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Here we are. Another year, another slew of blockbuster sequels and of course another writer slapping together a 'top films of the year' list.
Before I dive in, however, I must warn you that the list of films I've actually seen in 2018 is shockingly short but through my viewings and from seeing the world of film from afar, there is a sense of change in the world of moving images unlike previous years. For starters, I absolutely did not expect to have, not one but two, superhero films in this list. I'll go into detail on those two further down, but they are prime examples that the stories told in cinema are changing. We're finding ourselves relating to the antagonists more than ever. We're questioning and doubting who we are and our purpose in a changing landscape much like the protagonists and we're seeing whole new worlds—be it on different planets or in the next neighbourhood. While that mostly sounds depressing or terrifying, this shift has produced one of the most exciting years in cinema for a long time and I hope this trend continues. Even with such existential ideas explored, there is always hope at the end of it all. Something we all need in the current climate we are living in.
Without further ado, I present to you my top five films of 2018. Not necessarily the best of the best, but a highlight of the films that have stuck with me since seeing them on the big screen.
(Some spoilers, big and small, will be detailed below.)
To me, this film is the one that captures the essence of film in 2018. The action isn't that memorable (save for that tracking shot in the casino fight scene) and the CGI effects falter here and there but every other aspect of this Marvel pic is, dare I say, near perfect.
The Afro-futurism world-building, score and production design is unlike anything we've seen or heard on the big screen but it's the characters and story which elevates this Marvel flick above its peers. The cast, featuring bright upcoming stars and solid veteran actors are great, but Michael B. Jordan steals the spotlight as Erik Killmonger. Not just because of a great performance but how the script uses Killmonger as a fantastic antagonist against the titular Black Panther. An antagonist we actually empathize with also tackles the biggest debates we have in our society today. This film doesn't just solve Marvel's problem of a good villain, this sets the template of what an antagonist should be in storytelling and tests our hero in surprising ways.
Of course, we can't talk about Black Panther without mentioning the inclusivity on display here and it's box office success because of it. The film is unashamedly Afro-American and all the power to director Ryan Coogler and the team for being so; seeing just one of the many reaction videos online of Black Americans coming out of Black Panther screenings must have been worth it for him—and the $1.346 billion worldwide box office haul.
Still, I couldn't have been more surprised and thrilled to see a tentpole superhero film that embraces diversity, tackles our biggest issues head-on and delivers a visceral world filled with engaging characters. This is what blockbuster filmmaking should be.
'Avengers: Infinity War'
I must say, after my first viewing I left the cinema with mixed feelings. I felt cheated after that ending, knowing all of our favourite heroes will be back to grace our screen once again and make even more ridiculous amounts of money. Surely, the audience must realise this too, right?
The third big screen Avengers team-up promised to up the ante and it sure delivered on that promise in every regard. The cast featured, well, everyone. The scale of the set pieces were bigger than ever before and the locales spanned the known universe. With a film this big, however, there were bound to be some problems sticking out like a sore thumb. Some characters were sidelined and undeveloped and the massive roster of heroes affected the story with unnecessary or just dull plot lines.
Infinity War refused to get out of my head and after much thought I realised why. I missed the whole damn point of the film. This wasn't an Avengers film. This was Thanos' story. I was too ignorant to realise Marvel had produced a multi-million dollar tentpole film about the big bad purple dude, who had been teased for years, wanting to wipe out half the universe and succeeding. Now thats a ballsy move for this generation's leading franchise.
I initially had enjoyed Josh Brolin's performance as the computer-generated Mad Titan, but I didn't give enough credit to the team for getting us to empathise with Thanos. Yes, killing half of all life in the universe isn't exactly a good thing but the writing and performance tempted us to see why. Much like Black Panther, Infinity War had created another superb antagonist but here he's presented as the main character too.
Avengers: Infinity War isn't about the destination but the journey, more specifically Thanos' journey. We know he will fall in this year's Avengers: Endgame and our heroes will return but who exactly will make their comeback and how remains to be seen. For now though, directors the Russo Brothers have crafted a serviceable superhero mash-up on the surface but a much more nuanced and challenging story underneath.
It's easy to dismiss Nicholas Cage as a meme-machine but this guy can act when attached to the right project. This film is that project.
Directed by Greek-Canadian Panos Cosmatos, this is a strange beast of a film; a film with two completely different halves that somehow work together in beautiful harmony. The first, a psychedelic slow-burning portrayal of a couple (played by Cage and Andrea Riseborough as the titular Mandy) deeply in love after a much-hinted-at difficult past in their reclusive home. When a cult kidnaps Mandy and kills her in front of Cage's Red, the film quickly turns into a savage, even more psychedelic revenge flick. At this point we haven't even had the opening title.
