Posts Tagged ‘Best of 2018’

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been sitting on this post for no good reason since before 2018 ended. I had seen everything I needed to see (within a reasonable degree of certainty) but couldn’t settle on the final order until, literally, moments ago.

I’m still not certain I got it quite right, and every film in my top five at one point or another held the top spot. So before I doubt myself and reshuffle the deck, yet again, here’s my 10 favorite moves of 2018.

10. Vice

Adam McKay’s film about the modern Republican Party and the rise, and rise, and rise of Dick Cheney has its detractors, many of whom make very good points about the film’s overt distaste for its central subjects and over-reliance on gimmickry. But there’s no denying the power of Christian Bale’s chameleon performance, juxtaposed against the otherwise surrealist take on American political “history” (characters occasionally break the fourth wall or slip into Shakespearean prose to hammer home the narrative’s points about the hollow theatrics of government).

You’re mileage will definitely vary here, but I’m always prone to award points for bending the rules of convention, which “Vice” does from start to finish.

9. A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut landed with a bang during the summer, and while its status as the “it” movie of 2018 has diminished somewhat against late-arriving contenders, it’s still likely to be one of the movies that people remember even after they stop confusing the dates on their checks (Is that still a thing? Do people still write out checks?).

That’s due in no small part to the raw and dynamic performances by Cooper and Lady Gaga, a killer soundtrack and a confident, observational directing style that feels as if the story on screen is something accidentally, and heartbreakingly, stumbled upon.

8. Hereditary

It’s easy to overlook the skill involved in a good horror film. Lesser entries over-rely on conventions: dark rooms, loud noises and ghastly manifestations that send a chill down the audience’s spine before sending them home with a smile on their face. Then there’s movies like “Hereditary,” which use those tools to burrow under your skin and sit with you for days.

“Hereditary” is packed with shocking, disturbing moment, but the movie doesn’t rely on stunts. There’s a mythology at play, and an examination of grief and familial bonds, all obscured under a deep and bewitching atmosphere of dread.

7. Annihilation

“Annihilation,” the novel by Jeff Vandermeer is, to put it mildly, ambiguous. It conveys mood — and particularly a deepening sense of unease — more than plot, with its characters barely attempting to describe the fantastic and terrifying things they encounter as they venture into…something.

It’s also a great read, and wonderfully adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, whose film combines beautiful and haunting imagery with a more concrete narrative about an expedition of women scientists exploring a phenomenon of likely alien origin located along a rural segment of the Florida coastline.

6. Paddington 2

I never got around to seeing the first Paddington, and I was somewhat confused when I started hearing reports that it’s sequel was the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes’ history (at the time).

So I took the bait, and I’m here to tell you the hype is real. Paddington 2 is infectiously joyful, a film that gushes sincerity and charm, and combines slapstick humor with thrilling chase sequences and, somehow, everything in between. As the film’s antagonist, Hugh Grant has simply never been better, and a stand-out scene utilizing pop-up book imagery took my breath away. See this movie, now.

5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

It took a few years, but Netflix finally did it. With “Buster Scruggs” the streaming giant had its first must-see feature film, a collection of six western vignettes by the Coen Brothers.

Frequently funny, often tragic, occasionally disturbing and sometimes all of the above, the Coen’s ballad has a little bit of everything and will leave you wanting more.

4. First Man

I was born into a world where man had already walked the lunar surface, with the tragedies, national rivalries and scientific uncertainties of the space race long since past. As a result, the most compelling aspect of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic was, for me, the anxiety it conveys as now-historic ambassadors of Planet Earth set off on unproven and spectacularly dangerous missions to test the boundaries of human accomplishment.

The film’s centerpiece is a coup de grâce, as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his crew make their decent from Lunar orbit and, once landed, step out onto an otherwordly landscape. Chazelle takes it all in, giving the scenes room to breathe without needless interruption or embellishment.

3. BlacKkKlansman

From the “You can’t make this up” file comes “BlacKkKlansman” the mostly-true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film sizzles with a sharp, darkly-comic energy, aided by the pitch-perfect, odd-couple casting of John David Washington and Adam Driver, as well as a surprisingly effective Topher Grace as KKK grand wizard David Duke.

2. Roma

The term “visionary” is thrown around a little too liberally in film criticism, but in the case of Alfonso Cuaron it applies. Consider the recent run by the director, from “Children of Men” in 2006 to “Gravity” in 2013 and now “Roma,” which was wisely snapped up by Netflix.

Known for his long takes and massive scale, Cuaron painstakingly recreates Mexico City circa 1970 for his meditative profile of an affluent family and their live-in housekeeper/nanny. It’s a movie brimming beyond the edges of the screen with life and detail, following one young woman’s path through a city, and nation, in a state of social and political flux.

