It may seem like an odd way to start a list of 2018’s best films by talking about why I didn’t do a 2017 list. This time last year I was that guy who was living to work and didn’t see nearly enough of the outside world to spend time doing something as simple as watching a film. This year changed that, I was able to breathe a little easier but also to experience more than just working constantly. Last year I saw about 10 movies total so a top ten list seemed pointless but this year I saw the good, the bad and everything in between and learnt some valuable lessons along the way.
Hopefully over the course of this you will see what I mean and understand why I think taking a couple of hours away from it all to watch something is important, not just to me but to anyone. Film can free you in many different ways but it can also clarify and although I don’t prescribe to the idea that film can change your life, it can give you a different perspective on things that you considered absolute. The better the film the more it sticks in your mind, leaving you thinking and questioning and that’s what we really want, art that pushes us forward and these are a few films that did that for me this year.
Before I start, I will state that this list follows the UK release schedule so some films on here might be on lists for last year for some people but as a UK resident they were films I could only catch in 2018.
While I keep hearing it wasn’t a bad year for comedy over and over again, I clearly didn’t see the same films as others. What I did see however was Game Night and boy, what a breath of fresh air. Not only is it a wickedly quick film but its delightfully simple premise, akin to Bill Murray’s The Spy Who Knew Too Little, allows for some very simple but well thought out sight gags. Rachel McAdams is delightful and anchors the films more surreal moments. Easily my favourite comedy of the year.
When it comes to animation you rarely see one like The Breadwinner. Every now and then an animator decides to make a film that isn’t specifically targeted at children. Films like Belleville Rendezvous or The Illusionist spring to mind when trying to find something to compare but the best way of understanding the beauty of The Breadwinner is by saying it is this years Kubo and The Two Strings. Wildly imaginative yet emotionally raw, this tale of Parvana, a young girl growing up in Afghanistan, dressing as a boy to provide for her family has themes that cut deep but a soul that never ever loses its sense of hope. Extremely relevant and lovingly crafted, well worth a watch.
The Old Man & The Gun
Upon leaving the cinema after The Old Man & The Gun I have to admit I was thrown, I didn’t know what I had just watched. I knew I had seen something impressive with two astounding performances in Robert Redford and Casey Affleck but I wasn’t sure if it all amounted to a good film. Not only is central character Forrest Tucker (Redford) an enigma you can’t even begin to understand but his motivations are even murkier. It took me a while (longer than I wish to admit) but I now understand that this was the point. Tucker isn’t to be understood, he just wants us to have as much fun as he’s having and in that regard The Old Man & The Gun is a rousing success as this is one of the most enjoyable romps to hit the screen this year.
Since Whiplash came out Damien Chazelle has been surprising people with three equally unique films and while I was one of the few to have major qualms with La La Land, I appreciated its audacity. First Man on the other hand is a quieter film, more introspective but it still shows a director who loves his craft. Some people might point at the moon landing as one of the best cinematic moments of the year but personally I think it’s the films gripping 2nd act as Armstrong (A closed off, never better Ryan Gosling) captains his first launch into space. This 20 minute scene has laughter, shocks, a sense of the openness of space while also making you feel every painfully claustrophobic moment that comes when things do not go to plan. The film as a whole isn’t quite as perfect but it’s a technical marvel and that in and of itself makes it special.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse
If The Breadwinner is the most emotional animation of the year, this is easily the most vibrant. It takes a lot to make me re-evaluate Spider-Man’s saga on film but it’s pretty easy to decide that this is one of the best, if not THE best. While directors like Marc Webb and Sam Raimi leaned into what makes Peter Parker human to make a compelling story, Into The Spider-verse does two things differently. One they jettison Parker in favour of webslinger in training Miles Morales, a choice that adds a freshness Parker hasn’t had since Spider-Man 2. Secondly the film leans into the comic side of things. Not only is the animation more akin to old school comic books than an actual film but it allows for a pace that makes watching the film a breeze. Sure being the famed hero is a responsibility (we’ve all heard the speech) but with Into The Spider-Verse we are reminded of what it should be above all else, fun.
While these films were great, personally I don’t think they live up to the next ten.
