As we withdraw from Christmas and 2018 mercifully draws to a close, Getintothis’ Kieran Donnachie and Nathan Pang look back over a year of film and wonder if we’re all still grappling with a world in motion.
What’s the point of an end of year top ten if it doesn’t tell a tale of it’s year, or at least the one we the writers perceived. What was 2018? Was it a good year? For cinema at least?
If the influx of great horror and an increasingly politicised mainstream cinema is anything to go by, then creatives in the industry still grapple with the fallout of 2016, nationalism, gender politics and class. As with all art, the politics of the day seep into cinema, as either subtext for the critical eye or blunt commentary smacking a point about the collective head of an audience.
The list we’ve settled on is as much shaped by our own thoughts and feelings throughout the year as the films themselves. Steeped in eco-dread? Pondering your place in a stagnant society? Suffering second-hand anxiety for the thousands, if not millions, of displaced people around the world?
Boy do we have the films for you!
So take a peep, and have all hope of a brighter future drained as the rising water levels creep past your ankles. But, be galvanised toward action, big or small!
Well, maybe wait till after New Year’s.
10. The Devil’s Doorway
Amidst a decidedly average selection of horror movies at Manchester’s Grimmfest 2018, The Devil’s Doorway stood out. A found footage joint about priests and possession? Sceptical puts it lightly. But director and writer Aislinn Clarke pulls originality out of an already well-plundered genre.
It’s the 1960s, statues of Mary in an Irish Magdalene Laundry cry blood. The Vatican send two investigators to discover how legitimate these rumours are. So far, so incredibly loaded. But Clarke treats the subject with care, aside from the Catholic Church, for whom she pulls no punches.
The horrific and tragically recent history of Church abuses in Ireland are front and centre here. Clarke’s previous research into the Magdalene Laundries is apparent. Nothing is set dressing for jump scares, but rather the jump scares help digest the societal horrors on show.
The other stand out is where it sits within the sub-genre. Being a period piece sets it before the birth of affordable handheld cameras, the catalyst of found footage. The priests lug around huge film cameras, and we feel the weight of them. Rather than a bloated metaphor for the uncaring journalist or twisted hungers of modern audiences, The Devil’s Doorway deploys the pretend amateur style at it’s best, for immersion and connection with it’s characters.
The film will take some seeking out, but is the best traditional horror of the year. – Kieran Donnachie
9. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig brings her own sense of time and place of 2002’s Sacramento into the not-so-autobiographical character of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, channelled through the reliably great Saoirse Ronan.
A film that feels like it’s slowly finding its plot as Christine is trying to find her future, it becomes clear that all the things Lady Bird wrestles with are ultimately the point. The theme of “love is attention” is told through her love (her awareness) of home as she leaves, her tumultuous relationship with her mother (a terrific Laurie Metcalf), best friend, and the navigating of disappointing teenage boys.
A central character who is as flighty as she is vulnerable, Christine’s world revolves around her in the way it feels at 17, but the central relationship is that of her and her mother.
Metcalf and Ronan play characters who are infinitely closer than they realise, where affection whips into brutal cuts faster than you can keep up with. Neither is always likable, but their unspoken affection maintains unquestioned.
Greta Gerwig’s years long writing process produced 350 pages of material, that ended up being a 90-minute film. Which fits perfectly into her directing style of “like memories”. It skips through events and vignettes often in a flash of two quick shots, jumping from thought to thought. It’s clear there was a life lived before and after those moments, but like the folding of a samurai sword, the portrayal of Lady Bird’s life is compressed and dense, without ever losing substance. – Nathan Pang
If you’ve seen the trailer, this film is exactly what you’d expect. John Cho (David) is on the hunt for his missing daughter (Michelle La) by investigating through her computer usage, as we follow his every mouse click and keystroke. And the gimmick absolutely works.
Directed by former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty in his first feature, he uses the concept to deep dive into an exploration of our modern screen-habits, and how it impacts our real-life relationships, especially in unspoken ways.
From the opening few minutes, it’s clear this film is driven by genuine heart, that is never lost throughout its realistically eclectic computer usage; tabbing back and forth, typing and deleting messages, hesitant clicks and impatient browsing. Props to the editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick for building character and tension through natural screen-habits.
