Film 2017

GodsOwnCountrybath

NB: Since first publishing this list on 12 December, I have amended it to accommodate some late entries.

It’s only 12 days into December, but I sense that my films of the year are almost fully formed, so let’s make it official. First, a carefully graded Top 10 that I may reshuffle at any time. These are essentially the ten films that moved me the most in 2017 and stayed with me for any number of reasons. I’m thrilled with the at-the-time imperceptible takeover by UK films, especially those from first-timers like Francis Lee and, further down the roll-call of genius, William Oldroyd.

Ironically, it’s also pleasing to see three singular, low-budget American films in the Top 12 – especially in a year when diverse, independent US cinema did well at the big awards. Also, a Dutch director who usually works in English switching to French to make a French film in France, and an Austrian who usually works in French working in French and English. Talking of which, in the first full year of the Brexit nightmare, or at least the grim prelude to the UK’s disengagement from Europe and the world, I find I feel even more attracted to foreign-language films, represented in the Top 12 by Romania, France, Turkey, Austria and, beyond Europe, Chile, Cambodia, and further down the list, Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Spain.

It can be no accident that my favourite film of 2017 explicitly addresses immigration and shows foreign intervention into English society as a positive force.

  1. God’s Own Country | Francis Lee (UK)
  2. Moonlight | Barry Jenkins (US)
  3. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania/France/Belgium)
  4. Get Out | Jordan Peele (US)
  5. Dunkirk | Christopher Nolan (UK/US/France/Netherlands)
  6. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  7. Happy End | Michael Haneke (France/Germany/Austria)
  8. Neruda | Pablo Larrain (Chile/Argentina/France)
  9. A Ghost Story | David Lowery (US)
  10. First, They Killed My Father | Angelina Jolie (Cambodia/US)
  11. Kedi | Ceyda Torun (Turkey)
  12. Elle | Paul Verhoeven (France/Germany)

And the next 30 or so, in handy groups of ten, whose order is at the end of the day random. All films on this list have been marked with an asterisk in my private, ongoing log of films seen, which elevates them from the herd. There are more films than ever now that Netflix is a significant player (there are three Netflix Originals here, for the first time, and not the last). My traditional nod, too, to Curzon Home Cinema, a prestige streaming service that keeps me abreast of films that don’t always make it even to the arthouse, and if they do, don’t stay for long.

Land of Mine | Martin Zandvliet (Denmark/Germany)
The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
On Body and Soul | Ildikó Enyedi (Hungary)
El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
Blade Runner 2049 | Denis Villeneuve (US)
Good Time | Ben Safdie, Josh Safdie (US)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Rian Johnson (US)
La La Land | Damien Chappelle (US)
Jackie | Pablo Larrain (US)
Manchester by the Sea | Kenneth Lonergan (US)

The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
Free Fire | Ben Wheatley (UK)
The Salesman | Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Lady Macbeth | William Oldroyd (UK)
Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
Prevenge | Alice Lowe (UK)
Mudbound | Dee Rees (US)
Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK/US)
A Man Called Ove | Hannes Holm (Sweden)

City of Ghosts | Matthew Heinemann (US)
Bunch of Kunst | Christine Franz (UK)
The Big Sick | Michael Showalter (US)
I am Not Your Negro | Raoul Peck (France/US/Belgium/Switzerland)
Frantz | Francois Ozon (France/Germany)
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond | Chris Smith (US)
War for the Planet of the Apes | Matt Reeves (US)
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) | Noah Baumbach (US)
The Ghoul | Gareth Tunley (UK)
London Symphony | Alex Barrett (UK)

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Austerity measures

beyond_the_hillsshell

The vagaries of the release schedule and a low-key, post-Oscars weekend at the Curzon gave me two films in two days that depict life on the geographical margins of society. One is set in a remote region of Romania, the other in the Highlands of Scotland, both windswept and austere. Both films are compelling and make capital from the unremitting bleakness of their environment, physical and figurative. I like it when this happens.

