2018: An Exquisitely Bad Trip

What a strange year 2018 has been – uninspiring on the blockbuster front, time and time again I’ve made exasperated comments about the nosedive in film quality compared to last year. But in arthouse and crossover circles, cinema has thrived, producing no end of strange, idiosyncratic pieces of work that cosmically align to form a very ‘2018’ constellation. Dark, ambiguous, and beautiful, these slices of hazy sound and colour refract modern anxiety through a nostalgic prism to draw psychological links between times of trauma.

There are, unlike most years, common threads running through this best-of list. 70% of the following films could be classed as horror, and the other 30% all have tinges of that genre, or of the supernatural. Five of them are outright hallucinogenic experiences, whilst at least two are drifting, dreamy pieces of work that play heavily on the subconscious. Somewhat oddly, three of them also feature orgiastic mid-film title drops.

Like a paranoiac searching for meaning in the crazed scribbles of a madman, I’m convinced there’s some sort of astronomical, profound explanation for these coincidences. Then again, maybe not. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: these pictures are so powerful, so heady that if you were to pull an all-nighter marathon with them, you’d be in danger of an overdose.

10. Let the Corpses Tan

Cattet and Forzani found their stride this year with a movie that kept all of their giallo weirdness whilst finding a simple, followable structure (a shoot-out) to keep complaints of incoherence at bay.

Let the Corpses Tan is brain-melting, drug-fuelled, hyper-stylised fun: a synesthesic trip into a delirious dream. It’s a perfect midnight movie: shockingly violent, beautifully presented, and yet elegantly simple. Of course, it’s not for everybody, but if you’re up for a heady dose of sex and gore, washed over by every in-camera and practical effect under the sun, then it’s one of the most rollicking, crazy rides you’ll have this year.

 

9. Possum

Possum is like Nic Roeg on crack. Matthew Holness’s switch from comedic masterpiece Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace to bleak terror wasn’t expected, but sure was welcome when it came to wake me the fuck up at EIFF2018. Convincingly produced in a late-70s British horror style, it often feels like some forbidden VHS artifact found in a waste bin on an industrial estate: an eerie, suffocating slice of audience terrorism. But, most of all, it features some of the most terrifying images of the year: ones that will play, and replay, through your subconscious; things that you’ll see in dark corners of dark rooms; things that still haven’t left me, many months later. I wonder if they ever will.

 

8. Annihilation

Aptly named, Annihilation will sadly be remembered as the first victim of online streaming, ripped from theatres and poorly transplanted to Netflix without even reaching the silver screen in the UK. Nevertheless, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follow-up poses a compelling, psychedelic interpretation of Jeff VanderMeer’s almost indescribable vision.

Building to a full-on 30-minute trip sequence, sound-tracked by an instantly iconic score, Annihilation may feature several undercooked segments, but more than makes up for it with its wealth of nightmarish, Lovecraftian ideas: the dying screams of a woman refracted into the voice of a bear; human remains splayed into an exploded diagram by multi-coloured, phosphorescent fungi; shivering, wriggling intestines fighting to leave their host’s body.

It’s eerie, repulsively beautiful stuff that poses an extra-terrestrial encounter that humanity, and by extension the audience, cannot understand – a surreal experience so alien that it feels more realistic than other invasion pictures.

 

7. Climax

This movie should come with a health warning. It will intoxicate you and thrill you, but it will also terrify you. You’ll feel completely out of control, unable to do anything but grip your armrests and pray for a merciful comedown. In this world, Lucy ain’t in the Sky with Diamonds, she’s thrashing around on the floor, screaming, covered in her own blood. Climax is Noe’s masterful, sickening house party at the end of the world.

Complete with a dazzling 90’s house soundtrack, a stroboscopic poster-colour long-take cinematography, and the highest ecstatic spine-chill moment/minute ratio of the year, the Argentinian master clearly hasn’t lost his je ne sais quoi.

