Illustration by Thomas Durham.
The year began with The Shape of Water and ended with the cinematic debut of Aquaman while in-between was a veritable ocean of variously challenging, unconventional, intelligent and rousingly entertaining features – plus the floating turd of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
The convergence of the global media landscape continued apace as the traditional filmmaking studios and streaming platforms carried on their uneasy, negotiated dance with each other, while simultaneously launching new offensives to win over consumers/subscribers. After Netflix previously bristled at the notion of exhibiting their original films in theatres – caused by the fallout of the protests by French exhibitors at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival against the presence of Netflix’s Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories in the competition line-up – a concerted effort by several filmmakers to have their films shown on a screen bigger than a laptop led to the streaming service relenting to limited theatrical exhibition of some of their original films, including David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, anointed the best film of the year by Sight and Sound in their revered annual poll. Moreover, aside from the expansion of viewing formats, Netflix films were finally achieving some longevity in the cultural consciousness in spite of their often inauspicious, under-advertised debuts on the streaming platform. Notably, the romantic comedies Set It Up and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before became viral hits from positive word-of-mouth reviews. However, there appeared ominous signs of the old Hollywood empire striking back against the ‘new normal’ streaming model by beating Netflix, Amazon and Hulu at their own game – the Mouse House’s new content platform, Disney+ is set to begin operation in late 2019 and will surely exacerbate the concerns of film industry observers over the monopolisation of filmmaking by integrated conglomerates.
Franchises and superhero narratives were dominant once again this year, with the qualitatively variable releases of Deadpool 2, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Incredibles 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ocean’s 8 and the Godfather: Part Two of jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. The superhero bubble remained unburst with Marvel proving the unassailable gold standard in slick and consistent crowd-pleasing with the billion dollar-plus grosses of the paradigm-shifting Black Panther and the cataclysmic team-up Avengers: Infinity War. The dwindling of actual films produced by the major studios and the homogenisation of the type of film made in Hollywood has been a pragmatic business strategy in the decade since the 2008 economic recession, dovetailing with the advent of corporate mega-mergers, such as the unification of AT&T and TimeWarner. This year’s previously-unthinkable acquisition by Disney of 21st Century Fox – which includes the 20th Century Fox film and television studios – was short-sightedly hailed for the film crossover potential between the Avengers and the X-Men now that the properties all belong under the same umbrella parent company. Nevertheless, the more chilling implication of this merger in terms of its impact upon media plurality is that, with fewer and fewer competitors as they take over control of the marketplace, Disney might increasingly become unmotivated to produce a rich variety of films, spelling out a dismal future for film consumers.
On a more personal and emotionally cathartic level, the other revolution to occur within the Hollywood environment in 2018 was led by the #MeToo movement and the associated Time’s Up organisation which, in the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein disclosures from the end of 2017, spurred an avalanche of revelations and powerful, heartbreaking testimonies from men and women who had been similarly taken advantage of, their careers derailed, their lives destroyed by a motley assortment of predators, perverts and creeps. The worst offenders such as Kevin Spacey and Brett Ratner were justifiably declared as persona non grata and exiled from filmmaking. But after the initial first wave of activism crested in the midst of the 2018 awards season circuit and the year carried on into a supposed new paradigm for sexual and gender relations in Hollywood, many wondered just how much the major studios and production companies had actually cleaned up their acts. On a positive note, the disgraced Louis CK’s staggeringly myopic I Love You, Daddy – detailing the relationship between a Woody Allen-analogue and a teenage girl – was pulled from release, whilst Allen himself saw his empire begin to crumble when Amazon Studios dropped his completed next film A Rainy Day in New York and actors like Timothée Chalamet went on record to announce their sincere regret for working with Allen. But alas, there were still plenty of examples of Hollywood studios failing to create safe working environments for their employees: Shane Black refused to properly divulge to actress Olivia Munn on the set of The Predator that one of her scene partners was a convicted paedophile that Black had vouched for; and while the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody ultimately proved to be a worldwide financial success, there was still the lingering stink of alleged pervert Bryan Singer’s firing from the film for disappearing from set and antagonising lead actor Rami Malek. The sheer gall of Singer’s subsequent negotiating position for a $10 million payday package to direct an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonja pulp comics epitomised the fact that in spite of their lofty rhetoric, the Hollywood powers-that-be are still largely comfortable with giving out free passes to predators to satisfy the financial bottom line.
