Let's get onto the good stuff finally. I am not going to do any honorable mentions, this is it, my top 20 of 2018, and while the title of this list states that these are the "best" films of 2018, that is not really the case, these are my "favourite" films of 2018. Alright, enough talk, lets begin with my:
TOP TWENTY BEST FILMS OF 2018
This film was one of the most bizarre films that I saw this year, but it also felt like one of the most undiluted examples of a singular vision from a director that I had ever seen. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the film director Panos Cosmatos had envisioned before making it and even if certain things did not make sense to the viewer, it was true to the world that Cosmatos had created. “Mandy” is like a descent into hell, with Nicolas Cage's character Red going out for revenge against the cult who murdered his wife. It is unlike any revenge story that has come before it and it is an audio and visual delight. Cage is at his most unrestrained here, but he is fantastic as the emotionally devastated man. You can feel the pain that is within him and wanting so desperately to transfer onto someone else all in the name of payback. I was lucky enough to see “Mandy” at MIFF on the big screen where I was able to get lost in the world of this film, drawn in by its unusual images and truly stunning score by Johann Johannsson (sadly one of his last). The sold out audience lapped up this symphony of insanity, loudly applauding during key moments such as when Red makes his axe, has his chainsaw fight and when Cage delivers the line “Crazy Evil”. I am blessed that I got to see this amazing film in an environment that worked best for “Mandy” itself. I guarantee this is not a film for everyone, but if you are on the same wavelength as it, you are in for one of the most wild trips of your life.
19. BIRD BOX
When the initial trailers for “Bird Box” came out, I actually ignored them thinking that the film could only be watered down horror with Sandra Bullock in the lead. However, since this was a heavily marketed film for Netflix, it was almost impossible not to see a trailer or advert for it and once I did, I was impressed by what I saw and then highly anticipated it. My wife and I immediately watched it as soon as it hit Netflix and both of us were highly invested and impressed by the final product. It was a fantastic horror film built around a great premise. The opening ten or so minutes are absolutely brilliant, heartbreaking and devastating, and I imagine should have most viewers totally hooked by the end of them. For those that have been living under a rock, “Bird Box” is about an apocalyptic event that sees much of the world's population dying, where if you look directly at the evil, you will see your greatest fear and thus kill yourself. As such, characters have to walk around with blindfolds on in the event that they just happen to come upon this evil. One of the greatest choices the filmmakers made with “Bird Box” was never showing what this evil looks like. They leave it up to the audiences imagination and it is terrifying, much more so than if we got a look at what the characters themselves see. It is no spoiler to say that the story ends up jumping ahead in time, where suddenly children are involved in the dangers which adds that much more to the angst onscreen. It says a lot that Sandra Bullock's character doesn't even name her kids, referring to them only as “boy” and “girl”, such is the life expectancy of the world she inhabits. Like most of these types of films, it ends up being about trying to find a place of refuge, but this is all I will say about this superior (and successful) horror film. Oh, and Sandra Bullock is great in it too, going to some very dark mental places.
18. THE NIGHT COMES FOR US
This is another Netflix film, but this time around it is an Indonesian action film and it is one of the bloodiest films that I have ever seen! Back in 2014, I named “The Raid 2: Berandal” as my fourth favourite film of that year, and while this year's “The Night Comes For Us” doesn't quite top it, it comes much closer than I ever expected any film to get in terms of onscreen blood and carnage. One thing that I have always loved about “The Raid” films is that they live in a world that is kill or be killed, so every move the character's make is there to either hurt, maim or kill your opponent; it is not just a flashy martial arts move to look cool. Also, if you have a weapon, it is used to cause the maximum damage possible. “The Night Comes For Us” continues this tradition so there is always a sense that any character can die from any fight. As I mentioned, this is truly one of the bloodiest films I have ever seen included a bit when a knife is impaled into a woman's arm and then pushed straight down to totally open it up. While Iko Uwais is cast as the hero of “The Raid” films, this time around he is the villain. Personally, I think he is more suited to the hero role but he still does a great job. The director of “The Night Comes For Us” is Timo Tjahjanto and for mine, this is his best directorial outing yet (he also directed in 2018 a fantastic Indonesian horror film, “May The Devil Take You” that just missed out on making this list). His previous action film, “Headshot”, was a bit of a mess and I thought he really struggled with his action set-pieces, but he has excelled with them in “The Night Comes For Us”. This is kinetic cinema of the highest order and if you are into action films at all, I'm sure that you will love this one.
17. DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT
It has been ages since director Gus Van Sant has made anything close to a good film, so to say that I entered this film with high expectations would be a total lie. In fact, the only reason that I ended up seeing it was due to Joaquin Phoenix starring in the lead role, but even with his involvement, the thought of watching the story of an alcoholic confined to a wheel-chair due to paralysis, attempting to reach sobriety with the help of the twelve steps, was something of a hard sell. I couldn't have been more wrong because I loved this movie so much, and it was quite life affirming and didn't dwell in the darkness of it all, rather it saw the positives of getting on with life and living again. Do not get me wrong, the film does not sugar coat what John (Phoenix) is going through, as it certainly deals with just how tough to reach sobriety is and facing everyone you have hurt in the past, but it does focus more on the positive aspects of succeeding. Personally I was unaware of John Callahan, the real life cartoonist, whose life story this film is based on, but through Gus Van Sant's very good film, I enjoyed learning about this very flawed man. Phoenix, as expected is wonderful as Callahan giving a much lighter and amusing performance than I was expecting. However, it is Jonah Hill who is the big revelation here. He is astounding in the role of Donny, who is the leader of the AA support group that John attends. So much love and humanity pours through this man as he attempts to help others to help themselves. His physical transformation is also so thorough that I was watching him onscreen for at least fifteen minutes before I realised it was Jonah Hill. The final scene between Hill and Phoenix is so emotionally heartbreaking and yet like everything else in this movie, it is a scene that celebrates a positive too. I was seriously surprised by Van Sant's lightness of touch with a story that could've been either too heavy, or too saccharine sweet but he gets the balance perfect. The film is much funnier than I was expecting and definitely more emotionally rewarding too. The sight of seeing Phoenix zipping around in his wheelchair is hilarious.
16. THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
This was one of the last films that I saw in 2018 but I always expected it to make this list as director David Lowery's previous two films, “Pete's Dragon” and “A Ghost Story”, ended up high on my best-of lists of the years they were released. “The Old Man & The Gun” is the beautiful tale of a man finding something in life that he loves doing, so continues to do it whenever he can. It just so happens that what Forrest Tucker loves doing is robbing banks. Robert Redford is fantastic as Tucker and if this is truly his swansong as he claims it to be, then it is a fitting performance to go out on. He imbues the man with so much charm that it is easy to see why everyone finds him so likeable because we, the audience, are also immediately attracted to him despite his “hobby” of choice. I can understand some viewers thinking not much happens in this film because it is really a quiet film, but personally I was mesmerised by it all. Sissy Spacek is lovely playing Redford's love interest, and I thought Casey Affleck was at the top of his game playing the cop who is intent on catching Tucker. Redford and Affleck have a fantastic scene together in the men's room where the two men essentially announce their respect for one another while also showing how much they are enjoying this cat and mouse game between them. While it may not have the intensity of the Pacino/De Niro meet up scene in “Heat”, it is still a highlight from this much lighter film. These days I really enjoy watching older actors getting a chance to flex their acting muscles again because you are reminded just how great they used to be and why they were so popular. Besides impressive performances from Redford and Spacek, we also get a couple of nice scenes with Danny Glover, and two hilarious moments with Tom Waits whose story on why he hates Christmas is to die for. This is a sleight film, almost old fashioned but I loved every second of it and was very impressed with Lowery's decision to shoot it on 16mm film which added a lovely photographic quality to the whole thing.
