2018 was another year in which cinema took us in many different directions. The year in film was like a box of chocolates, you never knew what you were gonna get. It was a year where great films popped out to surprise people. 2018 proved that despite all the problems facing the industry, its ability to deliver an eclectic range of films is undiminished.
As always, the further you dive down the rabbit hole, the more likely you were to uncover some little gems.
To try and make sense of the year in cinema in terms of trends is somewhat futile since no analysis tells the full picture of releases. Nevertheless, there was some common ground with some films and a sense that cinema still remains a useful mirror to reflect issues effecting our societies in the 21st Century.
It has been a year in which strong female characters could be found in many films. Strong women are everywhere in our society, so it’s great that there is a sense of this naturally represented in film. In an industry that has been accused of failing to represent female diversity, 2018 had so many strong female characters in films too numerous to mention. Indeed, the number one film on this list is partly there due to an astonishing firebrand female character. Whether the strength in female representation is a tip of the hat to recent feminine movements, or just a coincidence is up for debate. But either way, 2018 was a strong year for female characters and performances.
Cinema has an amazing ability to evoke compassion, to allow you to see the world from perspectives out of reach before. I am not a Witch, Roma and The Breadwinner were some of the most empathy-inducing films of 2018. All of which were driven by provocative issues facing young women.
There were some excellent films that reflected positive black identity, with Black Panther, BlackkKlansman and Widows all being astonishing pieces of work.
Netflix continued its desire to shake up the establishment, by producing a staggering range of content, some of which makes it onto this list.
It was also a year in which horror continued a resurgence. Two such films have made my annual end of year list.
The blockbusters continue to take the biggest box office as well as the lion’s share of marketing and consequently audience attention; we have an insatiable appetite for high octane set-piece driven spectacle – there is nothing wrong with that, unless they totally swallow the financing of the smaller films, like some giant CGI monster. We have to remember, that there is a lot more to cinema than visual thrills and franchising; well-crafted, well-directed human-driven films are still the substance of cinema and thankfully they were well served in 2018. The big bucks belong to the blockbusters but the heart and soul of cinema, is still in possession of the mid to small-budgeted films. It’s a pleasure to announce that 2018 was another great year for cinema, with far more excellent films than you can fit on an end of year list. Here are my favourite films from 2018.
25. Bad Times at the El Royale
You can can guarantee that if a random selection of people roll to up to a strange hotel on a night with bad weather, things are not going to run smoothly. You can usually tell that these characters come with baggage of a different kind; the odd assortment of characters here – a priest (Jeff Bridges) , a Supremes-style singer (2018 break-out star Cythia Erivo), a vacuum-cleaner salesman (John Hamm) and a femme fatale (Dakota Johnson) , hint that they have things to hide. Part of the fun of this twisty period set-noir, was trying to work out what each character’s motivation for frequenting the hotel was. None of them were what they seemed – all appeared to be packing secrets and lies in their luggage. There was a fantastic scene early on, which heightened the sense of intrigue, when each character’s motivation was framed to the audience simultaneously. It was a head-spinning moment shot beautifully and inventively. You became aware of why each were there, but tellingly, the characters were not privy to these reveals. As their stories began to messily intertwine with each other, the tension mounted considerably.
Bad Times at the El Royale was set in ’69; an era when dishonesty and corruption had seeped into politics via the Nixon administration. There was a mood of that in the film, with lots of scenes gaining a sort of sleazy energy built around surveillance and a sense that you can never tell who is spying on you. Lots of characters were seen watching others do suspicious or outright sinister things and you yourself felt an unsettling sense that you were the true voyeur.
Drew Goddard’s follow-up to the shape-shifting Cabin in the Woods, was often as full of turns and surprises as his debut film. You can tell he is a director and screen-writer, that loves the craft of writing characters and story arcs. You can feel his desire to want to surprise his audience and he does just that, with a number of moments that entirely pull-the-rug from under the audience, swinging the pendulum of power back towards a different character. It’s an ensemble in which each characters sometimes dubious choices, sent the story in a different way. It was certainly far from predictable.
Bad Times was unmistakably noir, but it owed a greater debt to Tarantino than say Raymond Chandler. The tropes and styles seemed to mirror Tarantino’s in a multitude of ways: Goddard allowed his audience to be absorbed in a character interplay, then sucker-punched them with a moment of unflinching violence. This was as effective in Goddard’s film as it is in many of Tarantino’s. Both directors, seem to value the use of dialogue and character-interaction to build suspense, before going for the jugular with an unexpectedly brutal scene.
