These films won’t hurt you, they won’t hurt you.
Welcome back to this year’s rundown of My Top 20 Films of the Year. Yesterday, as is tradition, we blazed on through the first half of the list and if you missed that or need a refresher of what came before, then you can click on over here to go get that. Today, we’re covering #10 to #6. So, I’ll say a little a prayer for you…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
TW: Depression talk.
10] Isle of Dogs
Dir: Wes Anderson
Star: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig (voices)
On paper, Wes Anderson returning to the medium of stop-motion animation nearly a decade after his still-fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation – one which initially rankled me due to being my first exposure to Wes Anderson and being a super-protective Roald Dahl moppet, but with time and personal age has matured into a modern classic – seemed like a sure bet for a good time heading into 2018. But 2018 demonstrated a knack at every turn for knocking down the entire concept of sure bets. We got a Mamma Mia sequel and it was actually a genuinely fun time at the movies, we got an Incredibles sequel and it was forgettable, we got a James Corden-voiced Peter Rabbit which mistook Beatrix Potter for Bugs Bunny and it somehow turned out DULL instead of infuriating! In many respects not pertaining to quality, Isle of Dogs actually continues the year’s streak of subverting expectations by, whilst still being brilliant and still recognisably Wes Anderson in many of its aesthetics and dialogues, being an old-fashioned samurai drama trojan-horsed into cinemas under the guise of both a Wes Anderson movie and a funny talking-dog movie.
Anderson’s been on a proper creative hot-streak since the comparative disappointment of The Darjeeling Limited, managing to pull off the somewhat bizarre and equally impressive feat of simultaneously burrowing further into his niche and stylistic tics whilst also pushing his scope and ambition wider than ever to try new things. Nobody is going to mistake Isle of Dogs for the work of a filmmaker other than Wes Anderson: the meticulous angular set design and shot compositions, the clipped writerly dialogue delivered in an exclusively dry deadpan manner, the judicious usage of every colour under the sun, the division of the narrative into chapters punctuated by title cards and disembodied narration, the regular roster of Anderson’s companions who fill out the voice cast, and the various deliberate quirks (like superfluous subtitles or the announcement that “all barks are rendered in English”) that those with a propensity to dunk on Anderson will take as more fuel for their extremely-incorrect arguments that he’s all quirky flash and no depth.
But not only is it rather comforting to watch a film in 2018 with an instantly discernible identity that stands out from the pack, heaven forfend that a director try to inject some of their own personality into their works instead of just shooting around the pre-vis scenes that the Second Unit has to fill in months in advance, Anderson’s in actuality feinting here. Isle of Dogs may look like your typical Wes Anderson outing, but in practice it’s his most daring movie yet. A samurai parable in the vein of works by Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Gosha, especially in the latter’s frequently anti-feudal stance, it’s also his most political movie yet, building upon the parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel that were tainted by the encroachment of fascism upon the lives of Gustav and Zero to comment on government-sanctioned societal discrimination, totalitarianism, and nationalism. And whilst one may read the obvious in them thanks to the timing of Dogs’ production and release, Anderson instead roots his contemporary messages specifically in Japanese history and culture, a nation that’s had a long (and often personally shameful) history with far-right extremism and nationalism most specifically, in the case of Dogs’ reference points, in the pre-WWII years of Emperor Hirohito.
Admittedly, that’s a minefield I have no business speaking within given my being who I am – Emily Yoshida and Moeko Fujii are two specific examples of people far better versed on this topic digging deep into the subjects of whether Isle of Dogs culturally appropriates or is regressive in its depiction of Japanese culture and the Japanese language. But, the regrettable character of Tracey aside (even if the degree of her standing as a White Saviour has definitely been blown out of proportion), I really do think Anderson put in the hard work to meaningfully engage with Japanese history and culture throughout Isle of Dogs. Even the decision to leave the Japanese dialogue unsubtitled very much works to make a point about the relationships we have with other people and how language is only a barrier to relationships and communication should we not make an effort to understand at least the sentiment if we’re unable to learn the language. After all, dogs are able to understand us with effort as we are also able to understand them with effort. Yes, the dogs are a metaphor, well done Callum on figuring that out, we all know you took Film Studies for three years. But it’s true and, importantly, the language barrier doesn’t stop Atari from being an endearing character or Mayor Kobayashi from being a fascinating antagonist.
