Best Movies of 2018

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.

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.


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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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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.


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#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 WildlifeWidows, 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!

Best Movies of 2017

It’s that time of the year again: the end. My arbitrary goal from last year was to watch over one hundred movies, and — somehow — I ended up watching two hundred. Of those some four hundred hours spent watching films, much time was dedicated to the motion pictures of this year. I feel it’s been quite an eclectic year for film, particularly the latter half. Thus, here is a list of my absolute favourites from the year gone by.

Before I begin, I must note…

Although it debuted in 2016, Silence is included on my list because it was released in the UK on the 1st of January. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would exclude many of the late year U.S. releases, which don’t often make it to the UK before the year is over. An example this time around is The Shape of Water, which was released in the U.S. in December 2017, but isn’t out in the UK until February 2018.

Also, while I have seen a fair share of the most critically acclaimed movies this year, this is by no means an exhaustive list compiled after having scoured all contemporary cinema the Earth has to offer, thus it may be a recent film entirely deserving of merit is missing from my list. I ran into this problem last year with 20th Century Women, which I adore so much, but didn’t include in my top ten because I hadn’t seen it at the time. Nonetheless, I don’t want to get into the habit of retroactively altering my blog posts.

Now, onto the main event. As always, I’ll start off with a special mention, before working my way down from number ten to number one. Please enjoy!

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016.


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Special Mention goes to Bad Genius (Dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya)

Bad Genius just missed out on a spot in the top ten, but it left such an impression that I couldn’t let it go by unmentioned. In this film from Thailand, a group of students start gaming exams, which turns into a small enterprise with lucrative profits. However, as they gear up to cheat the international STIC exam in order to sell the answers, the risk becomes ever evident.

Bad Genius is a sort of caper movie — a heist thriller — only unlike any you have seen before. From beginning to end, it proceeds with tremendous panache. It’s slick and exciting, and doesn’t rely on any cheap flash-backs or sudden changes to the narrative arising from details previously hidden.

Come the end, it plays out as a sort of commentary on the education system in East Asia, and while the ending certainly seems divisive, it nonetheless feels part of the natural progression, and is skillfully built towards. I really loved the central character Lynn; she’s a young woman in conflict, who generally wants to do the right thing but is easily swayed. Certainly, this was one of the years most spine-tingling movies.


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#10. Good Time (Dir. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie)

I find Robert Pattinson to be a very captivating actor. Like Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Radcliffe, he could have easily been pigeonholed and typecast early on after being attached to a popular franchise, but has since amassed an impressive and diverse body of work, and Good Time is perhaps one of his most absorbing performances yet.

The film takes place over one night, and begins with Pattinson’s character and his brother botching a heist. The latter is captured, with Pattinson then grasping at straws to try and get him freed, which leads him on a series of escapades with a mixture of characters, each scrambling through the night.

Good Time has a terrific sense of immediacy — it’s shot mostly through a mixture of close ups, which gives it a frantic and almost intoxicating quality. The audience are pulled post-haste into an ever turbulent narrative, which grabs a hold of you, shaking, right up until the end. It’s an enchanting and visually alluring thriller, with Pattinson giving an intense and commanding performance.


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#9. A Ghost Story (Dir. David Lowery)

Out of all the movies this year, this is the one that gave me the shivers the most. A Ghost Story follows a bed-sheet-draped Casey Affleck, who arises after dying to observe the world as a spectre. At first he silently watches Rooney Mara’s character — the wife he left behind — but finds that, as a wandering soul, his sense of space and time is vastly different to a mortal being.

Casey has no spoken dialogue as a ghost, and his face is entirely obscured, but his disposition and emotions are communicated expertly through the camera and his movements — audiences really get a sense and feeling for this otherworldly presence, which I think is quite remarkable.

You must engage with A Ghost Story to get any sort of fulfillment out of it — the narration is about as far from classical as it gets. There are some scenes and shots in the film which force or implore the audience to ponder their inclusion, and think about why it is they’re watching what they are. It’s not the most accessible picture, but I found it incredibly absorbing. I’m trying to think of movies to compare it to, but I can’t quite make a connection. I felt it had a very profound uniqueness and imagination, and the fact that I’m still thinking about it months later is very telling. It takes a special kind of film to linger and abide.


