The Best and Worst of 2018

Another year in filmdom has come and gone, and countless movie reviewers have issued their best and worst lists for 2018. And so, with that said, it’s time to add my voice to the chorus, with my choices for the cream of the crop and the curdled cream best discarded.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I did not screen every film that was released in 2018, most notably those that were distributed through limited or select channels or have yet to go into wide release, such as a number of foreign films and a few lesser-known independent productions, like “Stan & Ollie.” However, I did spend considerable time staring at those flickering lights on the big screen during 2018, enough to make me feel comfortable in offering up my selections for the pictures that I believe represented the best and worst of past 12 months. Documentaries are treated separately from fictional releases, and links to complete reviews of some of these films are included where applicable.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section (be civil, please). And with that, here goes:

THE TOP 10

10. “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Director Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning masterpiece “Moonlight” (2016) comes close to matching its predecessor in many respects, though it doesn’t quite equal its forerunner. With fine performances, beautiful cinematography, genuinely evocative emotion and a skillfully crafted ambiance, “If Beale Street Could Talk” effectively draws viewers into the world of an African-American family whose lives are characterized by heartfelt love but subjected to ugly injustice. However, despite these many attributes, the film is somewhat bogged down by excessively lingering imagery and protracted dialogue that both go on a little too long, needlessly slowing the narrative’s pace. What’s more, in an attempt to avoid being too heavy-handed, the director at times uses a little too much restraint in his storytelling, keeping the picture from having an impact as strong as it might have been. In all, this is a fine effort in many regards, though it’s one that I wish could have been a little better. But, considering what it had to live up to, that would have been a tall order for any filmmaker. (Full review to come.)

9.  “Mission Impossible: Fallout”

Hands down, this is one of the best action-adventure films to have come along in quite some time. Admittedly, it’s rare for me to give such high marks to films in this genre, but there’s a reason for it this time: The film’s many well-crafted action sequences aren’t the only elements carrying the story in this offering. The flashy chases and stunts are effectively balanced by an engaging narrative that, despite a few plot holes, provides a riveting tale full of twists, turns and misdirections. This is a franchise that just seems to be getting better with time. Fasten your seat belts, folks!

8.  “Ben Is Back”

Why this film is being ignored (and, in some cases, unfairly bashed) surprises me to no end. “Ben Is Back” features a well-integrated fusion of family drama and crime thriller set in the world of drug addiction. Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges turn in knock-out performances worthy of awards consideration for their range of emotion and powerful delivery, and the film’s smartly written screenplay serves up an excellent mix of heartfelt emotion, gritty intensity, shocking revelation, pointed comic relief and deftly nuanced subtlety. Sadly, this appears to be one of those releases that’s simply going to be ignored for honors and accolades, and that’s truly unfortunate, as this is quite an unexpected gem.

7.  “Eighth Grade”

Despite a slight tendency toward being episodic, this insightful look at an awkward time in one’s life at an unnerving time in history wins the day with incisive humor and an ever-present though reluctantly acknowledged edginess that speaks plainly to viewers of any age. Newcomer Elsie Fisher, a Golden Globe Award nominee, delivers a phenomenal performance, backed by a terrific ensemble of supporting characters who help to bring out the best in her portrayal. The summertime release provided some welcome fresh air to a movie market dominated by action-adventure and animated releases, but “Eighth Grade” actually makes a fine viewing selection for any time of year.

6.  “A Private War”

Although a little weak on back story, this gripping biopic about journalist Marie Colvin’s dogged determination to get out the wartime stories not otherwise being told sizzles with bold intensity, especially in its uncompromising depictions of the horrors she witnessed firsthand and the personal toll such events took on her physically and emotionally. Rosamund Pike’s stellar, Golden Globe-nominated performance as the intrepid war correspondent is certainly award-worthy, showing the many sides of a complex character who frequently straddled the line between bravery and recklessness. Be forewarned, however, that the graphic nature of “A Private War” makes it a questionable choice for sensitive and squeamish viewers. But, for those who like their heroic tales larger than life and rooted in truth, this one is definitely for you.

