In overview for the year, the worst films I watched were burdensome with clichés or else just outright tasteless, while the best films I watched had qualities that were original, quirky and heartfelt. Many of these more favoured films tapped into current global concerns (e.g. the shit-fight of ideologies in the US; relations between the Western world and the non-Western world; the #MeToo, Time’s Up and Black Lives Matters movements; human relationships be it between kids and adults, men and women, or people of different sexual persuasion…it was all there). I think films, even the mainstream ones, were on a whole very positive this year. There was a tendency not to be divisive, but rather a more appropriate stance in being a contributor to the conversation was taken (think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird). Despite the issues of sexual harassment and abuse in the movie industry itself, and the public trend towards using streaming platforms, the subject matter of films around the world is going in the right direction, particularly in Hollywood, Britain and Europe. Anyway, here is my synopsis of the year…
A number of films I watched did not cut the mustard despite a want of trying. Ready Player One from Spielberg was one such example. I know a lot of people liked it and praised it very highly, but I found it all a bit contrived (as I do with most Spielberg films). The film encourages a more ethical universe in a future that is overrun by technology, but I found it quite childish in its outlook and it struggled to capture an appropriate futuristic mood. Then you had another dystopian disappointment from Duncan Jones in Mute, which never got off the ground despite some good initial pitches. I think the money was not forthcoming for Jones but still, the character development was awful and the acting from Alexander Skarsgård and Paul Rudd was just terrible.
I, Tonya was supposed to be a good film according to the reviewers and award juries, but I felt totally let down. Margot Robbie was impressive but the structure and message was off-key. Swimming with Men, a British feel good film about a group of crises-filled fellas who find solace in synchronised swimming, was so bland and boring that I drifted off four or five times while watching it. Finally, Robin has spoken at length about the awfulness of Hereditary and I have not painted a great picture of it myself either, but the biggest problem I had was the sickening, over-the-top appraisal it received, and this unfortunately infiltrated my own judgements. I could not help but question everything in it, in the end concluding it to be a hollow, non-scary attempt at replicating the best horror films from yesteryear.
Worst Film of the Year
Two films almost made this grade. In Dear Dictator, Michael Caine plays a fictional Latin American political leader who is on the run in the US and finds refuge with his gothic teen pen pal. With The Predator, writer-director Shane Black produced an entry into the franchise initiated by the 1980s Arnie classic (which he incidentally starred in). Both of these films were genuinely awful mainly because of their respective attempts to be funny with some pretty challenging material (dictatorships and murdering aliens).
However, I reserve the accolade of worst film of the year for Sicario: Day of the Soldado. What a completely unnecessary and nonsensical sequel! I was not a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve’s overrated original but at least he achieved some good cinematography and story. Day of the Soldado (a ludicrous title to start off with) has neither. There is this repetitive, rumbling soundtrack that never ceases throughout the film, obviously attempting to make proceedings uneasy and tense for the viewer. But if you ask me, this is a cop out. If you cannot achieve intensity and suspense with story, the soundtrack is not going to save you. There is a laughable attempt at realism and I think the start of the film could even be blamed for Trump’s outrageous claims about the Latin American Caravan harbouring terrorists prior to the US mid-term elections. Not even the admirable Del Toro or Brolin could salvage this mess.
Middle of the Roads
You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay was considered to be a genius psychological, morality twister with an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix (to be honest, I think he was better in The Master and Her, but whatever). He plays an intense and troubled hitman with an all-too-close relationship with his mother. I think the intensity that Ramsey brings to the story was all a bit overwhelming, and I am not sure I fully followed it. Panos Cosmatos brought us the acclaimed thriller Mandy and the much lauded performance of Nicolas Cage. It was regarded on the indie scene as some sort of landmark b–grade film that blurred the lines between the artistic and mainstream (as if this has not been done before). The visuals are certainly extraordinary, but like a lot of these violent fantasy films it becomes a chore at times. The profuse masturbation over Nicolas Cage’s performance was quite ridiculous too. There is a nice build-up to the film and there are some great scenes but it is what it is – an average revenge fantasy with lots of pink lights and arty violence.
The Australian Stephen Elliot dazzled the world with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in the mid-1990s, but his latest offering Swinging Safari (also known as Flammable Children on select airlines) was far less dazzling. In fact, it was more disturbing than anything else. Set on the east coast of Australia during a particular hot summer in the 1970s, the film nostalgically taps into a world that may have been common to Aussies who grew up back then. Very much an adult film but told from the perspective of young teens, it displays a hugely questionable, comical approach to child abuse and sexual deviance. The pitch of the film is wildly all over the place but there is a charm in there that makes it somewhat watchable I guess.
