Oscars: Best Films of 2018

There are eight nominees for Best Film this year, and they cover about half of all the nominations across all the awards for feature length categories. I’ll post tomorrow my thoughts on the rest of the awards, but here are my reviews and thoughts on these eight films, what’s missing, what I want to win, and what I think should win. In alphabetical order –

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.
I’m a big fan of this film, and with the expanded number of nominations the Academy can now include films that are excellent examples of their genres, even if those genres aren’t usually respected by the Academy. But it makes feel a little uncomfortable considering how much this nomination may be a ‘token’ mark of respect for the cultural significance of the box office success. Is this the Academy being patronising? “Well done you black people for proving that you can make films too!”. Something that nobody except movie financiers actually needed to be ‘proved’. I really don’t know, but there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right. Either way, I don’t think it’s going to win, and while I like it and it made my top 10, I don’t think it was the best film of the year.

I struggle with this film. At it’s heart is a story that is completely ridiculous, and yet is apparently true. In the 1970s the first black cop in Colorado Springs, persuades his department to launch an extensive investigation into the KKK. He does this by joining the KKK, with himself playing the member on the phone, and a white (Jewish) colleague playing the member in person. I mean, why does the white cop not just talk on the phone too? That central question bugged me the whole way through the film. It also bugged me that it seemed to be presenting itself as a dark comedy, but wasn’t really funny enough, and I’m not entirely sure it was dark enough either – the ineptness of this branch of the KKK seemed to undermine the horrors they committed. And then, the film ends with news footage of horrible events in present day America which just didn’t feel appropriate with the light tone the film ended on. It felt like finger wagging, when the rest of the film had done very little to actually educate or elevate the discussion.
Just like Black Panther, this feels like it was earmarked for one of the ‘extra’ nominations, a mark of respect rather than a real expectation of it being a contender. The more I think about this film, the more I wish Spike Lee had made t a documentary instead.

Bohemian Rhapsody
I always forget just how many truly great songs Queen have had. The trailer alone for this film packed half a dozen songs together into a stunning mashup with incredible editing. Then you’ve got the story of the band, and particularly Freddie Mercury which gives more than enough story. Sadly, while the material is all there for a 10/10, the film only manages to get to 8/10. There were a few too many elements that I felt needed just one more polish – dialogue and direction were at times just too obvious, most of the characters were too thinly painted (particularly Paul and Mary – I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test) and I don’t think there was really a commitment to how to handle Freddie’s sexuality.
These things all prevent the film from being ‘outstanding’ and prevent it from being a truly worthy contender. However, the things that niggle from that point of view, don’t detract from the pure enjoyment of watching this film. I was entertained throughout, and firmly convinced of the joy and heartbreak of Freddie and Queen’s music. I watched most of the last 20 minutes with a huge grin and tears streaming and as soon as I got home I put Queen’s Greatest Hits on and turned the volume up.

The Favourite
What an odd film. I mean from the director of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Dear, that’s hardly surprising. In fact the only thing that’s surprising is the fact that such a weird movie is getting such a huge mainstream release. Of course that’s mostly down to national treasure Olivia Colman who is perfectly cast and perfectly delivers the complex heart of the film – a farcical character driven by incredible tragedy. There are few actresses that could manage to imbue a character with such strength, childishness, pride, rage, loneliness and just all round complexity. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have relatively simple roles beside that, but the triangle of the three of them is only as strong because of all three points. That complexity and confusion occasionally lurches in the film, and while the ending was ‘right’ it maybe wasn’t as satisfying as I might have wanted. But I was impressed, entertained and quietly stunned through the whole film and can’t think of anything that compares.

Green Book
I’m a bit unsure about this film. On one hand, it’s a nice film about the development of an unlikely relationship with a lot of laughs and smiles along the way and I really quite enjoyed it. The central performances are all big and the characters are complex and interesting. However, I was also uncomfortable that this was a film about racism, bigotry and systematised hatred and oppression; and if that film is ‘nice’ it’s probably missing something. Not every film has to be hard hitting and challenging, but this one just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because it’s being award nominated and is another of those films that if it had been released in May or October, I wouldn’t be so critical towards.

