2018 was one of the most grueling experiences in recent memory and as a result I’ve unfortunately been neglecting this blog. It was something that used to give me a lot of joy, and through personal and professional setbacks I have to admit that finding the drive to do anything outside of my day to day demands has been seemingly impossible. But one thing that has continued to give me joy, however, has been film. Without film and escapism, I’m not sure I would have made it through such an emotionally taxing year. Like a warm hug on the coldest, most bitter day, I knew I could always just take myself to the movies and forget my troubles for a few hours. I feel like I say that every year, but it has not stopped being true.
Recently I’ve been re-discovering the joy in things I had thought I had lost, writing being one of them. It’s a chore I’ve avoided for too long, both recreationally and professionally. I’m in a much better headspace than I was last year, with a renewed drive to continue to pursue things that give me joy. Let this be a promise that I hold myself to throughout 2019, that I push myself not only to continue the upkeep with this little blog of mine, but in the other endeavors I’ve been ignoring.
So, without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2018.
The Long List:
21.) To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (dir. Susan Johnson, Starring: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Tezzo Mohoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard & John Corbett)
Is it finally time for the romantic comedy to make a comeback? I sure hope so, because the world could use more sensitively crafted movies such as this. I don’t care, this movie filled me with pure joy. Few movies can walk the tightrope of being super earnest and effective this well. Lana Candor’s pitch-perfect performance as our heroine Laura Jean makes To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before a treat. It’s sugar sweet, but won’t rot your teeth.
20.) Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley, Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Kylie Burnbury, Lamorne Morris, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall & Kyle Chandler)
Rachel McAdams joins Rose Byrne in the club for underrated comediennes of our time in this all star ensemble mainstream comedy that doubles as a thoroughly entertaining caper. Also featuring a star is born performance from Olvia the dog (see also: Widows).
19.) Blockers (dir. Kay Cannon, Starring: Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Katheryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan & Gideon Adlon)
Blockers is a bit of a Trojan Horse, one that was advertised as a laugh out loud studio comedy. And while it’s not short on laughs, this one’s got a lot more on its mind (like butt chugging beer). Leslie Mann gives an excellent performance as a mother not quite ready to let go of her daughter on prom night. Together with her friends and fellow-empty nesters (John Cena and Ike Barinholtz), she sets off to stop her daughter from potentially losing her virginity and ends up learning a lot about being a parent along the way. Though it owes a lot to Judd Apatow, Blockers manages to be as emotionally affecting as it is hilarious. Bonus points: John Cena’s butt.
18.) Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu, Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong & Michelle Yeoh)
Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the wildly successful novel of the same name is hilarious, heartbreaking and excessive in all of the right ways. I’ve been a big believer in Constance Wu for awhile now, and she finally had a chance to shine bright as the lead of big Hollywood movie. She doesn’t just take it, but seizes it and just about runs away with it. But her co-stars are equally as interesting to watch (seriously, this ensemble is stacked). What’s there to say about Crazy Rich Asians that hasn’t been said already? Like with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I’m ready for the romantic comedy to make a comeback. Letting this movie just wash over me and transport me back to a time where these films were as commonplace as the superhero films that now dominate movie theaters was more than just enjoyable. Michelle Yeoh does more with a single look than most actors who will be nominated for Oscars this year do with pages of dialogue written with the intention of being awards bait.
17.) Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham, Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan & Fred Hechinger)
My heart broke about several hundred times while watching this movie, because I saw so much of my younger self in Kayla Day (played so perfectly by breakout Elsie Fisher). Somehow, Eighth Grade manages to be horrifying, heartfelt and optimistic all at once. Unlike a lot of coming of age stories or movies about young people, Burnham has captured an experience that is true to life without ever passing judgment on its subject.
