Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year)

In advance of tomorrow’s 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, it is time to reveal my ten favorite films from the COVID year in cinema!

My Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year)

No. 10 – I Care A Lot

The Netflix film I Care A Lot (written and directed by J Blakeson) is a very, very dark comedy, which follows Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a charismatic (yet incredibly brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. The movie’s plot takes off when Marla rips off the mother of a dangerous crime boss (Peter Dinklage). Although I Care A Lot has been fairly well received from critics (its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is 80%), it has received surprisingly negative reviews from audiences (its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%). One of the main criticisms I’ve read is the fact in this film, basically no character has any redeeming qualities. Most audiences want someone to root for, and I will definitely not shy away from the fact this film lacks that traditionally heroic (or at least ethical) character. But for me, that aspect of the film does nothing to change my opinion—this is a biting and ruthless story, told with an almost jolly tone, and I loved every minute of it. Rosamund Pike is stellar in the lead role, embodying Marla’s sociopathy in haunting fashion. Dinklage is also superb as the film’s more traditional “villain.” Additionally, I was in love with the film’s score—its electronic sound gives off serious Drive vibes. To put it plainly: I really loved this movie. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.

No. 9 – Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell (for all you fans of The Crown, Fennell plays Camilla Parker Bowles in seasons 3 and 4), tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a modern-day femme fatale who, motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men in order to ultimately confront those guys and hold them to account for their behavior. Eventually, Cassie directs her revenge at everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Promising Young Woman is such a great film. Although its setup is fairly straightforward, Fennell keeps us guessing throughout the development of the plot, sending the audience on a weaving path full of unexpected twists and turns. A vital story for the times, Fennell deservedly earned Oscar nominations this year for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture—it’s great to see the Academy recognizing the immense contributions by a female filmmaker to the silver screen. From an acting standpoint, the film features a number of great cameos (e.g., Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Alfred Molina), as well as fantastic supporting performances from Laverne Cox and funnyman Bo Burnham. However, the movie truly thrives in no small part because of the amazing performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role. As I pointed out when I reviewed Mulligan’s performance a few days ago, Cassie is an ice-cold character in a darkly comedic thriller, which is staggeringly different compared to the roles Mulligan traditionally plays in bona fide period pieces and hard dramas. Mulligan’s brilliant departure from her comfort zone led to stunning results, and it just may land her an Academy Award tomorrow night. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.

No. 8 – The White Tiger

The White Tiger, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a film set in India that examines the country’s brutal caste system from the perspective of its lead character Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav), a young man with dreams of escaping poverty and living a life of luxury in the upper echelon of Indian society. This movie was one of the surprise hits of the film season for me—I really only heard about it following the announcement of its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last month. I am so glad I watched The White Tiger. Not only is the movie an important examination of India’s system of social stratification, but it’s also a wildly entertaining story. At the center of the tale is Balram, portrayed amazingly by breakout star Adarsh Gourav. Balram brims with ambition, and he carefully bides his time and strives to get his at all costs, even if it takes a long time to come to fruition—Gourav is wonderful in his portrayal. In addition to Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was remarkable as Pinky, the wife of Balram’s master. Although this is Balram’s story, Pinky plays an important role in inspiring Balram to break out from the shadows, and Chopra Jonas nearly steals every scene she is in—she was truly exquisite. I didn’t know what to expect from The White Tiger when I turned it on, but what I do know now is I was thoroughly entertained. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.

No. 7 – Minari

Minari, a semi-autobiographical film by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, follows South Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they move their family from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill Jacob’s dream of starting a Korean produce farm. Although the dialogue is prominently spoken in Korean, Minari is absolutely an authentic American tale of hopes, dreams, failures, successes, and, above all, perseverance and familial spirit. This film by filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung is beautiful, in every sense of the word—the scenic landscapes are striking and the overall heart of his story is inspiring. Other than Chung’s methodical filmmaking style and deliberate storytelling, the highlight of Minari (that truly makes it a must-see film) is the incredible acting. As the Yi family patriarch, South-Korean born Steven Yeun is first-rate in his thoughtful portrayal of Jacob’s commitment to providing for his family, flaws and all. Additionally, Han Ye-ri poignantly depicts Monica’s emotional struggles to balance her husband’s ambitions against her own happiness and the well-being of her family. Moreover, the young Alan Kim is adorable and charming as David, the youngest of the two Yi children. For me, though, the standout performance came courtesy of veteran South Korean actress, Youn Yuh-jung. Youn plays Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to stay with the family while Jacob and Monica work, and Youn excels fiercely as a foul-mouthed, blunt, and hilarious character, providing most of the film’s most sweet and funny moments. This is such an emotionally affecting movie, and it is quite deserving of its six Oscar nominations—here’s to hoping it takes home some gold tomorrow night (especially Youn for Best Supporting Actress)! Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).

No. 6 – The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is a science-fiction film by first-time director Andrew Patterson, which is set in New Mexico during the 1950s and follows two teens—Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ for the local radio station—who search for the potentially extraterrestrial source of a mysterious radio frequency. The Vast of Night has easily become one of my favorite sci-fi films, and yet, it was completely devoid of any expensive Spielberg-esque special effects or set pieces. This film is vastly different than your traditional alien flick in that it focuses almost exclusively on the characters and the mystery of its storyline, rather than on any larger-than-life depiction of extraterrestrial beings. Of course, Patterson had no choice, as this film was made with a budget of just $700,000. It feels almost impossible that a filmmaker could create a worthwhile modern science-fiction thriller on such a shoestring budget, but here, Patterson has done just that. He defied the odds and delivered an edge-of-your seat cinematic experience unlike many others in the genre. In addition to his captivating storyline, I was quite taken by Patterson’s filmmaking style. He utilized a long, fast-paced tracking shot in the opening scene, which gives the audience the lay of the land in this mid-century New Mexico town, and a brilliant long take of Fay frenetically working the switchboard. It’s incredible filmmaking, which makes it even more hard to believe this was Patterson’s debut. If you like sci-fi movies, this one is absolutely worth your time. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.

No. 5 – Palm Springs

Palm Springs, written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow, is a romantic comedy that follows Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), two guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who are stuck together in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again. If you read that plot summary and watch the trailer, you’ll likely get vibes of Groundhog Day—but Palm Springs is so much more than that. This is a brilliant film, which strikes the perfect balance of comedy, romance, and drama, all without falling victim to the traditional clichés in similar genre flicks. We learn early on that Nyles has been stuck in this time loop for a very, very long time, while Sarah first enters the loop during the early part of the film. Nyles is resigned to simply not giving a fuck anymore, accepting the time loop is now his life and refusing to care what anyone thinks of him at the wedding. On the other hand, Sarah is a newbie to this time-warped situation and constantly seeks a way out, as if Nyles hasn’t already tried that. (There is a section in the middle of the film where Sarah creatively tries out a number of new ways to die, in hopes that it will break the loop, and it is one of the best and most hilarious sequences in the movie.) Barabkow and Siara have together made a movie that explores some very deep themes in such a charming, comedic, and heartfelt manner. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are wonderful together as the two leads, playing off each other entertainingly and demonstrating a beautiful chemistry, which lends to the film’s emotional hook. Palm Springs is the only out-and-out comedy on my Top 10 list, but it is more than deserving of its high ranking—a surprise hit! Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.

