Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2018
December in the movie-world means award season is around the corner and annual top 10 and 20 lists are here! The Phoenix Film Festival’s movie critics make no exception, as we vote for our favorite pictures and performances with the Phoenix Critics Circle and also reveal our own best films of the year.
After watching 268 new movies in 2018, I grabbed my slide rule and protractor, performed numerous calculations and perhaps flipped a coin to proudly reveal My Top 20 Films of 2018. (By the way, which film just missed the list? #21 is “Capernaum”, the dizzying and draining Lebanese drama from Nadine Labaki.)
20 - “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” – Melissa McCarthy steps away from her comedic-comfort zone and commands the screen in a dramatic role about author Lee Israel’s true-life scandal. Unable to pull together a successful book in years, Israel began selling forged letters as collectors’ items in order to pay her bills. Director Marielle Heller pays close attention to Israel’s dark mood and matches it with dimly-lit New York City bookstores, pubs and restaurants as several settings for her dubious intentions. Hey, a woman has to make a living, right? Well, Israel pulls her new friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) into her scheme as well, as they forge ahead together. McCarthy emotes Israel’s on-screen fear of getting caught during a couple key sales and swallows those concerns, but they reveal themselves as subsequent bouts of stress. No award-stress for McCarthy and Grant, because they earned Golden Globe acting nominations.
19 - “Dogman” – A gentle dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) lives a happy life in a seaside, blue-collar neighborhood. He loves his daughter, animals and job, but a boorish ex-boxer’s (Edoardo Pesce) constant threats and brutish behavior compromises Marcello’s comfy working and emotional spaces. Director Matteo Garrone (“Gamorrah” (2008)) is not afraid to let his actors get dirty, as everything encompassing this grimy state of affairs points to an ugly ending. Garrone could not have casted two more physically different actors than the massive Pesce and diminutive Fonte, which naturally raises the tension whenever they appear together on-screen. This, however, is also true when Fonte is alone, as the worry on Marcello’s face feels ever-present, even when he cares for his doggie customers or lovely daughter, and his performance earned him a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
18 – “Green Book” - Viggo Mortensen has never been funnier, and Mahershala Ali delivers a nuanced performance and is out of this world on the piano in a crowd-pleasing road trip movie set in 1962. Based on actual events, renowned concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) hires an uncultured bouncer Tony Lip (Mortensen) as his driver for a musical tour through the Midwest and South. Director Peter Farrelly addresses segregation and deep-rooted and casual racism, but Tony and Doc regularly improve our moods as their opposite outlooks comedically clash. Director Peter Farrelly’s movie succeeds as a feel-good comedy, because it focuses more on Tony’s and Doc’s relationship, rather than the surrounding intolerance.
17 – “The Rider” – “Sometimes, dreams aren’t meant to be.” Writer/director Chloe Zhao’s beautiful but heartbreaking picture tenderly embraces this aforementioned resignation in the world of rodeo riding. Brady Jandreau, a real-life rodeo rider suffered a brain injury on the circuit, and he plays Brady Blackburn, who suffers the same fate. Brady’s doctors forbid him to get on a horse again, and through quiet moments of reflection, he attempts to internalize his fate and cope with an unknown future. Everything feels raw and authentic, as Brady struggles with poverty, but also gallops on scenic South Dakota prairies, and matched with Nathan Halpern’s score, both extremes foster audience tears.
16 - “Damsel” – Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) needs to be swept off her feet in directors David and Nathan Zellner’s (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)) latest creation. “Damsel” is a hilarious, offbeat surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years. The picture houses classic genre themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies and hazardous saloons, but also quirky exchanges and visuals reminiscent of a Wes Anderson picture, and the conflicting crescendos amuse and entertain. All the lead and supporting players - including the Zellner brothers and a precious, little scene-stealer: a miniature horse named Butterscotch - embrace the film’s pleasing and darkly comedic tones.
15 – “BlacKkKlansman” – Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department during the 1970s and creates waves, but not in ways that one might suspect. He decides to run an undercover investigation against the Klu Klux Klan and signs up his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the face of the operation. Director Spike Lee’s picture somehow balances stressful and hilarious (yes, it’s funny) themes and delivers a real-life history lesson and chilling moments, as Ron and Flip need to walk on eggshells in the presence of menacing company.
