Top 20 of 2018: 20-11

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Welcome to the New and (only slightly) improved Movie Hangover. You will have to forgive me in this first post back from a long hiatus, for my writing may not be up to scratch but, like a certain Russian in this years Creed 2, I’m back to shake things up. The reason for my absence is a mixture of a lack of time, a lack of will and a chance to refresh myself. I had begun to reach a point where I was writing more for the sake of it rather than because I really wanted to. 2019 though is a new year, and this year I’ve decided to cut back on it a bit and focus on delivering pieces that I genuinely want to write and in doing so will hopefully be more entertaining for you dear reader. After all 2019 in film is set to be one of the biggest yet seen!

Alas dear 2018. What a tumultuous endeavour. Personally it was the year of great excitement; a new job, a new flat and one of the greatest moments of my life-namely my beautiful girlfriend making the noble sacrifice of agreeing to move in with me. Oh how she’ll live to regret it haha. Outside of that 2018 was…well.. a bit shit. Trump continued to remind the world of his breathtaking stupidity, Brexit morphed into something that quite frankly nobody wants (even those who voted for it), the Summer was so hot that it wouldn’t have surprised to see camels roaming Shaftesbury Avenue and bigotry finally saw that it has no place in this world. Progress is slow but it is happening. But what of the movies you say. Well it too was a crazy year. The #metoo movement saw representation in Hollywood at last making forward momentum, success of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians proved that audiences are hungry for this material, and Netflix saw its investment in acclaimed directors pay off (this year my top 20 list contains 2 streaming movies). The Avengers delivered an ending so shocking we’re all still reeling, whilst Venom and Aquaman proved that you don’t have to be good to be a success (Venom currently stands at nigh on $900 million as does Jason Mamoa’s shaggy dog hero). Greats were mourned, new stars were crowned (hands together for Letitia Wright please) and Lady Gaga shocked us all by adding amazing actress to her list of talents. 

Still as with all years there were some films that truly stood out above the rest, with this year being a particularly tough one to line up. All genres seemed to have standout flicks to talk about, and I think all are represented here. Some narrowly missed the cut. TULLY was a beautiful and biting look at motherhood with a killer twist. GAME NIGHT and BLOCKERS both proved that comedy is in rude health, whilst also championing thoughtful storytelling. CREED 2 more than held its own against its powerful elder brother with a true crowdpleaser in that fine Rocky tradition. The closest to landing in the top 20 was BLACKkKLANSMAN. Spike Lee’s lacerating, powerful and vital attack on racial injustice in America was his best in years. And would nicely complement a showing of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, Boots Riley’s satirical utterly mad diatribe against race, gender and consumerism, featuring arguably the craziest mid film reveal in history. Below though is the first half of what I feel to be the best 2018 had to offer, feel free to send me your own lists and here’s to an even harder choice in 2019!

20) 22 July

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Paul Greengrass has long proved himself as a master of documentarian cinema, despite his films not being actual documentaries. He has a clarity of focus, an eye for detail and an ability to mine the deeply emotional without sentimentalising. 22 July is no different. Tackling the horrific massacre of over 70 teenagers in Norway, beginning with the attack and slowly morphing into dual stories. One focusing on the insane machinations of perpetuator Anders Brevik and the other one of his victims as he tries to come to terms with his injuries and the dreadful weight of his survivors guilt. Greengrass never makes judgements using Brevik to highlight the rise of anti-immigration that so plagues our country now, but framing him as a sad pathetic little man. Performances from the native cast (albeit they speak in accented English-the only decision that strikes as odd) are naturalistic, heartfelt and riveting. It’s long but always gripping, culminating in a courtroom confrontation that devastates.

Defining Moment: The attack itself, rendered in hideously tense detail but never gratuitous. We are unwitting witnesses as Brevik hunts his prey, desperately crying out at each death. You don’t want to watch but cannot avert your eyes. Devastating cinema.

