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?

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider: Authenticity & Identity

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was released in UK cinemas last week, and I was lucky enough to see a preview of the film, hosted by Birds Eye View. A panel including a brain injury survivor and an equestrian therapy facilitator talked at length, post screening, about the complexities of protagonist Brady’s condition, his role in the world and his identity post injury.

The strange world of The Rider is seen through the eyes of Brady, a rodeo rider and horse trainer. Though scripted, Zhao’s film blurs the lines between fact and fiction in a way that’s reminiscent of Samira Makhalmbaf’s work – in particular The Apple. The two young protagonists of Makhmalbaf’s first feature were really kept captive by their father, and their journey to rehabilitation in the outside world is a genuine journey that they are undertaking. Similarly in Zhao’s The Rider, Zhao follows Brady after a severe head injury sustained from riding the rodeo and films the actuality of his recovery.

Documentary or Fiction?

There is an increasingly thin line between documentary and drama – recently there’s been an influx (Kate Plays Christine etcetc), and Zhao’s film adds to this conversation. Zhao and Brady had formed a friendship prior to his accident, and Zhao had wanted to make a film about Brady’s intimate relationships with the horses he trains – after seeing this connection on a big screen, you can understand why. It wasn’t until after Brady’s accident that Zhao realised the film she wanted to make. It’s almost impossible to ascertain what is scripted or rehearsed in the film, but all of the main characters (particularly Brady) have an authenticity that feels like it can only come from genuine emotion and behaviour.

There is an innate desire for us to know what is ‘real’ and what is fiction – Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View explained that Zhao hadn’t scripted most of the film and simply let these situations play out in front of the camera. Yet Brady and his family have different surnames to their characters, the camera-work is stylised and not reminiscent of traditional documentaries. The nature of putting a camera in front of group of people automatically changes the authenticity and so, by the very definition of filming, no ‘documentaries’ are ever going to be ‘real’. There are degrees of ‘realness’, and there is what the filmmakers chooses to show the audience. Zhao has done just this within The Rider. She chooses to show, very specifically, parts of Brady’s life post accident which make the narrative more interesting. This doesn’t make The Rider any less ‘real’, it means that Zhao is curating the image we see before us. And the image is phenomenal.

“Man-up” – Masculinity in The Rider

Toxic masculinity is a prevalent theme throughout the film, hiding around each and every corner in Brady’s home, at work and particularly at the rodeo. The phrase ‘man up’ (partner up) are used continuously throughout the film – often by Brady’s father or brothers and directed at Brady. The rodeo is a sign of ultimate masculinity and when Brady sustains his injury, he is told that his life will be in danger if he rides again. He attempts several times to ride, but this results in Brady becoming physically sick and developing a clenching reflex in his hand.

The only time that Brady is outwardly emotional is when he is with Apollo or his friend Lane, an ex bull rider who is now paralysed and suffering severe brain damage. It’s heavily implied that these injuries were sustained whilst bull riding, but this is never made explicit. In Lane, Brady can see a mirror image of what is life was and what his life could be if he continues down a path of self destruction, both at the same time.

With both Lane and Apollo, Brady is free to express a side of himself which doesn’t have to be strong, unfeeling or brave. Perhaps it is because these conversations are (in a technical sense) one sided. Lane and Brady communicate but in a limited way – Brady takes the lead in the majority of their exchanges. With Apollo, there is a clear connection but again, Brady is (literally)steering the dialogue.

In both instances, the non-verbal communications are integral to Brady being able to be vulnerable and feel his pain and anxiety about never riding again. During the Q&A I attended, the film was acutely praised by audience and panel alike for it’s depiction of disabled people, the non-verbal communication being a huge part of this. His character has an actual personality and is tangible, unlike many depictions of disable characters who generally treated akin to furniture.

For Brady, his current situation actually goes beyond the expectations of masculinity. Brady’s entire life has orbited around the rodeo and horses. During the Q&A, there was talk that Brady had been sat on a horse at just 15 days old. It’s always been his dream to ride the rodeo, and for a while he was living his dream. Now, if he tries to live it – he will almost certainly damage himself further, and possibly even die. In addition to this, it becomes clear during the film that Brady’s rodeo winnings (and money he made from breaking in horses) are integral to the families upkeep. His father has a gambling problem and seems incapable of caring for his younger sister alone. Letting go of the rodeo also means letting go of financial stability, which in turn is another marker of being a man – the ability to provide for one’s family.

I went into The Rider knowing nothing about the film or it’s narrative. I naively expected a typical Western, with overblown cowboy stereotypes, lassoing and chaps. What I found instead was a near perfect film, one which gently explores the idea of identity – particularly what it means to be a man in a particular context – but also one which explores what it means to be human and to have dreams. The Rider is as majestic as the horses on-screen, and as authentic as the humans it portrays.

The Rider is out in UK cinemas now, and to find out more about Birds Eye View, click here.