Is there anything worth saying for a feature of this nature that hasn’t been said already? You’ll get your critically acclaimed style lists, full of movies you haven’t heard of, and then you’ll get the ones fuelled solely by fun: so, why not have half and half as Olivia Armstrong (@starcadet96) takes you down the best films of the year?
Venom was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had both in the cinema and online in 2018. It’s also not a good movie. I made that clear in my review of it earlier in the year. The pacing is all over the place, it’s filled with early 2000’s comic book edginess and Tom Hardy spends the entire film looking like he slept in his car. But I genuinely can’t deny the immense amount of joy Venom brought me this year.
From the endless memes, thirst for the alien sludge tongue (and the immense amounts of porn that name of it), Tom Hardy’s entire performance of just doing weird shit for the sake of it, the way in which it could be easily read as a rom-com between a journalistic human disaster and a sentient pile of alien goo, Venom is the pure definition of just kicking back and having a good-natured riff. What helps is despite the endless story, character and tone problems, there’s very little cynicism to Venom. In being produced by a studio that obviously had no faith in it, there was a real sense of just going for broke and hoping it would survive.
And it worked – in spite of the reviews, Venom turned out to be a surprise hit and most people I’ve seen who like it do so for the same reasons as me. It’s stupid, campy, it has Tom Hardy being the absolute most and it’s strangely endearing in spite of itself. I can’t say it’s on the list as a genuinely good film but I’d be remiss not to give a mention to a film that genuinely brought me joy this year, even for unintended reasons. It may be some turd in the wind trash but it’s my turd in the wind trash.
Believe it or not, I’m actually a huge sci-fi fan. Honestly, I’d put it up there as one of my favourite genres. However, when it comes to the sci-fi that grabs me, I usually find myself much more on the philosophical side of asking questions about the nature of our lives instead of detailed explorations of lore, character or world-building. So, I’m less of a Doctor Who or Star Trek fan and a bigger fan of sci-fi films that ask more questions than they do answer them.
Annihilation was that film this year. Taking a simple concept to explore multiple facets of ecology and human reflection, Annihilation is an intelligent, bold and frustratingly intriguing watch. The ending particularly leaves the viewer thinking long after the credits roll and I hugely respect its restraint in not talking down to its audience by explaining what and how you are supposed to feel at all times. One of the more underrated releases this year but definitely the pick for viewers hungry for some brain food.
18. Halloween (2018)
When it comes to Halloween sequels, Halloween (2018) really didn’t have a high standard to live up to. While some people have a soft spot for Halloween II and III, it’s generally agreed that none of the other films in the franchise touch the subtle magic of the original. Until this sequel, which gave us a genuinely great Halloween movie with Michael Myers and Laurie Strode back on top form. It makes enough call-backs to the original to not seem gimmicky and the visuals are striking with a great comeback performance by Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s the sequel fans were truly waiting for.
17. Deadpool 2
While it has some writing issues and some things that could’ve been reworked, I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 2 more than the first. Since Deadpool’s origin story is now out of the way, the sequel gives the chance to do more with his interactions with other characters and it succeeds for the most part.
The jokes are funny, the queer-coding has been upped with many of the characters (our prayers of Negasonic Teenage Warhead getting a girlfriend came true. If only she got more screen-time), the new characters are all fun and memorable and the dramatic moments hit closer to home than the first one for me. Add in a great soundtrack and Deadpool 2 is a thoroughly satisfying trip to the movies.
16. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
As I progress in film studies, I learn more and more that trying to define film in technical terms and tropes is not only obnoxious but counterproductive to how we judge what films have merit and which don’t. For as much as film geeks (speaking as one) love to pretend they have refined tastes and their favourite films are a list of “important” Hitchcock and Tarantino films with a special mention to whichever indie director is being racist this month, film is a visual and personal medium and we have no way of knowing what will personally affect us. As Marie Kondo said; if something sparks joy, it has inherent value. Sometimes we don’t need a long, intellectual explanation of whether a film is “objectively” good or not and the reason for liking it can simply be “it makes me happy”.
This is a convoluted way of saying I had a blast with Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again!. I squealed when Cher showed up for no reason, I enjoyed the cheesy covers of lesser-known ABBA songs, I loved the beautiful Greek landscape, I loved Lily James and the sex-positive, female-centric aspect of the story (even if there’s more than enough continuity errors from the first film) and it’s surprisingly heartfelt ending. It’s dumb, cheesy, silly and fun and I was unabashed in my enjoyment of every minute.
15. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
I love films about films. Whether it’s a ‘based on a true story’ adaptation such as Saving Mr. Banks or The Disaster Artist, or documentaries about the life and work of actors/directors working on iconic or infamous films that even they didn’t know would hold such influence, I adore learning about the creative process. My love for film goes beyond what is just on the screen and finding out about the lives and trials of directors and actors throughout is every bit as fun for me as enjoying the art itself.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead explores the bibliography of Orson Welles, argued by many to be one of the greatest directors who ever lived. However, as the title indicates, he was only truly thought of as such following his death. While everyone around him argued Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made (much to his amusement as he didn’t think much of it) Welles maneuvered the world of cinema with a wry humorous cynicism, willing to break the rules and conventions of film-making and producing work that was lambasted at the time and now regarded as some of the finest innovative cinema ever produced. This film is a wonderful look back on one of the true pioneers of the artistic merit of film.
14. Love, Simon
Love, Simon was ground-breaking for a number of reasons and as I revisit it, I find myself appreciating it more and more. While the plot and style of acting are intentionally over the top in accordance with 2010’s teen comedies, the anxiety and isolation felt by Simon as he struggles to come out to both himself and the people around him is treated seriously and sensitively. Some actors are little too over the top (the head teacher in particular tries to be hip with the kids and talks in a way no head teacher has ever spoken), a few scenes are fairly awkward and Logan Miller’s performance of an intentionally annoying character really makes you want to strangle him, which is probably the sign of a job well done but it doesn’t make the character any more pleasant.
But the core of the story about Simon’s relationships and his terror at everything changing once he comes out makes it stand out from other films of the type. The plot of two teens writing to each other having no idea who the other is a concept that can and has been done with heterosexual couples and films targeted towards teens but the film addresses that these experiences of crushes and not knowing the identity of who you’re crushing on takes on a specific fear for LGBTA+ teenagers. Simon has good parents, nice friends (somewhat) and some people would question why he would feel so trapped about his sexuality. But this is a fear that many LGBTA+ people (myself included) face constantly in our relationships: you could have the most progressive, loving parents and friends possible and there will still always be that corner of raw doubt and fear in the back of your mind. There’s a wonderful scene between Simon and his mother once he is at his lowest point and the words she gives him are the exact words any good parent should give their child in the situation.
It may unfortunately not be the reality for many LGBTA+ people but it’s a perfect example of how things should be. It’s an appreciation for the risk Love, Simon truly was as the first teen gay romantic comedy backed by a major studio. For as much as many like to pretend that LGBTA+ people and teenagers are more accepted now than they have been in the past, the fact remains that many films focusing on LGBTA+ relationships are often independent projects, as many big-name studios are unwilling to risk a large investment in films focusing on LGBTA+ relationships due to the risk of financial loss from casual homophobes (who unfortunately are a large demographic). Additionally, when they are made, many will often receive a higher age rating than a film with the same content focusing on a heterosexual couple. For a film about a gay teenager who is struggling with coming out to explore the anxieties related to it, getting a happy ending with a fairy-tale kiss that isn’t censored or implied and being rated as appropriate for the teenagers it’s targeting is ground-breaking and should be seen as such.
13. The Shape of Water
One of the things I love about Guillermo del Toro’s work is how he tends to have one foot in cold, harsh reality and the other in pure fairy-tale fantasy when making his films. Pan’s Labyrinth was the clearest example of this, with the Alice in Wonderland inspired story taking place against the brutal backdrop of the Spanish Civil war.
However, while Del Toro showcases both the beautiful and the brutal sides of human nature in The Shape of Water, his unabashed romanticism and love of fairy-tale logic and story-telling combines with his compassion for those outcasted by society, especially in 1950s Cold War-era America. The relationship in the film is a metaphorical statement made literal, showing the love that many outcasts hold in their heart. It takes the harshness of its setting and shows it in all its ugliness, just to completely reject it. It is his most personal film to date and also one of his best.
12. Black Panther
Two big Marvel movies this year seem to have audiences spilt down the middle; most people I meet seem to like both but seem to love one while thinking the other was just okay. For some, Black Panther is the best Marvel film of the year and Infinity War is just okay; for others, Infinity War was the film they’d always been waiting for and Black Panther was just another good entry into the Marvel hero canon.
I find myself in the former camp; while I do think Infinity War is a good film, I find more things about it that irritate me the more I think about it whereas Black Panther is just as good the next time as it is the first. The characters are well-drawn and some of the most complex and likable in the MCU so far. While dues are rightfully given to Michael B Jorden’s amazing performance as Killmonger, I also think Chadwick Boseman’s performance of T’Challa’s thematic and emotional arc throughout is more interesting than many fans give it credit for. And of course, Shuri is wonderful. Infinity War is undoubtedly the more ambitious film but I also feel it is more flawed by comparison, while Black Panther utilises its isolated conflict to create more a more satisfying and complete film overall.
