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Joe’s Best, Worst, and Most Notable of 2018

by on January 2, 2019
 

Many of you have noted that I have been less active the past year or two than in seasons past. This is true, as work, children, marriage, and other circumstances have pulled me away from regular film writing on this site. Rest assured, I’m still around, though, still active, and I resolve to be a little more out there in the coming year.

2018 was a strong year in cinema, deep in talent if not in all-time classics. Of the 107 films I saw from 2018, the top 70 or so are movies I’d term as good, or better than good. My list runs 80 deep or so before I’d start outright calling films “bad.”

With that many quality films, it can be a challenge to properly rank them. And indeed for many of those films their placement is somewhat arbitrary, and position is often a bit fluid. For that reason I’m including a “Notables” category this year that highlights films that, though they ultimately didn’t make the Top 10 (and sometimes even the top 20 or more), were good enough that I felt like they deserved a mention as a can’t-miss.

As in years past, I have kept a rolling diary of my films on Letterboxd. I’d like to encourage you to follow along with me throughout the year both on The Film Yap and on my own Letterboxd account.

 

Bottom 5 of 2018

Let’s get the negative out of the way first, shall we? As always, there were still plenty of stinkers. And while I didn’t see films like the most recent “50 Shades” debacle, or “Holmes and Watson,” “Peppermint,” “The Happytime Murders,” and a few other of the year’s more reviled films, I did have the misfortune of viewing the following turds.

1. Gotti

John Travolta’s film about infamous mob boss John Gotti doesn’t humanize a brutal, murderous mafioso so much as it celebrates him. Everything about this movie is an abomination, from Travolta’s horrid accent to a narrative that meanders and goes nowhere to the stilted, cliche-ridden screenplay to its fetishizing of the mob lifestyle. A trainwreck of epic proportions.

2. Peter Rabbit

A kids movie where a cartoon rabbit commits murder, spends much of the rest of the film bragging about said murder, then later, upon learning he didn’t ACTUALLY commit murder, is a bit upset by that. In between is sandwiched an “Alvin and the Chipmunks”-inspired plot to break up a flaccid romance between the murder victim’s long-lost grand-nephew (Domnhall Gleeson) and his neighbor, who happens to be Peter and Co.’s only human friend (Rose Byrne).

3. Ben is Back

A wretched display of rich white privilege at work. Julia Roberts plays the mother of a drug-addicted young man (Lucas Hedges) whom it’s easy to see WHY he became drug addicted. This “hardscrabble” tale of suburban angst is buoyed by a plot involving the missing family dog (first world problems, amirite?), and in separate scenes Roberts’ character 1) blames a physician for her son’s addiction, 2) shames and wishes death on the doctor, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, in public on Christmas Eve, and 3) freely bribes a tweaking addict with whose mother she was once friends with, with drugs, in order to get information about her son. I won’t get into the ramifications of how manipulative the film is in her new blended, bi-racial family as justification for all of this, including a scene where she discusses how her new husband is paying for her addicted son’s rehab. Just a disgusting film.

4. Truth or Dare

More than a forgettably scare-free horror movie, :Truth or Dare” is, yes, a horror movie take on the silly party game kids play by having a demon play the game with teens. If they don’t tell the truth, or successfully complete the dare, they die. A bad premise, poorly executed with bad effects and worse acting. I like a good dumb scary movie as much as anyone, but this is stretching things.

5. Hell Fest

And speaking of dumb scary movies, “Hell Fest” follows a group of kids to a haunted house where a murderous masked serial killer is roaming. The teens are dumb even by horror-flick standards, and each setup is a rinse-repeat of characters doing something incredibly stupid because it sets them up for grisly death. And the deaths really aren’t all that grisly, and none of them are scary. “Hell Fest” plays like a Sweded “Halloween 5” made by people who just discovered the concept of a video camera.

