Hey, where ya’ been?
Oh…right! I was the one missing in action here at ChicagoNow.
Yes, between exploring some new avenues and the demise of Chicagoist, I didn’t just take a small step away from movie criticism in 2018. I pretty much abandoned it.
As such, I really have no claim to this space, but as the content managers have been kind enough to not revoke my access, I’m here to add to the endless year-end lists.
Last year, embracing my now fully amateur status, I took advantage of the freedom this forum allows and the year-in-review was…well…loooooong. Friends and family who used to receive a personal recounting of my annual cinema intake (dubbed The Beast) were used to this excess, but it was asking a lot for the general public to digest it.
What follows is far from brief, but a tad more manageable than that five-part behemoth.
A few notes for those new to my musings:
- I list favorites. I’ll leave defining “the best” films of the year to those with more confidence (or hubris).
- I include late 2017 releases viewed in 2018 and films shown only at festivals.
- I include short films. If documentaries and narrative features can be tossed in the same apples-and-oranges cart, why not short-form cinema?
- Yes, I include some television, and not just feature films made for Netflix or other content providers.
That last bullet will rile up some purists. I went into much more detail about my very reluctant decision to accept some TV as cinema last year, for those who want to dig into that.
The short version is that while I still believe seeing a movie in a theater is the ideal movie experience, too many quality features are released exclusively through home-viewing platforms today. And once you allow that the theatrical experience is not what defines cinema, limiting by length or whether it’s episodic or not (Marvel Universe, anyone?) doesn’t make much sense either.
That said, as the selections below demonstrate, I am still pretty old school. I favor stand-alone features and I still see more movies in theaters than at home. But I took in a lot more from my living room couch this year than in the past and I expect that trend will continue. C'est la vie.
In a world of endless, overflowing movie content from around the world, old definitions are really just there to make it easier for film and TV critics to justify their job titles. No one can cover it all. Claim a niche or admit, as I do, you’re just another explorer lost in the wilderness and enjoy trying to find a path.
*Indicates a late 2017 release.
**Indicates a movie shown at a festival yet to get a Chicago area commercial release.
1) The Endless – Inventive, trippy, ominous and sometimes unexpectedly funny, The Endless defies easy description. Lovecraftian sci-fi/horror, a poignant drama of sibling dependence, an offbeat road comedy, and other genre-stretching elements are blended in the remarkable third feature from multi-hyphenate talents Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. They both directed, they are the lead actors, Benson wrote the movie, Moorhead shot it and they both worked on the editing. They probably handled the catering, too. I cannot wait to see what these ridiculously talented and ambitious guys do next.
2) First Reformed – Despite the bumpy road of the last 20 years or so of his career, any notion Paul Schrader’s best work was behind him was obliterated with this profound and emotionally punishing drama of faith in crisis. Ethan Hawke gives one of his finest performances as the pastor of a historic small church (surviving mainly as a tourist attraction) whose contact with a disillusioned environmental activist awakens but also disorients his conscience. Echoing some of Schrader’s best-known work (Taxi Driver and Affliction particularly) but with its own distinct look and tone, First Reformed is an anguished scream of protest at both human failing and divine indifference.
3) Castle Rock: “The Queen” (Season 1, Episode 7) – While the series flagged a bit in its last three episodes, “The Queen” alone makes Castle Rock essential viewing. Structurally and stylistically bold, this episode seamlessly combines a sensitive approach to real-life horror (dementia) with the expected genre kicks of its Stephen King-inspired narrative. A great showcase for Sissy Spacek, giving one of the best, most technically challenging performances I saw all year. Complex yet accessible (you do need to watch the first six episodes to follow it), “The Queen” is also heartbreakingly moving.
4) If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (perhaps the most unlikely Best Picture winner in Oscar history) was deservedly acclaimed, but his new feature is flying a little under the radar and I think it’s an even stronger, more assured work. Tough and tragic, yet wildly romantic and lyrical, this adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel puts the struggle of black Americans in sharp focus while maintaining a very intimate scope – it’s the human experience seen through the prism of one couple and their families. Nicholas Britell’s lovely score lends additional resonance to a movie with powerful images that have played repeatedly in my mind since watching it.
5) Lean on Pete – You’d be hard-pressed to find a more compassionate drama than this supremely sad but deeply human saga of a teenager lost in the socioeconomic margins when his fuck-up dad dies. He finds a kindred spirit in the title character – a racehorse being run to death on the lowest tier of the “sport of kings.” You suffer with this poor kid (played beautifully and with palpable empathy by Charlie Plummer) for most of the running time, but the draining experience leads to a consoling, emotionally intense curtain-closer. Director Andrew Haigh expertly balances naturalistic beauty and hard-hitting realism.
