10. A STAR IS BORN
Bradley Cooper's excellent directorial debut, “A Star Is Born” (which is the forth incarnation of this story to be made for the big screen) was quite the surprise for me, mainly because of just how great Lady Gaga was in the role of Ally. I am not going to go through all the things that make this film such a standout (although big props to Matthew Libatique for his impressive cinematography), rather I want to highlight what I considered the best scene I saw in any film in 2018. Anybody who has seen the film, immediately knows which scene I am going to talk about, because it is the absolute highlight of “A Star Is Born”. The scene in question is when Ally shares the concert stage for the first time with Jack (Bradley Cooper) to perform the song “Shallow” to his sold out audience. The scene works so well because of Lady Gaga's performance while singing this song, as her face exposes all of the many emotions she is going through in this life changing moment for her. When Jack first asks her to join the stage with him, Ally is initially reticent. She sits backstage and when he begins singing the words she has written, you can see her begin to melt, stunned that this is really happening. Thirty seconds in when he reaches the chorus, you can now see how overwhelmed she is but understands that this is an opportunity she is likely never to get again, and as such finally heads out into the stage to sing. When her voice finally leaves her mouth at the start of the second verse, you can feel all of her nerves and her uncertainty about whether she is good enough. As Ally continues, her natural ability takes over; she is a singer and this is what she is good at and loves to do. However this newfound confidence is broken when Jack shares the chorus with Ally, and it snaps her back into the reality of the moment. It is also during this chorus that Ally notices the audience for the first time, when they cheer for her. Suddenly her eyes widen, looking like a deer in headlights, but fear is not going to ruin this opportunity for her. Jack then invites her to take centre stage; she is shocked but goes with it, almost subliminally knowing that “THIS. IS. IT”, this is her moment to change her life and introduce herself to the world, and she takes the opportunity with both hands (literally, as she uses both hands to pull down the microphone). It is here when Lady Gaga's god-given talents take off and she belts out a chorus of the song that is just stunning to listen to. The wave of emotions that you see in her eyes as she witnesses the audience responding to her voice sends chills down your spine, and then once again, Jack joins her for a part of the chorus; this time sharing the same microphone. Initially she appears embarrassed that she is singing with such a famous singer, but then again, she eases into the song and just enjoys singing with her friend, laughing along the way, while never losing eye contact with him. They continue singing the song while looking into each other's eyes and when the song is over, the spell is broken and Ally sees just how big the audience she sung in front of was. Scene over. Truly amazing and special scene; a perfect movie moment and my favourite scene I saw from any movie in 2018.
I need to also mention just how great Cooper's direction and staging of this scene is from a narrative perspective. It is very important to notice the distance between Ally and Jack at the start of the scene. They are at opposite sides of the stage on separate microphones, but as the song progresses the distance between them decreases until they are sharing one microphone, staring at one another, brought together by their combined love of music. They started the scene off as friends, but by the end of it, they are one, never to part until the end of the film. Cooper is also smart enough to know that this is Ally's/Lady Gaga's scene and plays the majority of it on her face. His character is still part of the scene but often seen in the background of shots (foreshadowing of the future) but Cooper refuses to dial the scene in; he commits fully in his performance, starring at Ally full of total pride and happiness that she is getting this moment to share to the world. Did I happen to mention that it is a perfect scene?
