2017: My Year in the Cinema

December 23, 2017
Paterson.. a man and his bus
Paterson.. a man and his bus

Cinema is like painting. Every year it’s said to be in terminal decline but new talents keep emerging and attendance records keep climbing.

It could be argued that with both painting and film the greatest success is enjoyed by the most spectacular and gimmicky of products, but has it ever been any different? Public taste tends to gravitate towards the shallow and sensational, which in movie terms means an endless succession of big budget superhero films and those reliable franchises such as James Bond, Star Wars or The Fast and the Furious.

My attendance at the so-called blockbusters is sporadic at best. I see enough of them to get an idea about what consititutes popular appeal, but the formulaic nature of these films, the over-reliance on CGI, and the contemptuously bad scripts, are huge turn-offs. If that sounds élitist, so be it. Criticism is not about jumping on bandwagons, it’s about separating specks of gold from a mountain of sludge.

If most people seem to like the sludge, taking comfort in mind-numbing repetition, that doesn’t mean this stuff is any good. Films of quality don’t always garner big attendances. On the other hand there are plenty of mediocre filmmakers who take comfort in imagining their movie was too good for the masses – which is even worse than the simplistic idea that the best films get the biggest audiences.

At least the blockbusters are entertaining and that’s always a positive. Only the greatest snobs will go to a movie in anticipation of being bored. When a director can make an entertaining film with an intelligent or humorous edge, it’s a noteworthy achievement. One outstanding example this year was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which took the car chases from The Fast and the Furious and inserted them into a memorable – almost unclassifiable – musical crime comedy.

Baby Driver.. superior entertainment

Baby Driver.. superior entertainment

Then there was Thor: Ragnarok, seemingly the most hopeless of franchises transformed into a screwball comedy by Kiwi director, Taika Waititi. Perhaps Waititi’s greatest insight was to realise that when you’re stuck with the acting abilities of Chris Hemsworth, the only option is self-satire. A bumptious, scrupulously polite God of Thunder has to be seen to be believed.

A film that walked the line between the mainstream and the margins was Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, which pioneered new avenues for funding and distribution, and turned a handsome profit. It may not be the beginning of the end for the big studios, but it shows their powers are not as all-encompassing as previously believed.

This year has also seen another installment in Ridley Scott’s ongoing Alien saga, which I’ve followed with waxing and waning interest over the years. Alien Covenant was a return to form – a fullblown intergalactic horror movie, with Michael Fassbender playing identical good and bad androids – it had enough symbolism and subplots to justify the carnage fans love so much.

Those same fans would have been slightly bemused by Denis Villeneuve’s Bladerunner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Scott’s classic Bladerunner of 1982. The prevailing air of melancholy and a convoluted plot must have tested the patience of many viewers, although the critics raved. To me it felt like an overly ambitious attempt to make an arthouse movie disguised as a blockbuster, ending up somewhere in the middle.

At the full-on arthouse end of the spectrum there was nothing weirder than Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, in which Javier Bardem got play the ego-enhancing role of God, while Jessica Lawrence played Mrs. God and got no satisfaction whatsoever. Personally, I much preferred Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s disarmingly simple tale of a busdriver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and writes poetry. When nothing much happens each tiny moment in the plot takes on a rare significance – just like poetry.

Two other movies that successfully broke with convention were Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, and Maren Ades’s Tony Erdmann. In the former, Kristen Stewart played a girl who worked as personal assistant to a celebrity and had visions of dead people – to the best of my knowledge it’s a combo never before explored in the cinema, and it probably never will be again.

Tony Erdmann was the surprise of 2017, not only because it was that rarest of beasts – a German comedy – but because its rambling, drawn-out narrative shoud have been a recipe for disaster. Instead, this tale of an eccentric father trying to rescue his workaholic daughter from herself, was one long chain of bizarre, delightful moments.

Tony Erdmann.. Nobody saw it coming..

Tony Erdmann.. Nobody saw it coming..

Tony Erdmann managed to be touching as well as funny, but the heart-breaker of the year was Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, in which Sally Hawkins played a disabled Canadian folk artist married to a surly imbecile in a remote part of Nova Scotia, who never loses her cheerful outlook on life. It’s the kind of movie that leaves audiences gasping.

The other film that pulled hard on the heart-strings was Manchester by the Sea, for which Casey Affleck rightly won an Oscar last year. Given his history of sexual misconduct it’s unlikely he would have made it over the line this time around. Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace has precipitated such an avalanche of exposures and revelations it’s become a guessing game as to which stars will be disappearing from your screens within the next few months. I’m sorry to see Kevin Spacey go, even though he sounds like a shocker.

I haven’t spoken about Dunkirk, because it’s the one big Oscar contender I haven’t actually seen yet – by virtue of being away during the previews and early screenings. I haven’t spoken about Australian cinema, because in a year when Lion won almost every AACTA award, it speaks volumes about the mediocrity of the field. If the Australian film industry can get so excited about a feature that resembles a telemovie, we are in a historic malaise.

Fortunately there are a few excellent movies from other countries to be viewed during the holidays – notably The Disaster Artist, and now Downsizing and Call Me by Your Name. Watch out too for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Now why can’t Australian filmmakers come up with titles like that?

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 December, 2017