My Top Ten Films of 2017

1) Blade Runner 2049

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In many regards, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film resonates with the hermetically sealed innocence of a snow globe.

2) Dunkirk

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Dunkirk has a genuine emotional truth that both horrifies and enlightens in the same breath.

3) The Beguiled 

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The Beguiled is a sumptuous and terse Southern Gothic that uses the conventions of the rarefied genre to illustrate the brewing tensions between old-fashioned respectability and individualistic desire.

4) Moonlight

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The most astounding aspect of Moonlight is its generous gift of lingering. The camera allows the viewer to remain in a moment and feel its raw emotions. An early scene has a close up of a young Chiron reacting with annoyance to an offered hand of apology by his surrogate father figure. In most other films, a moment of this nature would not even be alluded to let alone shown. Much like the central character holds on to the memories from the past, the audience will not soon forget Barry Jenkins’ tough and touching depiction of coming of age in contemporary America.

5) The Lost City of Z

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James Grey’s ambitious and enthralling chronicling of Percy Fawcett’s exploratory venture into Amazonia reminds us of the multi-faceted nature of discovery. It can be maddening, generational and sometimes sincerely transcendent.

6) Star Wars Episode VIII- The Last Jedi

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The Last Jedi is an assuredly bold and subversive film that digs beneath the surface of the space fantasy franchise, finds its mythological heart and puts it on a monumentally striking canvas.

7) Get Out

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Much like Roman Polanski, Jordan Peele can make the banal unnerving. But the sheer masterstroke of Get Out is the first time director taking that one step to make the audience experience the realities of racism in today’s age while also subtly alluding to its horrific past.

8) T2 Trainspotting

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T2 Trainspotting is a compellingly sobering follow-up to the much admired 1996 film.

9) Silence 

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For the much revered and venerated Martin Scorcese, Silence represents the director’s magnum opus. The film is a tremendously soul-stirring odyssey of devotion, persecution and theological struggle with Scorcese’s firm directorial hand at its most contemplative and visceral.

10) Baby Driver

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With Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has crafted a sly, whimsical and hardening genre film that emanates with wry invention and visual exuberance

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Brief Considersation: The Beguiled (2017)

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The Beguiled is a sumptuous and terse Southern Gothic that uses the conventions of the rarefied genre to illustrate the brewing tensions between old-fashioned respectability and individualistic desire. The American Civil War period drama chronicles the recovery of a wounded union corporal- John McBurney (Colin Farrell) within the confines of a remote and near lifeless Virginian girls’ school.

The film is written and directed with the gentle elegance of a waltz as it effortlessly portrays a commendable portrait of Southern hospitality. At the same time, Sofia Coppola ascetically illustrates the sorrowful nature of this world view in the wake of the Civil War. Muted candlelit sepia-toned night scenes and grey sun-deprived moments powerfully evoke the last dying breaths of a formerly proud and upstanding institute.

Coppola’s screenplay also showcases how this veneer of socially acceptable politeness can be utterly shattered by the possibility of being desired by another human being. McBurney persistently charms and makes earnest declarations of love to Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). However, these prove to be a smokescreen of falsehood as he desires a far younger woman- Alicia (Elle Fanning)

Dunst particularly impresses in turning this quality of politeness into a tragic portrait of an ageing woman. Through her facial expressions and body language, Dunst makes Morrow seem like a fragile and withering flower that has been worn down by years spent teaching. However, she could be salvaged with the nourishment of attention and Dunst’s subtle flickers of the eyes and smile in the aftermath of these seduction scenes is heartening to watch.

Farrell is equally compelling in a central turn that embodies his appeal as an actor. Walking a fine line between charming and dangerous, Farrell imbues his character with a scintillating wryness that lends the middle-aged corporal with potent ambiguity. Either McBurney could be considered a vulnerable character whose sense of humour is an armour. Or his sharp, sardonic quips reveal the ensnaring charm of a treacherous man.

 

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Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The Last Jedi is an assuredly bold and subversive film that digs beneath the surface of the space fantasy franchise, finds its mythological heart and puts it on a monumentally striking canvas.

