Film Critic Isobel Stevens shares her top films of 2018.
Isle of Dogs
I suspected Wes Anderson was a dog person from the way a cat got nonchalantly chucked out of a window in his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The latest dispatch from Wes world – a canine caper lovingly filmed in stop-motion animation – proved me right. Isle of Dogs comes with a typically hair-brained plot: an outbreak of “snout flu” incarcerates all canines to Trash Island, where a motley crew of mutts plot their escape, which you know is going to be delightfully convoluted from a director who loves intricate action scenes and unusual modes of transport. That said, dogs are not just seen as cute furry friends. As one feral fido admits to not being able to resist biting humans, there are also moments of pained introspection.
Proof that you don’t need a large or even mid-size budget to make a bold debut is Daniel Kokotajlo’s claustrophobic drama about a family of three Jehovah’s witnesses whose devotion is severely tested. The subtle performances, particularly Siobhan Finneran’s mother – let emotions simmer beneath the surface. Meanwhile the inventive, but muted cinematography frames characters in consistently unusual ways and lends the film a sombre, mystifying mood. Kokotajlo grew up as a Jehovah’s witness, and you can tell: while the religion is put under scrutiny, it’s never ridiculed or demonised. Crucially, he elicits sympathy for people we normally shut the door on.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is a love story, but of the star-crossed variety. Wiktor, a pianist and choreographer of a Polish folk troupe, falls for Zula, the star of the troupe. The film tracks their faltering affair in an elegant monochrome from late 1940s Cold War Poland, via the jazz age in 1950s Paris back to a more sombre and draconian 1960s Poland. From the spectacular troupe antics to raucous bar jitters and wistful ballads, the song and dance scenes are exhilarating. Music has a real urgency – it’s a form of escape and contraband expression (the folk troupe are soon made to be Stalin cheerleaders). Pawlikowski based the film on his parents’ relationship, and its dedication to them is made all the more bittersweet knowing that they both died before the Berlin wall fell.
A woman post-breakup and mid-break-down is not an uncommon movie sight. However, in Jeune Femme, debut director Léonor Serraille and actress Laetitia Dosch make the flame-haired Paula, with one brown and one blue eye, anything but your average madcap thirty-something in freefall. She’s a flaneur, meandering solo around the streets of Paris, liberally unleashing her observations onto strangers: “ties are passports for dummies” she tells one businessman. Watching Paula try to find stability and a future in the precarious gig economy, it made me think how remote the pampered lives of Carrie et al from the TV series Sex and the City (which turns 20 this year) feel now. On its release, Jeune Femme was too easily tagged as the French Frances Ha. While oddball souls Paula and Frances would no doubt hit it off, laughter and sadness jostle much more painfully together here.
When I told my hairdresser I wanted to dye my hair pink, she said it was my hormones (I was pregnant at the time). She was wrong. Anyone who has grown up in a cultural no-mans-land will identify with the pink-haired self-christened Ladybird: defiant, determined to escape and desperate to be the precocious upstart familiar from most teen movies. Unlike these more polished and unrealistic films, Gerwig’s debut film as a director holds cliche at bay: she’s far more interested in Ladybird’s relationship with her mother (Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf spar like they are in a screwball romance) and her best friend than any of the boys she dates. Also, not to be missed for Ladybird’s lovingly-created bedroom: a shrine to what all teenage lairs should look like.
Paul Thomas Anderson is back with another study of a powerful man. After an oil prospector (in There Will Be Blood) and a cult leader (in The Master), here we have Daniel Day Lewis’s obsessive and aloof high-end fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. In this gothic romance, there are delicious twists and turns aplenty but also sparks of humour, in the gripping power battle between Woodcock and his new muse and romantic interest Alma. Newcomer Vicky Krieps, as Alma, more than holds her own against the acting royalty of Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville who plays Reynold’s fearsome caretaker sister. Many films succeed on just one element: fabulous performances, a singular story, a sensational score, gorgeous cinematography; Phantom Thread has them all. You won’t look at a plate of mushrooms in quite the same way again.
Who doesn’t love movies about movie-making? And there’s a particular fascination to these films when the movie-making courts disaster. Sandi Tan’s documentary revisits an uncompleted film about a teen assassin she and two other 19-year-old precocious friends made guerrilla-style in 1992 in Singapore, then a country with an authoritarian government and little filmmaking heritage or infrastructure. Tan’s original 16mm tale is full of singular images shot in saturated colours and uncovers a tumbledown Singapore with luscious jungle vistas now usurped by shiny towers. What if the movie had been finished is the question that haunts the film, as Tan compares scenes with later teen hits like Rushmore and Ghost World. Although the movie focuses on Tan’s investigation, it’s really a love letter to friendship, youthful dreams and creativity.
Indigenous characters are often peripheral in Australian cinema, but not in Warwick Thornton’s films. His third feature, a Western set in central Australia in the 1920s, is based on the true story of an aboriginal man, Sam, and his wife Lizzie, who are hunted across the outback after Sam kills a white man in self-defence. Tension is ever-present as quick bursts of achronological images warn of impending tragedy. What’s striking about Sweet Country is its nuance: the sun-scorched vistas of the outback reveal the landscape as both menacing and sublime, with Thornton’s camera revelling in surprising angles and close-ups. His nuance also extends to the peripheral white characters, as these monsters are sketched with subtlety, and the threats from colonialism come in many guises.
There’s something very powerful about a two-hander. A relationship between two people unfolding delicately and intimately over 90 minutes is peculiar to the movies. Anne Marie Jacir’s father and son tale is set in Palestine, and concentrates on the intergenerational conflict between young Palestinian émigrés and their parents who stayed at home. Actual father-and-son duo Mohammad and Saleh Bakri have real charisma as they bicker and chat about the past during their journey around Nazareth inviting guests to a family wedding. Setting the film in the Christian community also allows a different side of Palestinian life to surface.
At a time when overpowering, addictive narratives of TV series dominate, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Todd Haynes’ film fell by the wayside. Not many critics liked it, calling its narrative leaden and saccharine. Sometimes I wonder if we watched the same film. True, Wonderstuck is pretty uncategorisable. Two deaf kids, a girl in the 1920s and a boy in the 1970s, each get lost in the wondrous sprawl of the American Museum of Natural History. Like the cabinet of curiosities that Haynes tenderly lingers on, Wonderstruck is about many things: childhood, museums, wolves, cities, silent cinema… but most of all it’s a jolt of enchantment offered by through a rapturous child’s eye view of the world.