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Top Ten Films of 2018

January 21, 2019

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When I think of the cinema of 2018 the words bold and powerful come to mind. Some incorporate both words in unexpected and unforgettable ways, while others tip the scale one way or the other. There are films that are bold in their beauty, ones that are immersive and exude a tangible authenticity and then there are those films that communicate their themes in such a powerful manner that you wind up discussing them or telling others about them long after viewing. Which is one of the reasons I inevitably put myself through the ringer to make this annual list and like every year, this was a tough list to make. 

Not only is it a traditional way to close out the year, but I’ve also been told that such a list has been quite helpful to regular readers of the site, of whom I am greatly indebted to. Waiting till MLK Day to post the Top Ten Films of the year list is purposeful in that is the anniversary of this site and this particular list is brought to you by the number nine. That’s right, believe it or not, I’m steering this thing into its ninth year. Thank you to those who’ve visited, whether you stop in weekly or every now and then. Thanks to those who’ve shared and recommended Keeping It Reel to others. Every pair of eyes helps. And a special thanks goes out to those who’ve clicked on that “Donate” button! Yes, it actually happens and I appreciate any monetary gift that comes through more than you’ll ever know.

This year I’ve found it a real challenge to write about each film I’ve seen. If you don’t see a review from me here, chances are I haven’t gotten around to it or I talked about it over on the Kicking the Seat podcast, hosted by my colleague, Ian Simmons. Ideally, I’d love to be able to write about everything I see, but life happens and when you’re not doing this full time, that can confound aspirations further.

Okay, enough of that – joining me this year is the ever astute and observant Steven Attanasie, a fellow film enthusiast and contributing writer here at Keeping It Reel, who finds humanity as a common thread that interweaves throughout his Top Ten. In a world of daily negativity and one-sided perspectives, it helps to be reminded of our humanity and our ability, our need, to empathize with others.

 

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There are certain films like “Isle of Dogs” and “Hereditary” that I thought I’d really like, but I only wound up only having a respect and appreciation for, which is surprising considering how much I enjoy the films of Wes Anderson. Maybe the timing isn’t right just yet and I will one day become fonder for the canine tale (heh). In the case of “Hereditary”, the buzz from Sundance last year along with a stellar trailer, not to mention an immense appreciation for Toni Collette, had me really excited for this disturbing horror story from writer/director Ari Aster. While I thought the production design and most of the performances were great (mainly Collette and Alex Wolff, who plays her son), I found myself throwing my hands up and checking out of the story as it unfolded. I know I’m in the minority on these two (and probably a few others this year), but that’s how it goes.

 

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Admittedly, there are also films I feel compelled to give another try. “If Beale Street Could Talk”, “Cold War”, “Madeline’s Madeline”, “Zama” and “Minding the Gap” – all on many year-end lists – are noteworthy films that I consider to be good, yet I feel the warrant second viewings in order to accurately discern where I land on them. Some films are like that.

Movies that are still on my radar include: “The Old Man and the Gun”, “Shirkers”, “Private Life”, “Monrovia, Indiana”, “Werewolf”, “Bad Times at the El Royale”, “Border”, “Bisbee ’17”, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?”, “A Prayer Before Dawn” and “Happy as Lazarro”. 

Films that I had a hard time leaving off my list, which could be considered Honorable Mentions or would no doubt land in my 11-25 spots include (in no particular order): “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”, “Black Panther”, “Revenge”, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, “Custody”, “Love, Simon”, “The Hate U Give”, “A Quiet Place“, “First Reformed”, “The Favourite”, “Burning”, “You Were Never Really There”, “The Sisters Brothers” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” I had a hard time leaving these films off my Top Ten, but it had to be done.

So, without further ado, here are the Ten films from 2018 that resonate the most, the most memorable ones that I look forward to revisiting. Speaking for my own list, I can confidently say they are all absorbing, and most certainly bold and powerful…

 

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“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

 

10.

