My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2018
First, and foremost, Clint Eastwood is perfect for the role of an 87-year-old cross-country driver making deliveries for some guys who may be involved in business ventures not technically inside the law. As Eastwood's character used to flourish in a couple businesses where he didn't always strictly adhere to the letter of the law, he isn't as concerned about the legalities as he is about making just enough money to pay off his debts and get his award-winning flower-growing operation back up and running. Eastwood is also no longer credible as an action hero, his advanced age, even as vibrant and fit as he might be, makes him vulnerable and his attempts at a modicum of redemption almost noble.
If that was all the movie was about it would be as boring as the driving which Eastwood's character has many creative ways of alleviating. In fact, Eastwood's interactions with Dianne Wiest as his ailing wife and his actual daughter, Alison Eastwood, playing his estranged daughter in the film are what raise the film to something special. Taissa Farmiga is very good as the granddaughter who is far enough removed from the pain his careless callousness to be able to relate to him as a grandfather. Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena offer star-powered window dressing as the federal agents who finally track the old man down.
All the controversy around the accuracy of the depiction of Donald Shirley and how he interacted with his driver, Tony Vallelonga, seems to me beside the point. It is absolutely clear that this is Tony's story as told to and remembered by Tony's son, Nick. If there is a different story told from the point of view of Donald Shirley or his relatives, then that story may also be fascinating and entertaining, because this film directed by Peter Farrelly (Yes, one of the notorious unfunny brothers) is certainly that, and perhaps, a bit more.
It is a solid road picture with oil and water characters trapped together by circumstances which blossoms into a story of friendship born of shared exchanges of cultural, racial, intellectual, and personal perspectives.
Mahershala Ali walked off with another Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Dr. Donald Shirley, a black pianist who could play anything from classical to jazz to folk songs.
Tony Lip: Trained? What are you, a seal? People love what you do! Anyone can sound like Beethoven or Joe Pan or them other guys you said. But your music, what you do? Only you can do that!
Dr. Don Shirley: Thank you, Tony. But not everyone can play Chopin. Not like I can.
Viggo Mortensen was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, a former bouncer who got the job of driving Shirley on his tour through the south when the club he worked at had to close down for renovations. 125 dollars a week as long as Dr. Shirley plays every scheduled date. Except for being away from his family for four months, it sounds like easy money. The record company executive hands him a copy of The Negro Motorists Green Book, an annual guidebook for traveling the country originated and published by a black New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966. It included among other tips, restaurants, hotels, and accommodations which catered to minorities during the height of the Jim Crow era.
Dimiter D. Moronov and Mike Hatton are understated as the other two members of the Don Shirley Trio. Near the end, they try to explain to Lip why Dr. Shirley puts himself through the grueling tour through areas of the country which are unlikely to accept him even if they appreciate his music.
"Six years ago, in 1956, Nat King Cole was invited to perform at the Municipal Auditorium here in Birmingham. Mr. Cole was the first Negro asked to play at a white establishment in this city. As soon as he started playing, a group of men attack him for playing white people's music. They pull him off stage and beat him badly. ... You asked me once why Dr. Shirley does this. I tell you. Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people's hearts."
Linda Cardellini does well to stand out in the thankless role of Lip's wife who brags up Tony's letters so much his family calls him Shakespeare when he returns home. When she finally meets Dr. Shirley, she thanks him for helping Tony with the letters.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I was apprehensive about seeing this movie because I'd heard it was less a movie and more a series of vignettes. It was also described as "what westerns should be" or "the next generation of westerns." In addition, though I always appreciate the distinctive "tone" and "atmosphere" of a Coen Brothers' movie, I consider myself a fan of only a few.
I should not have been concerned. If I had thought about it, I would have remembered that in each of their movies, there is at least one sequence which is damn near perfect. The movies of theirs I dislike generally get lost trying to find their way to a logical or satisfying ending. That said, each of the short stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (and other tales of the American Frontier), are damn near perfect and would have suffered drastically at any attempts to make them into full-length motion pictures.
These tales do not follow a character or a story through line from beginning to end, but thematically, there are enough elements in common to hold together as an episodic epic of the old west. To me, they all about transitions which exemplified the history of the American west, the old replaced by the new, tradition supplanted by necessity, opportunities replacing expectations, the very journey into the unknown with all the hopes which opened up the frontier. Many people have commented on the theme of death and rightly so, death making a place for new life or even making a place for the next life.
I'd be remiss if I didn't make clear that as with many Coen Brothers films, this one as well benefits greatly from a wry sense of humor which tempers all aspects of life, death, and the travails in between.
Bad Times at the El Royale
There is so much going on in this movie that I think it crashes and burns a couple times and then succeeds in the way it rises out of the ashes to a better third act and coda than would have been possible without the obviously intentional stumbles midway through.
