Films of the year- 2018

films 2018

Due to a current hectic life schedule and my writing for Film Inquiry, my blog has now become severely neglected and redundant however for my few readers who have asked (thank you and I love you), I will continue to do my films of the year.

As always there are some that I may have missed that could have made the cut (such as awards favourite Roma) but again hectic times in my household mean that, despite a healthy lot of cinema viewings, I haven’t always managed to see everything I wanted.

So here is my round up of what has grabbed my cinematic sensibilities this year

10) I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding would make for an intriguing film but still I,Tonya was a bombshell blast, a spiky mockumentary biopic with knockout performances. Margot Robbie gives a gutsy uninhibited performance as Tonya Harding, the scrappy skater who worked her way from the wrong side of the redneck tracks to outperform her privileged competitors. But she was always considered the outsider, her homemade costumes and unorthodox style at odds with the stuffy snobbery of the elite skating world. So, when she became embroiled in a violent attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, the establishment, and more notably, the press found their villain and Harding’s career became a car crash, played out on the world’s stage.

Craig Gillespie’s film uses the chaotic events surrounding Tonya’s life and career to present wildly varying sides to the narrative from the key players involved and which creates a wildly entertaining film, as jagged and barbed as the ice and blades around it. Whist the stories may conflict and whilst the audience’s preconceptions of Harding may differ, the film makes it clear, that despite everything else she was a fighter, an underdog who was hit by life (and literally by most of her family). I Tonya dazzles with its intense skating sequences and eccentric characters, particularly Harding’s force of nature mother LaVona (played in towering fashion by Alison Janney) so when the fallout of the Kerrigan incident hits, it hits hard. Beyond the outrageously entertaining antics, we see the price that Harding paid for her role as skating’s bad-girl. In one scene Robbie sits waiting to perform on the ice rink, her face made up in cartoonish fashion, she alternates between grinning and grimacing as she realises her fate as the crowd’s court jester. Whatever your take on Harding before the film, by the end Robbie’s fearless performance will make you rethink it.

9) Hereditary (Ari Aster)

Whilst the UK was experiencing some of its hottest weather in years, Hereditary came along to chill us to the bone and take us to some very dark places. Toni Collette, who already has had a rough time cinematically in a variety of put upon roles, had her most brutal part to date as Annie, a woman trying to keep her family together after the death of her suspiciously secretive mother. To say she goes through the ringer is an understatement in a film so intrinsically unsettling, it clings to every fibre of your being, enveloping you in a wrath of dread and doesn’t let go, even after the credits have rolled. Owing a debt to Rosemary’s Baby is never a bad thing and Hereditary evokes the paranoia of the 60s classic with its suffocating, all-consuming nightmare, where the scares come from knowing everyone is out to get you and there is no escape, no matter what you do.

A uniformly excellent cast commit to their parts so well, particularly Collette whose face belies the gauntlet of terror she is faced with and Alex Wolff as her son Peter whose teenage façade quickly crumbles in the wake of impending and sustained panic, reducing him to a simpering child. It also features one of the year’s most shocking scenes, one that escalates quickly to a moment that you can’t quite believe just happened. With Hereditary horror continues its ascent to be regarded again as a genre with merit, way past just cheap frills and easy frights, to grip hold of an audience with a disturbing presence. Long may its comeback continue I say, though I am not sure my nerves agree.

8) Mission Impossible- Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)

I have said it before and I will say it again, no one gives you more bang for your buck than Tom Cruise, he is your bone fide movie star and the Buster Keaton of blockbusters. But even he outdid himself with the latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, which was this year’s stellar standout actioner. It deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible to witness the multitude of set pieces and stunts that Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie had the balls to think of and then actually execute. From a car chase through the streets of Paris, to rooftop pursuits and culminating in a helicopter chase that has a literal heart in the mouth moment, you can feel every crunch and crack as Cruise pushes the limits of what is possible in terms of practical stunts.

