My favourite films of 2018

2018 turned out to be the year when I had press accreditation for the London Film Festival! As a result, I was able to see a whole host of films which haven’t even been released in the UK yet, which was a real bonus.

On the other hand, as usual, I managed to miss a couple of films which I really wanted to see this year, top of the list being Cold War and Zama.

Although you may not have seen as many updates on this platform as before, I’ve been contributing at The Movie Isle this year and so you’ll find many of my reviews over there if they’re not here.

A complete list of my 2018 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

Let’s start with a quick list of numbers 20 – 11:

20 – Bad Times at the El Royale

19 – Black Panther

18 – Sweet Country

17 – The Endless

16  – L’amant double

15 – Lean on Pete

14 – Roma

13 – Un amour impossible

12 – Burning

11 – The Third Murder

10 – The Old Man and the Gun

If this is truly going to be Robert Redford’s final film, then what a fitting end. Charming, funny and entertaining.

9 – Gholam

Shahab Hosseini walks a lot in the London rain as he mulls over his options. It’s a film that has stayed with me all year, and has an ending that comes out of nowhere.

8 – Loveless

Wrapped in some beautiful, glacial cinematography, Loveless is a personal story with a political undertone which haunts long after the final image.

7 – First Reformed

When I left the cinema I had no idea whether I even liked this. The fact that it’s made it here probably tells you what you need to know.

6 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Soaring camerawork, a luscious score – Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin are a match made in heaven.

5 – BlacKkKlansman

Films that make you laugh, then make you feel uncomfortable that you’re laughing, then stun you into silence all within a few minutes must surely be doing something right.

4 – First Man

A terrifying opening sequence and a memorable, silent, end shot – with a lot of beautiful action happening in between.

3 – A Fantastic Woman

Daniela Vega imbues Marina with such dignity. Sebastián Lelio has woven a beautiful, fantastic tale about a very fantastic woman. It was an honour to meet her.

2 – Capernaum

Not an easy watch, but remarkable and challenging with a final shot that steals your heart.

1 – Shoplifters

A sublime portrayal of how a family can become a loving and supportive unit when both society and blood ties let it down.

First Man

Damien Chazelle shows how to tell a story in a way that still feels incredibly tense even though it’s well documented as to how it all works out.

Honestly, I found the opening sequence terrifying. Together with a couple of other shots which take place in a fast-moving, madly-shaking spacecraft, it is a reminder of how close those men were to death just about every day they went to work. Call it madness or a calculated risk – either way it’s the very top of the emotional rollercoaster.

Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a man of few words but suppressed emotions, and Ryan Gosling is a great choice for such a role. Chazelle has crafted a compelling film featuring a taciturn man, which seems to defy logic.

Back down on the ground, Claire Foy as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet is our way of understanding what may be going on inside his head. ‘Wife of a Great Man’ can be a thankless role on-screen, but Foy is exactly what is needed; she can say so much with just her eyes that there is rarely any need for lengthy conversations – not that Neil would indulge her anyway.

Despite the success of the mission there is always a tinge of sadness throughout, and given the losses that Armstrong has suffered along the way, it’s no surprise. In contrast to the scenes we’ve seen in documentaries, there is no whooping and hollering – this is taking place back in mission control, but we don’t visit that room, we stay on the Moon with the two men in silence and are overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all.

The scenes on the Moon are spectacular, with the images crisp and clear as opposed to the more period feel of the scenes taking place in the Armstrong’s house, for example. And the score … wow.

Chazelle has already proven that he knows how to finish films, and the final scene here (featuring just Gosling and Foy) is an absolute corker.

My favourite films of 2017

Compiling this list of 2017 films has been an interesting task. There are usually a couple of films which miss the previous year’s deadline due to UK release dates, but it’s not often that so many of them make my ‘best of’ list. This year, some of my favourite films on this list may seem like old hat because they came and went with the Academy Awards earlier this year, having qualified with their 2016 US release dates. But they didn’t get UK release until 2017, so that’s why you’ll see them here.

The other observation is the number of films on my favourites list featuring LGBT characters – 2017 seems to have provided a lot of great storylines, and a lot of high-profile films.

Sadly, there are a handful of films I would have liked to have seen but which passed me by: The Florida Project, Good Time, The Beguiled, Get Out (this one mostly because I struggle with horror films and so chickened out) are among these.

