Sunday, January 27, 2019

Catch Me If You Can: Melissa McCarthy Shines in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Can You Every Forgive Me?” is a great movie on several levels and for several reasons. The performance from Melissa McCarthy – in a year in which she gave us “The Happytime Murders” - is a genuinely great piece of work. And yes Melissa, I will forgive you for that horrid puppet disaster. Featuring a rare dramatic performance from the usually silly star, the film forces us to care about a person who does horrible things and befriends a horrible person. That other horrible person is played by Richard E. Grant in a wonderful, scene-stealing performance. Despite the fact that this is a film about a writer who forges letters from other famous writers – which frankly sounds like a bore, it is anything but- it’s gripping, funny and sad. It’s not so much a story about a writer so much as it is a story about a con artist who we root for to get away with crime after crime as she tries to turn her crappy life around. It was enthralling.

Set in the early 90s, Melissa McCarthy players writer Lee Israel who wrote several biographies. The film is set several years after the release of her failed book about Estee Lauder. Stuck in a rut of financial woes and writer’s block Israel begins selling some of her possessions including a letter from Katherine Hepburn. While researching for an upcoming book about Fanny Brice, Israel happens upon a letter written by Fanny and before she knows it Israel begins forging letters from other dead writers to sell to collectors who are completely fooled by their seeming authenticity. Israel spends most of her time writing in bars where she converses with her eccentric friend Jack (Grant) who she confides in about her forgery.

Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have crafted a pretty well-done script considering we’re pretty much watching a woman write most of the time. Marielle Heller’s direction is also superb. They dare to make Israel an unlikable antihero – she’s nasty and snippy to almost everyone she comes in contact with – her apartment is a disgusting mess – and she’s generally unkempt – but somehow those involved obviously McCarthy make the character even a bit relatable and sympathetic. For instance, when her cat becomes ill and she can’t even afford the vet bills Israel is obviously at wit’s end. McCarthy and Grant also have a naturalist chemistry together – the banter given to them by the screenwriters is really fun to watch. And it’s really amazing how quickly you get caught up in what Israel is doing – and how seemingly easy it is for her to do. Of course it’s not all a piece of cake, one sequence involving her stealing actual documents from an archive is as suspenseful in anything in a “Mission: Impossible” movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was a sheer joy from start to finish. The film has been nominated for three Oscars and it’s this reason I even checked it out. I’m so glad I did – further proof that the Academy does actually make good choices sometimes if you’re willing to seek out some of smaller films that are equally deserving of finding the right audience.  GRADE: A-

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Cape of Water: The Rollicking “Aquaman” isn’t the Water-Logged Mess It Could Have Been

It’s become way too easy to poo-poo the DC films that have come out in the last six years. They’re not very good and pretty hard to defend. Of course there have been some bright spots and her name is Diana. “Wonder Woman” is easily the best entry but finally a film has come along that is just as entertaining and visually stunning: “Aquaman.” It’s not nearly the dreadful experience as the other DC films. And to be frank, I didn’t absolutely hate any of them except for “Suicide Squad” and even that trainwreck had a few bright spots (or at least one; thank you Margot Robbie). Thankfully, this latest entry, about the water-dwelling metahuman Arthur Curry is an absolute delight from start to finish. Filled with colorful, fantastic cinematography, moments of campy humor, ridiculous drama, a fun retro-infused film score, and well-choreographed action scenes, “Aquaman” easily stands out as one of the best DC films. While it’s not quite as good, this is easily the “Thor: Ragnarok” of the DC extended universe.

Yes, “Aquaman” is kind of silly and that’s because the character Aquaman is kind of silly. But director James Wan makes it all work somehow. The man, who began his career making solid horror films has recently extending into bigger budget action films (like the incredible Furious Seven) proving that even with a huge budget you can make a fun, CGI-filled adventure that isn’t overwrought and stupid. Wan brings a much needed sense of color and wonder to this usually drab DC universe. While the film still has its serious moments of Shakespearean drama, the film relies more on fun visuals, humor, thrilling fight sequences and breathtaking action. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Bealls generally hokey and bloated script is simply an excuse to film awesome fights and action. And at this point in the world of DC I’m ok with that. And it’s mostly because it’s all staged rather well; and the actors are good enough that we somewhat care about them.

