19 Dec 2018

Year in review: At The Movies for 19 December 2018

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 19 December 2018

As the gigantic cities on wheels in the film Mortal Engines trundle into the distance, following in the footsteps of the dilated dinosaurs of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the lumbering robots of Pacific Rim 2, we look back on a year that finally decided how big was too big.

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Photo: Supplied / YouTube

It is a question that’s been asked many times over the years – when superheroes stopped tossing cars at each other and started hurling cities, when monsters became so big their heads became obscured by clouds. 

But until 2018, the aim was always to go even bigger – to make a skyscraper that was three times as big as any previous one.

No-one worked harder to go larger this year than Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. 

Not only did he leap several hundred feet into a burning Skyscraper but he wrestled three modified monsters in Rampage

Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) in the 2018 film Skyscraper.

Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) in the 2018 film Skyscraper. Photo: Universal Pictures

But his best film was the more modest and therefore more enjoyable Jumanji remake, where he plays a wimp in the body of a – well, a Rock.

The Rock’s spectaculars had competition, though. Pacific Rim 2 pitted Transformers against Godzillas; The Meg pitted the world’s biggest shark against Jason Statham.

Then there was the astonishing feat of Ready Player One: never have so many pop culture figures been squeezed into one film at the same time.

Significantly, Ready Player One was directed by an old hand at pop culture, Steven Spielberg.  It’s entirely due to him that the story never quite gets too big for its britches.

And the same can be said for unarguably the biggest film of the year, but also the most entertaining, Avengers: Infinity War.

With 22 superheroes, many of them fresh from their own starring vehicles, it had more stars than there are in MGM, including villain of the year Josh Brolin, and a nihilistic ending that destroyed half the universe while still leaving audiences hungry for more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – that’s why the Marvel Cinematic Universe boss Kevin Feige is worth the big dollars.

This year there were half a dozen Marvel movies – including the foul-mouthed Deadpool 2 and the violent Venom. But the Feige-produced titles were always a cut above, including Ant-man and the Wasp and the smash hit - particularly in the US - Black Panther.

Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman.

Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. Photo: AFP / Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Pic / Collection ChristopheL

If big, and occasionally too big, was one trend, another was the unexpected rise of the musical.

The year opened with a film that didn’t let luke-warm reviews stop it. The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman lingered in the cinemas for months.

And that was just the start. Mamma Mia 2 continued to cash in on Abba.  Bohemian Rhapsody surprised even die-hard Queen fans with its popularity.

But the best – or at least the best-reviewed – was the latest A Star is Born.

This version benefited from the talented duo Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, proving they could both sing, act and write songs very well.

Meanwhile the franchises kept rumbling on, some more successfully than others. 

The year saw, not one but two Star Wars adventures, greeted with the usual contradictory reactions from the fans.  People came out once again in huge numbers to both The Last Jedi's continuation of the rather weary original time-line, and to Solo, the adventures of the young Han Solo.  

And once again they bitched about the experience. There was nothing wrong with either film, other than they weren’t the original and the audience members, generally, weren’t 13 anymore.

Making nostalgia work for it rather more effectively was the latest Mission Impossible. MI: Fallout seemed to roll the entire series’ greatest hits into one movie.

To star/producer Tom Cruise’s credit, he threw in a dazzling support cast for a change, led by Rebecca Fergusson, Michele Monaghan, Vanessa Kirby and Angela Basset.

Not sure if you’re noticing a trend here, but while the shortage of women directors remained a well-documented scandal, the number of women stars in big movies went up significantly in 2018 with women-led films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Widows to Ocean's 8, Red Sparrow and Crazy Rich Asians.

Crazy Rich Asians made headlines by being the first ethnic Asian-American film for decades but it was also, significantly, taken from a female perspective.

And aiming predominantly at women audiences didn’t hurt the box-office of girls-night-out staples like 50 Shades Freed, Pitch Perfect 3 and New Zealand hit comedy The Breaker Upperers.

Yes, diversity was the new lowest common denominator, and suddenly Hollywood started aiming to crack those deceptively difficult nuts - China and older people. Both demographics are keen moviegoers, and know what they like.

But for producers, their tastes remained elusive.

The Meg set its action off the coast of Shanghai, Crazy Rich Asians featured – well, you know – and many blockbusters made sure there was at least one Chinese face on screen.

A 75-foot-long prehistoric shark is the true star of The Meg.

A 75-foot-long prehistoric shark is the true star of The Meg. Photo: Warner Bros

But it turned out the Chinese market often preferred their own films.

Meanwhile, Old People Movies can best be summed up as either creaky old love-stories or creaky old bank heists.

It's hard to know what’s more condescending, watching feisty old codgers like Michael Caine and Jim Broadbent robbing a bank in King of Thieves, or feisty old broads like Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen bonding over 50 Shades of Grey in The Book Club.  

One film, The Old Man & the Gun, tried both approaches - but found its appeal was as much in watching Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek’s beautiful performances as it was seeing yet another bank robbery.

Speaking for older audiences, what we really like to see is great actors at work or at play. On that note, two documentaries also featured senior thespians looking back.

McKellen: Playing the Part was an entertaining turn from Sir Ian, while Tea With the Dames was an even more insightful account of talent and survival in a tough world. It featured four of the toughest and most talented survivors – Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright.

You’ll notice the best performers from the Baby Boomer generation and older don’t need much help from the diversity encouragers.  They’re more than capable of grabbing attention all by themselves. 

Frances McDormand gave the most endearingly fearless performance as the crusty lead of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Frances McDormand in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'.