What proved a balm to this corrosive thread in 2018 filmmaking was the formidable roster of films helmed by female creative teams or which centred on women and their experiences – many of them can even be rightfully considered as the best films of the year. Among the highlights were the complex and complicated protagonists of Annihilation and Thoroughbreds occupying a personal hell; the fully-formed pearl of Greta Gerwig’s feature-length debut Lady Bird; Desiree Akhavan’s gay conversion therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post that profoundly dealt with the power of female choices and voices, on and off screen; the return of singular visionaries Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay with their respective films, Leave No Trace and You Were Never Really Here; Steve McQueen’s electrifying and polemical heist thriller Widows starring Viola Davis; and sneaking in at the end of the year, Alfonso Cuarón returned with Roma, his semi-autobiographical reflection on the nobility of the female forces and influences that shaped his early upbringing in Mexico City.
Several of these works have cracked Wrap Party’s Top Ten of 2018, but which is number one? With a polite nod to the films that narrowly failed to break into our list, but which nevertheless deserve their own honourable mention – Swedish art-world satire The Square; John Krasinski’s rip-roaring genre effort A Quiet Place; Pawel Pawlikowski’s achingly romantic Cold War; the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Fincher homage Game Night; the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (and its standout ‘Meal Ticket’ and ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ segments’); the send-up of systemic racism rendered in Gilliam-esque fantasia, Sorry To Bother You; the saga of contemporary fertility procedures Private Life; the ghoulish Alaskan noir Hold The Dark; and the sombre 1950s-set melodrama serving as Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife – let’s delve into our ranking of the best feature films released in UK cinemas and on streaming services in 2018.
10. Black Panther / Avengers: Infinity War
Some might view this as a cheat selecting two films for one spot; yet, even when one appreciates the obvious connective tissue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s triumphant serialised narrative arc across 20+ films, Ryan Coogler and the Russo Brothers’ billion dollar smashes arguably deserve to be venerated as distinguishable artworks, equal to the other, more “serious” films on this list.
Fruitvale Station and Creed director Coogler brought the monarch of Wakanda to the screen with Afro-Futurist aplomb, managing to generate a piece of pure adventure entertainment that both delivered upon and rose above the weight of expectations as the first black superhero tale of the modern era – setpieces like the car chase with a bionic Andy Serkis and the waterfall combat between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) were sequences for the ages, while Jordan’s villain instantly became both the Internet’s collective thirst trap and a rare antagonist whose motive of global black enfranchisement is actually quite defensible – his last words requesting to be buried at sea like his ancestors on the transatlantic slave trade passage “because they knew death was better than bondage” was as potent and meaningful as anything James Baldwin has written.
Meanwhile, the third Avengers team-up was the most remarkable feat of editorial plate-spinning ever conceived: somehow affording equal screen-time to each member of the sprawling superhero ensemble while also keeping an engaging plot with real world-ending stakes rolling along. Hyped as the culmination of ten years of Marvel storytelling, Joe and Anthony Russo expanded on the vigour and élan they brought to the Berlin airport clash between Iron Man and Captain America’s factions in Captain America: Civil War and produced a film with a galaxy-spanning scale, as well as a genuinely audacious Empire Strike Back-style atmosphere of mounting doom. While 2019’s follow-up Avengers: Endgame will inevitably undo the result of Infinity War’s finale in the hackneyed comic book tradition of the impermanence of death and Disney’s financial bottom line of keeping the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man sequel gravy train rolling, the visceral shock of the great ‘dusting’ and the impassioned theorising by audiences as the credits rolled was a theatrical experience not to be replicated any time soon.
As well as the widespread visibility of the aforementioned Black Panther, 2018 was already a banner year for black filmmakers after Jordan Peele’s Oscar win for Get Out, the forthcoming return of Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins with his James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk, and progressive rapper Boots Riley’s uproarious race relations satire Sorry To Bother You. One of the many upshots of that Oscar win for Jordan Peele was his newfound clout as a producer, a power he channelled into greenlighting the unbelievable true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs city police department, who, in the 1970s along with his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, successfully hoodwinked a local faction of the Ku Klux Klan and infiltrated their organisation. The project required the right tonal mixture of incredulity, fish-out-of-water comedy and furious indignation and Peele wisely assigned the directorial reins to Spike Lee, enabling the Do The Right Thing filmmaker to achieve his biggest crossover hit since 2006’s Inside Man.
