Saturday, 13 January 2018

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2017

Ah, 2017.  The year of movies that I wanted badly to be great, even though there was probably never a hope they would be.  Screw you, Ghost in the Shell, for containing just enough moments of what a legitimate live-action adaptation of one of the finest science-fiction films of all time might have looked like to make me unable to properly hate you.  Screw you, Assassin's Creed, for your utter inability to get a single thing right when you were handed everything you could possibly need on a platter.  Screw you to the ends of the earth, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Worlds, for wasting so much potential, and screw you, Justice League, for your hideous death by committee, and for being released in what was effectively a workprint.  Screw you a little bit, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, for being merely pleasant and okay, when you could have been awesome.

Ah, 2017.  The year of the mediocre blockbuster, without a doubt, but also the year in which mediocre blockbusters were hailed as earth-shattering classics.  You know what?  Wonder Woman was fine, as pastiches of the Marvel formula go; but technically it was a bit scrappy, its central character arc was broken beyond redemption by an irredeemable plot twist, its effects work was cheap, and its final boss fight was perhaps the worst a DC movie has yet committed.  And don't get me started on Blade Runner 2049, a badly-acted triumph of running time over narrative that managed to persuade people through sheer force of production design that a plot recycling ideas from half a dozen better movies was some kind of intellectual tour-de-force.  But at least the writers didn't kill off a female character every time their sloth-like plot stalled completely.  Oh, no, wait...

And this rant is already threatening to be longer than my actual top ten.  Let's list some movies, huh?

10) A Monster Calls

Truth be told, and given a few months of retrospect, I don't know that I actually enjoyed A Monster Calls all that much: it's more of a well-made, worthy movie than one that anyone's ever likely to fall in love with.  All the same, I'm awfully glad that something like this should have managed to exist in the film-making climate of 2017, and to not get shunted straight to the purgatory of Netflix.  There aren't, and never will be, enough genre films that deal honestly with topics like grief, guilt, and mortality, and even less are willing to show youthful protagonists experiencing those simple human horrors in ways that are real-feeling and don't demand (or even always allow) our sympathy.  And even if such films were ten a penny, I doubt they'd all offer us lovely, tactile animated sequences, or Liam Neeson as a tree monster, or Sigourney Weaver delivering some of her best work in years.  So while I couldn't love A Monster Calls enough to rate it higher on this list, I certainly did respect it, and I'm glad it exists.

9) Kong: Skull Island

I was a bit baffled by all the indifference this seemed to get; seriously, has anyone out there actually seen a kaiju movie?  Because I've watched a ton of the things this last year, and I tell you, the bar isn't that high.  Kong: Skull Island was no masterpiece - of course it wasn't! - but it was a pretty great example of the thing that it was, and what more can you reasonably expect from the subgenre?  (Okay, so I'll be answering that question further down the list, but still.)  Anyway, Skull Island: It had an ambitious, if bizarre, conceit, it was solidly made, the giant monster action was really rather good, and it had a terrific cast, even if none of them beside John Goodman and John C. Reilly were given anything particularly meaningful to do.  Also, it was weird as hell, especially by American blockbuster standards, and I for one am always glad to see big-budget film-making go wildly off the rails.  Skull Island felt like a B-movie that someone had spent far too much money making more than it did a traditional summer tentpole, making it precisely what I'd want from such an inherently misjudged project.

8) Colossal

There's a part of me that wants this to be at the top of the list.  Partly because of what it is - a giant monster movie, from the director of Timecrimes, in which Anne Hathaway is the giant monster, sort of! - and partly because absolutely no-one I know has even heard of it, and that's a criminal shame.  Is it really so hard to seek this stuff out instead of just obsessing about Star Wars and comic book movies for twelve months out of the year?

Apparently it is.  Yet Colossal was worth seeking out.  It's a mad old muddle of a film, and one that's far more concerned with the metaphorical possibilities of its central concept, which would normally annoy the hell out of me, except that Hathaway is so stunningly good and Vigalondo really does know his genre movies, even when he's mostly using them as infrastructure for bizarre character studies.  It's the kind of film I'd urge anyone to watch, even knowing that half of them (at least!) are likely to hate it - for its lumpy pacing, for its weird shifts in tone, for its fundamental dementedness.  Nonetheless, if you're at all interested in genre cinema then doesn't that make it exactly the kind of thing you ought to be tracking down?

