Eamonn on Film 2018
It’s that time again: the nights draw in closer; the mist lies lower on the ground. The light touch of winter’s frosted dew peppers the town like the final sprinkling atop an enormous gingerbread house. It’s the end of another year: a time to gather around your wood burning stove, hang your festive stocking with scant regard for fire safety, and snuggle up with your partner, significant other, or, as in my case, a more-than-generous serving of Bailey’s Irish Cream. But something’s amiss. And then, like Macaulay Culkin’s mother realising her parental negligence is becoming a problem, you realise: you haven’t yet reviewed the best and worst of 2018’s film offering.
So let’s throw caution to the proverbial wind and dive straight into the most memorable moments of the year – for good or for ill.
The one I loved – Phantom Thread
There were a few contenders for my top spot this year. Lady Bird came close. Girl, the story of a transgender teen training for a career in professional ballet, which I caught at the Cologne Film Festival, was a high-flyer. But nothing topped this dark, spindling, sadism-tinged thriller which proved to be the swansong for renowned method actor Daniel Day Lewis. In Phantom Thread, we gaze with a confused mix of horror and admiration as the strange, angular, curiously delicate Reynolds Woodcock laces together an uneasy romance with the modest waitress girl, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), he meets over breakfast. His madonna.
The film is twisted. It’s dark. Its characters are controlling. Obsessive. Manipulative. Its score brooding. Swollen. With a softly relentless touch. But we are entranced by this brutal world. There is something seductive about Day-Lewis’ conception of the Tailor of Fitzrovia. He is arrogant and brash, but we are drawn to him. Like the solar eclipse that cannot help but be viewed with the naked eye, we inhabit the conspiratorial world of Phantom Thread. And we hate ourselves for it, but it’s delicious.
The one I hated – Ready Player One
Watching Ready Player One is like watching your entire culture – the product of thousands of years’ worth of history, art, language, and science – crumbling to incoherent dust before your very eyes in under two and a half hours. I couldn’t have asked for a more definitive rebuke of the post-modern world, or the multiplex, grab n’ gulp culture of modern cinema. Studios like safe bets. They like guaranteed audiences. But the result is a disastrous aversion to both risk and, almost inevitably, creativity itself. The outcome is that too many wide-release screenplays chronically underinvest in character and instead focus on mindless fan-service. Oh look – it’s a picture of Richard Attenborough in a film called Jurassic Park, but a picture which may as well be any other off-the-shelf action film. Oh look -it’s Harrison Ford wearing an Indiana Jones hat in a film about crystal skulls and UFO’s. Oh look – it’s an alien that looks like that alien from Alien in a Ridley Scott movie about aliens. That’s… good… right?
At one point – and I wish I were joking here -the characters are literally superimposed into scenes from The Shining, perhaps the greatest horror film of all time. Thankfully its self-aware onslaught of weightless CGI had a numbing effect, or else I swear I could have felt Kubrick turning in his grave.
The one that confused me – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I like Martin McDonagh. I really do. When he gets it right, he really gets it right. When he gets it right, we get In Bruges and, to a lesser extent, Seven Psychopaths. When he’s on form, in a way he reminds me of all the things I admire about the Cohen brothers: the off-beat comedy, the quirky characters, those weird, note-perfect moments which shouldn’t work but most definitely do.
But Three Billboards does not work. And it took me a long while to even begin to figure out why. Because everything I normally like about McDonagh’s work just rings hollow here. The trivialised violence is not funny or profound, it’s nasty. The confused morals are not subversive, they’re frustrating. The odd character arcs – Peter Dinklage, I’m looking at you – are not endearing, they’re annoying.
But perhaps most discordant of all, intentionally or otherwise, Woody Harrelson and the police earned just as much of my sympathy as Frances McDormand, the head-strong mother desperately seeking justice for her daughter. Perhaps this above all pacifies the plot’s natural momentum, leaving a story which simply fails to hit the basic marks.
The one that disappointed me – Hereditary
In all the time I’ve followed the genre, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a polarised critical reaction to a horror film. Unlike the Conjuring Universe, which, having inflicted The Nun onto an unsuspecting world this summer, is acknowledged to have nose-dived by basically everyone, Hereditary genuinely split opinion. And I can understand why. It’s certainly well-made, so far as cinematography is concerned. Much of the – often core-disturbing – imagery is foreshadowed well. We’re drawn irresistibly to the idea that perhaps we’re all no more than victims of our own inheritance: no more than dolls in a model house being contorted and played by a capricious, irrational fate.
But the overwhelming experience was not of fear, it was of disappointment. It’s all very well to carefully engineer a decapitated head morphing into a ball as it hits the floor with a nervous thump, but this means little to an audience whose main occupation is following a plot that seems less to be unfolding slowly, more springing out from behind them with a bloodied axe screaming “I’M COHERENT!”. Whole scenes which add nothing and could be implied in moments of dialogue are strung out over minutes, giving us ample time to ask ourselves just what the William Friedkin is going on. And the less said about that ending the better.
The only recommendation, therefore, can be to see the film and judge for yourself. But if you finish with more a sense of bemusement than terror, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The one that surprised me – Blackkklansman
Nominally, it’s a comedy. But, in a way I think only possible for Spike Lee to achieve, Blackkklansman bounds its way through serious high-drama, farce, political satire, and documentary. The master-stroke is that none of these styles jar in the way you’d expect.
Here we have a buddy-cop movie with a difference, the difference being that absolutely nothing is half-baked or compromised. Clearly, every scene, every dialogue exchange, and every character has been meticulously probed for symbolic and actual meaning – the casual racism, the acquiescent xenophobia, the radical rights-activism. All find their place in Lee’s new offering. With stand-out performances from the broad acting chops of John David Washington and Adam Driver, who’s surely enjoying a box-office hit out of the Kylo Ren mask, Blackkklansman is a brilliant return to form for Spike Lee.
The real shocker though is the unapologetic shot of contemporary realism which Blackkklansman fires at its conclusion. Over this I have heard some less than positive reactions towards a film otherwise greeted warmly. I would perhaps argue something different. The lack of overt confrontation with topical themes, for the most part, made any nod to America’s modern race-relations a little too wink-wink-nudge-nudge for my liking. And, in some scenes, distractingly so. But the use of footage from recent incidents makes these winks feel more like foreshadowing than misplayed dramatic irony. The flash-forward, in this way, actually enhances the viewing experience. Like reading the extended footnotes. Blackkklansman makes a statement. And, judging by the moments of weighty silence into which my auditorium fell long after the film had finished, it certainly made an impression.