Callie Petch’s Top 20 Films of 2017: #10 – #6

Make it one for my movies, and one more for the road.

Welcome back to this here countdown of my Top 20 Films of 2017.  Yesterday, we blazed through the first half of the countdown, numbers 20 to 11.  If you missed that post, or want a refresher, then you can go here to do so.  Today, it’s the unveiling of the first half of my Top 10.  So, I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run…

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.

10] Colossal

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens

In a year filled with surprises, Colossal was probably the biggest of all, hack pun not intended.  What could merely have been a quirky Indie comedy with a game Anne Hathaway and a central, massively unsubtle metaphor, instead slowly reveals itself to be so, so, so much more than that.  Far harder to pin down, far more ambitious than it first seems, and far more willing to fully embrace the genre conceit at its centre than one might expect.  Watching it slowly unfold, zag where I fully expected it to zig, and eventually lift the blinders it placed over the viewer to reveal the wider picture that it had been working on the whole time, was one of my year’s great pleasures.  Whilst I am going to give the game away completely in a second, not enough people saw Colossal, so I’m just going to tell you now, if you are one of that large number of people who have yet to see Colossal, to stop reading and go watch Colossal.  You deserve to discover Colossal’s many surprises naturally, rather than going in immediately aware of where the film is headed, so go do that, or skip the rest of this section and then go do that.

On paper, Colossal is purely about the destructive power of alcoholism, and the ways that its effects are never limited purely to the person in the throes of that addiction.  I mean, the first third or so of the movie is really not subtle about it in the slightest.  Gloria (Hathaway who is just absolutely incredible) surrenders herself to drink, loses her caring but needling and jerkish boyfriend Tim (Stevens) as a result, moves back into her parents’ rundown old house in her dead-end home town after realising that New York City is killing her, but then succumbs even further to drink once a childhood friend, Oscar (a revelatory Sudeikis), gets her a job at his bar and she becomes pressured into drinking every night with The Guys.  The monster that appears in downtown Seoul every morning as she stumbles through a playground drunk off her ass, copying her movements exactly, and resultantly causing massive property damage and accidentally killing hundreds of innocent civilians, is a blunt-as-hell visualisation of how such self-destruction is never ever limited to just the person in question.

Colossal still is about that very thing, but the deeper into its story that it gets, the more that it reveals extra nuances in that self-destruction metaphor, particularly as Oscar’s true colours are slowly brought to light and Colossal tips its hand to reveal a blistering rebuke of the entire concept of the Nice Guy.  It’s a film ultimately about abuse: alcoholic, emotional, mental, even physical, and how those spectres manifest themselves on a global scale through unchecked anger, self-loathing, and toxic male entitlement.  How abusers, fuelled by resentment and bitterness, take that out on others, how they relish any scrap of power they can acquire, wielding it like one does a weapon, and how that brief high doesn’t fix the hole in the abuser’s life, eventually leaving them once again numb and empty, searching for their next victim in the hopes that getting this person under their thumb will provide the satisfaction they so desperately desire.

Considering the disturbing and horrifying revelations brought to light this year about the Film Industry (as well as so many others), that makes Colossal an especially relevant movie (though that’s not to say that this has ever been a non-relevant issue).  Rather than making light of these incredibly sensitive topics, though, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo treats his themes and narrative with absolute care and seriousness.  He mines some dark comedy from the way events play out within the genre framework, don’t get me wrong – and he leans hard into the Magical Realism Monster Movie conceit in order to provide one of 2017’s finest and most crowdpleasing endings – but he never treats Gloria’s alcoholism as a joke or quirky character flaw, and Oscar’s serial abusiveness is never made light of.  He’s also aided by career-best Hathaway and Sudeikis performances; she by flinging herself completely into a frequently difficult and frustrating character that makes Gloria’s eventual redemption and evolution so well earned, he by playing against type largely by playing to type and merely accentuating certain aspects to expose Oscar’s utter bastardry without becoming over-the-top and resultantly being utterly terrifying.

There are a million ways that Colossal could have gone wrong, and yet it side-steps every last one of them with grace and skill.  It is a true original, a massive surprise, and fiercely relevant.  I can only hope that we will be hearing more from Vigalondo in the American movie scene soon.

