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The best (and worst) at the movies - 2018’s cinematic successes and failures

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We’ve arrived at the end of another year, a year of films good, bad and in-between.

That means it’s time for a look back at what 2018 has wrought in terms of cinema. These lists – both best and worst – are accurate as of press time, though there are some highly-regarded movies that I simply haven’t yet had a chance to see. I imagine that films like “The Favourite,” “Roma,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Vice” – just to name a few – would likely compete for spots on this list.

(Note: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” probably warrants inclusion here, but I figure the review featured elsewhere in this week’s edition will be sufficient to make clear my big feelings about that particular offering.)

And again – there’s no denying the subjectivity of lists such as these. In truth, things could break very differently depending on my mood when asked. Still, to my mind these are good, representative lists of movies that you should either a) see as soon as possible, or b) avoid at all costs.

(All films listed alphabetically)

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BEST

A Quiet Place

This horror thriller – John Krasinski’s directorial debut – offers a fairly standard genre trope with its setting, a world laid waste by a largely unknown invader. The twist here is that these cunning and monstrous creatures hunt their prey with a highly-honed sense of hearing. And so to survive is to remain as silent as possible – the noisy are the dead.

It's a big swing. This film could have been distracting and gimmicky or worse – an unwatchable borefest. But what we get is something laden with engaging tension; thick anticipation shot through with occasional flashes of monster (some playing lightning-fast, others lingering). The pacing is tight and the visual aesthetic is a good fit. There are a few jump scares, but the kind that occur organically and feel earned.

“A Quiet Place” is sharp and scary, a tight, taut 90-minute thriller that takes some chances and tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar way.

A Star is Born

I had questions going into “A Star is Born.” I love Bradley Cooper as an actor, but how was he going to be in his directorial debut? Especially when he would be directing himself? And Lady Gaga is an undeniable musical powerhouse, but could she transcend her persona enough to create a character that felt real? Would the movie elicit genuine pathos … or simply come off as pathetic?

Let’s check those boxes. Cooper’s direction is excellent. Gaga is absolutely captivating in this role, exposed and vulnerable in a way we rarely see her. And finally – pathos. Wave after wave of elicited emotion … and every feeling is well-earned.

The story is simple and compelling. The performances are raw and heartfelt. The aesthetic is honest and the music is spectacular. It uplifts and undercuts with equal abandon. It is a fantastic movie experience the likes of which we don’t often see anymore.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest is foundationally a true story, based on the memoir “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth. But again, there’s small-t true and Large-T True, and Lee, well … he’s going to err on the side of Large-T every time.

The end result is a film that is magnetic and unsettling, one that mines humor from the horrible and finds genuine pathos in unexpected places. It is an unrelenting commentary on the current state of affairs, unapologetically wielding the attitudes of the past as a way to hold up a mirror to the flawed face of the present. It’s also a comedy and a caper, with some buddy cop action thrown into the mix; let’s not forget how flat-out entertaining Lee can be as a filmmaker.

“BlacKkKlansman” is thought-provoking and emotionally charged; at times simultaneously difficult to watch and impossible to look away from.

Black Panther

This movie somehow manages to operate within the established MCU structure while also being something wholly and uniquely itself. It’s a film that addresses serious and complex ideas while still existing in a world of superpowered beings and futuristic technology. We’ve seen superhero space operas and superhero paranoid thrillers and superhero buddy comedies.

And now, thanks to the taut direction of Ryan Coogler, the sharp, intricate screenplay of Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and the performances of a top-to-bottom outstanding cast led by Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, we’ve seen something altogether new.

Something new, thought-provoking … and spectacular.

