Film Review of 2018
Part of why I missed so much at the cinema this year is because there’s more to see than ever before. Each week film distributors offer anything from five to 10 new releases in cinemas, with Netflix offering you a couple of original productions to watch without ever leaving your home. That means curation is more important than ever these days; you’re being assaulted with content around every corner and in every medium, each desperate for your custom. Deciding what you view and why can be overwhelming, so the question is, how do you curate the cinema you watch?
There are a couple of ways that many people choose which films to watch. Many people cling to reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (falsely) as some arbiter of taste. Most, however, opt for familiarity, which is why nine out of the 10 most successful films at the worldwide box office were franchise entries and the other was the execrable Bohemian Rhapsody, where the familiarity was in its formula.
Familiarity, however, is not always a good way to decide what to see at the cinema, and big box office doesn’t always indicate quality. The top grossing film of the year was the deeply terrible Avengers: Infinity War, while other entries in the list such as Incredibles 2 had the whiff of mediocrity. Mission Impossible: Fallout was the best blockbuster by a mile, a film so exciting, so physically exhausting to watch that it validated the entire franchise so far. Black Panther was also decent, but the best superhero film was Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, which shows just how inventive and entertaining the genre can be, while also showcasing some dazzling animation.
Bad box office doesn’t always mean a bad film, either. I was very fond of the ill-fated Mortal Engines, which was intended as a franchise-starting blockbuster, but the difficult premise (cities on wheels moving across barren landscapes, eating smaller cities as a colonialism metaphor) and dense worldbuilding made it a hard sell. It tanked - perhaps due to its unfamiliarity - so we’re unlikely to see any sequels. It’s a shame, as I was drawn in by the sheer scale and invention of the world. There are, admittedly, too many characters with not enough time, but I wish more films with this sense of boldness existed. It’s the kind of thing that makes cinemagoing a special experience.
So, box office doesn’t work as a way of determining what to watch. Instead, you could choose to follow directors. It was my love of David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was my favourite film of last year, that led me to see Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun. It’s wonderful, and Lowery has yet again made a contender for my favourite of the year. Redford (one of the greats) plays an aging bank robber too charming to ever be captured. He dares you to root for him even as he commits crimes, but leaves you with just enough doubt to make this a morally ambivalent delight. The jazzy score by Daniel Hart, the gorgeous 70s production design, a wonderful performance by Sissy Spacek (another hero) - I can’t fully describe the thrill of watching this, but it’s a bit like drinking whisky while watching The Sting.
Other directors I already admired also produced the goods again. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) released Widows, a much grittier, thornier heist film than The Old Man, with even murkier morals for the viewer to parse. It was marketed as a serious movie about race and gender and, while it is that, it’s also one of the most exciting films of the year and a good deal more empowering than froth like Ocean’s 8.
I’m drawn to directors like McQueen who don’t offer easy answers. For instance, I’d still be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama, was really about. It’s a story of a dressmaker and his muse, but it’s also a tale of control and power, about the nature of genius and a whole lot more. A deadpan sense of humour, three of the year’s best performances and stunning cinematography only add to the appeal of this near-perfect, unusual film.
Two of Japan’s finest directors also maintained their phenomenal form. Hirokazu Kore-eda made the heartbreaking Shoplifters, about a strange kind of family on the lowest rung of society, while animation genius Mamoru Hosoda released Mirai, about a boy who learns to love his little sister through time travel shenanigans.
Word of Mouth
Of course, word of mouth is probably the best way to find out what’s good. Read critics, follow them on Twitter, listen to them on the radio. Good criticism leads to good curation. Find the ones who you like (but don’t always agree with) and allow them to add things to your film diet that you might otherwise have missed.
Some times word of mouth is so loud that it leads to Oscar nominations, as with Greta Gerwig’s lovely Lady Bird, which was pretty much perfect in its astute depiction of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The hype around A Quiet Place, meanwhile, was deafening (if you were on twitter). I wouldn’t have gone to see it if I hadn’t seen so many people I trust recommend it - it’s terrific, a monster movie that launches you straight into its silent world and leaves you listening out even for your own breaths. I wish the score hadn’t been quite so invasive, but otherwise this is as great as everyone suggested.
