2017 in Film image

2017 in Film

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Both of the fans of my film columns on Think Theology may have noticed that I didn’t write much for the website in 2017. Life took over a little bit. I got more film writing for film outlets, which unfortunately left less time to write for Think. Major life events ended up taking precedence over watching films, too, which meant that I haven’t seen some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year (sorry, The Florida Project, I probably would have loved you). But this end-of-year list is still one of my favourite things to do; I still find engaging with cinema from a Christian perspective is essential and exciting. I’ll try to do it more in 2018 although I am getting married this year so no guarantees. As ever, these films are in no particular order.

Personal baggage

It’s interesting how some of my favourite films chimed with my personal life. My brother died around Easter time, aged 27, and it wasn’t much later that I ended up watching my favourite film of the year, A Ghost Story. It’s a strange film with a premise that suggests something ridiculous: a man dies and comes back as a ghost to watch his wife get on with life, except his ghostly form is nothing more than a man dressed in a sheet with eye holes cut out, like a lazy Halloween costume. Director David Lowery has created something truly unique here, a film about loss, the passing of time and whether what we do will leave any legacy on this earth.

Films never exist in a vacuum. We bring a lot of baggage to every piece of art we consume - it’s one of the reasons Wonder Woman, which was fine, has taken on such an important cultural status (perhaps rightly so). This baggage is also why everyone has such different reactions to cinema, as Alissa Wilkinson pointed out in this terrific article. Many of you will hate A Ghost Story. I think it’s a terrific film in its own right; the 4:3 aspect ratio (it’s shaped like a box) and grainy film stock create an enchanting atmosphere, while the performances are incredible. I can’t deny, though, that it was lent extra power because of my emotional state at the time. Lowery creates space for such responses, too. The film’s most famous scene is an unbroken, static shot of Rooney Mara grief-eating a pie that lasts about five minutes, with the sheet-ghost watching in the background. That’s how strange this film is. Such long takes allow you to engage with the films lofty ideas (by the end it turns into something transcendent, spanning generations), while still being profoundly moved. It was a cinematic experience quite unlike any else this year.

The only other film that had such a profound impact on me was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, but as I have many, many other films to write about and that was my last post on the blog (over a year ago!), I’ll just direct you to my review. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s the short version: It’s a perfect film.

Memories of my adopted brother resurfaced, too, in My Life as a Courgette, a stop-motion animation about life in an orphanage. It’s ostensibly aimed at children, but holds a wealth of emotional nuance within its slight plot and swift running time. One of my most joyful cinematic experiences of the year was watching Paddington 2, an elegantly made, impossibly charming family film that probably counts as the best comedy I saw this year. Again, I would have enjoyed this whatever the mental weather, but there was something so simply touching about the bear’s love of his aunt, a reminder of the beauty of family in a year where I’ve increasingly realised its importance. Try watching it and not leaving with a teary smile from its final moments.

Films and the real world

Then there’s the baggage that comes from outside your personal life, the political, theological and cultural baggage of engaging with the modern world. That’s what led to the ludicrous sight of Nigel Farage praising Dunkirk as a sort of pro-Brexit film. Sure, it’s about Brits beating a hasty retreat from Europe, but the left-leaning, pro-Europe crowd of Film Twitter embraced it with equal enthusiasm. Farage might do well to consider that it was the far right that Brits were fleeing from, and that the EU has led to an era of peace in Europe. But really, it’s not about politics at all. It is, however, Christopher Nolan’s best film and one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of the year. It’s almost apolitical and the soldiers can barely be considered heroes; Dunkirk is all about survival and it will leave you breathless as you root for these largely nameless, almost interchangeable young lads. It’s cinematic spectacle of the kind that only arrives every few years; I suspect we’ll still be talking about this film in 20 years’ time.

Somehow politics has become so weird that liking black people became a radical political statement in 2017. Three films about interracial couples took wildly different approaches to their topic, each affecting me in different ways. Jeff Nichols – a director who appears on my list seemingly every time he makes a film – released Loving, an achingly restrained love story about a real couple who fought miscegenation laws in Virginia and ended up going to the supreme court. This isn’t rallying against any one political stance, instead it focuses on quiet moments between the Lovings (their real surname) as they just try to live out a peaceful marriage. Its strength lies in not being a polemic, instead just following a couple as they remain permanently baffled that anyone could be so full of hate towards them.

The Big Sick, meanwhile, is the true story of a Pakistani comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) who falls for a heckler at his gig, dates her, then breaks up with her shortly before she goes into a coma. It’s a sweet, acutely observed comedy that feels real because, well, it was. Meanwhile, Get Out was an excoriating social thriller/comedy/horror that made its budget back about 50 times over. An African-American man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s parents in a neatly ordered suburbia and things get weird from pretty much the first frame of the film. If you’re a liberal type that’s ever described yourself as “woke”, this may leave you feeling uncomfortable. I was a big fan of the director Jordan Peele’s work in sketch comedy already, but this shows that he’s even more gifted as a director. He exercises such a tight control of tone and pace, all while holding up a grubby mirror to society.

The articles I wish I’d written

Cinema in 2017 was refreshing because it was all so thoughtful, which is why it’s such a shame that I had so little time to write about any of it. I wish I could have waxed lyrical about the surrealist sci-fi animation World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, which manages to provoke more introspection about existence in 20 minutes than Blade Runner 2049 did in 2.5 hours. (I liked BR2049 well enough, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t as intelligent as it wanted to be).

I also had a long article brewing about mother! by Darren Aronofsky. There seems to be one film every year that I wouldn’t recommend to the majority of Think readers and the 18-rated mother! fills that role admirably. It’s a wildly over-the-top film with a couple of moments of genuinely stomach-churning violence. Yet as an allegory for creation, complete with one of the clearest depictions of how sin can affect an entire world, it was a remarkable, visceral cinematic experience.

I also would have liked to highlight smaller films that didn’t get wide releases. Patti Cakes was a heart-warming micro-budget indie about a girl from New Jersey dreaming of a rap career, while The Other Side of Hope was a Finnish film about refugees in Helsinki that oozed compassion, humour and humanity. One of the best films I saw this year will probably never get a cinema release in the UK as I caught it at a film festival. Centaur, from Kygyrzstan, is about horse riding, tight-knit communities, tradition and cinema. I was mesmerised.

So although I didn’t see as much or write as much as I’d like this year, the films that I did catch in 2017 showed that cinema still has the ability to surprise and enchant me. It also made it really clear that what you get from cinema is often what you bring to it (I mean, that’s also how most of us read the Bible, really). There’s no such thing as an objectively great film, but few art forms have such a wide-reaching or powerful ability to speak to our lives and our times.

And The Worst…

It wasn’t all great though. I can’t believe I sat through King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I can’t believe it cost $175 million to make. I can’t believe it made it all the way to the big screen, passing through countless producers, writers, marketers and cast members, and yet not one frame of the film managed to be anything close to competent. An irredeemable mess and the worst thing I saw this year by some distance. And I watched The Emoji Movie.

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