09] My Life as a Courgette

Dir: Claude Barras

Star: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Michel Vuillermoz (voices)

In 2016, I made my first trip to the London Film Festival and had a grand old time of it.  It was my first experience of a film festival, and the line-up of films that I saw that year was so across-the-board strong that I found myself fearing in the months afterwards, as many of them were finally inbound to actual UK cinema releases, that I had perhaps suffered too heavily from Festival Goggles.  After all, put a person through too many films with minimal break time over a constrained period, and there’s always the chance that they may lose their sense of perspective and overpraise fluff that’s otherwise, at best, passable as everything sort of blurs into one and stand-outs become especially desirable.  Fortunately, as the year went on and I got to reacquaint myself with the films whose praises I had so vigorously sang that wonderful October fortnight – Christine, Prevenge, Free Fire, Elle, The Handmaiden, A Quiet Passion, another one we shall be coming to later on in this list – such a notion was put firmly to bed, as every film hit just as hard as it did that first time, and some even more so.

My Life as a Courgette, one of the absolute highlights of last year’s festival, remains one of the finest animated films that I have had the pleasure of experiencing this decade.  A melancholic, downbeat, low-key drama that confronts heavy subject matter with respect and sensitivity, but is never a slog, never depressing, and never becomes hopeless.  Whenever I’ve had to talk about it, I’ve invoked the ghost of Tracy Beaker, since both are about homes for troubled and abused older children forced to grow up in this makeshift family, and both directly address the severity of their situations in a way that children can understand without ever once talking down to them.  It’s the best comparison, but it’s not a completely accurate one, since Courgette casts a wider-net in viewpoints than Tracy Beaker and is more vignette-driven than the comparator.  In 2017 releases, that makes its closest analogue The Florida Project, although it’s even more-character-focussed than Sean Baker’s latest and is a far tighter affair, clocking in at barely 66 minutes in total.

Truth is, whilst there are many other works that one could compare Courgette to when attempting to describe it, the feel is wholly of its own.  Credit screenwriter Céline Sciamma, writer-director of 2015’s sensational Girlhood, for that.  Sciamma has a knack for conveying the voice of the adolescent in a natural manner that avoids the typical pitfalls that other writers of children fall into – making them either too cutesy and simplistic in a way that feels insulting, or overwriting them to such a ludicrous degree that they never convince as anything other than 40-year-old adults speaking through children – and her work on the characters of Courgette is no different.  Whether they are bonding over shared tragic backstories, misunderstandings about how sex works, or holding impromptu snowball fights inside their lodge whilst on a trip, these kids are all distinct, wonderful personalities who, even when some of them initially come across as jerks, all have clearly understandable reasons for acting the way that they do.

These are children of abuse, and no matter how far back in the past those traumas may have occurred, they are products of their own environment, bearing scars both physical and buried, forced to confront the realisation that they are unlikely to find new families to take them in.  Director Claude Barras chooses to linger on these realisations, the sustained ellipses that can end conversations, a shot of the group through the eyes of a ‘normal’ child demonstrating their separation from society – as the children we try to not acknowledge, because we see them only as tragedies who make us sad, rather than people – Sophie Hunger’s sparingly-used but beautiful score, and holding on those heartwarming moments of legitimate joy.  His stop-motion animation also brilliantly conveys this, with giant bloodshot eyes attached to outsized heads and gangly arms that betray the effects of what all of these kids have been through, in deliberately makeshift environments akin to something a child would construct, enhanced at every turn by David Toutevoix’s carefully-chosen cinematography.

Most of all, though, My Life as a Courgette is devastatingly sweet and profoundly moving – if you are not moved to tears at least once whilst watching it, then you are made of the stone that encased Excalibur.  Animation at large may have had somewhat of a down year after the ridiculous highs of 2016, but Courgette would have been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition even in a more crowded field.