Cho is excellent at what he’s given to do, much of which are “shocked realisation” faces via his webcam half hidden beneath a tab. And yet the film still manages to keep you absolutely centered on his emotional state, whether his camera is still plausibly on or not. At the end of the day, this concept only works if there is a story worth telling with it, and Searching found one. – NP
You’ll be readily forgiven if you passed on this one, though we did talk it up quite a bit. Nicolas Cage in a gory action film? An acquired taste at best. And the film in actuality, even more of an acquired taste.
Bristling with film grain and superb lighting, Mandy is the biggest argument for enjoying film as purely visual. But then on top of this is a throbbing soundtrack that weaves the usual thrumming synths of 80s nostalgia fare, and gristly metal into one of the best scores of the year.
If the substance of the film, Christian cults and a heavy dose of LSD, isn’t to your liking, it’s certainly worth a punt for the atmosphere Mandy exudes from beginning to end. At times an art piece, at others the hammiest of schlock cinema, this melting pot of tone and style was a cult film on arrival. – KD
6. Black Panther
We raved about Black Panther earlier this year, but what made it stand out against the three hundred films that precedes it? It sits among a series that – while the vast majority work, very few truly excel beyond their expected trappings. Funny, exciting, thrilling, engaging, these are completely second hand to Marvel films. And that’s good. Black Panther is playing on a whole other ball game.
Firstly, Wakanda is a dazzlingly rendered world, both visually and narratively, where you can sense history and tradition at every step, and the unreserved Afro-futurist utopia feels completely new to mainstream cinema.
While it’s based in the unbelievably advanced fictional nation of Wakanda, the African-American angle that the villain Killmonger is raised in feels absolutely rooted in a recognisable reality. Bridging that gap means that feels like its celebration of black culture, is of pan-africanism, for both those native to, and not native to Africa. The soundscape, the costumes, the music, the visual and performative ticks that they inhabit all feel of one, an earnestly needed celebration of black culture, in defiance against those in the real world that oppose it.
A major strength of Black Panther is that the entire final battle, a sequence that quite often loses us in other films, (to put it mildly. this writer has fallen asleep in too many climactic battles to count) is completely character driven, and crucially, one that you can emotionally engage in. And not just between the main players, but throughout the vast array of supporting characters too.
We’ve gone this long without mentioning Chadwick Boseman, who does solid work as T’Challa, the titular hero, but is actually the least interesting element of this film that manages to accomplish so many other things, packed into its two hours.
It’s entertaining, emotional, and visually rich in design, colour, history, tradition. The superhero genre itself is incredibly malleable, but Black Panther is the first that feels like it actually transcends the superhero genre. It tells a story that feels unburdened by the MCU, but enriches the universe enormously. – NP
5. Sorry to Bother You
Since Short Term 12, it’s hard not to watch everything Lakeith Stanfield stars in. Thankfully he’s cast more and more, and his part in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is his best to date.
But the film is more than just it’s star, as good as he is. It’s likely the most overtly political film from the most overtly political director on our list. Riley has been rapping for years, largely as a member of The Coup. Take a glance at their music and it’s brimming with an egalitarian message.
This spills over into Sorry to Bother You, an “absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by telemarketing”, at least according to the director himself. Going in expecting the weird and wonderful, the film still manages to shock and surprise with how ridiculous it gets.
Without going into detail (it’s worth finding out yourself), the sillier elements never do detract from the more serious messages of workers rights and the African American experience. It’s certainly a surprisingly strong and unique debut, and one of our more optimistic picks of the year. – KD
Upon hearing they were remaking Suspiria, we let out a little sigh. But, in a year of many a reboot or remake, Suspiria stands tall above all else. Where Dario Argento’s original played within the world of giallo and exploitation cinema, 2018’s version sets its focus on the feminine.
The same basic story ingredients persist, a young American woman arrives at Berlin dance school amid a tragic death. The original’s late reveal of the school being a front for a coven of witches is no longer hidden. It’s a smart decision, given those familiar with the first would know, but also let’s screenwriter Daniel Kajganich explore the characters and story from a different perspective.
