Dennis Broe introduces his top ten films, ten noble efforts, and a few duds from 2017.
First a caveat. My filmgoing is in Europe so there are some fluctuations in openings between the American and European markets. So Moonlight, for example, last year’s Oscar winner, is on my list for this year. More important though is that this list often functions as an advocate, urging that films which have not reached the U.S. market, like Raoul Peck’s Young Karl Marx, get an opening. The list is also an advocate for powerful films that are dumped with little fanfare on the American market and get lost amid the steam of American indies and foreign films which are released each week and are barely reviewed compared to Hollywood fare. Worth noting also is that three of the top 20 films opened on Netflix rather than in cinemas, making the streaming service a major site of global distribution, now rivalling the major studios.
Top Ten Films
The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s dark fable and leading Oscar contender set in the bowels of the Cold War, in a dank secret laboratory. It's also a stunning cross-species love story with brilliant performances that begin with Sally Hawkins mute cleaner, who assembles a band of misfits to challenge the military-industrial machine. It harks back in Del Toro’s work beyond Pan’s Labyrinth to his earlier even more politicized Francoist children’s tale The Devil’s Backbone with a musical number with hard-won quality which exposes the pure fluff of last year’s La La Land.
A Ciambra – Martin Scorsese executive-produced this coming of age Roma story set in the impoverished Calabria region of Southern Italy, and which is that country’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film. This is a bitter tale of the multiple betrayals necessary for the boy to attain manhood in poverty. Critical not only of Western treatment of immigrant communities, but also of the hierarchical system of ethnicities pitted against each other that now marks life in the West. A companion to Scorsese’s own earlier films on a similar topic - Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets.
This is Congo – The year’s best documentary not only recapitulates in stunning detail the colonial and continuing history of the West’s devastation of the country in order to continue to have access to its mineral wealth, but also traces the individual devastation in its following of a Congolese hero who opposes the mercenary breakdown of the country but finally succumbs himself to government collusion in this giveaway. A stunning effort by filmmaker Daniel McCabe who has taken the time to know intimately the country, the region, and his lead character.
Angels Wear White – Vivian Qu, producer of the Chinese masterpiece Black Coal, Thin Ice is director of this seaside story of the layers of corruption which allow a government official to remain unprosecuted for underage assault. Qu details lovingly both the ingrained opportunistic buying off of witnesses and the slow decision of the lead worker to come forward, followed by a masterful shot of her having to leave her job trailing the oversized statute of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood icon whose symbolic imprisonment within a male system mirrors the girl’s own. Superb and unrelenting exposure of the compromises that are de rigeur in a society where too often human relations are ruled by money.
Western – Seen at the New York Film Festival and still to open in the U.S., this German film by Valeska Grisebach, produced by the director of the similar-themed Toni Erdman but better and tougher than that film, is set in rural Bulgaria and details the prejudices of a West German construction crew against their Eastern neighbours. A former mercenary challenges their assumptions but shows himself to be consumed as well by the supposedly superior technological gaze of the West, a gaze which is exposed as not all-knowing but rather all-exploiting.
Okja – Netflix financed Boon Joon-ho’s charming, touching fractured fairy tale about the viciousness of the meat industry as a young Korean girl falls hard for the giant genetically engineered pig a corporation has deposited with her family. Stirring action scenes from Boon Joon-ho, for my mind now the world’s best director, after Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. And a double performance from Tilda Swinton as alternately the smiling and then the malicious face of corporate slaughter, commanding the butchering of masses of Okjas, a death scene that goes on every day in the world’s abattoirs.
Loveless – Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to Leviathan is in its own quiet way even more bleak than the previous film, only here the subject is not post-Soviet breakdown but instead the consumer society, triumphing in the evacuation of the state and its more quiet devastation of the psyche’s of the divorcing couple who are so busy with their gadgets and positioning themselves for promotions that they have utterly neglected their son. The cold, cruel Russian winter here functions as a metaphor for the chilling of humanity in the wake of the penetration of global capitalism. Devastatingly sombre but accurate critique.
Patti Cake$ – The year’s best American indie is a working class, multi-ethnic La La Land, what that film promised in its opening but then abandoned, here fulfilled in a Jersey story of an overweight rapper in love with the music. The film acknowledges multi-levels of prejudice within the industry, but in its own way reinvents the purity and emancipatory potential of a music that has been too long simply bought and sold. The triumph comes through a cross-racial working-class pairing that in its honesty is as unusual in American film as it is in American society.
Get Out – This horror film about the depth of racial prejudice in the United States manages to hit all the points of the genre, while injecting humor into the situation and remaining unflinching in its depiction of the deep-seated fears and hate at the heart of supposed enlightened American upper middle class. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut about a mixed race couple is a true Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the age of Trump, where the veneer of liberal hypocrisy has been replaced by rage. Excellent genre filmmaking and then so much more, proving as did last year’s Last Train to Busan that the horror film may be the modern genre vehicle par excellence for expressing the terror and misery of late capitalism.
