My Favourite Films of 2017

Here are the films I loved most, of all the titles I saw that were shown in Australian cinemas and festivals in 2017. If I reviewed or discussed the film, I’ll link to that in the title. These are mini-reviews, because in many cases I didn’t get to review the film on its release.

On that note: this year has felt like a turning point for me as a film critic. Of course, the screws have long been on arts and culture writers in a crowded media marketplace. But when I see my contemporaries in other fields being recognised and remunerated for their skills and experience, I feel so melancholy to be squandering my own professional capital in the content mines.

On the other hand, I’ve felt a strong sense of community and solidarity among fellow writers and critics. And I’ve been very lucky to have The Rereaders podcast as a regular outlet for the kind of film discussions I relish.

If you value my essayistic approach to criticism, stay tuned, because in 2018 I plan to launch an independent platform for my film and TV writing. Now, back to the movies!

Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)

In smuggling the imagery of kaiju movies into the architecture of a Sundancey indie romantic dramedy, Vigalondo says some dark things about men’s entitlement and women’s trauma. While Colossal’s premise is easy to find goofy, I liked its metaphors of smallness and largeness: the idea of feeling weak and insignificant versus feeling huge and powerful.

While some critics found Colossal triggering, I found it heartening. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) isn’t made to ‘grow up’ or ‘get serious’ or ‘be loveable’. Instead, she learns to trust her own instincts, recognising that her actions have consequences, but not allowing herself to be pushed around by anyone, for any reason. And Jason Sudeikis’s affable onscreen presence only emphasises the hollowness of the ‘nice guy’ trope. Colossal turned out to be a very ‘2017’ film.

Jackie (Pablo Larraín)

Right from the first woozy, uncanny notes of Mica Levi’s Oscar-robbed score, Jackie swirls free from stodgy biopics that claim to transparently depict history. Instead it signals itself as a film about the subjective experience of memory, and so gets closer than a traditional biopic to capturing an individual’s capacity to shape history. Evoking the way this story has been drafted and redrafted, Larraín repeats motifs and moments, like ghosts of themselves.

Natalie Portman’s lead performance is an extraordinary act of historical ventriloquism that never feels phony, because it’s submerged in Jackie’s perspective. Much as “there will never be another Camelot”, we’ll never see another Jackie of Portman’s hypnotic sensitivity. Larraín’s film stakes a powerful claim to being definitive history, precisely because it’s an idiosyncratic psychodrama. It was Jackie’s Camelot, too.

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

I loved Davies’ Sunset Song (2015), an achingly beautiful meditation on women’s suffering — a topic Davies has handled far more sensitively in his work than, say, mother! (Darren Aronofsky), or the films of Lars von Trier. Here, Davies and star Cynthia Nixon bring to life the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson with wit and compassion.

While many biopics of famous creatives locate drama in tumultuous events, A Quiet Passion, true to its title, slowly taps the well of deep feeling underlying Dickinson’s poetry, which Nixon beautifully performs in voiceover. Davies resists gothic flourishes, instead matching a patient, observational camera to formally enunciated, fiercely intellectual and frequently very funny dialogue.

We often understand a recluse to be constrained by neurosis, their home their prison. But Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, is depicted as a space of the poet’s imagination and a sanctuary for her deepest loyalties and most sacred desires. In one sequence that has stayed with me, Emily acidly blocks the social overtures of Henry Emmons (Stefan Menaul), refusing even to speak face to face; but after he leaves with her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), she indulges in a swooning fantasy of a silhouetted bridegroom creeping through the darkened home, climbing the staircase to her bedroom to claim her.

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)

I wasn’t expecting this film to be so scary. At times I physically felt afraid in the cinema, and it’s one of the best depictions of ghosts I’ve ever seen onscreen — although I did enjoy the trad sheetsmanship of Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story (David Lowery). But Personal Shopper is also about the intensely spooky interface between clothes, bodies and space, and the way we project ideas about ourselves and others into the world.

The title character Maureen (Kristen Stewart) furtively and illicitly tries on her celebrity employer’s clothes at the urging of a mysterious SMS correspondent. Gazing at herself, touching herself, photographing herself, her mirrored image becomes the twin she’s lost, the spirit she seeks. But as if opening Pandora’s garment bag, Maureen may be letting something malevolent escape into the world… or inviting it inside her. I found the film’s ambiguous ending very unsettling.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

I was enormously moved by this finale to the recent trilogy. Its towering achievement is to make you forget you’re watching human actors in motion-capture suits; the astonishingly detailed visual effects melt effortlessly into the mise-en-scène so that you identify with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes against your fellow humans, who seem savage, unknowable. Reeves makes the end of human civilisation feel morally and emotionally right — which makes War for the Planet of the Apes an invigorating alternative to the “carrying the fire” fantasies of most post-apocalyptic stories.