1. The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a style all his own, simultaneously enticing and intentionally off-putting, as seen recently in “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” His films are absurd, but with absurdities masked under a veneer of sterile banality that he carefully cracks to expose the bizarre machinations at play.

With “The Favourite,” working off a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos focuses his singular artistic eye on the court of England’s Queen Anne (a superb Olivia Coleman) and the schemes of two women (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) who battled for the monarch’s trust and affection.

In the world of “The Favourite,” the familiar pomp and circumstance of imperial English decorum are on full display, albeit ratcheted up to farcical heights that, while deliciously anachronistic, convey the petty jealousies and political scheming that carry through to modern society. The result is a period piece unbound by the trappings of history that, through caricature, captures something wholly real, grotesquely bizarre and hilariously relatable.

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The end is near!

I’m fairly confident I have my list of top movies narrowed down. The problem now is getting them into the right order. A couple late-opening films forced some reorganizing, and the agonizing removal of a few titles.

But there was one movie that kept sticking with me. I couldn’t justify putting it in the Top 10 over other films, but it killed me to let it go. And so, this year’s Number 11 film is:

A Quiet Place

Within minutes of the opening credits, writer-director John Krasinski’s science-fiction/horror film lets you know that it’s playing with a different rule book. An otherwise prototypical post-apocalyptic cold open — with a family scavenging a deserted store for food and other supplies — gives way to a frightening change of stakes as the family tip-toes their way home, cautious that any sound of meaningful volume will attract nightmarish creatures lurking just out of sight.

That harsh start kicks off a tight 90-minute survival tale that inventively uses misdirection and near-silence to toy with the senses and ramp up the tension to visceral levels. And the film’s centerpiece sequence, with the main characters separated and facing a cascade of challenges — including labor — is impressively plotted out and shot for a first-time director who shows an aptitude for scene geography and set piece design.

Most impressive is how the film is built around what would otherwise be a gimmick — don’t make noise or aliens (?) will eat you — but manages to do its premise justice, taking the time to build as convincing a world as possible around that particular, and grotesque, set of circumstances.

The conclusion is perhaps a little too tidy, erring on the side of relief at the end of a dark story. But those narrative decisions also feel intentional and earned, with “A Dark Place” taking pains to show how some people could survive in such a dark reality, and centering its story on a particularly well-suited, and hopeful, group of survivors.

There is some early talk of a potential “Quiet-ER Place” sequel (my name, not theirs) and if that happens, I’ll be at the theater on opening night.

And a few more:

Last year, I included a few quick shout-outs to additional movies on my Top 10 post. It was a nice addition, IMHO, and one that maybe works best added on to the Number 11. (We’ll see, I might have more shout-outs to make next week too).

I nearly gave the 11th spot to Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse,
which I saw with step-son and like as much, if not more, than he did. It combines the retro superheroes-are-so-coooool feel of the old Saturday morning cartoons that I grew up on with a top notch animation style and *just enough* hipster cynicism.

Widdows, was very good, and was on my Top 10 until it got bumped off by the late arrivals. The ensemble work is on point, and it seamlessly blends together a good old fashioned heist flick with a moving political and social commentary.

I’m a sucker for a good period piece, and Mary Queen of Scots delivered. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are sublime as the queens of Scotland and England, respectively, who could have built a better world if not for the fickle, contentious and power-hungry men around them who refused to loosen their grasps on the levers of power.

And finally First Reformed (currently free on Amazon Prime) is a thought-provoking story of faith. The overall story was a bit too ambiguous for my taste, but Ethan Hawke, as the film’s protagonist, delivers a fascinating and understated performance.

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It’s Christmas Eve. The shopping is finished, the stockings are hung, and not a creature is stirring, so you know what that means: time to get to work on my year-end best movies list.

I don’t know exactly what years constitute “the old ways,” but they’re definitely dead in 2018. All the good movies come out in November and December? Nope. “Summer” movies have to be stupid? Nope.

Netflix can’t make a good movie? Nope.

We’ll get to all of that over the next couple weeks. But for now, here’s some of the movies I loved watching this year that didn’t quite make the final cut of the Top 10.

Best swan song: The Old Man and the Gun

Who better than Robert Redford to play a criminal of a certain age who robs banks using little more than effortless charm? No one, that’s who.

In what will be (allegedly) his final onscreen performance, Redford plays real-life heist man Forrest Tucker in director David Lowry’s (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) delightful film that is part whodunit, part biopic and part golden-years romantic comedy.

It’s a great sendoff for the veteran actor who, like Tucker, has always made it look easy.