There are so many positives here that this movie sort of feels like the “Citizen Kane” of the recent DC films. It’s visually wonderful – the colors, the computer generated environments are beautifully realized. The film makes me excited to see what James Cameron has in store for his underwater world in the next “Avatar” film. The computer works is actually quite remarkable. Sure some shots of characters darting across the screen like bullets are a bit silly, but generally this stuff works. Hair flows realistically underwater and the characters actually sound like they’re underwater. And considering a majority of the time they’re riding around on sharks and other sea monsters, I pretty much bought into it.

In the role of Aquaman, Jason Mamoa - for all his exotic good looks - is actually quite a charming screen presence much in the same way Gal Gadot was in total control of “Wonder Woman.” Whether his sort of sidekick/love interest Amber Heard has the same presence is debatable (She doesn’t). Half the time I kept thinking Scarlett Johansson had wandered into the film from the MCU. Patrick Wilson is fine as Aquaman’s villainous half brother. And if you ever wanted to see Willem Dafoe or Dolph Lundgren ride around on sea creatures here you go. The script doesn’t quite know what to do with a secondary Power Rangers-like villain that eventually shows up named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but the entire Sicily sequence, most of which doesn’t take place in water, is impressively well-staged and directed. These playful side adventures were right out of Indiana Jones and were a welcomed treat in a series of film known more for doom and gloom that sheer fun. And I can’t say enough great things about Nicole Kidman who kicks utter as as Arthur’s Atlantean mother.

“Aquaman” is a surprisingly fun adventure – maybe it goes on a bit too long – but the film is a massive improvement on everything that came before it. This and “Wonder Woman” are fantastic pieces of popcorn entertainment. The movie is beautifully realized but the supremely talented James Wan – I can’t wait see what adventures await him. He’s the rare director who made the jump from smaller films to big budget extravaganzas with impressive ease.  GRADE: B+

Bruce Almighty: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is Fine But Isn’t Earth Shattering

I maintain that “Split” is a wildly uneven film; the film’s third act completely derailed for me but I’m fine with James McAvoy’s impressive performance. So how does one discuss “Glass” without spoiling “Split?” Just by virtue of existing “Glass” spoils “Split” if you haven’t seen it. The twist of “Split” is that its actually set in the same world of M. Night Shyamalan’s post-“Sixth Sense” film “Unbreakable.” “Glass” brings characters from “Split” and “Unbreakable” together to create a completely fine film; it’s not horrendous, it’s not magnificent. It’s easily middle tier Shyamalan as that’s what he’s been churning out lately. Those seeking something on the level of his greatest work “The Sixth Sense” need not apply.

“Unbreakable” was a film audiences weren’t quite ready for nor what we were expecting. I recall having an oddly cold reception to it as most did. But over time it’s reputation has grown, especially in a market overrun by comic book films. No one was expecting a real life comic book tale from the guy who made a scary ghost movie about a kid who sees dead people. And what a better time to revisit the world of “Unbreakable?” “Glass” works as a sequel to “Unbreakable” but I’m not sure it works as a sequel to “Split.” Though generally find it more of a success than that film. The storyline involving Anya Taylor-Joy’s kidnapping survival heroine Casey is sort of needless and uninteresting. Revisting a character who has underwent a psychological trauma is interesting but “Glass” doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The film’s real successes lie with Bruce Willis’ character David Dunn and his young adult son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) who has sort of become the Alfred to his Batman.