Immediately following the events of The Force Awakens, the film depicts the Resistance’s tenacious efforts to survive in the midst of being in the clutches of the First Order, whose merciless tactics have resulted in the rebel group being trapped in a dwindling and immobile position. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley returns with a truly touching and commanding central turn) attempts to convince the long-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to restore hope by intervening in the central conflict and her persistent battle with Kylo Ren. (A captivatingly snivelling and vulnerable Adam Driver). 

Much like his previous directorial effort, (Looper), Rian Johnson joyously pricks at established genre conventions and in the process finds a genuine emotional truth that both resonates and rejuvenates. In the context of The Last Jedi, many heroic moments are built up with galactic grandiosity and are subsequently deflated for comedic effect.

The figurative and literal cliffhanger of The Force Awakens with Rey and Luke Skywalker (a heartbreakingly frigid and commendably wacky Mark Hamill) is amusingly cast aside with a straight-faced tossing of a lightsaber. And an extended sequence combines sly framing, sublime irony and comical physical acting, as Finn (John Boyega) tries to convince a maintenance worker- Rose (Kelly Marie Tran in an impressive debut performance) of his heroic and noble facade amid deserting the Resistance.

Though the picture is littered with many of these sequences, Johnson is fundamentally above postmodern snark and instead earnestly comments on heroism. The brash and trigger-happy archetype of the series (typified with Han Solo and now Poe Dameron) is juxtaposed with the methodical and the underhanded planning of his superiors, who at first seem passive but are revealed as brave and noble in their sacrifices for the overarching cause.  

A mid-plot excursion to an affluent and lavishly constructed casino planet- Canto-Bight seeks to do away with the sweeping heroics of the main conflict and instead illustrates the small acts of generosity that embody the spirit of the Resistance and its effects on the galaxy. Perhaps more than any Star Wars film before it, The Last Jedi wrestles with its own nature as a franchise, which is most embodied by the character of Luke Skywalker.

The crestfallen Jedi Master has hidden away from the conflict because he fell victim to the hubris of his own legend, presuming the positive aspects of his family line could be passed on. Instead, his choices have only had wrought destruction and pain. Much like Skywalker is grappling with the failure of living up to his lionised image, The Last Jedi feels like it’s wrestling with its identity as a franchise as its central spiritual core is examined and found wanting. The end result is a cathartic and calm acceptance of the importance of the series’ mythical underpinnings for its cinematic and narrative future.

Elsewhere, Johnson’s first venture into tent pole fare is impressive. The writer/director constructs action sequences like intricate watches. The opening space battle deftly balances the external conflict with the insular tension of a pilot who attempts to retrieve a bomb release button in a Hitchcockian inspired Mission Impossible sequence.

However, it’s the lightsaber battles where Johnson truly excels. In particular, the climactic duel has the dramatic heft of a Sergio Leone showdown with its persistent close-ups of eyes combined with it being a vivid demonstration of Yoda’s Jedi mantra from The Empire Strikes Back- “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack.”

In this final stretch of the picture, Johnson’s imagery is at its most evocative and heightened. The flickers of shadows and sumptuous daybreak light result in the main characters visually becoming like characters from fabled tales of yore. And the final shot of a boy pointing his broom upward while watching a ship jumping to light speed in the night sky beautifully illustrates the perpetual power of myth and by extension the saga itself.

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Brief Consideration: Song to Song (2017)

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At his very best, Terrence Malick can move the audience with an impressionist style that weaves imagery together like a constantly shifting and mesmerising puzzle in motion. At once, his imperceptible films can reveal deeply personal remembrances as well as juxtapose his characters’ plights with the vast emptiness of the cosmos. In this sense, there is a genuine wistful longing that permeates the director’s work.

Even by Malickean standards, Song to Song is frustratingly conventional. The new film from the ethereal auteur depicts the torrid love affairs between aspiring musicians and record producers in the midst of the contemporary Austin, Texas music scene.

The simplicity of the narrative results in Malick’s style coming across as overwrought and pretentious. Moreover, his characters’ various narrated thoughts are grossly explicated, often revealing nothing noteworthy other than what the audience can see in front of them.

Most egregious of all is the handling of Michael Fassbender’s record producer (Cook). He exists more as a belaboured point than a character, snarling and manically laughing like a hyena as he tempts the central heroine with promises of pleasure and wealth.

