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2018: The Masterpieces

Posted January 3, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Okay, folks. The time has come to start putting up my year-end lists. For those who are new here, each list will presented in a kind of “awards” format, with movies grouped into categories and a “winner” selected from each one. (It’ll be more clear in a minute.) There are three lists, each one with different criteria, and all of them will follow these basic rules.

1. Only movies that I’ve seen and reviewed will be considered. Sadly, this means that Suspiria (2018), The Sisters Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lean on Pete, First Reformed, Disobedience, Prospect, The Rider, Minding the Gap, A Private War, Support the Girls, Colette, Free Solo, and too many others to name will not be included. This also means I’ll be passing on several awards favorites that won’t see wide release until later this month (with apologies to Destroyer, On the Basis of Sex, At Eternity’s Gate, and others), because fuck that game.

2a. Only movies released in 2018 will be considered. While it breaks my heart to take Paddington 2 out of contention, that one got a November 2017 release in Europe.

2b. Festival premiere dates don’t count. Because movies have been known to change in post between festival screenings and public release, I don’t consider a movie to be truly completed while it’s on the festival circuit. For example, while The Cakemaker screened in multiple international film festivals as far back as July of 2017, it didn’t get a public release until… December 28th, 2017, in Israel. Oh, hell, that’s close enough.

3. Only one award per film, and one award per category. I don’t want a situation in which one movie wins everything, and I don’t want to call any ties. That would be too easy, and frankly boring.

With all of that settled, let’s get to the Masterpieces. These are the films that I hold up as the greatest films of 2018 — the ones that challenged the audience and displayed technical mastery, encouraging the general growth of cinema and the world at large. In that spirit, let’s start with…

Greatest Racial Drama

We’re spoiled for choice with this one, gentle readers. So many great candidates, any of which could be a worthy awards contender. We’ve got BlacKkKlansman, that fiery and uncompromising treatise on white supremacy. We’ve got Blindspotting, a hip and intelligent movie that gracefully weaves themes of institutional racism with gentrification and cultural appropriation. Then we’ve got If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie that thoroughly dissects institutional racism in heartbreaking detail.

All of these are movies that we need right now. But more than any of them, The Hate U Give makes the strongest and most compelling case as to why we need them. This movie is positively dizzying in scope, artfully and passionately going into painstaking detail about casual racism, police brutality, cultural appropriation, growing up as a person of color, and too many other topics to list here. Expertly made, with a wide array of staggering performances, this movie perfectly captures the zeitgeist and speaks for so many innocent POC who live in constant fear, to say nothing of those who’ve been tragically gunned down already. More than any other movie in this category, this is the one most likely to win over hearts and minds, and that makes it my choice.

Best Coming-of-Age

Again, we’ve got too many great choices here, and in such a wide variety. There’s the abstract visual poetry of We the Animals, the heartbreaking PTSD-tinted father/daughter tale of Leave No Trace, and the brutally authentic Skate Kitchen (Seriously, why wasn’t that a documentary?!). I could keep going on, but this was always coming down to two choices.

Eighth Grade has earned a ton of accolades, and rightly so. It’s a bold movie in a lot of ways, and a film that perfectly evokes the feeling of being a middle schooler, adrift in the scrambling search for self-discovery, compounded by the ubiquitous Internet Age. Most other critics would give this one the win. And that’s because for whatever stupid reason, most critics are sleeping on Love, Simon.

Seriously, while Eighth Grade did a fantastic job with themes of self-discovery, sexuality, and the pros and cons of growing up with the internet, Love, Simon did all of that and did it better, with far more nuance and detail. It was also smarter and more poignant in places, and funnier overall by a wide margin. While the supporting cast is admittedly more broad, I have no problem calling Love, Simon the better movie as a whole.

Best Documentary

This was an uncommonly good year for documentaries. Three Identical Strangers was a nicely compelling take on a truly gripping story, and RBG was a fine portrait of a fascinating and iconic subject. There were plenty of other highly-acclaimed ones I didn’t get around to, but I still feel comfortable giving this one to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This is a comprehensive look at a man who devoted his life and work to the benefit of children, delving into his past and psychology in a way that makes him all the more extraordinary for how good he was and how human he was. This movie shows why we needed Mr. Rogers, why his work has provided us with a lasting benefit, and why we need more people like him today. But what puts this movie over the top for me is the assertion that there are more people like Fred Rogers — perhaps more than we think — and this film challenges them to step forward. That’s a message we could use more of right now.

