Following on from my top theatre picks of 2018 it’s time for my favourite films of the year.
2018 was a really solid year for film and what surprised me this year was how many blockbusters ended up on the list. Usually the list is all art house/indie faves but this year was the year of the blockbuster for me. Perhaps they were better made than the usual forgettable summer tentpoles that get trotted out every year or perhaps with it just being a slightly more difficult year for me than usual I found solace in fun, if undemanding fare. I’ve always used films as a source of comfort and while I want to be challenged and see new and exciting stuff when I’m feeling down it’s always the feel good, escapist nonsense like Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy or The Mummy that I watch time and again because they put a smile on my face. So here are my personal favourites of 2018:
20 – The Incredibles 2
Welcome, oddly belated sequel to one of the best superhero films ever. The slightly melancholy original dealt with “Who watches the Watchmen?” type themes of power, control and responsibility and what truly makes a person a super hero. The sequel continues with the same themes questioning what responsibility super heroes bear in policing our world while throwing in some interesting gender politics as Mr Incredible finds himself becoming the stay at home dad while Elastigirl (complete with new shiny silver suit) becomes the face of the super hero world. While I love Elastigirl being front and centre (and she gets some astonishing action set pieces) I can’t wholeheartedly cheer them for the gender switch given Mr Incredible still gets all the best scenes. Still it’s nice to see the film deal really honestly with his jealousy of his wife getting to save the world while he struggles with his son’s maths homework and his daughter’s boy troubles. And of course baby Jak Jak and his new powers who steals every single scene of the film he’s in. It’s slightly unfortunate the villain of the piece is so blindingly obvious but that’s a minor thing. The Jak Jak/Racoon fight is hands down one of the funniest scenes of the entire year.
19 – Avengers Infinity War
Infinity War was so hotly anticipated the chances that it was going to be able to live up to the weight of expectation placed upon it were slim to none. In a way it’s a difficult film to review in isolation. This is just act one, the story is far from over and as such it is hard to judge the film’s merits on its own. It was hugely exciting to see all the different characters interacting with each other but with a cast of thousands no one was going to be satisfied with the amount of screen time their faves got with some being left out entirely (yes I know Hawkeye needs to lose his family to go full Ronin but he could have had a couple of scenes!) Thor, Gamora, Iron Man and Spidey all had very strong moments (the emotional highlight of the film is Thor and Rocket discussing the loss of Loki) but the likes of Cap (my personal fave), Bucky, Black Widow, the Black Panther crew etc all got rather short changed. And it’s probably best we don’t focus too much on the dreadfully naff way fan favourite Loki (Tom Hiddleston) dies. Yes he comes full circle, proudly calls himself a son of Asgard and dies defending his brother but he’s a trickster god FFS and his plan to defeat Thanos was to stab him with a tiny knife? So, so weak – here’s hoping the announced Loki tv series retcons his death into something more believable. Still this is Thanos’ story and Josh Brolin deserves a huge amount of credit for bringing the Mad Titan to life. My biggest concern prior to the film was that the only glimpses we had seen of Thanos in the build up to Infinity War were of a purple thing bellowing unconvincingly on a throne. Frightening it was not and a weak villain would have sunk the entire enterprise. Thankfully Brolin makes Thanos a compelling, conflicted figure, capable of love (or some twisted semblance of it) and regret. The power of Thanos’ absolute belief that wiping out half of all living things is the only way for the universe to thrive is utterly and completely terrifying. Brolin overcomes the CGI to make Thanos one of the most compelling villains in the MCU and a worthy adversary for the Avengers.