Anyone expecting any sort of traditional super hero narrative is going to be wildly disappointed. The film spends a majority of the story as our three main characters spend time being studied in an institution. That includes master criminal, who started this whole thing, Elijah Prince aka “Mr. Glass” played by Samuel L. Jackson. New to the series is Sarah Paulson whose character is a psychiatrist who specializes in disorders in which people think their superheroes. That’s all fine and dandy but it’s the scenes before David is captured that truly thrill while the film spends too much time psychoanalyzing its characters. And the film’s final act is sort of a mixed bag, I can’t imagine most audiences will be thrilled with how everything plays out.

“Glass” works much better as an “Unbreakable” sequel than a “Split” sequel because I just still don’t find the “Beast” character very interesting or believable, though McAvoy is good in the role. The film’s music score from West Dylan Thordson is fantastic as is the film’s impressive production design. That pink room is Oscar-worthy. Overall, “Glass” is fine. I’m sure it’s a film, like “Unbreakable” that will see its reputation grow as time passes. As for now, it isn’t quite anything earth shattering.  GRADE: B-

Saturday, January 19, 2019

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

It's that time of year again. On Tuesday January 22nd the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their nominees for the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Since this is my version of football season, I sort of take this stuff seriously, so without further ado I present my 89% fearless Oscar nomination predictions. On with the show...

Best Picture
Ah the superhero movie and Oscar. Such a sordid relationship. The Dark Knight. Deadpool. Wonder Woman. I firmly believe The Dark Knight was very close. But that year only had five nominees. Finally, finally, I do think “Black Panther” will become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture. Black Panther has all the requisite nominations. Golden Globes. SAG. "The Dark Knight" couldn't even get those nods. Of course stranger things have happened. Yet again there will be anywhere between five and ten BP nominees based on how the votes are tallied. I have a weird feeling there won’t be more than 8 nominees but who knows. The hardest part about predicting this category is figuring out the possible lone wolf – the random nominee that no one really sees coming (like last year’s “Phantom Thread”). As of this writing I also still don't really know who's likely to win BP. I'm thinking it's a race between "Roma" and "A Star is Born" but let's see what's nominated first. 

Here are 10 projected nominees in likelihood of being nominated:

A Star is Born”
Green Book”
The Favourite”
Black Panther”
If Beale Street Could Talk”
Bohemian Rhapsody”
A Quiet Place”
Alternates - “First Man,” “Mary Poppins Returns

Best Director
Last year, BP front runner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s” director got snubbed here. There is usually one or two high profile snubs in this category every year. Sometimes the directors’ branch likes to do their own thing. Sometimes they love nominating actors-turned-directors (ie Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood) and sometimes they don’t (ie Ben Affleck). That’s either a good thing or bad thing for Bradley Cooper (I think he’s in). It’s worth noting that since the Best Picture field expanded to 10 possible nominees only once has a director been nominated in which his film was not nominated for Best Picture: Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher.” I’ve been hearing plenty of buzz for the Polish – and BAFTA nominated – film “Cold War.” Just saying. But I’m too much of a wimp to actually predict him.

Projected nominees:
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Afonso Cuaron, “Roma”
Peter Farrelly, “Green Book”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Alternates – Adam McKay, “Vice;” Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”

Best Actor
I feel pretty confident in this list, though Washington is easily the most vulnerable.

Projected nominees:
Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”
John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”
Alternates – Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed;” Ryan Gosling, “First Man”

Best Actress
How is Toni Collette not a front runner for “Hereditary”?? It’s because it’s such a fantastic year for women that so many great performances are going to unfortunately be left out. I still don’t quite buy Emily Blunt as much as I love her; she’s easily the most vulnerable. It could be someone like Julia Roberts or even first timer Yalitza Aparicio who owned “Roma.” I’ll go ahead and throw in Viola Davis for the underrated “Widows.” That fifth slot could go any which way.