The ensemble cast is first-rate with Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny, and Tony, Grammy, Emmy winner, Cynthia Eviro whose singing is very nearly another fully drawn character which drives the plot even as the plot is breaking down. But the cast member who really impresses, especially on multiple viewings is Lewis Pullman (Bill's barely 26 year-old son). Chris Hemsworth, in a small, but essential part, tries to steal the show near the end, but it's Pullman and perhaps, screenwriter/director Drew Goddard who ultimately hold sway.
Such a complicated, but amusing movie such as this one should be seen more than once for full appreciation.
This is a movie for, as writer-director Adam McKay explained it, "most" of the people who never followed Cheney's activities, many who weren't even sure who he was when he ran as Bush's VP. So, the movie is less startling, less a revelation to anyone who pays attention to American politics beyond the superficial media coverage. The movie wasn't as successful because it was too shocking for the uninformed and too unbelievable for the misinformed.
I enjoyed this movie mostly because of the tremendous cast and how that cast chose to underplay most of the roles. Steve Carell was astounding as Donald Rumsfeld. Instead of cloaking himself under makeup and prosthesis, Carell low-keys every scene even when he's needling Colin Powell (credibly played by Tyler Perry).
Amy Adams is her usual competent self. Sam Rockwell is wonderfully barely there at all as George W. Bush, but he nailed the persona just right. Jesse Plemons is the narrator as a sort of relative to Dick Cheney and has the biggest moment in the film.
But, for me, it is the joy of watching Christian Bale embody Cheney which solidifies this movie in my top ten for 2018. He makes no great effort to mimic Cheney's voice, but rather inhabits the man's quirks, habits, movements, and manner of speech more than mimicry. Not to mention that Bale is such a good actor he almost got me to feel sorry for him when he says goodbye to his daughters when he's told a heart is not available to replace his failing one.
I am not a big fan of the ending of the movie, and I think a more interesting avenue to focus on might have been how Cheney was allowed to subvert governmental processes without questioning from other branches of government and the press.
This is a very well-written re-make of a British mini-series of the same title by Lynda La Plante who is best known as the creative force behind the classic British police series, "Prime Suspect." It is a personal project by director Stevie McQueen who directed and won a producer Oscar for best picture for 2013's "Twelve Years a Slave."
On top of all that, it has an impressive cast including Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, and Cynthia Eviro in her second film of the year in my top ten. It also has the answer to the question, who's the best actress: Viola Davis.
I would be remiss if I didn't highlight the performance of Daniel Kaluuya. I failed to see what the fuss was about surrounding the movie, "Get Out," but he is believably terrifying here as a cerebral, callous psychopathic and opportunistic fixer. Despite his relatively small stature, he conveys a measured, almost detached menace.
As with any good heist movie, there are unexpected twists, reverse twists, and detours. Some of the execution might be called into question, but the emotional impacts are all spot on.
Leave No Trace
I watched this movie because Ben Foster was the star. Even in bad movies, his performance is always worth a look, and I totally expected this to be another crazy, off-the-grid dad trying to raise some offspring, in this case a daughter, while living off the land, laying low, suspicious of everyone else, etc. etc. yadda yadda yadda. This is definitely a movie within that niche, but Foster, as a veteran with PTSD, and especially, Thomasin McKenzie who plays his daughter, make this one very special.
Obviously, a great deal of credit goes to co-writer and director Debra Granik who also made "Winter's Bone," but the McKenzie is a muted powerhouse who puts this story on her back like she did her father with his broken ankle. Turns out, he taught her everything except what he couldn't, how to grow up and live with other people. "The same thing that's wrong with you, isn't wrong with me," she tells him when she realizes he can never settle down and live with other people in civilization.
It is left to others they encounter to teach her those things. The scene where she learns to handle the bees from the beekeeper reduced me to instant tears for no other reason than the emotional power of such a simple scene. Ultimately, it is her desire to use what her father taught her to help others and to learn what others might teach her which causes her allow her father to go on by himself.
The Old Man and the Gun
This is an intriguing, mostly true story about a "polite" "gentlemanly" bank robber, but without Redford in the lead, it could have hovered around the "pretty good" level in comparison to other movies over the year. The movie has a polished, but not over polished aspect which, along with Redford's portrayal, kept drawing me back to this one.
Sissy Spacek is often overlooked despite her Oscar, but she is often the most memorable performance in any movie she's in, her work in "The Help," "Get Low," and "North Country" among my recent favorites. Here, her interactions with Redford are crucial to making his character sympathetic if not heroic. Their playful exchanges are real and play against the obvious flirting.