18 – Aquaman
Yes Aquaman is in my top 20 list. No I’m not joking. Prior to release Aquaman had been met with nothing but derision from critics and film lovers alike. The character hadn’t exactly lit up the screen in the woeful Justice League (I can vaguely recall him being grumpy to Batman and that’s about it) and as a lesser known comic property and given how incredibly poor the DC films have been post Nolan (with the obvious exception of Wonder Woman) no one expected this to be anything other than execrable. But oh my god it is such good fun. It’s bright, loud, shiny, dumb, frequently unintentionally hilarious and an absolutely pitch perfect vehicle for its amiable star Jason Momoa. There’s so much to love here and I’m not just talking about the fact that Momoa spends the majority of the film shirtless and shoeless showing off his incredible physique. The film is quietly subversive in terms of its gender politics in that’s it’s very clear that the women are amazing and the men petulant, idiotic simpletons. The film is charmingly honest about the fact that Arthur for all his good heart and super hero powers is as thick as a brick. He would have died repeatedly if it weren’t for Mera (a likeable Amber Heard doing her best Princess Leia impersonation) continually saving his arse. Equally Nicole Kidman has an absolute riot of a time as “Aqua Mom”, Queen Atlanta who fell in love with a lighthouse keeper and had Arthur as a result. Her fight scenes are a joy to watch. Patrick Wilson (looking deeply hot I have to say) commits entirely to the madness of his role as Arthur’s half brother who has major mummy issues and wishes to unite the kingdoms of Atlantis and declare war on the land. At one point he has to shout the words “Call me Ocean Master” with great gravitas and I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. Bits of it are just so ridiculously over the top you can’t help but be charmed by it. It’s less successful in its treatment of Black Manta. He’s given the same broad strokes backstory as Killmonger but unfortunately the actor is no Michael B Jordan. I ended up not caring less about him as a villain but he looked very cool. If you want something undemanding to make you smile Aquaman is the film for you. Now where is my prequel rom com with Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison falling in love?
17 – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coens return with an anthology film featuring vignettes about death. Beautifully directed, scored and shot (the cinematography is the finest you’ll see this year) Buster Scruggs is an engaging curiosity that perhaps would have worked better as a tv series as was their initial intention. The opening song and dance routine is a glorious marriage of clever word play and fun and eye popping violence. Highlights for me were The Gal who Got Rattled, All Gold Canyon and The Mortal Remains (which has the most beautiful dialogue). It’s beautifully bleak and fatalist (with the segment Meal Ticket tipping the scales into nihilism) and as such something to admire rather than truly love. Still the Coens’ feel for character and dialogue is unparalleled.
16 – Green Book
This received a 10 minute standing ovation at the London Film Festival but seems to have gone down like a cup of cold sick in America where it has been criticised for its inaccuracy, its glib treatment of racial segregation and for its choice of putting a white man at the centre of a black man’s story. All of which are entirely valid criticisms. I saw Mahershala Ali speak about the piece (before its US release) and he could not have been more (politely) dismissive of the notion that the film features Viggo Mortensen’s character teaching his character “how to be black”. He loved that his character (black, prissy, gay, highly intellectuall) was so different from what we usually get to see and what he was usually offered. So I can only go with his feelings about the film as he was the one bringing this beautiful character to life. I completely understand that people are sick to death of white characters dominating the narrative when the story being told is that of the struggles of a black man trying to live with dignity and grace while facing the worst kind of racism. But if you can bear all the valid critiques in mind it’s still a wonderfully acted, often very funny, offbeat buddy movie. Mortensen is a very charming actor and he is hugely appealing here as the cash strapped, racist driver who sees the error of his ways. Ali once again shows that he is a cinematic force to be reckoned with vividly bringing to life a character that is nothing but contradictions. Mortensen and Ali also have chemistry for days. If you can overlook the critiques you’ll be rewarded with a superbly acted, charming film that I thoroughly enjoyed.
