Sunday 30 December 2018

My Top 10 Films of 2018

With 2018 drawing to a close in just a few short hours, it's time to look back at the year that was and reflect on some of my favourite films from the past 12 months.

While picking a personal top 10 might feel a little redundant when you consider the thousands of other end of year lists that pop up around this time, I find it's a great way to bookend the year and have fun while doing so.

Now that everyone reading this post has gotten bored and skipped straight to scrolling through my list (who am I kidding, no-one reads the intro to these things), let's get down to business and look at which 10 films made the cut this year...

Note: As with previous years, my list is collated from films that were released in Australia in 2018. This means certain films that were released in 2017 in the United States (like Lady Bird or I Tonya) are included because they didn't open in cinemas here until January, February or maybe even March 2018 (gotta ride that Oscars hype train). The same goes for films like Mary Poppins Returns or If Beale Street Could Talk – they don't open here until 2019, so they'll have to wait until this time next year to be considered.

Honourable mentions: The Favourite, First Man, Annihilation, Game Night, Vice, Black Panther, I Tonya, Lady Bird, Bad Times at the El Royale, Molly's Game.

10th - American Animals (dir. Bart Layton)

To call American Animals a mere heist movie is a little reductive; it’s a heist movie about heist movies, where the real-life subjects – and by extension the characters – riff on the genre so heavily that they literally borrow from Reservoir Dogs. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets The Social Network, where bored, aimless and entitled college students talk themselves into a situation intended to transform their lives at the expense of others. It’s also one of the best films of the year.

Straddling documentary and drama, director Bart Layton’s film cut between fact and fiction with glee. Talking heads from the real culprits exposed fault lines and shared doubts between the characters, acting as a retrospective inner monologue. Each recount of the events contradicted the other, sowing the seeds of doubt in the audience, but also putting a humorous and jovial spin on the escapade. Culminating in a wonderful coda reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, American Animals was smart, snappy and had a potent message underneath its effervescent camerawork, editing and soundtrack.

9th - The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

After forays into blockbuster anime (Pacific Rim) and gothic horror (Crimson Peak), Guillermo del Toro returned to his roots for a genre-bending monster mash – and the result were long-overdue Best Picture and Best Director accolades at the Oscars.

The Shape of Water saw the Mexican auteur commandingly deliver an dark fantasy fairytale, a suspenseful conspiracy thriller and heist caper, a fish-out-of-water comedy (literally) and an enchanting love story all wrapped up in one charming and beautiful package.

A masterful period creature feature overflowing with affection for its setting, its influences and its themes, The Shape of Water was an otherworldly experience pouring with whimsy, sensuality and beauty. Del Toro’s screenplay, which was co-written by Vanessa Taylor, plumbed the depths of prejudice, politics and science, as well as sexuality. Brilliant performances from the likes of Sally Hawkins (who deserved that Best Actress statuette if you ask me), Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones and Michael Shannon help sell this absorbing fable, with Alexandre Desplat's dreamy and bewitching score proving to be the delicate cherry on top.

8th - A Star Is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)

"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die," croons Bradley Cooper's jaded rockstar Jackson Maine. Then again, maybe it isn't – if A Star Is Born proves anything, it's that a tried-and-true formula can prove the perfect springboard for shaping something new, compelling and moving, with this 'remake of a remake of a remake' wooing hearts and minds the world over.

Anchored by two brilliant performances in Cooper and Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born sees both reach a revelatory moment in their respective careers; for Cooper, it's one of the most assured directorial debuts in recent memory, not to mention a heart-wrenching depiction of addiction, self-destruction and desperation. And for Gaga, it's a casting match made in heaven. With the ostentatious music personality stripped away, Gaga perfectly captures the nerves, bravery and eventually the confidence of a nobody plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. She has the widest arc to travel as a character and she nails every step along the way.

A film that is set to dominate the conversation throughout awards season, it's hard to ignore the sheer level of polish and 'feels' that radiate from A Star Is Born. It's far from perfect, but it's got its heart in the right place and something strong (and simple) to say. Not to mention it served up one of the best memes of the year.

