Although I have no intention of repeating last year’s film-based Resolution, I did enjoy producing single-paragraph reviews for the new films I watched, given that I generally lack the time to write full-length reviews of late. I have continued to write these, and will collect and publish them in groups as I did with last year’s Resolution Films. Here are the first 20 of 2018.
1. Molly’s Game (2017) – 8/10
Aaron Sorkin is one of a rare breed of screenwriters whose name can be the biggest draw in a film. Fans will be pleased by his signature style of sharp, rapid dialogue, applied here to the based-on-true events story of a woman who ran a high-stakes underground poker game, expertly using the tempo of language to build and relieve tension. Sorkin’s directorial debut, his approach is assured but not particularly noteworthy, with some unnecessarily convoluted time jumping. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba both excel.
2. This is 40 (2012) – 7/10
Judd Apatow spearheaded a comedic oeuvre that was once shocking and is now rather hackneyed. This is 40 finds freshness by accepting that the creators and audience alike have aged. When it focuses on the struggle to accept middle age and the strain it places on a marriage (together with the impact on children) there is something heartfelt to the comedy. When it reverts to ogling Megan Fox it becomes painful. Fortunately there is more of the former than the latter.
3. AlphaGo (2017) – 8/10
An accessible documentary film charting the astounding victory for DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI against then top Go player Lee Sedol. It is not technical enough to teach the viewer about top-level Go strategy or the nuance of AlphaGo’s neural networks but is more about the human challenge both in designing and facing off against such a machine, as well as humanity’s place as it designs superior machines. The best contributions are from a sanguine Fan Hui, previously beaten by AlphaGo.
4. Candy (2006) – 8/10
A tragic love story, Candy feels like a more grounded companion piece to Requiem for a Dream. It uses a similar act structure to present a junkie couple’s decline, but without the stylised excess. It ultimately may be less soul-destroying but Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish provide such good, raw and guileless performances that one aches for them despite the familiar journey.
5. Mindhorn (2016) – 6/10
A lightly amusing British comedy about a washed up actor reprising the role of the maverick TV detective he played in his heydey to help the police solve a murder on the Isle of Man. Offbeat without fully committing to its weirder excesses (given that it comes from Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh), this is essentially a lesser Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa without the strengths of the character or the history.
6. Phantom Thread (2017) – 8/10
Its first half is a portrait of a fastidious man against a period backdrop of couture dressmaking with Paul Thomas Anderson’s usual verisimilitude, but this is not a film about fashion. Daniel Day Lewis’ (allegedly final) performance is excellent, and the sound design deftly demonstrates how the external world grates upon him, but the character is less accessible than Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Patience is required until the second half which demonstrates the film’s real focus, exploring how a relationship works with such an obsessive fussy individual – distance, emotional manipulation and codependency. It is a film that lingers.
7. Midnight Run (1988) – 7/10
I was inspired to watch this off the back of the Rick & Morty episode Mortynight Run. An accountant on the run is chased by bounty hunters, the FBI and the mafia. The majority of the film is an odd couple road trip as De Niro’s Jack Walsh catches his target but has to haul him back to LA. The middle section devolves into a repetitive series of run-ins with a rival bounty hunter and mafia goons while the FBI are one step behind. Fortunately it closes more satisfyingly with a proper character arc in its conclusion.
8. Focus (2015) – 6/10
Another failed Will Smith vehicle, Focus opens as a slick caper movie with a group of con artists led by Smith and joined by Margot Robbie as a newcomer, both at their charming best. After the opening act, the remainder of the film switches gears to a longer con that lacks any real substance and does not fare nearly as well. It does succeed in keeping its audience guessing and does not quite overstay its welcome. Ultimately Focus is a briefly entertaining diversion if not much more.
9. The Breakfast Club (1985) – 7/10
Its cult status is questionable through modern eyes, but John Hughes defined an era of teen movies that did not rely primarily on sex jokes. Five disparate high school stereotypes discover common ground during a Saturday detention, but the film leans into its stereotypes as much as it challenges them, and the offbeat interspersed sequences of racing through corridors and dancing on desks seem present only to placate those without the attention span for the more emotional dialogue.
10. Black Panther (2018) – 9/10
A triumphant take on the superhero movie that offers not just a new aesthetic (like Doctor Strange) but is steeped in black culture throughout. It bridges the divide between African and Black American culture but also pits them against one another, considering colonialism and interventionism from the perspective of the technologically advanced but isolated African nation of Wakanda, whilst recognising black anger that atrocities past and present are allowed to happen. It also does not shy away from ritualised displays of strength and violence, but they parallel the respect and empathy felt by T’Challa for his adversaries. Such nuance is unusual for a superhero, particularly one that is meanwhile challenging conventional Hollywood wisdom that a blockbuster with an overwhelmingly black cast would not be profitable.
11. Machete (2010) – 5/10
Although its rise from a spoof trailer in Grindhouse to an actual franchise is impressive, the creativity here is less so. Robert Rodriguez serves up the expected sex and violence of exploitation cinema, but this is less a modernised homage like Planet Terror than derivatively aping the genre’s style. There is fun to be had at the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all — “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” — but there is little of substance here that Rodriguez has not achieved better before in his Mariachi trilogy.
