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12 Best Historical/Period Movies of 2018

January 1, 2019
15 min read

One is bound to develop a deeper sense of appreciation for movies based in a different period of time simply for the visible effort put in them. Recreating a specific period in time, now long gone, especially if it’s through props and sets and not special effects is a mammoth task for the entire team, including the production designers, art directors and even the writers, for they are the ones who decide how the setting is going to be exploited to best effect. What’s more is that recreating virtual history isn’t merely limited to props including a store front, an older muscle car, or costumes. It encompasses the mood and the way of life for the period the film chooses to represent.

While the world we live in is full of stories to tell, varying in scale, ranging from intimate home-grown tales, to battles that changed the course of history as we know it, what really adds to the stakes is that every region has a distinct history in terms of its populace, economy, architecture, literature and society, and there exist only limited historical proofs to venerate those beyond a certain period of time. Over the years, notable efforts have been made in this direction, and while each of them ought to be appreciated for virtually transporting us to a different era altogether, there have been some that distinctly recreated the experience more than the others, such that the history itself became a living, breathing character of its own. This article tends to celebrate such movies from the year gone by, and apart from cinephiles, history aficionados are bound to have a greatly informative time watching them. Without further ado, here goes the list of the top period movies of 2018. The list includes historical dramas and period romances.

12. Outlaw King

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‘Outlaw King’ is one of those films that you know to be flawed in a department or two, yet wouldn’t mind seeing more of. For this reason alone, fans have lobbied incessantly for a longer version of the film, a director’s cut or a miniseries that details the events of what conspired rather than the trimmed down 120 minute version we got on Netflix. However, even for what it is, ‘Outlaw King’ is ridiculously entertaining for a historical film with sweeping, stunning visuals of the famed Scottish landscapes. Prior to its release, the film generated a lot of incorrect hype specifically for a scene with Chris Pine’s full frontal nudity and believe me when I say that it is one of the last things that you want to see Chris Pine in the film for. His performance genuinely makes you root for the king that was declared an outlaw and must fight back to rebel and claim the throne against the formidable English army. I am no history expert, so it would be tough to comment on whether the English actually acted in the merciless ways this film documents, but as a viewer, I can say that ‘Outlaw King’, showcasing the true story of Scottish King Robert the Bruce, has enough in its core to have been a successful multi-million dollar big screen venture.

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11. Bohemian Rhapsody

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Freddie Mercury was a legend, a man who revelled in his own unique identity and embraced it, and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ leaves out no opportunity to tell you that. Yes, there have been questions on the film’s credibility on what it represents as facts regarding Freddie’s life, and how good or well made the film is in totality. However, I am an unapologetic fan, and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, just like the notes in the song, for me was an emotional rollercoaster from start to end. The sheer pleasure of seeing one of the greatest songs ever come to fruition, signature Freddie style, right up to the Mamma Mia and Galileo bits had me giddy in my seat. That coupled with a bravura leading act by Rami Malek turned out to be one of the most credible cinema experiences this year.

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10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about this film and while its title alone is supposed to garner the attention this film needs to warrant a watch from you, I will give you a few more reasons. Firstly, bibliophiles would LOVE this film. While the reason the film is named as such will be revealed within minutes of its opening, it’s the narrative style that really caught my attention and fancy. Shifting from a chronological approach, the film quickly shifts to a narration that employs exchange of letters between the residents of Guernsey who are part of said society, and a writer who leads a diametrically opposite life in post war London, connected through stories. Secondly, the softened lens technique of shooting the vivid landscapes really lends to the period setting and the mood that it is trying to go for, despite the quaint island community being under Nazi control. In that, the film simultaneously works as a tale of resistance, as it does as a simple tale of friendship beyond boundaries, humanism, and above all literature.

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9. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ might just go down as the one film that reinstated my faith in Melissa McCarthy as a serious actress. Make no mistake, her comic prowess is pretty well known and pretty unrefuted, but this film establishes that she won’t shy away from serious character studies if required. McCarthy deep dives into the role of the controversial Lee Israel, who was accused of multiple counts of literary forgery, wondrously displaying emotions of vulnerability, genuine pathos, and even apathy in the many shrewdly funny moments of the film. As a self-confessed lover of cats, more than that of humans, her act never once slips into one that incites unnecessary pity from the audience. Despite that, to her credit and the writers’, you almost look at Israel through an empathetic eye, understanding why she did what she did, eventhough everything she is known for today is largely illegal, including forging letters from famous personalities and selling them at deplorably high prices. The 90s period setting of the film is also admirably well done, with mostly real locations being shot the way they are and were close to three decades before today. Definitely among the better films of 2018.

