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The best films of 2018-19

Mission impossible

By Preston Wilder

It’s been a year of two Cypriot films – or more properly three, except the third one isn’t really Cypriot. We actually do this every year, ‘this’ being a look back at local cinemas over the past 12 months (the timing linked to the fact that the big-screen scene slows down in mid-summer), and Cypriot movies seldom merit more than a footnote – but this year is different, offering three distinct (though not, strictly speaking, incompatible) visions for where the local industry might be heading.

The first vision was Vourate Geitonoi, the big-screen version of the TV comedy that’s literally been around since the 90s – and the year’s biggest hit, though precise figures aren’t readily available. I don’t know for a fact that it beat out Avengers: Endgame (which was No. 1 in most other countries) – but word on the street had it closing in on 100,000 tickets with its eye on Titanic, the all-time Cyprus champ with 120,000, so I assume it ended up as the top film of 2018-19. It was, in any case, a phenomenon, preceded by a marketing blitz and attracting people who hadn’t been to a cinema in years, precisely because they were home watching Vourate Geitonoi.

I haven’t seen the film; I was on holiday when it came out, and didn’t bother rectifying matters when I got back. I’ve seen bits of the TV show – which is much like other local TV comedies, trading heavily on bluster and catch-phrases – and find its longevity rather incredible; even Friends at least had the decency to disappear for a few years before returning as a smash-hit on Netflix, but Geitonoi has never stopped being shown, despite having ended 15 years ago. It’s ironic that cash-strapped TV channels looking to fill their schedules cheaply (the main reason why it’s endlessly repeated) led to such success at the multiplex.

Still, that’s the thing about success; you can’t argue with it. Smuggling Hendrix, for instance, might’ve been ignored in Cyprus – despite all its various awards – if it hadn’t done well, but in fact it did spectacularly well; it premiered at Cyprus Film Days, has already enjoyed two successful runs, and is back for another return engagement on the 28th. More surprisingly, it’s provoked almost no controversy, despite saying some fairly audacious (if commonsensical) things about the Cyprus problem. Like I said, you can’t argue with success – though in fact that theory doesn’t give the film (and director Marios Piperides) enough credit. Better, perhaps, to say that Hendrix works exactly as it was designed to, seducing viewers with its brightly entertaining surface so that they accept (and, perhaps, adopt) ideas they might well have resisted, in a less pleasant context.

“You’re building your film industry on our backs,” claimed one of the producers of Jiu-Jitsu at the film’s press conference – a quaint thing to say, given the success of Geitonoi and Hendrix, but in fact that producer had a point. Jiu-Jitsu is a Hollywood (albeit not big-studio) movie with a budget far in excess of any Cypriot film ever made. This is the third possible future for our industry, newly-installed tax incentives hoping to attract foreign movies and turn Cyprus, as the chairman of Invest Cyprus put it, into “a natural studio”. After all, if there was one lesson learned in 2018-19, it’s that Hollywood continues to rule, the range of successful films at the multiplex growing ever narrower.

It can’t last, of course. When you have five superhero movies in six months (is Hellboy really a superhero? let’s not have that discussion), in a market with only two or three new releases per week, it’s clear that the cinema is catering mostly to one demographic (actually two demographics: dubbed cartoons for the under-10s – cinema as babysitter – are also a thriving market). Netflix, not the multiplex, is where most people go nowadays, and the big news of 2018-19 was Season 8 of Game of Thrones – to be followed, in a few days, by Season 3 of Casa de Papel – as opposed to any Hollywood cliffhanger. It was almost touching when the K-Cineplex, out of desperation, started showing obscure foreign-language films (one performance a night, one week only), as if to say even the few dozen people who might come to see them are better than nothing. You know things are bad when appealing to hardcore cinephiles is viewed as the bottom of the barrel.

In the midst of all this doom and gloom, we actually had a pretty good time at the cinema. Is the big screen still necessary? Probably not. There are more moving images out there than anyone could watch in a lifetime – indeed, even discounting TV series and Netflix originals (sorry, Bird Box), there are more actual films available than anyone could watch in a lifetime. Will the big screen survive? Probably yes. There’s a special charge in seeing, say, the doppelganger family first appear in Us – silent zombies at the end of the driveway – with a roomful of strangers, all entranced by the same vivid image.

That was certainly one of the year’s finest moments – but we also had, for instance, the incredible childbirth scene in Roma (or the kids nearly drowning, in the same movie), and the goosebump-inducing performance of ‘Shallow’ in A Star is Born. We had Captain Marvel charging into battle to the strains of ‘Just a Girl’, and a fight in a library in John Wick 3. We had the sheer stubborn presence of 88-year-old Clint Eastwood in The Mule, rhymed with the rugged ease of 81-year-old Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun. We had Viggo Mortensen folding an entire, unsliced pizza and eating it like a sandwich in Green Book (even the haters had to chuckle a little). We had Adam Driver saying “Enchanter” in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote then pretending he’d said ‘Eddie Cantor’ – and trying to prove it by launching into a song-and-dance impression of that forgotten 1930s comedian! We had Forky’s cry of “Trash!” in Toy Story 4, Jonah Hill’s outlandish cameo in The Beach Bum, Nicolas Cage’s indescribable breakdown in Mandy. We had the courtroom scene in Holmes & Watson where a defendant was described as “an onanist of the most enthusiastic kind”. It doesn’t take much to make us happy.

