Top 6 Films of 2018

So here it is, another end of year list. 2018 has, by all accounts, been a wonderful year for film. For me, there’s been a fantastic spread of indie films – Shirkers, Apostasy, The Tale to name but a couple of my personal favourites. I’m not a fan of ranking films – it’s difficult to compare films which are remarkably different in subject matter, genre, style and substance and there is little point in comparing something like Shape of Water to the Avengers franchise. The films below are the ones which touched me the most in 2018, and are in no specific order.

So without further delay – here are my top six films of 2018 (yes I know it’s usually either 5 or 10 but I’m rebelling. Six is a nice number).

You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay

I’ve been in love with Lynne Ramsay’s film-making since I watched Morvern Callar about five years ago. I found it to be one of the greatest depictions of loneliness, isolation and then resounding hope that I had ever seen. Watching You Were Never Really Here is, in a way, an accompaniment to Morvern Callar – both Morvern and Joe are fundamentally alone in the world and in their own heads.

You Were Never Really Here is an unwavering and confident 90 minute rollercoaster guided by Joaquin Phoenix’s traumatised hit-man Joe – a man whose journey takes turns that neither he nor the audience is expecting. Ramsay’s film is violent and gory, but it never does show for the shock-factor. The violence portrayed is a reflection of Joe’s own mind as he tries to do the right thing.

Favourite Scene: The Lake

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

I went to see Leave No Trace almost by accident. The screening of the film I’d wanted to see was full (Apostasy – also a fantastic film), so instead of going home, I bought a ticket to see Leave No Trace instead. It was the best choice I made all year.

The story of Will (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Tom (Ben Foster) is one wrapped up in the kindness of humans, the lasting effects of PTSD and the way our lives are so intrinsically entwined with nature even if we are not aware of it. Everything about Leave No Trace is perfect – the acting, dialogue, script, cinematography is all on point. Granik’s depiction of this small dysfunctional family trying to hold it together is sensitive and heartbreaking, but it also leaves the audience with something we all desperately need right now – hope.

Read my full review of Leave No Trace here.

The Rider (Chloe Zhao)

Striking a poignant chord between fact and fiction, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider tells the story of real-life cowboy Brady who is struggling to come to terms with his life after a devastating brain injury.

The Rider speaks at length about modern masculinity, friendship and what it means to have a dream. It is a very niche narrative – there’s probably few audiences who have been rising stars in the rodeo circuit – but the emotional gravitas here is something that feels universal.

For me, The Rider’s blend of fiction and fact made it such an interesting watch. It felt unpredictable within it’s own narrative, constantly keeping me guessing about Brady’s mental state and what exactly he would decide to do. It’s an utterly fulfilling ride.

Read my full review of The Rider here

Waru (Ainsley Gardner, Casey Kaa, Ranae Maihi, Awanui Smich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley, Katie Wolfe)

The premise of Waru, and the production behind it, is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Eight Maori women directors individually direct eight separate segments – all in real time – which depict the aftermath of a young child’s death due to neglect and abuse. From the schoolteacher who feels guilt for not noticing the abuse earlier, to funeral mourners – Waru is a deep dive into the effect that death has on a community, and those who are left to pick up the pieces.

Each segment is shot in real time, and in one shot, which makes the technical feat of Waru something that deserves to be watched on that basis alone. However, it’s not just the impressive cinematography that makes Waru feel accomplished – the characters are all incredibly well developed. We are introduced to new characters in each segment, and within a few minutes are already engaged their narrative and emotions.

With it’s realistic depiction of Maori culture to a vibrant conversation on abuse, there’s far more to say about Waru, but perhaps the only thing that needs to be said is: watch it.

Annihilation (Alex Garland)

Annihilation is the only film on this list that I’ve watched twice this year, and I am very close to watching it for a third time. With each re-watch, I notice more and more details that Garland has woven into the backgrounds of scenes, into the dialogue between characters. Annihilation is something to be re-discovered over and over again.

There are a seemingly insurmountable number of ways to read Annihilation. Is it a metaphor for cancer? Is it a take on climate change? Is it a commentary on our deepest desires, identity and the relationships in our lives? It is all of these, and more. Annihilation can read a simple sci-fi film – five brave adventurers exploring the source of a seemingly alien species – or it can be so much more.

Alex Garland has proved himself before with Ex Machina (also one of my favourite films), and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Read my full review here.

*and a bonus number 6 film*

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Phantom Thread is like a fairy-tale. Girl meets (much older) man, they fall in love, man gets annoyed at how loudly girl eats breakfast, man loses his touch for creating beautiful dresses, girl poises man, man likes it, the end.

Much like the fabrics that Daniel Day Lewis’ Woodcock works with, Phantom Thread is exquisite. I was fortunate enough to see it on 60mm projection and every single frame felt alive. Between the gorgeous cinematography and Day Lewis’ and Vicky Krieps’ chemistry – Paul Thomas Anderson has made an instant classic. Phantom Thread is textured, layered and doused in a remarkable black humour that only Anderson can create onscreen.

It’s a film which captures something about the human psyche that so few other films ever manage to. We’ve all got our kinks, and we just need to find someone who can get down with them. Now, where are my mushrooms?

Annihilation: A New Era for Science Fiction?

Alex Garland’s latest feature film, post Ex-Machina, dropped on Netflix last week to varied reviews. Some are calling it incomprehensible, some are calling it a standout sci-fi of our time. It’s been heavily implied by others that Annihilation is the first true Anthropocene sci-fi film. I would argue that there are only really two sci-fi films which closely examine humanity as a part of the geology and history of earth, and the effect we have had on the planet and ourselves. The first one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second would be Annihilation.