But this is not all just flash and showiness, there is an intelligent script with narrative twists and turns and the interplay between the actors shows the emotional depth that these characters have been drawn into as each Mission progresses. Mission Impossible Fallout succeeds in both feeling slightly retro with its cinematic sensibilities but also thoroughly modern with its approach, where grown up clever action films are perilously in short supply, it is a welcome franchise that has produced one of its best films so far down the line. The only impossible part may be topping Fallout and if they do, I am not sure the audience’s anxiety levels can take it.

7) You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return to cinema after her gut punching adaptation of We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) is an equally dark and nightmarish tale, with echoes of Taxi Driver but also with a murky beat of its own. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a war veteran who is sleepwalking through a life of pain and violence and who is now a gun for hire, retrieving missing children for those that will pay for his brutal services. When he is hired to find the daughter of a senator, it draws Joe into a sinister world which will have repercussions to his own sparse but personal life.

Make no mistake that this is feel-bad cinema at its best, with Ramsay creating a series of disturbing and cruel scenes that build upon a world filled with dread and despair. The narrative may sound like something for a Liam Neeson actioner, but this is not a redemptive revenge tale where everything will be made right in the end. Phoenix’s Joe is a man that feels like he is already dead and is just living in his own tortured purgatory, he is a physically and emotionally bruised shadow that walks the earth. The only warmth in his life is with his mother, a scene where they sing to each other whilst polishing cutlery is tender and becomes even more devastating after the reverberations of Joe’s course of action. The film is set to a pulsating score by Jonny Greenwood that clings to the sides of the frame, heightening the jet- black menace that is found around every corner. You Were Never Really Here is not an easy watch but it is a fascinating piece of work by Ramsay, a strangely hypnotic experience where you may want to turn away but can’t bring yourself to.

6) Widows (Steve McQueen)

Following his Oscar winning epic 12 Years a Slave (2013) with a film based on an 80s Lynda La Plante miniseries seemed like a very odd choice for director Steve McQueen. But it’s a left turn idea that paid rich rewards, creating a barnstorming crime thriller with strong performances across the board. Whilst the idea of a heist job being pulled off by an all- female crew must have been progressive in the 1980s, there is still a sense that we are watching something new, fresh and crucially exciting. Lead by a commanding Viola Davis, each member of the team is allowed time to flesh out their interesting characters and motives for taking part in a job that they are not ready for. With a screenplay by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, the interplay between the women, at first cagey and cautious and then finding some form of bond in their enforced situation, means the audience care and invest in their lives.

Whilst the female characters rightly dominate the screen, there is strong support from the all the rest of the cast, Colin Farrell encompasses both charm and callousness in equal spades as a morally corrupt politician. Daniel Kaluuya meanwhile is terrifying as the brother and henchman to Brian Tyree Henry’s criminal turned politician, his pursuit of Davis and co is nail biting stuff and every time he is on screen, there is an air of unpredictably akin to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. McQueen relocates the action from London to Chicago, which allows for some social commentary to flow into the narrative, the divides of the haves and the have nots clear to see on the streets of the city, where the wealthy continue to line their pockets while others struggle to keep afloat. The director also shows he is as equally adept at dealing with action sequences as well as dramatic arches with an opening scene that skilfully combines both, throwing us headlong into this world without a moments pause. Despite a long running time, the film flies along without a single frame wasted, each one building and escalating the stakes higher to a tense finale which still combines depth and emotion amongst its chaos. Where McQueen goes next from here may be anyone’s guess but after nailing another genre, it will be a tense and anticipated wait.

5) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

Storming out of the blocks to herald the start of a new year came Martin McDonagh’s blistering, bruising and blackly funny Three Billboards. We already knew that Frances McDormand was a fearless actress but even she outdid herself with her towering performance as … a mother taking the law into her own hands after her daughter’s murder continues to go unsolved. It is a sucker punch of a role, a melting pot of rage and grief, raw and rousing and it felt like a call to arms right at the height of the Me Too movement, proving that women can command the screen with the fire and fury that is usually only reserved for men.

