At the end of every year, I like to take some time to contemplate my favourite cinematic experiences of the past 12 months, and put together a list of the top films I saw during that period. But this year I had a problem – I couldn’t come up with five films I really loved.
Now, part of that is my own limitations in getting to the cinema – I have two young kids, which means that I’ve seen every kids film, but fewer outside of that. I still generally catch most of the buzzed about films when they get a DVD or digital release, but I do likely also miss out on some that I should have got to. Yet even then, I have seen most of the Golden Globe nominees, all the big ones. And not many really grabbed me.
But I do think 2018 marked a significant shift in the cinema landscape. This year, I really only loved two films, and both of them originated from Netflix, which, increasingly, is looking to experiment and distribute more interesting projects. They don’t always get this right, but they are getting better, and I feel like Netflix could become the new wave, the new platform of choice for ‘left of centre’ film making, a new home for more experimental, artistic film projects.
It’s been heading this way for a while, but it feels like Netflix gained more legitimacy in this regard in 2018, with some very big names partnering with the streaming giant on new projects.
So what were my top films?
Annihilation by Alex Garland
Alex Garland is one of my favourite writer/directors to follow – he wrote one of my favourite books of all-time, ‘The Coma’, which was far less commercially successful than his major breakthrough ‘The Beach’, but was far more aligned with his film work. Following The Coma, which was Garland’s third novel, he moved onto screenplays, working on an ill-fated adaptation of the video game ‘Halo’, then ‘28 Days Later’, and the remake of Judge Dredd. Garland then shifted to directing, with his breakthrough film ‘Ex Machina’, providing him with the perfect platform to showcase his eye for detail and cinematic ability.
Annihilation is not as good as Ex Machina, but it’s close, and it definitely deserves more attention than it seems to have been given. Some of that is due to a distribution deal which saw the film skip a cinematic release in most regions, going straight to Netflix instead. But on Netflix, it has gained an audience and momentum, making it something of a cult winner.
Annihilation features excellent effects, a great cast (hard to go wrong with Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac) and in intriguing story. Studio executives were reportedly concerned that the plot was ‘too cerebral’, and certainly there’s a lot to take in. But there’s a lot to get out of it too – a really interesting film that uses its science fiction setting to tell a human story, which is what the best of the genre does.
Also worthy of note, Annihilation is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by Joel and Ethan Coen
I’ve been a big of the Coens for a long time – they were among the film-makers in the mid-nineties who really introduced me to a new way of appreciating cinema and what the medium could offer. From ‘Raising Arizona’ to ‘True Grit’, the Coens have an amazing handle on the form, and how to use it to maximum effect, which is showcased in varying capacity in their western short-film collection ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’.
The film is a great representation of their style, with excellent dialogue, a great sense of timing and pace and visually interesting stories. There’s a heap going on in each of these little tales, and while I don’t think each one hits the mark exactly, the ones that do more than make up for any minor shortfalls.
As noted, both of the abov films represent an interesting shift for Netflix, which is gradually starting to refine its process in regards to its original production efforts. They still produced some films that missed the mark in 2018 – ‘Bright’ had an interesting premise, but failed to capitalize on it, ‘Extinction’ felt generic, as did ‘How it Ends’, while Duncan Jones’ ‘Mute’ felt only partially realized and never seemed to elevate. But then again, others like ‘Set it Up’ and ‘Next Gen’ were nuanced and clever, and showed what Netflix produced films can be, and can do for the broader film scene.
Then later in the year, Netflix also released the excellent ‘Outlaw King’ with Chris Pine, and the much-hyped ‘Bird Box’ with Sandra Bullock. And while Bird Box sometimes felt constrained by cliché, Outlaw King was another high point for the streaming giant, and an indicator of the potential of its projects to come.
There were other films I liked in 2018 – ‘Solo’ was, I thought, a good step back in the right direction for the Disney-owned Star Wars generation (once it found it’s footing about 40 minutes in), while the comedy ‘Blockers’ was far better than I expected, with the marketing angle for the film seeming way off. But I didn’t see anything that really blew me away, that really stuck with me after, as the above two films did.
What that means, to me, is that Netflix may be moving to take up the mantle left by the decline of Miramax and arthouse cinema in general as studios have looked to bigger productions (and lots of remakes/sequels). Netflix invested around $13 billion into original projects in 2018, and plans to up that further in 2019, as it continues to increase its subscriber base and build out its business.
That’s a very positive sign for those working in literary circles, as it means more opportunity for film projects – both in terms of original screenplays and adaptations. Indeed, in 2018, Netflix also invested in its first Australian original feature film, while it’s been working with the ABC on several TV productions. While it remains to be seen exactly how the next phase of video on demand – or ‘Television 3.0’ – plays out, it is good to see new opportunities arising from the expansion of the field.
I’ve been looking forward to Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ for some time, and the film does not disappoint – though I can see how its broader commercial could be a concern.
I’ve personally been a fan of Garland’s work for some time – his novel ‘The Coma’ is one of my favourites, though it’s far less well-known than his breakthrough hit, ‘The Beach’. Since moving on from novels, and into screenwriting, Garland has penned the films ‘28 Days Later’, the under-rated sci-fi epic ‘Sunshine’ and the most recent movie adaptation of ‘Judge Dredd’.
But it was his last film, ‘Ex Machina’ which truly elevated Garland in the wider public consciousness. Garland also directed the AI-themed story, which is an impactful, slow burn of a film, and a resonant and disturbing experience.