15 – Venom
Noone expected Venom to be any good. A minor comic property that doesn’t make any sense outside of the Spiderman universe. Not even Tom Hardy expected Venom to be good. The pre-release buzz was dreadful with tales of studio interference, an enforced PG-13 rating, Tom Hardy complaining his favourite scenes were left on the cutting room floor and photos of the cast showing up at events looking like Sony was holding their family hostage. Yet Venom turned out to be the zany, madcap rom-com tale of one man and his symbiote that the world didn’t know it needed. Those boggling at the truckloads of money the film has made worldwide clearly underestimated the charm of its leading man. Hardy is fantastic here especially in the moments when he gets to let rip with the comedic elements like sitting in a tank of lobsters because Venom is making him feel a bit toasty. Its also the second super hero movie on the list to have the female lead (in this case Michelle Williams in a fun turn) be the one that actually saves the day. Arguably Riz Ahmed‘s talents are a little wasted but it’s still more fun than it has any right to be.
14 – Hereditary
Deeply unsettling horror film that delves into the horrors we inherit from our families. Toni Collette is stunning as the matriarch who becomes aware that her family has been earmarked for something unspeakable. Gabriel Byrne is understated as the father facing unfathomable loss and Alex Wolff is hugely impressive as the son struggling with the hell the family finds themselves in. Ari Aster expertly builds an atmosphere of overwhelming dread which descends into complete madness in the final act. All the scenes in the house are framed so beautifully that they wonderfully evoke Collette’s characters miniature dolls houses so we are always aware that these characters are just toys to be played with. As a horror fan it’s far from the scariest film I’ve ever seen despite some of the more excitable press but it does contain far and away the most horrifying death scene of 2018. Also a particularly memorable “ceiling” scene. It’s a shame Ann Dowd is acting in a completely different film to everyone else. That performance needed to be massively reigned in. I liked the bonkers final act but can see why it might have tried others patience. Bold and uncomfortable film making.
13 – First Reformed
First Reformed was a struggle to get through the first time I watched it. The old school aspect ratio struck me as rather pretentious and it was remarkably slow. Then something weird happened, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. It crept under my skin and wouldn’t leave. First Reformed is an extremely timely film about loneliness, radicalisation, climate change, fear, illness, loss and faith not just in god but in each other. Ethan Hawke is spellbinding, giving for me the male performance of the year. He grounds the piece ensuring that the slightly derisory ending doesn’t sink things. First Reformed asks hard questions and offers no answers. Just the understanding that there is solace out there for us all – not necessarily from up above but from our fellow passengers on this spiritual journey.
12 – A Quiet Place
Slick, high concept horror as creatures who attack at the slightest sound invade Earth. It’s not as clever or unique as it thinks it is and it’s best not to focus on the plot for too long or you’ll get deeply irritated (why in god’s name haven’t you moved to a waterfall or near a raging river where the noise of your day to day life would be drowned out? Why didn’t a certain someone throw a rock at the end to distract the creature with the noise instead of doing something so devastating? AND WHY IN THE HELL DID YOU LET YOURSELF GET PREGNANT IN AN APOCALYPSE?) However, these not exactly minor story issues aside the film is still a nerve shreddingly tense experience to watch elevated by incredible performances from real life married couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski who leapt from cute guy from the US version of the Office to bona fide leading man with his heartbreaking turn here.
11 – Tigers Are Not Afraid
I really hope that the UK and US distribution of this gets sorted so that more people can see this extraordinary film. Issa Lopez’s film uses magical realism to tackle the story of a group of children in Mexico whose parents have been disappeared by the drug cartels. Brutal, beautiful, violent and deeply haunting once seen it will hurt your heart and stay with you forever. It looks stunningly beautiful and it features astonishing turns from the young child actors. It’s also completely and totally devastating. Reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro at his finest
10 – Mission Impossible Fall Out
I’ve always had a soft spot for the MI films and this is the best of the lot. It does not mess around when it comes to the action, it moves like the clappers from the get go and never lets up the pace for a second. Tom Cruise continues to be the last true film star of our age and is completely commanding here as Ethan Hunt. As bewildering as his death wish desire to do his own stunts is you can’t deny that it lends a sense of danger and authenticity to proceedings. He is well matched by Henry Cavill who is at his best when allowed to showcase his considerable charm (see The Man From UNCLE) as well as his brawny physique. Rebecca Ferguson is far too young to be Cruise’s love interest but we’ll allow it because she is so kick ass in her role as Ilsa. Angela Basset, Sean Harris and Vanessa Kirby all show up to provide classy support. The plot is ridiculous and the villain may as well be called Baddie McBadderson they are so obvious but you know what? None of that matters. This is as classy as action blockbusters get – give Christopher McQuarrie Bond, he could clearly do it in his sleep.
