Always the latest list of best movies, according to me. 2018 seemed like a pretty decent year for film. The usual caveats apply: I have by no means seen everything released in 2018 or even close to it. I delay my list to make sure I see films that came out in 2018 that I was really looking forward to seeing or ones that I think may be contenders based on recommendations from friends or by film critics I generally agreement with. At any rate, here are the movies I really liked from 2018 out of those I have seen.
Runners Up: Mission Impossible: Fallout; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blindspotting; Vice; Black Panther
The Rider A poetic and brilliant film that takes place in the non-commercialized rodeos of a South Dakota reservation. Young men in this space live for the rodeo and riding horses like cowboys. One of those men is Brady Blackburn (portrayed by Brady Jandreau in one of those real life performances). He has suffered a near fatal head injury which sidelines him from his dream and passion. “The Rider” gives us a glimpse into low-income, working class America without the slightest condescension. This is a movie that, maybe more subliminally, is about what it means to be a man in this culture but the broader aspect is a quest for identity once a past identity has been taken from you. Some of the best cinematography you will see all year is in this film by James Joshua Richards who will remind a viewer of Terrence Malick’s best work. All the while, director Chloe Zhao has crafted a masterpiece behind the scenes.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I must have missed out. Growing up, I did not watch much of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” but the documentary about the life of Fred Rogers is excellent. Drawing the viewer not only into who this extraordinary man was, the focus is also on Rogers passion for educating and encouraging kids. He taught that every person is sincerely special and, believe it or not, was criticized for that message. People being sincerely special does not mean they should be narcissistic or selfish but Rogers hoped by recognizing the value that each person has themselves, they would translate that into being able to recognize the same in others. A devout Christian and lifelong Republican, Mister Rogers spoke out for civil rights and against racism. The unlikely TV star preached values of empathy and compassion and embodied those values through the entirety of his work. In a culture that is bitterly divided and where people are openly hostile toward “the other tribe”, this documentary shines, humbly, in the darkness as a vitally important film for our times. A shame the Academy Awards did not recognize this fact.
First Man– Neil Armstrong’s perilous journey to the moon is chronicled in the rising directorial star Damien Chazelle’s new biopic film. A lot of space movies portray an adventurous and heroically conquering journey into orbit or the moon but “First Man” focuses on the intensity and wildness of the experience. Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is a broken man haunted by the death of his daughter, Karen, to cancer. The climax of the film is pure fiction however the emotional character arc of this pioneering man is unforgettably moving.
Free Solo- I cannot remember a documentary which gave me a high degree of tension and that unique feeling of being tempted to take my eyes off the screen but simply being unable too as “Free Solo”. Alex Honnold is the focal point of this film. He enjoys rock climbing and propelling himself up cliff faces without any climbing equipment. The dream is to “free solo” El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a 3,000 foot vertical climb. Is this man insane? They actually have Honnold do a brain scan that shows something wrong with his amygdala (the brain center that processes emotions) and he may not feel fear like the rest of us. I mean, I hate to be captain obvious. The Oscar-Winner for best documentary, “Free Solo” is a jaw-dropping ride. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have their camera crew dangling from ropes while they film Honnold climbing with spectacular scenery on display below. The climax is, of course, about Honnold’s famous climb but we learn all about his life as well including how a guy with a wild hobby like this carries on a relationship (his girlfriend Sanni McCandless). His scramble up the 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite is beyond description but I guarantee that you will want to check this out.
First Reformed– A down angle camera shot pans up the stairs to a church while the sky in the background looks ominous and the winds howl during the opening scene of “First Reformed”. Ethan Hawke, in one of his best performances (and that is saying a lot), plays a protestant minister named Toller. He is an alcoholic and shepherding a dying church while being disillusioned and going through the motions of his pastoral duties. Misery invites more misery in the form of congregant, a pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who tells Toller that her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) wants her to have an abortion because he is in despair about the Earth’s environmental future. She pleads with Toller to counsel him and the situation grows more grave when Mary discovers a suicide vest constructed by Michael who is considering terrorist action. Writer and director Paul Schrader, famous for writing Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, has crafted a difficult and uncompromising look at faith and fanaticism and perhaps what could be viewed as the thin line nuances between the two. Schrader is not afraid to go to where the tough questions are: what if someone’s fanaticism is correct and what does this mean for other moral principles and convictions that they may hold? Unsettling as hell but you won’t be able to take your mind off of it.
