My top ten films of 2018

Yes, I am late to the party with a ‘best of’ reviews of the films of 2018, but I like to let my thoughts settle a bit first. Reflecting on the past twelve months I think 2018 turned out to be a pretty amazing year at the cinema. Here are some of my favourites.

1. A Quiet Place

For a modern studio horror blockbuster to have the audience go silent from the off and pretty much stay that way throughout is, in this day and age, some kind of miracle. Although writer-director-actor John Krasinkski somehow managed it. He also persuaded his real life wife Emily Blunt to star alongside him, which was a canny bit of decision-making, as their chemistry elevated the film. We really felt their plight as parents desperately trying to protect their children in the face of these unrelenting monsters.

2. Avengers: Infinity War

Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU) had been leading up to this point, this two-part finale, for over a decade now. The pressure on the Russo brothers as directors must have been immense. When it arrived though, this film, with its dozens of characters, came together effortlessly. Not only did the directors manage to juggle all these heroes, giving many some lovely little moments in which to sink their teeth, but also deliver a huge purple CGI bad guy in the form of Thanos (Josh Brolin), and have him be a credible, relatable antagonist. Bravely, even more so than The Empire Strikes Back, Thanos utterly won at the end, leaving our heroes depleted and broken.

3. Mission Impossible: Fallout

How is Tom Cruise still going? How is he still alive? Each mission he accepts as super spy Ethan Hunt just gets bigger and more impossible. And he’s in his 50s now. Honestly, he puts most of us to shame. Here Fallout brings together the last few films much like Bond’s SPECTRE tried to, although does it far better. It probably helped that Cruise brought back director Christopher McQuarrie, (the first to return for a second go at the franchise), as they seem to have a great working relationship. This is also backed up by the fact that, recently, McQuarrie has signed on to direct two more mission films, back to back.

4. I, Tonya

Telling the story of real life skater Tonya Harding, Margot Robbie puts in an outstanding performance in the lead role. The film plays out quite like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, in that it charts the rise and fall of Tonya (like it did with Henry Hill), has freeze frames where the characters break the fourth wall to speak to the audience, and comes complete with a great soundtrack. Robbie is also supported by Sebastian Stan (as Tonya’s husband), who put in a great performance. Although it’s Alison Janney as Tonya’s mother that almost steals the whole thing – or at least the scenes she’s in.

5. Black Panther

Culturally, this movie was hugely significant. It starred almost a complete pan-African cast and featured a superhero of colour as the lead. It had kick ass women (both as warriors and scientists), a cool soundtrack (by Kendrick Lamar), a layered antagonist, and helped expand the MCU beyond just stories set in America (this took place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda). Considering Ryan Coogler as director was in his early 30s and only had a few films under his belt, the end result was an astonishing achievement. Moreover, it was a blast to watch and audiences really cared about the characters.

6. Coco

Coming out almost a year ago (Jan 2018 in the UK) this film told the story of a boy who finds a guitar and gets transported to the land of the dead. He then has to seek out a dead musician in order to return to the land of the living. Now… this is another film by Pixar which will hit you hard in the emotional solar plexus. Much like the first few minutes of Up, or two or three times in Inside Out, every few years Pixar put out a film that becomes an instant classic. This one won two Academy awards – and deservedly so. A word of warning though, if you’ve recently lost a loved one, this will hit you especially hard. You should still watch it though, perhaps it’s even more reason to do so.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Writer-director Martin McDonagh can boast dark comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths as part of his filmography. And whilst they’re both great (In Bruges in particular) they don’t tackle the most weighty of subjects. Then he goes and does Three Billboards (out Jan 2018 in the UK) and it blows us away. Yes it’s dark and yes it’s funny, but it’s so much more than that. It got nominated for seven Academy awards and won two of them, which is not surprising. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell both put in some of the best performances of their careers.

8. Widows

Steve McQueen as a director is astounding. His directorial debut starts with Hunger (2008), then Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and now Widows. Some output. Widows tells the story of a group of wives and girlfriends left to pick up the pieces after their partners all die in a heist gone wrong. It’s a tough, muscular piece that feels a lot like Michael Mann’s Heat. Although it’s not just a straight up crime movie, it juggles weighty themes throughout, mixing complex characters and commentary on societal issues with the action. Plus the cast are strong throughout: Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez – and all put in fantastic performances.

9. Deadpool 2

How does one top the first Deadpool movie? Add Cable, add X-Force, up the comedy, up the action, up the stakes. Introduce Peter. I appreciate a lot of this won’t make sense if you haven’t seen the movie, but if you have even a vague interest in superheroes and comedy, then it should be on your list. Morever, Deadpool as a character sits apart from the rest of the MCU heroes. He breaks the fourth wall, swears a lot, does filthy things. And forcing him to work with more overtly heroic characters like Collosus, or the more cynical ones like Cable just add to the comedy.

