2018 offered plenty of pleasures, ranging from the enjoyably silly Rampage to the grimly po-faced Mile 22. It proved an especially fruitful year for horror cinema – I missed out on Hereditary, which attracted a lot of discussion, but did catch Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s adaptation of their stage show Ghost Stories, which demonstrated (after)life in the anthology drama. I wasn’t as impressed by Ghost Stories as some have been, finding it a bit too neat when what I wanted was a devastating collapse of reason and rationality (which is hardly unreasonable). More effective was A Quiet Place, which proved a brilliant thrill. It’s a weird film that, if you think about it, rapidly develops major holes but, while you watch it, is absorbing and genuinely terrifying, especially if you have an aversion to bare feet.
Other horror offerings included the underwhelming The Little Stranger and the disappointing Suspiria (on which more later). Far more impressive was the surprisingly engrossing Overlord, that delivered gruesome horror in a World War II setting. But standing masked head and shoulders in the horror genre was David Gordon Green’s Halloween, a triumphant return of this classic series that provided genuine old school tension combined with modern sensibilities and awareness.
Halloween was far from the only familiar name for, as has become standard, the box office was ruled by sequels and franchise instalments. These were of varying quality, as Deadpool 2 provided more of the same to diminished returns on the laugh front, although extra characters did swell the interest. Ant-Man and the Wasp was the third MCU entry after Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War (on which more later), and proved to be a suitably light-hearted caper, although it did suffer from an overuse of the word ‘quantum’ that failed to make the techno-babble any more comprehensible.
During the summer, Star Wars provided us with Solo: A Star Wars Story. This was perhaps not a story we needed, but it managed to be one that the fans of Han Solo deserved, breathing new life into this stalwart from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Similar rejuvenation occurred with Ocean’s 8. Rather than being a gimmicky cash-in, this gender-inverted caper offered a shine all of its own.
Perhaps the year’s most pleasant surprise was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. When Jurassic World opened in 2015, I thought the franchise should go extinct, but this latest instalment went to strange and encouraging new places, and I look forward to where the dinosaurs will go next. Therefore, while there was varying quality, all of these films did provide some enjoyment.
The start of the movie year is largely filled with awards contenders, and as a fan of awards I make a point of seeing as many of the nominees as I can. Kicking off 2018 for me was the film best known for a sudden recasting, as Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World featured the removal of Kevin Spacey and rapid replacement with Christopher Plummer. While the film itself is competent if uninspired, the willingness of the filmmakers, especially Scott himself, to engage with and take seriously the debates over appropriate behaviour make this film something of a landmark. And Mr Plummer did not do too badly, earning an Oscar nomination for his trouble.
All The Money In The World did not concern the Academy members otherwise, nor indeed did one of the Best Picture nominees, The Post. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress (21 nominations, Meryl, really?), The Post was nonetheless a gripping, urgent and timely tale of the importance of the press as well as being a significant story of female empowerment. However, it was a rather safe film in terms of awards attention, so I was pleased to see other films honoured.
Another safe bet, which did pick up some awards, was Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman and a tonne of prosthetics bringing Winston Churchill to quivering yet unwavering life. I found Darkest Hour a patchy film, but there is no denying the strength of Oldman’s performance.
Two of the nominees for Original Song I missed on their original release but caught up with later. The first of these, The Greatest Showman, proved a hollow effort that raised interesting ideas which then got lost in the seemingly heady rush to the end for, well, not much. Far more rewarding was Coco, a charming, funny and yet bittersweet tale that not only picked up the Oscar for Original Song, but also continued Pixar’s triumphs in the Animated Feature category.
I count four of the Best Picture nominees in my top films of the year, and had a tough time picking which I wanted to win. Phantom Thread may have been the most meticulously crafted film of the year: every comma of the script, every cut to a different angle, every raised eyebrow of its stellar cast as precise and perfect as Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) intricate creations. Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird reminded audiences and Academy members alike that women do make interesting films and that there are interesting stories about women (shocking!), and that Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong.
The big hitters at the award ceremonies, and two of the best films of the year, were Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the eventual winner, The Shape of Water. I love both films, finding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to be heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, with plot, character, performance, direction, editing and music held in near perfect balance. The Shape of Water is, for me, less accomplished overall, as its Cold War narrative strand feels artificially attached to the central fishy love story. However, for the Academy to reward a fantastical monster film gets a thumbs-up from me, and Guillermo Del Toro’s magnificent direction, not to mention progressive gender politics, makes the film a major winner in my view.
