From January to December this year, there were films – big, small, dramas, comedies, historical, futuristic, with superheroes, without superheroes, movies you love, movies you hate, Western flicks, Asian fare... and then there were great films. Here are ten of the best in 2017 handpicked by CATCHPLAY ON DEMAND:
Kids may find the skeletal features of the characters in this terrific family cartoon a bit unsettling. But Pixar's animators here make even the ghoulish settings of graveyards and Mexico's Day of the Dead festival look friendly and utterly heart-warming. An emotional scene when an old granny perks up after hearing again a deeply personal tune long lost to her childhood will make you tear up.
A musically-gifted Mexican village boy, Miguel, from a family which forbids the playing of any music, steals a guitar from the tomb of his adored idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico's most famous musician. As punishment, the kid finds himself transported to the afterlife from which he must escape before being turned into one of the dead himself. In a highly enjoyable, zippy plot full of unexpected turns and Latin American-style magic realism, the boy discovers his true identity, ancestral spirit, the meaning of life and death, and the preciousness of memory.
The Big Sick
Boy meets girl and girl falls into a coma. Pakistani-American comedian Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) gets heckled by a white girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan), sitting in the audience of his stand-up show. They share great chemistry, fall in love but eventually break up due to cross-cultural differences as Kumail is supposed to be match-made with a Pakistani girl. Emily falls mysteriously into a coma and Kumail meets and bonds with her contemporary-cool parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) as they wait for her to wake up.
This indie rom-com is based loosely on the true story of how Nanjiani met his real-life writer-wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote this smart script with him. And, yes, in real life, she actually slipped into a coma due to a baffling illness during their relationship.
Instead of making the “big war story” as just another story about the horrors of war, uber writer-director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy) turns it into a gripping drama about the strengths of people. Men die and men survive here. Amid the swirling tide of destiny facing the throngs of Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, awaiting mass evacuation to England from the Nazi forces encircling them in World War II, Nolan's depiction here is less epic in scale but more epochal in the way men used to be extraordinarily braver and finer in a bygone age.
Three mini stories – the young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), using every means to get home; the stoic captain, Dawson (Mark Rylance), of a civilian boat, determined to save British lives; the fighter pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy), taking on the enemy on his own as a necessary duty – converge here to convey the urgency and apparent impossibility of this Great Escape. As we follow their fates in seemingly separate snippets, we slowly realise the big dramatic picture which Nolan is painting right before us. As this canvas reveals itself, the viewer goes through with rivetingly vivid proximity the unsentimental, random proceedings of almost a brutal actual war itself like no other war film.
The first Paddington family-comedy in 2014 shows us what a first-class British movie looks even like when a walking, talking bear is thrown into the daily mix among nonchalant Brits. This sequel simply affirms the franchise’s top quality. Consistently bright, inventive and understatedly funny despite the best efforts of Hugh Grant to intrude as the hammy vaudeville villain here, Paddington 2 retains the charming good-heartedness of its original that is the trademark of its Hallmark moments.
The little bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) needs to send a quaint pop-up book to his faraway Aunt Lucy for her 100th birthday, not knowing that the book's contents lead to a hidden treasure that will somehow, among other goofy adventures, land him right in the paws of the law in a prison. The plot is as simple as it sounds. But the delivery here by both animated fur and human folk (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson) is simply cuddly and delightful.
A female superhero movie helmed by a female director? Would it work? You do not need the Lasso of Truth to know that the answer here is a definitive YES. The wonder about Wonder Woman is why it took so long for studio suits to realise this. This blockbuster, propelled by the charisma of Gal Gadot and directed with the intelligence of Patty Jenkins – who helmed 2003's Monster which nabbed an Oscar for Charlize Theron – empowers women by being firstly a very good classic Golden Age-style movie and secondly by being appropriately pristine in the way innocent wonderment opens up for both Wonder Woman and the audience following her.
Not since Christopher Reeve's original 1978 Superman flick has the self-discovery of super-powered destiny been this fun. As Wonder Woman leaves her cloistered women-only island of Amazons to traverse the less salubrious world of men in World War I to stop the machinations of Ares, the evil God of War, the overriding message right through this thrilling adventure is essentially one about love, goodness, loyalty and duty.
Even with one “W” in its title instead of two like Wonder Woman 's, this uplifting drama about a disfigured boy packs a great punch too just like the Amazonian warrior. The little hero here is August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay from 2015's Room), a kid stricken by an unfortunate medical condition which leaves his face deformed. As bravely as a superhero, he discards the opaque space helmet he hides his face in to journey tentatively into the unyielding, merciless world of normal kids and junior bullies as he enters a school in Manhattan for the first time.
