I saw fewer films of higher quality in 2018, a pretty good year for diversity and imagination at the multiplex despite the repetitive CGI blur of far too many box office hits.
1. SCIENCE FAIR
To be honest, this is a completely emotional and illogical choice for the top spot — and it takes nothing away from Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s charm bomb of a documentary to say that following a bunch of charismatic young science fair competitors around with video cameras is surely less daunting cinematically than, say, writing a comedy about Stalin or recreating 20th century Mexico City in gorgeous black and white. Yet of all the films of 2018, this is the one I would most happily watch again…and again and again…as a pure shot of joy straight to the heart of a deeply pessimistic, divisive, fact-denying era. Over the course of “Science Fair”‘s fast-paced running time, we meet a talented bunch of teens from a variety of backgrounds (including a shy Muslim girl from a football-obsessed South Dakota town, a pair of Brazilian students battling the Zika virus in their poverty-stricken community, and a misfit hacker teaching his computer to rap like Kanye West), along with a tough, dedicated teacher who’s single-handedly transformed her Long Island high school into a STEM powerhouse. As they move closer to the final round of judging at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles (all while battling mono, disciplinary reviews, and the fact that “the better you are at science fair, the worse you are at dancing”), viewers may find themselves rooting for different kids to snag the top prize. But as one of the judges notes, regardless of outcome, it’s easy to see each of the smart, hard-working individuals in this inspirational doc as winners — and, more importantly, reminders that there are always smart, decent people out there working for a better tomorrow beyond the grim partisan gridlock of the current 24/7 news cycle.
2. THE DEATH OF STALIN
Technically a 2017 film yet released in the U.S. in ’18, this black comic nightmare of Soviet mayhem couldn’t be more chillingly relevant (especially when viewed during the pre-Midterm gloom of the recent yet already seemingly distant era when all branches of the American government were beholden to the whims of a certain petulant, loyalty-obsessed autocrat with strong ties to Mother Russia). It goes without saying, of course, that President Trump is Mr. Rogers compared to Stalin, whose reign of terror led directly to millions of deaths, torture, starvation, and societal norms eroded to paranoid madness over the course of decades. Yet co-writer/director Armando Iannucci (whose own caustic previous works of political satire like “Veep” and “The Thick of It” likewise seem like “Mr. Rogers” in comparison) understands that great tragedies arise from relatable human flaws, failings, and foibles writ large, making this cautionary tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely both frightening and often quite funny thanks in part to a top-notch cast including Simon Russell Beale as a bureaucrat so terrifying he actually makes Steve Buscemi’s scheming Nikita Khrushchev (of all people) seem like a calm voice of reason.
Sometimes lavishly-praised critical darlings really do live up to their reputations — and in this case, it’s not just because Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical tale of life in the titular Mexico City neighborhood offers such a magnificent rebuttal to the moronic xenophobic ramblings of the Hispanic-bashing MAGA hat crowd — but rather because of how the film is both timely and timeless, epic yet intimate, and seemingly naturalistic despite the amazing craftsmanship of the mise-en-scène and carefully chosen images (like debris from a chaotic natural disaster atop the incubator of a peacefully sleeping baby). Descriptions that frame “Roma” as the writer/director’s cinematic reminiscences of his family’s bond with a beloved childhood servant (played by the luminous Yalitza Aparicio) make the film sound like a nostalgic slice-of-life snooze. Instead, the story’s packed with gripping, sometimes grueling drama (including two instances of young life in deadly peril and a protest-turned-riot as jarring as anything in “Children of Men”) — though even when characters are simply walking the bustling cosmopolitan streets, the sheer vibrancy of detail in all directions is flat-out astonishing. Even the ugliest parts of the city are rendered oddly beautiful via Cuarón’s pristine black and white cinematography and his eye for humanistic details like a pair of long-haired rockers transforming what initially seems like a hovel into a halfway decent hangout (or maybe even a home).
4. SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Perversely, the best Star Wars film since “Return of the Jedi” (and the first since the ’80s with the personality, humor, thrills and wonder of the original trilogy) was considered a failure at the box office, calling into question the overall health of a once mighty franchise. And, sure, after the turgid, joyless illogic of the Disney era and the reviled Jar-Jar Binksian prequels (which at least had a few ideas not Xeroxed poorly from better films), it’s not hard to see why fans turned their backs on the seemingly godawful idea of recasting Harrison Ford’s iconic role with some upstart punk. But damned if the kid didn’t pull it off, recapturing all the charisma and swagger Ford originally brought to the role (before his character was egregiously diminished and misused by “The Force Awakens”‘ PowerPoint presentation of a “plot”). Shooting sparks of chemistry with game co-stars like Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, a slightly less wooden than usual Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover’s scene-stealing Lando Calrissian and, of course, a charming reinvention of the young walking rug Chewbacca (embodied here by Joonas Suotamo), Solo dazzles with sequences rivaling the best of the series, from a breathtaking train heist to the massive space monsters of the infamous Kessel Run. Best of all, Ron Howard’s sadly underloved entry in the canon effectively depicts a coherent, lived-in civilization under authoritarian rule and all the interesting moral grey area beyond more endless emo whining about the tiresome Dark and Light sides of the Force.
