2018 – A Year in Cult Film

❉ Iain MacLeod presents the best genre films released this year and other highlights.

Two thousand and eighteen was pretty good for the pictures all in all. It had its ups and downs like every other year; who knew that remaking Suspiria was actually a pretty good idea in the end but on the other hand why was there another Mamma Mia film and why did so many of you see it? Why were so many people more interested in seeing Hugh Jackman play a singing PT Barnum than The Last Jedi? And, who knew that a film about a woman having sex with a fishman would win Best Picture at the Oscars?

The summer blockbuster season got off to a roaring start with ever reliable Marvel unleashing Avengers: Infinity War but then soon stalled with needless spin-offs, cough Solo cough, and unimaginative sequel; the rebooted Jurassic Park franchise continued to underwhelm as it still tried to figure out interesting things to do with dinosaurs and did we really need an Equalizer 2? As it turns out the answer is no. At the least by the season’s end we got yet another very entertaining Mission Impossible film to close things out gracefully.

Genre-wise we lucked out. Special mentions go out to Coralie Fargeat, who gave the disreputable rape revenge genre a feminist shot in the arm with her day-glo coloured, bloody and sensory debut the appropriately titled Revenge, which signals great things for her future filmography, and Leigh Whannel gave us Upgrade, an entertaining, low budget throwback to the glory days of 90’s VHS rentals, with an extra flavouring of biopunk thrown in for good measure, and a special mention goes out to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s The Endless, a tale of a strained relationship between two brothers set against a backdrop of UFO cults and time displacement.

What follows is a list of my favourite films in ascending order that were released this year and some other highlights, and one particular lowlight.

Honourable runner up: ‘Junkhead’ 

Still to receive a release outside of its film festival run is Takahise Hori’s astonishing stop motion animation. As weird as it is funny as it is touching and exciting this was cutting edge, handmade science-fiction delivered by a true auteur. A shorter version of the feature can be found on YouTube but the opportunity to experience the full-length version of Hori’s vision should be experienced on as large a screen as possible. The promise of a sequel from Hori himself could be the Holy Grail of cult cinema to those who fall under this singular piece of future shock cinema. As it’s Christmas and I’m really, really nice here is a link to the thirty-minute version. Please spread the word:

10. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’

A hypercoloured, eye-popping, cinematic fan letter to all the various Spider-men, girls and pigs who have spun their webs on the page and onscreen since 1962. All of the characters’ greatest qualities are paid tribute to, as well as the creators who have worked on him over the years; including direct visual nods to Bill Sienkiewicz and Jason Latour, in this fast-moving, funny and genuinely moving multiversal tale. For obvious, recent reasons the obligatory Stan Lee cameo is wonderfully touching and quite cheeky. The three directors Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr and Rodney Rothman, who wrote the script with Phil Lord, have gifted hardcore comic book fans and casual viewers alike, young and old, with the best animated film of the year, the best superhero film of the year and the second-best Nicolas Cage film of the year.

9. ‘Possum’

How such a dark, despairing horror film sprang forth from the mind of Darkplace’s own visionary, dreamweaver Matthew Holness was one of the greatest surprises of the year. This sad tale of a disgraced children’s entertainer and his titular puppet he carries around with him was another example of throwback cinema done right. The visuals and soundtrack, composed by The Radiophonic Workshop, recalled the 1970s heyday of rural horror and the most downbeat of public information films. Possum also contained the years best double act in with a never more intense and fiercely sympathetic Sean Harris as puppeteer Philip and a grotesque Alun Armstrong as his monstrous stepfather Maurice. Their fascinating and sinister relationship set in a vanishing and disappearing England, as well as a house that seems to be held together more by tobacco stains than anything else, eradicates any memory of Holness’s previous comedy career. The titular Possum itself also leaps to the forefront of cinemas most terrifying puppets.

8. ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

Drew Goddard’s long time coming follow up to Cabin In The Woods seemed to vanish instantly from cinema screens immediately after its release. A shame but perhaps unsurprising. Top flight cast notwithstanding this lengthy noir tale of mysterious goings on in a state crossing motel in 1969 seemed out of place in todays franchise hungry cinematic marketplace but will surely gather a cult audience in years to come. Whether it’s for the mysterious and constantly surprising story or that cast, including Jeff Bridges in his best role for years as a forgetful priest (or is he!?), Jon Hamm playing a loud-mouthed travelling salesman (or is he!?) or a sinister Chris Hemsworth as a Manson like cult leader (or is he!?) (yes, actually) or its surprisingly cynical take on politics alongside ruminations of running from the past there was a ton of stuff to really get to grips with and enjoy here.