No. 4 – Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s newest movie Tenet follows The Protagonist (John David Washington), a secret agent who must undertake an incredibly risky and life-threatening assignment (which involves people and objects with inverted entropies moving backward through time) to prevent global annihilation. This past year, Tenet supplied me with one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. At the end of last summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I masked up, sat down in my local socially distanced AMC theater, and watched (in a near-empty screening room) the blockbuster I had been anticipating for a year in glorious IMAX—and for me personally, despite the criticisms it has received, Tenet lived up to the hype. Through his films, Christopher Nolan continually demonstrates why movie theaters are absolutely, unequivocally needed—at least for the traditional big-budget action movies. In Tenet, Nolan expertly delivers a product that is equal parts spy thriller, cerebral sci-fi flick, and gigantic action extravaganza—visually, it is truly a sight to behold. Some of the film’s highlights include an action-packed opening scene at a Ukrainian opera house that punches you in the mouth (setting the tone for what the audience is in for throughout the rest of the film), a wild bungee jump onto a high-rise in Mumbai, a set-piece involving a real Boeing 747, a mesmerizing car-chase spectacle, some fantastic fight scenes, and an immense battle sequence. Again, visually, no one is consistently better than Nolan. It is also worth mentioning that Ludwig Göransson, who won an Academy Award for Black Panther, composes the score, which is phenomenally pulsating and sets the perfect vibe for the movie. Critics and audiences have complained about a number of things in this film, most notably its sound—and these criticisms aren’t invalid, as there are some parts involving vital exposition that are hard to hear in light of Nolan’s (likely very intentional) sound mix. Ultimately, the film’s occasional flaws do nothing to bring its overall value down in my mind. This is by far one of my favorite Nolan movies (probably his best since Inception), and Tenet will always have a special hold over me personally for the experience it gave me during the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.

No. 3 – The Invisible Man

Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (the most recent film adaptation of the acclaimed 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name) follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who leaves her life of luxury to escape from her abusive, gaslighting boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Cecilia believes her nightmare might finally be over when it appears Adrian commits suicide, until a number of strange events occur, leading Cecilia to believe Adrian has created a technology which makes him invisible. I am a bit surprised myself to find this jump-scare filled horror film so high on my list this year, but it is simply a testament to just how good The Invisible Man is. My initial interest in this movie was the filmmaker behind its creation, Leigh Whannell. Just two years ago, my No. 7 favorite film of 2018 was Upgrade, a visually stimulating sci-fi horror action thriller written and directed by Whannell. From that moment on, it was abundantly clear the degree of skill this filmmaker possesses. Here, Whannell puts his experience and background in the genre to good work (Whannell previously penned the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all four Insidious films, the last of which he also directed), creating one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Whannell builds up the suspense in The Invisible Man with perfect pace, and the pay-offs are worth it. In conjunction with Whannell, lead actress Elisabeth Moss delivers a performance that is nothing short of sensational. As I discussed a few days ago (when I argued for why Moss should have received an Oscar nomination for this role), Whannell’s rendition of Wells’s classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims—Moss is the perfect vessel through which to tell that story, using her immense acting skill to portray her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion throughout the film. Cecilia is constantly living a nightmare, haunted by a man who simply cannot accept her leaving him, and Moss’s intense, yet meticulously subtle, portrayal of this dynamic is enrapturing. Between Moss’s incredible acting and Whannell’s spine-tingling filmmaking, The Invisible Man has secured a place in horror history. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.

No. 2 – Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the true story of Fred Hampton (the titular Black Messiah, played by Daniel Kaluuya), the real-life chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, who was gunned down by law enforcement in 1969, and William “Bill” O’Neil (the titular Judas, played by Lakeith Stanfield), the criminal-turned-informant who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party at the FBI’s behest. On the day Judas and the Black Messiah was released on HBO Max (for its 31-day streaming release in accordance with the HBO Max/Warner Bros. deal), I watched the film twice. And even after that, I routinely went back to it to relive some of its best scenes, as I just simply couldn’t get enough—it’s truly incredible filmmaking. This movie is so very important and should be required viewing as a remarkable depiction of the underlying racial, societal, and political forces which both brought Fred Hampton to prominence and resulted in his assassination by the Chicago police. This story, like so many others in the history of the African-American experience in this country, deserves to be told, and my hope is that folks without a good idea of who Fred Hampton was (or what the Black Panther Party at its core truly believed in) see this movie and gain a greater respect for these freedom fighters and the immense challenges they faced. Aside from the imperative story of the civil rights movement at the heart of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah should be used as a tool in every single acting class. As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya is electrifying. The film features a number of scenes depicting rallies and speeches, as Hampton was a commanding orator during the civil rights movement, and this is where Kaluuya succeeds the most (although he is also impressive in his character’s quieter, more intimate moments). The church speech alone makes this film one of my favorites of the year, as Kaluuya demonstrates a true embodiment of Hampton’s real-life role as a revolutionary—it is definitely one of my favorite scenes in movie history now. In addition to Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield is extraordinary as the controversial Bill O’Neil. This film is at its root a story about O’Neil (for which Stanfield should have been nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor), and Stanfield was stunning in his nuanced portrayal of an incredibly complex figure—he delivers the performance of his career with unmistakable precision. Streaming available for rent on most major platforms (not yet available for digital purchase).

No. 1 – Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder and written by Darius and his brother Abraham Marder (who also composed the film’s score), tells the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict and drummer in a hard metal band, who suddenly loses his hearing. Eventually, Ruben makes his way to a sober-living community for deaf people, which is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. The tagline for this film is, “Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.” This is a perfect description of the film because although Ruben’s hearing loss is set up early in the movie, the heart of Sound of Metal firmly resides in his experience learning to live with his new circumstances. Sound of Metal is an amazing movie and unique cinematic experience, saying so much in the film’s many moments of silence. The story and acting performances go hand in hand, as the performers masterfully breathe life into their characters and capture the audience’s emotions. At the center is one of my favorite acting performances in recent memory from Riz Ahmed, the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Ruben’s arc is complex—he’s understandably overwhelmed by the sudden unrelenting silence in his life and spends the film fighting against addictive-like urges to seek out quick fixes to his circumstances—and Ahmed portrays the character masterfully in heartbreaking fashion. Ahmed delivers an absolute master class in acting. In addition to Ahmed, Paul Raci gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as Joe. As I pointed out a few days ago when I reviewed Raci’s performance, the actor is not deaf, but he has a deeply personal connection to the story, as he is a C.O.D.A. (i.e., child of deaf adults). This fact about Raci, in conjunction with his fluency in American Sign Language, provides an authentic context to the story, which results in Raci’s magnetic performance as the stoic, yet kindhearted, Joe. Had Daniel Kaluuya’s performance not existed this year, it’d be hard for me to accept anyone else taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor other than Raci. Overall, Sound of Metal is a beautiful and emotionally affecting movie, and it is the single best film I saw this past year. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.

Top 10 Films of 2020 (COVID Year) – Honorable Mentions

Tomorrow, I will finally reveal the list of my ten favorite films from the past year. However, before we get to the Top 10, it is worth discussing the five films that just barely missed out on cracking that list—these films are stellar and deserve attention. Let’s go!