The Ten Best Films of The Year
10.) You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsey hasn’t directed a feature length film since 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. After seven years she hasn’t missed a beat as this Joaquin Phoenix starrer thrives off what made her last so impressive. Ramsey’s characters live in a world made of grey where moral quandaries abound and the viewer is perpetually made to decide what is right and what is wrong. That however is not what makes You Were Never Really Here work though. In part its Phoenix and his connection to his character but mostly it’s how Ramsey connects all the films broken parts into a beautiful mosaic. She peers into each and every character and deciphers what they want and need and subtly displays it for the audience to find. Ramsey has crafted a mystery thriller where the mystery is the people in it, not what is happening around them and that is spectacular.
9.) Mission Impossible Fallout
While the Mission Impossible franchise has stumbled along the way (MI2, MI3), ever since Ghost Protocol came out in 2011 it has gone from strength to strength. Returning director Christopher McQuarrie is clearly out to top himself here as every piece of action is playfully wild yet masterfully calculated. Everything from a helicopter chase through the mountains to a convoy ambush are directed as if simple, never letting on the complexity of the task. Carrying on the story from Rogue Nation, Fallout ups the ante to all out nuclear war while never ruining the mood. The film is light hearted while still calling back to important moments in the series reminding us that although Ethan Hunt has saved the world multiple times he is just as human as he was the first time around. However this is mostly a technical marvel and it deserved a spot because of that fact and because the motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe is truly something else. Read my full review here.
8.) I Kill Giants
Released in April, I Kill Giants had an incredibly misleading trailer that heavily played into the fantastical elements of the film. What we got was vastly different and we were much better off for it. Akin to Where The Wild Things Are, I Kill Giants is a touching look at love, hate and the majesty of a child’s mind. Featuring performances to die for from Imogen Poots, Zoe Saldana and Madison Wolfe, Giants is a deep dive into the first stage of grief and it will tear you apart by the end. Director Anders Walter meshes the fantastic and the real seamlessly while giving viewers a window into Barbara’s (Wolfe) conflicted mind and the very real denial that is stopping her from being who we know she is. Clever and defiant, this is everything you want from a debut feature. Read my full review here.
Released only a few weeks ago I didn’t expect to like Roma. From what I had seen its story was too limited to really reach but what do I know, I just watch the films, I don’t make them. Roma isn’t revelatory, it doesn’t tell a new story but it’s the little moments in Roma that make it shine. Director Aflonso Cuarón uses long tracking shots to make little moments that much more important. Be it cleaning a floor to risking your life, all these moments add up to a life lived. What struck me watching Roma wasn’t the political upheaval in the background or the side characters with their own stories barely glimpsed upon but the fact that while I was trying to decide who these people are to each other, so were they. While lead character Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is trying to decide if she is family to the people she works for, so are we. That what makes it so poignant when she finally finds her family, because so do we in a way. An impressive ability indeed.
6.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Literally the first new film I saw in 2018, Three Billboards to most is a black comedy much like director Martin McDonagh’s prior films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths but this time around he strives for something more. Three Billboards at its core is a film about accepting your past or your future and doing it on your own terms. Be it Mildred (Frances McDormand) accepting her daughters death or Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) accepting his own fate in his own way. Ebbing was a town in transition and the people in it are just trying to find their way to the other side and some do it through comedy, others are forced to change and most find their way through others but really Three Billboards is a film about change and everything funny, shocking and mundane about it. What makes it worth the time is how McDonagh makes everything in it seem so normal yet captivating.
Found Footage films don’t really work. The gimmick never really lasts a full feature and while it might work for segments of films it never really struck me as a viable format until Searching. Equal parts mystery film and scathing indictment of social media, Searching is bolstered by its adventurous nature. Director Aneesh Chaganty goes all in on the premise in the films opening montage as he introduces us to his characters through an opening montage akin to Up. Equal parts tragic and uplifting the film uses the family desktop as a touchstone to travel through the Kim family history. A clever introduction means that when daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing we know just what father David (John Cho) has lost. What follows is a film that plays with the idea of social media as hiding place and the difference between reality and the virtual. What makes it worth it though is a clever story and a last minute twist smartly teased over the course of the film to show us just how far society has flung itself into the hands of Big Brother. Read my review here.