7. ‘The Night Comes For Us’

Easily the stabbiest film of the year. Timo Tjahjanto’s feature concerns a violent man caught up in a violent and redemptive quest involving a young girl. A tale we’ve seen countless times before, and will again including in this list. The aim of the game here is excitement and excess. This is violence as intense spectacle and it is glorious. Using some of the same crew and cast from The Raid films Tjahjanto matches the punishing choreography of those classics of martial arts cinema and chucks on insanely bloody and violent levels of action, having his story of a Triad enforcer turning on his mysterious organisation The Six Seas sprawl out across the city of Jakarta. This is the kind of film where someone uses pig bones in a lethal manner. Do you like people fighting in moving vehicles? Well how about adding guns, grenades and tasers into the mix in a police van? It’s not all mindless gore however, Tjahjanto’s script offers up a sizable cast of interesting characters in a story that has much to offer in the way of intrigue and his directorial eye frames the proceedings with a style that is a cut above the usual martial arts fodder. There is so much stabbing, gouging and bone snapping here however you might feel like paying a visit to A&E yourself after viewing.

6. ‘Annihilation’

One of the biggest disappointments of the year. Not that Annihilation was disappointing in itself but the fact that outside of the U.S. the films original distributor Paramount shat the bed, thinking not enough people would be interested in watching some thought-provoking, big idea science-fiction on the big screen and decided to dump it onto Netflix outside of the U.S. A real kick in the teeth from our corporate overlords. The chance to experience Alex Garland’s visionary take on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel in a cinema was one of the most exciting prospects at the start of this year. A pity then that we do not get to experience the otherworldly visuals of The Shimmer, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s fantastic score and the most frightening bear thing ever the way it was originally intended but maybe we should be grateful that Garland got to make such a striking, piece of big budget science-fiction his way in the first place.

5. ‘Sorry To Bother You’

Boots Riley’s cinematic debut was a satirical jolt to the system, not only with its witty script and clever visuals but for the turns it takes in its third act. Exploring such issues as white people’s appropriation and complete misunderstanding of black American culture and the film’s hero Cassius’ own appropriation of white America, through the use of his “white voice”, which he uses to get ahead in the employment hole that is the call centre he finds himself in, a smart and savvy audience may feel that they maybe one step ahead. However, Riley instead throws us the most audacious third act of any American film in years that is equal parts hilarious and unnerving. Lakeith Stanfield, who also took centre stage in the best episode of TV this year, the Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta, proves himself to be one of the most offbeat and charismatic actors of his generation here with his portrayal of a phone jockey in over his head running up against the true and vicious nature of American corporate culture.

4. ‘Climax’

A night of celebration for a rehearsing dance troupe soon descends into a hysterical journey into Hell when the punch bowl is spiked with some particularly strong hallucinogenics. Sex, death, paranoia and self-immolation are on terrifying, confrontational display in Gaspar Noe’s most accessible, crowd pleasing film yet! In a series of long, astonishingly choreographed Steadicam takes Noe’s film is in turns uncomfortable, thrilling and impossible to tear your eyes away from as the camera and dancers twirl precariously around each other and over an abyss brimming with chaos. Along with Suspiria this was the film that got me into dance As long as it involves top shelf hallucinogens and black magic.

3. ‘Phantom Thread’

Now I’m not the most fashionable fellow, just look at me if you ever have that misfortune, so I’ll admit that I had next to zero interest in what seemed to be just another period piece about a fashion designer in London falling in love with a woman half his age. Having a loyalty to Paul Thomas Anderson was the only thing that dragged me into the cinema to see Phantom Thread. It turns out that Daniel Day Lewis’s swansong was equal parts stealth character comedy as a drama involving obsessive romance/animosity. Anderson’s direction is quiet, as is Johnny Greenwoods ever present score, and manages to capture the period expertly with having to resort to CGI or other such trickery. Lewis’s performance as Reynolds Woodcock, character name of the year, is reliably brilliant and sly; for all his so-called genius he really is a massive pain in the arse. Something that the instantly besotted Alma, an increasingly, quietly exasperated Vicky Kriepps comes to realise. The twisted yet beating heart at this relationship is one for the ages and recalls the darker undertones of Powell and Pressburger.

2. ‘Mandy’

Nicolas Cage does that thing he does every couple of years where he decides to make a great film. Director Panos Cosmatos wears his influences on his sleeve with this, the cinematic equivalent of a stoners van with multiple coats of airbrushed fantasy art inspired by 1980’s fantasy, sci-fi paperback and VHS covers. Never let it be said that Cage never fully commits to his craft but he really goes for it here, connecting with the script and his character, Red Miller, in such a way that gives the film a melancholy and emotional edge, no matter how surreal or over the top it goes. For all the promo art and screengrabs of Cage brandishing an axe straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons guidebook or caked in gore while wielding a chainsaw this was a slow moving, hypnotic and visually stunning piece of revenge cinema that played by its own rules. Whether it’s the out of place appearance of the instantly iconic Cheddar Goblin or Red’s emotional breakdown in the bathroom, a scene that at first seems like another display of over the top histrionics from Cage, it soon develops into something intensely sad and mesmerising, proving that he can be much more than gif or meme fodder. Although set in the nineteen eighties this rises above the usual, increasingly prevalent throwbacks to those glory days of genre cinema; Cosmatos could be forging the future of it with his own alchemical, directorial vision.

