Monday, December 31, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2018

The year 2018 was a terrible one for me professionally, and with more than a few setbacks personally, too.  Politically it was a smoking crater. Cinematically it was somewhat above average.

I found myself often at odds with other critics this year, particularly my friends and comrades in the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Things that blew them away I found mildly amusing ("Paddington 2") or borderline unwatchable ("Roma"). Movies I loved were greeted with ambivalence or outright hostility by other critics.


It's the breaks of the game. Any critic who is afraid to sometimes stand apart from the crowd isn't worth reading, imho. In the same vein, critics who give into the urge to always be outside the mainstream, clinging to their contrarian mantle, are more interested in themselves than the movies they're writing about or the audience they're supposed to be writing for.

Last year's list was notable for its preponderance of tiny indie films. There are plenty represented here too, though not as heavily. My unabashed critical credo is "I likes what I likes." I try to approach every film with an open heart and mind. I don't care the genre, country of origin, budget, studio, stars or filmmakers involved -- if it moves me to adoration, I will shout it from the hilltops.

So here's my top 10 for 2018, along with the collection of also-rans and disappointments.

#1: Green Book

I admit to being baffled by the pushback to this film, which has often crossed over into sneering antagonism. To me it was the most uplifting movie of the year, the true (or at least based on) story of two men who had every reason to hate each other and wound up forging a lifelong friendship. Sentimental? Sure. A carefully bookended view of racial dynamics in the early 1960s? That's true too, but all movies simplify and distill to tell their tale. People also seem angry that the story is told from the perspective of the white character. So what? It was his kid who, for decades, nursed a dream of making a movie about his father's friendship with a celebrated jazz musician. If you've noticed, children of famous people don't make movies about their parent's friendship with nobodies. Is it because Mahershala Ali is being pushed for a supporting role during the awards cycle instead of leading, where he belongs with co-star Viggo Mortensen? Welcome to the rampant world of category-hopping prevalent today. Hating "Green Book" is like despising Mother Theresa. It hasn't a mean bone in its body. Honestly, I think its reception has been greeted in the context of our vicious tribalism, where people can't look past their own groups/bubbles and accept people and things as they are. If this movie hadn't come out in the Trump era, it'd be the horse to beat for the Best Picture Oscar.

#2: Bohemian Rhapsody

Another movie I feel I have to defend rather than extol. "It's just another rock 'n' roll biopic." No. It. Is. Not! I already loved the songs of Queen before the movie came out, but its determination to not just be The Freddie Mercury Story is what put it over the top for me. By including all the inner dynamics of the band and not just being "Freddie and the Other Guys," it was a step above the genre. Plus, all that great music. I get a smile just thinking about this movie.

#3: The Hate U Give

Marvelously acted, and possibly the best drama about race in America since "Do the Right Thing" nearly 30 years ago. The counterpoint to "Green Book," a film that disturbs rather than unites. The IFJA gave this our top award for the year, and I was proud to do so.

#4: A Star Is Born

Why does this work so well? I can't say. Maybe because I haven't seen the 1950s or '70s version of the story, only the 1930s original. Lady Gaga will get most of the buzz and awards, and she's quite good, but it's Bradley Cooper's performance that blew me away. The voice -- brazenly borrowed from co-star Sam Elliott -- the haunted stare, the subtle way he uses his hearing loss to ingratiate himself with strangers -- it's just a masterful piece of character-building.

#5: Avengers: Infinity War

Who knew that a superhero movie could have so much depth, so many surprises, such a looming sense of inevitable tragedy? That sound you heard this summer was millions of people scraping their jaws off the floor of the theater. Yes, it'll all (or mostly) get hocused-pocused back to square in next year's "Avengers: Endgame." But for now, it's amazing that mainstream movies can be this bold.

#6: The Wife

Glenn Close is my pick to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, playing the long-suffering spouse of a famous author with a secret. Even if you guess what it is before the end, or have it spoiled for you, it's still an indelible portrait of a woman who has embraced compromise all her life, and is now chafing under its weight even as she seemingly is reaping all the spoils.

#7: Cold War

The best foreign film of the year, based loosely on director Pawel Pawlikowski's own parents' doomed romance. Aesthetically is it rather similar to "Roma," shot in gorgeously bleak black-and-white... except it actually has a story to tell.

#8: Chappaquiddick

Another movie I think was written off because it doesn't align with Hollywood's present political panic. Jason Clarke is terrific as Teddy Kennedy, in a movie that seeks to explore his character in the face of tragedy, rather than just condemn him as an evil boogeyman like "Vice."