5.  “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As biopics go, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about as good as they get. This engaging, superbly written tale about a literary scoundrel and her scheming sidekick delivers a banquet of laughs and tears with a dash of inspired larceny, all wrapped up in an intelligent cinematic package. Melissa McCarthy delivers a stellar performance as talented but unsuccessful author Lee Israel, who resorts to forging literary letters as a means to support herself when book sales falter. Aided by scalliwag Richard E. Grant, this unlikely duo stumbles their way through a minefield of high-brow crime, seeking to get away with inspired but flawed acts of fraud against potential victims who are ultimately smarter than the would-be ingenious crooks. It’s nice to see a picture that refuses to dumb itself down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, serving up good fun, heartfelt emotions and a delicious twist on crime tales all rolled into one.

4.  “The Favourite”

This wickedly dark, smug period piece comedy is sure to leave viewers routinely agasp at its outrageous humor, which marvelously mixes understatement with in-your-face bawdiness. The trio of protagonists brilliantly portrayed by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, all of whom have been repeatedly lauded for their performances, never disappoints, with each at the top of their game. The film’s smartly written script is crisp and snappy throughout, even if it takes liberties with history and occasionally falls back on director Yorgos Lanthimos’s signature penchant for needless ambiguity. Not everyone will go for “The Favourite,” but, if you can imagine a mix of the cattiest moments from Dynasty dressed up in 18th Century trappings, you’ve got an idea what this one is all about.

3.  “First Reformed”

This utterly captivating examination of faith, despair, the search for happiness, and the need to strike a balance between our spiritual and secular lives is far from routine fare. Even though some elements are a little dragged out, much of “First Reformed” sizzles with an underlying intensity that you can feel as the story unfolds. With what is undoubtedly Ethan Hawke’s best screen performance (though one that is being regrettably overlooked), a surprisingly strong portrayal by Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles in a serious role and phenomenal cinematography, writer-director Paul Schrader has put together a film that gives us all much to contemplate, as well as emotional impressions that will stay with us long after we leave the theater. Handily one of the best – and most undiscovered – releases of 2018.

2.  “Green Book”

This superb, fact-based road trip buddy film features two of the unlikeliest of travel companions, an African-American pianist and his New York Italian driver on a concert tour of the American South in 1962. “Green Book” hits all the right notes without belaboring its message while effectively capturing the unusual friendship that grows between the film’s two protagonists. The excellent award-nominated performances of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are punctuated by a script that’s full of laughs, poignancy and heart. Think of this one as this year’s edition of “Hidden Figures” (2016), and you have an idea of what it’s all about

1.  “Annihilation”

This mind-blowing, sophisticated sci-fi/smart horror tale is, by far, the most overlooked film of 2018. Masterfully brought to the screen by director Alex Garland, who has upped his game considerably from the success of his previous work, “Ex Machina” (2015), “Annihilation” delivers a story that works on multiple levels. The film’s richly layered, deftly nuanced, insightful script, combined with gorgeous cinematography and an inventive production design, make for riveting viewing. It’s unfortunate that this offering had the bad luck to be released at the time when everyone was preoccupied with “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” but, thankfully, it has begun to find an audience through home viewing options. Note, however, that this is not a picture to be watched casually or when one is easily distracted. But an attentive screening is sure to captivate, providing much to think about in terms of metaphysics, spirituality, existence and evolution – and possibly forever changing one’s views on these heady subjects. What’s more, I should add that it’s almost unheard of for me to give such high praise to a film in this genre, so, for me to do so, that’s truly saying something. If you haven’t viewed this one yet, see it – and on as big a video screen as you can find.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

“Mary Poppins Returns” (full review to come)

“Tully”

“Boy Erased”

“Viper Club”

“Border” (“Gräns”)

Noteworthy (in no particular order)

“The Old Man & the Gun”

“The Land of Steady Habits”

“Sorry To Bother You”

“Leave No Trace”

“Deadpool 2”

“Await Further Instructions”

“Bohemian Rhapsody”

“BlacKkKlansman”

“A Quiet Place”

“Keep the Change”

“The Death of Stalin”

“On the Basis of Sex” (full review to come)

TOP DOCUMENTARIES

5.  “Love, Gilda”

A loving tribute to an immense talent – and one who broke through many personal and professional barriers – who became a huge sensation and who, unfortunately, left us all too soon. With interviews featuring many of her collaborators, a wealth of archive footage and excerpts from her own journals, Gilda Radner comes to life once again, entertaining both those who knew her work and others who are just now discovering it. An account of her story was long overdue, but “Love, Gilda” was well worth the wait.

