Monday, 31 December 2018

MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2018

Can it be twelve months since I picked my Top Ten Movies of 2017? Well, yes, it must have been twelve months and what an idiot I am for even opening this blog post with that.

As usual, my Top Ten films are listed in purely alphabetical order. I'm not even going to try to assign any sort of ranking to them - these are the ten movies I enjoyed most in 2018 plus eleven honourable mentions this time out because I just couldn't narrow it down to ten.

Your Top Ten is probably completely different to mine. That's fine. You may hate some of the titles I've chosen. That's also fine. Just don't @ me telling me how much I suck as a person because I happen to love Mandy.

This year, there's no short movie in the Top Ten although I saw some very good ones and there's still a lot of great work to be found in that medium. For those of you fine folk who trudged dutifully through my "Best of 2017" post you may spot that one of those movies also appears on the 2018 list as well. There are also two animated movies which find themselves in the Top Ten this year and, as is customary, a smattering of the very best titles on the horror festival circuit.

Okay, let's go...


BLACKKKLANSMAN


Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer from Colorado Springs, manages to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with a few well-placed phone calls and the assistance of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who goes undercover as Ron at the Klan meetings. Pretty soon, "Ron" is attracting the attention of the senior figures in the KKK, including Grand Wizard David Duke (played by Topher Grace) himself...

A story so bizarre that it could only be true, BlacKkKlansman is a movie which will have you laughing out loud one moment and clenching your fists in anger the next. Spike Lee's film shows just how ridiculous bigotry is by playing it mostly for effective laughs, although there are moments of almost unbearable tension as Driver faces situation where he may be found out at any moment.

The tonal shift towards the end may seem a little jarring but I thought it fit the movie very well. Yes, there's plenty of fun to be had pricking the pomposity of those who see themselves as superior but some of those people are genuinely dangerous and motivated to carry out the most horrible of acts to demonstrate the strength of their beliefs.

BlacKkKlansman puts its message across without the need to get too preachy about it. It'll leave you thoroughly entertained but it'll also leave you thinking, which can't be a bad thing.


BLINDSPOTTING


On the final three days of his probation, Collin (Daveed Diggs) witnesses a policeman shooting a fleeing black man, which causes him to miss the curfew at the halfway house where's he staying as part of his parole terms. He also somehow finds himself in possession of a gun owned by Miles (Rafael Casal), his somewhat loose cannon of a best friend. Collin's previous romantic relationship with removal company dispatcher Val looks to be in tatters and she doesn't seem overly keen to be associating with Collin any more. Can he negotiate all of these problems to land himself on the straight and narrow?

As well as starring in the film, Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay, which adroitly tackles race, class, gentrification and more besides in a down-to-earth, honest, often amusing manner. I admit that I don't know a great deal about Oakland but the way it's portrayed in Blindspotting felt authentic to me - a community doing its best to thrive despite numerous issues.

A winning combination of the comedic and the dramatic - and with a portrayal of male friendship that rings with truth - Blindspotting is a fascinating slice of life in the Bay Area made with heart and soul. Suffice to say, I'm very much looking forward to the next Daveed Diggs/Rafael Casal collaboration.


THE BREADWINNER


In the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan of the early 21st century, 11-year-old Parvana's father is wrongfully arrested and she has to provide for her family by disguising herself as a boy. If that wasn't dangerous enough, Parvana used her new-found freedom to hunt for the means by which her father can be freed and her family reunited.

The utterly gorgeous animation in Nora Twomey's feature contrasts superbly with the genuinely dark and tense tale being told. The Breadwinner is powerful, gripping and has so much to say about a kind of society which may not be immediately familiar to many of us. Above all, for me, it's a story which celebrates strength of character and the power of hope, even in the most desperate of situations.

An honest, emotionally-charged piece of work, this demonstrates perfectly that animation can be as affecting as any other film genre.


THE ENDLESS


So if you read my "Best Of" list for 2017, you might be thinking that I've made some kind of mistake because The Endless was indeed in last year's Top Ten. Well, I saw it again (and again) in 2018 when it received a wider release outside of the festival circuit and I loved it even more on further viewing so here it is again.

