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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.

Fallout

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

a-star-is-born still

Eight Ready Players

READY PLAYER ONE

Seven Black Panthers

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Six Watery Shapes

Cena-de-Shape-of-Water

Five Phantom Threads

phantom thread

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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Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Fallout

In the pantheon of spy movies, there have been some impressive set pieces that take place in public bathrooms. Mission: Impossible – Fallout adds to this legacy with an inventive and visceral sequence that incorporates needles, laptops and various methods of unarmed combat with basins, mirrors, pipes and cubicles. The scene is typical of the film as a whole: gripping, visceral and intense, as writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a ruthlessly efficient script and muscular direction. The plot, unusually for this franchise, follows on from the events of the previous instalment. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is haunted by his past missions, especially memories of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and malevolent adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). When the remnants of the Rogue Nation pursue weapons grade plutonium, Ethan and his team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are given the mission (should they choose to accept it) to intervene, and lumbered with CIA observer/assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill). From this set-up, intrigue, disguises and quadruple crosses abound, amid an array of quite astounding set pieces. The M:I franchise has prided itself on ever-escalating action sequences, and in the contemporary era of superhero exploits, it is impressive that this sixth instalment pulls off scenes with heft and physicality without the benefit of superpowers. Curiously, several of these scenes appear to re-stage sequences from previous films. The aforementioned bathroom scene echoes True Lies and Casino Royale, while a mountain climbing sequence recalls M:I II as does a motorbike chase, which is also reminiscent of similar chases in Rogue Nation and Skyfall. Speaking of sky fall, in the movie’s bravura set piece, McQuarrie flexes his stylistic flair, as two characters perform a sky dive in a continuous take, the viewer spiralling and tumbling along with the figures on screen. It is a breathtaking sequence with a genuine sense of peril, and one of the finest action set pieces this year. There is also emotional turmoil to match the physical, as themes of regret, guilt and responsibility pulse throughout the narrative, while the convolutions of the plot ensure that one’s brain is engaged as well as guts, leading to a film that is exhausting on an emotional as much as a physical level. As a result, despite these missions running for over twenty years, I would certainly choose to accept further ones.

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The Mummy

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Alex Kurtzman’s reboot of The Mummy franchise is the first chapter in Universal’s new Dark Universe franchise. While it features a narrative concerning Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) and her attempt to rule the world (what self-respecting supernatural despot would do less?), and the attempts of Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), along with the staff of the mysterious organisation Prodigium, to stop her, the reason for the film’s production is the launch of the Dark Universe, and this is also the source of the film’s major problems. References to other films pepper The Mummy, both echoing Universal’s history of horror and foreshadowing the films we can expect in the future, not to mention random others from Raiders of the Lost Ark to An American Werewolf in London. While there can be some pleasure in spotting the references, the references interrupt the dramatic flow of The Mummy itself. Not that there is much dramatic flow anyway, as screenwriters David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman, working from a screen story by Jon Spaihts, Jenny Lumet and Kurtzman himself, have constructed a distinctly non-united plot, with jarring comedic interludes, a contemporary setting that adds nothing, Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll (see if you can guess where that goes) delivering tedious exposition with a wandering accent, an unconvincing romance between Nick and Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), and various set pieces that lack thrill or menace. The cumulative effect is that the film lacks an identity of its own, feeling like various pieces cobbled together from other films past and, weirdly, future. But worse than all of this is the other part of the franchise title – it is literally too dark. The most fundamental aspect of cinema is showing images, and many a talented filmmaker makes great use of the play of light and shadow even in darkness (Zero Dark Thirty and The Descent are recent examples). Kurtzman, it seems, is no Kathryn Bigelow or Neil Marshall, as there were points during malevolent set pieces in dim locations where I was silently yelling in frustration ‘Turn the light on!’ Add to this the thematic darkness being dreary rather than disturbing, and the film lacks any joy or indeed conviction in its material. It feels deeply mechanical, an exercise in box ticking more than anything else. The irony is that the last time Universal tried to reboot their horror properties, the result was Van Helsing, which was widely slated by critics and audiences, and directed by none other than Stephen Sommers. Now there was someone who knew how to have fun with mummies.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a mixed bag. It delivers grand scale set pieces, multiple intrigues and double-crosses, as well as the obligatory rubber masks and Tom Cruise running, and running, and running again. It also manages to work as an ensemble piece despite Cruise’s star power and the centrality of his Ethan Hunt, as Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, who alongside Cruise has appeared in every MI film to date) and new arrival Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) all contribute equally to the drama. Ilsa goes some way to resolving the gender issues of the previous film, as her role in the drama is not determined by her gender. She also gets the best set piece of the film – a dark knife fight amongst stone columns that conveys the gritty professionalism of experienced killers.

