Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 2, we finish up the year (July thru December) in movie reviews, my seventh (technically sixth full-year) since first joining WordPress back in 2011. (Click here or just scroll your happy self to the bottom of this post if you missed Part 1!)

The back half of 2018 found Thomas J putting up 22 new film reviews, plus two more 30 for 30 pieces. Fair warning, this is a MUCH longer post than Part 1 (10 posts total). I probably should have taken into account the two months of NO REVIEWS that I had in the first half, and maybe restructured this whole thing. C’est la vie. Here is what the rest of my 2018 looked like:


July 

I celebrate my seventh year of blogging this month by posting a few thoughts on movies both political and comedic (and in one case, a bit of both). No celebratory post to mark the occasion, though sequels are a hit with me at this point in time apparently, with Sicario 2 and the new Ant-Man installment.

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado: a sequel that struck me as unnecessary before I actually sat down to watch it. Soldado offers a far more traditional, action-driven film than what Denis Villeneuve supplied in Sicario, a white-knuckle thrill ride that packed a powerful sociopolitical punch. Yet its timeliness what with current border politics, in conjunction with its even more morbid, anything-goes attitude (again, timely) and the return of Josh Brolin and Benecio del Toro made this invitation impossible to decline. A lesser film absolutely, but one with its own unique thrills. I enjoyed it enough to want a third. I don’t say that often when it comes to sequels.

Ant-man and the Wasp: good things come in small packages, and the sequel to 2015’s charmingly diminutive Ant-man is further proof. Timing works in this film’s favor as well, occupying a very special place on the MCU timeline in the wake of the devastation brought on by Infinity War — it still cracks me up that that movie actually made people cry. Yet despite the calculated timing, what makes the sequel refreshing is that, just like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating Scott Lang receives from his former mentor and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (a.k.a. The Wasp). Fun, fast-paced and . . . well, more time with Paul Rudd. Need I say more?

Sorry to Bother You: first of all, was this a dream or did this movie actually happen? Was anybody expecting this movie to be like . . . that? The Oakland, California-set directorial début of Chicago-born rapper and social justice activist Boots Riley epitomized uniqueness. From my review — “Perpetually forward-bounding with gusto and verve, with an intensely likable Lakeith Stanfield leading the charge, Sorry to Bother You is a strange but powerful experience that you really shouldn’t miss out on — even when there is a percent chance greater than fifty you walk away from it feeling something other than purely amused.”

Skyscraper: an amiable action thriller featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the perpetually under-rated Neve Campbell that both functions as a throwback to classic action films of the ’90s (Die Hard, anyone?) and gives the former wrestler another platform for demonstrating his not-inconsiderable range. The family dynamic presented in Skyscraper is genuine, likable and creates a surprising amount of tension even as the action bits themselves stretch credulity well past the breaking point. Of the two Dwayne Johnson summer flicks that were on offer this year (Rampage being the other), the glimmering lights of Hong Kong’s impossibly lofty skyline was absolutely the place to be.

August

August is responsible for one of my favorite movies all year, actually a documentary. In stark contrast to that, I also have the misfortune of going against my better judgment and seeing the latest Jason “I act better when shirtless” Statham movie. Sports film coverage also makes a cameo appearance this month with my second (and quite accidentally, final) 30 for 30 review.

Three Identical Strangers: to put it simply, one of the best movies I have seen all year. This outrageous true story about three young boys discovering the true nature of their existence is entertaining, captivating and ultimately disturbing. Where do we draw the line between science and ethics? While there is a great deal of fun and excitement in the first half of the film, the revelations brought to light in the second are stomach-turning to say the least. You just can’t make this stuff up (even if I wish it were made up).

The Meg: yes, I saw this movie. Yes, I’ve seen worse, like Deep Blue Sea. But no, not the kind of ringing endorsement Statham et al were looking for, I can’t imagine.

 

 

Alpha: I really enjoyed this narratively simple but deliciously atmospheric survival film about a young Cro Magnon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriending a wolf (a Czech wolf dog named Chuck — I am actually not kidding) after he becomes separated from his tribe and father/tribal leader Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The story isn’t very inventive but the filmmakers’ decision to create an entirely new language (comprised of roughly 1,500 words) really helped sell the authenticity of the period. Heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog: a bonafide classic, especially for the New York sports fan. Details the relationship between oversized egos/sports jockeys Mike Francesa and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo and their many (many!) ups and downs across a wild 19 years at WFAN 101.9 FM.

