Nick’s 2018 Year in Review

All told, I’ve seen just over 200 films from 2018. I liked just under half of them. Unlike Evan, I only watched Paddington 2 once. (I did, however, watch OG Paddington twice — one time introducing it to my mother, who seemed mostly concerned that Mr. Curry escaped justice for his treachery.)

Anyway, much like last year, the following includes from 2018:

  • My five favorite documentaries, plus one more
  • My 10 favorite needle-drops of previously recorded music on a film’s soundtrack
  • 11 movies I will regret on my deathbed
  • 25 solid recommendations
  • My top 25 films

You can find all of my formal reviews here on the Midwest Film Journal and, if you’re so inclined, follow me on Letterboxd for real-time rankings and repartee. As applicable, I’ve included links to my Letterboxd comments on some films. I’ve also listed where you can (or soon can) watch the good stuff, starting with subscription streaming services first where applicable. And yes, I reserve the right to change all of this on there later (e.g., Phantom Thread landing at 2017’s #2 after I saw it early in 2018).

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TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES *


5. RBG

I didn’t log my thoughts on RBG until weeks after I saw it, when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the bench and set the stage for the appointment of yet another conservative stooge. Indicative of where we are now — and what happened in this particular nightmarish subset of contemporary America — that I’d be happier if that’s all we got. It’s not the film’s fault that RBG felt far less depressing six months ago. I remain delighted that it doesn’t lean too heavily on the little-ol’-lady kitsch factor. Instead, it illuminates her fascinating pre-Supreme Court passions and perseverances while offering a delightful true-life love story about romance and a bright flame for your convictions. (Hulu; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


4. FREE SOLO

This visually vertiginous, stress-inducing documentary follows Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free-solo” – i.e., climb using only hand-drying chalk and his own muscles – a 3,200 rock face at Yosemite. But it also unexpectedly opens a biochemical window into Alex’s brain — namely his undercharged amygdala. It’s an amusing play off the presumption that somebody must be crazy to do these things and a springboard into a fascinating documentary that has a sturdy foothold on the complexities of everyday motivations and relationships. It’s also a movie in which you’ll hear someone say “That’s the most magnificent crack on planet Earth.” (Coming to Blu-ray and VOD March 5)


3. THE KING

Piling famous faces and average Joes into the backseat of a Rolls Royce owned by Elvis Presley, documentarian Eugene Jarecki’s odyssey across the United States examines Elvis as the living embodiment of the American fantasy for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a daunting, expansive and sometimes inhospitable canvas, but it all comes together at the perfect moment. If I’m alive to see the lights go out on America altogether, I’ll triple-feature this with Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentaries. Collectively, they could serve as the equivalent of the final broadcast before the signal dies forever. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


2. MINDING THE GAP

I grew up less than an hour from Rockford, Illinois. Bing Liu’s documentary doesn’t play like a sizzle reel for its (needed) economic development. Instead, it keys in on the establishment, and eradication, of emotional expectations among his subjects and the cycle of physical, mental and self-abuse that goes along with it. Returning to document his friends Zack and Keire, Liu finds compassion and renewed camaraderie but also the catharsis of necessary confrontation. It’s also got some of the best skating footage I’ve ever seen — soaring alongside its subjects with long, unbroken takes of tranquility amid the tension. (Exclusively available to stream on Hulu)


1. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Televisual entertainment indisputably influences how children learn, or lose, who they are. Fred Rogers dared to directly address children in their present moment — not eliminating doubts or placating fears but helping them contextualize and approach those doubts and fears with positivity. Like the man it chronicles, Morgan Neville’s documentary is neither pious nor prudish in its extensions of empathy. (I mean, one of its high points is a joke about an ass shot.) It also acknowledges that Rogers’ ideals are certainly eroding. Mercifully, at film’s end, it invites your own cosmic contemplation about the people who helped you arrive where you are. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


* PICK OF THE LITTER

Who’s a good documentary? WHO’S A GOOOOOD DOCUMENTARY? In all seriousness, there’s zero style here but much to appreciate about the straightforward, succinct manner in which this is told. And even if you don’t care about that, there is an obscene amount of cute puppy footage. Of all the films my wife dutifully sat through during the crunch of awards season, this brought her the clearest joy and for that alone, I will always love it. (DVD / VOD)