7th - Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)

Between his final scene in Avengers: Infinity War and Insomiac's incredible game for PlayStation 4, Spider-man, as a character, has had a banner year – and just a few short weeks ago, Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse took it up yet another notch.

Sporting wildly inventive animation and a colourful ensemble cast pulled from a number of different dimensions, Into the Spider-Verse introduced mainstream audiences to a new web-slinging hero in the form of Miles Morales, a mixed-race kid from Brooklyn who is bestowed with the powers a spider, same as Peter Parker. This wasn't a retread of Raimi or the remakes though; Spider-Verse delivered one of the best superhero stories committed to date. It's both something fresh and a loving tribute to Spidey's history, with meta humour and in-jokes abound. 

The way that the film remixed Spider-man lore – such as that Doc Ock reveal – was particularly clever, with so many surprises and shocks along the way. The voice acting, especially from Jake Johnson's weary and ageing Peter Parker, was excellent also. A killer soundtrack featuring the likes of Post Malone, Vince Staples and Nicki Minaj was the icing on the cake.

6th - A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski)

There's a beautiful simplicity to A Quiet Place, a compelling and gruesome creature feature from writer/director/actor John Krasinski. Set in a bleak and unforgiving near future where humanity must live in total silence or fall prey to mysterious monsters who hunt via sound, A Quiet Place doesn't get bogged down in lore or backstory. The premise is simple; a mother and father (Krasinski acting alongside off-screen spouse Emily Blunt) are living day-to-day, surviving on a farm and preparing the arrival of their fourth child.

Fear and dread lurks around every corner, with every creaky floorboard or crunchy leaf issuing a potential death sentence. Few films are as adept as crafting tension as A Quiet Place; I must have spent 80 per cent of the film peering though my fingers, digging my nails into the armrest and squirming like I had an eel in my undies.

A distinct lack of a dialogue – the characters communicate via subtitled American Sign Language –means the viewer scans the auditory soundscape for every scuffle and snarl as much as they probe the frame for shadows. The absence of dialogue shifts the focus onto the facial expressions of the actors, as well as the subtle and unnerving sound design.  

5th - The Rider (dir. Chloe Zhao)

The Rider is a story about Brady Blackburn, a strapping rodeo cowboy who is struggling to come to terms with an uncertain future after a vicious knock to the head inflicts brain damage and hinders his motor functions. Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, himself a strapping rodeo cowboy who struggled to come to terms with an uncertain future after a vicious knock to the head inflicts brain damage and hinders his motor functions.

For all intents and purposes one and the same, The Rider charts Brady's recovery and inner emotional turmoil, with themes of masculinity, responsibility and identity at its centre and the barren American heartland as its backdrop.

This internal struggle is compelling in and of itself, and the exemplary technical aspects of The Rider – writing, score, direction – only heighten the emotion and heartbreak. Nathan Halpern's score is beautiful and moving while Joshua James Richards' cinematography gorgeously captures the dusty fields and swaying grasses. In terms of mood and aesthetic, The Rider is poetic and moving stuff. And the element of authenticity that its inexperienced cast lends it further heightens the intimacy of this tender portrait of experiencing loss and feeling lost.

4th - Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

The most personal project to date from director Alfonso Cuaron, Roma chronicles a turbulent year in the lives of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City. 

With a fairly sedate and fluid approach to narrative, Cuaron takes his time to orient the viewer in the lives of the increasingly dysfunctional family, both in a physical sense, as he winds his way through their impressive city abode, and in an emotional sense, as he explores the fractures that exist in a familial setting.

The film doesn't plot a story so much as it unfurls a journey before you, with time blending together as milestones like first dates and Christmases wash past. The overall effect is one of intense immersion with the family and its trials and tribulations. Come the end of the film, you feel as though you've been with them every step of the way for a year of their lives, and it's an incredibly moving experience.

More than anything, Roma offers a rich and powerful sense of place. Through smoky streets and noisy rooftops, the smells, sights and sounds of Mexico City envelop the audience. Cuaron packs so much detail into every frame, and the black and white only serves to enhance the experience.

