While so many aspects of 2018 sucked, the movies proved time and again to be surprisingly good. Multiple records were broken, Hollywood hit a ridiculous high mark worldwide and we saw tons of diverse films that were all very good! Because the boss was kind enough to let me put my list up here, I hope that I can at least get one of you guys to check out these incredible movies. And yes, there is a superhero movie in here, so it relates! Here we go…
10. Love, Simon
Directed by the maestro of the DC CW shows Greg Berlanti, Love, Simon aims to be a John Hughes movie for this generation, and manages to meet that lofty goal. While some might find it a little tropey and generic, I thought it hit all the right beats and was plenty engaging as a film. It had good humor, relatable characters and a compelling romantic storyline, with the only difference being that the central character is gay. And that’s where the real power of this film kicks in, as it gradually leads you to what its message really is: that LGBT people are people just like the rest of the world, and deserve to have their love stories told too. The moments that hit the hardest deal with this, but it’s never preachy and is extremely genuine throughout. Nick Robinson, a guy I’m always rooting for, leads a talented cast and delivers an excellent performance as well. While underseen in the theater, I think it won’t take long for this film to get the respect and attention it rightfully deserves.
In a year filled with big budget sci-fi extravaganzas, one low budget film broke through the noise and showed them all how it’s done. Blumhouse’s Upgrade takes the studio’s budget limit and shows just what you can do with a little bit of money as long as you have some true creativity and vision. James Wan’s former collaborator Leigh Whannell shows off her own talents here, creating an interesting sci-fi universe alongside the inspired script, which asks some hefty questions and has some pretty interesting twists. Logan Marshall-Green is the movie’s best special effect though, twisting and contorting himself through the action sequences as the A.I. program takes over, and he convincingly delivers the intense and gloriously brutal violence. Also criminally underseen, I feel like Upgrade is going to be looked back on as a true sci-fi classic from this decade, similar to Verhoeven’s RoboCop all those years ago. Is it as good as RoboCop? No, but Upgrade is playing in the same ballpark, and if that isn’t a sign of excellence I don’t know what is.
8. Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson returns to animation with a tale of a dystopian future in Japan, where man’s best friend is exiled to an island of garbage over fears of a plague. A young boy, the ward of the tyrannical mayor, flies to the island to search for his dog with the help of a local pack, all the while a local American exchange student uncovers a conspiracy. I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Anderson somehow surpasses that achievement here, giving us a smart and deep film for both kids and adults that combines his trademark deadpan humor with a heartfelt script and some beautiful art direction. The voice cast, ranging from Anderson mainstays like Edward Norton and Bill Murray to newcomers like Bryan Cranston and Live Schrieber, deliver excellent performances and get you invested in their characters and plights, especially as the film reaches its harrowing conclusion. And enough cannot be said about the animation, a return to stop motion that indulges Anderson’s obsessions with order and structure in his scenes while also showing off just how impressive this technique is when done correctly. An excellent film for people of all ages, Isle of Dogs at it’s core is about the love between a boy and his dog, and is absolutely a must-see, even if you’re not a dog lover.
7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Fred Rogers is an American icon, a paragon of virtue and compassion and a teacher to countless generations of children. While he is tragically gone, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells the story of his life from the point of view of those he worked with on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The result is a touching tribute to the kind of man we so rarely see in the public eye anymore: a kind, truly gentle person who really walked the walk and loved everyone equally. It’s so easy to just dismiss his persona as an act, but this film truly goes in depth to show just how big of an impact he really had, not just on people he worked with but with people around the country. I was moved by this film, and not just to tears (though that happened a few times) but to try and be a more loving person. It’s not easy, and it wasn’t easy for Fred Rogers either, but is there really a better goal than to be someone like him? The life and legacy of Mr. Rogers is something that needs to be remembered, especially in these troubled and divisive times, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is more than a perfect way to do it.
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Those who know me know that I’m not exactly what you’d call a superhero movie fan. I often find them to be a little generic, uninspired and safe, even if they have enough fun moments to keep me entertained. By taking the formula, adding some true imaginative touches and brilliant animation, Sony has delivered the defining superhero film of the decade. Telling the story of Miles Morales and the interdimensional crisis that unites him with multiple other Spider-people, the film presents an origin story unlike any other, one that taps deep into the lore of Spider-Man and his various counterparts. It also makes the most of its characters, giving them all enough dimension and pathos to help you connect with them. The true victory here is the relationship between Miles and Peter Parker, one that rings so true to the spirit of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original creation and helps you buy into the insanity. The animation, the script, the humor, it’s all just so great. It’s hard to find words to describe how great this film is, so I’ll just say this. It’s not only the best Spider-Man movie, it’s arguably the best Marvel movie period. Studios making superhero movies need to study this film, because it’s in this blueprint that a bright future for the genre lies. And that’s a future I think we can all be excited about.
5. The Rider
I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a movie this beautiful in a very long time. Telling the story of a young bull rider taken out of the game by a life-threatening injury, The Rider deals with trying to find purpose in life when what you love has been taken from you. Based on the real life story of the actual lead actor in this movie, everyone here is a non-actor actually present for these events, and at times it feels like you’re watching a documentary because it just feels so real. Brady Jandreau (the main actor and character) is someone straight out of a John Wayne film: a stoic, quiet and reserved guy with a deep respect for the land and the people around him. He loves his family, even his drunkard father, and just wants to go back to doing what he loves. It’s a story we can all identify, and even though I knew I was watching a film, I felt his disappointments and defeats just as acutely as I feel my own. While there’s some subtle political commentary about the treatment of Native Americans, since this all takes place on a reservation, the primary focus is on Brady and his struggle to support himself and his family. The end result is something truly powerful and special, and a wonderful calling card for director Chloe Zhao, who captures the breathtaking beauty of South Dakota with her cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Not everything gets solved at the end, and there are lots of heartbreaks along the way, but Brady’s story is still one that is an inspiring must see.