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8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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What’s better than a sole period film, you ask? A period film set in the wild, wild west. That, being directed by the Coen Brothers, and you are in for a real cinematic treat, rich in both aesthetic and their signature style of dark and oddly funny storytelling. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, easily one of the most unique feature presentations this year, is an anthology collection of six shorts by the Coen Brothers, titled ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, ‘Near Algodones’, ‘Meal Ticket’, ‘All Gold Canyon’, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ and ‘The Mortal Remains’, my personal favourite from the lot. Wat surprised me most about the film as a whole was the sheer range it chooses to cover through the separate shorts. It felt funny, violent, violently funny, intensely dramatic, and even satirical, and each of the shorts has at least one recognisable face putting in a hell of an act. It was easy for the film to be plagued by the one thing that virtually plagues all anthologies, and that is the loss of the audience’s attention span from one story to the next. The Coen Brothers overcome that partly by keeping the setting common, and partly by making all of them ridiculously entertaining enough for you to effortlessly transition into the next one. Don’t miss it.

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7. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Barry Jenkins’ follow up to the rather spectacular ‘Moonlight’, also the best picture Oscar winner for that year, treads on familiar territory with similar undertones, but the piercing intimacy Jenkins laces the film with is unmistakable. It’s true when critics call ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ one of the best tone poems of the year. It is visually replete with colour in every frame, and aesthetically vibrant and rich, even in shots that close into the actors for capturing every iota of emotion its wonderful leads have to display. Yet still, the tale it tells is melancholy and one of longing, and being among the film’s many merits, the score by Nicholas Britell personifies the lyrical quality of the narrative. Even the faint attempts at personifying Beale Street as a physical manifestation of the observances of black lives as is evident from the title add so much to an already well rounded film. It has significant commentary on racism, society, life during the 70s especially in Harlem, even love, marriage and parenthood, but even if you watch the film bereft of any social undertakings, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a beautiful experience, and while I use a term of beauty very rarely to describe a film, this film deserves it.

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6. The Favourite

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If you are aware, leave alone even remotely interested in Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmography, you will know that his films seldom prove to be an easy watch, from ‘Lobster’ to ‘Dogtooth’ to ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. All of them are increasingly complex, absurdist dramas, with generous doses of all sorts of unconventional humour, the kind that you catch yourself laughing at with your hands in the stance of a question. (Might I also commend what excellent poster designs his films have?) ‘The Favourite’ gladly ticks on all those boxes, and yet is his most accessible and easy to follow film to date. ‘The Favourite’ is deliciously funny, twisted and being outlandishly eccentric for the film Is almost a given, always. Expectedly so, the eccentricism is ably driven home by the three anchoring acts of the film in Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, all three women nailing their respective acts with equal parts imposed aristocracy and wit. If you wish to follow Lanthimos’ filmography and style, there would virtually be no better place to start.

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5. First Man

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‘First Man’ is part of a number of best of the year lists on the site, including most inspirational films of the year, the best adventure films, the best biopics, and films with the most visually dazzling scenes, for the famous moon landing. While given the onslaught of and rise of a number of new contenders, ‘First Man’ might be gradually slipping under the radar of a number of viewers, it is too meticulously well made to warrant that, being easily among the very best films of 2018. One of the most potent biopics in years, we all know what ‘First Man’ was about, and what the final outcome marking a momentous occasion for humans as a population was. Yet still, Damien Chazelle chooses to tell the story in a deeply personal and engaging way such that Niel Armstrong’s hard earned victory seems like your own, his struggles too. The film is filled with silent moments of quite introspection depicting Niel’s current and frequently conflicted state of mind, moments of doubt that are key that precede any sizeable achievement, and they could easily be construed as fillers between key scenes had Ryan Gosling’s visible dedication to the part been absent. Visually breathtaking in its final 20 minutes or so and well shot otherwise, ‘First Man’ is a win win on all technical fronts of film, a sound and heartfelt retelling of one of the most celebrated true stories of all time, and that of the indomitable human spirit.