This set piece, however, highlights director Christopher McQuarrie’s apparent discomfort with grand scale action sequences. The opening sequence is spectacular but subsequent set pieces fail to match its impact. An underwater heist followed by a car/motorcycle chase fails to draw the viewer in, despite some visceral angles from DOP Robert Elswit, while bullet-spitting chases are less than immersive. McQuarrie is more comfortable with intimate action, recalling his blistering debut The Way of the Gun. His style therefore seems at odds with the expansive scale of the MI franchise, while his script sometimes veers awkwardly from high tension to quirky humour. There are many good moments in the film, but they are not effectively knitted together, making MIRN less than the sum of its parts.

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Edge of Tomorrow

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The challenge for science fiction film is that viewers have probably seen it before. When I reviewed Looper in 2012, I listed the various films that it references, intentionally or otherwise. A similar familiarity is found in Edge of Tomorrow, which feels like a combination of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Source Code and The Matrix, with a bit of Saving Private Ryan, yet still manages to declare its own identity. This is partly due to director Doug Liman blending the comedic and dramatic elements of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, making the film’s first act very funny. Secondly, Liman gives the film a fast, urgent, visceral energy, placing the viewer in the midst of the action sequences that are both explosive and suspenseful. Tom Cruise’s star image receives a playful treatment, as his character William Cage is initially a hopeless coward who must learn both courage and comradeship. Emily Blunt makes for a convincing badass, her presence as well as the motley squad Cage is drafted into (especially Bill Paxton) resonating with Aliens. But rather than feeling derivative, Edge of Tomorrow evokes these other films with a sense of fun (without being overly referential), inviting the viewer to share its knowledge and understanding. Just as Cage sees each repetition of the same day afresh, so do we see these familiar elements with fresh enjoyment.

2013 Omissions Part Two – After Oblivion

I’m making a point of posting on films that I neglected to earlier in the year, both good and bad. 2013 featured a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction films, demonstrating what can happen after the end of the world. Technically, this is a contradiction, as by definition there cannot be anything afterwards. This has not stopped “post-apocalyptic” being a genre for decades and the subject of many academic studies. Perhaps it is a misnomer, but “post-apocalyptic” is a recognised generic term which has provided such cinematic offerings as The Road (John Hillcoat, 2006), The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers, 2006) Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995) and The Postman (Kevin Costner, 1997). 2013 saw several contributions to the genre, each with their own take on the surprising amount of stuff that happens after the end of the world.

I did not see Elysium, partly because all reports were of disappointment from Neill Blomkamp after the blistering District 9, but also because the previous post-apocalyptic adventures failed to inspire me. Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) offers a standard end-of-the-world scenario – alien invaders bombarded the Earth and left it uninhabitable. Only plucky survivors remain, in this case drone maintenance repair team Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Harper (Andrea Riseborough), and their contact with the evacuees, Sally (Melissa Leo). The film’s production design is convincingly futuristic, sleek and cool. The design includes the comfortable and efficient house-on-mile-high-stilts that the Harpers occupy, a perfect home of the future complete with transparent swimming pool and landing pad for bubble-ship, one of many super cool elements in the film. As one viewer described it, Oblivion shows us the future as designed by Apple, and the sleek surfaces of touchscreens and control panels, drones, house and bubble ship all suggest the synchronism of comfort and efficiency. These are not just technological devices for use, but for pleasure in their use.

Oblivion

Oblivion’s production design also presents a suitably blasted Earth, Iceland providing some spectacular scenery from which the wreckage of the Empire State Building and other structures project like battered skeletons. A buried library provides both a melancholy echo of a lost civilisation and a sinister location for an action set piece, and a multi-levelled underground bunker is a convincing headquarters for a band of freedom fighters. And by way of further contrast, an idyllic valley, untouched by the forces that ravaged the rest of the planet, features trees, a lake and a wooden cabin filled with memorabilia of the past; a refuge for Jack away from high technology and barren landscapes.

