As another year comes to a close, another assemblage of lists, summaries, and rundowns begin to emerge. It has been half a decade since I began chronicling my favourites on this blog. Like most years, I wasn’t sure what to make of 2018 at first, but come the end, there are a number of films which I am confident will stay with me hereafter.
As usual, I typically go by U.K. release date for my top ten, in order to ensure continuity and inclusivity. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would outright exclude a portion of popular late year U.S. releases, such as The Favourite, Green Book, and Vice, which don’t reach Britain until next year, and thus I have no actual way of viewing. Comparably, I have seen The Death of Stalin on a number of other lists, which was released in many territories this year, but is rather a 2017 film in the U.K. I do make exceptions for films that are widely available online before their British release.
Furthermore, whilst I make every effort to see as many films as possible in a given year, there are inevitably some which I miss. Thus, this is by no means a completely exhaustive list. Like all personal top tens, it is largely subjective and individual.
Special Mention goes to They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson)
My special mention this year goes to Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking World War I documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. I know people who will simply not watch black and white films. I have always found this attitude frustrating, but Jackson’s astonishing documentary demonstrated to me not only the substance of colour in film, but also the prowess of modern frame rate and sound mixing techniques.
Many will have heard about the methods on display here, but words do little justice to the reality Peter Jackson and team have managed to uncover from the grainy archives. The film begins conventionally enough, with silent black and white footage, aided by a voice over. Part way through, however, the screen transforms. Colour, movement, and sound truly revitalises the aged footage, bestowing it an immediacy the dated annals seldom provide. It is utterly illuminating and unforgettable.
#10. First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Most will know of the first moon landing, but knowledge of the Apollo 11 astronauts doesn’t seem to spread much beyond their names and nationality. Even the preceding Apollo programs, which led to the required capabilities, is seldom related, at least not in Britain. Damien Chazelle recounts these events expertly, avoiding melodrama and obvious structure by instead narrating a staunchly personal account of Neil Armstrong.
The film charts Armstrong’s professional career, beginning with his time as a test pilot, where he would experience some high altitudes flights which enabled him to observe the atmosphere. We follow his later vocation with NASA, up until the moon landing itself. In just as much focus, however, is his home life and personal time with his wife Janet.
Some liberties seem to have been taken in telling Neil Armstrong’s story, but the film still appears a stunningly deep account. Ryan Gosling is wholly convincing, and captures the temperament of a man facing a perilous mission into the unknown down to minute detail. I am glad the film avoided a typical heroism angle, and is instead quite a slow and psychological tale about a seemingly traumatised man who quells his anguish by obsessively striving toward an unsullied expanse. Like Gattaca, much of the film is grounded and sober (yet still undeniably well shot), until the final sequence, which is all the more gorgeous and breathtaking.
#9. Searching (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)
Technology (and particularly social media) has had a discordant representation on screen. Corners are often cut to allow for exposition or plot conveniences, and what is so familiar to most becomes glaringly counterfeit. Searching has been touted as a film that does it right and, for the most part, it really does.
In this mystery thriller told almost exclusively from a computer screen, David Kim’s daughter, Margot, goes missing. He quickly informs the police and is assigned a detective, but finds he can do just as much diagnosis himself, by tracing his daughters whereabouts via her social media, which leaves a very distinct digital footprint.
Tech savvy viewers will have a couple of complaints, but Searching does a commendable job in forming a social age mystery. The cinematography (if you can still call it that) is ingenious; a monitor has never felt so unconfined. For a film shot in just two weeks, but which spent a year and a half in post-production, the vigorous attention to detail shows, with numerous Easter eggs and important plot components hidden away in the background, ensuring audiences — should they desire — are able to engage with the film to a profound degree. Coupled with an arresting performance from John Cho (who also had a stand-out last year in Columbus), this is surely one of the year’s best thrillers.
