So it has been at least a year since I came up with one of these, but there has never been a better time than now, after another Oscars has come and gone.
2018 was a slower year for me in terms of movie consumption and posting, with 32 reviews total, including two 30 for 30 sports docu’s — down from 57, including my Blind Spot series, the year prior. I still managed to see a pretty diverse range of movies, from the breathtakingly ambitious, big-budget spectacle to daringly original science fiction adventures; riveting directing débuts to established filmmakers continuing to hone their craft or in some cases making brave/contentious career moves. Let the record show that theatrical releases were heavily favored, with just two (!) reviews resulting from streaming/On Demand — yipes!
Before we break down my favorites, a few thoughts on this year’s Big Show (the “something extra!” from the post title — sorry if I got anyone overly excited). I did find a few things to cheer about, despite my general apathy towards the selections this time around (though I am relieved to know I have been far from the only one in that regard).
I enjoyed the acceptance speeches by Best Actor/Actress winners Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) — this before he apparently fell off the stage — and Olivia Colman (The Favourite). They were extemporaneous and maintained an air of genuine surprise and appreciation. Personally, I would have gone with Bradley Cooper and Melissa McCarthy, but I never did see the Queen biopic and I can’t really disagree with Colman winning either. She killed it in The Favourite.
Spike Lee winning for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman was satisfying and appropriately applauded. It isn’t as prestigious as Best Picture but that is a long overdue win in a still significant category for a guy who has been snubbed as much as anyone by the Academy. I could have done without his thoroughly awkward acceptance speech, though. I’m not sure if that was poor penmanship he was combating or what.
I find it funny and kind of ironic that the once-near-reclusive Alex Honnold is now the star of an Oscar-winning movie. Yes, it’s a documentary but Free Solo took home the trophy!
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s live rendition of their embarrassingly obvious winning number (Original Song — Shallow) was arguably better than the version in the movie. I admit to not being a big Lady Gaga fan but this song is pretty great, and, not to keep beating a dead horse here, so is Brad Cooper’s voice.
Poor Julia Roberts getting caught in that awkward position of being the last presenter at an awards show where there is no host to make closing remarks — however redundant those are. I missed the first half hour of the show but of what I saw this was the only time the absence of some kind of unifying thread was really felt. “Well, it looks like this is the end of the show!” Provocative. Profound. Poetic. Always good to end on a strong note.
Speaking of ending on a strong note, as promised, here are the ten movies I enjoyed the most in all of 2018.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part western anthology film soaked in the Coen aesthetic. Its narrative style offers up a variety of experiences that range in tone from silly and farcical to achingly romantic to macabre. And therein lies its greatest strength. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It isn’t among the Coens’ most thematically daring or memorable but I am having a hard time not calling it one of my favorites. Review here.
Talk about a movie that doesn’t let you sleep well afterwards. A stunning first effort from Ari Aster, Hereditary offers a challenging story rife with disturbing imagery and over the course of two very stressful hours it plunges headfirst into a deeply personal exploration of grief and what the grieving process can do to us. Sure, mourning can be channeled into positive, healthy activities; grieving can actually strengthen bonds on an emotional level. But it just as easily can rip relationships apart and alter perception in some rather profound ways. As a bona fide horror film, Hereditary takes us down a road where the pain of a loss becomes utterly overwhelming. Aster’s shocking vision is brought to life by a committed cast (led by a spectacular Toni Collette) who do a heartbreakingly good job reminding us that when death hits home, nothing can ever be the same again.
Five barks out of five for this predictably charming stop-motion animated film from Wes Anderson. The presentation style is actually a rarity for the King of Quirk (this is his second animated movie following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) but the storyboarding is familiar — the only real complaint I had with Isle of Dogs. This is essentially a lost-until-found retread of Moonrise Kingdom but with canines being ostracized from society instead of precocious pre-teens deliberately running away from it. But familiarity doesn’t really hold the film back from being a genuinely enjoyable adventure from minute one. Voice work is provided by several Anderson regulars plus a few inspired newcomers in Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and . . . what’s this, Yoko Ono? Review here.
Fans of The Office‘s Jim Halpert always suspected the actor who played him of having strong, wholesome family values — but I doubt any of us realized that man, John Krasinski, had a knack for scaring audiences too. His third directing gig finds him in completely different waters, not just from the TV role that made him famous but as well his previous directing efforts, comedy-dramas Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016). The story fixates on a family trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt not by sight but by sound. A Quiet Place was simply robbed of a Sound Editing Oscar this year — no offense to the guys behind Bohemian Rhapsody — because while the well-crafted characters and deft performances help us emotionally connect, it’s the brilliant use of sound and just as often its absence that creates and sustains an almost unbearable atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. You could cut the tension with a knife in the screening I attended. A Quiet Place is an example of an experiment in visual/aural relationships that never becomes a gimmick. Review here.