The combined effect of this design is to create a palpable possible world, an essential element in future-set science fiction. The production design is the most effective aspect of Oblivion, as it provides this persuasive and involving vision of the future. Post-apocalyptic visions need an element of grimness, due to the extensive death that will have occurred, and the landscape of Iceland provides a suitably sombre setting. However, where Oblivion loses its way is in its exploration of more interesting themes. There comes a point when a major plot point is revealed that proves an effective surprise, and I wanted the film to explore this in more detail, perhaps as a more action-heavy version of Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Unfortunately, this was not the case, and Oblivion failed to explore issues of identity and humanity in favour of just having stuff blow up. I have no problem with stuff blowing up, but action set pieces and philosophical themes are in no way mutually exclusive – just look at any blockbuster by James Cameron or Christopher Nolan. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski included an interesting idea, but then largely abandoned it, making the film an overall disappointment.

Oblivion has its problems, but it is a masterpiece compared to the worst film I saw in 2013 – After Earth. M. Night Shyamalan showed such promise at the turn of the century, as The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and (most of) Signs (2002) demonstrated intelligent, careful, precise filmmaking. The Village had some great moments and a (literally) jaw-dropping twist, but The Happening (2008) proved a tipping point (I’m yet to see Lady in the Water [2006]). As a director, Shyamalan makes great use of atmosphere, location, camera and sound, ratcheting up tension with the best of them. But this can only distract so far from a nonsensical plot that defuses the tension entirely. The plants are angry? Quick, run away from the wind! I have no problem with films being silly – several Marvel productions are preposterous – but if you’re going to be silly have some fun with it. Shyamalan is not funny, and when a film features a daft central premise it only works if delivered with a sense of humour, severely lacking in anything by this director.

This lack of humour is not only apparent but actually the point in After Earth, which makes The Happening look like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). It may not be fair to blame Shyamalan for After Earth’s weaknesses, as the story is credited to Will Smith, but I’m going to blame him anyway, because he co-wrote the screenplay and, more significantly, I’ve seen what he can do and it is crushingly disappointing to see this talent neglected. After Earth revolves around the premise of Rangers, elite soldiers who protect the human race against an undefined foe, being able to ‘ghost’, making themselves invisible to Ursas, creatures created to hunt them. The way in which Rangers ghost is to suppress emotion, mainly fear, which the Ursas can smell. Apparently adrenaline and sweat are not the issue, it is emotion that makes us vulnerable. Consequently, our young hero Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) must learn to be as cold as his father Cypher (Will Smith) in order to survive after their ship crashes.

After Earth

This premise has promise and might have made for an interesting film in another context, perhaps similar to a previous Smithonian (see what I did there?) sci-fi appearance, I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007). But the crash-landing on a planet that turns out to be Earth overwhelms the promising premise, because the film loses focus as it becomes overburdened with trimmings that distract from the central idea. Cypher and Kitai are on Earth, which the human race abandoned due to pollution and over-population, according to Kitai’s opening voiceover. Could this be an environmental film in the vein of Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)? No, because that idea does not reappear. Worse, nothing is made of the fact that they crash on Earth, frankly it could be any hostile planet, unlike Oblivion, which makes a point of Earth of being a memory (and a future) worth fighting for. Therefore, it makes no difference or sense to have the bulk of After Earth’s action take place on Earth, aside from giving the title a weight that the film as a whole lacks. The science makes absolutely no sense, as, according to Cypher, everything on Earth has ‘evolved to hunt humans’, a remarkable achievement seeing as humans abandoned the planet 1000 years ago. What were the animals evolving in response to? Every night Earth’s temperature drops to below freezing and ice coats everything. So why is the planet covered in tropical rainforest? I can forgive plenty of cod science (yes, Star Trek Into Darkness, I mean you), but internal contradictions like tropical environment that goes polar overnight is jarring and annoying. Not as jarring and annoying, however, as a giant bird of prey that suddenly abandons its need for food and sacrifices itself for the main character, purely for plot reasons. Perhaps more could have been made of this development by having Kitai and the bird develop some form of relationship, like Cody and the eagle Marahute in The Rescuers Down Under (Hendel Butoy, Mike Gabriel, 1990), but instead, it’s just a random episode with no further impact.