08] Logan

Dir: James Mangold

Star: Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart

It is crazy that Logan works at all.  I mean, if you look at it objectively, it is.  Here is a slow, small, miserable, consistent, depressing slog of a movie.  One that gives X-Men fans what they’ve been clamouring for since the project was announced – an R rating with an accompanying level of violence, a conclusive send-off for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, an actually good X-Men movie – and proceeds to immediately twist them all, monkey’s paw style, into a vicious, near-hopeless, deconstructive exploration about the lasting impact of violence and killing, the degenerative nature of aging and the encroaching spectre of death, and the prolonged, bitter, draining sensation of disappointment, that one almost wants it all to just be over pretty much as soon as it starts.  In other hands, this movie is a kick-ass, crowdpleasing, firework extravaganza of a thing.  In James Mangold’s hands, it’s one of the bleakest Westerns of the 21st Century, and perhaps ever.

But it works.  In fact, it not only works, but it’s also one of the best superhero movies ever made.  So, how come?  Well, there’s the obvious fact that it’s just a brilliantly made, told, and acted film from top to bottom, but the other two reasons come from a pair of key descriptors located in that big old block of text I dropped on you a moment ago.  The first is “near-hopeless.”  Logan is a bleak and heavy film, but it is never a nihilistic one.  It’s a story about broken people, burned by the world around them, where the great things that they were told they would do never materialised due entirely to mundane, non-special circumstances, growing older and being forced to stare death in the face as it slowly claims everything they care about.  They’ve become bitter, isolated, and selfish, especially since they’ve been valorised by fictionalised versions of themselves that act as an ever-present reminder of the past mistakes that haunt their days.

Yet what could easily have turned out like the most try-hard edgy deconstruction fan-fic a teenager could come up with, instead connects with legitimate emotional power.  Again, part of that comes from the fact that Logan sprinkles its narrative with enough moments of sweetness and hope as to keep it from becoming an exercise in wallowing misery, particularly with regards to Laura and the other runaway X-23s, who represent the chance for a new generation that won’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past and who can be spared being forced to engage in the cycles of violence that Logan feels he lost his humanity to.  But, mainly, the key to Logan is the second descriptor I’ve yet to draw focus to: “consistent.”  Logan, at every possible turn, consistently rejects any potential path that would undermine the themes and mood that Mangold wishes to explore.  The film that Logan could have turned into, the one that I derisively described earlier, would have attempted to have its cake and eat it too: trying to push bleak mediations on violence whilst simultaneously making any violence that does occur incredibly cool and stylish, the kind of thing that fanboys have long dreamt about.  But that wouldn’t have fit with what Logan was trying to do.

So, violence in Logan is a horrifying, queasy, despairing affair.  Every time it starts, one just wants it to be over, because Mangold’s direction draws an unavoidable eye to the animalistic desperation inherent in the act, where each kill is taking a little more of Logan and Laura’s humanity, no matter how the both of them try to rationalise it.  Little wonder the film ultimately turns out to be a stealth remake of Shane, which even turns up in-universe and whose final monologue is stolen wholesale for the absolutely brutal eulogy that closes proceedings.  There’s no catharsis to be found, here.  After all, just like in The Last Jedi, this is a film about what happens when your heroes let you down, when they become just as fallible as you and I, and how, much like in another film we’ll come to shortly, that ties into the idea that nobody is special or inherently so.  All one can do is the best they can, and try to cherish those moments and memories that are special to themselves, because, to everybody else, you are just some person they barely knew who will be buried in the dirt somewhere someday.  Heroic sacrifices aren’t real.

Sure, they’re hard truths that one has to reconcile with, but they ring with the kernel of honesty that keeps it all from becoming completely nihilistic, particularly since the whole point of Logan’s arc is forcing him to get over the belief that these facts mean that one shouldn’t also try to do some good with what little time they have left in this world.  Logan is a bleak, harrowing slog of a movie, but goddamn is it ever a brilliant one.

