Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2018 (plus something extra!)

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).

Tell me something boy . . . who did your tan?

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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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?

Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

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