Academy Awards preview: best films released in 2018

In anticipation of the ceremony for the Academy Awards, I thought it would be as good a time as any to share my impressions on the 2018 crop of movie making.

The thoughts I am about to share are an ever-shifting compendium that may look different in a week, a month, or a year from now.

I watched exactly 60 films released in 2018. Of those, only 16 films received a 4-star rating or higher for an average of 3.3 rating.

Of the films that received the most critical attention, I have yet to see: If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins), Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Spiderman: into the Spider-verse (Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey), Blindspotting (Carlos Lopez Estrada), Burning (Lee Chang-dong), Free Solo (Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi), Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) and A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper). Please consider these omissions before you judge my list too harshly.

FAVORITE PERFORMANCES

ETHAN HAWKE as Rev. Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Like some critics out there, I’ve always had my reservations about Ethan Hawke. For most of his career he seemed to have been an actor who couldn’t get out of his head; often the weakest in an array of great films.

Then, I saw him in the Before trilogy and, soon after, in First Reformed, and my opinion changed.

His career path towards Ernst Toller was an interesting one. Hawke received work from great directors from an early age, picking roles in a plethora of smaller films that show his commitment to the craft whilst challenging himself in a variety of ways. The growth he’s had as an artist was never more evident than in First Reformed. His performance here is the kind of tour-de-force that many decades ago was delivered by a young Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver using the words of the same writer: Paul Schrader.

Toller is Hawke’s most nuanced performance to date. With each scene I could feel and almost physically grasp the immensity of his personal dissatisfaction masked under layers of religious doctrine and stoicism. A carreer-best.

OLIVIA COLMAN as Queen Anne in The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos is an actor’s director. His films lend themselves to performances that are difficult, conflictive and just barely on the side of seriousness. Ironically, Lanthimos is known for giving his actors a lot of space and very few directions. This goes to show Lanthimos’ confidence in his ability to perfectly cast actors that fit his stories and characters.

Olivia Colman’s performance as Queen Anne has it all. She is an egomaniac. She is idiotic about matters of state not because she is dumb, but because her interests lay elsewhere. She is deeply depressed, lonely and isolated, even if she enjoys the affections of many.

I fell in love with her performance because it’s fun yet disarming. She gets laughs out of small gestures. She is cruel to her subjects yet we pity her when she shares her sorrows. Her character is a mix of pleasure and pain, of vanity and heartache. Olivia Colman was meant for this role.

FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHY

I enjoyed the style, flavor and vocabulary of many films in 2018. More than in years prior, I encountered films that dazzled me from a technical point of view, but that left me wishing for more from a storytelling point of view. Of those, three examples come to mind: Annihilation, First Man and Hold the Dark.

There was the work of directors who delivered less visual pizazz but who still managed to find the appropriate cinematic language to deliver their stories. Such was the case of Spike Lee and Chayse Irvin’s work in Blackkklansman; of Yorgos Lanthimos in The Favourite; of first-time feature film director Bing Liu in Minding the Gap; of David Lowery and Joe Anderson in The Old Man & The Gun; and of Damien Chazelle and Linus Sandgren in First Man.

ROMA by Alfonson Cuarón

I would be very surprised if the Academy doesn’t bestow a lot of love and attention for Alfonso Cuaron’s absolutely breathtaking cinematography in Roma. Roma is not only gorgeous to look at, but also impressive from a purely technical point of view. There are shots so carefully planned and so carefully shot that they deserve to be analyzed in film schools everywhere. Cuaron’s compositions in black and white are deeply artful, lingering in our memories due to their sheer beauty. Alfonso’s treatment of the naked body, of Mexican architecture and of water, just to name a few examples, were simply astounding.

FAVORITE SCRIPT/ WRITING

Films are about the telling of stories. Some are grand, some are very specific. Some are constructed with precision and focus, while others benefit from improvisation and naturalism. Whatever the case, a great film is one where the writing works with the cinematic vocabulary. A great film offers a unique perspective that deems itself worthy of being shared with the world.

