Here’s my top 10(ish) for 2018. I saw about 110 films released last year, either in cinemas, streaming or on VOD. As with every year, I did miss a lot of stuff. Even more so on the cinema side of things this year, given I had a three month break after my daughter was born. But as always there was plenty of radness to sift through and everything below I adored. This list, as always with mine, is based on Australian release dates.
First off, the honourable mentions. I really dug everything here. It was a great year for the blockbuster (as you can see from my main list). In addition I also really dug James Wan’s Aquaman, whilst Batman Ninja was a super different take on the animated superhero flick. Crazy Rich Asians was my favourite rom-com for years and the excellent Ideal Home has shades of that genre too. The tonally out there I, Tonya was an early film in a year of incredible drama – Phantom Thread, 6 Balloons, Blackkklansman and The Favourite were all ace. Horror film The First Purge, actioner The Equalizer 2, thrillers Widows and Searching, as well as the bit of everything The Cloverfield Paradox all brought me joy. So did Kurt Russell Santa The Movie aka The Christmas Chronicles. Nick Offerman and co delighted with Hearts Beat Loud. Everyone rightly loved Hannah Gadsby’s amazing Nanette, as did I. As for docos, Human Flow, Dawson City Frozen Time and We Don’t Need a Map were all powerful and for the most part important. The last of those is part of an under-the-radar solid crop of Aussie features that also included the low-budget genre excellence of Trench and Lost Gully Road.
10. Ultimate teen double bill
Films aimed at teens – especially getting a blend of meaningfulness, plot and fun – is bloody hard to pull off. These two very different films do it incredibly well. I watched them back to back at the cinema and I’m looking forward to doing the same at home soon.
A Wrinkle in Time
I loved this film. Ava DuVernay follows up Selma with something totally different. Visually expansive and meaningfully scripted. This one is a more traditional teen film, a YA adventure film. The visuals give a brilliant sense of wonder, complemented by the characters (giant goddess Oprah anyone?) There are strong teen themes here of anxiety, strength and growth. The aforementioned Oprah as well as Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon bring gravitas, whilst young lead Storm Reed is exceptional. Conveying the mix of fragility and strength within someone of this age, and the way they inform each other.
A billion times better than the ‘parents set out to stop their teenagers getting laid’ premise we were sold. Sex positive and the agency lying firmly with the kids. Also: bloody hilarious. The characters actually feel different to each other, different personalities, desires and confidence levels. All six leads give absolutely delightful and textured performances. A great queer subplot. Indeed all comedies should have Ramona from The Santa Clarita Diet as a queer love interest. It is so hard to make something worthwhile feel as fun as this and I just wish more mainstream comedies had the heart and boldness to attempt it.
9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
God I loved this. I’ve watched this film more than any other on this list. I was immediately immersed in the world. Silliness of a volcano on the island is counterbalanced by some poignant imagery and really well done thematic stuff – most notably the treatment of animals. The first faltered when leaving the template of the initial films. But here the wilder plot elements, including the weaponisation of dinos, is where the most enjoyment comes from. Helps too that the characters are less annoying. Bayona was also given the freedom to integrate some horror imagery which makes this look fresh. Just the right amount of silly, and one of the greatest sequel bait endings ever.
8. Mary Magdelene
I’m a fan of films that approach religious and biblical stories from an interesting, and honestly liberal, perspective. Once Joaquin Phoenix shows up ,there’s a lovely rhythm to this attempt at illuminating an hidden chapter of early Christendom. Jesus is a tough role, but Phoenix channels and conveys both the spiritual depth, and the effort that is expended in passing that on to his followers, including physically. Equally as good is Rooney Mara as a woman of great spiritual insight, who the film gives real agency to. I liked this a lot when it was quiet and low on drama. Reflecting the quietness and inquisitiveness of faith against stunning location visuals shot in slightly washed out widescreen. A sense of righting history here, telling the tale of a confidant of Jesus, who grows to be a great teacher themselves. Perhaps the most underseen film on my list.
7. Marvel’s best year
I’ve always been a fan of the MCU. But even I had grown tired recently. Too many samey movies and the team-up films never worked for me the way they did for others. I was excited for the first of these films. And even then it totally exceeded expectations. As for the second I was kind of dreading it. But I liked it on first viewing and on second it improved out of sight. These are both probably top 5 MCU films for me (plus Ant-Man and the Wasp was fun too).
We all love this film. It’s fuckin rad. Coogler continues to prove that he’s one of the best young filmmakers, crafting a unique blockbuster that totally blew minds. Afrofuturism powered by a range of awesome female roles and ace performances from Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. It’s so cool to see the women portray a range of characters – scientist, spy, genius. And all of them front and centre of the action too. Jordan’s Killmonger is probably the best villain that Marvel has had and they fully commit to a bold ending involving him as well. It is wild to me that this safest of franchises commits to a villain militantly dialed into the worldwide struggle for people of colour. A different vibe to really anything in the blockbuster realm, driven by the score and mix of action, political drama and spy film genres (in a much more satisfying way than any of the Captain America films managed). And Leticia Wright’s hilarious and charming performance as Shuri almost steals the show.