BlacKkKlansman’s greatest asset is indeed Lee’s authorial voice, adding the necessary dose of polemic amidst the comedy and refusing to shy away from the newfound dark relevance of Stallworth’s story, either through the filter of Lee’s love of cinema – opening the film with Gone With The Wind’s depiction of a fluttering Confederate flag above the wounded soldiers of Atlanta – or through the current American political climate – closing the film with a heart-stopping montage of images of the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest and the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
The film’s screenplay by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott overall deftly walks a line of jaunty undercover police procedural on the one hand and passionate sermon on the other, and along with the disarming performances of John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as Zimmerman elevates what could have been a expanded adaptation of the Clayton Bigsby sketch from Chappelle Show into a stinging and affective address towards America’s malignant cancer of racism.
8. Leave No Trace
A noticeably bleaker and more anguished companion piece to the similarly themed Captain Fantastic, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace – her first film in eight years – is a thoughtful and compassionate exploration of a Henry David Thoreau-meets-Bear Grylls subsistence lifestyle. At its heart is the sympathetic father and daughter union of PTSD-afflicted veteran Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who are eking out a fraught life in the woods of a national park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, having learned to live invisibly, re-using everything and wasting nothing.
The confrontation of the film follows the pair’s inevitable forced integration back into a conventional social contract, with the nascently introspective Will beginning to doubt the extent of her commitment to her father’s trauma-induced immersion in the Edenic wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Her discovery of spiritual succour in the communal network of a trailer park community (sympathetically captured via McKenzie’s prodigious performance) and the consequent wedge opened up between father and daughter renders Leave No Trace as one of the most moving and emotionally devastating narrative arcs of the year.
7. First Man
Damien Chazelle abandoned his beloved jazz for the ethereal sound of the theremin in his unconventional biopic of Neil Armstrong and his one giant leap that, while failing to resonate with general audiences, was a fascinating departure for Chazelle that felt both unbearably gritty and achingly poignant. Conflating the sweep of the 1960s space race and the Apollo project to Armstrong’s unbeknownst healing process over the grief of losing his daughter to a brain tumour was a bold contrivance that certainly played to the strength of Ryan Gosling as a “restrained” performer while also helping to justify the sobering, grainy 16mm look of the film.
While the unfortunate legacy of First Man is perhaps how easily it managed to trigger right-wing blowhards by omitting a recreation of the planting of the U.S. flag on the Moon and then decrying the film’s supposed lack of patriotism, those critics spectacularly failed to glean that this marvellous silent IMAX 70mm sequence depicting the epochal moment of space travel is precision-engineered to remove the God-like mythology surrounding Armstrong and illuminate the personal demons that have brought him to the frontier of human advancement, allowing for a more intricate and multifaceted discussion on American identity.
Undoubtedly the apex of the artform of cinema thus far, Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos’ (Beyond the Black Rainbow) phantasmagorical revenge caper took the patron saint of gonzo schlock Nicolas Cage on a demented journey into the pit of hell. Mandy portrayed the family-friendly story of reclusive woodsman Red Miller (Cage) living in peace in the Shadow Mountains in 1983 with his girlfriend, fantasy art painter Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Mandy is kidnapped by members of the hippie cult Children of the New Dawn and a demonic biker gang resembling the Cenobite monsters from Hellraiser. After Red is made to watch Mandy being burned alive for spurning the advances of cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the pageantry of Cage Rage is resurrected and a blood-caked, LSD-addled Red embarks on a grisly and psychedelic rampage.
Beyond the excess of Cage’s magnificently expressive central performance, which further problematised the Cage binary between “good” realist acting and “bad” hammy acting, the look and sound of Mandy are equally of special interest to cineastes. Director of Photography Benjamin Loeb utilised a digital Arri Alexa camera, notable for its tonal range and colour space, shooting in the Panavision anamorphic format to simulate the grain of an old VHS tape, thereby accentuating its old school charms. Additionally, Mandy was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the composer most often associated with his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners, Arrival – who tragically passed away in February of this year. Fittingly, Jóhannsson’s work in Mandy is a triumphant swansong – a thick, treacly and imposing score that is nearly overwhelming in its inducement of dread.
