CONTENDER: A Ghost Story
I’ll gladly admit my apprehensions prior to watching A Ghost Story. At first glance, the poster suggests another unremarkable haunted house horror escapade. Beyond this, the film’s billing as “a meditative poem about the enormity of time” was also something of a pretentious red flag.
Fortunately, I was proved wrong on both counts. The film follows a recently-deceased man (Casey Affleck) clad in a white sheet, returning to his former home to witness his loved ones (Rooney Mara) slowly move on. It is conceived beautifully within its means, tackling a dense subject matter with a miniscule budget and a suitably brief 90 minute runtime.
The eponymous ghost is the recipient of a curious but effective bit of costume design, looming throughout the film whilst allowing for a surprising amount of emotional physicality (for which Affleck should be commended).
The film is visually stunning in its simplicity and in this spirit of concision every scene has its place and purpose. Anathema to some, the slow pace and long takes (often upwards of five minutes) certainly take some getting used to, however a little adjustment and patience will allow you to truly enjoy it.
The story is unique in its execution, far more than just an explosion packed slew of images or the next in a forgettable line of cash-grab superhero films. It is entirely free from the standard issue barrage of cliché, tired rehashing of dialogue and plot exposition. Meanwhile, genuinely emotive filmmaking takes precedent over soap-opera dramatics and cheap melodrama. As stated in seemingly every review of this film, it lingers in your mind long after the credits roll; a hallmark of undeniable quality, especially in contrast to a summer of films which barely managed to occupy one’s attention beyond the first 45 minutes.
Accusations of pretentiousness seem unfair given such charges were absent from films like Interstellar, dealing with similar themes in twice the time with half the elegance. All things considered, A Ghost Story is more than simply the best and most original film of the summer – it has all the qualities and curiosities of a future cult classic as well.
CONTENDER: Atomic Blonde
Atomic Blonde is the spy film we’ve been missing for years. It provides a thrilling mystery which focuses on themes of trust, loyalty and betrayal. All of this done with stellar performances, writing and camera work. Truly, if any film deserves to be crowned the best this summer, it’s this one.
Why? Atomic Blonde is unique, sharing neon light amongst varying shades of grey. It’s constructed such as to almost ignore spectacle and violence at first, instead laying the groundwork for the plot. The main character is placed in the heart of cold war Berlin, beset on all sides by potential allies and enemies. The film keeps you guessing who is who until the very end, effortlessly misdirecting the audience only to reveal twist after twist, all of which feel satisfying and deserved.
The violence is gritty, visceral and realistic. Each punch feels like it actually connects, each wound like it matters. Characters are bruised and bloodied and stagger around as if drunk from exertion. This is a refreshing change of pace from films plagued with shaky cameras and quick cuts. In contrast, Atomic Blonde uses virtually no cuts in its action scenes, focusing on prolonged, desperate encounters. It sets a new standard for hand-to-hand combat in western films, which I hope others will seek to emulate.
Now I’ve conveyed my love for this brilliant film, I can address the less colourful contenders. Baby Driver, while well presented, is a heist film we’ve all seen before. Dunkirk is similarly well presented, but the subject matter doesn’t make it enjoyable to watch. Unless you have a fetish for watching young men drown, you won’t want to watch it again. Wonder Woman is just another superhero film, predictable as any other. Valerian was offensively bad, like the fantasy of a fifteen-year-old boy, combining the worst of action film clichés.
With this list of contenders, there isn’t really any question: Atomic Blonde is the best film this summer. It’s a unique, compelling mystery with a beautiful aesthetic and convincing violence, bringing noir mystery back to the silver screen. I can only hope that more films like it will be released.
CONTENDER: Baby Driver
Summer 2017 has been tough. If you can look past the terrorist attacks, natural disasters and threat of nuclear war, it hasn’t been a great summer for film either. Original big-budget blockbusters like Valerian (sorry, David) flopped magnificently, and franchise reboots like The Mummy didn’t work out either. Oh, and The Emoji Movie performed surprisingly well at the box office, making three times its budget.