#8. Liz and the Blue Bird (dir. Naoko Yamada)
Naoko Yamada is emerging as one of the top animation directors in Japan. Her adaptation of A Silent Voice in 2016 was a gorgeous and deeply affecting piece, so tightly knit and competently plotted, that I enjoyed it even more so than the manga. Her follow-up, Liz and the Blue Bird, is another distinct and striking entry.
The film — a tale of two friends in a high school music club, who must come to terms with their encroaching graduation — is a sort of side-story to the popular Sound! Euphonium anime series, itself based on a procession of novels, though any prior knowledge of these media isn’t required before you see Liz and the Blue Bird.
The film is quite brilliant in its in-between moments. The first sequence is largely without dialogue, as we observe one of the characters, Mizore, simply waiting for her friend Nozomi at the school gates. There’s a large emphasis on emotion and body language, which aren’t typically given such intricate but subtle attention in anime.
The plot could be easily retold in typical anime episode length, but the feature runtime here affords it a meditative quality, allowing emotions to teeter, stir, and linger to a greater degree. It’s a conventional story explored through an atypical, largely observational method unusual for the medium; the director and crew allow the characters room to simply be, and the film benefits from it immeasurably.
#7. One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichiro Ueda)
Initially released in Japan late in 2017, One Cut of the Dead had a run of mere days in two small art theatres in Tokyo. After gaining popularity following positive word of mouth and triumphant appearances at film festivals, it was re-released in 2018 to over 200 screens, and has since travelled the world, becoming a runaway sensation. Filmed in just eight days, it has now remarkably grossed over one thousand times its budget.
The film follows an eccentric director and his crew who are recording a one-take zombie movie, but they find themselves embroiled in a seemingly real-life doomsday scenario, when members of the team become zombies for real. It sounds familiar, but to say any more would spoil the fun. There hasn’t been a zombie feature quite like this.
The first half of One Cut of the Dead is riotous fun, but it’s in the second half where it begins to display its true genius. There are so many layers, details, and nuances which may at first seem rather mundane or senseless, but these small features slowly reveal a wonderfully inventive plot which utilises the cinematic form and the very construction of film to such a masterful degree.
It’s difficult to elucidate the sheer brilliance of One Cut of the Dead whilst skirting around spoilers, but it is certainly one of the most fun and creatively self-reflexive films I have ever seen. It reminded me of my old college movies, and whilst I would recommend it to anybody, I feel those with a particular interest in film will love it all the more.
#6. Journeyman (dir. Paddy Considine)
Paddy Considine is an inestimable talent. No matter the role, he can be counted on to deliver an esteemed performance. While his role in The Death of Stalin will deservedly find much attention this year, is was Journeyman — which he wrote, directed, and starred in — that left the most tremendous impression upon me.
The film is a character piece of sorts, which follows Considine’s part as Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champion whose life is drastically changed after a devastating injury. It has less a plot than films of a similar ilk, such as Bleed for This, and rather focuses on snapshots of Burton’s trauma and newfound affliction, charting his changed reality.
I have seen Journeyman touted as a ‘boxing film,’ but it is much rather a studious drama. There is only one boxing sequence and it is far from ostentatious. Even Burton’s injury, the major event which dictates the matter of the film, occurs as a delayed incident outside the ring. The film is deeply affecting in this way — there’s nothing showy about Burton’s injury. Considine’s bedeviled character, and his friend’s and family’s reaction to his altered state, is devastating precisely because it feels so authentic and so close to home.
Almost the entire film is spent with Burton, who Considine captures with remarkable credibility. After his injury, which the audience can only tell is something to do with the head, there is barely a hospital scene, and certainly no doctor’s explanation or timely exposition. Burton returns home only a few cuts later, and it isn’t immediately obvious how changed he is. Though it treads familiar territory, Journeyman’s understated technique and exceptional performances solidify it as a haunting and indelible film that may demolish even the most stony of hearts.
#5. Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu)
The romantic comedy isn’t typically the most inventive of genres, and I have seen many audiences deride Crazy Rich Asians as too predictable, but it honestly surprised me. Not so much through its characters or plot (there are certainly tropes there), but through just how captivating and charming it is.