One of the most unfairly underrated and overlooked films of 2018, Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 2013’s Best Picture Oscar-winner 12 Years A Slave was an American-ised update of Lynda LaPlante’s (Prime Suspect)’s big-haired ITV series from the mid-1980s that detailed four ordinary women picking up the mantle of their criminal husbands – killed in the course of a botched robbery – and attempting to complete their final heist. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, jettisoned the shoulder pads and hair spray for a searing and twisty politically-charged crime epic that attracted one of the starriest character actor ensembles in recent memory (with particular props to Daniel Kaluuya’s Anton Chigurh-indebted enforcer) and which perceptively incorporated the new Chicago setting’s current socio-political context of bureaucratic corruption and endemic violence.
In a year that also saw the release of another, albeit breezier, female-centric heist film (Ocean’s 8), Widows was the superior arthouse alternative, elevating the original TV series’ synopsis by interweaving the motivation for the widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and babysitter Cynthia Erivo) to carry their husbands’ scheme out to fruition with the dirty tricks of the opportunistic politicians (Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry) running for City Alderman. Just as the heist film genre often plays out as a fated Robin Hood-esque confrontation between the haves and the have-nots, McQueen expands the racial dynamics of this disparity, elegantly illustrated in a single long take wherein the camera is mounted to the hood of spoilt dynastic politician Colin Farrell’s limo as he is sped away from a campaign event in a deprived, African American-concentrated ward in the South Side of Chicago back towards his illustrious family townhouse. The sequence is unsettling not only because of the dramatic transition from dilapidation to overabundance in a matter of blocks, but for the concealment of Farrell as his mask slips in the backseat and he spews vitriol on his opponent and black constituents. Steve McQueen’s Widows thus renovated a genre exercise into an eloquent state of the nation address.
Writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut was notably garlanded upon arrival in UK cinemas with advertisements highlighting the pull-quote “The Exorcist for a new generation”, seeming to propose a litmus test for hardened filmgoers to boast about how relatively scary the film actually was. However, irrespective of how many surprises and frights it elicits, Hereditary further validated the current imperial phase of the horror film genre (augured by Get Out) by adhering to the playbook for standout horror films: utilising the exploitation of a horrific situation as a vessel for subversive themes and concepts.
Hereditary tracks the fallout of the offscreen death of Ellen Leigh, a private yet domineering figure in the lives of her brood, daughter Annie (Toni Collette) and her husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), and their two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The fragile Annie throws herself back into her work of creating miniature homes and diorama scenes (a la Jessie Burton’s 2014 novel The Miniaturist) for a gallery exhibition, forming one of the film’s strongest visual motifs. The opening sequence pulls back from a window framing an outdoor treehouse, before scanning the rest of Annie’s workspace and then delving into Peter’s bedroom inside the miniature replica of the Leigh family home wherein the flesh and blood Peter is awoken and the film consequently unfolds, often utilising a similar dollhouse-style mise-en-scène with both organic and domestic lines and edges to border the frame. Aster immediately co-opts his audience from the beginning as grand, omniscient voyeurs to the Leigh family’s disintegration into possession, hallucinations, and fugue states of psychic dissociation. Yet it is precisely this ambiguous and unnerving positioning between the unfolding film’s repulsive elements of the supernatural and the all-too-real personal horrors of grief and loss – alluding as it does to the questioning the nature of one’s reality – that demarcates Hereditary as a new zenith for the most misunderstood and divisive of classical filmmaking genres.
3. Lady Bird
Mumblecore doyenne Greta Gerwig made the leap to writing and directing her first feature with effortless grace, crafting an instantly endearing film that, along with Get Out, became the great grassroots hope for Oscars glory during this year’s award season circuit, not least because of Gerwig’s accomplishment of being the fifth woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar.
Walking in the time-worn footprints of many other bildungsroman narratives, Gerwig’s tale of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson’s antagonistic skirmishes with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), her classmates, and her hometown of Sacramento itself (“the Midwest of California”) was whip-smart and acerbic, yet avoided the label of artifice that was hurled at Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s similarly flavoured Juno, to feel universally empathetic and chord-striking due to Gerwig’s profound, small detail-oriented characterisations. Lady Bird is variously warm as a crackling fire (Lady Bird screaming in euphoria after her first kiss, the twinkly performance of Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s dad), caustic as acid (Lady Bird’s indignant retort to her mother to send her a bill for the expenses of raising her), and lump-in-the-throat emotional (Lady Bird’s hungover voicemail to her parents in the closing scene) – long may this bird fly in our hearts.
Unceremoniously shunted and sold off by Paramount Pictures to Netflix for worldwide distribution in March 2018 after barely breaking even on its $40 – 55 million production budget in US theatres, Alex Garland’s (Ex Machina, screenwriter for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine) adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy undoubtedly deserves to be critically salvaged in this period of reflection, especially in consideration of its stature as the most entertainingly disconcerting and unconventional film of the year.
