Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Year in Movies – 2017

This is a movie blog, but a calendar year in movies (an arbitrary divisor used for ease of comparison) can always be contrasted with, and, more often, related to the calendar year in general. In 2014, we noted a new rise in protest and resistance action around the world, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement that began in America in that year. At the end of 2014, Ava DuVernay’s magnificent biopic Selma was released, which not only depicted a subject similar to the issues concerning the movement, but reflected a similar temper of outraged defiance and dignified opposition. The film was duly lauded, in both apt aesthetic and trite journalistic terms, and had a moderate showing at the Oscars. But, other than distilling and sharply appreciating the substance of the matter at hand, it did nothing to aid any of the protest movements surrounding it. Movies can’t change the world — art in the general shouldn’t try — but artists aim for its greater truths and meanings.

At the end of 2015, in my movie round-up, I noted the mounting energies of resistance and opposition both locally and globally: the student funding crisis, the South African education crisis, the international refugee crisis, the climate change crisis, fanaticist terror attacks, rising movements of fascism and overt racism, a growing distrust in an increasingly consumerist global media industry, and widening gaps of inequality. 2016 — whose political concerns were not enumerated on my blog post to end off that year — seemed to many like a tipping point in many of these issues, and the fierce observation and commentary on movie releases since then by social media users around the world has directly taken them into account. More explicitly than ever (and helpfully emphasised by the Oscar envelope mix-up), the widespread recognition of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight over narrower, more backward-facing works was political at least as much as it was aesthetic. This year, Hollywood was the epicentre of an eye-widening and heartening blowback against the systematic abuse of working women. Some of the allegations of sexual misconduct arising from Hollywood were shocking (though many were sickeningly unsurprising), but nothing about the predators’ actions was special or exceptional. These difficulties exist and thrive in every industry, and it’s almost necessary that an industry that exists to reflect and perceive the society at large is the one that exposed so ubiquitous a problem.

But politics are implicit to moviegoing and discussion even beyond the subject matters and themes of the films at hand. Hopefully readers will have noticed my attempts to bring broader attention to the culture of watching and talking about movies in this country, and pretty much the most invidiously spread trend (or growing convention) of movie punditry here, as elsewhere, is the shallow and spurious division of movies between what is referred to as “mainstream,” “blockbusters,” or mere “entertainment,” and more “serious” or “important” works of “art”. In this country, these distinctions — which arise from cultural and political decisions, rather than any aesthetic considerations — is encouraged by the conspicuous market segmentation of distributors such as Ster Kinekor, which offers us the options of Junction cinemas, Classic cinemas, and Nouveau cinemas. A movie is important, serious, beautiful, or great if the viewer watching it decides it is, not if a distributor’s marketing or industry convention dictates the parameters of each of those qualities. One may be encouraged at this time of year by the praise for a blockbuster genre entertainment like Get Out, but not when one reads through the entire year’s reviews in any number of publications. In my selection below, there is no divide between the films that are noble and serious, and those that are indulgent pleasures and entertainments. To me, they are all noble and all intensely pleasurable. Any theatre that screened Get Out, Good Time, The Lost City of Z, Logan Lucky, Hidden Figures, or mother! was an arthouse theatre, whether its proprietors knew it or not.

A particular problem faced by South African moviegoers is the one of limited or nonexistent distribution. Many of the titles we heard overseas commentators esteem with the heights of their enthusiasm were in no way available to us (at least, not via any legitimate options of viewing). But film distribution business models are also changing quickly, and now there are far more films available to us than used to be through the growing streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Showmax. Showmax is pretty much the only place to stream South African titles, and the selection is becoming encouragingly large and diverse, and one hopes that the new support for South African filmmakers manifests in newfound freedoms and opportunities in their art. Netflix gives us the option of watching many movies that would not otherwise find their way to our screens, many that we would in fact never have heard of. Most of the undistributed movies I make note of below are streaming on, or even funded and produced, by Netflix. Even the South African paper the Sunday Times has begun including Netflix titles on its list (linked to below). A Quiet Passion and Strong Island were two of the very best movies I saw last year, but, because they weren’t shown in South African theatres, many South African moviegoers didn’t get the opportunity to discuss them in conjunction with the year’s other releases.

Such lists exist to share our enthusiasms — to let you know what we think are the works that could offer the greatest pleasure and reach the greatest heights of artistic achievement. A list is a handily comparable, two-dimensional snapshot of one’s tastes and ideas, which is why they’re such fun to read, and why they should only come around once a year. I hope I’m letting you know of at least a few movies you hadn’t considered for viewing before, and that you’ll return the favour and let me know of some of yours in the comments (remember that there are many movies I miss every year). The titles link to my reviews.

1. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)

2. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

3. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

4. Good Time (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)

5. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

6. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

7. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

8. Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh)

9. Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)

10. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)

11. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)

12. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)

13. Jackie (Pablo Larraín)

14. Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen)

The Best Movies Not Distributed Theatrically (in alphabetical order)

I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin)

Little Sister (Zach Clark)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach)

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

Strong Island (Yance Ford)

Win It All (Joe Swanberg)

Best Actress
Cynthia Nixon (A Quiet Passion)
Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures)
Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come)
Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Addison Timlin (Little Sister)
Rooney Mara (Song to Song)
Best Actor
Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight)
Ryan Gosling (Song to Song)
Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
Best Supporting Actress
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
Janelle Monáe (Moonlight)
Jennifer Ehle (A Quiet Passion)
Natalie Portman (Song to Song)
Sienna Miller (The Lost City of Z)
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Lil Rel Howery (Get Out)
André Holland (Moonlight)
Keegan-Michael Key (Win It All)
Best Screenplay
A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
Fences (August Wilson)
Best Cinematography
Song to Song (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Moonlight (James Laxton)
Good Time (Sean Price Williams) 
A Quiet Passion (Florian Hoffmeister)
The Lost City of Z (Darius Khondji)
Best Editing
Song to Song (Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, Keith Fraase)
The Lost City of Z (John Axelrad, Lee Haugen)
Silence (Thelma Schoonmaker)
Moonlight (Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon)

If you read the other reviewers and critics’ Best of 2017 lists that I’ve linked to below, you’ll encounter many titles that we have not yet had the chance to see here in South Africa. Some already have release dates early in 2018, including Downsizing (5 January), The Shape of Water (19 January), The Post (26 January), Inxeba: The Wound (2 February), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (23 February), and Call Me By Your Name (23 February). Others, such as Faces Places, The Florida Project, A Ghost Story, Lady Macbeth, You Were Never Really Here, Lady Bird, Let the Sunshine In, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Phantom Thread, On the Beach at Night Alone, Beach Rats, Rat Film, and Zama, have no official distribution arrangements in South Africa. Some will arrive in due course, many will not, and we will have to continue to find ways to see the most revealing, most surprising, most inventive, most perceptive, most ecstatic, most furious cinematic works available and not available to us.

Other lists
Artforum (J. Hoberman)
The Atlantic (Christopher Orr)
The A.V. Club (A.A. Dowd, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Mike D’Angelo, Jesse Hassenger, Noel Murray, Katie Rife)
BBC (Nicholas Barber)
Big Screen Hooligans (That Nomad Shad)
Big Screen Hooligans (Ramz and Tash)
Big Screen Hooligans (El Proktor)
Big Screen Hooligans (The Chairman)
Boston Globe (Ty Burr)
Buzzfeed (Alison Willmore)
Cahiers du cinéma (staff)
Channel24 (Ilan Preskovsky, Gabi Zietsman, Herman Eloff, Alex Isaacs, Bronwyn McKay, Leandra Engelbrecht)
Chicago Reader (J.R. Jones)
Chicago Reader (Ben Sachs)
Chicago Sun-Times (Richard Roeper)
Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips)
The Christian Science Monitor (Peter Rainer)
City Press (Charl Blignaut, Grethe Kemp)
The Criterion Daily (David Hudson)
Criterion Cast (Joshua Brunsting)
Critics Round Up (aggregate)
Empire (staff)
Entertainment Weekly (staff)
Film Comment (poll)
Film School Rejects (Rob Hunter)
GQ (staff)
The Guardian (staff)
The Guardian (Peter Bradshaw)
The Hollywood Reporter (Todd McCarthy)
The Huffington Post (Matthew Jacobs)
The Independent (staff)
Indiewire (David Ehrlich)
Indiewire (Eric Kohn)
Indiewire (Anne Thompson)
Indiewire — Video countdown (David Ehrlich)
L.A. Weekly (April Wolfe)
LitNet (Suzette Kotzé-Myburgh)
Little White Lies (staff)
Los Angeles Times (Justin Chang)
Los Angeles Times (Mark Olsen)
Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)
John Waters
National Review Online (Armond White)
Netwerk24 (Laetitia Pople) 
New York Times (Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott)
The New Yorker (Richard Brody)
The Observer (Mark Kermode)
Reelviews (James Berardinelli)
RogerEbert.Com (staff)
Rolling Stone (Peter Travers)
RSG (Leon van Nierop) 
Salon (Max Cea)
San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle)
Screen Crush (Matt Singer)
Screen Daily (Jonathan Romney)
Sight & Sound (poll)
Slant Magazine (staff)
Slate (Dana Stevens)
Sunday Times (Tymon Smith)
TIME (Stephanie Zacharek)
TimeOut London (staff)
Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf)
Vanity Fair (Richard Lawson)
Variety (Peter Debruge)
Variety (Owen Gleiberman)
The Village Voice (Bilge Ebiri)
Vogue (John Powers)
Vox (Alissa Wilkinson)
Vulture (David Edelstein)
Vulture (Emily Yoshida)
The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern)
The Washington Post (Ann Hornaday)
The Wrap (Alonso Duralde)

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