2018 will be remembered as a benchmark year in film. Colossal hits Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War led the North American box office to a record $11.9 billion dollars. Both films were produced by Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Disney. The mouse house flexed serious muscle to establish clear market dominance. Disney gobbled up a major competitor with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney now owns Fox, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm, to name a few. It's actually possible to have Luke Skywalker team up with the Avengers and X-Men. Disney will also launch a new streaming service to compete against another behemoth player, Netflix.
The streaming giants upped the ante in their war on the studio system. Netflix broke with its business model and started releasing big-budget, acclaimed films in limited theatrical release before their online premiere. This was a tactical move for Oscar eligibility. It sent a shudder through Hollywood, as many filmmakers and industry leaders see streaming companies as threats. Netflix spent $8 billion dollars on content, paying staggering sums for Bright, Outlaw King, Mowgli, and the year's heavy awards favorite, Roma. Not to be outdone, Amazon is reportedly looking to buy the Landmark theater chain for its releases. Movie studios aren't allowed to own brick and mortar theaters, so Amazon may be thwarted. Apple then jumped into the game this November, signing a multiyear production deal with A24; the producers of Moonlight and Ladybird.
The cinema landscape when it comes to the movies of 2018 has been redrawn, and certainly benefits all audiences. My list of the year's best films is the most diverse yet. An African superhero joins the ranks of a Mexican maid, catfished KKK racists, sound hunting monsters, crazy rich asians, and a delightful British nanny. Netflix's bold gambit will lead to Oscar gold. Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is the best film of the year. A critical darling since its Venice Film Festival debut, Roma's black and white journey into seventies Mexico City is worth every accolade. Amazon's Suspiria remake notches a spot. This is a divisive pick as many people loathed Suspiria. I thought it was hypnotically engrossing, a truly visceral film experience. The remaining choices are hopefully less controversial.
Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar winning director of Gravity and Children of Men, delivers another cinema masterpiece. Roma is a vivid, deeply immersive period drama. Filmed in stark black and white, it transports you seamlessly into the lives of its characters. The story told is personal, but reflects the societal changes and conflicts of the time. What begins as subtle and nuanced, evolves into heartbreaking resolve. Roma is achingly beautiful. Roma is filled with artful juxtaposition. Sofia and Cleo, master and servant, rich and poor, are both dealing with abandonment. The women are left to pick up the pieces and carry on. This is where Roma hits like an emotional freight train.
The expertly crafted exposition puts the audience directly in the women's shoes. You feel their betrayal, loneliness, and struggle. But they are not bitter or vindictive. The final act of Roma is enthralling. Cuarón's protagonists continue on with kindness and strength. The use of black and white film contributes greatly to the narrative. When Cleo wakes the children for breakfast, Roma takes on a dreamy atmosphere. The opposite happens when Cleo runs through the chaotic city streets. The different shades of black and grey forces the audience to imagine the sceneries true palette. The same goes for the violent climax. Blood is not a visceral red, but an inky, hollow black. The lack of definitive color spurs intense reactions. Cuarón, who's also the cinematographer, manipulates light like a puppet. He has a genius understanding of how lighting can affect mood on film.
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman addresses America's racial disparity from a truly novel perspective. A black detective ingeniously infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in the early seventies. Along the way, he struggles to reconcile his duties as a police officer against the virulent racism subjugating his people. The story is so wild, it borders on the absurd. This is the reason why BlacKkKlansman is so incisive. It is both hilarious and terrifying. It paints a raw and ugly picture of humanity's worst instincts. The apple did not fall far from the tree and is not as green as expected. John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is a revelation. Ron Stallworth was a tightrope walker. His lifelong dream was to be a policeman. When given his chance, he knew just how harshly the spotlight would shine on him.
On one hand, he had the racist cops and the genuine fear of a black uprising working against him. Then he had to lie to the black students, including his love interest (Laura Harrier), about his true affiliation. The same dichotomy affected Flip Zimmerman. Adam Driver has a powerful monologue about never seeing himself as Jewish. That changed when he was forced to be an anti-Semite. Can you imagine hanging out with Nazi enthusiasts as they dispel the Holocaust as a Jewish scam? Washington and Driver do the real policemen they portrayed justice with their excellent performances. BlacKkKlansman is a hard-hitting, unvarnished look at racism. It's also knockdown funny at the same time.
