I watched fourty-seven movies released in Portugal throughout 2017, and this time I even took the time to make a ranked list over at Letterboxd, which you shouldn’t take very seriously — ranking apples alongside oranges is hard! Still, these are the films I would very much like to highlight and recommend, in no particular order:
A Fábrica de Nada (The Nothing Factory) by Pedro Pinho. There is a story in there about a group of workers stopping their factory owners from removing equipment and relocating, and then proceeding to turn the factory into a co-op. But the movie is so much, much more as a powerful case-study on those left behind by the turbo-capitalist zeitgeist; and it is served well by being more interested in raising questions about what can be done in the 21st century (there is an exemplary scene where a few artist-burgeois discuss politics without actually getting anywhere) than providing 20th century answers. Stylistically, The Nothing Factory also blends the documentary with the lyrical (there’s even a musical sequence), making the film akin to a long episode in Miguel Gomes’ opus Arabian Nights. Were that the case, it would have been one of the very best.
The Square by Ruben Östlund. Do you ever wonder what it would be like if someone made a movie in which a character much like Mad Men’s Don Draper was the curator of a large museum, and terribly sucked at his job? Well, look no further! And the sad thing is, The Square does feel like a pretty accurate observation of how the institutional art world is run. The Square is perfect companion piece to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, should you still believe in contemporary art.
Should you despair too much at what ‘art’ became, I heartly recommend Paterson by the great Jim Jarmusch: a sober movie about how artmaking belongs anywhere and to everyone; and how making trumps showing.
20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Song to Song by Terrence Malick are two movies that couldn’t perhaps be more different, but I consider them both sides to a coin: Mills’ shows growth and the strengthening of human relationships, while Malick’s chronicles their destruction. An yet, both are movies about longing, both are charming and hypnotizing, and both are balsam for a heart’s wounds.
I would also highlight a few more movies that could just as easily be listed as my favourite should have I left my bed through the other side this morning: Aquarius, a great Brazilian movie about, for the lack of better words, resistance to the gentrification mafia; The Age of Shadows, an amazing Korean spy thriller set in World War II, echoing of J.-P. Melville’s French resistance classic Army of Shadows; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, half an amazingly charming portrait of the Chilean poet, half a great political thriller about his escape from persecution; character studies in loneliness Moonlight; and also Lucky, played by the late great Harry Dean Stanton; James Gray’s venture into the unknown with The Lost City of Z; and finally, Thor: Ragnarok, which commanded the best laughs I gave at a theatre last year, and I praise Marvel and Taika Waititi for the change of tone and embrancing all the sillyness and psychedelia of superhero comics in a very crisp comedy. I am also firmly on the camp of those who really liked The Last Jedi — to paraphrase a friend, I was expecting Star Wars but got a good movie instead, and commend Rian Johnson for the way the movie made short work of turning expectations around.
A few words for movies I didn’t like at all. I admit I wasn’t expecting much from T2 Trainspotting, but I felt it consisted of little more than reminders of how the original felt cool in 1996, and was in the end as welcome as a tour from a second-rate britpop band. In the same vein, I felt whitewashed Ghost in the Shell was as mediocre as expected, but at least a little redeemed by casting Beat Takeshi with the weirdest haircut. Luc Besson’s promised return to The Fifth Element form was a big failure, but at least I think I won’t change channel should I ever come across Valerian on television, on aesthetic grounds alone (and the movie did have a great title sequence). I won’t have a reason to watch Blade Runner 2049 ever again, however. Jamie Zawinski’s analysis of 2049’s failures is pretty spot-on. As I said before of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve must have the best press agents working in Hollywood. Even Ridley Scott, surely a culprit in that he claims to have pitched ideas for 2049, felt bored watching it. As with movies such as Interstellar, where did this trend of equating movies about Serious Questions About Man’s Place in the Universe with logically unsound plots, stiff acting, lots of slow wide shots of landscapes, and Loud! Hans Zimmer scores come from?
