2017: A year in film

Mike McCahill

The most consoling theory put forward to explain these turbulent times is that the vast computer simulation we're all inhabiting has started glitching out. On the night of February 26, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty took to the Dolby Theatre stage to announce that, as expected, La La Land had won the year's Best Picture Oscar.

Except it hadn't: the smaller, more personal Moonlight had, and as the error was addressed,­ the famous white folk replaced at the podium by emergent black talent, we perhaps passed into an alternative timeline. It wasn't going to be business as usual in 2017. Something came to a head; the system started correcting itself.

For starters, new voices flourished. A year that began with Moonlight ended with Mudbound, the kind of absorbing widescreen epic traditionally overseen by white male creatives ­here wrangled into Oscar contention by Dee Rees, an African-American filmmaker less inclined to romanticise her country's past. Even when the studios' business was business, the movies weren't quite the same: the summer's biggest blockbuster, Wonder Woman, saw a female director (Patty Jenkins) apply a notably lighter touch, while reigning comic-book kings Marvel goofed off by handing Thor: Ragnarok to the puckish Maori Taika Waititi. (Both outperformed DC's leaden Justice League.)

"As whispers reached critical mass, barely a day passed without news breaking of more accusations against Weinstein and other industry players"

The onscreen drama, however, became overshadowed by the Harvey Weinstein story—the downfall of a figure who'd spent a quarter-century producing acclaimed hits and off-colour rumours in equal measure. As those whispers reached critical mass, barely a day passed without news breaking of more accusations against Weinstein and other industry players. The response was immediate: a run of suspensions and sackings, and in one case, that of Ridley Scott's soon-to-be-Spaceyless All the Money in the World, a director taking the unprecedented step of recasting and reshooting key scenes mere weeks before general release. Lines were being redrawn.

British cinema divided into two camps, as perhaps befits this fraught Brexit moment. That part of the industry that seeks to repackage the country's heritage for easy export went into overdrive, generating one curious summer blockbuster in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, very much the 12A-rated, multiplex-friendly recreation of the Second World War landings: all thunderous technique, photogenic Tommies, and next to no blood or guts. This pallid nostalgia for Empire extended to resuscitating Judi Dench's Queen Victoria for Victoria & Abdul; and not once (Churchill) but twice (the forthcoming Darkest Hour) allowing Winston Churchill to bang on about beaches.

Certain films, though, found warnings in history. William Oldroyd's brilliant Lady Macbeth was a cut-to-the-bone tragedy, unsparing in its depiction of those abuses taking place behind country-house shutters; Armando Iannucci's grimly hilarious The Death of Stalin offered a timely lesson on where dogma strands us. Sally Potter's The Party mined a similar seam around present-day Hampstead; further afield lay rapturous rural romance God's Own Country and the visionary I Am Not a Witch, from Welsh-Zambian newcomer Rungano Nyoni. And then there was Paddington 2, that heart-warming reiteration of Michael Bond's gentlemanly values, now with added Hugh Grant.

"As Paddington found, even cold-fish Brits can be warmly welcoming when we choose to be"

If foreign language releases struggled to find a commercial foothold, that didn't mean the quality had dipped any. The offbeat German comedy Toni Erdmann became an early best-of-the-year contender, and there were fine imports from France (stirring heart-transplant drama Heal the Living) and Chile (the unusual, inventive biopic Neruda). One unexpected sight was the semi-regular arrival of Polish films in the UK Top 10: hospital drama Botoks and seasonal sequel Letters to Santa 3 became hits as a consequence of multiplexes courting a wider than usual demographic. As Paddington found, even cold-fish Brits can be warmly welcoming when we choose to be.

Elsewhere, the turbulence within Hollywood was nothing compared to that within Bollywood. Indian cinema's high of 2017 was the soaring mythological saga Baahubali: The Conclusion, a UK and US top-five hit. The low was the postponement of prospective Christmas treat Padmavati after objections from nationalist zealots to a scene no-one was certain had made the finished film—objections that turned nasty with threats to firebomb cinemas and behead star Deepika Padukone. Much has moved on these past 12 months, but here, at the last, was a pointed reminder of some very old, very regrettable attitudes. Not even Warren Beatty could smooth this one out.