Our pick of the films of 2017

2017 was not a landmark year for the movies. The most popular films were reboots or sequels; science fiction and animation were winners. There seemed to be fewer thoughtful and original films, perhaps because studios are playing it safe. With ever-rising production budgets, they cannot afford to take chances. Nonetheless, there are always some winners. We’ve selected the titles below from a range of genres, with something for everyone.

Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy. Length: 106 minutes.

Dunkirk is the highest-grossing World War II film ever, although it is cinematographically as quirky as Christopher Nolan’s other films. The stirring story of how the British evacuated hundreds of thousands of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk is no longer as well-known as it once was, unfortunately, and it deserves to be retold. Nolan’s focus is three Britons, on land, sea and air: a soldier, an ordinary skipper of a small craft and a daring pilot. He paints the heroic rescue as a mosaic of small but memorable incidents of courage, cowardice, loyalty, grit and patriotism. Critics have called it one of the best war films ever.

Ethel and Ernest: a True Story
Animation directed by Roger Mainwood. Voices of Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Luke Treadaway. Length: 94 minutes

This is a superb adaptation of a best-selling graphic novel which tells the story of an ordinary married couple from the 1920s to the 1970s. Ethel is a conventional homemaker whose passion for her home beautifies and gives grandeur to motherhood; Ernest is a milkman with Bolshie ideas but a good workman and a devoted father. Amazingly for a contemporary film, it dignifies the role of the housewife. It’s wonderful to find a film which lovingly reaffirms the beauty of life in the home.

I, Daniel Blake
Director: Ken Loach. Script: Paul Laverty. Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires. Length: 100 minutes.

Another superb film from Ken Loach, the left-wing director whose life has been devoted to campaigning for social justice in contemporary Britain. In this film, the focus is on the UK’s Kafka-esque unemployment system. Daniel Blake is a widowed carpenter who suffers a serious heart attack. His doctor tells him he should not work, but the welfare system insists that he needs to look for a job. He ends up “sanctioned” – banned from benefits and he finds it hard to appeal because he cannot use a computer. A tragic and moving film about moral integrity and solidarity.

Director: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya. Length: 104 minutes.

Six astronauts on the International Space Station discover a living organism in dirt brought back from Mars. It responds to oxygen and grows bigger and more vicious. One by one the astronauts die as the critter (named Calvin by children back on earth), seeks oxygen and nutrition. In the final scenes, the remaining crew abandon the space station in a desperate attempt to save Planet Earth. It’s a familiar plot, but absorbing and very tense.

A Quiet Passion
Director: Terence Davies. Script: Terence Davies. Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine. Length: 126 minutes.

The life of the 19th Century Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson was singularly uneventful: she was well educated, never married, dressed in white, and mostly stayed in her bedroom. She published only a handful of poems. But after her death, nearly 1800 of them were discovered and she was soon acknowledged as one of the greatest of American poets. But we know almost nothing about her. In this poignant film British director Terence Davies explores the mystery of her inner suffering – what she called “Zero at the Bone”. Brilliantly acted by Cynthia Nixon.

My Feral Heart
Director: Jane Gull. Script by Duncan Paveling. Starring Steven Brandon, Shana Swash, Will Rastall, Pixie Le Knot. Length: 82 minutes

“We're not so different, you and me” is the theme of My Feral Heart, a poignant British indie about a young man with Down syndrome. Though filmed in a grey and overcast English village and a grey and overcast and damp English countryside and the slightly chaotic life of a care home, it projects a rare warmth of feeling. At the heart of the film are two intertwining themes: that we can only find happiness in caring for each other and that all of us are vulnerable and needy, not just people with Down syndrome. It’s not a big-budget picture, but it projects a great message.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Director: James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Sylvester Stallone, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell. Length: 136 minutes

Marvel struck gold again with this absurd, complex, improbable and entertaining yarn about super-heroes reconciling with their fathers and discovering their families – without neglecting their main job of saving the Galaxy from annihilation. The tongue-in-cheek humour and the interaction between the bizarre characters is the best part of the film. What other film features a genetically modified raccoon bounty hunter?

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts. Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr. Length: 133 minutes.

Acclaimed as the best of the Spiderman movies, this gag-filled romp is great fun. A young Peter Parker/Spider-Man made a sensational debut in Captain America: Civil War. Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May, and trudges off to the local high school where is regarded as a bit of a nerd. But then the Vulture emerges as a new villain, and Spidey has his hands full.

The Post
Director: Steven Spielberg. Script: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks. Music: John Williams. Length: 115 minutes.

No one knows better how to make a film about self-confident moral rectitude than Steven Spielberg. In this gripping drama about a decision by the Washington Post to publish the stolen Pentagon Papers, he highlights the sturdy traditional values of a fearless independent press. It’s particularly relevant in an era of “fake news”. Meryl Streep, as brilliant as ever, plays Kay Graham, the Post’s owner, and Tom Hanks, with his customary air of honest professionalism, the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee. The stakes were high: publishing government documents which revealed that the government had lied about US involvement in Vietnam could have sent Graham and Bradlee to jail and closed the paper. But they put the truth first. A great meal for media junkies.

The Lego Batman Movie
Director: Chris McKay. Script: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington. Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Siri. Length: 1h 44m

Delirious silliness meets Batman gravitas in this animated film. It’s a real hoot to listen to the voices of well-known actors coming from the clunky Lego blocks. There is a plot, of course, because films are required to have plots, but the main point is riffing on a lifetime of Batman movies. Perhaps parents will enjoy this more than the kids. (Lots of critics have described it as the best of the Batman movies!)

War for Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves. Script: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves. Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn. Length: 140 minutes.

This is the third instalment of a franchise which seems to improve with each iteration. In a world where a mutant virus makes apes super-intelligent and kills humans, mankind is on the back foot. Caesar, the apes’ Moses leading them away from danger, has a show-down with a mad, ape-hating, sadistic Colonel with the two armies trying to batter each other into bloody submission. This is a sombre and intelligent film which asks whether homo sapiens really deserves to reign over the planet.

Turkey of the year

... and thank your lucky stars you missed it, our nomination for the worst film of the year: The Emoji Movie, an animation about the emojis in your smartphone. “Lacks humor, wit, ideas, visual style, compelling performances, a point of view or any other distinguishing characteristic that would make it anything but a complete waste of your time,” said one critic. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was 9%. But it grossed US$217 million on a budget of $50 million. With that return on investment, there could be a sequel!  


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