Projected nominees:
Emily Blunt, “Mary Poppins Returns”
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Alternates – Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma;” Toni Collette, “Hereditary;”

Best Supporting Actor
In case anyone is actually curious about Black Panther’s Oscar chances this will be an interesting category to keep an eye on. If Michael B. Jordan can kick one of these five guys out, then they REALLY liked that movie. But I just don’t know how actual Academy members will receive the film. I’m ready to have my heart broken. Let us not forget it’s been exactly 10 years since “The Dark Knight” was snubbed for BP. However, this was one of two categories the film actually won. I think Sam Rockwell could sneak in, but I’m honestly not sure how well “Vice” is sitting with voters.

Projected nominees:
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Timothee Chalamet, “Beautiful Boy”
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Sam Elliott, “A Star is Born”
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Alternates – Sam Rockwell, “Vice;” Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”

Best Supporting Actress
I’m really not that confident in calling Regina King since she missed out at SAG and BAFTA. And if I’m being honest I’m not all that sure why she’s such a standout in “Beale Street” to begin with. But if not her who else exactly? I guess Nicole Kidman? But “Boy Erased” seems to have been erased from voters’ minds. Margot Robbie for the hardly well-received “Mary Queen of Scots?” I’d love Emily Blunt to show up for “A Quiet Place” but two nods for her seem like a tall order for someone who has yet to even receive a nomination (though she could sneak in here and get bumped from Best Actress).

Projected nominees:
Amy Adams, “Vice”
Claire Foy, “First Man”
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”
Alternate – Margot Robbie, “Mary Queen of Scots;” Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”

Best Adapted Screenplay
I’m really hoping for “Black Panther” to sneak in here. “Logan” proved last year that a critically acclaimed comic book film can get a writing nomination. And “Black Panther” has way more overall support than “Logan;” though, will the Academy deem “Black Panther” a great feat of writing? Having said that I think the generally snobby writers will go the indie route and nominate Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” instead (I mean, it does have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and just got a ). Also, this may be Spike Lee’s few chances to actually win a competitive Oscar (he has an honorary one).

Projected nominees:
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“Leave No Trace”
“A Star is Born”
Alternate - “First Man;” “Black Panther

Best Original Screenplay
Another category likely to be dominated by Best Picture nominees. But there’s usually one outlier. It’s usually a quirky comedy or indie drama I’m betting on Bo Burnham’s realistic approach in “Eighth Grade” but don’t count out Paul Schrader’s work on “First Reformed.” I’d love for “A Quiet Place” - an essentially dialogue-less film - to show up here.

Projected nominees: 
Eighth Grade”
The Favourite”
Green Book”
Alternates: “First Reformed;” “A Quiet Place”

Best Cinematography
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated in this category last year for “Mudbound.” She’s also in the running this year for “Black Panther.” Will she be the only woman nominated twice? She’s certainly a threat but she’s got a lot of artistic competition this year.

Projected nominees:
“Cold War”
“The Favourite”
“First Man”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Best Costume Design
“Black Panther”
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”
“The Favourite”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Mary Queen of Scots”
Alternates - “Crazy Rich Asians;” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Film Editing
“The Favourite”
“First Man”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates- “Black Panther;” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Black Panther”
Alternates - “Suspiria;” “Stan & Ollie”

Best Original Score
The Academy actually released the short list of scores making this a slightly easier year to predict by narrowing the field but it’s still somewhat of a crap shoot. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: veterans and former winners generally do very well here but there’s always one or two newcomers.

Projected nominees:
“Black Panther” (Ludwig Goransson)
“First Man” (Justin Hurwitz)
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Nicholas Britell)
“Isle of Dogs” (Alexandre Desplat)
“Mary Poppins Returns” (Marc Shaiman)
Alternates - “A Quiet Place” (Marco Beltrami); “BlacKkKlansman” (Terrance Blanchard)

Best Original Song
Another notoriously difficult category to predict. The big question remains: why the hell isn’t the song Celine Dion sings from “Deadpool 2” on the short list?? I’m also going with both songs from “Mary Poppins Returns” because I have no idea which way they’re gonna go; that leaves Dolly on the outside looking in.