12. The Shape of Water (2017) – 9/10
What if Guillermo del Toro made a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film? There is a surprisingly whimsical tone as we are introduced to the life of mute Elisa and the idiosyncracies of her few friends. This merges with del Toro’s signature eye for detail in fantasy creatures when she discovers the amphibian man imprisoned at the lab in which she works (it is a big year for the underappreciated Doug Jones between this role and Saru, the best character in Star Trek: Discovery). The bond between the two forms the core of the film, surrounded by a series of strong supporting performances. Drawing together disparate aspects of drama, fantasy, a heist, romance and espionage, this is a stunning, unusual piece of filmmaking that is more than the sum of its parts and lingers long afterward.
13. White Girl (2016) – 7/10
Leah moves to New York the summer before starting college and falls hard for a local drug dealer. The film relies on their instant infatuation feeling real and, for the most part, it does. Leah is difficult to connect with because she is entirely unaware of her own privilege and drifts through life impulsively with the expectation that things will work out, which, presumably, they always have. She continues this way even as the decisions become more extreme. As a view on privilege this is perhaps successful, and her eyes are gradually opened to it, although it is difficult to say what she has learned. It also has a powerful point to make about promiscuity not vitiating the need for consent.
14. Moneyball (2011) – 7/10
Billy Beane, General Manager of Oakland Athletic, bucks tradition by adopting statistical analysis to identify undervalued players to fill his team’s roster on a limited budget. Despite being based on a true story, we are given relatively little insight into the statistical philosophy behind “Moneyball”. There is plenty here to enjoy for those uninterested in baseball, but it is clearly designed to resonate more with fans of the game, with significant time dedicated to reliving Oakland Athletic’s winning streak. The film then meanders, uncertain how to conclude, and feels overlong as a result.
15. RocknRolla (2008) – 5/10
RocknRolla feels more like a tribute to (or parody of) old school Guy Ritchie films than a genuine Guy Ritchie film. It features the trademark rapidfire banter, convoluted plot and East End gangster action, but they fail to form a cohesive whole, seeming more like a response to his critics. There are some standout kinetically shot action sequences and a few fun edits, but this does little to restore Ritchie’s directorial credibility. The film cockily touts its own sequel but there is little wonder that it has never emerged.
15. Dazed and Confused (2008) – 8/10
Following a group of high school students on the last day of school in the summer of 1976, I found this initially uncomfortable viewing because of the seemingly uncritical view of socially condoned violence. In fact this is more verisimilitude as Linklater accurately captures the aimless desires and insecurities of adolescence at a specific point in time.
16. Blue Velvet (1986) – 8/10
David Lynch describes himself as an intuitive director rather than an intelligent one. This style is perhaps clearest in Blue Velvet which is fundamentally a series of scenes plucked from a dream, loosely threaded together under the guise of a mystery. Everything serves atmosphere rather than character or narrative, giving power to its subversive tone. Lynch and Tim Burton share the same disquiet view of American suburbia as a veneer over a darker underbelly. This is represented here as our two pristine suburban investigators collide with seedy characters drawn from film noir.
17. Annihilation (2018) – 7/10
Another thoughtful science fiction story from Alex Garland, Annihilation has much in common with Monsters, featuring a group of humans journeying through the “shimmer”, an area abandoned following an extraterrestrial impact. Garland’s unwillingness to compromise is to be praised, particularly with a female team of scientists filling most of cast, but unfortunately he fails to produce characters of more than sketches. Nevertheless, the narrative has a surprisingly effective payoff and the film offers something to muse regarding the beauty and fragility of DNA.
18. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) – 6/10
A bloated sequel that tries to recapture its anarchic satire of the Bond franchise’s excesses with muted success and decidedly less charisma from its leads, I actually enjoyed this far more than I feared from its critical reception. Arguably the story’s chief sin is swiftly to sideline its female cast, leaving once again a field of exclusively male agents. It makes the film’s direct references to equality and loyalty feel somewhat crass. Seeing the British Kingsmen working alongside their US counterparts, The Statesmen, is perhaps tailored to me (pun intended) but the creative design throughout both the Statesman HQ and the villain’s lair is wonderful. Whilst nothing matches the first film’s church brawl, there is still substantial creativity to the action set pieces.
19. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2018) – 5/10
After some interesting initial worldbuilding with hints of Avatar, this bloated space opera swiftly buckles due to its shallow story and disengaging lead characters. Although it all looks fantastic, and there are some exciting sequences, ultimately its running time is far too long to support a largely predictable story, and many scenes feel present purely to show off special effects. There might be a little more artistry than other generic effects-heavy blockbusters, but it is a far cry from Luc Besson’s past foray into space opera with The Fifth Element.
20. Ready Player One (2018) – 6/10
On one hand, Ready Player One is a better adaptation than it has any right to be; on the other, it is unsurprising that a book I described as “80s nostalgia-flavoured candy floss” has produced a film with little substance or residual impact. The virtual world of the Oasis is impressively realised in a sharply vibrant way. By contrast the real world is shot with an intentionally muted, softer look that makes it actively less engaging. The greater struggle, though, is that there is little logical coherence to ground those parts of the story. Similarly, both 80s and modern pop/gaming culture references are thrown at the screen haphazardly in the hope that name recognition is enough. Even Wreck-It Ralph engaged with the characters it picked. The initial world-building and the first challenge are engaging, but my interest largely fell away until the film’s closing. I’m glad I saw this spectacle in a cinema; I doubt I ever need to see it again.