Time's Up for old Hollywood: The best films of the year 2018
PUBLISHED: 19:19 27 December 2018
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As the year draws to a close and the awards season revs up, Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at a surprisingly diverse and entertaining year at the cinema and suggests these films should be on your home viewing list. How many have you seen?
This was the year where much of the Hollywood drama happened off-screen rather than in front of the camera. As awards season got underway at the start of the year the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns shifted into high gear with female actors wearing black to The Oscars and Golden Globe ceremonies and their male counterparts wearing Time’s Up lapel badges.
At the same time accused film industry figures, like Harvey Weinstein, found themselves in court facing charges of sexual harassment.
In general, 2018 was a pretty good year for movies with a good mix of the spectacular and the interesting. It was the first year when the superhero blockbuster didn’t dominate the summer and the one big superhero movie The Black Panther turned out to be something more interesting than the usual, run-of-the-mill superpowered knock-down fight that Hollywood normally gives us.
Here is my guide to the most satisfying films of 2018.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout; dir: Christopher McQuarrie; starring: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby
The sixth film in a series which appeared to die in episode three but managed to reinvent itself and has been getting stronger with each new instalment. This is a direct sequel to the equally strong MI: Rogue Nation with Christopher McQuarrie back in the director’s chair.
It’s intricately plotted thriller, rather than a full out action film, with an array of complex, surprising characters and a story that never stops twisting. But, it’s never po-faced. The dialogue is snappy and entertainingly clever and there is even a running gag about the series’ improbable use of face masks.
But, at its heart, it is the emotional nature of the story that makes it one of the best action blockbusters in recent memory.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; dir: Martin McDonagh; starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Fargo’s Frances McDormand dominated the awards season with her performance as the mother of a murdered girl seeking justice is small-town America. Mildred (McDormand) rents three billboards on the road out of town, asking Sheriff Willoughby (Harrelson) why he appears to have taken no action.
Playwright Martin McDonagh, in a compassionate and three-dimensional script, shows that life is complicated and sometimes everything is not what it seems and there is often more going on beneath the surface than you are aware of. This is a film characterized by some outstanding performances from everyone, not just McDormand, and the film is both funny and emotional while disguising itself as violent police thriller.
The Shape of Water; dir: Guillermo del Toro; starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer
British actress and Mike Leigh favourite Sally Hawkins gets to do the big Hollywood movie with this glorious Gothic confection which marries the old-fashioned 1950s B Picture The Creature From The Black Lagoon with a modern romantic fairytale.
Del Toro blends witty dialogue with on-the-money special effects and genuinely emotional storytelling creating vivid characters which exist in a decidedly adult, heartfelt story. Del Toro also manages to balance a seemingly difficult mix of conflicting ingredients, placing both horror and humour in a juxtaposition to genuine emotional need. It will undoubtedly be regarded as a classic in the very near future.
Lady Bird; dir: Greta Gerwig; starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
Greta Gerwig, darling of the New York independent film scene, makes her debut as a director with this heartwarming story of teenage rebellion. This beautifully observed and acted film should be screened to every stroppy teenager on their 13th birthday, so they understand, sooner rather than later, that the most important lesson they can learn in life is that there are no easy answers and everyone is just trying to do their best to make things work. Sometimes you just have to deal with the hand that has been dealt to you.
It’s a film rich in humour but also brittle emotions. Ronan shines, as she always does, bringing an earthy authenticity to the movie as the teenager trying to establish her own identity and place in the world in the face of what appears to be a loving but over-controlling mother. This film is one you can come back to time and again: being both funny and real.
A Star Is Born; dir: Bradley Cooper; starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron
A third re-make of a film should leave audiences thinking: ‘So what’s new about this?’ Debut director Bradley Cooper has clearly thought long and hard about this and has served up a remarkable movie that leaves the underpowered 1976 Barbra Streisand version totally redundant. This bang up-to-date movie is a very real examination of fame in the Instagram era. It shows how quickly talent can be spotted, how fame can explode overnight in the age of the internet and once it’s out in the world, how hard it can be to control and what happens to those around you when it becomes all consuming.
The first remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason follows a similar storyline but was more concerned with the relationship between Svengali and protégé rather than Cooper and Gaga’s relationship as lovers then husband and wife. Cooper and Gaga are both outstanding in emotionally demanding roles, the songs which they wrote and performed live, are staggeringly good. Hot favourite for Oscar glory this year.
