Best Films of the Year: Part Two (10-1)

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Best Films of the Year 2018

10. American Animals

True-crime documentary meets bizarre heist flick in George Layton’s inventively imagined drama which I reviewed here.

9. Under the Tree

The best thing about Icelandic hit Under the Tree is the performance of Edda Björgvinsdóttir as Inga, a spectacularly bitter woman with a heart as cold as a Rekyavik winter.

8. Nancy

Nancy premiered at Sundance and went on to receive generally good reviews although in a one-star review, Slant described it as American indie miserablism and a condescending fantasy. I’ve yet to see Nancy on another best of the year list and if I was writer/director Christina Choe, I definitely wouldn’t be getting my hopes up for any Oscar action.

I was mesmerized by it though, particularly by Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. Nancy is a fantasist but not an especially skillful one. She pretends, for example, to have recently visited North Korea as a tourist to make herself appear more interesting. Her co-workers aren’t impressed.

When she sees a news item about a girl who’s been missing for thirty years, she convinces herself that she might have been kidnapped as a child (or pretends this anyway) and that she might be the girl. The results of this will have the potential to wreak havoc on the emotions of the girl’s parents when she contacts them.

Some movies pulsate throughout with a dynamic verve. This doesn’t, believe me, I felt nauseous for large chunks of it but it did also keep me riveted throughout, to the extent that I failed to even notice that its aspect ratio apparently widened out in the middle of proceedings. A highly promising debut.

7. Cold War

I only saw Paweł Pawlikowski’s period drama a matter of days ago but it did make a big enough impact on me to decide on ditching one of the movies in my provisional top twenty list to make way for it. Sorry Disobedience, I do regret not finding a place for you here.

This is a decades-spanning romantic drama but one that is far from traditional notions of that genre and it’s loosely inspired by the lives of the director’s own parents. The first names of the two leads here, Zula (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are even the same as Mr and Mrs Pawlikowski’s.

Cold War is shot in a boxy format and looks stunning, its rich black and white tones perfectly conveying the post-war bleakness of the Eastern Bloc. It also reminded me of some of the Czechoslovak New Wave films of the 1960s. This is one that I just know I’ll want to see again in 2019.

6. Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest takes a compassionate look at the plight of a contemporary Tokyo family (of sorts) that steals in order to survive.

Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first Japanese Palme d’Or winner since 1997. In August, it was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Oscars.

5. Mandy

Nic Cage in good film shocker! Dario Argento reds. Nightmarish David Lynch style imagery. Monsters of anarchy on motorbikes and chainsaw battles. Cage in his underpants downing a bottle of vodka while howling like a maniac.

You might not like Mandy but I’ll guarantee that the hyper-stylized, ultra-ultraviolent second film by Panos Cosmatos will linger long into your memory.

Andrea Riseborough is pitch perfect again here as Mandy – she’s had another great year, especially in films where she plays the titular character – and Linus Roache, as cult guru Jeremiah Sand, behaves in a way that you won’t see his father doing in his role as Ken Barlow in Coronation Street. Unless that show has completely changed since I last tuned in.

4. The Shape of Water

In my review of the Best Films of 2017, I wrote that I’d seen a preview of this, and it was ‘visually stunning’.

It is immaculately well-crafted, with the kind of amazing imagery you’d expect from a master like Guillermo Del Toro, who also coaxed fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

Okay, some have groused that The Shape of Water is nowhere near as magical as Pan’s Labyrinth but how many movies are?

My one complaint? I know it’s a modern fairy tale but the beastiality thang really should have been dropped.

3. Roma

Roma is set in the 1970s in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where director Alfonso Cuarón grew up. Seen largely through the perspective of a servant Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio in a jaw droppingly good debut, Roma is poetic and looks ravishing, Cuarón shooting it in 70mm in shimmering, silvery monochrome and making use of the kind of extended takes that are becoming less and less common on cinema screens. I watched it on one of those although most will see it for the first time on the increasingly influential streaming giant Netflix.

Was my money well spent? I’d say so.

2. Lucky

The cinematic swansong of the great Harry Dean Stanton, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut Lucky is a movie about human connections and mortality that eschews the kind of sickly sweet sentimentality that tends to blight films about very old characters. You may well find yourself imagining your own final days and how you might want to die as you watch the story of Stanton’s Lucky unfold. I reviewed the movie here.

1. You Were Never Really Here

Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, the fourth film by Lynne Ramsay features the ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hoodie wearing hitman with a liking for green jelly beans.

A lumbering and hirsute hulk of a man with deadened eyes, Joe is capable of extreme violence but also is shown to be a dutiful son, showing some real tenderness as he cares for his ailing mother (Judith Roberts).

When we first see the two together, Joe’s mum has watched Psycho on TV and she’s still scared, this scene becoming unexpectedly poignant later, when she comes across some ruthless men on Joe’s trail, although we don’t see her encounter with them.

We do witness plenty of violence elsewhere, when it explodes on the screen for only a matter of seconds. Sometimes we glimpse it from a distance on low grade CCTV screens, sometimes it takes place offscreen, at other points we are only shown its aftermath.

This, though, is not just a film about violence, with political corruption, trafficking, childhood trauma, post-traumatic stress disorders and redemption being explored too.

I’ve followed Ramsay’s career since her days in the 1990s when she began making a series of intriguing and acclaimed shorts such as Small Deaths and Gasman. She hasn’t put a foot wrong since then but this very uncomfortable watch that might be her best work to date.

You Were Never Really Here might also feature Jonny Greenwood’s finest ever contribution to the world of film. His score is mostly dissonant enough to grate nerves though occasionally, when the London Contemporary Orchestra’s strings come in, it can be gorgeous too – although as he told NME, they can also be quite brutal with their instruments. ‘Strings can do so much more than just be pretty.’

