As 2018 comes to a close, we hand things over to our Ushers to share their picks from this year’s jam-packed cinema line-up. There certainly was no shortage of things to see and these folks saw it all – so without further ado, here are the films that made their year-end top 10…
1. Leave No Trace by Nirmala Patel
During its run in September, this was the film that came as a welcome surprise to many, becoming the film recommendation which brought many more to see it and called for its extended stay in our cinema. Leave No Trace is an unassuming feature with authentic characterisation and palpable consequences. Just as their previous writer/director collaboration — the acclaimed Winter’s Bone — told of a father and daughter, Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have adapted another novel (My Abandonment by Peter Rock) to depict the father-daughter bond once more.
Father, Will, and daughter, Tom, have set up a life off-the-grid in a national park in Portland, Oregon. We are brought into their habitation on the fringes of society with a sense of the absurdity around this choice and the suggestion that there are difficult reasons for their lives being this way. We learn that Tom’s mother has died and Will is unable to face the grief which is so obviously a factor in his bringing up Tom in confinement from the harsh realities of society. PTSD is another determinant of Will’s reclusive nature and we see this in contrast to Tom’s innocence and curiosity in how she relates to the world around her as a thirteen-year-old. As their living arrangement becomes more impossible, one fateful day results in their dismissal from their unlawful dwelling. It is from here that the story and characters are exposed to new and difficult truths and tests. The coming-of-age character arc of Tom as she discovers society is matched well against Will’s struggle to re-inhabit a regular societal existence as a father carrying prior burdens. Their relationship is then fraught when these conflicting identities emerge.
The performances by Ben Foster and breakout actor Thomasin McKenzie are resounding. As far as the agreement of watching a film possibly allows us to believe, the interplay between them convinces us that they are father and daughter. Certainly, the direction has given the actors a means of conveying the truest sense of the relationship explored, with moments of pleading, bargaining and concern for one another in which the viewer becomes genuinely invested. As the best contemporary screenplays deliver, this piece relays a wealth of information about the characters without needing to press plot points for dramatic impact. The viewer is experiencing the tenderness and severity of moments right within the scenes; there is no exaggerated music or sensationalist prompt to induce feeling, leaving for the lived experience of being an audience to this tactful film.
The pace of the film is steady, which gives space for the viewer to form attachment to Will and Tom and their journey. Tonally, there exists acute frustration alongside emphatic hope throughout the scenes. The frustrations are that this sincere father-daughter bond, that we connected to at the start of the film, can be questioned and tested so instantly; the hope is that a change in circumstances is forcing the characters to confront a different future where perhaps they can truly exist in harmony with their environment.
2. You Were Never Really Here by Suzanne Smith
When the trailer tells you it’s a bit like something else, it’s not usually a good sign. Being a bit like something else is seldom brilliant, even if it’s a bit like Taxi Driver. The premise of both films is certainly very similar (white male loner becomes embroiled in attempting to rescue young white girl from sexual exploitation) but these are very different films, and You Were Never Really Here is indeed brilliant.
It is a whole body experience. You feel enveloped in something astonishing. Immersed. It was You Were Never Really Here‘s sensuality rather than its violence that amazed me, and strangely reminded me of the similarly immersive, but much gentler worlds of Cate Shortland’s Somersault or Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Lynne Ramsay was a photographer before becoming a film director and this is evident in her visual language — you can almost feel the softness of the furnishings and the warmth of the light through a window. Its incessant visual richness means a moment focusing on the crushing of a jelly bean sweet becomes empathic rather than try-hard. The film’s imagery is so tender that it keeps you watching when you really want to look away. Jonny Greenwood’s incredible (almost visceral) soundtrack is at once comforting and terrifying, and works to hold you in every moment no matter how tense.
Through all this Ramsay questions the audience’s willingness to side with Joaquin Phoenix’s character — a man who we learn has experienced horrific trauma, a man who lives with (and loves) his mother, but a man who is capable of extraordinary violence. The story-line is disturbing, but start to think of an ‘afterwards’ and it becomes even more troubling.
