Monday, February 18, 2019

Douglas Laman's 18 Best Films of 2018

Every year I tell myself two things: the first is that I'll get my Best Films of the Year list up earlier than the year before that and I'll manage to whittle that list down to a more reasonable number compared to years past. I always fail to meet these goals and my Best Films of 2018 list was no exception. But can you blame me for extending this from the usual top ten to top eighteen? Heck, I had to leave out so many excellent films even while extending it to eighteen! 2018 was a treasure trove of cinema across all countries and genres and it was a difficult task to just pick eighteen of the films from last year to represent the best that 2018 cinema had to offer. Nonetheless, I did manage to make too many tough calls to mention and eventually picked out eighteen of the 184 2018 movies I've seen for my Best Films of 2018 list.

Like in years past, this list is done in alphabetical order save for one movie I've declared to be the best of the year. Without further ado, here are the eighteen best movies of 2018, as picked by yours truly.

Black Panther
Ryan Coogler has kicked off his directorial career in a remarkable fashion by three consecutive pieces of outstanding cinema, the most recent of which was Black Panther. Endless amounts of praise have been given to this movie in the year since its release (and rightfully so!) yet it still feels like there's so much to talk about in regards to just how great this movie is. The richly detailed production design, the incredible performance from Michael B. Jordan, those perfectly executed moments of triumphant joy that define why blockbusters are so fun to watch, Black Panther constantly keeps one thinking and enthralled in equal measure, an accomplishment that handily makes this the newest top-notch movie to emerge from director Ryan Coogler.
The past and the present are one and the same in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, which takes a true story from the 1970s and uses it to tell both a thrilling crime drama yarn involving Detective Ron Stallworth trying to take down a local KKK charter while also succeeding in a mission of holding up a mirror to the past so that we can see a reflection of the present. The way the past can have horrifying aftereffects well into the present permeates BlacKkKlansman, including an extended rumination on all the horrors that the success of the D.W. Griffith movies Birth of a Nation have wrought, and sublime performances & writing are in similarly high supply here. BlacKkKlansman is an impressively crafted achievement from writer/director Spike Lee and that's even before considering its devastating final scene that makes its rightful anger at the modern-world as explicit as can be.
All Collin Haskins has got to do for the next three days is followed the orders of his superiors and his parole will be over. What sounds simple turns out to be rife with challenges and the basis for the exceptional movie Blindspotting. Lead actors Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal do marvelous work in the lead roles, their real-life friendship means their characters share such rich natural chemistry, but they're equally successful here in their work as screenwriters, they've crafted a fascinating story that explores Collin's struggle to be seen as a fully-formed person by everyone around him on such a captivatingly intimate level, you feel his pain, his frustrations, his woe and everything in between. Such an intimate gaze serves Blindspotting oh so well and is just one way this feature is able to become such a riveting piece of cinema.
The dreadful trailers for Blockers just didn't give anyone a proper idea of what a gift this movie would end up being. Not only is this a hilarious feature, complete with a hysterical performance from John Cena (his characters inability to properly understand how quotation marks work is brilliant), but it turns out to also be an immensely moving motion picture too, particularly in regards to a storyline involving a closeted Lesbian character played wonderfully by Gideon Adlon. Adlon's character gets some of the most heartfelt moments in Blockers, a movie that will touch your heart one moment before turning right around and tickling your ribs with a great gross-out gag.
First Man
I love me an emotionally resonant movie dealing with the theme of grappling with the loss of a loved one and First Man is an exceptionally good example of this type of feature as it intertwines the story of Neil Armstrong's journey of becoming the first man to walk on the moon with his personal struggle to come to terms with the death of his daughter. The screenplay by Josh Singer creates plenty of quiet moments for Armstrong's internal turmoil to be communicated in a powerful manner while the sequences depicting the incredibly dangerous NASA training sessions are oh so harrowing to watch. These elements of First Man, along with so many other aspects of the film like its two lead performances and the score by Justin Hurwitz, do an incredible job examining the all too human story dealing with impactful loss nestled within a massively important historical achievement.

