Wednesday, 3 January 2018

2017 Film & TV: A Year in Review


This is a big one. Let's just crack on...

Contains spoilers. So. Many. Spoilers.

Film

Best Film - Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan is my favourite filmmaker, but even I wasn't prepared for just how good Dunkirk would turn out to be. Narratively complex but presented with ease and confidence, Nolan delivers a war film unlike any we've seen before - imagine the climax of any other film of this genre and stretch it to feature length. Dunkirk is a relentless assault on the senses, with some of the best aerial sequences ever put on film, but look a bit deeper and you'll find a heart and soul to all the trauma. You come out battered and bruised, but you'll just dive back in and go through it all over again.



Worst Film - Transformers: The Last Knight - The Transformers franchise has never really worked, and the series' fifth entry is the epitome of all that's wrong with Michael Bay's efforts here. The action is loud and explosive, but never awe-inspiring or effectively shot. The characters - both human and machine - are built on stereotypes and never expanded, everyone on screen is as dull as dishwater and their dialogue is somehow worse. I've seen some bad films in my time, but I can't remember many as offensively awful as The Last Knight

Most Surprising Film - Paddington 2 - Paddington was a good film back in 2014, but its sequel is so much of an improvement in so many ways that I didn't even need to think twice about its placement here. Paddington 2 is comprised of an ingenious script: every joke in the first half has a narrative payoff in the climax, every character beat is precise and fleshed out. It's a stunning film to look at, and it's filled with perhaps more heart than every other 2017 release combined. As Aunt Lucy always says, "If we're kind and polite, the world will be right". 



Most Disappointing Film - Alien: Covenant - Where to even begin with this one? Look, Prometheus wasn't great, but at least it had ideas and spectacle, while Alien: Covenant has a scene of Michael Fassbender seductively teaching Michael Fassbender how to play the flute. The original Alien from 1979 had toe-curling horror and persistent dread, this rarely even knows what kind of film it wants to be. Covenant had potential, but it's all wasted on a dried up script whose answers are so misjudged that, frankly, you're better off not knowing them.

Best Film Performance - Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) - Star Wars isn't really somewhere you go looking for year-best performances, but in the brilliant The Last Jedi we were treated to a handful. The one that comes out on top, though, is Adam Driver, with his stunning portrayal of Kylo Ren. Rian Johnson's sequel added layers to Ren, deepened his complexity and made him fight harder to understand himself, but Driver was more than up for the challenge. His conversations with Rey are given wonderful depth, his almost feral physicality during the fight sequences is really something to behold, and the look of rage he brings to the film's climax is a moment of acting I won't be forgetting for a very long time.

Best Film Character - C (A Ghost Story) - So, how does a character that doesn't speak, has no face and, essentially, doesn't really exist take the top spot here? Well, if you've seen David Lowery's profound A Ghost Story, you'll probably understand why. Through wordlessness, we watch C's ghost roam his house after his death as his girlfriend grieves him and, eventually, moves on. We sit by his side as he's forced to endure an unbearable loneliness as new people come and go, his world changing around him by the minute, unable to leave himself and step outside. His old home becomes his only world, lost in time, and spending this experience with the C's ghost is really rather unforgettable indeed.



Best Film Scene - Entire Final Act (Dunkirk) - Dunkirk's phenomenally intense final act warranted it this spot for that reason alone, but it goes even further due to the way it's presented. Having followed the three separate strands for ninety minutes, we suddenly watch them converge with each other, overlap for a short period of time, and then drift apart again. It features the film's biggest emotional gut punch in the form of three simple words, it slows down for a heartbreakingly optimistic final sequence, and yet it never lets up on the tension for a moment. It's brilliantly clever storytelling, but even better film making.

Most Intense Moment - Standoff (Wind River) - I was tempted for a while to give this spot to "The Entirety of Dunkirk" but ultimately decided that would be counterproductive. I couldn't pick one moment from that film in particular, so instead I've given this one to the only other film sequence this year that had my heart racing almost as much. Somewhere in the middle act of Taylor Sheridan's brilliant Wind River, Jane Banner and her fellow FBI agents are caught in a standoff against the Security Guards of the snow-set Reserve. The situation escalates as they argue over who has jurisdiction in the wilderness, and it climaxes with something entirely unpredictable, but just as thrilling. If you want to learn how to craft tension in a film, just watch this scene.

