So, the fact that I’ve done these three times now means that they finally carry some weight, right?
Our last double-stop before the list that I know a bunch of you are just dying for me to get on with already. For the past three years that I have turned Listomania (think less but see it grow like a riot like a riot oh) into an especially drawn-out and needlessly over-long ceremony of self-indulgence, I have also been handing out mini-awards to films that I want to talk a bit about but haven’t had the chance to work into the actual lists themselves. These categories were largely decided off the top of my head three years ago with almost zero thought, hence the TV Tropes-y names, and I’ve been too lazy to rename them or anything like that, although if anyone important asks then it’s because I’ve been trying to make them have value through sheer consistency. Well, with that fine salesmanship out of the way, let’s dive into the first half of this year’s line-up!
(Big thanks to Moosey [@MooseyMcMan on Twitter] for the header!)
2017’s 2016 Film of the Year
Winner: The Handmaiden
In defiance of the way in which most British film critics like to organise their lists, I have, since 2014, taken a firm and passionate stance of automatically disqualifying films that received a UK release in the year of the list but originally got a US release the year prior. I am a militant believer that this kind of release window disparity is absolute bullshit, arbitrarily withholding films from UK eyes for anywhere from two to five months – by the time Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird makes it over to UK shores on February 16th, it will have been available to Americans for four whole months. In some cases (like with the original John Wick), the film is even readily available on home media and streaming services in America before it even so much as sniffs a UK multiplex. In this age of interconnectivity, that breaks down geographical and cultural barriers like they were nothing, and especially for an industry that loves to moan about piracy at any given chance, this kind of shite is inexcusable. If the language is the same, if a subtitle track has already been made available, and if animated movies are capable of forcing in jarringly ill-fitting region-specific vocal cameos that nobody reacts positively to, then this shouldn’t be an issue.
Yet, it is, so this consolation prize was created instead to allow me the chance to honour those excellent films that got unfairly screwed-over by this shite system. The lone bright side to this arrangement is that 2017 at least started off phenomenally, with the strongest Awards Season line-up in years. But my pick for this award is one that was unfairly overlooked by every awards body, and also received a last-minute delay from its perfect Valentine’s Day opening to mid-April – and also also received a bodged subtitling job from Curzon Artificial Eye, on the Director’s Cut (at least), that refused to visually demonstrate the difference between Japanese and Korean dialogue despite the London Film Festival screening doing so and it being one of the main points of the film! It’s Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a gloriously trashy, incredibly fun, furiously feminist erotica that’s the most Park Chan-wook film ever made and also the best thing he has ever done. If it were eligible for 2016’s list, it would have threatened that deeply-personal Top 5, but instead it has to settle for this. Go watch it, and make sure it’s the Director’s Cut, whilst you’re at it; it’s the fastest and best 2 hours and 40 minutes you’ll experience all year, I guarantee.
Nightcrawler except with real people involved in one of capitalism’s biggest “success” stories, The Founder deserves far better than the brief collective “yeah, that was pretty good” the critical class gave it before forgetting its entire existence. It’s as good as Nightcrawler, for one, and it also has the best performance of Michael Keaton’s entire career, the kind that goes so against everything you know him for as a performer yet he makes look effortless. Seek it out, even if you’re tired of White Guy stories.
2017’s 2018 Film of the Year
Last year, I instituted this little award for the films I saw at the London Film Festival that I loved but weren’t eligible for my Year-End consideration for obvious reasons, and it’s back once again. The field was a little less tight than it was previously – given my aforementioned statements on the Fest just not being as great as it had been in 2016 – and I stripped out those films which screened but also received a US cinema release in 2017 (which is why I’m not just screaming The Breadwinner over and over again like a distaff Benny from The LEGO Movie). Yet, even with those qualifiers, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is absolutely worthy of this year’s award and should be a priority on your watchlists when it drops in 2018. A very darkly comic riot about two upper-middle-class sociopaths, one in denial of their sociopathy and the other wholly embracing it, it covers exactly the kind of satirical ground you’d expect, but also has a surprising heart beating underneath it all that adds the extra kick that makes Great Movies, and guarantees that this will be a lot of people’s new favourite film. I loved it and cannot wait for the chance to see it again.
OK, throwing my hands up: I’m cheating a lot by including this in the Runners-Up, since it’s been out on America since November 1st. 1) It’s a damn great, affecting movie that hasn’t had enough noise kicked up about it, so I thought I’d just add to the quiet chorus. 2) Stephanie Beatriz is incredible in it, and I hope she eventually has a Chris Pratt-type breakout once Brooklyn Nine-Nine wraps. 3) I really did not have a lot to work with this year, cut me some slack.
