This week, script editor JOE WILLIAMS – in what is becoming an annual tradition for this newsletter – has very kindly written up a piece on his favourite films of 2018 –
Films of 2018
‘Happy New Year everyone! Firstly, thanks again to Philip for inviting me back again to chatter about my favourite films of the past year. Last time around, I wrote that the medium was in a state of flux, with auteur directors flocking to the small screen and Hollywood besieged by superhero films and reboots/remakes. Twelve months on, little seems to have changed!
The main development, I think, this year has been the increasing presence of high-profile films funded by streaming services, most notably Netflix, to the point where debate has begun over where the line between ‘film’ and ‘TV film’ becomes blurred. To those who cherish seeing new titles on the big screen, it’s a potentially worrying development. I was (and still am) keen to see Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishing ROMA on the big screen but none of the dozen-or-so cinemas near me were screening it. It’s a double-edged sword though because, to Netflix’s credit, they have enabled some of the world’s most exciting directors (living and dead!) to produce and release films on their service. Last year, new films from the likes of Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Gareth Evans, Alex Garland, the Coen Brothers, Duncan Jones, and even Orson Welles have debut on the platform. Still, as I said last year, in the midst of all this there have still been a fair few crackers released in UK cinemas 2018.
At the top of the list is one of the very first films I saw in 2018: Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD. In spite of INHERENT VICE’s messiness (though I’m a big defender of the film, which perfectly captures its madcap source novel) and THE MASTER’s stately chill (having seen it three times, it’s easier to admire than to love) I went in with expectations pretty high. It surpassed all of them and I think it’s almost on a plain with his ‘holy trinity’ of BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD. A deceptively simple story of the romance between a fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his muse (an underrated Vicky Krieps), it’s subtle, beautifully shot, fascinating, and at times achingly moving. Not that he needs any more awards, but it’s a great pity that Day-Lewis was denied an Oscar to Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill. Oldman (much as I love him) did an impersonation; with Day-Lewis, you are seeing a fully-fledged human being. I can’t wait to see what PTA has up his sleeve next.
In a close second is the aforementioned ROMA, a film that single-handedly justifies Netflix’s entry into the film world, even though it screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Clearly an incredibly personal film, it somehow manages to come across as quietly intimate and astonishingly epic, sometimes within the same shot. Like PHANTOM THREAD, you never feel like you’re eating your cultural sprouts while watching it. It’s left-of-centre for sure, but hits you in the gut with its credible and complex characters. It’s the work of a director at the height of his powers and, I think, Cuarón’s best film yet.
The start of the year also brought three top-notch awards contenders: THREE BILLBOARDS…, LADY BIRD, and THE SHAPE OF WATER. While debate perhaps still rages over the character arc centred on a bigoted police officer, McDonagh’s crime drama is still a fierce piece of cinema boosted by sizzling dialogue and two powerhouse performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. With LADY BIRD, Greta Gerwig delivered a charming and, at times, heart-breaking coming-of-age film full of life, wit, and warmth. It’ll be interesting to see her forthcoming take on LITTLE WOMEN. While I preferred both of these films to the eventual Best Picture Oscar-winner, THE SHAPE OF WATER, it’s still one of Guillermo Del Toro’s most poignant and imaginative films. A fairy tale with a modern sensibility.
Perhaps proving that highbrow American cinema isn’t completely dead, 2018 delivered a slew of offbeat and imaginative non-genre titles. My favourites in this realm included: the justly-praised and quietly compelling LEAVE NO TRACE; the utterly bonkers retro revenge thriller MANDY, featuring Nic Cage in his best and ‘Cagiest’ performance in years; the darkly comic and twisty THOROUGHBREDS; Paul Schrader’s tormented FIRST REFORMED; and the truly bizarre and unique MY FRIEND DAHMER, which frames the notorious serial killer’s teenage years in the style of a Wes Anderson film.