Steven – LEAVE NO TRACE

Deborah Granik’s 2010 film “Winter’s Bone” established her as a director with real southern credibility, a director able to portray a way of life not often seen on film with tremendous truthfulness. Her latest work, “Leave No Trace,” is as no-frills as filmmaking gets, telling a gripping story about a father (a never-better Ben Foster) and his daughter (the remarkable Thomasin McKenzie) living off the grid. Nowhere near as gut-wrenching as “Winter’s Bone,” this is one of the most economical stories of love and survival ever told, with a perfectly pitched pair of performances from Foster and McKenzie. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

David – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

The best superhero movie of the year is also the best animated feature of the year and it just so happens to revolve around a character we’ve seen countless times over the years. By all accounts, it shouldn’t work, but “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” surprises by differentiating itself from previous “Spider-Man” movies in many different ways – there are a handful of characters with similar abilities as Spider-Man, the overall tone is insanely clever and funny, and the unique animation approach here makes it feel like comic book pages are coming alive right on the big screen. At the center of the kinetic story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American teen who suddenly finds himself a web-slinger and in need of assistance from others who’ve had these powers longer than he has. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (who come from animated and live-action backgrounds), from a screenplay by Phil Lord and Rothman, “Spider-Verse” convinces viewers that “anyone can wear the mask”, even if he or she doesn’t look like Peter Parker. That’s not only a fantastic modern take on the hero, it’s also straight from the comics, which is certainly a bold move. When the impressive action sequences and hilarious bits were over, I didn’t care about seeing another live-action Spider-Man movie, although that’s inevitable. (still in theaters)

 

9.

Steven – BLACK PANTHER 

Ten years ago, Christopher Nolan elevated the comic book movie to an art form with “The Dark Knight”, and this year, Ryan Cooglar pulled off an equally impressive feat with his foray into the genre. “Black Panther” transcends the confines of what has come to be known as “The Marvel Formula” and gives a wonderfully subversive riff on the superhero film. More than that, however, the film is a celebration of African culture, a warning against the dangers of isolationism, and a rip-roaringly fun action adventure film. That its roots are in the world of comic books is a testament to the bright future the genre has when filmmakers can continue deconstructing what it is that makes a comic book movie. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

David – ANNIHILATION

This is a film that was released early in the year that has several moments which still remain vivid and haunting almost a year later. It’s a sci-fi thriller that’s weighed heavily throughout by grief and uncertainty, yet its visuals, in all their transfixing beauty transcend the dread into something inexplicably surreal. The story, written by director Alex Garland, veers from author Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy, follows a female-led military research crew – Lena (Natalie Portman), Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Josie (Tessa Thompson) – as they journey through a growing kaleidoscope-like bubble called the Shimmer that landed from space, determined to find out what became of those who travelled before them. Who this troubled quartet is and what they encounter becomes amplified in the Shimmer and it becomes quite a bizarre and stomach-turning (literally) trip, filled with beautiful visuals and haunting sounds. The less you know going in, the better, but if you’re interested in science fiction that challenges, this is the film to see. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

 

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“Annihilation”

 

8.

Steven – ANNIHILATION

Alex Garland has a corner on smart science fiction, and his follow-up to 2015’s “Ex Machina” is a much more expressionistic take on a similar question: What does it mean to be human. In a society increasingly reliant on technology, what is it, ultimately, that separates human from machine? Far more elliptical than any of his previous films, “Annihilation” doesn’t necessarily set out to answer all of the many questions it raises. The fun, however, is in figuring out what it all means for yourself. Any science fiction film that climaxes with a visual effects-laden modern dance sequence can’t be all bad, can it?