9. THE WILD PEAR TREE
The latest film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “The Wild Pear Tree”, is another three hour epic that just flies by. Going into the film, the running time intimidated me but thanks to the film's intelligent script tackling salient issues in a very human and real “conversational” way, I found myself totally mesmerised by the experience and the character's plights. The film is about a man returning to his small country town after graduating from college, intent on finding a publisher for his book. However as soon as he gets back into the town, he is his hounded by people enquiring about his father's gambling debts. This is a point of tension amongst the family, and is something that disgusts Sinan (the son). However, through his exploits in the film Sinan must come to terms that he is more like his father than he realised, while also understanding that he is not above where he came from. The film is structured around very long conversations between Sinan and numerous people he comes into contact with. Each conversation seems to tackle a certain theme such as love, friendship, religion, politics, money and art, but is done so in a way that feels totally natural and never forced. There is a danger that these kinds of topics could come across as dry or boring, but that just is never the case here and instead, it ends up creating a well rounded and defined character out of Sinan. Interestingly, the actor who plays the part of Sinan, Dogu Demirkol, is a stand up comic in real life yet his comedic roots are never apparent in his portrayal of this arrogant and somewhat prickly young man. It is a brilliant layered performance, full of many complexities, but what is most surprising is that he makes us care for this character, who at times can be quite unlikable. Ceylan has once again collaborated with Gokhan Tiryaki as his cinematographer and the pair, as usual, have created stunningly beautiful images, this time focusing on the country landscapes of Turkey, primarily using an autumnal colour palette that is something to behold. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is currently working at the peak of his powers, and “The Wild Pear Tree” is another stunning achievement from this brilliant Turkish director. Click here to read my original review.
8. ISLE OF DOGS
If you have ever read any of my previous top twenty lists, it would become apparent pretty quickly that I am a huge fan of director Wes Anderson. His quirky visual style and odd stories that he tells just appeal to my own sensibilities, so any time a new film arrives from this talented director, it is a big occasion for me. Anderson's previous stop motion animated film, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, was absolutely to die for; brilliantly conceived, hilariously written and performed, and amazingly was able to continue the same visual style as Anderson's live action films. In saying all of that, you would assume that I would be chomping at the bit for Anderson's latest, “Isle of Dogs”, especially as it too was animated in the same style as “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. However, I was totally unimpressed by all of the trailers for the film, and thought a lot of the character designs looked rather bad. I was actually worried that Wes Anderson was about to deliver a total dud..... and I was totally wrong!! As usual, I loved every second of this silly film and laughed out loud numerous times. One of my favourite things about the film, was the gossiping dogs (“Hey, you heard about the.......”); they were hilarious and to have the main gossiper voiced by Jeff Goldblum, that was total genius. Like most of Anderson's films, they move very quick and there are lots of little jokes that fly by, so re-watching his films are always a joy because you pick up on so much each time. While my favourite scene of 2018 was in “A Star Is Born”, “Isle of Dogs” has arguably my second favourite scene of the year; a scene that had me howling with laughter. The main dog character of the film is Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston); a black stray dog, very scruffy and always grumpy. He is the leader of the pack, and what he says goes (or at least the other dogs agree with). He is one that is totally against a dog having a human master, but when the “little pilot” crash lands onto the island and he begins travelling with the boy, his opinion of having a master begins to soften. Eventually, Chief and the rest of his pack get briefly separated, and the boy offers Chief a bath.....which he accepts. The after-bath reveal is total genius that I never saw coming, and I had tears streaming down my face, I found it that funny (I really want to explain the reveal but don't want to ruin the enjoyment of experiencing the scene itself). What I also loved was when he meets up with his pack again and they ask “What happened to you???”, to which he nonchalantly answers “I had a bath”. The comedy of this scene is obviously only apparent when you have seen it, but it was another moment that had me in stitches. “Isle of Dogs” is full of such comedic moments, not to mention heartwarming moments and it is yet another success for Wes Anderson.
7. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Forty years in the making, and finally finished long after his death, comes the final film from the great Orson Welles, “The Other Side of the Wind”; a film unlike any other from his oeuvre, in fact it could be said that it is almost unlike any other film ever. One thing is for sure though, it is a fantastic film and a worthy, if belated, swansong for this truly special filmmaker. “The Other Side of the Wind” is about an ageing director, Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) who is straddling the line of genius and has-been, who is mid-way through production on his latest film which is also titled “The Other Side of the Wind”. In an attempt to secure financing to finish the picture, Hannaford holds a gala party on the occasion of his birthday where he intends to show what he has shot already of the film. Invited to the party are names from all over the industry, as well as a large group of influential members from the press, who are given carte blanche to record the whole event with no topic of conversation off the table. Through fragmented moments from these conversations we are witness to a man who is obviously both enamoured with Hollywood and totally over it. Through the course of the night, we watch as people we assumed are friends of his, turn out to be enemies and realise that some may be there not to celebrate the man, but to watch him fall. It also becomes apparent that the shooting of this latest film isn't going the smoothest with producers having no idea what the film is about, and unsure on when Hannaford will finish it. Then comes the film within the film itself, which looks like some sort of arthouse spy film shot in a very arty manner with bold use of bright colours, and chock full of nudity and sex. As I said above, this is unlike any other film Welles made previous but I found it endlessly intriguing and so exhilarating in its execution. The film is deliberately messy due to the faux-documentary style as we are witness to footage shot by all these different reporters. As such, the editing is quick and rough, and multiple film stocks are used, including both black and white and colour. Dialogue is rapid fire, and the whole thing moves at a breakneck pace, so watching it can be a little exhausting. What is interesting though is that the story of the film mirrors what Orson Welles himself had to go through in the making of “The Other Side of the Wind” in an attempt to get it finished, so you have to ask yourself is this a case of art imitating life or vice versa? Either way, you can not walk away from this film thinking that it isn't autobiographical in some fashion, with Huston essentially playing the onscreen alter-ego of Welles himself. Huston is fantastic in the role too. He was such a powerful man, just in his presence. He had a weight to him that everyone felt when he stepped into a room, and he uses this trait perfectly while portraying and lifting the mask on his character, Jake Hannaford. I have to make mention of the footage of the film within the film, which just proved that Welles never lost his ability to shoot stylish and visually interesting footage, it was just the money and opportunities dried up. It is shot all in colour and is gorgeous to look at. While I have mixed emotions about Netflix's place in cinema at the moment, I have to applaud them for getting in there and financing the completion of Orson Welles's final film. It is a cinema nerd's dream and does not disappoint, although I will admit it will not be an easy watch for the casual viewer.
Part fairytale, part absurdist black comedy, part love story; “November” is a true gem of a film, and as unique as they come. I have mentioned many, many times that I am a huge fan of fairtytales and folklore, but this was my first exposure to Estonian folklore and I loved every second of it. The plot of the film as per imdb is as so: “In a poor Estonian village, a group of peasants use magic and folk remedies to survive the winter, and a young woman tries to get a young man to love her.” While there is mention of magic in there, the plot sounds relatively normal but it is within this world of witchcraft and darkness, that so much of the bizarre takes place and it is all so good. For example, the farmers create these creatures out of sticks or tools called “kratts” but to give these things souls so they can live and move (and help the farmers steal), they must head out into the forest and make a deal with the devil: blood for a soul. However, the villagers have worked out a way to trick the devil by crushing berries into their palm so it looks like blood and they get what they want out of him for nothing. Then there is the tragic love story between our main character Liina and Hans. Just as she falls in love with Hans, he is a victim of love at first sight when he sets eyes on a princess. In an attempt to get Hans back, Liina goes to the local witches for help who come up with a plan to kill the woman Hans loves. Then there are elements that are so odd and silly such as when the plague enters the town (in the form of a goat) and to survive, the townsfolk all huddle together in a barn and put their pants on their heads so it looks like they all have two bums. The theory is that the plague will believe these people are already hit hard enough and move on without killing them. Seriously, what the??? I am not making this stuff up either. Did I mention that one of our characters is also a werewolf ? I have only mentioned just a few of the unusual things that happen but in the context of this amazing movie, all this craziness just works and feels of the world created. “November” will surely open doors for director Rainer Sarnet who has done a spectacular job of making this odd world feel tangible and real. I loved that he actually designed and built the “kratts” and had them puppeteered rather than resorting to cgi. By them actually being within the frame interacting with the actors, it makes their existence that much more believable. The sense of atmosphere and beauty that Sarnet also imbues on this film is impressive and vital in the telling of a fairytale. Speaking of beauty, the black and white cinematography from Mart Taniel is breathtaking while at the same time creating a world that is both harsh and at times, ethereal. I absolutely adore this film, and hope that in the future it becomes more widely known because it certainly deserves to be.