Honorable Mentions

No. 15 – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

In Birds of Prey, the eighth installment in the DC Extended Universe, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)—fresh from her breakup with Joker and now roaming Gotham without his protection—joins forces with a squad of badass women to take on the city’s criminal underworld, namely crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists, the folks at DC Films have immensely underwhelmed (with very few exceptions) in an effort to compete in the modern comic-book film space. With that said, DC continues to strike absolute gold with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Robbie was the best (and maybe only decent) part of 2016’s Suicide Squad, and her return to this character is triumphant. (I can’t wait to see her embody the role for a third time this summer in The Suicide Squad.) Harley is a violent, foul-mouthed, badass superheroine, and Robbie brings the character to life with extravagant style and colorful passion. Ewan McGregor is also fantastic in this film as the egotistical antagonist, as are Harley’s titular Birds of Prey (played wonderfully by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez). Birds of Prey is definitely a fun, stylistic cinematic ride. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.

No. 14 – Soul

Soul, Pixar’s most recent release, tells the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher in New York City with bigger dreams of becoming a professional jazz pianist. After Joe finally gets his chance to impress jazz legend Dorthea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett) with his skills, Joe falls down a manhole, entering a queue of “souls” headed for the “Great Beyond” (i.e., the afterlife). Not ready to die yet, Joe navigates his soul to the “Great Before” (i.e., the beforelife), and with the help of 22 (a beforelife soul still looking for her “spark” of life, voiced by Tina Fey), Joe works to reunite his soul with his body on Earth. As you can see from the basic description of the film, Soul explores a number of heavy themes, but that is what attracts me to this movie so much. What sets Pixar apart from all other animation studios is both its willingness to explore complex adult themes and its thriving success in doing so. (Although here, I am still a bit uncertain how a more youthful audience can connect to this movie, as it is the adultiest of Pixar’s more adult films.) Like Coco before it, Soul centers around death and the afterlife, but taking it a step further, Soul also explores the idea of a beforelife (or pre-existence), which is truly magical to watch. Not only did I genuinely love and feel emotionally affected by the story itself, there are a number of other highlights. First, the voice acting was stellar—Jamie Foxx is great as Joe, Tina Fey is wonderful as 22, and Graham Norton was hilarious as one of my favorite characters, Moonwind. Second, the jazz music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste is some of the best Pixar has ever done. Representation in movies (especially children’s films) matters, and I have really appreciated Pixar’s efforts to offer more diverse stories—the first Pixar film to feature an African-American lead is delightful. Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+.

No. 13 – Blow the Man Down

Written and directed by relative unknowns Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down (which is set in a fishing village off the coast of Maine and gets its title from the sea shanty of the same name) is a dark comedy that follows Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly, two sisters who have just lost their mother. After an unfortunate set of circumstances results in Mary Beth killing a man, the sisters are forced to cover up the crime, which then opens up Pandora’s box to reveal more nefarious secrets about the town and its matriarchal figures. This movie was released right at the very beginning of lockdown, and it quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Morgan Saylor and Sophia Lowe were fantastic as the Connolly sisters, and the film also features wonderful supporting performances from acting vets like Margo Martindale (who is utterly fantastic as Enid, a local brothel owner), Annette O’Toole, June Squib, and Marceline Hugot. Blow the Man Down is equal parts thriller and black comedy, and these young filmmakers brilliantly blend the two genres to craft an entertaining story that catches your attention and doesn’t let go. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.

No. 12 – Nomadland

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (the presumptive favorite to win four Oscars this year, including both Best Picture and Best Director) tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant she used to work at in her hometown, makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Nomadland is an incredibly beautiful story and a remarkably scenic film, with the veteran McDormand deftly portraying her character within the confines of Zhao’s picturesque backdrop. The film almost feels like a documentary in that Zhao utilized a number of non-actors (and real-life nomads) to fill out the cast and cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s camera moved with impulsive fluidly—it absolutely works here. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.

No. 11 – The Climb

For me, the biggest surprise hit was The Climb, a film directed by Michael Angelo Covino and produced, written, and starring Covino and his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin. The film, divided into seven chapters (I’m Sorry, Let Go, Thanks, It’s Broken, Stop It, Grow Up, and Fine), follows the many ups and downs of lead characters Mike and Kyle’s relationship after a woman divides the two lifelong friends. This movie is hilarious, but not in any manner resembling slapstick or traditional comedy—it’s immensely dry, which fits these filmmakers’ personalities perfectly and adds to the movie’s overall charm. The funniest scene in the entire movie is a funeral speech in Chapter Two that does not disappoint. I also really enjoyed the cinematic style of The Climb, which features a number of continuous shots, including an 8-minute long take featuring the two leads riding bikes together to open the film. This is simply a delightful film. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.

Top 10 Films of 2019

With only a single day left to go before the Academy Awards ceremony (which marks the official close of awards season for the previous year’s movies), the time is ripe to reveal my Top 10 Films of 2019. Enjoy!

My Top 10 Films of 2019

No. 10 – Ready or Not

Ready or Not is a comedic horror film directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, with a script from Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy. The film focuses on Grace (Samara Weaving) as she marries Alex (Mark O’Brien), a member of the wealthy Le Domas family who made its fortune in the board game business. On their wedding night, Grace must take part in a Le Domas family ritual: To welcome her to the family, everyone gathers around a table and lets a mysterious antique box choose a game for the family to play. The box chooses the one game Alex did not want to play—hide and seek. Grace thinks nothing of it, but soon she realizes that “hide and seek” is an affair akin to The Most Dangerous Game, wherein the Le Domas family must find Grace and kill her before sunrise or perish themselves. Aside from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this was by far the most fun I had watching any movie this year. The premise is unique and its execution is excellent, packed with plenty of jump scares, smart laughs, and amusing gore. The film deftly blends comedy, drama, horror, and satire, and its frenetic pace and high energy make for one of 2019’s most underrated film experiences. (Not to mention, Samara Weaving is sensational as the film’s breakout star.) Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtYTwUxhAoI.

No. 9 – The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, an epic 209-minute film, tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who became a hitman for the Bufalino crime family (led by crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci) and a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the leader of the Teamsters. Martin Scorsese may not have invented the mob movie, but he’s sure responsible for perfecting it. (The gold standard for the genre is his 1990 film Goodfellas.) Part of Scorsese’s mob success is the effortless connection between him and his frequent collaborators, including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. All three actors return for The Irishman (De Niro and Pesci in central roles, Keitel in more of a cameo appearance), which serves as a wonderful final chapter in Scorsese’s storied saga of mob crime films with these actors. With respect to acting, it is one of The Irishman’s central strengths, which makes sense in light of the fact that its principal performers are three Oscar-winning legends: De Niro, Pesci, and Al Pacino. As I mentioned in my Best Supporting Actor post, Pesci and Pacino are incredible—Pesci flips the script on his usual characters to play a much quieter and reserved role, while Pacino thrives as Jimmy Hoffa in his trademark bravado. This was also the first Pacino-Scorsese collaboration, and it was well worth the wait. One aspect of the film that has gotten the most attention is Scorsese’s use of expensive de-aging effects to make the three main actors look younger. At first, it is a real shock to see the actors look like young guys. But for me, after a short while, I stopped noticing, so the effect didn’t become a distraction for my viewing experience. Although Scorsese has already made the perfect mob film in Goodfellas, his work here (with the assistance of a solid screenplay from Gangs of New York co-writer Steven Zaillian) is still marvelous and goes to show that when it comes to this genre, Scorsese will always reign supreme. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS3aHkkfuEI.

