Films I Saw in 2018

I saw 167 films in 2018, down slightly on last year (172), but still a respectable showing. 103 of them were new to me, the full list is down the bottom of the page. 69 films were repeat viewings for me. This year I had multiple days that for various reasons I spent on the sofa with either some lego or a jigsaw and just watched nice safe, back to back movies, often 6 or even 7 in a day. Bliss.

There were 37 cinema trips; film is my escape from the real world, and the cinema is the ultimate escape to me – switch off the outside world, so I’m not going to think about how much all those tickets cost. Slightly cheaper are the 45 on Netflix and 49 on Amazon. I’ve been particularly impressed about the new releases coming through these channels, not just the popular stuff but some really very high quality and even experimental films.

Short story – my top films of 2018 (in no particular order):

A Quiet Place
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
I, Tonya
Incredibles 2
Lady Bird
Love, Simon
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Isle of Dogs

57 of the films I watched were new releases in the UK, which is a slightly higher percentage than last year and I think that’s due to several films being released by Netflix or Amazon. When I started writing this, I was thinking it had been a slightly underwhelming year, but the more I think about it, I think that’s because I was comparing the lists that the critics were putting out of ‘best films of the year’ and I disagreed with their choices. But really, there have been plenty of films I’ve been impressed by, they’re just not the same as other people’s. I am (apparently) a difficult and contrary person to impress when it comes to film. I am more likely to be satisfied by a simple idea done well; while critics far worthier than I than I are praising big ambitions, and understated subtlety I will be gushing over something that just delivers a straightforward story in a compelling way.

That was certainly highlighted in Jan/Feb when I was underwhelmed by almost all the films that everyone else was gushing about and were coming out as major award contenders. Maybe in fairness if I hadn’t gone into them expecting outstanding, I wouldn’t have been so harsh, but I was disappointed over and over again – Darkest Hour (great performance, mediocre film), Three Billboards (doesn’t flow), The Shape of Water (not immersive), Phantom Thread (boring) and Call Me By Your Name (insufferable).

Of the main 2017 award nominees it was the one that I didn’t see at the time that actually impressed me most – Lady Bird; the very definition of a simple thing (the characters and relationship between a young woman and her mother) done incredibly well. I, Tonya, Molly’s Game
and The Post also stood out for me as very solidly made films that were maybe not pushing any boundaries of film making, but were interesting and entertaining. I may be simple, but I like films that are entertaining, I don’t go to the cinema to be bored.

Other films that impressed me this year tend to fall into the category of “doing what they do well” – Cargo (zombies), Set It Up (romcom), Ready Player One (popcorn adventure), The Cloverfield Paradox (scifi disaster). Most outstanding though I think is A Quiet Place which is a horror film starting from a simple idea (sound summons monster) and building it to a completely rounded package. The performances, cinematography and particularly the sound design are outstanding and I was utterly gripped from start to finish. Even if there are a couple of credibility problems in the background story, it’s so pleasing an experience that I happily overlook them.

There are a handful of films this years that broke barriers. Each of these films should just be assessed as what they are, good examples of their genres with the usual niggles that each genre has. But each breaks a barrier that seems ridiculous to exist in 2019. Love, Simon had the usual problems of the teenage coming of age story where the actors are too old and no one does any school work, but it also proved that a mainstream film could focus on a gay teenager – as if that actually needed proving. Black Panther was a superb superhero film that delivered a huge box office with a black and African focus, and Ocean’s Eight was a solid heist movie starring a crew of (mostly) women. I wish I’d seen Crazy, Rich, Asians so I could add that to this list. It’s laughable that it be seen as necessary to ‘prove’ that these can be successful, but prove it they did.

It’s telling that Black Panther is probably the biggest superhero film of the year, even when the year contained the immense juggernaut of Avengers: Infinity War, which may have its problems but is an astonishing juggling act. Although I think I probably enjoyed the much smaller (pardon the pun) Ant-Man and the Wasp. I was underwelmed by other franchises unfortunately. Solo: A Star Wars Story just didn’t work for me; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was a jumbled mess; Mission Impossible: Fallout had great stunts but lacked anything to bond them together. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was the only one of these that actually fully managed to hold my attention, and surprisingly, so did Tomb Raider which felt like a fresh approach that kept the heart of the game.

There were a couple of other surprises from films I watched almost randomly. I find Wes Anderson a bit hit and miss, and the trailer for Isle of Dogs was distinctly odd, but the film worked and utterly charmed me. As did animation The Breadwinner telling the story of a young girl growing up in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Journeyman was a pure character piece, that did little more than give Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker a platform to shine, and shine they did. I’m not sure whether Black Mirror: Bandersnatch should actually count as a film or a tv episode, but it took me over 2 hours to watch, so I’m listing it here. The mechanism of choosing the direction the character went was clever, but what surprised me was how I became completely emotionally engaged as a participant in the story – I didn’t WANT to chose sometimes, even though I wanted to see the different outcomes, I didn’t WANT to be in control. It said and demonstrated something incredibly powerful that really impressed me.