Goddard also seems to have Tarantino’s knack for mining style from a vintage pop soundtrack, and subverting its tone when used in a different often more unsettling context. The soundtrack took its cue from Ervio’s singer, who was trying to make it in the Motown music industry. Her performance provided the heart and soul of the film figuratively and literally, as soul music gives the film its atmosphere.
It’s another meaty, textured character for Jeff Bridges to get his teeth into. He was great as usual and the relationship between him and the singer was the most dynamic and nuanced in the film. Chris Hemsworth swaggered onto the scene, recalling the bravado of late nineties Brad Pitt, as a charismatic but despicable and unhinged cult leader. His entrance freshened things up no end – and proved a game-changer for the power dynamics of the characters, in this suspenseful, fresh, involving, and lively noir.
There is a school of thought that says extreme wealth can lead to worrying levels of detachment towards one’s fellow man. If that is true, where does that leave the offspring of the super rich? If debut director Cory Finley’s cold, disturbing austere drama is anything to go by, then the answer is removed, isolated, lost and numb to human emotion. One character actually declared that she felt nothing and only assimilated feelings to blend in. The irony laced in the title, hinted at the discontent within. The young girls in this film were extremely wealthy, but far from well-adjusted.
There was a tone of dry caustic satire to Thoroughbreds; it had a touch of Hitchcock’s Rope, Brett Easton Ellis-style characters and a jet-black, wry humour that recalled Heathers.
Both the central character’s exhibited latent sociopathic tendencies and what fascinated about the film was trying to work out what exactly they were capable of. We first met these two teenage girls in a mesmerizingly awkward study session, paid for by one of the girl’s parents. Olivia Wilde’s character was perceptive, off-putting, direct and unnervingly brisk. She was aware of her mum’s little arrangement to force her to be more social and called her ‘friend’ out on the payment she received. From this rocky start, the girls forge a wry bond, opening up a relationship built on skewed honesty as they each had a confidant to explore dark desires. They had a shared twisted perspective that echoed the one between the two girls in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures – Thorughbreds was often as equally chilling as Jackson’s disturbing film.
Every shot was cleverly framed to subvert images of an affluent lifestyle into something cold and alienating, a social prison to suggest money can be a barrier to impede social connectivity. Characters felt detached and removed from each other, which was why the girls’ unorthodox, pseudo-friendship, seemed to offer them some solace in an otherwise loveless existence. They had a relationship that was hard to define in its complexity and dynamism, which allowed the film to be so gripping. Thoroughbreds was a darkly amusing, wry piece of social satire.
23. Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
A faded Hollywood star Gloria Grahame ( Annette Bening), and a working class Liverpool lad Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), hailed from such different worlds, culturally, financially, and geographically, in this charming indie film, that the idea of them forming a romance seemed rather unlikely. But as we know, love doesn’t always cut an easy path – and as the cliché goes, opposites attract. You couldn’t get such a disparate set of actors than Bening and Bell, but their chemistry was genuinely intoxicating, with a sense of magnetism between them that made this one of the classiest romantic films of the year.
The source material was a memoir from the real Peter Turner, who really did have a relationship with Gloria Grahame. Former movie stars do not have any reason to frequent the streets of 70s industrial Liverpool; the fact that one did made for a remarkable story.
The characters had a mutual fascination with each other’s lives. Bening’s character sparked to life being in the re-energizing spotlight that is a gaze of affection. She found comfort in a family support network that a Hollywood lifestyle may not allow for and Bell’s character had a wide-eyed sense of enchantment at Graham’s colorful life. There was pathos underneath the dreamy romance; love and pain can often go hand in hand. The relationship had a depth of feeling and a sense of nuance that reflected something of the truth about what it means to be in a relationship. There is a scene that played out cleverly as we saw the monumental damage misunderstanding can sometimes cause. It perfectly captured the confusion that men sometimes feel trying to understand their partners. We know the reason why Grahame has turned on him, but we also understand why Peter is failing to read the signs. The film beautifully and delicately handled the shades of grey that can cast shadows on human connections.
Older female actresses complain that no one is writing interesting roles for post 40-something woman, and they are right to complain. However, Bening can have no such qualms as this is the second year in a row in which she got to play such a complex and well-thought out, fully formed older female. This would make a great double bill with last year’s 20th Century Woman for Bening fans. Her character had so much sunshine charm, but it was something of a mask to conceal a bruised interior. Keeping one’s self esteem and inner peace intact as an aging actress with a career on its dying embers, can not be an easy struggle. There was something of Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard story here. A poignant, mesmerizing beautifully written film. Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was the other story about a fading star and a young hopeful in 2018.