I was impressed with films like Eight Grade and Roma, both of which offered singular perspectives that I had never seen in film before. Ironically, Bo Burnham and Alfonso Cuaron respectively crafted pieces as if they were distant observants, seeing their stories from the outside looking in. Both shared stories about women and both did it as if they revered their strength, beauty and grace.

In 2018, however, there was no better piece of writing than the one found in Nanette, the 70-minute stand-up special by comedian Hannah Gadsby. Her perspective-altering set is an essay that tackles themes as diverse as growing up in a very conservative community in Tazmania, majoring in art history and finding herself at odds with the mainstream LGTBQ culture.

Gadsby covers a lot of ground, yet the power of her act is not about the joke-telling but about the deeply personal tale she shares and the lessons she draws from it.

While some may criticize Nanette for its many unfunny moments that don’t quite fit the model of a traditional stand-up, Hannah suggests that the status-quo exists to be broken. Her act is not stand-up in the classical sense and it would be wrong to label it as just that. Her show is a redefinition of what constitutes a stand-up (or what separates a stand-up special from a one-person show). Instead, she offers us a huge piece of herself to devastating effect that serves as theater, therapy and education.

FAVORITE FILMS

16. AMERICAN ANIMALS by Bart Layton

I was surprised to see the poor reception this film received.

Unlike some critics, I found this film engaging, well-paced and humorously clever. The film’s hybrid documentary and fiction delivery was appealing and consistent with the film’s cool and contemporary vibe.

A few scenes, especially those leading up to the heist that is at the center of the story were highlights of the year for me.

15. INCREDIBLES 2 by Brad Bird

If taken in isolation for its merits alone, The Incredibles 2 could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most accomplished Pixar films. The only problem with the film is that it is the sequel to an original that was, to some critics, the igniter of Hollywood’s superhero era.

14. A QUIET PLACE by John Krasinski

For all of the attention that Bird Box received when it was released in December, just in time for the holidays, A Quiet Place is a vastly superior film that does what Bird Box attempts to do without the intricacy and impracticality of the Netflix phenomenon. A Quiet Place is simple, direct and, you guessed it, quiet. It gives us rules and it follows them unceremoniously, regardless of whether it leads us to a happy or tragic conclusion. The performances are solid and so is the no-frills directorial feature film debut of John Krasinski.

13. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE by Lynne Ramsay

In the realm of slow-burning thrillers, You Were Never Really Here adds a valuable chapter to the long history of male introspective brooding and violence in film. Though light on story, Lynne Ramsey’s film is all about capturing emotions through a cinematic expression that is powerful and evocative, channeled through one of the best actors of our time: Joaquin Phoenix.

12. A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

The film narrates the incredible true story of Billy Moore, an English boxer who found himself jailed in Thailand. Moore is played with complete physical abandon by the up-and-coming actor Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders). He manages to create a character whose screen presence demands our attention, almost as if the camera is transfixed by the paleness of his skin and the muscles in his body in the midst of darkly colored and skinnier Taiwanese men.

The cinematography is among the best of 2018. Its treatment of natural light is crucial in creating a film void of happiness or hope. For the film, the human body is an endless source of fascination, capturing the prisoners’ physical texture as if there’s something magical and ethereal about our very existence in abject and oppressive environments.

11. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS by Tim Wardle

I’ve already spoken about this film recently, but I can’t recommend it enough. Though there’s nothing groundbreaking about the filmmaking, there is a deeply affecting and surprising human interest story that deserves to be seen. Rarely has a documentary used talking heads to such great effect.

10. EIGHTH GRADE by Bo Burnham

I admire this film a lot. How is it possible that a man like Bo Burnham with no experience as a director can write and direct a story about a painfully shy girl going through her last few weeks in Eight Grade?

