Consider this my personal cure for this morning’s Oscar nominations announcement.
As with every year, there were films I simply couldn’t get to (Leave No Trace, The Rider, and Eighth Grade to name a few), while others barely missed the cut (If Beale Street Could Talk, 22 July, Lean on Pete, Annihilation, and Private Life). Here’s hoping 2019 brings us a slightly better year at the movies.
10. Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
For the first time ever a Marvel film lands in my top 10 films list, and for good reason. Unless you’ve kept up with every release (and many of you have), Marvel films tend to be nonsensical serialized tentpoles more concerned with bombastic CGI action and one-liners than engaging plot, theme, or characters. Hell, they’ve only managed to produce one decent villain in almost 19 films (with at least 13 more planned). That all changed with Ryan Coogler’s visionary epic that became a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
Black Panther is a rousing action film draped in gorgeous design with winning performances (including a truly great and complex villain in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger) all the while confronting the realities of racial inequality and the violent history of colonialism. The film has deliberate Shakespearean heft and makes a potent argument against isolationism (we are truly all in this together), but above all it is a celebration of black identity without apologies. The only reason it doesn’t rank higher on this list is that it still is forced to follow too much of the MCU formula. Any likely sequels will probably fall further into the Marvel wheelhouse, but make no mistake — Black Panther is a landmark with staying power, and one of the great directorial accomplishments of the year.
9. First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Much like Martin Scorsese’s Silence before it, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is challenging spiritual cinema that will likely fall on deaf ears to those who need to heed its message the most. Its central question on why we continue to destroy the planet that God created for us is a haunting one and not easily answered. It’s a film that evokes as much outrage as it does heartbreak. Schrader has crafted his best and most complex character study since Taxi Driver with Ethan Hawke easily giving the performance of his career as Rev. Toller, a man struggling with the death of his son and his place in the Church. Schrader is not content to conform to the normal rules of storytelling, instead offering a transcendent experience with sequences that are meant to provoke debate and reflection. Its divisive hallucinatory ending will likely be dissected for years to come. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime and deserves your attention.
8. The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
After years of sharp political satire on television with The Thick of It and Veep, Armando Iannucci follows up his feature film directorial debut In the Loop with a pitch black comedy about the ensuing Soviet power struggle after the death of their violent dictator. Iannucci’s acidic wit is on full display with a game comedic cast (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs and a standout Simon Russell Beale) clearly relishing every vulgar insult. The film’s historical accuracy may be suspect, but its parallels to today’s incompetently corrupt political power grabs are disturbingly familiar. The Death of Stalin has you howling one second and wincing the next. We can only hope that Iannucci will turn his cynical gaze to other parts of our absurd political history. If we can’t yet overcome our worst human impulses, at least we can laugh at them.
7. The Favourite
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has thus far spent his career creating surreal, esoteric, absurdist visions about the human condition. His work certainly isn’t for everyone, but his latest (aided by a biting screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), while in step with his previous work, is certainly his most accessible and arguably his most entertaining film yet. Taking place during Queen Anne’s reign in the 18th century, The Favourite is a hilarious three-way character study and examination of power dynamics featuring career-best performances from all three of its leading ladies (there are no supporting performances here, no matter what awards bodies might tell you). Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, and Emma Stone relish every line and give themselves over completely to Lanthimos’s almost Kubrickian vision. The film’s last thirty minutes turn surprisingly dour considering all the wicked fun had beforehand, but its historically accurate portrayal is noteworthy.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Roma is easily the critical favorite of the year winning just about every critic’s prize of the season. It’s an auteur virtuoso masterpiece with Cuaron crafting a fully-realized and engrossing historical memory piece that is filled with extraordinary visuals and profound human empathy. So why isn’t this my number one film of the year? While I can certainly recognize Cuaron’s brilliance, Roma is a film that demands your full attention and requires patience. It’s not a film that can be returned to casually again and again and thus doesn’t personally stack against the rest of my top 5. But Netflix should be applauded for supporting auteur visions like Cuaron’s (not to mention releasing a new Coen brothers film, Orson Welles’ last masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and an upcoming Martin Scorsese epic).