I’ve watched this film twice now. On first watch I was incredibly unimpressed with it, but the amount of critical praise and number of awards it was getting made me think I may have missed something. On second watch, looking for the things that people had praised, I could see that I had been overly harsh on the film. I could see the beauty in the cinematography, and I was certainly more appreciative of the acting, particularly from absolute new comer Yalitza Aparicio. However, I still feel, there is just not enough meat in the film. All the characters and relationships are quite straightforward and there’s very little attempt to develop them. Everything feels very surface, no attempt to share the backstory of either characters or history, it’s just a sequence of things that happen. On first watch I was completely bored, on second watch I was a bit more engaged, but already, less than 10 minutes after finishing watching, it’s fading from my memory. I’ll raise my review from “awful” to “fine”, but it’s nothing more than that.

A Star is Born
First of all I want to say that Lady Gaga is absolutely phenomenal in this film. I knew she could act a bit from her tv work, but here she is a full blown, award worthy actress. The character has depth and complexity, she is clearly saying one thing while thinking another, and often clearly not even really knowing how feels. It is a stunning performance, and I’m just disappointed that the rest of the film didn’t feel as worthy of her talents.
The biggest problem for me was that I didn’t feel the film made any attempt to dig into the issues that it was raising, let alone some of the issues it should have raised. For me, the plot was about the exploitation of talent – a young girl with clear talent being manipulated by a much older and more experienced man, then in turn she’s also manipulated by the wider industry, turning her into a successful artist rather than necessarily the one she set out to be. Most of that is on the screen but whenever it edged towards really calling out any of it, it instead went to another song or an emotionally manipulative set piece and sidestepped without any real development or resolution. It felt like it was romanticising the whole thing, but I spent most of the time finding the relationship between Ally and Jack downright creepy. Add to that the timeframe within the film felt rushed (everything happening within just a year or two) while watching the film dragged. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get.

Vice – Alphabetically last, and the only one I haven’t seen.

What’s Missing
A Quiet Place and Love, Simon both impressed me as incredibly well put together examples of their genres, and with Love, Simon also breaking a barrier that was long overdue for breaking, it’s a real shame that it didn’t get a nomination here. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about If Beale Street Could Talk and it sounds like a far more interesting and important film than Green Book.

What I Would Like to Win
The Favourite – I was entertaining, surprised, and impressed by this film as I watched it and it has stayed with me in a way that the other films haven’t really. Now that I think about them as a set, I have to say I find them a slightly underwhelming list. Nothing really blew me away, nothing had me unreservedly telling other people they should go and watch it and with the exception of The Favourite nothing surprised me. I’m disappointed that of 8 films, I think only 3 (Black Panther, Favourite and Roma) pass the Bechdel test, and I had some serious concerns about some of the content of 2 of them (Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born).

What I Think Will Win
Roma – all the smart money seems to be on Roma, which I find disappointing. When I went looking for things to like in the film, I found a few, but it fundamentally doesn’t have enough to say. I don’t care that it’s in black and white, or foreign language, or even that it takes its time – but there is no substance to this film. It didn’t engage me while I was watching it, and if not for my compulsive need to write about everything, I wouldn’t have given it a thought after it had finished. If it wins, it will be so far from what ‘normal’ film goers appreciate and respect that it just emphasises how out of touch these awards are.


You: Season 1

Netflix was pushing this fairly heavily, but I’d dismissed it slightly out of hand. I’d spotted that it was based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, and I’d recently read her second book (Providence) and been underwhelmed with unconvincing relationships and a distracted story. But then the buzz for You started building and I was informed by a couple of people that I HAD to watch it. So I did. And once I’d started I couldn’t stop.

It’s the kind of show that if I describe the individual elements and how I feel about them, it would probably make you think I didn’t like it. It’s about a group of 20-something New Yorkers who are by and large pretty awful people. The central story focuses on, and is largely narrated by Joe, a quintessential Nice Guy bookshop manager who falls for wannabe writer Beck, who is equally the quintessential Writer – she’s struggling to make ends meet and yet lives in a stunning apartment, is rarely seen working (either on her writing or her job as, of course, a yoga teacher), and is always out at expensive bars. Her circle of friends are rich and vapid (one actually has a job as an instagram influencer). Joe immediately becomes obsessed with Beck and things spiral quite rapidly in some incredibly creepy and violent directions, it very quickly becomes clear that Joe is quite the expert stalker and there’s a lot in his past that he’s not sharing.