Except for the wonderful Incredibles 2, it was a bit of a dreary year for Disney films with Ralph Breaks the Internet, Coco and Christopher Robin all failing to work for me. Although in fairness, I failed to catch Mary Poppins Returns until Jan 1st 2019 and that was an absolute triumph that redeemed the house of mouse.

There are a fair number of films this year that I just don’t see what everyone else is raving about, or rather maybe, how those people don’t see the flaws. A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody and Widows had some amazing performances in them and may have been good fun to watch, but all had problems with story, tone and believability that stopped them being outstanding. I could also group First Man in there as I struggled with the film making around the central performances and ended up being disappointed, but I do concede that may be a personal issue. I’ve had a very poor year for watching foreign films. I found the much praised Roma utterly boring. Clunky, pretentious and going nowhere; I may have hated it less if it hadn’t been in black and white which automatically sets my teeth on edge, but fundamentally there wasn’t enough meat to this film.

I think the only other film I’d label as ‘bad’ was Annihilation which was just a complete mess. There are plenty of films that weren’t very good, mostly because they got muddled over what they were trying to do (Funny Cow, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Downsizing, Winchester) but they all still had some merit in them even if the flaws were quite substantial.

New to me
Of the remaining 49 films that were new to me, roughly half of them were from 2017 with the rest scattered over previous decades. There are some gems in this list that would likely have made my films of the year list if I’d seen them last year. Logan and God’s Own Country are both stunning pieces of film making, beautiful in sight and heart, entertaining to watch and with enough substance to keep it in mind long after the credits finish. The fact that one is ‘just’ a superhero film is irrelevant.

The Intern was a little comedy film that really surprised me – whenever it could have made the ‘easy’ joke about old people, or women bosses, it stepped sideways and remained charming and fun. Colossal and Spider-Man: Homecoming
both had the same idea at heart, giving a ‘normal’ person superpowers and be completely realistic about how they’d handle them. Misery and Soylent Green are both classics that exceeds the spoofs they’ve spawned, and of all the films you’ve never heard of 84 Charing Cross Road is just delightful.

On the flip side, worst film of the year award goes to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, honestly how many people and how much money went into making such a mess? At least Plan 9 from Outer Space had some excuse and is a classic of sorts.

All 2018 films (in quality order)

A Quiet Place
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
I, Tonya
Incredibles 2
Lady Bird
Love, Simon
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
Darkest Hour
Isle of Dogs
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Ready Player One
Set It Up
The Breadwinner
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Post
Tomb Raider (2018)
Bird Box
First Man
Molly’s Game
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Ocean’s Eight
Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
Swimming with Men
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
You Were Never Really Here
A Star is Born
Christopher Robin
Deadpool 2
Ghost Stories
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Ralph Breaks the Internet
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Shape of Water
The Square
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Funny Cow
Phantom Thread
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Call Me By Your Name

The rest

The Intern
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Wreck-It Ralph
How to Train Your Dragon
The Blind Side
Gosford Park
Fight Club
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The Muppet Christmas Carol
God’s Own Country
Miss Sloane
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Strong Island
84 Charing Cross Road
Soylent Green
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
The Lady Vanishes
T2: Trainspotting
Wind River
Kubo and the Two Strings
Star Trek: Beyond
Before I Go to Sleep
Made in Dagenham
The Social Network
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
The Incredibles
Good Will Hunting
Death Becomes Her
When Harry Met Sally
Mary Poppins
The Sword in the Stone
All About Eve
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Boat That Rocked
The Florida Project
Their Finest
From Up on Poppy Hill
Gnomeo and Juliet
Panic Room
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Death of Stalin
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
The Hateful Eight
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Kiki’s Delivery Service
The Terminal
Forbidden Planet
A Ghost Story
Finding Your Feet
Lean on Pete
The Great Wall
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
What Happened to Monday
Dark Skies
The Conjuring
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
American Psycho
The Bodyguard
Risky Buiness
House on Haunted Hill
A Star is Born (1937)
Doctor Strange
Ghostbusters (2016)
Jurassic World
In the Loop
The Queen
Scream 2
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Borg vs. McEnroe
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Dark Shadows
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Get Shorty
True Romance
The Greatest Showman
The Woman in Black
The Golden Compass
Scream 3
Notting Hill
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Romancing the Stone
The 39 Steps
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Plan 9 from Outer Space

Books I Read in 2018 – fiction

42 fiction books this year which I’m pretty pleased with, particularly given that all those were new books. 19 had some sort of sf/fantasy slant, 12 I’d label as crime/thriller and the rest were more generic dramas.

New discoveries
One of the reasons that I still prefer buying physical books is so that I can wander the shop, picking books that jump out because of a shiny cover, a curious name, or just to make up the numbers in a deal. When those books turn out to be great, not only is there the joy of a good book, but it’s boosted by the sense of discovery. I’ve had a few successes this year.