Harry Dean Stanton is an unconventional figure, who earned a status as a cult actor through his memorable performances, working with art-house royalty like Wim Wenders (Paris/Texas and David Lynch(The Straight Story). It’s a status he preserved right to the end, as Stanton, at the age of 91, bowed out of this world in 2018. Few actors get a finer film to ruminate on one’s mortality as Stanton did with this charming, contemplative and understated film. And few actors would have been so bold and brave as to explore one’s own physical frailty, ailing health and contemplations of what may, or may not lie beyond the great beyond as the veteran actor did in Lucky. The fact that this came out so soon after the actor died, obviously gave the film an extra layer of poignancy, while highlighting just how much of a soul-baring performance this must have been for Stanton.
It’s a character piece rather than plot-driven; We follow the titular character Lucky as he goes about the daily routines that are keeping him alive. In fact there is not much drama or conflict at all; the one (quirky) running dramatic rift is the status of a renegade runaway tortoise, which causes much distress to its owner, and Lucky’s best friend. The fact that the owner of the tortoise was played by David Lynch, Stanton’s long time friend and collaborator, was almost ceremonially fitting and added an extra layer of charm to an oddly loveable film.
Lucky has a stoic attitude to death, which meant the film never felt heavy or dark and there was even a lot of low-key humour generated from the fact that the hard smoking Lucky, keeps on defying doctor’s expectations and just carries on living. There are some old characters in this world that defy death by being as tough as old boots, there’s one in every neighborhood and in the dusty one-horse Arizona desert town that Lucky’s resided in, he’s that man. The fact that he is seen wandering through a similarly aesthetic town to the one he strode across in Paris Texas, will bring a wry smile to the faces of long time Stanton admirers.
There has been a lot of American indie cinema that has proven that you don’t always need a dramatic thrust to engage audiences. It is possible to allow people to sit with a character and quietly reflect on their existence – Lucky fits into this sub-genre. He was a cranky old-timer with a defiance of death, but underpinning that, was something that gave the character some extra layers, a hint that underneath the rugged-old-fashioned- set-in-his-ways masculinity, is a sense of disquiet at being so close to the unknown.
You can’t get much more personal than a man exploring differing reflections on death on screen when he must have known his own time was nearly up. It’s the ultimate cathartic cinema project. That’s what gave the performance and film such stirring authenticity. It also proved to be a mighty epitaph for a renowned character actor whose decision not to cross into the mainstream will allow his cult status to be taken to the grave. Lucky ensures Harry Dean Stanton can rest in peace.
21. Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson crafted an affectionate ode to the cinema of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa using stop-motion, his sophomore effort in the medium following his charming spin on The Fantastic Mr Fox. It was a shaggy-dog story of the most literal kind as a desperate group of outcast canines found themselves discarded with the trash on an island, due to the ruthless policies of dog-loathing tyrannical Mayor Kobayashi. A series of terrifying dog-related illnesses swept across Japan meaning that man’s former best friend had considerably fallen out of favour.
It was quite an interesting and neat set-up that explored a dormant fear in Asian society: viral outbreak, with a witty and satirical tone. Wes Anderson, being an American film-maker, took a bold step choosing to depict a Japanese society. Trying to get a satire with the bite of a rapid dog, when depicting a foreign culture, must have been a cultural minefield. Although there were some dubious creative choices – the Japanese were depicted as speaking gibberish to the dog’s ears – it got away with it for three reasons. It was all done as a loving tribute, it was told from the perspective of the dogs, and the comedy was often tongue-in-cheek and as playful as a newborn puppy.
Fans of Japanese cinema had fun spotting the numerous homages. Music from The Seventh Samurai was used cleverly and the dogs were framed in that epic operatic, close up style, as seen in iconic Japanese cinema.
Wes Anderson has twice now used stop-motion to inspired effect, infusing the childishness of the puppets with a sense of indie sophistication. From a technical perspective, his low-key comedy is perfect for stop-motion. He generates a lot of humour from the spaces in between dialogue – he loves generating mirth from a pregnant pause between character-interplay. Or a move to action after an an extended moment of stillness. He brought such artful beauty to scenes set on the grungy trash island. You could freeze some of his shots, and admire the artful use of light, color, composition, knowledge of Japanese culture and mythology and sheer detail for some time. It often had a breathtaking beauty seemingly beyond the limits of stop-motion.
Voicing the dogs was a dream team of A-list Anderson regulars, all of whom enriched their characters, and proved to be adept at the dry comic delivery needed for an Anderson script: could you ask for a better line-up to voice the motley crew of canines than Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, and Angelica Huston? That is the thing about being a indie-auteur with the cache of Wes Anderson: you get to cherry-pick the best in the industry. Everyone wants to work with Anderson, and when he is making inventive, astute, witty, satire such as Isle, you can see why he can command the top talent.
