This was a stacked year at the cinema! I’m not sure what’s to blame, but this has been my most challenging Top Ten list to date. There were a gaggle of really enjoyable big budget blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and the cultural milestone Black Panther. The family friendly genre was spoiled with the richness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Paddington 2. That’s right, the Paddington sequel came out early this year and it was phenomenal! Documentaries made things difficult as well with the baffling Three Identical Strangers and the dizzying Free Solo proving reality is, truly, stranger than fiction.
More and more people were able to see themselves on screen in 2018. So much of what studios thought they knew about box office projections were defied nearly every week at the cinemas. The legacy of this year in film will hopefully be one that motivates producers to take more risks and tell more stories that surprise, provoke, and represent everyone. Here are those stories that moved me the most.
- Leave No Trace (PG)
It’s hard to say why Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace was incredible. This is probably because a lot of the meaning and power behind the film were found in what the characters had a hard time saying. Granik doesn’t give you much in the way exposition in this story about a military veteran who chooses to live off the grid with his adolescent daughter, but so much is said in Ben Foster’s stoic and tormented performance. You know he loves his daughter more than anything. You know he’d do anything for her. But you also know that whatever scenes from his past are playing over and over behind his eyes, whatever trauma is boiling under his skin, whatever it is that he’s trying to escape…are driving him into isolation. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking picture of life after war, and one worth paying attention to.
- First Man (PG-13)
First Man, an account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, is lightyears ahead of Damien Chazelle’s mundane and pretentious La La Land. Chazelle brings you into the rickety cockpit of the early space program while showing you that in order to reach the stars, you may have to detach from everything else. Ryan Gosling isn’t singing and dancing as the famous astronaut, quite the opposite actually. He perfectly exemplifies the stoicism of masculinity in mid-century America and the emotionless tenacity involved in taking this dangerous mission. Chazelle was the perfect director to ask these questions about what it takes to achieve such heights, a similar theme explored in his excellent film Whiplash. Helping guide the audience and her family through this mission is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. Next time you find yourself staring at the moon at night, this movie may leave you thinking about Janet and so many others that were left behind here on Earth by men reaching for greatness.
- If Beale Street Could Talk (R)
One of the dictionary definitions of a “prophet” is, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” I think James Baldwin was a prophet. His words paired with the directing of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, brings more than ordinary insight of life on Beale Street. A block of text begins the film explaining that the concept of Beale Street, is a street where communities of color form through systematic injustices. In this film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, viewers get to see the beauty of such communities painted, through the camera lens, on the back drop of the oppression they experience on a daily basis. In the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, Baldwin and Jenkins highlight inequality in criminal justice, housing, religion, employment, education, and so much more. Too often ugly stories are told under a light that makes the subjects look ugly, but Beale Street tells the story of beautiful people who are victims of ugliness. The film tells a story that feels hopeless, but Jenkins tells truth without surrendering any beauty.
- Vox Lux (R)
At this point, it’s possible that Natalie Portman has an automatic entry on my Top Ten list whenever she has a movie coming out. In Vox Lux, she is riveting! The film tells the story of a mass shooting survivor turned pop music star. There is a moment in the film when Portman’s character Celeste wonders how she, as a mega celebrity who seemingly achieves more fame when she does harm than when she produces new art, compares herself to terrorists. This feels like a film for our times and one that Portman brings so much to. The monsters of fame and trauma have made Celeste a dangerous person to those around her, but when her wireless microphone is on, when there’s glitter adhered to her eyebrows, and when she is hitting every step of her choreography even those most hurt by her are caught up in her trance and you may be too. Vox Lux carries an R rating and viewers could use a heads up that the depiction of the mass shooting that opens the film is terrifying and graphic, but the film asks if that is a fitting mirror to our everyday reality?
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)
Outside of Heinz Field over on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a big statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the three rivers. It sits, sculpted with a signature sweater and tennis shoes, with on leg crossed watching with a smile on his face. This is, similarly, how he has supervised over much of my childhood. From doing ballet with Steelers great Lynn Swann to visits to the crayon factory to heartfelt reminders that I am loved and my feelings matter, Fred Rogers’s influence on me is immeasurable. With this year’s best documentary, I realized just how many others have been and continue to be influenced by Fred. The equation was this; a Presbyterian minister, primitive puppets, cheap sets, and a public access feed. All of this added up to magic and it all came from one man caring in a different way. This movie left me in my theater seat dreaming of all the people who have cared deeply about me and hoping that others have felt that way about me caring for them. Fred’s influence continues.