It's a bizarre feeling to laugh so hard while witnessing such despicable behavior. Stallworth's conversations with the Klan, especially David Duke, are surreal. The blinding hatred and racist dogma is on display in visceral detail. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Most of the Klan members went to great pains to hide their affiliation. But with the curtains closed, their sinister intentions were revealed. Stallworth and Zimmerman exposed them as murderous thugs in a war for racial dominance.
Black Panther transcends the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a blockbuster superhero epic, gloriously so; but reaches a level of sophistication and depth that is rarely seen in the genre. Writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) touches many peaks with his masterpiece. Black Panther is a story of family, faith, and country; about challenging convention and becoming greater in the process. It is also one hundred percent, unabashedly African, a testament to a continent and its people. Black Panther was the highest grossing film at the North American box office. It earned $700 million domestically and a whopping $1.3 billion globally. You will be captivated by Black Panther from the opening frame to the last. Ryan Coogler hits the ground running and never looks back.
He opens with a riveting account of Wakandan history, why this small nation closed itself off, then explores the modern society with breathtaking detail. He embraces African culture with vibrancy and futuristic vision; setting the table for the massive conflict to come. These early scenes are vital. They allow the characters to exist in a world where they fully belong. It is top notch exposition, the deft hand of a brilliant writer and director.Black Panther has T'Challa as the central character, but just like the sun; the supporting cast in his orbit is magnificent. Every female role in this film is well-defined. They are not eye-candy, damsels to be rescued, or screen fodder. Coogler's script gives them distinct personalities and duties. I can not honestly even think of an action film with so many integral female characters. Black Panther is marketed as a "black" film, but I think it should also be recognized for gender equity.
The women here kick major ass. The biggest surprise of Black Panther is Michael B. Jordan. Are you sitting down for this? His Eric Killmonger is the BEST VILLAIN we have seen yet in the MCU. Jordan owns this film. He is damn good. We've gotten so used to cackling, cartoonish antagonists. You will be dumbstruck by Killmonger's calculated ruthlessness. This acclamation takes nothing away from star Chadwick Boseman. He's tremendous as the Black Panther, but his character is subdued and introspective by nature. Killmonger raises the bar for MCU baddies. Michael B. Jordan has been Ryan Coogler's muse from his first film. They continue to deliver greatness. Thanos has big shoes to fill.
Widows is a slow-burn, expertly crafted crime drama with thrilling plot twists. Based on an early eighties British television series, the film has been adapted by Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Twelve Years a Slave) and his co-writer, famed novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). There's greatness on multiple levels. The murders, mystery, and eventual heist share equal footing with the character development. Widows is an intensely personal story of bereaved women thrust into an impossible situation. It keeps the characters squarely in focus, but then pulls back to show the environment that fostered them. Steve McQueen's camera placement deserves study in film school. He is operating on a genius level here. McQueen uses extreme close-ups as a hammer. Viola Davis and Liam Neeson sucking face like horny teenagers. Her eyes gushing tears, lips quivering, as she breaks down. Alice is fiercely slapped by her mother. The camera zooms in on Elizabeth Debicki's anguished face as she struggles not to cry.
This intensity is then taken in an entirely different direction. McQueen has a scene where characters are driving around a Chicago neighborhood. We hear their dialogue, but don't see them. The audience sees the car exterior. The focus is on the ghetto transitioning to wealthy homes in mere blocks. It's a powerful understanding of the socioeconomic forces at play. Widows firmly establishes Steve McQueen among the elite auteurs in cinema. Widows is not a gratuitous action film. The violence is a component of the story, not a crutch. The drama far outweighs the gunplay. That said, there are several incredibly graphic scenes. Daniel Kaluuya co-stars as Jamal Manning's brother and enforcer. He is a merciless sociopath, a steel boot to soft ass. Kaluuya gives Josh Brolin and Michael B. Jordan real competition for best villain of the year
A Quiet Place
A Quiet Place takes a high concept and runs with it to absolute glory. The set-up is simple. Humanity has been decimated by fearsome creatures. They hunt by using sound. Anything out of the ordinary background noise is detected and savaged mercilessly. To survive, you must be quiet. That's the rule, plain and simple. A Quiet Place is no gimmick. It is a chilling, brilliantly crafted exploration of humanity and terror. A Quiet Place is the best horror film since Get Out. A Quiet Place will have you on baited breath. Just like the characters, you will be afraid to utter a single word. The script by John Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods is deftly crafted. It is Hitchcockian in its approach. Every moment is dire. Every character plays a part. There is no fluff or gratuity. It is a family's sheer will to survive.
