2017 Year In Review - Films and Themes

I look back at works of cinema that touched me in 2017, and some of the filmmaking themes and trends of the past year. 

First let me offer my congratulations to Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for getting his long-overdue, richly-deserved Oscar after 14 nominations! (Roger also won the ASC feature award).

Congratulations also to the other Oscar and ASC nominees for best feature film cinematography. Your extraordinary work contributed to a memorable year in cinematography:
-- Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC
-- Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC
-- Dan Laustsen, DFF
-- Rachel Morrison, ASC!

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1. Dunkirk
2. Genres Reinvented
3. Beautiful Simplicity
4. Fractured Families
5. Color Approaches
6. Society Mirror
7. Historical Depth
8. Promising VR

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Seventeen noteworthy works of cinema from 2017:
American Crime, Blade Runner 2049, On Body and Soul, Carne y Arena, Columbus, Darkest Hour,
Dunkirk, The Florida Project, Foxtrot, Les Gardiennes, A Ghost Story, I Am Not Your Negro,
Loveless, Mudbound, The Shape of Water, The Vietnam War and Wonderstruck.

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Hoyte van Hoytema handholding an IMAX camera on Dunkirk.

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1. Dunkirk

DUNKIRK is a work of monumental intimacy, a cinematic masterpiece best seen in an IMAX theater. Director Christopher Nolan uses the giant screen to frame a stranded Allied army on the beach, or to reveal the flickering emotions of fear, courage and determination in the face of a nameless soldier. The dazzling, large-format cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema suffuses the poetry created by this epic film with no backstory -- everything is on the screen. 

DARKEST HOUR by Joe Wright is a wonderful companion piece to Dunkirk, painting a personal portrait of Winston Churchill as he rises to the historic challenge of his encircled army, and becomes an unlikely twentieth century hero in the process. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel includes striking highlights, with shafts of hard light penetrating the dark summer interiors.

These two films about the dangerous beginnings of World War II are brilliant examples of the important role that fictional cinema can play in conveying history to contemporary audiences.

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Bruno Delbonnel on the set of "Darkest Hour"

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2. Genres Reinvented

In 2017, some films used the language of genre to communicate deeper messages. 

GET OUT by Jordan Peele, with dramatic cinematography by Toby Oliver, succeeds in using the horror genre to discuss racism with a deft mixture of humorous and scary moments.

A GHOST STORY by David Lowery, with cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, uses the cliché of an actor covered by a white sheet to represent a dead young man suddenly separated from his wife. With spare mise en scène and wide-angle cinematography, the mute faceless sheet becomes a strong presence on the screen, and eerily conveys the longing for a lost love. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio gives a humble home movie feel to the story.

Director Guillermo del Toro reinvents the 1950s B monster movie in THE SHAPE OF WATER, with the help of the masterful, moody cinematography of Dan Laustsen. The impossible love story between a mute cleaning woman and a sea monster is a fable about accepting the strangeness of the other. Guillermo stated at the Golden Globes that “monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfection.” 

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Dan Laustsen on the set of The Shape of Water.

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3. Beautiful Simplicity

Some feature films touched me with their powerful simplicity. At a time of increased filmmaking complexity, these films rely on characters and compositions to create poetic stories.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT by Sean Baker, with freewheeling anamorphic cinematography by Alexis Zabe, is a moving story of a precocious bratty six year-old, Moonie, and her spunky single mother, who desperately struggles to make ends meet. The Florida Project is a potent and personal movie about poor people in America seen through a child's eyes.

COLUMBUS by Kogonada, with elegant cinematography by Elisha Christian, is a beautifully restrained story about the friendship between a talented young woman and a shy middle-aged man. The film’s quiet, powerful compositions invite you to share the heroine's gaze at the cityscapes of her home town.

ON BODY AND SOUL by Ildikó Enyedi, with inventive, sophisticated cinematography my Màté Herbai, HFC, is one of the most poetic films of the year. This Hungarian feature recounts the love story between two lonely souls, an administrator and a woman handicapped by autism. These two strangers are brought together when they learn by chance that they share identical dreams every night.

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Rachel Morrison on the set of Mudbound.

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4. Fractured Families

Several films reflected the problems of a society in close-up views of troubled families

MUDBOUND by Dee Rees intertwines the story of neighboring white and African-American families in the rural South of the 1940s. This potent chronicle of friendships, hardships and racism is informed by the richly textured cinematography of Rachel Morrison. Rachel is the first woman to be nominated for an ASC theatrical film award, and for a cinematography Oscar. Bravo!

LADY BIRD by writer-director Greta Gerwig, with sophisticated, subtle cinematography by Sam Levy, tells the poignant story of a rebellious high-school girl struggling to define an identity for herself. The movie highlights the powerful and painful bonds between a mother and her daughter. Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman director to be nominated for an Oscar.

FOXTROT by Samuel Maoz is a powerful, surreal story about an Israeli soldier working an isolated checkpoint, and his parents in Tel Aviv. Giora Bejach's cinematography masterfully blends moody urban interiors and lunar desert landscapes. Foxtrot works as a companion piece to Maoz’ excellent Lebanon, and the two films depict the tragic absurdity of war.

LOVELESS by Andrey Zvyagintsev, with beautiful cinematography by Mikhail Krichman, RGC, is an unflinching look at a Russian family bereft of compassion and love. The poetic naturalism of Mikhail's images underscores the film's underlying sadness. After Elena and LeviathanLoveless marks Zvyagintsev's third film (with Krichman) about the amorality of contemporary Russia.