6) First Man – Damien Chazelle’s unexpectedly melancholy take on the Neil Armstrong story is as much about bereavement as discovery. This kind of biopic is usually treated with epic imagery and heroic characterizations, but Chazelle’s portrait is intimate and often downbeat, giving Armstrong’s personal struggles equal weight to his daunting mission to the moon. Far removed from the exuberance of the director’s Whiplash and La La Land, this was an intriguing turn from one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge in the last decade. Superb lead performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.
7) I Think We’re Alone Now – Dropped into a lone suburban theater in the Chicago area, with no marketing whatsoever, this low-key oddball was one of the great surprises of 2018. Peter Dinklage plays a misanthropic loner, comfortable with his routine after an apocalyptic event has seemingly left him as the only living soul around. When a far more chatty and unpredictable young woman (Elle Fanning) shows up, his walls of isolation slowly crumble. More a quiet character study than a sci-fi tale, this is both a gentle charmer and an unsettling portrait of screwed-up societal priorities (embodied by Paul Giamatti in a small but pivotal part). Dinklage and Fanning have great chemistry and there’s a nice, subtle comedic streak to the film as well.
8) Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Best movie star pairing of the year? You can have Cooper and Gaga in A Star Is Born (OK, they’re fine), I'll take Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as self-destructive drinking buddies in this lovely little movie. McCarthy shows serious dramatic chops as celebrity biographer turned literary letter forger, Lee Israel, but her greatest confidence as a performer was in letting veteran character actor Grant steal almost every scene they share as her charming partner in crime. With a great script co-written by the underrated Nicole Holofcener (she also pops up in my honorable mentions), this is funny and sad, acerbic and sentimental in equal measures.
9) Ghost Stories – Is this really a “Top 10” film of this year…or any year? Objectively, probably not. There’s nothing in this highly entertaining horror anthology that breaks with well-worn staples of Amicus omnibuses of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Asylum, etc.), but I love those films, so this is pure cinematic comfort food for me. Adapting their hit British stage show, directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson go heavy on atmosphere but throw a few good jump scares into the mix. Anthology films are generally a mixed bag, but every segment here is a winner, in no small part due to a framing story (a professional paranormal debunker’s skepticism is tested) that threads them together perfectly. Points deducted for that utterly generic title, though.
10) Filmworker – What lengths will a person go for the sake of his art? What lengths will a person go for the sake of someone else’s art? The second question applies to this endearing documentary about Leon Vitali, who gave up a promising acting career to be a near-slave of an assistant to Stanley Kubrick. Serving as everything from acting coach to general office assistant to archivist, Vitali sacrificed so much (including his own health at times) to serve his chosen master, without nearly enough gratitude from Kubrick. You can walk away from this film thinking he is a mensch or a sucker. I'm going with mensch. I was really touched by his admittedly insane level of devotion.
11) Tilt – This slow-burn psychological suspense/horror movie bridges grim genre territory with something more akin to Lodge Kerrigan's unsettling portraits of psychosis Clean, Shaven and Keane. It’s a dark study of one man's narcissism and pessimism crashing in on him, fueled by disturbing external factors that include the rise of Donald Trump. Another excellent film dumped into the no-marketing, limited showtime wilderness.
12) The Front Runner – An appropriately unforgiving portrait of the Gary Hart scandal and its degrading impact on our future media and political landscapes. No one gets off easy here: not the press as it leaned into gossip as “news,” not the brilliant but arrogant Hart, and certainly not the public – the subtly positioned central target of the movie's many criticisms. With no one to really cheer for and the public growing numb to anything remotely political, it’s no wonder this bombed at the box office. Had it been released in the '70s, it would have been praised as an important picture. I think it is one. It's just a better movie than the mass audience of today wants or deserves.
13) Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – This illuminating and very moving documentary about children’s television maverick Fred Rogers is simultaneously inspiring and despairing: inspiring to see how Rogers succeeded for decades in going against the grain of kids' TV; despairing that so few followed in his footsteps and to see our country so far removed from his vision of love, empathy and concern for children (as evidenced in both our border separation policy and the collective societal shrug towards school shootings). But perhaps the movie’s surprising box office success is a hopeful indication that Rogers’ message and methods aren’t doomed to drown in a sea of fast-paced sensation and confrontation. Director Morgan Neville also helmed They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (see #15).