“Black Panther” is a superhero movie that is more than a superhero movie. It is a striking, powerful reinvention of the form that is both of and outside the usual formula. It thrills you in the moment and leaves you thinking after the fact. Believe the hype.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

It’s refreshing to see Melissa McCarthy tackle something completely different from her usual slapstick shtick in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s the true story of a struggling writer who harnessed her talent for biography into an ever-widening scheme involving the forgery of letters written by literary greats. It is a bleak, sad portrait of talent undone by self-doubt and false bravado, darkly funny with surprising moments of poignancy.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a true story that is too good to be true, a precious literary footnote that captures precisely the poisonous nature of unfulfilled ambition and squandered potential. It’s an exploration of the power of words and the fleeting nature of fame, literary or otherwise. It’s a compelling story, to be sure, but thanks to the outstanding box-shattering work of Melissa McCarthy, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

First Man

This film – directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” – relates Armstrong’s story as he walks the path that inexorably draws him toward space. It’s a portrait of the quiet aptitude and stoic readiness that made the man an ideal candidate for this leap into the unknown; it also examines the impacts of this journey (positive and negative alike) on those around him.

This is a story you undoubtedly already know. Most people do. But if we don’t keep remembering and retelling it, that won’t always be true. And knowing this story remains as important as it ever was. It is the story of what kind of people are willing to attempt – and achieve – the seemingly impossible.

“First Man” is a film built from small steps and giant leaps … and that’s exactly as it should be.

Green Book

This film feels very much like a throwback, a movie inspired by real-life events that is content to be driven by the immense talent of lead performers Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali. And while one can argue that its treatment of race is simplistic in spots, it still offers up a few challenges. It is thoughtful and funny and heartbreaking; a hell of a compelling and emotionally engaging story.

What “Green Book” does is choose to address one small sliver of a much larger narrative. It doesn’t delve as deeply as it might have, but that’s OK. Instead, it gives audiences an opportunity to watch two of our most talented actors ply their trade together, mining the pleasure and pathos that can come from unconventional friendship and putting forth a pair of 2018’s finest cinematic performances.

Sorry to Bother You

This movie is smart and weird, a philosophical car crash of a modern-day fable filled with thoughtful ideas and dark jokes and magical realism – the kind of movie that dares you to categorize it because it knows you can’t.

It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve seen in a theater. The fact that it even WAS in a mainstream movie theater baffles me. I struggle to parse how a film like this one even got made at all, let alone with the sort of budget and star power this one clearly had.

It is not the movie you think it is. It’s the kind of strange challenge that polarizes. This is not a “meh” movie – you will love it or you will hate it. There’s no middle ground. I’m still thinking about it – and really, isn’t that a signifier of excellence?

If you see it, I can’t promise you won’t be sorry … but I certainly wasn’t.

Tully

This movie is the latest product of the director/writer partnership of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody – the third overall (and probably the best). This weird little funny/sad film is a lovely piece of storytelling that deserves to be seen, a meditation on motherhood that is genuine and bizarre and driven by an outstanding performance from Charlize Theron; this marks the second time she’s worked with Reitman and Cody (the first was 2011’s “Young Adult”).

Sometimes you’re looking for something different. And there’s no denying that this movie is different. It’s a quirky, winsome story, unafraid to mix a dash of melancholy in alongside its quick wit. Mothers and mothers-to-be might find some of what they see particularly resonant, but anyone with an appreciation for quality storytelling will find something to like in “Tully.” It’s another first-rate collaboration by these three talented artists.

Widows

Director Steve McQueen isn’t necessarily the guy you’d think of when it comes to gritty gangster noir fare, but this film – which he also co-wrote alongside “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn – is all that and more. It’s a tense thriller, yes, but it’s also a work of feminist empowerment. And oh yeah, it has something to say about the American political system as well.

It’s a beautifully-crafted film, aesthetically stylish and narratively surprising, featuring a peak-of-his-powers filmmaker assembling an incredibly talented ensemble to create a movie that, while hauntingly familiar in some respects, is still something you’ve never really seen before.

“Widows” is a lot of things. A heist thriller built around empowering women and condemning the American political machine shouldn’t work, but this movie does. It’s an odd choice for someone like Steve McQueen, but it’s one that we should all be grateful he made.