I was most impressed by If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a modern thriller set in the world of Shakespeare and told like a Shakespearean tragedy. It has layers to it that you don’t notice at first and gradually reward you, it’s very cleaver, but also very entertaining. I read two books by Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions and The Corset, both of which I enjoyed immensely as very solid gothic horrors that keep you guessing about whether there’s actually anything supernatural going on. I also read two books by Philip Gwynne Jones, The Venetian Game and Vengeance in Venice which may not particularly raise the bar for crime fiction, but do manage the achievement of capturing the simultaneous romance and tackiness of Venice.

Favourite authors
I’ve got a growing list of authors who I’ll return to regularly, either pouncing on new hardbacks, picking up new paperback releases, or just slowly working through back catalogs. Authors that didn’t let me down at all with their latests were Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White), Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London 8: Lies Sleeping), Stephenie Meyer (The Chemist), Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey–Maturin 5) Desolation Island) and Andy Weir’s second novel Artemis. I polished off three books by T Kingfisher, although the two books of the Clocktaur War series really could have been one book, and Summer in Orcus occasionally lost its way. Almost all of those I found pretty impossible to put down.

Even when the old familiars are slowing down, or phoning one in, they get an allowance because of the history we’ve built up. I was slightly disappointed with Taltos 15: Vallista by Steven Brust and I tried one of the graphic novels in the Rivers of London series (Body Works) and the format really didn’t work for me. I may be falling out of love a bit with Claire North, she still has great ideas and vibrant characters, but the storytelling doesn’t quite match, The End of the Day felt like a collection of small ideas/stories forced together and didn’t really work.

Agatha Christie
A special sub-entry under favourite authors, as I had a bit of a blitz on Agatha Christie, largely thanks to the local library. At her best her works are completely gripping, and even when she’s a bit mediocre they still manage to be engaging and comfortable, with the deaths nicely clean and safe, never really having any kind of emotional impact. Of the five books I read, actually her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was by far the best. A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons were both solid entries, but By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Nemesis were a little muddled and not her best.

I usually try to read a few “books that you really should have read” but I didn’t do so well this year, even stretching the idea of what a ‘classic’ is. The most classic (ie oldest) was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which was stunningly boring. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler at least had a style and turn of phrase that I could appreciate, but still didn’t really blow me away. I gave a James Bond book a try Dr No but found it impossible to get past the sexism.

Stretching the definition of ‘classic’ a bit maybe, I finally got round to reading some of Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes but I continue to not get on with the graphic novel format. I also struggled a little with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré , but on balance think I liked it. The biggest ‘hit’ was probably the first of Zelazny’s Amber series Nine Princes in Amber but even that hasn’t yet inspired me to read the rest of the series.

The Rest
There weren’t many that I actively disliked, really only 3 that I couldn’t see any worth in – the world of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin made very little sense and didn’t have strong enough characters to overcome that; The Museum of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister was a mess of different tones, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon chose a 10 year old as a narrator and no one wants to spend this much time in the head of a 10 year old.

The other dozen books fall somewhere in the areas of flawed, disappointing, unremarkable, disposable or just plain ‘fine’.

  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran – powerful emotions, but I didn’t actually like reading it
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – I didn’t enjoy being in the head of this character, and I think that was supposed to be the point, but I also didn’t feel particularly challenged making it neither interesting nor entertaining
  • Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero – great idea, not very good writing
  • One Way by S.J. Morgan – like the miserable, bitter cousin of The Martian
  • Providence by Caroline Kepnes – a bit too much focus on a relationship I didn’t believe in
  • Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott – too much going on
  • The Craft Sequence 1: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – interesting idea not very well told
  • The Invisible Library, The Masked City and The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman – entertaining enough but not quite anything more than fine.
  • The Muse by Jessie Burton – predictable story with annoying characters
  • The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes – solid crime mystery
  • Books I Read in 2018 – non fiction

    I’m back to being able to comfortably call myself “a reader”. Over the last few years I’ve been blessed with a short commute and I didn’t read as much as I wanted to, or as much as I felt I should. But halfway through the year, I changed job and the silver lining of spending over 2 hours a day on the tube is that I have more reading time. With the exception of frustrating days when the tubes are misbehaving and making things difficult, I genuinely enjoy my commute because it gives me a window to read in, without feeling guilty for not working, doing chores, or even fighting the backlog of TV to watch.

    Thanks to that, I’ve read 60 books this day, not quite my record of 66, but a very satisfying total. I’m also quite pleased with the mixture of books I’ve read – some of my favourite authors, some classics, some random experiments. I’ve maybe not challenged myself particularly, I’ve deliberately avoided anything that looks too depressing, or really challenging as I’ve been trying to manage my stress levels so I don’t feel too bad about it.

