Since we’ve got a lot going on with our YouTube channel and a new film club we’re launching locally in January, we thought of returning to writing briefly about our favourite movies in 2018. Some on the list have already been covered in our previous episodes, some are still underway, but here’s my take on the ten best films I saw in movie theaters in 2018, in alphabetical order:
Gaspar Noé never seems to let me down. This was almost the last movie I saw last year, but boy did it blow me away. I’ve been a fan of Noé from the very beginning, when I saw Seul Contre Tous almost twenty years ago, and although his previous outing Love seemed, despite its blatant pornography, to be a step towards “Noé Light”, he returns full-force with this thumping drug-addled assault about a group of dancers partying the night away. From meticulously designed tracking shots to precise choreographies and a thumping soundtrack, the gradual descent of an evening into Hadean nightmares is magnificently efficient. Not an easy watch by any means, but once again, if you want to have an immersive and transgressive movie experience, go see Climax…and go see it in a movie theatre.
Pixar is another quality staple. I was less impressed by the sequel to The Incredibles than some critics, mostly because I felt the original, although an inventive early Bond pastiche, also seemed to speak more to American audiences than me in terms of its storytelling. Incredibles II was expertly animated and dynamically told, but felt a bit too much samey-samey. I was much more taken with the charming story of Coco, which dealt with the heavy topic of death and loss (much like Up did with aging and Inside Out with our mental processes): Pixar’s strength has always been the boldness to tackle difficult and complex human conditions with warmth and humour, and this time also with a Mexican soundscape, gorgeous animated vistas and Dia de Muertos aesthetic, to which I am partial towards.
DEATH OF STALIN
Many of my picks this year included dark humour in one form or another, but among the darkest is this wry and dry take on the power struggle that hit the Soviet Union after the life and sun and liberator of nations Joseph Stalin cashed in his chips in 1953. After running the country for an astonishing 30 years, his demise leaves a power vacuum which sucks in Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) among others. Armando Iannucci of The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep fame directs another political satire which seems ominously funny or funnily ominous, depending on your take on the current machinations of post-Cold War politics. The screenplay is magnificent, the cast is outstanding and the humour is chilling.
These picks are also especially significant to me, because many of my favourite films this year incorporated horror elements, a genre which I haven’t been a huge fan of. Get Out was so widely acknowledged that including it in the list isn’t really a surprise, but what really struck me was how intelligently it handled its subject material. And this is not just smart as social commentary: one could say for example that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre draws a smart parallel to the deep-seated fears of the isolation of rural areas in the US, but it’s not a particularly intelligent film in terms of its narrative. Get Out’s genius extends not only to the analysis of race relations in America and its knowing nods to other filmmaker’s works, but also to the structure of the script and the fact that it can be interpreted in different ways depending on the viewer’s mood: it’s a horror movie, a comedy, a satire, a thriller and a political movie all rolled into a single, brilliant film.
Hereditary was another example of an intelligently crafted horror movie, although more traditionally designed to scare than Get Out. Hereditary’s strength lied more in technical and production design: from the superbly shot opening to the searing images of the ending and simply astounding audio design both in terms of music and sound effects, the film also served as a poignant treatise on dysfunctional families, grief and loss. Toni Collette’s role as the mother barely being able to hold the family and herself together is so good it’s difficult to watch and much like Get Out, Hereditary rewards further viewings by revealing that the creepy things going on during the film actually make logical sense once the plot climaxes. And despite a few missteps in narrative and a couple of images that tread the fine line between comedy and horror, Hereditary stays in your head for a long time until you tragically lose it in a motorway accident, because your stoned brother was driving.
ISLE OF DOGS
I am unashamedly a dog person and a Wes Andperson, so an animation combining both seemed promising. And promises were met. Anderson’s sense of completeness in his aesthetics and attention to the minutest details confounds me every time. I just can’t wrap my head around the patience it must take to craft these worlds his characters inhabit, especially using claymation. Much like Tim Burton’s goth stylings ultimately trapped him, Anderson is also hindered by his endless need to be quirky, cute and lovable, but his mastery of the form is so stunning, his shortcomings don’t matter. Wes Anderson always does Wes Anderson, but he does it so well, so endearingly and so originally, I just hope he keeps on going back to the drawing board…even if its drawers only contain pastel pencils and family issues.