9 – Mary Poppins Returns
Goodness the critics were grumpy about this. “It’s not as good as the original” they whined. “The songs aren’t as good.” “Noone beats Julie Andrews” To which I say Pish Posh. Look maybe to some Mary Poppins is a revered cinematic gem but to me it’s just the film that was on every bank holiday when I was a kid. It was always longer than you thought, slower than you thought, not every song was a banger and depending on how much you’d had to drink the previous night Julie Andrew’s trilling soprano could go straight through you. It’s a lovely film but you know what so is Mary Poppins Returns which is equally destined to be a much loved bank holiday treasure. Emily Blunt is completely luminous as the magical nanny who appears from the sky to take care of the Banks children. Ben Whishaw (or Whishy as he’s known around these parts due to his delightful fae like countenance) treats the entire enterprise as if he’s at the RSC giving a weighty, heartrending performance as a grieving man hanging by a thread. He also turns out to have a beautiful voice in his heartbreaking number where he sings to the memory of his dead wife. Charisma machine Lin-Manuel Miranda overcomes a terrible dodgy cockney accent to be charm personified as lamplighter Jack proving that his leading man status isn’t just limited to his own projects. Colin Firth gets to be the baddie and looks like he’s having good fun being marvellously unpleasant. Emily Mortimer gets less to do but then she also gets to spend the entire film flirting with Lin so there are worst ways to spend your working day. The songs are ovely with The Cover is Not the Book (mystifyingly not on the Oscar shortlist) being the clear highlight. Meryl Streep‘s scene is completely unnecessary and probably should have been left on the cutting room floor and Rob Marshall still can’t shoot dance to save his life – the editing and framing of Trip a Little Light Fantastic is a complete waste of the dancers talents. But overall it’s a truly lovely film that made me cry a lot (damn you Whishy!)
8 – You Were Never Really Here
Joaquin Phoenix gives a towering performance in Lynne Ramsay‘s brutal, elegiac look at masculinity, power, abuse, violence, PTSD and the demons we all carry. Horrendously violent and cold but shot through with extraordinary humanity all set to a pounding score from Jonny Greenwood which sounds like it crawled out of hell. Ramsay and Phoenix are terrible self publicists (I originally saw this at the London Film Festival in 2017 where Ramsay was literally dragged off stage by a monosyllabic Phoenix as she was deeply embarrassing herself) which is why this movie isn’t on every single Oscar shortlist as it bloody well should be (I mean in any sensible year the best actor Oscar would be a slug fest between Joaquin Phoenix and Ethan Hawke) But then I think as artists they both prefer to let their work speak for itself and as a piece You Were Never Really Here doesn’t so much speak as scream. Superb.
7 – Destroyer
It’s about damn time. Cinema is littered with hard boiled, anti hero detectives who do terrible things in the name of justice. So it’s about bloody time that instead of the endless parade of middle aged men we finally get a woman in the central role. Nicole Kidman gives the performance of her career as the deeply flawed detective trying to correct past wrongs. Kidman weaves her way through the fractured narrative like a tortured wraith. Much has been made of her physical transformation but going past the superficiality of the greying wig and bad make up she physically creates this woman from the bottom up, from the hunched way she holds herself to the unsteady way she walks signalling a life of substance abuse and regret. I don’t really understand why Kidman isn’t on every best actress shortlist. She has never been better. Her scene in the diner with her daughter completely destroyed me. Sebastian Stan does a lot with very little in a supporting role that shows that he has much more to offer than Bucky Barnes.