What really pulled me into the show though was the voice over. We are watching the show from inside Joe’s brain, he’s narrating and talking throughout, explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing. While that never justifies his actions it does explain why he is doing everything. You can track the logic chains and while they are generally started by an idiotic choice that is unforgivable, you kind of understand why things keep going as they do. Joe does monstrous things, but because we are in his head, it’s hard for us to view him completely as a monster. He’s a fascinating character, elegantly written and subtly played by Penn Badgley.

Unfortunately that’s more than can be said for most of the rest of the characters, all of whom are pretty one dimensional. I found Beck a deeply annoying and unlikeable character. The fact that she’s far from perfect makes for some interesting twists and turns for the plot, but I never really understood her choices. Because we’re not in her head as much as we are in Joe’s, we don’t get the same insight into her motivations, so she comes across as shallow, selfish and inconsistent. While I don’t want to drift into victim blaming, she does make poor choices that have consequences in her life, and just because she IS a victim, does not actually make her a nice person.

This imbalance is what stops the show being great I think. The development of Joe’s character and the way he is presented makes a high quality drama (while still also having plenty of laughs from his dry observations), but because everyone around is flimsy, it undermines that central richness. It also makes it slightly uncomfortable when the aggressor is allowed more opportunity to be sympathetic than the victims are – they don’t have to be likeable, but if they’re not rounded, it just starts to come across as more of a cheap slasher than as a psychological drama. It’s still a hugely compelling and entertaining show to watch, but it could have been more.

Films in January

The new year usually kicks off with a flurry of award contenders, but that feels a little bit delayed this year. Or I just haven’t dragged myself to see films that I *should* see, but don’t necessarily *want* to see. Maybe February will see them flock in. Meanwhile I had a couple of days hiding from the cold blitzing netflix/amazon, so there’s an overall tally of 16 films for the month.

New films
The Favourite – What an odd film. I mean from the director of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Dear, that’s hardly surprising. In fact the only thing that’s surprising is the fact that such a weird movie is getting such a huge mainstream release. Of course that’s mostly down to national treasure Olivia Colman who is perfectly cast and perfectly delivers the complex heart of the film – a farcical character driven by incredible tragedy. There are few actresses that could manage to imbue a character with such strength, childishness, pride, rage, loneliness and just all round complexity. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have relatively simple roles beside that, but the triangle of the three of them is only as strong because of all three points. That complexity and confusion occasionally lurches in the film, and while the ending was ‘right’ it maybe wasn’t as satisfying as I might have wanted. But I was impressed, entertained and quietly stunned through the whole film and can’t think of anything that compares.

Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for.

Stan and Ollie – Timing is everything. Laurel and Hardy’s comedy is a master class in timing, but the timing of the release of this film sadly did it no favours. Coming out bang in the middle of awards season I went in expecting something exceptional and instead got something solidly middling. The writing and directing is depressingly pedestrian, lacking in elegance or creativity. No opportunity is missed for hammering home any emotional points leaving it entirely without subtlety. While I knew next to nothing about Laurel and Hardy (I’ve never really been a fan) I still found it incredibly predictable and while I’d be lying if I pretended it didn’t have be reaching for the tissues, it felt like it was the history that earned the tears, not the film. It’s a shame, because the true lives, and the superbly cast John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan deserved a lot better. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just from the hype and timing I had been expecting something outstanding.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – I’d been fairly convinced before I saw Spider-Man Homecoming that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man reboot. I was wrong, because they did something fresh and interesting with the concept, so I wasn’t so presumptuous as to say the same thing about the awkwardly named Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and yet I still wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the cinema. Then the reviews started piling up and everyone said it was brilliant, so I gave it a try, and the reviews were almost entirely right. The film is great fun, it’s got the heart of Spider-Man but still manages to do lots of fun new stuff with it (all grounded in the comic lore from what people say). It’s charming, funny, sweet, exciting and completely unexpected. The only thing I’m torn over is the animation style. Most of it I really liked, it’s got a lot of different styles to it, really feeling like an animated comic book. My only problem was that I found it too much at times, particularly the odd effects used for the backgrounds which I found so distracting and weird that I actually checked to make sure I hadn’t wondered into a 3D showing. I see what they were trying to do, and I completely respect the attempt, but that didn’t quite work for me and sadly spoiled an otherwise really lovely film.

