The Florida Project,

In a year that has seen seismic shifts occur around the world, where often times the news has been a like a car accident, horrifying but with a chokehold on your attention span, cinema does seem like a distant concern. Any art does in moments of panic. But after the panic fades, it is the arts we go to; for escape, for reflection, and hopefully to gain some perspective on the world we occupy.

There’s plenty to reflect on in the larger cultural shift where voice is finally being given to those so often left in the margins, be they people of colour, the LGBTQ community or women. So, it has been exciting to see so much great cinema come from those perspectives. The films we are so often served in year-end superlatives often come from a straight white male perspective. So much so, that we start to fool ourselves into believing that theirs is a neutral perspective. But 2017 saw a shift, where multiple films from multiple different perspectives received attention and praise.

There is a sweet irony that in a year where it seemed the value of community and connection was all but lost to so many people, that so many films were speaking to the value of just that– of connecting, of creating our own spaces and our own chosen families. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project centres around a six-year old girl and her young rebellious mother Halley as they struggle,  giggle and play through one summer living at a purple budget motel called ‘The Magic Castle’. Baker, an indie visionary, finds nuance and poetry in the ordinary as he sets his camera on the denizens of the motel and shows us the humanity and dignity in those who we tend to ignore in our day to day.

There was also something of a pink-film renaissance this year, coming off last year’s shock Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, with a rush of LGBTQ films and filmmakers from all over the globe taking centre stage. The French film Paris 05:59: Theo & Hugo is in some ways the most traditional of the three on my list, seeing as it is a sober, quiet romance until you mention it opens with a bravura 20 minute orgy scene. Nearly wordless, bathed in red and blue neon, we experience a subterranean neon-lit playground where male bodies sweat and thrust with equal abandon. It points of  a heady, flesh-filled fantasy world where only the concern is carnal. That is until things get complicated. This sweet, romantic film follows two gay men as they head to a doctor for post-exposure prophylaxis after an unsafe sexual encounter. More jarring than it’s opening scene’s shock is the straight-faced honesty with which the filmmakers approach this truly modern take of courtship.

Moonlight, Metro Website
Moonlight, Metro Website

Polar opposite to that take on romance is the much-celebrated Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel. If Paris is about the settling back into reality after desire leaves, then this James Ivory scripted gem is all about the heady throes of new-found desire. Set ‘somewhere in Nothern Italy’ the film follows 17 year old Elio and his new-found infatuation with Oliver, an American student. Call Me By Your Name is a tone poem of furtive glances, bodies brushing past each other and flesh meeting flesh. Everything in its lush pastoral setting is grounds for erotic exploration; be it a pair of red swimming trunks or indeed, in its most famous scene, a peach. Swooningly romantic and sensuous, the film is as emotionally devastating as it is sexy.

Expanding queer cinema from romantic stories is João Pedro Rodrigues’s astonishing Portuguese art film The Ornithologist. Don’t be fooled by the title, which is simply the occupation and our lead-in to its main character, Fernando, a bird-watcher who finds his trip up-ended when his kayak breaks in half and he is saved from drowning by two Chinese Christian tourists. If that all sounds bizarre and a bit off-the-deep-end, then wait until you see the rest of this arresting and inventive film that uses the last chapter in the life of St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint for recovering lost items as its inspiration. Beautifully shot and edited, it is a true impressionistic work of cinema.

Equally brilliant and by all means as equally experimental is David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. A film that is so cheeky in its execution, and yet takes so many left turns into transcendence and pure emotionality, it has to be seen to be believed. This is a film that covers its Oscar winning star Casey Affleck in a white bed sheet in classic ‘ghost’ fashion for most of the film also features an unbroken ten-minute scene of Rooney Mara devouring a pie. It may seem like something between a prank and a snuff film but A Ghost Story is deeply affecting and considered a rumination on death, love and the universe at large.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is not only a bold statement of queer cinema but also a firebrand of feminist power. A melancholic contemporary tale of the personal and political conflicts laid out for a young trans woman as she navigates life after her older partner suddenly passes away. Lelio with his leading lady, the brilliant Daniela Vega, creates a character study that asks important questions about identity and self-actualisation making for a mesmerising ride.

Self-actualisation also takes centre stage in one of the other great films of the year, Greta Gerwig’s nearly perfect Lady Bird. The self-possessed Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, magnificent) is at the centre of the film, hurtling her way through high school in the mid-2000s while clashing with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, equally magnificent). As much a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento as it is about anything else, Gerwig has created something truly special here. The film’s watchful and acute study of the intricacies of female relationships is so refreshing in a male-centered world. If there were one film this year I were sure was destined to be a future classic, to be loved by people for years to come, Lady Bird would be it.

Image of the film 'Lady Bird' taken from Rolling Stone Website
Lady Bird, Rolling Stone Website

But if this was the year of finally speaking truth to power as women, particularly in Hollywood, worked to topple the patriarchy then there was one film that stood out in highlighting that particular strand of privilege. Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to rapturous reviews. In the film, Connie (Robert Pattinson, Pacino-esque) is a deadbeat young man dead set on getting his younger brother out of prison. But Connie for all his good intentions, cannot help but leach and steal from everyone who crosses his path (all but one, people of colour), his brother included. The Safdie’s have created a truly immersive piece that encapsulates the toxic white masculinity that has gripped the American landscape; the sound, edits, lighting and the lead are all electrifying.

You couldn’t talk about the cross-point between politics and cinema this year without mentioning the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The monster-hit horror satire took the film world by storm almost a year ago when it first came out, but none of its power has diminished. The film’s plot about a suburban white town that captures and then colonises young black people’s bodies maybe the most on-point metaphor for white supremacy I’ve ever seen. Cut with a razor-sharp precision, written with such clarity and wit, the film makes it look almost too easy. But trust me, scenes as instantly iconic as that where Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris is sent to The Sunken Place by that chilling sound of a spoon dragging on a cup, do not just happen. This is mastery at work.

In a year, where the current U.S. administration has barely ever left the news, in particular for the Presidential campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, it only seems fitting that the best film I saw last year would be a stirring, damning look at contemporary Moscow from Russian stalwart Andrey Zvyagintsev. Loveless is an allegorical tale that focuses on a warring, separated couple whose incessant fighting becomes interrupted only when their thirteen year-old son abruptly goes missing. Is he kidnapped? Did he run away? Or did he simply vanish into thin air? Do we all vanish when living under oppressive crumbling systems?  Loveless bristles with the same unfiltered rage that its central characters do. Moodily shot and muscularly constructed, this is a fascinating peak to a fascinating year.

These ten films are but a small sample of what has been a truly revelatory year for cinema. Do yourself a favour and seek them out, and then do yourself another favour and go beyond the list, seek them out to. You won’t be disappointed.

  1. The Florida Project
  2. Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo
  3. The Ornithologist
  4. Good Time
  5. Get Out
  6. A Ghost Story
  7. Lady Bird
  8. A Fantastic Woman
  9. Call Me By Your Name
  10. Loveless

Arun Welandawe Prematilleke is a Playwright and Actor based in Colombo.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here