Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best Films of 2018 and a Plethora of Mini Reviews


Happy New Year everyone.  I've been dragging along as usual and seeing a ton of movies and not posting much.  But here's a special New Year's treat of 16 mini reviews plus my 10th (!!?!?!?) annual Top Ten List.  First the reviews for the past two months (in chronological order of viewing):

The Long Dumb Road - 3.5 JRs

Pretty funny road trip film that matches the everyday-man calm performance of Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) with the manic man-boy fury of Jason Mantzoukas (The League) who is one of my favorite comic actors working today.  Mantzoukas goes full Rafi in parts of the film but has some real genuine acting moments as well.  This film is short authentic and breezy with a lot of laughs along the way.

Green Book - 4.5 JRs

Peter Farrelly is used to making goofball comedy films like Dumb and Dumber, Stuck on You, Something About Mary, etc... Here, he brings the humor but also a great story and amazing chemistry between the two leads.  Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali have NEVER been better and play off each other so well in this tale of racial tension and acceptance.  People have been complaining that this is a story of racism for white people to digest, but I simply took the movie for what it was, a well crafted film with some of the best dialogue of the year.  The film has heart and is a joy to watch. Both actors are well deserving of an Academy Award and Ali is neck-in-neck with Chalamet in my opinion for taking home Best Supporting Actor.  If you missed this in the theater, definitely check this out on streaming before Oscar night.

Ralph Breaks the Internet - 4 JRs

The follow-up to Wreck-It-Ralph is a sharp look at how social media and the internet plays such a major role in our lives today.  There's a heart-warming story of loyalty and friendship between the main characters, and a kick-ass turn by Gal Gadot as a tough-driving female drifter.  Some good laughs throughout and the result is solid but not too spectacular.

Creed II - 3.5 JRs

Steven Caple Jr takes over the reigns of the "Rocky" franchise from Ryan Coogler, but Sly Stalone is still the writer here and manages to tie this film securely in with Rocky IV.  We see Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Creed on top of the boxing world and facing a looming battle with Ivan Drago's son Victor.  Stalone as Rocky is solid and mixes it up a little bit (but not enough) with his former rival in Dolph Lundgren.  Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are quality supporting characters in Adonis' life, but unfortunately we don't get the depth and quality in the filmmaking that Coogler brought to the table in the first Creed.  Kudos to Bridgette Nielsen for making a cameo without really saying a word.

Widows - 4.5 JRs

This movie barely missed out on my Top Ten but is such a strong thriller crafted by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave).  With five strong female performances led by Viola Davis, this film is a gritty heist tale sit in modern-day Chicago.  McQueen does a great job of balancing tense dramatic scenes with high-octane action sequences.  The best scene in the whole film is the contrasting single-take car ride that takes Colin Farrell's politician character from a run-down section of Chicago to his brownstone house in an affluent area of the city in just a minute-or-two drive.

This movie is all about the casting and all the actors came to play.  Daniel Kaluuya in particular gives a fiery fearsome performance as Jatemme, a ruthless thug who intimidates all that he meets throughout the film.  Brian Tyree Henry plays Farrell's opponent in a tough no-nonsense manner who has a highlight scene in which he interrogates Davis' character.  Elizabeth Debicki is show-stopping with her 6'3'' frame and pretty much kicks ass in every scene she's in.  There are numerous other stand-out performances in probably the 11th best film of 2018.  Go see it!

The Favourite - 4 JRs

While I didn't totally LOVE this film, I liked it enough and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has just the right amount of originality woven into a triptych of all-star performances that put a fun spin on an 18th century tale of regal power positioning.  The film centers around Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) who is slowly losing her mind slightly as she shows little interest in governing and maintains a intimate relationship with her trusted adviser Sarah (Rachel Weisz).  Sarah's younger cousin Abigail (the brilliant Emma Stone) comes to the palace to rival the queen's favor.  The bulk of this film is a virtual showcase for the acting talents of Coleman, Weisz and Stone.  While I thought all three were at the top of their game, Stone stood out the most for me.  This is Emma's very best performance to date and blows away her La La Land Oscar-winning role.  She is maniacal, calculated and earnest as Abigail.  So many scenes she owns just by giving a slight smirk, or some sort of facial expression that conveys so much more than the excellent dialogue that Lanthimos has written for her.

Roma - Netflix - 4.5 JRs

There is a lot of controversy on how to watch this film.  I had been anticipating it for a while so I made a point of it to make my home viewing on my 70-inch TV an event.  I turned off my phone, made sure I wasn't distracted at all and I put on Alfonso Cuaron's latest masterpiece.  Roma is simply-put a work of art.  The story (of a Mexican family and their housekeeper/nanny) is very simple and not very extraordinary.  We see Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) struggle through some major events in her life and while I was invested in her character's plight, I was more blown away by the visuals and sounds that Cuaron paints on his black-and-white digital canvas.

This film is shot beautifully and with such attention to detail, from the opening scene (Cuaron manages to make the mundane act of mopping a tile floor a beautiful chore) with a reflection of a jet in the sky to the closing shot (again, the jet in the distance), Cuaron puts everything so vividly into this film.  There are several wide shots with vast beautiful vistas throughout Mexico City.  A particular harrowing sequence is a single take of a mother giving birth and the ensuing struggle to keep the baby alive.  It is gripping, intense and show with such depth and artistic touch.  This is not your father's black-and-white ancient cinema style, it's pristine colorless digital wonderment with careful attention paid to every detail.  This is obviously Cuaron at the top of his game.  While I enjoyed Gravity more as a total film, the cinematography Alfonso pulls off here on his own (without his multi-Oscar winning collaborator Chivo Lubezki) is a stunning achievement.  I would have ranked this film higher if the the story was a little more poignant and memorable, but this is a film that everyone needs to see (on the biggest screen possible).