The return of Alexander Payne is always a reason for fans of free-wheeling, offbeat indie drama to rejoice. A lover of bittersweet story telling, Payne has been one of the most consistent directors working outside the mainstream of American cinema in the last twenty years. His story about a man undergoing an operation to be be shrunk to fit more comfortably into a world ever more conscious about resource conservation, saw him ironically grow and stretch himself as a director. This pleasingly unconventional and meandering story saw him dipping his toes into sci-fi, with a novel high-concept premise neatly summed up in the succinct title. It could have easily been a premise played for broad comedy; you can imagine someone like Will Ferrell chomping at the bit to goof around with the idea; but Payne had bigger issues he was concerned with. There was a bit of tom-thumb type fun at the start, but Payne was much more eager to instill his film with comedy with an environmental consciousness and socio-political subtext.
He was primarily concerned with satirizing how the materialistic American dream does not nourish the soul. As Matt Damon’s character received everything he felt nothing – when he shrunk, his hunger for discovery grew. His decision to search for how other cultures have used their downsizing technology opened up the film into a journey full of enriching experiences and surprises.
Some critics have wrongly considered Downsizing to be disjointed and unfocused. It’s the fact that it doesn’t adhere to any genre convention that gives the film its charm and dynamism. Payne’s films have had a running theme of outsider characters growing spiritually on winding journeys; Matt Damon’s character here fits into Payne’s pleasing archetype – the difference this time was that Payne was sending his character into a delightfully weird and far-out world, rather than the natural settings we are used to with his films. The film packed a message that the meaning of life is not in what you own, but the community you belong to and the values that you stand for. This timely message complimented the environmental themes of the film. It was also one of the most enriching messages delivered in a film this year.
19. Mama Mia! Here We Go Again
The bittersweet hit of the summer, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again defied expectations by being surprisingly good. It managed to contextualize more of Abba’s toe-tapping back-catalog in a story that was oddly naturalistic and believable. Peel away all the infectiously joyful musical numbers, and there was a story that was actually far more complex and beautifully told than a Mama Mia sequel had a right to be. If you reflect on how dynamic the storytelling was, you could see that quite a lot of work must have gone into the writing and editing to allow the film to juxtapose two separate timelines and a journey into how a mother found out she was pregnant and how her daughter was then in a similar position.This was done poetically and movingly with no hint of artifice or contrivance.
Few films this year handled backstory as well as Here we Go Again did. Meryl Streep gave a vibrant effervescent performance as Donna in the first film and here Lily James was given the daunting task of acting like the younger incarnation of Streep’s character; she managed to replicate the spirit of Donna, feeling spiritually in-tune with her life-affirming attitude. She captured the heart and soul as well as giving a show-stealing, belting vocal performance. Across the board, the casting choices of the younger actors to represent the many characters played by acting super-brands was impeccable. The fact that they chose actors so similar to their older counterparts allowed the film to have a surprise sense of progression through time and a continuity with the characters that unlocked a range of emotions.
The film itself was a perfect representation of what ABBA were all about: they were a band that had a knack for a jovial upbeat sense of joy to their music, but reflect on the lyrical content, and you can see that the double husband and wife team that made up the band had such a depth of feeling towards love, life and heartbreak. The film totally gets that about ABBA, and managed to pair their songs with scenes that extract that quality of truth in their timeless tunes. The film found the perfect balance between a sunny sense of froth and fun and a emotional sincerity that was really rather touching. Mama Mia! Here We Go Again sent audiences out of the cinema this August with a spring in their step and a tear in their eye – that is a hard combination of things to pull off.
18. A Star is born
There seemed something quite cynical about Bradley Cooper choosing a fourth remake of A Star is Born as his directorial debut. But there is a reason why this story, about one star on the way up and one on the way down, comes back every couple of decades: it says something quite penetrating about the fickle nature of the fame game. For all our modern obsession with fame, there are very few pieces of work that try to capture the psychological toll being in the spotlight must take on successful artists. There must have been something quite cathartic for Cooper and Lady Gaga to take on a project that allowed them to explore the realities of celebrity in a raw and candid style.
It struck a chord of authenticity right from the get go, as Cooper – a seasoned rock/country musician – hit all the right notes on a stage performance that seems thrillingly real. The film went on to have the electricity of live stage performances throughout.
Cooper and Gaga had a genuine chemistry that is like cinematic gold dust to achieve. There was an effortless natural humour and camaraderie between them; the connection was born from a spark of creativity. The film cared about the songwriter process, this was illustrated by just how many really good original songs were written for the soundtrack.
