2018 was a great year at the movies. And thanks to subscription services like Movie Pass and AMC A-List, I got to see quite a few of them – 83 as of this writing! I’ll avoid spoilers (except where noted), but of course, if you’re especially cautious, you may want to skip the write-ups for any films you haven’t seen.
10.) Minding the Gap
Full disclosure: my wife and I are shooting a documentary this year, our first feature. That’s not why Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” made my list. But it didn’t hurt.
This movie wears its bruised heart on its sleeve. Liu explores how a small group of young men use skateboarding – a sense of freedom and control – as a means of coping with trauma. The hurt here runs deep, and as the film progresses, it digs deeper and deeper to a genuinely moving climax. Liu cuts from one story thread to another such that the characters reach catharsis at the same immensely powerful moment.
Another disclosure: getting me to react positively to a film about skateboarding is no easy feat. But the footage that Liu captures of these men on their skateboards is extraordinary, like we’re coasting alongside them. You feel that sense of peace and independence, even as they take tumbles and falls. It’s hard to believe these sequences were shot for a documentary.
In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth, the first African American police officer in Colorado Springs, infiltrated the KKK with the help of white officer. Typically, I subscribe to the Roger Ebert mode of film appraisal: don’t judge a movie by what it’s about but how it’s about it. But this is the kind of high-concept premise that can grab even my attention. And yes, on top of that, director Spike Lee brings artistic fortitude to spare.
I adore Lee’s brand of humor. In interviews, he’s likened his films, and this one in particular, to movies like “Ace in the Hole” and “Network.” Just because a film tackles heavy subject matter doesn’t mean it can’t also make us laugh. From John David Washington’s (Ron’s) deadpan delivery, “With the right white man, we can do anything,” to Adam Driver’s (Flip Zimmerman’s) perfectly timed slow turn as Ron tries to sweet talk Klan members over the phone. There are a lot of laughs in to be had in this film for sure…and then that ending. It hits with the force of a baseball bat and slaps the taste of victory right out of your mouth.
8.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s greatest gift seems to be taking what looks like a series of bad ideas on paper and spinning them into movie gold (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”). Here we have the fourth big screen iteration of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and one of the most creative and invigorating superhero films in years.
But of course this is also the vision of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Upending the increasing sameness of computer animation, this is a kaleidoscopic film drawing from comic panel artistry (more and more explicitly as it goes on). And it doesn’t feel tedious in a way that other such endeavors have. I’m looking at you, Ang Lee’s “Hulk.” It’s used to comic effect – thoughts and exclamations spelled out on screen – and it takes us inside the action in ways a more traditional style of filmmaking wouldn’t allow.
For all the film’s humor (“Do animals talk in this dimension? ‘Cause I don’t wanna freak him out.”) and visual imagination, what surprised me most was how it stuck the landing on the dramatic stuff. Specifically, the strained relationship young Miles (Shameik Moore) has with his father (Brian Tyree Henry – who’s having a great year, by the way) and his much closer relationship with his uncle (Mahershala Ali – also having a great year). For all the film’s visual bells and whistles and self-aware humor, it’s got a big heart.
7.) Leave No Trace
Debra Granik has a hell of an eye for talent. She cast Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” two years before the star landed the lead role in “The Hunger Games.” Here, Granik brings us Thomasin McKenzie who plays Tom, a young woman living with her father in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. McKenzie beckons those clichés that surround child performers. “Vulnerable, yet strong,” “wise beyond her years,” etc. But sometimes clichés are born from truth. Ben Foster plays her father, a vet suffering from PTSD. Foster’s always a bit of a wild-eyed actor, giving 110%. He’s never been more internalized than he is here, his brow drawn in a perpetual knot.
“Leave No Trace” doesn’t have the striking drama of a mystery like “Winter’s Bone.” But I loved this film’s understated nature and slow pace. This is one of those great tales where everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong. There aren’t any real bad guys here, just people in conflict, all with perfectly reasonable motivations.
6.) First Man
Damien Chazelle’s take on the Neil Armstrong story is pretty much everything I want in a biopic. So often, filmmakers prop their subjects up on pedestals, but Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling present Armstrong with all his flaws and foibles. An inaccessible man, someone who is closed off even with his wife and kids.
And it doesn’t matter that you know the ending. This film sets the stakes in an arresting opening and it does not let up. It feels like a tightly wound spring that’s in dire need of release. I gotta mention Justin Hurwitz’s score, which is one of the best of the year. It bounces back and forth between tense and sorrowful. And there’s that theremin. Who’d have thought that would work?! It’s such an antiquated instrument, especially for a movie about space travel.
Much of “First Man” was shot in stark close ups, filmed by Linus Sandgren in gorgeous 16 and 35mm. But when it does go wide, it’s impactful. The Apollo 11 sequence was a knockout. The sheer scale and majesty of the images. The theater-rattling roar of the rocket. And where it falls in the film – that Chazelle and Co. have taken the time to show what this mission really cost. It was god damn moving.
5.) Black Panther
“Black Panther” is one of the very few Marvel films that feels like it was made by individuals – artists and entertainers – instead of a committee. This is what happens when you put talented storytellers in charge, like co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, and let them do their thing. Though there are a couple callbacks to previous MCU entries, “Black Panther” largely (and refreshingly) feels like a standalone film. Coogler has a real knack for world building. From Ruth E. Carter’s costumes to Hannah Beachler’s production design to Coogler’s own socio-political rules that govern Wakanda. The filmmaker also lifts from very real and very present-day headlines. With (an excellent) Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, Marvel may have finally cracked their villain problem. Killmonger is driven by the degradation and disenfranchisement of black people the world over, and like many great villains, his motivations are sound, but his methods? Not so much.