Rachel and Nick are a couple of Asian heritage who live in New York City. Rachel is elated to accompany Nick to his best friends wedding at his family home in Singapore, where she discovers his ménage are exceedingly wealthy. As extended family and friends gather for the wedding, Rachel feels very much a fish out of water, due in large part to the repellent attitude of Nick’s mother, who feels Rachel isn’t good enough for her son.
Like Liz and the Blue Bird, the content here isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is absorbing. Crazy Rich Asians is expert escapist filmmaking — a feature that plays with tropes, rather than into tropes. It possess a layered framework, blending both East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity, in a story that is as funny as it is moving. This quality is accentuated by ravishing cinematography befitting of the luxury setting, and a formidable cast who offer even the less developed characters a lasting presence.
#4. A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)
Whilst I haven’t seen any of the other versions to offer a comparison, this modern retelling of the classic story is an outstanding debut from Bradley Cooper. What abides most in A Star is Born, other than the music, are the characters. Cooper and his co-star Lady Gaga feel not an ounce manufactured; their characters embody such visceral and unrefined emotion; at once soothing and plummeting audiences into their world.
Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a successful musician with a reliance on alcohol. He discovers and falls in love with Ally, a female singer played by Lady Gaga. Maine convinces her to sing at one of his shows and she becomes an overnight sensation. Thrust steadfast into the music industry and into a relationship with a destructive drinker, Ally finds herself both perturbed and delighted with her new life. Maine attempts to sedate his habits, but finds his demons difficult to quell.
Lady Gaga’s casting was a stroke of genius; she and Cooper play off one another masterfully, not only on screen, but also as vocalists and musicians. The title track, ‘Shallow,’ is every bit as lovely and heart-rending as the couple themselves. Sam Elliot, in what is only a small (but pivotal) role, all things considered, also left a substantial impression as Cooper’s on screen brother. He and Maine share what seems a very cumbersome relationship, the history of which we feel without really having to know. Later in the film, they share a scene that is so well composed it left me in such awe.
#3. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Haruki Murakami is my favourite author. His prose is gorgeous and his themes alluring. His wordsmanship is such that even the mundane takes on an ethereal quality. Yet many, if not all, of his live-action interpretations thus far have proven divisive. Murakami works heavily in metaphor and his plots are seldom conspicuous — they don’t lend themselves well to a direct adaptation. Lee Chang-dong understands this well and has brought along much of his own flair for his first adapted screenplay.
Burning chronicles the simmering love triangle between Jong-su, Hae-mi, and the enigmatic Ben, a playboy of sorts whom Hae-mi meets whilst travelling. The three share a vague bond, made all the stranger when Ben reveals to Jong-su his compulsion to burn down green houses, which begins to take on another meaning to the sceptical Jong-su.
Ok Gwang-hee, producer for the film, claimed they had only purchased the motif of the original story, and yet it feels a bona fide adaptation nonetheless, with many of Murakami’s signifiers, such as elusive cats, dried up wells, mysterious phone calls, and even a little jazz. However, Lee Chang-dong is too much the auteur, with his own voice staunchly present. He takes the central themes and ideas, the bare bones of the original story, and kneads them together with greater detail, to form what is arguably a more enriching narrative than Murakami’s own work.
It is certainly the best cinematic interpretation of Murakami thus far; mesmeric in both content and form, with enchanting imagery abundant with terrific vistas. The plot balances a fine line between ambiguity and lucidity, which is one of the film’s most appealing aspects. It is an enrapturing slow-burn where nothing is absolute, and it is in this ambivalence that Burning is so fulfilling. It is the first film in a long time where I wanted to watch it again almost immediately after it ended.
#2. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
Those who read my top ten last year will know Annihilation has been on my radar for some time. I love Garland’s screenplays for both Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, and Ex Machina, his directorial debut in 2014, showed he possessed just as much talent behind the camera. Nonetheless, Annihilation had a perturbed released in Britain, where it was absent from cinemas, supposedly for being too radical for the typical audience. Garland refused to make changes and it eventually debuted on Netflix.