5. ASSASSINATION NATION
This was my “biggest surprise” of 2018, and as I wrote a big write up on this film in that section, I wont be doing so again here. I will say that it is a truly fantastic film that attacks today's instagram lifestyle, and questions how politically correct we have become and if this correctness is actually more harmful than good. It is an angry, loud, aggressive and very bloody film. It is also anything but subtle, hammering home its points. This is not a technique that I usually respond to but in the context of this film and the world it is presenting within, it seems right and works perfectly. There are also a couple of moments of cinematic bravura from director Sam Levinson, including an amazing single shot moment where the camera circles a multi-storey apartment where our girls are holed up in, watching what they are doing inside, as they are unaware of the people outside trying to break in. “Assassination Nation” is destined to have a huge cult following in the future, but buyer beware, this is a film that goes down some very dark and uncomfortable places.
4. A QUIET PLACE
The best horror film of 2018 easily went to John Krasinski's “A Quiet Place”; a film filled with nerve wracking suspense and a gimmick that was treated anything like one. “A Quiet Place” is set in a world where monsters with super sensitive hearing exist amongst us. A human's only chance of survival from them is to stay completely silent, never make a sound because the slightest noise will alert these creatures of your whereabouts and once they have found you, you do not stand a chance. What is so great about this film is that, due to the rules of surviving this world, there is very little dialogue in it at all. The family interacts through looks and most importantly, sign language. The sign language is significant because their daughter also happens to be deaf, which adds another danger element to the film as she is unaware if things are making noise so she needs to be extra careful. Amazingly, the family at the centre of the film have been able to survive for well over a year but we learn that they have come up with a lot of precautions to have done so. For instance, they have sand laid out on pathways and parts of their house so their footsteps remain silent, gaming pieces from monopoly have been made out of wool, and they have also come up with an intricate system of letting members of the family know of danger in the area without making a sound via the use of red light bulbs. John Krasinski has done a fantastic job of creating this world and making it, and the decisions the family make, believable. He has also imbued the film with scenes of the most unbearable suspense. You are constantly on edge watching this film, as Krasinski delivers classic scene after classic scene, such as the nail in the staircase scene, the bathtub birth scene, and the grain silo scene. The lack of dialogue hasn't hurt the actors at all as real life couple, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, are brilliant as the parents of this family. As I mentioned before, it is all in the looks that the actors give each other and it totally works. Millicent Simmonds has been cast in the role of the daughter, and just like her character, Millicent is deaf in real life so it adds another layer of realism to the project which helps it immensely. It is also through her character, that the heart and emotion of the film lies too. Unlike “Bird Box”, “A Quiet Place” shows the monster in full detail and numerous times, and he is a terrifying creature. Even though he is rendered in cgi, the creature carries a real weight to it and you feel its aggression whenever it is on screen. Interestingly, Krasinski himself played the monster, in that it was him in the motion controlled suit that animators then built the monster onto his movements. Personally this little detail impressed me so much in showing just how much care Krasinski put into all the details of the film. I have to also commend him on creating a film with a ninety minute running time. The film never outstays its welcome, rather it tells its story and then ends rather than needlessly padding its running time to the detriment of the story. Finally, the greatest thing “A Quiet Place” did was it figured out a way to get patrons in the cinema to shut the hell up for once. When the film started, and it was so quiet, you could sense an uneasiness amongst everyone because this was not the norm. As they were opening up their chip packets, drinking their drinks and shovelling popcorn into their mouths, people soon figured out that everyone could hear what they were doing. By about fifteen minutes in, the film had them and you could hear a pin drop, the cinema was so quiet. As such, it was one of my favourite cinema sessions I attended all year. Also I was so glad that my initial screening of “A Quiet Place” was in a cinema because it added so much more to it, thanks to the brilliant sound design and editing. This is such a great film, a stunning achievement on all levels, but I am a little bummed that the incredible success of “A Quiet Place” has led to the development of an unnecessary sequel, but a sequel I will still definitely see.
3. TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro's “Pan's Labyrinth”, in the fact it is about children trapped in a world of real violence, turning to fairytale's as a way to cope with their reality, Issa Lopez's “Tigers Are Not Afraid” was my favourite film that I saw at MIFF this year. It is such a powerful film that will move you; it will make you angry, and at times it will make you sick to think that children in Mexico are living the reality we see in this stunning film. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is about a group of homeless kids, orphaned by the drug cartels, attempting to survive day to day without running into the cartels themselves while surrounded by constant violence. Our main character is Estrella, whose mother only recently had not returned home. Earlier in the day, whilst she was at school, she was given three pieces of “magic” chalk from her teacher that give her the ability to ask for three wishes. However, when Estrella uses these wishes, the outcomes are not exactly what she hoped for, which gives the saying “be careful what you wish for” all the more power. Like Del Toro's masterpiece, Lopez is not afraid to show the violent reality these children are exposed to. She is also not afraid to show children as the victims of this sickening violence. One of the really sad things about the film is the fact that this violence is so regular, that the kids are so desensitised to it all. They are actually used to it to the point that it barely affects them. Lopez has created an angry film as she obviously condemns the situation that exists in Mexico with the cartels but also with the lack of government interference to improve the situation. In fact Lopez goes one step further to suggest that the reason why the government doesn't do anything is because they actually benefit more from the cartels being in ultimate power. What is interesting though about the film is that while it deals with a very dark subject manner, the film itself is not always doom and gloom and this is due to the children themselves. These are kids who have effectively lost their childhoods and forced to grow up quick due to being orphaned, but there are times when the kids are just kids, playing together and just goofing off. These scenes are quite lovely and needed in a film that is at times heavy. It gives a sense of just what these kids have lost. In regards to the fairytale elements of “Tigers Are Not Afraid”, they are not as pronounced as the elements seen in “Pan's Labyrinth” but Lopez has handled these little moments with the a lightness of touch and whimsy. The majority comes from Estrella's wishes, as I mentioned before, which never seem to go as she planned while at the same time fulfilling her wish as spoken. The result of her third wish is just..........wow! I never saw it coming (and that is all I will say about it). “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is such a brilliant film but beware, it is a brutal film. People die. Children Die. The violence within the film is also violence that you feel; it is not the cool Hollywood violence without consequence. However, no matter how uncomfortable this film is at times, it is a powerful film experience that makes you want to yell “STOP THIS MADNESS!!”. Issa Lopez has created a stunning film with “Tigers Are Not Afraid” that I recommend wholeheartedly for viewers who can handle dark, but relevant tales. Click here to read my original review.
With “Killing”, Shinya Tsukamoto has created his best film since 2004's “Vital” (although 2011's “Kotoko” isn't too far behind). Set during the Edo period of Japan, “Killing” is about a samurai who has all of the skills to be a great swordsman, but finds out that he does not have the temperament to take a person's life. When you head into a samurai film, you often go in with expectations of grand battles and bloodshed and while that initially appears to be where Tsukamoto's “Killing” is heading, it ends up taking a sharp turn and becomes a much more intimate affair that examines just how hard it is to kill someone, and what it does to a person when that line is finally crossed. It is an extremely powerful film and Tsukamoto is firing on all cylinders here. What I was particularly impressed with was the way Tsukamoto dealt with the swordplay compared to the real life violence. When our main character, Mokunoshin is seen training and sparring, the battles are extended and involve impressive swordsmanship. Editing is limited in these shots as the samurai's skill is put on display. However, when Mokunoshin is thrown into a real life or death battle, Tsukamoto changes the way he presents these scenes, making the camerawork very messy and shaky with the actual swordplay lasting mere seconds, with the blood spilled being excessive. He quickly shows the difference between sparring and the consequences from a real battle. A real fight is quick, intense and bloody, with no time to show off your nice technique. Also the real damage that you can do with a sword is considerable, and it is all of this that sees Mokumoshin reassess his life's goals. With Tsukamoto working on a smaller canvas than is the norm for a samurai film, he trades in scenes of grand battles with a film that looks at themes related to violence. The film is ultimately about the effects of violence on, not only the body, but also the mind of both victim and perpetrator. It also looks at just how hard it is to kill a man and how dirty and bloody an act it actually is. The cycle of violence is also explored in how violence begets more violence, and how at the end of the day, it all ends up being rather pointless and destructive. Staying true to the themes of the film, (and because, lets face it, “Killing” is still a samurai picture) Tsukamoto has created a very violent and bloody film with “Killing”, however the violence is never gratuitous nor glorified. One aspect of the film that I have to mention is Chu Ishikawa's very impressive score which compliments the images perfectly while also articulating the mental anguish and descent into hell that Mokunoshin is going through. Ishikawa's scores are always impressive, but this one feels extra special. On a sad note, this is the final score we will ever hear from Iskikawa in a Tsukamoto film, as the composer passed away in December 2017. His music always added so much to Tsukamoto's films and he will be sorely missed. I cannot express how grateful and ecstatic I was to have been able to see “Killing” on the big screen. It is the first Tsukamoto film I have seen in a cinema since 2002's “A Snake of June” and I loved every second of it. Click here to read my original review.
