Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Johannes Roberts, 2018, UK-USA

A sequel that comes over a decade after the original for 'The Strangers', who are kind of b-level icons in the horror genre because they are easily recognisable and easily imitable from their masks. Also, they know how to act like horror killers: they step in and out of shadows, tilt their masked heads menacingly, can break into anywhere and appear soundlessly, play incongruous music for their kill-spree (this is a more contemporary requirement) and say pithy nihilistic one-liners like “We’ve only just begun”; or when asked what their motivation is, “Because you were home” or “Why not?” They even roll up in their killer’s van to Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” so that the point of modern American youth’s nihilism and sociopathic nature is underlined right from the start. In this sense, it’s certainly belongs to that strain of youth-hating horror and one that portrays murder as the logical end of their privilege and self-obsession.

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ offers nothing new and your investment in the protagonists may vary, but the family is probably better rendered than many. The misbehaving daughter (Bailee Madison) is introduced with her black fingernails stroking a soft toy, which is surely one of the most immediate announcements that we’re dealing with Goth/Emo. And then there’s a jock brother (Lewis Pullman) and the parents who are floundering in their attempts to break through to their teenagers; this has led them to relocate and temporarily stay in a trailer park where The Strangers are prowling. The family dysfunction and the seemingly obligatory obnoxiousness of the youths is par for the course – although anything is bound to be improved by the natural class of Christina Hendricks. But what it ends up being is more like the troubled kids versus the bullies and mean kids and there’s not really a sense that this family is the kind of film family that deserves what it gets.

What it runs on is a series of decent set-pieces. Johannes Roberts films everything cleanly and the tempo is at a steady clip so that it hardly drags. The confrontations mostly stop from being overplayed, the family starts to call on your apathy, the killers are just short of smirky. It’s generally well-judged until the final stretch where it plunges ahead without a care and you’ll be lamenting stupid behaviour that has up to then been kept to a minimum (“Move out of the way of the van!!”). The best of these is the pool scene: unfolding with the pace of dread and plausibility, a flickering neon behind the head of someone forced to kill is a vivid visual cue for someone psychologically crossing the line into a moment of madness. So, on the one hand you have a film the delivers consummate horror set-pieces with some flair; on the other is a film that isn’t above having things put on books called “A Stranger is Watching”, prefacing with “Based on true events” or using jack-in-the-boxes for weak scares. It’s diverting and slick enough but doesn’t rise above its conventions.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, 
Terrence Malick, 2011, USA

I received, firstly, the advice that if I could last the first half hour, I would be okay. “Tree of Life” starts with a whispery, portentous, frequently one-word voice-over (“Brother.” “Father.” etc.) that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge and my sneer twitching. Oh, such resonance and poetry in these words! But these hushed voices are less narration than fragments of disembodied thoughts that sporadically appear, intending to elevate the poetry and occasionally offer insight into the characters, as little as we are offered (“Mother. Make me good.”). And these whispers do not guide the film: they just annoy with drawing attention to the film’s portentousness.

Rather what steers the film is the vertiginous camera, a hand-held vision that is aggressively mobile, often as disorientating as any found-footage excursion. In “The Tree of Life”, the camera swoops insistently, often to napes. When a camera that glides through an office complex is intercut with a camera that glides through nature and back without losing a beat, the magic of the film starts to come to life with this juxtaposition. A nineteen year-old is dead: the mother is devastated; the father tries to retain a square jaw; a brother reflects – and this triggers off the memories that will be the bulk of the narrative.

Where did it all begin? And here Mallick throws in his most audacious conceit by taking us back to the forming of the universe and the world in a prolonged spectacle that offers gorgeous, dazzling visuals rather than story. It is a special-effects sequence that can’t help but provoke memories of “2001: a space odyssey” (and indeed, Douglas Trumbull was involved in the creation of this sequence). It also prompted my friend to recall that moment in “Ed Wood” where Ed professes enthusiastically that he could make a whole film out of a bunch of stock footage. Indeed. And then Mallick becomes even more audacious and throws in the thing that probably is the film’s greatest contention: suddenly, we are looking at a dinosaur on a beach. Filmed mostly in low light and tones, these CGI creations look real enough and they are presented as prettily and with as much reverence as everything else that precedes it and is to follow. And, for the record, I liked the dinosaurs. This first sequence gives us a chapter that references evolution. Later, this will conflict with the fall into a mundane family drama and their reliance upon religion. And by “mundane” I mean that it is the simple and unextraordinary qualities that the film triumphs and considers most vital. The universe was created by incredible processes, and so was the earliest life on Earth, and then there were dinosaurs and, eventually, there were these three brothers and their loving and strained relationship with their parents. How wondrous and remarkable these things are, how grand and great the differences in size these moments seem, and where does one lead to the other? Of course, this can also be read as tapping into human narcissism, that we and our individual experiences are the true centre of the universe…