For months prior to actually watching Hereditary, I kept getting told about how incredibly scary this movie. This was apparently the movie to beat in terms of delivering top-shelf frights and I was certain that, whenever I finally got to see this darn thing, it couldn't deliver on all the hype. But writer/director Ari Aster did just that with Hereditary, a feature that's totally creepy when it's just functioning as a grounded family drama about how familial abuse gets passed down from generation to generation. It's no wonder these sequences work as well as they do thanks to Toni Collette's unnerving performance and superb craftsmanship going into the camerawork and sound. All that advanced buzz was right, Hereditary is an utterly terrifying experience.

If Beale Street Could Talk
The romance between the two lead characters of If Beale Street Could Talk is downright intoxicating. Between the riveting performances of Kiki Layne and Stephen James, a beautiful dream-like score by Nicholas Britell and the camerawork that communicates so much visual intimacy, I was completely enamored with the romance that serves as the crux of If Beale Street Could Talk, just like I was enamored with every other part of this beautiful production. Merging the filmmaking of Barry Jenkins with the writing of James Baldwin sounds like a great idea on paper, but I'm still impressed with how it resulted in a movie this outstanding, one whose colorful costumes, collecting of astounding performances (Brian Tyree Henry shows up for one scene but brings down the house with his harrowing work) and central romance still linger in my mind.

Madeline's Madeline
Avant-garde stage performances get translated into cinematic form with Madeline's Madeline, the newest film by Josephine Decker, and this translation allows for an engrossing examination of its titular lead character. A number of visually disorienting sequences that may or may not be detached from reality itself are captivating as stand-alone pieces of heightened filmmaking, but they also work exceptionally well at communicating the psychological turmoil of its titular lead character (portrayed by Helena Howard) who's desperately seeking a place she can feel acceptance and a healthy form of human connection. Her quest to find that in a local theater group makes up the primary story of Madeline's Madeline, a feature that constantly challenged and impressed me and those are two qualities that I'll always salute in a movie.
Speaking of avant-garde cinema, here comes Mandy, a Panos Cosmatos directorial effort that fuses together a surrealist contemplation on grappling with the loss of a loved one with homages to 1980's Grindhouse fare, including cocaine, violence and a chainsaw fight. This dynamic combination is endlessly fun to watch on-screen, especially since the cinematography is utterly beautiful and both Nicolas Cage and Linus Roache deliver gonzo performances for the ages. Cage is especially good at conveying discernably real anguish in a movie that couldn't be further from reality if it tried.
Minding the Gap 
I still can't believe Minding the Gap managed to capture the footage that it did and I'm sure its director, Bing Liu, feels the same way. What starts out as a reflection on the abuse one man and his two best friends endured in their respective childhoods turns into a tragic portrait of the differing ways the cycle of abuse affects people. Seeing Minding the Gap transforming from one documentary to another is as surprising of a development to the viewer as it is to Bing Liu and that makes for a fascinating viewing experience. For Bing and the skateboarding pals he grew up with, the consequences of childhood abuse are felt well into adulthood and the various ways Minding the Gap depicts this leaves one with plenty to think on long after the film ends.
The Other Side of the Wind
It took well over four decades to actually come to fruition, but the last directorial effort from Orson Welles certainly was worth the wait. A sprawling saga chronicling a single night at one iconic filmmaker's party, The Other Side of the Wind is a reflection on 1970's cinema both domestically and abroad (the latter element referenced in an exceptionally well-realized parody of European avant-garde cinema) that still resonates as relevant in the modern era, particularly in how its story is filmed through omnipresent cameras that capture the story from the perspective of several different vibrantly realized characters. Unexpected and unintentional modern-day commentary is far from the only way The Other Side of the Wind impresses with its subtext-rich narrative.

Paddington 2
So many family movie sequels opt for just empty noise and pointless spectacle, but not Paddington 2, which put not just most family movie sequels but most sequels, in general, to shame with its delightful tale of Paddington Bear being falsely accused of thievery. It's a story that allows for lots of charming comedy as well as countless opportunities for the cast to shine. Ben Whishaw remains, as ever, the perfect person to play this iconic children's literature figure while the new cast members (including Hugh Grant in maybe the best performance of his entire career) fit themselves perfectly into the wonderfully unique atmosphere of the Paddington universe. Who knew a talking bear could be so thoughtful and uplifting, let alone the star of one of the most enjoyable movies of recent years?