And the supporting characters are wonderful. It’s a testament to actresses like Letitia Wright as Shuri and Danai Gurira as Okoye that you’re nervous for them during the big action sequences. This is “Black Panther” after all. Anyone not Black Panther is expendable.
4.) Eighth Grade
It was a good year for horror, but except for a title that’s a little further up my list, no film brought me more anxiety and panic than Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” I say this as a male who went through middle school years before social media and YouTube. Such is the universal power of Burnham’s storytelling. Honest and personal without being twee. Burnham shows real cinematic muscle. I love how, during a tense-as-hell car conversation, he allows a character’s face to be almost completely in shadow. And the camera pans rapidly and claustrophobically as Kayla paces in her room while talking to a new friend on the phone. At a critical juncture, she stops moving and so does the camera. It feels like a genuine release.
And lead actress Elsie Fisher as Kayla is incredibly strong. My friend said after seeing the film that it didn’t occur to him that Elsie was performing. Simply that Burnham had documented a young woman trying to navigate the minefield of being a teenager. Her sincerity, the performative elements of her character, her profound insecurity…it was as though the film reached into my chest like the bad guy from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and said “Are ya ready to feel some shit you haven’t felt in 20 years?”
3.) Paddington 2
“Paddington 2” is one of the most exciting, funny, and moving films of the year. It bests the original in pretty much every way. It has greater scope but it never feels as though it’s getting away from itself. Director Paul King brings order to chaos, particularly during a climactic train chase where he expertly uses the setting and weaves in props and story elements set up earlier in the film.
The laughs are louder in this one too, especially as Paddington tries to adjust to life in jail after being falsely imprisoned. There, he plays off Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty (what a name!). Gleeson doesn’t often get to flex his comic muscle, though much of his comedy comes from his character lacking a sense of humor.
Hugh Grant is another newcomer to the Paddington-verse, playing a fame-starved actor who allows Paddington to take the fall for his crime. I haven’t been this charmed and amused by a comic-villain since Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda.” I adore Grant’s comedic timing and his complete lack of vanity playing someone who’s vain as hell.
The film has a bit of “It’s a Wonderful Life” running through it, dramatizing how the choices we make can impact so many others. But nowhere does “Paddington 2” harken back to the Frank Capra classic more than its closing moments. The ending left me a blubbering mess.
Writer-director-cinematographer-editor-producer Alfonso Cuarón is one of our most (multi-)talented filmmakers, and this is one of his most personal projects. It’s a loosely auto-biographical film, an ode to the young woman who helped raise him in 1970s Mexico. “Roma” is a hard film to write about. It’s a slice-of-life drama. Observational in its approach, employing mostly wide and medium shots and an almost complete absence of score. The film feels so delicate that it could be pulverized by too much praise.
But whaddaya gonna do?
The care with which Cuarón put this film together is extraordinary. The shots are impressively staged. The edits feel invisible. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, the maid. A non-professional actress, she provides the kind of subtlety that escapes most seasoned vets. I knew the performance was working for me when she gave a slight smile in response to her boyfriend’s…let’s call it bedroom routine.
And I don’t want to be disingenuous by saying this film has muted stakes, but at 2 hours and 15 minutes, viewers are going to have to be patient before they reach the meat-and-potatoes drama. I love how the scope of the film expands. Just as it opens with water lapping across tiles as Cleo cleans the family garage, it culminates with crashing waves at the beach where Cleo performs a much more momentous act.
The movie’s cumulative emotional effect doesn’t really come into focus for me until about half way through the end credits.
But no movie, and I mean no movie, burrowed into my brain like “Annihilation.” When I wrote about Alex Garland’s second film after it was released on disc, I tip toed around a scene involving a bear. Well, I’m diving headlong into it here, so if you’re wary of spoilers, please stop reading and go watch this film.
Scientists are deep inside the Shimmer, a massive entity that’s grown from a meteor, which now covers a swath of the southern United States. Inside the Shimmer, DNA is mixed and matched rapidly in ways that range from aspiringly beautiful to the stuff of nightmares.
This team of five women has been sent in to investigate, but the group dynamic is breaking down. They’ve lost one of their own, Cass (Tuva Novotny), to a bear attack, and now Anya (Gina Rodriguez), wracked by paranoia, has tied up the remaining members in an abandoned house. She ponders cutting them open to see if their insides will writhe like snakes – a grisly callback to something that happened earlier in the film – when she’s stopped by a scream. Cass’s scream. “You said she was dead,” Anya accuses. She runs outside, calling for Cass, when her shouts are cut short by a growl. Then the shadow of a bear falls across the wall. The lighting in the scene is extreme, depicting characters in dark, dramatic profile. But as the bear enters, we can discern that fur and muscle have worn away from its head and a large part of its skull is exposed. It approaches the women as if to inspect them, almost nuzzling them. And when it opens its mouth, Cass’s scream comes out, “Help me!”
This is what Lovecraft wrote about. It’s not terrifying the way Michael Myers stalking a quiet neighborhood is terrifying. It’s terrifying in a far more existential and primal way. What I am seeing and hearing should not be. And yet there it is. And the twinge of empathy you feel. The cries sound almost plaintive, in pain and terrified. How much of the bear is Cass and how much of Cass is the bear?
We so rarely see cosmic horror in film, and I could have rattled off a handful of other examples from “Annihilation” that’ll linger in your mind and the pit of your stomach. And that is just one of many reasons why it’s my favorite film of 2018.
And for those keeping track, yes, this marks two talking bears in my top 10 for the year.
And now a bunch of honorable mentions, because as I said, it was a pretty great year: “Burning,” “Cold War,” “First Reformed,” “Game Night,” “Hereditary,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Revenge,” “The Rider,” “Shirkers,” “Thoroughbreds,” and “You Were Never Really Here.”
What films stood out to you in 2018?