To that end: a tale of a boy growing up during what seems like a short period of a couple or years or so in a certain house in smalltown America (the memories end when the family has to move). This is, as the ominous voiceover tells us from the beginning, a tale of fathers and brothers, just in case we aren’t sure. Strange, then, that aside from the two brothers we become most familiar with there is also a third brother who seems superfluous. Indeed, it may be hard to work out which younger brother will die: this death is like a Hitchcock “McGuffin”, there mostly to set the story of memory in motion. The father spins from being affectionate, dictatorial, protective and unreasonable. Mother is rendered mostly in moments of dancing around: on the grass or sometimes in the air, for example. She is cast as angelic and therefore barely needs a complex personality until called upon to render maternal grief at the loss of one of her boys. She is “Grace”, but with little to do for herself, the film is imbalanced towards her apparent primal opposite: the father.

Aside from our main protagonist, the boys too have vague characters. They run and play charmingly and as they grow older, they start to experiment with meanness and unhappiness brought about by their stern father and messing around with other kids. Our protagonist becomes increasingly troubled and complex as time goes on and he starts to move away from the confines of the house; we often see him wandering around the streets, occasionally so slow he might just as well stand still. The bulk of character interest is the father, who comes a fully rounded character: charming, conflicted, authoritarian, loving, et cetera. This is probably more achieved by Brad Pitt’s exceptional performance than the screenplay. He manages to fight off most of the symbolic imagery to become a character.

This is a story of where we come from, of memory and loss. It also appears to be a tale of the union and conflict between the natural world and God. If you find inspirational meme’s insightful, then you may be stirred by the religious symbolism, the whispery voiceover and themes that permeate the film: life is a waterfall, cascading magnificently; we are but grains of sand in the wind; and so on. Many may be seduced by the religious symbolism and probably feel that is where the poignancy lies, but this is the laziest of signals. Tales of people, of time and place and growing up, the forming and conflicts of the young and the failings and struggles of adults, these are the things that speak truth and the nods to God here are but pretentions to poeticism that drag insights down to man’s most narcissistic interpretations of existence.

And that brings us to the beach at the end, where Sean Penn wanders and meets the cast of his past. There are reunions of a sort and the mother gives over her son to God – all on a pale beach. It certainly feels a little confused and confusing. However, I prefer to read the beach as less some kind of afterlife or Heaven’s Gate – which the sentiment and otherwordliness might imply – but rather as a plateau of (Jack’s) memory, where its cast wander in Jack’s mind; as a place where he can bring them all together again, as if they had never aged, as if they are forever on call from that time in his childhood. I do so to sidestep the triteness of the afterlife depicted as a beach of the soul. 

The opinion seems to be that Malick is aiming for ‘pure’ cinema, one unburdened by narrative constraints, that is given to the visual rather than story and dialogue. This usually means the cinematic version of a stream-of-consciousness tone poem.
Malick’s film shares more with, for example, Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Korine’s “Gummo” where visual aesthetic wrestles and fragments with often simple tales to elevate them into something universal, metaphysical and cultural. Their contrivances are more audio-visual than plot. As it is, the visual splendour and audacity of “Tree of Life” fights for supremacy with the intimacy of the bildungsroman which reaches deep to remind us of growing up and what it is to be besieged by memory and dwarfed by the universe.

 Tree of Life” is definitely going to reward repeat viewings and is the stuff that books and criticism will be written upon for, oh, as long as people are interested in film. It is a splendid experience, not only visually but it has emotional weight despite the its obviousness and pretensions. But then Malick has a total new edit for the Criterion release – an extra fifty minutes (!) – so maybe that makes all this review redundant? This speaks to the film’s fidgety and impressive portrayal of restless memory and cinema and also to its inability to pin itself to anything deeper than the emotional gestures of commercials and stale aphorisms.

Friday, 11 January 2019

One Cut of the Dead

Shin'ichirô Ueda, 2017, Japan
(カメラを止めるな! Kamera o Tomeru na!, lit. "Don't Stop the Camera!")

At FrightFest 2018, there was a lot of buzz about ‘One Cut of the Dead’ and it then went on to appear on several “best of festival” lists. But I missed it as it wasn’t on the main screen but at the Prince Charles Cinema: I always had the impression that I had missed out. Well, it’s returned to the Prince Charles, by popular demand apparently and certainly when I went it was a packed house: judging by social media, there were many people who had missed this at FrightFest and were catching up.

I had carefully avoided hearing too much about it and I recommend you doing the same, if possible. I knew it was a “filming during a zombie apocalypse” kind of thing, mumble-mumble, and that it had undead, obviously, but little else. This meant I was able to enjoy its surprises to the fullest. By way of highlighting how much fun this turns out to be, let me just say that you shouldn’t be fooled by the apparent negligible moments of pacing and acting and scripting or whatever of the first half and stay with it for the long-game. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should stop reading now.