No. 8 – Ford v Ferrari

Based on a true story, Ford v Ferrari tells the story of Ford Motor Company’s journey building a racecar to defeat the dominant Ferrari racing team in 1966 at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, a prestigious staple of endurance racing held each year outside of Le Mans, France. In order to defy expectations and truly challenge Ferrari for the crown, Ford enlists American racing legend and sports car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and the brash British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to turn its dream into a reality. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought it looked cheesy. Even though it isn’t a Disney movie, I was worried it might fall victim to tired tropes as seen in many Disney sports biopics, such as Miracle or Invincible. But I was wrong. Against a long list of great narrative features about racing (such as Rush, Le Mans, and Grand Prix), James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari takes the checkered flag. Part of the movie’s appeal is its intricate balance of racing and humanism. Yes, the actual story of Ford’s racing team taking on Ferrari at the ’66 Le Mans is compelling, and in that respect, the film’s thunderous sights and sounds (perfected via first-rate sound editing/mixing and film editing) can’t be beat by any other racing movie. But the film’s focus on its characters is equally as impressive. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are interesting characters, and the exquisite acting from Matt Damon and Christian Bale, respectively, makes you care about their story, both on and off the track. Streaming available for purchase on most major platforms (not yet available for rent). Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3h9Z89U9ZA.

No. 7 – Midsommar

Ari Aster’s follow up to his acclaimed 2018 film Hereditary, Midsommar tells the story of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young couple whose relationship is on the rocks. When Dani’s family tragically dies, Christian begrudgingly lets her join him and his friends for a summer trip to a small village in Sweden to take part in the community’s midsummer festival. What starts out as a fun, cheerful experience soon turns ominous and terrifying as the village’s rituals grow more unsettling. Although Hereditary laid the foundation for Ari Aster’s twisted filmmaking prowess, Midsommar perfected it. There is nothing conventional about this movie—some scenes left me absolutely gobsmacked, but I couldn’t look away. The sights and sounds of Midsommar absolutely sink their teeth into you. In addition to the vibrant colors and magnificent set design, the film’s main strength is Florence Pugh, who turned in one of the best acting performances of the entire year. Pugh is definitely one of my favorite rising stars in cinema, and Midsommar features her best performance yet. Dani is an emotional wreck throughout the film for a variety of reasons, and Pugh plays it seamlessly. Do yourself a favor and give this film a chance! Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vnghdsjmd0.

No. 6 – Jojo Rabbit

Writer/director Taika Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit is a satirical black comedy set during the height of World War II in Nazi Germany. The titular character (Roman Griffin Davis) is an aspiring member of the Hitler Youth who idolizes the ideological views of the Third Reich—these prejudices are then encouraged by his imaginary friend, Hitler himself, played hilariously by Waititi. However, Jojo is forced to confront his intolerance when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. In Jojo Rabbit, filmmaker Taika Waititi is as brazen as could be. Tackling a serious subject matter like this via satire is always daring, and Waititi certainly takes risks with an irreverent sense of humor. But the result is a beautiful cinematic experience. Waititi’s dialogue is sharp and witty, both in its humor and its solemnity, and he deftly juxtaposes the laughs with more serious tones and themes that make you think. I was particularly impressed with the performances of the film’s younger actors, namely Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie—the evolution of their relationship throughout the movie was touching, and the chemistry between the actors was palpable. And although I already discussed it thoroughly on my Best Supporting Actress post, it is worth mentioning again that Johansson is a vision as Rosie Betzler, Jojo’s mom. She serves as the moral core and emotional hook of the film, and Johansson definitely nails it. Streaming available for purchase on most major platforms (not yet available for rent). Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL4McUzXfFI.

No. 5 – The Farewell

In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese family’s cherished grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, Nai Nai has no clue of the diagnosis. The entire family decides to shield Nai Nai from the news and convene in China to spend time with her before she dies under the premise of a spontaneous wedding involving one of the cousins. Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York City but still maintains an incredibly close relationship with her grandmother, cherishes her time back in China with Nai Nai but struggles considerably with her family’s decision to keep up the ruse. The Farewell was one of the darlings of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and justifiably so. It is a touching examination of family and culture, with an impeccable balance of laughs and tears. On this blog, I previously discussed why Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina were the two biggest snubs in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress categories, respectively. Their performances are tender and beautiful, and although the underlying story and themes are compelling enough, their acting packs an inspirational punch, bringing it all home in such a relatable way. If you’re looking for a film to give you all the feels, look no further than The Farewell. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RofpAjqwMa8.

No. 4 – 1917

Sam Mendes’s 1917, set during World War I, tells the story of two British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who must relay a message across enemy lines to another battalion in order to call off a scheduled attack that will surely result in the casualties of 1,600 soldiers. For me, 1917 is one of the greatest technical film achievements of all time. The main unique storytelling device Mendes uses to tell this story is a single long take. Casual film audiences may find the use of the single tracking shot to be a bit gimmicky, but knowing everything that must go into flawlessly executing such a feat (including elaborate production design, careful character blocking, and precise cinematography), I was wildly impressed. (Check out this featurette detailing just how much work went into crafting this film.) The meticulous art of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’s photography is breathtaking, and honestly, his long take creates an incredible sense of suspense and anxiety—it really is a masterful piece of cinema. If the movie stood only on the shoulders of its technical proficiency, it would probably still be on this list but wouldn’t be as high. 1917’s extra boost comes from the story’s incredible themes of humanism and resolve. Based on the war stories told to Mendes from his grandfather’s first-hand accounts, 1917 is an amazing war epic. Streaming not yet available for purchase or rent. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZjQROMAh_s.

No. 3 – Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is a one-of-a-kind movie. The film follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York City jeweler who imports a rare Ethiopian opal (under clearly unethical circumstances) and looks to sell it to land a big payday. However, Howard has a debilitating gambling addiction (probably not in his own eyes, though) and owes money all over town. Thus, while trying to secure a profit from the opal, Howard’s poor decisions and rather sleazy personality land him in the stickiest of wickets, which serve as the driving force for the film’s conflict. In 2017, my No. 6 movie of the year was Good Time, the previous film from the Safdie brothers. And while Good Time has the same general frenetic style of Uncut Gems, it was a bit more disjointed. I obviously still enjoyed it, but here, the Safdie brothers deliver a much more coherent purpose for the plot. The Safdie brothers’ chaotic filmmaking style is raw and anxiety-inducing, but it fits the story like a glove. The most impressive feat from the young filmmakers, though, is their collaboration here with Adam Sandler. Howard Ratner is deranged and delusional, and above all, he is arrogantly unfazed by the consequences of his many disastrous choices. Adam Sandler embodies the role marvelously, turning in a career-best performance. I enjoyed the supporting performances from Lakeith Stanfield (one of this generation’s most talented actors) and Julia Fox, but I was also thoroughly captivated by Kevin Garnett’s acting debut. (The movie is set in 2012 during the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and 76ers, and the future hall of famer plays a fictionalized version of himself who is obsessed with Howard’s opal, believing it to be his good luck charm on the court.) Uncut Gems is 2019’s most exhilarating thrill ride—you’ll never forget it! Streaming not yet available for purchase or rent. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTfJp2Ts9X8.

