5. The Death of Stalin
Now, I suspect some US viewers are probably going to look at me a bit enviously since this movie isn’t actually coming out in the US until March. (2018 Edit: Probably less so now, since it’s actually finally come out in the US) And, in reference to those people, I’d just like to say, ‘hahahahaha hahaha hahahahaha.’ Because seriously, this was great.
Armando Iannucci is a name that might ring a few bells for some people, if not on its own merit, then for the dozens of popular shows he’s created and worked on, such as Veep, The Thick of it, In the Loop and so on. And while I will personally admit I’ve not seen all that much of his stuff, outside of In the Loop and some of his earlier collaborations with the eternally underrated Chris Morris, I will call him probably one of the most accurate political satirists working today. Not accurate because of his painstaking research into political processes and the like, mind (although it’s clear he’s done a lot of his research, but accurate because of his depiction of one of the most fundamental truth of politicians all over the world, no matter how fascist or authoritarian or oppressive they are.
They’re all fecking idiots.
Honestly, Stalin’s Russia has always held a bit of a mythic villainous status among popular culture. When people think about it, they always think mass executions, disappearing political opponents, oppression, basically 1984-lite. And, while a lot of those atrocities certainly were true and horrible and worthy of scorn, this movie works so brilliantly to deflate and take the piss out of said mythic reputation by depicting the major figures of Stalin’s Russia as what they always were. Idiots. Idiots stuck constantly squabbling and trying to cover their own asses while backstabbing everyone else’s. Not cartoonishly stupid idiots, mind, but idiots in a way that feels all too universally realistic, even in today’s current political climate. Hell, especially in today’s political climate. Trust me when I say you’ll make more than a few subconscious comparisons to the Trump administrations when watching this. Not because the film makes a deliberate point of inviting those comparisons, mind, but because its depiction of the ‘Idiots in Charge’ is so universally recognisable and rings true so very easily regardless of country.
Of course, it’s not just the political commentary that deserves praise, mind. This movie has one of the best ensembles of the year, with great turns from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Simon Russell Beale. Particular note has to go to Jason Isaacs and Rupert Friend, as General Zhukov and Vasily Stalin respectively, who in spite of having comparatively smaller roles, never fail to steal the scene whenever they show up. Paddy Considine also deserves recognition for his poor beleaguered radio station director stuck in an almost Fawlty Towers-esque scenario of things going increasingly wrong.
Overall, there’s just something incredibly rewatchable about this movie. Honestly, I’m pretty certain it’s the 2017 movie I’ve rewatched the most since its release (5 times to date). And not just because I enjoy shoving it in the US moviegoers faces, (although I do derive tremendous pleasure from that,) but because there’s something almost cathartic about watching things go wrong again and again for these horrible people. Add in excellent direction, acting, writing and the like and it’s no wonder people seem so jealous that we Brits got to see it several months before they did.
Which is why, to finish this segment off, I’d just like to quickly say, hahahaha hahaha hahahahaha. Ha.
(2018 Edit: Yeah, may have dated myself a touch with this commentary.)
4. Wonder Woman
And to think at the beginning of the year, I’d have been satisfied if this merely didn’t suck.
Honestly, no joke, when I went in, I was genuinely fully expecting this to suck and suck badly. The trailer had failed to interest me in the slightest and, even if it had, I was still somewhat smarting from how badly Suicide Squad had let me down, compared to how good its trailers were. Even with WW garnering mostly positive reviews to begin with, I was still expecting to be not fond of it regardless. But, since I make a point of seeing almost every mainstream superhero movie anyway, I went down to the cinema regardless (on my birthday no less) to see what I thought would be a decent film at best.
2/3 hours later and I was blown away by just how good this movie was.
