By Nick Milligan
2018 was an even better year for movies than the last, though cinephiles had to once again wade through waist-deep dross and tread into indie territory.
Welcome to the land of micro-budgets, where a younger generation of filmmakers are making their mark. Names like Jeremy Saulnier, S. Craig Zahler and Panos Cosmatos are on the brink of wider recognition – a level that might even see their films widely released in Australian cinemas.
In compiling this annual list for 2018 I sadly note the lack of female directors, which is not deliberate on my behalf. It’s a symptom of the industry. I don’t seek movies based on the gender of the director, simply stories whose elevator pitch tickles my fancy. So, in that sense, I’m indiscriminate. But it’s something I will examine in 2019 (Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is top of my to-watch list for the new year).
However, there are key films here that tell women’s stories and have largely female casts. Annihilation, The Favourite and Suspiria deserved wider recognition (one was released straight to Netflix, one received a brief cinema release and the other had a very limited release in Sydney). There’s work to be done and we all have our say every time we buy a movie ticket – so vote wisely. Support someone other than Marvel and DC, if that’s what you so desire.
Politics aside, I present you with my top 20 films of 2018 – based on Australian cinematic release dates. They’re all recommended. So dive in. Treat yourself.
20. THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
Director: David Lowery
Release date: November 15, 2018
David Lowery follows his impressive experimental film, A Ghost Story, with a far more conventional Hollywood crime caper. Unless Robert Redford pulls a Johnny Farnham, The Old Man & The Gun is to be the legend’s swan song – and it’s an apt send-off. Redford plays career criminal Forrest Tucker, a man that can charm just about anybody – whether it’s the people he robs at gun point or the cop (Casey Affleck) assigned to hunt him down. Redford’s star power, with that mischievous twinkle in those fading blue eyes, is key to the movie’s success, though he’s supported by a luminous Sissy Spacek, and solid support from fellow crims Danny Glover and Tom Waits. Based loosely on a true story, The Old Man & The Gun is imbued with bittersweetness, not just because of Redford’s departure but also the stubbornness of his gentleman anti-hero.
19. FIRST MAN
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release date: October 11, 2018
Relatively young filmmaker Damien Chazelle has not yet made a fully realised masterpiece, but the strength of his work – and impressive ambition – suggests it’s not far away. First Man is the best drama about the space race since Ron Howard’s brilliant 1995 blockbuster Apollo 13, and it is, at times, a white-knuckled exercise in tension. Ryan Gosling’s stoic turn as astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man on the Moon – is frustratingly opaque, his motivations chalked down to internalised, brooding obsession. And this blind doggedness is shared by his fellow astronauts. They’re practically suicidal in their drive to beat Russia to the Moon. The film’s strength, however, are the scenes in which Armstrong is rocketed into the stratosphere in various contraptions comparable to a glorified sardine can. They’re some of the most thrilling cinematic moments in recent memory. Chazelle crams us right in there with Armstrong, drawing your attention to every little nut and bolt, every heat and pressure gauge, every rattling panel – these details leave you sweating.
Director: Ari Aster
Release date: June 7, 2018
Ari Aster’s feature debut proved the arthouse horror hit of 2018, with many critics and geeks alike calling it the year’s scariest movie. With dread-ridden atmospherics that never let up from that opening VFX-filled zoom into a miniature house, the film is visually arresting but thin on ideas. But such is Aster’s craftsmanship behind the camera, and his clever manipulation of dream logic, that you can overcome, slightly, the narrative’s ultimate lack of originality. The film is anchored by an astonishing performance from Toni Collette, and collectively the cast invest enough flesh and blood to make this a suspenseful supernatural family drama. By the third act, Aster has ramped up the fear factor to 11 – and there’s certainly some spine-tingling moments.