Beyond The Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s belated follow-up to the internationally acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which helped put Mungiu at the heart of “the Romanian New Wave”, a movement arguably kick-started by Cristi Puiu, whose The Death Of Mr Lazarescu won at Cannes in 1995 (as did 4 Months) and “put Romania on the map,” as they say. Puiu also made Aurora, which was one of my favourite films released here last year. Every Romanian film I’ve mentioned so far has been bleak, critical, illuminating and vital.

It’s hard to meaningfully sum up a national cinema without generalising wildly, but Romania’s emergence from life under a totalitarian Communist dictatorship clearly coloured its filmmakers’ individual visions, which understandably tend toward the bleak and the realist. The “shock doctrine” that shakes a society out of itself after a seismic change usually refers to a move into market capitalism, and this often looks better on paper to economists – and perhaps to freshly unyoked citizens – than it works out in practice. (Lazarescu and 4 Months were set at the time of the Ceausescu regime and served a cathartic purpose.)

Beyond The Hills, which won Mungiu another laurel at Cannes for his screenplay and for his two lead actors, is set after 1995, as the Euro is referenced, but – I gather – before 2007, when Romania entered the European Union. (One of the characters has just returned from the economically strong Germany, where she has been working, and where she wishes to lure her friend, while a more reactionary priest who has never left Romania denounces the licentious behaviour of “foreigners”.) Certainly, we are shown glimpses of a modern, or modernised, Romania – a smart cafe, a well-equipped hospital, the priest using a mobile phone for emergencies – but the meat of the story takes place in an Orthodox monastery with no electricity, heating or running water, which seems willingly marooned in the past.

Into this sealed world of prayer and candlelit plain living comes Alina (Cristina Flutur) in her conspicuously “outside world” outfit of blue tracksuit top, which sits in stark contrast to the chaste, all-black robes and headgear of the nuns, including Alina’s best friend Volchita (Cosmina Stratan), now a devout and humble novice. While Volchita seems at peace, Alina is at war, with herself perhaps, or her desires? She is not an immediately sympathetic character – demanding, selfish, hysterical, stubborn – but when pitched against the insular, controlling paranoia of the monastery, at times she feels like an avenging angel, albeit a flawed one. Flutur and Stratan deserved their Best Actress accolade at Cannes; they are utterly believable as friends.

The monastic mountain setting immediately recalls the equally austere and precise French film Of Gods And Men, one of my favourites of 2010, set in an Algerian monastery in 1996. It too dealt with a crisis, but one from the outside – Islamic militants. In Beyond The Hills, the crisis is within. It is Alina, who refuses to accept God and descends into selfish, petulant anger at the newly-found faith of her now-lost childhood friend – and, it is implied, lover. This is only a 12A, and nothing is shown, but when Alina first comes to visit Volchita, she asks her to soothe her back with rubbing alcohol, a medical treatment that clearly has sexual undertones, and the pair are shown sharing warmth in bed together. When Alina’s square-peg status erupts into something seemingly demonic, the film takes a dramatic turn, and I’ll reveal no further details.

Beyond The Hills is long (over two and a half hours), slow, and deliberate, and, to borrow Philip French’s astute description, “neutral”. As with Aurora, and 4 Months, when, say, a character leaves a room to fetch something, there is no edit: we wait for them to return. The way of the monastery means that “Papa” (Valeriu Andriutã), the dominant priest, is frequently asking one nun to go and fetch another, and we must wait in real time for that to happen.

You could edit this film down to 90 minutes without losing any of the story beats, but it would be less of a film in so many other ways. The unhurried pace simply points up the urgency of the mounting crisis, and the bungled way in which it is handled, not just by the priest and his nuns – who at one point become a comically incompetent gaggle – but by the hospital staff, and by Alina’s former foster parents. It’s not a film about religion; rather, the deficiencies of the system in Romania. The final shot, which again I won’t ruin, is utterly spellbinding; ingenious in its slow, symbolic minimalism.