McDormand dominates the screen yet also allows her co-stars their moment to shine, particularly Sam Rockwell, who confirms what many of us have known for a long time, that he is Hollywood’s unsung MVP. Three Billboards wasn’t for everyone though, some were uneasy with the brash brushstrokes it created, and its award sweeping run up to the Oscars was dashed on the big night by Del Toro. But for those who got McDonagh’s groove, there was much to admire, his ability to turn the narrative from fist pumping vigilante antics to the silent ache of a mourning mother is a masterclass in modern storytelling.

4) A Quiet Place (John Kransinski)

In a world where information about a film is accessible to our searching fingertips and when the hype machine builds up a release, months before it lands on the screen, one of cinema’s greatest remaining pleasures is the sleeper hit. A film that seemingly comes from nowhere without any burden of sequel, reboot or remake and that captures the imagination of an audience ready for something that feels fresh and new. This year that accolade went to John Krasinski’s barnstorming thriller A Quiet Place which gave its viewers a silent, nail biting, nerve shredding experience and also took cinema screens back to their intended state- noiseless and free of phone screens as all were engrossed in it’s almost wordless narrative. In a post-apocalyptic world, survivors must remain silent  to avoid attracting the attention of giant predators that, whilst blind, have advanced hearing and will attack at the slightest sound. We follow a family, Lee (Kransinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their two children who live in a countryside house, adapted and kitted out to withstand a world that must be quiet at all times. They have managed to create a survivalist form of living, but they will soon be confronted with a new challenge as Evelyn is about to have a baby where she must remain silent during childbirth and where they must find a way to keep their new-born hushed.

A Quiet Place delivers an almost unbearably tense cinematic ride, with Kransinski showing he can direct taut set pieces that would make Spielberg proud and reduce cinemagoers to anxiety ridden messes by the end of its running time. But amidst the silent chills, the film also raises questions about our humanity and what life we would have to live if we were denied a fundamental part of our existence, our ability to express emotions through sound. And at its very core, it is a film of hope and love, with one particular scene showing the heart-breaking paternal instinct that a parent will provide no matter what.

3) Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

Debra Granik’s second and most prominent feature Winter’s Bone (2010) dealt with characters leaving on the fringes of society, cut off from the wider world and who create their own microcosm of rules and ways of life. Her new film Leave No Trace shares its DNA with its central narrative about an army veteran Will (Ben Foster) suffering from PTSD who lives in the vast forests of a national park in Portland Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). However, their self-contained world is shattered by a small mistake and they are thrown into the guidance of social services and a reintroduction to society that Will is unable to adjust to but where Tom begins to discover the pieces of life that she wants.

Leave No Trace is a film of beautifully judged and subtle moments, there is no overdramatic teenage acts from Tom as she begins to pull away from the world that her father had created for them. Instead it’s a culmination of tender moments that embed like whispers on the wind, making you want Tom to have those that she cannot and quietly devastated when she is pulled away from another chance of home. But the film doesn’t paint Will as the monster, his reasons for his way of life are valid and his love for his daughter unwavering, both Foster and McKenzie portray their parts magnificently so you are on both sides of the coin, able to see each other’s actions and motives. So much so that the final scene between father and daughter is all the more heart-breaking, the pull for both of them to another way of life will the catalyst to break their unified bond. Ironically for a film titled Leave No Trace, it is a film that will linger in your thoughts long after, its trail of human emotion leaving a footprint in your memory.

2) Ladybird (Greta Gerwig)

There have been many coming of age films but none that have struck a chord with me as much as Greta Gerwig’s fabulously observed Ladybird. Set in Sacramento in 2002, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine but who insists to be called by her given name Ladybird (when questioned by a teacher she declares ‘It was given to me, by me’). She clashes with her mother Marion (a stellar Laurie Metcalf), particularly on her desire to go to college in New York to experience culture, her lofty ambitions are in opposition to the family’s ability to pay the tuition fees. Ronan is superb as the self-assured teen, even in her brattier moments of behaviour, she still manages to charm with her unwavering conviction that usually eludes many awkward adolescents.