3. Phantom Thread by Katie Caunt
Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is simply outstanding and a masterpiece of filmmaking. I had no idea what to expect on my first viewing but by the end credits I had been thoroughly blown away on both a technical and emotional level. The cinematography is stunning, the costume design gorgeous, and the entire ensemble is beautifully enveloped by Jonny Greenwood’s breath-taking score. But the stand-out feature of this masterful accomplishment is the phenomenal performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville. Although the ever-impressive Day-Lewis is technically playing the lead in the role of the demanding and somewhat peculiar Reynolds Woodcock, both Krieps and Manville deliver equally commanding and exceptional performances as Alma (Krieps) and Reynolds’ sister, Cyril (Manville).
It’s a rare joy these days to encounter a film with the right balance of delicacy, complexity and profundity in terms of character development and narrative, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s script coupled with the incredible talent of the three leading actors does all this and so much more. Verbosity is spared here. Instead, dialogue and character interaction are cleverly executed through succinct but powerful and memorable lines, and deep and penetrating emotions rendered through the subtlest of gestures, facial expressions and physical quirks. Another delightful surprise is how funny the film is in certain places, and both Day-Lewis and Manville get to deliver some fantastically sharp lines. One of my favourites is during a breakfast scene where Cyril acerbically quips to her petulant brother without even batting an eyelid: ‘don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?’
Without a doubt, not only one of my top ten films of the year, but of all time.
4. Shoplifters by Ellen Smith
Shoplifters is another characteristically outstanding examination of family dynamics from Hirokazu Kore-eda, with focus this time on the idea of chosen family and how this may operate on the margins of contemporary Japanese society. The family in question are all brilliantly performed by the film’s ensemble cast, who strengthen the film’s naturalistic, effortless style. Despite the warmth that this unit seems to provide, the walls feel as though they are constantly closing in on their methods, and once finally they do, Kore-eda repeatedly pulls the rug from under the viewer, asking us to reassess certain ideas in the film we thought we already knew. This is truly intelligent, challenging filmmaking, confirming Hirokazu Kore-eda as one of the most interesting directors at work today.
5. 120BPM by Ellen Smith
Robin Campillo’s radical, essential and impeccably made drama 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), set against the backdrop of early 90s French AIDS activism, seamlessly meshes the personal with the political to ultimately devastating yet life-affirming effect. The film positions you among members of Act Up Paris, dedicating equal time to the group’s ferocious direct action on pharmaceutical companies and to their planning in endless meetings, rightfully depicting even the minor yet vital details involved in organising. Alongside the unrelenting activism, the film also makes space for one of the most authentic and tender gay love stories in recent memory, between Act Up firebrand Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), as well as pulsating dance club scenes (one of which features an excellent use of a remix of Bronski Beat’s queer anthem Smalltown Boy).
It also has some unexpectedly funny moments, which serve to break up the drama but also add to the film’s authenticity, capturing the playful irreverence and self-deprecation that often comes with queer resilience. This is an overdue, honest memorialisation of a time of great tragedy and anger for LGBTQ+ people — and one that, crucially, rejects any kind of victimisation or sentimentality. Instead, 120 BPM manages to be equally joyful as it is devastating, to be vibrant and visually kinetic, negotiating the intersection of queer activism, comradeship, sex and dance.
6. Wajib by Hussain Ussaili
I couldn’t find a more befitting way to set the stage for this film, than with these lines of poetry by the late, great Tunisian Aboul Qassem El Shabi:
“If, one day, the people wills to live,
Then fate must obey.
Darkness must dissipate,
And must the chains give way —
And he who is not embraced by life’s longing,
Evaporates into its air and fades away.”
Wajib subtly confronts this question and begins, residing exactly in the middle of this poem, when we are introduced to Abu Shadi and Shadi — a Christian father and his estranged adult son — charged with Palestine’s age-old Nazarene custom of personally delivering wedding invitation’s on behalf of their family’s bride-to-be. With this journey, there gradually ensues a tug of war between a father’s love, his pride striving infinitely with hope, and a resentful son seeking a dignity of life denied to him in his native land. Director Annemarie Jacir reveals the political angst which blights this country, woven with a familiar comity allowing the viewer to appreciate the film’s humour and humanity, whilst remaining vested in the position of the characters and the social dynamics of Palestine. The hidden gem of 2018.
