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.


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