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#8. Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

I feel Blade Runner 2049 was one of the most cinematic and atmospheric films this year — one of those pictures that goes beyond sole entertainment to become a sort of experience. I love that it’s a big budget, wide-release movie that takes its time to build and ponder its themes and ambiance. It respects the audiences’ intelligence, and is a very solemn and poignant piece of cinema that lingers long after viewing.

Set thirty years after the original film, audiences follow K, a Blade Runner played by Ryan Gosling who is tasked with eliminating rogue replicants. He himself is a replicant, and lives a structured life with a rather stern disposition, but his personality and a larger purpose begin to form when he stumbles upon a secret related to Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford’s character from the original film, whom he must locate.

Blade Runner 2049 has this miraculous and fascinating setting that feels almost contradictory — somehow very large and imposing, but at the same time small scale and intimate, where glimpses of the ‘off world’ remain glimpses. It’s very much a character piece, in which the focus remains almost entirely on Ryan Gosling’s character, with a tremendous sense of scope and wonder ever-present in the background. The sound is booming and dramatic, and the visuals are striking and at times lyrical. It’s a steady and unabating film, certainly one of the year’s most impressive, and a spectacular and awesome treat on the big screen.


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#7. Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I am a fan of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. I don’t consider myself a religious person at all, but found it nonetheless terrifically revealing and affecting. I actually picked up the book a couple of years ago after hearing that Andrew Garfield would be involved in a film version, so to see this now feels as though things have finally come full circle.

Endo’s novel is told mostly from the first-person perspective of Father Rodrigues, who is in tremendous conflict with himself throughout much of the novel. It is by no means an obvious or unambiguous tale, and Scorsese and Garfield have managed to portray the disharmony surrounding Rodrigues to a stunning degree. It is of my humble opinion that Father Rodrigues is one of Garfield’s best performances.

I don’t think Silence is a very accessible film, but for me it was everything I wanted. It’s an adaptation done right, that aptly captures all the conflict and profundity of the novel, whilst adding a little more detail here and there, confidently molding prose into a truly cinematic experience. It was a real treat to see Yosuke Kubozuka involved, too. He was one of the first Japanese actors I knew by name, after seeing him in Ping Pong almost a decade and a half ago.


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#6. Columbus (Dir. Kogonada)

I went into Columbus knowing very little about the plot or contents of the film, and it completely wiped me out. It’s a rather subdued picture — almost like a sleepier version of Lost in Translation. Haley Lu Richardson plays a young woman both astray and trapped, as she resigns herself to a life in Columbus to succour her mother.

She bonds with John Cho’s character, who is himself stuck in Columbus after his father falls ill. The two roam the city, observing architecture and making small talk, slowly developing a more sincere dialogue as they begin to fill a void in each others lives.

The film has some stunning aesthetics, with the beautiful and intriguing scenery of Columbus lending itself to several of the films most alluring shots, but it was Haley Lu Richardson who really stole the show. Her character has bottled up all her distress and worries for later attention, with the film gradually loosening the lid as it progresses. The ending scene in the car is seemingly burned into my mind — it left such an impression on me. It’s profoundly emotive and moving, but is composed in such a way that it’s subdued and almost pacifying. Columbus is such a beautiful and authentic tale, and I am very glad I went into it blind.


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#5. Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

The story of Wolverine and the X-Men has been told and developed on-screen to a point where it’s almost excessive, and yet here is a new entry that feels markedly bold and different. The X-Men have always overcome adversity, so to see the last remnants in such dire straits felt entirely refreshing. They are the underdogs in a whole new light.

After playing the character for almost two decades, Hugh Jackman gives it his all in this final outing as Wolverine, where an aging Logan is ready to hang up his claws for good until he finds kinship in a young mutant girl who is being hunted by a savage gang.

At a time where many of its counterparts are free of tension and stacked with quips, it’s nice to see a Hollywood comic book movie which dares to be bleak and somber and moody. The plot itself is relatively simple, but it carries so much weight through the characters. Logan benefits from eight movies of ‘backstory’ and emotional baggage, which steadily erupts throughout this entirely raw, tender, perturbing, rousing, mesmeric farewell of a film. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are heartbreaking.


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#4. Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute dream in this eloquently written coming of age drama, that is such a confident and striking debut from Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird is a film after my own heart, and one which seems to have touched the souls of many. My only remorse is that I can’t watch it again with a fresh mind.