Indie darling Gerwig directs with confidence and a keen eye for all the small details that makes the film soar with heart and spirit, period touches feel authentic and every character has the chance to shine. Whilst the narrative deals with the familiar coming of age milestones- prom night, losing virginity, fallouts with best friends, it also puts as much emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and this is where its depth and painful familiarity emerges. In one scene, as they shop for prom dresses, Ladybird asks her mother if she likes her, her mother is quick to reply with ‘of course I love you’. But Ladybird presses the matter and replies ‘But do you like me?’ The air hangs with uncertainty and the realisation that, whilst the love between parent and child is undeniable, our attitude as teenagers often puts a strain on our parent’s ability to connect and actually like us at certain times. It is a bitter pill to swallow and holds a mirror up to how we acted in our teens, I myself squirmed recalling past encounters with my parents when I was loaded with a youthful know it all arrogance and I felt the strong urge to hug my mum after watching the film. Gerwig has created a modern classic in the underrepresented female adolescence pantheon, one that feels deeply personal but also will feel entirely relatable for many. It is a funny but bittersweet memory to a time filled with joy and anticipation of what life holds ahead but also to the reality that is waiting to clip our wings before we have even taken flight.

1) American Animals (Bart Layton)

Bart Layton followed up his blistering documentary The Imposter (2012) with another film based on true events but whose lines became significantly blurred between fact and fiction. American Animals tells the true crime story of four college students in Kentucky, who in 2003, boldly and foolishly attempted one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Layton combines both factual reconstruction and documentary style with the action cutting to interviews with the real people involved, which adds depth and differing versions to the unfolding drama. The effect is a fascinating portrait of a bunch of kids who became bewitched by an idea, without thinking of the consequences and it is also a riveting heist movie whose players are themselves influenced by iconic crime films. In one scene the gang wade through a ton of DVDs including Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, seduced by their air of coolness but oblivious to how these tales actually end, a precursor to how ill-conceived their plan actually is.

The actors playing the real-life students all bring a different energy and conflicting stances to the heist, Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters particularly excel as the two main protagonists Spencer Rheinhard and Warren Lipka. Keoghan waves the line between a cautious unease and an entranced abandonment, all etched on his intriguing face, his need for something to bring greater richness to his art leading him away from his intended, resolute path. Peters meanwhile gets the showier role as the erratic and unpredictable Lipka, his misplaced confidence and maddening behaviour is somehow transfixing in Peters hands, the actor’s hypnotic swagger recalling a young Malcolm McDowell. Layton’s direction flits between playful homages (the boys imagine their intended heist to resemble a cheeky Oceans 11 slick operation) and authentic realisation, with the actual plan turning into a confused, frantic mess, the arrogance of youth held up directly on scene. But for all its slicks and tricks, American Animals never feels gimmicky or exploitative, instead it is a fascinating portrait, brilliantly constructed look at how a hair brained scheme promises, but ultimately fails to lead your life to a better outcome.

 

 

 

Five of the best….looks in cinema

They say the eyes are the window to the soul and that a face can launch a thousand ships but in cinema it can do this and much much more. A look can convey something better than pages of dialogue ever could, it can tell us things about a character, some we may want to know and some we wish we didn’t know and all with a flicker of the eye or the glimmer of a smile. At the dawn of cinema, the actor’s face was their greatest tool and then the advent of sound came in and changed the landscape of film forever. Acting became just as much about the conviction of the dialogue as well as the conviction of expression and many of Hollywood’s biggest stars fell to the wayside as they failed to make the transition into the sound age, they became relics of a bygone era.

Script writing gave us another dimension on cinema and has been responsible for many memorable lines that live on in people’s hearts but it’s sometimes good to remember where it all began, with the actor’s face. Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, looks can kill and here are five times in cinema where for me, I have been stopped in my tracks, mesmerised by a look and where the words have fallen by the way and the face has given me all I need to know.

