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Zhuo-Ning Su’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Written by on January 1, 2018 

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We live in uncertain times. Hard-fought progress is being reversed. Appeals to love and compassion are losing out to easier options like hate and fear. With horror, anxiety, and jaw-dropped disbelief we watch the worst instincts of mankind play out in a world we thought we knew.

The jumpiness seems to be felt at the cinemas as well, considering the banner year it’s been for scary movies. Right out the gate Split provided quite a kick, reminding us the playful master of paranoia M. Night Shyamalan can be. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, for his part, uses comedy in a high-concept, low-budget kaiju flick and turns Colossal into an absurdist delight. It doesn’t get more low-budget than Chilean director Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s debut Chameleon, but the brutal elegance of his touch drives the depiction of random, depraved home invasion to bone-chilling heights.

Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times and Julia Ducournau’s Raw are just two other impressive first features. Both tackling the all-consuming teenage angst, the former added an unexpected note of warm nostalgia to its profile of a cold-blooded killer, while the latter gave burgeoning lust – this sudden, animalistic hunger – a shockingly literal interpretation. A hint of supernaturalism/surrealism can be found in Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Korean director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess and Italian filmmaking duo Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story. All very different beasts, creepy in their malicious/ demented/ poetic ways. And what about Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night or Xavier Legrand’s Custody, each building on the promise of violence to deliver such nail-biting tension in their finale?

Looking back at 2017, another unmistakable standout is the stellar output of queer cinema, underscored also by real-world perils faced by the LGBTQ community. Moonlight’s landmark best picture win capped off the Oscar season on a triumphant note of disobedience by celebrating Barry Jenkins’ sensitive take on black intimacy. Hailing from South Africa, The Wound captivates with its dissection of masculinity against the unique backdrop of tribal rituals and taboos. Also questioning the idea of modern masculinity, Eliza Hittman’s carefully observed character study Beach Rats shines a light on little known parts of New York and delves into the depths of a young man’s conflicted mind.

Australian director Stevie Cruz-Martin and Chilean director Sebastián Lelio both took on the subject of transsexuality and, with sturdy yet imaginative strokes, gave us Pulse and A Fantastic Woman, two affecting portrayals of the struggles confronted by those venturing across the gender line. Meanwhile, Spanish first-time director Eduardo Casanova’s gender-bending trash opera Skins gets the party started and embraces the freaks in all of us with wild, glorious abandon. Also a feature debut, God’s Own Country by British helmer Francis Lee tells a painfully gentle tale of how two hearts meet and, in its hope-filled conclusion, defies the ill fate that typically befall on-screen heroes and their same-sex lovers.

Defiance against bigotry, oppression and narrow-mindedness can otherwise be found in excellent productions of every origin this year. The Cannes-selected animated feature Tehran Taboo from Iran and the San Sebastian-winning drama Alanis from Argentina deal with the predicament of women in their respective countries and prove equally engrossing and enlightening. Guillermo del Toro’s strikingly crafted The Shape of Water has the look and feel of an enchanted fairy tale, but, by describing a fearless love that transcends language and boundaries, fights a very real, very present cause. The fight against xenophobia obviously also lies at the heart of the sweet and wonderfully executed Paddington 2. Perhaps less evidently so, but even such broadly appealing family fare/romantic comedy as Coco and The Big Sick could be seen as rebellious acts of cultural representation in a political climate where foreigner is sometimes used as a dirty word.

And yes, I also enjoyed the narratively layered, unexpectedly kind Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, admired the superb craftsmanship and clinical dispassion of Dunkirk, wanted to run away with the two young protagonists of the hypnotically alluring Ava, found myself overwhelmed by the sight of Charlotte Rampling disappearing into the bowels of an anonymous city subway at the end of Hannah, fell quietly in love with kogonada’s gorgeous and gorgeously unassuming Columbus. The list goes on. But after this quick run-down of highlights, it’s time to share the films that resonated most with this moviegoer in the bleak, edgy, disorienting year we call 2017.

Honorable Mentions

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10. Golden Exits (Alex Ross Perry)

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While in no way an “issue film” or even particularly meaningful in its proposition or observations, Perry’s airy relationship drama lingers like a charmed breeze amidst bigger titles with weightier concerns. Dedicated to those fleeting moments of hushed significance and delicate in-between feelings we don’t even have words for, the screenplay traces tiny ripples in the dynamics between two couples caused by a young girl’s arrival. A lot is spoken with precious little said. Most is simply understood in the lovely ambivalence left unruined by language. Sean Price Williams’ cinematography and Keegan DeWitt’s fanciful compositions also contributed to the film’s luscious, suggestive afterglow.

9. The Great Buddha + (Hsin-yao Huang)

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In a year that has given us such humane, defiantly unsentimental portrayals of impoverishment as Patti Cake$ and The Florida Project, this bitterly hilarious comedy from Taiwan about a garbage collector and a night guard touched the rawest nerve. Making his feature debut, documentary filmmaker Huang employ an ingeniously comical setup to communicate the dire circumstances of those living on the margins of society. The subtlety of his storytelling, so utterly devoid of pity or accusation, makes the revelation of our collective oblivion/hypocrisy towards the less fortunate that much more poignant. Seldom are satires this soulful and profoundly sad.

8. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

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Whether it was his intention or not, Peele’s directorial debut depicting a person of color who realizes he’s trapped inside a nightmare of perverted, vampiric white privilege, ultimately came to define (the cinema of) 2017. The eerie parallels to present-day racial tension aside, the movie pulls you in first and foremost with its juicy plot and terrific ensemble performance – every twist packing a solid, old-school surprise. And as illustrated by the instantly iconic “sunken place” scene, it goes beyond mere jump scares to tap into a more primal source of fear, nailing, in the process, the restless, secretly panicked zeitgeist of our time.

7. Happy End (Michael Haneke)

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Nobody does bourgeois despair better than Haneke and that’s just a fact. This ominously titled family drama, constructed with the kind of surgical precision the Austrian auteur has come to be known for, once again uncovers a chain of unhealthy obsessions and self-destructive impulses from beneath a gleaming surface. Rich people’s problems? Sure. But the grace and exactitude with which such desperation is examined – or indeed mocked – wows. And the pride, disdain and pristine dread etched into the faces of Jean-Louis Trintignant & co. betray something so wretched it fascinates the mind to consider these deplorably callous creatures.

6. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)

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By not presuming to know what motivated terrorists to do what they do, the always provocative Bonello served up a most compelling/unsettling scenario of mayhem and carnage. No moral lessons, no judgment, there’s only this relentless need to act, kill and set Paris ablaze, as captured by the vibrant camera and pieced together through some heart-stoppingly sharp editing. It’s a dark, nihilistic vision brought furiously to life that synchronizes your pulse to those of the teenage assailants, makes you witness the seemingly pointless loss of lives and, in a gesture of great restraint, trusts you to come to your own conclusions.

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