16. Unsane (dir. Steven Soderbergh, Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoh, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins & Amy Irving)
Steven Soderbergh knows how make genuinely entertaining movies, and Unsane is just 98 minutes of him showing off (to great effect). Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini a woman wrongfully placed in a psychiatric hospital… or is she? As the plot unravels, so does our protagonist’s psyche. Think you’ve got the film figured out? Not so fast! There’s as many twists and turns on this roller coaster ride as there are protests from Sawyer that she doesn’t belong at the hospital. Soderbergh keeps you guessing until the last shot.
15.) A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper, Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliot, Anthony Ramos & Rafi Gavron)
Perhaps no other moment in A Star is Born is more telling than the final encounter between Ally (Lady Gaga) and Bobby (Sam Elliot, so brilliant), Jackson’s (Bradley Cooper) brother. “There’s only 12 notes, and the octave repeats,” he says. “All an artist can do is offer the world how he sees those 12 notes.” From every single anecdote that each cast member has shared (especially Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestants Shangela and Willam Belli’s assertion that they were encouraged to improvise their dialogue in the Drag Bar scenes) Cooper understands this, and in remaking a tale almost as old as Hollywood itself, he has delivered his unique take on those aforementioned 12 notes. It is for this reason, I’m willing to embrace A Star Is Born in spite of its flaws; because the moments that really hit, hit hard. I keep thinking about the scene where Ally takes the stage for the first time to perform “Shallow.” It’s here that the film takes your hand and begins sprinting in a sequence so exhilarating, we feel just as jolted, scared and alive as she is when she begins to belt out those now unforgettable notes. A star is born indeed. Bravura.
14.) Ralph Breaks the Internet (dir. Rich Moore & Phil Johnston, Starring: John C. Reily, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina & Ed O’Neil)
I’m not gonna mince words, this movie hit me right in the heart. Both times I saw it in theaters I was left crying my eyes out by the time the credits started rolling. And perhaps that has a lot to do with where I’m at in my life right now. That moment where things begin to change, where you and the people you always imagined being around start to want different things that take you in different directions. I don’t think that’s it, but even if it was, I really don’t care. Ralph Breaks the Internet deserves inclusion on this list for the way it handles the friendship between Ralph and Venellope alone, one that spoke to my own relationships and tugged at my heartstrings. That it also is one of the only movies about the internet that truly understands the internet makes the film an even richer viewing experience. I laughed, I cried, I laughed while crying. Goddamnit this movie is a miracle.
13.) Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Nancy García & Verónica García)
Much has been said about the “proper” way to view Roma. Distributed by Netflix as they continue their push to shake up the film industry/awards season, director/writer/producer/cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón urged film fanatics that this was a movie that needed to be seen in a theater. As someone who did see this in a theater (thanks to a temporary limited release by Netflix in order to appease Oscar voters), I’m not quite sure I fully agree with him. Visually it’s absolutely stunning on a huge screen, but what Roma requires most of all is patience and undivided attention. That may be hard for those of us who are inclined to watch movies on our laptops while casually scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. Roma takes its time depicting the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid to an upper middle class family living in Mexico, but what unfolds is an enthralling and beautiful experience that pays off in spades by the time the credits start rolling. Just see it, by any means necessary.
12.) Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker & Andy Serkis)
Writer/director Ryan Coogler has proven he can handle both independent dramas (Fruitvale Station) and big budget reboots (CREED) with ease. To say I was excited when he was announced to helm the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be an understatement. Black Panther is easily the best Marvel film in years for a number of reasons, but let’s talk about the sheer craftsmanship. Hot off of her historic Oscar nomination for last year’s Mudbound, Rachel Morrison continues to raise the bar for cinematographers everywhere. Those costumes!! Is this the most handsomely made movie of the year? It just might be. Featuring a stacked ensemble with several standout performers (Boseman, Jordan Nyong’o and Freeman among them), Black Panther transcends its genre trappings and stands tall amongst the best films of the year.
11.) A Simple Favor (dir. Paul Feig, Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Goulding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart & Rupert Friend)
I’m convinced that Paul Feig makes movies that are meant to be injected directly into my bloodstream. Seriously, his run since Bridesmaids has been absolutely incredible. With A Simple Favor, he doesn’t seem to have any intention of slowing down.