11. Paddington 2
Paddington 2 is so unabashed in how genuine and sweet it is, I could swear I felt my teeth falling out at the end. It doesn’t have one hint of cynicism and its simplicity in just making the title character the most likable bear ever seen on screen is enough to melt the stoniest of us. Every actor’s dedication to the quaint and sweet tone the film sets completely sells it. It’s just a lovely film.
10. The Happy Prince
I adore Oscar Wilde and I’ll admit, a lot of reason for this film being on the list is through emotional attachment rather than the logistics or technical aspects of the film. However, I can’t imagine anything that could be truer to his spirit than choosing with your heart rather than your head. Named after his famously sombre fairy tale, The Happy Prince tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s life after the scandal that destroyed his career and eventually his life.
Being his first film as well as playing the title role, this is clearly a personal passion project for Rupert Everett. There are many roles actors can take that can be seen as a blatant Oscar grab, especially if they are a long-respected veteran who haven’t won one yet (Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady are the first to my mind). However, Everett combines the subtle pain with the natural flamboyancy that Wilde was known for as an unabashed and poetic romanticist with a wonderfully forward outlook on life and love, which the world around him cruelly rejected. He was also imperfect. He was selfish, frivolous and frequently took advantage of his friends. But the film consistently highlights that some of his more selfish actions may not have been necessary if he hadn’t lived in the time he did and even respected artists of the time were not immune to the prejudices of his society (if anything, they were heightened due to the public disgrace).
There’s a great line in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (featured above) in which one of the character’s remarks to the Asset “sometimes I think I was born too early or too late for my life”. This line sums up the sheer unfairness of how Oscar Wilde spent his final days and the film highlights the tragedy of Wilde being a prime example of a man born in the wrong time.
9. I Tonya
I’ve always felt Margot Robbie was underrated. Even when the projects she’s in tend to be utter garbage (hello, Suicide Squad), she is usually a bright spot in whatever she stars in and I was waiting for a film that would allow her to show off her range. I, Tonya is that film and I still say she absolutely deserved a best actress nomination for it. There were parts of this film that reminded me of Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster (2002), in which she loses herself so much in the character you forget you’re watching a performance. The rest of the actors are all great, with main players Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney also giving standout performances.
The film ingeniously uses transcript interviews from the real Tonya Harding and her associates, many of which contradict each other, leaving it up to the viewer who to believe and how much of each character you can believe. Instead of demonising or sympathising with Tonya, the film instead smartly asks you to draw your own conclusions, with a fair bit of dark humour thrown in.
8. Won’t You Be My Neighbour
I didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers as a kid. While I was a devotee of many an American children’s show such as Sesame Street and Arthur, being a UK kid largely meant most of my exposure to Mister Rogers came through the internet. I knew he was a kids show host from the 1960s and was intensely beloved by all who grew up with him. His catchphrase “Won’t you be my neighbour” is the title of this one-and-a-half-hour documentary regarding his legacy as the host of one of the longest running children’s shows on PBS Mister Rogers Neighbourhood.
Like other icons such as Bob Ross or Steve Irwin, it seems radical at the time and nowadays for a single person to be so unflinchingly kind yet stoutly progressive. The film covers an incredible moment in television history in which he not only saved funding for public children’s television in front of the US Senate Subcommittee, his words are so powerful the Committee head doubles the amount of funding being cut. His argument that the ethics of kindness and teaching children that their emotions are valid and important is ingrained into the philosophy of how he lived and taught in his life. It’s hard to believe he was every bit as kind when the cameras were turned off but every acquaintance and friend he made testifies as such.
His concern was that children were emotionally intelligent and observant and deserved to be treated as such and the impression he left on the people he grew up with is undeniable. As someone who didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers, I’m not ashamed to say I sniffed and cried almost all the way through.
BlacKKKlansman ties with I, Tonya for being the most well-acted docu-drama of the year. John David Washington and Adam Driver have incredible chemistry in this hard-hitting story that’s so implausible, it’d be impossible to believe if it wasn’t true. Spike Lee has never been one for subtlety but in this day and age, that approach is necessary to convey the parallels of 1970s race relations to modern day, showing how much has changed and how much has not changed while also being engaging as a straight-up great buddy-cop film.
While the film may have comedic moments of just the sheer absurdity of the situation, the story of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan hits hard in its depiction of true events and real mind-sets with an ending that left the cinema I was in so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.
Few movies captured the mood of the year better than Overlord. In the year of rising political tensions and fascism back on the rise, the catharsis of this bombastic, insane gore-fest can’t be overstated. Overlord is the prime example of taking an insane B-movie concept of an American soldier squad going up against mutated Nazi superhuman zombies and running to the moon and back with it, resulting in what can only be described as Inglorious Basterds on acid. It’s gross, disturbing and ridiculously fun, with all the Nazi killing you could ever want. What else do you need in a film?
