Feature Reviews

Big Picture contributors’ top 5 films of 2018

2018 has been another great year for cinema. Read on for our regular contributors’ eclectic top 5 lists, in which more than 25 different films are represented. Share your favourites with us @BigPicFilmMag.


Neil Fox

The Dreamed Path (Dir. Angela Schanelec)
MUBI had the goods this year when it came to new discoveries. Alongside the work of Kevin Jerome Everson I was floored by the films of Angela Schanelec. Her latest is a hypnotic and melancholy drama that weaves time and space beautifully.

Zama (Dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Talking of weaving time and space, the return of the Argentinian auteur was a moment to savour, and her latest may be her best. This is a funny and delirious slow burn study of masculinity and political powerlessness, which also contains some of the year’s best cinematic images.

First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader)
Ethan Hawke gives maybe the year’s best performance in a film that speaks to and communes with the great works of Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu but is also resolutely its own. Contemporary and timeless themes collide in a film that exudes aesthetic confidence and human terror and vulnerability simultaneously.

Phantom Thread (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
My favourite living filmmaker does it again. Hilarious and deeply romantic, visually and sonically stunning, Anderson shifts country and gears but retains the cinematic artistry that makes him so special.

You Were Never Really Here (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
From the opening moments it’s clear this is the work of a master filmmaker. Phoenix is brutal and beautiful and tender. The score by Jonny Greenwood is pitch perfect. A film that is in conversation with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and may be that film’s equal. Stunning cinema that exhilarates and rewards repeat viewings.

Andrea Grunert

The Sisters Brothers (Dir. Jacques Audiard)
The Sisters Brothers is neither an imitation nor a parody of the Western but reworks the genre in an original way, creating a sombre tale, a sublime and moving story of brotherhood which questions the nature of evil and its terrifying banality.

Shoplifters (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Shoplifters starts as a comedy but very quickly confronts the viewer with a bleak, present-day Japan. Kore-Eda manages to combine tenderness and cruelty, avoiding sentimentalism in his exploration of the very idea of family, which is at the core of his social portrait. Every detail has strong significance and contributes to this film’s multifaceted discourse on the human condition.

Ash is Purest White (Dir. Jia Zhangke)
Ash is Purest White explores the theme of transition in the guise of a gangster story and against the background of a changing Chinese society. Transcending genre codes, the filmmaker depicts social malaise and creates a spiritual vision which points to the vanity of human aspirations.

Dogman (Dir. Matteo Garrone)
With Dogman, Garrone explores man’s atavistic nature in a gloomy and disturbing environment. Through the master/slave relationship, he expresses doubts about human nature and criticizes the rise of populism in Italy and elsewhere.

Cold War (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Cold War emphasizes personal drama, the protagonists being not so much subject to the force of circumstances as influenced by individual choices and desires. The story is filmed in beautiful black and white photography, appropriate to the film’s allusive, poetic character in which emotional states are revealed by visual and musical motifs rather than by plot and dialogue.

Georgina Guthrie

Mandy (Dir. Panos Cosmatos)
Nic Cage is Red, a mad, bad chainsaw-wielding logger who sets out to avenge the death of his girlfriend after she’s murdered by a gang of Manson-esque cult weirdos. There’s nothing subtle about this film: from the hypnotic waves of magenta and crimson that flicker across the screen, to the thundering death metal score, it’s bold, beautiful and delightfully vicious. Pure midnight movie heaven.

Roma (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal family drama is primarily the tale of a middle-class mother and her live-in maid whose lives simultaneously tumble into chaos when their respective partners shirk responsibilities. The acting is so naturalistic, it almost feels as though you’re watching a documentary, with all the complexity and emotion of life laid bare.

Hereditary (Dir. Ari Aster)
Ari Aster’s debut sees a family’s life disintegrate into chaos after a series of increasingly strange events. Though it features some well-worn horror staples (a ouija board and a book of occult writings) Hereditary moves away from traditional jump scares and instead builds claustrophobia and fear through disorienting tricks: night flicks into the day with alarming rapidity, while jarringly sunlight-drenched outdoor scenes belie dark goings-on.