The songwriting furthered the storytelling in quite a thrilling way, being key to a number of genuinely emotive scenes. Given her tendency for showbiz eccentricity, it is quite surprising how good Lady Gaga was at being a down-to-earth girl next door type. Her job in the setup was to convince us that, despite having the desire and raw talent, her dreams of stardom might not be achieved. It’s a credit to her acting that there was a sense that the character felt it may not work out for her. This left us absolutely rooting for her; so when she got that moment to shine, and she looked a little nervous, we were hoping that she was going to soar, not choke, supporting her as much as Cooper’s rock star character does. We went on the journey from the outside of the industry looking in, to passengers on a meteoric rise. We were with this girl when she was throwing out bin bags; her success somehow felt like our success.
The film gave you the intoxicating sense of being a fly on the wall on the inside of the industry. Naturally, this allowed us to see the troubled mindsets behind the screen personas. Cooper’s performance captured the hard toll twenty years of rock touring can have on a star. His hard liquor-swilling character had a twinkle in his eye and a heartbreak of a star burning out.
Passionate, honest, sobering and infectious, A Star is Born swept its audience up into an energized mood. Through Cooper’s authentic direction, audiences got to get a taste of the highs and lows of the dream of stardom.
A great director is born and unlike the title of one of the film’s big songs, the film was anything but shallow.
Diablo Cody’s sympathetic drama about a mother of two struggling to cope with the workload of parenthood must have been unnerving for expecting mothers and somewhat therapeutic for any mum dragged into a state of perpetual sleep-deprivation due to maternal duties.
It all hinged on a brave and vanity-free performance from Charlize Theron, who for the second time in her career, packed on the pounds to embody a role. She was comfortable on the screen looking frumpy and worn-down, giving a vulnerable performance that captured the beleaguered spirit of her overburdened character. She appeared poignantly strung-out in the boldest female performance of the year. Cody has always been a scriptwriter with a distinctive style, who offsets snappy dialogue with a natural tone. There is a recurring theme of maternal matters in her work. Tully is on the other end of the pregnancy spectrum to her work in Juno though; the teenage Juno took pregnancy in her stride, but the thirty-something character in Tully is strung out with childbirth-related stress. It’s a somewhat parallel theme to Juno, but her writing here showed Cody is maturing and getting better at commanding audience sympathy for a well-observed female character. There is a lot of accurately depicted domestic woe in Tully, but Cody sprinkled this with a little bit of screen-writing magic through the character of Tully, a sort of helper/friend drafted into to relieve Theron’s character of some of her workload. The two struck up a genuinely charming friendship that provided the heart of the film.
Tully worked towards a brave third act twist that actually gave the film a moving psychological depth. Twists are a little out of vogue right now, but Cody managed to use the device in a way that enhanced the emotional impact rather than something that played as a cheap-gimmick. Tully was a salute to all the unsung heroes out there: all the women painstakingly doing every task to raise children. It was a warm hug of appreciation for all the hard work these women do. For all the new mums out there in 2018, Diablo Cody had your back.
There is a spirit that awakens in some twenty-somethings, a call to see the world and have adventure. When adopting this mindset, one tends to see the opportunities rather than risk. But when things go wrong overseas, it can open up horror stories that can leave you utterly well, adrift. Adrift tapped into the dark side of travel with a cautionary tale about the horrors an intrepid spirit can leave you facing. The story started with a believable organic kindling of romance, as two souls driven by their love of discovery, begin to feel the magnetism of connection in an exotic destination.
When an opportunity presented itself for the couple to sail a luxury yacht across the Atlantic from Tahiti to California, they could see nothing but positive chances. He was a competent sailor with plenty of experiences and she’s an adventurer ready to adapt to any situation. This could be the ultimate adventure for them both, but little do they know that out on the open seas, a storm is brewing….
Sam Clefin and Shailene Woodley had a mesmerizing chemistry in the earlier part of the story that is actually quite rare to see. They convinced as two people forging a deep connection and all the beautiful landscapes and perfect moments between them allowed the film to get its hooks into you, so that when they hit the open seas, you really got a sense of tension at their isolation and vulnerability. It is easier said than done to make an audience care about central characters, but if a filmmaker can do it, it opens up such great potential for drama and tension to arise. Director Baltasar Kormakur was tremendously successful at achieving this, so when things started to go wrong and the characters began to get a creeping sense of their own mortality, we were literally and figuratively in the same boat with them.