And then, like ‘Climax’, halfway through, the credits come, it seems, and the intrigue is upped. But whereas Gasper Noe's halfway mark denotes a following decent into hell, Ueda then presents the trouble with conjuring one up. It’s a cannier film than at first appears, doubling back and drawing laughs from the same material just seen by introducing a new perspective and context. Many of those things that initially seemed “off” hit home as jokes. In this way, Ueda’s supple script traversing the perspectives of “laughing at” and “laughing with” with cheerful aplomb, celebrating and gently lampooning shaky-camera horror and improvisation. 

It doesn’t need too much characterisation, just archetypes, but it’s all satirical enough: the hapless director chosen for self-publicising as average; the slightly arrogant lead; the woman who takes her role too seriously; the drunken extra, etc. It has a touch of bad taste, a dollop of silliness and a faint appeal to sentiment, but it’s structure and speed means that there is never too much of any one thing. It’s a joyous celebration of gung-ho low-budget film-making.

By being slightly meta-genre, it’s both fun and knowing enough to please both the demands of comedy and consideration. As a horror behind-the-scenes farce, its entertainment value and building reputation is bound to give ‘One Cut of the Dead’ cult longevity. 

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Favourite moments in 2018 films

Some Favourite Moments of 2018

Here are some of the moments that really stood out this year; moments that sent shivers down my spine, or made me really laugh, or made me go WTF, et cetera.

1. Kid’s silent scream in ‘Loveless

2. The final set-piece for ‘Custody

3. The car accident in ‘Hereditary

4. Jack-Jack vs racoon in ‘Incredibles 2

5. Dancing in ‘Climax

6. Ethan Hawke’s face in ‘First Reformed

7. Ruth Wilson in ‘The Little Stranger

8. The punchline to ‘Teen Titans Go! to the movies’: 
Robin beseeching the kids in the audience to ask their parents THAT question

9. Matthew McConaughey crying in ‘White Boy Rick’

10. Watching a man being traumatised at The Battle of Waterloo in the opening of ‘Peterloo’ 

11. The corpse at the table in ‘Terrified’

12. The bus massacre set to a cover of “My Way” in ‘mon mon mon Monsters’

Films of 2018 Round-Up

I’m thinking that if I seem to enjoy almost all of what I saw in some way it’s because I want to, and generally speaking I avoid going to the cinema to things that I predict won’t do much for me. Which is why you won’t find ‘Venom’ in my roundup of superhero films. Nor will you find ‘Mama Mia: here we go again’, although, from all reports, it’s an exemplary example of its kind.

Stories from this year? Well, I was more indifferent to more FrightFest films than usual – the past few years have been very strong selections – and went to the Halloween all-dayer for the first time. Chris Collier’s documentary ‘FrightFest: The dark heart of cinema’ was a great overview of the festival so far and recommended for newbies and die hards alike.

I also experienced a new audience annoyance that was equal to the nearby crunching of popcorn: the guy next to me farted seemingly every five minutes throughout the second half of a film. Very distracting.

I was in a queue where the guy next to me said, “‘Sorry to bother you’,” and the cashier said, “Yes how can I help?” and then realised that he was asking for the film.

At risk of starting with the negative - and I'll be brief -Films that didn’t quite convince me included ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ and ‘The Shape of Water’, ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Overlord’. The first three certainly featured on several “Year’s Best” lists, and all were obviously fine examples of what they were trying to do, but all had just that thing that niggled me, that wouldn’t let me just commit.

‘The Shape of Water’… well, look hereMuch beloved but a little too enamoured with itself for me to overlook its flaws.

But with these others, a second watch was in order to truly clarify my reservations.

Martin McDonaugh’s ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ because it had a lot of great moments but, as a whole, it seemed to be humanising and outlining the motivation for a couple of selfish would-be vigilantes without much balance; I didn’t quite trust it.

Wandering about FrightFest 2018, I overheard many people being quite buzzed about Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ remake, as was I as I loved ‘Call Me By Your Name’. But ‘Suspiria’ seemed oddly flat in some way and I knew only a second viewing would allow to unpack what I fully felt.

Julius Avery’s ‘Overlord’ had such an impressive opening that it was a little disappointing to feel the film sliding into more conventional genre territory: I found myself hung up on minor internal logic (they’re shooting up the house and don’t attract attention… and weren’t the Nazis just outside? Didn’t anyone miss their superior? – that kind of thing) and nit-picking when, had my expectations not been raised, I wouldn’t have bothered and just gone along with the silliness. But that happens often with horror.

And Steven Soderberg’s ‘Unsane’ was another that had a strong build-up and then descended into disappointing genre tropes.

