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Review of the Year – Part Four: Best of the Year

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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.

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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.

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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

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Eleven Spider-Verses

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Ten Lady Birds

Lady Bird still

Nine Stars a-birthing

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Eight Ready Players

READY PLAYER ONE

Seven Black Panthers

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Six Watery Shapes

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Five Phantom Threads

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Infinity Four

Infinity War

Three Ebbing Billboards

Mildred

Two Were Never Really Here

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And a Blac-K-k-K-lansman.

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With awards season now upon us, I look forward to the many offerings that 2019 will bring.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

 

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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.

Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Two

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Here’s a shocker: I REALLY liked dinosaurs as a teenager, and still kinda like them now. So the release of Jurassic Park in 1993 felt like a great gift I had been waiting for. It was the first film I saw three times in the cinema on its original theatrical release, and it continues to reward repeat viewings. I remember a conversation with my dad back in ’93 about ‘classic’ films and asked if JP would become one. He said no, because the only thing special about JP was its effects. He may have underestimated the significance of special effects, as Jurassic Park does appear on lists of classic blockbusters, and its shadow stretches over Hollywood cinema like a looming tyrannosaur.

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For me, Jurassic Park was an early stage in my love affair with cinema, as it was like a manifestation of my imagination and, specifically, my dreams. When I was little, I had two memorable nightmares that featured a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a prominent role, and the scenes featuring said beastie in Steven Spielberg’s classic were cathartic because it was fun, while also scary. I have since developed an appreciation of horror cinema, including the (probably superior) Jaws, but Jurassic Park was an early instance of me learning the joy in being scared by a film. Plus my velociraptor impression became a much-loved party trick. Furthermore, it was a magnificent spectacle unlike anything I had seen before. Subsequent spectacles were even more impressive (some of which will be mentioned as these ten days go by), but Jurassic Park will always hold a special place in my heart.

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Ready Player One

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Thrilling filmmaking blends a coming of age drama with adolescent relationships and more pop culture references than you can shake a registered trademark at. This is the smorgasbord of Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, an immersive and bombastically brilliant adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel, scripted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn. In 2045, the world is a dystopia future with nothing to look forward to except the OASIS, a virtual reality environment where one can do and be anything. Within the OASIS, designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has hidden three keys that enable the finder to control the entire virtual world and become incalculably wealthy. Gamers of all types, from the corporate ‘Sixers’ of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to the enigmatic Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and our protagonist Wade Watson/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) compete in extraordinary events where literally anything can and does happen. Motor races feature Back to the Future’s Delorean roaring alongside Tron’s light cycle and the Batmobile, while a Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Kong take swipes at them. Zero gravity discos merge Saturday Night Fever with Aliens; battles to rival The Lord of the Rings sweep across distant planets, where the Iron Giant battles with Mechagodzilla and there is cause to shout ‘It’s fucking Chucky!’ In a bravura sequence, Spielberg pays homage to his mentor Stanley Kubrick with a prolonged sojourn into The Shining. In the midst of this eye-popping Nerdvana, Ready Player One tells a fairly traditional story where a young hero comes of age, learns the value of friendship and connections in the real world (including first love), while evading the nefarious machinations of corporate scumbag Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

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What is especially pleasing about Ready Player One is that it demonstrates Spielberg experimenting and delivering with new technology. Previous efforts with motion capture including The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and The BFG were interesting but lacked a sense of immersion. Here, Spielberg and production designer Adam Stockhausen as well as various effects houses including Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic have crafted a world of virtual environments and extraordinary avatars to match and in some cases exceed, well, Avatar. Long takes propel the viewer through incredible vistas that are uncanny in the best sense – different yet also familiar. The action sequences have a visceral thrill despite their virtual nature, the viewer never forgetting that their surroundings exist in a digital framework but experiencing the rush much like the characters. That is Ready Player One’s greatest achievement: with a cinematic marketplace stuffed with familiarity, the film manages to take a plethora of archetypes and trademarks and deliver something that feels wholly fresh and thoroughly exhilarating. For this, it deserves the highest applause.

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Get Me (the) Darkest Post Phantom Water Bird Outside Dunkirk

In case you’ve been living in a cave, it’s awards season, a time when films are rewarded for being excellent or at least because they tick some subjective boxes about what counts as ‘quality’. Some film fans proclaim their absolute certainty of what should be rewarded, but I prefer to discuss the nominees without the assumption of superiority, although I certainly have my own views. dunkirk-2017-large-pictureI’ve written previously about radical and conservative choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year’s Best Picture nominees are a varied bunch, including typical and not so typical Oscar bait. Two topics that AMPAS loves are World War II and twentieth century American history (which obviously overlap). Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are both concerned with World War II, making them interesting companion pieces if rather obvious award choices. The same is true of The Post, which recounts a battle over freedom of the press. In previous years, the Best Picture gong would most likely go to one of these three, but times are a-changing.