10. American Animals

This film is a true story, amazingly, somehow. It tells the tale of a bunch of college kids who decide to steal $12m worth of old books. They’re not criminals, so it all goes horribly wrong. Now this film feels slightly like I, Tonya in that it splices ‘to camera’ interviews of the real life guys into the narrative. This gets mixed together with interviews by two of the actors playing characters; the enthusiastic Warren (Evan Peters) and the reluctant Spencer (Barry Keoghan). Both actors put in convincing performances and the whole thing builds in a way that is hard to believe, were it not, in actual fact, a true story.

Thor: Ragnarok – he’s come a long way, baby

The first Thor came out back in 2011, if you can believe that. And at the time it was a bit of a punt by Marvel who, until this point, had only really – successfully – thrust a decent Iron Man upon the world. Because Captain America: The First Avenger was to come later in 2011; but first the studio had some Aussie beefcake most people hadn’t heard of as the lead, along with a luvvie director (Kenneth Branagh) at the helm, putting together a flick about the God of Thunder.

What could go wrong?
Well, more importantly, what could go right?

Because Hemsworth shocked a lot of us by utterly owning the role and Branagh, considering his lack of experience in the genre, got the tone spot on, delivering action and comedy with verve and dynamism. Plus, the film was a commercial hit, which allowed Marvel to start making bigger plans to introduce a host of other characters and expand the MCU at a more rapid rate. So Thor, along with Iron Man, kinda led the way.

Moreover, if we take the team-up films, aka Avengers and Civil War off the table for a second, standalone films are probably the true measure of the strength of a character, and Thor’s sequel, The Dark World (2013), was solid enough, but perhaps suffered from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.

Yet even an average Marvel film such as this was still a helluva lot better than most blockbusters.

So our God of Thunder weathered the storm and Marvel, as a studio, continued to read from a blueprint that the rest of us, quite frankly (wait for it), marvelled at. Because their quality with every release just kept improving, even with the odd dip, they kept upping their game and pushing the formula, lest it get stale.

This, in turn, has given us wonderful oddities such as Ant-Man and Dr Strange, and the mad, unexpected crowd-pleaser that was Guardians of the Galaxy.

And other directors have seen this, and no doubt become attracted by the prospect of a big budget and the chance to put their own stamp on a Marvel superhero.

Granted, some filmmakers with too singular a vision just couldn’t manage to adhere to the studio’s rules (Edgar Wright), but for those that did (James Gunn, Scott Derrickson) the rewards were that they produced a film audiences and critics loved, which was also a huge hit.

Which leads us to Taika Waititi.

Now for those of that haven’t seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople, get thee to your nearest TV or streaming device and watch it. For it be very funny. And most strange.

Set in New Zealand, it stars Sam Neill and some kid that’s barely acted before, and it’s offbeat and hilarious. Think Flight of the Concords/Mighty Boosh territory with a bit of Thelma and Louise thrown in and you’re halfway there.

This is what Taika brings to Marvel.

Well, that, and a large slice of Flash Gordon with lashings of retro ’80s aesthetic. I mean, the film is pretty darn cool. But in case you were worried it wasn’t cool (or weird) enough, just add more Jeff Goldblum. Or any amount of Jeff Goldblum really.

Because the man has always been about five miles left of normal, and these days he’s ripening as the years go by, like an old fruit left out in the sun. Which is actually rather delightful, as he pretty much steals most scenes.

But I digress. As usual, off topic. Rambling and setting the scene.

Let’s focus on Ragnarok.
Story and timeline wise, this film picks up two years after events in Avengers: Age of Ultron (and around the same time as Civil War and Spider-Man:Homecoming) where Thor has gone off to hunt for infinity stones. He’s introduced in a bravura first sequence involving a fire demon, a scene which rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2′s opener.

It’s kick ass, stirring stuff.

And through events involving Odin (Anthony Hopkins) Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, having a whale of a time), the Goddess of Death, is freed after a long imprisonment.

She immediately sets out to rule Asgard and lay waste to anyone in her path – and it’s up to her baby brother to stop her.

Only problem is, he’s been waylaid on junk planet Sakaar which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he’s forced into combat with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – whom we last saw hightailing it away from earth in a spaceship for reasons only Hulk can answer.

So this predicament means Thor needs help to get off the planet and save his people. Luckily, this comes in the form of a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) whom he finds in self-imposed exile, and, of course, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Plus Hulk. So they form a team (of sorts) to take Hella on.