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TOP 10 NEEDLE-DROPS


“BLUES RUN THE GAME” by JACKSON C. FRANK
in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

The scene: Bank robber Forrest Tucker resorts to a horseback escape on his last run from the law

Key lyrics: “Living is a gamble, baby / Loving’s much the same / Wherever I have played / Wherever I’ve thrown them dice / Wherever I have played, the blues have run the game”


“COME UNDONE” by DURAN DURAN in GOTTI

The scene: At the hands of intervening law enforcement authorities, John Gotti’s criminal empire, uh, comes undone

Key lyrics: “Oh, it might take a little time / Might take a little crime / To come undone”


“HARVEST MOON” by NEIL YOUNG in A QUIET PLACE

The scene: Lee and Evelyn share earbuds and a romantic slow dance

Key lyrics: “Come a little bit closer / Hear what I have to say / Just like children sleeping / We could dream this night away”


“IF I KNEW YOU WERE COMIN’ (I’D HAVE BAKED A CAKE) by EILEEN BARTON AND THE NEW YORKERS
in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

The scene: Joe and Nina enjoy some milkshakes while Joe contemplates his next decision

Key lyrics: “Now I don’t know where you came from / ’Cause I don’t know where you’ve been / But it really doesn’t matter / Grab a chair and fill your platter and dig, dig, dig right in”


“IT MUST HAVE BEEN LOVE” by ROXETTE in MOM AND DAD

The scene: Jeannie has her baby … and then promptly tries to kill it

Key lyrics: “It must have been love / But it’s all over now / It must have been good / But I lost it somehow”


“ORINOCO FLOW” by ENYA in EIGHTH GRADE

The scene: Kayla sets sail by scrolling through the unceasing current of information online

Key lyrics: “Carry me on the waves to the lands I’ve never been / Carry me on the waves to the lands I’ve never seen”


“THIS YEAR” by THE MOUNTAIN GOATS in MINDING THE GAP

The scene: Bing Liu concludes his documentary with an epilogue about his friends Zack and Keire

Key lyrics: “I am going to make it through this year … if it kills me”


“TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART” by BONNIE TYLER
in THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT

The scene: The Pin-Up Girl and the Man in the Mask stalk Luke at a trailer park swimming pool

Key lyrics: “Turn around / Every now and then, I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes”


“WORDS” by F.R. DAVID in AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN

The scene: Lulu and Colin enjoy a carefree, silly dance in a hotel bar

Key lyrics: “Words don’t come easy to me / How can I find a way to make you see I love you?”


“YOUR BEST AMERICAN GIRL” by MITSKI in HEARTS BEAT LOUD

The scene: Through a song Rose has recommended, Sam discovers Rose is into her

Key lyrics: “You’re the one / You’re all I ever wanted / I think I’ll regret this”

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SCREW THESE MOVIES


I’m going with films either put into wide theatrical release or given a big push on Netflix. In other words, a pass for the straight-to-Blu-ray suckitude of Deep Blue Sea 2 (in which Warner Brothers cut out the middleman to Asylum-ize its own intellectual property) and Speed Kills (the truly terrible John Travolta movie from this year, as Gotti is enjoyably incompetent).


10. BIRD BOX / THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX

Yes, Netflix has two of 2018’s finest films and one of its most directly entertaining ones. The year was a good leap forward for them. But all systems excrete waste. The streaming giant left a giant steamer with, respectively, Sandra Bullock at the front an acting ensemble who looked embarrassed to star in the year’s dumbest apocalyptic-thriller scenario and a Cloverfield continuation cast off by a nervous Paramount Pictures. The only thing interesting about the latter? No one knew they could watch it until the night it landed (advertised for the first time during the Super Bowl). Downside? The movie torpedoed what was, until just hours earlier, a creatively enigmatic franchise.


9. PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING

Guillermo del Toro’s original film took a two-fisted approach of action-film anthropology. This one is content with a jerkoff motion for two hours. Uprising is an amusing subtitle for a movie with all the insurgent energy of a senior dog napping in the sun.


8. PROUD MARY

It takes some work to suck the simple thrill out of putting guns in Taraji P. Henson’s hands and letting her fire them. Her first big action beat finds her standing alongside some male schlub, when she can clearly do bad all by herself. Upside: If you don’t watch Proud Mary, you’ll never lose one minute of sleeping worrying about the way things might have been.