Young Karl Marx – Raoul Peck has here constructed a Marx for our times. He disdains the usual biopic formula of emphasizing the most overtly dramatic moments which might have culminated in the young Marx’s participation in the European revolutions of 1848 and instead quietly details how Marx and Engels began to break with more traditional staid socialisms, which would become the utterly sold out socialism of today, to conceive instead of international working class revolt culminating in their Communist Manifesto. What Peck has created here is a politically engaged intellectual bio-pic projected across Europe, encompassing in its language French, German and English, a stunning advancement for the genre.
Ten Noble efforts
Cairo Confidential – This Egyptian noir, released in the U.S. as the more obliquely titled The Nile Hilton Incident, details its reluctant cop hero uncovering layers of wrongdoing in the Mubarak government on the eve of the Arab Spring, corruption that is now even more widespread under the new dictatorship, supported again by the U.S. of course.
Wind River – Taylor Sheridan’s Hell and High Water was a caper film about dispossession in the Texas Panhandle, and he is back again this year with this even more focused tale of murder on an Indian reservation that in its way predicted energy company mistreatment of the protestors at Standing Rock.
Mudbound/Moonlight – Both were excellent historical recountings of African-American experience. The first, picked up by Netflix after being boycotted by the major studios at Sundance. It's set in Mississippi in the 1940s, and is astounding in its quiet depiction of sharecropping exploitation. The second describes three generations in drug-addled Miami ,as the neighbourhood collapses under the weight of this penetration, and as its lead character both confronts his gayness and survives in the only economy left to him. A more socially penetrating Brokeback Mountain and that most unusual rarity, a deserving Oscar winner.
Sweet Country - Warwick Thornton’s aboriginal Australian 1920s Western, detailing the utter disdain of the settler population for the country’s indigenous peoples. It manages at the same time to portray the way that population attempts to if not fight back at least preserve its dignity, while proving itself far more caring than its exploiters, as the aboriginal fugitive saves the life of Brian Brown’s parched sheriff.
The Villainess – South Korean derring-do, as a female assassin wrecks a rival gang in the opening, is domesticated by Korean intelligence only to be betrayed by it, and then wreaks her revenge on both the state and the gangs and smiles wickedly at the end as she is taken. B-filmmaking at its finest.
Taxi Sofia – Bulgarian film, otherwise titled Directions or Posoki. Multiple stories of taxi drivers, including the opening of one pushed too far by the banks, recount the devastation wrecked by the unleashing of a pernicious and greedy capitalism in that country. Tarantino-esque in its rapid outbreaks of violence, but with more of a social conscience.
Our Time Will Come - Ann Hui’s depiction of the gradual coming of political age of the Hong Kong resistance to the Japanese during World War II, and in particular of a school teacher who surpasses her male guides. It has echoes of Jean Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows about French wartime resistance, but outdoes that film in its more unbridled validation of the potential of a political awakening.
Ex Libris – Frederic Wiseman returns in the best anti-Trump film of the year. It details, in these times of massive defunding of the state, the value of the New York Public Library in reaching not only minority populations but also standing as an educational bulwark against the rapid commercialization of all forms of learning for the city’s entire population.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – This Indonesian ghost-story, shoot-em-up, martial arts tale by Mouly Surya about a woman’s being set upon by bandits and her subsequent learning to protect herself and taking her revenge, taps rich sources of that country’s folklore. This film is an announcement of a major director on the global scene.
What the Health – Netflix documentary on the damage wrought by the animal food industry, which downplays the harmful effects of sugar but makes a major contribution in its examination of the continuing damage done to the planet’s health and to individuals by the accelerating slaughter of beef and other animals. Wonderful example of advocacy filmmaking.
Five Turkeys for Christmas
Ismael’s Ghost – The years’ most pretentious piece of fluff from French director Arnaud Desplichin, a misogynist fable posing as a complex look at the creative process.
Private Life of a Modern Woman –James Toback’s validation of the supposed journey of an upper middle-class Hollywood actress toward enlightenment seems to instead just wallow in self-pity and privilege.
Jim and Andy – Worst documentary of the year, exposing unwittingly the shallowness and opportunism of Jim Carey, who attempts to claw back his career by supposedly exposing hidden footage of him playing Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon. A disgraceful defacing of Kaufman’s legacy.
Au Revoir Le Haut or See You Up There –- World War 1 fable that is the opposite of The Shape of Water. It's a regressive tale that after a promising start ends up first dissolving the destruction of the war in a 1920s flapper haze and thenultimately validating it, as the industrialist who pushed the war is revealed to have a heart of gold.
Mother – “Torture the woman” Hitchcock commanded, and Daren Aronovsky follows that dictum by heaping abuse on Jennifer Lawrence in a haunted house tale that is supposedly about the creative process of her writer-husband, Javier Badem. It's really just an excuse for sadistic nonsensical escapades which one New York critic claimed was actually a comedy. You can lose your license for judgments like that.