No. 2 – Parasite

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite follows the Kim family as they work to infiltrate the home of the Park family in order to attain financial stability. The Kims occupy a place near the bottom of the South Korean class system, living in a shabby semi-basement and attempting various hustles for income (like folding pizza boxes for a local business). Conversely, the Park family is incredibly wealthy and live in a luxurious home. The Kim children, Ki-woo and Ki-jeong, eventually hatch a plan to serve as tutor and “art therapist,” respectively, for the Park family’s children. Once they’ve successfully done so, the family devises additional plots to secure employment for their parents—their mother, Chung-sook, eventually lands a coveted spot as the Parks’ housekeeper, and their father, Ki-taek, takes up the role of the Parks’ valet. Bong’s film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, is amazing. Absolutely brilliant. Not only is it my second favorite film of 2019, but I recently ranked it as my fifth favorite movie from the 2010s. The production design is outstanding, the cinematography is beautifully captivating, and the darkly comedic script is flawless. And then there is the film’s title. Merriam-Webster defines “parasite” both as “a person who exploits the hospitality of the rich and earns welcome by flattery” and “an organism living in, with, or on another organism.” Bong shrewdly explores the full extent of the “parasite” theme throughout this film, which pairs seamlessly with his broader examination of the inequities of the social class system. In addition to Bong’s filmmaking, Parasite is a shining example of superlative acting. The entire cast is great (in fact, the group won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture), but the standout performers are Song Kang-ho as Ki-taek Kim and Cho Yeo-jeong as Yeon-gyo Park. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xH0HfJHsaY.

No. 1 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the ninth feature film by Quentin Tarantino, is set in Los Angeles in 1969 and tells the story of aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they work to find their place in the industry during the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’ll get this out of the way at the outset: I am an unabashed fan of Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. (Inglourious Basterds is my favorite movie of all time.) I think he is one of the most influential cinematic craftsmen of all time, and his unparalleled brand of storytelling (which features a distinct sense of humor) always connects well with me. With Once Upon a Time, Tarantino is at his very best concerning a subject matter he’s incredibly passionate about—Hollywood. This film truly immerses you in the times. Although I obviously wasn’t around in 1969, I left the theater feeling as if I’d actually experienced the real-life Hollywood from that era—the production design and set decoration from Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh, respectively, was masterful. At its core, this movie is about friendship, and in that respect, DiCaprio and Pitt make it all the more authentic. The chemistry between the two veteran performers is unmistakable, and you’d be hard-pressed to find too many acting duos in film history that did it as well as Leo and Brad did here. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth couldn’t be more different, but therein lies the charm of their loyal companionship. Dalton is unsure of himself, while Booth is fearlessly confident and cool. (For instance, Dalton gets into an all-out screaming match with himself in his trailer when he botches some lines on the set of Lancer, while Booth comfortably, without hesitation, beats the living daylights out of a hippie at Spawn Ranch for slashing his tires.) These were truly two of the most memorable performances of the year, and Pitt is more than likely going to take home an Oscar for his part. The last thing worth mentioning is Tarantino’s decision to use Charles Manson and Sharon Tate (played wonderfully by Margot Robbie) as an underpinning to the film’s plot. I was not sure where Tarantino was going to take that subplot, as we all know how the real thing ended on that fateful night at 10050 Cielo Drive. In the end, I was a bit surprised and thoroughly satisfied—it all came together in a manner that only could have come from the twisted mind of Quentin Tarantino. This movie is provocative and without restraint, and all I want to do right now is watch it again! Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELeMaP8EPAA.

Top 10 Films of 2019 – Honorable Mentions

Soon I will finally reveal the list of my ten favorite films from 2019. But before I do, it’s worth mentioning a handful of others that just missed out on cracking that list.

Honorable Mentions

No. 15 – High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird, director Steven Soderbergh’s second consecutive film shot on an iPhone, is a small movie with big ideas. The film, which stars Moonlight’s André Holland as professional basketball agent Ray Burke, takes place during the middle of an NBA lockout and focuses on Burke’s unique business plans to benefit his firm and his prized client Erick Scott during this tumultuous time. High Flying Bird is a scant 91 minutes in duration, but I assure you, that entire hour and a half is packed full of snappy dialogue that will suck you into the story. The movie is beautifully shot and depicts the incredibly important intersection of sports/entertainment and race/politics. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iL1K_l8Jyo.

No. 14 – Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga” and serves as the closing chapter of this particular story of the Avengers. This particular saga is the most commercially and critically successful superhero movie franchise of all time, and thus, Endgame had a massive challenge to wrap up this story in a way that satisfied fans. It went above and beyond that challenge and succeeded spectacularly. The film was complex at times and the story was intricate, but Endgame stayed true to the essence of its Marvel predecessors and provided the perfect cocktail of laughs, tears, action, and entertainment to make this final ride worth it for the audience. (In fact, the 182-minute runtime never felt like a chore for a single second.) Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcMBFSGVi1c.

No. 13 – Dolemite Is My Name

In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy returns to his raunchy comedy sweet spot (his first Rated-R film since Life in 1999) in his portrayal of the real-life comedian and legendary blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Eddie Murphy is one of the greatest comedians of all time, but from the perspective of cinema, his career has been off track since his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls. In Dolemite, Murphy has absolutely gotten his swagger back. I also loved the supporting performance by Wesley Snipes as the real-life blaxploitation star D’Urville Martin—Snipes’s hysterical depiction of Martin completed a noteworthy comeback of his own. This film is equal parts hilarious and charming, and I reveled in the core themes of hope and perseverance. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws1YIKsuTjQ.

No. 12 – Joker

Joker serves as an origin story for the infamous Joker villain from the DC Comics. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with severe emotional instability who, over the course of the story, spirals down into a dangerous and violent state of madness. This film has obviously been fodder for people wanting to debate the ethics of depicting gun violence and mental illness. But although I felt a bit uncomfortable during some of Arthur’s emotional outbursts and episodes, I can’t imagine watching a movie about someone struggling with mental illness and feeling anything other than a sense of uncomfortableness. Todd Phillips’s story is raw and unrestricted, and I appreciated the social and political commentary on society’s consistent rejection of those that are different, especially in light of the present times. The film is beautiful in terms of costumes, production design, musical score, and cinematography, but the single greatest strength of Joker is Phoenix’s acting performance—a true tour de force. The storyline is eerily reminiscent of two Martin Scorsese films, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, and Phoenix channels those brilliant Robert De Niro performances in crafting his one-of-a-kind character. (The fact that De Niro plays a role in Jokeris almost poetic.) Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t433PEQGErc.

No. 11 – Apollo 11

In a year filled with many great documentaries, my favorite was Apollo 11. The film documents the famous Apollo 11 space mission in 1969 that resulted in the first spacewalk. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory (such as Senna and Amy) create gripping narratives utilizing only archival footage. Apollo 11 does the same here, but it goes a step further, refusing to use even interviews—the entire story is told through glorious archival footage, much of which was previously unreleased. The whole world knows this story and how it ends, and yet, the breathtaking footage and unique storytelling devices create a mesmerizing sense of adventure and suspense. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Co8Z8BQgWc.

91st Academy Awards: My Ballot and Complete Ranking of 2018’s Year of Film

Well, another Oscar season of blogging about my thoughts on the previous year in film is coming to a close, and per usual, it has been a gratifying experience to share my reviews of 2018’s most remarkable films and performances with all of you. In advance of tonight’s 91st Academy Awards, I have posted this recap. Below you will find my Top 10 Films of 2018, my personal ballot for all categories in which I have seen each film/performance, and a complete ranking of every film I saw from 2018.

With that said, check out my recap and then make sure to tune into the 91st Academy Awards tonight at 7:00 p.m. (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Enjoy, film fans.

