Weinstein, Netflix and Women: Top Film Moments of 2017

From the unprecedented unearthing of toxic behaviour to changes in distribution, Doug Dillaman and Jacob Powell look at the year that was film.

From the unprecedented unearthing of toxic behaviour to changes in distribution, Doug Dillaman and Jacob Powell look at the year that was film.

Doug Dillaman: “Apart from that, how did you like the show, Mrs. Lincoln?” This dark joke (a reference to the assassination of President Lincoln at the theatre) was the first thing that came to mind when asked to recap a year in film. With a series of unearthed sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape charges shaking the industry, 2017 will be the year that women led the charge in saying not just #metoo but no more, changing the face of film. (Quite literally in the case of Christopher Plummer’s last-minute replacement for Kevin Spacey in the upcoming All The Money In The World.) Even the most casual film fan will have at least one film they can no longer look at the same way, and while I’ve heard some men say that it’s gone too far, with a century of toxic behaviour entrenched in Hollywood, I suspect it’s barely begun.

So apart from that, how did you enjoy the year in film, Mr. Powell?

Jacob Powell: Well, hell. The outing of Mr Spacey’s misdeeds, and his subsequent awful attempt to ‘apologise’ by blaming his sexuality certainly took the sheen off of (the admittedly not as shiny as I had hoped and even less so now) Baby Driver, but also meant I felt no loss at letting House of Cards slide. But when I see comments like “Oh no, another hero has fallen”, I think, “No, they have long been down in the dirt.” Maybe for many of us it feels like (to quote El Duderino) “new shit has come to light!” But for any victims, and those up close, this shit is well old, and it’s being acknowledged and flushed! I only hope, as more and more stories emerge, attitudes around what’s acceptable and not get a THOROUGH rejig, and that much needed systemic changes keep happening, which will stop this kind of shit, and these kinds of twatcocks, from being enabled, in the film industry and beyond.

With a series of unearthed sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape charges shaking the industry, 2017 will be the year that women led the charge in saying not just #metoo but no more, changing the face of film

Now, back to your actual question: this year in film has been pretty great for me. I feel like I’ve seen more films – in cinema at least, which is a big thing for me as a parent to (now) primary school aged kids – and my hit rate has been better than I might’ve expected. But I guess I’m left, at the end of the viewing year, with the feeling that there are so many good films left to see, and that I’m either a) not going to have the chance to see them, or b) not going to be able to squeeze them in even if I do get the chance! To start with, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has just dropped. Now, I’m no more a Star Wars fanatic than the average Gen Xer, but I am very much a Rian Johnson fan, and as he is directing Episode VIII, I am super-excited about it in a way I have not been about the others.

It is likely that I’ll miss Luca Guadagnino’s critical favourite Call Me By Your Name in what I suspect will be a shortish theatrical run, starting on Boxing Day. I’ve already missed it once this year during the NZIFF. And being as Twitter connects us all into a virtual-but-not-actual ‘international screening commons’ I feel I’m missing such necessary 2017 choices as Greta Gerwig’s, Saoirse Ronan starring, directorial debut Ladybird or Daniel Day-Lewis’s swansong, and the apparent ascension of Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Both of these are not due to hit NZ cinemas until February, 2018.

Anyway, I just realised you didn’t really answer your own question. So...

DD: Despite the usual cavalcade of franchise retreads, I think this was a zanily great year for original filmmaking. From a box office perspective, the amazing performance of director Jordan Peele’s canny and confrontational Get Out augurs well; from a critical perspective, the whole-hearted embrace of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a film that wears influences like Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis on its sleeve, was equally stunning. Julia Ducorneau’s Raw also wore a few of its influences on its sleeve (Cronenberg, Cronenberg, and Cronenberg) but whipped them into a delirious feminist frenzy of cannibalistic power. And while Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and Martin Scorsese’s Silence were woefully under-attended, the fact that the unquestionably batshit (note: this is a compliment) former and the magisterial latter could arrive from the studio system to multiplexes show that the system can still produce unforgettable films. And then there’s my favourite film of the year, David Lowery’s unforgettable ode to mortality, A Ghost Story, which asks you to take a guy wearing a sheet seriously…and succeeds.

But although it’s not the greatest film of 2017, perhaps the most uncannily timely film is Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. The conceit is so great that I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves Anne Hathaway as a not-really-functional alcoholic and giant monsters attacking Korea, which is what I knew going in. What I didn’t know going in is that it’s a razor sharp critique of toxic masculinity, and in particular one that’s putting the “nice guy” in its crosshairs and taking fire. It’s a risky movie on all levels, and high-wire acts like this that pay off deserve to be rewarded.