Let’s make another visual rhyme out of these two films.

beyond-the-hills2shell2

So, to Shell, which is the first feature of Scottish writer/director Scott Graham, who expanded it from a short of the same name. More hills. This time, the hardscrabble existence is not about tilling the recalcitrant land, nor drawing its water up a well, but serving the motorists who pass through a remote stretch of the Highlands. With fuel, essentially – Shell (another amazing performance, this time from newcomer Chloe Pirrie, who was in the most recent Black Mirror) and her epileptic father Pete (the always transfixing Joseph Mawle) live and work in this jerry-built petrol garage, where he also turns cars into scrap, and theirs is an existence just as sealed-off and meagre as the nuns’ in Beyond The Hills.

Again, in an unhurried, real-time fashion, we get a vivid picture of their life together, their daily routine punctuated with the occasional car or lorry, stopping to fill up, and, in the case of the regulars, to chat. Human contact seems vital to the teenage Shell, who is at ease with Michael Smiley’s stoic, smiley divorced dad, on his way to see his kids, and with Iain De Caestecker’s Adam, a potential suitor who works at a nearby sawmill. But her first loyalty is to her dad. We see her tenderly nurse and comfort him through an epileptic fit on the kitchen floor, immediately setting her up as the carer. She cannot escape because of his needs, and because of her loyalty. (We discover that he literally built the house, although as pointed out by another reviewer, the fading interior decor suggests it hasn’t been tended to much since his wife and her mother left.)

This is a slice of life, just as, say, Aurora was. Life is simply going on, before our voyeuristic eyes. Pete professionally butchers a deer killed by a couple’s car on the road, skinning it in the garage and chopping it up into cuts for the freezer. He seems a primal man, but he is rendered helpless by the regular seizures, about which you sense he feels embarrassed, as his dominance as a father and as a man is lessened by them. That he and Shell’s relationship borders on the incestuous is something that’s subtly and never melodramatically explored as the story unfolds, although “story” is laying too much responsibility as its feet. Drivers come and go, but Shell and Pete stay in place, fixed, pinned, incarcerated by their situation, stripping cars and skinning deer and reducing them to their component parts.

Although the glacial pace and minimalist narrative of Shell are persuasive, this is a much shorter film than Beyond The Hills, and, almost as if the budget ran out, it makes something of a mad dash to the denouement, which is disappointing because of the hurry with which it arrives. I could have watched for at least two hours. There’s also a misunderstanding that ignites the final dramatic twist, and it felt a bit underpowered when all before seemed so deliberate and realistic. Scott Graham is clearly a talent, and he frames the environment with an artist’s eye. You can hear the wind whistling through the drafty house throughout, and the sense of place is intensely affecting. Unlike the Romanian monastery, there is electricity, and it brings news of the outside world when Shell dances with abandon and joy to Walk Of Life by Dire Straits, making you wonder if the film’s set in the past. When Michael Smiley’s Hugh brings Shell back a pair of jeans from the city as a courtship gift disguised as something more paternal, it’s as if we’re in Soviet Russia.

Even though the ending is disappointing, Shell is well worth a look. It’s almost as if both filmmakers are trying to take us somewhere. They certainly both appreciate the dramatic and figurative power of inclement weather. One character says to Shell, by way of small talk, something like, “When’s this winter going to end?” In Beyond The Hills, snow falls and cuts the monastery off even more decisively from “civilisation”.

It was a wet weekend in London, and these films really suited my mood. It’s great to see a British film coming on all East European, though.

Blues after Ceaucescu

To some of you, it would seem to be a parody of the kind of film I like, but to me, it is the kind of film I like: a three-hour contemporary Romanian film in which hardly anything happens and almost nothing is explained. Aurora is that film, the third from Cristi Puiu, whose second feature The Death Of Mr Lãzãrescu was hugely acclaimed and kicked off what he has called his Six Stories From The Outskirts Of Bucharest, and what critics have called the New Romanian Wave. This is the second of those. I won’t tell you where it is set.