Granting David Lynch’s wish that Twin Peaks: The Return been seen as a long movie, I would surely place it among my favourite of 2017, else it was one of my favourite series, even for all its Dougie-ing (I’m sure that’s a word now). It’s surely the ultimate showcase of David Lynch’s craft — he’s very good at creating characters, he’s very good at creating mood, he’s very good at world building, he’s very good at slapstick comedy, and situation comedy as well, he’s very good at horror (both gore and stupid), he’s very good at action!, and he’s very good at that which he’s best known for, creating painterly nightmares — of which Episode 8 is the ultimate example. David Lynch is very good.
I didn’t watch that much series, but I’d highlight the final season of Halt and Catch Fire, and how a series that started as Difficult Man in the 80s Tech Industry grown over time, as it gave the lead to Donna and Cam (sorry, Joe!) to one of the best portraits of human relationships bound by the creative process. Computers not being the thing, but being “the thing that gets us to the thing” is a line that I’ll carry as the perfect description of why I like the Internet so much, even in a year I often felt the Internet should just close and begone. I will also highlight the great second season of Master of None, and a good return of Mr. Robot, less concerned with serving Fight Club-level twists and more focused at being a very good cypherpunk thriller.
A survey of my favourite reads of 2017 is coming soon!
I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked throughout 2017, and most of the times ended up entertaining myself with some sci-fi escapism (or not, given how I tend to go for the bleak stuff). Still, I would like to highlight a few books that left an impression:
Laurent Binet’s HHhH would be a very thrilling account of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of high-ranking nazi Reinhard Heydrich by a czechoslovak commando during World War II. Even though it would be wrong to describe reading this book as a joy, given the book’s description of the rise of nazism and of nazi atrocities, it is true that I found HHhH unputdownable, mostly because of the book’s narration from the point of view of its author, researching the book as it is written — eg. finding a crucial detail in a museum in Prague while on holiday there, commenting on how an old film adaptation of the events gets a few things wrong, being constaly unsure of the color of the car Heydrich was in during the assassination, etc.
I really liked the worldbuilding on Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, of which I’m halfway through The Will to Battle, the third in what is expected to be a tetralogy. I’m still a little bit unsure about the premise (There’s going to be a war! Why? Because there’s going to be a war!), and the structure of the books tends to be a bit boring sometimes, specially in the second volume (a dialogue scene, then another dialogue scene, and another, and another), the utopian future world Palmer describes is very consistent and really stays with me, a marvel I would like to see like no other in earthly sci-fi. I see some hints in The Will to Battle that Ada Palmer may be improving at writing action, and if so I can’t hardly wait for the final chapter. And given the worldbuilding, the number of interesting characters, the operatic style, the blood and the constant menace, I hope HBO comes calling. That I would watch.
I’ve also given much thought to Cixin Liu’s bleak Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. While parts still feel very unsophisticated (such as the very weak writing of female characters), it’s very interesting to read hard sci-fi with a chinese point-of-view. And most of all (a spoiler for the second volume, The Dark Forest, follows), Liu offers one very interesting and extremely unsettling theory about why we haven’t yet found any other signs of life in the universe: every advanced civilization is hiding, as demonstrations of intelligent life are swifly met with extermination before they can grow to be a threat. Add the SETI project to our list of existential threats.
I haven’t watched the series, but did feel inclined to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite being written in the 1980s, I agree that it is a dystopia that captures many anxieties of 2017, and for all the ways it may strike us implausible that something as Gilead may be implemented in the West, we should never forget it has happened multiple times before (eg. just look at how Afeghanistan devolved from an emerging developing country to Taliban rule in less than two decades). Therein lies the power of distopia. We may never agree on the utopia we want — Ada Palmer’s books shows how her multiple choice utopia breaks (and that one is only made possible because of free energy and a highly unplausible transport technology). However, we may agree on what we don’t. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!
I’ve also read quite a few online articles, of which I recommend the following:
There is no alternative?
Sciences & philosophy
The decline of academia
When technology backfires
Art and media
Phew! 2017 almost over and good riddance! Wishing you all the best 2018!