    The numbers:

    • 60 books, way up from 22 last year. All of them were new to me which is quite rare, I usually have a series I want to re-read or return to something for comfort.
    • 19,000 pages (give or take a couple), 52 pages a day, so I happily met my 40 page target, on commuting days I’d regularly clear 100 pages a day.
    • 49 different authors, all either British (68%) or American (28%) and one Swede, I need to get a bit more variety in there.
    • 39% female authors – which is disappointing, but if I consider the number of books (rather than the number of authors), it improves to 47% of the books being written by women.
    • 9 books (15%) on Kindle, which remains an excellent way to read books, particularly on busy tubes. However I don’t like the experience of buying books for it, much preferring to browse a bookshop. As a compromise, I got 11 books out of my local library, which is a wonderful thing to rediscover. If you’re looking for something specific it likely won’t be there, but it’s a good source for random picks and some classics.
    • 28 books (47%) are what I’d call new, published in 2018 (13 books) or 2017 (15). 44 (73%) are from the 2010s and the rest are scattered over the previous 6 decades, then a couple in the first half of the 20th century and one published in 1850.

    Non Fiction
    18 non-fiction (30%) covering subjects from economics, history, media, and formula 1, and quality from high to low. There are 5 I consider outstanding and would highly recommend to just about anyone.

    The best all round non-fiction book of the year was Factfulness – by Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling it very successfully covers all the necessary elements a non-fiction book must deliver, informing and educating by providing both tools and examples, while also being entertaining with anecdotes. All of these are also very well done by the runners up, Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy by Tim Hartford and Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular by Derek Thompson, but Factfulness edges into the lead because it is also inspiring and actually makes me feel a bit better about the world. I also want to call out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote which almost doesn’t count as non-fiction because it’s really written as fiction, utterly compelling and beautifully eloquent.

    There were two absolute clunkers that I’d warn people away from. Steven Fry’s Mythos was astonishingly dull and dry considering the author, while How to Watch a Movie by David Thomson was both boring and uninformative.

    Somewhere in the middle ground there are 12 other books. They’re neither amazing nor terrible, but they’re all missing something to make them outstanding.

  • Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables by Sarah Whitfield – one of my best friends wrote a book and it’s really pretty good
  • Movie Geek: The Den of Geek Guide to the Movieverse by Simon Brew – enjoyable but not as substantive as I’d like
  • Sunny Side Up by Susan Calman – a NICE book
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller – entertaining, but not as profound as maybe the author was aiming for
  • A Very British Revolution: 150 Years of John Lewis by Jonathan Glancey – a small step above a PR puff piece, but frustrating that it doesn’t build the history up more
  • London by Design: The Iconic Transport Designs that Shaped our City by London Transport Museum – nice to look at, but not much information
  • The Mechanic: The Secret World of the F1 Pitlane by Marc ‘Elvis’ Priestley – a different perspective on formula 1
  • The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman – a creative approach, but a flawed one
  • Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater – best read quickly otherwise it’s rather bitty.
  • Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson – nice idea but badly told
  • The Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki – strong central concept but really dull to read.
  • What Doesn’t Kill You…: My Life in Motor Racing by Johnny Herbert – amazingly honest, open and charming
  • Films in December

    New Releases A bumper month for films including eight new releases. I kept luring myself out to do Christmas shopping by promising cinema trips at the same time and there were several big releases on Netflix too (continuing to impress me with their range of films). Mary Poppins Returns isn’t on the list because I saved it for New Year’s Day so it doesn’t quite count, but I will say that it is utterly lovely.

    Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix)
    This may be more of a ‘feature length episode’ than a film, but given that it’s completely standalone I’m going to count it as a film. That said, my review is going to be pretty brief because I went in knowing nothing about it and I think that strongly contributed to my reactions when watching. I can’t remember the last time a piece of media had so much impact on me, I was not only engaged in the story and characters but through the choose your own adventure style, I was an active participant in the story, not just passively choosing options, but on an emotional level. It’s not perfect, there are some frustrations in the mechanics and a couple of sections that just didn’t work for me. But it is completely and utterly original and a fascinating exercise.

    Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
    I’d heard good things about this film, but then what really convinced me to go was that it’s written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, who also wrote and directed Our Little Sister which was one of my favourite films of a couple of years ago. I didn’t find Shoplifters as enjoyable or satisfying as that film, you can never quite settle into this family because there’s obvious tension throughout. I thought it overplayed the mystery elements of how these people all came together, it just felt a little forced, as if the writer was having to deliberately construct scenes so that people didn’t say what would have been natural. With that criticism in mind though, I was still engaged and connected to all the characters throughout.

    Roma (netflix) – I’d been feeling a bit bad for not watching enough films that fall into the category of “I don’t really want to watch it, but I probably should watch it”. It’s very easy to just watch the fun films and skip over the important ones, so when Netflix promoted a black and white Mexican film I took a deep breath and went for it. It is by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) so I had some hope it wouldn’t be completely without substance. Sadly though, it was.
    There was just not enough meat to it. I was initially quite engaged, learning the structure of the family and the relationships, but they turned out to be quite straightforward and then didn’t really go anywhere. There’s so little plot I feel that even it’s almost not worth mentioning. That’s not always a problem, but if there aren’t any relationships and even the visuals aren’t anything exciting to look at (why black and white? why?!) then it’s just two and a quarter hours of drudge.