Needs More Love
Winner: A Quiet Passion
Ugh, you have absolutely no idea how hard it was for me to cut this from #20 on my list. A Quiet Passion is an achingly beautiful, shockingly witty, and sensitive depiction not just of its subject, the insular and uneventful life of renowned poet Emily Dickinson who only achieved fame and recognition after her untimely death, but also of the depression and self-loathing that haunted her throughout her days, led by a Cynthia Nixon turn so good that it makes one wonder how in God’s name everybody else has been letting talent like this go to waste. It is inarguably one of the year’s finest films, and its absence from 90% of publications’ End of Year lists, or any and all awards talk, is mindboggling. The only reason I ended up giving the edge to Brawl in Cell Block 99, and it is the only reason, was that I was able to find the time during the insane fortnight that was meant to be List Catch-Up Time to rewatch Brawl but couldn’t for A Quiet Passion. That’s it, that is the sole reason. I am part of the problem, I am fully aware. Still, Terence Davies made a masterpiece and y’all need to go pay homage.
Everything I wrote about A Quiet Passion just now? Times it by about a thousand and throw in the personal connection of my having loved the Captain Underpants books when I was a kid, and you’ve got my feelings towards The First Epic Movie. If 8-year-old Me could have witnessed an adaptation as faithful, as loving, and as perfect as this, right down to incorporating FLIP-O-RAMA into the film itself, and where even the changes work because they address certain unfortunate blemishes in the book series, then he would have spent every free waking moment watching this on a constant loop. The only reason that LEGO Batman made it onto the list over this is because I never got the chance to rewatch Captain Underpants, but make no mistake: in a theatre filled with families and children, I was the one laughing the loudest out of all of them. That’s a fact, by the way; one of the parents stopped me afterwards to semi-jokingly complain about that.
I Don’t Get It
I go back and forth on this award. “I Don’t Get It” is vague enough to mean “I don’t understand why you’re all losing your minds over this” or “I get why others might love this, I just gained nothing from it,” but I also really don’t like the term “Overrated” because it sounds super snobbish and that’s the last thing online film criticism needs more of. In contrast to previous years, however, 2017’s recipient does not receive the award with venom or contempt, but rather a respectful admittance that maybe I am not going to get as much out of it as everybody else. Raw is… fine. It’s fine? I think Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf are really good, I think it looks great, I think the atmosphere can be strong, but I could never properly connect with it. I found the film to be a mishmash of other, better films – the underseen Goat, the David Cronenberg Crash, and any domesticated zombie/cannibal flick, most recent example being Netflix’s underrated series Santa Clarita Diet – that ends just as it’s getting interesting, and a central female sexuality metaphor that I personally think falls apart when scrutinised for too long.
But, then again, you may have noticed that I am a White Man, one who has yet to have any kind of sexual experience, and who thinks so infrequently about the concept of sex, and often ends up uncomfortable when the subject does turn up, that, although he identifies as Bi, he’s sometimes assumed himself to be Asexual. Raw is about female sexuality, presented through female perspectives, by a female writer-director (Julia Ducournau). Fact is that I am ancillary to the intended target audience of Raw, and whilst one could go on for hours arguing about whether it’s a failure (or even a responsibility at all) of the filmmaker to communicate that experience to those outside the target audience or not, I am more than willing to respect that fact. Especially since, unlike past winners – Everybody Wants Some!! in 2016 and both Noah Baumbach films in 2015 – Raw doesn’t offend my senses like those others have. Most of the Runners-Up lean more towards the former end of that aforementioned spectrum, but Raw is firmly on the latter.
Attention! Attention, everyone! David Lowery has gotten his head firmly jammed up his arse! All able-bodied people, please proceed to the affected subject and work together to dislodge it! I want the guy who made Pete’s Dragon back, not this twit that would have absolutely been the most insufferable person to talk to at a college party! Thank you!