 

 

September

Things start to get kind of exciting (unless you are a Tennessee football fan). A new Spike Lee joint that had been sprayed with critical praise during its festival run finally opens to the public (granted back in August, but I wouldn’t get a review up until weeks later), while word-of-mouth about an unusual thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing daughter starts to really pick up. (And now I see that that movie was also released the month prior. Damn it, I really have been playing catch-up this entire year!)

Searching: I could not — still cannot — believe how tense and emotional Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film was. This was an absolutely fantastic conceit that became so much more than a gimmick. The story told of a father (an excellent John Cho) having to go to extreme lengths to track down the whereabouts of his suddenly missing daughter (Michelle La) by delving into her social media accounts in a desperate race-against-time, a seemingly hopeless search for the clues that could make the difference between miracle and tragedy.

BlacKkKlansman: this was one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounted the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proved to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

Operation Finale: a film that passed all too quietly, Chris Weitz’ handsomely mounted and smartly-casted Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

White Boy Rick: a drama about a wayward Detroit teen (introducing Richie Merritt) and his equally morally bankrupt father (Matthew McConaughey) getting into the coke-‘n-guns business in the Motor City circa the mid-’80s that just fell flat dramatically and really lacked an empathetic hook. I learned in this movie you can feel bad for a person’s circumstances without actually feeling bad for the individual. Barring a few moments here and there, this turned out to be a disappointingly middling effort from Yann Demange, the director of the sensationally gripping war drama ’71 (2014).

October

Even though I am not the biggest fan of horror, I was still disappointed in my lack of horror viewing this year. Particularly in the month of October. I wasn’t interested one iota in David Gordon Green’s retooled Halloween (“Hi, I’m Michael Myers. I have enormous psychological issues and now I am going to take them out on you!”) so I ostensibly skipped the month’s biggest event. Apostle is a Netflix horror that has picked up favorable reviews yet I still haven’t gotten to it; the revamped Suspiria never even ventured into my area and the only thing scary about the Goosebumps sequel was just how silly/geared-to-children it suddenly appeared. Thus:

A Star is Born: one of the true big hits of the year, a doomed love story that’s already been told three times before! The main attraction here was the excellent chemistry between stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — the latter proving she can be as captivating a performer without all that ridiculous make-up and wardrobe as she can with it. I fell in love with the performances and the music, and apparently so did the world. For romantics, this movie is a must.

 

First Man: it kills me how contentious a release this became. If you want to live in ignorance that is your prerogative. But we went to the Moon and Damien Chazelle made a pretty jaw-dropping movie about it. I will happily have people disagree with me on that point. More specifically, he made a brilliantly personal film about what it might have felt like to become the first person to have stepped foot on two different worlds. There of course have been more since Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar walk (eleven in fact, four of whom are still living), but Neil was the first. A technical masterclass besides, First Man features one of the year’s most curious and intensely internalized performances from the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. And, as an aside, now that China has successfully planted a lander on the Dark (or much-less-cool-sounding “far”) Side of the Moon, I am sure there are those out there who are going to deny that, too. Go right ahead.

mid90s: an unexpected (not in terms of quality but rather subject matter and style — and yes, okay, a little in terms of quality too!) début for Jonah Hill, the once-pudgy star of such raunchy Judd Apatow-esque (and actual Judd Apatow-produced) comedies Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and SuperbadMid90s creates a fully lived-in environment with its urban setting, natural performances, smartly chosen locations, its street-skating-video aesthetic and eclectic musical choices, simultaneously inspiring whiffs of nostalgia for an era long since passed while never really trying that hard to be about nostalgia. A small but pretty valuable gem.

November 

This month introduces me to some of the year’s best — a small sample size for sure but two films that leave a lasting impression still.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Melissa McCarthy at the top of her game, and another potential top-five candidate for this reviewer. My goodness, I loved this movie. The performances are one thing, but the milieu is just perfect. I could smell the leather-bound books in the cute little bookstores dotted around Manhattan, feel the cold harsh of winter breathing down those streets. Smelled the stink of failure (and festering cat poop) within poor old Lee Israel’s dingy apartment. I actually don’t know what it was that prevented me from giving this a perfect score. However, I am not really in the habit of retroactively adjusting my ratings.

Avery: a fun post that found this apparently uninspired writer reviewing a snowstorm FFS. Yellow journalism at its finest.

 

 

 

 

Widows: the new Steve McQueen movie that I had been anticipating for nearly a year, with some trepidation! The British auteur was, until this film, 3/3 in terms of delivering grueling, hard-to-watch dramas about people living in hell-on-earth. Widows, which tells the story about four women having to atone for their husbands’ indiscretions when they rob from the wrong guy, is no slouch either, especially with the twist at the end there, but it isn’t quite as punishing as what has come before. Still, it is a far more robust genre film than you’re likely to get from almost anyone else, packing one hell of a timely message in amongst its gritty action.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: a far less intriguing but nevertheless worthwhile follow-up to David Fincher’s 2010 hard-hitting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider’s Web featured an impressive Claire Foy taking over from Rooney Mara. Heavy on style, much lighter on substance.