Projected nominees:
All the Stars, “Black Panther”
The Place Where Lost Things Go, “Mary Poppins Returns”
Trip a Little Night Fantastic, “Mary Poppins Returns”
I’ll Fight, “RBG”
Shallow, “A Star is Born”
Alternate- Girl in the Movies, “Dumplin’”

Best Production Design
Black Panther”
The Favourite”
First Man”
Mary Poppins Returns”
Alternates - “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald;” “A Star is Born”

Best Sound Editing
“First Man”
“Mission Impossible – Fallout”
“Ready Player One”
“A Quiet Place”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “A Star is Born”

Best Sound Mixing
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“First Man”
“A Quiet Place”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “Mission Impossible - Fallout”

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War”
“Black Panther”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Ready Player One”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”
Alternates - “First Man;” “Welcome to Marwen”

Best Animated Feature Film
Last year this branch snubbed “The LEGO Batman Movie” does that mean “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” could be left out? It could happen. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see either sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet” or “Incredibles 2” to be shockingly snubbed. But I’m gonna not bet against any of them. Those three slots take care of the populist fare, throw in “Isle of Dogs” as the quirky studio pick and that leaves one artsy foreign film.

Projected nominees:
“Incredibles 2”
“Isle of Dogs”
“Ralph Breaks the Internet”
“Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse”
Alternate - “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo”
Minding the Gap”
Three Identical Strangers”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Alternate - “Shirkers”

Best Foreign Language Film
“Burning” (South Korea)
“Capernaum” (Lebanon)
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Roma” (Mexico)
“Shoplifters” (Japan)

Best Animated Short
“Bird Karma”
“One Small Step”

Best Documentary Short
“’63 Boycott”
End Game”
A Night at the Garden”
Period. End of a Sentence.”

Best Live Action Short

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Black Panthers, Eighth Graders, and Widows, Oh My! The Best Films of 2018

Another year another list of the best films of the year. It was a pretty great year. Such a great mix of films, funny, scary, sad; the year brought me through various emotions. My criteria for the best movies of the year are based purely on two main factors: artistic merit and pure rewatchability. These are the movies that I would want to watch again and again and ones I feel like have something to say either artistically or about the world around us. They may not all be instant classics and they may not be YOUR choices but that’s what so great about opinions, everyone has them and no one is ever wrong. Let's do this. 

1) Love, Simon  (dir. Greg Berlanti)– I have watched “Love, Simon” countless times this year. For me, it is pure joy from beginning to end with plenty of other emotions thrown in for good measure. The film is funny, sad, charming, and utterly relatable. It’s the movie that spoke to me on a personal level and therefore it transcends just being another teen comedy. The film falls into a genre that has become understandably rote over the years but every once in a while a fresh take on the well-worn genre makes its mark with something new or interesting to say. The fact that this teen dramedy centers around a gay teen is a miracle in and of itself. Nick Robinson is absolutely charming in the lead role and the film is peppered with colorful characters, an intriguing central mystery, a fantastic score, and an emotional mother-son scene that is forever burned into my consciousness. I absolutely loved “Love, Simon.”

2) Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster) – What a fantastic year for first time filmmakers. This buzzed about spook fest is easily the best horror film of the year. It works for some and not others which is what the best horror films tend to do. At the core “Hereditary” is an engrossing family tragedy about grief, loss, and mental instability, but there is something far more sinister at work as well. Toni Collette gives the performance of her career as the matriarch of a family who slowly implodes as the film progresses. Ari Aster's film debut is extremely disturbing, with scary images and completely shocking moments that are unforgettable. When THAT scene happened I wasn't sure I could keep going. The film is easily a modern horror classic.

