It’s rather frightening to realise we’re already halfway through the year, but that means it’s time to look back on the year in cinema so far. Has it been a great six months? Eh, not exactly. We’re definitely still yet to see the truly best of the year (which is generally the case), but there have been a handful of absolute gems which could be strong enough to make it on my end of year list. Let’s take a journey back, shall we?
The year’s biggest surprise package. A horror film from a comedic actor turned first-time director that may just be the most socially relevant piece of cinema in 2017. Taking the well-worn awkward tale of meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time and flipping it right on its head, Get Out is frightening, uncomfortable and down-right genius. Utilising the best elements of the horror genre, including delicious nods to Hitchcock and Kubrick, director Jordan Peele uses his twisted tale as the backbone for a scathing comment on racial issues in America. Given the man (or clown) in the White House, this film could not be more timely. If Peele doesn’t score an Oscar nom for his sublime screenplay, I give up.
Technically a 2017 release here in Oz, so we can include it here. After that Best Picture clusterfuck announcement disaster (no, I’m still not over it), the narrative around this film has sadly shifted. But pull that drama aside to remember the brilliant piece of cinema Moonlight was – an uncompromising and devastating look at the identity journey of a sexually-confused black male. Told throughout three eras of his life, by three different actors (each brilliant in their own way), Moonlight never shies away from its difficult subject matter, and demands you sit up and pay attention. This is the modern-day African-American experience, warts and all. It may not be uplifting. It may not be inspiring. But it’s as real as cinema gets, and therein lies its brutal power.
For the swansong to a character he’s played for 17 years, Hugh Jackman sure went out with an almighty bang. We’ve seen damaged and broken superheroes on-screen before, but never quite to the levels Logan dives to. Deeply emotional, jarringly dark, and wonderfully crafted, Logan is the kind of alternative superhero cinema we need more of. Yes, there’s the fighting, the blood and the gore (cranked up higher by the film’s adult rating), but it’s stripped so far back which is a rarity in this genre. What we’re left with is a deeply powerful character piece that allows the audience to see Wolverine (Jackman) like never before. It’s a new benchmark for this franchise, and easily the best X-Men film there has ever been. Let’s just hope the chorus to see Patrick Stewart (and maybe even Jackman) score an Oscar nom continues come award season. Dare to dream.
DC finally got its cinematic universe on-track with the enormously entertaining and surprisingly moving solo adventures of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). Director Patty Jenkins delivers a cohesive and interesting narrative journey, filled with the obligatory dazzling action sequences, but, more importantly, overflowing with tremendous heart. It’s rare to see such rich character development within one of these films, but this is Jenkins’ masterstroke, and why Wonder Woman stands above all other DCEU films thus far. Gadot delivers a star-making turn, as the caring and lovable demigod heroine the world needs right now, and Jenkins dares film studios to allow female voices to take the reigns of this genre. Can we dare dream this will also garner the Academy’s attention?
Kong: Skull Island
There’s generally one entry in these lists that’s really only found its way here because it’s just damn glorious popcorn entertainment. That film is Kong: Skull Island; the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen all year, in the best way possible. Reviling in its own silliness becomes this film’s crowning glory, as it never fails to deliver the fun and never tries to be anything it’s not. Over-the-top monsters, utterly outrageous set pieces, and good old-fashioned blockbuster action make it a rollercoaster blast from start to finish. Leave your judgement at the door and just enjoy the ride.
I will admit my knowledge of modern history is sketchy at best, so sometimes, historical films featuring modern events can be rather eye-opening. Such is the case with the beautiful Viceroy’s House which follows the Partition of India and the establishment of Pakistan, under the guidance (or misguidance) of the last Viceroy to India. Featuring stunning production design and cinematography, plus a captivating forbidden love story wrapped up in the film’s political plot, the film leads to a devastating conclusion, made all the more powerful by its historical foundations. Given the current global climate, Viceroy’s House stands as a timely reminder of how the ill-mannered decisions of a few can adversely affect millions. More importantly, it reminds us compassion and understanding are always needed, particularly to those different to ourselves.
Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan moves behind the camera with his stellar directorial debut, Wind River. Sheridan’s writing always had the makings of a director, given both those scripts already contained pacing and structure rarely seen in screenwriting, so it’s no surprise his direction deftly matches his writing skills. Cemented by solid performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, this murder mystery will keep you guessing, with lashings of paranoia and intrigue, until its explosive conclusion hits you out of absolutely nowhere. The gorgeous Wyoming setting, with its snow-capped mountains and dense forestland, also provides the best aerial cinematography witnessed on-screen so far this year.
Never write a director off completely. Especially someone like M. Night Shyamalan. His recent catalogue of disasters fade to oblivion with his latest creation, Split. Shyamalan takes absolute delight in slowly revealing the deep layers of this genuinely unsettling thriller about a trio of young girls kidnapped by a psychopath with multiple personality disorder. Right at the centre of that is James McAvoy, in his career-best performance (or should that be performances?). It’s utterly captivating to watch McAvoy flip from a flamboyant fashion designer to a cheeky nine-year-old boy to an obsessive-compulsive sociopath to a caring old lady in the blink of an eye, and somehow give each character depth and growth throughout. Filled with twists and turns (especially one killer reveal right at the end), it’s a welcome return to form for a director once a master of this genre.
Netflix continues its plan to shake-up the way we see cinema with the brilliantly absurd, incredibly timely, and utterly heartwarming tale of a young Korean girl, Mija (Seo-hyeon Ahn), and her superpig, Okja. Yes, I said superpig. Just go with it. Master of this form of absurdist cinema, director Bong Joon-ho showcases again why he’s one of the most exciting directors working today. With a story that somehow expertly blends the ridiculous with the real, Okja skillfully covers everything from globalisation to the evils of food production and, of course, the deep bonds of friendship (even if that friendship is between human and genetically-created super animal). With another stellar (and scene-stealing) supporting performance from Tilda Swinton, as the power-hungry and scrupulous CEO of an menacing food corporation, it’s impossible to turn away from this masterpiece. It may also be impossible to eat meat ever again.