13 Dec 2017

At The Movies for 13 December 2017: the year in review

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 13 December 2017
Sheila Natusch

Sheila Natusch: No Ordinary Sheila Photo: Supplied

Simon Morris looks back on 2017 - a year of two Star Wars films, two Lego films and two films mostly about Dunkirk.

It was also a year that finally did a little more than pay lip-service to the idea of inclusiveness and a big year for New Zealand films - a standout was the delightful documentary No Ordinary Sheila. 

As Frank Sinatra used to say, the end is near, but before the curtain of 2017 finally goes down, there's time to look back on the year in movies - a year that opened as it closed.

It opened on a Star Wars movie, and the middle-aged white men who run Hollywood being questioned over their choice of projects.

And it closed on another Star Wars movie, and a lot of those same men discovering what they couldn't get away with anymore. The jig was up.

This year's Oscar nominations displayed rather more variety than we've been used to for a while, but the winners tended to favour the status quo - Moonlight or no Moonlight.

And the status quo dominated the rest of the year too - notably the face-off between the producers of comic-book, superhero fluff - Marvel versus DC Comics.

Perennial runner-up DC surprised everyone by coming up with the year's winner. Wonder Woman broke all the rules - directed by a woman, based mostly on a World War 1 story, and clearly offering the main reason most people went to see the otherwise limp and gloomy Justice League.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman Photo: Warner Bros.

In Diana Prince - and Gal Gadot - a star was obviously born. But that said, Marvel still otherwise trounced DC by sheer weight of numbers.

Spiderman Homecoming, the second Guardians of the Galaxy and Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok were all hugely entertaining and light on their feet.

But the biggest Marvel surprise occurred at the start of the year when Hugh Jackman retired his X-Men character Wolverine - aka Logan.

Logan saw Wolverine and Charles Xavier ageing, sick and beaten down by all that super-heroing.

It shouldn't have worked as well as it did, but the humanity of the characters - played by Jackman, Patrick Stewart and newcomer Dafne Keen - turned a routine franchise entry into a real film.

Meanwhile Hollywood was looking for more franchises.

Star Wars has risen from the ashes of its dead self to once again be the biggest thing on the planet.

Though it's interesting to note that the series has attempted to keep up with the times. Both Rogue One and The Last Jedi feature female leads.

Behind Star Wars the other long-running series seem to be fading - Fast and Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and so on.

In fact, the only new one to make an impression was the rather unlikely combination of spoof comedy and coloured bricks - the Lego movies.

Lego provided a Batman film at the start of the year - rather more entertainingly than the Justice League version - followed by a martial arts parody called The Lego Ninjago movie.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

The LEGO Ninjago Movie Photo: Warner Bros.

They were generally pretty funny, but more important, Lego seemed to be a brand people trusted. Unlike much of the competition.

King Arthur failed to pluck the sword from the stone. Tom Cruise's Monsters Universe started - and ended - with The Mummy.

And Stephen King's much-vaunted series The Dark Tower toppled at the first hurdle, though I'm told it may be reborn as a TV series.

Away from the franchises, one mini-trend seemed to be the long-delayed sequel. Producer Ridley Scott brought back Harrison Ford - who seems to be reliving all his past glories these days - in Blade Runner 2049, directed by the supremely capable Denis Villeneuve.

But despite the rave reviews, the first, fine careless rapture of the 1982 Blade Runner remained uncaptured.

And the same happened with the other long-delayed golden oldie this year, Trainspotting 2.

T2, the second Trainspotting, caught up with the main characters 20 years later, and director Danny Boyle did rather a good job, I thought. But it just wasn't the same, which seemed to be the major - if unfair - criticism.

This year, the buzz-word once again has been "inclusiveness", but 2017 finally delivered more than lip-service to the idea of stronger roles for women and minorities.

Hidden Figures may have erred on the side of sentimentalism at times, but it was still an engaging - and long overdue - tribute to the hitherto overlooked women, many of them black, behind the Space Race. And mostly accurate, I gather.

Taraji P. Henson as Nasa mathematician Katherine G. Johnson with some of her co-workers.

Taraji P. Henson (centre) as NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson in Hidden Figures Photo: 20th Century Fox

It was just one of dozens of movies this year spearheaded by women characters - and a smaller, but still respectable number directed by women.

Films benefiting from this included titles as diverse as Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, Oscar nominee Toni Erdmann, girl's-night-out comedy Rough Night and of course Wonder Woman.

Not to mention the story behind her creation, Angela Robinson's Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

When it came to people of colour, the road to the screen was a little thornier. Though the Oscar-winning Moonlight was an honourable exception, even if it did occasionally feel like it was being used to tick a lot of boxes.

There were several movies - coincidentally or not - focusing on multi-racial relationships: Victoria and Abdul, Loving, A United Kingdom and the brutal and shocking Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

But the most confronting - or hilarious, depending on your point of view - film on the subject was a comedy. Or a horror film, if you prefer. It was called Get Out.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out Photo: QC Entertainment

Directed by comedian Jordan Peele, Get Out was based on the idea that the fears of many black men in a white neighbourhood were totally justified this time.

The timing, sadly, couldn't have been more appropriate this year. Not quite "it's funny because it's true", but certainly funny because for many black Americans, it feels like it could be.

Another thing Get Out illustrated was that some of the best films this year were a fresh look at the old B-movie "genre picture".

Get Out was a spooky old dark house horror film with a comedy twist.

Colossal was an even stranger hybrid - part high school reunion, part woman sorting her life out, part Korean monster movie.