Spider-Man has a long and varied history across media, from comic books to TV series to blockbuster movies. Devoted fans will be aware of different permutations of Peter Parker, Aunt May, Gwen Stacy and various villains, but it takes a special level of dedication to recognise Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rewards dabbling and dedicated fans alike, with dazzlingly vibrant animation, a multitude of references and characterisation that is warm and engaging. Simultaneously, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman create a level of postmodern self-awareness that could be infuriating but always feels inclusive. Multiple recountings of Spider-Man’s origin(s) are prefaced with ‘You know the story’, but slight differences indicate the malleability and adaptability of this character. Yet, far from being a film by geeks for geeks, SMITSV is a welcoming celebration of popular culture, blending the obscure with the mainstream. This blend takes place within a high stakes super-powered tale of dimensional rifts, fanatical villains, destiny and choice, identity, family and coming of age, as well as reminders that with great power comes, you know the rest, and the film knows that you know the rest. The material is handled with affection and irreverence, both by the directors and the game voice cast, including Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker and Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk. Johnson is a particular highlight, his cynical, jaded and rather flabby Spider-Man a welcome contrast to the idealised and naivety of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, not to mention the irrepressible Mile Morales. Spider-Verse also features the most kick-ass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) yet to grace the screen, and even includes footage from the 1960s TV series. The nostalgia and love for the character and his fans give the film a delightful edge, while the animation is creative and delivers genuine visual impact. Spider-Man will doubtless continue as a live action character, but this animated adventure is a welcome and wonderful addition to the verse.
In one of the stupidest moments in movie history, Jaws: The Revenge features a shark that roars. Aquaman may remind viewers of this epic piece of idiocy, as it features a range of sea creatures, including sharks, giant seahorses and an apparent Kronosaurus, that growl and snarl. The toothsome recollection is just one of many reminders in a film that is not only so oceanically stupid that it collapses like tissue paper in the tide the second you think about it, but so overtly derivative it feels like a deliberate pastiche. Narrative and visual tropes from the likes of Thor, Batman Begins, Gladiator, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Clash of the Titans and more compete for space within a world of wet sand that disintegrates under its own tide. The visual effects teams create bright and bombastic digital environments, but they fail to create a sense of wonder. As the titular hero Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) experiences an underwater kingdom, there seems little effort to make it strange or wonderful, which is a waste of the fine visuals. Yet despite these problems, director James Wan still manages to craft a decent superhero adventure. Adventures of this sort largely depend on the exploration, both narrative and visual, of super powers and heroic identity. When it comes to the action sequences, Wan shows stylistic flourish with some immersive long takes in which combatants spin, slash, shoot and swim at great speed. Central to these sequences are the powers of Arthur, who possesses super strength, speed, resilience – what self-respecting superhero doesn’t have these? – and the ability to breathe and talk underwater. A further power that proves crucial is the ability to communicate with sea creatures. An early scene in this origin story shows the young Arthur ridiculed for talking to fish, and a striking visual image captures the inhabitants of an aquarium assembling in a formation behind him. This conceit suggests that the greatest power is communication, a worthy addition to the pantheon of superpowers, and is one of two things that save the film from being a completely damp squib. The other is Momoa himself, a likable and engaging lead who delivers a performance of physical grace and witty personality. Arthur’s interplay with Mera (Amber Heard) is enjoyable, and while their globetrotting raises objections of ‘That was awfully quick’ and ‘How do they know how to do that?’, it also allows them to build a fun relationship. Thanks to its engagement with communication, and the charm of its leads, Aquaman manages to keep its head above water despite the currents of dumbness that threaten to engulf it.
Over the course of A Star Is Born, two new stars take form. The first is a remarkable actress called Lady Gaga, whose musical skills have long been acknowledged but now proves herself an actor of great range, sympathy and relatability. In the titular role, Gaga’s Ally is a talented if initially under-achieving singer and song writer, denied her chance at the big time because of her appearance. When music sensation Jack (Bradley Cooper) discovers Ally and facilitates her musical career, Ally’s explosion onto the music scene echoes that of Gaga onto the big screen, her luminous eyes speaking volumes equal to her extraordinary voice. The second star is director Bradley Cooper, who has clearly learned from the maestros he worked with previously such as David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood. Cooper’s assured and confident direction takes the viewer into the dizzying attention and gnawing isolation of super stardom, as long takes follow Jack and Ally on and off stage, into cars, hotel rooms and houses. These shots carry the viewer with the subjects of the film, the intimacy of the cinematography keeping everyone else at a distance, allowing the viewer to share the lonely adulation of our heroes. Cooper also takes care with his depiction of domesticity, including embarrassments and addiction, recriminations and reconciliations that plague both the stars and the bodies in their orbit. Veering from the triumphant to the devastating with all the verve of a vibrant guitar solo, A Star Is Born combines a heart-breaking love story with powerful music that does not so much tug at the heart as batter it bloody. Of the stars born in this cinematic firmament, some shine brightly while others burn out harshly, treating the viewer to a rich and at times tragic experience of life, love and music.