It’s been a bumper year for Super-heroes. Many will hate the genre for eating up everything else, for its appeal to juvenilia, and there’s so much to that: the blockbustering genre has contributed to the demise of mid-budget productions financed by studios (and that’s where NetFlix comes in). However, the super-hero genre also made big strides in leading the representation of women and people of colour in the mainstream: you can give a gold star sticker to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman for trying but all the awards to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther for showing how this is done. And also ‘Black Panther’s appeal to utopian visions was practically subversive in an era where you can’t turn a corner without stumbling into a dystopian franchise.

‘Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse’ by Persichetti, Ramsey and Rothman proved delirious fun, freed from the shackles of live action and capturing the freewheeling comic book aesthetic in a way that even the Russo brothers’ ‘TheAvengers: Infinity War’ could not. But ‘Infinity War’ was surprisingly spry and deft and handling all its characters and multiple tones and proved miles better than expected.

Peyton Reed’s ‘Ant Man and the Wasp’ succeeded as an alternative to the !EPIC! insistence of many of the super-hero offerings. It was a minor entry comparatively, but it was funny and the visual jokes with size changes proved to be a mine of gags and surprises, even more than the original.

And, of course, Brad Bird’s ‘Incredibles 2’ proved just as slick and joyous and fun as its predecessor and proved a thorough delight and kept alive my wish that there had been a series of these (without diminishing quality, of course).

 But the real unsung hero of the genre had to be Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail’s Teen Titans GO! to the movies’, which gleefully embraced with love and satire the silliness of the genre. This was no surprise to any fan of the TV series (which I am), but the fact that this successfully carried over to feature length was not a given. Also, the moment where they go back in time to make sure the tragedy and trauma of superhero origins were intact was surely as dark as they come and not the only WTF? moment that the script was happy to speed through.

Compared to something big-budget and conventional like Steven S. DeKnight’s ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ the deftness of the scripts of these blockbuster projects were robust and entertaining for a genre widely dismissed as kids’ stuff. Yes, they’re fully based in “The Chosen One” tired trope, but they were certainly more morally investigative and socially positive than something like the superhero shenanigans of vigilante flicks like ‘The Equalizer’. When vigilante films are supposedly “adult” entertainment but act just like superhero films with the narrowest of social viewpoints, they are far more dishonest and problematic, usually with limited insight.

Revenge is always in vogue and no less this year, although there were several pleasing quirks. Leigh Whennell’s ‘Upgrade’, for example, was a mash-up of ideas familiar from ‘Westworld’, ‘The Terminator’, ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Black Mirror’ as well as any guy-avenging-his-murdered-wife scenario. It turned out to be perhaps the best thing Whennell has conceived since the original ‘Saw’ concept. It gleefully played with the idea of a man enhanced to be an unbeatable fighting machine through futuristic technology but kept its twists and interrogation of the idea going right to the end.

A most curious revenge flick was Lynne Ramsey’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’ with Joaquin Phoenix’s shambling killer maybe going to seed, but no less lethal. It’s leaning into soulful abstraction meant that its revenge rampage was almost besides the point as, despite its action, it was more a character collage and mood piece. The killing was often at one remove, seen through security cameras, or segueing into oddity by having two hitmen holding hands and singing as one died. I’ve seen the plot described as along the lines of #pizzagate and the criticism that those that suffer from PTSD tend to avoid violence rather than become hitmen, but it was pulp and pulp stories given an art aesthetic makeover seemed to be a trend.

For example, Panos Cosmatos’ ‘Mandy’, was an over-familiar revenge rampage as the basis for a trippy exploitation visual feast. But where ‘You Were never Really Here’ offered something more abstract and stream-of-conscious, ‘Mandy’ was fuelled by homage and a more deliberately crowd-pleasing intent, making it an instantaneous cult favourite and entertaining but, for all its stunning visuals and mood, ultimately quite shallow. But yes, when the visuals deliberately resembled the covers of bargain bin paperback covers and VHS covers, it was a delight for genre fans.

Even Coralie  Revenge had a slick and vibrant visual allure and a grand slippery showdown even if it couldn’t quite overcome its basic problem of… well, it’s the kind of thing where Robin of YouTube’s “Dark Corners” pops up when reviewing with “But – she’d be dead!” 

Which leads us onto horror, which did very well for its reputation this year. Ari Aster’s Hereditary appeared on many “best of 2018”, which was fine and good because it was a work that, initially, pushed hard. Certainly, it moved into fine art, not just genre entertainment and was a startling calling card. However, the good stuff was so good and pulled at something fresh that it was a shame to find it descend into a bunch of basic horror tropes with an unnecessary voiceover of explication. But then it didn’t squander the goodwill of its build-up as much as NetFlix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Damien Rugna’s ‘Terrified’ was more upfront in that all it presented was a bunch of scary set-pieces that was bound to unsettle. Sure, there were people – paranormal investigators mumble mumble – but they weren’t the point so didn’t get bogged down in weak characterisation like ‘Insidious’

But if you were looking for character-based horror, ‘Summer of 84’ was a great little bildungsroman that took a ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Hardy Boys’ sort of scenario and took it to a logical and unexpectedly upsetting conclusion. 