There’s also some found music utilized including, strangely enough, Eileen Barton’s fluffy post-war pop hit If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake and a burst Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe, a song that Radiohead channelled in their breakthrough hit Creep (to the extent of giving Hammond and co-composer Mike Hazlewood a share of the writing credits).

I did admire Thom Yorke’s work for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria ‘cover version’ but in the battle of the Radiohead men, Greenwood likely just edged it.

Best Soundtracks 2018

Also worth mentioning in the musical front is Mogwai’s work on Kin, although the actual movie isn’t one that I remotely thought about including here. Likewise Anna Meredith’s first cinematic outing, her score for Eight Grade impressed although the standout musical moment is when she sneaks in existing composition Nautilus for the disoriented entry of a socially awkward thirteen year old vlogger to a poolside birthday party where she isn’t particularly welcome.

I remember the first time I heard Nautilus, I felt disoriented myself.

Another of my favourite scores of 2018 was by celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy. His music was brilliantly in-sync with the constantly bizarre events onscreen, which only makes it sadder that he would die so soon after composing and recording it. He was only 48. A truly sad loss.

For more on Jóhann Jóhannsson, click here.

And for more on Jonny Greenwood, click here.


Best Films of the Year – Part One (20-11)

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Films of the Year Part 1

Was 2018 a vintage year for cinema?

I’d give it a 10 myself. If I was marking the movies at my local multiplex. 10 out of 100, that is.

It’s been yet another year of superheroes, sequels, spin-offs and reboots. More punters paid to see Fifty Shades Freed than The Shape of Water. Avengers: Infinity War topped the British box-office moneymaking list while You Were Never Really Here failed to dent the Top 100. Dwayne Johnson has somehow become the planet’s second highest paid ‘actor’.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy many films that started their British theatrical runs or made their streaming debuts during the course of 2018.

20. Pin Cushion

At times, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion looks like television. The script is uneven. Much of the acting is mediocre at best, and there’s an off-screen incident that illustrates why the adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ became a screenwriting truism.

So why is this in my top twenty? Two reasons. Joanna Scanlon (who’s still maybe best known as Terri in The Thick of It) and newcomer Lily Newmark. Both are in staggering form here as a highly eccentric mother and daughter duo – Dafty One and Dafty Two – beginning a new life for themselves in a small Derbyshire town.

19. Annihilation

A science fiction/horror hybrid written and directed by Alex Garland, this features a great turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’m surprised Annihilation wasn’t a bigger hit at the box-office. Maybe it doesn’t spell things out enough for the type of cinema-goers happy with hyped-up blockbusters aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator audiences.

18. Burning

A fantastic ensemble piece from South Korea that is never predictable. Underappreciated in the West, this is one of the most watchable chillers of 2018.

17. The Night Comes for Us

Timo Tjahjanto’s film Indonesian Triad crime epic might be the goriest movie of the year.

At least ten minutes of the running time could have been cut and it’s a little confusing at times but the fight choreography is generally breathtaking and the cinematography so inventive that these flaws can be forgiven.

16. At Eternity’s Gate

Last year, Loving Vincent, an animated feature about the life of Van Gogh, was one of my favourite films, and Willem Dafoe gave one of my favourite performances in The Florida Project.

In 2018, he again turned in one of the year’s best performances, this time as Vincent Van Gogh in his deeply troubled final days.

An artist himself – making his name with giant canvases covered in thickly impastoed paint and broken crockery – Julian Schnabel directs and Mads Mikkelsen and Emmanuelle Seigner impress in supporting roles.

15. Hitler’s Hollywood

Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary examines the rigid political and cultural censorship applied to the thousand or so films made in Germany during the reign of the Nazi Party and I reviewed this one here.

14. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen’s anthology of six Western-set tales of varying lengths starts brilliantly but doesn’t quite maintain that promise. It is, though, generally very entertaining and proves that even on their B game, the Coen brothers are still head and shoulders above most of the opposition.

13. Private Life

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, Private Life is often laugh out loud funny and occasionally devastatingly sad. Paul Giamatti is, as ever, excellent but newcomer Kayli Carter is every bit as good as his twentysomething niece Sadie. Keep an eye out for her.

12. Lady Bird

An initial 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes was without doubt over-generous. In fact, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age drama quickly became the most-reviewed movie ever to maintain a 100% on that review-aggregation site.

It has fallen now to a mere 99% due to a negative review from one Tomatometer-approved critic Cole Smithey, who dared to observe that: ‘There are dozens of coming-of-age films that far outweigh this lightweight contender. Think ‘Kes’ or ‘Murmur of the Heart.’

I wouldn’t judge Lady Bird as lightweight myself but it’s not exactly deep either, is it? The film is certainly an assured debut by Greta Gerwig, funny and with all round top-notch performances, especially from Saoirse Ronan.

But Kes and Murmur of the Heart are better films. As is a more similarly themed movie from 2001, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, which came to mind as I viewed Gerwig’s debut.

11. First Reformed

Now forty plus years into his career – the man who wrote Taxi Driver Paul Schrader returned as writer/director of First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, who preaches at a beautiful though sparsely attended church in upstate New York. He is a complex man with a painful background. who is in poor health which he tries his best to ignore.

He’s also experiencing a crisis of faith, and this is sent into overdrive after he meets a depressed environmental activist, and then a man heavily involved in pollution. Who coincidentally is a major donator to the First Reformed Church. Similarities with Travis Bickle begin to emerge. Every hour is the darkest hour.

The movie is overly reliant on Hawke’s voice-over but the actor is superb here and Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly good too. This haunting and powerful work might be Schrader’s best directorial effort since 1990’s The Comfort of Strangers. A real return to form.

Look out for numbers 10 to 1 in the coming days.