Based on the novel of the same name by Darcy Bell, Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a single mother, mommy blogger and class mom extraordinaire, to the ire of her fellow class parents. Her very vanilla life is flipped upside down when she meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) who is as glamorous as she is mysterious. The two couldn’t be more different, but a burgeoning friendship between their sons brings them together. Soon they begin spending more time together, trading stories over martinis and Stephanie begins letting her seemingly impenetrable walls down. When Emily asks Stephanie for “a simple favor” to watch her son for a bit while she takes a work trip to Florida. A bit turns into a few days, at which point Stephanie alerts Emily’s husband (Crazy Rich Asian’s Henry Goulding) and the authorities. But nothing is as it seems; not only does nobody seem to know where she is, but the deeper Stephanie gets the more she realizes nobody really knew Emily at all.
After the dreadful Girl on the Train and the even worse The Snowman, I didn’t have much hope fore the mainstream Hollywood crime mystery. But A Simple Favor swung in like a wrecking ball and completely obliterated all of my expectations. Both Kendrick and Lively prove to be the perfect pair, hilariously mismatched but ready to play off of each other in performances that feel both naturalistic and hilariously heightened. Lively in particular is instantly iconic as the mysterious Emily, who feels like a spin on the actress’ Gossip Girl character. From the moment we’re introduced to her, she effortlessly holds our attention. What could have been a soapy mystery is actually not just a throughly entertaining puzzle, but a quick, smart satire that turns the genre on its head.
The Top 10:
10.) Suspiria (dir. Luca Guadagnino, Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth & Chloë Grace Moretz)
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Danny Argento’s cult classic is a lot of things. It’s self-indulgent, handsomely crafted, grotesque and terrifying. But most of all, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Set at the height of the German Autumn in 1970’s Berlin, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels to the famous Tanz Dance Academy in hopes of studying under Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Despite having no formal training, Susie clearly has raw talent which impresses Blanc enough to take the newcomer under her wing and cast her in the lead role of the Academy’s upcoming show. Susie’s fellow student Sara (Mia Goth) grows suspicious of their burgeoning relationship and the unexplained disappearance of her friend Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together with Patricia’s therapist, Josef (also Swinton under pounds of prosthetics, pulling double duty) the two investigate the mysteries shrouding the Dance Academy as the world outside grows increasingly more volatile.
Suspiria could not be more different from anything Guadagnino has done before, and perhaps that’s why I love it so much. His previous films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name) were, in a word, warm. Suspiria is not, though like his past films it manages to entertain on a sensory level. It’s a cold and unforgiving hall of mirrors. The deeper the audience ventures into this maze of a film, the more we feel. Each joint crack, every twist and turn; by the end of the film’s insane 152 minute running time, it’s hard not to feel worn down. But I can’t remember the last time a movie stacked with this much flair and ambition was able to immerse me so deeply within it. That’s not to say everything here works. Much has been made about Guadagnino’s choice to set the film during the German Autumn, something that is an interesting table setting but doesn’t feel as elaborated upon as some of the other elements. And yet, I would be willing to watch an even longer cut just to watch him go deeper and watch the film revel in its excess. That’s a testament to his strength as an auteur and a storyteller. After making audiences swoon with the sweaty, Italian eroticism of Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino has delivered an ambitious and nightmarish fever dream I’m not going to shake anytime soon. Much like the original, I feel that Suspiria will continued to be picked apart and discussed for years to come.
9.) Tully (dir. Jason Reitman, Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass & Ron Livingston)
Marlo (Charlize Theron) is tired. She has two children (including a son with a developmental disorder) and is currently carrying a third by the time we are introduced to her. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) means well enough, but he’s the sort of aloof goof that says things like “Hey frozen pizza, awesome” when Marlo serves dinner. When she’s told the school her son attends can no longer accommodate her son’s needs, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) sees this and decides to help.