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Roger Deakins placing a ring light on the set of Blade Runner 2049.

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5. Color Approaches

It's my personal conviction that future cinematography will explore color in a way similar to HDR's (High Dynamic Range) present extension of contrast. Several films this year struck me with their approach to color.  

BLADE RUNNER 2049 by Denis Villeneuve offers a thought-provoking sequel to the masterpiece by Ridley Scott (with the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC). Roger Deakins has received his 14th Oscar nomination for the film's cinematography. Roger's lighting is absolutely masterful. I was particularly taken by his symphonic orchestration of oranges, ochres, cyans, blues and other hues in variations of soft and hard light. 

THE GUARDIANS by Xavier Beauvois is a French film about farming women on the home front during World War I, told with Bressonian simplicity. The anamorphic cinematography of Caroline Champetier, AFC unfolds the variegated colors of the faces and landscapes with a lush, painterly naturalism inspired by Millet and Van Gogh.

WONDERSTRUCK by Todd Haynes, intertwines the stories of two children exploring New York city, a deaf girl in the 1920s and a boy in the 1970s. The cinematography of Ed Lachman, ASC brilliantly blends inventive homages to the black and white silent films and vibrant urban color films of each era. 

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American Crime"(from trailer).

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6. Society Mirror

Some American series offer a mirror of the United States. I am particularly taken by the long-term achievement of AMERICAN CRIME over the past three seasons. This superb series was created by John Ridley, with evocative anamorphic cinematography by Ramsey NickellLisa Wiegand, ASC and Nikhil Paniz.

The format of American Crime is innovative; it is a so-called “anthology” series, which means that the same actors play different roles in the new stories presented each season.

While the 2017 season focuses on teenage prostitution and illegal immigrants, the 29 episodes over all three seasons create a formidable story of class, sex and race in America, with a depth and range that is impossible in a two-hour feature. While American Crime is about its characters, the series as a whole describes the character of America.

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The Vietnam War

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7. Historical Depth

I was struck by two historical documentaries last year: a series on Vietnam, and a film about writer and activist James Baldwin.

THE VIETNAM WAR is a 17-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, with cinematography by Buddy Squires, ASC, that provides a rich range of documents and interviews to tell the story from the American and Vietnamese perspectives. There are several audio recordings of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon speaking candidly about hiding the ugly truth about the war from the American public -- we may not see or hear such presidential private moments again. 

This epic documentary offers a depth of detail and analysis that goes beyond scholarly books on the subject. The series is also the occasion to marvel at the work of photographers and camera crews on the front lines.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO by Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, is a superb documentary about racism in the United States, that is structured by excerpts from an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, read by Samuel L. Jackson and accompanied by fascinating vintage footage. The movie begins with the incredible dignity and courage of African-American teenager Dorothy Counts, as she walks to attend an all-white school surrounded by a jeering crowd. There are moving reminiscences about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I was also touched by a memorable sequence of commented movie clips that illustrate racism in American cinema.

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Civil rights hero Dorothy Counts in I Am Not Your Negro.

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8. Promising VR

There is a lot of talk about the promise of Virtual Reality among filmmakers. For some VR is more akin to video games than film. I believe that VR will be part of the future of cinema, and will become a cinematic genre.

2017 marked the first Virtual Reality work in the Official Competition of the Cannes Film Festival: CARNE Y ARENA by Alejandro Iñarritu, with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC. I had the good fortune to see this piece about illegal immigration in Cannes, and it was extraordinary. 

To be precise Carne y Arena is an art installation that is comprised of a walk-around VR experience in a large space that also includes a piece of the border wall between the US and Mexico, clothing items from immigrants, a holding cell for participants, and video portraits of illegal immigrants.

Carne y Arena is one of the first VR masterpieces and it richly deserves the special Academy Award it received. I look forward to seeing other great VR works.

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PART TWO will look at filmmaking trends.

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LINKS

thefilmbook: Dunkirk: Monumental Intimacy

thefilmbook: On Body and Soul: Interview with Director Ildiko Enyedi

afcinema.com: Darkest Hour - Bruno Delbonnel interview

deadline.com: The Shape of Water - Dan Laustsen interview

premiumbeat.com: How Roger Deakins Shot and Lit Blade Runner 2049

ascmag.com: Mudbound: American Dream Meets American Reality

ascmag.com: Wonderstruck

ascmag.com: A Ghost Story

wikipedia: A Ghost Story

vimeo: Kogonada vimeo channel 
(Columbus director)

gq.com: The Florida Project review

theguardian.com: On Body and Soul review

thecredits.org: Cinematographer Sam Levy’s Shot List Pictured Lady Bird a Year in Advance

theguardian.com: Foxtrot review

nytimes.com: Loveless review

hollywoodreporter.com: The Guardians film review

ascmag.com: Get Out podcast

wikipedia: Get Out

wikipedia: American Crime

pbs.org: The Vietnam War

psmag.com: James Baldwin and a New Black History
slate.com: James Baldwin Documentary - Raoul Peck Interview
(starts at 25 minutes)

thefilmbook: Carne y Arena 1: VR Masterpiece by Iñarritu and Lubezki
thefilmbook: Carne y Arena 2: Notes on VR Cinema

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On the set of A Ghost Story.

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