A Quiet Place- The directorial debut of Jim from “The Office”. John Krasinski, in his first feature film outing behind the camera, has crafted a classic thriller. He is not just behind the camera but also in front with his real life wife, Emily Blunt. The couple plays Lee and Evelyn in a post-apocalyptic world with their children where alien monsters patrol the earth. These monsters have ultra sensitive hearing and are fast so human survivors live in a haunting silence, communicating by sign language and bodily expression. The story abides by its own logic well and the unique device creates an effectively eerie silent movie. Well done and unforgettable.
Lean On Pete- The second horse film on my list is not centrally about the racehorse from which this movie receives its title. The story is focused on 15 year old, Charley (one of the best performances of the year by Charlie Plummer), who gets a summer job tending to the old, washed up racehorse, Lean on Pete. The owner of the horse and employer is Del (Steve Buscemi) who seems to have plans to sell the horse soon which also certainly means the horse will be put to death. Charley lives with his single parent father and they have recently moved to Portland, OR looking for a fresh start. Needless to say, tragedy strikes and any innocence that 15 year old Charley had is quickly shattered. Writer/director Andrew Haigh never gives in to melodrama or overt sentimentalism. The film carries a realist tone throughout and even with the horrific experiences along the way and the impossible life situation and moral choices Charley finds himself immersed in, grace roars into the story becoming salvation in an unimaginable situation.
Eighth Grade– I don’t think I have ever seen a movie capture junior high/middle school quite like “Eighth Grade” written and helmed by comedian Bo Burnham. The shocking thing about this project though is Burnham is not going for laughs. The awkward essence and emotional instability of the dawn of the teen years is observed with an empathy that few filmmakers have ever captured. At the center is, in my mind (screw the Academy), the best single performance of 2018 by Elsie Fisher (16 years old) who portrays introverted Kayla during the last week of middle school before she moves on to high school. I especially resonated with Josh Hamilton playing Kayla’s father, a single parent who cares deeply for his daughter but might not always make the “coolest” choices. He tries to understand and guide but Kayla must come into her own. Absolutely excellent.
Blackkklansman– One of the best Spike Lee movies of all time, “Blackkklansman” stars Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington as the first African-American cop to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department. The surprising thing about the film is the balancing of serious matters with comedy. In my review, I wrote some of the following: “‘Blackkklansman”’ with its powerful subject matter, is mostly serious and has to be because of what is at stake…Though Spike, as if conducting a passionate orchestra, takes us from these moments of fury to scenes of comedy almost effortlessly…Spike is a master at dissonant tones in a movie. No, it doesn’t always work in all of his films but here it seems perfect. Like an old pro, he moves from scenes that are uncomfortably very funny to heightened drama where the terror of racism leads to real violence. His profiles of racist buffoons including a young David Duke (played by Topher Grace) leads one to wonder why anyone in their right frame of mind could be persuaded by these ranting bigots but alas, the sin of racism is buried deep and that is precisely Spike’s point. That people look for justification for their deeply held prejudices among leaders whose brain dead screeds lack any coherence at all. Director Spike wants audiences to squirm: do we laugh or cry?” A bonafide masterpiece with an ending that reminded me of the Coen Brothers work.
Leave No Trace- Hard to pick a best movie this year as there were a handful of good contenders. “Leave No Trace”, directed by Debra Granik, probably moved me the most because of the nature of the story and characters. Will (Ben Foster) lives with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in a vast forested urban park outside of Portland, Oregon. He is a military veteran. There isn’t much talk about where mom is but father and daughter live in their own idealized existence. Authorities soon track them down based on a small mistake they make and place them into a social services program. Suspicious of authority and societal institutions, Will cannot maintain a life in these conditions and he and Tom soon escape back into the woods seeking out a new home. At this moment is where the central clash comes between the characters. Will cannot live in civilization as he does not trust it. Tom, being 13 years old, is curious about community and the people they encounter along their trek. All Will has in life is his daughter and vice versa but for most of the running time of this film, we feel the inevitable tension growing: Will has to let his daughter go as she needs to chart her own course in life. Bittersweet, simple and at the same time thematically profound, “Leave No Trace” quietly works its way into the hearts of viewers based on the care that is developed for these characters. I have thought about if I would have loved this movie as much if it came out while I was single. Likely, I would have but the effect on me would not have been as powerful.