Enter Tully (McKenzie Davis) a young night nanny Craig has hired who introduces herself to Marlo by saying “I’m here to take care of you.” Think of her as a hip Mary Poppins; she bakes, nurses and exhibits an otherworldly wisdom beyond her years. After Marlo has made up for all of the rest she’s been deprived of for playing the role of both mom and dad, something awakens inside of her that causes her to bond with Tully. Perhaps she sees a flicker of her former self in Tully, something that was lost amidst her settling down with her husband.
Tully marks the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously made the Oscar winning phenomenon Juno and bitingly funny Young Adult (also starring Theron). This film is sort of a happy medium between the two, though it definitely has much more in common with the dark Young Adult than it does with the quirky Juno. Cody hasn’t lost her flair for dialogue that elicits laughter, but stings, (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” Marlo’s daughter says to her as she sits down, visibly pregnant). This portrait of motherhood isn’t bleak, but it’s complex and doesn’t hold back from the dark sides of being a parent.
Theron turns in yet another performance that is completely different from anything she’s done before. In Young Adult, she played Mavis Gary, a malicious, self-centered ghostwriter grappling with her alcoholism and insecurities. Her Marlo is a much more sympathetic character than Mavis, but she’s just as three dimensional. As she creeps closer and closer to a breaking point, Marlo reflects on what she had to give up to become a mother, her conscious burdened by the resentment building inside of her. Theron pulls off this high-wire act with aplomb, while Davis manages to be a perfect foil. The actress could have easily went the manic pixie dream girl route, but it’s the warmth and sincerity she exudes that brings this young, hip, super nanny to life. Tully answers the call of Marlo’s anguished screams at the school parking lot, begging for a light in a deep, dark tunnel. With some help from Tully, Marlo finds the color in her life again.
8.) Widows (dir. Steve McQueen, Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall & Liam Neeson)
Steve McQueen’s latest is a complete 360 from the Best Picture winning 12 Years A Slave, but it features his signature directorial precision, a script from Sharp Objects and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and a dream cast that is stacked to the nines. Years later we’re going to look back and wonder why the hell we all collectively did not give Widows the attention it deserves. It may have flown under the radar for many this year, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I left the theater.
After her thief of a husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is killed alongside his crew in a tragic explosion, Veronica (Viola Davis) is left to pick up the pieces when crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) comes knocking. Turns out Harry’s last job was robbing Jamal, and he needs the money to fund his political campaign for a precinct in Chicago’s South Side. When she finds the plans to what would have been the crew’s last job, Veronica turns to the other widows: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) who in turn enlist the help of Belle (Cynthia Erivo). Together, the women scheme to carry out the final heist, pay off the debt and get enough money to set them up for life and cover the wounds left by their no good husbands.
Widows could just as easily been a breezy, enjoyable mainstream heist movie like Oceans 8. We know McQueen is an agile director, and Flynn has proven to be an adept writer. But these two have more on their minds, and the resulting film is better for it. Everything from the ensemble to the camera placement is as rigorously thought out as the heist itself; from sexism, racism to the disparity in wealth between people living in Chicago, this movie pulls absolutely zero punches. The much discussed scene in which Colin Ferrell’s character drives from one end of Chicago to the next in an unbroken shot says more than most pages of dialogue could ever hope to achieve. It’s this kind of artistic flair and commentary that elevate Widows from your average popcorn thriller; it succeeds on every level.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the stellar ensemble, however, who truly match their director and screenwriter tit for tat. Davis comes in guns blazing with the kind of quiet intensity that has become a trademark in her work. But we’ve never seen her headline a film quite like this, and honestly? I’m ready for more Viola Davis headlining films that aren’t just straight dramas. Make her an action heroine next for god’s sake. Kaluuya is ferociously terrifying in a largely silent performance, while Debicki delivers one of the year’s best supporting performances that has been unfairly overlooked (it’s even more amazing when you compare it to her work in The Tale).
Years later, we’ll look back on Widows and wonder why the hell this movie was virtually ignored by everyone. It’s a better than it has any right to be.