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    This just fell a bit flat. The original Wreck it Ralph felt charmingly retro, making fun about old school games, but Ralph Breaks the Internet picks the wrong target. On one hand the extremely basic jokes it’s making about the intranet are already dated (when was the last time anyone was actually bothered by a pop up advert?), but the jokes are also too current with references to sites and memes of (almost) the moment which are going to date incredibly fast and very badly. The plot meanwhile was rather bitty and the final moral felt contrived and tired. There were a lot of bits that did make me quietly smile (I really loved the self-aware princess bit) and I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t charm me, entertain me, or move me the way I expect Disney movies to these days. Maybe that’s just that I’m holding them to too high a standard, but this felt very disposable.

    Bird Box (Netflix) – Unfortunately for this film, I’d just watched A Quiet Place, which is playing with very similar ideas and does it in a much, much more elegant and engaging way. That’s a shame for Bird Box because it is actually very good, it’s just I can only think of it in deficiencies compared to A Quiet Place. Firstly the concept is even more extreme than “sound summons deadly monsters”, which was already a bit of a stretch. Here we have monsters that if you see them they make you kill yourself, so the survivors can never go outside without being blindfolded. The narrative follows a small group of survivors in two threads – the original outbreak and years later as they try to reach sanctuary. Everything about the way the story played out was well paced and engaging, interesting characters and a good mix of action and character development. But the fundamentals of it relied on too many ideas that stretched reason beyond breaking point. Where Quiet Place managed the magicians trick of distracting from the plot holes, Bird Box just had too many holes for even the always wonderful Sandra Bullock to distract from. Still worth a watch though, just don’t go in with a high bar and you’ll be fine.

    Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – I had meant to re-watch the first Fantastic Beasts film before I went onto this one as I couldn’t remember much of what happened, but I didn’t get round to it and foolishly hoped the filmmakers would be generous enough to gently remind the audience what was going on. Nope. Thrown straight in, I started out faintly lost, and just got further and further behind. I’m not even sure that if I’d been up to speed on the previous film this one would have made much more sense. I also found it hard to follow the visuals, with many scenes colourised to a dreary grey monotone and moving too fast to really allow me to get a visual lock on designs. As a final straw, it didn’t feel like sufficient time was given to the actual fantastic beasts, they were more like cameos than the titular focus. Even the title itself is pretty terrible.

    Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (Netflix)
    I only watched this because a) it’s by Andy Serkis and he’s great and b) it was a new big release on Netflix so easy to tick off. Working against it however was a strong sense of boredom at another Jungle Book. When the live action one came out I didn’t really feel that the world needed more Jungle Book than the original Disney film, and I certainly didn’t think it needed a non-Disney version. But I am willing to concede that a fresh (ish) take on it had some merit. It’s a little more gritty than the Disney, apparently truer to the book, but not substantially so to be honest. In fact it did seem a little confused about whether to be a children’s film or a more adult one, I think it actually starts out for children and then takes a darker direction that frankly is likely to upset younger audiences. The animation was also a bit mediocre at times, certainly not up to the Disney standards. I found it a lot more engaging than I expected to, but I’m still not convinced it really adds much to the already crowded playing field.

    Widows – I’d been looking forward to this one as it had such a strong story, some great names (Steve McQueen, Viola Davis) and was getting solid reviews. But I found it disappointing, in a lot of contrasting ways. Somehow it managed to be both too slow, but packed with too many threads; it was played too seriously for a cheesy heist movie, but then the preparation for the heist was completely ridiculous. It had comic moments that undermined the drama, and emotional scenes that were undercut by the comedy. The whole thing seemed like a bit of a muddle and just didn’t really work.

    New to me – as the end of the year approached I did my usual desperate blitz trying to get through as many recent films as possible to make my review of the year more complete. Between Netflix, Amazon, christmas presents and the HMV sale I managed to catch up on 11 films, some that I really should have seen already, and tick off some mediocre offerings that I’m glad I didn’t spend money on.

    Lady Bird– With a less talented writer/director and cast this could have been just another entry into the coming of age genre, with an irritating lead character, stereotype supporting family and friends, and all the usual milestones (prom, driving test, college choices, boyfriends, friendships etc). But this film has magic. I’m not sure what it is, it really doesn’t look like anything special on paper, but everything falls into place and makes something wonderful. All of the characters and relationships are familiar and predictable but still a delight to watch, the direction shows how small towns can be both beautiful and boring at the same time. It’s an absolutely lovely film.

    The Breadwinner – Another example of the incredible power of animation. For me, this is a story of a strange land with seemingly insane rules and customs, but it is not a fantasy, it’s a reality. Using a child’s view and very simple (but beautiful) animation to show 2001 Afghanistan is very powerful, and then adding a child’s fairy tale into it further adds to the richness. The connections between the story and the reality are quite clear, but not hammered home as forcefully as would be found in a Disney film, but then this isn’t really a kid’s film. I’ve found myself thinking about it repeatedly in the days since I watched.