The film was part love story and part disaster movie. They are two genres that rarely blend as effectively as this. The horror of the disaster was stark, raw and unnerving and the romance alluring. The film was really cleverly edited to intertwine the perils they end up facing, with their blossoming relationship, so you almost got a sense of the two things happening simultaneously. Adrift then managed to stir the emotions in a dynamic way. The characters’ spirit of endurance and survival were tested in a range of gripping ordeals. The key to it all working was the authenticity that everything was rendered with. Adrift was a brilliantly realized, poignant depiction of a true story about the pitfalls of paradise and how nature can turn travel dreams into nightmares.
15. Mortal Engines
This gargantuan Peter Jackson-produced mega-film, directed by his prodigy Christian Rivers, seems like it is going to have to be filed away with The Golden Compass as a potential franchise launcher sunk by criminally harsh reviews and equally infuriating audience apathy.
Audiences are starting to send a worrying message to the giant studios that they don’t want their blockbusters outside of an existing established brand. This is the reason why the big films seem to lack invention, because as soon as something with a flicker of creativity comes along, like Mortal Engines, it is immediately stamped out by poor box office numbers.
Nobody has tried to do a blockbuster set 1000 years into the future. To do that, you have to imagine the world so irrevocably changed; Mortal Engines actually managed to deliver on this front. with a vision of an apocalyptic world so radically changed by quantum war that the remaining cities have to hunt each other down in a cutthroat battle for survival labelled municipal Darwinism by one of London’s top power brokers, played by Hugo Weaving.
A vision of cities consuming each other served as a phenomenal visual spectacle unseen before and, on a deeper level, as a metaphor for the inherent lack of sustainability of capitalism, with a sense that The Mortal Engines vision is the end destination of a road we must surely be well down in our resource guzzling modern world.
We have seen visions of the future that suggest we get taken back to primitive times by humanity’s lust for power. But this did something new with that arc. In Mortal Engines, it was the heavy mechanization of the industrial age that served for the visual inspiration. At the heart of the film were giant machines sustained by the monstrous appetite for old technology. All parts were fed into them, to make something giant and new. In a way, this was a metaphor for how the film played out. Detractors have argued that the film is derivative of lots of action adventure that have gone before. Admittedly there are hints of many of the 20th century classics from Frankenstein to Terminator to Peter Jackson’s Star Wars, LOTR, Mad Max to Robocop, to name just a few. The film seemed to grind up all these influences through its machinery and mesh them to make a totally new beast – just like what is going on in the story. The film certainly gives the newcomer an appetite to seek out Philip Reeve’s source material.
There is a fear that it has wrongly been lumped in with the ailing teen dystopian sub-genre that has run its course in the wake of the success of The Hunger Games. Its tortured female protagonist, Hester Shaw, is sufficiently different from Katniss Everdeen though. For one, Rivers was bold enough to show how damaged the character was both on the inside and the outside. This kind of daring characterization should be an audience draw, but its strength may be the reason that on the outside the film could look like another Hunger Games knock-off. It’s a shame as it’s closer to the dark tone of something like Snowpiercer – another overlooked vision. There is a sense that everything has been put together with a rustic DIY ingenuity, it had a grubby sci-fi feel that puts it closer stylistically to something Terry Gilliam might have made or Jean Pierre Jeunet circa Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. There is also a strong influence from Miyazaki with some of the film’s visual design almost making it a live action version of some of Ghibli’s films, notably Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky. Perhaps that was what was so off-putting for audiences, as these influences show how weird and deranged a film Mortal Engines is; we know now that nothing scares mainstream audiences like a bit of weirdness. Mortal Engines probably only got made as Peter Jackson has been a proven world builder which has translated into repeated box office success. Sadly his name wasn’t enough of a draw this time, which is a shame as Mortal Engines was a daring, immersive unsettling, epic vision that played as a cautionary metaphor of what may happen to humanity if we don’t find a surer road to sustainability.
If you are old enough to remember the 94′ Lillehammer winter Olympics, the name Tonya Harding will bring back a memory of a sporting horror story. One American ice dancer Harding, was portrayed as hiring someone to smash her competition in the knee with a crowbar. The tabloids had a field day: seizing an opportunity to frame Harding as the biggest villain in sport and reveling in the irony of a graceful sport being disgraced by horrifying violence. What the director of I,Tonya Craig Gillespe set out to do with this, is to re-examine the pieces of the case and suggest their was something of a vendetta against Harding due to her class, determined even before the infamous incident.
She is seen as a tragic victim rather than the nasty villain we remember from the tabloids. Her ice-skating talent is seen as the thing that kept her going through a life of routine abuse dealt out to her by her horrid mother, tightly-wound husband and a sporting system that doesn’t want to see their well-bred elite dancing swans upstaged by someone they evidently deem to be white-trash.