Black Panther; dir: Ryan Coogler; starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Who would have thought it, a superhero blockbuster that is more about character and plot development than it is about explosive action sequences? Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of running, jumping, boom and bang but that’s not the reason for the film.
It’s a film embedded in its African setting and luxuriates in some wonderful production design as well some powerful acting performances and a script that positively zings with sharp dialogue. Although, the film has a lot to say about African history and the way it has been treated and exploited over the years, it never allows itself to get preachy, instead you are invited to lose yourself in a rich well-told entertaining story that is better because it is so layered and thoughtful – and yes it is still a summer blockbuster.
Darkest Hour; dir: Joe Wright; starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Samuel West
The Second World War is the conflict that just keeps on giving. It continues to provide audiences with cracking stories and actors with meaty roles that they can really sink their teeth into. Darkest Hour delves into those fraught months at the start of 1940 when Churchill had just stepped over the threshold into No 10 and immediately had to engineer the British army’s evacuation from Dunkirk.
Gary Oldman deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal in this heartfelt biography. Although set against a war-time backdrop it is a film with a very intimate feel. We see Churchill not as the nation’s saviour but as a dangerous loose cannon. To balance this we see how his wife Clementine (Scott Thomas) and secretary Elizabeth (James) conspire to tame his more eccentric whims.
Joe Wright delivers a stunning film which displays a great attention to detail and Oldman’s powerhouse performance is echoed by an equally adept supporting cast. Excellent.
Incredibles 2; dir: Brad Bird; starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T Nelson, Samuel L Jackson, Catherine Keener
In the family-friendly world of Pixar The Incredibles was the first animated film that was consciously aimed at an older audience. Kids would still love the colourful action sequences and superhero but the pop culture references – James Bond, Man From Uncle and Vogue editor Anna Wintour – were clearly those of an older audience as was the back ground of the story which centred on retired superheroes trying to live a ‘normal’ life, holding down uninspiring jobs.
The witty, clever film was a huge hit – frequently described as a satire on Hollywood’s obsession with superhero movies – and it took Pixar 14 years to come up with a sequel worthy of the original but it was well worth the wait. As with the first film, the laughs come from the family relationships and the snappy dialogue which also gives the movie an unexpected level of emotional depth, aided by some stunning voice work from some great character actors.
Ready Player One; dir: Steven Spielberg; starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg
Steven Spielberg is back in summer blockbuster territory and immediately shows just why he’s the master of this form of movie-making because he is able to marry spectacle with substance. Ready Player One is Blade Runner for the video game generation: a vision of the future which may (or may not) exist as part of a virtual reality construct.
Our heroes are trapped in an alternate reality trying to solve a game/challenge that may be unsolvable. As with most modern Spielberg movies there are a host of pop culture references to a happier bygone age (in this case the 1980s) but on the flip side the tackles doesn’t shy away from tackling contemporary problems surrounding our dependence on technology and the way it has infiltrated every aspect of our waking lives.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; dir: JA Bayona; starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall
In the 1990s Steven Spielberg created the film juggernaut Jurassic Park. Today that movie has become an epic franchise that continues to build upon Spielberg’s foundations. The current run of films are not so much a critique of genetic engineering as the original film but more of a fun-filled thrill fest with dinosaurs but despite the thin plots and the endless running around (at times it looks more like a video game) the films are efficiently produced, superior thrillers/suspense shockers which provide audiences with an enjoyable night out. After a unsettled, uncertain year in the real world, sometimes all you need is a well-made dinosaur movie.
First Man; dir: Damien Chazelle; starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
We all know Neil Armstrong the icon, the towering historic figure who planted his foot on the moon and uttered that immortal phrase: “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But, who was Neil Armstrong? Who was Neil Armstrong - the man? Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling tell us exactly who he is in this engaging and surprisingly low-key film.
This isn’t The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, although it does share elements of both those pioneering space movies, it’s a quiet but perceptive look at a man haunted by tragedy.
