Monday, February 04, 2019

Top Ten Movies of 2018

2018 was one of those years where I liked a lot of movies but didn’t love many of them, which made it exceptionally challenging to compile a “best” list. Just to give you an idea of how challenging, my original list of movies I was considering for the top 10 included nearly 30 titles. So if you're wondering why a particular film didn't make the final cut, it’s probably not because I didn’t like it but because there were others I enjoyed just as much or more.

My usual caveat: I didn’t see nearly enough foreign films (only three total), documentaries (only two), or animated films (only one).


Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to his childhood – and in particular to the nanny who helped raise him – and it shows. Each exquisitely composed frame is primed to evoke a powerful emotional reaction, as we shift from discomfort at the awkward status of the protagonist, a live-in maid who both is and isn’t part of the family, to awe at the grace with which she transcends this position. First-time actress Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the lead role, and Cuarón completely immerses the viewer in the sights, sounds, and cultural, political, and class tensions of 1970s Mexico City. This is his best film, in large part because it’s also his most personal.


In a year filled with movies that tapped into the zeitgeist of this country’s complicated fucked-up racial politics, this one remains the most original, most moving and most consistently surprising. It also maintains the most successful balance between hope and anger even as it diagnoses the toxicity that infects the white man’s attitude towards and treatment of the black man. Daveed Diggs (aka Lafayette/Jefferson from the original cast of Hamilton) is riveting as the main character who’s forced to make this discovery, even as it threatens to destroy one of his oldest friendships.


We tend to expect certain things from movies about space exploration: gripping suspense, a cathartic emotional payoff, and a healthy side of rousing patriotism. First Man largely bucks these expectations, which might be why it underperformed both at the box office and in critics’ awards. Although it has plenty of tense sequences, overall it’s surprisingly quiet, a little somber and emotionally distant (rather like its subject, played by a well-cast Ryan Gosling), and more than a little ambivalent about whether the Apollo program exacted too great a price from its participants. It’s also a stunningly beautiful film that manages to evoke the full measure of visceral fear and awe undergirding NASA’s early missions. Director Damien Chazelle captures with amazing precision and intensity just how precarious these ventures were, the technology held together almost literally by duct tape, scissors, and a wing and a prayer. Time will tell, but I’m hopeful the film will one day be ranked right up there with The Right Stuff (which was also a commercial flop in its day, and with which First Man shares much of its DNA) and the more crowd-pleasing Apollo 13.


Spike Lee has a remarkable gift for modulating his anger about the African American condition with incisive humor, and that gift is amply on display here, as the Klansmen are shown to be as repulsive in their goals as they are comically inept at executing them. However, the parts of BlacKkKlansman that have stayed the most vividly with me have been the dead-serious ones: in particular, a cross-cutting sequence between a harrowing description of a lynching by civil rights activist Jerome Turner and a KKK induction ceremony, and the coda, which – well, best seen rather than spoiled. They stand as a reminder that Lee remains not only one of our most compelling filmmakers but also one of our most important.


Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina, screenwriter for Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, and author of The Beach) does not compromise, and for that we should be thankful. His gonzo adaptation of an unwieldy sci-fi novel about a team of women scientists sent to explore a mysterious otherworldly phenomenon known as the “Shimmer” goes balls to the wall in its profound weirdness and stubborn resistance to easy explanation. The result is what may well be the most fascinating movie of 2018, and certainly the most memorable visual effects. You may find yourself scratching your head afterwards and wondering “wtf did I just watch?” But you’ll find yourself thinking about it, too, long after the fact.


For too long I resisted seeing this movie because I had the impression it was a highly depressing story about a highly unpleasant person who committed forgeries out of sheer desperation. Well, it is that, but it’s also an acerbically funny and surprisingly poignant character study that not only makes you empathize with said unpleasant person (Melissa McCarthy, playing emphatically and effectively against type), who represents the prickly and mean introvert lurking in each of us, but also has you rooting for her unlikely alliance with an aging wastrel/former party boy (Richard E. Grant) she corrals into her schemes. Both McCarthy and Grant are as good as you’ve heard, and their grudging friendship is portrayed with a delicacy and tenderness that never descends into sentimentality.


So raw and intimate, so unsparing in its close-up of adolescent angst, it almost hurts to watch…and yet you can’t look away. As the protagonist, Elsie Fisher delivers a downright miraculous performance that doesn’t feel like a performance, while writer/director Bo Burnham captures with both great perspicacity and great compassion not just the cultural peculiarities of being a member of “Gen Z” but the fleeting joys, gnawing insecurities, and constant mortifications that just about anyone of any generation can remember from that period of their youth. Fittingly for a movie that prominently features a time capsule, it’s both timely and timeless.


Disclaimers first: I’m aware Green Book has suffered significant backlash based on (1) the perception that it’s a retrograde “Driving Miss Daisy in reverse” parable about a black person saving/redeeming a white person (2) the politics and/or past racist statements of its screenwriter(s), and (3) the allegedly inaccurate depiction of pianist Don Shirley (the main black character) as deeply lonely, estranged from his family, and isolated from his own race; his family disputes every aspect of this portrayal, and also claims that his friendship with his driver was greatly exaggerated. While troubling, none of these criticisms fundamentally alter my assessment of the film as a warm, funny, well acted and highly enjoyable road trip / odd couple movie, loosely based on a true story about two very different men who against all odds learn to enjoy each other’s company, and boosted by the easy natural chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Yes, it’s also a story about a clueless white racist who learns the error of his ways by witnessing how horribly racism impacts his new black friend – but that’s only a problem if you believe the message is that racism can be “solved” through these kinds of individual wake-up calls or white people and black people talking to one another. That's not what I take away from the movie, nor do I believe it's the necessary reading.


“Free soloing,” for those who don’t know, is the art (or suicidally insane pursuit, depending on your point of view) of rock-climbing without ropes or harnesses, and Alex Honnold, the subject of this National Geographic documentary, is its king. Focusing on his quest to scale El Capitan, a 3000-foot rock formation in Yosemite National Park, and shot to maximize its vertiginous thrills, the film’s guaranteed to whiten the viewer’s knuckles even if you already know how Honnold’s efforts turned out. But it’s just as intriguing as a portrait of the kind of temperament necessary to attempt such a feat and adopt the lifestyle it demands. Werner Herzog couldn’t have done better with this material.


Barry Jenkins’ lyrical adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel just may be the most visually ravishing film of the year, though it has stiff competition from Roma and the Polish gem Cold War. But if those films showed just how sumptuous and seductive black & white cinematography can be, If Beale Street hits us with the full power of color as both an emotional and artistic vehicle, channeling a lot of Douglas Kirk and a little Wong Kar-Wai. Jenkins’ take can sometimes feel a bit too dreamlike and aestheticized to achieve the full immediacy or sense of intimacy he’s going for, let alone outrage at the injustice of his protagonists’ predicament, but he more than makes up for it with the rapturous beauty of his images.

Honorable Mentions / the next 10: The Rider; Tully; Burning; Cold War; Widows; The Favourite; The Hate U Give; Isle of Dogs; Disobedience; and First Reformed


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