4.) Last Flag Flying
Released to little fanfare in January on Amazon, Last Flag Flying is a quiet film about fathers, sons and brothers. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne are terrific as three Vietnam vets who have lost track of each other over time but come together once again when Larry’s (Carell) son dies in Iraq. While they argue over the course of the film, it is these debates that bring life to the film. Their disagreements and the lessons they have learnt from their service define them, even if they don’t believe it. Cranston is fantastic as an aging rebel who deep down still wants to redeem himself for his past and Carell is uncharacteristically subdued as Larry. The shining star is director Richard Linklater who uses the time period (2003) as a way of pointing out how seemingly irrelevant the wars of yesteryear are becoming because of new conflict and how we should never forget that war is war. The horror of it carries across all conflicts and what bonds these three is what connects them to the boys being sent to die in Iraq. Deeply affecting and as relevant fifteen years on as it would have been then.
In my worst films of the year I talked about poorly constructed minimalist cinema and the disappointment of Leave No Trace. On the other side of the minimalist spectrum there is Columbus, a quiet film about two people stuck in their own different limbos with decisions in front of them that seem all too hard to make. Starring John Cho (I swear he is just in good films this year, I’m not obsessed) and Haley Lu Richardson as Jin and Casey, Columbus is a film all about looks and saying through doing, not through saying. The symmetry of shots and the placement of characters within them say more about the characters emotions than words can and while its easy to say this is a visual spectacle only, it has a breakout performance in Richardson as a girl trapped between caring for her addict mother and moving on with her life. You would be forgiven for thinking Columbus is about architecture but really this is a film about choices and the quiet, unexpected changes that come about by moving forward. Read my review here.
I’ll say it right off the bat, there is nothing between these last two films in terms of quality. Both are, for lack of a better word, perfect. Personally I consider both to be my favourite but for the sake of simplicity, here you are.
2.) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is reminiscent of husband Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and while some might see this as detrimental it couldn’t be further from the truth. Both films are in their own ways prime examples of growing up and learning from your mistakes. While Frances Ha has a more complete journey, Lady Bird is the more successful film due to its open ended conclusion. Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is one of those characters that rarely comes about, one that is both naïve and world weary at the same time. Her stubbornness only matched by her mother’s (a first-class Laurie Metcalf), she has the ability to push viewers away but I dare you not to relate to her in some small way. Some have complained about the stylised way Gerwig makes Lady Bird act but personally her unusual thought processes couldn’t be more human as I found myself wondering many of the same things she does at some point in my life. However where the film shines is through its use of themes. Gerwig waits until the very end to pull the curtain back on what makes Christine tick and the elements of her life she thought pointless that made her who she is. It is in these small moments that Gerwig establishes herself as one to watch.
1.) A Star is Born
When the trailer came out for Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born I was intrigued but not desperate to see it. Now I have seen it, I want to see it again. I feel as though I missed so much the first time around. Not only was I enraptured by the music but also the fearless nature of Lady Gaga’s performance. She dives right into it in a refreshingly new way that you rarely see. Cooper is almost as impressive as an aging rocker struggling with addiction but the show is Gaga’s. This allows for Cooper to concentrate on the look of things and because of this the film has a lived in grit that adds to the realness. Cooper’s take on this timeless story isn’t so much a love story but one about not getting swallowed up by the industrial machine, maintaining your individuality and what makes you beautiful. The film, and by extension, the relationship between Ally (Gaga) and Jack (Cooper) ebbs and flows by their connection to the music they are producing. They are never closer when they are connected to the music and when that changes so does the nature of their relationship. Cooper cleverly connects to Ally and Jack through the music as that is what links them and thanks to that I fell madly in love with this story in a way I never thought I would. Read my review here.
So there you have it, the best of 2018 which as I’m writing this I realise for me is probably the year of the hopeless romantic. What kind of year was it for you and what are you hoping for next year? Me personally, I’m looking for things to be a little more hopeful, at least in the films I watch. I guess we will see. Happy New Year.