John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place was that other popular horror of the year as it sure was fun. It didn’t hold up to scrutiny but that didn’t seem to matter: normally those little lapses on logic and plausibility that niggle me can make-or-break a film my opinion (ref. ‘Overlord’, a film where internal logic shouldn’t really be an issue, but…), but ‘A Quiet Place’ didn’t seem to care and just got on with a its high concept and a series of scary set pieces – and in that way, it was more like ‘Terrified’ and that’s all to the good. 

Brian Taylor’s ‘Mom and Dad’ offered up horror as a more on-the-cuff romp, dangerously setting up the queasy premise that somethingsomething is making parents kill their kids. Lots of tongue-in-cheek black humour – the “how did he get your gun?” and ‘Taxi Driver’ homage moment being a highlight – it takes a poke at that tiresome perpetual man-child trope and ended just before it truly needs to answer the ramifications of what it’s proposing. But I did see it on a “Year’s Worst” list. And it had Nicolas Cage doing his schtick, which as well as ‘Mandy’ and his voicing both Superman (‘Teen Titans GO! To the movies’) and Spider-man Noir (‘Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse’) makes him somewhat a man of the genre year, surely.

Gidden Ko’s ‘mon mon mon Monsters’ was a riot and oddly disturbing in a way that only Asian school stories with added monsters can be. It asks that age-old question: who are the real monsters? It’s amusing and horrifying and Ko keeps the tone slippery with plenty of gusto and empathy that spreads to monsters of all kinds.

Buried on the opposite side of the street, Matthew Holness’ ‘Possum’ served up the low-budget claustrophobia horror of a particularly English creepiness and a devotion to unpleasantness. Definitely the stuff of nightmares and unequivocally moreso than standard genre offers like ‘Mara’, being more in the tradition of ‘Eraserhead’. ‘Possum’s puppet alone was bound to worm its way into unsettled sleep.

As Holness was known for the parodic ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Places’, perhaps his film was expected to be more Amicus than ‘Eraserhead’, but there was Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s ‘Ghost Stories’ to fill that hole. Perhaps I wasn’t so convinced by its internal logic, but then that was never so central to Amicus and other omnibus horror anthologies. ‘Ghost Stories’ had several vivid performances and a handle on English miserabilism that kept it grounded and memorable. It also served up some decent chills. Perhaps the claustrophobia and limitations of the original Nyman and Dyson stage play of the same name made it more remarkable, but there was plenty in this film adaptation to please genre fans.

Oh, and David Gordon Green’s Halloweenwas fine too. Not oblivious to glaring flaws, but more entertaining than expected this far into the franchise. Well, it’s that a sequel but also "rebooting" and all that.

Sergio Gutiérrez Sánchez’s ‘The Secret of Marrowbone’ proved entertaining enough but ultimately more pedestrian than it might have wanted.

Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘The Little Stranger’ was a better “Haunted House” tale; not that it was a ghost story, but a drama with – perhaps – a ghost. Its cruelty was revealed by a slow icy drip down the spine as the full picture of what things meant came into view. Truly unsettling in its depiction of what people, in the long-term, can do to each other. It also possessed a fantastic performance by Ruth Wilson.

Horror tinged dramas seemed also to be a thing.

A little magic realism can go a long way and the red bloodline that in pursuit of our young protagonist around throughout Issa López’s Tigers are not Afraid’ was such a simple but vivid summary of the threat of violence and death that follows Mexican street kids. If perhaps I had some quibbles with its denouement, it was nevertheless moving and troubling and it was easy to see and feel why it has been a breakout cult hit. Also, Issa López was a charming Q&A guest at FrightFest.

Continuing with horror-inflected magic realism: ‘A Sicilian Ghost Story’ by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza leaned on the abstract, on visual collage and allusion, but it wasn’t quite the supernatural thriller the title might have promised. This too proved to be “based on a true story” and therefore ended up as a thriller as a kind of tone poem eulogy with horror twinges. Nothing else this year quite haunted me in the same way and it seemed to be the missing link between ‘Lean on Pete’, ‘Sicario’ and Possum’.

Watson at Slant Magazine adds Xavier Lagrand’s Custody as one the “20 Worst Film Follies of 2018” and writes

Custody has been lauded by some for its harrowing tension, but whatever suspense the film achieves comes at the expense of its characters, who are quickly reduced to shallow stock types (monstrous father, victimized wife, scared kid). Legrand isn’t really interested in the tangled web of emotions that characterize abusive relationships anyway—everything is just window dressing for the film’s depressingly predictable and sleazily enthusiastic descent into violence.”

But that, to me, is exactly the point, that these situations reduce people to these archetypes; that everyday dramas can and do escalate and descend into horror set-pieces. That’s where the horror genre comes from. We hear these stories all the time and they headline daily. I have no problem with high drama appropriating horror tropes to get its point across. Well, more than that: I am a horror fan so I like it. A “sleazily enthusiastic descent into violence” happens all the time, not just in films.

