toatali’s best films of 2018

At 13 entries, this marks the longest of my lists this year, probably more to do with the fact that I watch a lot more films than I do play games or watch TV. Now, like my other lists, this isn’t ranked, but I do keep a very informal running list of everything I watch on my letterboxd account (https://letterboxd.com/toatali/list/films-in-2018/) so if you really feel like you need to find out if I liked film X or Y more then that’s your sort-of answer.

My traditional disclaimer for films is that this is by UK release date (with one notable exception), so some films that came out in the US in 2017 are on this list. This is to prevent anything from falling through the cracks.

If you didn’t read my Best TV of 2018 list, it’s worth noting before I continue that the way these lists have been done has changed since last year. I’ve ditched ranking the films in any way – I have one ‘best of the year’ but the rest of the ‘runner’s up’ are simply presented in alphabetical order without ranking. I think (and hope) this is the best of both worlds – there’s some competition about which film gets to be the best, but I also don’t have to decide which of two films I liked more when they’re of completely different genres and appeal. I’ve also stopped putting a number limit on how many entries are in each list – it’s just however many I feel like highlighting now. You can also click on the titles of each film to watch a trailer (but given how film trailers are, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it).

So, without further ado;

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Annihilation

I loved director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina back when it came out – it’s a creepy sci-fi thriller that turns on the central question of robotic humanity. As such I was excited when his next film, Annihilation was released on Netflix early in the year. But while Ex Machina turns on one question, Annihilation is almost all questions, all without any clear answers.

That’s all the film ever aims for though. It doesn’t seek to provide any clear explanations for its central metaphors; it never bores the audience with any rational logic behind the mechanisms of ‘The Shimmer’, the steadily growing area of mutating plants and animals that the film’s protagonists find themselves send to explore.

An endless series of questions and metaphors might make the film seem tiring to watch, but Garland gives enough to excite with a simple plot of a journey into and out of the Shimmer; some thrilling and bizarre set-pieces and a cast of simple yet clearly defined characters.

This is certainly a film that I’d recommend watching multiple times, but also one that I’d recommend discussing with others; it seems like one thing on the surface, but the more time you let it sit with you, the more you’ll get out of it.

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Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade is one of the most excruciating films I’ve watched all year. There’s an authenticity to it that makes its story of middle school unpopularity almost unbearable to watch. Director Bo Burnham, most known for his youtube channel and stand-up specials, has so perfectly nailed the young teenage experience that it’s impossible to not see yourself in at least certain aspects of the film’s central character.

What Eighth Grade does so well, though, is to apply that authenticity to the tropes of teen movies. There’s an unpopular girl who fancies the hottest guy in the class but fails to see the guy next to her who’s more on her wavelength, and there’s the lame teacher who tries to be ‘down with the kids’, and there’s the older role model who acts as the aspirational figure. All these elements are in the plot of the film, but Burnham cleverly deconstructs each one just by playing it as reality.

Eighth Grade is also impressively contemporary and its use of social media as a key plot device is cleverly done, because it once again makes the film more grounded in 2018 middle school life while also keeping the themes of the film universal; social media only ever amplifies age-old plots and emotions.

I’ve heard the film described as almost exploitatively cringy in its realism, but I think that’s where its strength is. Eighth Grade is a film about empathy, and to empathise, we have to feel.

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First Reformed

First Reformed is a starkly minimalist film in a lot of aspects; its colours are mostly in a confined range and rather washed out, its framing is a neat 1:33 aspect ratio and each shot has a austere aesthetic to it. But this is in sharp contrast to the depth of First Reformed‘s characters and themes. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller is a fascinating self-martyr of a man; constantly looking for new ways to punish himself in a vague hope of either rekindling his faith or in some way getting closer to God. He believes in a hardcore sacrificial Christianity of the kind he can’t find in the mega-church he belongs to and so seeks in his relationship with Amanda Seyfried’s Mary.

In his struggle, Toller gets caught up in the world of the extreme eco-warrior. It would be a spoiler to divulge too much of the plot, but suffice to say the film’s concerns extend beyond the realm of the purely religious. There’s not a huge amount of subtlety to its environmentalist message, but there shouldn’t be. First Reformed’s interest lies not in trying to spread a moral message, but instead in viewing the interplay between a man looking for self-sacrifice and a cause that’s urgent enough to justify it.

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Game Night

Game Night is a film full of surprises. It’s a surprise that a mainstream comedy film is as tightly plotted and scripted as this; it’s a surprise that a mainstream comedy film has as many clever twists as this; it’s a surprise that a mainstream comedy film has such an amazing tracking shot stuck in the middle of it. Basically, Game Night is everything I don’t expect from a mainstream comedy film.