After the Screaming Stops – Some documentaries just kind of make themselves, find some interesting people, put them under some stress and let the cameras roll. Matt and Luke Goss are just those people. I’m the right age to remember Bros mania, so even though I didn’t join in with it I can connect with that side of the story of their past. It’s interesting to see where they’ve both ended up and how it’s all effected them. At heart this is just a story about two twins who have gone in different directions, but they are far from normal. Whether it’s the fame or just nature they are really quite bizarre and when they collide it’s like watching a crazy train wreck. It’s an absolutely fascinating character study that if written as fiction would be utterly unbelievable.

New to me
22 July – There’s a lot going on in the film, maybe a bit too much. It feels uncomfortable to watch a recreation of such a recent tragedy, oddly opportunistic and voyeuristic, particularly because it involves children. Also because the ‘villain’ of the piece seems so extreme, cold and horrific in a way that feels unrealistic. It’s a well done film, I’m just not sure it should have been done.

The Squid and the Whale – This had just about everything I hate. It was a noodle-y storyline that didn’t really go very far but took a long time getting there, despite actually only having a runtime of 1 hour 20. The characters were all utterly horrible, overwhelmed by their own self-importance and failure to really deal with any serious problems except those of their own making. A miserable waste of a talented cast.

The Bookshop – This had all the ingredients to be utterly charming and 5 minutes in I thought I knew exactly the film I was watching. Emily Mortimer is immediately lovely, sparky and charismatic, and she’s going to try to set up a bookshop in a little village to share her love of books. I assumed it would be about the challenge to get the locals reading, while Bill Nighy is the reclusive book lover who will quietly support her and provide inspiration and encouragement, as the bookshop inevitably goes through challenges before succeeding gloriously and luring Nighy out to join the newly invigorated literary community. I really would have loved to watch that film. Unfortunately this film is about as far from that feel good joy as can get. It’s really the story of Mortimer’s fight against the Lady of the Manor who has vigorously taken against her shop for absolutely no reason. And, spoiler alert, Mortimer loses absolutely everything. It’s not a feel good film, it’s an absolutely miserable and horrible film. If there had been some sort of reason for it, at least that would have been a different film, but I couldn’t get past the lack of motivation and the crushing disappointment of not getting what I felt I’d been promised.

What We Do in the Shadows – I was really impressed with how committed this film was to its concept. It plays it entirely straight with the concept of a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew following a group of vampires sharing a house and living semi-openly in New Zealand. The vampires are not playing it for laughs at all, or horror for that matter, they’re playing it exactly as slightly nervous but excited subjects of this kind of documentary do. Likewise the unseen director of the documentary is doing exactly their usual role, showing the humour and the horror through the footage itself and editing. The result is a film that finds that perfect sweet spot of horror, comedy, and that point in the middle where you don’t know whether to laugh, hide, or just drop your jaw in wonder. This is an utterly original and fresh film that I’m sorry I didn’t see earlier.

Fences – Films of plays can be a bit problematic, it often doesn’t feel like they lose the stage-iness of the original. There was never a single moment of Fences that I wasn’t thinking about how this would be presented as a play and how I might feel if I were watching in a theatre. I never lost myself in the film, never felt like I was watching real people. The performances were technically superb, but I never forgot they were acting. The character depth and development is interesting, but I felt like I should be writing an essay about it, not reacting emotionally. Maybe it’s because the directing was so flat, or because the start is so slow, that it was too easy to get bored and distracted during the long rambling speeches. I just didn’t lose myself in it at all.

Guys and Dolls – Way too long. Two and a half hours without enough substance, and with only really a couple of catchy tunes or dance numbers.