5. BLACK PANTHER
Are there too many franchises in general and CGI-soaked superhero flicks in particular? Yes and unquestionably yes, though no genre is automatically good or bad: it all comes down to whether a film succeeds on its own terms and maybe even shows audiences something they haven’t seen before — like, for instance, a mostly black cast populating a major studio blockbuster in director Ryan Coogler’s pitch-perfect cinematic adaptation of the beloved and groundbreaking Marvel Comics series. And because the story involves so many men and women of color (as well as an African setting likewise seldom seen in American movies), “Black Panther” staked out fresh narrative ground beyond ho-hum “supervillain seeks world domination” cliches, raising interesting questions about isolationism vs. engagement, the proper response to oppression, the pros and cons of tradition, and other grown-up topics in a genre too often swamped with childish power fantasies. Themes and social significance aside, though, “Black Panther” mainly works because its compelling star, Chadwick Boseman, is believable as both a troubled prince, an international superspy, and an ass-kicking feline, his kingdom of Wakanda is a specific, detailed and fascinating place to visit, and Danai Gurira and her all-female special forces unit the Dora Milaje are so cool they justify the price of admission all by themselves.
6. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Few parents are thrilled to hear that their children want to become writers. Saying you’re a writer is viewed, at best, with suspicion (“Yes, but what do you really do?”), and at worst as as some kind of perceived moral failing like alcoholism (possibly because so many writer are, indeed, alcoholics). After all, what kind of unhinged egotist thinks others want to read their stories or know their thoughts and opinions…unless, of course, the writers in question are famous, in which case everyone suddenly wants to hear what they have to say, a strange dichotomy dramatized in this true-ish account of has-been biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who can no longer sell her own words yet manages to scam effete collectors of celebrity correspondence by by penning made-up witticisms in the voices of literary icons like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. McCarthy does the best acting of her career as the misanthropic, caustically funny Israel alongside international treasure Richard E. Grant as her partner in crime, Jack Hock in a matched set of Oscar-worthy performances.
7. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Boots Riley’s satirical, visually inventive fantasia of a black man (Lakeith Stanfield) using his “white voice” (supplied by David Cross) to succeed in the telemarketing industry has been compared to Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic “Repo Man,” not because of any particular plot similarities (except for the one about an outsider’s unlikely success in an offbeat career) but rather because they’re both such weirdly unclassifiable commentaries on modern society. Sure, “Sorry to BotherYou” is occasionally flawed and uneven, yet when its barbs hit their mark they hit hard while its gonzo, unexpected narrative curveballs made for one of the most enjoyable, unusual, and memorable movie-going experiences of 2018.
8. WOBBLE PALACE
The premise is (relatively) simple: a young L.A. couple experiments with “opening” their quasi-monogamous relationship in hopes that new sexual partners will either spice up their stagnant love life or push them to finally break up for good. The plan is that each will have 24 hours alone in the house they share over the course of a tumultuous Halloween weekend to sow what oats they can, leading to a chronologically bifurcated narrative with two very different protagonists. First up is director and co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko, whose compellingly off-kilter charisma electrifies the whole movie with natural comic star power. Dismissed by one character as a mere “goofball man,” the would-be lothario also exhibits a love-starved vulnerability (especially in a painful texting scene on par with Jon Favreau’s answering machine disaster in 1996’s “Swingers”) which helps to explain why living OR breaking up with him are both equally difficult options for his girlfriend (“Wobble”‘s co-writer, Dasha Nekrasova, who seems destined to play Carey Mulligan’s funnier, flintier kid sister in some future family drama). And though Kotlyarenko is a tough act to follow, Nekrasova slips effortlessly into the spotlight for the second half of the film, bringing appropriate feminine balance to this fresh, bitingly funny take on relationships and individual identity in our toxic alt-right, swipe-left modern era.
9. EIGHTH GRADE
The story’s as familiar as it is universal: an awkward adolescent yearns for an unattainable hottie who barely knows they’re alive, withstanding the casual cruelty of the popular crowd while ignoring the obvious infatuation of a fellow misfit and recoiling from the advice and concern of a well-meaning but desperately uncool parent. For Generation X, that teen protagonist was unquestionably Molly Ringwald, for Millennials it was (arguably) Lindsay Lohan, and Elsie Fisher seems like a worthy Gen-Z inheritor of the Clearasil crown as Kayla in this new coming-of-age dramedy from comedian-slash-writer/director Bo Burnham. Though not without flaws, Burnham’s feature debut effectively captures the myriad ways in which social media amplifies the pre-existing pain and confusion of puberty, while Fisher’s performance as an achingly vulnerable, often unlikable teen strikes closer to the unvarnished realities of adolescence than any cinematic character since Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn Wiener in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Yet while Todd Solondz’s 1995 black comedy was relentlessly, hilariously bleak, “Eighth Grade” offers at least glimmers of hope thanks to the dorky-sweet unconditional love of Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) and its stubborn glass-half-full optimism that imperfect people of all ages can somehow evolve into better future selves.
10. CRAZY RICH ASIANS
The buzz and marketing focused on the unusual phenomenon of a Hollywood movie featuring a predominantly Asian cast (as significant and welcome as “Panther”‘s majority black cast). But director Jon M. Chu and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim (adapting Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel) managed another feat that was nearly as rare and impressive simply by creating a mainstream romantic comedy that’s actually funny and romantic, all while filling the screen with IMAX-worthy fantasies of wealth and the eye-popping splendor of Singapore. (Plus, bonus points to Awkwafina’s endearing performance as a first ballot contender for cinema’s “lovable best friend” hall of fame).
Honorable Mention: More Human Than Human, Support the Girls, Damsel, Being Frank, Isle of Dogs, On Chesil Beach, Tully, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Juliet Naked, The Sisters Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Favourite
Maybe just an eensie bit overpraised: “A Star Is Born”
Gaga’s charming and the public humiliation scene here is arguably the most viscerally disturbing in any version of the story, but this Star loses focus in its second half and, frankly, I bought James Mason and Kris Kristofferson as tragic figures in their respective films far more than Bradley Cooper, whose world-weary growl always seemed more like a fashionably pre-distressed Banana Republic leather jacket than a lived-in state of being.