12 Lovely Films From 2018

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'Best Of' lists are so two months ago, quit living in the past, no one cares anymore. Having had time to separate and gain an objective perspective, 2018 was a great year for film, both in Aotearoa and abroad; it served up blockbusters, flops, hidden gems and everything in between. If 2019 is already feeling a little too overwhelming for you, take a step back in time with me and explore some of the films that made my twenty-eighteen twenty-great-teen (I’m sorry).

12. Death of Stalin

I’ll admit, part of the reason I made my list 12 films instead of 10 was because it felt wrong to leave off Death of Stalin, one of the two funniest things I saw in theatres in 2018. Amando Ianucci, the genius behind political comedies The Thick Of It, In the Loop and Veep offers an absurd retelling of the absolute clusterfuck that was post-Stalin Russia. Featuring Geoffrey Tambor as the incompetent Georgy Malenkov and Steve Buscemi as the ambitious Nikita Kruschev, Ianucci manages to squeeze every last drop of comedy out of the cruelty and horror of Stalin’s regime without it feeling unearned or gratuitous. I never knew Joseph Stalin with a cockney accent could bring me so much joy.

11. You Were Never Really Here

This felt like 10 grams of adrenaline injected straight into my eye sockets. Lynne Ramsay gives us an unrelenting, violent quest for redemption. Stripping back most dialogue and conventional plot mechanics, we’re left with a grizzly Joaquin Phoenix as ‘Joe’ a combat vet armed with some duct-tape, a ball-peen hammer and a taste for vengeance. It reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive if it were set in the Upside Down, minimal, tense and relying on a special performance from a leading man. I love me some Joaquin, and while Jarred Leto and the Suicide Squad justifiably put a lot of people off the idea of the Joker for good, I’m excited to see what Phoenix’s iteration of the clown prince will look like later this year.

10. Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham has been one of my favourite comedians for a long time. He plays with the comedic form until it bends or breaks in a way that few other comedians today can match (special shout-out to comedian Hannah Gadsby who’s Netflix special Nanette, was one of the culturally defining moments of 2018).

Burnham makes his directorial debut with Eighth Grade. As per the title the story follows an 8th grade (Year 9 in Kiwi terms) student (played by future superstar Elsie Fisher) in her final days of middle school, navigating the usual awkward tenets of adolescence and the millennial senses of isolation and anxiety that can come from a life lived on social media. Fisher’s performance, alongside the other kids a lot of whom were unknowns prior to the film give it a naturalism that helps it avoid coming of age tropes. Burnham drops you into every uncomfortable social interaction, every thought of self-doubt without ever passing judgment on a generation he’s no longer a part of (the moral of this film could have easily been ‘social media - bad’ if it was done poorly). I watched this with four other Millennials and it’s fair to say we all had some form of mild PTSD during the movie, I’d call that a success and I’m excited to see what Bo does next.

9. Black Panther

After the unexpected gem that was Creed I was excited to see what director Ryan Coogler could do within the superhero genre. I clearly wasn’t the only one, Black Panther was arguably the biggest film of 2018, it became the 3rd highest grossing film of all time. While there is (understandably) a lot of superhero fatigue, considering the rate that the Marvel and DC juggernauts pump out flicks, it certainly didn’t show with Black Panther.

Much like the boi Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther offered a distinct, recognisably unique approach to the Marvel universe that paid off, literally. While it still had the stupid CGI battles (shouts to the weaponised rhinos), and a predictable story structure, it did things other superhero movies couldn’t: it had a polarising and charismatic villain (Killmonger played by the amazing and dreamy Michael B. Jordan), it had a relevant and exciting soundtrack that stands on its own (what else would you expect from Kendrick Lamar), it created new lovable Marvel universe characters and minted new Hollywood stars (looking at you Letitia Wright and Winston Duke) and it was just good. Coogler’s direction, the performances, the costumes, the creation of sets, all good stuff. I’m moving to Wakanda as soon as they open their borders, in the meantime I hope Coogler and Waititi’s success encourages Marvel to take more directorial risks going forward.

8. Wildlife

A lot of people know Paul Dano as the weird kid from little Miss Sunshine… Or the weird kid from There Will Be Blood… Or the weird kid from Swiss Army Man… Anyway in Wildlife, Dano steps behind the camera for his directorial debut. Wildlife documents the collapse of a working class American family through the eyes of a teenage boy. Set against a sparse, desolate back drop and a failing 1960s economy to match, Wildlife is gorgeous, and most importantly, Dano gives Carey Mulligan the space for an MVP level performance. Seriously, Carey Mulligan on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown for 90 minutes is a thing of beauty and I can’t stress enough how good she is in this.