If there’s a reason why I feel my list will change in time is because of Eight Grade. When I started putting together this post, the film landed in the 14th place, then went up to 12th and now finds itself at 10. Eight Grade is likely to remain in the back of my mind, gathering strength, and teaching me about my own experiences when I was in middle school.

Watch out for Elsie Fisher, an incredible discovery by Burnham. She delivers a very powerful performance that rings true as the film’s protagonist.

9. WIDOWS by Steve McQueen

One of the last entries just before the Oscars. Steve McQueen’s follow-up to the award winning 12 Years a Slave is a beautifully crafted thriller that shows that a filmmaker of the talent of McQueen can excel at any genre.

The story of Widows may occasionally stumble into some expected places, but thanks to the dexterity of the actors and director, Widows always points ahead with purpose, excelling beyond its script with beautiful cinematic touches that often say more than words ever could. There is, I recognized, a bit of nostalgia as I watched it. I embraced the pulpy nature of its script because films like this now rarely get released to mainstream audiences. Viola Davis is, once again, a commanding screen presence, but it was the work of Elizabeth Debicki as Alice that impressed me the most.

8. MINDING THE GAP by Bing Liu

My favorite feature film debut of the year. Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is a years-long labor of love that shifts and transforms as it progresses, almost as an unintended consequence of the passage of time that it captures.

Despite its very modest point of view, Bing Liu’s story is told with the visual lushness of a mainstream blockbuster. The skateboarding scenes he films are among the most unique of the year, almost always shot in motion with hand-held cameras. The opening sequence stands as a shining example, touching on many different ideas with sublime simplicity.

7. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT by Christopher McQuarrie

There is an increasingly voyeuristic quality to the Mission Impossible films. With each one that is made, and especially after director Chirstopher McQuarrie took over the franchise, the films have been documenting Tom Cruise’s on-screen flirtation with death.

The last installment continues the tradition of ever-more daring sequences, having Cruise perform his own stunts, adding to the naturalism of the filmmaking, while also heightening the stakes.

Aside from that, there is an undeniable intensity of purpose and physical abandon that makes Ethan Hunt’s latest battle with evil the best film in the franchise, and the best action-packed thriller in years.

6. BLACKKKLANSMAN by Spike Lee

In the midst of an American reawakening over issues of race, gender and sexual orientation; Spike Lee finds his mojo yet again. With Blackkklansman, Lee finds inspiration in the new state of the national discourse as African Americans and other minorities must now contend with the rise and significant push-back of white supremacy in the country.

Leaving aside the film’s most thrilling moments, Blackkklansman is, at its heart, a satirical document about the ignorance and futility of racism. It carefully balances drama and comedy in ways that are funny, revelatory, and often moving.

Visually, Lee’s filmmaking and Chayse Irvin’s cinematography give authenticity to a story set in the 1970s that uses a true story to craft a tale that reveals the despicable entrails of the Ku Klux Klan, and comparing it with the grace and merit of black power and the civil rights movement.

5. ROMA by Alfonso Cuarón

The exacting craftsmanship of Alfonso Cuarón’s work is both Roma’s most distinguishable quality and its most significant limitation. Roma is a film of incredible beauty and craft that gets at a very personal story from a certain distance, as if unwilling to say more, or to do anything else but bear witness to the almost saintly grace of Cuarón childhood caregiver.

Cuarón’s ode to an unsung hero is also a story about class, about womanhood and about life in 1970s Mexico. Like the exquisite camerawork, Roma’s production design is immaculate. The sets brim with life yet they still feel somewhat isolated from the comings and goings of Mexico City. The decision to film in black and white enhances the already timeless quality of the story, filling it with the nostalgia that drove Cuarón to share this story.

A great highlight of the film is Yalitza Aparicio’s lead performance as Cleo. Hers is a performance that feels natural and close to its subject. Aparicio’s somewhat reserved yet quietly resolute delivery a perfect canvas for Cuarón’s tale.