The leanness of the plot, the painstaking detail; it all makes the Abbotts enthralling. They could be your next door neighbors. The writing here is just so damn good. A Quiet Place, just like Get Out, is an early contender for best original screenplay. John Krasinski directs the hell out of this film. This is not the megacity Armageddon. A Quiet Place takes place almost entirely on a farm and the surrounding woods. Krasinski defines intimacy with his approach. A lot of exposition is spent on the creatures, but much more time is spent on the family dynamic. They are not action heroes, nor do they behave irrationally. This is perhaps the best tenet of the film. But they also make mistakes. People, especially children, do not listen, do not follow rules. The characters and their predicaments are completely logical. Combine this realism with Krasinski's spellbinding tension and you have a winner.
Vice is a wickedly funny, brilliantly satirical black comedy about the rise to power of Dick Cheney. Considered the most powerful vice president in United States history, Vice pulls no punches in its portrayal of his authoritarian nature. Writer/director Adam McKay skewers Cheney and the political machine that fueled the neoconservative agenda. He places an almost equal focus on Cheney's wife, Lynne. They were a formidable couple that bent the Republican party, the country, and eventually the world to their will. Adam McKay is crystal clear about his agenda and feelings toward Cheney. The genius of Vice is how he responds to the criticism of his approach. Adam McKay has an obvious disdain for the Cheneys, their machinations, acolytes, and the results of their influence.
But he's not above introspection regarding the film's motives. McKay elucidates the other side's viewpoints, and pointedly rebukes any criticism of Vice being a liberal Hollywood hit piece. The people and events portrayed in Vice have been written about and filmed exhaustively. Dick Cheney rarely does interviews, and obviously didn't have anything to do with this film. But he has decades in the public arena that leave little doubt to his beliefs. Much like his film about the Housing crisis, The Big Short, McKay marks boundaries between facts and conjecture with incisive humor. Christian Bale needs to clear space on the shelf for another Oscar. His transformation into Dick Cheney is tour de force acting. Bale's immense weight gain, along with the incredible make-up and prosthetics, make him a startling doppelganger. His performance in Vice is next level, astounding on every front.
The Favourite is a wickedly funny tale of cutthroat competition. Ruthless characters lie, scheme, and screw their way into the heart of an obese, fickle monarch. The palace intrigue plunges into the absurd with devilish abandon. Brilliant performances and biting dialogue keep the story from becoming too silly. The Favourite is merciless in its depiction of British nobility. Greek Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) continues to be an edgy and surrealistic filmmaker. The Favourite is about control of the British monarchy, but completely different in style and tone from Mary Queen of Scots. The Favourite is laugh out loud hilarious. The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara uses adult themes and the vagaries of human nature to satirize historical events. The nobles at the center of this power play are mocked and lampooned. The pomposity of their wealthy lives skewered by their ludicrous pastimes. Yorgos Lanthimos delights in their foolish revelry. The court dance scenes, normally dull as rocks in English period films, had the audience in my screening in stitches.
Mary Poppins Returns
Emily Blunt gives an Oscar worthy performance. She's had a stellar career so far, but her turn as Mary Poppins is transcendent. This is an incredible achievement. Julie Andrews is a legend. Children for decades have grown up watching her as Mary Poppins. Emily Blunt is not doing a Julie Andrews impersonation. She makes the character her own. Mary Poppins has a twinkle in her eyes, bounce in her step, and a trustworthy disposition that gives comfort to all. Couple that with Blunt's formidable talent as a dancer and singer. Audiences are going to love her, gasp, as much as they did Julie Andrews. She really is that good. The production team behind Mary Poppins Returns understood the original's formula. The mix of fantasy, music, and dance fuels the positive message of the story. Imagination lifts the spirit, the script by David Magee gives hope and kindness no matter the circumstance. Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) takes his tremendous skill as a choreographer and director to new heights.