3) A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)– Confession: I’ve never seen another of the iterations of the story (For the record, this is the fourth). Is that why it worked on me so well? Who knows. Bradley Cooper, making his directorial debut, and Lady Gaga, making her leading role big screen debut (she was already in Machete Kills, the second Sin City movie, and Muppets Most Wanted for the record), have tremendous chemistry as star crossed lovers. Cooper plays a fading music star while Gaga is a star on the rise. Sure it’s sort of well-worn territory but it’s done particularly well. Gaga is outstanding even if it seems like the role of an unknown talent suddenly hitting it big doesn’t seem like a complete stretch. She’s miles ahead of the work she did on American Horror Story: Hotel and anyone who can’t see that probably just has an issue with Gaga’s eccentric off-screen persona. The songs, most of which were written by Gaga and other songwriters are fantastic, including earworm “Shallow.” That scene, in particualar, was extremely moving as you sense the fear and anxiety in Gaga’s character and by the time she’s finished performing you’ve literally witnessed the birth of a star.

4) Black Panther  (dir. Ryan Coogler)– Easily one of the best movies Marvel has put out ever. This absolutely delightful action adventure has the fun of a James Bond film and the emotional weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a blast from beginning to end; the film is filled with likable characters from Black Panther himself King T’Challa and his quirky sister Shuri, the Q to his James Bond. A majority of the Marvel films have been rousing successes – mean they’re very entertaining – but few of them have had the craft of really great big budget filmmaking to really impress the way “Black Panther” does. Its army of kick-ass female soldiers is also fantastically refreshing. And best of all, you don’t need to have seen the countless films that have come before it, it’s stands alone, and is also just as rewarding for those to have seen all the others. This is a true blockbuster worth celebrating.

5) A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski)– This is such a great year for first time filmmakers. This time its the guy who played Jim on “The Office” (that would be John Krasinski) who makes an auspicious debut with a film about a family trying to live a post-apocalyptic life where most of the popular has been wiped out by giant monsters who have really good hearing. Krasinski stars with his real life wife Emily Blunt as parents trying to keep their kids safe and while trying to be very quiet. Even a knocked over lamp is loud enough to draw the terrifying creatures closer. This is a great example of taking a great concept and using a small budget and a large imagination to make something truly special. The film is absolutely thrilling and terrifying; I had flashbacks to seeing Jurassic Park in the theater as a young kid. Blunt makes a great heroine and child actors are also fantastic. The fact that a majority of the film is completely silent – save for a great Marco Beltrami score – makes it especially effective.

6) The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) – I can’t believe I have a British period piece on here. I’m not a fan of the genre but there’s just something special about “The Favourite:” it’s certainly a bizarre yet audacious piece of work and entertaining to a fault. Featuring a trio of amazing female lead performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, the film is the story of the slovenly Queen Anne and the catfight that ensues between two cousins to be her “court favorite.” The film is directed by the guy who gave us the even more bizarre film “The Lobster.” And few will remember his Oscar nominated foreign language film “Dogtooth” which is one of the weirdest yet strangely intriguing films I’ve ever seen. “The Favourite” is easily the eccentric Greek director’s most accessible films but it’s certainly not for everyone, this isn’t exactly your grandma’s traditional British period piece for sure. It’s way better. And so much fun.

7) BlacKkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee) – A triumphant return-to-form for audacious director Spike Lee. This Spike Lee joint is funny and scary in all the right places. Based on the true story of a rookie African American police detective who goes undercover to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK is a story you’d never believe unless it actually happened. A great lead turn from John David Washington and fun work from Adam Driver and even Topher Grace as David Duke. Lee employs some of his usual cinematic trickery to magnificent effect, opening with a scene from Gone With the Wind and ending on actual footage of Charlottesville. In the end, the film dares to declare we haven’t come very far and it’s a truth that hurts. The film is such a wild and crazy ride and it’s easily one of the most unique and special films in quite some time.

8) Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham) - “Hereditary” isn’t the only horror film on this list. “Eighth Grade” masquerading as a quirky comedy about girl in middle school is actually a film about the horrors of adolescence. Anyone who was an awkward 13 years old will pretty much be traumatized here. I joke of course (somewhat) as “Eighth Grade” is actually a fantastic film and it’s successful because of its uncanny realism. Comedian Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut here and is somehow able to tell the story of a girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher, simply sensational here) and her awkward misadventures during her final days of middle school. Burnham, who also wrote the film, seemingly stages sequence after sequence of fictional moments that seem to be plucked from your own life: going to a pool party where you don’t really know anyone, uncomfortable parent conversations, year book superlatives, the fear of entering high school, terrifying run-ins with your crush, and the list goes on. It’s a simply audacious debut.

9) Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)– A criminally under-seen heist thriller from director Steve McQueen. I don’t know why no one went to see this outstanding thriller. I refuse to believe it was because it’s about women. Maybe it was too soon after “Ocean’s 8?” Maybe “From the director of “12 Years a Slave” scared people away? Either way, if you haven’t seen “Widows” do yourself a favorite and watch it. The film stars the always reliable Viola Davis as the wife of a criminal whose husband is killed in a botched robbery. She and the other wives of the men killed get together to pull off a job to pay back the bad guys who left them with terrible debts to pay. The cast of ladies (and men!) is outstanding. Hans Zimmer gives us another great Dark Knight-inspired score, the script offers plenty of fun twists and turns, and the film’s third act is extremely suspenseful stuff.

10) Mission Impossible –Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)– A true masterwork of big budget spectacle. Filmmakers are finally realizing that many audiences are tired of seeing overblown computer effects, we want to see people doing real things and fighting other people, not giant robots. The Mission: Impossible series magically gets better with each additional entry (this is the sixth one if you’ve lost count) and “Fallout” is a true action-packed masterpiece. The film marks the first time a director has returned to the franchise; that would be helmer of the last entry Christopher McQuarrie and this time things are less complicated plot-wise. All the great spy thriller moments are there including some of the most impressive and jaw-dropping stunt work ever captured on film. The film’s technical merits are through the roof – the percussion heavy score from Lorne Balfe, Rob Hardy’s smooth camerawork, and the audacious production design all work together to create one of the most satisfying spy thrillers of all time. The final act of the film is classic nail-bitter stuff; truly great work all around.

11) Ready Player One (dir. Steven Spielberg)– Ladies and gentlemen, fun Steven Spielberg is back. Not that he hasn’t tried before, but this is easily his most flat-out fun movie since “War of the Worlds.” This delicious ode to 80s pop culture is going to be a love it or hate it premise for most people. Those who are so over nostalgia porn need not apply. But the film goes beyond nostalgia and creates a truly fascinating world and a story that is engrossing as it is sheer fun. The movie takes place in the future not unlike the one seen in “Minority Report” except this time technology has allowed everyone to join a seemingly magical virtual reality world called the Oasis. The creator being just as eccentric as Willy Wonka has left three challenges for players and the one who wins the seemingly impossible tasks will earn the right to own the Oasis. This is pretty much all surface level entertainment that is done really well with impressive special effects that are entirely computer generated mixed in with live action scenes shot by longtime Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski. And lets not forget the terrific score, not by Spielberg regular John Williams, but Alan Silvestri. This is pure entertainment through and through.

12) First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle)– Another criminally under-seen box office failure. I think people want to see Ryan Gosling memes but don’t actually want to watch his movies. That’s too bad. Damien Chazelle is one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today. He leaves the bright and colorful world of La La Land to tell an intimate tail of grief and redemption in the form of a studio bio pic of Neil Armstrong. Shot in a scrappy, low-budget quality that really feels authentic to the time period, “First Man” is not the glossy “Apollo 13” style drama many people were expecting. You have to admit that this is certainly a different take on the type of genre you’ve seen countless times. Chazelle and his DP Linus Sandgren produce some truly gorgeous imagery here along with a beautiful, catchy score from Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz. Gosling is great as usual and Brit Clair Foy is good in a traditionally thankless role as “worried wife” but she turns it into something special. This was an absolute joy to watch.