    A Quiet Place – This is an astonishing film. Even though I knew a lot about it and had very high expectations, it still managed to impress me. It takes an extremely simple concept (sound summons deadly monster) and delivers an extremely well paced and emotionally powerful film. The best way to see it would be in a busy but VERY well behaved cinema, but the worst place would be a busy but BADLY behaved cinema; so seeing it at home alone was probably the safest, but not best circumstances. I did think that would effect the impact, but if it did, then I think watching in a cinema may have been unbearable. The way that sound, and the absence of sound is used is incredible, heightening not just the drama and tension, but surprisingly the emotions as well. So much is unsaid, but there is absolutely no doubt about how anyone is feeling. The only downside is that the logistics of the monsters were a bit clunky, that’s all that stops it being a 10.

    You Were Never Really Here – I only really watched this because I was hunting out 2018 films that were available for free, and when I started watching it over breakfast on New Year’s Eve I wasn’t particularly engaging. However I slowly found myself sinking into it and giving it more and more of my attention. The film is a very slow, quiet work (even though it’s about violence and action) and somehow has depth to it, despite really not giving you much to go on. I was frustrated that the plot driving the characters made so little sense – over-complicated and under-explained, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is compelling.

    Swimming with Men – “Innocuous” feels rather like damning with faint praise, but it really does fit this film perfectly. It seems unlikely it’s going to change anyone’s life, but while it’s on it’s perfectly adequate entertainment. Most of the cast are pretty recognisable as stalwart British character actors and immediately put you at your ease. It is fundamentally built around some serious issues of loneliness and depression, but it only skims the surface without committing to diving deeper (pardon the puns), but that works alongside the slightly silly spectacle of men who aren’t exactly in their physical prime doing synchronised swimming.

    Journeyman – I was impressed at this. Everything about the film is understated but very carefully judged, it’s very simple, but exceptionally well executed. It gives each beat of the plot just enough time to settle before gently moving on, finding that balance between drawn out, but providing enough time to really engage. There are a small number of characters and locations, but they are all well formed and have a strong sense of character. The lead pairing of Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker are as phenomenal as expected, but I didn’t realise until the credits that Considine also wrote and directed it.

    Ghost Stories – I’m hoping this was a fairly small budget, fast shot exercise; if it was then it’s a really solid little indie film, if it was more expensive then it’s an unremarkable, slightly amateur exercise. Ghost Stories is an anthology of 3 very small stories tied together with a narrative that manages to link everything together and tell an interesting story of its own. There were a couple of moments that I was either creeped out or shocked, but also a lot that had me rolling my eyes. The eventual twists and turns are satisfying enough to make it worth the effort, plus I’d watch Martin Freeman read a phone book, but it’s not going to be a classic.

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
    A mouthful of a title, and the film is a bit the same. For the most part it’s the charming “terribly British” film that you’d expect with a title like that a cast made up of half of Downton Abbey. But the thread of story running through it about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey is horrific. I was aware that Guernsey was occupied, but I never really thought about what that meant and even the sanitised version shown in this relatively fluffy film is awful. That leaves me conflicted about the film, on one hand it did at least educate me a bit, and it was charming and sweet. But at the same time it feels like threads of it are in a different film (the heartbreaking Penelope Wilton) and it didn’t quite come together.

    Tomb Raider (2018)– This was actually pretty good! Alicia Vikander does a great job making Lara Croft a real person. She’s not a huge hero, invulnerable or all knowing, she has no idea what she’s doing and sort of bumbles from one set piece to the next. I’ve no idea whether the actual plot made any sense, I didn’t really bother following it too much and it really didn’t matter. The action pieces are creative, entertaining and very well delivered and everything really rattles along. I actually found myself looking forward to a sequel.

    A Star is Born (1937) – The very first Star is Born that will go on to be directly and indirectly re-made multiple times. It’s a timeless story and the original actually holds up quite well, and in some ways it made more sense than the most recent version as the sexism and awkward #metoo moments don’t seem out of place in the 1930’s.

    Winchester – It’s hard to summon up much in the way of either enthusiasm or anger at this film. It’s absolutely fine sufficient plot, sufficient character development and sufficient style, just nothing particularly good or bad about it. It’s a bit surprising to find Helen Mirren in something this mediocre and she doesn’t really make a huge amount of effort either.

    Rewatches – it’s Christmas so plenty of opportunities to slump in front of some family favourites.

    The Muppet Christmas Carol – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen this Christmas, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried.

    Ratatouille – I remember this feeling a bit of a let down when I first watched it, it didn’t feel like it was doing anything particularly original compared to the previous Pixar offerings. But it grows on you as a really solid film that may not be spectacular, but doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s really a very sweet story with some nice animation and fun characters.

    Tangled – Before the film starts there’s a little splash screen to tell you that this is Disney’s 50th animated feature and the film manages to perfectly tie in both the greatest traditions of Disney’s heritage and yet feel sufficiently contemporary to sit alongside Pixar’s offerings. The animation and design are absolutely beautiful, the characters interesting and engaging, the plot trots along, the voice acting is full of character rather than celebrities and the whole thing is just lovely to watch. The only letdown were the songs which I felt were an interruption to the fun dialogue.