7.) Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins, Starring: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hanh, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Desmin Borges & Denis O’ Hare)
Every year there’s a movie that sneaks up on me and completely wins me over. I’m almost always never searching for it, but once I find it I can’t stop thinking about how much I love it. This year, that movie was Private Life. Director/writer Tamara Jenkins’ semi-autobiographical film about a couple doing everything they can to have a baby. The film premiered to muted praise at Sundance where it was acquired by Netflix and (by the looks of things) completely forgotten about. What a shame that is, because if people gave it the chance they’d discover a rich and engrossing drama featuring some truly explosive performances.
Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Katheryn Hahn) are a couple of writers who have spent the latter part of their marriage struggling to conceive. After putting having a family on the back burner to pursue career related exploits, the two are doing everything outside of kidnapping to beat the clock and become parents. After an unsuccessful attempt at IVF, the two are presented the idea of using a donor egg. Though she’s initially against it, Richard is able to get her to warm up to the idea. The only problem? Where will they find a donor willing to part with an egg.
Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s niece by marriage who has just left her college writing program and is looking for anything and everything to distract her from reality. Bumming it with Rachel and Richard seems immediately glamorous to her: she can escape her failure, her overbearing mother (Molly Shannon) and kick it with the two people she admires the most. When she proposes the idea of being their egg donor, Richard and Rachel balk at first. But with their backs up against the wall and time running out, what other options do they have?
The performances truly make the film, though Jenkins’ deft but subtle hand as both a director and writer cannot be. Hanh in particular is a revelation; it’s incredible how criminally underrated she remains. It’s Carter though, that I walk away from the film thinking about the most. With only a few tv credits to her name, she more than holds her own acting against two veteran actors. All three actors deliver performances that feel so lived in, you almost wonder if they’re pulling from personal experience. The final shot of this movie lingers in a way that has seared the movie into my memory. Let’s just hope it’s not another 11 years until her next feature.
6.) Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland, Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny & Oscar Isaac)
Alex Garland’s bold and grim follow-up to Ex-Machina has stayed with me since I first saw it in the beginning of the year. That it was sabotaged by its own distributor continues to frustrate me, and the fact that its underperformance at the box office became intrinsically linked to any discussion about the film adds to that anger. But the thought that people will eventually discover this complex film keeps me optimistic, because Annihilation is a film that is full of densely rich ideas that push the capabilities of what sci-fi is capable of.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier grappling with the disappearance of her husband only known as Cane (Oscar Isaac), a special forces soldier who went missing almost a year ago after departing for a mysterious mission. Lena is coming to terms with the fact that her husband is dead when he suddenly reappears at their home. Though Lena is overcome with emotion, Cane seems off. He’s doesn’t remember anything about how he got home or what happened before, and becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, the pair are intercepted by a government security detail and taken to a bunker known only as “Area X.” It is there that Lena is debriefed by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), a psychologist, about what her husband had been sent to do before he reappeared. The military has been sending teams, with no success, to a mysterious electromagnetic perimeter called “The Shimmer” that continues to expand. No one who has been sent to explore its secrets have returned, with their fate unknown… except for Cane. Ventress has recruited three specialists to join her in a last ditch effort to discover what The Shimmer is, and to stray from the military centric efforts in the past. Determined to discover what happened to her husband, Lena immediately volunteers.
Joining Ventress and Lena are two Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cassie (Tuva Novotny). As the women venture deeper into The Shimmer, they discover that not only is their technology rendered useless, but that everything is changing within the parameter. Time seems to move differently, animals are seemingly hybridized with other species and, most disturbing of all, the women discover they too are changing. It becomes increasingly clear that each volunteer has brought some sort of trauma with them to the expedition, and The Shimmer not only threatens to reveal it, but force them to confront it.