14) The Favourite – I enjoy all movie genres, but British period costume films a little less than others because so often they seem beholden to safely literary, respectable, ready-for-PBS conventions. Not so in this hilariously ribald and yet (in the end) rueful account of a rivalry within the inner circle of Queen Anne. Emma Stone’s comic timing as the maid with high ambitions is something to treasure and Rachel Weisz (good year for her; see #16) is terrific as her formidable foe, The Duchess of Marlborough. The real scene-stealer, however, is Olivia Colman, both delightfully daffy and damaged as Queen Anne. I was middling on director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, a bit more impressed by last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but this is the first film I’ve seen where his reputation as a modern master of absurdism seems earned.
15) They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – This was the year when we finally got to see Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (or at least as close to a finished version of that legendary lost movie as we will ever see). Though that stylistic hodgepodge of a film is interesting on some levels, I can’t help but think many critics proclaiming its brilliance are buying The Emperor’s New Clothes. On the other hand, this documentary about the film’s troubled production and unexpected resurrection is a highly enjoyable and playful distillation of the must-read book, Orson Welles' Last Movie. Incorporating fantastic archival and behind-the-scenes footage, and edited to echo Welles’ F for Fake, it is bound to reignite interest in the great artist more successfully than his directorial swan song.
16) Disobedience – Conflicts of faith, family and sexual freedom reach a boiling point in this story of forbidden lesbian love within a strict, Orthodox Jewish community. The movie boasts three awards-worthy performances by Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, but it’s the angst and evolution of Nivola’s character that gives this movie more weight than many dramas about religious sexual oppression. The steamy love scene between the two Rachels will surely draw plenty of eyeballs, but unlike the overpraised Blue Is the Warmest Color, it doesn't seem like the whole movie was an elaborate excuse to film that scene. It feels integral to the characters and real. With Sebastián Lelio coming off plenty of buzz for the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman and his previous film, Gloria, it’s a mystery why Bleecker Street didn't hold off until awards season to release this.
17) At War ** – This blistering, docudrama-style French film about an intense, escalating labor dispute inspired a few walkouts at the Chicago International Film Festival screening I attended. I kind of understood that, as it’s an unrelenting movie with a whole lot of yelling. For me, though, this had the urgency and energy of a great punk rock song, and as we globally surrender more and more of life’s essentials to corporate control, the message here hit hard and with authority. The only misstep is an overwrought climax that doesn't seem true to the main character, played flawlessly by Vincent Lindon.
18) Roma – Alfonso Cuarón’s much-lauded return to Spanish-language filmmaking may be a tad too leisurely in its pacing and it doesn’t have much of a narrative arc, but it’s so damned gorgeous no one should care. The visual composition in this black-and-white neorealist drama following a maid and the well-to-do family she serves in early ‘70s Mexico is simply exceptional. Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer for this beauty, stepping in when his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki was not available. No offense to Lubezki’s proven artistry, but damn, it’s hard to imagine anyone making this movie look any better. Cuarón explores middle-class and working-class dwellings with the eyes of someone who’s just discovered a new world.
19) Annihilation – Bleak but mesmerizing, Alex Garland’s second feature as a director falls shy of his dazzling debut, Ex Machina, but it’s a memorable journey into the grim side of sci-fi existentialism. Influenced by Tarkovsky’s Stalker (though certainly more accessible to the average viewer), the film’s intellectual ponderings and view of the easy disposability of the human species ensured it would not be a mass audience hit.
20) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – A Coen brothers’ movie is always worth seeing, but I’ve been somewhat let down by their output over the last decade (No Country for Old Men being the last feature I didn’t have mixed feelings about). But this sardonic western comedy anthology breaks that streak. I might have cut the “Meal Ticket” segment (basically a long build to one punch line), but I loved the other five stories, especially the final two entries, the largely dramatic (with a pinch of black humor) “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and the gothic horror-tinged “The Mortal Remains,” which ties a gallows humor bow on the compilation.
21) The Death of Stalin – The gleefully cynical wit of Armando Iannucci (Veep, I’m Alan Partridge) stepped onto tricky terrain with this comedy about the inner workings of one of the most murderous regimes in modern history. But if Iannucci’s approach to the subject matter is questionable, the end result is undeniably hilarious. This spear-pointed historical political farce has perfectly timed gags and loads of quotable, profanely funny lines. As someone who never understood the conceit of actors speaking in English but with foreign accents to portray other nationalities, I also loved that all the great British and American actors here speak in their normal voices. Indeed, Steve Buscemi playing Nikita Khrushchev sounding like Steve Buscemi is a great gag unto itself.