He's made a grand, lustrous film. The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman will have you dancing in your seats. Once again, treading on the hallowed ground of the venerable Sherman Brothers, who scored the original as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Jungle Book is a risky proposition. Shaiman and Wittman, much like Emily Blunt, give their own spin on the music. Their work is positively brilliant. From Lin Manuel-Miranda's opening theme, "Underneath the London Sky", the film hooks you and never lets go. The acting, songs, and choreography are going to get the lion's share of publicity, but I have to give props to the production designer (John Myhre), cinematographer (Dion Beebe), costume designer (Sandy Powell), and special effects team. Mary Poppins Returns looks amazing. Depression era London is juxtaposed by the bright and colorful magical nanny. From underwater to rooftops, every setting is a marvel. The animation scenes had children in my theater spellbound. Mary Poppins Returns will be a frontrunner for every technical award.
Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians is an absolute joy to behold, a truly outstanding romantic comedy. The film has been getting a lot of attention for its Asian cast and setting. That's groundbreaking and applaudable, but not the reason to see it. Watch Crazy Rich Asians because it's a great film. You will laugh hysterically, possibly shed a few tears, and leave the theater with a whole lot of love in your heart. Director Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2) has adapted Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel with flair and finesse. Crazy Rich Asians is easily the best date movie of the year. Crazy Rich Asians has a dynamic plot that's successful across the board. Rachel (Constance Wu) is not Cinderella. She isn't an oppressed girl, mired in poverty; waiting for a rich suitor to sweep her away. Hardly, Rachel is beautiful, intelligent, and affluent in her own right. It's her background, class structure, and jealousy that makes her despicable. The caste system prejudice, coupled with the rigid familial dogma of Chinese culture, is a near impenetrable barrier for an outsider to breach. Crazy Rich Asians paints an insightful picture of the barriers couples face to happiness. It's both funny and heartbreaking to see. Crazy Rich Asians grossed $236 million dollars at the worldwide box office. Making it the most successful romantic comedy in years.
Suspiria is a reimagining of Dario Argento's seventies horror classic. I have never seen the original, but had read about it extensively over the years. I thought this knowledge would prepare me for what to expect in Luca Guadagnino's version. Shocking is an understatement. Suspiria truly comes out of left field. It's extremely graphic. There's no shortage of blood, violence, and nudity. But that's not what makes the film so intriguing. Guadagnino masterfully blends style with the densely layered plot. There's a torrent of meaning behind the characters and their actions. Suspiria is the type of film you argue passionately about, for and against. I can see why some would call the film indulgent, baffling. But counter that Suspiria is not meant to be completely understood in one fell swoop. Guadagnino wants the film to linger in your psyche, cause reflection.
The lead actresses in Suspiria are phenomenal. Tilda Swinton continues to be daring and experimental. She stars as Madame Blanc, and is unrecognizable as Dr. Klemperer, a male psychiatrist. Swinton is a master of the acting craft; also playing a third character, which I won't reveal. Dakota Johnson takes a huge leap forward in her career. Her work in the film is so bold. She's never been shy about nudity, but Suspiria is not popcorn titillation like Fifty Shades of Grey. Her scenes are blisteringly raw, especially the dancing. Dakota Johnson bares her body undauntedly. Both women had previously worked with Luca Guadagnino. He earned their trust here. They gave him absolute fearlessness. Two aspects of Suspiria are instrumental to its effectiveness. The score by Radiohead's Thom Yorke is the definition of haunting. It's eerily melodic, but a versatile accompaniment to the barrage of twisted imagery. Yorke's music works hand in hand with the frenetic dance scenes and rituals. Damien Jalet is the film's choreographer. He does an incredible job. The company's movements are convulsive, sinister. Each performance is like a trap, drawing the audience deeper into the recesses of terror. The climactic scene is jaw-dropping. I'm not usually a fan of excessive gore or nudity, but give the filmmakers an A plus for artistic collaboration.