No idea why it’s called Aurora, by the way. This seems to be its international title. (His previous was called Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu in his native land.) Does it refer to the Roman goddess of the dawn? To the astronomical light display? To the fictional planet from Isaac Asimov? The film is very much set on this planet, and very little occurs to suggest gods or astronomy. The characters, embodied by the enigmatic, muttering Viorel (played by Puiu himself), seem pinned to the earth, trapped inside the grey of their immediate vicinity: work, home and transit in between. There were points in this slow, deliberate, precise film, which takes place over two days under colourless skies, where I thought it was simply a case of watching a middle-aged man in Bucharest go through a mental breakdown. (Without giving anything concrete away – which is fairly easy, as Puiu doesn’t give anything concrete away either – Viorel’s initial purchase of a rifle is the only element that seems to raise Aurora above the level of mundane, everyday routine.)

In fact, it’s nothing as melodramatic as that. He has conversations with workmates at some kind of metalworks; conversations with his neighbours in the worn block of flats where he lives, alone, within the stripped walls of his emptied apartment, apparently prepared for “redecoration” that may be a mirage of forward planning; conversations with shop assistants and others in the service industry – a gun shop; a cafeteria; a brightly strip-lit supermarket; a chi-chi fashion outlet that offers a prickly glimpse of middle-class life albeit one that seems out of this man’s reach, ambition or pay-grade – and he basically goes about his day. Divorced, with two daughters, he slowly picks his way through unsatisfactory relationships with his in-laws, the staff at his eldest’s school, and even what appears to be his girlfriend (or a married woman he’s having an affair with), and amid sll this, Viorel emerges as an amazingly full-blooded creation, for all of his communication problems. Credit to director, screenwriter and actor, who are one and the same, after all.

He seems at times unable to give a straight yes or no answer, preferring to stay silent. He’s the kind of guy you might well divorce, although his eldest treats him with respect and does not seem scared of him. He’s something of an incomplete man. This impression is pointed up by Puiu the director, who frames him so that he is literally not all there.

I must admit, a three-hour film is always a challenge, even if it’s action-packed. Aurora is not action-packed, but its lack of action lends extra weight to ordinarily insignificant details. I became fixated on a tiny Tom & Jerry badge Viorel had stuck to the dashboard of his car: the implied western influence on a former Communist country; the sad trace of a time when, perhaps, it was a family car, with kids in the back; an even subtler suggestion of violence. It’s hypnotic, and very difficult not to get involved in, as this man lurks, and runs, and lurks again, and picks things up and puts them down and then picks them up and puts them down again in a different place.

I’ve read good reviews and bad of Aurora, including a one-star decimation in Time Out New York, which I think deemed it a “waste of time“. There is no consensus. It debuted at Cannes two years ago and only now finds an international release, despite Puiu’s reputation after Lãzãrescu. But it does not steal three hours away from you. Not if you relish the privilege to eavesdrop on another culture, another way of life, another daily reality. It’s over 20 years since Ceaucescu was deposed – and executed – ending more than 40 years of Communist rule, during which time a country that had failed to remain neutral in both world wars, and whose part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was not officially recognised by the Paris Peace Conference in 1947, had industrialised and collectivised, thumbed its nose at the Soviets, and endured a police state under its own autocratic megalomaniac. It’s not too fanciful to read all of this 20th century history into a film about a man going about his business in the early 21st. The narrative deliberately defies context, but carries an awful lot of subtext.

I can’t, and won’t, talk about the film’s ending. Even though it’s not an action thriller, a lot happens in the final 20 minutes, by which time you’ve spent 160 minutes on the outskirts of Bucharest, and although resolution is not achieved in a traditional sense, you learn things about Viorel that were up to that point presumed, or simply opaque, like the windows and screen doors we’ve been watching him through.

I’m glad to have seen Aurora. It’s flawed, but it’s worthwhile. Had I seen it on TV, with distractions and a pause button, and not in the isolating dark of a cinema, I may not have been so engaged and absorbed by its minutiae. It is categorically not a waste of time.