paul King took everything that made the original so marvellous and somehow managed to make the sequel even better. Evidence of this is the exceptional pop-up book sequence, the cartoonish Grand-Budapest Hotel-style prison, the mellow tones of Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville mugging gamely for the camera, the barbershop sequence, Brendan Gleeson’s prison cook “Knuckles”McGinty…the list goes on!
Special mention has to go to the hysterically funny Hugh Grant for putting in a (yes, really!) career-best performance as chameleonic Shakespearean Thespian Phoenix Buchanan. The entire thing was just a joy from start to finish and Paddington 2 joined the very select club occupied by The Godfather, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Lethal Weapon, The Raid and The Terminator: sequels which are far better than their predecessors.
5). Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
My favourite director of the moment Denis Villeneuve tackled the near impossible feat of directing a sequel to a 1982 sci-fi classic that nobody even thought was possible. But tackle it head-on he did and absolutely smashed it out of the park. Far from throw the viewer into an action-packed frenzy, it started off slow and continued that way. Long, slow and enthralling, it did very different things to what the audience was expecting it to (none more evident in the final twist). The music by Hans Zimmer and (It composer) Benjamin Wallfisch was absolutely hypnotic. Roger Deakins cinematography was as bleak and astounding as ever, the whole cast was just perfect and the eye-popping visuals were just startling to look at. This was an astounding cinematic experience that wasn’t afraid to ask big questions and challenge the audience at every opportunity. A stunning sci-fi epic that was well worth the 35 year wait.
4). The Last Jedi (2017)
Us sci-fi geeks have been very spoiled these last few years with three Star Wars films in three years and The Last Jedi may not be quite the best of them all (that title goes to Rogue One, in my opinion), but it is undoubtedly the bravest. Much has been made of the controversial decisions Director Rian Johnson took with the story line and it’s clear to see why.
This is one Star Wars film that defies expectations at almost every crucial point and for that reason I think the film should be highly commended. Having seen it twice now and enjoying it even more upon the second viewing, the story and character development has had to be made radically different to all other Star Wars films in order to take the saga in the direction it needed to go.
The music was, of course fabulous, the film frequently did very different things to what we were expecting, the CGI was just flawless, the visual were stunning, the Porgs were hilarious and adorable (and refreshingly animatronic too, not CGI), Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Benicio Del Toro, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis, Domnhal Gleeson, Laura and Oscar Isaac were all absolutely brilliant and the action was absolutely thrilling too.
Special mention must go to the late Carrie Fisher getting the send-off she deserves and of course Mark Hamill, who absolutely underpins the entire thing. A magnificent sci-fi experience that should be commended for taking the saga into some very brave and intriguing directions indeed.
3). It: Part One (2017)
The long-awaited (and notoriously troubled production) remake of Stephen King’s mammoth 1,138 page novel finally arrived. but was it worth the wait?
Literally every aspect of the film was just bang-on-the button. Opening to a surprisingly gruesome first kill, this was one film that didn’t hang about and wasn’t shy about laying its stall out from the very off: there was no big, dramatic build-up to Pennywise’s long-awaited reveal, he / It just…appeared.
It’s to Director Andres Muschietti (‘Mama’) that this credit must go for creating such a palpable sense of skin-crawling dread.
The decision to update the novel from the Fifties to the Eighties had some King purists positively reeling, but for me I thought it completely made the film far more relatable: a world of shell-Suits, Street Fighter arcade games and New Kids On The Block posters (not that I ever had any of course), rather than the T-Birds, diners, drive-ins and Doo-Wop music of the novel.
The narrative nods to Eighties-era Spielberg, The Goonies, The Explorers and Stranger Things really accentuated the film rather than detracted from it, all tailored-made to suit the perfectly targeted audience.
It was brave enough to deal with some very grown-up themes for a supposedly disposable mainstream horror film: racism, alienation, teen-angst, raging-hormones, burgeoning sexuality, some seriously vicious bullying and even child abuse were all given requisite screen-time and didn’t feel like simply a box-ticking exercise either.
The film’s main strength lay in the fact that it managed to both play exactly to typical horror films conventions where the audience most expected it, and also to consistently wrong-foot the audience quite often where they least expected to be too.