Saddest Moment - "I Don't Think They're Coming" (A Ghost Story) - After C's ghost has roamed his house for a while, and watched his girlfriend grieve his loss before moving on and moving out, he sees another ghost trapped in the house opposite him. They communicate for a while, although we're not quite sure how - no words are exchanged, but subtitles translate their broken glances to tell us that this other ghost is waiting for someone. Some years later, which pass like minutes for C and for us, we come across the other ghost again, now stood in the rubble that once was her home. She tells C that, whoever she's waiting for, she doesn't think they're coming anymore, and just like that her sheet drops to the floor and she ceases to exist for ever. There's nothing overwhelmingly emotional about it in the moment, but what it represents and the way it says it may just haunt me forever.



Funniest Moment - Meet Korg (Thor: Ragnarok) - Marvel's sense of humour has always been a peculiar beast - shown at its worst in the misjudged Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - but when indie director Taika Waititi was given free reign over Thor: Ragnarok, magic happened. Korg, played by Waititi himself, is a brilliant combination of improvised scripting and genuinely clever comedy, contrasting his rough appearance with Waititi's soft, quirky line delivery. He may look scary, made of rocks and all, but you only need to be afraid of him if you're made of scissors. Just a rock, paper, scissors joke for you. 

Weirdest Moment - The Waxing (Raw) - Raw doesn't exactly come across as a conventional film for any of its 90 minutes, but its wonderful uniqueness peaks in its middle act. Alexia is giving her sister Justine a bikini wax, much to Justine's discomfort. The waxing strip gets stuck, Alexia tries to cut it off with scissors, Justine pulls away, Alexia accidentally cuts her own finger off, she passes out, Justine freaks out, and then starts eating her sister's finger. It's the first time Justine fully gives in to the cannibalistic urges she's been fighting since arriving at veterinary college, but it's the brilliance of Julia Ducournau's direction that makes the scene so gleefully bizarre: Justine eats the finger like a chicken wing, and Ducournau certainly isn't afraid of close ups either.

Best Soundtrack - Epilogue (La La Land) - It feels like a long time since Damien Chazelle's glorious La La Land came out back in January, but it isn't an easy film to forget. La La Land is a total joy the whole way through, but it peaks in its breathtaking, beautiful montage sequence that depicts Mia and Sebastian's life together as it could have been. The "Epilogue" track flies through the most memorable melodies of the film's score, gorgeously accompanying a fantasy sequence we so desperately wish were true. The moment catches every emotion under the sun, and this one piece of music does exactly the same - if you don't cry at least once during it, you probably aren't human.



Best Plot Twist - The Keys (Get Out) - The best plot twists are, for me, that ones that unfold on you slowly. When Chris discovers that he was right to be weirded out by the bizarre happenings at his girlfriend Rose's house, we start to feel on edge, but we hold our trust of Rose. She wouldn't do this to him, right? He tells her to find her keys so they can leave, her family start to get even weirder, their intentions getting scarier. Chris asks Rose for the keys that she can't seem find, only to learn she found them a long time a go, but she has no intention of leaving. She's in on it too. Chills

Best Shot - Peace and Purpose (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) - After a rip roaring, non stop final act, our Rebels escape and Luke Skywalker's brave actions force Kylo Ren and his army back. Luke's efforts of Force projecting himself to that battlefield proved too much for the old soul though, draining him of what little life he had left. One of our last shots of such an iconic character finds him sat on his cliffside, staring out into the distance with two suns setting over him, before he fades away forever. Rey feels the moment herself, from far away - he wasn't in pain though, she says, he found peace, and he found purpose. 


Positive Ranking Tally

Dunkirk - 2
A Ghost Story - 2
Star Wars: The Last Jedi - 2
Raw - 1
Paddington 2 - 1
Wind River - 1
La La Land - 1
Get Out - 1
Thor: Ragnarok - 1


Television

Best TV Series - Fargo (Season Three) - Fargo's third season may not have bested the delirious heights of its second run, but it still remains the pinnacle of TV this year. Soaring closer to the modern world than we'd seen it do before, this slice of Fargo took on the idea of truth, and what it means for us to understand such a complicated notion. The truth isn't always as it seems, or so goes a tale as old as time, but Fargo's third season explored this dilemma in remarkable ways - from a man sentenced to jail under an identity that didn't belong to him, to a marriage-damaging sex tape constructed with a lie, all the way up to the season's simply perfect final sequence that saw two people decide each other's fates but cut away before we were allowed to see whose came true. It was ceaselessly fascinating television, packed with killer dialogue pieces, standout performances and an endless series of risks that never failed to pay off.