This could have gone the hokey beautiful-people-in-cruel-situations way. Auggie's parents are perfect adult specimens in the form of Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. His kindly school principal (Mandy Patinkin) is as wise as Moses. Even the bullies in his class seem destined to be better people once they learn their lesson. And frankly, the weird-face make-up cops out by making the kid look more adorable than appalling. But Wonder cleverly lifts itself above other disease-of-the-month flicks by letting us view the daunting, challenging situation from other points of view besides Auggie's, like his neglected sister and best friend. It is this treatment of whole-roundedness which makes this winsome tale effectively heartwarming instead of being merely feel-good.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Despite the affronted traditionalists and critics railing against it, this is the right way to re-frame the force of the Star Wars universe – by making the old icons, meaning Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), seem less cardboard mythical and more human-level practical. Heroism, as it appears in this masterly sequel, needs bravery to reside with weakness. The way the Light needs to counter-balance against the Dark as personified by Daisy Ridley's apprentice-saviour, Rey, confronting Adam Driver's new-Darth Vader-in-waiting, Kylo Ren with both empathy and hostility.
With the resistance fighters reduced to mere numbers here and the might of the evil First Order amped up to gigantic wrath-of-God Star Destroyers level, there is no place for the good guys to run to except to the intangible spirit universe of great hopes and ideals. The appearance of Luke Skywalker here affirms the hope. The presence of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) attests to the ideal. Fisher's sad, sudden passing a year ago dims the fire considerably. But this Last Jedi will spark the First Rebirth.
Away from the big blockbusters and superhero flicks, here is a small strange film that gets powered by two like-minded, existentially artistic and ardently indie forces. There is French director Olivier Assayas's (Clean, Clouds of Sils Maria) elliptically minimalist way of portraying indecipherable human mystery. And there is Kristen Stewart, wholly interesting and mysterious too in her currently stated mood of being largely unknowable and elusive as a Hollywood glamour girl.
She plays Maureen, a personal shopper of clothes and accessories for a celebrity woman in Paris. As Maureen criss-crosses back and forth between Paris and London via motorbike and train with pre-Brexit freedom, she is imprisoned in her mind by one single obsession – she wants badly to communicate with her recently dead twin brother whose spirit she believes still lingers in a big dark mansion. Is this a horror film, a suspense thriller, a movie about shopping or an endorsement of passport-free travel? We keep guessing which.
This is how Spider-Man should be portrayed – an awkward, inexperienced teenager (Tom Holland) navigating a high school with growing-up problems, secret identity issues and a crush on a cute girl in his class. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a man in a flying metal suit named the Vulture (Michael Keaton) who basically wants to kill him, and a mentor in another flying metal suit, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who is probably the one adult Avenger that is easy-cool enough to not look like a stuffy, party-pooping senior citizen right next to the kids.
Forget the action that is exciting here. Forget the twist you do not see coming about how the Vulture becomes sort of connected to Spidey. Forget the rise of Zendaya as the new exotic It Girl of cinema. Heck, forget even that Aunt May played by Marisa Tomei is, ahem, hubba-hubba milf-hot. This is how Spider-Man if you are a fan of the comic books, should be pictured.
The Greatest Showman
Right at the end of the year, smack on the finishing line, comes this inordinately buoyant musical extravaganza that puts the requirement “big screen” back into movies. You really need to go to the cinema to see this spectacle. Famous 19th-century American ringmaster and relentless showbiz promoter P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) – exhorts the public to go in to see his sensational circus acts of freaks, performers and the amazing stuff never seen before.
The man, of course, over-stretches the truth the way even an American president does these days. Barnum is a charismatic salesman hyping up the proverbial snake oil with immense joy and enthusiasm only the very likeable Jackman suddenly bursting into song here can muster with infectious glee. But instead of turning cheesy, this grand effort actually grows into a captivating sensation of good drama (Michelle Williams and Rebecca Ferguson are terrific as the faithful wife and glamorous interloper respectively), fab songs (“This Is Me” is surely an Oscar contender) and great staging (the duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya built around a trapeze set is simply superb). You can fault the film for skimming over serious issues of prejudice, class and deformity. But if you free your imagination, as the showman urges everybody to do, you would get transported to a truly entertaining place here.