After Resolution and Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made it three unmissable films out of three with this genre-hopping, mind-melting tale of Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) who return to the "UFO death cult" from which they escaped years previously.

Resolutely refusing to stick to any standard template, The Endless constantly leaves the viewer genuinely unsure of exactly where the story is going and what the hell is going to happen next. It also avoids going down the usual route of having cult members behaving like lunatics within nanoseconds of being introduced to them. In fact, they actually seem like reasonable people with a purpose. Or is that what the movie wants you to think?

Taking the lead roles in their own film is something of a risk but Benson and Moorhead carry the film very well, helped by a fine supporting cast. The visual effects are glorious (and nothing short of miraculous considering the budget), the jokes work, the tension is built carefully. It's a perfect example of unshowy but supremely confident film-making. 

With beautifully executed, satisfying callbacks to their previous work - which also explain at least some of the quite frankly head-spinning plot developments - and a deliberate pace which allows you to both soak up the atmosphere and attempt to second guess what might be going on, The Endless rewards patience and attention. You may leave the cinema with your mind blown but trust me, you'll feel better for it.



LEAVE NO TRACE


Iraq war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living off the grid in the forests of Oregon, careful not to attract any attention to themselves. That is until a mistake results in them in the hands of the authorities and they're both put into the care of social services who try to integrate them into society gradually.

Perhaps the paragraph above isn't going to get you running to see this but that's down to my summary and nothing to do with Debra Granik's superb film. Ditching all of the histrionics that would have been all too easy to deploy here, Leave No Trace is a low-key masterpiece which doesn't have to shout its message in your face to be a real heartbreaker.

The performances match the subtle tone perfectly too. Foster is a mass of repressed emotions and his inability to reconnect with the world is agonising to watch - I wanted to reach into the screen and give the guy a hug. Newcomer McKenzie is exceptional, giving us a totally convincing portrait of a tough but sensitive teenager without the overblown tantrums we've seen hundreds of times elsewhere.

I'm frustrated that this movie wasn't huge - I saw it on at a late showing one weekend with only a few others and it was clear from the reaction as we left the cinema that everyone loved it. It doesn't have the budget or the brashness of so much multiplex programming these days but Leave No Trace has no desire to be that kind of film. it's a moving story, told brilliantly, with two central performances we should be talking about much more. I urge you to see this.


LIFECHANGER


The imdb summary on this one says the following: "A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves".

And that's more or less all I can tell you about it because to give you any further details would be to ruin the experience of going into it knowing nothing and wondering just where the hell it's going to go next. Suffice to say, we're straight into the world of the main character from minute one and looking at a situation which could spin off in a huge number of directions.

As the focal point of the plot, Lora Burke is casting gold as the engaging, good-natured but emotionally damaged Laura. From the moment we meet her she's a person we identify and connect with and will come to care about very much, which amplifies any potential danger to her all the more.

Lifechanger ended up being my favourite film of this year's Celluloid Screams festival. Considering how strong its 2018 line-up was that should give you some idea as to how much I rated it. It's a melancholic, chilling, romantic, engrossing little gem of a flick which I would recommend to horror and non-horror film fans alike.


MANDY


Lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) is living the quiet life in the wilderness with his bookish, rock chick partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) when their idyll is shattered by the arrival of a crazed hippie cult led by the creepy Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Suffice to say some very bad things happen, leading Red down a path of bloody, surreal vengeance...

Re-tooling the revenge flick as a vivid, trippy, retina-scorching nightmare, Panos Cosmatos' debut feature will no doubt alienate as many as it impresses. The deliberately slow build of a first half gives way to a gore-splattered, unfettered riot of a second as Cage takes on LSD-addled bikers from Hell and eventually the cult itself.

It would be easy to focus on Nic going full Cage here but that would be to detract from what is essentially a, ahem, knowing (sorry) and enjoyable performance. Riseborough is, as always, terrific as title character and although Roache's villain has shades of the pantomime baddie he also manages to unnerve and disturb, his performance matching perfectly with the quite frankly batshit crazy things going on here.