4.  “RBG”

Despite a slight tendency to gush about its subject, this informative, briskly paced documentary presents an in-depth look at the public and private life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Through interviews with Ginsburg, life-long friends, family members, peers and the politicians who helped shape her career, as well as a variety of archive footage and audio recordings, “RBG” presents a balanced package of information that both enlightens and entertains. What’s most impressive, though, is the detailed chronicling of the influential (though not-often widely recognized) role that RBG played in the women’s movement, particularly in the area of legally securing equal rights through a series of landmark Supreme Court rulings that she litigated before joining the bench. For those who are unfamiliar with the accomplishments of this remarkable woman, this is must-see viewing.

3.  “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

An endearing, moving look at the life and career of a children’s television innovator whose method, approach and message was deceptively profound while being delivered through amazingly simple means. While there’s a slight tendency toward being saccharine encrusted and some slightly sluggish pacing in the first 30 minutes, the overall package of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is delivered with ample humor, remarkable insights and surprising candor. A documentary well worth your time from director Morgan Neville, who’s becoming quite adept at this form of filmmaking.

2.  “Filmworker”

A fascinating look at a fascinating collaboration whose existence is in many ways a mystery but that nevertheless brought about one of the most impressive film repertoires in cinematic history. Leon Vitali may not be a household name, but his contributions to the works of Stanley Kubrick like “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and “Barry Lyndon” (1975), as well as the preservation of such pictures as “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), is incalculable. This riveting documentary attempts to make up for that long-ignored contribution, showing the impact of the man behind the man and a treasure trove of celluloid classics. “Filmworker” is a release with widespread appeal, but it’s one sure to captivate movie buffs and fans of Kubrick’s work.

1.  “Three Identical Strangers”

Expect a rollercoaster of emotions from this sometimes-intense, sometimes-heartwarming, sometimes-humorous and sometimes-heartbreaking documentary about the happy reunion of adopted triplets separated at birth and the appalling reasoning behind their separation. This well-researched, meticulously crafted film tells its unbelievable story in great factual detail but in a way that also effectively evokes the emotions it was meant to engender. “Three Identical Strangers” is easily the best documentary of the year and one worthy of awards season accolades.

THE BOTTOM 10

10.  “Overlord”

This is a movie that suffers from a major identity crisis: Is it a classic horror flick? A World War II drama? A campy gorefest romp? Well, it’s actually all of these to some extent or another, but the fusion never really meshes as audiences try to guess where this boring, meandering slog is going to go next. From my perspective, it works best as a campy gorefest, something it finally gets around to being about 30 minutes from the end. Had it stuck to this formula throughout, it would have been a much more entertaining picture. As it stands now, though, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that, unfortunately, represents a major missed opportunity.

9.  “The Happy Prince”

It boggles the mind how a film can take someone as witty and colorful as Oscar Wilde and make the character boring, but that’s precisely what writer/actor/director Rupert Everett has done in this misfire of a biopic. By all rights, the picture is obviously a labor of love for its creator, but, with a focus on Wilde’s last dark days, a needlessly convoluted script that’s all over the map and a noticeable dearth of the snappy banter that made its protagonist famous, the production falls flat and often confuses the viewer with its forward and backward flashes in the action. One of awards season’s – and the year’s – bigger disappointments.

8.  “Isle of Dogs”

Director Wes Anderson’s latest continues his practice of creating visually dazzling offerings that are long on style, overlong on story and, ultimately, short on substance. The film’s clever whimsy is cute, warm and funny at times, but it becomes so exactingly overwhelming as the story plays out that it becomes tiresome and exasperating long before the credits roll. What’s more, the film’s clumsily structured narrative and screenplay tell the story in such a disjointed and convoluted way that it’s easy to lose interest, despite the superb stop motion animation eye candy. Meticulously crafted it is; engaging, unfortunately, it isn’t.