I’m not sure if it’s Wes Anderson’s best film this decade, but I do think Isle of Dogs is his riskiest, most beautiful, surprising, and thematically-rich work of the 2010s. I haven’t even talked about the omnipresent condemnation of our wasteful and ignorant attitudes towards environmental pollution, or the fantastic stop-motion animation, or what is easily Bryan Cranston’s best performance post-Breaking Bad, or just how dryly hilarious such a melancholic movie can be… At least one sure bet came through this year: the animated Wes Anderson flick was excellent.
Dir: Jon M. Chu
Star: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
Growing up, I loved ostensibly “girly” things. Pink was a cool colour, dolls were fun to play with, dancing in a leotard to S Club Juniors as part of a brief stint in an after-Primary School club was not in the slightest bit embarrassing or regrettable. I attribute this to both my Mum being the more constant presence in my childhood (my parents divorced when I was 5 and my Dad would mostly have us on weekends in an arrangement that eventually loosened up) and the fact that the overwhelming majority of my friends were girls. But then you “mature” and society and social cliques start getting touchy and disdainful about things made primarily for women, so I unlearned my love of “girly” things and tried on more masculine traits (as did many of my still-mostly-female circle of friends) in spite of my feeling extremely ill-fitting within those metaphorical clothes and still striding around the place claiming to be a feminist despite a teenaged scoff-ery of “girly” things and not knowing much about feminism other than “equal rights” like an insufferable goddamn fucking idiot.
One of my favourite things over the last half-decade of doing this Film Critic schtick for as-close-to-real-as-I’m-ever-going-to-get, plus a general half-decade of personal growth and development, has been rediscovering my love for ostensibly “girly” media. Falling back in love with the sugariest of Pop music, my irresistible desire for High School movies and soapy teen dramas, my enjoyment of unashamedly girly cartoons. But, most of all, having my passion for cheesy rom-coms reignited. I used to voraciously consume these back in my pre-teenage years just as my love of movies was properly firing up but before I got deep into Secondary School and became A Stupid Goddamn Teenager; Friday and Saturday nights where my me, my Mum and my brother would all sit down together watching Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Four Weddings and all that good (and also bad) stuff. They appeal to the inner-romantic within me, offering up a fantasy of hard-fought but unconditional love and companionship via grand gestures that are able to communicate personal feelings I am utterly incapable of doing on even a tenth of their scale in real life – I have trouble communicating with people, in general, is my point here. I recognise the harmful reductivism inherent in their construction and psychological manipulation that warps general ideas of how romance works in reality, yet I still deep down want that all to happen to me. And since it never will, I can get that feeling vicariously through movies.
2018’s seen what will hopefully be the start of a full-blown resurgence of the rom-com movement, largely thanks to Netflix’s Summer of Love where the service dropped 11 original rom-coms over the season to apparently-great success. This pleased me greatly, even when the films were mediocre or (mostly) bad – in fact, real talk, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was the only actually good one of those I’ve gotten around to seeing, but that singlehandedly raised Netflix’s batting average something fierce – but nothing pleased me more than when I saw Crazy Rich Asians and FINALLY, after an absolute age, got to witness a great proper studio rom-com on the screen again. Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s brilliant satirical novel may be a simpler and baser beast than Kwan’s much deeper balancing act, condensing many characters and plotlines whilst largely jettisoning the class and wealth satire because this is a Jon M. Chu movie did you really think he wasn’t going to revel in ostentatious extravagance, but it’s equally as entertaining. Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli’s screenplay is sharp and witty, Chu’s direction is typically extravagant and impossibly fun, Constance Wu immediately became my favourite Movie Star actress whom I want appearing in every blockbuster for all-time, and Asians is 100% unashamed of its rom-com lineage, draping itself proudly in the trappings of the genre’s late-90s/early-00s heyday and playing every scene no matter how cliché completely earnestly. I damn-near cheered when Chu cuts to an establishing shot of an airport in the climax because I knew what was coming and welcomed every second of it!
Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com through and through executed in exemplary fashion; I hope whomever wrote Astrid’s big kiss-off line at the end of her subplot took the rest of the month off and got fifteen raises for that, it’s like the bit in Love, Actually where Emma Thompson tells Alan Rickman to fuck off but without having to slog through mounds of intolerable shit either side of it. But it’s also a surprisingly deep examination of Asian-American identity, of feeling like an unwelcome tourist in your own heritage despite also feeling like an outsider in the other half of your identity. A quietly damning critique of status families looking down upon others. Of two people not as different from one another as they would like to think, Eleanor practically gift-wrapping Michelle Yeoh one of the best roles of her storied career. The film mines laughs from this existential dysphoria thanks to both Wu’s natural straight-woman instincts and Awkwafina’s scene-stealing work as her best friend, it mines truly affecting drama thanks to Wu’s innate likeability and a beautifully-handled relationship with her birth mother (played brilliantly by Tan Kheng Hua), and it does so entirely within the confines of a regular studio rom-com formatting thereby demonstrating a seemingly White-centric genre’s malleability to other identities and viewpoints.
It just makes me so warm and fuzzy inside watching Crazy Rich Asians. I have been waiting years for a movie like this. An unabashed, unashamed, no-bullshit rom-com like they used to make. No raunchiness, no Indie dramedy trappings, no Apatow-isms, coming straight out of a major Hollywood studio’s loins and being properly genuinely brilliant. Here’s hoping the transition period that Film has been making this year precludes even more movies like Crazy Rich Asians coming down the pipeline soon enough.
Dir: Cory Finley
Star: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin
I can understand why a majority of critics have forgotten about Thoroughbreds by the time we finally reached the end of this miserable year. I myself keep forgetting that it was released this year but that’s because I originally saw the film at the 2017 London Film Festival so I keep mentally rolling it in with last year’s banner selection of movies by accident. Even then, though, I get why critics have largely forgotten it or why more general audiences may come out completely ambivalent to it all. I had the misfortune of my first 2018 viewing coming from a Hull Independent Cinema screening where the audience lured in by the ceaselessly repeated (and wholly inaccurate) logline of “American Psycho meets Heathers” and a truly misrepresentative thumping trailer instead rustled disinterestedly in their seats at the deliberately-paced, small-scale, off-kilter, blackly-comic character piece that Thoroughbreds really is. These kinds of small character dramas alternately confound general audiences and entertain film buffs/critics but soon get drowned out by louder and more outwardly-prestigious movies within a few months.
And that’s ultimately a shame, I feel, because I’ve now seen Thoroughbreds thrice and had a blast each and every time. I still stand by my assessment that writer-director Cory Finley’s debut is an absolute riot from start to finish, but further viewings have me clarifying said “riot” as being less a wild and unpredictable laugh-a-minute thrill-ride and instead more the droll outsider who can verbally cut down the nonsense of the party raging around them via one perfectly-timed quip without ever having to raise their voice. Finley’s satire of the obscenely wealthy upper-class is sharply observed and cuts deep like fibre-wire, plastered all over the walls of the gaudy set-design in the McMansion of Lily and her absolute dick of a stepfather, audible in Taylor-Joy and Cooke’s contemptuous line deliveries and the utterly bored and detached manners with which they carry themselves, and tangible in the hermetic vacuum that Taylor sets his story in and accompanying feel he brings behind the camera. His script is one that lives in those additional details: it wasn’t until my third viewing that I Googled where Amanda says Tim is actually from (Westchester) and that reveal of it being New York’s second-most affluent county made Tim’s blustering “you think you’re better than me?” holier-than-thou routine even more hypocritical and hilarious, the pathetic squeals of a man dumped from his privilege because of his own stupid (statutory rape-related) actions refusing to take responsibility and moaning like he’s some kind of martyr.