Top 10 Films of 2018

1. The Favourite
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
3. The Death of Stalin
4. A Star Is Born
5. Blindspotting
6. Thoroughbreds
7. Upgrade
8. American Animals
9. A Quiet Place
10. Black Panther

91st Academy Awards Ballot

Best Picture

  1. The Favourite
  2. A Star Is Born
  3. Black Panther
  4. Roma
  5. BlacKkKlansman
  6. Vice
  7. Green Book
  8. Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress

  1. Olivia Colman – The Favourite
  2. Glenn Close – The Wife
  3. Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
  4. Yalitza Aparicio – Roma
  5. Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Actor

  1. Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
  2. Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
  3. Christian Bale – Vice
  4. Willem Dafoe – At Eternity’s Gate
  5. Viggo Mortensen – Green Book

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Emma Stone – The Favourite
  2. Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
  3. Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
  4. Marina de Tavira – Roma
  5. Amy Adams – Vice

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Mahershala Ali – Green Book
  2. Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  3. Sam Elliott – A Star Is Born
  4. Sam Rockwell – Vice
  5. Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman

Best Original Screenplay

  1. The Favourite – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
  2. Vice – Adam McKay
  3. First Reformed – Paul Schrader
  4. Roma – Alfonso Cuarón
  5. Green Book – Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. A Star Is Born – Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters
  2. BlacKkKlansman – Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
  3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
  5. If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins

Best Original Score

  1. Black Panther – Ludwig Göransson
  2. Mary Poppins Returns – Marc Shaiman
  3. If Beale Street Could Talk – Nicholas Britell
  4. BlacKkKlansman – Terence Blanchard
  5. Isle of Dogs – Alexandre Desplat

Best Original Song

  1. “Shallow” from A Star Is Born – Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andew Wyatt
  2. “All the Stars” from Black Panther – Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyric by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith, and Solana Rowe
  3. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs –Music and Lyrics by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
  4. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns –Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
  5. “I’ll Fight” from RBG – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren

Best Sound Editing

  1. A Quiet Place – Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
  2. Roma – Sergio Díaz and Skip Lievsay
  3. First Man – Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
  4. Bohemian Rhapsody – John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone
  5. Black Panther – Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker

Best Sound Mixing

  1. Roma – Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio Garcia
  2. First Man – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
  3. A Star Is Born – Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow
  4. Bohemian Rhapsody – Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali
  5. Black Panther – Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter J. Devlin

Best Production Design

  1. The Favourite – Fiona Crombie (Production Design) and Alice Felton (Set Decoration)
  2. Black Panther – Hannah Beachler (Production Design) and Jay Hart (Set Decoration)
  3. Mary Poppins Returns – John Myhre (Production Design) and Gordon Sim (Set Decoration)
  4. Roma – Eugenio Caballero (Production Design) and Bárbara Enríquez (Set Decoration)
  5. First Man – Nathan Crowley (Production Design) and Kathy Lucas (Set Decoration)

Best Film Editing

  1. The Favourite – Yorgos Mavropsaridis
  2. Vice – Hank Corwin
  3. Bohemian Rhapsody – John Ottman
  4. BlacKkKlansman – Barry Alexander Brown
  5. Green Book – Patrick J. Don Vito

Complete Ranking of Films Seen from 2018

1 The Favourite
2 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
3 The Death of Stalin
4 A Star Is Born
5 Blindspotting
6 Thoroughbreds
7 Upgrade
8 American Animals
9 A Quiet Place
10 Black Panther
11 Sorry to Bother You
12 Roma
13 Isle of Dogs
14 Minding the Gap
15 Crazy Rich Asians
16 Annihilation
17 BlacKkKlansman
18 Beautiful Boy
19 Eighth Grade
20 The Wife
21 Vice
22 Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
23 First Man
24 RBG
25 Green Book
26 Monsters and Men
27 Can You Ever Forgive Me?
28 Mary Poppins Returns
29 Bohemian Rhapsody
30 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
31 First Reformed
32 To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
33 You Were Never Really Here
34 Hereditary
35 Bad Times at the El Royale
36 Bird Box
37 Outlaw King
38 Creed II
39 Hold the Dark
40 If Beale Street Could Talk
41 Game Night
42 Red Sparrow
43 Unsane
44 Woman Walks Ahead
45 Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders
46 A Shot in the Dark
47 Dumplin’
48 22 July
49 Paterno
50 Disobedience
51 Come Sunday
52 At Eternity’s Gate
53 On Chesil Beach
54 John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
55 Blockers
56 Game Over, Man!
57 Fifty Shades Freed

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 1 – The Favourite

The Favourite is an historical black comedy/drama directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The film is set in England in the early 18th century and follows the power struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

It may seem a bit too on the nose that my favorite movie from 2018 is called The Favourite – but here we are! This film has so much going for it, and all of its spectacular areas of filmmaking combined to create the best movie of the year. The ringleader is Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek director that has mastered his own vision and voice in filmmaking, producing a uniquely idiosyncratic blend of black comedy and drama (see e.g., Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I personally enjoy Lanthimos’s distinctive style of filmmaking, and in The Favourite, he is definitely at his peak. Although Lanthimos did not write the script, his customary deadpan vision (built on a sense of ridiculousness and uneasiness) undoubtedly permeates the film. In a year filled with some great dark comedies (such The Death of Stalin and Thoroughbreds), Lanthimos’s The Favourite indisputably stands out as the finest.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the movie is the team Lanthimos assembled to execute his eccentric vision. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara wrote the screenplay, and my goodness, it was stellar. The dialogue is snappy and razor sharp in its ability to take hold of a scene. I knew the film was going to be fantastic in an early scene depicting Abigail riding in a packed carriage, which featured one creepy individual staring at her while pleasuring himself – it was so shockingly hilarious, and it definitely set the tone for many other great scenes/lines. One of my favorite scenes from the entire year featured a completely out-of-place dance medley from Joe Alwyn and Rachel Weisz as they utilized modern dance moves in the middle of a fairly stuffy 18th-century ball – it was sidesplitting!

The movie’s cinematography is also outstanding, and the unique way in which Robbie Ryan shot the film added to the film’s comical nature. Ryan’s style here featured lots of experimental shots with a fish-eye lens, which added a wonderful layer of surrealism to the landscape within the castle. Further, Ryan’s propensity to switch views/perspectives with sharp panning was exquisite.

In terms of acting, The Favourite features a forceful trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne is flawless and perfectly captures the character’s proclivities for being both childishly needy and wickedly sinister. Queen Anne is an emotional rollercoaster, but we see that some of it is of her own doing – she propagates the battle between Sarah and Abigail for her affection, which ultimately leads to more depression for her character. Colman absolutely nailed her performance as Queen Anne.

Although Colman was impressive, I was even more taken with Stone’s and Weisz’s performances. Under Queen Anne’s roof, Weisz’s Sarah is Queen Anne’s established confidante and advisor, as well as her trusted lover, while Stone’s Abigail is the newcomer to the royal inner circle. These distinct roles have distinct personality traits associated with them, and each actress performs extraordinarily – Stone and Weisz were built for their respective characters. Abigail appears unassuming at first, but we quickly learn that she has an almost innate ability to balance that sense of innocence with disturbing cunningness – Stone thrives in this role, tapping into her comedic roots to bring Abigail’s amusingly menacing personality to life. On the other hand, Sarah finds herself having to desperately protect her position from Abigail, resorting to psychological mind games out of uncompromising devotion to Queen Anne. Weisz chillingly emotes steeliness in this role, and her portrayal of Sarah’s endless loyalty to Queen Anne is shrewdly memorable.

Another fantastic performance in The Favourite was Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who opposes some of Queen Anne’s economic policies. Harley is the embodiment of pretentiousness, and Hoult’s portrayal of the scheming politician was magnificent – it was an underrated part of the movie, and I was disappointed that Hoult wasn’t in greater contention for a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. The Favourite is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language.