I had my reservations about Free Solo, because I wasn’t sure how the inner workings of someone as athletically elite and boundary-pushing as Alex Honnold could be translated into something understandable or identifiable by a broad audience. Quite honestly I didn’t expect much in the way of humanity or humility from a climbing documentary. I did anticipate some great scenery, based on Jimmy Chin’s accolades as a world-renowned climbing photographer. I assumed because of who the subject is — a dirt-bagger who has made a living climbing more often than not without protective gear — the film wouldn’t be able to find a responsible angle when it came to presenting his climbing/life philosophies. Then I saw the movie. The best thing about this documentary for me was not the obvious. It wasn’t the spine-tingling, vertigo-inducing cinematography that suspends us above the Valley floor for excruciating minutes at a time, it wasn’t the calculus of filming certain crux moves or capturing the flow of any given pitch on the big wall without being a distraction to the climber. Instead it was the very unexpected way Honnold invites us into his headspace — the most holy of places for a free soloist — and shares with us revelations that feel like they are being shared for the first time. Review here.
Finally, a vehicle to showcase Melissa McCarthy’s under-appreciated range as an actress and comedienne. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is decidedly more drama than comedy, yet as despairing as life is presented here — not to mention the character herself — there is always a misanthropic chuckle to be found in this wonderfully acted, sympathetically directed film about an author who turns to forging literary items as a way to make ends meet. Lee Israel was once a famous writer but she became even more infamous for stealing letters written by deceased playwrights and other writers and passing them off as her own, even embellishing them to increase their value. The mischievous comedy becomes more pronounced when we get introduced to her old drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who gets swept up in the misdeeds because, well, he’s a bit of a miscreant himself. A deeply human story and McCarthy’s ability to win me over made this one of the biggest surprises of the year. Review here.
Three Identical Strangers really sent my head for a spin. It’s the remarkable true story of three brothers who meet for the first time in their late teens/early twenties. It turns out to be an emotional rollercoaster, with director Tim Wardle able to package a wealth of material into a fairly streamlined, three-act narrative with some inspiring highs and gut-wrenching lows as we learn about the true nature of their family history and the circumstances of their births. As I wrote in my review: “There is a reason he considers the triplets the ‘single greatest story’ he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second.” Review here.
A Star is Born is a classic heartbreaker for a new generation. Bradley Cooper proves himself ever more the leading man (and a singer to boot!) while co-star Lady Gaga is an even bigger revelation, turning in a nuanced performance that also tells us something about her real-life experiences rising up the charts as a pop superstar. This may be the fourth time a star has been born but there is an undeniable emotional vulnerability to Cooper’s version, a rawness both in the character work and the creative process as it is depicted throughout the film. A familiar tale where confident execution makes a world of difference. I loved this movie. Review here.
Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I had in all of 2018 and it is my favorite of all the Spider-man movies that have been featured on the big screen. For me it offered the perfect escape, all major elements present and accounted for: a fun story, spectacular visuals (really, I could have written a piece just on that alone), interesting characters (I’m still not sure who my favorite was, Spider Gwen, Ham or Noir), rich emotion, exciting action, and music that was both modern and not objectionable, with Post Malone’s Sunflower instantly becoming one of my go-to tracks whenever I sit down to write. Review here.
Alex Garland’s new film is the epitome of what makes science fiction one of my favorite genres. I can never get enough of the kind of imaginative, big-idea storytelling science fiction often invites (Interstellar; 2001: A Space Odyssey) and especially movies that challenge us to think about what we are being shown. Some people don’t like putting in effort to understand a movie and I can appreciate that perspective. If that describes you Annihilation is 100% not a movie for you. From the talented writer/director of 2014’s Ex Machina, and the writer of 28 Days Later comes a truly original story (okay, so it’s technically an adaptation/condensing of a series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer) about a group of female military scientists who enter a quarantined area of marshland to investigate its origins and to get possible answers as to what happened to all the other previous missions who went in but never returned. When they enter, a series of strange events occur that transform both their mission and their bodies. Of all the things that can’t be forgotten about this movie — strong character work, some bizarre and often indescribable imagery — it is the atmosphere in which the mystery sits and stews that really makes a lasting impression. Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. Review here.
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