Ronan plays the self-dubbed ‘Lady Bird,’ a somewhat oddball student in a Catholic high school who wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento. She’s an outspoken and often rebellious youth who values her individuality, who is frequently at odds with her mother, whom she shares a precarious but doubtless relationship with.

Although Lady Bird is essentially the tale of Ronan’s character, there are many layers and nuances to it, and while the supporting cast do not take the spotlight, they are nonetheless attentively written, well expressed, and very wholesome personalities, each embodying their own issues and identity. It felt similar in ways to last years 20th Century Women in its exploration of the mother-child relationship, which seems both dubious yet unbreakable. Saoirse Ronan elevates it to another level — although I am aware that I am watching the actress, Saoirse Ronan, performing as a character in a film; I am completely enraptured and lost within her performances, without fail. She is an incredible talent.


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#3. A Taxi Driver (Dir. Jang Hoon)

In their fight for proper democracy and representation, the people of South Korea have gone through numerous periods of strife, some of which led to violence and deadly conflict. A demonstration against the government in the city of Gwangju in 1980 turned into a merciless struggle when government troops intervened — ultimately shutting off the city and brutally attacking civilians.

In this film based on a true story, Song Kang-ho plays a taxi driver from Seoul who unexpectedly stumbles upon the bloodshed in Gwangju after ferrying a German journalist to the city. He struggles to come to terms with what he witnesses, and grapples with his survival and morals as he fluctuates between helping and escaping.

The film opens with Song Kang-ho singing along to a song by Cho Yong-pil, amid the escalating student demonstrations. It’s an excellent piece of characterisation right from the beginning — Song is an everyday man, somebody who lives day to day, without the luxury to worry about the larger picture. So when he is confronted with such an extreme situation, there’s a tremendous weight placed on his character, and Song portrays all the nuances of a man in conflict with both his surroundings and himself. His performance was completely entrancing, and the film itself was both a horror and a delight.


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#2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

I find Noah Baumbach to be a rather hit-or-miss director — a lot of people seem to like him, but I personally haven’t loved a film of his, that is until The Meyerowitz Stories. The film tells of a dysfunctional family led by Dustin Hoffman, whose three estranged children all received vastly different upbringings. As the family gathers to celebrate their fathers work, they begin to unravel and resolve past differences.

I knew I was going to love this film from very early on. There’s a scene about ten minutes in, where Adam Sandler’s character and his daughter duet on the piano. It is one of my favourite scenes in any movie this year. It’s so tender, portraying so much love and compassion between the two, but with Sandler revealing slight vulnerabilities and anguish just below the surface. It’s terrifically shot, and the embrace between them both just five minutes later pounded me right in the heart.

Adam Sandler is so wonderful in this film — the entire principal cast are, in fact. Hoffman is incredibly engaging, with such natural delivery and impeccable timing in his comedic scenes. Stiller is able to merge both charisma and anxiety, and Elizabeth Marvel masters a distressing temperament where, even in the more tranquil scenes, her character still looks vaguely dejected and burdened. It’s a very touching and bittersweet story about family dynamics, nurturing and legacy, and I loved it.


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#1. Okja (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Last year my top film was A Bride for Rip Van Winkle from Shunji Iwai, and this year it’s Okja from Bong Joon-ho. These are two filmmakers whom I adore very much. Like Iwai, Mr. Bong produces incredible work on such a consistent basis, but unlike Iwai, I find it extremely taxing to pick a stand-out favourite from Mr. Bong. His pictures do share similarities — mostly thematically — but they are, at the same time, so distinct and impressive for vastly different reasons.

With that in mind, I can’t say that Okja is my favourite film from Bong Joon-ho, but I can say with confidence that it is my favourite film of 2017. In it, a young Korean girl named Mija and her genetically engineered super pig Okja must evade the clutches of a pitiless corporation, who want to duplicate and harvest Okja’s meat for mass production. In ways, it’s an amalgamation of elements from Snowpiercer and The Host, chock-full with social themes and tonal shifts, disclosed through a eyes of a charismatic if quirky ensemble cast.