Caesar’s life spans varying human attitudes to the Other: James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) represented indulgent paternalism; Jason Clarke’s empathetic negotiation of ape sovereignty in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was stymied by fear and hatred on both sides; and now in this film, Woody Harrelson represents a fanatical, genocidal regime. But rather than WWII, ‘the last good war’, this is a Vietnam War allegory, with all the muddled political resonances this implies. (For more on this theme, I heartily recommend Josh Nelson’s brilliant essay on Kong: Skull Island.)

But perhaps the film’s elegiac register came from its homage to the Biblical epics of Hollywood’s studio era. Caesar is Jesus, Moses and Spartacus (a cute wink to OG Apes star Charlton Heston) rolled into one: former slave, special chosen one, sacrificial lamb, guiding his people to their homeland. Reeves’ use of light in the film’s sublime final moments felt like the caress of God.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

If War for the Planet of the Apes had ‘heart of darkness’ flourishes, then this was another meditation on how evading colonialism requires a kind of self-abnegation. In many ways it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s austere but over-long Silence, in that it was a slow-paced, even mystical film about the suffering of obsessive white men who imposed their own spiritual quests upon foreign lands.

I’d read David Grann’s nonfiction book in 2014, and keenly awaited this adaptation. I was surprised by how meditative it was, because the book was so lively and adventurous. As driven explorer Percy Fawcett, Charlie Hunnam has the perfect blond, blue-eyed stolidity. But the most interesting thing about this film is that Fawcett isn’t motivated by imperialist aims — although he cannily exploits them as fulcrums for his career.

Instead, the elusive jungle city, known only by a single letter, symbolises a phantasmagoric actualised self that is stunted by structural social barriers. The film’s ending tantalisingly suggests that Fawcett and his teenage son Jack (Tom Holland) do find that self-knowledge… at the expense of their worldly lives. Meanwhile, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller), her professional aspirations crushed, seeks solace in her own jungle of the mind.

That’s Not Me (Gregory Erdstein)

The year’s best Australian film. It’s disgraceful that such an original, wickedly funny independent comedy was completely snubbed at the recent AACTA Awards. But to put that another way, why would our local screen academy reward a film that roasts AACTA’s sacred cow: the internationally successful Australian actor?

Australian culture invests heavily in underdog success stories, yet rarely examines the flipside: failure, inferiority and envy. That’s Not Me undercuts the feelgood upwards trajectory of the ‘struggling artist’ genre for something bleaker and more satirical. I can’t think of an Australian story both so harsh and so affectionate since, I don’t know… Hating Alison Ashley (Geoff Bennett)?

I loved That’s Not Me’s sharp script, which is packed with actual laugh-out-loud moments. Alice Foulcher (who co-wrote with her husband, Erdstein) is a delight as failed actor and cinema usher Polly, who craves the trappings of fame — an Oscar, an American celeb boyfriend, an HBO show — but fatally refuses to compromise her dignity to get there.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

What made this film so wonderful to me was the way Jenkins cradles the viewer, and his characters, in everyday moments of visual beauty, the way that Juan (Mahershala Ali) cradles Little (Alex Hibbert) in the ocean. Jenkins moves away from the gritty look of social realism for an almost theatrical use of luscious lighting and vivid colour. It’s a film about memory, about the way that such small moments stay with us and shape our lives.

Contrast this with the similar use of lighting and colour grading in Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie), which feels violent and alienating, like the fluorescent anti-theft dye that sprays the characters. Where Good Time drowns Barkhad Abdi in shadow, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton make the Moonlight actors’ skin glow. Fluorescent light feels dreamlike, especially in a memorable scene in which Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) screams angrily at him.

Girls Trip (Malcolm D Lee)

We almost weren’t going to get this film in Australia — perhaps it was deemed ‘too black’ to play well here. But its rave reviews on its US release in July propelled it into Australian cinemas by late August. Ostensibly, Girls Trip fits into the same genre of Apatovian antics as Bridesmaids (Paul Feig), Bad Moms (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore), Fun Mom Dinner (Alethea Jones) and Rough Night (Lucia Aniello). But it’s both more wholesome and much, much filthier.

Like T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) it’s nostalgic for youthful hedonism, and forces its characters to overcome long-submerged grievances. Lee, steward of the Best Man franchise, isn’t afraid of a cosy, even corny moment; there are plenty of shared tears, hugs and prayers. But there’s something relaxed and loosey-goosey about Girls Trip that’s missing from the brittle, wary slapstick of other such films. You really feel these characters’ shared history. They accept each other at their worst and weirdest. Their friendship is muscle memory, like the wigs-and-sunglasses dance routine they use to ruin their millennial enemies.

Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Queen Latifah are all great, but Tiffany Haddish steals this film with her audacious physical comedy. Media screenings can sometimes feel like comedians’ green rooms, in that we tend to ~appreciate~ funny movies rather than respond to them (although one critic is notorious for cackling sinisterly at inappropriate moments in dramas). But I was screaming with laughter in this. It’s just so fucking funny.

Spoor (Agnieszka Holland)

This Polish eco-feminist fable, told in the wintry idiom of a murder mystery, is based on a 2009 novel by Olga Tokarczuk called Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead. Its elderly protagonist, Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), is a retired engineer and schoolteacher who is deeply eccentric in ways that unsettle her rural neighbours. I loved that Holland and Mandat-Grabka never shy from this; they make us really sit with Janina’s embarrassingly effusive empathy with nature, and the absurdity of Janina’s insistence that the deaths of local hunters were caused by prey animals seeking vengeance.

But Spoor is also full of joy and solidarity, as Janina takes under her wing an assortment of fellow oddballs who themselves are casualties of provincial misogyny and anti-intellectualism — a local culture depicted with casual menace. Despite the black comedy of its premise and the open hostility of many of its characters, Spoor captivated me because it rejoiced, as Janina does, in the gentle bounty of the natural world. Rather than undermining an older woman as silly, Holland insists on Janina’s moral and emotional authority.

Raw (Julia Ducournau)

Ducournau’s debut feature garnered notoriety as a kind of endurance test: can you handle its high-impact gore and scenes of cannibalism? But it’s full of visually striking moments, from a scene of body-horror metamorphosis filmed under a sheet to an uncanny shot of a horse running on a treadmill. This is a film that blurs the lines between human and animal; we are what we eat.

Vet-school freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) has the same name as the debased maiden of de Sade’s novel, and her tenderness — pun absolutely intended! — is what makes the awakening of her appetites so mesmerising. A lifelong vegetarian alert to all flavours of suffering and exploitation, Justine struggles with the hazing rituals to which first-year students are subjected by upperclassmates — including her blasé elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf).

Many of these rituals are explicitly sexual; and the film stuffs heady themes of embodiment, desire and to-be-looked-at-ness into a feminist coming-of-age turducken. Justine dances with her own reflection, smearing the glass with autoerotic blood-coloured lipstick. And as she watches her hot gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) shirtlessly playing basketball, her eyes glaze with wanting as blood drips from her nose, like carnivorous lubrication.

Get Out (Jordan Peele)

Peele’s directorial debut is impressive not just because of the boldness of its racial critique, but also because of its rich, deftly deployed iconography. It’s a film about eyes, about seeing. The prey animals Peele uses as metaphors for the suffering of black Americans at white hands — the dying deer that haunts Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) because it echoes another hit-and-run death; the song ‘Run Rabbit Run’ that plays, ominously, on a car stereo — have the same wide liquid eyes as Kaluuya, whose horrified, tear-streaked face is the film’s most memorable image.

Crucially, Chris is a photographer, his eyes coveted by blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen Root). But what enables Chris’s artistic gaze is his lived experience of blackness; and Get Out immerses the viewer in the dread that Ta-Nehisi Coates has described as black disembodiment — the pervasive fear of having your bodily autonomy stolen. The horror of the Sunken Place comes from being forcibly reduced to spectatorship, which is underscored by the repeated motif of a TV.

But Chris’s watchfulness — his ability to observe — is also the source of his power in this film. I loved Kaluuya’s microexpressive face, flickering with realisations. He could play American literary icon James Baldwin in a biopic; and Raoul Peck’s extraordinary documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a fitting companion piece to Get Out, in terms of connecting the visual regimes of Hollywood to asymmetrically racialised gazes.

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)

In a similar way to Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer), this film broke the fourth wall and seemed to speak directly to me. Is this how male critics felt about Boyhood (Richard Linklater)? Is this how queer critics feel about Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)? That feeling of being interpellated in a way that slices to the quick of you?

The Edge of Seventeen finds humour in a specifically feminine flavour of rage, yearning and humiliation. It gets what it’s like to be a girl. But it’s more acidic than Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (another brilliant female coming-of-age story that won’t hit Australian cinemas until mid-February). Fremon Craig undercuts many of the clichés of YA cinema: that awkwardness and social isolation are quirky; that parents and mentors will help you through; that first love will set you on the right path.

The film balances competing perspectives on youth: the excruciating, alienating, helpless feeling of being a teenager, and the selfish cruelty teenagers can wield. In refusing to centre and sentimentalise Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), this wonderful film forced me to confront my own self-indulgence. Just like the white-winged dove, it makes the years fly away, and we find ourselves right back there, on the edge of ’17.