The Favourite trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYb-wkehT1g&t=2s

Academy Award nominations for The Favourite:

Best Picture (Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, and Yorgos Lanthimos, producers)

Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Best Actress (Olivia Colman)

Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone)

Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz)

Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Best Production Design (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton)

Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 2 – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an animated superhero movie directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, and written by Phil Lord and Rothman. This film follows Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a teenager growing up in Brooklyn with his Puerto Rican mother Rio Morales (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez) and African-American father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry). Miles is an aspiring artist, specializing in graffiti, but one night when he is painting in an abandoned subway station with his Uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali), he is bitten by a radioactive spider, which ultimately provides him spider-like capabilities. Miles eventually crosses paths with the infamous Peter Parker/Spider-Man (initially voiced by Chris Pine), but then Parker is murdered.

Miles then decides to purchase a Spider-Man costume and assume the mantle in an effort to take town the crazed Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber) before he and his mad-scientist cohort, Doctor Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), can destroy the world via an unstable technology that creates a hole in the multi-verse. This hole eventually causes multiple timelines from alternate universes to intersect, bringing Miles face to face with five other versions of the webslinging superhero, who team up with Miles to defeat Kingpin.

Obviously when I was younger, I loved animated movies. But throughout my college years and even thereafter, I was admittedly slow to embrace them anymore. However, over the past few years, I’ve found myself opening up to animation a bit more again – especially with the undeniable prowess of Pixar’s products, the unique usage of the technique in stop-motion fashion in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, and the refreshing storylines in films like The Lego Movie. Mentioning The Lego Movie is especially noteworthy here because that film was written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also teamed up to direct 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street), while Into the Spider-Verse was co-written by Lord and produced by a team that included both Lord and Miller. These two truly revolutionized superhero animation with their Lego franchise, and Spider-Verse benefits profoundly from their involvement.

As I mentioned in my review of Black Panther, I have never really been a huge fan of the live-action Marvel movies (with the exception of a few), but in this animated story, I believe I have found my new favorite movie from the entire Marvel Universe. Not only is the storytelling an exhilarating, witty, and refreshing take on the classic Spider-Man narrative (based on the Miles Morales character that was first introduced to the Marvel Comic-Book Universe in 2011), but the production value of the animation is unbelievable. The animation has a smashingly vivid look and is essentially a combination of modern street art and classic pop art. This movie epitomizes the phrase “visually arresting,” and its highly stylized (but undeniably mesmerizing) action is ambitious and innovative.

With the help of this amazing animation, Into the Spider-Verse builds an entertaining storyline (which includes an exploration of dimensional physics) around some of the year’s most amusing characters (and voice actors). At the center of the action, Miles Morales is a compelling young character that stands for the proposition that in this universe, anyone can be a superhero – Shameik Moore knocks the voice acting out of the park in his portrayal. As alluded to above, the story also injects five other versions of Spider-Man into the fold: Jake Johnson voices another version of the Peter Parker character, but instead of resembling the customary Spider-Man that we meet toward the beginning of the film (voiced by Chris Pine), this one is a bit washed up; Hailee Steinfeld voices the famed Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman; Nicolas Cage brilliantly voices a noir version of Spider-Man; Kimiko Glenn voices the anime-inspired Peni Parker (SP//dr); and John Mulaney nearly steals the show as the hilarious Peter Porker/Spider-Ham. Each iteration of the superhero has unique animation variations that mimic their respective personality and universe, and these characters set the stage for many potential spin-offs in the future. (In fact, the first spin-off is already in development, centered around Gwen Stacy and other female characters from the Spider-Man universe.)

I fully expect this film to not only withstand the test of time, but also to enter legendary status within the Marvel Universe’s complete catalog of films. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSbzyEJ8X9E&t=8s

Academy Award nominations for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse:

Best Animated Feature (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 3 – The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is a black comedy and political satire directed by Armando Iannucci and co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows. The film is set in 1953 and tells the story of the struggle for power among members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following the death of the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin.

Over the years, there have been some tremendous political satire films, including classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), as well as more recent films like 2009’s In the Loop (which I will mention again later). And with The Death of Stalin, Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci has created an exceptional addition to the genre, which I hope will live on among the aforementioned greats. If you have read my blog before, you will likely know that one of my favorite types of film is black comedy – as I have mentioned before, there is something captivating about the amalgamation of darkly serious issues and wickedly funny storytelling. This movie is set during an obviously horrifying time in world history – at that time in the Soviet Union, the government (led by Stalin and his cronies) was impulsively torturing and jailing its citizens, even executing many. The film is thus blunt and dark about those events, including characters insouciantly bantering about having people killed mercilessly. Luckily, the basic plot devices and dialogue are both entertaining and hilarious, which makes the film’s political satire as a whole brilliantly comedic. The cast of characters at the center of the story’s power struggle are constantly trying to get one step ahead of the others, which makes for an amusing series of loyalties and betrayals pursuant to the film’s many schemes and counter-schemes for supremacy.

At the center of this dark farce is the film’s creator, director and co-writer Armando Iannucci. As mentioned above, Iannucci is no stranger to brilliant political satire, directing and co-writing In the Loop, an outstanding satire about politics and, particularly, the political relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. This film was an instant classic and one of the best political satires of the 2000s, earning Iannucci and his co-writers an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. More recently, Iannucci is known as the creator of HBO’s Veep. He obviously has a rich background in black comedy and political satire, and his skills are radiantly on display in The Death of Stalin as he skillfully balances the film’s silliness and malevolence. To give you a taste of Iannucci’s humor, the film begins with one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema from 2018. At the start of the movie, there is a concert of classical music being performed live, with a Soviet radio station broadcasting the concert. The radio director then gets a call from Stalin’s office indicating that the dictator would like a copy of the concert’s recording and will be sending men to pick that copy up in person. There’s only one problem – the radio station was not recording the broadcast. In a frantic effort to still satisfy Stalin’s wishes, the radio director (played frenetically by Paddy Considine) attempts to stop everyone in the concert hall from leaving, explaining that they are about to have an encore performance of the entire concert. The scene is chock-full of comical dialogue, including Considine’s character hurriedly telling the audience, “take your seats, take your fucking seats,” and nervously proclaiming to everyone, “don’t worry, nobody’s gonna get killed, I promise you.” The scene is the epitome of life under Stalin’s rule, and Iannucci plays it perfectly.

The last thing I want to mention is the film’s ensemble cast, which spectacularly brings Iannucci’s vision to life. The main characters are: Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the callous and calculating chief of Stalin’s secret police force; Nikita Khrushchev, played as seemingly, but riotously, incompetent by Steve Buscemi; Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s temporary successor, depicted as spineless and unassertive by Jeffrey Tambor; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a seasoned diplomat in the Communist Party; and Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), an intense high-ranking official in the Societ military. The film also features wonderful supporting performances from Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s adult children. One of the most noteworthy parts of the film is Iannucci’s decision to have his cast speak in their native accents. Although this technique was polarizing for film fans, I loved it and consider it one of the best things about the movie. Having the actors in Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie speak in neutral accents rather than the German ones associated with their characters was something I found distracting because the film was an intense drama. Here, Iannucci is affirmatively striving to make a film that is darkly comedic and politically satirizing, so the actors’ use of their own accents made the entire charade that much more hysterical. The Death of Stalin is rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.