6 – Mandy
Mandy is a violet hued, heavy metal, fever dream of a film. It features Nick Cage, who is not an actor known for his restraint, turning the dial up to 11 million. It has a gloriously 80’s synth score, heavy metal style animations and (un)intentionally hilarious sequences like the chain saw fight, or the entire section with the drug dealer, or the pain loving guys in gimp suits. This is a film where Nick Cage beats a guy to death while yelling “You tore my shirt” and then snorts a mountain of coke off a glass shard and that’s not even the wildest scene in the film. But for all it’s violence and it’s off the wall Cage-ness it’s a surprisingly affecting look at grief and madness. I would normally frown at a film where the female lead (an ethereal Andrea Riseborough) exists purely to be killed but her presence is in every frame of the film. Mandy dies because she dares to laugh at a small, pathetic man who thinks he’s a god and pays the ultimate price for it. I appreciated the film’s restraint in her (horrific) death scene, whilst Mandy burns for her laughter we aren’t forced to watch anything that even remotely resembles Riseborough. The film needs Mandy to die but it respects her above all. It’s not going to be a film for everyone but it’s Cage’s best in years and theres pathos hidden among the insanity.
5 – Black Panther
Yes Black Panther is groundbreaking in that it’s the first comic book movie/action blockbuster with an all black principle cast/creative team but beyond that it’s just a bloody good movie. Ryan Coogler shows that working within the constraints of the MCU need not limit your imagination by producing a blistering, effortlessly classy action blockbuster. It looks beautiful, Wakanda is a stunning vision of Afro-futurism with incredible costume designs for all the principal cast. It’s also easily the best acted of all the MCU films with every single member of the cast knocking it out of the park. Chadwick Boseman becomes a king before your eyes – he’s athletic, funny and unquestionably royalty. Break out star Letitia Wright is adorable as Suri, the woman who makes Iron Man look like a neanderthal. Danai Gurira is fierce as hell as Okoye and gets the best moment in the film whipping off her wig and throwing it at the person she’s fighting. Lupita Nyong’O is charming as Nakia who is far wiser and level headed that T’Challa. Winston Duke turns his small role as M’Baku into a star turns which provides the lions share of the laughs. Andy Serkis is clearly having the time of his life as the villainous Klaue. Sterling K Brown acts the hell out of his cameo role. And then there’s Michael B Jordan who with his charismatic, nasty turn as Killmonger, usurped Loki as the best villain the MCU has. Killmonger has solid motivations for his actions and while he is still a raging psychopath he’s a surprisingly affecting figure. (I’m not down with this “Killmonger was right” nonsense. Nakia was right that Wakanda should share its technology with the world. Killmonger just wanted bloodshed and anarchy). Classy and superbly acted Black Panther raised the bar for what blockbusters and comic book movies should aspire to.
4 – Annihilation
No movie this year has haunted me more than this. Once seen it burrows in and won’t let you go. Natalie Portman leads a team to go into a strange anomaly to find her missing husband. There she sees things of such beauty and such horror – plants that were once people, a bear with the scream of a human, decay and rot and colour and vibrance and new frightening life. Vivid, disquieting and deeply affecting it’s a film which has a different takeaway for each viewer. For me it’s about self destruction and depression and searching for a measure of peace in the madness. Tessa Thompson’s fate, Natalie Portman’s balletic fight with herself are moments that will never leave me. At the end of the piece Portman’s character is forever changed. So is everyone who watches.