It’s a movie that sneaks up on you. The kind where the ideal circumstance for one’s first viewing is going in blind with no preconceptions and just letting it slowly unfurl its true colours, subsequent viewings resultantly highlighting the control and purposefulness in Finley’s filmmaking. Thoroughbreds is a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of fat on it, where every beat between dialogue lines has been precisely calculated for maximum impact, Erik Friedlander’s awkward approximation of what could charitably be described as a “score” contorting itself in real-time attempting to figure out what the film’s endgame could be even though there’s only one possible outcome in retrospect. Cooke and Taylor-Joy perfectly compliment each other in both character and performance – Cooke’s Amanda being a self-confessed emotionless sociopath who nevertheless seems more present than she’s willing to admit; Taylor-Joy’s Lily being high-strung from her refusal to relax and admit her sociopathy amid a growing realisation that she enjoys bathing in her privilege – offering like-minded yet still fundamentally different takes on privileged sociopathy and some of the most scintillating chemistry of the year.
Yes, because despite the acidic front that Taylor puts up, he does have a sort of soft spot at his centre. The question of how sincere the relationship between Lily and Amanda is becomes complicated by Taylor’s remove and ambiguity, but there really does seem to be something humanising at the film’s core. A connection of sorts between the two that, for all the scornful barbs they throw at everyone and everything and the layers upon layers of irony with which both play their respective roles in social functions (Amanda’s reliance upon “the technique” to help her blend in during situations heavy on the crying), does seem to be born out of a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. Even if it’s only because they don’t have to pretend or play-act various roles around each other, they tangibly relax into themselves in a way that I personally can’t help but find kind of heartwarming. Like, they may be horrible self-absorbed people hiding from their problems via fat stacks of money, high-powered lawyers, and eventually just murdering those issues, but it really is not like everyone else around them is much better. Mark’s arguably right when he firmly tells Lily that she’s a spoilt bitch who needs knocking around by life for a while, but Mark’s also a selfish sociopathic prick who’s clearly never tried connecting with Lily and also hunts and murders lions for recreation; it’s not like he’s a moral arbiter of anything.
Mostly, though, Thoroughbreds is just a lot of fun. When I talked about it around the London Film Festival, I did so by comparing it to a Michael Haneke film primarily because I saw it immediately after the indescribably dull rehash of Haneke’s own Happy End and sometimes things work out that way. But my other logline, arguably more accurate than the one Focus’ marketing team latched onto, and which I still stand by a year on was “Frances Ha but for upper-class sociopathy.” Whatever logline it might take to get you to see Thoroughbreds, though, just go and see Thoroughbreds cos it’s brilliant.
Dir: Alex Garland
Star: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac
The first time I watched Annihilation, I was often confused and somewhat disappointed. I spent much of Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort, a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 science-fiction novel, unsure of where it was going and what it was trying to say or explore, and not in a good way like when a tricksy narrative wrongfoots you in surprising fashion. More in a “this is all absolutely gorgeous to look at with atmosphere for days and everything, but what is it all supposed to be in service of?” It wasn’t until the bear attack and Lena’s subsequent trip into the lighthouse that things sort of snapped into place for me, as it became clear that the entire movie was a metaphor for various people going through depression and humanity’s innate capacity for self-destruction. That last third saved me from writing off the movie as a disappointment and left me with a lot to think on, but I still felt like Annihilation was a very confused mess of a thing that didn’t fully hang together – “so, if The Shimmer is meant to be a metaphor for depression and the ways in which people respond to it, both ill and less ill, how the fuck does the bear play into that?” and other such questions. I found it to bizarrely be the exact reverse of a typical Alex Garland work – a man who almost exclusively writes fantastic thematically and character-rich stories that fall to utter shits come the ending for once having a messy and inconsistent work be heavily redeemed by a blinder of an ending.