(Honorable mentions: Annihilation; A Simple Favor; Bad Times at the El Royale; Crazy Rich Asians; Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Searching; Won’t You Be My Neighbor)

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WORST

Action Point

I’ve always had an affinity for watching people get hurt in ridiculous ways. It’s the teenaged boy in me; slapstick, physical humor has always been a favorite of mine. It’s why I have a soft spot for Johnny Knoxville and “Jackass.” The sheer abandon with which those degenerates approached their work (such as it was) … admirable, really.

But such degeneracy is a young man’s game. Truly, in the end, time leaves no man’s balls unkicked.

This brings us to “Action Point,” a film about which I held the exact right degree of low expectations, yet was disappointed nevertheless. It’s a lazy, largely unfunny comedy that spastically flails about and fails to make any real impact.

“Action Point” isn’t a good movie. That’s no surprise; only a fool would expect it to be. But it wasn’t an ENTERTAINING movie, and that IS a bit surprising. Knoxville falls flat – and not in the manner we’ve come to expect.

A.X.L.

I would not be shocked to learn that you had never even heard of this movie before this very minute. Basically, it’s about a young man who finds and befriends a robot dog.

Yeah. That’s what I said too.

It’s a throwback effort, an attempt to capture the spirit of some of the kid-oriented sci-fi action flicks of generations past. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly successful effort. It’s a lazy and occasionally condescending film, the kind of movie that even the target audience will find to be a little unsophisticated.

“A.X.L.” is a sloppy, derivative outing, devoid of originality and uninterested in making any real effort. There’s a rote quality to the proceedings, a paint-by-numbers vibe that feels formulaic at every turn. The performances range from disinterested to actively terrible, while the narrative borders on the nonsensical.

In short, it is definitely barking up the wrong tree.

Breaking In

This one attempts to subvert the basic structure of the home invasion movie. This time, the bad guys are the ones in the safe space and it’s up to our protagonist to find her way in and save the day. It’s not bad as ideas go – in the hands of capable filmmakers, you could imagine this working well.

Alas, these filmmakers don’t appear to have that kind of capability. What we actually get is a poorly-paced ramble that never bothers to justify or explain the actions, events and decisions that play out on the screen. Star Gabrielle Union does her best, but that’s just not enough to overcome the jumbled blandness of literally everything else.

“Breaking In” is a movie that might have been pretty good in different hands, one that totaled far less than the sum of its parts. No thrills here.

The Darkest Minds

This film – adapted from the Alexandra Bracken novel of the same name – is as utterly forgettable as any cinematic YA sci-fi we’ve seen yet. The movie plays like a cobbled-together amalgam of every genre cliché conceivable, a thinly-plotted mish-mash of overfamiliar tropes so generic and bland that I literally struggled to remember the title. It is as predictable as it is boring, with little in the way of dramatic tension and even less in the way of interesting characters.

“The Darkest Minds” is replacement-level cinema, a placeholder of a movie that you’ll forget before you get to your car. It is flavorless pablum, the emptiest of entertainment calories. It isn’t even bad enough to be fun. Seriously – just title the damned thing “Generic YA Dystopia” and cut out the middle man. At least that way, I might have been able to keep the title in my head while watching it.

Death Wish

Eli Roth took it upon himself to remake the 1974 Charles Bronson-starring vigilante action film for reasons that confound the imagination. The notion of an affluent white man taking to the streets with a gun to exact some sort of self-styled justice was troublesome 40 years ago; in today’s climate, it’s downright unsettling.

You could maybe see your way to forgiving some of the story’s problematic nature if the movie was any good. But it is not. It is dull and derivative, plodding in pace and featuring a handful of cringeworthy comedic moments (some intentional, some not).

“Death Wish” feels painfully unnecessary. Even if you can set aside the unpleasantness of its conceit – which you almost certainly can’t – the film isn’t very good. It trudges along, beat by beat, slouching its way toward an unsatisfying conclusion. This is a bad movie with a worse message. You really ought to give it a miss – you deserve better.