Director John Landis drew an intriguing comparison between Alfred Hitchcock and a director like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven. His comparison was that when watching Psycho, the viewer could be assured that they were in the hands of a master, but that with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left, one was in the hands of a maniac. While I am yet to see Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), my understanding is that it is a maniacal film. Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria shows little signs of a maniac, and sadly it also lacks mastery. Consisting of six acts with an epilogue, Suspiria 2018 follows the fortunes of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), as she joins an exclusive dance school in Berlin in 1977. After Susie’s acceptance into the school, things rapidly become weirder and weirder. This is the only rapid thing in this languorous and at times laboured psychological horror, that often squanders its effective style with painful (and sometimes painfully) prolonged sequences as well as heavy handed political commentary and a largely redundant parallel plot. The success of a film like this hinges on its creation of an unstable state of mind, enabling the viewer to become drawn into the demented state of the characters. While there are instances of craziness, often achieved through editing with a visceral kick, much of the film that is composed and ordered. This prevents the film from becoming truly disturbing, because there is a constant sense of control. Some of the narrative revelations may come as a surprise, but the languid pace robs the film of tension, and the escalations seem more logical than intensifying. While the performances are fine – especially Tilda Swinton in three roles – and the film is handsomely mounted, ultimately Suspiria is an artifact to be looked at rather than experienced, and as a result feels rather inert.
Upon watching Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Linda LaPlante’s crime series, I was disappointed that it was not set in Boston. As noted in previous posts, Boston has a peculiar effect on filmmakers, and many of the features I saw in Widows also appeared in The Departed, Black Mass and The Equalizer. However, despite the Chicago location, Widows provided the necessary features for a gripping sociological crime thriller. Like the films mentioned above, as well as the LA set Heat and Crash, Widows features multiple characters whose lives interconnect through deals and betrayals. The domestic and the criminal intersect throughout, as an exhilarating heist sequence is intercut both with the preceding events and the aftermath. In these ripple events, we meet the titular widows, including Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon). The film then utilises the conventions of the heist thriller as Veronica brings these women together to solve their shared problems, while also following the fortunes of rival political candidates Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), both of whom have malevolent backers. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s interweaving of the social, the domestic, the criminal and the political lends the film a rich texture, the lives of all these characters detailed and nuanced. Subtexts involving race and gender receive attention as an organic part of the drama, much like McQueen’s previous work that explored sexuality, political prisoners and slavery. Where Widows fumbles slightly is that McQueen’s searing focus, exquisitely captured by regular DOP Sean Bobbitt, ideally suited to intense character studies like Shame and Hunger, is sometimes at odds with the multi-stranded narrative of Widows. The director’s trademark long takes allow for absorption into the cinematic milieu, and at times this is highly effective such as during the opening car chase. At other times, however, abrupt cuts throw the viewer out of the drama, which would be fine if at other times there was less absorption. Ultimately though, this is a minor issue, as Widows is consistently gripping, frequently distressing and thoroughly compelling.
Overlord is an immersive and evocatively bonkers film. Beginning with American paratroopers about to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France just prior to the 1944 Normandy invasion, the viewer is similarly dropped into the midst of combat as our heroes encounter superior forces, lose most of their team and grapple with moral dilemmas. Then things get crazy. As German commandant Wafner (Pilou Asbæk) says, a thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers, and this conceit provides the fuel for fairly furious fireworks. Overlord does not skimp on the tension or gore, its set pieces include infiltration of an enemy stronghold, graphic dissection and some torture, as well as some gunfights, all of which add up to an enjoyably mad couple of hours. The central group of soldiers are an engaging bunch and director Julius Avery delivers some stylistic flair, including a bravura long take as one character fights an enemy, runs out of a building and continues the fight with new methods. It’s not likely to linger in the memory, but it is a worthy addition to the war–horror sub-genre.
The temptation of films set in space is to present a grand scale, taking full advantage to use the large screen to present the vast expanse as a metaphor for isolation, grief or whatever the filmmaker puts in or the viewer takes out. In the case of First Man, director Damien Chazelle goes the other way. From the opening sequence of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying an upper atmospheric craft, First Man is intensely intimate. Close-up shots and handheld cinematography are the order of the day, as Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross take the brilliant choreography and startling editing of Whiplash and La La Land to a wider canvas that is nonetheless exquisitely detailed. This detail is the world of Armstrong, a man internalised after the tragic death of his young daughter. Gosling is magnetic as always, his eyes speaking volumes and tiny gestures indicating his absorption. Equally impressive is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, left behind while Neil trains for the most dangerous and ambitious mission ever undertaken. Yet even when he is with her Neil remains distant, their connection one of deep feelings rather than external expression. This is perhaps the greatest strength of First Man: for all the historical significance of the Moon landing, it is a personal story. Other relationships such as those between Neil and his fellow astronauts as well as between Janet and the other wives are compelling and believable, while the sequences of training express not only the intensity and intimacy of space travel, but also the extraordinary perils, as the lunar module and other craft appear dangerously fragile. Despite knowing how the story works out, this personal space odyssey still takes the viewer to strange new worlds, echoing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece as well as the more recent Gravity and Interstellar. First Man may depict a giant leap, but the true drama here is in the small steps.