Basically they’re following Top Gear’s mantra of ‘ambitious but rubbish.’

Now, Marvel films are known for their in-film banter during fight scenes but this is, by some margin, the funniest the studio have put out so far. Yes, more so than Ant-Man, Guardians and any others you care to name. Again, the Taika influence is strongly felt, as he reportedly added a lot of the humour to the script once he came on board.

Hemsworth, too, wanted the tone to be lighter, and he’s clearly demonstrated why being let loose has been a blessing. Yes, the God of Thunder with his hammer and cape is all a bit silly. So why not double down on how mad it is? Additionally, if you were looking for a companion piece in the MCU, Guardian of the Galaxy wouldn’t be a bad bet.

Basically, when things get too serious or preposterous, burst the bubble with a joke.

Works every time.
This is something that DC, for all their progress (by the looks of the Justice League trailers) just don’t get. Superheroes are ridiculous, so let them be.

By and large, this will be the best time you’ll have seeing a Marvel film. Even if you’re not the biggest superhero nerd and have no idea the difference between DC and Marvel or who the Avengers are or anything like that, you’ll still have fun.

It kind of sets the bar pretty high for the forthcoming Black Panther if I’m honest. And though it’s likely that film won’t compete on humour (how can it?) it will probably take the title as the coolest Marvel film so far. From Run the Jewels on the trailer to Black Panther as a character and his homeland of Wakanda, it remains something of an exciting prospect to see how it comes together on screen.

So even without seeing it, I feel confident saying this is going to be a pretty strong year for Marvel.

Captain America: Civil War – review

Let’s make something perfectly clear – or at least less muddy. This film is not an Avengers movie, it’s a Captain America one… inasmuch as he’s the focus and both antagonist and protagonist. But then, so is Tony Stark. So maybe it’s a Captain America versus Iron Man movie, with their respective teams in tow?

In any case, it’s all gotten a bit more serious…. more DC maybe, less Marvel. Perhaps this is right in this instance, for here the plot picks up strands from Steve Rodgers’ prior outings, as well as further mining the depths of Tony Stark’s inner torment, following everything he’s been through; including accidently creating Ultron as force for bad rather than good.

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And so we have a bit of playing against type – or role reversal – in that rebellious playboy Stark supports legislation to make our heroes accountable to the U. N., but Rodgers – a man who you’d safely bet would be on the side of the establishment – is firmly in the opposite camp. Mostly because he wants to protect his friend Bucky – the Winter Soldier who keeps getting into trouble – but also because he feels legislation clips the wings of the Avengers, stopping them from doing what they do best without the need for red tape.

So we have some nice, meaty motivation for our two main dudes, pitting them against each other. Each a titan with his own loyal followers, and so with Civil War we get some old names (Black Widow, Hawkeye), some newer but fairly established ones (War Machine, Falcon, Ant-Man, The Vision, Scarlett Witch) and some fresh blood (Spider-Man, Black Panther).

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They fly, they swoop, they shrink, they grow and they scrap their little heart’s out.

And it’s a blast.

Then, on the periphery of all the infighting we have an actual bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) who goes rather unnoticed for the most part. But he’s not the main focus, so it’s ok. He does the job he needs to do at the times upon which he’s called, but it’s Cap v Iron Man we’ve come to see really… that and the interplay between almost all of Marvel’s superheroes (except Thor and Hulk who’ve gone AWOL and the Guardians of the Galaxy lot) in one giant dust-up, plus a few other skirmishes along the way.

To do this and not give the audience a headache is really quite masterful on the part of the Russo brothers; who are really getting into their stride directing these days.

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That said, there’s a point where the movie is in danger of becoming too po-faced and serious for its own good. Thank God that, at that point, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man turn up to take the edge off most pleasingly.

Lest we forget that Marvel’s strength tends to be in light-hearted banter amid the mayhem, so it’s good that they didn’t go too far down the DC path, past the point of no return at least.

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At the end of the day we all know people in costumes are somewhat ridiculous, so it’s important to burst the bubble at regular intervals – and the final third of the movie moves into much more welcome territory. Overall, it may actually be the best Marvel film yet (I’ve yet to see Ant-Man, but from the scenes in this film it has to be on my ‘to watch’ list in the near future).

And as a final thought, props to the filmmakers for how they’ve portrayed Black Panther. With his cat-like reflexes, sharp claws and black suit he’s got to be up there as one of the coolest superheroes we’ve seen in a while. A solo film following this character would be a pretty savvy choice bet I’d say.

Roll on the next one…

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