Best Biopic

This was the year of biopics with extraordinary casts and subpar, misguided scripts. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot, Beautiful Boy, Mary Queen of Scots, and Vice come immediately to mind. Ditto for Bohemian Rhapsody, though that one at least had the mind-blowing final sequence. We’ve also got First Man, which might have been something truly extraordinary if it wasn’t for the goddamn shaky-cam.

I’m giving this one to Boy Erased for its fantastic lead performances and its harrowing in-depth examination of conversion therapy. In a year with so many films about rehab and living as a homosexual, this one blended the two in a unique way, directly commenting on a potent and vital subject that precious few filmmakers would touch. For this reason, it packs a far greater punch than most others I’ve seen this year.

Best Political Satire

While The Favourite was a wonderful film that subverted the usual “period drama” style in some entertaining ways, Yorgos Lanthimos is such an obtuse filmmaker that it’s hard for him to be incisive. By contrast, Assassination Nation spews hatred every which way, as incendiary, colorful, and mindless as a fleet of bottle rockets fired directly toward an alt-right rally. I would still recommend either one over Vice, which offered up a few decent points before squandering them with the ending.

What makes it even worse for all of them is that they had to go up against a grandmaster like Arnando Iannucci… Oh, wait. The Death of Stalin got a 2017 release in the UK. Dammit!

Okay, I guess I’ll give this one to Assassination Nation. It’s by far the most creative of the bunch, and the one most relevant to our current political climate. Plus, even if the world-building takes a hefty suspension of disbelief, the off-the-wall action was pretty fun, and bonus points are due for its examination of transexuality.

Best Light Drama

Juliet, Naked was hardly year-end material, but it’s a sweet enough trifle to earn a mention here. Ditto for The Cakemaker, which had the added benefit of a more compelling subject. The Old Man and the Gun was an okay victory lap for Robert Redford, but not the awards-worthy home run it should’ve been.

I really, really wanted to give this one to Tully, such a superbly written and acted movie — with a diabolically clever twist far more effective than it should’ve been — that it deserves way more year-end love than it’s been getting. But then Roma showed up.

It may seem strange to lump Roma in with the lighter fare, but it’s still an intimate slice-of-life story about a maid and her family, so I’m counting it. Really, the whole movie is so incredibly, immaculately detailed; developing its characters with such extraordinary depth; that the story feels so much more epic than it truly is. In a year that gave us First Man, Avengers: Infinity War, and A Quiet Place, it’s freaking Roma that was debatably the most technically impressive film of the year.

Best Crime Picture

Does Ben is Back count as a crime picture? Well, there’s drug smuggling and burglary in there, so sure, I’ll give that movie and its two wonderful lead performances an honorable mention here. I’ll also count Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ocean’s 8 — while both movies were unnecessary and forgettable, at least they were entertaining. That’s more than I can say for The Mule, which should’ve been a solid rival for The Old Man and the Gun, yet didn’t hold half the charm.

The clear winner for this one is Widows, delivering a female-driven heist picture with far more pathos and grit than Ocean’s 8 could ever hope for. The performances are fantastic across the board, and the film benefits greatly from Steve McQueen’s solid direction.

Best Masterpiece

Most other critics would give this one to a film like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, and I’m tempted to do the same, don’t get me wrong. But the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to fit. Because it’s not enough just to be a really good or impeccably well-made movie — I want to give my top honor to a true game-changer. Something that revolutionized cinema to such an astonishing degree that it will affect future filmmakers for generations to come. Well, we got such a movie this year, and I’m genuinely upset that critics seem to have forgotten how they were raving over it a few months back.

Searching is more than a wonderful showcase for a talented actor of color, giving John Cho a long-overdue starring role. It’s not just the best work Debra Messing has turned in to date. And it’s not just an enthralling mystery thriller with so many cleverly crafted twists and perfectly timed turns.

No, this is a movie that seamlessly integrates online technology and culture into the story, exploring our wired world with intelligence and nuance. A movie that incorporates branding and software in ways that feel natural and not like obnoxious product placement. Hell, this movie invents a whole new cinematic language in its use of cursors and keyboard strokes.

All of this is stuff that Hollywood has been trying to figure out for decades, and this movie cracked the code. As online culture only becomes more important in our lives, with a more imperative need to portray it in an authentic and compelling way onscreen, I expect this movie to serve as a filmmaking Rosetta Stone for a long, long time. This is a fantastic mystery thriller for casual viewers, and a movie to be relentlessly dissected by film students. This is easily my choice for the year’s greatest.

Stay tuned for the Disappointments, coming up tomorrow.