2018 was an odd year in film for me, as, while I watched more films than ever — 333 according to Letterboxd — I found slightly fewer than usual that I felt enthusiastic enough to write about, with only 16 highlighted below rather than my usual 20, and many of 2018’s biggest hits leaving me, not cold as such, but just…not significantly moved. It’s perhaps a sign I need to change my approach to how I watch things; we’ll see how 2019 goes.
Enough of the maudlin; here’s 16 films I saw in 2018 that I loved enough to write multiple words about.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coens’ anthology of six Western stories may be better watched one story at a time rather than back to back; by the sixth story I was feeling a little fatigued and that felt unfair to the material. The problem was, each Scruggs story was so good, so perfectly formed and so darkly comic I automatically wanted to watch the next, even when the tone shifted dramatically — the sour, dour Meal Ticket is like a punch to the stomach after the bright laughs of Ballad and Near Algodones. All in all, Scruggs is like eating a tin of Quality Street that doesn’t have any of those horrible Toffee Pennies; even though you know you’ll definitely enjoy them all, it’s still worth pacing yourself.
The fact that Black Panther was released almost begrudgingly in a February slot where most films go to die suggests that Marvel bosses didn’t have much faith there was an audience for an Afrofuturist-themed superhero and culture, directed by Ryan Coogler (previously here in 2015 thanks to Creed) and cast almost exclusively with black actors. The film ended up as one of Marvel’s most successful, and rightly so: Black Panther is thematically rich and tonally varied with solid, stylish action scenes and compelling characterisation. There are some weaknesses, but those largely stem from the straightjacketing of the material into a comfortably-familiar Marvel film template with a faintly anti-climatic climax, and ultimately don’t distract from what is a seismic work with real-world and in-universe ramifications.
I find Martin Freeman to be a most aggravating actor because while almost every performance of his appears to be largely the same, that of a faintly befuddled or exasperated or fusty Little Englander, he’s so frustratingly good at it I can never bring myself to mark him down. So, yes, again, at least the first half hour of this brilliant little zombie flick had me thinking “Why is Tim Canterbury from The Office in a post-apocalyptic Australia now?” but once I’d shaken that off I was solidly on board; Cargo is original, affecting, thrilling and heartbreaking, and it might not have managed it without Freeman, because at the film’s heart is a simple story about a faintly befuddled or exasperated or fusty Little Englander devoting himself to the survival of his child, and really, nobody does this sort of thing better.
Paweł Pawlikowski appeared in my lists before with 2014’s Ida, and Cold War is just as sparsely shot, hauntingly scored, and achingly performed. Set across the 1950s as Communist influences began to consume Poland, describing a turbulent love story between a musical director and a younger singer, Cold War is passionate and poetic and heart-breaking.
I’ve a fondness for that particular sub-genre of science fiction that involves a bit of head-scratching, along the lines of Timecrimes, Triangle and Primer, and The Endless fits right in with those, showing us two dispirited brothers return to the religious cult they grew up in and left ten years ago, and who gradually discover that everything is weirder than they remember. A subdued and subtle and occasionally shocking film.
This direct sequel to the original Halloween perhaps borrows too liberally from it; the film struggled at times to find the line between homage and outright copying and I was occasionally brought out of the film because of it. Fortunately the film eventually found its own voice and delivered one of the most iconic and memorable performances of the year from Jamie Lee Curtis, and gave the perpetually-underused Judy Greer a moment that had people in my audience fist-pumping the air in triumph. Overall, a remarkably solid refresh of a previously-moribund series and is worth seeking out even if you’re not generally a horror fan, and borrowing from the Carpenter original is at least borrowing from one of the all-time horror greats.
Feeling a little at times like a vague offshoot of the John Wick universe, Hotel Artemis is a briskly enjoyable piece that doesn’t do a lot, but does what it does solidly and well. Set in a near-future hotel repurposed as a private hospital for criminals, Artemis is far more of a self-contained character piece than it initially lets on. Jodie Foster is energetic and quirky and generally a joy to watch, and there’s a surprisingly sensitive performance by Dave Bautista, who’s fast become an actor to keep an eye on.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
An unexpectedly enjoyable action comedy with some decent action and pitch-perfect comic turns from the whole adult cast, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released in the UK back in December 2017, turned out to be a decent summer heatwave film; colourful and light and refreshing and asking very little of me. My one quibble is that by focusing on teens-in-adult-bodies comedy, all the character development ended up happening to the adult stars, not the teenagers who bookended the film, and that development was a little undermined because of it; does a teenager really learn to be brave, when during the lesson that teenager has the body of Dwayne Johnson?