7. THE COMMUTER

The Neesploitation genre hits its nadir and yet, like an asshole, I will dutifully watch the forthcoming Cold Pursuit, in which Liam Neeson is a homicidal Mr. Plow. Think of a mystery, any mystery, you remember that was set on a train. It’s better than this. Observe how casually nonchalant everyone on the train is at the moment when Neeson pulls a gun. They’re no dummies. They fell asleep during Unknown and Run All Night on TNT before, too.


6. PEPPERMINT

Speaking of Neeson, Peppermint is a shoddy piece of artless, feckless garbage from Pierre Morel — forefather of the unexpected-badass action subgenre’s resurgence with Taken. Jennifer Garner takes her turn in a distaff, distasteful and disingenuous spin on Death Wish. At least the actual 2018 remake of that film mustered some subversive energy before devolving into Bruce Willis smirkdom.


5. MILE 22

Nauseating at pretty much every level. First, the editorial disservice done to Iko Uwais’ martial arts prowess; literally no eye on this planet can track what’s happening in this hacked-up dogpile. Then, the Faulknerian-non-sequitur clip at which Mark Wahlberg’s autistic Superman spouts “actuallys” at people before snapping a wristband like the only coping mechanism left out of The Accountant. Speaking of Faulkner, talk about sound and fury all right.


4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS

Clint Eastwood’s worst film in nearly 20 years is the sort of warm-milk paean to embattled American heroism he’s apparently just going to settle for until he dies. (The Mule at least had a pace and a pulse.) Casting the real-life heroes who foiled a terrorist plot on a train to play themselves proves as terrible an idea as it sounds and Eastwood forgoes his forceful fulminations on the futility of violence for fetishizing weaponry and the military.


3. DEN OF THIEVES

Like watching a thrill-seeking liquor store robber get a “Born to Lose” chest tattoo in real time. No need to quantify that reference and lend further indignity to a 1995 film to which this piece of cops-and-robbers nonsense so hopelessly aspires. You can figure out which stars two of the greatest actors of all time and which stars Gerard Butler and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

While on the subject of tattoos: Den of Thieves has become the most popular Midwest Film Journal review since its January publication — largely thanks to searches from people apparently as vexed as I was about why one character’s stomach tattoo read “Peckerwood.” However regrettably, I say give the people what they want. Watch this space for “The Butler Did It,” a career retrospective of one of our finest thespians.


2. ACTION POINT

A film that rivals Strange Wilderness as a benchmark for bad comedy that a studio swallowed on the producers’ name recognition alone. Here, it’s the Jackass crew loose on a theme park where anything goes, safety-wise. The end product passed through the studio’s colon with substantial anal tearing. That both films happened to Paramount (the former from Adam Sandler) suggests a pattern, and perhaps the need for a proctologist. The Cloverfield Paradox is still bad, but perhaps this should have been the one on which the studio cut its losses by selling to Netflix. You will pray for a “back” button or the sweet release of death. Neither will come, child. Neither will come.


1. BEN IS BACK

Every other movie on this list is technically worse than Peter Hedges’ drama in which his son Lucas and Julia Roberts star as a twentysomething drug addict and his mom — who dive into the seedy underbelly of their suburb to find out who stole the family dog. (Yeah, you read that right.) But when a movie sends bile into your throat, it’s difficult to drag any other movie more. If only Ben is Back were merely bad. It’s an openly racist, unforgettably insensitive and obtusely tone-deaf film suggesting those who are white with resources to fight are the better addicts. Are you another color? Let God sort you out. Shamefully sinister shit, swaddled in Roberts’ movie-star smile, that cheaply and casually diminishes America’s silent opioid crisis by loudly shouting up the very worst ideas on addressing it.