There is one scene when Malick juxtaposes Cook’s narration of his nature with an axe murderer from a vintage silent film along with a cosmic star alignment. Rather than coming across as an elegant parallel, it instead seeks to send one into an intense fit of eye-rolling.

Despite this, there are some diamonds within the rough fabric of this picture. Despite being saddled with questionable material, Rooney Mara’s performance impresses in its freeing youthful quality and moments of grim introspection. In stark contrast to many of her co-stars, Mara’s portrayal of Faye never feels self-conscious. And the subplot involving Rhonda (Natalie Portman) resonates with a palpable existential grappling and loss of identity that fundamentally adheres to the thematic concerns of Malick’s oeuvre.

 

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Russian Film Week II: Pagans (2017)

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In the post-screening Q&A for Pagans, lead actor Valentin Samokhin and director of photography/producer, Maxim Trapo sketched out the origins of the film. The picture initially started life as a play (written by Ann Yablonskaya) that was performed twice a month in South Moscow. The adaptation from stage to screen seemed like a genuine labour of love due to the low budget feature coming from a deep-seated desire to capture the story in its purest form as opposed commercial gain. Samokihin put a finer point on it by highlighting that Theatre is a live medium, in which every incarnation has small and subtle changes as opposed to film, which is an inherently fixed medium.

Primarily set within the enclosed space of an apartment, Pagans charts the personal trials and tribulations of a family, which is accentuated with the arrival of a profoundly religious grandmother; who makes various attempts to heal the fundamental derision and division at the heart of the family.

Despite the extensive use of one location, director Lera Surkova makes the picture demonstrably cinematic. At times, the film lovingly adopts Ingmar Bergman’s penchant for making human faces cinematic. Much of the film is comprised of monologues delivered with sullen and amusing expressions. One highlight is a tight close-up of daughter Kristina (Vitaliya Yenshina), who coyly delivers a speech about the all-encompassing bleakness of winter and death that she experienced in the midst of an early childhood memory.

The film’s use of music is interesting insofar as there are small cutaways to the instrument that accompanies the scene in question. In reference to Kristina’s speech, there is a recurring image of African drums being played and this lends her outburst with the furious ferocity of rap that speaks to her underlying disenchantment and resentment. And the picture’s myriad number of black and white sequences reveal long considered memories that resonate with haunting surreality and touching anguished longing.

At the heart of the film is a raw breakdown of the contemporary family unit. But, what give Pagans a universality that transcends religion and the pitfalls of modern societal ills is an ambiguous determinism. From the start, it’s quite clear that the family is in dire disarray and will eventually fall and like any resonating tragedy, the catharsis comes from witnessing the dominos topple.

Many of the events that occur in the film are either interpreted as the random order of the universe or miraculous divine intervention. Much like the characters in the film, the audience can either construe the family’s downfall as a source of cited original of sin from the grandmother character or the family’s inability to engage and truly listen to one another.

A fascinating question that Samokhin was asked went as follows: Has the story changed for you having played the same character for six years? The actor said that in the early years, he interpreted the play as being about family and now it has changed to religion. The film and by extension the play represents the eternal dialectic between the divine and its role in the family.

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Russian Film Week II: All Will End Soon (2017)

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All Will End Soon is the directorial debut from Aleksei Rybin, who previously worked in the Russian film industry as a screenwriter as well as being the guitarist for the Soviet rock band- Kino. The picture is a dramatic illustration of the pervasive and poisonous nature of modern media and the effect it has on contemporary life.

Mikhail Nosov (Mikhail Sivorin) is a war veteran who has settled in St Peterburg. His haplessly insular existence consists of operating the local factory’s machinery, watching the news on a loop in his rented accommodation and losing all sense of reality in late-night drinking benders. Despite the picture having the structure of an infinite loop of mundanity, Rybin’s impeccable framing proves to be fascinating in showcasing Nosov waking up to the realities of life.

A persistent plot point involves Nosov going to an escort service to see a woman called Diana. (Ksenia Skakun) Their first encounter looks like a colour infused Noir moment as blue and pink refract through a shuttered window and result in a dreamlike encounter in which Diana presents herself as the perfect image of desirability. For the rest of the picture, this image of the character is subverted as their encounters grow more tense and personal.

In many ways, Rybin feels like he is homaging David Lynch with this central relationship insofar as Diana is initially presented as a heightened figure with an intriguing sense of mystery and subsequently becomes an individual with concerns and desires.