Except here’s the thing: Annihilation stuck with me. And I’m not just talking the next few days following on from its initial Netflix release where my other new cinematic tastes consisted of a dull forgettable disaster of a Peter Rabbit adaptation, a dull forgettable disaster of a Tomb Raider adaptation, and a pretty decent but not especially memorable Ready Player One adaptation. No, Annihilation stuck with me for the rest of the year. Even before I finally pulled my finger out and got around to the rewatch for Listmas season, I couldn’t shake Annihilation. Something or some things about it just would not let me go, and I’m not solely talking about my own oft-mentioned issues with depression making me more receptive (and sensitive) to works of art that explore the illness. Something about Garland’s tone and atmosphere kept the film lingering in the back of my brain, that crushing, oppressive, dreamlike weight which runs through its veins at every step even before the effects of The Shimmer start turning somewhat malevolent. And the confrontation Lena has with the alien double inside of the lighthouse, haunting in its encapsulation of the existentially frightening concept of personal development and great change.
In a year where films often didn’t matter, where they actively aimed for being non-descript timewasters rather than anything built to last, I treasured having a film that would never quite leave my head. One which grew in stature with the increasing distance from that first viewing as my brain pondered over Annihilation’s many layers ever more. The various ways in which we human beings choose to self-destruct for whatever reason – Lena’s affair with Daniel, Kane’s taking on of what had already been known as a suicide mission seemingly as a response to that, Josie’s past drug addiction with her various scars ravaging her body. How much witnessing our evolution into something different, regardless of whether that change is good or bad, ends up activating our basest conservative instincts. Our tribal capacity to assume the worst in everything. The bizarre beauty and violent terror of untainted nature. The futile desire to explain the unexplainable and know the unknowable and how it can consume us completely from the inside.
A second viewing in the dying days of the year finally cemented Annihilation’s place on this list, even if my general sentiments of the film never truly coming together until its second-half and the mixture between existential arthouse horror and visceral B-movie body horror feeling somewhat at odds with one another haven’t particularly changed. But knowing where it all leads and having had that additional reflection period does make the first half come alive and resonate more than it did the first time around. Garland switches from the oppressively tight and clean visual décor of his debut turn behind the camera, Ex Machina, to something much wider in scope and messier. Not so much grimier, since Michelle Day’s distressingly beautiful set decoration – tableaus of nature reclaiming what once was by bursting out from the insides of a humanity which first tamed and then systematically destroyed it – is a sea of colour in all the best worst ways, like a Lisa Frank work as envisioned by H. R. Giger. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score reflecting the alien beauty of the expedition’s descent further into the Shimmer. Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh injecting unique emotion and feeling into deliberately underwritten characters. Natalie Portman continuing her mid-career renaissance with a fascinatingly complex central performance.