David – FREE SOLO 

Sorry, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise, but this is the one that beat out “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” for best action movie of the year. The impressive documentary from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi that capture free solo climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb El Capitan in Yosemite is simply amazing. It is the most literal example of a life-or-death situation that I can recall on the big-screen. One cannot watch “Free Solo” without thinking about what it takes to film such an endeavor. Chin and his filmmaking crew are experienced climbers and their goal is to bring as close to Honnold and nature as possible, while Vasarhelyi provides us with an up-close examination of who this fascinating and unique person is that draws in even closer to the film’s subject. “Free Solo” is definitely not a movie to be watched on a phone. (still in theaters)

 

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“Free Solo”

 

7.

Steven – EIGHTH GRADE

The notion of a YouTube star making a feature film sounds like a terrible proposition, however, with his feature directorial debut, Bo Burnham has crafted one of the most painfully honest films about adolescence since Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Where Solondz reveled in his characters wallowing in the depths of adolescent despair, though, Burnham reaches out through his characters with heartbreaking empathy. Young Elsie Fisher gives a wonderfully realized portrait of an awkward teen, while the always reliable Josh Hamilton gives the performance of his career as a dad who wishes his daughter loved herself as much as he loves her. It’s often a cringe-inducing and difficult film to watch, but it cuts to the core of the universally terrible experience that middle school is for everyone. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

David – EIGHTH GRADE

This movie did a number on me. It hurt my heart and produced anxiety equal to that of young Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who’s navigating her way through the perilous last days of eighth grade. Sure, I’m a man and she’s a girl, but nevertheless I saw in her the same insecurities and uncertainties that I had when I was her age, trying to hold my head up amidst the constant pressures of middle school and I didn’t even have to contend with social media and the internet back then. The fact that such an authentic and real characterization of a complex girl comes from the mind of a man is unbelievable, but writer/director Bo Burnham knows that what Kayla is going through is universal and relatable to any viewer, regardless of age. Of course, there may be different responses to “Eighth Grade” and that may be dependent on how far removed you are from middle school or whether you’re Kayla’s age or a parent trying to love and understand your own teen, like her supportive father (Josh Hamilton, delivering a wonderfully calibrated performance), this movie is without a doubt a real gem. In one of the great breakout performances of the year, Fisher deserves all the buzz she’s received and then some. Gucci!

 

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“Shoplifters”

 

6.

Steven – SHOPLIFTERS

That I am only now arriving to the party on Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is something I shall likely never forgive myself for, but his latest film has all the humanity once could hope for in a fictional film. Set in a poverty-stricken area of Tokyo, “Shoplifters” centers around a ramshackle family of petty thieves, skating by in the unseen corners of the city. When they decide, against their better judgment, to take in a seemingly abandoned five year-old girl, they redefine the notion of family. Bitterly funny, bleak yet optimistic, this tenderly loving film will stay with you long after it’s over. (still in theaters, coming to DVD/Blu-ray on February 12th)

David – WIDOWS 

The most baffling thing of the film year is how the heist thriller “Widows” failed to find an audience. From the striking opening to its appropriate ending, Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen has crafted something original and different for a genre picture. Written by Gillian Flynn (loosely adapting a British television mini-series from decades ago) and lensed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the stylistic Chicago-based tale offers legit thrills with dashes of humor (some subtle and light, others dark and biting) and overall straight-up entertainment, while touching on some complex themes. The fully-realized characters, both resilient protagonists and intimidating antagonists, are portrayed by one of the best ensembles of the year, led by Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo. My hope is that “Widows” will earn more appreciation in years to come. (still in theaters, coming to DVD/Blu-ray on February 5th)

 

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“Widows”

5.