Some of the following films have been reviewed elsewhere in this blog, but it would be remiss of me to not indicate how I thoroughly enjoyed them: The Death of Stalin (Armando Ianucci) was majestic satire. Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton) was deeply powerful and a must-see for anyone interested in Australian history. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper) was excellently acted and had great music. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) was a great caper with a devastating epilogue. I was also impressed with A Quiet Place by John Krasinski. Here was a well-crafted horror movie with a empathetic heart, and I would regard it as possibly the best creature feature since District 9 (but Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water wasn’t bad either). The period drama Phantom Thread was another worthy inclusion in the gilded Paul Thomas Anderson catalogue, providing us with perhaps the last performance of the great Daniel Day Lewis. The most memorable scene of the year for me was when Day Lewis’s mild-mannered courtier orders breakfast at a small English tea house in the countryside – glorious stuff.
The Disaster Artist from James Franco came out late last year and was a most enjoyable and playful biographical film about the making of the so-called ‘worst film of all time’. The psychological thriller Beast from newcomer Michael Pearce, set on the island of Jersey and starring the excellent Irish actress Jesse Buckley, was moodily pitched and neatly taut throughout. The story surrounding a young woman’s breaking away from the shackles of her family and getting involved with a mysterious heartthrob was fresh and original. Also this year Disney Pixar gave us the wonderful Coco. Although maintaining some of the well-worn formula of emotion manipulation and happy endings, there is a nice celebration of Mexican culture here, and the animation is beyond fantastic. Finally, there was the film Lucky, which was an appropriate send-off for the legendary Harry Dean Stanton, who died in 2017. Featuring David Lynch as a tortoise-loving barfly and Tom Skerritt as a walk-on World War II veteran, John Carroll Lynch’s subtle and tender portrait of an old man dealing with loneliness and the oncoming certainty of death is as beautiful as you can imagine.
Top Five Films of the Year
My Friend Dahmer (Marc Meyers) – A surprisingly ‘entertaining’ look at the pre-serial killer, teenage years of Jeffrey Dahmer. Based on a graphic novel by cartoonist John Backderf, who is featured in the movie as a high school friend, the film explores the spiralling obsession with death and corpses by the would-be killer. The sick, twisted and macabre horror of Dahmer’s mind is briefly alluded to, but there is a masterstroke here by director Meyers in pitching the film as 1970s-set high school drama instead of being dark and violent.
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – A very touching and poignant treatise about a father and his teenage daughter who live off-grid in remote woods near Portland, Oregon. The evolution of their relationship as they are uprooted from the woods and forced to readjust into society by the authorities is deeply heart-wrenching and heart-warming in equal measure. The mental issues suffered by the father (who served in Iraq) and the realisation of the daughter that her life is better off being connected to the grid is central to the story and it is managed with guile by director Granik.
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh) – A beautiful and hopeful film that centres on a teenager’s journey to find his place in modern-day country America. Charlie Plummer is excellent in the lead role and there are great supporting performances by Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel and Chloë Sevigny. Haigh captures some astounding cinematography of the American countryside and the affectionate relationship between Charley (Plummer) and the racing horse Lean on Pete is the resonating, beating heart of a great story.
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Rarely does the master of quirk and visual symmetry put a foot wrong in my opinion. His latest stop-motion extravaganza journeys to a fantastical world set in a neo-dystopic Japan, where a virus has spread across the dog population prompting them to be quarantined on an island. It is not exactly a kid’s film but in a typical Wes Anderson playful way, it is a unique blend of childlike whimsy and strong familial themes. But most importantly it is a hilarious comedy with great characters and voice-overs (take a bow, Jeff Goldblum), and some astounding artistic set pieces (such as the sushi chef preparing food).
The Florida Project (Sean Baker) – A film that ingeniously juxtaposes the apparent wonder of Disney World with the actual social conditions that resident kids from that part of Orlando have to live with. Willem Dafoe plays the caretaker of ‘The Magic Castle’ – a motel that fronts as a destination for travellers to the theme park but actually houses a number of welfare-dependent residents, two of which are a young, single mother and her daughter (superbly played by Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince respectively). It is a marvellously-handled, character-filled and heartfelt observation of current US socio-economic issues. A must-watch that sits in the highest chair among the films I have seen this year.