22) Garden Party – This animated French short about frogs and toads having a party in a deserted mansion builds to a wickedly funny punch line. Incredible, photorealistic CGI imagery draws you fully into this delightfully dark comic vignette.
23) The Looming Tower – I’m largely informed by this dramatic version, having not read the book it’s based on, but this excellent Hulu mini-series presented a disturbing view of how ideology, inter-government distrust and blind spots of global awareness kept the attacks of 9/11 from possibly being prevented. A smart and sophisticated series, with memorable performances from Jeff Daniels, Bill Camp and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) in what should have been a star-making role. The great DP Frederick Elmes, who shot some of David Lynch's breakthrough features, was one of the chief cinematographers.
24) You Were Never Really Here – The parallels between Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature and Taxi Driver are so strong that it’s hard not to, on some level, see this movie as derivative. Yet Ramsay is such a gifted stylist that even as you recognize the similarities (unstable loner out to rescue an underage girl from the sex trade), the movie never feels second-hand. Occupying a disconcerting bridge between violent fantasy and all-too-real savagery, this is a memorable depiction of isolation and its psychological impact that only suffers from being in the shadow of an acknowledged masterpiece.
25) Unsane – Steven Soderbergh’s shot-on-iPhone psychological thriller doesn’t try to mask the visual flaws of its consumer-level camera (as some recent indie movies have done very well). Instead it accentuates the harsh qualities of the imagery, which works well for a story of a woman who may be losing her mind or is possibly being gaslighted. Skillful suspense with a nicely warped sense of humor and a healthy dose of criticism for our money-grubbing healthcare system. Claire Foy delivers a sensational livewire performance (she also had a really good year between this and First Man).
American Animals – Stylish dramatization of a famous, botched art heist, cleverly incorporating interviews with the unlikely, real-life thieves.
The Americans: “The Great Patriotic War” (Season 6, Episode 5) – The most devastating episode in the final season (solid, but not the best) of this fascinating, suspenseful and psychologically heavy Cold War espionage series.
Barry (Season 1) – Despite its 30-minute episodes, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s terrific HBO series about a hitman who wants to be an actor does not play like a sitcom, but as a witty, character-driven comedy with feature film-worthy production values.
Black Panther – The top box office behemoth of the year doesn’t need my endorsement, but it was good enough to overcome my superhero film fatigue.
The Cleanse – A funny, weird and oddly touching tale of a lonely guy trying a New Age cure that goes terribly wrong. I never could make it through ten minutes of The Big Bang Theory, but Johnny Galecki is terrific in this.
Cruise – Affectionate coming-of-age piece from Robert Siegel (Big Fan), set in 1987 Queens. It has echoes of American Graffiti and Risky Business, but the subtly shifting characterizations make it more than an exercise in nostalgia.
The Deuce (Season 2) – Not as strong as the first season, but the HBO series from the creative team behind The Wire continued its look at the cross-pollination of porn, prostitution, crime and the club scene in ‘70s NYC with some of the most filmic lighting on TV.
The Eleven O'Clock – A very funny Australian short about a delusional patient scheming to take the place of his own psychiatrist.
Funny Cow** – Great period detail and a charismatic lead performance by Maxine Peake highlight this gritty British drama of a female comedian’s rise in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Hair Wolf** – Racial identification and appropriation via hairstyles and fashion get a very good ribbing in this socially astute satirical short.
Hereditary – The first half or so of this critically adored shocker plays like a nightmarish vision of real-life tragedy. The latter portion contorts into a crazy-ass satanic conspiracy cartoon. That kind of tonal inconsistency is usually a deal-breaker for me, but there’s enough exceptional craftsmanship and sheer audacity here to forgive it.
Home Shopper** -- Actor Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) made his directorial debut with this hysterical short about a put-upon woman who finds sinister release through a home shopping network.
Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animated feature doesn’t strike gold in every scene, but it has some great imagery bolstered by a terrific vocal cast.
The Land of Steady Habits – Writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Enough Said) continues her undervalued output of modest, insightful comic dramas with this view of a male middle age crisis and the unintended havoc it wreaks on two families. A nice leading man vehicle for the always-superb Ben Mendelsohn.
La Persistente** – A beautifully made French short that plays like Christine crossed with a neorealist biker film.
Milk** – A pitch-perfect horror short maximizing its minimal narrative: wee tyke gets up for a glass of milk in the middle of the night and Mom’s in the kitchen. Or is she? Supposedly a feature-length version is the works. Why bother? The ten minutes here is all you need.