17. SMALL TOWN CRIME
Director: Eshom and Ian Nelms
Released: April 4, 2018 (on Netflix)
The Nelms brothers don’t exactly break the mould with their familiar noir outing, Small Town Crime, but this is a damn enjoyable romp. Key to the crime caper’s success is John Hawkes as an alcoholic ex-cop turned gumshoe. He leads a cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Anderson and Robert Forster – a formidable collection of character actors. Small Town Crime as entertainment is hard to fault – it’s sharply written, funny and full of bloody violence, and has all the tried and tested elements of a good page-turner. There’s a killer to hunt, a fallen hero and a chance at redemption. It ticks all the right boxes.
16. HOLD THE DARK
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Release date: September 28, 2018
Jeremy Saulnier has proven himself a must-watch director – but only for those with a cast-iron stomach. He crafts grim narratives that cut straight to the primal heart of humanity. Saulnier’s work balances genre tropes with a literary grasp of subtext, elevating his heavy stories above pure gratuity.
His latest, Hold the Dark, journeys into the harsh and desolate Alaskan wilderness, a place of wolves both literal and metaphorical. A wolf expert and author, Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), answers the plea of young mother Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) to hunt down the wolves that have apparently taken her child. What follows is an icy, bloodthirsty thriller steeped in Native American mysticism. Alexander Skarsgard is at his most terrifying as Medora’s husband, Vernon, a returned military veteran. Saulnier’s direction is relentless and suitably atmospheric, weaving a tale about survival and isolation. It also contains the year’s best police shoot-out.
15. THE POST
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release date: January 11, 2018
The Post captures a crucial moment in the history of journalism. In the context of 2018, with true journalistic integrity on its way to extinction, this makes Steve Spielberg’s superb drama all the more poignant. In 1971, when the Pentagon Papers began to leak into the pages of The New York Times, the American Government moved to threaten prosecution should the paper print the truth – an unprecedented act. The Washington Post bravely ignored the injunction. Served by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, as newspaper editor and publisher respectively, The Post succeeds where other recent newspaper drama Spotlight failed – telling a powerful story without losing sight of cinematic aesthetic. This is both a stirring tale and exquisite-looking picture, handled by a master filmmaker. The Post should be mandatory viewing for all aspiring journalists.
14. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Release date: January 31, 2018
Novelist and filmmaker S. Craig Zahler is an evil genius. His astonishing 2015 directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk, followed a group of men on the American frontier journeying into a hell from which there would almost certainly be no return. The mission: to save a woman in distress. It’s the best Western of the past 10 years.
Now Zahler has made a genre film of a different kind – the prison movie. Thematically, we’re in similar territory. Vince Vaughn is Bradley Thomas (don’t call him Brad), a drug runner who finds himself on the inside. He intends to do his time in a dutiful, well-behaved manner and get out to see his wife and daughter, but circumstances intervene. When you realise the premise of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the words “evil genius” will indeed come to mind. Zahler’s literary background gives him a strong advantage – his dialogue is sharp as hell, both stylised and poetic. Vaughn proves the perfect stoic badass, a reasoned man with plenty of crazy at his disposal. Zahler’s direction is minimalist, not flying into dizzying editing when the the titular brawls take place, allowing the camera to passively capture the choreography – every right hook and broken bone. It’s a lot of fun, but not for the light-hearted. Evil. Genius.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Release date: November 8, 2018
One of the year’s most polarising films was Italian master Luca Guadagnino’s serene and unsettling remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic Suspiria. Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name), a fan of Argento’s now iconic giallo flick, only borrows a small piece of DNA from the beloved original. He’s done away with Argento’s vibrancy, instead using a muted colour palette to evoke West Berlin during the German Autumn of 1977. As in the original, a doe-eyed American girl (Dakota Johnson) arrives at a prestigious ballet school that she soon learnd is run by a coven of witches. That’s where the similarities to the original end, as Guadagnino crafts a rather bleak black comedy about female ascension and ambition. The film’s been accused of being unfunny (not true) and not scary (somewhat true). But there’s still something intoxicating about Guadagnino’s virtuosic style – death scenes are delivered with the same heady energy and eroticism as the dance scenes, and the visceral climax makes the original look like a children’s movie. Johnson has never been finer, or more suitably cast, but it’s Tilda Swinton, in no less than three roles, that steals the show.
12. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Director: Martin McDonagh
Release date: January 1, 2018
Irish brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh are two of the key writer-directors of modern cinema – both producing some of the most revelatory and essential films of the past 10 years. Between them they’ve made one true masterpiece – John Michael McDonagh’s 2014 film Calvary. But Martin has been consistently close – notably with In Bruges and the bloody metafictional comedy Seven Psychopaths. Their background as playwrights is always apparent.
Martin McDonagh’s latest humanist dramedy is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a tale that wrestles with the big themes – grief, life and death. It’s buoyed not only by the power of the writing – from the bleak sense of humour to the moments of stark poignancy – but also a gritty tour de force performance from Frances McDormand, who understandably won an Academy Award for this role. Sam Rockwell also snagged an Oscar for his typically impressive performance, narrowly beating a very worthy Woody Harrelson as the town sheriff.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Release date: December 14, 2018 (via Netflix)
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 space survival blockbuster Gravity confirmed what fans of his 2006 dystopian classic Children of Men already knew – the Mexican director is a visual virtuoso. But while Gravity was a triumph of jaw-dropping technicality, it was emotionally hollow. You cannot, however, level that same accusation against Roma, his awaited follow-up. This time taking tonal cues from the neorealists, Cuarón uses beautifully soft black and white to paint a portrait of Mexico City in the early ’70s. We experience this time through the eyes of Cleo, a gentle and attentive Indigenous Mexican maid and nanny to a wealthy white Spanish family. Cuarón bases Cleo on his own childhood nanny – now a 74-year-old woman. He mined her memories to create this meditative and rewarding piece of cinema.
10. THE FAVOURITE
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Release date: December 26, 2018
After his last two efforts – the almost-good dystopian comedy The Lobster and the painfully idiosyncratic wankfest The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has proven one of the more frustrating filmmakers of recent years. Visually masterful, the aesthetics of both those films outshine their concepts. But for his latest outing, the wonderfully raunchy and vulgar revisionist comedy The Favourite, Lanthimos steps away from his long-held collaboration with co-writer Efthimis Filippou to sink his teeth into an impressive screenplay by Deborah Davis and Australian veteran television writer Tony McNamara. It’s sharply written, rife with sizzling and often hilarious repartee, and its three lead actresses – Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and the genius of Olivia Colman – all have a field day with the material. Lanthimos, too, is in his element between the opulent walls of England’s legendary Jacobean mansion Hatfield House (a location frequently used in cinema), employing sweeping and swirling camera work – even generous use of the extreme wide-angle “fish eye” lens. Lanthimos is clearly drawn to cynical material but The Favourite is also fiendish study in power play. Don’t be surprised if Colman wins an Oscar.
09. SWEET COUNTRY
Director: Warwick Thornton
Release date: January 25, 2018
Nearly a decade since his 2009 breakthrough film, Samson and Delilah, Warwick Thornton returns with a stunning frontier Western that’s as placid as it is bloody. It’s 1929 and Indigenous Australians are enslaved to the households of European settlers. One quiet and gentle man, Sam Kelly, is forced into an act of violence to protect his wife – he shoots a white man in self-defence – and is forced to disappear into the wilderness. The search party includes police Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Sam’s kind and God-fearing owner Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Sweet Country takes us into the heart of Australia, the landscape becoming its own imposing character – and a dangerous one at that. Thornton uses meditative pacing to evoke slow-burning dread, and calls upon the isolating beauty of the Northern Territory. At its centre is the absorbing presence of Hamilton Morris as Kelly – a hero short on words, but not on dignity.
08. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Director: Boots Riley
Release date: November 29, 2018
This year marked the arrival of a fresh voice in the world of cinema, that of rapper and activist Boots Riley. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, shares a plot point with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman – that of a black character impersonating a white man over the phone. In Riley’s film its actor Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) as Cassius “Cash” Green, who wants to move out of his uncle’s garage. So he talks his way into a telemarketing job. At the suggestion of an experienced co-worker (Danny Glover), Green learns to talk like a white man to make more sales. He becomes upwardly mobile, climbing the corporate ladder – but soon he’s seduced by the rewards of capitalism. Full of surprises, Sorry to Bother You escalates into wildly absurdist territory, spurned by the arrival of Armie Hammer’s fast-talking coked-up CEO in the final act. Riley loads the off-the-wall visuals and eccentric narrative with some not-so-subtle themes but, much like Lee with BlacKkKlansman, never allows them to be so heavy handed as to detract from the dazzling comedy. Laugh. Think. It’s up to you.
07. THE SQUARE
Director: Ruben Östland
Release date: March 1, 2018
The Palme D’Or winner at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, The Square is a smartly written and often laugh-out-loud black comedy set amongst the cultured pretence of an eminent Stockholm art museum. Structured episodically, the film follows handsome curator Christian through the trials and tribulations of running the museum, as well as unexpected scenarios that dip ever-so subtly into absurdism. The Square lovingly takes aim at the art world, censorship and political correctness. At a lengthy 151 minutes it’s loaded with memorable scenes, amongst them a superb Tourette syndrome gag and the extraordinary “Monkey-man” sequence – undoubtedly the most bizarre and brilliant cinematic moment of 2018.
Director: Spike Lee
Release date: August 9, 2018
Spike Lee is back to his very best with the year’s most subversive comedy, BlacKkKlansman. Loosely based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer that cleverly infiltrated a chapter of the KKK, this funny and stylish joint from Lee employs some subtle revisionism to biting and hilarious effect. At a time when white supremacy has again reared its ugly head on our televisions, Lee dutifully tackles racism whilst still making an effective buddy comedy. But rarely one to resist a political statement, BlacKkKlansman‘s final moments unleash upon the audience with a searing montage – a reminder that while we can laugh at the efforts of Stallworth and his fellow cops, we’re not as far from the oppression of the 20th century as we would like to believe.
05. THE DEATH OF STALIN
Director: Armando Iannucci
Release date: March 29, 2018
One of the true gems of 2018 was The Death of Stalin. A dark and hilarious political satire, based on a French graphic novel, this delicious farce is set in 1953 around the death of the titular Soviet revolutionary and leader. Stalin’s passing leads to a mad scramble for power, led largely by Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Amongst the brilliant cast is Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin, giving this ensemble cast some serious comedic clout. And these actors paint the town red, bickering and plotting with razor sharp wit and Python-esque moments of arch comedy.
Director: Alex Garland
Release date: March 12, 2018 (on Netflix)
Alex Garland’s anticipated follow-up to the brilliant and claustrophobic sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, was derided by Paramount’s chief financier and producer as being “too complicated” and “too intellectual”. Thankfully Garland and his producer Scott Rudin protected Annihilation, a tense and beautiful sci-fi journey, from inane outside interference. The compromise was that Australian fans would only get to see the movie on Netflix, and not the big screen. But such is life.
Annihilation is, as the Paramount suit suggested, both cerebral and complex and, based on the popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer, tackles the big questions that remain the stomping ground of science fiction. Evolution and existence – indeed, the nature of life itself – are ever-shifting in the landscape of this effective thriller, all building to an abstract ending of which Stanley Kubrick would be proud.
03. THE SHAPE OF WATER
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Release date: January 18, 2018
After 2015’s strangely unsatisfying Crimson Peak, Mexican fantasy director Guillermo Del Toro returns to his very best with the strangely satisfying The Shape of Water. It’s a film for which Del Toro’s elevator pitch to Hollywood’s money handlers must have been a compelling one. And the leap of faith was richly rewarded, with an incredible 13 Academy Award nominations and a return of four wins. Amongst those were Best Director and Best Picture.