Best Box-office Flop: Bad Times at the El Royale

“El Royale,” made $31.5 million worldwide on a budget of $32 — so safe to say there won’t be a “Worse Times at the El Royale” any time soon. (<— Not that I’m actually advocating for a sequel, as that would be a horrible idea).

It’s a darned shame too. As El Royale is one of the best ensemble pieces of the year, with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and 2018 M.V.P. contender Cynthia Erivo (also in “Widows” this year) in a twisty Summer-of-love-era period thriller from writer-director Drew Goddard, whose “Cabin in the Woods” similarly goofed around with convention and failed to find the audience it deserved.

Best Superhero(es): Avengers: Infinity War

I absolutely understand why some are fatigued with superhero movies. I was getting close, but then “Infinity War” happened and pulled me back in.

Set aside, for a moment, the deluge of comic-book adaptations and consider what Marvel Studios was able to achieve with IW. The first Avengers, successfully merging three franchises (plus the Hulk), was itself a minor miracle. But Infinity War is on an entirely different and unprecedented scale, seamlessly weaving together narrative threads that spread out over 18 distinct films released over a period of 10 years.

It’s a feat of storytelling, put into corporeal form through a cinematic investment that spared no expense, all culminating in a surprising, genuinely affecting film that left anxious for the next chapter.

Best documentary: Three Identical Strangers

The initial set-up of “Three Identical Strangers” is, by itself, the kind of story that sounds stranger than fiction. A young man enrolls in college and finds himself an instant big man on campus courtesy of the identical twin he never knew existed who went to the same school one year earlier.

The already-bizarre tale gets its first twist early, as it turns out the twins are triplets. But that’s only the tip of an iceberg that is carefully and meticulously revealed regarding the brother’s separation at birth.

Best Horror: Suspiria

A close contender for the final award on this list, and one for which the “horror” label doesn’t fit quite right (the *actual* best horror movie of the year is part of the 2018 Top 10. Hint, hint) Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” is frequently unsettling, occasionally disturbing, and endlessly fascinating.

Centered around a dance schools/coven of witches in divided Berlin, “Suspiria” is a moody, atmospheric film that jumps from beautiful to grotesque and back again with a dark humor and unforgiving sense of dread. Bookended by two truly bonkers dance sequences (the first of which is back-dropped against a “how did they do that?” onscreen death) “Suspiria” is a movie that wonderfully defies description.

Best popcorn: Mission Impossible: Fallout

Until 2018, each of the five installments in the Mission Impossible franchise had been helmed by a new director and connected only by a loose mythology, a core cast of characters and the charge that Ethan Hunt, an agent within the Impossible Mission Force, save the world and nearly die in the process.

In Fallout, we have the first direct sequel, with director Christopher McQuarrie returning and continuing the story he launched in “Rogue Nation.” And it’s easy to see why the people behind all these impossible missions decided to break their own rules and ask McQuarrie on a second date.

Fallout is, simply, superb, the sort of extravanganza for which people say “this is why we go to the movies.” It’s nonstop plot barrels forward like a freight train, upping the ante with each new scene until a hold-your-breath climactic sequence that sees Tom Cruise in a helicopter chase/cliffside brawl while his team works to locate and dismantle a pair of nuclear weapons against a ticking clock.

For those nights when you need something big and loud and awesome, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Best indie: The Death of Stalin

Fans of HBO’s “Veep” know Armando Iannucci’s talent for mining government dysfunction for comedy. Now imagine “Veep” set in Soviet Russia and you have “The Death of Stalin,” a pitch-black comedy about the chaos and scheming that followed Stalin’s death as the members of his party jockeyed for position.

Steve Buscemi is the MVP as Nikita Khrushchev, but every member of the superb, expansive cast (including the always-interesting Jason Isaacs and a spectacularly dry performance by Andrea Riseborough ) gets plenty of moments to shine.

The 2018 Wood’s Stock Balls-to-the-Wall award: Sorry to Bother You

“Surreal” doesn’t even begin to describe “Sorry to Bother You,” writer-director Boots Riley’s film about a black telemarketer whose talent for sounding white on the phone catapults him to success selling what amounts to voluntary slave labor.

And that’s just the literal plot of “Sorry to Bother You,” an increasingly gonzo story that at one point takes a turn to [potential spoiler alert] include human-horse hybrid monsters. Riley’s meta commentary on race, class, art, popular culture and consumerism goes full-tilt for its central metaphor to increasingly bizarre and shocking results. It’s a movie with a lot on its mind, but at each point where there’s a risk of falling off the rails, Riley and his protagonist (the phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield) keep things just steady enough to keep the narrative going.

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