Tonya Harding seemed an unlikely figure to command sympathy, but when you see her story put into the context of her tragic background, the film really started to stir up emotions, particularly by those who judged her all those decades ago, ie, everyone who read a newspaper headline about the incident. The film had a great use of a talking head, as Margot Robbie (powerfully portraying Harding), talks directly to the audience about all the details before and after the infamous moment that de-railed her career. The film found a tone that had an excellent balance between comedic mocking of the ill-advised set of circumstances that led her career to that moment and a more evocative note that added pieces of the story that show she wasn’t directly culpable for what happened and she was just as much of a victim as her old rival. The film suggested it was naivety rather than malice that led to that incident and that puts Tonya Harding in a completely different light.
There is an outrageous story around her, involving a bunch of hapless rogues getting into criminal activity they are not nearly smart enough to succeed at. The tone was done with a generous helping of wry comedy; there was something of a Coen brothers-style plot, involving stupid criminal ineptitude driving unfortunate circumstances. The style of the direction recalls the pacy editing of Scorsese circa Goodfellas, as the film covered a lot of Tonya’s life: from her promising start as skater to her firebrand on ice style to the lead up to where it all went awry for her.
Certain sports can be very elitist and if your face doesn’t fit, then you might find your pathway to success a constant uphill battle. Judging from I, Tonya that seems to be the fate the former Olympian faced. There turns out to be a lot more than we remember from the 90s news headlines to Tonya Harding’s life – thrusting her into the spotlight for a blackly comic yet evocative film, proved to be dramatic gold.
13. The Breadwinner
The fate of woman in Afghanistan seems an unlikely topic to explore in animation, on paper. But The Breadwinner typifies exactly the power of the the medium that has been unlocked in the last few decades: the ability to enter into worlds that live-action would struggle to authenticate. The oppression of woman under a stifling patriarchy became something with almost a fantasy edge in this powerful animation. There was something tragically absurd about the plight of woman here: woman of any age are not allowed to be seen out on the street without full Islamic dress and a male chaperone; things became complicated for a household of woman when the male of the house disappeared mysteriously. Naturally, some of the more daring girls, had to take it upon themselves to venture out to ensure the family’s survival; but there in lies the dilemma, the mere presence of woman is likely to incur severe punishment.
The magical thing that happened in The Breadwinner is that the simple pursuit of daily bread became an act thwarted by danger and tension. Heavy disguise is the only way that our central character, a bold young heroine who pretended to be a boy in order to skulk around on the streets of Afghanistan, could survive. Angry misogynistic fanatics became beasts on the street to avoid, giving the film a dark fantasy edge. There was a beguiling, but threatening fairy tale, nightmarish quality to the film. The intensity of the threat is so heightened, which exemplified the point within: that being a female in Afghanistan under extreme-Islam is impossibly hard. This is obviously something we could assume from afar, but walking a mile in their shoes was thrillingly, unnerving and disconcerting. So much fear and hysteria had been cooked up around women, that from an Afghan male perspective, the mere glimpse of a female on the street, caused a level of panic and alarm usually reserved for monsters in fairy-tales.
There is one scene in which you note the calmness on the street with the absence of women, until our heroine is spotted and alarm bells are sounded. Needless to say, with the stakes so high for the women, the film was profoundly moving and involving. The idea that the grimness of oppression towards women in a ruthless Islamic fundamentalist state, could be explored in as a nightmarish fantasy was really inventive. Irish studio Cartoon Saloon are quietly building a unique style, The Breadwinner rivaled Song of the Sea for animated beauty and enchantment.
One of the rules of horror cinema is to get the characters right in order to drag the audience into the horror. Hereditary was exceptionally successful at doing this. It didn’t achieve this by making you like the family at the centre of the story, but instead it created a believable mounting tension between them and a growing sense of dread around their inability to understand each other’s point of view. There is a palpable sense in Hereditary that the ever-fraying relationship between mum (played by Toni Collette) and son (Alex Wolff) is going to lead to major disturbances. There’s a brilliantly realized exchange at a dinner table between them that had you shifting as uncomfortably in your seat as you would if it happened at a real dinner party you had attended. You realize that this all had the effect of getting its hooks deep in your psyche and deeply involved in the emotional conflict.
