As we come to the end of a year that was particularly vicious in the world and in the media, it makes sense that we’ve been rushing to the movies for escapism. Apparently speaking to a need, superheroes seem to get more popular in cinemas every year, and the big studios feed our want for comfort food, continuing to mine their archives for remakes and reboots rather than come up with new material.
But if you crave something more, you can still find many new original voices in cinema. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have made so many good films more accessible to wider audiences, especially documentaries and independent films. And, if you are so lucky, you can even catch fantastic films at regional film festivals where you can see movies that may never get distribution. All of these methods are how I discover movies, and here are some of my favorites of the year…
Ten movies that stuck with me in 2018
The Favourite – Filthy, weird, funny, and marvelously acted, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ interpretation of Queen Anne’s royal court is indeed bizarre. But it is also one of the more refreshing, unexpected, and wickedly enjoyable romps I’ve seen in a long time, anchored by the stellar Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.
Annihilation – OK, I’m the first to admit that I’m not sure what this movie was about, but I *do* love ambitious head-scratching sci-fi. Natalie Portman plays a biologist that leads a team of scientists (all women, for no reason… just because!) into an apparition called The Shimmer. Scary, mind-bending, and kind of gorgeous, this movie left a lot to chew on after the final images.
A Quiet Place – Make a sound, and they will kill you. A desperate family has hunkered down on a farm to hide from the beasts/aliens that have seemingly wiped out humanity. You’ll find that you are holding your breath along with Emily Blunt as her character has to be completely silent while giving birth (gah!). Oh, and that is *after* she steps on a nail.
Black Panther – I loved the spectacle of this film’s release as much as the movie. Folks dressed up in African garb, enthusiastic audiences sold out theater after theater, and it became the year’s box office smash. Marvel’s first black superhero movie created the eye-popping world of Wakanda, had an amazing cast (featuring not one, but many badass women), and a villain who actually made me cry at the end (oh, you are good, Michael B. Jordan).
Puzzle – An ode to quiet introverts that sometimes get lost in their own heads, Puzzle follows a lonely, isolated housewife (Kelly Macdonald) as she suddenly discovers the world of jigsaw puzzles, and finds that she is very very good at them. What could have become a story about competitive puzzling (yes, there is such a thing) instead becomes a sweet character study about a woman coming out of her shell.
A Star is Born / Bohemian Rhapsody – These two exhilarating music films came out around the same time, and people tend to want to favor one over the other… but heck, I really enjoyed both. In Star, Bradley Cooper’s stinky, drunky-pants washout rock star is slowly eclipsed by a young singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) whom he “discovers” singing in a drag bar. (Gaga, unsurprisingly, is a fabulous actor.) Rhapsody is not just a portrayal of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, but also of the whole band as they became rock icons. Try not to weep at the finale, where Queen’s Live Aid show is stunningly recreated.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas’ outstanding young adult novel luckily survived adaptation into a very good, unfortunately timely film. The film opens as 16-year-old Starr sees her childhood best friend Khalil killed by a cop (probably the most emotionally intense scene of the year), and the story steamrolls from there. A commentary on race in America through an African-American teenager’s eye, the story is wrenching and eye-opening.
Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit – It’s Best in Show, but for cats. And it is real. This hilarious, pitch-perfect documentary follows a super-competitive cat show circuit in Canada’s Maritime provinces, and is as much about the owners as it is about top cats Bobby and Oh La La. Sweet, cute, very funny, and intense, it may be the first competitive film you’ve ever seen where a contestant barfs up a hairball on a judge.
Private Life – I have to admit, the description of this film (a middle-aged New York City couple struggles with infertility) didn’t exactly bump Private Life up to the top of my Netflix queue. But, oh, do not miss this. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are excellent in this sad, funny, disarming, and fabulously real film sharply written and directed by Tamara Jenkins.
Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give – As Maverick, the loving father of the main character, he struggles to keep his family and life together in his poverty-stricken urban community while race tensions (and his own gang past) threaten to blow it all apart. He is strong, humble, and absolutely burns under the surface.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife – In 1960 Montana, Mulligan’s seemingly docile wife slowly unravels as her washout husband goes off to fight wildfires. You have absolutely no clue where her character is going, and find yourself as shocked as her teenage son as she makes some desperate moves to break out of a life she did not want.
Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased – I used to think she was an ice-queen of an actress, but Kidman again shines in a quietly fierce mama-bear role. As a Southern preacher’s wife with a gay son, her own conversion from a subservient wife to an accepting mother is a glorious thing to watch in her hands.