7) The Great Wall

Well done, those people who got so indignant over a trailer cut to misrepresent a film to the American market that they persuaded themselves a Yimou Zhang movie was guilty of whitewashing.  Of course, that name probably doesn't mean a great deal to the kind of person who boycotts a film based on a trailer, instead of taking fourteen seconds to look at the IMDB page, or (god forbid!) watching it and making up their own mind about a movie with a Chinese director and a mostly Chinese cast and in which a large chunk of the dialogue is in Mandarin.  Oh, and in which the other non-Asian lead, with about equal billing to Matt Damon, is Latino.

And how I wish that all this righteous indignation was in the service of a slightly better film!  I really did enjoy The Great Wall, but not because it was any sort of masterpiece.  It's a giddy, silly, gorgeously colourful B movie that feels as though it was made by committee, but an impossibly weird committee that had no real understanding of either Eastern or Western markets.  Probably it was never going to be the breakout global success that it was clearly envisioned to be, but it's still a heck of a shame that such a fun film should be shot down months before it even graced a cinema screen.

6) War For the Planet of the Apes

The worst of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy?  Yeah, I think so.  But given that these movies were head and shoulders above most of what else has been going on in recent years, that still made for a blockbuster of rare style and intelligence.  Granted, its first half was atmospheric but aimless and its second half was exciting but predictable, and it would have been great to have those virtues carrying all the way through without the failings to dilute them; nevertheless, a solid ending to a superb franchise is no small thing, especially when its as basically well assembled as War For the Planet of the Apes.  Really, I feel bad that I don't have more to say; it feels like an age since I saw this one, I was half blind with an eye infection at the time, and if I'm truly honest, it just hasn't stuck in the memory the way the first two did.  So - a disappointment, but a good movie nevertheless.  At any rate, I'm sure going to miss these films and their regular dose of high-minded sci-fi.

5) Thor: Ragnarok

Just as I'd given up on Marvel's ability to make a genuinely excellent movie - or perhaps rather, given up on their interest in even trying to do so when they could simply plug hacks like Scott Derrickson and Peyton Reed into their film-making apparatus and produce perfectly functional mediocrity - along comes Thor: Ragnarok and the wonderful Taika Waititi, who hopefully proved to everyone that hiring a director with something approaching an individual vision and then letting them do their thing isn't automatically box office poison.  And while everyone praised the comedy, which was admittedly (if sporadically) wonderful, for me Thor: Ragnarok's biggest accomplishment was getting me absorbed enough into its silly story and wafer-thin characters that I actually gave a damn what was happening by the time the big action finale came around.  Couple that with some meaningful stakes in a Marvel movie for the first time in what seems like forever and a finale that actually shakes up the status quo and we have the first of these things since - what, The Winter Soldier? - that actually felt somewhat meaningful, beyond being a joyously absurd bit of frivolousness in its own right.

4) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I'm not a big Star Wars fan.  I mean, Star Wars is very much not my thing; I like some science in my science-fiction, and I somehow never really watched the original trilogy as a kid.  Which is to say, my expectations going into The Last Jedi were relatively muted.  I'd heard enough to think that it might be a good film by the definitions of the franchise, and the presence of a director whose work I've liked in the past and who Disney had apparently not dicked about too much for once boded well.  I was ready for an exciting two and a half hours, maybe for some cool special effects, and for a story that would shift things along towards the next one without two much risk or deviation from all of that Joseph Campbell heroes' journey crap that these things thrive on.

What I sure as hell didn't expect was an interesting movie.  I mean, if there was one possibility that I'd have ruled out if you'd asked me, it was that I would sit for two and half hours routinely thinking "this movie is up to interesting things."  But that's precisely what I got: interesting images, interesting twists, interesting reinterpretations of stuff we thought was supposed to be canon, interesting ideas, an interesting (well, broken) narrative structure.  Not interesting characters, sadly, for the most part, since you can't have everything, and there's only so much of J. J. Abrams' mess that one film can be expected to clean up.  Still, for the course of an inexcusably long running time, I was not only consistently entertained but consistently interested, and that's an experience I hardly dare hope for when I go and see a big budget movie these days.  Really, I would be rating it more highly if it wasn't for all that dreadful Monte-Carlo-in-space crap, and for the fact that Daisy Ridley still couldn't act her way out of an unguarded room.