Batman Begins – I’ve always struggled with the Batman character, particularly when he’s played straight as a serious character. In contrast to the Marvel superheroes it doesn’t feel like there’s any real depth to the character, there’s no light to contrast the dark and it means I struggle to connect to him, or enjoy spending time with him. The darkness runs through everything in this film – story, characters, visuals and even the sound and music; I know a lot of people like that, but I just find boring. Legends Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all bring brightness, but they’re not enough to overcome the charisma vacuum of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the underwhelming villains and love interest. Fundamentally, I was bored.

X-Men: First Class – Something went a bit wrong here. I guess someone realised that they’d missed a trick with the X-Men films and they could go back and look at teenage mutants in the 60’s and have teenage angst combined with out of control superpowers. The problem is that the original X-Men were all so well cast that this bunch just look like kids playing dress up. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are quite watchable but they’re no Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and Jennifer Lawrence brings a new side to Mystique. However the rest of the cast isn’t even half as successful, January Jones was particularly awful as Emma Frost, although she did spend most of the film stuck in a gratuitous costume next to Kevin Bacon hamming it up something horrific. All in all, a rather disappointing pickle.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – When I first watched this film I was confused and really struggled to follow along and only gave it 6/10. Now though I’ve watched the film a couple of times and also read the book I can actually track the incredibly rich characters and plots. It also meant that because I wasn’t so desperately trying to cross reference everything, I could start to see the beautiful details in the cinematography, direction and performances. I think it is the kind of film that’s a classic and just gets better and better, and you almost can’t have that richness and growth if on the first viewing it all makes sense.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! – Rarely does a film actually warrant having two exclamation marks in the title, but frankly I’m not sure that’s enough for Pirates! This film throws absolutely everything at the screen with such enthusiasm that it all feels worthy of exclamation and I had to resist the temptation to applaud at the screen on occasions. I can’t think of higher praise than to say that this reminded me of Pixar at its best with a perfect intertwining of a decent and original story with dozens, if not hundreds of tiny little references and in-jokes. It avoids a key pitfall that even Pixar have on occasion fallen into by making their famous voice-cast utterly unrecognisable, meaning the actors never overwhelm the characters. It’s also incredible to watch knowing the sheer amount of time and talent that have gone into producing the models and the animation, every single frame a work of dedication. A massive achievement and a thoroughly entertaining watch, absolutely outstanding.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson movies have an unmistakable style to them, sort of other-worldly, with a bit of child like wonder about them and a sort of sing-song style to them that can sometimes become cloying and tiresome. Grand Budapest Hotel however continually snaps you out of that style with an abruptness to the dialogue that continued to surprise me all the way through. Who knew Ralph Fiennes was such a great comedian? This is the sort of film that almost defies review and description, you’ve just got to see it and you’ll either love it like I did, or be utterly unmoved. Take your chances.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse (season 8)

The good thing about American Horror Story is that each season is a complete story and you don’t need to watch them all. Except that’s not quite true. There ARE elements that carry across different seasons, and Apocalypse picks up a number of threads in a way that’s both satisfying and irritating. I’ve watched six of the previous seasons, but that doesn’t mean that I remember them and there were quite a few times that I was clearly missing some back story which was a bit frustrating.

However, the threads that are picked up make for a much richer story and even if I didn’t necessarily follow all the connections, I could still appreciate them and get some satisfaction from them. The various timelines were played out well, working in large steps rather than muddling them all up made that aspect easy to follow at least, gradually adding explanation and depth without having to keep track of who-knows-what confusion. Actually, given how many settings and characters there are, it’s surprisingly coherent. The cast is full of familiar faces from other seasons, and it’s a credit to the actors that even when they end up playing multiple different characters over the span of Apocalypse, it still somehow works. (Wikipedia has an interesting table of who plays who in each season, but there are mild spoilers there).

The series was certainly compelling and entertaining but I can’t say I was ever particularly horrified. Other series have managed to be thoroughly creepy and disturbing, or deliver effective jump scares, maybe I’ve just become rather casual about gore, or this level of horror has become average for television. For the most part I didn’t feel the emotional connection to the characters that would be needed to feel lost in their awful situations, maybe that was related to me not being able to remember much about the previous times we saw the characters so I didn’t have that established relationship with them. But I still found it a really engaging season, I watched all ten episodes in two sittings, only interrupted by the need to sleep, so they’re clearly doing something right.

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