From disturbing sci-fi dystopias, to love and war, questions of race, horror flicks and beyond,Chris Newbould and our film critics introduce their top picks from the front row
Our top film choices of 2017
It’s been a great year for cinema globally, and in the UAE too, with more and more lesser known and indie films slowly finding their way into cinemas here, alongside the usual blockbuster fare and superhero favourites.
Films like Colossal and The Killing of a Sacred Deer were just two underground gems that made it onto mainstream screens, a feat that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Projects like the DIFF 365 programme, an initiative to screen independent films here all year round, and Dubai’s indie movie theatre, Cinema Akil, also helped to expand the variety of films available to the viewing public.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was the success of the horror genre. Both the previously mentioned films have some links to the genre, while Annabelle: Creation and It Comes at Night were straight-up horrors that were surprise box office hits. The big prizes here though, go to Andrés Muschietti, whose adaptation of It took almost US$700 billion (Dh2,571 billion) at the global box office, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which was critically adored and created that rarest whisper of an Oscar for a horror film. But it would be futile to try to list all of the year’s greatest hits here, so we asked some of our writers to help me choose their top picks. Here are mine:
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos follows up 2015’s surreal critical and commercial success The Lobster with a similarly bizarre, if significantly darker tale. Colin Farrell’s heart surgeon is presented with the heart-wrenching question: which member of your family do you want to kill in order to save the others? If he doesn’t make his decision in time, his wife and two children will die. Despite the macabre subject matter, Lanthimos has crafted a disturbingly funny black comedy that peeks into the very darkest crevices of human nature.
The Disaster Artist, directed by James Franco
James Franco directs and stars in this hilarious retelling of the story of the making of the “worst film ever made” The Room, and it’s mysterious, and probably clinically insane, creator Tommy Wiseau. Although the film is pure comedy, Franco deserves special mention for his immaculate portrayal of the larger-than-life Wiseau.
The closing credits where scenes from the movie are laid side-by-side with the original are testament to an amazing piece of method acting, or possibly straight up impersonation, from Franco and the rest of the cast. It’s worth waiting until the credits finish rolling to see the scenes that didn’t make the cut, in which, thanks to contractual demands from Wiseau, Franco’s fictional version appears in scenes with his real-life inspiration.
You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay
Dark, brutal, and asking more questions than it answers, Lynne Ramsay’s thriller features Joaquin Phoenix as an ultra-violent hitman-cum-detective who specialises in finding and freeing missing children. When he gets in too deep with a high-level sex trafficking ring involving prominent politicians, Ramsay could easily deliver a straight-up action thriller. Instead we get an eerie, hallucinatory nightmare of a film, visually unsettling and heavy in aural disquiet too thanks to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s discordant score. Chosen by Kaleem Aftab:
The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund
In the Palme d’Or winner The Square, 50-year-old Danish actor Claes Bang plays Christian, a white liberal Swedish artistic director of a museum whose new exhibition is a 4x4-metre square painted on the floor. He claims that inside this square everyone has equal obligations and rights. But his right-on attitude begins to unravel when he is mugged for his mobile phone and wallet. What follows is a series of hilarious episodes that highlight his sense of self-entitlement and also the hypocrisy of the white liberal arts world. Watch out for Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss playing a journalist.
Wajib, directed by Annemarie Jacir
Annemarie Jacir is the leading light of the Arabic film world and her third film, Wajib, immediately finds itself on the list of the best movies set around Christmas. The drama is the first time legendary father-and-son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri appear on-screen together. Set in Nazareth, the film highlights the many divides within the city as well as the family, whilst also being a funny, romantic story revolving around a wedding.
Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau
Raw is a great horror film set at a veterinary school that will put you off meat for life. French director Julia Ducournau’s debut film is about two sisters who have a taste for flesh. The film focuses on hazing rituals and the psychological horror of being a woman in a male-dominated society. Fight the power.