The Rider
Chloe Zhao sets her camera on everyday reality with The Rider, to the point that she's gotten real-life individuals, not professional actors, to portray variations on their actual selves. This bold approach turns out to be the right one to tell the story of a former bull rider, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) trying to grapple his own desires for his identity with societies expectations of what men should be. The whole production aches with recognizable reality, from the performances that anchor the movie to the tiniest of details like what tasks Brady does at his grocery store job. Such adherence to reality, coupled with the filmmaking of Chloe Zhao, helps make the struggles Brady goes through in The Rider incredibly emotionally engaging to watch.

I barely watched this in time for it to get put on this list, but thank God I did because Shoplifters is something mighty special. The titular shoplifters of this feature are a collection of individuals who have been cast away from society who decide to bring in a young girl from an abusive household into their lives. The individual members of this chosen family are each realized as fully-formed human beings full of fascinating realistic complexities and nuances and the quiet scenes in Shoplifters showing each of these individuals interacting with one another and bonding over what makes them similar (most notably various types of scars) is touching to an immense degree while a lead performance by Sakura Ando is similarly emotionally powerful. We don't get to choose the family we're born into but Shoplifters beautifully shows how we can find a chosen family that brings out the best in us and others.

Sorry to Bother You
Wowzers was this ever a movie. The directorial debut of Boots Riley is just bursting with personality, ambition and moments that I still can't believe I actually saw in a theatrically released movie. Riley's screenplay does an excellent job exploring grounded issues rooted in holding onto one's identity in a world that likes to crush individuality through such brilliantly heightened means, including a third act that takes an already live-wire of a movie into a whole other degree of beautiful madness. There was a lot of great cinematic social commentary in 2018 and Sorry to Bother You among the very best of the bunch!

Speaking of excellent cinematic social commentary, Widows, the newest Steve McQueen movie, is a fantastic achievement that manages to tell both a compelling heist movie story while spanning numerous different lives in Chicago circa. 2008 that offer up numerous ways different forms of gender and race-based prejudice can impact people. The cast is just jammed to the rafters with excellent performances, particularly the turns from Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya, while Steve McQueen thrives as a filmmaker throughout the whole production but especially during the intense heist scenes that just me constantly on the edge of my seat. This movie is equal parts rollicking and thoughtful and such a combo is not to be missed.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Did this acclaimed documentary about Mr. Rogers simply become so beloved because of nostalgia related to that real-world children's television host? Maybe, but I think this movie is so good that it earns the prestigious reputation its garnered and then some. Won't You Be My Neighbor? takes a children's show and a celebrity we're all familiar with and explores what about Fred Rogers and his outlook on the world informed the unique creative directions Mister Rogers Neighborhood took. Already emotionally resonant moments from the show, like Daniel Striped-Tiger singing about how he feels like a mistake, become all the more powerful due to the larger context Morgan Neville's documentary puts these segments into and the way they tie that context into the lives of the viewers themselves in the films final scene is one of the many impressive creative accomplishments to be found in Won't You Be My Neighbor? 
You Were Never Really Here 
I saw You Were Never Really Here ten months ago yet I'm still reeling how this film places the audience into the fractured mind of its protagonist. Despite keeping almost all of its violence off-screen, You Were Never Really Here still manages to communicate the psychological aftereffects of a person who's survived abuse by way of some masterful editing and a performance from Joaquin Phoenix that communicates a lifetime's worth of internal agony. Like with her previous directorial effort We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsey gets so much haunting power out of showing the psychological consequences of human beings who survive tragedy rather than lingering on the tragedy itself.  That trait is one of the key reasons You Were Never Really Here became one of the most haunting and accomplished movies of 2018.

And now, my personal favorite movie of 2018 is...
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
There wasn't a movie this year I've had more fun watching than Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie that made me so giddy on numerous levels. In terms of its animation, it was so wonderful to see an American computer-animated feature film with this much visual audacity while its approach to the vast Spider-Man mythos was endlessly inspired. Meanwhile, the comedy here is just fantastically creative while the pathos-heavy sequences (including any of the conversations between Miles Morales and his Dad or the What's Up Danger sequence) are soul-stirring. The only movie this year that works equally well as an allegory for LGBTQA+ experiences as well as it works as an excuse to watch Nicolas Cage hysterically portray a noir version of Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, without exaggeration, why I watch and love movies.

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