It tackles some heavy themes, but is balanced in its commentary. It’s anti-capitalist more so than anti-meat or anti-industry; the film opens with Mija capturing a medley of fish to eat, but she takes only the amount necessary and releases the others. Okja preaches moderation and ethics, but doesn’t overstep the mark to become heavy-handed or overbearing. It’s a critique disguised as an action-adventure tale, with a plot that is thrilling, layered and profoundly emotive.

The final act is so tremendously moving and well composed that I kept returning to it for weeks; it’s a very powerful film and hits all the appropriate beats, ensuring drama, action, pain and pleasure. Ahn Seo-hyun is entrancing in her first lead role, and holds her own against veterans Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano. Swinton is especially hypnotic in a duel role as the villainous Mirando twins — her antagonists have such personality and presence, and are somehow persuasive personas who are yet both detached and peculiar. This on-going collaboration between Bong and Swinton is another compelling entry into Mr. Bong’s impressive catalogue of actor-director partnerships. If you ask me, the director has yet to put a foot wrong.


There we have it. Another years goes by; what will the next one hold? When it comes to what I’m looking forward to in 2018, mostly I want to see Alita: Battle Angel. I am an enormous fan of the manga, and have been waiting for this adaptation for so long. A couple of details leave me anxious, but there were some promising moments in the trailer and the cast look terrific. I hope so much that it is a success.

Otherwise I am eager to see Duncan Jones’ new film Mute, along with Alex Garland’s Annihilation, both of which look most intriguing. I can’t wait to see The Shape of Water, and Thoroughbreds has my attention. I always look forward to anything with Andrew Garfield, so Under the Silver Lake is on my radar, which also stars Riley Keough. I am very interested in Wildlife, in which Paul Dano directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, and I am curious to see Vox Lux with Rooney Mara, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties with Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. I am also aching to see Ready Player One, The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, and Jang Joon-hwan’s film 1987: When the Day Comes, which is about the tragic true story of Park Jong-chul.

I am sure I’ll be writing about all those and more in the coming months. As always, thank you dearly for stopping by, and please check in again for more movie related musings.

Happy New Year!

Top 10 Japanese Movies

Greetings, perusers. I’m taking a short break from Watched This Month as I have been quite preoccupied recently, but wanted to take this leisurely day to instead write about some of my favourite Japanese films. If you know me — which you probably don’t — then you’ll know I adore Japanese cinema, which has a fascinating history and a catalogue so very diverse, poignant, compelling and inspiring. Akira Kurosawa alone has inspired numerous contemporary directors, and has largely influenced films from A Bug’s Life to Star Wars. There’s much to be learned from Japanese cinema — thus here are ten films I would absolutely recommend.

Before you grab that battleaxe, I must stress this list is composed entirely in my opinion, and has been compiled with the aim of featuring ten truly dissimilar movies, thus I have chosen not to include multiple films from the same director. Similarly, this list includes just a handful of my most loved movies, and on a different day the order or inclusion of such titles may well differ — so please take this list as ten great movies, rather than a definitive rundown of ‘the best.’ I may well do an expanded list in the future.


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#10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

Among the hundreds of Japanese movies I have seen, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a real stand-out in terms of its satire, tone and plot. It was penned by Leonard Schrader, an American screenwriter who fled to Japan to avoid conscription. Schrader taught American literature, but subsequently became involved with the Yakuza, with his experiences leading to his foray into filmmaking.

The Man Who Stole the Sun was his fourth feature as a writer and is a very radical piece. It follows science teacher Makoto Kido (played by Kenji Sawada), who decides to build his very own atomic bomb, with which he holds the country to ransom. What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Kido and police detective Yamashita (played by Bunta Sugawara), which culminates in an exhilarating thirty minute showdown, with car chases and set pieces more akin to a Western movie than something from Japan.

It has a steady pace, with characters brilliantly juxtaposed, and cinematography that ranges from experimental to skillful. It’s a real marvel in Japan’s cinematic catalogue and has even been looked to for inspiration by Hideaki Anno.


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#09. The Bird People in China (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Takashi Miike is best known for his outlandish and violent cinema, but is the architect behind over one hundred different movies, some of which completely contradict his reputation as a gratuitous filmmaker. Enter the poetic and wonderful The Bird People in China — a film concerned with ecology, and the mysticism and sacrality of nature.

The film follows a Japanese businessman who is sent to assess valuable minerals in a remote area of China. Along the way, he is accompanied by a member of the Yakuza, who becomes warped by the other-worldly beauty of the distant Chinese province.