The film also looks beautiful, full of wonderfully conceived visions of tranquillity and purgatory. It seems a tad lazy to call this an assault on the senses but that's exactly what it is and some viewers may not stay the distance because of the unrelenting visual and auditory pounding it dishes out. This is an immersive, impressive headfuck, it's off-kilter off the scale and I loved it to bits.

I also know that a lot of you out there absolutely hated Mandy and I understand why. It's probably the most divisive film I've seen this year. Forget that, it's definitely the most divisive film I've seen this year.



ONE CUT OF THE DEAD


As much as I love cinema there are times when I get a touch of movie fatigue, usually when I see a bunch of stuff that's so by-the-numbers I'm reciting the next line a character is going to say. It's at this point that I'm looking for the movie that's going to knock me out of my seat in genuine surprise. This year, that movie was micro-budgeted Japanese miracle One Cut Of The Dead.

I know you're going to have heard this before but that's more or less all I can tell you about it because to give you any further details would be to ruin the experience of going into it knowing nothing and wondering just what's going to happen next. Yes, initially you'll be impressed with the technical achievement of the very, very, VERY long take which opens the film, then you'll be wondering why a particularly well used - dare I say clichéd ? - plot device is thrown into the mix. You may even think you're going to get a tad bored with the rest of it. Trust me, you're not.

By the end of this, you're going to want to go back and watch it again immediately as the plot reveals just how incredibly clever it is. Seemingly minor details become major points in the unfolding story and character traits which appeared unimportant in the first instance are played for unexpectedly hilarious effect.

Proof once more that the horror genre continues to produce the most inventive output in cinema right now, One Cut Of The Dead is an absolute delight.

POM! 


SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE


After Peter Parker is killed attempting to stop the villainous Kingpin from activating a particle accelerator device which could open the doorway to parallel universes, teenager Miles Morales aims to become the new web slinger in town. Soon after, he runs into Peter Parker, who's anything but dead. And from another dimension. Things are complicated further when other spider-folk from other universes are dragged into Miles' version of New York and they all need to get back home...

Easily the best superhero movie of 2018 as far as I'm concerned, this sidesteps huge, interminable scenes of mass destruction (save for the climactic showdown) and focuses on both character development and the possibilities of the multiverse. It also has a relaxed, warm sense of humour and makes some smart choices - for instance, classic nemesis Doctor Octopus is involved, but with a twist here because...well, just watch and smile at the reveal.

It also has a pleasingly authentic comic book look, right down to some of the action taking place in lovingly-rendered panels across a beautifully animated New York. The idea of a team of Spider-folk banding together to take down the bad guys is a fine one and each has their own very specific identity. It's also a sweet coming-of-age story and it's a race against time to save the city. And it has Nic Cage as Spider-Noir. What more could you want? 


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI


Frustrated with the lack of progress made by the investigation into her daughter's murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) pays for a rather pointed series of messages to be displayed on the titular billboards, challenging local police Chief Woody Harrelson and his violence-prone second-in-command Sam Rockwell to up their game.

If you know the work of Martin McDonagh you'll more or less know what to expect here and to be fair Three Billboards will probably grate with those who just can't get on with his somewhat bleak view of the world but if you enjoyed his previous movies then all of the ingredients are present and correct: flawed characters, abrasive dialogue, jet-black comedy and bursts of unsettling violence.

Few of the characters may be especially likeable but it's their journey which kept me hooked. McDormand is predictably brilliant as the mother seeking justice and she's matched all the way in the performance stakes by Sam Rockwell who's incredble as the immature, bigoted mummy's boy of a Deputy who finds his life taking a series of turns he really doesn't expect. Even at the end I'm not sure I liked him much more than I did at the start but I understood him and that's part of the genius of this film.

Troubling? Yes. Problematic? Certainly. One of my favourites of 2018? Definitely.
And here are eleven extremely honourable mentions. All of the following may not have made it into the list above but you should still make a point of tracking them down because I think they're all excellent:

Blue My Mind - Quite possibly the least wistful coming of age story you'll see (this throws booze, drugs, hardcore pornography clips and shoplifting into the mix), Lisa Brühlmann's film melds this with a body horror plot as teenager Mia (the excellent Luna Wedler) goes through changes like none of her other friends. A truly leftfield take on teenage friendships and adolescent angst with a gloriously strange and emotional pay-off.