3rd - Widows (dir. Steven McQueen)

A lot of filmgoers slept on Steve McQueen's Widows; although it was marketed as a breakneck heist thriller with wall-to-wall action, the film itself was an entirely different beast. Maybe word of its slower pace got out; maybe no-one cares for intelligent mid-budget adult dramas anymore. Whatever the reason, audiences didn't warm to what turned out to be a compelling and confronting drama that merely uses the concept of a heist film as its skeleton.

Building upward and outward in different directions until we're presented with a layered film that covers a lot of ground (poverty and the growing economic divide, grief, marital strife, modern racial tension, domestic violence, political corruption), Widows' not-so secret weapon is Gillian Flynn's sublime screenplay, which allows for all these ideas and themes to coalesce. No part was too big, no part was too small - it all clicked together so that even roles that flit in and out of the narrative felt integral. From Colin Farrell and Carrie Coon to Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya and Liam Neeson, the talent in this film was off the charts, and Flynn's screenplay finds something meaningful for them all.

At the end of the day though, Widows can be distilled into one idea; this is a movie about women empowering themselves and taking back their lives. If one of the other threads doesn't work for you, it all comes back to the strength of this central idea – and a lot of this is thanks to the four terrific leads performances from Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo.

A blistering and biting crime drama that succeeded in balancing a lot of characters before it peels off and ratchets up the intensity, McQueen's best film to date had no interest in being slick or tricky like Steven Soderbergh's Oceans films, and was all the better for it.

2nd - Mission Impossible: Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

The best blockbuster of the year, and it ain't even close. Mission Impossible doesn't just aim to go one bigger with each passing film; it aims to go one better too.

With Fallout, returning director Christopher McQuarrie succeeds on both accounts, mixing a labyrinth plot about nuclear warheads and a secret organisation with eye-popping stunts and the best set piece and fight choreography of the year.

This isn't some weightless X-Games highlight reel – Fallout ups the stakes, fleshes out its characters and then flings them off a cliff, out of a plane or through Paris on a motorcycle.

If the opening hour felt like a convoluted slog weighed down by exposition, it’s only because McQuarrie takes his time moving all the chess pieces to where they need to be for the riveting, thrill-a-minute, non-stop final act. When Fallout gets going, it continues to build momentum at a frightening rate, from the aforementioned motorcycle race through Paris and a rooftop chase across London to the piece de resistance – a dizzying race against time that involves two warheads, multiple helicopters and, in classic Mission Impossible fashion, a ticking clock.

Tom Cruise continues to impress as he throws himself from stunt to stunt, but it's the growing ensemble that makes Fallout crackle like a firework. Everyone from Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames to Alec Baldwin fits the bill, with Rebecca Ferguson returning from Rogue Nation to once again steal the show. And the villainous Henry Cavill, sporting the most contentious moustache of the 21st century, makes for a memorable, muscular antagonist. Behold, the moment he reloads his arms...

1st - Blackkklansman (dir. Spike Lee)

Spike Lee is as mad as hell and he ain't going to take it no more. Not a man to mince his words, Lee's Blackkklansman is an especially incendiary effort for the veteran filmmaker that wants to rile people up, hit them where it hurts and show them the harsh truths. It achieves all this by merely holding up a mirror and forcing us to look back at ourselves.

Though it may be a period piece, Blackkklansman is made one of the most pertinent and poignant political statements of 2018 – the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Under the guise of a satirical buddy cop comedy (with a smidge of political thriller and coming-of-age romance) and spearheaded by two of the best lead performances of the year in John David Washington and Adam Driver, Blackkklansman is one of those rare films that can make you feel contrasting emotions at opposite ends of the spectrum in less than 10 seconds. Best of all, it's based on a stranger than fiction true story!

It's unapologetically inflammatory in its appraisal of race relations in contemporary America and also incredibly accessible for audiences looking for something funny, thrilling and poignant all at the same time. And that epilogue hits you like a bus and makes your head spin - I can't think of a more powerful end to a film this year.

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