Best TV Episode - The Book of Nora (The Leftovers) - I may have given top honours to Fargo this year, but The Leftovers' final season was a damn close second. The show's stunning swansong peaked in its final hour, an episode of television that already makes a solid claim for being the greatest series finale ever written. The Leftovers tied its plot up a while ago, meaning the finale had little left to do besides find closure for Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst, and that it does so in ways both heartbreaking and life affirming, and all without losing an atom of what made the show so powerful across its three year tenure - well that's pretty special. Rarely an easy show to watch but always an engrossing, emotional work, The Leftovers could have bombed with an overly expositional finale, and yet, through the power of enigma and the sheer soul of Carrie Coon's performance, it went out on the highest of highs.

Most Surprising TV Series - Mr Robot (Season Three) - Another piece of television that could've easily won top prize here, in 2017 Mr Robot gave us arguably the single greatest comeback season of TV's golden age. After a second year that lost drive, lacked intrigue, overdosed on abstraction and forgot to tell a story, I'd all but written Mr Robot off as a one season wonder. This year's premiere didn't fill me with hope, but the show then launched into a series of three great outings before landing on a tetralogy of episodes that all fit the very definition of "masterpiece". That the season even finished on its greatest finale to date merely felt like a bonus - the work had already been put in, but this just left us with an even sweeter taste from a show on its strongest form yet. 



Most Disappointing TV Series - Orange is the New Black (Season Five) - On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Orange is the New Black's fifth year. Coming off the back of its best season to date, in 2017 Jenji Kohan's series lost almost everything that formerly made it work so well. The empowering character definitions of season four slipped away, the inspired subplots seemed a distant memory, the sense of a creeping dread all but stopped existing. The show bravely attempted a unique narrative structure by allowing the full fifth season to unfold over just a matter of days while Litchfield prison descended into a chaotic riot, but the heightened style ultimately drained the show of all personality, leaving us with very little left to work with.

Best TV Performance - Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) - Carrie Coon's work on The Leftovers this year was nothing short of mesmerising. She gives a huge, encompassing performance that picks up on and deftly reveals every microscopic detail. If there's an emotion that Nora Durst needs to feel, Coon presents it to us through her eyes as much as her language, and in her pauses as loudly as her words. The show's final moments are an obvious choice, but Coon's best work comes in "G'Day, Melbourne" during a fight Nora has with Kevin, in which she's required to bring up everything Nora has endured across the series so far while also examining a potential flaw in her character. That she is able to do so without sacrificing Nora's integrity, nor her likability or her passion or her soul, is what makes Carrie Coon such a remarkable performer. She was damn good in Fargo, too.

Best TV Character - Nora Durst (The Leftovers) - Even aside from Carrie Coon's stunning portrayal of her, Nora Durst remains not only The Leftovers' strongest character but the most interesting fictional person on TV all year. We've followed Nora's journey since her husband and two kids were taken from her that fateful day back in the show's first year, and Season Three found Nora preparing to make the potential trip to the other side, maybe finally seeing her family again. It's the internal debate that defined Nora as a character this season, fighting hard to get what she wants but persistently unsure of whether or not it's right. It was the perfect final arc for Nora Durst, and even though the Garveys may have occupied the most screen time amongst The Leftovers' brief run, it always was Nora that stood out the most.



Best TV Scene - The Truth? ("The Book of Nora" - The Leftovers) - In The Leftovers' finale, Kevin hunts down Nora years after they've been separated, with Nora revealing to him that she crossed over to the other side and saw what happened to everyone who disappeared back on October 14th 2011. She talks of a world of orphans in which her children were fortunate enough to still have their father, "They were the lucky ones" she says. It's a heartbreaking scene for Nora, and for anyone even remotely invested in the show, but also paradoxically a rare moment of optimism within The Leftovers bleak, traumatising future. We never see the other side though, the camera remains fixed on Nora's face as she talks, leaving us to decide whether or not we choose to believe her - I mean, it's only our entire interpretation of the show that hangs in the balance here.

Most Intense Moment - Field of Fire ("The Spoils of War" - Game of Thrones) - Game of Thrones had its weakest year to date with Season Seven, but even at its worst this show is capable of some great stuff. In "The Spoils of War," Jaime Lannister's army comes face to face with Daenerys and her dragon to simply heart pounding results. The scene picks up on smaller moments - random soldiers ablaze in the background, the look of horror when you realise your battle is lost - but never loses the sense of scale it needs. Important characters' lives are at stake, and, even though no big name is lost during the battle, it genuinely feels like anyone could go at any minute. If your nerves weren't shattered by the end of it, I want what you're on.