 

6. The House That Jack Built

An unexpected late entry to this list, Lars Von Trier’s latest provocation proves to be his masterpiece. In this intricate work of impossible cinematic architecture – part biography, part essay, part meta-provocation, and part hilarious, disturbing serial killer yarn – nothing, and everything, is exactly how it seems. Every image is layered with meaning –some are ridiculous (intentionally so), others thought-provoking, but all teeter thrillingly on the edge of collapse.

Beautifully shot, and balancing retch-inducing disgust, classical horror, and daringly distasteful comedy, The House that Jack Built forces an impressive quantity of humanity’s greatest flaws into a hydron collider, firing them into an awe-inspiring black hole of a picture.

 

5. Long Day’s Journey Into Night

The unparalleled cinematic experience of the year, Long Day’s Journey Into Night hypnotises the mind then ignites the subconscious with an hour-long, hallucinatory one-take dream sequence shot in 3D.

Understanding the flow of Bi Gan’s masterpiece requires acceptance of a subconscious state: to pay attention is to actively distance yourself from the narrative; to look for clues is to obscure the key to answers. Gradually, bit by bit, narrative trappings dissolve away into the ether, replaced by poetic logic and oneiric wandering. The film acts in this way as a vast ocean of memory and meaning, waves lapping at the shore of our consciousness, conveying streams of emotional truth with convincing dream-like logic. This is cosmic Lynch; Wong Kar-Wai on acid; cinematic experimentation on the brain.

 

4. Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is not a narrative picture in the traditional sense. It doesn’t play by rules of genre, or cliché, or even standard logic. No, Phantom Thread is an atmosphere: a thick, portent cinematic installation playing on all five of our senses at once. Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood envelop their audience in a woozy, smoke-filled dreamscape that removes all sense of time or place in the theatre to the extent of pure audio-visual intoxication. I don’t know how to fully describe it, but when I think about Phantom Thread, I can taste it – I think that means something.

 

3. Hereditary

Everything you’ve heard about Hereditary is true: it is not a film for casual viewing. It’s not a date-night spookfest, nor is it an old-fashioned haunted-house piece. Instead it’s a piece of operatic, shrieking horror that’s as affecting as it is relentless. Oscar-worthy performances, a distinctive visual style, and an incredible score propel two-hours of unbearable build-up to a shattering, shocking finale. Ari Aster has crafted something that’s far more terrifying than things that go bump in the night: the realisation that we are not truly free to choose our destinies; that we never, in some ways, transcend the grip of our parents; that we can be bound, inexorably, to hurt the ones we love.

 

2. You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here is the first film I wasn’t physically able to write a review for. Trying to explain the experience to readers was like trying to explain the colour red to a blind man. All I can say is that its astonishingly brisk run-time flashes by in what feels like mere minutes and settles in the mind as less of a film and more of a genuine experience, or rather a raw fever dream dripping in anxious sweat.

Recently, I watched the film for the fourth time, and sat there with a group of three others in complete silence for ten minutes after the credits had rolled. That’s how powerful this thing is – administer at your own risk.

 

  1. Mandy

After Mandy, a film which graciously leaves out end-credits music to allow for rapturous applause, I stumbled through the BFI Southbank in a daze, tripping over myself on the way to the toilet just as a random guy I’d never met tapped me on the shoulder and said “what a treat, eh?”. My mind was spinning, my head aching, and my memory confused: sorry, what in the fuck did I just watch?

When he made Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos stated he was aiming to deliver on the lurid premise of the garish VHS boxes of the 70’s and 80’s; boxes he was then too young to access the content of and could only imagine what lay in store. With Mandy, he’s crafted something that far exceeds the promise of almost any exploitation horror in history: a phantasmagorical thrill ride through a psychedelic ghost train cloaked in glowing, technicolour mist and splattered in blood. 

Honourable mentions:

Cold War, First Reformed, American Animals, SpiderMan: Into the Spider-Verse, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, A Quiet Place, Foxtrot, Roma, Sorry to Bother You, Blackkklansman,Suspiria, The Wild Boys, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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