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NOT NECESSARILY KIND AND POLITE,
BUT THESE MOVIES ARE RIGHT


1945: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

ANNIHILATION: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

APOSTLE: MFJ review (Exclusive available to stream on Netflix)

BEAST: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

BOY ERASED: MFJ review (Coming to VOD Jan. 15 and Blu-ray / DVD Jan. 29)

CRAZY RICH ASIANS: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

CREED II: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

THE DEATH OF STALIN: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN: Letterboxd review (Available now on VOD; coming to Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 8)

THE FAVOURITE: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

FIRST MAN: Letterboxd review (Coming to VOD Jan. 8 and Blu-ray / DVD Jan. 22)

GAME NIGHT: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE GUILTY: Letterboxd review (Available now on VOD; coming to Blu-ray / DVD Feb. 5)

INCREDIBLES 2: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE LITTLE STRANGER: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

MOM AND DAD: Letterboxd review (Hulu; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE OATH: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

PADDINGTON 2: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

PRIVATE LIFE: Letterboxd review (Exclusively available to stream on Netflix)

A QUIET PLACE: MFJ review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THOROUGHBREDS: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

WHERE IS KYRA?: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

WILDLIFE: Letterboxd review (Coming soon to Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

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TOP 25 FILMS OF 2018


25. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Bold in ways as inspiring as they are unmooring, this MCU culmination examines the difficulty of bridging a gap between heroism and human nature. That it does so through its intergalactic villain is all the more impressive. Josh Brolin infuses Thanos with seemingly indomitable menace and a sense of weary, insistent duty — a hypocritical messiah insisting on a certain sense of love within his method and assembling acolytes from the wreckage he’s left behind. For a guy who’s strong enough to lasso moons, his reliance on zealous violence to prove his point introduces unexpectedly disturbing real-world parallels. (Netflix; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


24. MADELINE’S MADELINE

A coming-of-age-as-coming-unraveled story that hits with a deep discomfort and a guaranteed visceral reaction from its violent sound design. It’s a demonic dream and an amniotic nightmare, birthed into physical space for harried, heightened horror. Helena Howard’s supreme precision and tempo here immediately lands her on the list of actresses whose next step I can’t wait to see. The film so deeply messed with my perception that I was sure there were gray streaks running through the end credits. Rarely have I been so pleased to imagine my brain so broken. (Available now on Amazon Prime, Kanopy and VOD; coming to Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 15)


23. WIDOWS

Steve McQueen doing a straight-up socioeconomic Sidney Lumet thriller with an infallible cast, and I will always be here for such pure pleasures. Also, a perfect reason for Viola Davis — whose trainer can dine out on this movie for … well, forever — to be carrying around that dog from Game Night. Cynthia Erivo (also great in the less-impressive Bad Times at the El Royale) and Elizabeth Debicki hold it down as the new(er) blood. Daniel Kaluuya brings that breathe-on-ya menace. Lastly: I could watch Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall spit at each other for hours on end. (Currently in theatres)


22. REVENGE

Look. It’s called Revenge. To complain about it being on the nose is a fool’s errand. This skillful vivisection of toxic masculinity represents director Coralie Fargeat’s calling card and rallying cry — infusing potent wit and necromantic vision-quest life into the rape-revenge genre without ever feeling exploitative in the wrong way. The piercing of our heroine’s flesh and its excision once rotted is painfully symbolic on purpose — how deep the infection, how subconscious the layers in which so many, too many, women are made to bury it, how triumphant the turning of the tables. (Shudder; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


21. BODIED

A musical, satire and sports film rolled into one, Bodied earns its place among 2018’s many trenchantly observed, crowd-pleasing dissections of racial identity. Consider this rap-battle movie to be at the intersection of 8 Mile Road and Avenue Q, with shiv-sharp observations about cultural appropriation and political correctness. Simpatico in their nimble storytelling, director Joseph Kahn and screenwriter Alex Larsen’s work sizzles with the snap and spark of Spike Lee’s earliest satires. The final sequence is among 2018’s finest — as appropriate as it is agonizing to watch in its alchemy of antagonistic sportsmanship. (Exclusively available to stream on YouTube Premium) 


20. TULLY

In the childless existence and the parenting experience, writer Diablo Cody understands the ease with which we can acquiesce and accept something for which we should not settle … and that it’s OK to be scared about all of that. Charlize Theron taps a deep, relatable reservoir of rage. Mackenzie Davis’s luminescence continues its ascendance. Even Ron Livingston, seeming to do his usual, suggests a man fundamentally at odds with the pity he tries to seek from people. Some parts of us die. Some parts regenerate. Life, and the bodies in which we live it, is a wonderful, horrible thing. Kids or not, we all need someone to thank us for loving them and keeping them alive. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


19. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is an angrier film but also more aggressively optimistic — understanding the place of pain in perseverance. Nicholas Britell’s score feels like a suite struggling for a nation’s roiling soul, while Jenkins brings such masterful crescendos to the character work and dramaturgical microscopy right down to the blocking. Watch the way Regina King (terrific and deserving of her awards momentum) so quickly moves to fill KiKi Layne’s empty chair so as not to leave even the faintest emblem of an empty space and to emphasize community and togetherness. (Opening in Indianapolis Jan. 4)


18. LEAN ON PETE

A stunningly photographed, decidedly unsentimental view of the modern American West — less purple-mountain majesty, more flies buzzing on the edge of dead flesh festering under the sun. We’re reminded of the way so many people disappear into the landscape, not just untraceable but unremembered. It’s easy to imagine the generic emotional-uplift brand of this movie. Easier, thankfully, to appreciate Andrew Haigh’s minor-key musing about who can really come out ahead when the world makes everyone feel like a stalking horse. He only lingers on the beauty he does so that you’ll recognize the bastards will take that, too, if they have their way. (Amazon Prime and Kanopy; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


17. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Among the many unexpected haymakers this year: Danny Glover busting me up with a line of unexpected profanity for a second time. (Thanks for the first, Dirty Grandpa.) Boots Riley’s movie is a marvel of mad ideas — in both the innovative and ire-laden senses of the word. Get Out is a sturdy comparison, but that film’s aggression came from a place where the ingratiation felt more insidious. Sorry to Bother You is more of a howl into the abyss — a bit hoarse after a while but unspeakably hilarious, undeniably cathartic and unforgettably bizarre. (Hulu; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


16. BLOCKERS

Raucously funny and thoughtfully reflective, this is one of the best mainstream sex comedies in years — one that demystifies teen intercourse, pokes holes in gender-based double standards of lost virginity and encourages kindness and empathy among everyone at the story’s center. What an outstanding directorial debut for Kay Cannon, this film that understands the precariousness of adult friendships — and how those adults poison the well, and themselves, by telling teens that shedding friends from youth is some natural rite of passage. The laughs occasionally lapse into cartoonishness but never cruelty. We relate, perhaps all too well, to its characters’ anxieties and regrets. (HBO; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


15. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Tim Blake Nelson lamenting “the meanness of the used-to-been” after separating people’s faces from their skeletal structure. Stephen Root personifying what might have happened if the Raising Arizona clerk had fought back instead of compliantly counting one-Mississippi and beyond. That two-shot of the chicken in the cage, still with more freedom than the other living creature sharing the frame. Mr. Pocket, which is the best-edited anything the Coen Brothers have ever done. A settlers’ romance I’ll probably have to watch again before I can fully assess how I feel about it (in true Coen fashion). Weary travelers out on the wing of the great unknown. All of the Coens’ modes all in one package, and it’s brilliant. (Exclusively available to stream on Netflix)


14. THE HATE U GIVE

So precise is its cultural lexicon that it pulls off a Beyoncé-Solange joke with ease. So honest are its emotions that its drama flows generously, and with great control, from moments of joy and pain. So clear is its messaging that we leave with a renewed hope that words and decisions made with integrity still matter in this world. Russell Hornsby is outstanding. Amandla Stenberg is a revelation reminiscent of Angela Bassett. A tough, fair and mostly terrific drama about equating your knowledge of rights with your knowledge of worth and self. (Coming to Blu-ray, DVD and VOD on Jan. 22)


13. HEARTS BEAT LOUD

Brett Haley’s dramedy captures the unexpected exhilaration of surprises and discoveries that help you look at those you love in an entirely new light. He also remembers how enervating it can be when people persistently remind you of the dreams and desires you once had. Keegan DeWitt’s songs are terrific, Nick Offerman gets a long-overdue spotlight in which to shed the Swanson, and Kiersey Clemons doesn’t need some DCEU placeholder role to assert her stardom. In keeping with Haley’s trajectory of elevating supporting stars from his previous films to lead roles in his next one, I’m going to guess he’s writing something amazing for Toni Collette right now. (Hoopla, Kanopy; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