JP: Steady on with your “cavalcade of franchise retreads” there Mr. Elitist! Sure, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II failed to fire in the way its predecessor did, feeling like he was sucked into the churning CGI spectacle machine that has beset many of the Marvel/DC outings. And though some loved Matt Reeves’ latest instalment of the Apes preboot (War for the Planet of the Apes) I found Woody Harrelson’s Kurtz-lite riff unsatisfyingly derivative and the whole film lacking any sense of (as advertised by the title) “planetary” scale urgency. On the other hand, self-seriousness aside, James Mangold’s Logan was quite the visceral experience, where you felt the hits in the action sequences. Conversely, Thor: Ragnarok was fair brimming with colourful pixels – but colourful pixels laced with director Taika Waititi’s trademark humour. Not every joke landed, and I didn’t feel the rather large narrative stakes in the slightest, but Taika’s entry into the Marvelverse was damn funny, and so damned fun. Spider-Man: Homecoming benefited from me having no expectations of it whatsoever (I fell off the Spider-Man wagon almost immediately back in mid 00s) when it turned out to be quite watchable. And if not quite up with the best of the superhero films, Patty Jenkins represented solidly with Wonder Woman, a film that my wife and I both liked and were glad to be able to take our eldest (9yr old) daughter to. Another pertinent reminder to us that representation in stories is so important.

I give a firm +1 to your examples of excellent original filmmaking in 2017. Both Get Out and Colossal also struck home for me, proving once again that genre films on a mid-budget can provide more fun and critical engagement with real life challenges than many a big budget Oscar-bait drama or artsy ‘issues film’. On the dramedy front, Emily Gordon’s account of her and husband Kumail Nanjiani’s burgeoning cross-cultural relationship in The Big Sick was another film that paid unexpected dividends. Funny, warm, and quite moving, it even managed to actually make me ‘love Raymond’. I also sneaked into a late screening of Steven Soderbergh’s NASCAR country set Logan Lucky. A kind of Southern-fried Ocean’s 11, the film proved one of the more flat-out entertaining screenings of my year. I was very fortunate to have caught an unusually advanced media screening of Sean Baker’s bittersweet childhood-on-the-margins drama The Florida Project, which quickly stole a top spotin my year’s viewing. It also hits cinemas the week before Christmas and I recommend everybody (of age) see this beautifully honest portrait of humanity in an intriguing context.

What about here at home? I know you had a pretty stand-out run with New Zealand film last year Doug, how did 2017 stack up for you?

Locally, it feels like there were a bumper crop of *pretty good* films

DD: Locally, it feels like there were a bumper crop of *pretty good* films. Of all of them, I’d say Tusi Tamasese’s One Thousand Ropes impressed me the most, aesthetically speaking. Uncompromising both aesthetically and commercially in its deep dive into Samoan culture, I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but it’s still rolling around my mind all the time. However, the most inspirational and electrifying film of the year was unquestionably Waru. I wanted to write a whole article about this, but in short, I think the one-director model perpetuates a power structure in filmmaking that enables the sort of predatory behaviour we’ve seen all too much of this year. By sharing creative responsibility across eight different directors and various other collaborators, Waru is a powerful display of the strength in stepping away from the cult of the auteur and embracing the potency of real, deep collaboration. Which is not to shortchange the potency of its message, of course; in fact, by splitting its focus eight different ways, it (largely) cunningly avoids the didacticism so prevalent in social issue filmmaking.

JP: Yes, Waru! Despite some unevenness due to structure the film, it hits so hard, right where we live. To have eight talented wāhine filmmaking voices on screen is a beautiful and powerful thing. Then add such a topic? Auē!

I was pretty excited to catch Florian Habicht’s latest exploration of the “extraordinary everyday” inside notorious Auckland scream-park Spookers (in his film of the same name). Florian is so good at drawing out interesting stories from unlikely characters. And speaking of unearthing stories, Gaylene Preston riled up audiences with her excellent exposé of the entrenched gender-bias in the political machinery of the United Nations while filming Helen Clark’s failed bid for the position of Secretary General in My Year With Helen. I unfortunately missed Annie Goldson’s Kim Dotcom documentary Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web but I did see her in conversion with Gaylene (as well as Tearepa Kahi and Paul Oremland) in the Pantograph Punch hosted Hard Truths NZIFF event in July. They are a pair of smart, articulate women who make damn fine films. Their documentaries, alongside Waru, Jackie van Beek’s The Inland Road, over half the excellent entries in the Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts 2017 programme (including 17yr old Hokianga filmmaker Qianna Titore!), and a number of others, are evidence that female filmmaking was a strength of New Zealand’s cinematic year.

