Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

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Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

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Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

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Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

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Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

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Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

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Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

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Ben-Hur: A Remake Too Far?

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Who wore it better? Jack Huston (left) and Charlton Heston (right) as Judah Ben-Hur.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon. Ben-Hur, William Wyler’s iconic biblical epic from 1959, was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film by Fred Niblo, which was a remake of an earlier adaptation from 1907 by Canadian Director Sindey Olcott. Even before the first Ben-Hur picture, Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had previously been adapted into a successful play, and probably a Hugh Jackman musical. The decades since have taught us that remakes are an inevitable fact of life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at least the films we love will be there forever. Despite all this, watching the first trailer for this year’s Ben-Hur felt very different, almost like a personal insult. I was compelled to run through the streets, possibly naked, and wail manically on the horrors of CGI and inappropriate casting decisions. More than anything, I was shocked. Shocked that of all the films in the world, they’d done this to Ben-Hur.

Beloved classics have been remade in the past, and it’s a practice that remains as common as ever. Recent years have brought Robocop, Point Break, Total Recall, Carrie, True Grit, Evil Dead, Oldboy…it goes on and on. But Ben-Hur was a film that felt untouchable. After all, the 1959 version is widely considered among the greatest films of all time, one of only three features to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It’s akin to remaking The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind – films that have been cemented in annals of popular culture, parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Father Ted.

Of course, it’s naïve to assume that anything is sacred in Hollywood, especially if there’s some money to be made. But it’s also important to remember that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing. Many of them have become classics in their own right, even if they don’t replace the original. The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, The Gold Rush, Heat, The Thing, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Departed were all derived from older films. And some remakes might not necessarily be masterpieces, but they don’t have to soil the memory of the first time around; personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), despite De Niro’s occasionally confused southern inflections. Not every “reimaging” is quite as misjudged as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-tread of Psycho.

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Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in Ben-Hur (1959).

So what is it about Ben-Hur that offends me so deeply? The essential problem with remakes is that people often attach a lot of emotional baggage to films that they love, and it doesn’t feel nice when you see those memories being trampled on or replaced, particularly if the remake looks a bit naff. This goes to explain a lot of the vitriol directed towards the first trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters “reboot”; it might not be rational, but cinema means an awful lot more to people than is often sensible.

Regardless of how you feel, remakes certainly aren’t the sort of thing that should be encouraged. When there are so many fresh stories to be told, it’s always disappointing to see the industry reverting to type and pushing out the same material we’ve seen before. However, putting aside my personal attachments, what is it that makes Ben-Hur so disheartening, if not inexcusable?

Fundamentally, it’s really difficult to find any reason to be interested. Directing the project is Timur Bekmambetov, the visionary behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a truly awful film despite its postmodern pretentions) – whereas the 1959 Ben-Hur was helmed by the great William Wyler, a three-time Academy Award winner and the only director of three Best Picture winners, whose catalogue includes Wuthering Heights (1939), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Big Country (1958). The greatest affront to decency, however, is that the trailer appears to be comprised entirely of scenes and characters that were done better almost sixty years ago. I re-watched Ben-Hur (1959) recently as part of a degree module, and despite having seen the film before, I was genuinely taken aback by its spectacle and technical achievement. The famous chariot race remains as exciting and visceral as ever, while the CGI enthused sequence in the new trailer just brought out a tremendous sigh from deep within my soul.

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The nine-minute chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959).

Of course, it’s only a trailer, and there are several months to go until the final product is out – if the Earth was built in seven days, who knows what Bekmambetov can do in five months. But the entire thing simply appears devoid of any respect for what came before it, or any intention of forming its own identity, as if a child reproduced The Mona Lisa with a huge, toothy grin, and plastered it around the art galleries of the world. The most important question one should ask oneself before embarking on anything, particularly if you’re going to spend a lot of money, is why? Watching this trailer, I certainly can’t answer that.

Den of Geek recently published a comprehensive list of films due to receive remakes, and it makes for sobering reading. Whatever comes of these impending updates, whether it’s Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, or even An American Werewolf in London, we may take comfort in the fact that the originals will remain exactly as they are, un-weathered by time and fate. So maybe it’s best to calm down and let the hacks and the money people do their thing; pretenders may come and go, but we’ll always have Ben-Hur.