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó appeared before in my 2015 highlights with his astonishing White God, a tale of 300 confined dogs breaking free from their pounds and violently turning on the city, and his follow-up, Jupiter’s Moon, blends just the same compelling mix of magical realism, social commentary and uncompromising action as we follow a young Syrian refugee who can inexplicably levitate, a refugee who is found and exploited by a disgraced doctor. Jupiter’s Moon is a busy, rambling piece, but pays off if you’re willing to put the time in; the story is gripping, the cinematography is stunning and some incredible camera work shows off the city of Budapest to its fullest.
I Am Not a Witch
A surreal, comical, mesmerising Zambian witchcraft drama, really like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Captivating performances and stunning cinematography, it’s hard to summarise.
One of the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton’s final films before he died aged 91, Lucky, the story of an unusually long-lived man finally coming to terms with his own mortality, is a perfect send off for the well-loved character actor whose career in film and TV stretched back to 1954. A lightly surreal piece with a great and slightly weird supporting cast — Ed Begley Jr., Beth Grant, Ron Livingston, David Lynch, James Darren, Tom Skerritt — Lucky is a sweet film with just a little bite, and the closing shot brought a tear to my eye. What an incredible career, and what a lovely way to see him off.
A Quiet Place
Realistically, a film I was never going to get the best out of seeing it in a noisy cinema with some chump chomping on popcorn during every tense moment, so I pointedly saved A Quiet Place for home rental, watching in a dark room with surround-sound headphones, and I’m sure I made the right choice. A straightforward sci-fi concept — killer monsters who home in on the faintest of sounds — paired with great work from John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as the parents desperately trying to keep their family safe and silent, I found the ingenious A Quiet Place to be just the right amount of gripping and terrifying. My only complaint is the film isn’t quite as confident as it could be when it came to the silence, with an at-times overbearing soundtrack that distracted from the terror rather than heightened it.
The Shape of Water
I was put off of watching Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water for a long while by the film’s marketing that had a dank, soggy bleakness to it, all fungal greens and industrial greys that seemed perpetually out of step with my mood. I eventually saw it at the end of the year and now I know I would have loved it any time; The Shape of Water is a beautiful and weird fairy tale with touching performances from Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, and typically-excellent work from Doug Jones and Michael Shannon. Central to the film is Alexandre Desplat’s haunting, whimsical, lyrical score that helps give voices to the two mute leads, and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography, so off-putting to me at first, works perfectly in context. A film to revisit, over and over.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
It’s admittedly not saying much, but regardless; this is by far the best Spider-Man film adaptation since Sam Raimi’s still-perfect Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has so much going on I can’t wait to see it again, with its unique visual style that’s busy and brash without ever being incoherent or overwhelming. There’s a great soundtrack and a huge cast of fun characters, none of whom overstay their welcome or crowd out the others.
2016’s Split entirely passed me by; I was dimly aware there was another M. Night Shyamalan film out, but, well, you know. It was only the promising trailers released in 2018 for Glass, the follow-up to both Split and 2000’s Unbreakable, that made me go back to check it out, and I was glad I did; Split may not be the deepest or most sensitive of films, but James McAvoy is clearly having fun with it and the whole thing trots along at a decent pace without ever feeling gratuitous or exploitative. If you’ve been put off of Shyamalan’s films because of — gestures broadly at Shyamalan’s filmography — then definitely still give Split a go. If nothing else, it’s a good introduction to the forthcoming Glass.
If Widows was nothing more than a straightforward heist movie it would still be worth watching for its artfully-constructed story and compelling, slow-burn action, but it’s even more than that, touching on race, gender and class issues, on familial struggles, on capitalism, on politics. Widows is a quietly fierce and furious work and, while everyone involved is on great form, the film belongs mostly to Viola Davis, who’s bottled-up Veronica perpetually fumes at the injustices inflicted on her, and Elizabeth Debicki, who’s Alice is finally able to bloom after an apparent lifetime of repression. Special attention as well should go to Daniel Kaluuya’s chilling turn as the film’s sinister enforcer, so constantly delighted at the violence he inflicts.