First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader)
As with many of Schrader’s works, First Reformed documents a troubled man’s demons spilling out into a ferocious climax of personal grief and rage. What I love most about this film is its stark palette, which evokes the clear, watery light of Edward Hopper’s New England paintings and offers a beautiful counterpoint to the dark complexity of Pastor Toller’s internalised anguish. Oh, and there’s something a little sexy about Ethan Hawke as a repressed clergyman. Right?

Leave No Trace (Dir. Debra Granik)
Director Debra Granik – who created the equally brilliant Winter’s Bone – tells the story of a father and daughter attempting to survive in the wild. The father is a troubled war vet who refuses societal life, his daughter is a 13-year-old increasingly drawn to the communities they meet. Though their separation is inevitable, their journey towards this crisis is depicted with delicacy and quiet restraint.

Kieron Moore

BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee)
“Black detective infiltrates Ku Klux Klan” sounds like a lost ‘70s blaxploitation movie, yet it’s based on a true story. Spike Lee charmed us with his sharp humour and John David Washington with his infectious swagger, all before the shocking final sequence reminded us that the film’s racial issues are all too contemporary. Provocative political filmmaking, and a hilarious, empowering piece of entertainment too.

Climax (Dir. Gaspar Noe)
From the incredible dance sequence (how can people move so fast?), Gaspar Noe’s latest started its descent into hell and then fell ever faster. Following a dance troupe whose party turns into chaos when their drinks are spiked with LSD, its shocking events make you want to look away but its long takes and pumping soundtrack – the best Spotify playlist of the year – ensure you can’t.

Love, Simon (Dir. Greg Berlanti)
A truthful, relatable, heartbreaking representation of the very real experience of waiting for someone to reply to your email. And at least equally importantly, a significant moment in queer cinema, which broke into the realm of the crowd-pleasing romcom. How great it was to see a John Hughes-style high school, but with young gay pupils. Consistently funny and with emotional punch.

Mandy (Dir. Panos Cosmatos)
I think I inhaled at the start of this movie and didn’t exhale until it finished. Its revenge plot is almost B-movie in its simplicity, but with intense style and gorgeously vibrant visuals, Mandy became one of the cinematic experiences of the year. Interpret it as an Orpheus-style journey into the underworld if you want, or just enjoy Nicolas Cage turned up to eleven.

Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland)
Clever, bold science fiction, with a simple premise leading into complex themes and endless questions. The more experimental sections are reminiscent of Under the Skin and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but Alex Garland has a magnificent way of crossing that arthouse approach with a tightly scripted and action-packed kind of sci-fi. That bear attack lingered in my dreams.

Ada Pîrvu

Sunday’s Illness (Dir. Rámon Salazar)
I don’t believe in half measures, and I believe you can tell if a film is good from the very beginning. In La enfermedad del domingo (Sunday’s Illness), written and directed by Rámon Salazar, we first see Anabel (Susi Sánchez) walking the halls of her palatial home impeccably dressed for the evening and wearing towering heels. She stumbles briefly. I shrieked. A subtle but distinct foreshadow of her imperfect perfect life, a preordained sense of future events. Anabel abandoned her daughter, Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), when the girl was 8 years old. Thirty-five years on, Chiara finds her mother, and she has just one unusual request: to spend ten days together in a remote house in the mountains. The two protagonists deliver extraordinary, full-bodied performances, contained on the surface, simmering with tormented emotions beneath (which, at one time, they unleash through dance, Anabel to the sound of “Dream a Little Dream of Mine,” and Chiara to the beat of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”).

This film is a haunting examination of an estranged mother-daughter relationship that avoids melodrama platitude: a beautifully crafted, thrilling chamber piece in which silence speaks as much as or even more than words, the powerful psychological and visual story (cinematography by Ricardo de Garcia, costumes by Clara Bilbao, production design by Sylvia Steinbrecht) takes you to an eerie state of mind fueled by both the picturesque countryside (which seems to be permanently wrapped in a blue glow) and the painterly, dimly-lit interiors of the mountain cabin.