Saddest Moment - Everything Changed (Buona Notte - Master of None) - What do you do when the person you've fallen in love with turns out to have used you? Well, that may not have been the full case here, but that's precisely how it looks from Dev's perspective in Master of None's second season finale. After a good half-season of watching Dev's heart grow fonder for the engaged-to-someone-else Francesca, he finally tells her how he feels in the show's penultimate episode. She initially reciprocates his feelings, but just one episode later reveals the cracks in her own relationship and how Dev did little but help her mask those cracks with someone else. It's difficult to know who to root for in the scene - do you back the guy who fell in love with a taken woman and had his heart broken, or do you back the girl who's whole life was uprooted and fell into the arms of the only person who wanted to help her? Either way, the results aren't particularly happy.

Funniest Moment - Pickle Rick! (Pickle Rick - Rick and Morty) - It's a genuine shame that, thanks to fan culture and the enforcement of memes that just shouldn't be memes, the words "Pickle Rick!" have to come with such low expectations now, as the third episode of Rick and Morty's latest season makes solid claim to be its finest half hour. In order to avoid attending a much needed family therapy session, Rick literally turns himself into a pickle as an excuse, only to fall down a drain and wind up fighting some form of Russian terrorists. As well as acting as a perfect demonstration for the show's delightfully off beat inventiveness, the episode's comedy serves as a backdrop to some of the most emotionally complex material that Rick and Morty has covered thus far. It's stupidly silly yet utterly brilliant, sometimes I laugh just thinking about it. 

Weirdest Moment - Bowling Alley (Who Rules the Land of Denial? - Fargo) - After a violent opening to the best episode of Fargo's third season, "Who Rules the Land of Denial?" soon shifts into something more abstract, something more poetic and beautiful. The shift itself takes place in a bowling alley, when Nikki Swango comes across a man called Paul Marrane who appears to be some kind of omnipresent entity, helping her to flee with her life and prophesying how the remainder of her story must go. When she flees, her attacker finds himself in the same situation with Mr Marrane, only for him to instead be forced to confront his prior sins in horrifying ways. The scene is Fargo at its weirdest, but also its best - off-putting, completely bizarre, and yet you won't be able to take your eyes off it for a second. 




Best Soundtrack - Fargo Theme (Fargo) - Fargo always picks and chooses when its iconic, roaring main theme appears within episodes themselves. Season Three saves this moment until its finale, after Nikki Swango ignores her destiny, makes one mistake, and has her own life taken as punishment. She lies on the roadside, bodies either side of her, and as the season's heart and soul has the life drain from her eyes, Fargo knows its time for the theme. A more orchestral, choir-based version fills our ears this time, but the music is as beautiful as ever and the results are every bit as crushing as you'd expect - oh Nikki, why did you have to go so far wrong?

Best Plot Twist - Stage Two (eps3.5_kill-pr0cess.inc - Mr Robot) - A large chunk of Mr Robot was spent building up to the activation of Stage Two, and so when the climactic moment came in Season Three's sixth episode, it was more than just the building/potential bomb site at stake. Elliot had spent a long time redirecting eCorp's paper files to various other locations around the country to help prevent Stage Two's effectiveness, even recruiting Mr Robot himself onto his side to stop it all from happening. They win, and they prevent Stage Two right as Tyrell Wellick is arrested, and all seems okay. That is, until Elliot discovers that the 71 other locations he redistributed the paper files to were the real target of Stage Two, essentially inadvertently upscaled by Elliot himself. Endings to 15-episode arcs rarely come more shocking than this.



Best Shot - Do Not Leave Me, Stay Focused - (eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00 - Mr Robot) - The fifth episode of Mr Robot's third season should have been sheer gimmickry and nothing more. It's one of those stitch-multiple-shots-together-to-make-an-episode-look-like-a-single-take episodes, but Mr Robot finds the artistry inside such a challenge. The episode takes place entirely in and around one building, taking us from the riots happening outside as they break their way in and storm the tower. We also shift perspective at the episode's midpoint, leaving Elliot behind to focus on Angela instead - the tone suddenly switching as we make the cut, but the episode never dropping the ball. That it does all of this so effectively, and manages to still retain Mr Robot's stunning cinematography amid the one shot gimmick, is perhaps the show's greatest feat yet.


Positive Ranking Talley

The Leftovers - 4
Fargo - 3
Mr Robot - 3
Master of None - 1
Rick and Morty - 1
Game of Thrones - 1

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