Basically, depending on the outcome of the rest of the year, everything could go completely down the pan (that goes for nuclear apocalypse AND naff films, just to clarify). This is where Baby Driver speeds in: an action movie with personality, heart and dripping with originality. Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes going to the cinema a worthwhile experience. Beautifully shot with an excellent cast and a magnificent soundtrack, it’s the kind of film where within the first five minutes you find yourself muttering “fuck, this is cool.”
Baby Driver is the perfect vehicle for Edgar Wright’s direction, which at this point is finely-nuanced and a joy to behold. Few directors could pull off a film wherein music is playing constantly from the get-go, let alone work it into the narrative. Orchestrated car chases, vinyl scratching jump-cuts, and gunshots popping off in sync with Motown staccato notes culminate to create one of the greatest audio-visual spectacles ever committed to screen. At one point Baby, the central character played by the wildly underrated Ansel Elgort, drops his iPod and the music stops only for him to pull another iPod out of his pocket and completely change up the scene.
The acting in Baby Driver is sublime;.Veterans like Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey take roles the likes of which we’ve never seen them play before, and the diverse supporting cast also impresses, with Baby’s deaf foster father being a favourite. The characterisation is complex and woven into an interesting story about the morality that drives us all. Besides that, it’s a fantastic movie brimming with action, comedy, clever direction, fantastic acting, lots of classic Americana, a good romance story, and a great soundtrack. And it made more money than The Emoji Movie. Thank God.
These days, the summer movie calendar is in danger of being filled with senseless action films without a drop of substance or style. Thankfully, it’s been a pretty good few months for cinema and we’ve been handed a host of original, well made movies. We’ve had Wonder Woman, Guardians Vol. 2 and Planet of the Apes proving that big summer hits can be sophisticated and thought-provoking. Meanwhile, The Beguiled, Okja and A Ghost Story have given the cinephiles plenty to chew over. Baby Driver deserves a special shout-out too, an audacious piece of filmmaking which would be my film of the summer most years.
However, this isn’t just any year. This is a Christopher Nolan year. When he releases a new film it becomes an event, a rare occasion when avid film fans are joined by the masses to enjoy two hours of sheer spectacle. I feel like a child on Christmas Day when a Nolan film comes out, and boy did he deliver an absolute gift in the shape of Dunkirk.
Some say all great filmmakers have to make a war movie. Spielberg had Saving Private Ryan and Kubrick had Full Metal Jacket. Well, Nolan decided to follow suit in his own bold, unique way. He decided not to have sprawling battles and old men in war rooms. He didn’t show us the faces of the ‘enemy’ and barely even shot a gun. What he created was 105 minutes of unrelenting tension. It’s a thriller if anything, which portrays the terrors that British troops had to go through in what was an extraordinary real life event.
Covering land, sea and air with a typically complex screenplay, he makes us care for characters not by pointing out they’ve got a love to go home to or a child on the way. He exposes the audience’s most basic form of human empathy: worrying for people in perilous circumstances.
This summer Nolan managed to achieve something rare: he uncovered a new potential for cinema. Whether that’s strapping IMAX cameras to real spitfires, using the largest naval fleet in film history or coordinating thousands of extras, the end product is pure and visceral. There have been plenty of good movies this summer but Dunkirk is a truly great cinematic achievement, which surely makes it the film of the summer.
CONTENDER: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been repeatedly dismissed and disrespected since its release, but those willing to take a serious look at it will find a wonderfully weird movie worthy of being called the best of the summer.
Simply put: there is more creativity in the opening action set-piece of Valerian than most blockbusters can boast in their entire runtime. Valerian and Laureline are sent to the jaw-droppingly complex yet simply titled “Big Market”, (a shady marketplace located in another dimension), for a retrieval mission. After things go catastrophically wrong, Valerian is stuck partly in both dimensions, providing the basis for a clever and vastly entertaining chase sequence.
While no doubt challenging to plan and choreograph, the entire sequence is executed flawlessly, and what makes Valerian so impressive is that this ambitious set-piece is only the first of many. The film is filled with numerous spectacular sequences, each based around a unique premise. Fleeing from gargantuan sea monsters, high-speed pursuits in a one-person spaceship, bursting through walls in an armoured suit; Valerian and Laureline have done it all and more.