14 – “Thoroughbreds” – “We’ll do it ourselves.” Teenagers Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) decide to take matters into their own hands, but what will they do exactly? Plan a Sweet 16 party? Prepare for the SAT without a study guide? No, they agree to murder Lily’s stepdad! Cooke and Taylor-Joy share sinisterly-satisfying chemistry, when Lily starts speaking honestly to Amanda, an admitted sociopath. Writer/director Cory Finley’s dark comedy/crime drama purposely repels altruism, but he creates an odd, twisted nobility in each character, as they deliver their own corrosive, hypnotic truth, accompanied by the filmmaker’s equally compelling camerawork. The late Anton Yelchin stars in his last big screen performance.
13 – “If Beale Street Could Talk” - Director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s novel into a film of dreamy beauty and rich textures but also weaves a troubling narrative that feels all-too-common in the United States of America. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) have been friends since childhood, but their relationship grows romantic as adults. They are young – 19 and 22 years-old – but Tish’s parents and Fonny’s father joyfully offer their love and encouragement. Unfortunately, life can often meddle with our perfectly-designed plans, and this young woman and man become its latest victims. Several strong supporting performances bolster Layne and James, led by Regina King, Teyonah Parris and Brian Tyree Henry.
12 – “A Quiet Place” - Director John Krasinski channels his inner Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock to scare up this brilliantly filmed and constructed alien invasion movie. With little exposition, Krasinski utilizes a tightly-wound narrative to clearly outline a family’s current, lonely predicament. The adversarial, unworldly invaders possess extremely acute hearing, so in order to survive, parents Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) need to refrain from making noise. Even whispering could be dangerous! Clocking in at 90 minutes, this white-knuckler whips by, as it strangles your voice box and draws out your breath. Simmonds especially shines in a key supporting role.
11 – “Free Solo” – The most stressful movie experience of the year! Alex Honnold attempts to climb El Captain - a 3,000 foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park - without a rope and directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi capture his incomprehensible expedition every step of the way (pardon the pun). Someone trying to free solo a cliff like El Cap has be to wired differently than most, and the film presents Honnold’s quirky habits, like eating his meals from a frying pan and spatula, but his congenial persona and singularly-focused goals gain our admiration. If there was not enough drama with his El Cap journey, Honnold finds a charming, caring girlfriend, and now, his daredevil pursuits directly impact someone else. A mind-blowing documentary.
10 – “First Reformed” - Ethan Hawke deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination in writer/director Paul Schrader’s muddy picture about a troubled alcoholic unable to cope with the past while fearful about the present and future. Rev. Toller (Hawke) preaches sermons and other life lessons to sparse crowds who sit in white pews every Sunday at his First Reformed Church. Meanwhile, black outlooks fill his soul. By filming one or just a few characters at a time in small and large empty spaces – and with a bleak northeast winter as a backdrop - Schrader piles on gloomy despair, despite a setting of supposed affirmation. Cedric the Entertainer and Victoria Hill contribute effective supporting performances, while Hawke dominates the screen and feeds parallels to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” (1976), a film also written by Schrader.
9 – “Burning” – Director Lee Chang-dong’s picture is about haves and have-nots, belief and uncertainty, clear direction and lack of focus, urban abundance and rural frugality, and romance and unrequited love. Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) accounts for half of these opposing forces, as this young man – about 20 years-old – unfortunately, does not seem to have direction in the game of life. “To me, the world is a mystery,” Jong-su says. So is this film, as “Burning” assembles a slow-boiling love triangle between Jong-su, his free-spirited friend Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and a cagey playboy Ben (Steven Yeun). With an endless supply of money, time and confidence, Ben seemingly has it all, and Jong-su tries to crack the man’s code, but he may have uncovered something very different. Like walking 20 minutes late into a class lecture, “Burning” stokes a burning need for answers, and clinging to Jong-su is our only hope, but remember, to him, the world is a mystery.
8 – “Avengers: Infinity War” - For 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards “Avengers: Infinity War”, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not disappoint, as they serve up the crown jewel in the staggeringly-successful series. In Marvel’s 19th installment, a purple, eight-foot titan named Thanos (Josh Brolin) treks across various galaxies to collect six coveted Infinity Stones. Why? To wipe out half the population of the universe, but the Avengers aim to stop him. The Russo brothers construct their movie like a treasure hunt, mix densely-packed blends of action, intrigue and humor, and the on-screen events conjure a certain magic by always keeping us present during every single, individual moment throughout the 2-hour 29-minute runtime.