Molly’s Game* – Aaron Sorkin’s sharp, smart dialogue abounds in his directorial debut based on Molly Bloom’s memoir of becoming a power broker on the big-stakes, underground poker circuit.
The Mule – Hollywood’s grand old man Clint Eastwood had a hit-and-miss year with two 2018 releases (read on for the miss), but this quirky – sometimes rather goofy – effort is full of charm and moments of real emotion. Not the solemn drama the trailer promised, it's an offbeat genre pic with Clint very appealing as an old fool making one bad decision after another.
Overlord – Nazi-zombie horror that almost plays more like an old-school, “troops in harm’s way” WWII movie than the grindhouse-styled exploitation film you might expect. A lot more graphic gore than a ‘40s service drama to be sure, but surprisingly effective in its nostalgic nods.
A Quiet Place – The critical praise for this was over the top, but John Krasinski’s surprise smash dystopian horror hit makes the most of its “hush, hush” novelty and the filmmaking is potent even when the premise becomes strained. (By the way, if you call this or Hereditary “elevated horror” I may have to hit you.)
Revolting Rhymes – Based on a book by Roald Dahl, this cleverly animated short is true to the subversively funny author in its twisted take on fairy tales.
The Rizzle – Fun Australian short that makes the most of that place where technological antiquity and creepiness meet.
Sorry to Bother You – It kind of loses its edge as social satire as it grows more and more surreal, but you have to tip your hat to Boots Riley for letting his imagination run wild in this daring, often really funny skewering of race and class hierarchies.
Summer of 84 – Playing on some of the same ‘80s nostalgia that informs It and TV’s Stranger Things, this riff on teen horror flicks of the era builds to an unexpectedly serious conclusion – a note of lost innocence with real gravity.
Time Share – This pitch-black Mexican satire takes dead aim on corporate marketing and comes pretty close to a bullseye, presenting a dream resort timeshare stay that becomes a vacation in Hell.
Tully – The twist in this is a big problem for me, but there’s still a lot to love in this hard-edged, darkly funny take on the toll motherhood takes on a woman's independence. Charlize Theron is amazing here. It’s past time to start talking about her more often as one of the best actresses working. It was a tough year for Jason Reitman, who directed two good films (The Front Runner is the other), largely ignored by audiences and underrated by critics.
WORTH A LOOK
A Star Is Born 
THOSE RAVE REVIEWS ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG
Phantom Thread* – I continue to prefer playful P.T. Anderson to the subtle and restrained model.
Ray Meets Helen – The long-awaited return of Alan Rudolph was, alas, a far cry from his peak form.
MY LEAST FAVORITE FILMS OF THE YEAR (Ranked in order of intolerability.)
1) Vox Lux – A turgid turd of self-importance. From its ostentatious opening credits onward, Brady Corbett’s film about a pop star born in the aftermath of a mass shooting has the reek of a filmmaker desperate to prove his auteur status. Natalie Portman is usually a reliably strong actress (see Annihilation), but her showy performance here mirrors the movie’s lack of authenticity and painfully obvious desire to impress.
2) The 15:17 to Paris – If not Clint Eastwood’s worst film as a director, this docudrama with non-professional leads playing themselves is certainly a strong contender. I can’t top Alcohollywood critic Clint Worthington’s succinct dismissal: “Turns out just throwing people on camera to reenact their summer vacations isn't a great idea!”
3) The Body – Hulu’s new “Into the Dark” monthly series of seasonal-themed horror movies got off to a weak start with this poorly written entry about a hitman trying to get rid of a body under the cover of a Halloween party.
4) Winchester – The Spierig brothers impressed with their corporate vampire film Daybreakers, but they fail badly with gothic horror in this tale based on a legend surrounding the firearms heiress’ massive estate. Cheap jump scares abound and Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke are wasted.
5) X – The Exploited** – I haven't caught up with Károly Ujj Mészáros’ previous film (the widely admired Liza the Fox-Fairy), but his follow-up is an utter bore. This seems like an audition for the next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo entry or a similarly self-consciously grim, drab, gray-paletted police thriller.
FAVORITE LOCAL REVIVALS
Jewel Robbery, Night of the Demon, Song of the Open Road (Chicago Film Society)
FAVORITE OUT-OF-STATE REVIVAL
Drive-In Super Monster-rama: Hammer Horror Weekend (Riverside Drive-In, Vandergrift, PA)