Arts review of 2017: Alistair Harkness on the year in film

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Movies tend to be slow to react to current events, but current events can rapidly alter how we react to movies. With Donald Trump taking office, it’s perhaps no surprise that 2017 felt like the cinematic year of fear. It was certainly a banner year for horror. Jordan Peele’s rightly revered Get Out was conceived in the Obama era as a satire of post-racial politics but in the context of Trump it became a far scarier exploration of white privilege and the optics of racial progress. The Transfiguration and It Comes At Night also smartly applied horror tropes to racial politics: the former using vampire lore as a metaphor for the way society sucks the life out of those on the bottom rung, the latter turning a post-apocalyptic home invasion scenario into a timely examination of isolationism and the deadly paranoia it breeds. There was no respite in the past either. The box-office conquering Stephen King adaptation It punctured hazy nostalgia for the Reagan/Bush-dominated 1980s – its child-abducting killer clown Pennywise a portent, perhaps, of the ruined future Trump’s nostalgic promise to make America great again signalled. The arthouse was no less anxiety ridden. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper caught the general mood of unease while the biblical fury of Darren Aronofsky’s divisive Mother! provided a suitably outré parable for our freaked-out times.

Indeed, so blinding was the glare of Trump it was almost impossible not to see the filament of his presidency everywhere you looked. It was there in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1960s-set riot drama Detroit, especially post-Charlottesville. It was there in Michael Keaton’s disenfranchised blue-collar villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was there in the scary Russian politicking of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin and the way Denis Villeneuve’s fascinating Blade Runner 2049 explored our status as cogs in a machine that will do anything to keep us in line. It was even there in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, the cautionary tale of a shady, petulant wannabe who reveals himself to be thoroughly unqualified for the job he’s bought his way into. And it was there in David Lowery’s strange and haunting A Ghost Story, particularly in the magnificent shot of a grief-filled Rooney Mara devouring and vomiting up an entire apple pie – a potent visual metaphor if ever there was one for how it felt compulsively consuming each fresh outrage in the news.

That emetic feeling was intensified when the New York Times and the New Yorker broke story after story about Harvey Weinstein. Nothing hit the film industry harder in 2017 than the resulting sexual harassment scandal. Artistically revered stars like Kevin Spacey and Louis CK fell like dominoes and legends like Dustin Hoffman, who gave one of his best performances in years in The Meyerowitz Stories (about an appallingly behaved artist in his dotage), were forced to confront allegations of inappropriate behaviour going back decades. It also reignited the old debate about whether art could or should be separated from an artist. Should the brilliance of the aforementioned A Ghost Story and Kenneth Lonergan’s heartbreaking Manchester by the Sea be ignored or re-assessed because star Casey Affleck settled two sexual harassment claims out of court in 2010? Does Spacey’s toxicity retrospectively tarnish Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, the summer’s most joyously inventive blockbuster? When it came to Spacey, Ridley Scott wasn’t about to find out: the no-nonsense director cut him from his new film All the Money in the World, reshooting his scenes with Christopher Plummer with just weeks to go until its imminent US Christmas release. But not all holes are as easily filled. As the #MeToo movement went viral it became impossible to ignore the existence of a void in the cinematic landscape, a void that should have been filled with the work of all those people whose lives and careers have been derailed by powerful men abusing their positions.

But it wasn’t all bad news in 2017. Christopher Nolan returned with the astonishing Dunkirk (my film of the year), a movie that smartly undercut the mythology of war with a ticking-clock structure that illustrated the way actions speak louder than words when so many lives are on the line. And many of the year’s finest films did also reflect a more diverse range of voices and faces, exploring the politics of race, gender and sexuality in intriguing ways, sometimes all at once. That was true of Barry Jenkins’s sublime gay black coming-of-age drama Moonlight, which deservedly won the Oscar for best film, and it was also true of Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. LGBTQ themes were prominent too in Luca Guadagnino’s remarkable Call Me By Your Name, Valerie Farris and Jonathan Dayton’s ace Billy Jean King tennis movie Battle of the Sexes and debut British director Francis Lee’s raw same-sex love story God’s Own Country.

Matching that film’s unflinching depiction of British country life was Edinburgh-based writer/director Hope Dixon Leach’s The Levelling and director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch’s Lady Macbeth. Both were auspicious debuts and both were built around strong women (Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling, Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth) negotiating the patriarchal strictures placed upon their lives. In very different ways those themes were evident in Kelly Reichardt’s subtly brilliant Certain Women, Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert’s provocative collaboration Elle and in Anna Biller’s slyly satirical The Love Witch. There were great performances too from Annette Bening, who bookended the year with fine, complex turns as a feminist single mother in 20th Century Women and as Hollywood survivor Gloria Grahame in Paul McGuigan’s wonderful Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. And there was no denying Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman either. Directed by Patty Jenkins (the first woman director to get a crack at one of the A-list superhero franchises), the film embraced the character’s status as a first wave feminist icon and proceeded to trounce every other comic book film this year, becoming the highest grossing superhero origin movie of all time. In a year of terrible men, that’s a victory worth celebrating.