This is the second outing for Kajganich, director Luca Guadagnino and central stars Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Like 2015s A Bigger Splash, Suspiria is a sensual film, but never in an exploitative manner. Swinton and Johnson drip in sexual energy, antithetically to its male gaze driven namesake.
Any other year might have seen this topping out the list, with its explorations of post war Berlin, sexuality and femininity ticking all kinds of boxes, and the excellent Thom Yorke score to boot? Why isn’t it at number one you ask? It was a good year in film that’s why! – KD
The most visually dazzling Pixar film yet, Coco is also one of their most thoughtfully told.
Coco follows the journey of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a young aspiring musician, growing up in a family that despises music. Surrounding the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, that celebrates the memories and spiritual journeys of passed loved ones, Miguel is transported into the fantastical realm of the Land of the Dead, Miguel uncovers a story about his family’s past.
It contains many familiar beats that we’ve come to expect from Pixar, but Coco tells a story that is driven by Mexican ideals and beliefs and imagery, and not just used as a backdrop. It actualises the traditions of the Day of the Dead into a vast and immersive afterlife, full of vibrancy and crucially, full of life.
Its message that in death, those lost are not so far away, and the importance of honouring and remembering them can keep them “alive”, are ostensibly told through heady concepts that feel simple. It’s a life-affirming film about death, and a gorgeously emotional tale that matches any of Pixar’s best tearjerkers. – NP
It’s been 5 long years since Alfonso Cuarón last graced our screens with Gravity, and the wait was worth it.
Set in the ‘Colonia Roma’ district of Mexico City, the film follows Cleo, an indigenous maid who works and lives in a white, middle-class household. It’s an intensely personal look at a year in Cleo and this family’s lives, amongst the backdrop of a vast and epic political stage that is churning underneath it.
Not driven by a traditional need for plot, Roma carries you through each vignette by the natural rush of life, and boy, does it feel alive. The film manages to breathe an incredible amount of empathy and intimacy into Cleo’s life, through the mundane, the joys, the tragedies and terrors that occur.
First-time actress Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo) brings a reserved, compassionate and intimate portrayal to this person, based on Cuarón’s own “Cleo” when he grew up. We’re avoiding the word “character” because while there is incredible specificity in the writing and performance, a maid in this position is such a universal figure. Not so familiar in the UK, but across the world, there are millions of Cleo’s, who are dearly loved by a family, especially the children, while being unquestionably second-class. The combination of specificity and universality encompasses each story that Roma chronicles. Even if you don’t recognise this type of person, she is completely empathetically accessible.
Cuarón’s slowly panning camera (he was the cinematographer after his go-to Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable) is omniscient, objective, removed, and yet maintains in absolute harmony with everything that happens on screen. Every beat in every frame feels immaculately planned out, and yet utterly natural at the same time.
There are several sequences (which are, of course, told in single shots) that seem mind-boggling to film, and at least one that will reduce you to tears. “Personal epic” is the term, and we don’t think we’ve ever seen a film like it.
It’s on Netflix now, but if you can get to a cinema, see it there first. – NP
1. First Reformed
The despondent start of this list probably had you worried for us. First Reformed is chiefly to blame.
Calling it a dark drama about a Christian priest sells the film very short. Adding on both Ethan Hawke in the leading role, and Paul Schrader, long time collaborator with Martin Scorsese, as both director and screenwriter still manages to sell it short.
Schrader made his name doing character pieces on brooding, often dangerous, men. There’s plenty of that here. Like Taxi Driver, inspired wholly by 70s nigh-apocalyptic New York, First Reformed is imprinted with our own modern and global apocalypse.
Ethan Hawke’s character, struggling with a loss of faith and grief, begins to counsel a young parishioner. The man is an eco activist, recently released from prison. His fear and terror at the encroaching end becomes the priests, who struggles to answer with hope.
First Reformed’s pertinence, for this writer at least, pushes the film far above any other. How do we answer anxiety, for the big or small things? How do we help others in desperate situations? How do we stop capitalism from killing the planet?
It’s a reality check as well as a film. This is not to say it skates by on this merit alone, great craft is present here as much as any other in the list, perhaps not as idiosyncratic or leftfield, but it is a gorgeous film nonetheless. This film is important, for many reasons, and will continue to be so. You won’t be left with a smile, however.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. – KD