1. ‘You Were Never Really Here’

For all the talk of Tom Cruise hanging off the back of helicopters and jumping off tall buildings in the latest Mission Impossible, I never feared for the physical safety, or question the mental wellbeing, of an actor as much as I did for Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s anti-thriller You Were Never Really Here. Playing around with a sharper looking than sharp hunting knife and dropping it towards his bare feet, he, and Ramsay, put the viewer on edge and never giving you the chance to step back from it until well after the closing credits. Playing traumatized veteran Joe, Phoenix gives an unhinged yet nuanced portrayal of a man suffering from multiple mental traumas, including but not limited to wartime PTSD and parental issues, who excels in dealing out pain for hire and the rescue of kidnapped children. However, where we have seen the portrayal of violent men seeking redemption onscreen countless times, from Taxi Driver to The Night Comes For Us, Ramsay takes a hammer to the genre, completely smashes it to pieces and rearranges it in a challenging and exciting new fashion. Finding yourself as confused, terrified and angry as Joe finds himself proves that Ramsay is one of the best writer/directors around who for some inexplicable reason doesn’t really get the respect she deserves from studios. Only four films in twenty years proves this but those four films, as different as they are from each other, offer a filmography of content and quality like no other director working today.

The worst film of the year: ‘The Predator’

Hopes were high that the Predator franchise would get back on track under the helm of Shane Black and his Monster Squad co-screenwriter Fred Dekker. Somehow we ended up with a film that traded in flat and cliched wiseguy/hardman dialogue, usually one of Black’s greatest strengths as a writer, an annoying child character whose genius lies in his kind of autism (your guess is as good as mine) and a story involving a Predator who starts off killing everyone in sight then wants to warn us of another bigger Predator who also wants to kill everyone in sight. Extensive and obvious reshoots marred whatever chance this entry had of restoring glory to a franchise that has struggled since Arnold got back to the chopper (don’t make me say choppah) and the fact that an actual sexual predator was given a part in the film, excised once female lead Olivia Munn learned of his past and called out the director and studios obfuscation of his past just gave this desperate entry a frankly corrupt edge to it.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year: ‘Game Night’

Big budget Hollywood comedies starring Jason Bateman are usually the definition of diminishing returns so it was a real surprise that Game Night turned out as well as it did, particularly from directing and writing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein who have dished out such uninspiring fare as Horrible Bosses and the Vacation remake/reboot/whatever it was. Working from a script by Mark Perez and giving it a visual and aural sheen that came across as Fincheresque and reminiscent of those eighties standards Into The Night and Risky Business they delivered one of the smartest and funniest mainstream comedies in a long time. The cast was an embarrassment of riches; Bateman was the most appealing and funniest he has been since the early days of Arrested Development and Sharon Horgan made a great Stateside debut as an increasingly annoyed date dragged along by her dim bulb of a suitor Billy Magnussen, equally impressive and funny. Special mention however must go to Jesse Plemons as Bateman’s policeman neighbour, Gary. Plemons gave a performance that was in equal parts pathetic, creepy, suspicious yet always somehow endearing, and nevermore than when he is cradling his Westie, played by Olivia, who also gave a powerhouse performance in Widows. She’s great! 

Scene of the year: ‘Hereditary’

If you have not seen Hereditary let’s not try and spoil it for you. If you have you know what I’m talking about – the car scene. Ari Aster’s emotionally brutal horror film has a sense of impending doom from the very start of the opening credits that reaches a shocking crescendo when those two characters get in the car. The sense of increasing panic that is suddenly cut short by… that thing that happens caused a physical reaction in myself and everyone else in the screen I have never experienced before that no amount of 4DX and 3D gimmickry could ever hope to achieve. Whatever your thoughts on this divisive film it is hard not to argue that it never reaches such heights again, particularly with its hysterical and over explained ending.

The cliché that just has to go away. Now. But Creed II did it anyway:

Hey directors and screenwriters, when your protagonist is down in the dumps about something can you can come up with something better than him sitting underwater in the deep end of a swimming pool looking sad then letting out a scream? I tried it when I was upset, after seeing The Predator, and I drowned. Thanks Hollywood!

Cinematic reasons to be thankful:

Ridley Scott didn’t make an Alien prequel this year. Thanks Hollywood!

And that’s that. 2019 looks like it could be pretty interesting with the long-awaited release, and reunion of Scorsese, De Niro and Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and newcomer to the party Al Pacino, with The Irishman. Although this being a Netflix release very few of us will get the chance to see it in a cinema. Another iconic reunion comes in the form of Godzilla: King of the Monsters where the big radioactive, prehistoric loon meets up with his old pals Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidora for a big planet shaking scrap. I like those. Most importantly Nicolas Cage teams up with director Sion Sono for Ghosts of the Wasteland, a project that Cage himself has described as his wildest project yet. A proposition that pretty much guarantees it a place on this list next year. I cannot wait.

 Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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