Talking of violence, ‘The Night Comes for Us’ was one that certainly me noticeably cringe a lot. This made me conclude that ‘The Raid’ had an almost joyful quality in its excess that imitators can’t quite capture. The drama in ‘The Night Comes for Us’ is perfunctory and the combat doesn’t have that exuberant quality, but the fight scenes were inventive, choreographed and shot well, long and very, very painful.

One of the best dance sequences ever filmed, long takes and a descent into hell that didn’t go into tired Horror excesses but stayed all-to plausible: I saw Gasper Noé’s ‘Climax’ twice this year and was so glad that I saw it at FrightFest first on the huge IMAX screen with the sound system to match (at home, I recommend headphones, unless you can turn it up load enough to bring neighbours to your door). I was thoroughly immersed and hooked both times and went with the arty provocateur affectations (mixing up the credits, meme intertitles, etc.). I was an immediate fan as soon as they started to vogue and shake their stuff.

But to more straightforward drama:

‘Lean on Pete’ was a delight, the kind of softly spoken but spikey-edged bildungsroman that always appeals to me. Not quite the boy-and-his-horse film that you are perhaps expecting, but a tale of a youth determinedly making his way on his own terms.

Hirokuza Kore-eda’s ‘The Third Murder’ had its obvious symbolism – look, they’re both reflected in the glass (which is admittedly a great shot)! But leaving his protagonist stranded at a crossroads is worthy of a far lesser talent – but few directors can capture that sense that great themes and moral dilemmas have crept up on you. That this is a courtroom drama means that the themes and dilemmas are more obvious compared to his usual family dramas, but it still manages to draw uncertainty from assumptions of what seems straightforward. Kore-eda’s deceptively easy-going style proves a great way of interrogating the thriller form. A full-course chiller.

But he wasn’t done yet: ‘Shoplifters’ was prime Kore-eda, detailing the makeshift and sontaneous but genuine family unit made by a group of petty criminals. Kore-eda is a master of this, like Ozu (who he is always compared to), the surface lightness of tone that doesn’t let you feel the weight of the themes gathering until one or two things are said and revelations are made, and then you realise it has a secure emotional hold on you. In some senses, it has enough motifs that look like a horror film as much as ‘Custody’ although that’s not the defining element.

And for further genuine horror stories, surely Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Loveless’ qualifies as a portrait of an emotionally and empathically stunted culture. It was bleak and searing criticism.

‘Roma’ proved an instantaneous favourite with a classical yet contemporary essence. What made it more winning than, say, Terence Malick’s poetic want is that Cuarón was just as interested in everyday people as formal design. Alfonso Cuarón chose dazzlingly crisp and dazzling black-and-white cinematography and long takes for this love letter to a housemaid. The camera mostly forgoes close-ups to pan around the house until it becomes as familiar as the family within as that family slightly cracks up and remodels itself. Even so, it’s the maid’s film (Yalitza Aparicio) even as the camera pans to embrace bigger pollical events. It starts with using the reflection in water to compose a shot and never lets up with its formal grace and easy humanity from then on. Again, at this time NetFlix is proving fertile ground for funding such projects and apparently giving the artists fairly free-reign, which is resulting in a lot of the more interesting and the best stuff out there right now.

I have a friend that thinks Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed’ is just regurgitating his ‘Taxi Driver’ plot to lesser effect. But imposing this plot and these obsessions on a disturbed priest this time was, for me, just like using the same three chords to make another great song. It has proven a high-ranker on many “Best of 2018” lists.

Paul Thomas’ ‘Phantom Thread’ was agreeably deliberate and restrained where Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ was deceptively loose-limbed and heart-on-sleeve. Both were prime examples of their style of drama.

But it was Pavel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ that captured the spirit of classic cinema effortlessly. The crisp black-and-white photography helped as the on/off love story skipped over decades and the political travails across Europe. With Joanna Kulig effortlessly beguiling, it was a delicious romantic period drama.

Sebastian Lelio’s ‘Fantastic Woman’ further explored alternative sexualities at a time where this subject is coming forward as central and winning subject matter for higher-profile film, rather than being relegated to the marginal or cult. It was sympathetic and strong-willed and mostly avoided the hectoring and sentimentality that can mar the message.    

Jason Reitman’s ‘Tully’ was a slightly unconventional pregnancy tale, written by Diablo Cody and featuring quietly powerhouse performances from Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. Not only did it offer a wealth of sympathy for mothers-to-be, but also the differences between what we were and what we turned out to be.