Seriously, a lot of people have categorised this movie’s critical success compared to other DCEU films, down to simplistic notions like ‘It had humour/joy’ or ‘It was more like a Marvel film’. And quite frankly, I think those people do a serious disservice to just how good this movie was on its own. It wasn’t openly political like Black Panther or ‘gritty’ and ‘adult’ like Logan, but it showed a maturity and competence to its storytelling that I’ve seen few blockbusters match period, let alone superhero flicks. Thematically and emotionally, it was almost pitch-perfect with its messages sown neatly and subtly into the narrative, in a way that served Diana’s character arc and bolstered the emotional throughline. I mentioned in my Logan review that, while I appreciated its more adult tone, it lost a lot of points by virtue of few of the character/thematic beats following through or coming together. This is almost the exact opposite. So many of the character beats and themes and message end up getting followed through in almost pitch perfect ways and thus the movie ends up all the better for it. I wrote a 5-part analysis of Batman v Superman explaining all the ways in which the storytelling in that movie failed. I’m pretty certain I could do the exact opposite with all the ways this movie ends up getting its storytelling right. Maybe some day I’ll even get around to it, we’ll see.
Hell, even the controversial 3rd act and villain I thought were both brilliant. Sure, the CG was dodgy, there were a few silly design choices in regards to Ares (*cough* moustache *cough*) and Ares did also turn into a bit of a generic shouty villain towards the end. But most people seemed to have focused on those relatively superficial details and missed that really do work about Ares and his role in the story. He acts as both a perfect foil to Diana when he shows up, his motivations are more complex than ‘Grrr, destroy everything’ and his presence and role ties in beautifully to Diana’s character arc. I was honestly a little disappointed when he first showed up, since I was hoping the movie would stick to the idea of ‘there is no big villain manipulating the war behind the scenes, it’s just mankind’s way to destroy itself’, but the movie somehow managed to find a way to have its cake and eat it too, by literally tying in his origin to that idea and providing him with a master plan that doesn’t get in the way of that message. And the way that Diana is only able to finally beat him by coming to terms with the imperfections of mankind and recognising the good that lies with the bad…. Gnnngh, like I said, I could write a fucking 5 part essay on all the ways that this movie just works. (Although, like I also said, maybe later.)
To sum up, I’ve seen more than a few people claiming this as just DC’s answer to the first Captain America movie… which I honestly don’t think is really all that true except in the most superficial ways? But the movie I really think this should be compared to is Man of Steel. Because this explores almost everything that that movie also tries to do. An outsider trying to make their way among man’s world? Check. An attempt at a more complex exploration of heroism than ‘Good guy punches Bad guy’? Check. A reintroduction of a classic, goodhearted superhero reinvented for a more modern audience? Check. An attempt at a more mature, adult superhero storytelling while still keeping up the flash-boom excitement that people enjoy? Check.
But do you want to know the big difference between those two movies? Wonder Woman does it well. Because it’s not just a fresh start for the DCEU, it’s what the franchise always should’ve been aiming for
3. In This Corner of the World
Okay, so if I were to say the words ‘animated film featuring Hiroshima’, what would be the first movie that comes to mind? No no, not the Emoji Movie, a serious answer. No, for me, and I assume most people, a description like that instantly makes one think of Grave of the Fireflies, with its dark tragic exploration of Japan towards the end of WWII. And, to be perfectly honest, I was very much expecting a Grave of the Fireflies sort of film when I walked into In This Corner of the World. But that wasn’t what I got at all. What I got instead was something unique, charming, heartwarming, tragic, hilarious, tense, quirky and tear-jerking all wrapped up into one magnificent package.
See, the weird thing about In This Corner of the World is that, in spite of having a premise (about a newly married young Japanese woman living through WWII) that sounds like it’s going to be a tragedy/drama, it’s… really not. It has its fair share of tragic and dramatic moments, certainly, but if there’s any genre I’d place it in… It’s honestly kind of a slice of life. Yeah, most of the movie is more about the delightfully featherheaded protagonist, Suzu, and her day to day life with her new husband and family, while WWII rages in the background. Like Florida Project, the movie doesn’t really have much of a solid structure, flitting from day-to-day mini adventures, but where Florida Project I felt was missing a hook, here that’s not so much case because Suzu and her dynamics with other characters is just so charming and interesting that I feel like I could watch them all day.