Steven – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

Peter Jackson has always been enamored with special effects and what they can do to aid in telling a story. With “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson used special effects to bring the past to life in a way never before seen in a film. Jackson and his team of visual effects wizards have revitalized century-old footage, using it to connect us to people and places long gone. A World War I documentary that’s not the least bit interested in the war itself, Jackson’s brilliantly realized film ensures we never forget the real cost of any conflict is humanity. The soldiers of this film not only shall not grow old, they’ll never be forgotten by anyone who sees this film. (returning to theaters on February 2nd)

David – A STAR IS BORN 

No, I am not sick of “Shallow” or anything else on this great soundtrack, because each time I listen to it, I get sucked back into the touching and rousing moments from Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born”. By all intents and purposes, this remake shouldn’t work, yet it does and it cuts and soars on an emotional level with stellar production values, stunning cinematography and intuitive details that honor the versions that came before it, proving the story is an uncanny qualities.  It’s a testament to the timeless story, but also to what Cooper does with it. Sure, there are feelings of sadness and melancholy interweaved throughout the film (such is life), but oh those entrancing musical moments from Cooper and Lady Gaga (fearless and sublime, respectively), filled with euphoria and delight that come from songs that are filmed in a way that transcend entertainment, those moments are unforgettable and will shine on forever. Plus, if you can’t tear up when Sam Elliott does, I don’t know what to tell you. “A Star is Born” is more than an accomplished film, it’s something special. (still in theaters, digitally released on January 15th with a DVD/Blu-ray on February 18th)

 

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“If Beale Street Could Talk”

 

4.

Steven – IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK 

It’s tough for any filmmaker to follow-up a Best Picture winner, but the fact that “If Beale Street Could Talk” is only the third feature film by director Barry Jenkins speaks volumes about his enormous talent. Elegant and elegiac, Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name is, like many great films this year, hopeful and bitter all at once. Jenkins’ gorgeous shot composition is aided by James Laxton’s lush and radiant cinematography, and a brilliant score by Nicholas Britell. Also featuring a top-notch cast with the always incredible Regina King delivering the best role of her career, this is a film brimming with life in the midst of some thoroughly hopeless circumstances. (still in theaters)

David – SHOPLIFTERS 

What is family and how can it be defined? That question, among other things, is being examined in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wrenching and bittersweet film “Shoplifters”, which was awarded the year’s best at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s not surprise. The latest film from the Japanese filmmaker is another work of art in a filmography that needs to be appreciated more by film enthusiasts. The writer/director makes films that feature relatable, flawed people who live in recognizable hard realities, yet an earnest purity can always be felt throughout and that’s what you’ll find in “Shoplifters”. It’ll find you rethinking that petty thief or homeless guy on the street. This oddball makeshift family that take in a little girl is unforgettable and actress Sakura Ando delivers a standout performance in the film, especially in an emotional climax. This is an easy film to recommend because you wind up wanting others to experience that feeling of discovery that you felt as you watched it for the first time. It’s a sensitive and raw film that is handled so carefully by Kore-eda.

 

3.

Steven – WIDOWS 

Speaking of tough acts to follow, London-born director Steve McQueen decided to follow his Oscar winning film “12 Years a Slave” with this wholly satisfying thriller that plays like a page-turner. An excellent ensemble headed by a dazzling Viola Davis add gravitas to a film that might have been handled as another disposable thriller by a lesser filmmaker. Featuring the single best scene put on film this year—a single, long take shot with a camera mounted on the hood of a car—”Widows” is a film for grown-ups that never insults their intelligence and always keeps the audience on its toes, ready for the next shocking, expertly realized turn.

David – LEAVE NO TRACE

Here’s another film that broke my heart and left an indelible impression on me long after viewing. I recall just sitting there and thinking and…feeling as the end credits role. I felt the hairs on my arms more than I did any thriller, primarily because director Debra Granik’s (“Winter’s Bone”) raised my senses, drawing me in closer and closer to the journey this father and daughter are on. Yes, a contemplative sadness permeates the film, but it’s never draining or a downer. There is much to say about the relationship between the PTSD-stricken father (Ben Foster) teenage daughter (a superb breakthrough performance from Thomasin McKenzie) that we follow – how they survive together in the Pacific Northwest woods and how they must assimilate in the “real world” – but you can glean volumes just by studying their faces as the camera studies them in silence. “Leave No Trace” is gentle with these two souls. It embraces them and once again here is a director who has us looks at two people we would typically overlook or right off.  Instead we’re offered an opportunity to reevaluate and empathize, therefore applying an understanding to lives that are hurt and need healing.