It is the amazing amount of unrestrained imagination on display that places Valerian ahead of its competition, and this stretches beyond the action sequences. The production design in this movie is simply incredible, presenting an array of bizarre alien species and locales, stunningly brought to life using cutting-edge visual effects. The artistry in every design is clear to see, and Luc Besson’s love for the source material is evident from the attention to detail in every shot.
Indeed, Valerian is refreshingly lacking in cynicism. The story promotes themes of forgiveness and understanding, while the film is also free from the shackles of other big-budget productions. It isn’t setting up another tiresome ‘cinematic universe’ (Wonder Woman), it doesn’t suffer from a severe case of style-over-substance (Atomic Blonde), nor is it guilty of being shameless Oscar bait (Dunkirk). It even dwarfs Baby Driver in terms of originality.
Although Valerian couldn’t find an audience this summer, that doesn’t make it any less of an achievement, one which will be looked upon more fondly as people discover it in years to come.
CONTENDER: Wonder Woman
Smashing box office records to become the all-time highest-grossing film from a female director, Wonder Woman is the best film to hit the big screen this summer.
In the crusade for increased diversity within Hollywood, Patty Jenkins’ female-led blockbuster proves that female stories are both profitable and universally well-received. At the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City, she commented: “The market is there, and the money is there… As long as you’re obsessed with young male audiences… nothing will change. The world is changing.”
The film opens on an island of rebellious, free-spirited women, presenting elegant action sequences and a nod to the queer slant of the original comic-book. After hearing about the Great War from crashed U.S. pilot Steve Trevor, Diana courageously leaves to help end the conflict. Her mythological past and duty to bring global peace occasionally sits comically and ironically alongside convincing images of World War One trenches and war-torn Belgian villages, but it works in unexpected ways. The film recalls the nostalgia of the 1970s TV show, but moves forward into a modern, stirring, apocalyptic narrative.
In the battle of the summer releases, Wonder Woman captures the best of what every contender had to offer. With the female empowerment of Atomic Blonde; the heart stopping, close-combat drama of Dunkirk; and the comic-book novelty of Baby Driver. Wonder Woman also pulls at the heartstrings with the themes of legacy and soul-searching that A Ghost Story had to offer. It ticked all the boxes and filled all the seats for sci-fi fans too, unlike box office bomb Valerian.
As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot is endlessly watchable, and has a movie-star aura that makes this film unforgettable. Diana is strong, witty and intelligent, yet her pin-up appearance never overshadows her standing as a hero to be reckoned with. Without the inner-demons or personal vendettas that have consumed previous big-screen heroes, she wants to make a difference and function freely in the modern world. In no way forced or overdone, the feminist slant that Wonder Woman brings is refreshing. With huge success, this blockbuster could kick-start major change in Hollywood.
AND THE WINNER IS…
This is an insanely hard decision. I’ve got to balance my own prejudices (specifically that Baby Driver is less a film than a work of art) against the quality of arguments put forward.
A couple of shout outs first. I loved the way that Liam Hulmes described Wonder Woman as a sum of the other contender’s parts. As a side note I thought the film itself was excellent, but was very similar to a house party I once attended where I got to hang out with an unfeasibly beautiful man and woman for a couple of hours until someone who’d been following me all night declared himself the god of war and started rubbing his moustache all over my face.
I also commend our own David Craig, not for making the (ballsy) choice of Valerian, but for making me understand the imagination and creativity he saw in the film despite its negative critical reception.
Ultimately though, despite six very strong arguments, I’ve got to give it to A Ghost Story and James Lofthouse for taking me on a journey not just through the film, but through his own preconceptions. He described a film I had never even heard of using engaging and provocative writing that made me want to experience it for myself. Also he said “anathema”, which was a posh word that made me feel special for knowing what it meant. I’m only human.
One thing’s for sure though, if all of you are writing for Screen this coming year the quality of writing will never be in doubt.