07] Paddington 2

Dir: Paul King

Star: Ben Whishaw (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant

Paddington 2 is a step-up from its predecessor, a clear step-up from it, although it does not deviate much from the template set by the 2014 smash hit.  It is still a small-scale, modest, charming little movie with no deeper thematic implications beyond the virtue of kindness, and few wider aims than providing a giant, fuzzy-feeling hug to each and every single member of the viewing audience.  Yet, where I found the first Paddington to be enjoyable yet easily-disposable after viewing – in fact, I hadn’t thought much at all about the film in the three years between its release and that of Paddington 2’s – the sequel has turned out to be essential in spite of not having really altered much.  So, what’s changed, because something clearly has for it to end up on a list like this, and in the upper echelons whilst Baby Driver hangs out comparatively low?

Well, for one, Paddington 2 is far more refined than its predecessor.  Paddington, by its nature as a sort of origin movie, having to reintroduce the titular bear to a new generation and choosing to make said reintroduction the tale of how he came from Darkest Peru to live in London with The Browns, was never truly able to fully relax in the way that it needed to, throwing in a few too many needless comic setpieces and a despicable villain who felt ultimately superfluous to the plot when Paddington’s struggle to fit in was far more engaging.  But now that the set-up is dealt with, Paddington 2 gets to sink more into its fantastical vision of London, a diverse and welcoming society where kindness is repaid with greater kindness, and being polite makes the world right.  Because there’s less of a need to sell audiences on Paddington now, everything feels considerably less fussed over, more trusting, and more natural; that the hard work is done, so we can just have fun and play.

It’s a far funnier film; where the first provided me with a few minor chuckles, the sequel features a noticeably defter comic hand, with clever wordplay, perfectly-timed slapstick, and just the right amount of absurdism, all without ever becoming either mean-spirited or excessively saccharine – and that is a far harder line to walk than one would think, let alone as well as returning director/co-writer Paul King and new co-writer Simon Farnaby manage.  Its plotting is more controlled in spite of seemingly doing the sequel escalation thing, better balancing the menagerie of colourful characters than last time, introducing new one who get to display surprising amounts of depth, and allowing each of them, new and returning, multiple moments to shine without ever taking focus away from Paddington’s own story.  And its central sweet heart has been polished to the finest shine that one could possibly manage, building to a finale so perfect in its construction that I genuinely start welling up just thinking about it.  Oh, and Paddington himself looks far better than he did last time, when iffy CGI kept making him look off, a problem that never recurs here.

So, it’s a better film, that explains why Paddington 2 could find itself in contention for a spot on this list, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why it is this high up.  Well, that brings us to the other, non-film reason: I don’t think I was ready to embrace Paddington back in 2014.  I still stand by my assertion that it wasn’t a great film, but I also recognise that I may not have fully appreciated its charms and sincere open-hearted joy at the time.  I was, after all, 20, still close enough to my teenage years to have remnants of a recoiling aversion to that kind of open-hearted sincerity as “embarrassing” within me, even as I was getting back into children’s cartoons and animation at the time.  But as the years have rolled on, as my own mental state has become decidedly more fragile, as the world outside has become meaner and more hateful, and as societal discourse has become an ever more complex and draining thing to be a part of, I feel that I have come to a point where I can fully appreciate what a film like Paddington 2 is selling.

In the face of everything going on around it, a film as sweet, kind, good-natured, and simple as Paddington 2 is exactly the kind of impromptu therapeutic respite that I need.  “Be polite and the world will be right.”  And it is, at least for Paddington.  I want to live in that kind of world.  Maybe our own can try that mantra for itself.

06] Blade Runner 2049

Dir: Denis Villenueve

Star: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Harrison Ford

No fucking wonder Denis Villenueve thinks he can make a Dune film.  If you were on the kind of creative hot-streak that the Quebecan director is currently, pumping out stone-cold instant classics with the kind of consistency and work-rate that makes literally every other director working today look like the laziest goddamn hacks in existence, then you too would think you could do what even David Lynch could not!  Seriously, this is the kind of run that legacies are made on, that put you in conversation rotations by Film Studies students for decades to come.  And, for his latest trick, the best director working today makes his most ambitious movie yet – which, considering that his work so far has included parables for the War on Terror, psychosexual examinations of a potential misogynist, an unflinching depiction of just how badly the United States’ unethical and frequently-illegal War on Drugs has destabilised Mexico, and nothing less than the entire concept of fate itself, is really saying something – and in the process creates a film that’s not only a worthy successor to a sci-fi landmark, but may actually be better than it on its merits as a film.

