Monday, January 21, 2019

The First Half of my Top 20 Films of 2018

The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, which means these next two days are the perfect time to drop my Top 20 List. 2018 was another solid year for film, one in which I'd proudly stand behind my top 30 films even. The one thing the year doesn't have is one or two films which EVERYONE agrees are brilliant, which sometimes leads some to call it an "off-year." I found plenty of films to like this year, both in the prestige and genre categories, so from where I sit, this was a win.

20. Support the Girls - It's a "day in the life" movie (see: EMPIRE RECORDS, CLERKS), but applied to a Hooters-like restaurant with Regina Hall as the manager/den mother keeping it all together. The worst case scenario for this film would be that it plays as a collection of subplots, like a thief caught in the vents and an under-the-radar car wash being organized to support an employee trying to flee a bad relationship. But it's Hall who centers this film, turning it into a character study of a strong woman whose employees never quite understand the extent of emotional labor she takes on for them. It's an under-seen movie, but one worth it for the performances of Hall and Haley Lu Richardson, who it took me a good 20 minutes to recognize.

19. First Man - As a technical achievement, this is an incredible film. The restaging of the moon landing was appropriately powerful in IMAX and the two hours that build up to the moment remind us just how perilous that endeavor was. As part of the generation that has "always" known we could make it to the Moon, I think sometimes it's too easy to forget how amazing a goal it was to set out to land on the moon, and what an achievement we as a nation were capable of when we put our mind to an impossible task. The phrase "We can land a man on the Moon, but we can't..." exists for a reason. In an era when we're led by a petty despot only interested is representing the interests of the smallest and most avarice among us, there's power in being reminded that Presidents once set goals that encouraged the best in their people and that science was once revered.

The film's relatively low placement on this list is largely due to the fact that I didn't feel emotionally engaged with Armstrong himself. A great deal of that is purposeful - he was a distant person. Though there were some powerful moments that reminded us of the very human cost of this journey, I had almost as many restless moments in the film. I have nothing but respect for how this film was made, and for the thoughts in prompts in a post-film reflection, but as far as what it made me FEEL - it came up shorter than I hoped.

18. Incredibles 2 - I'm worried I'm starting to take Pixar for granted, or maybe the competition is just stepping up in a major way. After almost a decade and a half of waiting, we finally got a sequel to one of Pixar's best films and it didn't disappoint. This time around, it's Elastigirl's turn in the spotlight as she is the face of superhero missions designed to put a good PR face on superhero activity. Mr. Incredible gets to be the fish out of water as a stay-at-home dad and the film makes the most of both comedic set-up. Better still, the kids take the spotlight in the third act while the story resembles a really GOOD version of a Silver Age Marvel or DC romp.

17. Blindspotting - When Daveed Diggs is a major star, this will be the film people point to as a favorite in order to earn film geek cred. Diggs gives an incredible, empathetic performance as a paroled felon with three days of probation left when he witnesses a cop kill an unarmed, fleeing black man. A lot of this year's best films dealt with race head on, proving that the most powerful art feels personal. Taking on race and guns, this feels very "off the moment" until you realize that "moment" has been around for at least 30 years. Diggs walks through this film like man in a pressure cooker - tension building until he finally explodes in the finale. It was one of those moments where I genuinely wasn't sure where a film was going to go. I'm a little bummed to see it so underrated.

16. Three Identical Strangers - In 1980, a young man goes off to college and is shocked when everyone there seems to recognize him, but calls him by a different name. This quickly leads him to an encounter with a long-lost twin, who he was separated from at birth. More incredible, the media attention from this story unearths another lost triplet. That's already more than you should know about this incredible documentary that digs into the differences between the siblings and explores the multiple tragedies of their lives.

15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? - I thought of THE HOAX a lot early on in this film about a biographer who falls into forging personal letters from famous authors and selling them to support herself. But where THE HOAX was a caper, this is more of a character study, a sad portrait of Lee Israel, played as an abrasive "cat lady" by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy manages something amazing - she makes a self-sabotaging felon sympathetic. We're practically cheering on Lee as her forgeries get more and more elaborate. Even when the FBI is coming for her, some part of us wants her to get away. The award buzz she's been getting has been well-earned.

14. Sorry to Bother You - This one... goes to some weird places. I always get suspicious of films like that, because weird for weird's sake often feels like a crutch that some writers use when they don't know how to develop a conventional narrative. One reason why I like it here is the rest of the film is so well-built that you imagine it could have stayed in a more conventional setting and still had something powerful to say. Writer/director Boots Riley tells the story of Cash Green, who climbs the ladder at a call center by using a "white voice" in his phone interactions. For a while we're lured into thinking it's a goofy satire of corporate America but before long the veil drops and reveals this film has some very pointed things to say about worker exploitation.

13. Searching - Until the last ten minutes, this was EASILY in my Top 10. I'm not sure what we call these films, but this is another one told entirely from the screen of a laptop. The opening montage rivals UP for the saddest opening that takes us through several years in a life and relationship, with the novelty that the entire history is communicated through computer updates and folders. It's incredible storytelling, as is the conceit that keeps the entire narrative unfolding on the laptop. When a teenage girl disappears, her widowed father probes in her life and her online presence to find clues to what happened and finds that he might not have really known his daughter at all. I can't get into what I didn't like without spoilers, but the ending is just a little too pat. Still, a remarkable achievement.

12. Thoroughbreds - I've been a member of the Olivia Cooke fan club since BATES MOTEL, where her status as one of the only major characters not to appear in PSYCHO meant that each week was an exercise in "Will they kill Emma now?" Here she plays a teen sociopath who memorably tells us, "It doesn't make me bad, it just means I have to try harder to be good." When another teenage girl is forced to hang out with Olivia's character, the two become a corrupting influence on each other and begin to plot murder. Ana Joy Taylor is just as good as the other half of this duo and I'll be looking for writer/director Cory Finley's next film for sure.

11. Creed II - It's an idea that shouldn't really work. After the first CREED, the most obvious way to go would be to have Adonis Creed take on the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring. Further, ROCKY IV is one of the series's weaker entries, so this sequel had quite an uphill road ahead of it. To my amazement, it proves to be a powerful story about family and legacies, very much a piece of the original CREED while drawing on Rocky's history. After this, I'm eager to see Adonis blaze his own trail, but this sequel does a solid job in its own right of laying the ghost of his father to rest. If this is Stallone's exit ramp from the series, he went out on a good one too.

Come back tomorrow at Noon for my Top 10!

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