We don’t get films like Annihilation very often, we never have, and I am very grateful for it even if I honestly think it’s still kind of a mess. But the fact of that mess dissipates from my memories over time. What remains is the haunting. The intangible. The anxious fear that comes from deeply grappling with theoretical concepts in ways that reject simplistic emotional responses. In many respects, it makes for a perfect companion piece with our next entry…
06] First Reformed
Dir: Paul Schrader
Star: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
I find it hard to watch the news nowadays. My brain – my stupid, awful, Asperger’s and clinical anxiety and clinical depression-riddled, broken brain – catastrophises what is not immediately present and tangible. Certainties like aging and a person’s eventual death, theoretical concepts like an afterlife or there being some higher form of existence watching over us, undeniable alarmist truths like imbecilic government policies and economic downturns for all but the richest and the likely-irreversible effects of global warming that we individuals seemingly cannot do anything about. These all trigger my brain into having full-blown panic attacks that I cannot stop, they have done ever since I was a child and first seriously thought about the concept of death at age 11, and they have only gotten worse in recent years even after I went to therapy with the expressed desire to learn techniques that might enable me to become a somewhat-functional human being again. So, despite the fact that I want to because I want to remain informed and politically active, I find it hard to watch the news nowadays because I cannot stop being triggered: Brexit, cancer research, economic downturns, the near-certainty that global warming may wipe us all out within my lifetime, social care crises, old people in general…
Despite all of my neuroses’ best efforts, I haven’t managed to fall into despair just yet, perhaps because I fear of how bitter and horrible I may become should that occur. Paul Schrader’s bleak, miserable First Reformed is all about what happens when someone gives in totally to that kind of despair, albeit filtered through the prism of Schrader’s personal favourite subject: Catholic guilt. The result may be the most difficult to watch film of the year (and that’s really saying something given my #5 entry) but it’s also one of the compelling, one of the most skin-crawlingly terrifying if you’re anything like me (I hope for your sake you’re not anything like me), and Schrader’s best film of the century. A deep dive into the sensation of powerless despair, of becoming so caught up in the desire for divine meaning to retroactively assuage the guilt of one’s own mistakes that it spirals into a self-destructive dive from which escape is next-to-impossible, and how a self-centred refusal to ever allow oneself the chance to be happy or to look at life with the correct sense of perspective pushes everyone around you away and cements your downfall.
That’s an incredibly nasty trick which First Reformed plays on its audience, starting out introducing the Rev. Toller (Hawke putting in perhaps the best performance to date of his storied career) as someone who has lost faith thanks to his depression then, rather than further our sympathies, instead worming ours away from him by slowly revealing how surprisingly unlikeable he can be. Even with that being Schrader’s bread and butter (insert needless reminder about his having penned Taxi Driver and Raging Bull here), it’s uncomfortable to discover that Toller is a man enslaved to his self-persecution with no desire to better himself in any meaningful way and turning genuinely nasty when anyone other than Mary (Seyfried investing life into a character whom a lesser film would have only engaged with on her merits as a red-herring MPDG) tries to reach out to him. That his connection with Michael is born less out of concern for a man on the brink and more out of how, selfishly, theologically debating with the man brings Toller momentarily back to life – being, in his own words relayed via extracts from the journal he writes in throughout the movie, albeit eventually breaking every one of his initially laid-out rules, “exhilarating” – and an unaddressed kinship that informs Toller’s embrace of Michael’s radicalised stances on environmentalism once the latter kills himself. That he’d rather self-destruct than face his past and present, taking many innocents with him in the process.
And it’s an especially nasty trick because I can understand how he’d get that way. Schrader’s screenplay is unsparing in its study of Toller, plumbing the depths of his mind and making sure to tug on his every anxiety and negative thought so we the viewers can understand the man better than he understands himself. Hawke embodying a tragic yet unpleasant man coming apart at the seams from the mother of all existential crises like he’s barely acting at all. And myself bringing my own baggage to this movie, noticing my own changes over the years and my own slides in the direction of despairing bitterness, recoiling from the realisation that the worst of my panic attacks and the darkest moments of my depression aren’t a whole lot different from the nihilistic narcissism of Michael and the stubborn self-flagellating righteousness of Toller – although at least I can say that I’m not literally drinking drain cleaner. Whilst in the margins of such an austere, uncompromising Academy-ratio character study, Schrader also takes aim at society’s disregard towards climate change, the privatisation of religious spaces by mega-corporations that only invest as a way to put forward a false image of benevolence (as Balq Oil does for both the mega-church Abundant Life and the sparsely-attended tourist trap of First Reformed), and the inherent selfishness of martyrdom.
First Reformed is a crushing, exhausting watch that can trigger me in much the same way trying to watch the news nowadays does. But it is also undeniably one of the very best movies released this year and, for as utterly bleak and uncomfortable as it may be, also one of the most hypnotic with an ending whose smash cut to black sends chills down my spine each time I see it. What does it take to shock a despairing man out of their destructive spiral and, most importantly, could it actually take?
Tomorrow: we close out this year’s countdown with My Top 5 of 2018.
Callum Petch is in distress, he needs a caress.