3) Shin Godzilla

I don't personally consider Shin Godzilla to be the greatest Godzilla movie ever made - because, of course, the original is basically the perfect version of itself - but I can certainly understand how some people have arrived at that conclusion.  And had I not been unlucky enough to see it in a showing populated and staffed by idiots, I might even have come close to that conclusion myself.

But probably not.  As much as what we got was in many ways exactly what you'd hope for with Hideaki Anno, mad genius behind the twisted anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, at the helm, and as much as that means a movie that truly gets on a gut level what it would mean for a modern city to be attacked by a giant, incomprehensible monstrosity torn from its worst nightmares - and though Anno then twists that around into something close to both parody and satire, without sacrificing its heart - nevertheless I find myself standing by my initial reaction that this isn't so much a movie for the established Godzilla fan.  It's a reboot, and a masterful one, but it hews awfully closely to a formula that we've seen (if the "we" in question has spent a large part of the year watching kaiju movies, anyway) many a time before.  All of which is to say that, if you've never encountered a Godzilla movie then Shin Godzilla will likely blow you away, and if you're more familiar with the franchise then a superlative example of a brilliantly entertaining formula is still enough to be considered a highlight of any film-going year.

2) Okja

Joon-ho Bong releases a science-fiction picture, it's widely considered to be a classic, and some media mogul decides that no-one in the UK should be allowed to watch it in cinemas.  My god, it's 2013 all over again!  Granted, Ojka isn't quite as brilliant as Snowpiercer was - or maybe it is and I just need to watch it again, since Snowpiercer took a couple of viewings to really click - and granted Netflix did put on the odd showing, but it still grates that this is increasingly the way things are headed: cinemas are for mainstream blockbusters, and anything remotely interesting is destined to go straight to TV, where we can all enjoy it as it was never intended to be watched, so long as we happen to have paid for whatever streaming service has snapped up the rights.

Anyway.  Okja.  Like I said, it's maybe not a second Snowpiercer; but it has more than its share of brilliance.  Like the titular super-pig, which, despite some imperfect effects work, is such a genuine creation that you soon forget you're looking at a special effect.  Or the performances, which aren't all brilliant, precisely, but are all fascinating in the extreme.  Then again, Seo-hyun An really is brilliant in the lead role, and whenever the film is focusing on her and her adorable monster of a pet, it's downright magical.  But if there's one aspect that pushes Okja from good to borderline masterpiece, it's that - unlike basically everything on this list, and most everything released this year - it's old-school science-fiction, with actual ideas and a pitch-dark commentary on the times we live in.  It's smart and sharp and funny and horribly bleak by its end, and it seems to have put me off eating red meat ever again, which is a hell of a lot more than most films accomplish.

1) Logan

I for one am gutted that Disney have bought up the movie wing of Fox, because this right here is what I want more of.  Fox's X-men movies have been more good than not, but it had been a while since they'd produced a genuine classic.  If Logan is perhaps not the absolute highlight - I still hold a lot of love for X-men 2 - it effortlessly slides into second place, while at the same time reevaluating just what the superhero movie is and can be in a way that no other film has attempted in what feels like an age.

Not only does Logan acknowledge that we're living in the middle of a glut of these things, and that its an entry in a franchise that is perhaps running close to exhaustion, it uses those facts to its immense advantage: Logan's world is even more tired out with superheroes than our own.  And if that was all that Mangold's bold genre hybrid was up to then that alone would be something.  But everyone involved is contributing their absolute A game - which is really saying something in the case of Patrick Stewart, who's been giving these things a degree of integrity they didn't always deserve from the beginning.  His decaying, damaged Professor X is a heartbreaking, terrifying creation, and one of the ways in which Logan feels like the first X-men movie in forever to really try and get under the skin of what a world in which super-powered mutants walked the earth would look like.  That the answers it comes back with are mostly horrible and despairing feels appropriate; that it still routinely manages to find real pathos amid the horror and despair is perhaps what tips the film from great to potential enduring masterpiece.  I'd feel a little surer if only Logan hadn't front-loaded all of its best material; nevertheless, that material is good enough that I'm still willing to throw about a term like "future classic."

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