7. Lady Bird by Rosemary Millbank
Lady Bird, an outstanding debut by writer-director Greta Gerwig, is a classic coming of age tale about home, love and self-discovery that champions women. We follow Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) through classic milestones in a teen’s life; applying to college, first boyfriends, deciding who and what she wants to be, but in Gerwig’s tale there is no cliché. Honest, complex and difficult relationships drive the film, in particular Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). We see Lady Bird’s adolescence from both their perspectives in a clash of wildness and ambition versus sensibility and safety, and their attempts to accommodate their differences to maintain their deep bond of love.
Lady Bird desperately wants to be more than she is, to have more, to know more, and is tearing at the confines of the home that she believes is keeping her from becoming her aspiration of herself. When her perspective evolves, we see her gain appreciation for her upbringing and reconciles it with where she wants to go next. The early 2000s suburban Sacramento setting, with its dreamy palette of pastels and blues, will feel nostalgic for some but oh-so-familiar to others, whilst also presenting challenging issues surrounding sex, loyalty and identity as fresh, current and widely relevant. This highly critically acclaimed and fully-realised accomplishment will be cherished as a detailed and thoughtful classic.
8. A Fantastic Woman by Jamie Starboisky
“I want to invite you to open your heart and your feelings to feel the reality, to feel love,” said actress Daniela Vega at the 2018 Oscars ceremony. Her role in the Oscar-winning Chilean film A Fantastic Woman drew me in to the sincere love, loss and reality many transgender women face today. Playing Marina, whose romance with Orlando crosses generations, she faces a society that looks at the both of them with contempt and through a discriminating lens of perversion. Marina must burst through day-to-day life’s micro-aggressions with grace, dignity and defiance — taking on the world and facing the wind of hatred with style and sequins.
Life is tough for trans people, but director Sebastián Lelio gives to the world Marina Vidal: a trans woman who fights her corner as difficult times for her and Orlando draw near. With this, Marina gives anyone (whether cisgender or trans) a heartfelt, empowering representation of a fierceness that we would all want to have ready when we have to stand up for someone we truly love.
9. Zama by Marie-Claire Cadillac
Zama, adapted from the 1956 novel by Argentinian author Antonio Di Benedetto, tells the dreamlike story of Don Diego de Zama — a proud if beleaguered agent of western colonialism — as he waits for a letter from the king, granting his transfer from the town in which he is stagnating to a better place.
Zama is an absurdist figure. The muting and framing of the indigenous people and animals amidst the colonisers, exquisitely draws out the comedic aspects of their predicament. It is very funny in places yet the brutalism is very real. Beneath the veneer of an incoherent plot, there is a deep intelligence, revealing itself through a poetic magnificence imbued in every scene by distinctive use of visuals and sound.
I succumbed to this film’s hypnotic power, beguiling rhythm and intensity. An understated masterpiece, revealing a little of the secrets of this world. I left the cinema in a state of reverie, or was it fever? Either way, I was intoxicated. This is precise and extraordinary filmmaking from Argentinian director Lucretia Martel.
10. I, Tonya by Chloe Beale
I, Tonya is a story about a woman refusing to be defined by every preconception heaped upon her gender and class in 1970s America. Labelled as white trash, Tonya Harding — played with real grit by Margot Robbie — struggles within a viscous cycle of poverty for the whole of her early life. The story exemplifies what it is to be born into a family with no money in one of the harshest capitalist economies in the world. From her verbally and psychologically abusive mother LaVona, played by a brutal Allison Janney, to her physically abusive partner Jeff Gillooly, played convincingly by Sebastian Stan, Tonya spends much of her early life battling not only her closest family but the ice-skating league itself. She is continually ridiculed and discriminated against in favour of her more conforming, albeit less talented competitors.
With a wicked soundtrack and some particularly fantastic skating scenes (Tonya was known for skating to more unconventional tracks, as portrayed in the scene where Robbie skates to ZZ Top) this film gives a bitingly visceral and unrelenting representation of one woman’s journey through a traumatic upbringing. It examines her subsequent relationship with competitive ice skating, as well as the events leading up to the biggest scandal the sport had ever seen. Interwoven with direct interviews with characters (the interviews this film was based upon, albeit potentially loosely) this film epitomises the notion of an unreliable narrator. Everyone has their own story, and these guys are absolutely sticking to theirs.