Lynch’s sense of protracted absurdism is also evident in Rybin’s film-making as there are many static wide-angle shots that juxtapose the real-time nature of events with amusing elements. One such scene has a drunken Diana fall on the bed and Nosov going back to his computer and putting on a news broadcast in a nonchalant manner.

Sivorin is a compelling presence, particularly in regards to his look that shifts like a Rorschach test from scene to scene. In one moment, he appears like a broken and lost human being and in another scene, he strikes the viewer in how much he comes across as an aged man who carries the regrets of time on his face. Equally as noteworthy is  Ksenia Skakun whose exudes an embittered and fragile portrait of a woman with a tragic inner life.

In the post-screening Q&A, Rybin emphasised that the film is a reflection of the ongoing political situation between Russia and Ukraine. Rather than depict a story that has direct ties to the conflict, Rybin has cleverly used the conflict as a persistent source of background noise that slowly erodes the protagonist. In this regard, Rybin said the film is about propaganda and how it affects the human being.

Stripped of its political context, All Will End Soon is still a powerfully sobering chronically of modern society. It deftly shows how our humdrum and seemingly everyday existence can turn us into self-perceived idealistic crusaders of an ultimately pointless cause. This vicious cycle can close us off from experiencing the majesty of the world and the empathy that can be gained from a human relationship.

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Russian Film Week II: Attraction (2017)

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Attraction is a seismic outburst of a movie. Like many of the science fiction pictures that have pervaded the history of cinema, its lens is sharply focused on the illumination of a prevalent issue and theme. In the pre-screening Q&A, director Fyodor Bondarchuk cited the 2013 Birylyova riots as a source of inspiration for the film. The South Moscow riots emerged out of outrage over the death of a 25-year-old man, who was believed to have been killed by a migrant. Bondarchuck was struck by the unprecedented amount of aggression that he witnessed during the course of the few days of the capital spread event.

Consequently, the film’s various riot scenes have this frightening sense of historical realism and fervency: as the local civilians violently demonstrate their anger over the destruction and loss of life in the wake of an extraterrestrial ship crash over their suburb. The main character Yulia Lebedeva (Irina Starshenbaum) is an encapsulation of the citizen’s aggressive attitude towards the alien being as she vehemently speaks out against attempting to understand the foreign being because of guilt over her friend’s death during the incident.

The rest of the film feels like a pressure cooker of boiling tension as government and military authorities attempt to plan a course of action against the alien being. This is juxtaposed with Yulia’s budding intimate relationship with the space-based visitor. The latter stretch of the film successfully conveys the emotions of adolescent romance with an endearingly sweet dignity. At the same time, it also provides the film with a dialogue between the blind rage in reacting against the fear of the unknown and the personal revelatory knowledge that can be gained from the bonds of trust.

Aesthetically, the picture owes an enormous debt to Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction picture- District 9 with its grimy and ashened portrait of devastated urban environments. In one scene, there is even an homage to the found footage aesthetic of the first twenty minutes of the 2009 film, which comes from a character watching a YouTube video comprised of news footage, fictional interviews and video from surveillance cameras of the reported water shortage in the capital city.

Despite its six million dollar budget, Attraction’s visual effects and portrayal of other-worldly beings are quite impressive. In particular, the alien ship is striking in its design. From a slanted angle, it looks like a black and silver cyber infused version of Saturn. More crucially, it looks like a mobile cybernetic eye that in its design captures the paranoia of Russia’s totalitarian past. The central robotic suit has a fascinating design insofar as its glossy, sleek design contrast with its freeing movement that makes it seem like it’s a creature as opposed to a robotic entity.

Bondarchuk also revealed through the course of the Q&A that he was also inspired by Arrival. In this regard, the film falls short. Even in its most emotional scenes, Attraction never has the utterly transcendent quality of Arrival, which came from that film’s emotionally resonating and intellectually nourishing ending. In fact, while the film authentically captures the angst, frequent cases of sudden euphoria and general belligerence of the adolescent experience. Ultimately, it feels as though the themes and moral of the narrative possess the same one-note nature of a teenage outburst, all-consuming at the moment but nevertheless hopelessly naive and unnuanced.

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