Style oozes from the screen; the use of lighting, the phantasmic imagery viewed through the gorgeous cinematography. For all the beauty on display here, there is also blood. A lot of blood. The violent second half clearly takes inspiration from the 70s and 80s b-movie gore fests, but Mandy takes those inspirations and creates its own beast. Cosmatos has created his own weird but believable world here that has echoes of its own mythicism, with the cult Children of the New Dawn, the nightmarish gang of Black Skulls and (my absolute favourite cinematic name of 2018) the Horn of Abraxas.
Back to Cage now and his performance here. This is his best yet. Cosmatos and his world lets Cage loose in the best possible way. It's too easy to laugh at his manic performance and meme-worthy facial expressions on display here but if you let the film swallow you up, you'll see just how much Cage absorbs the character and the world; showcasing a tragic character arc fueled by anger and madness. It's the most Nicholas Cage performance Cage has ever done. The stand-out moment has to be the
"Cheddar Goblin" Scene. After seeing his lover burnt alive and freeing himself of a barbed-wire gag, Red stands before his TV playing a macaroni and cheese commercial; brilliantly created by the director of Too Many Cooks? With the universe laughing at his world being turned upside down, Red lets loose. Cage's performance here goes completely raw and unfiltered, which very few actors dare to even attempt. Out of context on the internet you'll get a few chuckles out of it but in Cosmatos' world its heart-wrenching.
Mandy works because of Cosmatos, his writing partner Aaron Stewart-Ahn and the cast creating a hellish fantasy world we can't help but get sucked into. A dream being destroyed in front of our very eyes and devolving into a bloody nightmare. An absorbing, slow first half followed by a midnight, crowd-pleasing revenge flick. This film also works because there's a fucking awesome chainsaw duel too.
Director Damien Chazelle, after this film, has cemented himself as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. The craftsmanship on display here after only his fourth feature-film is mind-boggling.
Following the story of Neil Armstrong and NASA's mission to land him on the moon, this isn't a glorification of those years. Quite the opposite in fact. Through excellent use of sound design, production design and camera work, we witness the budding astronauts strapped into tin-cans of death where the bolts rattle so furiously that it's only a matter of time before the whole thing rips apart and throws our cast out into the abyss. Ryan Gosling proves once again he's a great leading-man, showcasing a quiet, but intelligent Armstrong using his work as a distraction from grieving for his daughter who succumbed to a brain tumour. Chazelle also gives some considerable screen-time to an always brilliant Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong; who has to deal with an increasingly emotionally distant Neil, raising their family and the very real possibility that he won't make it back home.
Although not written by Chazelle, it definitely feels like it. Armstrong is another character in the director's filmography who emotionally distanced themselves from the world in order to succeed in their career. Whereas in Whiplash and La La Land the main characters simply want to achieve their dreams, First Man's Armstrong doesn't dream of becoming an astronaut, he uses his work and career as a way to deal with grief. By the film's end, Armstrong doesn't just land on the moon. He finally accepts his daughter's death and its such a bittersweet moment that it'll make you shed a few tears (it certainly did for me).
If this piques your interest, watch it on the biggest screen with the loudest sound system you can. What elevated this film into an experience was watching it in IMAX. The mission sequences will make you tense but the moon landing sequence is simply jaw-dropping. As well as the terrifying set-pieces and magnificent finale, First Man lands with its themes of grief and family.
As a big science-fiction fan, I think we've had some great modern classics of the genre. From Arrival to Blade Runner 2049 to The Endless, we've been blessed in the last couple years. 2018 however, we haven't had many straight up sci-fi's but amongst the small litter was one of the greatest science-fiction films in a very long time.
From writer-turned-director Alex Garland (following on from the fantastic Ex Machina), we have a loose adaptation of author Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. An all-female group of military scientists embark on an expedition into a zone known as "The Shimmer," an area where the laws of nature don't apply and something is mutating the landscape, in beautiful and horrific ways. Natalie Portman leads an exceptional cast with the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny rounding out the expedition group. All get their moments, but it's through Portman's eyes we see the story unfold.
Like any good sci-fi the story tackles some big themes and is structured in a way that forces its viewers to put the pieces together and interpret the plot points how they see it. It's a challenging film for sure, but each character on the expedition has a trait of self-destruction, a theme echoed throughout the other aspects of the film. This theme of self-destruction works throughout Annihilation on a larger scale too through the literal and thematic use of mutation. All of this is presented through great writing and performance of the characters, the challenging story structure and the stunning visuals.
Garland has also crafted the most terrifying science-fiction I have ever opened my eyes and ears to. Obviously, I'm going to mention that screaming bear scene, with the way the tension is wrung out through masterful pacing and editing but is also just a horrific concept. What is even more terrifying is the final act. Garland seems to understand what "alien" means and here we have something that is truly alien and unlike anything we could have anticipated.
Through Annihilation we have all the makings of a stunning science-fiction film—arresting visuals and big philosophical themes told through a challenging but intelligent story.