2018 was a year of many mediocre movies. By December I was still struggling to come up with a top ten, and then Phantom Thread was pretty much locked in. As I’m writing this, it would have been the first one struck off the list would another decent entry have emerged around Christmas. Now, I think P. T. Anderson is a truly excellent filmmaker, one of my favourites in fact, and Phantom Thread is a fine film, marking the apparent last time the supremely talented Daniel Day-Lewis will grace the silver screen – its only flaw is perhaps the cool and detached manner it approaches the #metoo-storyline. The script is insightful, the production design is flawless and Jonny Greenwood’s music works wonders, but although the slow pace is stylistically justified, the narrative maybe drags on just a bit. Not Anderson’s best, but at least he is still making brilliant movies.
Many thought Luca Guadagnino’s finest achievement in the past year was Call Me By Your Name, a love story set between two men in Italy in 1983, but for me his much more interesting film was a remake of Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria from 1977. Expanding and contextualizing the wafer-thin plot of the original, the new Suspiria wows viewers with excellently bland DDR production design, Thom Yorke’s wailing on the soundtrack and Tilda Swinton’s triple role. Suspiria doesn’t rely on jump scares at all despite this title being another horror entry, but functions much more on a creepy, Cronenbergian level. Some would call this artsy and pretentious, but I really liked how the film gives room for interpretation for the backstories of the characters and what may happen next.
This little gem of a sci-fi actioner mirrored one of the worst movies of the year, Venom, in that it considers what would happen if an outside force designed mainly for combat would be fused with an unwilling human host – also, lead actor Logan Marshall-Green is a spit of Tom Hardy, who in a rare career misstep played the main role in Venom. In a comforting B-movie vein, Upgrade isn’t greedy with trying to expand the story needlessly, a sin of many films these days. It just wants to be a thought-provoking action movie, which moves full-throttle from beginning to end. The interplay with the entity (here a computer chip, in Venom an alien) and the main character is the best both movies have to offer, but where Venom sets about drowning everything in bad CGI and shitty plotlines, Upgrade manages to keep the action down and dirty, the humour bleak and the ending interesting.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
If you want to see Joaquin Phoenix at his darkest, mumbliest and beardiest, this taut thriller is your go-to film of the year. Playing an enforcer making money off hurting people while struggling to remain low-key and off the grid, he gets lured into a game he didn’t sign up for and soon realizes his fairly miserable life is going to take an even steeper, downward plunge. Interesting also in that although it downplays much of the evident brutality or leaves it off-screen altogether, there’s no escaping the way in which we imagine it happening. Phoenix’s Joe wades in the murky waters of child abuse, suicidal tendencies and a troubling past. Lynne Ramsay’s fantastic direction and Jonny Greenwood’s score (again!) helped this receive a seven-minute standing ovation in Cannes after screening, as well as the awards for best actor and best director.
As long as I’ve been making these lists I’ve also had this somewhat random set of rules go along with them: the films had to be picked from ones I saw in the the movie theatres or comparable public places. However, in the coming years this might change, as some impressive and clearly cinematic releases will be released only through streaming services, as has already happened with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”, Ethan and Joel Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and my personal favourite and an outside addition to my top ten:
Alex Garland has proven himself to be a really compelling sci-fi writer and director. His previous film Ex Machina made it on my top ten list a few years ago, and he’s been involved in writing interesting projects for years (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd). Annihilation somewhat traces the steps of Tarkovski’s classic Stalker, but takes it on its own trajectory, mixing in imagery and topics of cancer, ecological disaster, identity crisis, women’s representation and memory in a spectacular sci-fi movie that never underestimates the viewer. What streaming services offer is easy access to reviewing films, and this is where Annihilation sits comfortably – where it fails, however, is restricting that glorious imagery on the small home screen. Annihilation is a movie that should be seen from a large screen to appreciate all the detail in the production, and unfortunately we are deprived of this experience. But this is small fare. I am glad this modern sci-fi masterpiece saw the light of day in any form.
That’s it from me for this year’s entries. 2018 wasn’t an amazing movie year as a whole in my experience, but there were few truly awful films and the ones that delivered REALLY delivered in my opinion: I will be reviewing all of these top 11 several times in the future, and I am very happy with what ended up on this list.
Happy New Year from one Pale Gentleman to you all!