Saturday, 29 December 2018

Filmic Forays - Top Ten Films of 2018

It's that time again! The time when I berate myself for all the films I failed to see over the past twelve months, and which therefore can't be considered for this list. Last year, for example, I missed out on Call Me By Your Name and The Florida Project, either of which, it turned out, might well have made my Top Ten list, thus preventing all the flack I took for including Mother!
As for this year's list, it won't (because it can't) include American Animals, Cold War, Shoplifters or Sorry to Bother You, each of which has received glowing praise from people whose filmic opinions I respect. And I'm a total Netflix newb as well, so most of the movies released on that esteemed platform passed me by this time around - with one notable exception that has made my Top Ten below. I shall do better in 2019.
Okay - one or two ground rules for my choices. All films in the list were given a UK release in 2018, hence one or two inclusions that may strike readers in some regions as a bit late-to-the-party. My criteria, roughly speaking, are as follows: the movie's strength in technical terms, my gut reaction on watching it and the way it's settled with me since the watching. So if a film falls short technically but it still smacked me soundly in my emotional centre, it might well still find a place. And before the TEN, here are my purely-for-fun Honourable Mention Awards:

Best Mad Adrenalin Rush With Added 'He Does His Own Stunts, Y'know' Factor: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Best Fantasy World-Building: The totally groovy Afro-fururism of Black Panther

Most Misunderstood and Underrated Film of the Year: Runner-Up - Gringo (it was funny!); Winner - Downsizing (it was deep)

Most Uncomfortable-Yet-Undeniably-Touching On-Screen Relationship: Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act

Best Sequel That Could Have Gone So Horribly Wrong But Thanks Be To God It Didn't: Mary Poppins Returns

Biggest Blub-Fest: Mary Poppins Returns 

Happiest Film of the Year: Mary Poppins Returns

Scene of Greatest Hitchcock-Style Intensity: Emily Blunt uses a bathtub but not to take a bath in A Quiet Place (likewise in Mary Poppins Returns, oddly enough)

Film That Most Effectively and Frustratingly Derailed Itself En Route to Horror Brilliance: Hereditary

Film That While Not Perfect Genuinely Shook Me Up: Unfriended: Dark Web

Most Spine-Tingling Moment: Lady Gaga hits the chorus of the song 'Shallows' while unexpectedly performing on stage with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born

Most Rewarding Moment of Character Development: Elizabeth Debicki hits Viola Davis back in Widows

Film the Ending of Which Almost Made Me Hate It Before Actually Making Me Love It: You Were Never Really Here

Slick-Smart-Classy-Ballsy-Epic Jessica Chastain-ness Award: Molly's Game

Saoirse Ronan Being Brilliant Because She's Saoirse Ronan Award: Lady Bird (starring Saoirse Ronan)

Most Impressive Film That I Simply Haven't Had Time to Review (So Don't Go Looking for a Link 'Cos It Ain't There): Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The Filmic Forays Low Expectations Award for a Film that was Massively Better Than I'd Expected (this award is now officially a 'forays thing'): Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (if you're not a lifelong ABBA fan, you won't get it)

It caused me a little bit of pain to reject each of those films from my top ten, particularly Poppins and Mamma Mia! (yes, I'm serious about the ABBA pic), and the following list is purely what I'm feeling right now. So before I undermine its value completely, here in ascending order are my Top Ten favourite films of 2018: 

10. Leave No Trace
Respect for independent cinema! No gloss, no histrionics, no crazy special effects - Leave No Trace thrives on heart and humanity alone, both delivered with beautiful understatement. Ben Foster conveys PTSD despite ever alluding to said trauma and teenage Thomasin McKenzie radiates pride and devotion as his daughter, even when her loyalty is tested, the authorities having put an end to their migrant wilderness lifestyle. A very pure and focused piece of storytelling that will warm your heart while breaking it.

9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Twisted humanity is still humanity - and no one reminds us of it better than Irish playwright-turned-film-maker Martin McDonagh. Give him Frances McDormand as his lead as a bereaved and vengeful mother in rural America and let one truly unforgettable tale unfold in a manner that's as shambling and unpredictable as real life. Beauty in the landscape is at odds with ugliness of human nature - but there's also compassion, regret and the occasional glimmer of hope. It's also scabrously funny throughout, with a host of memorable performances, not least Sam Rockwell's inept (and racist) police deputy. 

8. Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs is my favourite animation of the year, Coco and Incredibles 2 notwithstanding. Maverick film-maker Wes Anderson matches the quality of his sublime The Grand Budapest Hotel, only this time he uses stop-motion to tell a rescue story involving disease-ridden dogs on a Japanese junk-heap archipelago. The straight-faced character humour, the exquisite framing of each shot, the obsessive attention to visual detail - everything that makes Anderson's work great is here in shovelfuls. Dogs, animation, tall tales - if you love any or all of those, watch this film now. It's a wonder.
7. First Reformed
Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, brings us Reverend Ernst Toller, a church minister who has lost his faith - not in God, but in all of humanity, not least representatives of his own faith community. Ethan Hawke is superb as the compassionate but angst-ridden priest, who like cabbie Travis Bickle before him is spiralling towards violence and disaster. First Reformed is a shot-by-shot masterclass in narrative cinema, telling a story that's apocalyptic in feel, and resonant with the environmental concerns of our time. This is my kind of religious movie - challenging, shocking and complex, with a sympathetic but flawed man of faith at its centre.

6. BlacKkKlansman
Speaking of films for our time - BlacKkKlansman may be set in the 1970s, but it tackles the racism of Trump-era America with angry gusto. Spike Lee's latest joint, inspired by the real-life infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by black police officer Ron Stallworth (with a little help from a white surrogate), is a unique brew. Outrageously funny satire, nail-chewing tension and in-your-face agitprop - they're all here and they all work, to searing effect. It's jostling with terrific performances too - John David Washington and Adam Driver both excel. 

5. Roma
Oh the humanity! I only saw Roma a week ago and it raced its way to the top half of my chart. Why? Because it's intimate and vast, specific and universal, period-based and contemporary. It's bravura film-making from one of the greats working today (Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron) and it's an emotional roller-coaster initially disguised as a stately scenic ride - beautiful but with a seemingly meandering quality. Only when it plunges into trauma do you realise the kind of ride to which you're committed. Stick with it. It's gorgeous in a heart-wringing kind of way, and its central performance is quietly extraordinary.

4. The Shape of Water
Also known as Beauty and the Cat-Eating Fish-Beast, and with a Cold-War B-movie setting that also manages to remind you of both French fantasy Amelie and classic Hollywood musicals. It would probably be a mess, were it made by anyone other than Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro. As it works out, The Shape of Water is a stunning adult fairytale - sometimes dark and violent, sometimes beautiful, life-affirming and erotic. Ultimately it's about difference - and whether to fear it or embrace it. And as the poster suggests, Sally Hopkins opts for the embracing. This is one defiantly weird film, so just go with it.

3. Bad Times at the El Royale
I had no clue what to expect going in, and I'm so glad that was the case. Part of what I loved was the cunning of Bad Times' puzzle-box construction, particularly when it clicked piece by piece into place, forming a complex whole. More of what I loved was the multiple levels on which it worked, the cleverly drawn and immaculately performed characters, the sweetly judged musical score, the striking set design and the gorgeous warmth of the late-60s period visuals. But what boosted it into my top three was the story's unexpected emotional core and equally unexpected central relationship. Plus it introduced us (with a little help from Widows) to shining new cinema star Cynthia Erivo.

2. Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War isn't so much a film in its own right as a grand explosive culmination of eighteen other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, in which all the heroes we've embraced (or not, if you avoid this kind of movie like a rash) face off against their ultimate nemesis. He's purple and he has a point, but he's still an abusive bullying bastard. By the way, I wrote all about it at length for those who give a damn HERE. I love all cinema from niche arthouse stuff to mainstream popcorn extravaganzas as long as it's done well. And Avengers: Infinity War is done supremely well. I hadn't felt that level of bubbling expectation since the final Lord of the Rings movie and this film proved worth all that excitement and then some. It also ended with a gobsmacking plot-twist that demands addressing, but that's a whole other movie in a whole other year...

1. First Man
It occurred to me as I was watching it that First Man might end up as my favourite film of the year. Some have found it too slow and its lead performance too contained, but every last thing about this space drama fascinated and enthralled me, not least Ryan Gosling's anti-heroic, deeply human depiction of Neil Armstrong. The film's superior writing, its beauty, its sense of time and place, its subtly drawn character dynamics, its simultaneous journeys into space and the depths of the human soul... There was genuine scene-after-scene relish at what was unfolding before me. I'm not saying it's the year's best movie, I'd have trouble saying that about any single piece of cinema in any given year. But it was the one I found the most personally satisfying - dramatic, spectacular, meditative and profound.
And those, my Filmic Friends, are my favourite UK-released films of 2018 (until around April of next year by which time I've rematched some of the titles that didn't make it and caught up with the various titles I missed, thereby completely recalibrated my list, sticking Show Dogs at the top - that's not going to happen, I'm never going to watch Show Dogs, not while there are any other films in existence). Ultimately I'm making no great statements about the above choices beyond my own enjoyment, so feel free to tell me all about your own picks - particularly those I've still to experience. You may introduce me to an alternative 'top film of 2018'. No film list should be set in stone. 

See you in 2019 for a whole new year of Filmic Forays. I can't wait - can you?

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