More stories from and for the women: ‘Leave No Trace’ was a wonderful denial and heartbreaker of living in the mainstream for a girl coming-of-age and choosing her own future. ‘Apostasy’ also proved a decent insight into Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also choose to live aside from mainstream culture, and especially into the usual toll that religion takes on women. And there was Dara Zhuk’s ‘Crystal Swan’ a tale of a young woman DJ trying to get out of 1990s Balerus: scruffy and funny, nearly destabilised by a turn for the dark, but ultimately winning. (At the London Film Festival Q&A afterwards, the film’s popular comedy relief Yuriy Borisov was asked how he got into character: “I took all the drugs,” he answered.)

Michael Pearce’s ‘Beast’ was an audacious debut featuring all-round excellent performances, but Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn were exceptional. Where it transcended its basis of “is he or isn’t he?” mystery was in focusing more on Moll’s (Buckley) coming to terms with her more difficult and troubled side and her passive aggressive family. So where the mystery may have been obvious, her reactions were less so. A consistent air of menace and not dwelling or explicating on any one moment meant this never paused from being consistently disquieting.

Craig Gillespie’s ‘I, Tonya’ confronted the fallibilities of filming “true stories” by being a little meta in a similar fashion to ‘The Big Short’. There were accusations that it did a disservice to the victim, but this wasn’t that story. As lead actor and producer, this surely came across as a Margot Robbie passion project and she dutifully excelled. It was one of those films whose breezy and colourful tone didn’t quite cover up the wealth of abuse, horror and delusion that underpinned the story.

Regarding “true stories”: Tim Wardles’ ‘Three Identical Strangers’ is another film that fell foul of Slantmagazines’ “Film Follies of 2018, accusing its thriller-like structure of twists as a disservice to the emotional lives of its subjects. It’s a documentary about how three men discovered they were triplets and… Well, if you don’t know the story, the twists come as a series of revelations and shocks that only serve to deepen the emotional ramifications and scope of the initial novelty. You are unlikely to come away unmoved.

“We miss Emily Blunt,” was a typical reaction to Stefano Sollima’s ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, the sequel to Denis Villeneuve film: I don’t know, but Emily Blunt was the most obvious part of ‘Sicario’, being its emblem of relative innocence. Without her, ‘Day of the Soldado’ was unmoored from a moral watermargin and more in line with the murk and disgust of Sollima’s other work (‘Gomorrah’, ‘A.C.A.B’, etc.). Now, stay with me here: this year I attended a screening of ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ with a Terence Davies Q&A at the BFI and he told the story of how one day his mother had had enough of the abuse and jumped out of the window, “babes in arms” he said, but she was caught by a randomly passing soldier; he said this incident wasn’t in the film because, true as it was, “no one would believe it!” ‘Day of the Soldado’ has a moment like that, speaking to truth-is-crazier-than-fiction but stretching credulity in a film. Like ‘A Quiet Place’, I found myself going “well okay” and going along with it because the rest was working so well. No, it didn’t dazzle like Villeneuve’s film but it was a fine solid thriller.

And talking of truth-is-crazier-than-fiction: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKKKlansman’ was a blazing example of what Lee does best: beneath the deceptively bright and breezy, colourful and funny surface lay a film that was furious and frightening. It effortlessly drew a line from the Seventies and the Klan’s and David Duke’s long-term plans to colour mainstream politics with race war agendas to the current Trump administration and resent newsreels. But not before Lee leaves his protagonists drifting down a corridor ready to fight like they were in a Blackploitation film. At his best, no one does streetwise dark-and-colourful like Lee.

Carlos López Estrada’s ‘Blindspotting’, also exploring the black experience, was not quite the predictable tale of a guy-trying-to-put-his-life-right-but-sabotaged-by-his-volatile-friend framed by the trailer, but rather more nuanced and less unpredictable. It Funny and heartfelt, it’s air of people trying to prove themselves in a constant state of possible confrontation and defeat felt palpable and real.  

But for domestic dramas, it was hard to match the unsettling defeatism that ultimately haunts Yann Demage’s ‘White Boy Rick’. So much else tends towards positivism. Based on the story of the FBI’s youngest informer, it’s a tale that only adds to the wealth of fiction that those in authority will use and abuse the poor and struggling. The haunted and guilty looks given by the FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) even as they obviously know they are leaving Rick out to dry speaks volumes, even that they too are trapped in roles to play out. A solid thriller with great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merrit, its Seventies-esque look and slightly washed out colours were a plus and harked back to a golden era of American cinema.

Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’ showed how contemporary concerns of gender, class and race could easily be integrated into a well-known thriller plot. This is effortlessly achieved in the widely celebrated panning shot in a car from the privileged white man holding forth on social ills to the silent black chauffeur. Indeed, it showed up how limited and perfunctory in vision many thrillers are to these concerns.

After being a slightly surreal bright-and-breezy tale of a telemarketer trying to better himself, Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’ ultimately turned into something more akin to Michel Gondry (although Mark Kermode suggests ‘Society’) to make its attack on capitalism and race/class relations. It won by embracing the bizarre to direct its polemic and by always being funny.