The two are not dissimilar. Garland borrows many motifs, scenarios and characteristics from critically acclaimed sci-fi films that have gone before him. Borrows is perhaps a too simple word here – Garland extracts these motifs audiences have come to know so well, and re-purposes them within Annihilation, giving the audience a sense of familiarity and originality at the same time. Before delving into how Annihilation examines the heart of humankind like Kubrick does, it’s interesting to look at the elements that Garland uses from films such as Alien, Contact, Arrival and others, but particularly how he changes them.

The similarities to Alien are instantly noticeable. Ridley Scott’s space-horror sets up a crew, each character with defining characteristics – the working class engineers worried about their paychecks, the introverted scientist (turned android), the terrified and incapable woman, and Ripley herself – the Strong Female Character. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these characters, but they are very clearly defined to fit into a particular category. Garland, initially, does the same. Natalie Portman is Lena, a guilt-ridden scientist and military veteran. We would expect her to be the hothead, due to her military background, but Lena is calm and collected.  Gina Rodriquez’s paramedic Anya is, at first, is the glue which holds the group together but soon finds herself unravelling in the absurdity and confusion of The Shimmer. Josie (Tessa Thompson), the physicist is introverted and shy, speaking far less than the rest of the group. There’s an expectation that Josie will follow the leaders of the group (Ventress and Lena) but Josie eventually makes her own very unique decision, and one that feels like the end of a very complete character arc. In a different way, anthropologist Cass appears to be the guiding voice of reason, a wise character who will continue to support the group until the very end. Of course, Cass is the first of the group to die, leaving the rest of the team in an uneasy tension. 

Finally, Dr Ventress. A psychologist who is leading the group, Dr Ventress has been watching and directing expeditions into the Shimmer since it began. She positions herself away from the group, not joining in with any social activities. It’s notable also that, even when the other women are in life threatening danger, Ventress does not attempt to help them. When Josie is pulled into the lake by an alligator, the other women rally around to pull her out and drag her to safety. Not Ventress. Instead, she watches from the back of the half submerged boating shed. There’s a strong indication from the very beginning that Ventress has a different purpose for this mission – not least because of her cool, emotionally removed manner that Jennifer Jason-Leigh portrays so well. She is not a part of the group, often signified by her physical distance from the others.

This is a typical element of science fiction – the one member of the ‘group’ is not aligned with everyone else. Their mission (as in Alien) may even go against the wellbeing and safety of the rest of the team. Garland strongly introduces this idea with Ventress, but never goes so far as to confirm if this is really the case. Rather than revealing this information, Ventress disappears into the world of The Shimmer, becoming one with it – now unable to communicate any personal desires or missions of her own. Essentially, any purpose or ulterior motive that may have existed, is no longer.

This lack of confirmation ties in with the ambiguity of Annihilation as a whole. The film is told through a flashback – Lena is recounting the events to a fellow scientist in isolation on her return from The Shimmer. We learn, before we have even met them, that many of the group are dead. To the fate of the others, Lena responds that she doesn’t know. This a risky tactic – what will hold the viewer’s attention if they already know how this will end? In Annihilation, however, these early reveals actually help to heighten the ambiguity of what is to come. Lena seems unsure about the order of events, of what happened to her peers and even what happened to her. She is not the strong or confident biologist that we see in the first of the flashbacks – teaching a class, painting her house or consoling her husband. She’s different. How did she become different? What happened in The Shimmer? These are the questions that are unearthed at the beginning of the film. Depending on the reading of the film, it’s possible that none of these questions are ever answered. What is clear, though, is humanity’s own hand in what could be its downfall.

When Lena finally reaches the cavern under the lighthouse, what is assumed to be the heart of The Shimmer, she finds Ventress who has also evolved into part of the alien landscape too. As she struggles to understand the implications of this, the figure turns towards Lena and the two fight. As the entity absorbs a drop of blood from Lena, it creates a duplicate of her which begins to mirror her every move.

The mirroring movements lead Lena to be pinned to the door by her duplicate, who is following Lena’s attempts to escape. It is Lena’s own actions which are bearing down on her, closing the door, it’s Lena’s own inner guilt, inner turmoil which is stopping her from being able to carry on. The duplicate copies all of Lena’s behaviours. It is non-threatening but is dangerous because Lena herself is. Lena, who it is revealed is harbouring guilt for cheating on her husband, is harbouring grief at her husband’s imagined death on the previous mission.  and feels that her affair caused him to take that mission. She views herself as a destroyer – of both her husband and her relationship. In copying her DNA (as we can assume it has done), the alien also copies all of this pain and suffering that Lena is carrying with her. It is Lena herself who is the enemy, her destructive DNA now imprinted in the world of The Shimmer and the alien life within it.

What is perhaps the most important part of Annihilation is the design. The imagery of DNA merging, nature evolving and changing is so integral to understanding how The Shimmer operates, and what that means for the humans within it. Visually, Garland and the design team have created an enticing and beautiful world. Even the parts that are scary or unnerving are laced with things which humanity usually reveres as beautiful, fragile or representative of purity. Unlike many of its predecessors, Annihilation shows the alien space (The Shimmer, the lighthouse etc) to be a place of momentous wonder. It’s filled with colourful flowers, evolved elements of fauna that have spread in beautiful patterns across the area. Even within the swimming pool scene, where the group find the remnants of a previous crew member, has a certain tenderness. The crew member whose DNA is irrevocably intertwined with nature is horrifying, yet also strangely alluring to look at. It feels like art.

Is Annihilation an allegory for how humanity is more destructive of itself than any alien species ever could be? Garland’s film certainly leads us down that path, and portrays this idea more fully and artistically than any sci-fi film that has come before it.