It is just tonally perfect: when It is funny, it is absolutely hilarious, when It is frightening, It is absolutely terrifying, and audiences emerged from the cinema having spent two hours jumping out of their skins and then laughing with great relief afterwards. But not only was It hilarious and terrifying, It was touching, sweet and sad in all the right places too.
Perfectly paced, the film is just the right length to give the large cast of characters room to grow on the audience with such (clearly) genuine and entertaining chemistry amongst them, before the next nerve-shredding set-piece was just around the corner (step forward the ‘slide projector’ scene).
Two special mentions must go to Bill Skarsgård for bravely taking on such an iconic horror role and really making it his own: gibbering, demented and constant sinister sniggering, it is a fantastically subtle and nuanced performance that will doubtlessly be studied and analysed by horror film fans for years to come (it’s as much about the guttural growling and plosive wording as it is about the shrieking, screaming and cackling).
Second special mention must go to Emmy-Award winning costumer designer Janie Bryant for also taking on such an iconic horror character and doing something very different with it indeed managing to create something completely ageless, other-wordly and terrifyingly ambiguous (for more information, read this article here http://ew.com/article/2016/08/16/pennywise-costume-stephen-king-it-movie ) and really bringing the horrifying evil startlingly to life.
All-in-all, both a fantastically funny, tender, sweet, coming-of-age, teen adolescence drama and an absolutely terrifying horror film about an ancient evil that feeds on children every 27 years using the guise of a clown to lure them in and eat them.
With Part Two promising to be even darker and (somehow) even scarier than Part One, the bar has well-and-truly been set high in this rare r-eake which easily outclasses the slightly cheap 1990 TV original.
An absolute scream from start to finish, in both senses of the word and well deserving of being one of my Top Three best films of the year.
2). Get Out (2017)
Horror and comedy are often difficult bedfellows, but when writers and directors get it right, such as they did with Scream, Slither and Adam Wingard’s The Guest, the results can often be outstanding.
‘Get Out’ was not an exception. Written and directed by one half of American comedy duo Key and Peele – I’ve never seen their program so I can’t comment, but a friend assures me it is hilarious – Jordan Peele here ensures that, tonally, this films was bang on the button too. In other words when the film wanted to be funny, it was hysterically funny. When it wanted to be tense and scary, it was absolutely terrifying.
Like a ramped-up horror remake of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? crossed with The Stepford Wives, young Black American man (utterly convincingly played by rising British star Daniel Kaluuya) is invited to his White, affluent all-American Daddy’s Girl’s parental home in upstate New York to meet her parents.
What starts out friendly and innocent enough soon lulls the protagonist (Chris) and the audience into a very false sense of security as it gradually becomes patently obvious that there is something very weird indeed going on (hint: listen VERY carefully to the banal small talk). This was one of the film’s best strengths in delivering a terrifying slow-burn horror (like all the best horrors: The Exorcist, The Descent, The Thing, Inside, Martyrs) that absolutely refused to reveal its hand until well into the film, prolonged to agonising extent for maximum tension.
Everything about this film was so brilliantly wrong – the gardener’s laugh, the Housemaid’s permanent smile, even the way the Mother stirs her tea (creating the tensest tea-cup scene since Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America) – creating an almost subliminal air of menace that the audience really couldn’t put their fingers on.
To say too much of course would be to give the fun away, but what I will say was that an instant horror classic has been created that was just a joy to watch and will definitely be enriched by repeat viewings.
Not only that, but along with Katherine Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ also being in this list, this film also really has some important social commentary to say about what it means to be young and Black in modern-day, (here) picket-fence White America.
The twist was not entirely difficult to spot but the sheer craft of the film-making here meant the journey was definitely worth the ride. Special mention also to Lil Rel Howery as best friend Rod, who gladly relieves the film’s nail-bitingly tense scenes with scene after scene of hysterically funny bile-spouting about his friend’s unfortunate and mystifying situation.
Easily one of the best horror debut features in years, this was a cereberally-challenging (in more ways than one), horrifying and brilliantly originally horror-thriller, that also just happens to be hysterically funny. Utterly brilliant and well worth it’s reputation for causing a global critical and commercial sensation.
You’ll never look at ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ in the same way again, this was my second favourite film of the whole year.
So, the countdown is over…what was my favourite film of the entire year?