Tom Cruise- Magnolia (1999)

There are no two ways about it; Tom Cruise is a movie star, a bone-fide archetypal movie star and one of a dying breed. He dominated the box office for a long period of time and such was his star wattage that all a poster for one of his films needed was a silhouette of his head with his name emblazoned above it.  He is also an actor that still consistently gives the most bang for the movie payer’s buck, routinely hurling himself from explosions or hanging onto the sides of structures and planes, doing his own death defying stunts. However one thing that is not often attributed to Cruise is his actual acting muscles, that he is an undeniable star but rarely is there praise heaped upon his dramatic delivery, perhaps because most of the time, he is too busy flying off the side of buildings. But when he does pick a project that offers less action and more acting, Cruise reveals hidden depths and never more so than in Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative sprawling opus Magnolia.

When the film was released much of the attention on Cruise’s performance came from his character’s outlandish mantras, he plays Frank Mackey who is a motivational speaker.  But the real moment comes when Frank talks to an interviewer post seminar, pumped from his on stage high,Frank is all charm and chat at first, riffing on the persona that he has created. However when she begins to probe Frank about his family history, he at first dodges the questions, his slickly trained character dancing like an animal evading capture but then as she hits his weak spot and confronts the lie that he has been portraying, Frank’s whole facade comes crushing down.

The way Cruise’s face immediately changes, the brutal snap that the image he has depicted is now being called into question is a masterful moment, one that is summed up wholly in his expression, the cocky smile is literally wiped from his face. Cruise’s juxtaposition is one of Magnolia’s greatest scenes, which says a lot for a film brimming with spectacle and revelations and it is all down to Cruise’s emotive nuances. The scene encapsulates the inner turmoil that Frank refuses to acknowledge and surrender to and the narrative plays with the connotations of Cruise himself as a ‘star’ and the baggage that comes with his persona. It is hard to think of someone who could have played the role better and it suggests that perhaps Cruise should continue to show us a different kind of money shot.

Al Pacino- The Godfather (1972)

I must confess that for me The Godfather films are not quite my bag, as a cinephile I can appreciate their craftsmanship and the legacy that they have had on cinema but I do not revere them like many film fans do. And yet there is one moment that stands out for me when I think of The Godfather and it is not the iconic horse’s head moment or the method mumblings of Brando. It is the scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills Sollozzo in the restaurant and in particular the moment just before, when he is deciding what to do.

This part of the scene is the definitive narrative point for Michael’s character, it tells us what kind of man he was before and the type of man he is going to become. It tells us that everything that came before will be erased by this act and from then on there will no going back, this fork in the road will define the path he will take. And all of this is simply conveyed within Pacino’s eyes. As a train is heard hurtling over it’s tracks in the background, Michael’s eyes dart back and forth, weighing up the consequences of the action he is about to commit, you can feel his inner turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience. It is one of the purest moments of acting from Pacino that he is able to say so much with the mere expression of his face.

I didn’t grow up watching The Godfather films and came to them later in life so my experience of Pacino as an actor was during his shouty phase and the almost caricature version of himself that he has become in his latter day films. Witnessing this scene in The Godfather reveals why Pacino went on to be heralded as one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema and a timely reminder that there was pathos and subtlety to his craft that  sadly went awry later down the line.

Jean Seberg- A bout de Souffle (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless is the movie equivalent of Rock n Roll; it’s vibrant, playful and doesn’t need to say a lot but instead its more how it makes you feel. It burst onto the screen in 1960 and played with the conventions of cinema, creating jump cuts, using natural lighting and unnatural sound, things that were not the norm and that were a world away from the ridged studio backdrop. Godard’s fast and loose style extended to his characters, they were drifters, rule breakers, society’s riff raff.

Jean -Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a petty thief who at once encapsulates the style of Bogart but in the same instance despises it, he is our anti-hero who is on the run after killing a cop and who hooks up with old flame Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. The achingly cool pair spend the rest of the film wandering the Champs Elysees or sharing intimate moments in Patricia’s small apartment before she ultimately betrays him to the police. Michel is shot and he staggers the streets of Paris taking his last breaths, at first it appears Patricia regrets her decision as she chases after him and in any other Hollywood film this would be the moment where Seberg’s character would profess her love for Michel.