13) Spider-Man: Into theSpider-Verse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) – Hands down the best animated film of the year – though Ralph Breaks the Internet comes in a close second – “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a truly groundbreaking animated comic book film that is easily one of the most fun movies of the year. It may even be one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made. This wildly original take on the web-crawler follows teenager Mile Morales as he becomes the new Spider-Man… but not before a portal opens up and sends other “spider-people” from other dimensions into his world. It’s an admittedly weird set-up that somehow works and it’s probably because the story was written by Phil Lord, the guy partly responsible for “The LEGO Movie” and the “21 Jump Street” films. A truly satisfying and unique superhero tale that is a delightful twist on characters that we know and love and new ones we haven’t seen before. Really fun stuff here.

14) Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle) – One of the most fascinating stories of the year. This remarkable documentary starts off with a remarkable story of three young men who, in the early 70s found out they each were separated at birth and were actually identical triplets. They quickly became a sensation at the time. It seems like such a warm and fuzzy story but there is some darkness here. The film is actually a fascinating expose on the shady dealings made by the adoption agency where the babies were adopted. The film is entertainingly directed by Tim Wardle – it features some re-enacted scenes, interesting interviews, archival footage, photographs to weave a story that keeps being unwrapped layer by layer. The film certainly goes to places you make not expect from its initial happy-go-lucky opening but it draws you in like truly great non-fiction filmmaking tends to do.

15) Bohemian Rhapsody (dir. Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher)– And this is where I lose you. Yes, one of the most unfortunately controversial movies of the year, the movie ‘film twitter’ doesn’t want you to like – or even see – “Bohemian Rhapsody” is actually a really great crowd-pleaser. Is is a perfect film? Far from it. But the outstanding central performance from Rami Malek as the one and only Freddie Mercury is one of the best of the year. So what’s the controversy? For starters, director Bryan Singer, who right now has a terrible reputation in Hollywood because of his dodging of some Kevin Spacey-like allegations, gives the whole project an icky feeling. He was actually fired from the film with weeks to go during shooting. Director Dexter Fletcher was hired to finish the film and see it through post-production. Singer is no-longer really associated with the film except for that pesky onscreen credit that he still has – but blame the DGA’s rules not the film or the countless others who worked hard to make it as good as it could be. It’s one of the better music biopics, it doesn’t break the mold in any real way and sort of wallows in cliches but because Mercury was such a fascinating person and Malek is so charismatic, it’s hard to take your eyes off him AND the movie. The music is great, the performances are fun, and I don’t believe the film tries to hide Mercury’s sexuality in any way. The movie is pretty gay actually. Does it get all the real life facts right? Of course not – this isn’t a documentary – but you know what? The film did make me want to learn more about Queen and its leading man and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason that almost everyone I know who saw the film liked it – it’s entertaining from start to finish!

Almost made the cut:
Roma – Beautiful b&w cinematography, deeply personal, and a strong message about our current state of affairs.

Halloween – A fantastic reworking of a popular slasher franchise that had lost its way. Even a few hiccups can’t ruin the welcomed feminist bent including Jamie Lee Curtis’ delightfully cuckoo performance.

Upgrade – This extremely fun and violence sci-fi thriller isn’t the most original futuristic commentary on the evil powers of technology, but this John Carpenter-inspired romp is one of the more underrated films of the year.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – I was more of a “Sesame Street” kid, but the sheer likability of TV icon Fred Rogers comes through in this extremely moving film about everyone’s favorite cardigan-wearing neighbor.

Blockers – An absolutely hilarious and criminally under-seen sex comedy with surprising female empowerment is a laugh riot from beginning to end. It doesn’t totally reinvent the wheel but it’s a sheer delight.

Avengers: Infinity War – A culmination of ten years of Marvel super nerd stuff that completely satisfies – even with that major cliffhanger ending.