Recent Oscar years have been less predictable and more radical, with mainstream genre fare and provocative subject matter getting a look in. The most radical entries in this year’s race are Get Out, a horror film about American racial politics, and The Shape of Water, a fantasy film mixed with Cold War tensions. Mixed in with these are two coming of age tales, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. Each of these has a distinct selling point: Lady Bird is about American girlhood, a rare enough topic in cinema let alone Oscar hopefuls; Call Me By Your Name is a love story between two men, suggesting that Moonlight’s surprise win last year may have been trailblazing.

Personally, I am torn over what I would like to win. Dunkirk was my favourite film last year, but it is such a safe choice I want something more radical to be named Best Picture. In the current climate of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns, fine films honouring women warrant attention. Lady Bird would be a remarkable winner, but it seems like a fairly safe film that offers no particular challenge. Pleasing though it is to see a film about racial tensions, and indeed a horror film, up for Best Picture, Get Out failed to wow me. The Shape of Water is an exquisite piece of work that tells a story of alienation largely filtered through the figure of a woman, whose sexuality and independence are foregrounded without overemphasis. For these reasons, as well as its supernatural elements, I would like The Shape of Water to pick up Best Picture.

However, there are two more nominees. Phantom Thread’s presence is hard to understand politically – the film is historical which the Academy often likes, but its focus is on a rather abrasive relationship. Perhaps, shock horror, its nomination is because a majority of the Academy membership simply think Phantom Thread is a very well made film. This view could carry it to Best Picture, but I doubt it because, after its success at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to be the lead contender to walk away with Best Picture.

Three Billboards is a somewhat typical contender, as it is a story about ‘America’. However, it is a far from rose-tinted portrait of modern America, as grief, resentment, racism, domestic abuse and terminal illness all jockey for position of primary misery. But, as is so often the case with award magnets, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film of its time. Some pundits argue that a key element to the election of Donald Trump was his regular reference to the ‘forgotten’ people of America. Whether Mr Trump’s concerns are genuine or not, his rhetoric in favour of these supposed ‘forgotten’ people was certainly prominent, and such people are the focus of Three Billboards. With its focus upon blue collar people, largely neglected by advances in technology and infrastructure, living in communities fractured by class and racial tensions, Three Billboards is very much a film about America at its current moment (despite being a largely British production). Furthermore, the film resonates with current debates over gender relations in the film industry and beyond, with Frances McDormand’s Mildred an inspiring and unconventional protagonist. For its insightful and unflinching, yet heartfelt and never mean-spirited capturing of the zeitgeist, it is my prediction that the Oscar for Best Picture will go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred

The Post

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In a world of fake news and government threatening the free press, comes a film about real news and government threatening the fake news. Thus, announces imaginary gravelly voiced trailer man, emerges The Post, Steven Spielberg’s urgent and gripping thriller about the challenges faced by the Washington Post in 1971 over the Pentagon Papers. This extraordinary collection of documents recounted decades of deceitful activity by the US government, and the film skilfully takes the viewer through the drama that ranges from the newsroom to the White House to the homes of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). Spielberg opts for a mobile approach, long tracking shots mirroring the flow of news, especially through the office of the Post where typewriters clack, phones slam and noise never drops below that of a major hubbub. Within this, Bradlee is a constant source of bluster, Hanks delivering a barnstorming performance that would be intimidating and annoying were it not so heartfelt and passionate. Equally passionate but more reserved is Streep’s Graham, her calm contrasting brilliantly with Bradlee’s bombast. Graham’s is the arc of The Post, and the film smartly never overplays this feminist subtext. Minor characters often dismiss Graham because of her gender but rather than emphasising those attitudes, Spielberg concentrates on Graham, placing her narratively and visually at the centre of the drama. She often appears literally and figuratively surrounded by men, all trying to persuade her before she makes her own, carefully considered decision. In one moment after making such a decision, Graham walks through a crowd where women’s faces appear prominently, the film again expressing the significance of woman’s voice without labouring the point. The more malevolent voice of the state, here represented by Richard Nixon whose administration took the Post as well as the New York Times to court over the Pentagon Papers, appears in long shot and behind windows, the President isolated and barking orders even while alternative voices challenge him. This is a key message of The Post – all voices must be heard and neither the state nor powerful individuals can silence them. The contemporary relevance of The Post is obvious, but its strength as a piece of cinema means it is also likely to serve as a long-term reminder of the importance and power of the press.

Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

Manhunter

From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

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