Chosen by Linda Barnard:
Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird confidently explores the baffling push-pull of love and exasperation between mothers and adolescent daughters in a near-perfect comedic drama. There are echoes of John Hughes in the quicksilver dialogue, the dynamics of a suburban family struggling financially, and the angst vs joy among teenagers verging on adulthood. With outstanding performances from Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as her mother, big-dreaming daughter and frustrated mum repeatedly chafe and bond. Laugh-out-loud moments are balanced with artful tugs at the heartstrings, while cringe-worthy scenes come with a touch of familiarity.
The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro
The Shape of Water has been dubbed “ET for adults” and director Guillermo del Toro gets the hunted, misunderstood creature and sense of wonder just right in this beautifully dreamy film. He goes beyond the outlier fairy tale with a Cold War-set drama that’s not ashamed to be romantic, yet also has something to say about prejudice and acceptance. Sally Hawkins is superb as mute cleaning woman Eliza, who forms an unlikely bond with the kidnapped amphibian-man tormented at her workplace in military experiments.
Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele
Writer-director Jordan Peele makes a sure-footed, creative and often funny debut with Get Out, a thriller mixed with social satire that turns on observations on race and intolerance in the United States. Black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) realises there are some odd things going-on when he arrives for a meet-the-parents weekend with his white girlfriend. Decidedly self-aware and sprinkled with genre film and pop-culture references, Get Out is a film to thoroughly enjoy in the moment and then spend a lot of time thinking about after the lights come up. It’s the whole package for film fans.
Chosen by James Mottram
Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve
“Visionary” is a word too often bandied around in Hollywood, but French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Enemy) is exactly that. His long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 sci-fi film is a work of shimmering beauty, with peerless visual effects and sublime cinematography from Roger Deakins. With Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard and Ryan Gosling as the “blade runner” who seeks him out, it’s that rare thing: an adult science fiction film that’s about ideas not action.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan
Surely the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Christopher Nolan’s visceral war film is an astonishing piece of cinema. Structurally complex, this survival story set around the Dunkirk evacuations of the Second World War is a truly immersive cinematic experience. The IMAX aerial footage was head-spinning, with Nolan utilising real Spitfires where possible, and Hans Zimmer’s score sizzles, but it’s the cumulative effect that really hits. Blending veteran stars like Kenneth Branagh with newcomers such as Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk treats its subject with the utmost respect.
La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle
What an unfettered joy Damien Chazelle’s modern-day musical is. This exuberant love letter to Los Angeles, old-school Hollywood and to love itself is a consistently inventive work that reworks the song and dance genre into something cool and contemporary. Playing the aspiring jazz pianist and the actress, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone work wonders together, bringing genuine emotion to the songs of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, but it is Chazelle who bonds it all into a film of melancholic longing. Even those who shy away from musicals find this enchanting.
Chosen by Stephen Applebaum
Human Flow, directed by Ai Weiwei
The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei brings his concern for the plight of refugees out of the art gallery and off the street, and onto the big screen, in Human Flow – a sprawling, beautiful, sometimes harrowing attempt to capture the breathtaking global scale of the biggest mass movement of people since the Second World War. Shot over one year in 23 countries, it combines scale with intimacy, zooming from the macro to the micro, and out again, charting displaced people’s search for safety and security, through humanity and compassion. Clocking in at more than two hours, the film is long, but it’s never boring.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh
Brilliantly written and flawlessly acted, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s surprise-filled modern-day Western features an electrifying performance from Frances McDormand, as a mother who goes to war with her local police over their failure to find whoever raped and murdered her daughter. She could have been a one-dimensional avenger, but McDonagh gives her and all of the film’s characters depth, dimension and humanity. McDormand could collect her second Oscar, following her win for Fargo in 1997, while Sam Rockwell, brilliant as a dim-witted cop, looks set for a long overdue nomination. Woody Harrelson and Peter Dinklage also star.
Stronger, directed by David Gordon Green
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date in this raw, humane account of Jeff Bauman’s struggle to rebuild his life after losing both of his legs below the knee in the horrific 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The film captures, in intimate detail, his physical, psychological and emotional battles, and the human reality behind the symbol of strength and hope that the media and Bostonians try to turn him into. Gyllenhaal hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since the formidable Brokeback Mountain in 2005. This could change that. Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson also star.