It was going to have to go a long way to top…
1). Dunkirk (2017)
What more is there to say about Christopher Nolan’s magnificent (and surprisingly brief, for him) war epic that hasn’t already been said? The mega-budget World War Two film, filmed largely down the road from here in Swanage.
Beginning with a credit-free ‘cold-open’, Nolan sets his stall immediately out with his usual cinematic tropes. A lack of back-story to treat the audience with the intelligence it deserves, CG-free production design and the neat little touches which subtly imply the desperation and the weariness of the situation at hand – stealing cigarette stubs from an ashtray, using floating propaganda leaflets as toilet paper – before the viewer is launched head-first into the maelstrom within less than five minutes.
The near-wordless first twenty minutes was a stunning narrative technique that reminded Me much of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ (my favourite Western of all time) and Nolan lovingly filched this technique here, but hey, if you are going to steal, steal from the best. Plus, the message here is clear: we don’t need to be spoon-fed expositionary dialogue to know that horrors the previous six years have brought upon the world.
The scene was immediately set for a three act story (or Triptych) involving the evacuation and rescue efforts from the titular beach from land, sea and air. Close attention was required as there are three separate time-lines going on here and it is Nolan’s narrative master-stroke to intertwine each of these at various points of the film, so the viewer really didn’t know when one or more plot-lines were going to converge or how, but stick with it, because they did. Of course to say anything would be to spoil the surprises for those yet to see it.
Frequent Nolan collaborator Hoyt Van Hoytema’s mesmering cinematography made the beach itself a major character of the film: cruel, bleak and unforgiving during the hopeless hours (it actually looks like an alien wasteland at times) and then beautiful, friendly, sunny and shimmering by the time the final credits roll.
Cameras strapped to Spitfire wings during aerial dogfights. Navy vessels listing underwater. The camera tracking a soldier on a stretcher across the huge beach. The camera is there to capture it all.
Dunkirk was criticised for being cold and clinical upon its release in July. But war is cold and clinical. Did the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan give long lingering, slo-mo shots of soldiers being killed in a really dramatic style? No: The soldiers were killed and the camera barely took any notice. That’s how war is. Was Saving Private Ryan or Paths Of Glory, Full Metal Jacket or The Longest Day subject to the same criticism as Nolan’s masterpiece. No, they weren’t.
The script was as sparse, minimalist and rightfully humourless as the exhausting and bleak situation required and the stories are progressed along in brisk and perfunctory manners, culminating in a comparatively lean 105 minute running time.
Hans Zimmer’s minimalist music is, of course, fabulous and is also a major character of the film. The relentlessness of the ticking stop-watch (actually Nolan’s own watch) and the searing intensity of the music really ramped up the tension to agonising extents (think of the final twenty minutes of The Dark Knight), far more-so than any blustering John William’s score did.
Special mention must go to the Sound Design and Sound Editing team for creating such a realistically ear-splitting and thunderous noise, which really had me flinching and wincing in my seat at the sheer volume of it. They definitely deserve the Oscar in March for creating such an authentic audio-assault on the senses.
The acting is all uniformly excellent (even ‘He’ is perfectly decent in his debut film role) and the story-lines are just so totally unpredictable, the relentless tension compounds to an almost unbearable extent as nearly eight story-lines of varying degrees of direness converge within the last twenty minutes.
Special mention also to the Production Design team for recreating so faithfully the Spitfires, Mescherschmitts, tanks, Frigates and Destroyers in typically-stunning CG-free Nolan form.
A film that definitely deserves to be shown on the biggest screens imaginable to school classes around the world forever more, to highlight just what mankind can achieve when faced with with such seemingly insurmountable hopelessness. Nolan has done the very difficult subject very proud indeed.
A sensitively-handled and unbelievably tense survival story that does the real-life heroes proud and satisfied mainstream cinema audiences as well, which, in itself, was a terrific achievement indeed.
If there isn’t water in your eye and a lump in your throat at the sight of a Spitfire soaring high over the shimmering beach at the end, well, then there must be something a bit wrong with you, to be quite frank.
Closely pipping Elem Klimov’s deeply harrowing 1985 Russian World War Two film ‘Come And See’ to the top spot, this is an astonishing cinematic feat of film-making, the greatest war film I have ever seen in my life and was my absolute favourite film of the year by a country mile. Utterly magnificent, this is damn-near-perfect film-making.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed!
(Project Square Eyes – Sunday the 14th January 2018)