The moment I stopped trying to figure out what Annihilation was about was the moment I started enjoying and appreciating it. Sure, the plot is as twisty as the central rubix cube the characters themselves are trying to solve. But much like Lena and her comrades, I eventually gave myself over to the film and in doing so, was able to understand Garland was trying to say. Though much more restrained and less out there, I think this would make for a beautiful double-feature with Arrival, another forward-thinking sci-fi that touches on similar themes. But where Arrival was much more concerned with communication and empathy, Annihilation tackles grief, specifically how humans grapple with and change because of it. The film ends with an embrace shared between two people who have both experienced trauma and come out on the other side, though they are not the same. Not only have they changed, but their relationship has as well. Garland doesn’t give us any answers as to how or really why, because grief and trauma aren’t navigated the same way by anyone. Amidst this tragic notion that nothing can be as it once was, these two profoundly changed people decide to find comfort in one another anyway.
5.) If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephen James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Diego Luna & Dave Franco)
Barry Jenkins is perhaps the most poetic filmmaker working today. 2016’s Moonlight (my personal favorite film of that year) was a heartbreakingly beautiful look at the story of a queer, black man’s coming of age at three important parts of his life. If Beale Street Could Talk continue’s Jenkins’ flair for gentle and insular storytelling without sacrificing the themes Baldwin touched on in the novel of the same name at the center of this sprawling love story.
Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) have been friends since they were children, but only recently discovered they have feelings for each other. As they begin planning to spend the rest of their lives together, Fonny is falsely accused of a crime and thrown into prison with no hope of being released. Things get even more complicated when Tish learns she’s pregnant. And though she has the support of her father (Colman Domingo), mother (Regina King) and sister (Teyonah Parris), she learns quickly that the rules of life are different for her, and everyone that looks like her.
Jenkins’ once again proves he can make each character feel important to the story and fully realized, no matter how small their screen time is. King has been winning just about every Best Supporting Actress prize in existence, and rightfully so. The longtime character actress gets the opportunity to sink her teeth into a role that isn’t showy, but puts her range on display. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention both James and Layne, who are not just believable as lovers, but make it impossible not to root for Fonny and Tish to succeed, even if we know the odds are stacked against them. And then there’s Brian Tyree Henry, who is just on fire this year. This is a complete 360 from his terrifying turn in Widows. Though he only has one scene, it’s one that stays with you long after you leave the theater, hanging over the rest of the film, impossible to shake off.
Moonlight was a largely silent story told in forbidden glances and words left unsaid. If Beale Street Could Talk offers much more exposition in the form of voiceover from Tish. She guides us through this nonlinear story that spans years, describing the ways in which our anti-black society threatens the mere existence of black and brown people. Jenkins adaptation of Baldwin is a masterful one, blending the author’s prose and his own gentle hand as a director to paint a picture that is, at times, both soul-crushing and hopeful. Fonny and Tish continue to run into roadblocks on their respective journeys back to one another, but the love between them never fades. The movie luxuriates in their romance as the camera swirls around them and Nicholas Britell’s brilliant score swells. It’s impossible not to get swept up in it, even as the tears fall. “Trust love all the way,” Tish’s mother tells her. “Love is what got you here.” I’m still weeping.
4.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Bob Perisichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman, Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Vélez, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Zöe Kravitz & Katheryn Hanh)
Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just one of the best superhero films ever made, but one of the best films ever made period. Not since Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 has this story felt so fresh, exciting and revolutionary. And while Chris Nolan’s Batman films have been credited with pushing the super hero genre into a more grounded territory, Spider-Verse embraces its comic book origins and takes it to places we couldn’t have imagined.
Myles Morales (Moore) is just a teenager living in Brooklyn when the film opens. Struggling with pressure from his police chief father (Tyree Henry) to succeed at his new “elite” high school, his life gets turned upside down one night when, you guessed it, he’s bitten by a strange spider. We’ve heard the story in countless iterations of Peter Parker’s origin story. Spider-Verse knows this. Just as it lulls us into a sense of comfort and familiarity, the film throws Miles (and us) a curveball. Tragedy strikes, and supervillain has a plan that leaves a city full of innocents hanging in the balance. Miles becomes New York’s unwilling answer to the call for a hero.