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4. BlacKkKlansman

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‘BlacKkKlansman’ is a razor sharp satire on racism, black culture and white supremacy, one that is hard hitting and hilarious at the same time, which is what precisely makes this film one hell of a rollercoaster ride. Films shunning racism have been on the rise, and I’d be glad if any of them could lead to a social awakening in other parts of the world as well, where casual racism is given a pass, including here in India. With ‘Black Panther’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ already tackling similar subjects this year, ‘BlacKkKlansman’ might be taking it on the lighter side of things, yet its anti-racism message is the clearest when it hits, reinforcing why satire is termed as the one weapon to attack human vices most effectively. Regardless of its social and political influences, it is also one of the most outrageously funny movies this year, and apart from the obvious credits to the writing department, a fair share of the credits would go to John David Washington’s and Adam Driver’s baller of a performance. The film puts you right in the middle of the upheaval of the 70s civil rights movement, wherein Ron Stallworth (played by Washington) becomes the first Black cop to join the Colorado Springs PD, and tries to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to prove his worth, while Flip (played by Driver) agrees to go undercover as a white supremacist as his accomplice.

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3. Green Book

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The feel good film of the year, one thing I can assure you of is that you will come off with a wide grin on your face as the credits roll. There are multiple reasons why ‘Green Book’ lands in the particular spot on the list that it has. Apart from being a great film, it is a very important film, reflecting a piece of history that the world should be spiteful of today: the racism in the deeper Southern parts of the state our protagonists confront often throughout their journey in the film. Secondly, since this is a list about period movies, something about ‘Green Book’ just fits; something distinct, or on the contrary, everything. The 60s are delightfully brought to life and you genuinely feel drawn to the authenticity of the setting, as stated in my introductory paragraph regarding a way of life more than props as reflective of the period the film wishes to depict. Carried by the bravura performances of its mismatched leads, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, their chemistry a genuine delight to watch, ‘Green Book’ is a winner all the way, reinstating my faith in the fact that the simplest things are often the best.

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2. Cold War (Zimna Wojna)

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There is a remarkable difference in the kind of black and white Pawel Pawlikowski chooses for ‘Cold War’, one that is low exposure and high contrast, almost giving off a haunting feeling, and the kind that Alfonso Cuaron chooses for the final entrant on the list, one that has higher exposure and low contrast, very akin to the mood of the film and the kind of story he chooses to tell. While this comparison may not be directly related to this Polish masterpiece, it invoked a greater sense of appreciation in me as a viewer, and thought it needed a little light before I began my elaboration on ‘Cold War’.

‘Ida’ and the classic ‘Casablanca’ are the two films that were highly reminiscent of the exquisite experience of ‘Cold War’: ‘Ida’ for the stylistic choices from Pawlikowski, and ‘Casablanca’ for the setting of a doomed love story in trying times, while the outcomes might be different. Every frame in ‘Cold War’ is drenched with scenic monochrome endeavour, each shot photographic. Being a minimalist designer myself, I can understand the extra amount of work that goes into delivering a minimalistic cinematic piece, and ‘Cold War’ may proudly hold its head high among that pantheon. I agree that my critical sensibilities may be swayed toward the aesthetic more than the writing, but that is what I believe cinema is about, in my humble opinion.

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1. Roma

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Over the years, I have found at least one naysayer for every film that has critics and the audience raving about it in every way possible. ‘Roma’ is the one movie this year that changed that: I am yet to receive even a slightly tainted review of the film from anyone, and you too are welcome to try and change my mind. ‘Roma’ is an exquisitely crafted masterpiece, and almost timeless in its approach, even though the narrative finds itself set in 1970. Partly autobiographical in nature including bits from Cuaron’s own yesteryears, the visible effort put into the delicate story of ‘Roma’ stems from the deeply personal nature Cuaron imbues the film with. Shot in gorgeous looking black and white and starring virtually unknown faces (from which, Yalitza Aparicio is a stunning revelation), ‘Roma’ is not only the best period movie this year, it is also the best film you will get to see this year. Thank the high heavens for Netflix having acquired the streaming and distribution rights of the film. I would have loved to catch ‘Roma’ on the big screen, but the sublime emotions this film carries will engulf you nonetheless, seated on your favourite couch too.

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