3- Paddington 2
“If you’re kind and polite the world will be right.” This is a warm, bearhug of a film. Paddington gets put in the slammer after being fitted up for a robbery by the very naughty Hugh Grant. Grant (who has had quite the year between this and the equally superb A Very English Scandal) is pure brilliance in a comedic masterpiece of a turn that requires him to adopt different personas. Clearly the words “no darling that’s too much” were not on the agenda here as Grant runs riot with the premise. It’s a turn which if the Oscars respected comedies in the way that they should would have Grant as a major awards contender. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville continue to be just lovely as the Browns living in their ginormous million pound mansion they couldn’t possibly afford to live in.The dialogue by Paul King and Simon Farnaby is cracking and sparkles with wit and warmth. Whishy does a beautiful job as Paddington with his tea and honey vocals charming everyone in a 5 mile radius. It’s also wonderful that in these miserable times Paddington has become a symbol of tolerance with the scene where everyone stands up for Paddington against Peter Capaldi‘s Brexit small mindedness making me well up. And if you don’t cry at the end you’re a robot.
2 – Spider-Man – Into the Spider Verse
I’ve always loved Spider-Man. I used to adore the cartoon series as a kid and I’ve cheerfully sat through all the Spider-Man movies. Tobey Maguire was a great Peter Parker and Spider-Man 2 is a masterpiece. The Amazing Spider-Man movies suffer from terrible (and I mean TERRIBLE) scripts but benefit from having the strongest actor in Andrew Garfield who was fantastic as Spider-Man (not so much as Pete) and is the closest so far to the comics Spidey. What I would have given for a non origin story post college Spidey with Andrew Garfield in the role and a decent scriptwriter at the helm. Tom Holland is great as both Peter and Spidey in the MCU although I’m resentful that Iron Man got to monopolise his first movie. But now? Now I have a new favourite Spider-Man and it’s Miles Morales. Into the Spider Verse is stunning. Really no hype is enough. It’s funny, incredibly clever, deeply warm hearted and made me cry repeatedly. Shameik Moore does wonderful vocal work making me fall deeply in love with Miles an ordinary teen from Brooklyn who is bitten by a creepy spider and becomes Spider-Man after the death of Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Thanks to some science-y collider thing he gets to meet plenty of other spider people including Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), another more Hobo like Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage) and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn). Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s script is fiercely funny and clever. But the animation is spellbinding. It looks like no animated movie I’ve seen before. Each spider person gets their own style of animation. Featuring a much needed message that anyone can be a hero because “Anyone can wear the mask” Into the Spider Verse even manages to pip Black Panther as the best super hero movie in years. See while Black Panther was completely groundbreaking in terms of diversity and inclusion the heroes in that are all royalty. Miles is just a mixed heritage kid from Brooklyn trying to make his way in the world. So many kids are going to be able to see themselves in Miles and see that they too can be a hero. Words can’t really express how much I loved this. Go see it now.
1 – The Favourite
“Oh my dear we were playing very different games”. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone compete for the affections of Queen Anne (the incomparable Olivia Colman) in this viciously hilarious period drama. Stone is delightfully calculating as Abigail whose father drank away her fortune and gambled her virginity away to a German with a thin penis. She is determined to crawl her way back to respectability and will do anything to secure her position including whoring herself out to the Queen. Rachel Weisz is stunning (and sexy as hell, I mean oh dear lord I tripped several levels down the Kinsey scale just looking at her in those riding clothes) as Sarah, the Queen’s secret lover who rules the household with a rod of iron. Olivia Colman continues to show the world that she’s the finest actress of her generation with her hilarious, affecting turn as the confused Queen Anne who longs for affection and is haunted by the loss of all her children. Nicholas Hoult puts in a lovely turn as the foppish head of the opposition who yearns for power. Yorgos Lanthimos has produced his most accessible film to date with this gem. Shot entirely in natural and candle light it’s easily one of the funniest films of the year. Until of course it isn’t as in true Lanthimos style the ending is deeply, deeply devastating. A bawdy, brilliant triumph featuring a trinity of extraordinary female performances.