Best Worst Film
Winner: The Book of Henry
I mean, what else was it going to be? 2017 had a shortage of great bad films, the kinds that are fun to snark on but are also weirdly entertaining in their own terrible way without the addition of heckling, which is honestly disappointing for someone like myself who has a genuine soft spot for these things. (Although I didn’t get to watch The Space Between Us, so maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough.) But, oh boy, did it ever go for quality over quantity! Everything you’ve heard about The Book of Henry is, to some degree, true but what everybody neglects to mention, perhaps too knocked for a loop by just how off-the-rails it goes, is that, if you squint, you can kind of see what everybody involved was going for and that it almost works on its own terms as a deconstruction of precocious kid dramas. What sinks it, though, is that Colin Trevorrow is an abysmal director, the tone is so earnestly straight-laced despite being completely wrong for this story, and the screenplay doesn’t have the conviction to follow-through on that deconstruction, leading to a finale so thoroughly wrong-headed and bizarre that it turns the entire thing into an inadvertent hysterical joke.
I would say that it’s a shame that Trevorrow got fired from Episode IX over this, because Episode IX would have been a GLORIOUS TRAINWRECK based on this hack’s career so far, but I also love Star Wars now so that’s definitely for the best.
Runners-Up: Churchill, Geostorm, POWER RANGERS, The Son of Bigfoot
Real talk: those last 30 minutes are great. Yes, especially the ridiculous Krispy Kreme product placement. That last half-hour is cheesy, and dumb, and oh so very silly, and that is everything I want out of a Power Rangers movie (based on the limited experience I have with Power Rangers). I just don’t know why I had to sit through a really terrible Breakfast Club rip-off with horrible characters for 90 minutes to get to it.
Let’s talk about mother! for a moment… (SPOILERS)
I’m not going to get a chance to talk about mother! because, in the end, it couldn’t crack either of my lists, so let’s briefly mention it here in lieu of the “…why?” category that I couldn’t think up anything for this year. My thoughts on mother! have not changed significantly since I first put them down back in September, but they have strengthened. Oh, have they strengthened! See, if you want to believe Darren Aronofsky, the most pretentious director working today, mother! is an environmental allegory for how we humans are destroying the world as delivered through a metric tonne of Biblical imagery. Except that, not only is that the most fucking boring explanation, the Biblical imagery frequently makes absolutely no sense – I tried following that strand through using The Ten Plagues, since that’s mostly how the film is structured, right down to the death of a first-born, except that most of their deployments contain no meaning behind the recognition of that symbol – he even ends the film by having God reconstruct the world after mother (Nature DO YOU GET IT ARONOFSKY IS A REALLY INTELLIGENT AND SUBTLE FILMMAKER OF HIGH ART) burns it down as a result of its damage and corruption which is… not how, like, Earth works? At all? And yet, according to Aronofsky, it’s apparently filmgoers who are rejecting science.
No, what mother! is really about, more honestly than any of Aronofsky’s other works, is Darren Aronofsky. It’s about his process, his desire to create lasting art, how that obsession cripples him, and the barely-restrained misogynistic side of him that revels in the suffering of others (and ESPECIALLY women) to provide for that art. As seen through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence’s marginalised and frequently abused muse. Visualised via a metric tonne of meaningless Biblical imagery because he is so narcissistic that he equates his artistic process to the entirety of The Bible. And shot through with a streak of black-as-fuck comedy because this is one of his brief moments of self-aware lucidity. The moment when he realises that, despite what he may otherwise try and claim, he does not make High Art, he makes trash. Aronofsky has always made trash, and he is really good at making trash – for all of its many faults, and all of its utter insufferability, mother! is inarguably one of the year’s best directed films – but he is so insistent that he makes Serious Important Filmmaking that’s also “punk” OH MY GOD, DID HE JUST SERIOUSLY CALL HIS FILMMAKING “PUNK” THIS FUCKING GUY… ahem. Anyways, that’s why The Wrestler is his worst film (because it is just Super-Serious Failed Oscar Bait), but it’s also paradoxically why his other films are so enjoyable, because they are trash cinema made with the skill and pretension of High Art.
Of course, eventually, such a fragile balance is going to break, particularly when you’ve got a director with an ego and contradictory need to be loved as big as Aronofsky’s, and mother! is absolutely that breaking point. I mean, if he’d learn to SHUT THE FUCK UP and let us read his trashy masterpiece however we want – hell, even just as a black comedy about people refusing to get out of your house; that’s far more interesting and fitting than nonsense about “the rape and torment of Mother Earth” – then maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem, but author’s intent does still count for something. Of the two versions of mother! I described in this segment, one is one of 2017’s perversely-brilliant crowning achievements, and the other can take a long walk off a short dick. Guess which is which.
Tomorrow: the second half of this year’s Awards.
Callie Petch will be your quiet afternoon crush.