Loosely adapting VanderMeer’s already impenetrable, ponderous novel that largely focused on the disquieting journey into an underground tower, Annihilation traces the efforts of cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) to save her desperately ill husband (Oscar Isaac) by venturing along with a team of four other female scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) into the mysterious shimmering quarantine zone designated as Area X, where her husband had last been posted and in which abnormal mutations and biological hybridisations have been occurring.
Diverging from the ethical quandaries at the centre of his previous film Ex Machina, Garland’s Annihilation is an altogether more elliptical film – often verging on a maddening difficulty – exacerbated by experimental, symbolist digressions where mirror-skin aliens dance around Natalie Portman’s character, or by the frequency of violent, jarring deaths that are also fantastical and inexplicable. However, for all the reasons that might explain away why general audiences ignored Annihilation, its challenging and esoteric disposition might ultimately be its greatest defence. Shouldn’t films evoke complex, multifaceted reactions in viewers that cannot easily be reconciled once the credits begin rolling? In one of Annihilation’s many sequences of transmutation, Lena discovers a video card left behind by her husband’s previous expedition to Area X, capturing the live biopsy of their fellow soldier and his writhing, unearthly intestines underneath. Upon reflection, this grisly moment might pinpoint the film’s statement of intent: to implicate a challenge to our comfortable and secure sense of self through an annihilation and perturbation of expected storytelling and characterisation conventions.
1. You Were Never Really Here
Justice at last. After years of being consistently undervalued and hampered by the constraints of the mainstream British and American film production entities, critically beloved Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin) finally returned with her fourth feature, the spartan vigilante thriller You Were Never Really Here, adapted from the novella by Jonathan Ames, and which has landed our number one spot on the best films of 2018.
Indeed, against a backdrop of the long overdue comeuppance of creeps and perverts in Hollywood, You Were Never Really Here was a cathartic viewing experience on multiple levels, with the film monitoring Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an avenging angel vigilante in New York City who undertakes dangerous assignments to liberate kidnapped and sexually exploited children, usually resorting to extremely brutal methodologies. There is no explicit reason for Joe’s rationale in choosing this martyr-like existence; disassociated images of military patrols, dead bodies and self-asphyxiations in the face of parental abuse, however, suggest atonement for a lifetime of personal sins. Joe is consequently hired by a Senator to trace his missing teenage daughter, making sure he truly “hurts” those responsible. While that set-up is essentially the scenario of a Liam Neeson action thriller, Ramsay’s superior knack as a visual storyteller who embodies the “show, don’t tell” philosophy of filmmaking, arranges the material into a mosaic-effect of fragmentary images that results in a rewardingly condensed and focused filmmaking approach. Representative of this approach is a centrepiece fight scene where Joe efficiently dispatches with a succession of sexual traffickers with a hammer. Ramsay unusually depicts this sequence at a distance through monochrome static CCTV cameras whereby Joe’s incursions are often masked by walls, doorways or other blind spots. Meanwhile, the cameras cut away periodically to another angle within the apartment before returning to the original viewpoint where we see a henchman lying unconscious in a pool of blood. By situating the audience perspective at the borders of grotesque violence, Ramsay conveys a more ruminative ideological position on the effects of violence and the scars we carry.
Moreover, Ramsay compounds the poetry of her film with the ample assistance of two equally prodigious creatives. Cementing his status as a contemporary acting titan and boding extremely well for his new take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’ Joker origin film, Joaquin Phoenix’s intensely nuanced performance as the shaggy husk of Joe correlates with the storytelling approach of his director, in that he too opts to exhibit without saying much – Joe’s scarred torso, mumbling diction and fifty-yard stare suggest the accumulated destructive weight of a lifetime of violent acts. Additionally, the unkempt Phoenix often shrouds himself in hooded jumpers, baseball caps and towels, communicating the idea of a man yearning to disappear.
Ramsay’s other exceptional collaborator was Jonny Greenwood, already coming off strong at the beginning of 2018 for his lush, radiant and Oscar-nominated score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Enhancing but not detracting from Ramsay’s sequences, Greenwood augments his typical repertoire of tortured strings with thunderous piano, synths and Roland 808 drum effects, building a soundscape that is as propulsive as it is dread-inducing.
Lynne, you never really even left.