Blade Runner 2049 manages to pull off the seemingly paradoxical feat of expanding the world that Ridley Scott (who Executive Produces 2049 but we will talk about him some other day) initially envisioned 35 years ago, both physically and narratively, yet remaining tightly-focussed and deeply-personal.  2049 is a film that plays with world-altering stakes, Chosen One Hero’s Journey narratives, and glimpses far beyond the perpetually-dark and rain-soaked cityscapes of Greater Los Angeles, yet largely leaves all of them on the fringes of a meditative mood piece primarily focussed on one Replicant, KD6-3.7.  Just like the original, 2049 is a film to lose yourself in, to luxuriate within, to vibe with, although this time that dream-like atmosphere is instead more akin to a waking nightmare.  There are moments of beauty in 2049, but this is a constantly unnerving, existentially terrifying movie that has an intensity crafted from both the utter hell-scape of the world we see – lensed by a never-better Roger Deakins, Villenueve and he make beautifully oppressive movies together – the darkwave ambiance of Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch’s year-best score, and the way that the narrative’s themes begin to slowly drag you under the polluted raging waves of the destroyed seaboard hidden behind mountainous walls.

Villenueve, and returning Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher (with assistance by Michael Green), casts a large thematic net over 2049, furthering themes put forward by the original – the nature of humanity, the artificiality of oppression, the saturation of technology, and the question of what even is real in the first place – by utilising that wider canvas to look at the flipside of such themes through brilliant incidental storytelling.  Demonstrating that pre-existing systemic inequality does not go away purely because there’s a new minority group also receiving oppression, how men like K who long to feel special push themselves into deliberately artificial relationships with people who tell them exactly what they want to hear – and that’s just one way to read K’s relationship with his artificial intelligence, Joi; the amount of subtextual readings packed into that one subplot alone could power entire films…  Hell, 2049 is a better treatise about not-fucking-up the environment than mother! ever was, and 2049 never once directly comments on it, instead leaving its message about pursuing technological advancements at the expense of our rapidly-declining environment as pure subtext!

And that wider canvas combined with the narrow scope of K (the consistently underrated Ryan Gosling putting in near-career-best work) allows 2049 to follow through one of Blade Runner’s themes to its logical conclusion: if there’s nothing separating us from our creations save for the artificially decided-upon designations that allow us to hold onto a comfortable feeling of superiority, then nobody is special.  Not really, anyway.  We may constantly search for some kind of purpose, for somebody to tell us that we are more important than everyone else, that we have something to offer the world that nobody else can ever provide, and that, when that moment comes, we will be happy, we will earn acceptance, we will be the best.  It’s all a lie, of course it is, pushed upon us by media and marketing that prey upon our basest insecurities and desires in order to sell us stuff, but that doesn’t make it any less existentially terrifying to consider.  But despite what people like Lieutenant Joshi might think when confronted with that kind of realisation, this does not “break the world.”  If anything, once accepted, it’s freeing.  K’s final act grants him the peace that he’s been searching for much of his life by merely doing what feels right, allowing him to hold onto those personal moments that he knows are real, rather than obsessing over what might not or could have been through a misguided desire to find an ethereal purpose.

I could write something like 4,000 poorly-organised, point-hopping, messy words about Blade Runner 2049 alone, basing entire articles on aspects that I relegated to tossed-off asides in this entry.  Ever since I saw it, and then saw it a second time a fortnight later – and would have done even more times than that, had it not first opened whilst I was busy covering the London Film Festival, which meant I was forced to be late to the party – I have been unable to stop thinking about it and desperately desiring a chance to see it yet again.  And though it goes against the whole “nobody is special” aspect of 2049, I want to go and worship at the feet of Denis Villenueve.  We do not deserve him, but I am constantly thankful that he continues to provide anyway.

Yes, this is only my #6 film.  Have I mentioned that this has been a stupendously strong year enough times yet?

Tomorrow: The Top 5.

Callie Petch will embrace the world in grey.

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