12. SUSPIRIA

Safe to say this is the most original remake ever with the largest, blankest canvas for storytelling beyond “coven of witches” + “dance academy + 1970s.” It’s an unruly, cumbersome and enthralling beast that may occasionally lumber and lurch but never loses the scent it’s picked up. For all its horrors, the movie understands — amid a surplus of subtext that runs from esoteric to eldritch and back again — that those who do nothing while the banality of evil tramples everyone deserve their guilt and shame, especially as they take nothing from history but their own cold comfort in discrediting credible threats. (Coming to VOD on Jan. 15 and Blu-ray / DVD on Jan. 29)


11. LEAVE NO TRACE

A kind-hearted drama whose consistent quiet and composure leaves you all the more floored by its conclusion. The film takes its title from the environmentally friendly ethos for America’s parks and just how infinitesimal our nation’s grid might feel for those forced to its farthest corners. Co-writer / director Debra Granik lets her leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, wring simultaneous resignation and resentment, but neither do they forget to summon humanity and dignity. Leave No Trace cracks your heart, but doesn’t break it and somehow still fills that piece it left behind with tenderness and warmth. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


10. A STAR IS BORN

Songs may be forged from a creative spark, but they always age into eulogies for euphoria or suicide notes for security. They die. They’re also reborn. That sense of decay and renewal rests in the bones of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. It’s an existential treatise that understands a retreat within yourself to find your voice can be a path without breadcrumbs. As a director, Cooper is attuned to unfussy details. As an actor, he’s never been better. Lady Gaga paints a vivid picture of a woman who relishes, and resents, her own chance to wield words as weapons. Sam Elliott could coast on his old-pro charms, but this rugged piece of oak breaks your heart. (Currently in theatres; coming to VOD Jan. 15 and Blu-ray / DVD Feb. 29) 


9. BLACKkKLANSMAN

Hardly a coincidence that Spike Lee’s most stunning narrative work since Inside Man repurposes that film’s most powerful Terence Blanchard musical cue. For what is this film’s power if not the way in which hate and fear are forever in an ebb and flow of re-contextualization — always there, sometimes burbling, right now boiling over again? A sobering assemblage of real-life footage in the final moments is no afterthought, either, to what could have (in other hands) been merely a throwback-lark crowd-pleaser (although it is Lee’s most readily accessible film since … well, Inside Man). It’s very much about the intersection of power and purpose and the manner in which momentary triumph can put tunnel vision on a bigger picture. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


8. EIGHTH GRADE

Bo Burnham understands that the pitfalls of humiliation are hardwired into today’s teenagers thanks to technology from a perilously young age. But neither does the movie wag its finger at technology, as it knows there are lessons of self-sufficiency and self-expression found there as positive as any pen and paper. An honest look at adolescent angst that will age as timelessly as Say Anything … even when no one knows what Snapchat is any longer and which will rightfully be seen as the moment Elsie Fisher established herself as a star in the making. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


7. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT

How refreshing for Christopher McQuarrie to cop to what too many directors are too proud, scared, ashamed or stupid to admit about a great deal of blockbuster filmmaking: So much of this is found on the fly, in the edit, pure coincidence. No better bellwether of planning and pure luck than Mr. Ethan Hunt, given his most dynamic turn from Tom Cruise since the first and whose “absolution through contrition” (as Evan put it) feels like an appropriate wringer through which to run. Big ups to Henry Cavill, both the film’s most towering physical presence and, by way of that, its most effortlessly comedic. My new mental screensaver, IMAX-sized: That shot of Cavill chilling on the foreground helicopter while everything else is going quite awry on the background helicopter. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


6. BLACK PANTHER

The moment that moved me nearly to tears on each of three viewings: Danai Gurira’s Okoye howling when one of her fellow Dora Milaje is brutally offed — a raw, ragged revelation of both her justifiable rage and the realization yet again that ideological fiefdoms we think are worth defending are equally worthy of challenge and, as necessary, destruction. From a narrative perspective, Marvel has advanced from the S.H.I.E.L.D.-as-Hydra twist right into what the true nature of heroism means — going so far as to question whether that is well and truly even a thing any longer. Wakanda — and Okoye — forever. (Netflix; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