That then leads to Annihilation. For this film, Garland was given final cut, based on the faith studio execs had in him follow Ex Machina. That, as it turns out, lead to some complications with the film’s release, as producers reportedly voiced concerns, and asked for changes to the cerebral plot after initial test screenings. Garland refused, which then lead to Annihilation being released via Netflix, as opposed to in cinemas, in most countries.
I, for one, can say I’m glad Garland stuck with his initial vision.
Annihilation is a challenging film, for sure, but all great creative works should be. Sure, there’s a place for quick-hitting comedies and fast-paced action movies, but great cinema, as with any art, raises questions and forces you to consider them in a wider context than what you’re seeing on screen. Annihilation achieves this, but it does so in a complex manner which may alienate some viewers. But if you’re willing to absorb those questions, and ponder the various elements at play, you’ll find a hugely rewarding, haunting work, full of great performances and amazing scenes.
Great science fiction doesn’t use its setting as the key story element, it uses the form to tell a human story. Consider, in this respect, ‘Arrival’, which uses the backdrop of an alien invasion to examine human nature and the essence of why we do what we do. Or consider something like ‘Under the Skin’ as another modern example, which also raises moral questions through a foreign observer. Annihilation is in the same vein as these films, drawing viewers into a compelling story, that’ll not only leave with something to think about, but will also likely teach you something you didn’t know, further sparking your response.
In some ways, it’s sad that we (in Australia) won’t get to see it on the big screen, as a lot of effort has clearly gone into the amazing set design and effects. Garland has noted that, while he’s fine with Netflix distribution, he likely would have made different choices if the focus had been on smaller screens. But regardless, the film looks amazing, and as noted, definitely raises deep, intelligent questions – and will haunt you, not only for the disconcerting roar of the creatures contained within ‘The Shimmer’, but also as you ponder its meaning in your own thought process.
With the first hours of 2018 almost upon us, it seems like a good time to take a moment to reflect on the year that was in cinema, and the best things that I got a chance to see over the last 12 months.
It’s an interesting time for movies. Advances in TVs and home cinema have somewhat lessened the value of the big screen experience – why pay to go to the movies when you can get much the same experience by staying in the comfort of your own home?
This is not a new phenomenon, of course, it’s been this way for the last five or so years, but it seems like 2017, more than any other year, saw studios putting all of their focus on big budget movies – those which are able to provide an experience that you can’t re-create at home. Which has seen arthouse films losing out.
Many of those directors who would be making more niche hits are now shifting across to Netflix and other providers, giving us TV shows like Stranger Things, which may once have been a breakthrough indie film. Yet at the same time, while smaller productions seem have been getting less exposure, a recent raft of disappointing big-budget films may herald a new wave of creative, inventive cinema, and force production houses to re-think their creative process.
That, I think, has been somewhat exemplified in the top films I’ve seen. Here’s my top five from the past year.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Technically, Arrival came out in 2016, but I only caught it early in January, and even now, it stands out as one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times.
I’ve written about how much I love Denis Villeneuve’s work before, with both Enemy and Prisoners being stand outs (Enemy is far more divisive, but it’s one my favourite movies ever). Arrival showcases the best of his abilities, with an intriguing story (based on a short story called ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang) which enables Villeneuve to shift his narrative structure for the biggest emotional impact.
Directed by Greta Gerwig
There’s a lot of hype around this film, and it’s totally justified. Lady Bird is a reminder of how great cinema can be, of the emotional impact of the medium.
The film tells a simple story, but captures each key moment in a relatable, intimate, and affectionate way, which invites the audience in to share the experience – an experience which everyone can relate to on some level. A must-see that likely won’t be playing in your local Hoyts.
Directed by Craig Gillespie
I have to admit, I would not have picked Margot Robbie to become the force she has developed into. Not only is her performance stand out in this film, but she also co-produced, further building her brand.
Everyone knows the story of Tonya Harding on some level, which, if anything, makes it more difficult for I, Tonya to succeed, because you know where it’s headed. But Gillespie’s direction – which reminded me of how Andrew Dominik approached ‘Chopper’ in many ways – elevates it, and along with Robbie’s performance, makes it a stand out.
Directed by Patty Jenkins
After seeing Wonder Woman, my first response was that they should give all the superhero movies to Jenkins. The pacing, story and development is exactly what a big-budget blockbuster should be.
Sure, it’s a Hollywood movie, so it sticks to familiar beats, but Wonder Woman has succeeded where so many other Marvel/DC movies have fallen short. In a year of major disappointments on this front, Wonder Woman stands out – the major producers should be taking notes.
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Again, with so many big studios falling short in the narrative elements of their films, Pixar shows us what good storytelling is all about.
In fact, Pixar have got the process so down-pat that you pretty much expect it, but still, Coco manages to remain fresh, and highly relevant, despite following the familiar Hero’s Journey structure which has been Disney’s staple.
Those are the ones that stood out most for me this year – though admittedly I haven’t caught everything I would have liked (I haven’t seen ‘The Shape of Water’, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ or ‘Get Out’, all of which have been highly praised and I have been meaning to check out). But even so, the films I have seen have highlighted to me that there are new sparks of life within the cinema landscape, that deserve attention beyond the mainstream sequels and prequels and adaptations. The positive to those films falling short is that it’ll provide more opportunity for new voices, while the expansion of alternative platforms will also enable greater opportunities for good, original stories.
Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.