1. THE SHAPE OF WATER
My favourite film of 2018 was none other than Guillermo Del Toro's adult fairytale, “The Shape of Water”. I saw it very early in the year, in January, and even then I stated that it would be hard for a film to topple it as the best film of the year, which proved prophetic. It actually feels strange talking about this film now, as it was released in late 2017 in the US, and has since gone on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, as well as a Del Toro win for Best Director. While I am amazed that I live in a world where a monster film has won a Best Picture Oscar, the award is thoroughly deserved. I immediately fell in love with this story about two outsiders falling in love, while the violent world around them attempted to keep them apart. Everything about this film is pure bliss. The visual style is to die for, the world shot in gorgeous green hues. The cast is perfect with everyone giving fantastic performances. I absolutely adore Sally Hawkins as mute woman Elisa who ends up falling in love with the monster. Being mute, she has lost one of an actor's strongest tools, her voice but Hawkins just steps up to the challenge filling this beautiful character with so much love and respect, which you can see through her eyes, body language and reactions. Honestly, I can not believe that she was an actress I couldn't stand once upon a time. Speaking of, I used to never like Michael Shannon (as hard as that is to believe) but he is terrifyingly good as the man determined to take the monster apart to see how he ticks. I've never seen him as a heavy before, but he excels in the role and is quite intimidating in a number of scenes. An actor I have always loved (but doesn't everybody) is Richard Jenkins who plays the lonely neighbour and best friend of Elisa. Del Toro has actually given this small character quite an interesting side story, as we see he is a man out of his time; no longer relevant in the advertising world where he works, as well as struggling with being a closeted gay man. One of the main themes of the film is intolerance against people who are different which is obviously apparent in the way the creature is treated and abused, but also in the way Richard Jenkin's character is verbally attacked when he makes a subtle gesture towards a man he likes, as well as some brief racial intolerance in some small scenes. Rounding out the impressive cast is Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg who are their usual outstanding selves (with Stuhlbarg impressing in multiple languages) but special mention must be made of Doug Jones who is able to make a real character out of the amphibian creature and emote beautifully through the prosthetic make up. The design of the creature is also beautiful, very clearly influenced by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “The Shape of Water” is also filled with such wonderful little moments or scenes that really make it stand out with my favourite being the tap dance moment Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins share on a couch while seated. It adds nothing to the story but it is a beautiful moment that adds plenty to the movie. Another moment that must be considered brave from Guillermo Del Toro is the ball room dance sequence between Elisa and the monster. This could've turned out laughable but again ends up being a lovely moment in the film. Speaking of brave, Del Toro chose to be upfront in regards to sex between Elisa and the creature, rather than alluding to it; he explains just what happens and how, which results in a rather comical scene. Another aspect I need to mention is Alexandre Desplat's score which has a light and old time feel to it, which really compliments the fairytale atmosphere of the film. Being a film from director Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is also at times a very violent film. Del Toro rarely shies away from violence and always exposes the ugly and bloody side to it, which he does again here. Anyway, you put all of the above elements together and you get a very special film, that also turned out to be my favourite film of 2018.
Well there you have it, that was my round-up of the year that was 2018; hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it. Now before I finish, lets have a brief look at the upcoming year and my most anticipated films of 2019.