Burning (Dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Burning, by Lee Chang-dong, liberally adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Barn Burning,” is an unconventional thriller that focuses on character study, a compelling game of emotional chess. The story follows an aimless, poor, young writer, Ah-In Yoo as Lee Jong-eu, whose existence is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), especially after she leaves on a trip to Africa and comes back accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich and mysterious young man with a Gatsby vibe (Fitzgerald’s novel is actually referred to in the film by the characters). There is one particular scene that stayed with me, undoubtedly one of the most memorable of the year. The three characters are gathered at Lee Jong-eu’s parents’ farmhouse. They spend the evening on the porch and watch the sunset to the music of Miles Davis and suddenly time seems to stop, and the members of this strange love triangle, basked in the golden hour light, regardless of class provenance and everything else, seem at peace with one another.

Shoplifters (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films, through their simplicity, gentleness, quiet beauty, and family portrayals, always remind me of Yasujirō Ozu’s. And this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, reminded me once again that there is a sensibility to Japanese cinema that you will not encounter anywhere else in the world. The way Kore-eda observes family life, his approach both intensive and humane, both acute and amusing, makes you feel an instant connection with his characters. Because the emotions they transmit are instantly and universally comprehensible. Petty theft is the main source of income of Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his family. They are all liars and cheats and thieves to some degree. They live crowded together in a ramshackle house in Tokyo. It’s a family that society has forgotten, and shoplifting seems to be their way to pay back the society for all their wrongs. But there is something else about this film that lingers. The warmth and nurturing love that this far from perfect family are capable of questions the very notion of what makes a family. It is devastating, without being melodramatic, and uplifting at the same time.

First Man (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Damien Chazelle’s third motion picture, the stupendous feat First Man. Admittedly, I am a fan of Chazelle’s films, but biopics are just a genre I am not particularly keen on. But I should have gotten used to the director’s way of doing things differently by now (I didn’t even like musicals – no, not even classic musicals – until I saw La La Land). For First Man, Chazelle teamed up once again with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong. Gosling delivers a beautiful, subdued, implosive performance, and Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet, is magnificent, one of the best of the year. It’s such an intimate, humane story, and that makes all the difference. It’s about loss, tragedy, sacrifice, and failure. It’s about life. There is no American glorification of the nation’s space heroes here. It’s first and foremost about a human being, not about the first man on the moon and his monumental achievement. That’s the beauty of it.

Ash is Purest White (Dir. Jia Zhang-ke)
Directed by Jia Zhang-ke, Ash Is Purest White is a winding tale of love, disillusionment, and survival that can also be identified as a portrayal of the evolution of contemporary China, a theme often apparent in the director’s films. Zhao Tao (the director’s longtime repertory player) is riveting in her role. She plays Qiao, the girlfriend of Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a young and good-looking jianghu. The two characters transmit such a strong connection and deep understanding of each other that surpasses words. And when Qiao is betrayed by Guo Bin, she shows resilience and remains unflinching in her pursuit of him. I am not sure if he shares her feelings in totality, but I think that, beyond that culture of masculinity, he does. And it’s incredibly thought-provoking how their love story feels timeless rather than ephemeral. It makes you wonder about life itself.

Thomas Puhr

Revenge (Dir. Coralie Fargeat)
It was a close race between this and Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, but Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is my favorite thriller of 2018. Featuring a pulsing soundtrack, a neon-tinged color palette, one of the best tracking shots in recent memory, and a ferocious performance by Matilda Lutz, the French writer-director’s debut is a proudly-feminist response to I Spit on Your Grave. After being raped and left for dead, Jen (Lutz) seeks increasingly-bloody vengeance against her attackers. The climactic confrontation between Jen and her boyfriend, Richard (a slimy Kevin Janssens), easily ranks among the most memorable set pieces in any film this year.

Private Life (Dir. Tamara Jenkins)
From Private Life’s opening scene, Paul Giamatti’s and Kathryn Hahn’s performances as Richard Grimes and Rachel Biegler (a couple in the midst of a hellish quest to have a baby) feel utterly, painfully real. Their journey is further complicated when Richard’s step-niece, Sadie (an acerbic Kayli Carter), agrees to donate some of her eggs to the cause. Tamara Jenkins’ latest is replete with hilarious, off-the-cuff one-liners; Sadie’s exclamation, “Oh, my God, my esophagus is on fucking fire. I love it!” after biting into a burrito, may be my favorite bit of dialogue from 2018.