A complete list of my 2017 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

Let’s start with a quick list of numbers 20 – 11:

20 – The Red Turtle

19 – Logan Lucky

18 – Logan

17 – Blade Runner 2049

16  – Stronger

15 – Aquarius

14 – Beach Rats

13 – Thor: Ragnarok

12 – After the Storm

11 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

10 – Columbus

A very calm and beautifully shot film about guilt, grief, anger, despair, with two great performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson.

9 – A Ghost Story

Starts out being about very personal grief and connection, and becomes about the nature of death, time and memory, and deals in vast themes, all featuring a man in a sheet.

8 – The Salesman

A peak at feelings of emasculation in the Iranian middle-classes as a husband fails to cope with an attack on his wife. Asghar Farhadi wins again.

7 – The Handmaiden

A beautiful, sometimes over-the-top creation – would we expect anything less from Chan-wook Park?

6 – Juste la fin du monde

The awkward family dinner as only Xavier Dolan can.

5 – La La Land

Perhaps when we were all younger and full of future dreams the world appeared to us in Technicolor, much like the musicals of the 50s which director Damien Chazelle captures here. But he also asks us deep questions about those youthful dreams too.

4 – God’s Own Country

Beautiful film with an impressive performance from Josh O’Connor – John’s evolution from angry, lonely young man to where he ends up is beautifully nuanced, and heart-breaking.

3 – Manchester by the Sea

I know, Affleck is persona non grata, but it doesn’t alter the fact that I found this a heart-breaking study of guilt and grief.

Joint 1 – Call Me By Your Name / Moonlight

First time since doing these lists that I genuinely can’t choose one of these over the other, so I’m having a joint first place this year.

Call Me By Your Name presents something incredibly 80s and yet also something timeless. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonists are straight or gay, this is a universal story about growing up, growing wise, feeling love and feeling pain.

Moonlight offers similar ideas, but in a very different setting. It’s accompanied by a beautiful score and gorgeous cinematography, with occasional shades of Wong-Kar Wai in tone – a sense of longing, searching and unrequited feelings permeates.

And as I couldn’t separate my top two, this means that Luca Guadagnino has topped my list for the second year in a row!

Don’t hold your breath for 2018 though Luca, as my discomfort with watching horror films might bar me from seeing the Suspiria remake due next year.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Sooooo much good in this sequel, and yet so much troublesome stuff too.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent sequel. It picks up, runs with, and explores further the themes raised in its predecessor; what does it mean to be human?, what are memories?, even issues of slavery and the destruction of the environment. It weaves in characters from the original film just when they are needed, and, as with the original, it leaves some questions mercifully unanswered.

It is absolutely beautiful. Roger Deakins’ cinematography coupled with Denis Villeneuve’s vision and direction are a perfect match here. I splashed out and saw this in IMAX and it was worth it – sweeping cityscapes, never-ending dust storms; the scale is immense and all-consuming. The scene where two women merge into one was exquisite (more about that later).

There are some interesting characters and performances too – some of whom stick around longer than others. It would have been great for Robin Wright and Dave Bautista to have had a few more scenes. Gosling is fine as the Blade Runner who doesn’t quite know where he fits in to the world, and of course there’s Harrison Ford. I generally find him a bit same-y in everything, but he’s solid here.

As a premise, and as a sequel, this film is good.

I have a few niggles. I honestly can’t remember a single thing Jared Leto said and I think people should probably stop casting him in stuff like this now. He gets in the way of every character he’s played recently so that I switch off when he’s around.

I am getting a tiny bit fed up with Hans Zimmer’s honking scores, too.

But you don’t have to go too far to work out that my biggest gripe has to do with the female characters. (Potential spoilers coming up).

The aforementioned scene with the two women – looks good, yes, but we end up with one woman ‘becoming’ another, and the second woman being irrelevant apart from her physical body. Women are frequently treated violently and the only reason seemed to be Jared Leto. In this world, women appear to be there only to be the recipients of either violence or sex, ie to be subservient, and it’s just getting a little wearisome these days.

Here’s a question. Would it have been too much of a stretch to have Ryan Gosling’s character be female? I can’t see why there couldn’t be female Blade Runners, and then a lot of things in the film could have been different without changing the actual story one little bit. Win-win.