While the argument has been made by various critics that Roma should absolutely be seen in a theater in order to get completely absorbed into Cuaron’s world, the reality is because of Netflix, Roma (and those other films listed) gained a bigger audience than a foreign black and white film ever would have with a traditional theatrical release. That should be celebrated. The future is here and we are lucky to have a place like Netflix supporting films that traditional studios wouldn’t dare touch. After all the dust has settled and all the accolades handed out, that will be Roma’s and Netflix’s true legacy.
5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville
We need Mr. Rogers now more than ever. His empathy, grace, and humility are qualities sorely lacking in today’s increasingly cynical world. Director Morgan Neville’s biographical documentary is a loving portrait of a man who too easily could be classified as a saint. The film avoids hagiography because its entire thesis is that Fred Rogers was the real deal — a minister who believed in the inherent goodness of people and who celebrated the diversity of those around him. It doesn’t mean that he was perfect, but he came closer than most. I cried more during Won’t You Be My Neighbor? than any documentary film in recent memory because of its genuine belief that we are capable of love in even the darkest moments. The film is a celebration of a great man who defended art, education, and the sanctity of human dignity. It gave me hope in a time where I needed it the most.
4. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by Marielle Heller
Easily the most surprising film of the year, Can You Ever Forgive Me? was marketed as a comedy, but the reality is much more opaque. It is a film led by characters whose lives didn’t turn out they way they wanted, who have been pushed off to the shadows and never given a second thought. It’s for all those who have ever felt marginalized, whose voices have never quite been heard. It is a film about all of life’s many disappointments, and yet it’s not quite the downer you would expect. The film is lifted up by a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty that is filled with wry wit, brutal honesty, and lively performances from a wily Richard E. Grant and a schtick-free Melissa McCarthy as real-life writer Lee Israel. Director Marielle Heller balances the darkness with smart, humorous observations about the human condition all the while candidly portraying these flawed people without judgement.
Directed by Spike Lee
With BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee has crafted one of the most visceral films of his career. It is an angry and righteous piece of filmmaking that pulls no punches, careening from one tonal change to the next all with master precision. Lee wields the film like a hammer smashing down on a history of white supremacy and bigoted violence in the United States, condemning all those who would stand in the way of progress.
There are sequences in this film that will be seared into my memory forever, not least of which is civil rights leader Kwame Ture’s (fiercely played by Corey Hawkins) soaring speech delivered to a sea of young black faces held in glowing crossfaded closeups. Even more powerful is Harry Belafonte’s tragic monologue describing a lynching that took place in 1916 cross-cut (superb editing by Barry Alexander Brown) with a klan initiation that involves a screening of the notoriously racist Birth of a Nation. And let’s not forget Lee’s ending, which uses real footage from the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville which ended in the tragic death of Heather Heyer, whom the film is dedicated to. It’s an eye-opening coda that demands our attention and serves as a stark reminder that hate is alive and well in the US and is being fostered by those in power who are supposed to protect us.
2. A Quiet Place
Directed by John Krasinski
Who knew that the dork from The Office had it in him? John Krasinski has been slowly surprising us for years now with his versatility, but nothing could have prepared me for his masterful Hitchcockian handling of the most original studio horror film in decades. A Quiet Place is a superb high-concept thriller with sequences of heart-stopping intensity. Krasinski makes this world terrifyingly believable from the outset with gorgeously evocative sound design that dwells in eerie silence. Within the first five minutes of seeing this film in a theater you could hear a pin drop. Krasinski successfully mixes horror with Spielbergian humanity, drawing out rich performances from a committed cast including a never-better Emily Blunt whose birthing sequence will have you squirming in terror. A Quiet Place is further proof that genre filmmaking can be exceptional art and box office gold. More films like this need to be greenlit in Hollywood and here’s hoping this isn’t Krasinski’s last foray into the horror genre.
1. A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
I called A Star is Born the best film of the year all the way back in October and that feeling never faded. My love for the film has only grown over time and it is the film from 2018 I will likely be going back to again and again for years to come. I’ll let my review do the talking for me: “As impressive as Lady Gaga is, the film is a remarkable achievement for writer, director, and star Bradley Cooper… This version of A Star is Born tells some hard truths about talent and fame in the modern era while also retaining the classic love story that has kept audiences coming back for over 80 years. The story may be timeless, but this remake feels definitive. I’m sure the generations before said the same about their A Star is Born and this likely won’t be the last version of this story to grace the silver screen. But as it stands now, Cooper’s A Star is Born is an instant classic and the best film of the year. Jackson and Ally’s love story may just outlast us all.”