10. Love, Simon
After last year’s Get Out, 2018 saw people of color on screen as superheroes (Black Panther), activist heroes (The Hate U Give), and regular families (Breaking In); and the year concluded with a film in which the lead is black, though his background (and that of the people around him) is just accepted without a mention (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Love, Simon is in my top ten films of 2018 because it could mark the same acceptance developing in Hollywood for stories with gay characters.
Of course, Love, Simon isn’t the first big film featuring a gay man; but it’s the first from a mainstream production company in which he is the lead character and certainly the first marketed to a teen audience. These are both major milestones. Love, Simon gave teenagers a group of characters (including the gay lead) who they could easily relate to; sure they had somewhat privileged lifestyles, but the personalities were boy-next-door believable.
Now fingers crossed it will become gradually more normal, and films with gay female leads may follow, or even (I’m not holding my breath) bisexual lead characters.
9. Parallel (dir Isaac Ezban, Canada)
Parallel is a sci-fi drama and the third title I’ve seen from Ezban; his first English language film and first from another writer. I watched it courtesy of Frightfest’s Halloween event, and have thought about it on and off since then.
The acting and production are as sharp as necessary, though what makes Parallel is the clever writing – both concepts and characters – brought to life with smooth direction. The sci-fi is essentially about a portal to alternate universes; the drama is about the way the individuals in the group of friends who discover this portal react differently, and about the conflicts that inevitably arise. Everything presented in the film is thought-provoking, exciting and clever… and then you realize that there is more to the story than fits in the film: bonus.
8. Mandy (dir Panos Cosmatos, USA/Belgium/UK)
Why is Mandy great? Red Miller is a 1983 lumberjack in an idyllic hippy relationship with Mandy, who catches the eye of a lunatic guru… kidnap… rejection… death… revenge. Spirits on motorbikes. Neon. Chainsaws. Mesmerizing colors and head spinning soundtrack.
If that was a stream-of-consciousness ramble, well yes, that’s what I came away with.
7. Lifechanger (dir Justin McConnell, Canada)
This is a film which I saw courtesy of Grimmfest in Manchester, and I wish I could tell you when it is going to be more widely available. Lifechanger is a romantic tragedy masquerading as a body-horror fantasy. It is presented from the point of view of a person who kills others in order to carry on being, and gradually we get to know this protagonist and understand what drives them.
It is a low budget film, and the writing and direction shine through more than production. But the naturalistic acting and unassuming score really help the viewer accept what we see so that the end feels as painful to the viewer as it does to the character on the screen.
6. Annihilation (dir Alex Garland, USA/UK)
I was already familiar with Jeff VanderMeer’s apparently unfilmable book when I heard it was being adapted for screen… and was more than miffed when I heard it would not be widely shown at cinemas in the UK, but go straight to Netflix instead (pros and cons, of course: more people had access to it in the UK than in the USA as a result). It could have been unfilmable, but Garland did it.
Annihilation is a cosmic horror where not everything is explained, where the shocks present themselves in a leisurely way to be thought about and felt deeply, rather than sudden jumps to be laughed off. It is also a futuristic sci-fi which features many more women than men, most of whom have character (though strangely more so than in the book, where they just had roles instead). And above all, Annihilation is visually stunning. I look forward to news of the other two books being adapted too.
5. Number 37 AKA Nommer 37 (dir Nosipho Dumisa, South Africa)
This is the first of three titles on this list which I was privileged to see at Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham; indeed Number 37 had its UK premiere there. It is a modern, South African take on the Hitchcock classic Rear Window, but feels no less original while watching it.
I loved it for many reasons: the acting (from the largely unknown cast) was excellent, and combined with the writing made the characters into real people. The film was gripping from start to finish, with scary bad guys and tension that I felt alongside the good guys: I virtually forgot there were other people in the room with me. Number 37 was made with care and affection towards the culture where it is set, and it was the directorial debut of a young black woman from South Africa (words I don’t think I’ve ever seen together before).
4. Hereditary (dir Ari Aster, USA)
Hereditary blew me away when I first saw it (and I kind of knew it would), and it is interesting to look back on the year and see that it is still great, but it sits in a list amongst other great films, not at the top. Some aspects of Hereditary were certainly superlative, though; but my favorite films became favorites for more personal reasons than their artistic qualities.
The acting in Hereditary was sublime; not just Toni Colette’s acting (which was talked about plenty, not least in the context of deserving awards), but all of them. Hereditary showed us Gabriel Byrne at his absolute best. I loved the use of silence and sound, especially during the infamous dinner table scene. Sparse and carefully applied though it was, when we heard it, the soundtrack was fascinating. Some have said the plot wasn’t explained enough, and others have said it was explained too much: the main, high-level story was explained, but not the details, and I’m thoroughly OK with that. And the ending! There was a sense that the plot was leading to an inevitable, decisive conclusion; and in that respect, Hereditary has its ancestry in The Wicker Man (another film I adore and respect).
Unusually, Hereditary is one film which I’m glad had a major plot point spoiled to me before I saw it: I might not have handled seeing the rest of the film straight away, there in the cinema, had it come as a shock.
3. One Cut of the Dead AKA Kamera o tomeru na! (dir Shin’ichirô Ueda, Japan)
Such a struggle to explain in just a couple of paragraphs why I loved this film so much; it took me days to work out how to review it. But here’s the bottom line: I hadn’t laughed this much in the cinema in nearly twenty years (at Mayhem again); even writing the title above had me smiling.
At first, One Cut of the Dead seems to be a fairly standard Asian zombie film (can’t help wondering now if there really is such a thing), but then… no, I can’t tell you. But if you are of the opinion you don’t need to see another Japanese zombie film, trust me: this one will catch you by surprise. Besides, it’s not about zombies, curses, death, etc.; turns out it’s about the joy of filmmaking and grace in teams… believe it or not!
I’ll be putting it on my birthday wish list: One Cut of the Dead comes to UK home media in January 2019.
2. A Quiet Place (dir John Krasinski, USA)
I saw four films twice at the cinema this year, but A Quiet Place is the only one of those four which I also bought on Blu-ray as soon as it became available, watched twice more at home, then lent it out to friends twice since. It knocked Alien off its pedestal as my new favorite monster movie.
A Quiet Place is a perfect example of sci-fi horror which is not all made up of gore or jump scares. The writing isn’t perfect, but the tension and acting are so good that I didn’t notice plot holes straight away, and didn’t mind them when I did.
1. Upgrade (dir Leigh Whannell, Australia)
It’s difficult to say why I put Upgrade right at the top because I’ve not seen it since it was (very briefly) at the cinema. But it stayed with me so stubbornly I put the Blu-ray on my Christmas list, so I’m sure I’ll see it again soon.
I had been looking forward to Upgrade for months, only knowing it would be a Leigh Whannell sci-fi to do with “man and machine”. When I saw it, it was almost like what Bladerunner might have been if David Cronenberg had made it: huge ideas and huge skies, along with carefully crafted body horror and a feeling that Whannell made the film that he wanted, didn’t really care what us viewers thought, but quietly confident that he made the right film for himself and for us.
Other films I loved which nearly got into my top ten:
It’s actually been a remarkable year for quality cinema: I’ve seen so many good films it was difficult working out which ones belonged in the top ten and which ones were relegated to honorable mentions. And there are still so many more good films I’ve heard about this year that I’ve not caught yet…