7 – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” - “He was radical. I know everyone says that, but he was radical,” Elizabeth Seamans says. Ms. Seamans – who played Mrs. McFeely on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – is referring to the show’s creator and host Fred Rogers. One might not think of Rogers as radical, but director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)) proves that he was. Neville interviews family and coworkers (and also includes several interviews from the man himself), and they describe Rogers’ genuine, philanthropic nature and ingenuity. For instance, he bravely incorporated difficult news headlines and unpleasant family issues into his show and broke them down into palatable lessons for children. Accompanied by a touching score, the documentary raises general emotion for Fred Rogers and a hope that more individuals in 2018 could be more like him. Perhaps many of us will watch this documentary and remember how to be…radical.
6 – “Vice” – Christian Bale deserves to win his second Oscar, as he transforms physically and seemingly spiritually into former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in this wildly-presented biopic that entertains, informs and horrifies. Writer/director Andy McKay employs his similar snappy, wise-cracking style of “The Big Short” (2015) to “Vice”, but rather than dive into numerous stories, McKay centers on one of the most influential but extremely discreet political figures in recent memory. Bale truly is uncanny and eerily analogous to V.P. Cheney, as we remember him over the last 30 years, but the picture explores his 20s, and it’s not complimentary. Neither is the unflattering line that McKay draws from the Nixon White House to 2018, but the movie shows respect for this quiet man’s skill set, as well as his love for his family. Amy Adams deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Lynne Cheney, Dick’s motivating force and forever-champion.
5 – “Transit” - Writer/director Christian Petzold’s latest is a surreal puzzler that begins two moves ahead of us, and then we play catch-up for most of the 101-minute runtime. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is on the run. He’s a German living in Paris, but he needs to quickly flee the city and country. He’s close to his escape while hiding in Marseille and waiting for his getaway-ship to arrive. As Georg lingers in this seaside city, one might wonder why the events mirror World War II, but everything on-screen looks like 2018. Meanwhile a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) repeatedly appears in Georg’s life for a few seconds at a time and then scurries away. It is not important to actively investigate your questions during Petzold’s film, but rather, let the narrative run through you.
4 – “Sweet Country” - Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers a deeply affective western – which won TIFF’s 2017 Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in entrenched divides between whites and aborigines. When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) becomes embroiled in a violent incident. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) find themselves on the run, and an ornery officer of the law (Bryan Brown) follows in tight pursuit. Sam and other aboriginal people depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways. Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly? The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily comparable.
3 – “Roma” - Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), “Gravity” (2013)) constructs a visual masterpiece – filmed in black and white - about an ordinary housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) living in Mexico City. In most cases, Cleo’s employers – a family of five - treat her respectfully, but she endures occasional dismissiveness, and her boyfriend spews outright vicious verbal abuse. Although Cleo casually searches for her voice, she is a woman of few words, but Cuaron surrounds her with wondrous, mammoth set pieces, sweeping camerawork and hundreds and hundreds of tiny details that nurture her story. “Roma” won the top prize at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and it is not only the favorite to earn a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but it could earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination as well.
2 – “Blindspotting” – Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote the screenplay and star in a frank, cinematic-conversation about gentrification as experienced by two lifelong Oakland, Calif. friends. Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) work for a local moving company, as they watch – firsthand – their neighborhoods permanently change. Miles resents these transformations, but Collin remains more engaged about reaching greater heights. Collin also sees institutional racism as a very real glass ceiling (and much worse), and the film lays out the justification for his anxiety. Director Carlos Lopez Estrada establishes a likable friendship between Collin and Miles, which instantly wins over the audience. Their blissful banter and comedic timing taps our funny bones, but the men also show their flaws. Miles’ frequent volatility exposes several problematic entanglements that just roll off his back, while the mild-mannered Collin only surrendered to one weak moment in his past that haunts him exponentially. Everyday moments are light, but the aforementioned flint-filled issues could combust in dire ways.
1 – “Cold War” - Music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) during a tryout for a new song and dance ensemble in 1949 Poland, and soon after, they start a fervent love affair in the most beautifully-shot movie of the year. Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s (“Ida” (2014)) dreamlike narrative – with an indeterminate final destination - plays out like floating episodes, individually scripted by fateful decisions on either side of the Iron Curtain which directly reflect distinct moods and music. Every celluloid frame soaks in either traditional or modern themes, but the common thread is the passionate tie between Wiktor and Zula, which triggers both temporary self-destructions and potent bonds over 88 entrancing minutes.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.