Ken Loach’s ‘Peterloo’ showed how straightforward period drama could be just as politically furious and relevant to contemporary politics as anything post-modern, flashy, magic realist or bizarre.

Yet for satire, Armando Ianucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’ balanced the funny with the bone-chilling with deceptive ease. Again, it was based on a Graphic Novel and showing that that artform is providing a litany of ripe material for adaptation. Ianucci’s career as an absurdist, humourist, satirist and political commentator surely found its peak and a natural home here. Any parallels on current politics were purely inevitable.

Animation proved some of the year’s best treats, not only with the hi-speed delights of ‘Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse’ and the family-friendly ‘Incredibles 2’, but also with the pensive and revealing stories of something like Nora Twomey’s ‘The Breadwinner’. Such films helped to bring to the screen the diversity of graphic novels out there, of which this was a adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ book. And again, attention on a female story brought through new depths and social insights.

I was totally smitten with Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ in an instant. From the start where the design and construction was so overwhelmingly in its detail I could hardly absorb it all - and then by the taiko drums credits I was had thoroughly fallen for it. Like the best stop-motion, each shot proved a wealth of artistry and composition that this produced a reaction of sheer delight. Of course, rigorous composition is Anderson’s forte, but blended with the indie sensibility and dry wit this proved an absolute joy, one that absorbed accusations of cultural stereotyping and appropriation without hobbling it.

And if we were talking family entertainment, ‘Paddington 2’ was a popular winner. What impressed most was its commitment to benevolence: rarely has the gentle quality of preteen fiction been captured so well. If Paddington was also a surrogate for a young audience, the fact that he is always engaged in slapstick without being foolish is surely a true sign of respect and empathy for that audience. What happens to him is funny but Paddington himself is never denigrated to the laughable. And you can feel the cast having so much fun, especially Hugh Grant gleefully wearing multiple disguises and chewing scenery.

A note on NetFlix films, other than ‘Roma’.

Jeremy Saulnier remains one of the most intriguing commentators on violence: all his previous films provide violence with an almost downbeat and melancholic eye (as opposed to S. Craig Zahler who delves headfirst into the horrific excess). His latest, NetFlix’s ‘Hold the Dark’, remained intriguing with a compelling central shoot-out that left his style of conveying violent outbursts deliberately and realistically; but it lacked a final note that defined its agenda.

Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ was not quite as bulletproof as ‘Ex Machina’ (no Hazmat suits? Monsters that didn’t quite follow their own rules when the plot demanded it) but it was a solid and memorable slice of science-fiction that agreeably centred on ideas rather than CGI razzle-dazzle which is surely why it scored high in several “Best of” lists.

‘Cargo’ by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke benefitted immensely from having Martin Freeman as its protagonist: he’s not the usual guy you would think to lead a zombie tale. The accent upon humanity and family dynamics and attention to aboriginal culture rather than sensation made this an undead scenario with enough emotional resonance to make it stand out.

The Coen brothers ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a portmanteau western that skips across several tones, from the distinctive Coen mixture of brutality and frivolity of the title story to the claustrophobic carriage-bound talky final instalment. We also get near-silent tales of capitalism and ruthlessness about a limbless orator and Tom Waits mumbling through gold digging. It’s beautifully shot, always intriguing and precisely considered and has that Coen brothers sense that it really doesn’t care if you get the point.

Gareth Evans’ ‘Apostle’ is a guy-on-an-island-with-an-unhinged-cult film. He’s infiltrated them to save his kidnapped sister and the influences are obvious, listed by Evans himself‘The Witchfinder General’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘The Devils’. It’s fun genre stuff, taking in cults and nature gods, but it’s overlong and a little baggy: a little pruning surely would have made it more of a direct hit. But it does include an unforgettable and nasty torture device.  

Andy Serkis’ ‘Mowgli: legend of the Jungle’ surely would have seen a more surprisingly truthful and radical interpretation of Kipling’s characters if it didn’t follow 2016’s The Jungle Bookwhich already introduced a harsher, darker edge. Nevertheless, this is a fine version, centring on Mowgli’s conflict of identity. In the end, Mowgli instigates a lot of death by proxy and the argument seems to be for reactionary violence when no choice is left. It’s a shame that Mowgli is then left more a joyless “Chosen One”, as if the transition to adulthood is defined by trauma and establishing top dog status; he heroically stares out across an apparently now predator-free jungle as apparently befits a legendary leader as his animal family looks on in awe of his now more monarchical status.

Plenty of good and exemplary stuff, both mainstream and otherwise. Of course, there were plenty of films that I should have seen – ‘They will not grow old’ and ‘Burning’ (is that out yet?), ‘Eight Grade’, etc. etc., but I’ll catch up.

And here are some of my favourite moments from this year's films. 

And as a footnote, here’s Barack Obama’s “Best Of” film list, which seems to hit all the right notes and is a good guide to what’s winning all the accolades. 

Ciao, amigos.