7. Sorry to Bother You

I once saw Boots Riley perform in a shitty underground pub in Dunedin. Back then he wasn’t an up and coming Hollywood director, he was just an underground rapper intent on tackling racism, capitalism and other societal injustices. Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You is a Communist’s acid trip. Packed with a loaded cast (LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, the voices of Steve Buscemi and David Cross), what starts as an absurdist satire on white privilege and institutional racism takes some unexpected turns and leaves you with something much more brutal and permanent than what you expected. Boots is still tackling all the issues he was in that underground pub all those years ago, now he’s just doing it on the big screen.

6. Roma

Netflix would like you all to know that its next step in becoming a complete media monolith that has society sucking at its virtual teet is complete. And I for one welcome our new content overlords. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma represents Netflix’s most successful dipping of the toes into the world of prestige cinema. This is controversial as some say it undermines the legitimacy or traditional film studios by removing the cinema experience and blurring the lines of film in general.

Cinema purists aside, Roma is a meditative and at times heartbreaking, autobiographical journey that immerses you deep in 1970s Mexico City. The black and white sprawl that engulfs the screen combined with the struggle of the story, one of millions of discreet stories, that unfolds in the middle, keeps us buoyed between Cuaron’s vision of the personal and the political. Maybe this would’ve been better in a cinema rather than on my IPhone 4. Anyway, if Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody beat out Roma for Best Picture I’m rioting in the streets.

5. First Reformed

Alcoholic priest whose son died in the Iraq War gets woke about Climate Change and realises we’re all fucked. God that’s a depressing plot synopsis. If it makes you feel better; that priest is Ethan Hawke, who was fucking robbed of an OSCAR nomination for best actor for his performance in this. The similarities between the First Reformed screenplay and Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver are unavoidable here and have been pointed out elsewhere. All you need to know is Hawke’s journey as a modern-day Travis Bickel battling a crisis of faith in the wake of the inevitable is haunting and will probably make you sign up to the Green Party.

4. Mandy

Mandy feels like two films, the first, an indie romance film, engrossed in nature and life and love’s minute beauties and simplicities. The second, Nicholas Cage as a lumberjack, a boat load of coke and whisky, a fucking metal axe he smithed himself and violence. Needless to say, I am HERE for Nicholas Cage leaning into his own mythos, taking whatever brakes he still had on off and going full Nicholas Cage.

This should have been a forgettable B-Movie slasher flick that had no business being on lists like this, but thanks to Panos Cosmatos it works in a way it shouldn’t. The juxtaposition of the beautiful shots, the ambient soundtrack, the remote, natural setting with Cage’s unrestrained, borderline comic madness is just ... it’s just great.

3. Burning

Haruki Murakami has been popping up in bourgeoisie book clubs for years now but it turns out Murakami’s short stories are where it’s at, because Korean maestro Lee Chang-dong adapted one for the big screen and turned it into Burning, a wonderful two and a half hour slow fuse. Chang-dong sets up a love triangle turned mystery that explores issues of class, rage and modern isolation. Without giving too much away, Burning works as a slow, incremental creep, a growing darkness becoming more and more present, thanks in part to the absurdly enigmatic and charismatic performance of Steven Yeun, who’s clearly destined for huge things, I expect this guy to have his own superhero franchise soon.

2. The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster and A Killing of a Sacred Deer? Bingo. A trinity of amazing actresses in Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone? You betcha. A story documenting absurdly rich people doing terrible things, oblivious to the struggles of those around them? Hook. It. To. My. Veins. There may be old time costumes and cold stone castles a plenty in The Favourite, but this isn’t your Grandma’s period piece. This is more Swiss Army Man than it is The Crown.

Lanthimos explores the concept of power, whether it’s political, personal, sexual, financial or otherwise, and while it’s set in the backdrop of Queen Anne’s reign, it’s clear the principles he teases out are still applicable throughout society today. I hate period dramas, but as I said, this isn’t a period drama, even if it looks like one. I never laughed more in a two hour period in 2018 than I did during this film, and there’s something for everyone; whether it’s duck racing, hand jobs or Olivia Coleman vomiting up cheese.

1. Climax

From the deviant mind that brought you Enter the Void and Irreversible comes the most mind-melting, reality shattering, all around cooked thing I saw in 2018. Gaspar Noe takes you down the LSD-riddled rabbit hole on this one. Following a young dancing troupe in a secluded cabin who have their punch spiked, needless to say things get weird fast. Between the insular, suffocating setting, the long, unruly camera shots and the lack of an audience surrogate, Climax slowly detaches you from reality, leaving you alone at sea to fight off a storm in a sinking dingy, I came out nauseous, in search of security, safety and someone to stroke my hair and tell me its going to be ok. I think if a film can do that without feeling cheap or unearned, that’s pretty damn special.

Honourable Mentions

Widows, A Star is Born, Isle of Dogs, Blackkklansmen, First Man, A Quiet Place, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Let the Corpses Tan, Zama, Vice.

Film’s I haven’t seen but should have

Suspiria, Maui’s Hook, Minding the Gap, Shoplifters, If Beale Street Could Talk, Hereditary, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, Mid90s.