Jiminy jump cuts, we’re half way through the year! 2018 has already given us Brexit shenanigans, the savaging of civil liberties by the US government and sporting events that some people enjoy. In the movie world, we saw a fantasy film win Best Picture, a superhero film with a largely black cast become a box office success, and fan responses to Star Wars reached a new low. The cinematic offerings of 2018 thus far have, by and large, been impressive. From varied award bait to adaptations of video games, novels and stage plays, franchise instalments to indie gems, January to June provided film delights aplenty. Now at the half-year point, I offer my top six of the first six months on 2018.
Traditional as it was, this was the Best Picture nominee that impressed me the most. Were I a member of AMPAS, I might not have voted it for it for political reasons (more on that later), but this is the most impressive film of the year for me so far.
An extraordinary experience, to such an extent that after I saw it, I needed to take a walk just to let it settle. Describing such a exquisitely cinematic experience in words is hard (though I did it anyway), so all I will say here is that you need to see it. Off you go, you can read the rest of this later.
The culmination of ten years of world and story building for Marvel Studios, Infinity War manages to do that thing you don’t expect in a franchise instalment – be surprising. Blending a myriad of characters and narrative threads, and going to strange thematic places, Infinity War continues Marvel’s mastery of the superhero genre.
Were I a member of AMPAS, I would probably have voted for this to win Best Picture, since it is a different sort of nominee that manages to blend the fantastical and the real, the whimsical and the brutal. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a remarkable oeuvre and, while this is a career highlight, I hope he continues to give us further brilliant pieces of cinema.
Perhaps the oddest film this year, one that I can only recommend in the sense that is an exquisitely crafted piece of cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson’s period romantic drama about an insufferable dressmaker could be sold on its talent, but to view it is to enter into a fully realised and often uncomfortable world.
It says something about a superhero film when you find yourself considering the foreign policy of a fictional country, the society of which is based entirely on a fictional element. It means that the film is working so well on a generic level that you want to apply its conceits to the real world. Marvel’s venture into Afro-futurism combined super-powered thrills with debates between isolationism and interventionism, and without labouring the point struck a blow for cinematic equality.
Only one real stinker so far, and I hope that I don’t see a worse film this year. Red Sparrow had so much potential, considering its subject, its themes and talent. That made the disappointment of watching this tedious, turgid, brutal, nasty and ultimately hollow film all the more crushing.
Will the top (and bottom) films of the year include these entries or others? Time will tell, so keep viewing with Vincent to see where the year goes.
When I saw Jurassic World back in 2015, I thought the franchise should die out. A massive box office return meant that it would not, and the announcement of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom raised the question of how would Universal reinvigorate a franchise that seemed exhausted of ideas? Enter director J. A. Bayona, whose career has risen steadily since his feature debut The Orphanage in 2007. Under Bayona’s steady yet unsettling hand, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom emerges like a T-Rex from foliage as a film of two halves. The first half is one we have seen before, with standard Jurassic tropes of island, jungle, rain and the occasional dinosaur. The addition of a volcanic eruption adds surprisingly little additional drama, although Bayona excels with some great set pieces. One features riding a humorous riff on the bucking bronco motif, and the other involves a submerged vehicle that is conducted largely in a single take. This sequence is menacingly immersive in all the right ways, and the menacing environment continues in the second half when the film moves into new territory for the franchise. A grand mansion and long subterranean tunnels, as well as judicious use of shadows and Nosferatu-like limbs, imbue the second half of the film with a Gothic milieu. The second half of the film also features effective villains of both the human and saurian variety, as well as some interesting if brief explorations of cloning, the right to live and that trusty stalwart of science fiction, hubris. There are some points where the preposterousness of the story is a little grating – why attempt to retrieve a valuable asset in a tropical storm? Is the nefarious scheme really likely to be profitable? With that much lava, surely the characters would be overcome by poisonous gas? Happily, Bayona’s effective style and the game cast – including the winning chemistry between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard – ensure that the viewer spends little time worrying over such details. Meanwhile, there are references to earlier instalments that carry just the right level of knowingness to avoid slipping into parody. Overall, JW: FK takes the franchise in an interesting new direction, and ends with the promise of more, that will hopefully be different as well.
Ocean’s 8 is a film of both familiarity and absence. The opening sequence features an Ocean (Debbie, played by Sandra Bullock) facing a parole board, much as this franchise started in 2001. Upon her release, Debbie reunites with a former partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and they subsequently recruit a motley crew of experts in nefarious activities and plan an audacious heist. Along the way there are surprises and twists, cross-cutting both spatial and temporal, an upbeat soundtrack and a slick portrait of opulence and wealth. The significant absences are an immersive sense of place and Steven Soderbergh’s ephemeral touch. Director Gary Ross gives New York a functional rendering that pales in comparison to Soderbergh’s almost otherworldly depiction of Las Vegas, and while Ross is competent enough he seems to struggle with innovative style. Fortunately, a game cast add as much sparkle as the object of the heist. Bullock and Blanchette are a superb double act, making this viewer hope they work together again with richer (no pun intended) material. Excellent support comes from Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rhianna, Helena Bonham-Carter and Awkwafina as other members of the crew, but arguably (and perhaps ironically) Anne Hathaway steals the show as she chews her way through all the scenery around her. Narratively and stylistically, Ocean’s 8 lacks substance, but its cast provides a glittering shine.
