2017 was groundbreaking for Hollywood and the film industry in several ways, slightly devastating, even – amongst the sex scandals and the rise of streaming as rival to cinemas, it was almost as if the precedent had been twisted in ways that will see much change in the coming year. But what about the quality of the movies themselves?
Happily, the film content was quite strong, with numerous interesting stories by strong directors who stepped up with individual voices, and most of them are reflected here in this list of nominees. Surely it wasn’t a watershed year in quality; big tentpole sequels are still the priority for studios, but the hunger for new and individual movies is beginning to subside ever so slightly.
It says a lot that amongst this list of nominees for the Best Picture Oscar there is not a single weak or lacking entry, something one would be hard pressed to say in the last several years. So without further adieu, let’s rank and examine those ‘Best Of’ for 2017, and in order of preference since all are high quality…
9. The Post
The combination of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep is the sort of powerhouse combo that awards campaigners would chop off their right arm for (who can count how many golden statues and nominations those three share between them?) More surprising is that it while sits at the bottom of the list, it is by no means is it a weak movie – it’s just not as arresting or original as its competition. Although what it strives to do, it does very well.
Centred around the the Washington Post and their attempts to print the condemning Pentagon Papers, the film discusses the thematics of the freedom of the press being a necessity to society, a subject that feels ironic and nostalgic in the era of ‘fake news’.
Spielberg consciously echoes the political thrillers of the 70s, even playing this film as a loose prequel to “All the President’s Men” (it’s centred around the same characters and newspaper) with his final frame even directly referencing the opening of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 classic.
And therein sort of lies its flaw. Whilst this is a compellingly told story, sharply shot and dramatically played, the true meat of the story really happened straight afterwards with the Watergate scandal, with this one feeling like it’s dragging its feet. Also in comparison to the rest of the list, the movie feels fairly ‘safe’, with plenty of Oscar bait monologues and unsubtle ‘message’ moments.
Regardless, it’s stunningly made by the old professional, and of course Hanks and Streep bring the gusto, with a handful of fantastic TV performers filling out the stellar supporting cast (even with a “Mr. Show” reunion between Bob Odenkirk and David Cross). Also, thankfully Spielberg reins in the smaltz (for the most part), keeping this one his most lean and effective. Regardless of its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable and worthy watch.
8. Call Me By Your Name
It seemed like 2017 was rife with memorable coming-of-age stories, usually set in specific and flavourful periods; it’s no coincidence that two examples of that cut of film sit on this list due to the high quality that conceded with it. The first is Lucas Guadagnino’s breezy book adaptation, recalling the atypical tumultuous period of male teen adolescence, chronicled by a brave performance from newcomer Timothee Chalamet, a boy who experiences a sexual awakening during a summer in the south of France during the heyday of the 80s.
The visuals and locations are lush and intoxicating, yet the drama is human and real – Chalamet feels natural as a teen believably finding his way in life, with his journey refreshingly not sugar-coated (he conjures as much empathy as frustration from the audience).
It helps also that he’s given a fantastic counterpart in the form of Armie Hammer, an older gentleman who is first a distant object of desire, then later a troubled love interest; the chemistry between the two sparks and genuinely charts a compelling arc in their complex relationship. Hammer is solid as the stoic foreigner, displaying square-jawed charm yet also bullheaded selfishness.
Best of all from the cast, though, is the always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg as Chalemet’s father – it’s a sensitive and smart turn from the chameleon-like character actor, and although he’s out of the spotlight for the majority of the run time, he manages to steal the entire film in a touching scene near the film’s finale, one that successfully encapsulates the film’s bittersweet pathos of ‘lost love’ in a nutshell.
7. Darkest Hour
Reeling from a costly critical and financial flop (2015’s “Pan”), British director Joe Wright contemplated leaving the film business altogether, yet with this standard yet passionately told biopic, he found a new lease on his occupation, and plenty of thanks for that goes to a peak Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill.
It’s a solid companion piece to fellow nominee “Dunkirk” as it tells the turmoil and conflict that Churchill went through circa the same period, except on the home front. Wright’s direction is energetic and theatrically elaborate, a clean sheen of style that successfully livens up the standard historical piece. The exciting passion the director feels for the subject helps shake up the staleness of its script in a successful manner.
Regardless of Wright’s investment, though, it really wouldn’t be anything without the true selling point – Gary Oldman. Hidden under weightily prosthetics, the character actor truly comes alive and inhabits this historical figure, to the extent you’ll forget where one ends and the other begins. He’s able to humanise the larger-than-life figure, a difficult man, yet one with a massive heart and a fighting spirit to do what’s right.
We’re unable to say it’s a career best for the versatile actor, since his long-running backlog is filled with transformative and arresting performances, but it certainly is the best use of this national treasure and his flawless skill. Since the 90s (his subtle and introverted lead in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” notwithstanding), it’s the first proper lead role for the under-utilised actor, putting the man front and centre where he belongs.
6. Lady Bird
Low-key actress Greta Gerwig turned in this first solo directing effort, another coming-of-age drama set in the mid-2000s (this time charting the female adolescent experience), with it landing a critical reception so strong that it holds the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating … ever. Although this subtle piece was hardly aggressively pursuing such a title (nor arguably is it worthy of it), there is plenty to recommend here.
Actress Saoirse Ronan is the lead in another likeable performance that has her living through the final year of high school. Her journey charts falling in and out of a romance, her bumpy relationship with her ‘tough love’ mother (a career-best Laurie Metcalf), and discovering her priorities as a young adult. And refreshingly, that’s about it – the film lacks those big pandering moments usually associated with awards seasons, not to mention its sub-genre.
It’s slightness can hamper it (the film can sometimes feel like it doesn’t add up to much), but there’s no denying it’s charmingly told and a well-performed ordeal that feels close to the heart of its director. It’s a warm yet honest tale about growing up, one that doesn’t carry the burden of a giant ‘message’ or even give clear cut crowd pleasing moments – and most importantly, it announces a distinct and enjoyable new voice behind the camera in the form of Gerwig.