I tend to focus on concepts and premises, thematic content and how convincingly it is expressed through cinematic means. Normal people like character and plot, and After Earth has problems there as well. The Raige family are hardly harmonious because Cypher is always working, always emotionless and therefore a distant father and husband, while Kitai blames himself for his sister’s death. A moving portrait of a father and son learning to communicate again, perhaps like Real Steel (Shawn Levy, 2011)? No, because Kitai has to become like Cypher to survive, i.e. cold and distant, and Cypher is right to be that way so must not rediscover his humanity. Perhaps this could be challenged by Kitai, who learns to balance his humanity with survival, or even raise questions like one of the year’s unexpected delights, Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013). No, because every time an idea like this is raised, it is abandoned just as quickly, giving the characters no arc of development other than the survival story.

None of this would matter if the survival story was actually dramatic, but Shyamlan fails to inject energy or any major sense of threat beyond individual set pieces. Kitai fleeing a horde of ferocious baboons is fine, as is his scrapping with a sabre-tooth cat, but his encounters with the Ursa are lifeless and dull, mainly because the goal of these battles is for Kitai to become inert and dull. My response to the film consisted of a series of ‘Yes, but what about, oh never mind’; ‘That looks interesting can we go back to, oh never mind’; ‘Why aren’t we dealing with, oh never mind’. Overall, I wish no one had minded enough to make it in the first place. Easily, the turkey of the year.

Mission Impossible: Feminism?

I recently saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and was overall very impressed. A good story, well directed by Brad Bird, excellent action sequences and, unusually for a TOM CRUISE film, a balanced ensemble cast. Despite Cruise being the main attraction and very obviously the star (as demonstrated by the posters that emphasise his name even when a co-star is featured), both the script and the direction give adequate balance to his three co-stars. As William Brandt, Jeremy Renner works well as a rookie with a troubled history, and his developing relationship with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt gives his character direction. In addition, Brandt has some excellent banter with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn, who largely delivers the much-needed comic relief in a movie that needs humour to balance its own ludicrousness. And Paula Patton’s Jane Carter demonstrates that women can do just as well as men in this high-octane environment.

And yet, the role of Carter is problematic. Straightforwardly, she is a strong, dynamic, independent woman, just as tough and smart as the men. She’s clearly an essential part of the team, and indeed a senior member until Hunt comes along. She contributes ideas, plays her part in the mission, kicks ass and fires guns when she needs to. Even when her part is a honey trap, the temptation is clearly a means to an end and she beats the information out of her target rather than seducing it. But as is so often the case with women in “men’s” roles, Carter is “punished”, suffering for perhaps her temerity to enter a man’s world.

It is interesting, however, specifically why Carter suffers. In an early scene, we learn that she was team leader and one of her agents was killed. It is tempting to read her relationship with the downed agent as romantic, but there is equal evidence that it was comradeship, professional partners. Carter’s guilt rides through the whole film, forming her arc as she must come to terms with having lost someone in her command. When she captures the killer of her agent, she warns her colleagues that she must be kept away from the prisoner or will kill them, and in an altercation with the prisoner is clearly driven by violent rage, while Hunt himself remains cool, calm and collected. The mission is later jeopardised by Carter’s loss of emotional control, and in her self-blaming state, she turns to alcohol, but is stopped by Hunt who gets her back on track. So the film’s gender politics can be read as a woman being disciplined by a man who knows how this works.

Conversely, the politics can be read in terms of seniority – Cruise looks his age of late forties and it makes sense that he be schooling his less-experienced colleagues. In addition, it is likely that were Carter male, he would experience the same guilt, same loss of control, violence, and probably turn to drink. Carter is even shot during a gun battle and must grit her teeth through the pain, waiting for the crucial moment when all four agents work together to accomplish the mission. So Carter’s gender is less relevant to her character arc than her professional placement as a highly trained agent who is dealing with problems experienced in the line of duty. But the very fact that her problems would be typical for a male character is demonstrative of patriarchal hegemony. As contemporary, and indeed historical, white male hegemony has a cultural position of the “norm”, to have a woman in Carter’s situation, but to regard the issues as the same for a woman and a man, posits these issues as basic, fundamental, human, without consideration of whether it is different for a woman or a man. Therefore, woman becomes assimilated into the male norm and gender difference is erased.

It is hard to posit that Carter’s gender is actually erased, especially since she is presented as an object of desire for the male gaze and somewhat fetishised, particularly in the film’s Mumbai sequence when she wears a revealing dress and later changes in the car. So the film’s gender representation remains uncertain and uncomfortable. Carter ticks a number of boxes by being the token female character, also of mixed racial background, aesthetically pleasing but still a rounded character with a definite arc. But her characterisation can be largely defined within patriarchal parameters, making it questionable whether she’s really a woman, or more a male agent in drag.