 

 

December

And I finish off 2018 strongly with five new reviews. No monthly wrap-up post nor any timely viewings/write-ups of seasonal releases old or new as celebrating the holiday season just, ya know, gets in the way. Again. Even with the best of intentions, I STILL have yet to see classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. (I know, I know . . . ) Plus working at a liquor store during the holidays tends to take something out of you.

Assassination Nation: if the popularity of this post was anything to go by, Sam Levinson’s scathing political/social media satire was not exactly the year’s hottest item. I was glad to have been one of the few to have seen it, even if it was tonally uneven and became kinda sanctimonious at the end. Still, you can’t deny the film’s energy and chutzpah. A Salem Witch Trials for our generation, this is one righteously angry film with a lot on its mind.

 

Free Solo: a documentary of great interest to me given I devoted 10+ years to climbing both indoors and outside. I worked at rock climbing gyms for several years, where I made some long-lasting friendships with some great people. Free Solo exposed the world-at-large to one of the great risk-takers in the game, one Alex Honnold. His goal to climb the world-famous El Capitan in Yosemite Valley without a rope was captured by Jimmy Chin and a team of creative minds that, due to the death-defying nature of the undertaking, had to rethink their entire approach to filming it. Honnold’s 3,000-foot free solo is one for the history books.

Beautiful Boy: I was completely and utterly moved by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, and perplexed by the lukewarm reviews the movie overall received. I thought this was a brutally authentic yet sensitive portrayal of drug addiction that had a well-defined emotional component to it that I latched on to right away. I may be in a minority on this one, but I am completely fine with that. “Everything. Everything.”

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: an incredibly eye-popping trip into the pages of the iconic comic books of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Into the Spider-Verse just has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, one heartbreaking reveal and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. A rare example of a PG-rated film earning a perfect 5 rating from me (for whatever that is worth).

Mock and Roll: okay, so this was a really cool way to cap off 2018 in movies. I was fortunate to have been contacted by Mark Stewart, one of the writers of this underground film from Columbus, Ohio. I haven’t reviewed a truly independent film in some time, so having this experience was a total refresher. It lit a fire under my ass to do some more digging and find more stuff like this. Silliness and hijinks run amok in this one. Stream the film on Amazon Prime, today!

 


Happy New Year everyone! Shall we do another round?

Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 1 of 2)

It has been some time since I went overboard and put together one of these long-winded end-of-year summaries; I think the last time I did anything like this was when I last “hosted” my own little version of the Academy Awards presentation — circa 2016, I think? Long-time readers remember this annual feature as The DigiBread Awards — this was back in the day when the site was Digital Shortbread, a name that I changed in January of 2017, mostly out of a feeling that too many people thought I was trying to start a bakery or confectionery or something.

I would like to take this time to thank my incredible (and patient) readers for staying aboard this choo-choo train, slowly but surely chugging along. This year has been the least active year I have had since beginning the site seven years ago, yet here we are — at the precipice of another. Proud of being able to see things through when the going got tough. And though it saddens me to see so many familiar faces disappearing, that is how life works. There is a thing called change, and while I am not quite ready to move on yet from this, I understand why others have. Blogging is a really time-consuming activity that can easily become a grind.

Now that we have all of the mush out of the way, here is a month-by-month breakdown of what went down on Thomas J in 2018. But so as to not completely overwhelm, I am breaking this . . . break-down into two parts. This post includes reviews posted from January until June. Part 2 will feature reviews done July through December.


January

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Oh yeah, that’s right! I took January off. Writer’s block reared its ugly head early, despite a few pickings that looked quite good (Molly’s Game, the directorial début of the master of walk-and-talk-scenes Aaron Sorkin; the profusely praised Call Me By Your Name expanded wide; also Mom and Dad, a whacko-sounding genre film featuring Nic Cage and Selma Blair as parents who “maniacally turn on their children while in the grip of a mysterious 24-hour frenzy;” and The Insult racked up impressive critical ratings but I never had a chance to seek it out).

February

And now Thomas J shows some signs of life. Two new reviews. A few Oscar predictions. (You can check those out as part of my monthly round-up right here.)

The Commuter: a decent post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller that offered the same kinds of thrills fans have come to expect from the actor-director (Jaume Collett-Serra) tandem, albeit on a more mellow level. You may not get any memorably threatening lines delivered over the phone here, but there is a pretty cool song by Cosima (“Unnamed”) that pops up in a passenger’s headphones/as part of the soundtrack. So that was cool.