19) Green Book

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I don’t think anyone expected a dramatic look at racial politics to come from the eye of Peter “There’s Something about Mary” Farrelly, but here he is directing an immensely crowd-pleasing adaptation of the untold story concerning an Italian racist transporting Black piano playing soprano Dr Shirley across the Deep South. Similar to The Help it uses finely judged humour to help maximise the impact of its more troubling moments. Certainly helps to have the added talents of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as the central duo. Mortensen brings his gift of the transformative to truly inhabit the soul of Tony Lipp. Deeply Italian and deeply naïve to the nature of race around him, Mortensen finds a gentle humanity amidst the masculine strutting. Ali likewise brings pathos to Shirley who is both wildly talented but massively self destructive. His attempts to play to the White masses and prove he is equal to them despite numerous encounters proving otherwise are heartbreaking. However stronger than that is their chemistry, playing off one another with delightful barbs and soft lessons in tolerance. Sure it has troubling moments where questions of discriminations are shown from the White man’s perspective, but you cannot argue with the earnestness and decency at its core. One of 2018s warmest films.

Defining Moment: Tony introduces the stoic Doctor to the wonders of KFC. What could have been a wildly insensitive scene is instead one that hones in on their differing characteristics and glimpses how they can grow from one another. As well as being hugely funny.

18) Bumblebee

Yes I’m as shocked as you that a Transformers movie is in my top 20, but here we are. Possibly the biggest blockbuster surprise this year, Bumblebee finally showed what these films could be capable of. Touching on elements that made the first Transformers work so well, before the usual Michael Bay excesses kicked in, Bumblebee focuses in on a simple story, that of a girl and her car. Hailee Steinfeld continues to prove why she’s such a great performer, blessing her heroine with agency, smarts and heart. None of your Bay sexualising going on here. Though there are hints of romance with a delightfully awkward local boy played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr, it is background to the main relationship. It is here where the guiding influence of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg shines brightest, their interplay lovingly resembling that of Elliot and E.T. Bee himself is a wonder of effects and practical work, equal parts clumsy, powerful and wounded. Both learn valuable lessons off each other, and though that may seem trite it is done with such humour, energy and lightness it wraps you up. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) clearly knows its character first at all times, but never shies away from delivering the large action set pieces you expect. Sequences that use clear geography and concise editing so you never get lost in a sea of carnage. Think of this as a live action Iron Giant, and if that doesn’t intrigue you then I’m not sure how to help you.

Defining Moment: Charlie discusses the root of her anguish and boisterousness, the loss of her father. At this point we are not only moved by Steinfeld’s touching performance but realise that this is not merely another robot smashing noise fest.

17) Phantom Thread

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I have to admit as much as I enjoyed Paul Thomas Anderson’s anarchic glimpse into a prissy particular costumer I never thought it was as brilliant as some critics proclaimed it. However in the days, weeks and months since I’ve seen it I think back to random moments in the film and smile. Not just because of its utterly beautiful visuals (oh man those clothes) nor its surplus of formidable performances, or that Jonny Greenwood score. No it was its absolutely biting humour and unexpected narrative turns that transfixed my mind. Day-Lewis commands the screen, as always, in what is supposedly his final ever performance. But what a role to go out on. Acid tongued, but capable of great beauty in his observations. As ever he mines even the tiny little physical details to absorb you into his role. Yet he is equally matched by Vicky Krieps, a newcomer but one who already has the grace and fortitude of a Grace Kelly. You can see why Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is so haunted by her. Not to mention Lesley Manville lacerating all in her path as Reynold’s stern sister. No film this year has surprised me and challenged me so much. Masterful.

Defining Moment: It is at the dining table wherein so much of the toxic relationships play out, but one scene stands out above the rest. Krieps dares to cook her beau a bountiful dinnertime feast. Alas he is troubled by its contents and lets rip in a verbal tirade of delightfully cutting wit. Day-Lewis reminds us of his stratospheric talent.

16) The Post

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Even so called lesser Spielberg manages to show everyone else just how it’s done. One of two films he directed this year, the other being the wildly energetic and playful Ready Player One (a film many will regard higher in the future), The Post is nothing more than brilliant character actors talking in rooms. But oh how it sings. Telling the story of The New York Post and their difficulties in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Documents that prove the US administration lied about the Vietnam War. Right from the off Spielberg controls things with such confidence and pace that you don’t even realise the skill involved. Hanks and Streep lead from the front with two dynamite performances. Streep in particular plays against her usual type. Starting off shrewish and diplomatic, a role she has to be being as she is the only woman in the room, before gaining her agency and forthrightness to make a stand. Some directors would’ve made this the focus of their film but Spielberg underplays it brilliantly, save for one overly on the nose sequence of her walking down the stairs between the women she represents. The Post is thrilling, witty and in its last moments hugely emotional. Reminding us of the power democracy can have and the faith it rewards, especially at a time when government seems to stand for lies and deceit. It marks out another in a long list of historical and political films in his career, and one I hope he continues to add to.

