Sunday, 27 January 2019

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2018

As ever, I should caveat this with "that I've managed to see", shouldn't I?  I'm kicking myself for not managing to catch I Kill Giants last year, since it would easily have made it into the upper half of my top ten, and I'm sure there are a few great movies I've similarly missed in 2018.  All the same, I've done my due diligence as well as I could, which is why it's nearly February as I post this.  And I feel safe in saying that 2019 was a year that squandered no end of opportunities.  In particular, Marvel settled clearly into a trench of making very good but not great movies, as did Pixar, the newly reborn Star Wars franchise settled for likable mediocrity, and Disney - I mean, I know they're all Disney, but let's pretend for the sake of my sanity - decided to release what by all accounts may be their worst cinematic moment ever.  I honestly can't say, because the Wreck It Ralph 2 trailer alone made me want to burn down a cinema to halt the flood of product placement and cross-branding that is twenty-first century film-making at its trashiest.

But let's move on from the obligatory ranting portion of the post!  Because honestly it feels like things have picked up in 2018.  The giddy heights are still a touch empty, but all told this is quite a fine selection of movies.  Oh, and also, if it was released into UK cinemas in 2018 then I'm calling it a 2018 film, no matter what the IMDB may say.  These articles are quite enough work without inventing time travel!  And as usual, the bottom slots came down to a total lottery: Deadpool 2, Aquaman, Coco, Black Panther and - to my utter shock! - Pacific Rim: Uprising all got awfully close, and lost out mostly because I didn't have much to say about them.

10) Annihilation 

I'm hopelessly torn on Annihilation, which I'd planned to wait and watch on blu-ray because I wanted to see it at its best - I mean, I wanted to see it in a goddamn cinema, but that's a whole 'nother story - and then caved in on for this article and found to be a mildly crushing disappointment, and yet has somehow lodged itself in my subconscious to the point where I feel bad about not including it.  So ... I dunno!  Garland's second shot at being a writer / director felt half-baked, flirting with ideas that didn't add up to a great deal, kind of like Stalker if Stalker ended with an artsy dance-off boss fight instead of one of the greatest sequences ever filmed.  Yet on a scene by scene basis, Annihilation has stuck with me.  Maybe that means it's an okay movie with some great moments.  Maybe that means I misjudged it.  I can't say, and for our current purposes it doesn't matter: tot up the best of Annihilation and you've something astonishing, which surely should earn it a place on a list that includes our next film.

9) Bumblebee

You have to be careful not to give bonus points to something for not being hateful crap, but it's extra tricky with Bumblebee, a film that seems at least a thousand times better for not having Michael Bay's name attached.  (Okay, he's the producer, but I'd bet you good money he was off doing coke somewhere while this thing was being made.)  There aren't many properties I feel nostalgic affection for, but Simon Furman's vast run on the Transformers comics was legitimately good stuff, enough so that I've been waiting with increasing longing for a movie that did it some measure of justice.  And lo, Bumblebee is ... kind of that film?  I mean, it a) has characters that behave like actual human beings / sentient robots and b) contains transformers that look like their respective counterparts and c) includes transformation sequences that actively resemble one thing turning into another, which immediately puts it well ahead of Bay's vomitous efforts.  On the other hand, if one was to be absolutely fair, it's hard to deny that whenever Hailee Steinfeld and / or a transforming robot isn't on screen, Bumblebee is pretty much mediocre boilerplate Hollywood film-making.  The result is a huge step in the right direction, but next time can we please not have the actual Transformers movie crammed into a five minute prologue?

8) Ant-Man and the Wasp

Look, I know an awful lot of people loved the hell out of Black Panther, and I won't pretend there wasn't stuff to love.  Maybe if I'd squinted a bit harder through the godawful CGI and fallen asleep before the woefully bland third act I'd have seen more of it.  But ultimately, Christopher Priest's run on the comics is among my favourite things ever, and reducing a character who's always at least nineteen moves ahead of everyone in the room to a stabby kitty guy who could be outwitted by passing traffic was never going to work for me.  Anyway, this is a lot of explaining to justify why Black Panther isn't here and Ant-Man and the Wasp is, when the truth is probably more along the lines of, Black Panther mixed a lot of stuff I loved with a lot I actively hated, whereas Ant-Man and the Wasp simply managed to be a solid film from start to finish.  I feel sort of dreadful for commending what amounts to Marvel making movies in their sleep, but if the results were always this fun and charming, I guess things could be worse.

7) Avengers: Infinity War

Oh look, it's Marvel again!  There's no way whatsoever that Avengers: Infinity War will stand the test of time, and I suspect that even watching it on anything smaller than a multiplex screen will be enough to erase most of its appeal.  But if you love cinema then you can't altogether neglect event cinema, and in 2018 we got event cinema at its peak: a film that seemed utterly doomed to failure until the moment it lumbered into the world.  It helps, of course, that the Russo brothers are the very best craftsmen that Marvel has at their disposal right now.  And if that sounds like damning praise then, yes, of course it is, but I dare say no one else could have kept this absurd carnival from exploding, and that it manages to function on a scene by scene basis is a heck of an accomplishment in itself.  If you were prepared to buy into Marvel's shared universe even after the idea had stopped being terribly interesting or exciting then Avengers: Infinity War was a just reward, a once in a lifetime moment that I found thrilling as heck at the time, even if I can barely remember a second of it now.