Honourable Mentions for the year might include Roma, The Beach Bum (an audacious comedy I don’t feel confident recommending to anybody), the fine but slightly forgettable Toy Story 4 and the excellent By the Grace of God, shown for a week at the Cineplex. Here, however, in ascending order, are my Top 10 films shown in Cyprus cinemas over the past 12 months:

10. Smuggling Hendrix is many things. A charming comedy with a cute dog, a bicommunal fable with a sympathetic Turkish settler. Ultimately, though, its attraction comes down to this: even if we weren’t a Cypriot paper – even if we had no clue about the Cyprus problem, which is after all the film’s subject – it might still have made our Top 10 of the year. That never happens.

9. When Us is great – in its second and fourth sections, basically – it’s unforgettable. When it’s not great, it’s still pretty good. A family are accosted by their own doubles, sub-human Others clad in red dungarees and armed with golden scissors. We could spend hours arguing what exactly they represent, but one thing is clear: Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is as close to a horror masterpiece as a not-entirely-great film can get. Does ‘Us’ also mean ‘US’? Hmm…

8. The Favourite isn’t really the sort of film you’d expect to win 10 Oscar nominations – or rather, it is indeed the ‘sort’ of film (a handsome period drama, set in the court of Queen Anne), just not what you’d expect from that sort of film. This tale of three scheming women throbs with a cruel sense of humour and barely-suppressed kinkiness, not to mention the outlandish visuals imposed by Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos. Not for all tastes!

7. Even as a feelgood tribute to a living legend, The Old Man & the Gun (Robert Redford’s swansong as an actor, so he says) would’ve been welcome – but this based-on-fact drama is a good deal more, full of offbeat touches and little grace-notes emphasising its elderly hero’s place in the world, marking him as a lifelong escapist trying to escape (by robbing banks) from the one thing that’s sadly inescapable: growing old. Surprisingly poignant.

6. Why is Dragged Across Concrete two and a half hours long? Maybe because it spends an entire minute watching Vince Vaughn eat an egg-salad sandwich. (“A single red ant could’ve eaten it faster,” growls Mel Gibson as his partner.) Maybe because it digs a little deeper into character. Or maybe because it’s committed to a gruelling, unfashionably slow rhythm, resulting in a cop movie that could’ve been made 30 years ago: gritty and darkly amusing, not to mention extremely un-PC.

5. An unusually low placing for Cyprus Film Days this year, though our premier film festival remains an annual highlight. Maybe it’s just because I’d already seen most of the big titles – and because the local films, especially Smuggling Hendrix and Tonia Mishiali’s Pause, slightly overshadowed the rest – but Dogman (from Italy) and Too Late to Die Young (Chile) were particularly fine. Looking forward to next year.

4. In a year of so many (sooooo many!) superhero movies, you wouldn’t think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would be cause for celebration – but you’d be wrong. This snappy, eye-catching cartoon, following ghetto kid Miles who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and yada yada yada, is both wild and wildly accomplished, taking the clichés of the genre and making them fresh again. “I think it’s a Banksy,” says one passer-by to another, speaking of the jumble of matter produced by colliding dimensions. You gotta love it.

3. The last half-hour of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is one of the great action sequences of the decade, possibly ever: gasp-inducing stunts, expert cross-cutting, impossible missions made possible. It’s followed by a lovely, low-key ending – then the rousing M: I theme explodes in a way so joyous, it left me shaking with delight for minutes after. This, I’m told, is how comic-book fans feel at the end of Avengers movies.

2. Nicolas Cage has been ubiquitous recently, shooting Jiu-Jitsu in Cyprus – so let’s celebrate Mandy, a dreamlike, bombastic, exceedingly slow-paced mood piece where Cage does his best work in years, even while going nuts and killing baddies. How did this hallucinatory film even make it to local cinemas? We’re not sure, but we’ll take it.

1. Then there’s Vox Lux – even more perverse, ambitious, dreamlike, jaw-dropping, blending school shootings and 9/11 with the plastic corporate pop that defines our still-new millennium, this “gaudy unliveable present which has reached an extreme of its cycle”. Natalie Portman is superb, Raffie Cassidy (in a double role as mother and daughter) may be even better. The punchline? This emotionally overwhelming film – a heady mix of social metaphor and cynical showbiz fable – opened on the same weekend as Vourate Geitonoi.

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