Defining Moment: The team have written the next days dramatic expose and sent it to press. Bob Odenkirk’s reporter begins to type anew when the entire office below him shakes. The printing presses are alive. The very world in which he lives is moving under the weight of their discoveries. A simple yet highly effective visual metaphor. Spielberg at his shorthand finest.

15) Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns was a risk. Coming almost 50 years after the original (marking the longest gestation period between sequels in history), but even more than that a sequel trying to follow on from a film beloved of so so many. Do you update Poppins for a more cynical modern audience or return to the cheesy joyous feel that so gave the first its power? Rob Marshall (Chicago) throws caution to the wind and opts to act like the world is as it was, albeit with a few darker turns along the way. Therein lies the magic of why Mary Poppins Returns works incredibly well. It is a delightful shot in the arm of optimism, whimsy and fun. Set 24 years after the first with the Banks children now grown up. Michael with kids of his own, yet weighed down by the burden of grief and money. Ben Whishaw mining depths of sorrow beneath his sharp exterior. Into this steps once again Mary Poppins and with it the film comes alive. Emily Blunt delivers what might be my favourite performance of 2018. Bracingly sharp, and outwardly harsh at times yet within her (and the musicality of her life) she lights up the room with sheer joy. Her smile warming you with each glimpse. There are even hints of a sadder more mournful side of her, she possesses such spirit yet seems deeply alone herself. Around her too lies a tale of a family riddled with grief, longing to be set free. Still it never allows itself to be mired in such darkness. Marshall marshalling (sorry) outlandish numbers (the songs are catchy if not exactly memorable), stunningly realised 2D animated sequences and a giddy wonder. Lin Manuel-Miranda sometimes grates but it will leave you with the best feelings. In a year as troubling as 2018, it was just what we needed. Oh and Dick Van Dyke (at 92) has still got it!

Defining Moment: More of a sequence than a moment, but the entirety of the family’s trip into the cartoon universe is a staggeringly executed delight. Reminding us of hw much the medium can still use this now defunct form. It treats the eyes as much as it does the lyricalness of the ears.

14) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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I’m not usually one for anthology films. They can feel bitty and rushed, a result of trying to cram in 6 or so different films into one overall running time. Still never let it be said that The Coen Brothers shy away from a challenge. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (made for the streaming giant Netflix) they nail it and then some. Framed as a fable like storybook, its 6 tales are tonally and narratively different but crucially work as a uniform whole. Mainly as they tell tall tales of the Wild West, the despairing fortunes of fate and the uncompromising violence at the heart of man. I’m sure everyone will have a differing favourite story, with some working stronger than others. For me the first 4 are the strongest, mixing dry laughs with some truly stunning cinematography. The Coens also continue to elicit terrific performances out of large ensembles, Tim Blake Nelson and Tom Waits being particular standouts. It is a film blessed with moments that disarm you, whether in their shocking outbursts of violence or, as in the first chapter, an unexpected musical number played to luminous perfection by Nelson. Some have challenged the legitimacy of Netflix as a cinematic power player but if they allow filmmakers to provide us with movies such as this then their stock is surely going to grow.

Defining Moment: Without revealing the actual moment as its power lies in its ability to surprise, the opening chapter features Tim Blake Nelson playing a game of poker only to be challenged by Clancy Brown’s dirty cowpoke. The ensuing violent encounter is Tarantino meets Chuck Jones and is truly wonderful.