4. THE OLD MAN & THE GUN by David Lowery

Following the excellent A Ghost Story, writer-director David Lowery delivers yet another wonderful tale in the big screen. Based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, the film tells the story of a singular man fighting back the years to continue doing what he did best: robbing banks.

Playing Tucker is Robert Redford in what he now calls his last acting role before retiring. If so, this is a fitting conclusion for the thespian, delivering the type of vintage leading man performance that fills the screen with charisma and charm. Equally enchanting is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, who casually enters Tucker’s life as the last great love of his life.

Shot in Super 16, The Old Man and The Gun has a grainy, almost homemade feel that makes it feel authentically raw.

I can’t remember the last time I took so much pleasure at watching an old man-child of questionable morals have a blast at the expense of others.

3. THE FAVOURITE by Yorgos Lanthimos

The largest film in Yorgos Lanthimos’ body of work is also his most accomplished creation. While the devious writing of Lanthimos still shines through, the opulence of the British Court where the film is entirely set in, gives it a colorful dimension that his previous work was missing. Importantly, this is also the first feature in Lanthimos’ English-speaking work that is based on real historical figures. This fact makes the story seem plausible, even if the comings and goings of Queen Anne’s inner circle are entirely ridiculous. More often than not, The Favourite feels satirical, taking on the idea that inherited power breeds immature egomaniacs.

However, the great thing about The Favourite lies on its shape-shifting and genre-bending story. What starts as a dark comedy slowly evolves into a thriller/ drama that has, like Lanthimos’ previous work, an undercurrent of a great tragedy.

The Greek director also manages to get the best out of his actors. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are electric as the dueling women who fight for power and the attention of the Queen.

Though the film spends more time with them, it is the work of Olivia Colman that stands as the most fascinating and complex character of Lanthimos’ oeuvre.

2. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR by Morgan Neville

The two films at the top of my list were released early in the year yet remained in the back of my head. Won’t You Be My Neighbor made me feel things that no other film managed to of the 2018 crop.

The documentary is a deeply affecting account of Fred Rogers, the tv figure, social activist and early childhood educator. It focuses mostly on his middle-aged years, building a show that was unlike any other on television. The documentary was informative and one couldn’t help but admire the man at his center, whose heart shined through everything he did. He was an excellent father and husband, a true activist with great influence who was genuinely concerned with making a difference.

They don’t make them like Fred Rogers anymore, and we need people like him more than ever.

1. ISLE OF DOGS by Wes Anderson

It is sometimes hard to justify a choice that goes against most reputable critics. After all, Isle of Dogs was embroiled in a controversy that it couldn’t fully escape. The film was accused of racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation simply because it was a piece made by Wes Anderson, a white American director, that borrowed a great deal from Japanese culture.

Since then, I have found myself in the defensive, trying to understand those arguments while seeing an entirely different film on screen.

The truth is that artists should be allowed to make films about other cultures. It is about freedom but also about storytelling. The film industry can’t find itself censoring as if a white director can only make a movie about white people.

I didn’t find Isle of Dogs disrespectful in the least, though I realize I say this as a gay hispanic male with no connection to Japanese culture. The point is, however, that regardless of its accuracy in portraying elements of the culture, it does so with devotion and fascination. Moreover, the film is filled with positive messages and is probably the first animated film of 2018 I would make my children watch if I get to have any.

Lastly, Isle of Dogs is the pinnacle of stop-motion animation; a work of great beauty and craftsmanship that sets the bar for the genre in years to come.

Please leave your comments below. Agree or disagree with my choices? What is your list of best films of 2018?

Enjoy the 2019 Academy Awards!

1 thought on “Academy Awards preview: best films released in 2018

  1. We are in agree on some of these. Thanks to your post, I just added Hannah Gadsby to my film award category ‘most innovative’ as I forgot how original that comedy special actually is.
    Mission: Impossible – Fallout deserved some love by the Academy in the technical categories at least.

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