What Hereditary did expertly well was present a cliché and then completely wrong-foot you with a sly side-step away from convention. As it did this, it delivered a sucker-punch of an emotional blow, almost as a punishment for wrongfully assuming the direction would be derivative. Take the little girl. She had a weirdness to her that screamed something supernatural in the vein of Carrie. Director Ari Aster played with that and absolutely floors its audience with how exactly that character’s story was woven into the narrative, not once, but several times. If you think it was hackneyed you were not looking close enough; very few horror films ever reach this level of emotional intensity. This film picked you up, threw you around in your chair and forced you to feel something. It put me through the emotional wringer to such an extent that I was physically flailing around in my seat, like a person possessed. This was simultaneously thrilling and upsetting. No detachment here – it shook off your sense of apathy many times over.
It took its time to build such a tragic emotional dynamic between the characters, that by the time the supernatural element was brought in you felt like you’d gone through enough bruising psychological blows that you were now a member of their family. The fact that the director seemed concerned with providing scares at the malevolent end of the supernatural spectrum, gave the film intensity that disturbed the soul. It didn’t matter that we had seen a lot of the supernatural stuff done in other films, it was so frightening because of the emotional investment, the uneasy sense that the characters were mentally unraveling and just how much intent of malice is in the film – on and off the screen, There has been a lot of hyperbole talk that this is the new Exorcist. This is way off the mark, the right level of buzz but the wrong film reference: there was a sense that the characters were doomed due to an unseen force conspiring against them; that made Hereditary a lot more like a Rosemary’s Baby for the modern generation. Disturbing; emotionally hard-hitting and outrageously scary.
The striking opening shot of Alfonso’s Cuaron’s visually sumptuous Roma, stated the Mexican director’s intentions: soapy run-off water from a hard-working maid’s mop, settled to reveal a picture of framed reflected beauty. The memorably poetic shot encapsulated’s Cuaron’s desire to morph menial drudgery into something with a hidden elegiac beauty.
What made the eventual beauty that the film steadily revealed all the more poignant, was the user of that mop was formed from his own recollections of the maid that helped raise him. It is always very attention-grabbing when a director uses his status to explore something of his past, but the Oscar-winning Mexican director here went even further into the depth of personal story-telling, by building a film from the memory of his childhood.
As we grow up, we may reflect on figures from our past with an altered, maturing perspective; we may gain empathy for their struggles more than we did when we were young, self-centered and immature. In essence, Cuaron captured the spirit of this desire to shed new light on the past in a film which had an emotional weight gained from being filtered through his memory. The central figure in Roma is Cleo, an indigenous nanny beloved by the children and family of which she toils for day and night. She is seen as part of the family, but also constantly reminded that her role is in a working capacity first. One of the likable little scamps running around the house was essentially, Cuaron’s own memory of himself and the other figures were his siblings and mother. The film was far more satisfying with the knowledge of this and being privy to this information, allowed the viewer to understand why the film had an affectionate shimmer of nostalgia within its beautiful black and white imagery.
It is not often that an artist is struck with such empathy for someone, perhaps unacknowledged from their past; Cuaron’s cathartic exercise has shown how art can be therapeutic in its ability to work out the past and the sense of personal importance the film has to him, allowed it to be a transcendent experience, a salute of respect to all the unsung, downtrodden workers out there whose stories are never going to be heard.
This was a film with not a lot of dramatic drive; but what absorbed about it was the sense of how well-observed the characters were; the lived-in vibe to the film-making, the authentic earthiness about the world it depicts, and the naturalness of the scenarios. Since it was a film about a maid, there are obviously a lot of shots in which very little except housework seems to be accomplished, but when the film moved into its emotional third act, you realized that these scenes had build up a platform of empathy for Cleo; that Cuaron has used all his status to shine a spotlight on a figure whose story, and others like it, always seemed to be forgotten with time. It’s a profoundly moving final act, where all the pieces of Cuaron’s memory puzzle fall into place.
The film was evocative in a way that brings to mind the work of Fellini another director who drew vivid imagery through the nostalgic haze of his memory.
Roma is probably going to have a run in the awards season, which will garner it big headlines particularly as it will be Netflix’s first serious Oscar campaign. On one level, this will be a remarkable almost fairy-tale story for a humble little film born out of an artist’s desire to better relate to the struggles of his nanny. The glamour of the showbiz buzz that surrounds it, is at odds with the stories of humility within though. However to see an intimate story about the relationship with a Middle Class family and their hard-working nanny, about to hit the awards campaign is an almost literal Cinderella story. At a time where, there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment and perhaps a lack of respect for people who are living tough, hard-working lives supporting the rich, Cuaron has come along with a film that gave a voice to the kind of quietly dignified figure you rarely see represented on the big screen.
Thanks for reading. Happy new Year loyal readers. Tune in tomorrow for the Top Ten…