15. THE FAVOURITE
Another repeat offender on my best-of lists is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, with both “The Lobster” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” featuring high on them in the past two years. When I saw “Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Lanthimos had already finished shooting “The Favourite” but when I read the plot, it sounded like a typical period piece, the like I never could envision from this director. I also noticed that this was the first film he had directed which he had no hand in writing. Foolishly, I assumed that this was a change of pace for this insane genius and that “The Favourite” would not be making this list this time around. Turns out that I could not be more wrong. Even though Lanthimos's name is nowhere to be found in the writing credits, the finished film has his fingerprints all over it. While it is true that yes, this is a period piece about a Queen, and the two women manipulating her affections for their own personal gain, if anyone is going in thinking this is a normal quaint period film, they are about to get the shock of their lives. “The Favourite” is hilariously filthy in its frank depiction of sex and with the language used. “F” and “C” words are regular vocabulary for the characters in this tale, and hearing such words coming out of the mouth of the delightful Emma Stone is yet another reason to see this hilariously demented film. I loved the scenes between Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz on the shooting range where they are very clearly threatening each other but using gentile ways of talking to do so. Olivia Colman is the standout though as the ailing queen being manipulated from all sides but not as helpless as those around her think. Visually, the film is magnificent with the period details you would expect from these kind of films, with the girl's costumes being the highlight. I must admit though that I did have issue with some of the (very) wide angle photography that Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan employed at times (especially when the camera was moving), and I wasn't a massive fan of the film's ending which tends to fizzle out rather than end with a bang. Still this is an extremely fun, devilishly dark and very dirty film, that if you are not easily offended, you should really enjoy as I did. Oh, and the poster for “The Favourite” (above) is coincidentally (pardon the pun) my favourite of the year.
14. PADDINGTON 2
As I mentioned in my worst of list when discussing “A Wrinkle in Time”, having two young daughters sometimes leads to seeing films that you initially had no interest in seeing. While a “A Wrinkle in Time” is the cautionary tale of disappointment and total wasting of time, “Paddington 2” is the complete opposite; a truly charming film that has been impeccably designed and directed. To be fair, I was aware that reviews for this film were exemplary so I did not go into this film kicking and screaming like I did when I watched “A Wrinkle in Time” but did I expect to be wowed by “Paddington 2” as much as I was? Certainly not! I have actually never seen the original film, but being as smug as I am and with it being a kid's film, I thought I would be able to cope with the sequel without having watched the first one and I was right. I just thought this film was utterly delightful in every which way. The storyline was cute, the actors were all great (especially a scene stealing Hugh Grant as the film's villain) and Paddington himself was adorable, but it was the visual style and direction of the film that blew me away. This is a film that is not afraid to use bright, bold colours and it just livens the whole thing up. I actually loved the pink used in the prison scenes and the moments with Paddington and Brendan Gleeson's tough prison cook, Knuckles McGinty, were my favourite. This is very high praise but the whole thing reminded me, in style, of Wes Anderson's “The Great Budapest”. I normally bemoan the use of bad CGI in films, but I am happy to say that it has been extremely well done here, and I now look forward to catching up with the original film.
13. SWEET COUNTRY
I was totally bowled over by director Warwick Thornton's debut feature “Samson & Delilah”, and it has taken him nine whole years to deliver his follow up, however the wait was definitely worth it as “Sweet Country” is another fantastic Australian film. This film plays something like a western, set during the 1920's, where an aboriginal man is put on trial after killing a white man, who forcibly entered his home. After killing the man, the elderly aboriginal man goes on the run because he knows no one will listen to his side of the story, just because of the colour of his skin. A posse is then created and sent into the outback to find the man and bring him back to face justice. This film came out way back in January here in Australia, and it has stuck with me since. It is such a powerful piece of filmmaking with a total gut-punch of an ending. What is sad is that today, some 100 years after this story takes place, we as a nation are still dealing with the same unjust situations which is disgusting to think that we have still not evolved and learned. The highlight of “Sweet Country” is the beautiful and amazing Australian countryside. The outback and desert is truly stunning to behold and has never looked better than here in Thornton's images. Thornton, once again, serves as his own cinematographer (along with Dylan River, who is also the director's son). He has an amazing ability to capture the essence of the Australian outback. The entire cast of “Sweet Country” does exemplary work with Hamilton Morris shining as the accused aboriginal man, Sam. Bryan Brown is his usual excellent self as the Sergeant tasked with tracking Sam down, and Sam Neill gives a very sensitive performance as Fred, the local preacher. “Sweet Country” is a classy and brilliant Aussie film like shines a light and puts on trial the racism still prevalent (sadly) in this great country of ours.
12. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
This was another film that I saw very early in 2018 that has never left me. After the debacle that was “Jane Got A Gun” that saw her leave the director's chair on the first day of shooting, Lynne Ramsey ended up finding her next project in the seriously disturbing and very violent “You Were Never Really Here”. The film is about a war veteran named Joe who tracks down missing girls for a living. Clearly traumatised by the horrors he has witnessed and performed, Joe is a quiet man who isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty to get the job done. When Joe is hired to locate the young daughter of a missing politician, he finds himself caught within a horrific conspiracy involving the sexual exploitation of young girls; a racket that he can not live with himself if he does not bring it down. This fabulous film is anchored by a truly amazing and internal performance from Joaquin Phoenix. He is beyond brilliant here and his performance is completely different to the one he gives in “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot”. Here, everything is contained within, all of his emotions are bottled up but you can tell this is a man in pain and he is about to explode. Phoenix has very little dialogue in the film, so everything we learn about Joe is through his body language and the brutality of his actions when he works. The film has a very “Taxi Driver” feel to it with Joe doing everything possible to protect this young girl from the situation she has found herself in, and then dismantling it all, even if it ends up costing him his life. One element of the film that has to be acknowledged is Jonny Greenwood's perfect score, that totally enlivens the film and almost acts as another character as it sets the tempo of the action onscreen. Finally, “You Were Never Really Here” features one of the most beautifully human moments amongst a world of extreme violence when two hit-men lay next to each other (one wounded and dying, the other alive and well), hold hands and together sing a tune until one of them breathes their last breathe. It is a sublime moment, in an equally sublime film.
“Shadow” sees China's greatest living director, Zhang Yimou, return to the martial arts drama for the first time since 2006's underwhelming “Curse of the Golden Flower”. The story of “Shadow” is about a great King, set during China's Three Kingdom's Era, who in constant fear of assassination hires a double to take his place during battle and dangerous negotiations. However after facing all of the danger and getting none of its rewards, surely it is only a matter of time before the King's double wants what he has fought for and to take the King's place on the throne for his own. From this ambition we are witness to all the political manipulations and machinations for the double's plan to come to fruition. I was very lucky to have seen “Shadow” on the big screen here in Melbourne when just by chance I found out that it had come out the week prior. As usual, Yimou's attention to detail is front and centre here with all of the costumes, and locations, the interior and exteriors. However, unlike his previous film, the horribly under seen “The Great Wall”, he has gone against the use of colour and instead made a film relying only on black and white shades. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this is a black and white film, as it is definitely shot in colour, it is just that everything is in shades of black, white, and grey in an attempt to mimic a style reminiscent of calligraphy, which plays an important role to one of the characters in the film. It is such a bold and dangerous decision that comes off brilliantly, as the black and white also plays against the rules of good and evil, ying and yang, villain and hero. The only other colour that really shows up in the film is red, when blood is spilled in the battle scenes. Speaking of the battle scenes, while they have been very well choreographed and staged, they are few and far between and are relatively quick so if you are going to see “Shadow” for the fight scenes, be prepared that the film is more about political intrigue than martial arts. After the huge canvas Yimou worked with on “The Great Wall”, he is working within a much smaller world here, but his efforts are no less grand. Yimou truly is a master filmmaker, and has already shot his next film (entitled “One Second”), which will be ready for 2020.