7.  “Suspiria”

Despite considerable potential, this celluloid mess ultimately can’t pull off what it appears to promise. After a painfully slow and needlessly cryptic start, this stylish horror flick gradually and effectively begins building suspense toward what is believed will be a revelatory and stunning conclusion. Unfortunately, the film falls apart in its final act, going needlessly over the top and ultimately serving up more muddle than resolution, squandering the audience trust that the director had built up in the picture’s preceding segments. Though visually stunning and viscerally affecting, the end product never quite comes together as one would hope, leaving more questions open than answered. While director Luca Guadagnino’s release aspires to cinematic greatness, sadly it ends up yet another exercise in artsy pretentiousness in the same vein as “Mother!” (2017) and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017).

6.  “Widows”

The film’s strong cast aside, “Widows” is a cinematic jumble of too many plots trying to fit into one film, coupled with numerous holes in its story and an overall inherent implausibility that’s impossible to take seriously. While the action sequences are admittedly well orchestrated, they can’t make up for a plethora of other shortcomings that derail this offering from being what it aspires to be. In the end, this is yet another example of a vastly overrated release from vastly overrated director Steve McQueen.

5.  “Ready Player One”

Continuing an unfortunate trend that has come to characterize many of his recent films, director Steven Spielberg’s latest big-budget bloated extravaganza dazzles visually but grows tiresome (some might even say exasperating) rather quickly. The picture plays like a glitzy, nostalgic stroll down an ʼ80s version of memory lane, chock full of nonstop references to the decade’s movies, music and memes (in itself an odd fascination for characters in a story set in 2045). What’s worse, the film lacks a fundamentally compelling story and takes about 45 minutes too long to get to a central message that becomes patently obvious early on in the picture. If you’re looking for purely mindless entertainment, you’ll probably find this moderately amusing, but, if you want something more substantive, skip this one and watch one of the filmmaker’s earlier (and much better) offerings.

4.  “Colette”

Not even Keira Knightley’s fine performance and excellent period piece production values can save this cartoonish biopic, which plays more like a film adaptation of a tawdry pulp novel than a serious historic saga. This, combined with the characters’ monodimensionality and virtually nonexistent back story, expose a half-baked screenplay in need of major retooling. A genuine disappointment.

3.  “The Rider”

It’s mystifying to me what so many have seen as praiseworthy in this formulaic exercise in utter predictability. This celebration of reckless uber-macho behavior as something noble to which the inner cowboys in all men should aspire is laden with heavy-handed, patently obvious metaphors that even the most casual moviegoer can see coming long before they appear on the screen. Other than some impressive cinematography and a fine lead performance by Brady Jandreau, it’s hard to understand why this otherwise-mediocre offering has garnered so much attention and so many accolades. Maybe my lack of interest in the Western genre is unduly coloring my opinion here, but, with a narrative that’s easy to figure out and a litany of increasingly archaic ideals that are questionable at best, it’s difficult to say anything positive or redeeming about this highly overrated release.

2.  “Roma”

OK, I’ll say it – when it comes to this film, the emperor is indeed naked. I’ll admit that the film’s stunning black-and-white cinematography is exquisite and that the scenes introducing the picture’s final act are emotionally mesmerizing (or maybe it’s just that I was glad that something interesting was finally happening on the screen). Unfortunately, those are about the only redeeming qualities this release has to offer. The rest is a big, bloated, underdeveloped bore that tries the patience of even the most tolerant cinephile. It’s obvious this was a heartfelt project for director Alfonso Cuarón, and his personal passion is written all over it. But, given that he’s dealing with uninteresting characters in largely unexplained circumstances in a time frame for which little to no context or back story is provided, he’s not giving the audience much to work with other than a glib implication that essentially says “This is authentic – just trust me on this.” Also, the picture’s anemic attempts at incorporating philosophical and metaphysical themes show the filmmaker’s got some brushing up to do in terms of effectively conveying his meaning in a comprehensible way. If you’re willing to risk the time watching this, be sure to pack a pillow and a lunch.

1.  “Don’t Leave Home”

If you’re tempted to see this one, follow the advice given in the film’s title. This atmospheric offering features beautiful cinematography but not much else – a slow, laborious story that continually promises much but delivers little, leaving viewers wondering why they should care about any of this. And, as for the alleged horror angle of this release, I’ve seen scarier breakfast cereal commercials. “Don’t Leave Home”? – don’t waste your time.

Dishonorable Mentions (in no particular order)

“First Man”

“The Bookshop”

“Chappaquiddick”

“Vox Lux”

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