A long time ago at a cinema far away (from my current location), a friend commented that The Phantom Menace suffered from the lack of Han Solo. Twenty years later, we get a prequel/spin-off (pre-off? Spin-quel?) all about Han, later Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Ron Howard’s film makes a virtue of omitting the baggy story of those earlier installments while still referencing such Star Wars lore as the Empire, Tatooine and the Kessel Run. The film’s closest cinematic cousin, however, is Serenity, incorporating elements of the western and the heist film. These elements include lawless planets, a train job, gun slinging (including an unambiguous first shot), crime syndicates complete with menacing boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film: a motley crew of vagabonds. This crew includes Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the introduction of other familiar characters including Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and a certain spaceship that any Star Wars fan would love a ride on. Ehrenreich embodies the cocksure charm and charisma needed for the young Solo, and his relationships with Qi’ra, Beckett and Chewbacca give the film heart. Howard incorporates these characters into some thrilling action set pieces – including a speeder race that recalls the director’s Rush – and some exhilarating space chases and dynamic combat sequences including the closest the film comes to a light sabre duel. This distance indicates the film’s major weakness: without the mystical element of the Jedi and the wider menace posed by the Empire (used to great effect in Rogue One), Solo feels somewhat flimsy and underpowered, the central McGuffin allowing little more than suggested links to wider events. Han has always been a fun character, but he works best in comparison to more idealistic figures such as Luke, Leia and, more recently, Rey and Finn. Here, everyone is a charming rogue and Han is simply the fresh blood, his arc and contributions offering little that we have not seen before. Solo is enjoyable while it lasts, but overall it lacks a certain Force.
One of the interesting aspects about superhero cinema is the development of particular franchises, as subsequent instalments take the set-up of the origin stories to new places. When Deadpool was released in 2016, its irreverent, self-aware and achingly postmodern stance demonstrated there was still plenty of stretch left in the spandex. In the case of Deadpool 2, this same spandex gets stretched again, largely to the same places. As a result, David Leitch’s film, working from a script by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and star Ryan Reynolds, largely feels like a re-tread. Swear-tastic dialogue? Check. Fourth wall breaks? Check. Comically gruesome violence? Check. Anything that feels fresh? Not so much. This is disappointing because the first Deadpool felt fresh and vibrant, but Deadpool 2 is largely more of the same. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Reynolds) continues his mercenary ways, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) tries to make Wilson into a superhero while Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) makes snarky comments, Dopinder (Karan Soni) idolises DP’s violent approach in disturbing ways. New arrivals Russell (Julian Dennison) and Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second Marvel appearance of 2018) add some additional concerns over destiny and consequence, but their arcs as well as those of the other characters feel stretched and almost redundant. The most interesting aspect of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped – a potentially disturbing aspect that does develop an ongoing conceit of the X-Men franchise as a whole. X-Men has repeatedly dramatised concerns over prejudice and intolerance, and in Deadpool 2 we see the DMC (presumably Department of Mutant Control/Containment) as well as a mutant ‘rehabilitation centre’, complete with creepy headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Annoyingly, these institutions and their draconian practices are largely relegated to the background. It may seem churlish to criticise a film for what it isn’t, but agencies such as these are ripe for satire and snubbing authority, exactly what Deadpool is famous for. Therefore, when the film resorts to the same flippancy towards dramatic stakes as its predecessor, there is little to get excited about. Deadpool 2 does succeed on the action front, including one bravura sequence featuring a long take centred on Domino (Zazie Beetz). In addition, the cast are all game and amusing, especially Reynolds whose charisma and devotion to the character ensure that Deadpool is still fun to spend time with. There are plenty of laughs too, but they probably won’t linger any longer than the injuries of our indestructible protagonist.
The final film in my list of ten significant movies is by far the most recent, released less than three years before this post. It is also the only animated movie on this list, and perhaps the only one that could be described as a comedy (it is certainly the funniest). It was my favourite film of 2015, and I include it because it had a therapeutic effect on me. When I saw this film, I was suffering from depression, and while now improved this is not a condition that goes away. Despite the negativity I often felt, I had a tendency not only to put a brave face on it, which a great many people do, but also to deny to myself that there was a problem, because I had the notion that there was no need, no justification, to feel sad. Then I saw Inside Out, which made the (to me) quite radical and astonishing suggestion that it is actually alright to be unhappy and that sometimes sadness is healthy and indeed essential. For me, this recognition was extraordinarily profound, and reduced me to a tearful wreck in the cinema, to such an extent that I purposefully constricted my throat so that my sobs would not disturb other patrons. For comparison, I had a similar experience the last time I watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I have since returned to Inside Out many times, and it always makes me cry in the best possible way.
Beyond my personal attachment to Inside Out, it is also a magnificent film. The world of Riley’s mind is brilliantly realised with dazzling detail and witty invention, drawing from established psychology that is given superb animated form. The central characters are both archetypal and specific, working as representatives and as individuals. The lessons learned by Joy are valuable for anyone, the lack of appreciation for Sadness likely to be familiar to many, while the roles of Anger, Disgust and Fear are as relatable as the emotions themselves. The central conceit of the components of personality is complex yet understandable, and the tricky workings of the mind from imaginary friends to the Memory Dump to endlessly repeating jingles (TripleDent Gum anybody?) make for endlessly inventive adventures that swing from the hilarious to the breathtaking to the heartbreaking. Who would have predicted that a tale of the little voices inside your head would emerge as one of the most accomplished, enthralling and moving films of recent years? I had high hopes thanks to Pixar’s back catalogue, but Inside Out surpassed all of these and might indeed be the studio’s most impressive work to date. It remains my go to film when the world turns horrible, because as I often need reminding, Sadness is good to have around.