A year in the life of a professional movie critic is a lot like marathon: You start slow, build a consistent pace, then give in to a full-on sprint at the very end. It never fails to amuse me how many pilau duds litter the first part of the year (anyone remember the first new movie of the year, Insidious: The Last Key?).
Then, around summer, the movies get really fun. Dumb, yes, but fun. Once school is back in session, I keep hearing about all these awards-caliber “instant classics” pouring out of film festivals. Then, around December, they all arrive, like a late delivery of packages, piling up past your door frame.
As of this writing, I still haven’t seen Mary Poppins Returns, Vice, or the Mamoa fest we’ve all been waiting for, Aquaman (I think it’s safe to say that Jason Momoa is everyone’s “What I Really Want For Christmas,” but I digress…). I have the awful feeling that, in the remaining days of 2018, I’ll see a few titles that could easily have budged their way onto my list.
Among those just outside the top ten: the better-than-anyone-expected Solo: A Star Wars Story and two wonderful, layered indies made in Hawai‘i, the Alexander Bocchieri and Stacey Hayashi production of Go For Broke and Brian Kohne’s made-in-Maui Kuleana. Here are ten favorites of 2018.
- First Man: Damien Chazelle’s intimate, exciting space exploration epic is the best film of its kind since The Right Stuff. Chazelle’s film captures its era, invites contrasting opinions about whether humans should attempt space travel, and tells a human story of pushing boldly upward while tragedy and mortality weigh us down. Chazelle places his audience inside the spacecrafts and mindsets of his characters more profoundly than any film before it. There has never been an outer space film quite like this and Ryan Gosling’s internal and quietly extraordinary performance captures Neil Armstrong’s unfathomable life. Adding needed depth and a fresh perspective is Claire Foy, superb as Armstrong’s long suffering wife. With production every bit as impeccable as the cast and screenplay (the sound and visual effects are incredible), First Man doesn’t give forced uplift but a complex, thrilling depiction of astounding bravery. This is a colossal achievement.
- Roma: Alfonso Cuaron’s new film is in black and white, 135 minutes long, and has subtitles because it’s in Spanish and set in Mexico City during the 1970s. Sounds miss-able, right? Actually, this essential new film from wunderkind Cuaron (his previous films were Gravity and Children of Men) offers a profound immersion and an intimate, you-are there portrait of his childhood. The experience will stay with you.
- Isle of Dogs: Wes Anderson’s doggone brilliant stop motion-animated comedy creates a new, vivid world with a vast history and sci-fi leanings. Grittier and stranger than Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox but, in a different way, every bit a creative milestone. It says so much about the need for compassion towards animals, as well as the nature of identity and language barriers.
- A Quiet Place: There were scarier horror films that came out in 2018. Yet, none other managed to be so tightly constructed (just 90 minutes!) and in command of its technique. Star, director, and co-screenwriter John Krasinski created a “Twilight Zone” premise and conceptual knockout that must’ve made M. Night Shyamalan envious. The sound design is ingenious – audiences gladly kept quiet. More, please!
- Sicario: Day of the Soldado: In this, the year’s best sequel, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and newcomer Isabela Moner give potent leading turns in this tough, surprising crime saga. The real secret weapon is screenwriter extraordinaire Taylor Sheridan, who has been annually crafting brilliant character studies and neo-westerns: Wind River in 2017, Hell or High Water in 2016, and Sicario in 2015. This stand-alone work surpasses its original.
- Widows: Steve McQueen’s followed up 12 Years a Slave with this pulpy thriller, in which the wives of deceased criminals bond for one last heist. If Ocean’s 8 had any heart, guts, or brains, it would be this movie. Full of knockout performances and killer scenes (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out makes a terrifying villain), McQueen’s chilly command of cinema matches the richness of the story.
- A Star Is Born: Like Krasinski, movie star-on-the-rise Bradley Cooper had a lot to lose on his directorial effort and managed to surpass every expectation. Even if you’re familiar with this tale, the immediacy Cooper brings to the drama and concert sequences astonish. So do the performances, with Cooper’s grand performance countered by Lady Gaga’s vulnerable turn and Sam Elliot’s heartbreaking portrayal.
- Leave No Trace: The new film from writer and director Debra Granik (who made the terrific 2010 Winter’s Bone) portrays a father and daughter living in the woods. In the leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie give natural, utterly believable performances. I cared deeply about these characters. Their circumstances, and the way they consider alternatives, makes for a thoughtful, beautiful drama.
- Eighth Grade: Stand-up comedian-turned-writer and director Bo Burnham’s hilarious and insightful portrait of a 13-year-old girl’s last week of middle school will touch upon some universal nerves. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is fantastic in the lead and Burnham avoids exploitation by just making every detail feel painfully correct.
- Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Gus Van Sant’s film on the life of paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan is rich with humor and honesty. In addition to a typically great turn by Joaquin Phoenix (playing Callahan with soulful depth), Jack Black and especially Jonah Hill are surprisingly excellent. Van Sant’s playful approach and a handful of genuinely moving scenes make this stand out. This one celebrates life and our surprising ability at reinvention.
Image courtesy IMDB