First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader)
Although Paul Schrader’s First Reformed borrows much of its story from Bergman’s Winter Light and its compositional technique from Bresson (surgically-precise, static shots abound), the writer-director’s latest never feels derivative, in large part because he brings his unique, career-long preoccupations with religious doubt, violence, and social alienation to the table. In a career-defining performance as troubled Pastor Toller, Ethan Hawke simmers with a barely-restrained rage: an emotional wellspring that adds depth to the stoic visual style. The final shot, which captures a moment of either feverous delirium or transcendence (or maybe both), is a beguiling cap to Schrader’s best film in years.

BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee)
America needs Spike Lee joints now more than ever. BlacKkKlansman tells the incredible true story of how black police officer Ron Stallworth (a charismatic John David Washington) “joined” the Ku Klux Klan in an undercover effort to thwart what its members surreptitiously referred to as “The Organization.” Horrifying, tragic, infuriating, and sometimes uproariously funny, the film could have been a tonal mess, but Lee makes it all feel seamless. Although the action takes place in the 1970s, the biting dialogue (and a powerful documentary segment before the credits) bluntly reminds its audience of the many unfortunate parallels to today’s political landscape.

Hereditary (Dir. Ari Aster)
Ari Aster’s Hereditary is not only the best film of 2018, but also the best horror film of the 21st century. Both visually and narratively meticulous (not to mention genuinely terrifying at times), his feature debut is anchored by Toni Collette’s commanding performance as Annie, an emotionally-distraught matriarch whose family is plagued by a number of tragic (and, ultimately, supernatural) happenings. Like the best horror films, its attention to subtle details practically demands multiple viewings. Aster’s hypnotic progression from family drama, to psychological thriller, to all-out horror funhouse may very well be the apex of the so-called American horror Renaissance.

Gabriel Solomons

First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader)
Ethan Hawke gets his Travis Bickle on and Paul Schrader channels the spirit of Scorsese in this tale of existential woe. Hawke plays the pastor of a small upstate New York church, effectively parked up on the hard shoulder of his own life until an encounter with a passionate but unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife plunges him into uncertainty over both the past and an unpredictable future. First Reformed quietly goes about its business posing serious questions on faith, allegiance, and love while reminding us that Schrader’s is still a significant voice when it comes to telling intimate, personal stories.

Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland)
Garland’s follow-up to the superb Ex Machina once again pits humans against ‘an-other’ – in this case, alien life-forms that have invaded earth when a crashed meteor creates a slowly expanding organic biome called ‘the shimmer,’ which mutates everything inside it and is naturally seen as a threat to humanity. Five women enter the shimmer, led by Natalie Portman’s Lena, who is on a personal mission; the rest of her all-female crew each suffers from a hidden emotional or physical trauma. It’s this inner turmoil which fuels the narrative of an intellectually minded film that avoids easy genre devices, and is all the better for it.

A Quiet Place (Dir. John Krasinsky)
Unspeakable alien creatures who prey on even the faintest sound have turned our world into a ghostly wasteland where only the most quiet and careful humans survive. How’s that for high concept? Plonk a lovingly devoted couple with young kids into this scenario and you have the makings of a tense and gripping sci-fi drama. Add a heavily pregnant mother into the mix and the tension is amped up to butt-clenching proportions. A Quiet Place acts as the perfect filmic allegory of invasive technology at a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a space of silence or quiet solitude amid all the din.

Wildlife (Dir. Paul Dano)
Dano’s assured directorial debut is an exploration of the dissolution and subsequent fallout of a family from a bygone American era. Jeanette and Jerry (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) struggle to hold things together when a job loss leads to friction and bottled-up frustrations are let loose. The couple’s 14 year-old son Joe (an oddly adult Ed Oxenbould) is left adrift and confused without the traditional anchor of parental stability as both Jeanette and Jerry look to redefine themselves at a time when strict societal rules prevailed. A small story, beautifully realised by a young director in the ascendancy.

Isle of Dogs (Dir. Wes Anderson)
Say it quickly and it sounds like ‘I Love Dogs’.

Well I do. A lot.

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