Most Notable Films

Revenge

An exploitation film that turns the rape/revenge genre on its head, “Revenge” is a gory, glossy effort from Coralie Fargeat. Matlida Lutz (“Rings”) plays “the other woman,” who is jilted in the worst way: by being thrown off a cliff and impaled on a tree stump by her lover (Kevin Janssens) and his two buddies, who are out on a “hunting trip” in the desert. She survives and comes back to extract her pound of flesh, and does in brutally satisfying ways. If you can get past the unlikeliness of the inciting event, “Revenge” is a terrific ride that puts the woman in the driver’s seat in ways that tawdry films like “I Spit on Your Grave” never cared to.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I always thought the best Spider-Man stories were the ones that pitted Spider-Man against science and left out the “fiction” part as much as possible. “Spider-Verse” proves me wrong. By focusing on Miles Morales as the main character, and pulling in spider-beings from alternate universes, “Spider-Verse” brings more fun to the character, and multiplies the fun and poignance. To this point, Marvel animated films have largely been forgettable DTV affairs. “Spider-Verse” promises a new crop that are can’t-miss.

Summer of ’84

“Fright Night” by way of “Super 8” (or, if you’d prefer, “Stranger Things”), “Summer of 84” takes the emerging 80s kids-in-peril genre to the next level. Here a group of boys suspects their neighbor (Greg Grunberg) is a serial killer, and set out to prove it. The problem? He’s also a cop. That knows their families. A fun, engaging thriller that doesn’t rely too much on 80s nostalgia.

Thoroughbreds

A pitch-black dramedy centering around two teen girls (Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy) who plot to kill one’s stepfather. Cooke and Taylor-Joy are both emerging stars, and their relationship carries the film. Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s last performances (and it’s a terrific one), “Thoroughbreds” is a fun character study and a deadpan look at suburban malaise.

Searching

John Cho (“Star Trek”) headlines this twisty, innovative film about a man searching for his missing daughter. Told almost entirely through multimedia screens, he finds he doesn’t know nearly as well as he thinks. The opening sequence is reminiscent of “Up” in all the best ways, and the rest is a hard-charging mystery that goes strong, into a climax that is, while unexpected, a bit of a letdown. But this film’s strength is in the journey, and it’s a more than worthwhile trip to take.

Top 10 of 2018

10. Creed II

If “Creed” had no business being a good film, then “Creed II” definitely did not. And yet here we are, with two additional “Rocky” films that manage to be satisfying both to their franchise and bring fresh perspective and situations. Here Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) relegates Rocky to the background and making his conflict with the Drago family his own. The thread of family, and parent-child relationships (there are three central to the film: Rocky/Donnie, Ivan and Viktor Drago, and Donnie and his infant daughter) brings an additional poignance to the sequel to one of the cheesier 80s blockbuster sequels. And that scene where Rocky and Drago come face to face 30 years later? CHILLS.

9. You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix plays a former veteran private dick who tracks down missing girls for a living. But when a job goes bad, he has to go to extreme measures to save the girl. A film that is unfraid to take its characters to dark places, this is the film the “Death Wish” remake only wishes it could be, and is Joaquin Phoenix’s best work in a year that includes no fewer than 3 high-profile films.

8. Private Life

A quiet film about a couple racing against their biological clocks, “Private Life” is my overlooked gem of the year. Available on Netflix, the film stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a married couple trying to have a child before biology tells them it’s too late. Eventually, they come to a decision that throws their lives and family into upheaval. Funny, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking, Giamatti and Hahn both give two of the best performances of the year.

7. Paddington 2

Friend, colleague, and former Film Yap writer Evan Dossey championed “Paddington 2” as a great film all year. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up about it to the extent that, for a time, I didn’t watch it out of spite. But eventually I did, and I was utterly charmed. While it’s a simple story about a bear, Paddington as a character is the embodiment of good in a way no other CGI character has been able to become. There are no silly pop-culture references to him, no cloying catchphrases, and no ascerbic schtick. He’s just an innocent in a world that is losing that particular trait. This film is a journey through the world that takes the protagonist through London, then through prison, and back again. To those who haven’t seen the film, I’ll caution you to take it seriously and view it with a discerning eye: there’s more there than CG kiddie shenanigans. Paddington is a metaphor for us all.

