Favourite films of 2018

It’s a testament to the power of cinema – not just the artform, but the actual theatrical experience (the physicality of holding a ticket, the anticipation as you wait to enter the cinema, the settling into your seat, the curtains opening, the darkness, the silence, the immersion) – that 10 of the 11 films I consider my favourites released this year, were seen in that setting.

This is largely due to a position of privilege I have lucked into. In working for the BFI I have access to perks, one of which is free tickets to its Southbank cinema. The sense of ‘event’ that swelled around these viewings perhaps influenced my succumbing to their powers of poetry and persuasion. Maybe I like them so much because I saw them in the cinema. Then again, many of the much-hyped films I didn’t connect with, I saw on the big-screen. So perhaps whatever resonated with me was merely amplified by the venue. 

Something else that unites these films is the experience of crying through them. I’ve always been more inclined towards ‘serious’ and sombre independent cinema than the funny-bone tickling predilection of mass entertainment. Game Night, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Black Panther were brilliant, but I didn’t ponder on them for much longer than it took for the credits to roll.

Perhaps since I declared Titanic my favourite film of all-time at the age of 12, I have placed an importance on the medium’s ability to move me. To invite my emotional investment, to encourage empathy, to demand tears – that is what good art achieves, according to my rulebook. It’s how I know I’ve fully succumbed to the world on the screen.

It appears I have a preference for darkness over levity, a disposition for difficulty and reality. And so this is how my favourites of 2018 came to be populated by stories about political conflict, the AIDs crisis, parental abuse and abandonment, brain injury, infertility, and manipulation. Which isn’t to say they left me dispirited. Another shared trait is their appreciation of humanity in all its complexities – its ugliness and illnesses, alongside its capacity for heroism, forgiveness and kindness.

So without further adieu, here are the films that gave me all the feels in 2018…

Summer, 1993

DIR. Carla Simón, Spain

I felt a profound sense of kinship with the 6-year-old female protagonist in Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. Not for the grieving process she must endure after the death of her mother, which results in one helluva emotional sucker punch, but for the navigation of a world in which she is no longer the centre. Such is the strange burden of being an only child. After moving in with her aunt, uncle and young cousin, Frida (Laia Artigas) is thrust into a bewildering rural environment and resorts to the toolbox of the very young – grandstanding, tantrums, sulking, sly manipulation, even cruelty – to beckon affection. Simon’s talent as a director, not least of which is coaxing performances of astounding naturalism from her young cast, is balancing the melancholic with the amusing. It basks in its landscape, but never dawdles and every moment of empathy feels hard-earned. Simon rewards our patience with a story that is as textured as it is tender.

Roma

DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, USA

The personal is the political in Alfonso Cuarón’s epic, monochromatic exploration of Mexico City in the early 70s. A tale of two women amid domestic and civil unrest, there is a level of intimacy on display that feels novelistic; small moments that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in another film are given full focus. It’s painstaking detail brings to mind a line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Cuarón’s microscopic and memory-infused evocation of this time and era radiates with affection.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 

DIR. Robin Campillo, France

A political and medical movement is given its due, and at times dazzling, attention with Robin Campillo’s drama. Following the activities of Act Up Paris in a procedural of-sorts that details the ups and downs of activism, particularly through the eyes of a new member as he falls in love with an HIV-positive one, Campillo imbues his edifying drama with scenes of passion, fury, sex and dance. Even as it deals with the inevitability of death, this is as enlivening a film as I saw this year.

The Favourite

DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA

Coruscating, saucy, foul-mouthed and uproariously funny. Like Marie Antoinette by way of The Thick of It, made all the merrier for the sublime ménage à trois at its expertly staged centre.

 

Cold War

DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, UK, France

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the palate and period that garnered him a golden statuette (for 2015’s Ida) with a story loosely-based on his parent’s love affair. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the gorgeous pair at the centre (he’s the composer, she’s the star) of a folkloric musical road-show, increasingly suffocated by Communism’s grip. Jazz and jealousy spike a narrative as distilled as a shot of vodka with enough substance to match its elegantly framed style. But what a style it is. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on anything as exquisite this year.

Leave No Trace

DIR. Debra Granik, USA

Debra Granik, who bequeathed us with Winter’s Bone, and did Hollywood the favour of discovering Jennifer Lawrence, does the world another solid with Leave No Trace. A film which quietly and captivatingly delves into the lives of a father and daughter existing, geographically and economically, on America’s fringes.

Private Life

DIR. Tamara Jenkins, USA

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the literary, near middle-aged couple struggling to conceive in what appear to be tailor made roles. Tamara Jenkins is the deft hand at the helm – having already proved herself a master of unflinching honesty and wit with 2007’s The Savages – documenting the trials and tribulations of IVF treatment with grimace-inducing candor. (The films opens with an ass-bound needle). Speaking of injections, theatre-kid Kayli Carter (familiar to some for her role in Netflix’s Godless, also playing a character called Sadie) is effervescent as the step-niece turned potential surrogate, mainlining charisma and chaos into the fraught (but impeccably furnished) lives of her baby-bewitched relations.

There’s a lived-in-ness to the characters, hammered home perhaps somewhat hammily by the home-movie feel of the cinematography. But this is dramedy as it should be – wry, profound and rewarding.

Also fun fact, Chris Ware, the artist behind the mind-bending graphic novel Building Stories, designed the film’s poster.

The Kindergarten Teacher

DIR. Sara Colangelo, USA

Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to prove herself one of the most intriguing, and versatile performers working today with the story of a morally dubious teacher who discovers one of her students possesses great poetic talent, and goes to boundary-pushing lengths in order to nurture it. Provocative, complex and intelligent, The Kindergarten Teacher raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps like any good educator, that is exactly the point.

Shoplifters

DIR. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Kore-eda’s keen eye for the fragility, and necessity, of human connection is woven into his most heartbreaking fable yet as a ragtag ‘family’ of bandits are broken apart by the authorities. 

 

The Rider

DIR. Chloé Zhao, USA

An all too real tale of an injured Bronco rider grappling with identity, masculinity and tradition, against the spectacular backdrop of a South Dakota reservation. Chloé Zhao has the same taste for downbeat Americana as Debra Granik, the same ear and eye for authenticity as Kore-eda, but a talent for blending spirituality and majesty that is all her own.

Petra

DIR. Jaime Rosales, Spain, France, Denmark

If The Favourite was the most hyped film I saw this year, this has to be the least. After watching the delightful and sensual South Korean film Little Forest at the London Film Festival, I decided to stay put at Ciné Lumière and check out the next film on the schedule – Petra. I knew next to nothing about, and ended up having one of the most riveting cinematic experiences in recent memory.

The elaborately-structured plot – non-linear vignettes are introduced with a short precis detailing twists and reveals – is matched by towering performances, particularly that of Bárbara Lennie as the titular artist in search of her biological father. Thrilling, labyrinthine and devastating, Petra is name to remember.

Honourable mentions:

Nancy, First Reformed, Mid90s, Skate Kitchen, A Star is Born, Wild Rose, If Beale Street Could Talk, United Skates, Jeune Femme, The Tale, Game Night, Phantom Thread

Things I’m chomping at the bit to see which might have made the list had I…

Zama, Burning, The Old Man & the Gun, Western, Sweet Country, Dogman, Wildlife, Minding the Gap

Things I saw but didn’t care for as much as other people…

Widows, You Were Never Really Here, Peterloo, Shirkers, BlackKklansman, Support the Girls, 

 

 

Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.