We’ve decided to split our preview of 2017 up. The first part will focus on the awards contenders for this year, and some foreign language releases in the first few months.
One of the year’s most anticipated films is Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence, a film that the director has been trying to make for more than a quarter of a century. Now that it’s here, starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, alongside an excellent Japanese cast, from which Issei Ogata and Yosuke Kubozuka are the standouts, it’s a huge technical achievement, with gorgeous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto throughout. In spite of the worthiness of the craft on display, the film’s discourse on religion, faith, persecution and the work of missionaries will not be something that every audience can connect with. As a person of no faith, I found myself agog at the imagery and symbolism but kept a little apart from the film’s emotional heart.
That’s not a problem I had with Juan Antonio Bayona’s sentimental and powerful A Monster Calls, which wants nothing more than to wrap you in its sympathetic embrace. An adaptation of Patrick Ness’ acclaimed novel, which the author adapted for the screen himself, this is a deeply moving and thematically rich fantasy drama with an absolutely stunning performance from Felicity Jones, as a young mother suffering from a terminal illness. It’s not subtle. It doesn’t make you work hard for the emotional release, but it delivers on the emotion full-throatedly.
As, indeed, does Manchester by the Sea, the third film from the great Kenneth Lonergan, following You Can Count on Me and Margaret. Lonergan, as ever, has created a world which reveals its secrets to the audience slowly, allowing us to be moved around with Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, a janitor living in Boston, who moves back to his small home-town following the death of his big brother (Kyle Chandler) in order to manage his estate, despite his clear unease at being back. Affleck’s performance is sublime in its stillness. It’s a masterpiece of film acting, which on its own merits should win him every award going. He’s ably supported by the reliably flawless Michelle Williams and the brilliant newcomer Lucas Hedges. Any film that 2017 produces that is better than Manchester by the Sea will be one to truly cherish.
Lonergan’s film is probably currently the second favourite to win Best Picture behind La La Land, director Damian Chazelle’s follow-up to the brilliant Whiplash. Chazelle’s film is bold and beautiful, a big-hearted musical set in LA.; a cinematic love song to the city and the opportunities it holds for those that dream – in this case an auditioning actress/barista (Emma Stone) and a frustrated jazz musician (Ryan Gosling). Those who’ve seen Crazy/Stupid Love will know that Stone and Gosling have plenty of romantic chemistry, and it’s at an adorably high level here, in a film that is both full-heartedly wistful and sadly accepting of the compromises that stand in the path to happiness and fulfilment. It’s currently a strong favourite for top honours.
I’m going to take a little break from the rest of the upcoming movies (there are many more!) to just remark on the absolute foolishness of the release schedule. Yet again, we have a year in which four outstanding films for adult audiences who might be influenced by the reviews they read are released just one week apart. It’s impossible for a paying audience to get to see all of these films, especially outside of London, where there often isn’t the same room for those films to remain on screen in the face of so many newer options.
Adding to the logjam is Pablo Larrain’s English-language debut, Jackie, a quite beautiful and affecting film about the short window between JFK’s assassination and his (state) funeral, and the role that his widow, Jackie Onassis Kennedy, played in keeping the country together at its time of grief. In the lead role is your current favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar (which would be her second) – Natalie Portman, who gives an astoundingly rich and beautiful performance in the lead role.
Also in contention, for nominations at least, are Jeff Nichols’ gentle, dignified Loving, which features one of the best performances of the decade from Ruth Negga, as the black wife in an illegal interracial marriage who just wants to go home and live near her family. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who is the strong favourite to win Best Supporting Actress) star in a theatrical, engrossing adaptation of August Wilson’s beloved play Fences, with Washington also directing. Annette Bening could be on her way to an Oscar nomination for an outstanding turn at the centre of Mike Mills’ lovely, beguiling 20th Century Women, in which Greta Gerwig gives a career-best turn in support. Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg team up again after the success of the excellent Deepwater Horizon with the thrilling Patriots Day, the film about the multi-agency man-hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.
Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams has produced the unabashed crowd-pleaser Hidden Figures, about the role of a group of black women in the scientific ground-breaking done in preparation for the late John Glenn’s first manned (US) spaceflight. Three characters in particular are highlighted in this thoughtful, joyful drama – a pair of mathematicians played by Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer, and a wannabe engineer played with enormous gusto by Janelle Monae. It’s a thoroughly satisfying film, although in a post-Trump world, it plays far more as an anger-inducing polemic than might otherwise have been the case. The tiny gains these women fought so hard for in terms of opportunity, respect and dignity, overthrown in a two-year campaign by a tiny-handed megalomaniac and his shit-for-brains supporters.
The final film in the Oscar race that I’d like to focus on is Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous, stunning Moonlight. The story of a young black boy in Florida at three different stages in his life (and played by three actors: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – chronologically), as he tries to figure out who he is, and how that person fits into the limits of the life he can see, it’s a beautifully sparse film, with wonderful performances, particularly from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (both of whom are likely to be Oscar nominated) and Andre Holland (who sadly isn’t). It says so much about the feeling of being dissociated from your environment that the emotions it inspires in an audience are almost universal, even if the specifics of Chiron’s story are not. Moonlight has been the most lauded film on the awards’ circuit so far, but was always more likely to resonate with critics than academies. While it may not win big, it is likely to be exceptionally widely nominated, and deserves to be widely seen.
Outside of the scope of main awards contenders, there are a number of excellent arthouse titles slated for release, from Park Chan-Wook’s sumptuous, sexy and thrilling The Handmaiden to Paul Verhoeven’s provocative, deadpan Elle, which features the sine qua non of Isabelle Huppert performances. Julia Ducourneau’s unsettling and ultra-enjoyable Raw will look to breakout of the foreign-language ghetto after winning the Sutherland Trophy at the LFF.
We talked a little bit on Mostly Film about Toni Erdmann, after its festival bow earlier in 2016, but with it due for release in February, and a strong contender for the Foreign Language awards, it’s worth reiterating just how great Maren Ade’s film is. It’s a long German comedy about depression and corporate culture, which manages to be utterly captivating for 90 minutes, and then, by turns, hilarious and devastating for the last hour. It’s a huge film, one stuffed with ambition and devilry, and I doubt it will be bettered next year.