This year also delivered two superb and very different horror films. While I’m aware not everyone was on-board with Ari Aster’s supernatural breakthrough HEREDITARY, for me it was a genuinely unsettling and completely unpredictable chiller. I went into it cold and was hooked from start to finish. The same was also true of tremendously suspenseful A QUIET PLACE, a film much-lauded for its atmosphere and brilliantly simple premise (in which survivors have to stay silent to avoid monsters who prey on noise). Famously, people were warned against eating snacks in the cinema in order to preserve its tense ambience and in the screening I went to everyone was compliant. It was a true big-screen experience that I can’t imagine works as well at home. It also marks former OFFICE star John Krasinski as an unlikely director to watch for the future.
Moving into more mainstream territory, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT, by far the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year long. It’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long yet never drags and is stuffed with seemingly dozens of terrific action set-pieces and eye-popping stunts. It’s all held together brilliantly by Cruise, now in his fourth decade as a Hollywood A-lister, delivering what could be his best action film yet. While on the action front, the acclaimed BLACK PANTHER proved to be one of the strongest entries in the Marvel canon, helped significantly by its charismatic and complex villain, Killmonger, played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan. Two very different ‘guilty pleasures’ I’d also like to mention: READY PLAYER ONE and A STAR IS BORN. The former, a joyous retro romp from Spielberg (it’s my favourite of his since CATCH ME IF YOU CAN); the latter, an unexpected delight that is sure to do well in the forthcoming Oscars.
Three animated titles stood out for me this year: COCO, a glorious return-to-form from the increasingly-patchy Pixar featuring eye-popping animation and a touching coming-of-age story at its centre; Aardman’s EARLY MAN, which in spite of its traditional narrative is a frequently-funny and always charming work; and the unexpectedly brilliant SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, a funny, imaginative, visually stunning, and post-modern take of the most covered of all superheroes that somehow manages to be the strongest instalment in its long-running and oft-rebooted saga.
Moving closer to these shores, there were plenty of intriguing British films – though not all of them were set in the UK. Alex Garland’s sophomore Netflix thriller ANNIHILATION was a confident and compelling step-forward for one of sci-fi’s most engaging voices. WIDOWS, while not as weighty as Steve McQueen’s previous films, was still a smart, layered, and suspenseful thriller. FUNNY COW, featuring a terrific lead performance from Maxine Peake as a struggling comedian in the 1970s, mixed hilarity and heartbreak convincingly; while the bleak drama BEAST marks its star Jessie Buckley and director Michael Pearce as big names to watch.
Sadly, I didn’t see as many foreign films as I would have liked to in 2018 (I missed out on THE SQUARE, LOVELESS, SHOPLIFTERS and A FANTASTIC WOMAN), I did manage to catch a few standout titles such as: THE GUILTY, an astonishingly suspenseful and unpredictable crime drama set entirely in a police despatch room; the lush and romantic COLD WAR from Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowksi; and the predictably bonkers CLIMAX from French cinema’s greatest provocateur, Gaspar Noe.
Lastly, I’d like to tip my hat to a few film documentaries that caught my eye this year: MCQUEEN was a harrowing and affecting portrait of the famed and tragic fashion designer that never shied away from his faults; Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD utilised genuinely draw-dropping VFX to bring the real-life trenches of WWI to life in a way that has never been done before; FILMWORKER was a fascinating portrayal of Stanley Kubrick’s long-suffering right-hand man Leon Vitali and a must-see for fans of the master; and, finally, there was AFTER THE SCREAMING STOPS, the hilariously awkward Bros documentary that took the country by storm when it appeared on TV over Christmas. Much has been made (not unfairly) of its SPINAL TAP-like quirkiness yet beneath that there’s a strange sadness to its bizarre heroes that gives the film a strange sense of poignancy. And, yes, it is ridiculous you can’t play conkers in Britain anymore!’
Thank you so much Joe – I have a lot of films to catch up on!
The next newsletter will be on Friday February 8th.
All the best
Jan 25th 2019