DD: As is usually the case, the NZIFF hand delivered the preponderance of the best films of the year. On paper, God’s Own Country read like an unnecessary retread of Brokeback Mountain; in the telling, its modesty, specificity, and honesty prove it to be entirely different, potent, and one of the most moving love stories of the year. Brigsby Bear was another film I approached with caution, but its weird devotion to sincerity in the face of absurdism won me over. (That it’s an unrepentant love letter to filmmaking didn’t hurt, nor did Kate Lyn Shiel sneaking in one of the great undersung supporting performances of the year.)

However, despite the success of NZIFF (and DocEdge this year - Stranger in Paradise and Last Men at Aleppo were particular standouts), there are long-standing gaps that those festivals fail to fill. New blood is definitely needed, and to that end, I was excited to see the emergence of the Terror-Fi Film Festival in Wellington, bringing several highly acclaimed genre films to the Roxy that otherwise wouldn’t get a theatrical outing. In Auckland, the Academy has been bringing a level of commitment to original programming, cheap tickets, and repertory screenings that no one else is even trying to touch.

JP: I get lost in the wonders of NZIFF every year and feel so lucky that we have such a great festival in this country. Many of my 2017 cine-highlights occurred therein, foremost being Amanda Kernell’s incredibly affecting Indigenous identity crisis tale Sami Blood. Crazy that this is the filmmaker’s debut feature. I’ve managed to catch up on a couple of missed opportunities from NZIFF. I took my girls to see Turkish cats-and-philosophy documentary Kedi during the last school holidays. The subtitles were definitely a bit much for my 7yr old, but afterwards the response was universal love and everyone ‘had’ to name their favourite cat. I didn’t manage to get to many other festivals in 2017, aside from catching the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl at the French Film Festival and making the Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams combo(!) via the NZIFF Autumn Events retro programme earlier in the year.

Conversely, my Netflix etc feature film viewing in 2017 has markedly increased in both quantity and quality of content. I have made the most of smaller films going direct to Netflix etc this year. Highlights include: Emily Hagin’s high-school crime thriller Coin Heist; actor-director Macon Blair’s Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood starring, genre/tone morphing directorial debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore; Dee Rees bleak historical family drama Mudbound, exploring Southern (USA) race-relations in the shadow of WWII; Joe Swanberg’s latest lo-fi talky Win It All – a dramedy tacked onto a gambling genre piece; Ana Lily Amirpour’s confronting post-apocalyptic-esque social outcast thriller, The Bad Batch (which, by this stage, I feared would slide right by us); Kitty Green's excellently constructed true crime documentary Casting JonBenet; and favourite actor/cinephile, Pat Healy’s blackly comic, kidnapping-gone-wrong directorial debut Take Me.

This year really underlined the fact that everything’s in flux

DD: This year really underlined the fact that everything’s in flux. Physical media is in a death spiral locally (as seen by the demise of Fatso and almost every neighborhood video store). Major films like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Nocturama are debuting on Netflix, the latter with virtually no fanfare whatsoever. So many films don’t even seem to exist locally - it’s shocking that our own Beulah Koale can win international praise for his turn in Thank You For Your Service and yet we can’t get a look at it here. And the very relevancy of the feature form seems to be in extended decline. (It’s way more likely that anyone I meet will have seen Stranger Things, Mindhunter or The Good Place than any of the films in this article.)

JP: I’ve recently had a few interesting conversations about this change in viewing and distribution patterns. On the one hand, we get a platform to view films that otherwise would not see release in NZ. On the other hand, with many films getting picked up for distribution by streaming platforms direct from Sundance/South By Southwest/Cannes etc – or even being produced by and for platforms like Netflix or Amazon – and hence not really doing any kind of major cinematic run anywhere, I wonder if fewer and fewer films are being made for the big screen? You see films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, or even newer features like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) and realise that these would lose something in translation to a smaller screen. They are truly made for cinematic viewing. I wonder if this will be slowly become a lost (or rarefied) art in a viewing environment where features are made with the knowledge that they are as (or more) likely be viewed on a big TV, or even a tablet or phone, as they are in a cinema?

When I look at all the talented women who have been denied chances, and I see the men who are falling from power and bringing down storied institutions with them, I feel like something very good is going to come from all this pain and suffering, and things are never going to be the same

DD: But there’s a rich soil. Getting movies to people is cheaper than ever, from production to distribution, even if getting people to see those movies is harder than ever. When I look at all the talented women who have been denied chances, and I see the men who are falling from power and bringing down storied institutions with them, I feel like something very good is going to come from all this pain and suffering, and things are never going to be the same. And that’s exciting.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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