If there was a list for best cast in a film this year, Widows would be at the top. With performances from acting powerhouses at the top of their game such as Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya and Elizabeth Debicki, Widows is a poetically shot and soberingly empowering film with some of the most well-developed and realised protagonists in any film this year.
Steve McQueen is one of the most uncompromising story-tellers working in directing today and his empathy in which he writes his characters elevates them from a simple heist movie. It’s slick, stylish and a testament to the strength of its cast.
It’s been a surprisingly good year for Nicholas Cage. From his campy yet dramatic performance in the dark comedy Mom and Dad to the pitch-perfect casting of him as Spider Noir from Into the Spider-Verse, his reputation for saying yes to every script he’s offered finally seems to be turning out some good material and Mandy is arguably his best film in years.
Marrying intense emotion and horror with ridiculous bombast, Mandy gives Cage the perfect bonkers premise to really show off his range. Visually, it was one of the most appealing films of the year for me (I’m a sucker for that surreal neon grindhouse aesthetic) and topping it off with a dueling chainsaw is the perfect formula to have me grinning like an idiot the whole way through.
Hereditary is one big gasp of ‘holy shit!’ all the way through. While an excellent film as a whole, the first half is undeniably stronger than the second. I feel the second half could have kept a few more answers in the dark instead feeling the need to explain nearly everything in a rush, as if afraid the audience would have been angry with a more ambiguous conclusion. But it’s still a good second half coming off of an incredible first half. While the latter half is horrific in a more conventional sense (though no less shocking), the first half of Hereditary is horror characterised as a howl of pure despair.
I’ve rarely been so uncomfortable and so upset simply watching a scene of a family eating dinner in silence, knowing the circumstances surrounding it. Hereditary forces you into a purely empathetic state with its characters, with many of their actions and words that would cast them as irredeemable in any other film coming with an understanding of the raw emotional pain every single character is going through under the circumstances. There’s no escaping the confrontation of what happens to them and the intensity of facing these ugly, horrific thoughts and emotions made for some of the best acting in Toni Collette’s career.
Save for my number one pick, it was probably the rawest and visceral experience I had in the cinema in 2018.
2. Into The Spider-Verse
Hands down the best-animated film of the year. What fascinates me about Into the Spider-Verse film is how little I can find wrong with it. One way to identify a successful film is looking at what it aims to achieve and how it accomplishes what it sets out to do. This doesn’t always mean the film is good or pleasant (the majority of early 2000s gross-out comedies aim to disgust and alienate the audience and they succeed. This doesn’t mean they are good films). But considering Into the Spider-Verse aims to adapt a large amount of characters and their universes through the use of multiple animation techniques to create a layered experience, it’s incredible how well they are adapted.
The film manages to tell the story of Miles Morales, keeping the focus on him and having him as the perfect vessel to explore the concept of multiple universes, each with their own spider superhero. Each spider incarnation is so likeable and charming and the animation corresponds with each of their characteristics perfectly. It’s so bright, creative, colourful and fun and easily the best Spiderman film, which is surprisingly a high bar now considering Tom Holland’s excellent reimagining of the character in Spiderman: Homecoming. But Into the Spider-Verse just gets everything right and accomplishes everything it sets out to do, which qualifies it for one of the best films of the year in my book.
There’s a saying that the mark of an impactful film is one that doesn’t leave your mind long after the credits roll. Notably ‘impactful’ doesn’t always translate to good (I couldn’t stop thinking about The Greatest Showman when I saw it but that was more thinking about every single thing wrong with it and how frustrating it was) but it leaves a deep mark on your brain, an impression in long sea of everything you watched in the year. I have not stopped thinking about Suspiria (2018) since I saw it and I’ll probably continue thinking about it for the rest of my life.
A reimagining of Dario Argento’s horror aesthetic 70’s classic, director Luca Guadagnino stated that he based this film more on the feelings he experienced while watching the original rather than a straight remake. The result is a psychedelic explosion of ideas and concepts that better utilise the premise and complexity than the original. The original is a beautiful film but also very straight-forward – it’s true innovation comes from its atmosphere and aesthetic rather than being a tour de force in story or character.
Tilda Swinton’s triple performance not only testifies to her incredible skill but informs of her role in the philosophy of the story once all three parts are considered, matched by Dakota Johnsons subtle but unnerving performance once all about her is revealed. Guadagnino takes the opportunities that the original presents and goes all the way with what it can do, resulting in a final act that had my jaw on the floor and the need for a post-coital cigarette. There is so much explored through the visual storytelling and revealed nature of the characters, resulting in a film both stunningly beautiful, intrinsically layered and cringingly grotesque.
Top it off with Thom Yorke’s amazing score, which may be one of my favourite film scores of all time, and Suspiria is an uncomfortable, uncompromising, challenging and beautiful watch. It is definitely not for everyone but it is almost certainly for me.