Once again, the year in popular film has been a little underwhelming – with a few exceptions. 2018 has brought to our screens the usual plethora of biopics and films based on true stories, big-budget entries in seemingly endlessly proliferating franchise series, sophomoric indie comedy-dramas and some solid, if minor, genre films. And the year isn’t even over yet.
Probably the most notable thing about 2018 was the box-office success of big-budget franchise films and sequels, including films I have no intention of seeing (Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Mama Mia! Here We Go Again, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, to name a few) and some still to be seen that look a little more promising (Creed II, Mission: Impossible – Fallout and The Predator, for example).
Here, then, are my top five of the year, some of the more notable disappointments, and a few I am eagerly anticipating.
Luca Guadagnino directed one of the best films of 2017, the elegant, beautifully realised, coming of age film Call Me By Your Name. His remake of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece of 1977 is similarly exceptional. As with Argento’s film, the setting is an elite German dance academy run by a coven of witches, but whereas Argento’s Germany is a phantasmagoric, expressionistic nightmare-scape, Guadagnino sets his film in a historically acute Berlin, against the backdrop of the actions of the Baader-Meinhof group. The narrative follows the descent of American dance ingenue Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) as she realises things are not what they seem at the academy. The film is punctuated with genuinely terrifying moments – the witches are of the scary, rather than Charmed, variety – but it mostly burns along slowly, inviting the viewer to let its hypnotic images and sounds wash over her. The tension then explodes in the final section, and we are confronted with one of the most gruelling, and vibrant, horror sequences outside of Argento.
Like Suspiria, this is a genre film done really well. Co-written by comedian Danny McBride (Pineapple Express, TV’s Eastbound and Down, etc.), and directed by David Gordon Green, whose filmography offers a striking balance between outrageous comedy and sombre melodrama, this is, arguably, the best film in the popular slasher series that features masked killer Michael Myers. (The best film in the series, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, is a bizarre and incisive critique of American consumer spectacle, but doesn’t feature Myers.) The plot for a slasher film, of course, is not the point – a guy walks around killing people – but the tone of Halloween, with its remarkable seriousness and intensity, effectively engages the viewer. Its sincerity is all the more striking in the context of a 21st century in which popular culture tends to be evaluated through its capacity for irony and cleverness. Kudos to Halloween for reinvigorating the slasher film as a serious genre after it was put to death by the Scream films in the 1990s.
I have written about Leigh Whanell’s Upgrade elsewhere but I just can’t praise this Australian science-fiction/revenge/action film enough. It borrows styles and themes from key earlier works – Robocop, Cyborg, The Terminator – intensifying and extending these. Genre is never really about originality, so to critique a genre film on the basis that it is formulaic is senseless – the pleasure of a genre film comes through its repetition of earlier affects, sensations, and narratives. What makes Upgrade so successful is its ability to reimagine the old generic tropes so the film feels both pleasurably familiar and dynamic at the same time. There is nothing original about Upgrade’s premise – a technological implant malfunctions and the protagonist Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) battles an evil A.I. – but it is handled so skilfully, with compelling and charismatic actors, well-staged action scenes, spare yet visually splendid production design, and an immersive electronic score, that it doesn’t matter.
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best film in decades. It is funny, irreverent, and, at times, rather sweet. The true story on which it it based – an African-American policeman imitates a white redneck in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan via telephone – is infectiously outlandish, and Lee develops it in a typically stylish fashion. The film could certainly be criticised on the basis of its confused political and ideological configuration. Can a narrative really make a meaningful statement about structural racial oppression when it features a policeman as the sympathetic protagonist, given the role of the police is to preserve and protect structures as they are? But as a feel-good comedy, it is hard to beat.