The revelatory and dazzling animation alone would earn Spider-Verse a spot on this list. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, unlike anything you’ve seen before; a comic book come to life. Think, “3-D without the glasses.” That said, the screenplay and top-notch voice acting elevate the film to a whole other level entirely. It’s as visually arresting as it is emotionally engaging. Though there have certainly been stellar entries into the Marvel, none of them have ever felt this forward-thinking, or as fun. Most superhero films are bogged down by the same, dull formula with only a few exceptions. Spider-Verse gleefully subverts every story beat while poking fun and paying homage to the Spiderman legacy. It doesn’t just reinvigorate the genre, it reinvents it. If you’re someone who felt that the idea of another reboot to a superhero film series was a chore (like me), this is the movie for you.
3.) The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult & Joe Alwyn)
Secrets, treachery, scheming and duck racing… these are just a few things writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has on his mind in his latest film The Favourite. The year is 1708. Britain is embroiled in war with France with no end in sight. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) doesn’t seem to be all that concerned though, much to the chagrin of one of the most influential people at court, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). She’s much more concerned with her seventeen bunnies (one bunny for each child she lost in prematurely) than she is with being the queen of a world power. The one pulling the strings would be her best friend, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) who knows exactly how to keep Anne’s childlike outbursts in check to her benefit.
Things are all going according to plan… until Sarah’s disgraced cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives to the palace. After her father gambled their good name and fortune away, he traded away his daughter to settle his debts. She arrives to the castle literally covered in mud. Sarah draws the line separating the two immediately, and at first it seems as if Abigail is truly just happy to exist parallel to the life she used to live, even if it means scrubbing floors and sharing a closet with a dozen other women and calling it a bedroom. But first impressions aren’t always entirely correct; Abigail wastes no time moving through the shadows and looking for any way to earn favor with Anne. It isn’t long before she begins climbing back up the social ladder, but by the time Sarah wises up to the plot, she’s on the ground looking up at where she once stood.
Colman, Weisz and Stone are all incredible, the latter two in particularly are impossible to take your eyes off of as the favor continually shifts between them. And while it’s especially fun to see them trade barbs and watch the claws come out, it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that is the most enthralling element of their performances. Stone deconstructs her sunny Hollywood persona and continues to prove she’s an actress who is impossible to pin down. Abigail truly is “a viper” as Sarah says to Anne at one point, but we’re hoodwinked into thinking otherwise thanks to Stone’s brilliant performance within a performance. Each move is heavily calculated, and Abigail knows she needs to make them count if she’s ever going to reclaim her status as a lady. Watching her usurp Sarah is entertaining, but the laughs come at a price and that would be because of how quietly devastating Weisz is. Sure, she’s got reads for every single character in the film (and maybe even more for characters in other movies too) but it’s her depiction of tough love that makes the movie sing. For all of her manipulating, it’s clear that Sarah’s love for Anne isn’t superficial in the way Abigail’s is. Their separation cuts like a stake through the heart.
This is where the true brilliance of The Favourite shines the brightest. These are multifaceted depictions of complex women, hilarious and heartbreaking all at once; Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara refuse to box them in or judge them, no matter how deplorable their actions may come off. Even though the women are front and center, we’re consistently reminded of the overbearing patriarchal overtones of the time. This is a man’s world after all. By the time that haunting final scene rolls around and the screen fades to black, The Favourite asks us what we would do if the fortunes we reversed, if we were in their shoes. Forced to scratch and claw our way through the world in hopes we could cling to even a shred of power, like a life preserver in a never ending ocean that could swallow us whole at any moment.
2.) Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller, Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin & Anna Deavre Smith)
Marielle Heller’s take on the insane true story of Lee Israel is pitch perfect in every sense. The subtle direction, the central performances of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, the beautiful writing and production design which evoke feelings of both a warm nostalgia and a chilly loneliness. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that has continued to age like the finest of wines in my mind as the year has waged on.