- Eighth Grade (R)
I am not a middle school girl. Neither is 28-year-old stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham, but he has created such an authentic picture of today’s youth culture that anyone can relate to it. There are many seasons in life where humans will stop and wonder who they are. Post-college, mid-life, end-of-life, and others are all ages when our identity is worth evaluating, but is there a more tumultuous time than the first? We hit middle school and, all of a sudden, it’s a mad dash for acceptance, affirmation, and our own individual truth. Today’s kiddos are going through this pubescent tumult live on Instagram. Burnham researched hours and hours of YouTube vlogs to capture the vulnerability portrayed by actual middle schooler Elise Fisher. The product is a movie that will take you back to every acne break out and broken heart of your youth. Thanks a lot, Bo.
- Bad Times at the El Royale (R)
I want you to watch Netflix’s Daredevil creator Drew Goddard’s twisty-turny thriller, and to best do that you should have as little information as possible. What I will tell you is that it features two of my absolute favorite acting performances of the year. Cynthia Erivo brilliantly leads this wild ride and Jeff Bridges is only getting better as time goes on. Bad Times wrestles with morality, spirituality, and forgiveness so be ready to wrestle along with it. Nearly every scene in the movie changes what you think is happening and how you feel about each character. What never changes is how I feel about the movie. It’s a really good time.
- A Quiet Place (PG-13)
Parenting is absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I would have responsibility for the well-being of something as uncontrollable as another human being, one with very little inhibition or wisdom, is a nightmare. This is a nightmare The Office’s John Krasinski brings to terrifying life in A Quiet Place. There’s no room for error for Krasinski’s Lee who, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, attempt to navigate their children through a word with unspeakable danger. The kids in the film are so authentic. Even in a world of monsters, they are kids with all their selfishness and wild tantrums kids have. A Quiet Place forces you to scream not only at the monsters but at these kids that just won’t sit still! The world Krasinski builds is immersive and doesn’t let you escape until the very last frame. It’s impossible to sit back, relax, and watch this one, but that makes it such a thrill.
- Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13)
Just when everyone thought Marvel’s Black Panther was going to be the only financial surprise at the box office this year, Crazy Rich Asians came in breathing new life into a genre many thought was gone forever to a world of mediocrity. Romantic Comedies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, but Crazy Rich Asians defies the category. I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the studios when it came to my expectations for the movie. I hoped to laugh, I hoped to have a cross-cultural experience, but, I never expected to be so deeply moved. I had heard an interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, before seeing the movie that added context. He spoke about his complicated relationship with the Coldplay song “Yellow,” how he wrote a letter to Coldplay talking about his experience as an Asian-American for whom the color was often used to belittle, and how important is was to include the song in his film. For Chu, this film was about capturing a story not often told. It was about showing others the beauty of his culture, and the minute that song played in the film, I started crying. This wasn’t just a romantic comedy, this was a movie with incredible characters and a meaningful story tied richly into their culture and tradition. It was one of many statements made this year that there are stories to be told outside of the majority culture and movie-goers responded making it the second highest grossing non-franchise movie of the year.
- Roma (R)
Netflix has a record of changing the way we experience content. It seems every week there’s a new streaming service, and competition has never been more intense to create the next great work. Well sit down, Prime Video. Get out of the way, Hulu. Who even invited you, Crackle? Netflix has offered us this year’s best film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This black and white, subtitled movie is autobiographical for the Gravity director. It tells the story of a maid, like the one who cared for him as a child, living and working in an affluent town in Mexico. The town of Roma basically runs through the hard work of indigenous Mexican women, and Cuaron drops the audience into her life, into her language, and into the politically volatile world of 1970’s Mexico. It was so surprising, and emotional. Cuaron cast a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, to bring his lead, Cleo, to life. She fills Cuaron’s long, expansive frames with such beauty and authenticity. Much like Cuaron’s Children of Men, he rolls the camera and allows scenes to develop and evolve with very few cuts or movements. This is very much his love letter to Mexico and the woman who inspired Cleo and the film, Cuaron’s own live-in maid, Libo. This is a letter very much worth reading and the great thing is that anyone borrowing somebody’s Netflix password has access to it.