Everything about The Shape of Water‘s success, both onscreen and off, is unlikely. A little known leading actress, whose character doesn’t say a word, falls in love with an amphibious man-creature. It’s the sort of love story over which the Creature From the Black Lagoon would surely rub one out. But in the hands of Del Toro, every bit the must-watch auteur, the result is a transfixing Cold War romance thriller – saccharine in its lighter moments and surprisingly bloody in its heavier. The writer-director is also served by a brilliant cast, from the always exceptional Michael Shannon to Sally Hawkins as the mute hero, Octavia Spencer as the loyal friend, Michael Stulhbarg as the moral scientist and Richard Jenkins as the closeted neighbour and confidant.
Del Toro makes a tough elevator pitch look like a no-brainer.
02. FIRST REFORMED
Director: Paul Schrader
Release date: November 8, 2018
The performance of 2018 was surely that of Ethan Hawke in writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This is the story of a man, Reverend Ernst Toller of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, who finds himself in a state of spiritual and existential turmoil. Toller, due to past decisions, is no stranger to sorrow, but still leads his congregation with grace. When approached, he also provides guidance to a young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband, a radical environmentalist, is dealing with angst of his own.
A chain of events – some big, some small – erode Toller’s grip on his faith and he slowly frays. It’s an incredible and mostly internalised performance by Hawke – the best of his impressive career. While he may appear the dutiful servant of God, his inner pain plays out on his face with extreme subtlety. It’s the work of an experienced actor.
First Reformed is Schrader at his most meditative, both in writing and direction, the polar opposite of his previous film, the violent oddball crime thriller Dog Eat Dog. In Toller, Schrader crafts another tortured soul, whose unravelling echoes that of Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of his 1976 screenplay for Taxi Driver.
FILM OF THE YEAR
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Release date: September 21, 2018
We all venture to the movies for different reasons – to laugh, to cry, to scream. Perhaps to learn or be reminded of the goodness of humanity. Perhaps we purely want to escape, to forget the world for two hours and be drawn into the orchestrated reality that cinema provides. Perhaps we want the comfort of a happy ending. Perhaps we want to be jolted or dislocated.
For some film tragics, myself included, we search for something original. Ground-breaking. Something we haven’t seen. This year a Greek-Canadian director – a name you’ll come to know – provided us with such a film.
Mandy, as created by burgeoning cult filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, is an orgy of influences – fans of everything from graphic novels to heavy metal, hard fantasy, Clive Barker and David Lynch, will feel an affinity with this slow-burning yet extraordinarily climactic fever dream. It’s grindhouse envisioned as high art.
Mandy‘s premise is simple and well-trodden – it’s a revenge story. Nicolas Cage is a man avenging the woman he loves after she’s taken by a murderous hippie cult led by a failed musician (sound familiar?). But as shaped through the lens and editing suite of Cosmatos, the presentation is seamless and mesmerising. There is not a single frame, dissolve or creative decision wasted here – Mandy is an absorbing and flawless piece of art, a masterclass in the creation of cinematic reality. From the movie’s grainy opening, played against the dreamy strains of King Crimson’s ‘Starless’, Mandy has you under its spell – a trance-like state from which the dark comedy, ultra-violence, random animation, gorgeous colour grades or even the Cheddar Goblin cannot wake you.
Nicolas Cage has become his own genre and lately has been appearing in low-budget cult flicks that play to his great strengths – melancholic, broken intensity or batshit crazy physicality. In Mandy he gets to do both, transforming from a softly spoken, shell of a man (possibly a war veteran) into a wailing arbiter of destruction.
And as exceptional as Cosmatos’ visuals may be, Mandy is equally served by a breathtaking final score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose aching echoey compositions lift this film into other-worldy greatness.
Check out the Top 20 Movies of 2017.