#9: The Favourite

This one could've been much higher on the list if it could have stuck the landing. Or had one. I'm not a big fan of movies that simply stop at an arbitrary, unsatisfying point. Filmmakers like to think of it as embracing ambivalence. (How very European!) But I think they just can't come up with a good way to end the story, so they decide to omit one entirely. Fortunately, before this literal last-minute stumble came perhaps the best costume drama about the miscreant doings of a royal court since "Dangerous Liaisons." And three of the four best performances by an actress this year, all in one movie. Alas, the awards groups can't seem to figure out in which categories the actresses belong. Calling Emma Stone, who plays the main character, a supporting actress is absurd. Ditto for giving top billing and leading status to Olivia Colman, whose wastrel queen is the object upon which the subjects act. Rachel Weisz' character is up for some debate, though I'd come down for her as leading as well.

#10: Leave No Trace

This very quiet, still film has grown on me steadily since I saw it mid-year. Debra Granik is my pick for the best director of the year, though I fear this tiny indie will be overlooked. It's the story of a wounded father raising his preteen daughter in the woods, almost completely cut off from the rest of society. The movie is much less interested in the why of how this situation came to be as the how it plays out in the relationships in this tiny family unit. Ben Foster may just be the best character actor working today.

Best of the Rest

Most years I struggle to finish the top 10, juggling several films around for the last few spots. This year it was fairly easy to make the cuts. I was still amazed by all these movies on some level. Presented alphabetically.

At Eternity's Gate  -- Actually makes you feel how Van Gogh's madness and genius where intertwined.
Beast -- Jessie Buckley is mysterious and beguiling. I'd love for Hollywood to figure out something to do with her.
On the Basis of Sex -- Stolid biopic/court drama that offers few surprises but does what it does very well.
Ben Is Back -- Love seeing Julia Roberts in a role with sweetness and snarl.
Disobedience -- Rachel Weisz continues to be on a roll in small movies most people don't see.
First Reformed -- Ditto Ethan Hawke.
Hearts Beat Loud
Juliet, Naked
Love, Simon -- A lot of heavy-handed movies about gay youths this year. This one actually has brains, heart and a sense of humor.
Ready Player One -- Has the ever been a movie to more quietly earn a half a billion dollars?
RGB -- My favorite documentary of the year. The filmmakers are clearly in love with their subject but still offer a balanced portrait.
Shoplifters -- A surprisingly sentimental choice for the Cannes Palme d'Or prize. Reminds me a lot of Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den."
Sorry to Bother You -- Offbeat, silly, vexing, angry, brashly original.
Welcome to Marwen -- I am crushed by this film's poor critical reception and box office death. Maybe just a little too weird to get people off their couch. Hopefully it'll be rediscovered as a gem a few years down the road like "Lars and the Real Girl."

The Disappointments

These aren't necessarily bad movies, but ones that left me underwhelmed. Listed alphabetically.

Ben Is Back  -- This is a Very Important Movie. And it really wants you to know it is a Very Important Movie.
Black Panther -- Funny how people who were swooning last March about this being the end-all, be-all superhero movie are much quieter now. Once it got out to a wider audience people saw it for what it is: a middling Marvel Comics Universe movie.
Eighth Grade -- Good, not great.
Hereditary -- She's a witch!
If Beale Street Could Talk -- Gorgeous looking and my favorite musical score of the year. Regina King is terrific as the mom. Main characters are kinda tuneless. Classic example of a good movie that could've been great.
Minding the Gap -- I admit my patience for feature films about skateboarders is very low. It eventually gets somewhere else... eventually. 
Paddington 2 -- A perfectly serviceable sequel to a wonderful family picture. And nothing more.
A Quiet Place -- A decent thriller/horror. Still can't figure out why they didn't just pitch tents next to the waterfall and live there, since it's the one place the sound-eaters can't find them.
Roma -- What a deeply flawed concept for a movie: Alfonso Cuarón tells the story of his family in 1970s Mexico City from the viewpoint of the family maid, but forgets to give her a character.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- I can't believe how people are swooning for this pleasing, imaginative but puddle-deep flick. Not even close to the best superhero or animated movie of the year.
Suspiria -- I am so over the "Tilda Swinton is such a chameleon, so let's give her 3+ parts in our movie" thing.
Vice -- Just a nasty, nasty takedown of Dick Cheney. Lies all over the place. Ugly and unnecessary. Actually made me feel more sympathy for the veep than I had going in.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? -- Even as a 4- or 5-year-old, I found Mr. Rogers' show a bit dull. Ditto the documentary about it.

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