Analytically speaking, of the 57 films seen in 2018 (already 19 fewer than 2017), over half of them were 2018 releases, the majority of which being straight-to-streaming specials that failed to capture my imagination (e.g. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), or were feeble hangover fodder (e.g. The Meg). Of this approximate half, a further half were in contention for my Top 10, which meant only a small few had to be weeded out. Perhaps if I’d have seen many of the heavy-hitters populating an array of reliable lists (e.g. ROMA, Leave No Trace etc), then they’d find themselves on this page. Or maybe they wouldn’t. The joy of these compiling these short-term retrospectives is in the not knowing.
In previous years, narrowing these films down to ten (plus honourable mentions and those on other lists) presented a challenge, and while there was a challenge here, it was more from getting back into the flow of writing and not so much in the formation (though, choosing which to oust to #11 was hard). Honourable mentions are below and can be seen as an additional Top 10.
What follows are films released in the UK between January 2018 and December 2018 only.
10. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
A creatively successful adult fantasy tale set in the Cold War 1960s, The Shape of Water is a deft balance of politics and love during a period of high-prejudice and foreigner alarmism. Sally Hawkins absolutely nails it as Elisa, a mute maid in a top secret government facility, emoting and communicating with the utmost sincerity without becoming overwrought or irritating. Wonderful and surprising at every turn, it oftentimes feels like a love story that could become as timeless as the lively tap-dancing films that Hawkins and Jenkins affectionately watch together. It may clearly be fantasy, but del Toro is a master of combining imagined horrors with legitimate ones, and with The Shape of Water, he might have made his best film yet.
9. Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein)
Such a high-concept plot could have gone either way (expectations of it being a remodeling of Daley and Goldstein’s callous Horrible Bosses weren’t unwarranted), but thankfully the contagious situational comedy that develops from a couples-only game night into a mystery whodunit is entertainment at its most buoyant and appealing. The discreet parallels to a multitude of prominent board games are just one of many striking elements, as is Barry Peterson’s spellbinding tilt-shift photography, Cliff Martinez’s pulsating score, and a luxury of talent (including scene-stealing turns from Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons) bearing such comedic flair that it all comes together as an endlessly amusing ride. It’s been a long time since a mainstream comedy has been this good.
8. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
Like most people, I have a mostly off-off-relationship with Paul Schrader. On one hand, you’ve got the Schrader who gave us a brilliant directorial debut (the scathing Blue Collar) that followed from his scripting of the indomitable Taxi Driver. On the other, you have Schrader as proprietor of such unmitigated bilge as The Canyons and a far larger portion of his filmography that doesn’t bear listing. First Reformed – possibly the first film since his screenplay for 1998s Bringing Out the Dead that’s at the very least decent – is as incendiary and provocative as cinema can be. Despite not being explicitly frightening, First Reformed is still damned scary: its rife with internal suffering and escalating existential fear, perfectly realised by an astonishing Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller, a tortured man amid a transcendental crisis. With his steady hand amplifying the script’s themes of helplessness, disbelief and piety, and humanity’s sweeping irresponsibility toward an impending global catastrophe, Schrader has formulated an argument for the importance of worldwide unity set against the backdrop of religious interrogation in Upstate New York. As it nears its conclusion, First Reformed’s substantially unanswerable questions of forgiveness are eclipsed by the threat of complete destruction, and Schader’s vision of the apocalypse, within and without, is coming, and it starts with us.
7. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
As with the allegorical neo-futurism of Ex Machina, Alex Garland has devised another uneasy introspection into our perpetual intent to destroy perceived threats toward humankind, in this instance, the undulating, metastasizing cancer at the heart of The Shimmer: the phenomenally warped biological entity that our expedition team (lead by the always wonderful Natalie Portman) finds themselves engulfed by. It’s to the audience’s benefit that Garland was able to overhaul much of Jeff VanderMeer’s source material and create something uniquely terrifying. Annihilation is a cerebral trip into the metaphysical, giving the viewer more scenes (plus an entirely re-written ending) of meditative reflection on the philosophy of humanity’s insignificance: we come, we die, and they continue. It’s bleak, and at-times truthfully upsetting, but it’s also a lush, visually impressive piece of science fiction that isn’t afraid to put its horrors at the forefront. Nature is cyclical, and we are doomed, and there’s fuck all we can do about it.
6. Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina)
Life-affirming and death-asserting, Pixar’s gloriously kaleidoscopic Coco is gut-wrenching in both its sincerity and forthrightness: touching on morality, inherited illnesses, and the ever-looming threat of forgetting the ones you’ve lost. It’s a gift that the studio brings to life a story so commonplace (“youngster journeys to the underworld seeking knowledge to assist on Earth”) and still spin their own vivid interpretation that feels just as profound. As with the best of the world-renowned studio, pleasure can be found in every frame, and here it positively bursts to every corner of every scene: fully detailed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em sight gags and decorations come by the dozen, dynamically fleshing out the intangible world around them. An affectionate look at Mexican culture, Coco celebrates the country’s rich history and intimate traditions through educational depictions of the afterlife by way of familial legacies and music, the latter acting as the foundation and healer of all things. Charming, dazzling, and immeasurably sad, Coco is up there with the best of them.
5. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
I’ve spoken repeatedly – on this website and in person – about my prevailing apathy toward contemporary horror: waxing and waning between grisly, unintelligent entertainment and boredom with every big name release. 2018 wasn’t without its uninspiring duds (hello A Quiet Place, hola Veronica), but it did have one of the most insidiously distressing debuts in Ari Aster’s phenomenal Hereditary. Insanity and the decaying of family embed every minute with anxiety: with flickers of trauma and nightmarish build-ups nudging along every scene as if it were a horror maze with no way back (the extended silence, then discovery fixated on Alex Wolff’s face minutes after that scene royally fucked me up). Certainly, the ending is divisive, and I’d go as far to agree it could have ended a few frames earlier (though, the question is, should it have?) but the preceding unrelenting terrors and across-the-board acting more than reserved its place on this years’ list. A horror film that doesn’t care for jump scares, Hereditary‘s successes lie in its rampant nastiness toward the helplessly manipulated Graham family; a nastiness that mercilessly, graciously petrifies.
4. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
You Were Never Really Here is that rare beast: a hugely experimental, maximalist exploitation film that manages genuine heart and emotion amidst hideous tendencies. Lynne Ramsay is an absolute commander of her voice, and this is her scorching masterpiece that’s ruthlessly taut and alarming. Joaquin Phoenix stars in yet another superlative performance as Joe, a Gulf War veteran-cum-hitman whose last job sees him spiral into the darkness of kidnapping, masterfully highlighting the ways in which trauma and violence can suddenly resurface, hand-in-bloodied-hand. It’s every-so-often a little too obtuse, but that’s not entirely to its detriment: Ramsay’s reluctance to pander to bloodlust simply secures it as a piece of art that demands a much welcomed rewatch, and at a brisk 89 minutes, this is vital revenge cinema at its most brutally concise.
=2 Mission: Impossible – Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
If there’s a film I’ve talked about more than any other this year due to sheer childlike hysteria, it’s the bullet-train of staggering accomplishments that is Mission: Impossible – Fallout. A film that could have been as disposable as, say, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (by no means a bad film), it’s a crowning achievement in not only the series but tentpole blockbusters as a whole. Taking things to the ne plus ultra by not just Cruise’s emphatically insane commitment to battering his limbs and torso, but the tight-as-a-drum plot, the exquisitely well-choreographed combat, the remarkable direction from McQuarrie, and the entire Impossible Mission Force finally getting their dues. Add to that one of the greater returning villains in action cinema and this becomes a superior rollercoaster cinema at its zenith. A new benchmark for the future of spectacle cinema, it’ll be interesting to see what McQuarrie and Co. do with parts 7 and 8.
Besides, it’s true what they say.
=2 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh)
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an all-out community war develops after Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) pays for three billboards on an isolated road to provoke the police force to reopen a cold case into the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. It’s a relatively straightforward set-up, but Martin McDonagh’s forgoes the trite mundanity in a quest for closure through his whip-smart script. Tighter than his previous works and harking back to his time writing for the stage, Three Billboards’ script is a winning showcase for his flair in creating hilariously caustic monologues for his characters to spit (McDormand’s impassioned soliloquy about “those Bloods and those Crips” is supremely menacing), leading to frequently amusing put-downs and gibes with the impending threat of a swift conclusion. The way it does conclude – which is, and has been, up for frenzied debate – has bothered audiences the world over, but there was no resolution more in harmony with its cast of aggrieved culpable arseholes. In a world where violence begets violence, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass in superlative filmmaking that’s both howlingly funny and deeply melancholic on the flip of a coin.
1. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Of all the films on this list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is the one I’ve struggled with writing about the most, stemming from my inability to elaborate on the impassioned emotional response I had upon first viewing. It all boiled down to a casual statement I made to a friend: Phantom Thread is cinema as pure, intoxicating poetry. Not only is it poetic in the way character rhythms flow in routine synchronicity, but with Anderson’s calculated shots lingering like words implied and glacial scorning revealing more about personalities than necessarily desired, it’s poetic in every thread of its existence. There was little risk of Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma’s (Vicky Krieps) sniping growing stale (“Maybe I like trouble…”) but it’s still a relief when Anderson’s quintessential dark-humoured streak weaves through its architecture, graduating from mere character study into one of my favorite feel-bad, bizarrely interdependent relationships I’ve seen in years, stress-inducing finale and all.
As the caveat in the first paragraph implies, these honourable mentions could have found themselves in the primary list, and though none of these would even be considered a failure, it was my failure in finding more to write that see them relegated to a sentence. The Incredibles 2 (A Pixar superhero sequel far-and-away more entertaining than 2018’s live-action offerings); Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard’s wicked send-up of crime-thrillers is as well-realised as his previous send-up of horror); Lady Bird (an excellent cast bolster a hilarious script in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age); Ghost Stories (hammer-horror inspired anthology wherein the jump-scares are earned, and the resolution stings); Journeyman (by-the-numbers drama that succeeds with palpable compassion and strong directing/acting from Considine); Hold The Dark (sometimes frustratingly cryptic but never dull, this is a true display of Jeffrey Wright’s talents); Apostle (teases going full-Evans without payoff, but the world-building and the horrors contained were more than enough to satisfy); BlackKklansman (maddening and vital, and often very funny, but claws are very much pulled back than sunk in); Sorry to Bother You (Office Space/Idiocracy as envisioned by Michel Gondry, its no-holds-barred, on-the-nose ending is creative flexibility at its most divisive).
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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