13) Whitney

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Tragic music documentaries are pretty much a genre unto themselves. After all no better figure lends itself to tragedy and sorrow than those in the music biz, with their preference of hard drugs, hard liquor and partying. And no better subjects lend themselves cinematically, after all you can mix your drama in with scenes of enraptured crowds and powerful musical numbers. Coming hot off the heels of the potent Amy comes Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney. It bears similarities with many that have come before; home videos, talking heads, cracking concert footage, but it is constructed so well that all the elements work better than ever before. There is also no more tragic subject than that of Whitney Houston. A career marked by intense highs, crippling lows and a voice that envelopes you. Documentaries are all in the editing and Macdonald delivers here. Cutting between time periods, voiceovers and montages (ones that place her within the context of the time) but never losing focus of the woman at its centre. Whitney never judges, only illuminating us to all the factors that contributed to her rise and fall. The revelations within, namely about her sexual abuse first heard because of this very documentary, could’ve overwhelmed but instead are touched upon with restrained grace. The film never forgetting the most important fact, Whitney was simply human and we are far lesser without her.

Defining Moment: A teenage Whitney in her very first TV performance. Petite and fragile but blessed with an inner confidence and oh boy that voice. The moment you realise above all the noise that she was a brightly burning star gone too soon.

12) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

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This film feels so long ago. In fact it was my first film of 2018. But the power of it still resides. Martin McDonaugh continues to deliver scripts of such pain, insight and bite that he always needed to find the right person to truly unleash it. My how he got lucky with Frances McDormand. She gives a tour de force as a woman so bereft thanks to the rape and murder of her daughter, and the subsequent ineptitude of the police to catch her killer, that she erects 3 billboards outside of town challenging said cops. This ignites tensions in the community, which McDonaugh beautifully and unexpectedly twists in new ways. His gift with matching great performers with great dialogue present and correct. A tale of grief and anger morphs into one that tackles bigotry, community and acceptance. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson give two opposing yet equally brilliant performances as men stuck in circumstances they don’t always comprehend. One growing and learning from them, the other so weighed down he sees only one escape. It is a film that wrong foots you at multiple turns, with an ending that offers no easy answers. A proper masterpiece.

Defining Moment: In a sign of McDonaugh’s gift for the unexpected, an interrogation of McDormand’s grieving mother by Harrelson’s chief of police turns tragic, as he suddenly coughs up blood over her. The turn in McDormand from confrontational to sympathetic is a masterclass in acting. 

11) Black Panther

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No pop culture event this year grabbed hold of the public conscious than Marvel’s Black Panther. The first black superhero to be given a big budget treatment (yes there was Blade but that was on the low end of the budget spectrum) and director Ryan Coogler did not disappoint. Taking his chance to shine a light on a culture far too rarely seen within mainstream filmmaking and running with it. Helped no doubt by the guiding hand and free rein of producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige, Coogler commits wholeheartedly to this world. Despite being part of the MCU, and outside of a few mentions, this is largely standalone. Instead telling a cliched but captivating story of newly appointed kings doubting their abilities whilst thwarting the machinations of a young usurper. The world of Wakanda is evocatively realised, confident in its grasp of its own identity to never dumb down or explain things to the audience. Production design, costuming and that terrific score all adding up to a world that feels palpably believable. Coogler also casts wisely, investing his almost all black cast (Andy Serkis sneaks in to offer energetic evil) with roles that suit them. Standouts include Letitia Wright’s super smart and super hyper tech genius Shuri, and Danai Gurira’s formidable warrior Okoye. Chadwick Boseman exudes royal grace as the titular king but it is Michael B Jordan who dominates. His villain blurring the line between monstrous and tragic, lost as he is in grief for his fellow kin. Coogler using Kilmonger to tackle the racial persecution at the heart of the black community. It is the first Marvel movie with a social conscience and is all the better for it. There are flaws, the action is rather flat and Daniel Kaluuya’s character is startlingly underwritten but you cannot deny the power of its hold. Black Panther has entered the cultural conscious in a way only a few films have before it. It also happens to be damn fine entertainment.

Defining Moment: Kilmonger’s final line “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” It is the moment when you realise that this is a film greater than its superhero movie origins. Jordan delivers it with as much gravity as he can muster.

Stay Tuned for the Top 10…….

 

One Comment Add yours

  1. All great choices, though I haven’t seen them all, e.g., Black Panther, Mary Poppins Returns and Bumblebee. (Yes, I’m a little surprised by this one.) Curious and eager to see your top 10.

    Liked by 1 person

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