The film follows an all-female expedition into the shimmer — a glossy rainbow coated area that forms following an impact event on the southern coast of the U.S. Inside, the crew attempt to locate others who had ventured in before them, but find vegetation and animals, and even perceived reality itself, mutated and warped beyond comprehension.
Annihilation is utterly creative and remarkable in so many ways, from the narrative, to the set dressing, sound design, visual effects, and beyond. Barrow and Salisbury’s score is of particular note. It is ever present and atmospheric from the onset, but swells into an ethereal haze, dense with synthesised sounds, as the film progresses, fashioning an exceptional nebulous soundscape which is truly befitting of the otherworldly imagery.
Film critic Devindra Hardawar said you will “miss out on the film’s epic scope and rich sound design” if you watch it on a TV or laptop, though he seems to disregard advancements in hardware. Whilst Annihilation was clearly made for the big screen, I don’t believe it is such a lost cause when viewed at home.
On the contrary, the film is perhaps best watched in utter seclusion, absorbed with some exemplary headphones that will safeguard you from any disturbances. Though it would have been a treat on the cinema screen, a closed environment may rather work to its benefit. In the stillness of my apartment, I found Annihilation utterly enthralling and, even on my laptop, it was likely one of the most immersive film experiences of my life. I have returned to watch the final act more times than I care to count, which I believe is testament to its artistry.
#1. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
I was initially ambivalent toward Koreeda. Nobody Knows didn’t intrigue me as much as his reputation had led me to expect. Yet I watched Air Doll thereafter and fell so in love with it. This year I had the pleasure of seeing Shoplifters and now feel the director has perhaps a most wondrous filmography, of which I have barely scratched the surface.
Shoplifters — known as ‘Shoplifting Family’ in Japan — follows a family on the margins. They’re a ragtag group whose relationships to one another are vague and indirect, but they nonetheless form a unit. They live in an unassuming household far too small for them all, and support themselves day-to-day through shoplifting and part time work.
I am beginning to see Koreeda as a master of observation. His camera seldom intervenes; it rather lingers on the edges, framing delicate portraits, both hyperaware and understated. Shoplifters isn’t a flashy film in the typical sense, but it is profoundly intricate in how it is woven together, and in how Koreeda enables audiences to both empathise with and criticise the ensemble cast, who are attentively developed.
Though the characters are essentially criminals, Koreeda unravels their flawed complexions to such a fine degree that the film is stunningly layered. There is no right or wrong, or good or evil, here there are only people. The film speaks volumes on topics such as poverty, parenthood, and family, but Koreeda does not strive to provide an ‘answer,’ so to speak. It’s a beautifully told feature, plotted and staged so competently that it appears utterly spontaneous and natural, and even poetic in some instances.
The cast proffer their roles an enduring reality, ensuring the characters linger far beyond the runtime. Cate Blanchett spoke of how “intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision” at the Cannes film festival, which I think is an eloquent way to put it. A stand-out for me was Sakura Ando, in a role as mesmeric as her performance in 2014’s tour de force 0.5mm. Her character’s first dialogue is spoken whilst she isn’t even in shot, but in one of her final appearances, she essentially addresses the camera. This is the most overt example of the sheer magnitude in which these characters flourish as the film progresses. The latter scene is my most favourite in the entire film, and the moment I knew Shoplifters was my favourite feature of 2018. Sakura Ando here, in what is largely one take, is brilliant beyond measure. I cannot wait to watch Shoplifters again.
As ever, thank you dearly for stopping by. Unfortunately, I missed Wildlife, Widows, and Roma, but I hope you found my choices compelling. These past twelve months shaped up to form an engaging year for film. I feel as though I’ve been saying this for the past two years, but soon we’ll finally see the release of Alita: Battle Angel — my most anticipated film for some time. I’ll be posting an in depth review when the time comes, and will continue to share many more film-related matters, so please swing by again, some time.
Happy New Year!