 

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“Leave No Trace”

 

2.

Steven – FIRST MAN 

In an era when heroes loom large in the multiplex, it’s nice to have a major studio film that dedicates itself to bringing one of the biggest legends of all down to human proportions. Damien Chazelle follows up his Oscar winning efforts “Whiplash” and “La La Land” with a fourth film that stuns with an honest, unsparing look at America’s space program. As portrayed by a clench-jawed Ryan Gosling, Neil Armstrong becomes a real person for the audience in a way no other major American figure has on film in a long time. “First Man” carries all of the awe and power that prior films detailing the space race have, but it never forgets that these men were—first and foremost—human beings. If only every biopic committed itself to such verisimilitude. (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime & Google Play)

David – ROMA

Anyone who shrugs this work of art, stating it’s just a film about a housekeeper (oh, they’re out there) is clearly obtuse. I’ve heard people say it’s slow, it’s boring, it’s not about anything and the dreaded “it’s black-and-white”. I’m at a loss. They’re like someone who breezes through an art museum, instead of slowly taking in each piece of art. Not only has director and cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón (who also wrote the screenplay and served as editor and co-producer) has added another impressive film to his body of work, it becomes clear it is also his most personal film to date, drawing from his own memories of the housekeeper for his middle class Mexican family in 1970s Mexico City. Cuarón’s eighth film immediately draws us in with its gorgeous black-and-white photography and its integral sound design and immerses us on a journal that’s humorous, wondrous and devastating. As Cleo, the main character and maid of the family we follow, first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio (who learned the Mixtec language for the role), delivers an open and natural performance that makes an integral contribution to this masterpiece. If art can make us pause, or better yet stop, and consider life or the lives of others, then it has become powerful. That’s what Cuarón delivers here. (avail. on Netflix and in select theaters)

 

1.

Steven – THE DEATH OF STALIN 

It’s rare that I find the funniest film of the year to be the best film of the year, but “The Death of Stalin” is so much more than a mere comedy. Armando Iannucci’s latest film is a hilariously funny film about some wildly unfunny people and situations. Sometimes you see a film and think, “This was made just for me,” and that’s the overwhelming feeling I get every time I watch “The Death of Stalin.” The triumph of the film is its ability to move seamlessly between comedy and outrage, horror and hilarity. These incredible turns come throughout the film’s running time, always managing to keep you laughing when you’re not appalled by the pettiness and lack of humanity on display. “The Death of Stalin” reminds us that sometimes, the only thing we have going for us is our sense of humor. Until they squash that, these petty tyrants and wealthy demagogues can’t hold total dominion, so even if it’s all you can do, you have to keep laughing. (avail. on Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

David – THE RIDER

Every year, my hope is that I can be introduced to a new (or new-to-me) filmmaker and this year that person is Chloé Zhao, who made the intimate and beautiful “The Rider”. Her film tells the heartbreakingly story of what it’s like for a young cowboy and once rising star of the rodeo circuit when he suffers a tragic riding accident that means ends his days as a competitor. Brady (played with aching realism by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau) now has to figure what that means and what he has to live for since he won’t be able to continue with his passion, leaving him to search for a new identity and a different way to work with the horses he admires. There is much to admire in “The Rider”, breathtaking cinematography and a sublime score, but what strikes us the most is how Zhao simply watches, studies and learns what she can about this young man and his family. Without Zhao, we would’ve never known this touching story of grief and empathy. It’s simply awesome that here we have a Chinese woman, wrote/co-produced and directed a modern-day Western (if we had to categorize it) that focuses on the life of a Native American cowboy in the badlands of South Dakota. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Vudu)

 

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