Not to say, it’s all fun and games mind. It’s set in WWII for a reason and that looming shadow of Hiroshima is slowly inching closer. But where this movie works so brilliantly is that it slowly and delicately works those more dramatic wartime elements into the stories, inch by inch, without destroying the fabric of what came before. It goes from a pleasant slice-of-life with Suzu and her family to a still pleasant slice-of-life with wartime procedures like air-raids, rationing and the funniest conclusion to a serious accusation of espionage I’ve ever seen. Then, when the serious dramatic moments happen, they don’t feel out of place and they still hit you like a thunderclap. And boy do they hit hard. One major death in particular could definitely give Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the tragedy department. Yet, like in real life, life still went on and this movie manages to deftly weave that element of tragedy and loss into the narrative seamlessly.
In conclusion, this wasn’t really the sort of movie I was expecting when I went in and I mean that in every positive way. It’s a movie that is still tragic and emotional, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it, luring you in with a genuinely pleasant slice-of-life and slowly turning the needle as things get more and more intense, yet all without losing that likeable charm it has from beginning to end. I will say though that I found the beginning kinda confusing, which is what separated it from challenging those top two places, but trust me when I say this is definitely worth a watch.
2. Get Out
Do I really need to explain why this is on here? Reeeeally? Really really? Because thing has gotten more than a little amount of recognition in popular culture for how good it was. Heck, it’s ticked almost every box of widespread acclaim. 99% RT score, an OW significantly higher than anyone expected, practically ungodly legs and a reputation that garnered it a huge amount of awards attention in spite of being a horror movie released in February! Is it any real surprise that I’d end up loving this as much as I did?
…Well, actually, kinda yeah.
See, here’s a little anecdotal story for you. The thing is, we didn’t get this in the UK until about a month after the US did (okay, you can go hahahahaha now). Which meant about a month of hearing everyone in the US overhype this as like the best thing since sliced bread, etc etc. In addition, when I first went to see it, I had a bunch of jackasses directly behind me who talked through like a third of the film and constantly got on my nerves. Plus I was tired as hell, by virtue of not having slept well the previous night. So I was tired, pissed, hungry and about to watch a movie that had built up an almost ungodly reputation in my mind from all that other people had been ranting about it on here. Some level of disappointment felt almost inevitable.
Yet, in spite of all of that working against it, enough misfortunes to sour almost any lesser movie, Get Out not only met my expectations but shattered them out of the park.
Seriously, this movie is definitely something special and almost every part of it is pitch perfect. The acting, the writing, the directing, the sheer uncomfortable atmosphere the movie manages to create. You entirely sympathise why with Kaluuya’s character feels so uncomfortable even before all the weird shit starts to happen. Plus it challenges racial issues from a direction you don’t see often (if ever) and it has more to say than just the simple ‘racism is bad, y’all’. Yet this political bent, like the best movies, only serves to strengthen the tension and atmosphere and the like. Sure, it’s not exactly the most openly scary of horror films, but it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to create an unsettling, unnerving atmosphere rather than loud distracting jump scares and in that regard it more than succeeds. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it drops off a bit in quality towards the end after that low-key tension is gone. (Although the mechanics and the like behind the big reveal are still pretty interesting. And it’s pretty harrowing seeing Kaluuya’s previously sweet-natured protagonist reach the end of his rope. And need I even mention the police siren reveal.)