The Death of Stalin trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9eAshaPvYw

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 4 – A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is a musical drama directed by Bradley Cooper (in his directorial debut) and co-written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters.  The film tells the story of a country musician named Jackson Maine (Cooper) who discovers and falls in love with a young, aspiring singer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Ally’s budding musical career quickly takes off, but all the while, Jackson’s own personal demons threaten to tear his down.

This iteration of A Star Is Born is the third remake of the original 1937 film, following reincarnations in 1954 (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Despite trotting through familiar territory, the Cooper- and Gaga-led version feels undeniably new and wholly unique. As much as this film is about the music (and trust me, the music is flawless – I still listen to “Shallow” at least a few times each week), it is really much more about an exploration of Jackson and Ally and their obviously genuine, but altogether complicated, love story. These two characters clearly inspire each other in the most believable ways possible (both in life and in music), which makes their rollercoaster relationship that much more affecting for an audience. Although the ease of buying into this tale of romance has a lot to do with Cooper and Lady Gaga as actors (their chemistry was organic, unforced, and utterly convincing), it can also be credited to the dynamic screenwriting trio, the X factor of which is Eric Roth. Roth has led a critically acclaimed career behind the pen, writing the scripts (and receiving Oscar nominations) for Hollywood heavy-hitters Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With such an illustrious filmography, it is patently obvious that Roth’s fingerprints were all over the script for A Star Is Born.

The movie also benefits tremendously from an exquisite directorial achievement by Cooper. Some of the most emotionally packed scenes in all of film this year came from A Star Is Born, and Cooper’s vision is at the root. Avoiding spoilers, I will say that the emotional climax of the film was, even for someone that hadn’t seen any of the previous iterations of the story, predictable. But despite that, Cooper still presented it in a way that felt raw and unexpected – it was single-handedly the most heart-wrenching scene of the year. (There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.) Further, the main function of a director, aside from being the film’s chief visionary, is to get the best work out of the actors – in that department, Cooper far exceeded all expectations that could possibly have been set for him. As I will get into more detail about in a moment, Lady Gaga delivered an exceptional performance as Ally. Yes, she was clearly born to be a performer. Yes, she already has a small handful of acting credits. And yes, the film is about a singer, which Gaga already is in real life. But in the wrong director’s hands, a good performer could still fall flat – it happens all the time. Luckily, in A Star Is Born, the combination of Cooper’s shrewd direction and Gaga’s unquestionable talent came together beautifully to offer one of the year’s best acting performances. It also says a lot that Sam Elliott, a pioneer in the acting world with a career that spans over five decades, received his first Oscar nomination of all time in the role of Bobby Maine, Jackson’s manager and half-brother. Not only did Cooper bring out the best in Lady Gaga, but he also found a way to elicit a career-defining supporting performance from a Hollywood legend. I am still quite a bit upset that Cooper was overlooked in the Best Director category – he definitely should have received a nomination for his work behind the camera.

As alluded to above, Lady Gaga’s portrayal of Ally was amazing – given her background in music and her own rise to fame, Cooper could not have hit a more definite homerun in terms of casting than this. Gaga effortlessly commanded the complex emotional nature of Ally, portraying her vividly as a young woman who is at first apprehensive and lacking in self-esteem, and later confident and more comfortable in her own skin. However, even after Ally becomes more self-assured, she still maintains an innocent sense of vulnerability – Gaga depicts that remarkably. Even though Bradley Cooper is the film’s creative mind behind the camera, he also turns in one of the best acting performances of his own career, justifiably earning him a fourth Oscar nomination in an acting category. Jackson Maine is a complicated character – despite Ally energizing his life in terms of love and music, he still struggles to keep up with his own personal battles. A life of alcoholism and self-sabotage trips Jackson up at every turn, and Cooper’s portrayal is haunting and dramatic – it was definitely a memorable piece of acting. A Star Is Born is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse.

A Star Is Born trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSbzyEJ8X9E&t=8s

Academy Award nominations for A Star Is Born:

Best Picture (Bill Gerber, Bradley Cooper, and Lynette Howell Taylor, producers)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bradley Cooper)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters)

Best Original Song – “Shallow” (Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow)

Best Cinematography (Matthew Libatique)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 5 – Blindspotting

Blindspotting, a film directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and co-written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, follows Collin (Diggs), an African-American in present-day Oakland who has just three days left on probation. Collin and his best friend Miles (Casal), a white guy with a propensity for being a troublemaker, work together for a moving company. One night after work, Collin witnesses a police officer shoot an African-American suspect in the back when the latter is fleeing. This incident creates a captivating change in reality that Collin must now cope with, riddled with questions about race, the class system, and gentrification, which ultimately threatens to splinter his friendship with Miles.

This movie is set at the intersection of ‘buddy comedy’ and ‘profound drama,’ and it uses humor in a manner that makes the film’s emotionally affecting explication of deep social issues that much more poignant and impactful – its mastering of this blend of storytelling makes it not only one of the best films about race in the present era, but one of the best movies of the entire year. Period. At the center of the story is a thriving interracial friendship between Collin and Miles, which is used throughout the film as a conduit for the exploration of privilege. The friendship is remarkably authentic, which exceptionally evokes an innate sense of empathy from the audience for the test that this friendship endures as the movie’s social issues begin to complicate the relationship between the two leads. The genuineness of Collin’s and Miles’s friendship can be credited to the real-life relationship between Diggs and Casal, who co-wrote the film – the two are childhood friends from Oakland. The film’s funniest and most heart-wrenching moments feature Collin and Miles at center stage, and their banter throughout the movie (which includes some witty freestyle rapping while packing up clients’ belongings) is outstanding.  I truly think the movie thrives in a beautiful manner because of the believability of the close friendship between Collin and Miles.

Casal is wonderful in his comical, yet layered portrayal of Miles (he is at his best in one of the film’s greatest moments, where Miles is attempting to sell a sailboat), but in this film, Daveed Diggs steals the show. Diggs rose to fame in 2015 for his portrayal of both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the award-winning musical Hamilton, which featured a great deal of rapping and garnered Diggs a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Prior to Hamilton, Diggs had already established himself as a rapper of the highest quality via his experimental hip-hop group Clipping. With this background, Diggs prepared himself for an enrapturing on-screen acting performance in Blindspotting, which earned him a nomination for Best Male Lead at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Not only is Diggs’s acting on point, but his execution of the film’s dialogue is masterful. There are parts of the film where Diggs actually raps his character’s dialogue, but even in the moments where the words are not meant to be rapped, Diggs’s cadence is still incredibly melodic and poetic. In the film’s climatic scene, Diggs’s character stares right into the camera with a gun drawn (for what feels like forever), delivering an emotionally packed monologue that feels less like traditional rap and more like performance art. The scene is the film’s most powerful, and it stands as the pinnacle of Diggs’s acting achievement in the movie.

The serious themes at issue in Blindspotting benefit from the complete package of first-rate filmmaking, and Carlos Lopez Estrada (in his directorial debut) commands the movie’s direction precisely. The movie is constantly shifting from funny to dramatic and from heartwarming to violent, and Estrada carefully constructs and intricately weaves these divergent tones into an overall great movie. The film features a set of dream sequences that Collin grapples with following the police shooting, and Estrada brilliantly tempers those sequences’ surrealism with the perfect touch of fidelity. Estrada definitely brought his ‘A game’ to this film, and I look forward to watching anything else he creates in the future. Blindspotting is rated R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references, and drug use.

Blindspotting trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9-HBqVbtTo&t=89s