I threw out my Worst experiences of 2018 first, saving the Best until last, but here then, continuing from the #10 to #6 list of my Best experiences of 2018, of films that were not released in 2018, are the top 5 films I watched for the first time across this year.
5. The Graduate (1967)
One of those films, I know, I really should have seen before. Mike Nichols’ comedy is a seminal part of 1960’s American cinema, a key text in the early, emergent ‘New Wave’ which crept up on the studio system at the end of the decade of social revolution, super charging cinema into a challenging, bleak and raucous 70’s where cinema pushed the boundaries. You can see that in The Graduate, even if it retains a certain old glamour amidst the edge.
Oddly enough, what strikes you is just how melancholic Nichols’ picture is, a picture which kickstarted the career of Dustin Hoffman as the awkward, repressed student Benjamin, tempted emotionally and sexually by Anne Bancroft’s bored, manipulative Mrs Robinson, struggles with his own awakening, all set to Simon & Garfunkel’s legendary strings. The contrast in their upbeat ‘Mrs Robinson’ with emo ‘The Sound of Silence’ reflects the film in many ways. It’s never just one thing.
It is, however, a chic, stylish, naughty, witty and everlasting bit of cinematic magic, which helped birth a new age I’ll return to later.
4. Phantom Thread (2017)
I’m perhaps cheating slightly here as Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest picture, and apparently the swan song of star Daniel Day Lewis, hit UK cinemas this year, but given it technically came out Christmas 2017, and I’m not counting it in my 2018 main list, I just had to throw it in here. Phantom Thread, like the majority of Anderson’s oeuvre, is a sumptuous piece of work, as bizarre as it is elegant.
Set in the 50’s, Day Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a prominent London tailor who is as obsessed about controlling relationships as he is the hem of the dresses he makes for European royalty. At least on the surface. Besotted by Vicky Krieps’ waitress, Reynolds–with his ever present sister by his side, played with glorious restraint by Lesley Manville–becomes drawn into a thread which does not unravel in the way you think.
PTA’s script and direction are gorgeous, the cast on point and Jonny Greenwood delivers a sweeping, haunting, melodious score. It’s beautiful and redolently, wilfully of a different time.
3. After Hours (1985)
We’re all missing FilmStruck, I know. I have the much lamented Curzon streaming service, a fountain of wonderful pictures from Hollywood both of yesteryear and recent decades that don’t always crop up on other streaming services, to thank for finding this one. This, plus a strong recommendation from Elric Kane on the excellent Pure Cinema Podcast, drew me to what could be the best Martin Scorsese film you’ve never heard of: After Hours.
If you didn’t know better, you would never know that Scorsese directed this punchy, black, witty and strange comedy about Griffin Dunne’s New York office worker who, on one enormously eventful night, calls up Rosanna Arquette’s arty girl he meets at a diner for a date and… well, adventures ensue. You deserve to know as little as possible about After Hours because the less knowledge beforehand, the more you’ll get out this twisty, clever tale.
It should be textbook material for how to make a tight, super effective piece of comedy, and it makes you wish Scorsese had scratched his funny bone more often.
2. Sorcerer (1977)
Remember that American ‘New Wave’ I talked about earlier? Where The Graduate skirts the beginning of a movement which reshaped cinema over the 1970’s, Sorcerer exists at the end of a dynamic, dark decade of pictures the like of which were never made before, and have rarely been made again. William Friedkin’s American remake of French classic The Wages of Fear is one such film.
Everything about Sorcerer is fantastic. Friedkin’s films often have a hardness but Sorcerer is made out of granite. The tale of a group of mercenaries, including Jaws lead Roy Scheider, who come together in South America to transport aged dynamite in trucks from one village to another, is tense, breathless and powerfully bleak. There is a particular sequence on a rope bridge which is just about the most nail-biting scene ever committed to film.
If anyone tries to tell you Friedkin’s best films are The Exorcist or The French Connection, point them toward Sorcerer. This is what he should be most remembered for.
1. JFK (1991)
Even with the existence of David Fincher’s Zodiac, it is hard to imagine more of a forensic piece of drama than Oliver Stone’s JFK. There are documentaries that don’t even come close to unpicking the levels of detail and theory around the greatest conspiracy of the 20th century – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, yet somehow Stone still manages across an exhausting 3 hour plus running time to craft compelling drama around it.
Kevin Costner should really have dabbled in more roles like Jim Garrison, the DA who takes on the oppressive weight of the US government in piecing together the real architects of the Kennedy assassination; he anchors a film, despite a galaxy of stars past, present and future surrounding him, while Stone’s script and direction tap a growing well of paranoid Americana that shows such as The X-Files would soon take a cue from and run with. The detail and reach is quite astonishing.
Another film it took me way too long to absorb but it was worth the wait. A titan of modern American cinema and, for sure, the best movie I saw in 2018.
Join me soon for the first of two Best of 2018 pieces, covering first TV shows…