But the chance of some sort of redemption or regret for Patricia’s act is fleeting, she appears to shrug it off with Gallic nonchalance. As she stares down at Michel in his dying moments, there is no real sense of sadness in her eyes and you could argue that he does not deserve any sympathy, he is after all a womaniser, a thief and a cop killer. But Patricia’s look of indifference simply adds to Godard’s groundbreaking slice of cinema and became one of the most iconic moments of the French New Wave.  As Seberg looks directly at the camera and moves her finger across her lips, this unconventional ending heralded the birth of a new style of film-making that would influence many directors throughout the years and would create an unforgettable look whose ambiguity would linger in the consciousness.

Kathleen Byron- Black Narcissus (1947)

It goes without saying that Powell and Pressburger sure knew how to compose a shot and they sure knew the power that colour could have upon a scene, in particular the use of red. In their 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, the vivid colour was used to symbolise passion and the impending danger that would engulf Moira Shearer’s ballerina as she danced her way to death, torn between love and her love of dance.

In Black Narcissus the use of red lipstick signifies the desire and passion that overtakes nun Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) whose faith and sanity becomes tested when local British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar) arrives at the nun’s remote Himalayan convent. Though it is not just the use of red in one particular scene but the lead up to Sister Ruth’s application of the scarlet make up that produces a sinister and memorable look, her face is a dangerous melting pot for all that she is feeling.

As sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) does her nightly rounds, she sees a light in Sister Ruth’s room and enters, where she is met with a woman’s unwavering, self possessed determination. Sister Ruth has decided to leave the order and her face contorts with the greed and lust she is feeling, the time isolated away in the mountains has driven her mad and she takes on the demeanour of a villain. Her face is lit in a luminous glow however as a smile creeps up her entire face, it is a wicked grin of evil; she has become consumed by a sensual desire, one that will lead to terrifying consequences.

The scene is smouldering with tension from Sister Ruth’s face and by the time she applies the crimson colour to her lips, she has conveyed everything to the audience.  This act of defiance is the final element in her journey of no return; she has left the path of faith and is on course to self destruction, one that is not only written, but painted on her face.

Grace Kelly- Rear Window (1954)

Grace Kelly’s arrival in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954) is problematic for a number of reasons yet it also is one of the greatest introductions of a character to the screen. Hitchcock was well known for having a fascination for his blonde leading ladies and none more so than Grace Kelly, she was the epitome of the ice cool woman that he would become mesmerised by and for a time he couldn’t imagine needing another actress.

Her appearance in the film plays like a fantasy, her face lit in the most beautiful way, she envelopes the frame like a stunning mirage, in the way that Hitchcock would see her in his own mind but also for the character L B Jefferies (James Stewart). As Jefferies stirs from sleeping, Lisa (Kelly) appears as if he is still dreaming, she is like a vision, one that is unobtainable for him and for Hitchcock. As the narrative progresses Jefferies finds reasons why his romance with Lisa won’t work, that their lifestyles are too different and he feels that marriage will be like the cast that his broken leg is in, constricting on his nomadic way of life. By Jefferies reluctance to settle down with Lisa, she seems confined to be the fantasy girl and the glamorous way she enters the screen would suggest this.

But this is Hitchcock and whilst his proclivities may manifest onscreen, he was also unafraid to poke fun at himself and to play with the audience. So whilst Lisa may appear to be a fantasy, she also defies expectations and turns out to be more resourceful than Jefferies, and perhaps the audience, imagined. Her entrance into the film, as she looks straight at the camera, may carry connotations with it but it can also simply be seen as a moment of pure cinematic magic, Kelly’ s face epitomises the golden age of Hollywood, the glamour of the bygone era.

It is sometimes hard to study cinema and separate the implications with the act of purely enjoying a film and to enjoy the beauty of one of Hollywood’s most dazzlingly iconic women. It is also hard to not see that Hitchcock has us all pegged, that in a film about voyeurism, from a director that was known for his voyeurism, pointed out the voyeuristic nature in all of us. And that seeing Kelly’s face coming towards the camera would prove alluring to not just him or to Jefferies but to all of us.