I know, I had the same feeling of random channel-hopping too! Colossal was a hoot, mostly due to star Anne Hathaway, believe it or not.

So was another mad comedy about a self-centred anti-heroine. Happy Death Day essentially took Groundhog Day and took it somewhere scary. Scary and silly.

Still from Happy Death Day

Still from Happy Death Day Photo: YouTube screenshot

Two more, wildly appealing, even spikier women starred in films made for even less money.

From Ireland, A Date For Mad Mary sees a young woman trying to arrange a "plus-one" for her best friend's wedding, and getting angrier and angrier the more she fails.

It doesn't sound it, but it's actually sweet, funny, even touching.

Over The Irish Sea, on an even smaller budget, came a film about a woman refusing to even think about a "plus one".

Adult Life Skills was a delight, mostly thanks to star Jodie Whittaker. Though it might have done better business if it had been released after the announcement Jodie was the new Doctor Who.

Among the other trends of 2017 were attempts to breathe new life into the musical.

The so-called "jukebox movie" Baby Driver blended retro-hits with ultra-violence.

Oscar winner La La Land was over-praised, in my opinion - certainly compared with Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Moana, which had rather better songs.

World War Two continued to fascinate - wartime films like Churchill, Another Mother's Sin and Niki Caro's The Zookeeper's Wife, and some very strong films about the aftermath like Let Me Go and Denial.

The big ticket this year was Christopher Nolan's mammoth Dunkirk, though for a story so famously uplifting, this version, though spectacular, was a little cold and clinical.

Ironically, a rather more appealing version of the Dunkirk evacuation was told in the film-within-a-film of Their Finest, the story of the women who wrote many of the morale-building films in wartime London.

It was funny, it was charming and it was unexpectedly moving at the end.

Still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

Still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk Photo: Supplied

As usual, retro remained the new black, reminding us - as if we needed it - who's greenlighting movies in Hollywood.

There were movies about the Space Race - Hidden Figures - about Howard Hughes in Hollywood - Rules Don't Apply - and about the Kennedys and "Camelot" - Jackie

Natalie Portman gave a chilling, almost 'House of Cards' performance as Jackie O, though you wonder who exactly the film was aiming at. Most people under 40 have never heard of her, most people over 40 were at home watching TV.

Though they will go out for a big, star-studded extravaganza - like Murder on the Orient Express

The train in question could barely accommodate the likes of Johnny Depp, Judi Dech, Penelope Cruz, and of course star-director Kenneth Branagh's outsize moustache.

But retro in a good way was an intelligent, modern western called Wind River, which packed a considerable punch under its own murder plot.

Among other smaller films, there were delightful Festival-type offerings like Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, the chilling and Bronte-esque Lady Macbeth, and the oddest of them all this year - A Ghost Story, which starred Casey Affleck, mostly silent under a Halloween sheet.

Across the way from the superhero blockbusters there were rather more ambitious sci-fi movies.

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alien sequels got the lion's share of the publicity. But two chamber pieces - Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence - got a bit more juice out of the old "lost in space" plots - possibly because we had no idea what to expect.

But not knowing enough scuppered two other sci-fi projects.

The French Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and the Japanese-based Ghost in the Shell bewildered the uninitiated, while annoying the fans - never a good combination.

That said, both Scarlett Johanssen and Wellington looked good in Ghost.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell Photo: Supplied / Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks

And Scarlett showed her rarely-used comedy chops in the raucous Rough Night, in a year that was a little underwhelming as far as non-Lego comedy was concerned.

America rounded up the usual suspects for undemanding fare like The House and Daddy's Home, while in England yobbo spy-spoofery ruled in yet another Kingsman action-comedy.

But for older audiences, the best comedy film had no guns, or trips to Las Vegas - just two mates in a car, swapping impressions. Yes, Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan took another Trip, this year to Spain.

Obviously, there were far more movies this year than we can hope to cover in one show, and to my surprise, it turns out there were far more good movies than I thought - certainly more than I thought at the time.

I'd like to give honourable mention to the French film The Innocents, the Brazilian film Aquarius, the Palestinian In Between - and to the New Zealand Film Commission for backing a record number of Kiwi movies this year.

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents Photo: NZIFF

And as usual, I'd like to hand out the annual Cate Blanchett "They're in Everything Award".

Cate herself had a relatively quiet year in 2017, apart from providing a punk-rock villain to Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok. But she's pleased to give her award this year to fellow Australian, Nicole Kidman.

Nicole's workload this year has been astonishing. She opened 2017 with a moving turn in Lion, then appeared in no fewer than four other films - including another good role in The Beguiled - as well as - not one but two acclaimed TV series: Jane Campion's Top of the Lake and Nicole's award-winning role in the harrowing Big Little Lies.

I'd say she deserves a cup of tea and a lie-down next year - rather than, I believe, a lead role in the Aquaman film.

But Nicole's a piker compared to her male equivalent.

Picking up the title of the Hardest Working Man in the Film Business this year is the unlikely figure of Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens.

The one-time Matthew Crawley didn't only fill the giant shoes of the Beast in 2017's highest-grossing movie, Beauty and the Beast.

Apart from his own TV series, Legion, Dan Stevens graced seven films this year, playing everything from a New York businessman in Norman to Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Dan Stevens, like Nicole Kidman, putting in the hard yards. And if neither of them will kick their feet up, neither will I.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dan Stevens in The Man Who Invented Christmas Photo: YouTube screenshot

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