La La Land

When I saw director Damien Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash I commented that the final section had pulled everything together and left me speechless.

Well, he’s done it again! Just as I was beginning to feel like my interest in the characters was waning slightly, he pulls out the most touching, beautiful, heartbreaking sequence that draws everything together and brought an unexpected tear to my eye.

For all the talk of old-fashioned musicals being reborn, there is actually much more going on here. It asks us deep questions about our youthful dreams,

Perhaps when we were all younger and full of future dreams the world appeared to us in Technicolor, much like the musicals of the 50s, and Chazelle captures this as his characters strive to fulfil their own dreams. The musical interludes are just right – they convey the mood perfectly, assisted by some exquisite lighting throughout, almost acting as a visual leitmotif. The scene in the Griffith Observatory which leads to the couple’s first kiss put me in mind of a scene between William Holden and Kim Novak in the 1955 film Picnic – the moment where they both realise they are in love with each other. Check it out here.

And let’s talk about the central couple. I’ve now seen Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in three films together – Gangster Squad (not impressed), Crazy Stupid Love (where they were great together) and now La La Land. They were so good together that part of me hopes they never work together again, that they just leave things the way they end between Seb and Mia in the final scene of La La Land. It’s the best work I’ve seen her do, and I love this side to Gosling.

The tiny gripes I had were along the lines of ‘what happened to her friends’?, why has such a self-professed fan of classic movies never seen Rebel Without a Cause?, and that we saw slightly more of his career than hers, but I already feel the need to see this again. And again.

Plus, am already planning a new wardrobe which allows for Stone-esque skirt swishing.

The worst films I’ve seen in 2013

As ever with this annual list, these are probably not the worst films, but the ones which have angered, irritated or disappointed me the most this year. Click the film title where there’s a link to find out what I thought just after seeing the film.

Number 5 Renoir

Airy fairy nothing happens not very interesting characters: opportunities for a decent storyline squandered.

Number 4 – Thérèse Desqueyroux

*blows out cheeks and sighs heavily*  A right bucket of sunshine. Emotionless and generally unlikeable characters with whom it is difficult to engage. Tedious.

Number 3 – Gangster Squad

Starts well, but the all-star cast are wishywashy, and Ryan Gosling appears to be wearing too much lipgloss. Shallow.

Number 2 – Post Tenebras Lux

Overly self-indulgent, and pretentious even by my threshold. Probably suffers from the fact that I was anticipating it too much.

Number 1 – Frances Ha

Oh. My. God. A film populated by self-centered, old enough to know better, aimless twenty-somethings who basically need to get over themselves. Hipster twaddle.

Only God Forgives

I’ll be honest, it’s taken me a while to work out exactly what to say about this film.

Strangely, it wasn’t as violent as I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, there is violence, and it’s strong, and I looked away on several occasions. What I mean is, I had expected the violence to be constant, but it isn’t.

The city of Bangkok looks strange and entrancing, and the soundtrack is mesmeric.  Ryan speaks barely a dozen sentences, and there’s a man who manages to produce a sword from his shirt at will.

In the end, although the film looks stunning and contains a great performance from Kristen Scott Thomas, I couldn’t sense any real emotion beneath the surface, so I felt detached from what little narrative there was. It felt empty, yet not chilling.

Beautiful hollowness.

The Place Beyond The Pines

Highly engaging, if a little overlong, story which asks the question of whether the sins of the father are indeed visited on the son.  How far does the physical presence or emotional absence of a father shape the way people turn out?

Quality performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in a film that was not without some plot-contrivances, but which ultimately provided both a good evening’s viewing and also proof, if any were needed, that there are few things cuter than Ryan Gosling holding a baby.

Gangster Squad

This film starts with a very deliberate 1940s style film noir narrative, which began to draw me in, and which fit very well with the trailers I’d seen.

But for some reason it then took on a comic book feel and it was downhill from there.

Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling should have been more than enough muscle to front up a tough gangster movie, but Penn hams it up, Brolin underplays and Gosling is disappointingly wishywashy (and seems to have overdone the lipgloss for some reason).

Emma Stone in the first part of the film captures the 40s attitude and looks of the femme fatale perfectly, but then even she turns into a bit of a wimp to be honest.

Shallow.