Ghost Stories - Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's chiller owes a lot to those classic anthology movies by studios such as Amicus but they also bring a great deal of horror expertise to the party themselves as Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) sets out to explain three cases of the supposedly supernatural and finds a few nasty surprises waiting for him. Scary (particularly the opening case involving Paul Whitehouse as a night watchman) and funny with a lovely, rug-pulling twist at the end, this is a cracking example of modern British horror which also acknowledges its influences in an astute, entertaining way.

Knife+Heart -  A giallo-infused horror/thriller set in the world of gay porn movies, film director Anne (a wonderfully mercurial Vanessa Paradis) sets out to find who's offing her cast in very bloody, not to mention artful, ways. All the genre touchpoints - flamboyant characters, crazy plot twists, lurid murders - are handled with consummate skill and the proceedings are further elevated by some genuinely funny comedic moments and a pounding M88 score.

The Nurse With The Purple Hair - Sean S. Cunningham's powerful documentary about hospice care approaches its subject in an admirably frank and straightforward way but also with an unexpectedly life-affirming streak of joyful humour. You'll shed tears (I think I was crying for about 25 of its 47 minutes) but, to quote someone within this vital piece of work, they're good tears. It will also make you look at a difficult subject in a totally different light.

A Quiet Place - John Krasinski's masterclass in suspense pits him, wife Emily Blunt and their family against an alien menace which can't see for shit but is lethal at tracking its prey by means of sound. Certainly one of the quietest nights I've ever had at the cinema, the expertly-cranked tension made for a lot of moments when the audience held its collective breath. The set-pieces are great and the pay-off is both heart-wrenching and air-punching.

Revenge - Coralie Fargeat's ferocious thriller pits left-for-dead mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) against her sleazeball lover and two of his equally repulsive associates. Toxic masculinity gets a swift kick in the balls (not to mention a bullet to the head) as Jen turns the tables in a blaze of extreme, bloody, breathtaking violence. Obviously not for the delicate but for the rest of us this is a strikingly shot burst of cinematic adrenaline.

The Shape Of Water - Mute cleaner Sally Hawkins falls for a captured sea creature at the facility in which she works and attempts to free him from the clutches of brutal Government security guy Michael Shannon. A potentially hokey plot is woven into something truly magical courtesy of Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's screenplay and, of course, Del Toro's savvy direction. The 1960s setting is wonderful, the performances are absolutely bang-on across the board and it's a fairytale treat for adults.

Tigers Are Not Afraid - More fairy tales but with a much darker edge as Issa López follows five orphaned children attempting to survive in an urban landscape torn apart by an ongoing drug war. The fantastical elements are deftly handled and are never allowed to overwhelm the grim, gritty reality. A slew of astonishing performances by the child actors and a thoroughly unnerving sense of creeping doom only add to the reasons you should see this one.

Upgrade - After an attack leaves him paralysed, technophobe Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctantly embraces the cutting edge of science when he receives an experimental implant chip. This not only allows him to walk again but also to hit the time-honoured revenge trail. Leigh Whannell's creative collision of sci-fi and horror is full of shrewd ideas, black comedy and full-on, gory action. It's so much fun I wanted to watch it again as soon as the end credits rolled.

Wolfman's Got Nards - Andre Gower's documentary about The Monster Squad - its making, its initial failure at the box office and the amazing second life it's currently enjoying - delivers all of the on-set anecdotes you'd hope for but then bolsters that with a surprising emotional punch as fans and film-makers (plus film-makers who are also fans) underscore the 

You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay's dark, deconstructed action thriller sees Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, an expert at finding missing teens who's also a dab hand at doling out sickeningly horrible violence. The plot is of the familiar "straightforward case goes awry/powerful people involved/lots of people die" variety but it's handled in a way you won't have seen before and Phoenix makes for an intriguing anti-hero who's both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time.