Avengers: Infinity War
I often feel that the lauding of Marvel achievements is overblown. But wow this is an achievement. Especially after the long stewing build of Thanos kinda sucked. It’s a huge beast of a film to wrangle and is by it’s nature vignetty. But it feels like basically all the characters get enough time. And without that approach, we wouldn’t have gotten elements like the heartfelt team up of Rocket Racoon and Thor. The ending bothered me on first viewing, due to factors outside the world of the film. But on rewatch I thought it worked and just made me excited for the next. Some massive, awesome blockbuster moments, a number of them anchored by Chris Hemsworth’s dramatic chops. Tom Holland’s Spider-man works well here too, bringing levity and meaning in his relationship with Tony Stark.
6. Sweet Country
Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009) is for me the greatest Aussie film ever made. This one is similarly amazing, though operating on a more epic plane. A whole lot comes together here – the biblical, ideology, war, PTSD and neo-western genre stylings. It’s a tribute to the incredible director that it all holds together. A slow bubbling epic with bursts of violence and consequence. The wide empty landscapes, especially the salt plains, look amazing. Themes that are often clumsily presented through a white lens – theft of lore and land from indigenous Australians – are in Thornton’s hands rendered meaningful and nuanced. Tale of clash of cultures as well as within culture that it feels like only he could tell. Makes plain what he thinks of contemporary race relations in Australia. Masterful stuff.
Very few films live up to the tired ‘one of the scariest movies ever’ marketing… this does though, it’s fuckin terrifying. One of the few films I literally felt on a physical level. Somehow grows from psychological family strain to broad supernatural chills whilst feeling cohesive and frightening on different levels. Toni Collette brings shade and dimensions to her performance here that are rarely seen in a horror film. The other performances that seem to have gotten a little lost in the (rightful) buzz around Collette are also excellent. Alex Wolff is excellent in a tough role, as he gradually becomes more of a focal point whilst Milly Shapiro is haunting. A film about loss, grief and motherhood, all of these seen in a dizzying array of forms. A great score, and innovative in the way it scares, twisting the jump scare formula. Oh and did I mention it’s super fuckin scary?
4. The Shape of Water
This feels like a film only Guillermo Del Toro could make. It’s hard to conceive of the control of story, tone and character that were required to make this work. Visually beautiful, green-filtered period imagery. There’s a delightful throwback atmosphere to the mystery and shadiness of it all – spies and mysterious laboratories. But against that backdrop is this story of an inter-species sexual relationship. The performances are uniformly brilliant. Sally Hawkins character handles the more difficult storytelling beats beautifully, same with the easy friendship with Richard Jenkins. A chatty, gossipy Octavia Spencer has maybe never been better and draws out elements of the Hawkins’ character. Michael Shannon is very good as the villain too, being sufficiently Michael Shannony without resorting to mugging. And Doug Jones’ simple mannerisms give the feel of personality with the creature. A lovely mishmash of drama, romance, spy film and heist film.
3. You Were Never Really Here
This is a lean, quite vicious film. But also feels quite stylish at the same time, driven by the score and sound design, as well as the imagery which occasionally dabbles with horror vibes. Awesomely raw with minimal plot. No plot, but it spirals and escalates from a simple spot into a cacophony of violence emanating from an unknown source. At the core of it is Joaquin Phoenix, giving maybe his best ever performance. It’s a tough role, showing the effects of childhood trauma subtly and realistically, balancing being both a fuckin hard bastard and a tender, loving son. Feels like the work of a master director.
2. Faces Places
A super meaningful and personal cinematic meditation from Agnes Varda. Much of her best documentary work has derived from her openness as part of the process, and she has never been more vulnerable than here. Her advanced age and day-to-day physical struggles. It’s both confronting and beautiful to see her this way. The stuff at the end with Godard is so raw and real. All that couples beautifully with this ruminative journey with her friend JR to make images in two totally different ways. Lovely to see how they reach people, both through the process and with the outcomes.
1. The complete 2018 cinematic works of Sebastián Lelio
Directors releasing two films was a bit of a trend for 2018. Warwick Thornton’s two have already been mentioned, we also got two from Spielberg, Haifaa Al-Mansour and Timo Tjahjanto. Not Monty did Sebastián Lelio do the same, he released two of the very best films of the year. Both searingly examining LGBTQ themes and the lives of folks in those communities, driven by brilliant performances, thematic concerns and his storytelling chops.
A Fantastic Woman
Trans woman Marina has just lost the love of her life. Yet she still cannot escape the constant micro-aggressions against trans people, despite the horrific period. She is treated to constant aggressive questioning as well as assault, both physical and sexual, all whilst attempting to grieve. The perceived ownership by CIS people of trans bodies. There’s a lot for actress Danielle Vega to portray and she does it excellently. Despite the tough themes, it’s also a quite beautiful portrait of love lost. The contemplation of the void of their no longer being there-ness. A sad movie. Lelio mixes in elements of magical realism which intrigue rather than bewilder It’s a pretty film, with the director showing a talent for the artfully constructed single frame that lingers long in the mind.
This one was more hyped, but seemingly not as well received. I watched it the night my nan died, and perhaps it was that headspace that made me appreciate the early section of this. The rituals of faith and mourning, their meticulousness and their exclusion in this instance. Their weight of meaningful power for those who partake in them. A returning to ceremony and ritual that’s only half familiar in the case of Weisz’s character. How the shared nature of mourning is not a universally positive experience. Against this, I was expecting the rekindled lesbian relationship to jar horribly. It’s very good though. The second half has to be considered in light of the first and doing so reveals layers of meaning and relationship. And eventually the two parts of the film all crash together powerfully. It’s all delivered through three really good performances.