The Mule - 3 JRs

Another Clint Eastwood film in which he stares as a slightly grumpy aging man. The drug-mule twist makes for some good tense scenes and a particularly funny one involving a few Mexican whores, but overall this is just an average effort from one of the best filmmakers of all time.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - 4.5 JRs

This is hands-down the best animated movie of the year and one of the best (if not the-best) Spider Man movies that Marvel has ever made.  I saw this film in 3D and was very glad that I did (thanks AMC Stubs A List!).  The depth of a 3D experience brings the pages of a comic book to life with this movie.  There are clever word action boxes that pop off the screen and the film cuts back and forth into paneled division of the action in way that makes you feel that you are actually reading a physical comic book throughout.  Voice acting across the board is solid and the characters really get well defined throughout.  A solid soundtrack rounds out the total technical achievement by Lord and Miller and their crew.  It's a shame that this dynamic duo wasn't able to finish off their Han Solo movie, but it's good to see that they're back on their feet with this truly wonderful comic-to-screen conversion.

Mary Poppins Returns - 3 JRs

Emily Blunt is charming in the lead role as we get a way long overdue (?) follow-up to the original Disney musical.  This time Hamilton's own Lin-Manuel Miranda is along for the read in the Dick Van Dyke role (shouts to Dick for making a cameo here).  Blunt is charismatic and prim and proper at the same time and makes this movie worth watching (a solid book-end with A Quiet Place to her 2018 movie year).  The movie, however is a bit slow and boring at times and I found myself visiting slumber-land quite a bit in this one.  Bonus kudos to Dame Angela Lansbury (93!?!) for making a cameo at the end of the film and singing her ass off.

Ben Is Back - 4 JRs

This is the second "my son is on drugs and can't get clean" movie I've seen this year after Beautiful Boy.  There are some parallels to Chalamet's movie here but while Lucas Hedges is excellent once again in his third major role of 2018, it's Julia Roberts who owns this film and makes this worthwhile.  As Ben's mother, Julia is dedicated to keeping her son clean and her devotion throughout the film is remarkable to watch.  The final scene brought some tears out in me as Roberts is at wit's end in what to do next to help her son.  Julia is still one of the best actresses capable of giving a commanding performance that is able to dominate a film.

If Beale Street Could Talk - 4.5 JRs

Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his Oscar winning Moonlight, this film adapts the story by James Baldwin of a young couple in Harlem that have to deal with incarceration and family dynamics threatening their loving bond.  Kiki Layne is dynamite in her first ever film role as the co-lead.  Canadian Stephan James is also solid, emoting the weight of the world on his face.  Jenkins once again is able to give us extreme closeups of his actors and let their faces tell the story.  This film is beautifully shot and wonderfully scored by Nicholas Britell.  Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry deliver strong supporting performances, but the highlight of this entire film is the scene in which James' family finds out about Tish (Layne) being pregnant.  The events that follow the announcement one-up each other and play out in a jaw-dropping sequence of moments that make up the single best scene in a movie in 2018.

Vice - 4.5 JRs

Christian Bale is the next generation Daniel Day-Lewis, completely immersing himself in his roles.  Just when I thought Bradley Cooper could not be beat for Best Actor, Bale delivers a career-best performance as Dick Cheney, completely nailing all the mannerisms of the former VP.  Adam McKay delivers another quality breakdown of a pivotal moment in American history as we see all the behind the scene events and repercussions from Republicans through the past few decades.  Yes this film is very one-sided, but it still entertains and does a great job in contrasting decisions made by powerful men and the ensuing consequences felt around the world.  Great supporting performances as well by Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell.

Welcome to Marwen - 1 JR

A mess of a film from someone I usually trust (Zemeckis). Steve Carell overacts the shit out of his lead performance as a PTSD sufferer whose therapy lies in photographing dolls in a fictional WWII town. The "women of Marwen", lead by Leslie Mann, all mean well but the story is just do disjointed and peppered with Carell freaking out and screaming non-stop. The cuts between the CGI dolls (which are done well, effects-wise) and the real life events of Mark are meant to be seamless but just jumble the story even further. SO much attention is paid to Mark's shoe fetish that it dominates a lot of the story. Just a very strange movie that's really hard to sit through.

Bird Box - Netflix - 3.5 JRs

This is basically the counter-punch to A Quiet Place as our main characters have to navigate a post apocalyptic environment without the ability to use sight.  Bullock is solid in the lead and Trevante Rhodes moves on from Moonlight effectively.  The concept is very cool but I wish we got a better glimpse of "the creatures" which A Quiet Place delivered on and part of the reason why Krazinski's film is a far superior effort.

Bumblebee - 4 JRs

This is the proper way to do a Transformers film.  We get some nice retro Cybertron action with Prime, Soundwave and my favorite Transformers quote "Ravage... EJECT!"  What follows is a solid story with a believable teen character in the lead (sorry Shia).  The end of the film mixes in a bunch of CGI/human running around that I hated from all the Bay films, but overall I had a great time with this one.  Kudos go to whomever decided to set this film in the 80's, giving us a bitching soundtrack.