5. BURNING

“Don’t think that there is,” one character says of her bit of persuasive pantomime. “Forget that there isn’t.” South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s unnerving triangle of obsession concerns two men who can neither remember a woman was once so deeply lost nor care about her desperation to be found. You’ll feel the Great Gatsby analogue before the film announces it: What if Nick Carraway got carried away? What if West Egg housed a bad egg? The film’s meaningful misdirection, malevolent energy and intense uncertainty manifests in a transformative turn from Steven Yeun — best known as Glenn from The Walking Dead. Talk about inverting an entire movie just by invading the frame. Mesmerizing, upsetting, unshakeable. (Currently in theatres; coming to Blu-ray / DVD on March 5


4. THE RIDER

Rendering The 15:17 to Paris’s similar approach to storytelling even clumsier by comparison, the trick appears to be this: Coax non-professional actors to evoke emotions they perhaps never knew they once felt rather than just having them pantomime events. Expressively elegiac from start to finish, this is one of the saddest — and yet strangely stirring — films of 2018, with unquestionably one of the most hollow entreaties to not give up on your dreams. What writer-director Chloé Zhao and her skeleton crew are able to accomplish here is nothing short of extraordinary. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


3. ROMA

Aly Caviness articulated the power of Alfonso Cuarón’s masterwork, which played to me like Fellini meets Weiner, far more eloquently than I can. Like an observer on the wind, Roma finds you in its own way and time as long as you’re open enough to allow it. I initially thought the traditional Netflix viewer experience would operate at cross-purposes to its grandiosity. However, its artistry loses nothing on the small screen (even in rewatched snippets) — moving from serene sublimity to subtly sinister foreshadowing of tragedy. Cuarón shifts from calmness to chaos with unforgettable elegance. But in the spirit of the film’s unexpected humor, consider this Cuarón’s interpretation of Billy Madison’s “Dog Poo and the Human Response” (Exclusively available to stream on Netflix and currently 
playing in select theatres)


2. FIRST REFORMED

Reminding his audience that — for all his recent forays into Lohanville and Cagetown — he remains a tactician of tart and sour sociology, Paul Schrader opens his best film in 15 years with the font of a funeral program. That bleak opening salvo fits this fetid, festering wound of pride, faith, reason and doubt — which bumps with a disquietingly steady pulse that persists right until the moment it has to pop. No better actor than Ethan Hawke to turn himself inward and then tear himself open from the center, letting us see the way this ideological clash consumes him on a cellular level. People have used faith for millennia as a justificatory crutch to destroy themselves, their foes … hell, their friends. Reverend Ernst Toller is just more honest about it than most of them, indulging in constant self-flagellation well before making it flesh-official in the year’s best final scene — a stylistic perversion from all that has preceded it, a shocking provocation and an exhilarating sense of entropy. (Amazon Prime and Kanopy; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


1. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

The Taxi Driver comparisons work for marketing purposes, I guess, but they are depressingly superficial beyond an intersection of politics, exploited young women and graphic violence. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe is not going mad per se. He’s going clear. This is a nail bomb to your nerves, a threnody of pain and a synaptic squelch from a frequency left unmanned long ago. Lynne Ramsay’s directorial work and Jonny Greenwood’s percussively bubbling score bring a hammer down on expected comforts of comeuppance and vengeance in the aged-protector genre. The rain on the car feels like a city’s torrential tears, Joe’s gentleness with his mother feels like a detente for bad deeds of the past, and a burial scene at the end of the second act turns trauma into a talisman. Phoenix finds just the right humanity in this tangle of hair, scars and muscle feel simultaneously mammoth and malformed — like a body-sized granuloma hardened to wall himself off. The title hints, too, at the way your developmental slate is filled for you before you even have a chance to influence it yourself, and it’s often inescapable. But Joe and his latest rescue communicate through, and find communion in, the ways in which their physicality has been commodified. Can the events they survive in the film sustain them? Who knows? The final scene involving a table full of unfinished milkshakes is beautiful — a sugary escape together that these two characters could have never known alone. All the flavors. No need to finish or choose. As Joe says, “It is a beautiful day.” Ultimately, it’s the choice to embrace the lull of a waking nightmare in a world of untenable volume over the comparative silence of death. You Were Never Really Here squirrels itself away, irreversibly, into your own subconscious, and is the best film of 2018. (Amazon Prime; Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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