Jibrail Nantambu in Halloween – Who, you may ask? He’s the only character in the latest Halloween film that truly knows what movie he is in, as killer Michael Myers again wreaks havoc on Haddonfield. Motor-mouthed Jibrail hilariously steals all of his scenes as a kid named Julian who is being babysat by a teenager that we all know is doomed.
Can I just say, “What a great year for documentaries!”
It seemed that some Americans actually wanted to see something other than a superhero movie, and flocked to the theaters to see documentaries. There was a stellar bunch to choose from, including the fascinating and explosively revealing Three Identical Strangers, the sweet (and greatly needed) Mr. Rogers’ portrait Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and the ode to the true superhero that we all need, RBG (aka, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
Cutest first date
After watching sweet and awkward Kayla (Elsie Fisher, a true star) navigate her sometimes nerve-wracking and always excruciatingly real Eighth Grade year, it is kind of a relief to have the movie culminate with a dorky and adorable first date between her and the geeky boy who likes her.
Better than you’ve heard
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Much worse than you’ve heard
Best achievement in hair
You’d think in Aquaman that Jason Momoa would win this category, but that’s too easy. There’s Amber Heard’s Little Mermaid red mane, and there’s Nicole Kidman’s “I got old so my white-girl hair suddenly turned to dreads” (a symptom, by the way, also suffered by Michelle Pfeiffer in Ant-Man and the Wasp). No, most distractingly fascinating (to me at least) was Patrick Wilson‘s hair. Sometimes it waved gently in the underwater currents, like soft, angel-hair seaweed. Other times, it was perfectly coiffed in a ducktail. But is it really a ducktail if you are kind of related to waterfowl? Or should it just be called a tail? Discuss.
I remember the first time I saw Awkwafina‘s name in a cast, I scoffed at her silly name. But shame on me! She handily and hilariously stole Crazy Rich Asians from an already talented an entertaining cast (and she also had a small role in Oceans 8). Give this woman her own movie, immediately!
As partners in crime, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are like a couple of creaky, worn out bar stools, barely propping each other up in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a movie that could easily be swapped into my Top Ten). Not only do I feel like I know these people, I’m a little afraid that I’ll turn into these people…
Speaking of Melissa McCarthy…
I believe I’m the only critic that gave the R-rated human/muppet crime comedy The Happytime Murders a positive review. Yes, it had a red-band trailer that you can’t un-see… but I laughed, ok? I may have even snorted. So sue me…
Best achievement in teeth
Early on, star Rami Malek seemed to visibly struggle with his prosthetic Freddie Mercury overbite in Bohemian Rhapsody, as his teeth seemed ready to fly out of his face in early scenes. But ultimately, like Freddie, he rocked those chompers.
Best trailer (aka the trailer I was most obsessed with)
When the trailer for A Star is Born was released, it was ubiquitous. But I couldn’t look away. The dramatic arc is all there: the highs, the lows, the rush of success, the agony of defeat. The music lures you in, and culminates with Lady Gaga’s unleashing “Shallow”. Just now, in looking for a link to the trailer, my partner hollered from the other room, “Are you looking at that AGAIN??!?!?” Maybe. Whatever. I think I’m going to just put this right here…
Sweetest tribute to classic Disney films
So much could go so wrong with a sequel to Mary Poppins after all this time, but the creators of Mary Poppins Returns certainly did their homework. From the painted montage of scenes in the opening credits, to the orchestral swirls in the soundtrack, to the playful animated sequences, to the completely unironic songs and screenplay, this film harkened back to a more innocent time in the movies… in a good way. Not to mention a couple cameo appearances made some folks I know openly sob.
We all know that Rachel Weisz is stupendously gorgeous, not to mention curiously ageless. But how is it that in The Favourite, she manages to look the hottest when she is filthy and all disheveled in riding breeches?
Speaking of smokin’ hot, Henry Cavill’s moustache proved its righteousness in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Remember, this moustache was so threatening, it had to be digitally erased from last year’s poopy Batman V Superman. Now we know why.
Even though First Man kept us emotionally distant from astronaut Neil Armstrong, it wildly succeeded in bringing us right into the scary, teeth rattling experience of hurtling into space in what seemed like a barely held together space capsule. Every creak of metal and popping bolt made it seem like the whole movie would fly apart at any second.
Shamefully buried in theaters as an end-of-the-year two-day release, director Peter Jackson’s fascinating World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a commissioned project commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War. Taking original black and white footage, he created a narrative from recorded interviews with WWI vets, smoothed out the motion in the footage, colorized it, and added sound, including, in addition to the recorded interviews, voices based on lip-reading. The resulting footage will make you gasp when it literally comes to life. When you get a chance to see this (and you definitely should) be sure to watch Jackson’s “making of” interviews. His excitement for the project is infectious.