Many people, I’m sure, will roll their eyes when they see Skyscraper, a highly formulaic disaster film starring The Rock, in a top-five list, but this is one of the best films of its kind. It follows Will Sawyer, a one-legged security expert, as he tries to save the tallest building in the world and its inhabitants – including his family – from a gang of crooks. Every aspect of the film is extreme – it is extremely loud, mayhemic, silly, exciting and funny. It combines the heightened melodrama of The Towering Inferno with the hard-hitting action of Die Hard to create a viscerally charged cinematic experience. Each disaster film-cliché is amplified to the edge of parody, but the filmmakers manage to pull back enough for us to go along for the ride in good faith. Indeed, Skyscraper seems remarkably sincere. This is cinema as immersive spectacle at its finest.
Solid performers: from American Animals to Venom
Solid (if less interesting) films released in 2018 include the wry mockumentary I, Tonya, which, whilst a little heavy-handed in places, offers the viewer a comically wrought true-crime story anchored around charismatic actors and American Animals, another true crime docu-drama. The latter features the real-life criminals onscreen next to their fictionalised avatars and is similarly hilarious in its exploration of a bungled attempt to steal some rare books.
Disobedience, following a budding lesbian relationship in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York City, was one of the most controlled, economically realised films of the year. Its simplicity (and beauty) are quite astonishing. The Kindergarten Teacher is similarly well-made. An agonising, relentless (and hilarious) study of mediocrity, it stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as the eponymous teacher who becomes inappropriately obsessed with one of her talented students.
Other highlights were the thought-provoking, European-American documentary Genesis 2.0; the doleful German-French refugee thriller, Transit; Venom, an enjoyably hard-boiled and unsentimental film that feels more like a minor 1950s science-fiction thriller than a Marvel product, and Hereditary, an uneven but satisfying horror epic. The beautifully rendered Leave No Trace, which follows a father and daughter as they attempt to live off the grid, also deserves a mention.
The disappointments: yes, including Black Panther
As a scholar specialising in action cinema, I was very excited about exploitation cinephile Eli Roth’s remake of Michael Winner’s seminal 1970s film Death Wish - one of the great nasty films of the period. Starring Bruce Willis in the role originally played by Charles Bronson, this film promised to be spectacular. But Roth’s vision is much straighter and less challenging than the original and comes across as another mediocre revenge film.
The Commuter saw Liam Neeson reunited with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the third time. I had hoped for another tightly wrought thriller, with Neeson reprising his now signature role as regular guy turned action hero. This one, however, was confusing, tedious, and unconvincing.
Equally disappointing was Lynne Ramsay’s, You Were Never Really Here. While atmospheric (and starring Joaquin Phoenix at his bearded best), the narrative fails to cohere in fundamental ways.
The major disappointment of the year was Black Panther. Touted as offering a fresh approach to the superhero genre, it is yet another American consumer-liberal fantasy pretending to be something more radical. The film offers a technocratic vision of the black rights movement, celebrating a racial equality and harmony expunged of all of the violence and messiness necessarily embedded in every struggle for equality.
It stages the decades-old conflict between liberal and radical versions of black activism as the clash between good hero (the liberal) and bad villain (the radical), and, given Hollywood’s history of offering liberal fantasy in place of actual social and political critique, this should hardly be surprising. Black Panther is, after all, a Marvel film, so what was I expecting?
There are also several non-franchise films of 2018 that I am keen to see. Bodied, a battle rap comedy produced by Eminem looks ecstatically outrageous, and the biopic First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, may be eminently watchable. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, by all accounts is engagingly nutty, and I am also eager to see Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, the Lizzie Borden biopic (!) Lizzie, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Action Point, a true story starring Johnny Knoxville about the world’s strangest amusement park.
Two melancholic films of 2018 closed out the careers of two great American 1970s movie stars. The Old Man and the Gun stars Robert Redford in his final role before retirement and The Last Movie Star looks like an elegiac swan song for brilliant, epoch-defining Burt Reynolds.
Still to be released are the blockbusters Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee and Aquaman, and the new Sherlock Holmes comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Holmes & Watson – this gets my vote for trailer of the year. I know what I’ll be doing on Boxing Day.