The 15:17 to Paris

This film tells the real story of a train attack that took place in France in 2015. Three American men – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlotos and Anthony Sadler – took it upon themselves to thwart a gunman. Through their efforts, a tragedy was averted; the three were recognized as heroes.

It’s a compelling story, very cinematic. It’s no wonder that Clint Eastwood was drawn to it – he’s long been attracted to narratives driven by ordinary people forced by circumstance into extraordinary feats. This time, however, he went too far.

See, the roles of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler are played by … Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler. And while the trio puts forth a game effort, their utter lack of experience – exacerbated by Eastwood’s legendary directorial looseness – largely undercuts the narrative’s inherent impact.

“The 15:17 to Paris” is an unsuccessful attempt to tell an incredible story. It’s an atypically bold move by Eastwood, but bold doesn’t always equal good.

Hunter Killer

This latest installment in Gerard Butler’s quest to make weirdly bad versions of 1990s action movies is somehow one of the actor’s more nonsensical despite previous outings that include him fighting the weather (“Geostorm”) or Egyptian gods (“Gods of Egypt”) or protecting the President from places that have fallen (“Olympus Has Fallen”; “London Had Fallen”).

It has the combination of narrative thinness, disinterested performance and perfunctory effects work that often leads to an entertaining moviegoing experience. Alas, it’s not even bad enough to be really enjoyable, instead settling into a too-long slog where not much happens and what DOES happen isn’t particularly interesting.

“Hunter Killer” is long and dull, overstuffed despite having a woefully thin narrative. It should have been entertaining trash - all the pieces were there – but instead, it’s just a waste of your time.

Life Itself

This movie, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the auteur of TV weepiness that brought you “This is Us” among others, is utterly shameless in its willingness to do whatever it takes to elicit the desired emotional response. There’s an unpleasant directness to it all, as if it can all be boiled down to rote execution of instructions from a manual. The narrative lacks any sort of real direction – literally everything that happens revolves around Olivia Wilde getting hit by a bus - and the performances are lackluster; all this movie has is its weird, almost gleeful hammering of the aforementioned buttons.

“Life Itself” isn’t bad because it’s melodramatic or manipulative. It’s bad because it can’t tell a coherent story or create a single believable character. It isn’t bad because it’s sad. It’s bad because it’s, well … bad. Really bad.

This is bus.

The Possession of Hannah Grace

This is the worst kind of horror movie – forgettable. It is as completely disposable a movie as I can (vaguely) recall seeing this year. "The Possession of Hannah Grace" is the equivalent of the disappointing dregs of the horror section at Blockbuster circa 1993, a movie whose cover tricks you into renting it.

It’s a movie whose title you can’t quite recall even immediately after watching; I called this movie by three different names - none of them correct – in a conversation that took place not two hours after seeing it. It is a placeholder that will fade from the consciousness almost instantly and we will forget that such a movie ever existed. If you love horror movies (or even just movies that are interesting), don’t bother with this one.

There are some films that you’ll never forget; “The Possession of Hannah Grace” is one that you’ll never remember.

Robin Hood

Did we NEED another Robin Hood movie? Seriously - I’m genuinely asking.

The answer, if we’re going by the Otto Bathurst-directed, Taron Egerton-starring “Robin Hood,” is a resounding “no.” It’s a clunky, uneven effort at reimagining the character; the narrative defies logic and the action defies physics. Efforts to be edgy feel tryhard and condescending. The end result is a jarring mess of a movie, a joyless slog that feels like nothing else so much as a waste of your time.

“Robin Hood” is an absolute misfire, the result of a host of regrettable decisions. Rest assured – you’ll be anything but merry when you leave this one; the only thing this Robin Hood steals is two hours of your life that you’ll never get back.

(Dishonorable mentions: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Maze Runner: The Death Cure; Night School; The Nutcracker and the Four Realms; Peppermint; Super Troopers 2; Winchester)

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 December 2018 15:11

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