Finally, we can unveil the very best of the year, staring with…
5 – BLACK PANTHER
Avengers: Infinity War may have been Marvel’s biggest movie this year, but Black Panther was by far their largest success, in more ways than one.
Outside of it being one of Marvel’s very best standalone movies, not to mention a major cultural and box office phenomenon, it’s also a really great movie that seems to get better with every additional viewing. The more you see of this vast and wondrous nation of Wakanda, the more you wish you could actually live there, as it feels so amazingly realised even with its heavy sci-fi tones at times, that you want to be able to see every last detail down to the tiniest Vibranium thread. The whole film is a dizzying display of awesome technology in play, not to mention some gorgeously crafted action sequences, beautiful cinematography and costumes, and most importantly an entire cast of instantly loveable characters that you want to know more about.
While Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is a great new hero to add to Marvel’s ever-growing roster, there are other names in the cast that also turn in some instantly memorable performances, whether they be Andy Serkis’ cackling bad guy Ulysses Klaue, or Letitia Wright’s sparky and lively princess Shuri – but not even they could seem to hold a candle to Michael B. Jordan, playing one of Marvel’s very best villains and giving one of the franchise’s greatest performances as a villain who is given such depth and pathos that you completely sympathise with his plight, misguided though it may be. Every single member of this cast is wonderful, with those standouts especially deepening the impact that this movie has more than made on the world.
With hope, this will finally be the one to crack the Academy’s long-standing prejudice against superhero movies and at the very least score a nod for Best Picture, because after the major mark it’s left on our culture – not to mention the fact that it’s a really great movie – it feels kind of earned by this point…
4 – UPGRADE
Now it’s time to spotlight a movie in this top 5 section that most likely WON’T be up for any major awards in the coming months, though if I had my way then Upgrade would definitely be in the running.
Leigh Whannell’s incredibly entertaining and utterly thrilling body sci-fi/horror represents the popular writer-turned-director at his most ambitious, all while working with a reasonably small budget, yet still manages to deliver a film that completely sucks you in immediately and takes you on a wild and crazy ride that’s full of shocking violence and visceral action scenes. It’s kind of like discovering something like Robocop for the first time, which is a movie that you can’t help but find endlessly awesome despite some of the pretty gory things happening on-screen.
Like Robocop, it also contains a smart subtext about our over-reliance on technology, and the places it goes with those themes are both fascinating and rather horrifying at the same time, all of it being beautifully portrayed through a stunning physical performance by Logan Marshall-Green that’s extremely clever in its subtleties, and sets this guy up to become an unlikely action star in the future if he keeps up this kind of stellar work. Its themes certainly make it look like a theatrical episode of Black Mirror, but Whannell makes it feel like something completely different and entirely standalone, from its cool visual style (especially during its fight sequences) to a pumping score to villains whose creepiness really gets under your skin to a script that’s unafraid to push the boundaries but also have a good laugh with it all at the same time.
This is by far one of the most underrated films of the year, and with any luck it will find an audience on home video or streaming services, because more people really need to check this one out…
3 – BLACKKKLANSMAN
Spike Lee jumped back onto people’s radar in a major way this year, with a film that expressed his burning fury with the current political and racially-insensitive environment that America has become in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, but was also an extremely entertaining and absolutely astounding re-telling of an unbelievable true story.
The tale of how African-American cop Ron Stallworth – winningly portrayed by John David Washington – managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan is winningly brought to reality by direction and a script by Lee that calls out pure hatred and prejudice in a group that is nothing short of terrifying with their beliefs, but also mixes it in with a really great sense of humour as well as a knowing wink to the empowering Blaxploitation movies of the 70s, which make it far more enjoyable and audience-friendly than it ever had a right to be. It’s fun, funny, and frightfully entertaining, but can also be serious whenever it wants to be, especially when it tackles the heavy topic of racism head-on.
It’s by far Spike Lee’s best films in years, after a brief lull period that saw him disappoint with his remake of Oldboy, and is definitely up there with the filmmaker’s earlier hits like Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever. Here, though, the director exhibits an anger that has rarely been seen before in his films, especially when you take into consider the harsh political climate that America has become over the last couple of years. A powerful ending brutally reminds us of this, seamlessly linking the open racism of the Ku Klux Klan during the film’s setting with disturbing footage from the Charlottesville protests and riots of 2017, during which KKK Grand Wizard David Duke is shown egging on far-right protestors and Trump declaring some people in this group to be “very fine people”. It’s extremely unsettling to link these two together, but we must if we are to look back and learn, which is something that Lee, with his utterly wondrous movie and his passionate anger, has enabled us to do.
It’s not always an easy watch, but as both a political statement and a great overall movie, it’s absolutely unmissable – and lest we forget, it gave us one of the most applause-worthy put-downs of David Duke ever conceived by any human being…
2 – A STAR IS BORN
With Hollywood so swamped in remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, you’d think that such lack of originality would hinder its creative abilities somewhat – but as director Bradley Cooper proves with his latest version of A Star Is Born, there is still that little bit of storytelling and filmmaking magic left in telling these age-old stories.