Frances McDormand in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'. Photo: Fox Searchlight

Watching Frances pick up her Oscar wearing the bare minimum of makeup in Hollywood was as thrilling to many as watching her kick people in the crotch in Three Billboards.

I was sorry she wasn’t joined by Willem Defoe for his wonderfully generous work in the small but perfectly formed The Florida Project.

Closer to home, my pick for Best Performances in Best Australasian Film of the Year is shared between three actors of a certain vintage - Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and aboriginal actor Hamilton Morris in Warwick Thornton’s Aussie western Sweet Country.

It was a film dealing with another of this year’s hot topics – though race never really goes away, particularly in the United States.

That certainly gave veteran film-maker Spike Lee his biggest hit in decades, with the year’s least-likely true story, BlacKkKlansman.

Like Three Billboards and Black Panther this year – it may have been about race, but it succeeded by keeping the judgmental finger-wagging to a minimum and stressing the entertaining.  

Mind you, how could the story of a black policeman infiltrating the racist ku klux klan be anything but a hoot?

However, racism and sexism weren’t the only issues on trial in 2018. Truth in the age of fake news may turn out to be even more important than the heavily publicized social media hashtags.

And this year saw some spectacular portraits of Fake News in Action.

Scottish-Italian Armando Iannucci has made a career satirizing television news over the years. His film The Death of Stalin shows how manipulating the media worked decades before Vladimir Putin, Wikileaks and Fox News.

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Photo: eOne Films

But the subject of unreliable news cropped up throughout the year.

It was present in films as diverse as Wes Anderson’s stop-motion film Isle of Dogs, Steven Spielberg’s nostalgic The Post – even The Incredibles 2, whose villain was the media manipulator The Screen Slaver.

The best attack, however, on the media’s shortcomings was the film I, Tonya - an unpicking of the tabloid scandals around ice skater Tonya Harding.  It should be required viewing for anyone who believes everything they read on Facebook.

At a time when real life is proving more hilariously depressing – or depressingly hilarious – than anything gag-writers seem capable of creating, the number of successful comedies was a little low this year. 

But maybe we were looking in the wrong places.

Alleged superhero movies like Deadpool 2 and Ant-man and the Wasp boasted far higher laugh counts than the likes of I Feel Pretty and The Spy Who Dumped Me.

And so did two wonderful comedy-dramas driven by brilliant performances. Charlize Theron was as dark as pitch as the mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Tully, while Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe get the maximum of laughs out of a mother and daughter on the verge of killing each other in Lady Bird.

If you haven’t seen them, neither proposition sounds remotely funny. But that’s the miracle of great acting, and of directors who allow and encourage great acting.  

How else to explain the success of this year’s Oscar winner, The Shape of Water sold by Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in a rubber suit as the year’s most touching romantic couple?

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water Photo: Supplied

Old fashioned genre-pictures like this were back in 2018, albeit with a twist: they took themselves deadly seriously.

The creepy Hereditary starring Toni Collette; the stark raving mad Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage (who else?); the often terrifying A Quiet Place starring Emily Blunt: whatever you think of old-school horror films, you can’t deny these ones achieved their considerable success by flying in the face of the rest of their rivals’ bigger is better approach.

Many of the pleasures of 2018 were smaller ones – though I’m not sure that describes the year’s two most extraordinary visual achievements.

One was Sir Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old that essentially colorized an entire generation, the other was Loving Vincent, a hand-animated story of Van Gogh which used thick, colourful oils in the style of the painter.

There were two little French comedies that won over their audiences the old-fashioned way. Lost in Paris was a tribute to the silent comedies of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, but performed by a female clown, Fiona Gordon.

The other was the farce of the year which, despite its rather lame title C’est la Vie, reinstated the food event-movie as a can’t-fail night out.

New Zealand films were also numerous, if a bit patchy, this year.   Aside from The Breaker Upperers, there was the low-budget time-travel comedy Mega Time Squad, the award-winning if slow drama Stray and an assortment of documentaries.

My favourite Kiwi film this year - for no reason but the charm of the participants - was the self-explanatory She Shears, featuring five women obsessed with the art of sheep hairdressing.

And at the end of the year, I always like to give credit to those hard-working performers who’ve delivered more than they strictly needed to.

Josh Brolin certainly did sterling work as villain in two superhero movies and anti-hero in one cop film, Soldado.   The more well-bred Colin Firth and Emily Blunt have popped up regularly in 2018 - Colin with The Mercy and Mamma Mia 2, Emily with A Quiet Place and the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns.

Saoirse Ronan in 'On Chesil Beach'

Saoirse Ronan in 'On Chesil Beach' Photo: BBC Films

But this year I’m giving the award to one of the finest actors never to win an Oscar yet, though that talented colleen, Saoirse Ronan, has been a finalist three times.  

She’s 24, incidentally.

From her dazzling opening of the year as the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, through a cameo in Loving Vincent, to two heartbreaking turns opposite young English actor Billy Howle – The Seagull and On Chesil Beach – Ronan is a well-deserved winner in any category she finds herself in.

I see she will shortly be appearing opposite I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie in a film called Mary Queen of Scots. Not my first choices to play, respectively, Mary or Queen Elizabeth I, but let’s reserve judgement.  Frankly, if anyone can pull off such an unlikely project it’s those two.

Over the next month or so we’ll be enjoying that regular Christmas collision between family blockbusters - Mary Poppins, Ralph Breaks the Internet - and awards-bait like films about Dick Cheney, Laurel and Hardy and of course Mary Queen of Scots.

And may the best biopic win.

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