    Black Panther – It never ceases to impress me how each entry into the Marvel franchise manages to do something new and different, while still fitting into the overall framework. Black Panther’s uniqueness is around blending futuristic technology with African culture and history. It’s rightly getting press for its cultural significance and that this film is so remarkable is a depressing statement on the history of film and I recommend seeking out articles by people a lot more relevant than me to comment on that. What I can comment on is that the film was a huge amount of fun. I was gripped, amused, entertained and intrigued almost all the way through. I lost a little bit of focus during the final (inevitable) big battle, but even that had an impressive amount of character and emotion in it when compared to something like Iron Man 3, or anything out of the DC universe.

    The Greatest Showman – All of the building blocks were there for a spectacularly piece of entertainment and somehow they messed it up. Hugh Jackman was born to play PT Barnum, Zac Efron is like Hugh Jackman Jnr, the budget was all there and the cast and crew were clearly 100% committed and yet it falls flat. I think most of the blame lies on the plot itself which swerved from one set piece to the next with clunky bridges in between, which would rely on various contrivances to make sure the story didn’t just stop dead (magic money sources, instant forgiveness, spontaneously remembering why a romance wouldn’t work just after a massive love song) or simply skimmed past contentious areas (was he exploiting his stars, was there a romance?). From a production point of view there were some rookie errors – many scenes were set at night and were just too dark, the entry and exit of the musical numbers was clumsy and lip-syncing the songs felt like short change. I didn’t hate the film, the musical numbers were wonderful (except the lip-syncing), but my main feeling was one of disappointment that the amazing story and talented cast were wasted.

    Solo: A Star Wars Story – I’d not really been intending to see this film, but I was looking for something to distract my brain for a day and it worked out that I could do a double bill of this and Jurassic World. As it turned out, Solo lived up to my apathy, and even failed to work as a distraction.
    The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and I just didn’t really care for it or the characters. It felt too bitty (a problem I’ve had with other Star Wars films) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. Fun characters were massively underused disappearing far too quickly, leaving only the rather dull ones, nuance was non-existent so if I was supposed to be surprised by anything it was sadly ineffective. This film failed to distract me, I frequently found my mind wandering which is not what I expect from this kind of film. Really disappointing.

    T2: Trainspotting – 20 years is a long time to leave for a sequel, and for a film so ingrained with a sense of the 1990’s it’s probably shouldn’t have worked to jump back to see the characters present day lives. It shouldn’t be possible to make it current while also still being Trainspotting. But somehow they manage it, at least for me as someone who’s seen the original a couple of times and liked it a lot. The characters have all grown and yet also completely not, similarly the tone has evolved but is still absolutely Trainspotting. I really enjoyed this.

    Mary Poppins – It doesn’t matter how often I watch this I always find something new, but it also doesn’t matter how long I leave between watches I have a deep sense of nostalgia for it, reciting and singing along. The core story holds up well over the decades and the songs remain catchy and/or moving. It does drag somewhat (nearly two and a half hours for a children’s film!) but it certainly deserves its classic status.

    Zootropolis – The lines between Disney and Pixar are really blurring under John Lasseter’s leadership of Disney and that’s turning into a really really great thing for Disney. Zootropolis does all the things we’ve always expected from Pixar – smart, bright, original and with a huge heart. It’s playing with classic ideas of the cop genre, taking a keen new recruit and throwing them into the reality of the city and partnering with a more worldly wise companion (in this case a conman). I laughed pretty consistently through the film thanks to the verbal and visual gags, particularly the elegantly included grown up references that in no way would detract from a child’s entertainment. There were a couple of slower segments in the middle where plot was explained and the kids in the audience got a bit fidgety. Also the moral message was really hammered home until it became a little frustrating, but given how important a message it is, I shouldn’t really complain. Another great entry into Disney’s catalog.

    How to Train Your Dragon – I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this, but within a few seconds I was absolutely charmed and since then I’ve watched it over and over again with the same level of enjoyment each time. From the very opening seconds it is bursting with wit, originality, vibrancy and character. While the detail of the animation has dated a little bit, the observation of the movements and expression is outstanding for all the characters – human, dragon and even the sheep. The design of Toothless is particularly beautiful, managing to be fish like, reptilian and cat like all at once. The voice acting was perfectly done, actually feeling like voices of the characters on screen instead of celebrities doing voice-over like many films. I adore it.

    Books in December

    A slightly slow end to the year’s reading with only 3 books in December, mostly due to brain trying to hibernate, so too many tube journeys just staring at stupid games on the phone. Must do better.

    Jonathan Glancey – A Very British Revolution: 150 Years of John Lewis
    This would seem a rather random book to read, except for the fact that I started working for John Lewis this year. The history of the company is very interesting and this book does a fair job at describing how it developed entwined with the history of retail, design, society and the country as a whole. It’s a little light and fluffy, and it’s lacking any true critical thinking that would make it a more relevant history book. But it’s nice to look at, and has enough substance to put it a step above a PR puff piece.

    Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
    A colleague at work lent me this book saying she absolutely loved it, and for a while that was the only reason that I kept reading it. I REALLY didn’t like the first half or so of the book. It’s told first person and I did not like being in Eleanor’s head at all. I am still not entirely certain though whether this is because the book is good, or bad. I can recognise that Eleanor’s head is not somewhere that the reader should enjoy being, she’s got an uncomfortable approach to the world. But I’m not settled on whether that’s good writing that challenges the reader, or mean spirited writing that we’re supposed to find something amusing or freak-show like in her. The second half of the book did pick up a little (it thankfully swerved around what I thought was going to be an excruciating embarrassment for the character), but I never really relaxed into the book and can’t say I found it either entertaining or satisfying.

    Caroline Kepnes – Providence
    A random pick from the library because I liked the cover. Sadly I didn’t like the book as much. I’m not sure whether the book would be considered a young adult novel, but I felt it had a simplicity that is often found in the less good entries in that genre. Despite some interesting questions around what makes a person good or bad, there’s little depth to it with the characters all coming across as quite one dimensional. There’s far more focus on a relationship that I never really bought into. I didn’t hate the book, but it felt very ‘surface’ and disposable.

    Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1

    I have vague memories of the original Sabrina television series, probably about the perfect amount as far as the creators of the new series are concerned – a mildly curious nostalgia without a defensive reverence. I immediately liked the idea of taking the teenage witch element and making it much darker and the show certainly on the surface delivers that with dark satanic rituals and casual references to pretty dark stuff, but I found if you really paid attention, it was all smoke and mirrors.

    The pilot gets off to a good start with an immediate hook that Sabrina must soon decide between life as a human like her mother, or life as a witch like her father. Being raised by her father’s sisters following her parent’s death means that it’s assumed that she’ll commit to being a witch, taking a dark baptism on her 16th birthday and pledging loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. But that would mean leaving behind her human school, friends and boyfriend and Sabrina is not so certain, questioning what it really means to commit to the Dark Lord.

    The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers don’t really know the answer to that question either, and really don’t want to have to commit to anything. Sabrina doesn’t really seem to have to give anything up – she uses magic, keeps the boyfriend, goes to both schools (although never has to do any actual work) and seems to have no real problem doing whatever she wants to do.

    The show never really reconciles what it means to “commit to the Dark Lord” in terms of morality and principles. After a while it becomes apparent that although Sabrina’s family are full members of the church, they don’t seem to act on anything. There are dark things occasionally done by other witches, but it feels like that’s because they’re “bad guys” rather than because they’re witches. It felt all talk no action, like teenagers saying they’re satanists, drawing a pentagram with a sharpie and then going home to do their homework .

    In addition to these problems at the heart of the concept, there are more mundane issues on the surface too. Characters are completely under-used (Ambrose, Salem the cat) and the less said about the utterly dreary Harvey the better. The directing/cinematography annoyed me from the very start and I didn’t really get used to it. There was some sort of effect being used that only a small amount of the screen would be in focus at any time and it drove me to distraction. Some of the sets felt incredibly artificial and cheap and some of the acting and/or script writing was pretty clunky, and even the costumes and make-up annoyed me at times.

    One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

    Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2

    I let the whole season of Handmaid’s Tale build up and sit on my Sky box for ages before actually watching it. It’s one of those shows that you really want to have watched, but actually wanting to sit down and start it is another matter entirely. You know it’s going to be good, really really good, but it’s not going to be easy and not necessarily much fun. There’s enough spark and flashes of humour to make it bearable, but only just.

    Season 2 is completely beyond the source novel’s timeframe and plot, not that season 1 was exactly constrained as it was already expanding on the bones of the world and characters Atwood created. Season 2 moves further into backstories – broadening out the world and that may be the problem that I had with this season. I’m not sure that it hung together when looked at in that depth. The novel created a world without explanation, it didn’t try to work out how the world that we were reading about came to be, just that it existed and the reader and characters were in it whether they liked it or not. The first season of the television show started to add some backstory and it seemed just about plausible. But the second season really pushes the boundaries of the world out – looking at the transformation of our near-present day into Gilead and also the wider world of both ‘the colonies’ and more of Canada where the refugees flee.

    The issue is, I don’t think it makes sense. I know we live in a world today where things happen that seem to defy belief, but I struggle to see how things could change so dramatically, so fast. This is the kind of tectonic shift that should take generations to gradually erode freedoms. But it is evident that it’s only a couple of years between ‘normal’ existence with recognisable technology, jobs and laws, and people being enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered. The problem is not only time, it’s geography, Showing ‘normal’ Canada really emphasises that, just a drive away from this horror, everything is fairly normal.

    Everything else about the series remains absolutely superb. Every shot is beautifully and creatively framed, lit, and designed; there are scenes that could be considered works of art they are so stunning to look at. The script is cut back to the very minimum as all the characters mind what they say, while never lacking clarity or meaning. The performances are of course wonderful, and there is not a single weak link or boring character, everyone has so many levels to them. Even when characters are making frustrating choices, or their arcs don’t seem to make sense as a whole, the acting in the moment cannot be faulted.

    But I could not get past that nagging feeling that the core of the series is rotten. That all the beautiful acting and exceptional production values could never quite make me ignore that nagging doubt and annoyance that fundamentally, the series doesn’t make sense.