Undoubtedly there have been a whole host of brilliant films in 2018 – and several completely terrible ones which I wish I could scratch out of my memory forever yet continue to haunt my dreams. I’m looking at you, Wonder Wheel (more like What The Heck Wheel??) Anyway, keeping things celebratory, let’s and go with my favorites from the past 12 months, which are here for your perusal and enjoyment.
The tense one: Widows
Widows is a sleek, murderously tense thriller with a penchant for notoriety, and is an absolutely fantastic film. Viola Davis made an excellent lead. She played Veronica Rawlings, widow of criminal Harry (Liam Neeson), who makes a pact with the other widows of deceased gang members after their final heist goes awry. As I mentioned in my very enthusiastic review, Steve McQueen’s direction intended to reveal a cross-section of contemporary US society across racial and class divides and that Widows is a skewering of toxic political regimes as much as organized crime itself.
Writer Gillian Flynn ensures that every small element, every piece of dialogue, every motif fulfills a purpose. It blew me away. I loved that the intersecting plotlines were so well furnished yet used so economically: referring back to a number of shots from the original TV series, the movie is faithful to the original series while updating, subverting, and reinventing stereotypes of gender and class. Plot-wise, it’s phenomenal. Key moments are so smoothly incorporated as to be almost underplayed. If I were to level any criticism at the film as a whole, it would be that not enough was made of these climactic moments – one is so shocking it had the entire room stunned into silence. As for the rest of the film: flawless.
The political one: BlackKklansman
Spike Lee is the hero of the year. If he intended to paralyze audiences with pure shock factor, he has done it. Black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) from the Colorado Police Department hatches a plot with Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. (Slow exhale.) The weighty social and political commentary that underscores the film is always present through dialogue and through iconography – during one ceremony, members of the Klan celebrate with a screening of Birth of a Nation and it’s difficult not to look away. The sad thing is that this was such a popular film on release in 1915, and that – as the film proves – attitudes over 100 years later are not so different or progressive. We are presented with this through the lens of Stallworth’s dismayed character, and further through the camera lens itself: it is Lee’s mission to make us aware of these atrocities, and to invite us to consider their implications, rather than sitting back as passive spectators.
Although controversial in subject matter, it is clear that Spike Lee’s intention is never to tread gently: he bares the truth, as it would be, and invites us to make what we will of it. It couldn’t have been easy to make, but Lee’s impressive efforts are rewarded. A demanding, thoughtful and provoking film, this is a masterwork from a cerebral filmmaker, powerful enough to become one of the best films of 2018.
The musical one: A Star is Born
For all the criticism and memes preoccupations set in motion, I thought this film was simply amazing. Lady Gaga is breathtaking: it’s one thing to know her music and the global superstar she has become, but she also possesses a true acting talent and she shines in the role of Ally, a struggling artist who is discovered by Bradley Cooper’s Jack. Constantly underplaying her ever-present sensationalism, Gaga glides into the role of a talented – but tremendously insecure – young woman. The first time she sang La Vie En Rose, it was enchanting: everyone in the auditorium was spellbound, and I know it moved me to tears.
I’m usually a harsh critic when it boils down to musicals: it’s my favorite genre and I will remain a La La Land advocate until the end of time, taking the same opportunity to explain to anyone who will listen about my disdain for the flawed Greatest Showman. But A Star is Born seems to exist on a separate plane: it emulates the spectacle of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals of the 40s and 50s, and I really don’t have anything bad to say about the music because the singer/songwriter talent was phenomenal. There were elements of everything from Meet Me In St. Louis to Baby Driver. What’s more, for all the glamour of Ally’s rise to stardom (which is addictive, heady, easy to get whisked away in) there was always a counterpart in Jack battling his personal demons and an internal conflict to be worked through, an antidote to fame.
To me, what stands out the most is not just the brilliant chemistry between the two leads, or even the songs, which were excellent; it was the conviction and heart that this movie dedicated to its subject. In what could have easily turned into a cliched and repetitive take on an original storyline, Cooper was able to bring a fresh perspective and a really heartfelt performance to the film, already a winner at Venice this summer and likely up for multiple Oscars in February. Gaga is the story’s star, but Cooper has really surpassed himself with this debut and proven his mettle as a sincere and noteworthy director, a crossover few are able to do so well.
The philosophical one: Roma
On the surface, Roma is really a very simple film, a homage to the visionaries of Italian Neorealism in the 1940s who were gifted with sight for the wonders of everyday life. A camera follows – or rather, physically embraces, since it’s shot at such a generous angle – the world of a woman named Cleo, who works as a servant for a wealthy household in Mexico in 1970. Told over the course of a year, Roma is an expansive epic, unfolding at a strolling pace in order to draw out the nuances of each vignette in Cleo’s life. Roma seems so natural that Cleo is as much a part of the landscape, the walls of the family home, as she is a separate entity. Roma requires patience, requires absolute quiet, but it’s no less than Cuarón would expect for the way he has so attentively formed the vision of a woman’s life.
There’s very good reason to implore viewers to watch this on the big screen, even with its limited theatrical run coinciding simultaneous to the Netflix release. If you wanted to get technical, we could talk about the way in which the stereo surround sound physically seemed to envelop the space, placing you just out of the center – within, but without, close enough to witness Cleo, to read her mind, but just distanced enough to take a breath and process eternally what she’s experiencing. As far as immediacy goes, it’s excellent – it’s breathtakingly intimate, and that can only be experienced in a theatrical setting.
It’s very unusual to have a film so simple, yet is so compelling. At times I could hardly breathe for fear of what was coming next, had to remind myself that the people on screen were actors who had absorbed the role. And, for all the tragedy that the film offered, there was finally redemption when it came to a close. I felt hope, and I felt like there was healing for all the trauma that had caused so much damage. It’s a film that says to me, life is a gift – don’t waste it.
The favorite one: Mission Impossible: Fallout
What can I say? Fallout was absolutely fantastic. I sat in the front row of the cinema and felt like a little kid again, enthralled by the crazy, larger-than-life explosions on screen, the glittering nightclub scenes, the excessively violent bathroom scenes, the sheer scale of the Kashmir scenes. It was everything you would ever want from a Mission: Impossible film, pure escapism. I fully bought into it, listened to the soundtrack for days and couldn’t stop thinking about how absolutely thrilling it was. Everything cinema should be. Do I remember the minutiae of the plot? Not really. Do I want to watch it again? I absolutely do.
I’ll admit I’ve not been the most loyal devotee of the Mission: Impossible franchise, but it didn’t seem to matter coming into this film. If you know who Tom Cruise is, and want to see him get thrown around and perform insane stunts (sometimes with dire consequences – thinking of his foot still sends shivers down my spine), then you’ve come to the right place. While there have been a plethora of stand-out films this year, Fallout tops my list not for being the cleverest, the most weighty, or the most likely to elicit ugly crying in public. It was just fantastically entertaining and the one I wish was playing every week on the big screen. Mr. Cruise, you just keep surpassing yourself.