6. Eighth Grade

An exploration of the ninth year of school through the eyes of a suburban girl, “Eighth Grade” is a “Boyhood”-style slice of life that took me completely off guard. Young Kayla (Elsie Fisher) has the typical early-teen problems, dealing with puberty, romance, acceptance, and family life, but also highlights things parents of kids approaching this age (like me) may not be ready for, like the realities of an “active shooter” drill at school, and an uncomfortable incident in the back seat of a car with a boy. Also, the typical teen-angst-flick awkward dad (Josh Hamilton) proves to be much more than that.

5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

One of the genuinely nicest, even-tempered men who ever lived, Fred Rogers was also a vital figure in the early childhood development of at least 3 generations. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows how his public persona not only didn’t hide a sinister dark side, but that his persona was an exact representation of who he was. Also unafraid to show his failings, the centerpiece of the film is Mr. Rogers’ relationship with Francois Clemmons, whom Rogers cast as a police officer at the height of the civil rights movement, going so far as to include a scene of Mr. Rogers sharing a swimming pool with him in a time where many whites were protesting public pool integration. Deeper yet is Clemmons himself discussing how Mr. Rogers struggled to accept Clemmons’ sexuality when he came out as gay years later, and how, as Mr. Rogers shaped the world, he too was shaped by his own friends. If you ever watched Mr. Rogers yourself, be ready with tissues, and even if you didn’t, the moment at the end when he invites everyone to think of someone important in their life, probably will give you a case of the sniffles.

4. BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s best film in years tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan and exposes a plot to murder the president of a Black Student Union (Laura Harrier) and other civil rights activists. It’s pretty easily Lee’s funniest film, as Stallworth carries on long conversations with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), then gets a Jewish colleague (Adam Driver) to play the white Ron Stallworth. Lee manages to make the Klansmen equal parts clownish and legitimately dangerous, and gives subtle hints that the Klan isn’t a problem of the past, with buzzwords popping up throughout, buoyed by a sobering reminder with real footage of Charlottesville, along with various figures rationalizing and defending.

3. The Hate U Give

A story that depicts the hopelessness felt in the black community using today’s hot-button issues, “The Hate U Give” puts a human face on the “Black Lives Matter” movement in ways the news never could. Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is a girl of two worlds: one is the inner city neighborhood she grew up in, the other is the posh private high school she attends where “equality” means she can have white friends but still not a true understanding of her own experience. When a childhood friend dies at the hands of a police officer, her worlds are thrown into upheaval. An accessible movie for the masses, but one that doesn’t sugar-coat the

2. Sorry to Bother You

This wildly imaginative take on race by Boots Riley stars Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out”) as a telemarketer in a slightly off-center alternate world. A black man, he finds when he uses his “white voice” he is much more successful, and soon finds himself promoted and suddenly privvy to larger, darker secrets in both his workplace and the world at large. With high narrative ambitions that pay off in the best ways, Riley makes a great statement on race and professional ambition that will leave you laughing so you don’t cry.

1. Avengers: Infinity War

When I was 7 years old I first read stories from Marvel’s “Secret Wars” limited series, and “Infinity War” is very nearly the film I’ve wanted to see since that moment. Nearly 100 years of cinematic lore posits that no film can do what this one does effortlessly, bringing together heroes from 20 or so different Marvel Cinematic Universe films and giving each character satisfying character moments without sacrificing narrative cohesion. The result is a wholly satisfying, even shocking blockbuster. Perhaps most shocking of all is the nigh-unstoppable villain Thanos (Josh Brolin in the best motion capture performance since Andy Serkis became Gollum) is very nearly the film’s protagonist, with sound logical motivations for wanting to wipe out half of the universe’s population, and a method for doing so that is the most humane it could be. And still, in true Marvel fashion, the culmination of a 20-plus-film arc is only the beginning, and “Avengers: Endgame” will continue the story and a new wave of films.

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