But then there are the smaller releases, the ones that I sought out based on the words of just one or two people. Nearly everyone who saw Chloe Zao’s The Rider loved it, but that wasn’t too many people. It’s a drama about a rodeo rider who sustains an injury and is forced to hang up his saddle. The cast are mostly playing versions of themselves, making this study of masculinity and meaning even more powerful. In a part of the world where one activity determines your worth, what do you do when that’s taken away from you? I won’t readily forget the scenes of the lead character Brady visiting his paralysed friend in the hospital and recreating riding movements with him, showing a depth of compassion that defies traditional macho images of cowboys.
I spend too much time on Twitter, a place where nuance goes to die. That’s perhaps why this year I was drawn towards films that didn’t offer easy answers, that resisted moral binaries in favour of complexity. I needed a balm to the self-inflicted irritant of social media, so I sought out ambivalence and difficulty. (I’m not always like this, I’d just as readily rewatch Paddington 2). This might be why I consider Hostiles to be one of the very best of 2018, though it was another film that came and went without too much fanfare.
Hostiles is not an easy film. It opens with a family getting brutally killed and, well, a few more characters die from there. It’s about a grizzled war veteran (Christian Bale) escorting his old enemy, a Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi), across several states so he can die peacefully in his home. Not only is it stunning (cinematography geeks will love Masanobu Takayanagi recalling the vistas of Vilmos Zsigmond), but it’s one of the chewiest films of the year. America, it contends, is a nation that was built on violence. Is it possible to break the cycle of violence, to create a nation that leaves its cruelty behind? Admirably, Hostiles offers few solutions. This is cinema with real heft to it; gripping, uncomfortable storytelling with an unflinching emotional core. If you’re OK with screen violence and you like to be provoked, this is an immensely rewarding film.
Our new Netflix overlords
Of course, you don’t need to fork out 10 quid to watch films by the great directors and storytellers anymore. You could just fire up Netflix and see what’s playing. No one is entirely sure what Netflix’s business model is, but I’m reluctant to ask too many questions when they keep throwing money at insanely talented directors. For a while, the streaming giants have been pushing for critical, festival and awards recognition and this year they pulled it off magnificently, offering many of the best films of the year.
Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) is a serious Oscars contender, a festival darling and a pretty universal critical success. In a way, that’s a bit surprising, as it’s a slow, black-and-white film in Spanish and Mixtec, so it was never guaranteed universal praise. It follows a maid working for a middle-class family that’s falling apart during the political turmoil of the 70s in Mexico. The family are utterly oblivious to the tragedy and trials of her life, yet she continues to show them compassion and care. It’s harrowing in places and features some moments of severe emotional distress** but builds to something unforgettable. Oh, and it’s technically astonishing, too. If it does win awards, I can think of few films more deserving.
Roma alone would be a triumph for Netflix, but this year they also released a new film by the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology film that riffs on different Western genres. It’s not the Coens’ best, and it’s rather cruel, but even coasting Coens is a joy to behold. Outlaw King told the story of Robert the Bruce with a suitably epic scope, while Annihilation proved to be the most inventive sci-fi of the year. I wish I’d seen all three on the big screen, but I’m glad they exist. Oh, and Netflix also produced the best teen movie I saw this year, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, so they really do have something for everyone.
There’s no really easy way to choose what to watch. If anything, Netflix makes it harder; you can spend 30 minutes browsing hundreds of films before deciding that there’s nothing good at all. But with the sheer number of films being produced and released, across numerous different platforms, it also feels like there’s more good stuff than ever being released. Cinema can be profound and challenging, offering complexity in a culture that resists it. It can also be wonderful escapism where you can watch Tom Cruise get beaten up for two hours or you can picture yourself flying through New York accompanied by Nicholas Cage as Spider-Noir. Sometimes the good stuff takes some seeking out, but there are few worldly experiences more thrilling than sitting down in a dark room and discovering a new masterpiece.
**ROMA SPOILERS - CONTENT WARNING
Roma features an unflinching scene of a stillbirth, which is more distressing than many of the more violent films I’ve seen this year. It’s intrinsic to the themes and plot of the film, so it isn’t unjustified. It’s upsetting enough, however, to warrant a warning for unsuspecting viewers who may have dealt with similar tragedies.