All the of films on this list were made available in NZ (by theatrical release, VOD/streaming, or festivals) during the year 2018. Although I have managed to pick 10 favourites, ranking them was a bridge too far.
The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, starring Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones).
I honestly think that Guillermo del Toro is, in many ways, CS Lewis’ modern-day successor. He has a deep, intuitive grasp of fairy tales and their primal pull on the mind of an audience. The Shape of Water may be ‘adult’ (content-wise), but it never falls prey to cheap cynicism and lazy ‘irony’. Instead, the film is a wonderful tale of monsters and outsiders, pulling apart the reactionary attitudes that plague mankind with childlike (not childish) innocence and wonder. Additionally, Sally Hawkins’ performance as the mute Eliza is one of the best onscreen portrayals of a disabled person that I’ve seen in recent years.
Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps).
Like the other pieces in PTA’s filmography, Phantom Thread is difficult to pin down. To me, the film occupies a strange no-man’s-land between period drama, psychological thriller, and ghost story. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps are both superb, dancing with (and around) each other in circles of jealousy and twisted co-dependency. An ethereal film, Phantom Thread is hard to grasp, but impossible to forget. It also has the distinction of being accompanied by my favourite original score of the year (courtesy of Jonny Greenwood).
STRAY (dir. Dustin Feneley. Starring Kieran Charnock and Arta Dobroshi).
Having watched this film in cinemas twice, I think I can safely say that STRAY is one of my favourite Kiwi films. STRAY tells an eerie story about two outsiders finding each other in Central Otago. Like Phantom Thread, the film is driven by fraught undercurrents of emotion and rewards repeated viewing. I’d be doing you a disservice if I tried to describe it further. Seek it out.
Sweet Country (dir. Warwick Thornton. Starring Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, and Bryan Brown).
An Australian Western, Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal man (Hamilton Morris) who goes on the run after killing a white man in self-defence. He is pursued by a hard-edged lawman and a compassionate pacifist (played by Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, respectively), and the chase becomes an unsparing exploration of racism and justice. One of the (many) technical highlights of the film is its editing, which portrays the forces of memory and confabulation in a very striking way.
The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffery Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough…)
It’s hard to believe that Armando Iannucci, creator of the tv series The Thick of It and Veep (among many others), had not turned his hand to directing before now. His first feature is a strange beast. Iannucci and his ensemble render the chaos that erupted after Stalin’s death as a high-stakes comedy of manners. This may seem like a tall order (and it did attract some outrage), but Iannucci and co.’s target is never in doubt. Horror and human frailty permeate every scene and reveal the absurdity that undergirds any totalitarian project.
First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried).
Paul Schrader, the renegade theologian of American cinema, gives Ethan Hawke a truly amazing role in First Reformed. Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), is a severely depressed man struggling to keep his church (and faith) afloat. He befriends a young couple of radical environmentalists (played Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger), who force him to ask, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” First Reformed both recalls and modernises the work of Carl Theodore Dryer and Robert Bresson (by way of Schrader’s own Taxi Driver), and the result is an extremely compelling film.
Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland. Starring Natalie Portman).
Of all the films on this list, Annihilation is the one that I have thought about the most. Alex Garland has made a film that is so uncanny, its aliens so…other, that it has taken up permanent residence in my imagination. The film follows a group of scientists who are tasked with investigating “The Shimmer”. This anomalous, expanding entity doesn’t just mutate the anything it comes in contact with, it appears to recreate things on a fundamental level. This film doesn’t just ask what it means to be human, it questions whether the idea of humanity has any meaning on any level. Unnerving, thought-provoking, and just a little bit terrifying.
Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins. Starring Kathryn Hayn and Paul Giamatti).
A gem hidden among Netflix’s annual deluge of original content, Private Life follows a middle-aged couple as they navigate the minefields of adoption, surrogacy, and IVF. Fittingly, this film made me feel like a voyeur: the dialogue is well-written (but never unnatural), the awkwardness is excruciating (but never farcical), and the relationships feel authentic and lived-in. I’m very glad that the Almighty Netflix Algorithm (peace be upon it, may it live forever…) deemed it worthy of my attention, and it’s worthy of yours.
Anna and The Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail. Starring Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming).
Any film that comes with the label “zombie Christmas musical” has a lot to live up too, and this film delivers in spades. By balancing humour, horror, and catchy songs (with a few old-fashioned jump-scares), Anna and The Apocalypse became the most enjoyable time I had at the movies this year. If you thought that La La Land would’ve been improved by an undead horde (or two), then this is the film for you.
Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley. Starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson).
It’s so, so exciting when weird movies get a lot of mainstream attention, especially ones as confidently bizarre as Sorry toBother You. Boots Riley (another first-time director) crafts a hyper-stylized, heightened tale of late capitalism and corporate control that utilizes a mishmash of genre conventions and aesthetics. On top of juggling many different stylistic influences and tones, Riley manages to pull off on of the most effective (and memorable) left-turns I’ve seen in a recent film. I hope that he has more movies in him.
Some of the other films I enjoyed in 2018:
BlackkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver).
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan).
Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan).
Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson. Starring Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum…)
First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy).
I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie. Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastien Stan).
Grey armour shot through
with shades of blue
punctured by defiant light
turning the old world upside down,
it confronts the eyes
with a blinding night
can’t you see
on the balcony?
I know you,
I know you.
We are bound
by the God Between us.
The strangers on the balcony
sing their songs and free us:
shed their wings
to be us!
are the strangers are glad to see us?
I know you,
I know you,
is it true?
Can this light,
can it live
in me too?
Help me in my unbelief!
I can see
the angels on the balcony.