Struggling the come to terms with the death of a much-loved daughter from cancer, test pilot Armstrong (does he have a death wish?) is accepted into the astronaut training programme. We see just how dangerous and experimental the Gemini and then Apollo missions were. Chazelle shoots everything close up, as if you are really in the capsule. Mission Control is barely glimpsed. You are made aware just how little control the astronauts had and what an uncomfortable rough ride it was.
First Man tells us that those modern icons were ordinary men who were driven to do extraordinary things.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; dir: David Yates; starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Zoe Kravitz
One of JK Rowling’s great achievements with the Fantastic Beasts films is that she has managed to explore new areas of Harry Potter’s magical universe without turning them into a predictable sequel. By diving back into the 1920s Rowling can populate her current stories with a collection of new characters while still delving into the rich Potterverse.
This latest instalment tells the story of Grindelwald (Depp) and how he escape prison in order to purge the world of all the Muggles and Mudbloods. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander and we get to meet Dumbledore as a young man, played by Jude Law. The story is told at a fast and furious pace, the effects are spectacular, director David Yates knows his Potter-worlds inside out and produces a satisfyingly exciting tale but the only downside is that there is no proper conclusion as there is still an instalment to come. To be continued...
Bohemian Rhapsody; dir: Bryan Singer; starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy
It’s been a long-time coming, with multiple false starts and changes of director even during production but when it finally arrived Bohemian Rhapsody was a good looking film. With Brian May and Roger Taylor as consultants they got the look of the film exactly right and in Rami Malek an actor who could bring Freddie Mercury to life as a human being rather than a musical cardboard cut-out.
Having Queen on board meant that Singer had access to the mastertapes of Queen’s music which allowed them to blend Malek’s singing voice with Mercury’s to create a satisfying composite.
The film’s narrative is a little uneven with the timing of events getting wildly inaccurate by the film’s dramatic conclusion on stage at Live Aid.
The biggest revelation is Mercury’s seemingly peaceful domestic life with girlfriend Mary Austin (Boynton) during the 1970s. It seems she realised he was gay before he did. Nevertheless, the film does capture the majesty of Queen and the phenomenal stage presence and vocal abilities of Freddie Mercury.
Peterloo; dir: Mike Leigh; starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, David Moorst, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson
British writer-director Mike Leigh is known for producing small-scale movies that are both personal and intimate. Two years ago he created a well received bio-pic of British artist JMW Turner which expanded his cinematic canvas; Leigh must have enjoyed the experience because with Peterloo, he has gone full blockbuster.
It’s an epic movie chronicling the civil upheaval in northern Britain during 1819 and looks at how the British government treated its own people following its victory over Napoleon.
It’s a great looking film, filled with A-grade actors, and you feel part of this outraged crowd when the British authorities turn the might of the military on ordinary working people when they have the audacity to ask for better working and living conditions.
The film is shot hand-held giving the movie a documentary feel while also conjuring up the revolutionary fervour of Les Miserables.
The Happy Prince; dir: Rupert Everett; starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Emily Watson
For director and star Rupert Everett, The Happy Prince has been a labour of love, which has taken more than 10 years to reach the screen. With lush production design, this film traces the last troubled years in Oscar Wilde’s life.
It’s a period he has explored on stage in The Judas Kiss and clearly feels a strong connection to. It’s a touching heartfelt film which sees Everett as Wilde trying to rebuild his life after release from Reading Gaol. Once the toast of London, he is now a pariah and heads off to France but can’t get his deceitful lover Bosie (Morgan) out of his head and eventually falls into a form of impoverished gentility in Italy.
It’s a glorious film, made and told with a lot of love and care. Everett has essentially created a painting on film, a portrait of a much-loved friend.
The Wife; dir: Bjorn Runge; starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Elizabeth McGovern
In this year dominated by the phrase Time’s Up, it’s fitting that one of the best movies of the year, deals with the creative invisibility of women. When you have actors of the calibre of Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce you know that nuanced and commanding performances are going to make this drama rather special.
Pryce plays Joe who is journeying to Stockholm with his family to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. His son (Max Irons) is confused by the fact that he father is overly dismissive of his talent as a writer, particularly as journalist Nathaniel (Slater) is tagging along to write his biography but it becomes clear that wife Joan (Close) may have a larger role to play in his work than supportive wife.
This is a stunning film where much of the drama bubbles away beneath the surface and is given power by looks and understatement. Expect award nominations galore.