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?

Thoughts on ‘Leave No Trace’ (Debra Granik, 2018)

An absence of dialogue, an expanse of beautiful outdoor locations, a minimal budget and two actors pulling out every stop to give performances of a lifetime. We are, of course, talking about the latest feature from Debra Granik – Leave No Trace – a film which crept into cinemas a few months ago and has not left the screens or our minds since.

Leave No Trace – dir. Debra Granik

I was lucky enough to see it this week in the cinema, and I’m glad I finally did. Leave No Trace is not a film which needs to be seen on a big screen, but there is something about the hushed atmosphere of a darkened room that meshes so well with the way in which it’s protagonists, Will and Tom, live out their lives.

Ben Foster is Will, a deeply troubled man who has taken to living ‘outside’ of society with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two make camp in a National Park in Portland, venturing into the city only when supplies run low. Will makes the small amount of money they need by selling medicines to other homeless people in the park – others who are veterans like himself. They survive in near silence, Will training Tom in camouflaging to prevent them being found, planting their own food and sleeping in a single tent hidden by oversized green ferns.

Their lives in the park come to a swift end when a jogger notices Tom. Soon, social workers and police are sent to find the two and they are taken away to be questioned. Tom’s age is never specified and whilst swaddled in large coats, scarves and with a lack of nutrition, she could be anywhere between 11 and 16. On questioning her, Tom is advanced for her age, but she is told that she should be enrolled in high school as soon as possible.  Will’s own questioning reveals a deep depression when he cannot answer questions about hope for the future, or whether he often has troubling and disturbing thoughts. From here, the two embark on a journey to try and adapt into new lives – first in a small cabin on farm which grows and sells Christmas trees.

Tom quickly becomes immersed in their new lives – making a new friend and learning how to present bunny rabbits with the local Future Farmers of America Group, one of the happiest moments within the film. Tom’s natural curiosity and interest in animals is stirred but whilst she is settling into this new environment, Will is uneasy. He needs to move on. Leave No Trace follows this pattern throughout – Tom moulding herself to suit any situation she finds herself in, Will unable to stand still.

Leave No Trace is, in many ways, about the nature of a parent-child relationship. What is the primary job of a parent? To protect, to shelter and to nurture your child? It’s easy to see Will as having done all of these, despite not providing any of them. He is categorically a bad father, but he also nurtures Tom’s education, provides her with his own kind of shelter and protects her from a society that he believes is corrupt.

There’s an anxiety present within Leave No Trace about Will’s misplaced rage, and when he questions Tom about the jogger who spotted her in the woods, there’s a moment when it seems Will is going to become aggressive towards Tom. This never happens. Even in his darkest moments, Will is not an outwardly violent man. His actions, however, do have an indirectly violent consequence for Tom – his decision to go on the run again leads her to the brink of death when the two of them get hopelessly lost in the woodland. Will is so desperate to be his daughters protector, that he ends up becoming someone that she needs protecting from.

For Will, everything is backwards. It’s society that is the hostile environment. He has a deep mistrust of the world. Quite deliberately, everyone that Will and Tom meet on their journey reacts only with kindness and compassion. From the social workers, to the truck driver, to the community at the caravan park – every single person treats Will and Tom with warmth. This is directly contradictory to Will’s perception of the world and it is heavily implied that he knows this. PTSD is not that straight forward, knowing a truth doesn’t make it a truth  and Will (for whatever reason) is unable to come to terms with this and make his peace.

Granik’s camera often returns to wide expansive shots of the two characters embedded within the landscape – a shot which returns again at the end of the film, cementing Will’s desire to blend in with his surroundings and simply disappear.  The cinematography echoes the empathy that Granik urges us to feel for these characters – tight two shots and close up’s of Tom and Will’s faces convey the smallest emotion.

Though Leave No Trace is a very small story, focused solely on these two characters and their path in this world, it also seems to be talking about society at large. Everyone the pair meet have their own stories, are broken in their own ways. From the other homeless folks at the National Park, to the camping community in the forest – there is a sense that everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. Tom and Will are no different.