By the time we meet Lee (McCarthy), she has burned just about every bridge in her life, from potential friends, romantic partners, her job and her agent (Jane Curtin). All she has is her cat, something that becomes increasingly clear to her when it gets sick and the bills continue to pile up with no way of paying them. She’s up the creek without a paddle. Then, a deus ex machina appears in the form of a letter from Fanny Brice. She manages to sell it to a local book dealer (Dolly Wells, excellent), who encourages her that more money could be given for “better content.” It’s around this time that Lee meets up with Jack (Richard E. Grant) a similarly lost soul with not a lot of options in a chilly world. Lee becomes inspired to use her skills as a biographer to start forging letters as a way of paying her bills. Because if she’s not going to get advances for actual books, why would she let her talents waste away?
McCarthy proved awhile ago that she was no one trick pony, despite Hollywood boxing her into a very specific archetype. In films like The Heat and Spy, the actress proved she had range that wasn’t being utilized. Her performance of Lee proves just that. As an antiheroine doing just about everything she can to make you not like her, it’s a testament to McCarthy’s abilities as an actress that we remain on her side until the very last scene. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that she was the only woman for the job. Matching her tit for tat is Grant, who easily could have been a flamboyant, one note caricature of a scene stealer. Perhaps that still would have been entertaining, but thanks to him Jack has many different hues and shades that make him a perfect foil to McCarthy’s Lee. It’s not often that we see a friendship depicted so sensitively, even rarer is it that we see a friendship between two gay people fleshed out in such a way that doesn’t make their gayness the focal point of their relationship. These are two lonely people, struggling to make it in a world that has turned its back on them who just so happen to be queer. There’s something beautifully authentic about that. The unforgiving winter air constantly nipping at our toes feels less foreboding when we have someone to tough it out with.
1.) Hereditary (dir. Ari Astor, Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd & Gabriel Byrne)
Ari Astor’s horrifying debut film was, in hindsight, the perfect film for 2018. A year so full of dread its own right deserved a film equally as terrifying. After a rapturous premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it felt as if Hereditary would continue the renaissance horror has been enjoying the past few years with bold releases like The Babadook, The Witch and Get Out. Films have come and gone this year, but I have not stopped thinking about Hereditary since the first time I saw it.
The film opens with an obituary, grimly setting the tone for what follows. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) rounds up her family to head to her mother’s funeral. There are faces she doesn’t recognize, something she notes in her eulogy. The whole thing is off; Annie doesn’t seem saddened by the loss of her mother. Rather, she seems exhausted by the whole process. “My mother was a private woman… she had private rituals,” she says. Her daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro) doodles her way through the ceremony. Later, Annie goes to a group therapy session for those grieving loved ones. When it’s her time to speak, she slowly begins letting out droplets of information before the dam erupts and the river of emotions start flowing. It becomes increasingly clear that something is off about Annie and her family, and that a sinister force is lurking close by.
I won’t delve too far into the plot, because part of the magic of Hereditary is watching it unfold. From the bone chilling score to the striking cinematography and masterclass performances I’ve found new things to appreciate that either make me stare in awe, fear or a combination of both upon repeated viewings; My heart feels like it’s ready to burst from my chest even when I know what’s coming next. Collette does more with her face than most actors can do with words; there’s a reason why that “I’m your mother!” scene has continued to resonate throughout the year. The film’s secret weapon, however, is Wolff who is more than just an effective cipher for the audience as we peel back the layers of terror.
The film has taken on a new meaning upon repeated viewings, and touches on themes of grief and family, while paying homage to classics like Rosemary’s Baby. The Graham family is an unstable train hurtling towards destruction thanks to forces outside of their control (sound familiar?). Though it wears its inspirations on its sleeve, this is a nightmare the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And yet, I’m unable to look away no matter how badly the sane part of my brain would like me to. It’s a bold debut from a filmmaker whose next move I am eagerly anticipating, even if I’ll forever be frozen in fear when I hear someone pop their tongue (sorry Alyssa Edwards).