Indie comedies have for a while been pushing the medium forward with directors like Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and (spoiler for later this list) Boots Riley, but big budget studio comedies with names like Jason Bateman attached have too often been flatly shot improv fests – even when they’re as high concept as something like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters they still rely on the comedians’ improv skills over putting jokes in the actual script. This isn’t to say that directors like Fieg and Apatow can’t or haven’t made great films in the past, but rather that a brilliantly funny and clever high concept comedy like Game Night is all too rare nowadays, making it a welcome treat.

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Lady Bird

Although Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s films together are fun and entertaining, I think their careers apart have done them a favour. Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is brilliant, one of the increasingly rare films to find a good use for Adam Sandler. Gerwig’s Lady Bird, however, is a revelation. By moving the realist dialogue that characterises the two’s work away from a certain class of New Yorkers and into the world of a California high school student, Gerwig is able to touch on ideas that she perhaps couldn’t before.

The sense of trapped, anxious teenage-hood is palpable when watching this film, and like Eighth Grade hits close to home in its stark realism. The film manages to touch on parenthood, class, sex etc without ever feeling cluttered or messy. Instead, it feels funny and sweet and melancholic. It’s really a beautiful, personal little film.

 

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Shirkers

Recently I saw Three Identical Strangers, a documentary about three identical triplets separated at birth who found each other completely coincidentally, and the story of how they uncovered a conspiracy surrounding their birth. The story of Three Identical Strangers is, to put it bluntly, fucking mental. However, in trying to squeeze a personal story out of the story’s central characters, the documentary falters and ultimately comes up flat.

The story of Shirkers, in which director Sandi Tan recounts the story of her missing student film of the same name, is certainly less bizarre than that of Three Identical Strangers, but its success lies much more in the personal. Tan gives a proper examination to her own life and past and allows a lot of criticism to the way she acted during the making of Shirkers, a choice that allows us to get an extremely clear picture of Tan as a person, and one that helps the films smaller plot twists hit harder.

Most importantly, though, there’s a real beauty to Shirkers, which takes most of its visuals from recovered footage of the original Shirkers. That film is already stunning, but the running narration of its creation imbues the footage with a real heart and authenticity that elevates it even further.

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Shoplifters

Hirozaku Kore-eda is a director whose films hadn’t really grabbed me before this one. This year, for example, I also saw his less than stellar The Third Murder, which I found nowhere near as thoughtful as the film thought it was. But in Shoplifters, Kore-eda finally got me by the heartstrings.

Shoplifters is about a family of thieves living in Tokyo, who kidnap a young girl from her abusive family and gradually bring her into their life, which we soon find out isn’t quite as simple as it appears. Reading a literal summary of the film’s plot very much makes it sound like a thriller, but it’s anything but. Rather, Shoplifters is an ode to the idea of family – specifically to the families we make for ourselves. There are currents of bleakness that run through the film; the central family is extremely poor and each member has their own dark secrets, but the overriding feeling is one of a, perhaps melancholy, but very real warmth.

The final half-hour of Shoplifters has rightly gotten a lot of attention for how it drops the floor out from under the audience’s expectations and the family’s lives, but there’s an underappreciation for how necessary the first three-quarters of the film is. Only through Kore-eda’s detailed yet mellow examination of the films characters can that final act hit so hard (and believe me, it does).

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Sorry To Bother You

In my TV list I talked about how the TV comedy space was lacking in inventive visuals, but that’s almost doubly true of the film sphere. So many comedies are blandly shot and never take advantage of the medium of film to convey their comedy. Game Night takes strides in the right direction for a mainstream comedy, but if you want to see creativity in comedy taken to the max, then look no further than Sorry to Bother You, the film debut of rapper Boots Riley.

Like a lot of good satire, Sorry to Bother You is fuelled by anger; here Riley’s anger at the increasingly fucked up capitalist system we’re all trapped in. The anger starts with a wry smile as the film’s protagonist Cassius is slowly sucked into the world of cold calling strangers to sell them encyclopaedias, drawing on Riley’s own time working at a call centre. But as the film progresses, the anger grows wider and more heated, and the story takes more and more turns to the surreal and the Swiftian.

While not all of the twists work, there’s a drive and energy to the whole endeavour that means those faults never ruin the film for more than a few minutes at a time. Even when the third act twist blows up where you might have thought the film was headed, it skilfully ties it all back to that central anger.

Political satire with this much inventive flair is such a rare thing, but I can only hope that Sorry to Bother You is the start of a movement of films like this, or at least more films from Riley himself.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

Like most people, I’ve seen a lot of superheroes on screen this year. But for most of them, my reaction has been one of a shrugged shoulder and a ‘yeah it was alright’. Black Panther may have been important film-making but it was completely unexciting, and Avengers: Infinity War may have been impressive film-making but it too fell into all the same traps as any other Marvel film. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, however, is different.