4. Mission Impossible: Fallout
Tom Cruise has done it again, y’all. We’ve known for awhile about his insane dedication to doing his own stunts, but I think he and director Christopher McQuarrie have more than raised the bar, not just for Cruise movies but for action movies in general. In a year where most of the action was a big CGI-fest on fantastical worlds with lots of people and things flying around, Tom Cruise ran in and made them all look like amateur hour chumps. I mean come on, the bathroom fight is an instant classic, the HALO jump is an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, and the chase through Paris is perhaps my favorite ever put to film. And while that is more than enough to be a winner, McQuarrie also crafted a very intelligent script, adding real stakes, good character work and some surprising twists. It’s an extraordinary effort that goes beyond the expected norm for one of these movies to create something truly great, from the acting to the action to the directing… It’s all just fantastic. If you’re a lover of action movies then there is no reason not to see this. It’s one of the greatest action films ever made and should have gotten the critical love that Fury Road received a few years ago. Needless to say, I highly recommend this.
A portrait of a family grieving their deceased son who died in the line of duty, Foxtrot is a movie that works on several levels. The first is the brilliant acting, and while it is a foreign film (from Israel, in fact), each and every person delivers a fine performance. Whether it’s the mother who is bitter towards her husband for their loss, the father struggling to hold everything together, or even the son who experiences a horrific incident in the field, you feel the weight of each and every line, every glance and even just in the way they move sometimes. The second level is the direction, which is easily some of the most inventive I’ve ever seen in any movie, ever. Director Samuel Moaz makes great use of the camera for some startling imagery, such as an overhead shot of the father in a bathroom that makes him look like he’s in a jail cell or a surreal dance routine involving an Israeli soldier and his gun, that really sticks with you. The third level is the script, which is intelligent and dark and all of those things, but also adds enough humor and strangeness to keep it from being but so upsetting. It also paints an effective picture of the nation of Israel, a people in crisis and never-ending war still reeling from the traumas of the past, which Maoz argues leads them to make bad choices sometimes. I know some people don’t like foreign movies but I promise you, there is nothing out there that’s quite like this film. It’s one of my all time favorites, even rivaling City of God as my favorite foreign film. You need to see it!
2. First Reformed
What does it mean to have faith in today’s times? How can one have hope for tomorrow when everything looks so bleak? Can humanity, in the face of everything we’ve done, still be redeemed? These are some of the heavy questions Paul Schrader asks in First Reformed, a tale of a priest who begins to lose his faith in the face of our impending environmental catastrophe. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the pastor of a centuries-old New York church, who is troubled by his interactions with a radical environmentalist who has lost all hope. Toller cannot pray anymore, having replaced it with journal writings we hear throughout, and he finds no solace at the mega church that supports him, run by a charismatic but status quo-oriented pastor (played very well by Cedric the Entertainer). With no answers coming, and the special interests of New York coming to the church for its 250th anniversary, Toller contemplates doing the unthinkable as his world spirals into darkness. First Reformed is not a happy, God’s Not Dead-esque cheap spirituality kind of faith-based film. It asks hard questions, offers up a sobering depiction of the American church and forces you to really think about what it’s trying to say. There are no easy answers, just like in life, and as someone who struggles with their faith in this way at times this really spoke to me. Schrader does offer a glimpse of hope at the end, giving the film one powerful conclusion. While these questions have no answers there is one answer here, and that is that Schrader, long known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese as a writer, has found his masterpiece. It’s quite simply the best faith-based film ever made, and one everyone should check out regardless of their faith.
1. A Star is Born
Is there anything Bradley Cooper can’t do? The guy acts, he produces, he writes, he sings and he directs? I mean come on! And here he does all of these, bringing this tale as old as time back to fresh new light and relevance with the fourth adaptation of A Star is Born. Playing a worn down country rock singer in decline, Cooper’s Jackson Maine finds new inspiration in Lady Gaga’s Ally, a waitress with big dreams and a powerful voice. Thus a love story for the ages begins, and the seeds of inescapable tragedy start to form. We’ve seen these beats before, but Cooper’s direction and the script by himself, Eric Roth and Will Fetters shines a light on the very modern struggles of mental health and addiction. The entire cast is amazing in this film, from Sam Elliott as Jackson’s brother to Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, but the film belongs to Cooper and Lady Gaga. Their chemistry is off the charts, the songs they sing together all work, and you feel their joy, triumphs, failures and pain right along with them. Just for a moment I hoped it was going to go a different way than I knew it had to, all because I really wanted them to work, and when it inevitably went south it was painful to watch. This is my favorite movie of the year because not only did it move me, it was a film that anyone could watch and love, from the general audience to the movie snobs to the people who don’t watch a lot of movies. There’s so much artistry here that everyone will find something to enjoy, and that is the mark of a successful film. When the lights went up and the final song from Lady Gaga ended, which just destroyed me, no one in the theater could move and everyone was in tears. At least for me, I was stunned because I knew I wasn’t going to see anything that good for the rest of the year. And what do you know, I was right.
And while I’m talking about best of movies, let’s take a look at some movies that didn’t quite make my list but are well worth your time:
The Death of Stalin
I hope you guys enjoy the holiday and have a prosperous, happy New Year. Let’s hope for more good films, comics, and good times!