Adam Nicholson gives us his highlights and recommendations of the last year in film and television
Naturally, any summation of a year’s cinematic and televisual output is dubious enough before being awkwardly arranged into a somewhat arbitrary list of ten, but why rock the boat while it’s still afloat – now is the time of the year that The Glasgow Guardian will throw its hat into the ring with the other outlets and their top tens. Unashamedly, the following list is my personal selection of the best of both cinema and television from the calendar year we just left behind, though as the editor for film and television, I’d like to think my position affords my choices with a little validation (perhaps vainly so).
“Calendar year” is the important phrase; I won’t be using the ridiculous “academy years” (which run from one Oscars show till the next), hence a few entries performed well in the previous bouts of award shows. An honourable mention goes to Dunkirk which just lost out from inclusion, for while Nolan’s war picture is a consummate technical achievement, it may strike some as being a little cold, emotionality having never been Nolan’s strong suit.
I will also add that the most important event in film and television this year had nothing to do with what was on the screen. The revelations of rampant sexual abuse within the industries will define 2017 as a watershed year in the history of cinema and television and rightfully so; at long last, the systemic and fundamentally twisted attitudes towards women held by Hollywood were most publicly questioned and will doubtless have a tremendous effect on film and television for decades to come. However, I present, in no order, my selection of the best of last year.
La La Land
Important is my distinction between calendar and academy years. The not-quite best picture winner of “2016” was in fact released in the UK in January. Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer and director, achieves the rare blend of technical cinematic mastery and emotionally satisfying storytelling. La La Land deftly utilizes all the tools at a filmmaker’s disposal, while never losing the thread of emotion amidst all the cinematic tricks. And I love a good musical.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
I cannot recall a cinematic experience in the last ten years as uncomfortable as that offered by Yorgos Lanthimos’s strange and loose adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis. If I were to give an elevator pitch for this picture, I’d say it was The Shining fused with Sophie’s Choice and yet this is simply an inadequate description. Then again, I find myself fundamentally unable to express precisely what the film is about and how it achieves its effects, though that isn’t to say it’s incomprehensible. It is simply alluring and disturbing in equal measure, a consummate piece of cinematic craftwork and a profoundly challenging dramatic experience. Of all the films of 2017, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the film I would like to recommend the most. Watch it, then forgive me, and thank me months later when you’re still thinking about it and craving another viewing.
Disappointingly, the gamut of awards-bestowers appears to have forgotten about Kathryn Bigalow’s stunning film. In a year when race, and especially race in America, was so pressing an issue, Detroit told the right story at the right time. The Algiers Motel incident is excruciatingly told, tearing your nerves apart, and leaving you enervated and disgusted with the injustice and intolerance rife in 1960s America while questioning, in light of this year’s events, whether such an extent of oppression is still present.
Another film which regrettably flew somewhat under the radar, Wind River forms the final entry in writer Taylor Sheridan’s thematic trilogy analysing American frontiers, having begun with Sicario and continued with 2016’s Hell or High Water. The film blends perfectly its wider thematic content, especially its focus on its Indian Reservation setting, with the taut construction of a top-class thriller. This is a Hemingway type picture; no fat, just lean drama.
Twin Peaks: The Return
There has never been a more ambitious project on television. David Lynch and Mark Frost returned, after 25 years, to produce the most daring and surreal televisual experience since the first time they redefined television with Twin Peaks. With each of The Return’s eighteen parts, you sink into a strange world, your expectations at every turn subverted. Twin Peaks manages to be funny, tragic, unsettling, and comforting simultaneously. It is a true masterpiece.
Feud: Bette and Joan
In the beginning half of the year when Ryan Murphy’s series, about the infamous feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, debuted, I can’t imagine anyone involved in the production would have known just how prescient this eight-part drama would seem by December. Feud shows how Hollywood manipulates people and women especially, for its own pleasures. And yet, at the heart of this drama, there are two resilient women; flawed undoubtedly, yet indelibly human.
Blade Runner 2049
Rarely can one apply the term “epic” to a picture in the original sense of the word. Blade Runner 2049 is undoubtedly an epic, more akin to a picture like There Will Be Blood than a great many of its sci-fi counterparts. The film stands not only as yet another step in director Denis Villeneuve’s magnificent cinematic run over the last decade, but also poses some profound questions concerning humanity and offers no easy answers.
Another fundamental lesson one hopes Hollywood will soon learn is that diversity only improves cinema. Barry Jenkins’ film is simply magnificent and presents us with both a story and a perspective on that story rarely considered in mainstream culture: Moonlight is not just about being black in America, nor is it isn’t simply about being gay in America, nor is solely about both – it is a film which explores its characters and its stories and in so doing transcends the specifics to tell a universally beautiful tale which can resonate with everyone.
War for the Planet of the Apes
It is rare that two genre pictures of such quality appear within a single year. The final instalment in the criminally underrated trilogy of Planet of the Apes pictures which rebooted the franchise, director Matt Reeves presents a considered, thoughtful, and engaging picture about the end of one world and the beginning of a new one. Amidst all of this, there is a war film, a POW film, stories about PTSD, the nature of heroism and villainy, and a whole host of further complexities which combine to bring about not only a fitting ending to a fine trilogy, but to produce a wonderful film in its own right.
Sometimes, cinema astounds by taming myriad complexities within a single work. And sometimes, it takes a simple idea - an arms deal between the IRA and gangsters in a Boston warehouse turns sour - and produces filmmaking at its finest. Free Fire is thrilling, funny, and unashamed to embrace simplicity. I’m thankful for it - you will be too.