It’s first different because it’s animated, allowing the film-makers to have a lot more fun with how the film looks. The whole thing has a comic book look to it, and as more Spider-people from various comic book spin-offs come into the film, the styles shift and change, melding together in unusual and exciting ways. If the animation was all Spiderverse had going for it, this would still be enough to set it apart from most superhero films.

However, the ambitious multiverse centred plot, wherein Spider-Man Miles Morales has to try and return a bunch of other Spider-people to their various universes after Kingpin tears a hole in the fabric of space-time, is bizarre and exciting and allows dedicated Spider-Man fans to see their favourite iteration while showing off the stranger side of comic books to people who aren’t fans.

Spider-Man has always been my favourite superhero for a lot of the reasons that other people love him. He’s the everyman superhero, a notion that this film embodies and embraces. It’s great that each iteration of Spider-Man in cinema has had its own charms and strengths (including poor Andrew Garfield), but Into the Spiderverse is by far the best he’s ever been.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers are almost untouchable forces in modern cinema, but I will admit to being a bit worried about early reactions to this TV show turned film. Certain parts of this Western-themed anthology do show signs of having been cut down for film, but it’s surprising how well this works.

Like many of the Coen’s films, this is really about the futility of life – and the West is the perfect backdrop for that; where life is tough and death comes easy. Although the stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs range in tone and style drastically, the ending to each of them always involves death, in some way or another, and this is enough to link them into one cohesive piece with one cohesive message.

(And while I know it’s bad form to rank the stories contained within, I will just say that the titular story is for sure my favourite; wildly entertaining and funny with a perfect injection of darkness within.)

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The Favourite

I’ve only discovered him this year but I think I love Yorgos Lanthimos. Last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer would have probably topped my list had I seen it when it came out. His films are clever, weird and brilliantly directed. This year’s The Favourite is perhaps my least favourite of his films I’ve seen so far, probably because he didn’t write it. As such, with a different director this could have been played as a more traditional political power-struggle thriller. The film takes place in the time of Queen Anne, and focuses on a rivalry between two women in her court who both vie for the Queen’s affections. The script has some oddities in it, but really it’s Lanthimos’ direction that gives it the character to make it stand out.

Lanthimos’ direction and, I should mention, the performances of Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, who all knock it out of the park. The thinly veiled threats of Stone and Weisz never wear out their entertainment and Coleman’s depiction of a childish petulant monarch constantly frustrated by her own power is one to hopefully be awarded and remembered.

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You Were Never Really Here

It was my former art teacher who introduced me to the works of Jonathan Ames, and when I left school he gave me a copy of the novella You Were Never Really Here, in the knowledge it was about to be turned into the newest film by Lynne Ramsey. While he apparently was a little disappointed by the film, I was blown away. You Were Never Really Here is a near perfect 90 minutes of pure character work.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman for a private detective who specialises in finding missing girls. One of those girls is the crux to the story of You Were Never Really Here, as Joe is asked by her father, a senator, to rescue her from a sex trafficking ring. The plot though, is second fiddle to the film’s focus on Joe.

When I first saw the film in the cinema I found it difficult to understand Joaquin’s gruff quiet voice talking, but it ended up not mattering at all. Joe’s psychology is perfectly communicated through Phoenix’s acting and the way the wordless flashbacks delve back into his inner psyche. A film that can communicate the character building of a novel without words is an impressive feat indeed, and You Were Never Really Here pulled it off without even meaning to.

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Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread, the latest film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, is beautiful. If I could, I would hang on my wall framed stills of every shot in this film. But to do so would be to unspool one of the many threads that contribute to the sumptuous aesthetic that defines this film. The score by Johnny Greenwood is another, full of haunting leitmotifs that are constantly rearranged to fit the delicately balanced tonal shifts. The film is at once black comedy and romantic tragedy but it always feels a cohesive whole.

Part of the heavy lifting is of course due to Daniel Day Lewis, who plays Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker who designs gaudy, ugly dresses for extremely rich women. There’s a danger of Woodcock becoming a ‘troubled male genius’ archetype; the film forgiving his inexcusable behaviour as simply a side-effect of his genius, but his dresses are as ridiculed by the film as he is. Woodcock may think of himself as a visionary yet the film treats him as anything but.

The film’s emotional core comes from the relationship between Reynolds and Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. Krieps comes close to overshadowing Day-Lewis in her role as Woodcock’s muse. Neither character is at all admirable; where Reynolds is petty and stuck-up, Alma is petty and selfish. Their love story, then, is unconventional, yet Anderson manages to find the beauty in it. And Phantom Thread‘s beauty is so overpowering that it’s not only my favourite film of this year, but one of my favourite ever films. A true masterpiece.

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