To sum up, this is the sort of movie like Mad Max: Fury Road where, even if it doesn’t necessarily win Best Picture (we’ll see in a few hours), I’d still put good odds on it being the most well remembered and recognised movie of 2017. And I was genuinely a hair’s breadth away from giving it my No 1 slot. But, ultimately, after a mini civil war within my brain, I chose to award a completely different movie…
And my No 1 movie of the year is…
1. The Night is Short, Walk on Girl
Have you ever had one of those perfect night-out’s that just seemed to last forever? A night of colours and lights in an unfamiliar city? A night with new friends, weird attractions and, of course, plenty and plenty of alcohol? A night that almost feels spiritual in its enjoyment? This is that movie in a nutshell.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to start talking about this movie. Hell, I’d never even heard of it at the beginning of the year. Chances are it probably would’ve just passed me by had it not been playing for a night at my local Odeon. So I went into the movie, not at all knowing what to expect, not knowing much more than the basic premise. And what I got had me grinning almost throughout like a little child, enjoying every weird twist, every surreal bit of animation, every unexpected turn and glorious fun. And needless to say, I freaking loved it all.
Night is Short, Walk on Girl is a movie about a unnamed young lady (referred to in the sub as Otome (literally ‘young lady’), having just crossed the cusp of adulthood and deciding to celebrate with her own exploratory night out on the town. At the same time, ‘Senpai’, a fellow student who has harboured a long time crush on the girl, decides that this is also the perfect night to confess his feelings. The journey that each girl and boy travel sends them across, meeting many weird and eccentric people, visiting many strange locals and generally having one hell of a night out.
Now, that’s the basic premise, but trust me when I say I’m underselling it. Everything from the animation, to the writing, to the characters, to the jokes to everything else is just so endearingly weird. The colours, the movements, the expressions, the everything, it’s unlike almost any other animated movie I’ve ever seen and it all works so so well. Not to say it’s just some random surreal headtrip (although it does turn that way a bit in the climax), because there’s also a weird meaningful intelligence behind the writing. Almost every detail, no matter how small, pays off later down the line and the movie’s ultimate message, about how everyone is connected, is threaded through the whole narrative really neatly. There’s a surreal sense to this movie that I just found magnetic.
Not to say that’s the only thing worth celebrating about the movie. In particular, the female lead, Otome, is genuinely one of my favourite characters in any movie this year. She’s sweet, friendly and innocent but, in spite of her optimistic demeanour, she’s decisively not stupid or helpless or just some prize and has this magnetic charisma that draws the viewer in just as much as it does almost everyone around her. The other lead, Senpai is… honestly kind of a creeper, but it’s still fun watching him bumble through the darker sides of the city’s nightlife. As for side characters, there are dozens each with memorable aspects and relationships of their own. The perpetually unflappable Higuchi was one of my favourites, but I surely can’t go without giving the ever-loving Don Pantsu!!! a mention. (The sub name was Don Underwear, but it’s hard to ignore the enthusiastic Japanese cry of ‘Don Pantsu!!!’ every time he gets mentioned.)
Honestly, while I’m going to start winding things down now, I’ve still barely even scratched the surface of why I love this movie so much. I haven’t covered the brilliantly bizarre stuff like the Sophist’s Dance, the best/weirdest musical interlude of the year, the weird dictatorial Student Council and my perpetual confusion that apparently used book sales are considered part of the Japanese night life (???). And I will admit, this movie may not be for everyone. It’s lewd, occasionally creepy and if you don’t get into its weird endearing style then you’ll probably not enjoy it all that much. Plus, while I liked the climax just fine, it didn’t quite live up to everything that came before, so in that regard, maybe it’s not quite as uniformly perfect as Get Out? I know I certainly had quite a struggle separating the two.
But, for me, what barely pushed this over the edge of Get Out was down to one simple thing. While Night is Short, Walk on Girl wasn’t quite as uniformly brilliant as Get Out was, it fucked batted for the stars with every last moment. And so many of those moments hit for me and the narrative so brilliantly came together that even the occasional low point just couldn’t bring me down. So yeah, that’s why I’m placing Night is Short, Walk on Girl as my favourite movie of the year.