In the middle of the movie, after some comfort has come into their relationship and they're sitting on her front porch, she mentions she isn't quite sure if she was happy all her life or if she just thought she was or if there's really any difference. Redford's character explains his guiding principle:
Forrest: And look, if I ever wonder what I'm doing or where I'm going, I just think of myself as that little kid I was when I was just about this tall. And I say, well... now would he have been proud of me? And if the answer is no, well, then I just keep walking on through. But if the answer is yes, then I know I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
Jewel: So, is he proud of you? That little boy?
Forrest: Oh, he's getting closer every day.
Jewel: But you're never exactly where you're supposed to be, are ya? I mean, 'cause if you are, you're dead.
There is some very fine support from Danny Glover and Tom Waits as his compatriots, but Casey Affleck does enough to be a little special (as he often does) as the cop who methodically tracks Redford's character. Elizabeth Moss has a nice, disarming few minutes as Redford's estranged daughter who provides a backstory which is a little different and portends the future a bit.
The movie is beautifully shot and directed by David Lowry of "Pete's Dragon" and "A Ghost Story" fame.
Boy Erased & The Miseducation of Cameron Post
These two movies are coming in as one coin, as each one explores opposite sides of the same-sex re-programming business. They are both equally effective and show much in common, each therapy as horrifying and needlessly punitive as the other.
"Boy Erased" has the more mainstream cast with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, both amazingly good in minor parts for them, and Lucas Hedges of "Manchester by the Sea" and "Three Billboards" fame, as the boy in supposed need of revision. Kidman is surprising and amazing as the mother who finally lets her love for her son supersede her intellectual decisions about her son's treatment. Crowe, as well, is excellent as he struggles with his beliefs and his love for his son.
Joel Edgerton, who also directed, is perfectly conflicted and overcompensating, as the leader of the gay conversion facility.
In both movies, there are suicide attempts when children are rejected by families even after completing the programs. In both, it is the humanity of the subjects and their human reactions to their fellow inmates which raises each movie above the propaganda fault-line. In "Boy Erased," the young man, brilliantly played by Britton Sear, who survived his suicide attempt, helps Lucas Hedges escape by baring a door with his body. In "Cameron Post," Characters played by Forrest Goodluck and Sasha Lane help Chloe Grace Moretz run away headed for Canada.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Another movie which probably would not have made the list without the star, in this case, Melissa McCarthy. In fact, without the strong support from Richard E. Grant, the movie would have remained in the also-rans. There isn't much more to this movie than McCarthy's understated tour de force performance, but it's more than enough.
After watching her commit her non-violent frauds and treat people the way she did, McCarthy's monologue before the judge is raw, unsentimental, and heartrending. Her meeting with Grant's character near the end raises the movie to special status.
If I had the most fun watching movies while watching this movie, then why isn't at the top of a list entitled My Favorite Top Ten Movies of 2018? Whenever I publish one of these lists, I realize that many people will not have seen all the movies on the list. I suggest that if you liked four or five of the movies on the list, you might share my taste and sensibilities, and it might give some credence to you checking out the other films on the list.
I'm fully aware that "Deadpool 2" hammers my funny bone with parody, self-mockery, over-the-top gag humor because of my specific triggers. It's very possible it is a universally funny movie, but my experience has been that, even among those viewers who enjoyed it, many found it silly and passable entertainment, enjoying it far less than I did and do every time I watch it.
My reaction to the first "Deadpool" movie was in that somewhat humorous, passable entertainment category. "2" is a sharper movie with a tragic love story which also offers Deadpool a conscience of sorts. I have also become something of a fan of Ryan Reynolds recent work especially in the under-appreciated, "Criminal", "The Hitman's Bodyguard," and "Mississippi Grind."
"Believe or not, Deadpool 2 is a family film." -- Deadpool claims after surviving his opening suicide.
He tries to build himself a family by recruiting an X-Force. Holding interviews, he comes up with Bedlam (Terry Crews) who can distort electrical fields; Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgard) who can vomit acid; Vanisher (Brad Pitt) who is mostly invisible, Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), an alien from another world who claims to be better at everything, Domino (Zazie Beetz) who is lucky, and Rob Delaney as Peter, just a regular guy. Except for Domino, they all perish in graphic, revolting, but ultimately hilarious ways before the mission even gets going.
Another reason I truly love this movie is that nothing is off-limits for parody and mockery, especially Reynolds himself, his home country Canada, his co-stars, (Watch out for this guy, Cable! He's very short, 5'11". Not like in the comics.) and all things Marvel.
In the end, Deadpool proves he was right about this R-rated movie: "What do you get when you take eight feet of chrome... one pinch of courage... a cup of good luck... a dab of racism... a splash of diabetes... and a wheelbarrow full of stage four cancer? Answer: a family. See? I didn't lie about what kind of film this was."
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Crazy Rich Asians