Sporting alluring visuals and themes that are still relevant today, it’s a meditative, illuminating and well balanced commentary on technology versus nature, and very poetic and symbolic in its delivery.


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#08. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

Confessions is in stark contrast to Tetsuya Nakashima’s preceding feature, Memories of Matsuko — swapping colour and quirks for a bleak palette and feelings of desolation. Confessions opens with high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi announcing her resignation due to the recent death of her daughter, which she attributes to two of her students. She ousts the children, but as they are protected by Juvenile Law, she concocts a twisted plan of revenge.

It’s a stylish and fluently plotted film, which maneuvers between multiple threads with the utmost finesse. The film doesn’t sport a score, with Nakashima instead choosing to compile a soundtrack of previously recorded songs, which includes pieces from Boris, Curly Giraffe and Radiohead, to name a few. These tracks compliment the visuals terrifically, creating a film bursting with artistry and panache.

It’s a movie with both style and substance, that features a comprehensive and wholly satisfying tale of desperation and revenge. The conflict is well paced and competently plotted, with an ending that is both stupendously exciting and terrifically haunting.


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#07. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)

Adrift in Tokyo is a completely endearing and wholesome piece of cinema. Joe Odagiri plays a loafer named Fumiya, who is in heavy debt. One day he receives a visit from a loan shark named Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura), who makes Fumiya a proposition: If Fumiya accompanies him across Tokyo to a police station, where he intends on turning himself in for an unspecified crime, then Fukuhara will cancel his debt. Fumiya accepts the proposal and thus begins their journey across Japan’s illustrious capital.

The plot is — quite literally — wandering, but at the same time it never loses focus. Fumiya and Fukuhara traverse landscapes, encountering fresh personalities at every turn. With each chance meeting, they learn more about one another and develop a peculiar relationship that is at times jocular, and at others very precious and sentimental. Not only does it display the eccentricities and fascinating characters all around us, but it’s one hell of an advertisement for Tokyo, which is shown in all its beauty. The Japanese capital really is a treasure trove of flourishing neighbourhoods — the film will leave you lusting for your own wayfaring adventure.


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#06. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai movies (interestingly, he is himself a descendant of samurai), but the director didn’t feature the popular swordsmen until his 14th picture, which almost needs no introduction.

Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour epic in which a band of ronin are recruited to help defend a small farming village from bandits. The film’s most memorable moments arrive during the fierce, rain-soaked climax, which was — as is usual with Kurosawa — an incredibly gritty shoot to ensure authenticity. Kurosawa refused to use a studio and instead had enormous sets constructed on location, which were stupendously destroyed in the climatic action.

The director ultimately regarded his 1985 film Ran as his finest work, but Seven Samurai has gone down in the history as a defining picture, with stunning technical innovations. It’s a tour de force in filmmaking and storytelling, and one of the most epic, enthralling and impressive of the 20th Century.


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#05. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

Satoshi Kon’s second feature is an indelible portrait of Japanese history, a genre extravaganza, an excursion into the art of filmmaking, and a meditative exploration of life and love — undoubtedly my favourite animated picture.

The film — penned by Kon in collaboration with Sadayuki Murai — follows a small documentary film crew, who are on their way to visit an enigmatic actress who withdrew from performing to live a life of seclusion, reminiscent of real-life actress Setsuko Hara. After convincing her to relay her story, Millennium Actress takes audiences on a wondrous voyage across centuries, as the actress’ life is explored through her body of work, with Kon employing his trademark blend of reality and make-believe.

Don’t be lulled by its surface simplicity — Millennium Actress is a sinuous and brooding journey across time, with a narrative that unravels in remarkable ways. Kon was a true master of the medium; a director well attuned with the scope of animation, who would utulise fresh techniques with each production. Millennium Actress employs a unique use of montage and transitions to meld narratives, producing an extraordinary visual flair. Couple this with Susumu Hirasawa’s hypnotising score and you have something quite special.


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#04. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror movies, but I find his 2008 film Tokyo Sonata to be the most poignant and memorable in his filmography. The film examines social constructs and the family dynamic in a modern Japanese setting, as the patriarchal figure looses his job and sole income. He tries to keep his misfortune a secret from his family, but things begin to implode nevertheless, as each member undergoes an introspective journey as they struggle to maintain stability.