Cooper also stars in the remake of the remake of the remake of the 1937 classic, and not only gives his greatest performance to date as the charismatic yet deeply troubled musician Jackson Maine, but more than proves his worth behind the camera, giving the film a realistic and grounded feel that makes it feel like we’re watching documentary footage rather than actors working from a script. Every bit his equal is Lady Gaga, who gives a brilliant performance as the rising star of the title, and shares fantastic chemistry with her co-star and director that really has you rooting for them both as a couple, even as her star rises and his falls. Their story is beautifully carried by a fantastic soundtrack where both Gaga and Cooper lend their vocal talents to already-popular songs like “Shallow” and “I’ll Never Love Again”, at least one of which you can expect to be a lock for the Best Original Song category come the Oscar nominations announcement – in fact, don’t be surprised to see this one show up in multiple categories, including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor for Sam Elliott’s heartbreaking turn as Cooper’s elder brother, and numerous others.
But going back to why this movie works as brilliantly as it does, there’s a reason that this romantic tale has been retold at least four times (or maybe even five, because apparently there’s also a Bollywood movie based on this material as well), because its themes of stardom, self-destruction and love are both universal and timeless and are once again represented as such here. However, what Cooper does that makes it stand out from every other iteration of the story is how he expands more on its themes and characters than ever before – in previous incarnations, Cooper’s character (played previously by Kris Kristofferson, James Mason and Fredric March) had mostly been one-note, with his defining feature being just his heavy alcoholism and increasing bitterness as his star fades; but here, the character is given a far more emotional backstory which includes being the offspring of a teenage mother and an equally alcoholic and significantly older father, as well as a suffering of tinnitus as well as an underlying depression which makes him entirely sympathetic. Even Gaga’s character is one that gets a major upgrade in Cooper’s film, because although in the past her role has been played by Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland and Janet Gaynor, the part has once again been usually just the standard wide-eyed innocent who goes on to great success, but Gaga’s interpretation is that of a woman so lacking in self-esteem, always feeling like she’s unworthy because of how people have commented on her appearance in the past, that when she does eventually make her voice heard it’s a wonderful moment of self-realisation that would inspire the least-confident person out there to do the same thing.
How Cooper is able to breathe new life into characters that have been portrayed many times over several decades, is just one iota of his talents, and it’s a marvellous film for him to make his directorial debut with as he seriously has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of other great actors-turned-directors such as Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Ben Affleck, all of whom wish they had as powerful and impactful a debut feature as he does…
1 – ROMA
For the longest time, I went back and forth over which film to place at #1 on this year’s list, either Roma or A Star Is Born. Both are worthy of the top spot, as they are fantastically made, beautifully acted, and with extraordinary passion and dedication behind the camera from respective filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón and Bradley Cooper. But in the end, it boiled down to one key difference; while A Star Is Born is brilliant at portraying the life of two people in love and on different career paths, Roma is even more brilliant at portraying life itself.
Throughout Cuarón’s recreation of his childhood in 70s Mexico City and the life of his family housekeeper – who receives a dedication at the film’s conclusion, like the greatest present a grateful child could give to the person who helped raise them – we not only see how this family lives their lives, but how the world around them feels so natural and filled with energy that we feel sometimes that we’ve stepped back in time and are witnessing all these things happen in real-time. There are so many fascinating things going on in the background of various scenes, including marching bands going up and down the street, street vendors trying to sell their items, and even a human cannonball making a successful landing onto a giant trampoline, that the main characters will almost always be overshadowed by everything else, which in lesser hands would have made the movie fatefully unfocused, but Cuarón is such an amazing filmmaker that he balances things out evenly so that you can experience the world that these people inhabit while also pay attention to what emotions and obstacles they are going through. Cuarón has breathed life into his own past, in a way that is easily accessible to others, and feels as beautifully realised as our own memories from childhood are in the back of our minds.
He does it all through masterful direction, which brings out some incredible performances from an unknown native cast – including lead Yalitza Aparicio who certainly won’t be an unknown after more people see her in this – a neatly paced script that takes its sweet time establishing this world and the characters we are following, and some absolutely gorgeous digital black-and-white cinematography that Cuarón also provides (as regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable) which gives the film the illusion that we are floating through his very own past, like Ebenezer Scrooge when he’s with the Ghost of Christmas Past, in a very dream-like manner. But Cuarón never romanticises this very delicate era from his childhood, as he also writes in some real heartbreak with this family clearing going through a major abandonment, and in the case of a late revelation concerning a major character’s unborn child, absolutely devastating. It’s handled so delicately, through some truly excellent performances and a director who knows exactly what to focus on at the right time, that you’re left an emotional wreck by the end of it all, especially after a captivating one-shot scene on a beach that’s bound to give you all the feels.
This movie is not for everyone, but at the same time it kind of is, because no matter what background you come from we all have cherished memories of our childhoods that we hold dearly to our hearts as Cuarón clearly does with his, and we sometimes like to fondly look back on how the world was such a fascinating and scary place that was always full of life and beauty, even in the most miniscule of things. With Roma, Cuarón has perfectly captured life in a bottle, especially the kind that we vividly remember from when we were younger, and brings it to life in a way that only a master filmmaker like him could ever pull off. I heartly adored this movie, as I think a lot of other people are (very deservedly) because it’s currently sweeping critics’ boards after critics’ boards, with further awards success bound to come its way very shortly.
Speaking of which, between this and A Star Is Born, I’d be happy if either went on to win Best Picture, because they are both utterly fantastic movies for very different reasons, although in my book it is Roma that edges Bradley Cooper’s film out for its faultless ability to capture life itself on-screen better than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s a marvellous achievement by such an amazing filmmaker, and it makes you appreciate, as all films should, the cherished memories of life itself…