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What am I? Why am I alive? What does it mean to be alive? What is our purpose? Pixar’s fourth (and arguably unnecessary) entry in the Toy Story saga explores these existential questions with characters old and new. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Ham (John Ratzenberger), Slink (Blake Clark), Jesse (Joan Cusack) and Bullsye are joined by Forky (Tony Hale), a toy that new kid Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) made at kindergarten. Consisting of a spork, pipe-cleaners, lolly sticks and stick-on eyes, Forky is simultaneously endearing and creepy, and rapidly becomes hilarious with his insistence that he is trash, until the realisation dawns that he might have another purpose. Parallel to Forky’s awakening is Woody’s need to be essential to Bonnie, as he adjusts to life after Andy.
In the course of answering these questions, Toy Story 4 delivers laughs, excitement and imaginative delights galore, ranging from the menacing ventriloquist dummies and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the returning Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Set pieces in an antiques store and a carnival provide plenty of thrills and spills, and while the film sometimes stretches its own conceit of humans not noticing supposedly inanimate objects moving on their own, there are still creative explanations, the skunk being a particular highlight. It may not quite reach the extraordinary acceptance of mortality displayed in Toy Story 3 or the miraculous joy of the luggage sequence in Toy Story 2, but if this is the final outing for the toys, director Josh Cooley and writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom manage a genuinely surprising, fitting and ultimately moving conclusion.
After my last post’s batch of bad turkey, which certainly gave me indigestion, let’s celebrate what was great in 2018. There are only twelve slots in my (totally arbitrary and subjective) best of the year list; however, there are plenty of good entries as well as honourable mentions. Among these were some unexpected pleasures, including the grim but in places touching social realist drama Obey, and the charming comedy about family and race relations Eaten by Lions.
I caught some other British efforts at the Norwich Film Festival, including some great shorts as well as the features Waiting For You and The Isle. These films were striking in their use of evocative locations, including the south of France and the Scottish islands, as well as offering intriguing stories.
2018 was a good year for black filmmaking. Critical darling Steve McQueen returned with his fourth feature Widows, a heist thriller with sociological smarts to match its stylistic sheen, that dared to have women of colour standing up to patriarchy. Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie used music and location as an intricate and organic part of its story. A great surprise was Blindspotting, that offered thrills and laughs in equal measure, interweaving its politics with its narrative beautifully.
Even better was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a brilliant piece of work that combined a true story with period setting and gripping set pieces. BlacKkKlansman subverted genre expectations and performed a reclamation of cinema through its formal properties, delivering a powerful and contemporary message. The highest profile ‘black film’ was Black Panther. While its racial politics received criticism and there is still a long way to go in terms of equal representation, Marvel demonstrated that a mainstream blockbuster can have a serious engagement with racial politics and isolationism, and also be a huge financial success.
Marvel Studios followed Black Panther with Avengers: Infinity War, a staggeringly ambitious super-powered epic. With ten years and eighteen films behind it, Infinity War balanced its multiple storylines and characters with verve and aplomb. Amidst the colourful fun, Infinity War also performed a sober exploration of power, making it exceptional in the superhero genre and a highlight of the year.
Other superhero exploits came in animated form, as Pixar delivered Incredibles 2. Fans of the original waited fourteen years to revisit the exploits of the Parr/Incredible family, and Brad Bird and his team did not disappoint with an explosive action adventure that engaged with ideas around gender and our relationship with technology. Sony Animation maintained their hold on web-slinging property as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse combined dazzling displays of digital dexterity as well as just the right level of postmodern knowingness, proving that universes stretch just as much as spandex.
Perhaps the year’s biggest thrills came from a mega-star rather than a superhero. After twenty-two years, five previous films and with a star approaching sixty, Mission: Impossible – Fallout was a fabulous continuation of this enduring franchise. Bathroom fights, stolen plutonium, mountain climbing/falling, helicopter chases and a halo jump led to a breathless and exhilarating experience, with genuine emotion giving the film heart to go with its heft.
Other exhilarating experiences came from Ready Player One – the second Spielberg of the year that joyously embraced new technology – and First Man, which delivered a riveting journey into outer space that focused on the rivets themselves. While these films had very different subject matters – dystopian future and the tension between fantasy and reality, historical drama about journeys into grief as well as to the Moon – both featured exquisite levels of detail, every bit as immersive and compelling as each other.
By way of contrast, Cold War was a quintessential ‘art film’ that was involving and enthralling despite its rigid formalism. Stark black and white cinematography, interpersonal and geopolitical concerns, intimate performances and a heartbreaking story united in one of the most emotional yet carefully contained films of the year. Speaking of heartbreak, A Star is Born was an equally uplifting and devastating tale of music and romance, demonstrating that Lady Gaga is a fine actor and Bradley Cooper a fine director. And in one of the year’s strangest and most striking works, Lynne Ramsey delivered You Were Never Really Here, a brilliantly immersive revenge thriller, more about mood and experience than plot and narrative.
Finally, after this preamble, it is time to announce Vincent’s View on the Top Twelve Films of 2018. Therefore, and without further ado:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve lunar landings
Ten Lady Birds
Nine Stars a-birthing
Eight Ready Players
Seven Black Panthers
Six Watery Shapes
Five Phantom Threads
Three Ebbing Billboards
Two Were Never Really Here
And a Blac-K-k-K-lansman.
With awards season now upon us, I look forward to the many offerings that 2019 will bring.
Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
All this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.
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.
Pixar’s follow-up to their 2003 ocean odyssey Finding Nemo fulfills several functions of a sequel. It reunites the central characters of Dory (Ellen Degeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) for another wacky adventure; it expands the fictional world with new environments, characters and situations; it explains Dory’s backstory that was never explored in the original. As a result, Finding Dory fleshes (fishes?) out the overall mythos, introducing the utterly adorable infant Dory (Sloane Murray) and her short term memory loss, as well as the events that led to her meeting Marlin and the events of Finding Nemo. One year after those events, Dory remembers something and sets off to find her family, with Marlin and Nemo along for the tide (sorry). The great strength of Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane’s follow-up is that it is not simply another oceanic search, as the majority of the action takes place at a Marine Life Institute. This environment constitutes a wonderfully diverse obstacle course for our finned friends, as they travel from sea to tank to pool to pipe, with the odd bucket and drinking vessel along the way. Familiar faces reappear such as Mr Ray (Bob Peterson) and Crush (Andrew Stanton), while the institute features a wonderful cavalcade of new characters, including Destiny the myopic whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), Bailey the beluga (Ty Burrell) who fears his echolocation, Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) the rock-jealous sea lions. Much as Dory proved to be the star of Finding Nemo, the breakout star of Finding Dory is Hank the traumatised octopus (Ed O’Neill) (or as Dory points out, septopus). Hank’s changing form creates many of the film’s funniest moments, the relationship between him and Dory growing through the trials and tribulations that they encounter. These trials are sometimes intense and distressing, but Stanton and MacLane never overplay the drama, balancing heart-wrenching instances with many laugh out loud moments. While it may not reach the depths of Pixar’s best, Finding Dory still offers gallons of intelligent fun.
As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.