6) The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles 2 really ought to have sucked, given the colossal admission of defeat it felt like: for Pixar, obviously, but then sequalitis had long since proved to be a hill they had no plans to die on, but more so for Brad Bird, who'd put all this animation nonsense behind him to make proper grown-up movies and certainly didn't want to be dragged back to follow up an utter classic that required no following up whatsoever.  So perhaps the weirdest thing about The Incredibles 2 is how much it feels as though Bird wanted to develop these characters and this universe: whatever its imperfections, there's a sense of joy here that's almost tangible, like being reunited with old friends you'd forgotten how much you loved.  if the price is that nothing's terribly surprising - heck, certainly not the plot twist that was obvious from about five minutes in - then so be it.  For a movie that I actively didn't want to exist, The Incredibles 2 turned out to be an unexpected joy.

5) The Shape of Water

Okay, so this is probably stretching the 2018 thing the furthest, but what can you do?  I saw it in February, when it came out in the UK, it's not my fault studios are dicks.  To be honest, I'd given up on del Toro, after both Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak proved he'd cheerfully direct your grandma's shopping list if you chucked in a ghost or a giant robot.  The flip side turned out to be that, given a script that isn't crap, del Toro can still conjure magic as few directors can, treating the fantastic with the sort of earnestness and weight that most don't even understand it needs.  In fact, the bulk of what works best in The Shape of Water, starting with that exemplary Sally Hawkins performance, has nothing to do with genre, and its those foundations that make the later shift into more obvious fantasy storytelling so rewarding.  And underlying all that, I suspect there's quite an interesting thesis here about just how America got into the state it's currently in, viewed through the distorted lens of goofy fifties sci-fi movies.  If not then, hey, it's still del Toro mostly back on form, and that's not nothing.

4) Illang: The Wolf Brigade

And the award for this year's Asian genre masterpiece buried by its studio on Netflix because most people can't be bothered to read subtitles?  Why it's only the film I was most excited for back in 2017!  My favourite Korean director, Kim Jee-woon, the genius behind films like A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, remaking one of my all-time favourite anime movies, the Mamoru Oshi-penned Jin-Roh.  And I guess it's sort of a bad sign that it only made number seven, but I'm confident that if I could have watched this in a cinema, or even on blu-ray, it would have rated higher.  Goddamn Netflix.  As it is, we get a a savage, compulsive, bitterly twisted sci-fi movie cum conspiracy thriller with a number of the year's best action sequences, that's maybe a dash too long and sacrifices a touch too much of the original's soulful angst and refusal to be any fun.  Still, good rather than great Kim Jee-woon gets you more bravura movie-making then most anyone else can offer.  In its best moments, Illang is phenomenal, and it deserves infinitely better treatment (and reviews) than it's received.

3) First Man

What do you mean, a biography of Neil Armstrong that doubles as a history of the defining moments of the American space program isn't science-fiction at all?  Oh, yeah, that's actually a fair point.  But look, it was one of my favourite films of the year, and I'd argue that there's a way in which it refuses to play the traditional games of either biography or history that does edge it, tenuously, into the territory of science fiction.  I mean, it's not a very good biography, emphasising as it does a version of Armstrong that's barely functional as a human being when he's not in life or death situations.  The earthbound stuff is deliberately flat, while at the same time kind of fascinating in its way, but once First Man gets into the upper atmosphere it delivers probably the most heart-stopping, thrilling, fascinating sequences of 2018, culminating - spoiler alert! - in a moon landing that manages to be achingly tense despite the fact that probably every human being on the planet knows it's going to end up okay.

2) Isle of Dogs

I suppose I was predisposed to love this, given that I've loved everything Wes Anderson has done post the mediocre The Darjeeling Limited, the cut-off point that, for whatever reason, made him decide to become the best fantasy filmmaker working in America today.  Given how solidly great everything he's crafted since has been, it's pointless to talk about best movies, but Isle of Dogs is certainly on a par with anything he's done, and a more satisfying animated film than the excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox.  It's also, despite those people who insist in the face of all possible evidence that Anderson is a one trick pony, yet another evolution in his storytelling: looser, darker, more visceral, and decidedly uglier, in so much as all those words are compatible with such a meticulous and lovely aesthetic.  Also, it's just a flat-out great genre picture, full of enticing ideas that it commits to wholeheartedly, building the sort of world that makes perfect sense within its own nonsensical terms.  Which is the whole Wes Anderson thing from top to bottom I suppose, but I can't quite get past how fun it is having him making actual, honest-to-goodness genre fare.

1) Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse

If you want to know why Solo isn't anywhere on this list then here, obliquely, is your answer: whatever you do, don't fire Phil Lord and Chris Miller, because they're geniuses who could spin gold from horsefeathers.  And if there was ever a case in point of their astonishing gifts then - well, it's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, I guess, that perfect masterpiece that should really have been utter garbage, and which launched their careers as Hollywood wunderkind.  But there's also Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, a movie they merely wrote and produced that still manages to be more innovate and exciting than the vast majority of film-making in the last two decades.  Honestly, it's getting a bit boring how much Lord and Miller show up the state of American animation by exceeding it effortlessly, or reveal that blockbusters can also be smart in ways no one else even seems to be exploring, or find humour in places most writers wouldn't think to consider.  And none of that's truer than here, a colossal breath of fresh air wrenched from what should have been the most unnecessary, corporate, characterless piece of crap ever.

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