 

The Cloverfield Paradox: Man, this thing really wasn’t very good. But you know what? I am just as not-very-good at going back to give things a second chance. I ripped this supposed franchise-expanding chapter a new black hole, but I probably went too hard on it. No, I didn’t? Well that’s good to know. Now I don’t have to go back!

 

March

On the positive side, March was the month that delivered Annihilation*. I was fortunate to catch Alex Garland’s follow-up to his exciting début (the high-concept sci fi trip from 2014, Ex Machina) in theaters. So I thank March for that. Unfortunately, March also saw the passing of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking. I was actually quite saddened by that loss, so I wrote a tribute to him.

Annihilation: from my review — “The best of Annihilation plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation.” Further, I add (in a typically sensationalist way) that “Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.”

 

 

Unsane: A heady, twisty-turvy psychological thriller that benefits from star Claire Foy’s strong turn. This was my introduction to the British actress, playing a young woman fearing for her safety after her stalker appears to have tracked her down at a mental institution. Given that director Steven Soderbergh decided to shoot the film on an iPhone, I’m sure more people will remember how the film was made rather than what it was about. And while the grainy quality of the picture at times was indeed a distraction, I was pretty impressed with the amount of tension that was wrung out of the narrative.

One and Not Done: With the 2017-’18 college basketball season coming to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about this 30 for 30 film, which explores the career of collegiate basketball coach and gadfly John Calipari. If you consider yourself a college basketball fan, this is mandatory viewing.

 

 

April

April showers bring . . . what’s this? Awesome horror debuts? That’s right, folks. Everyone’s favorite Office drone puts on a brave and bearded face in his very first horror feature. April showers also bring: a bunch of crap. (Rampage; Blumhouse Presents: Truth or Who Cares**; the hilariously poorly titled The Humanity Bureau, etc . . . )

A Quiet Place: narratively taut, effectively tense and occasionally terrifying and featuring an innately likable family doing their best to survive in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt by sound, A Quiet Place announced John Krasinski as a stud of a first-time horror director. Though I really need to stop using that phraseology. The guy has made movies before, but this one really hit in a big way with critics and audiences alike. Good for him, he deserved it.

 

Isle of Dogs: who can resist a Wes Anderson movie — one rendered in stop-motion and about man’s best friend, no less? I adored Isle of Dogs. It was exactly what I expected — even if there is a bit more of that ” . . .as well as for worse” starting to subtly creep in. Anderson is an incredibly visually inventive storyteller, but comedy-wise he is rather predictable. (I say that now; he could prove me wrong by making something entirely different in his next film. Somehow I doubt it, and I will welcome it all the same. Charming is Wes Anderson’s middle name.)

May

Another mini blogging vacation. This was a planned break. I barely saw any movies this month***, however I did manage to see Tully, a sweet but hardly sentimental drama about a single mom trying to make ends meet. While it featured a great Charlize Theron as Marlo, alongside an equally fascinating Mackenzie Davis as the title character — a night nanny named Tully — the film, written by Diablo Cody, concluded in such a bizarre way that I thought took a lot away from the authenticity that made the rest of the film so engrossing.)

June

Found me playing a little catch-up.

Deadpool 2: did you see Deadpool 1? There you go. (At least I was able to prevent Ryan Reynolds from dominating my review this time.)

 

 

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: not everyone wanted a Solo spinoff. But we got one, oh boy did we ever get one! Alden Ehrenreich bravely stepped into the cynical shoes of Harrison Ford’s bad-boy space cargo pilot, and while it wasn’t the performance of the decade — I realize no one’s hanging posters of Ehrenreich on their bedroom walls — he surprised me with his confidence. This movie was really a lot of fun and you’re just a party-pooper if you resisted the Force on principle. Come on! Like this thing as much as me!!!!!

Tag: a fairly inconsequential movie but far from a waste of time, this based-on-a-true-story action/comedy finds a group of adult friends wildly devoted to perpetuating their favorite childhood game. From my review — “A bromantic occasion in the vein of The Hangover, yet somehow even less “culturally, aesthetically and/or historically significant,” this is the kind of entertainment that goes down GREAT with buttered popcorn (or even unbuttered . . . if you’re weird).”

Stay tuned for Part 2 . . . 


* correction, March was actually when i published my reaction. The film came out February 23, and given its really limited run in theaters, it is highly unlikely I actually waited until March to see it.
** ACTUALLY TITLED TRUTH OR DARE, BUT SERIOUSLY . . . WHO CARES? 
*** FORGOT ABOUT INFINITY WAR, OF COURSE.