It’s a masterfully shot film that is both distinctly Japanese and very universal, with the director exploring crisis within both the family unit and the economy. Kurosawa builds an eccentric tone by forcing his typical family into extraordinary situations, ultimately presenting a darkly comical sequence of events, but nonetheless he doesn’t shy away from heartache and melodrama — there are a number of doleful scenes that are tremendously affecting. It’s a spellbinding feature with many threads and layers, which includes one of the most wistful and lingering endings ever put to film.


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#03. 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)

Sakura Ando stars as a beguiling enigma in her sister’s sophomore feature (and a feature it is at three and a half hours long). The film is an odyssey of sorts, charting the journey of central character Sawa, who finds herself penniless and alone after losing her job. She reveals a deceptive side when she begins to take advantage of the elderly, blackmailing and forcing herself upon a number of men throughout the runtime in order to obtain money and board, but her cunning machinations turn bittersweet and poignant, as the men begin to reveal their inner pain. Sawa becomes a sort of mischievous angel who unlocks people’s suffering and steers them towards a path of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, with Sakura Ando the driving force. We learn little about her Sawa character, but she is endlessly compelling — an inscrutable figure you can’t quite keep your eyes off. It’s twice as long as an ordinary film, but could divide nicely into a series of shorts. It never repeats itself; every section of Sawa’s journey is extraordinary and distinctively alluring. I couldn’t bare to see it end.


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#02. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Mischievous layabout Kikujiro forms an unlikely bond with young Masao, who is on a journey across Japan to locate his mother. What ensues is a road trip of hijinks and escapades, with a seamless blend of slapstick comedy and stirring drama. Kikujiro is Kitano’s eighth film as a director, following perhaps his most renowned work (Hana-bi) and preceding one of his most ignored (Brother).

The ‘road trip’ concept isn’t something explored often in Japanese cinema (I can think of Suicide Bus and Sake-Bomb off the top of my head), but Kitano uses it as a means to explore alienation in a variety of segments. As Kikujiro and Masao travel Japan, they encounter a number of characters who not only assist them on their journey, but also on an emotional and subconscious level. Some of these scenes are very subtle and poetic, aided tremendously by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score.

Kitano’s deadpan, manzai-inspired humour weaves many endearing moments into the films lasting sentiment, adding a bizarre atmosphere to the pensive vignettes that fill the runtime. Kikujiro is one of Kitano’s most family friendly movies, but is at the same time one of his most poignant and affecting.


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#01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001)

No movie before or since has affected me in ways All About Lily Chou-Chou has — finding it was like unlocking a chest full of elegies from a long lost friend. It’s an enlightening and wholly mesmeric picture, that reveals new layers on every watch.

The film depicts the transformative journey of a group of high school students, some of whom become enamored with a mystical singer named Lily Chou-Chou. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of it’s time, and Iwai couldn’t have been more exact in his depiction of netizens, whose ease of connectivity can sometimes foster isolation. He portrays adolescence as a defining period in which some youths lose themselves; as they struggle to find compassion and familiarity in their peers, they turn to the internet and become absorbed with pop culture, which offers them a sort of exclusive comfort.

All About Lily Chou-Chou sports Iwai’s bewitching and hazy tone, and — in addition to the principal score, which includes some enchanting compositions — features a fully arranged album from the titular singer, which offers the enigmatic figure a very real and haunting presence, that almost goes beyond fiction.

Shunji Iwai focuses often on youthful characters who feel misunderstood and forlorn — I am continually impressed by his grasp of adolescence, and the clarity of his vision, and the organic sentiment his work so impeccably exudes. His films are enlightening in the most unobtrusive and delicate of ways; portraying pain and confusion with touches of warmth and repose.

Further to Iwai’s alluring writing and imagery, he seems to share a terrific rapport with the other talent in his work. Japanese Academy winner Yu Aoi debuted in All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Tadanobu Asano and Takako Matsu also established themselves in Shunji Iwai films. He comes across to me as a decided maestro of the art, and is the designer of some truly original, soul-stirring movies. All of his features, and even his short work, are bursting with individual merit, but — to me — All About Lily Chou-Chou is his masterpiece and is, in it’s most basic form, a remarkable voyage concerning loneliness, escapism, and what it is like to grow up during the onset of the 21st Century.