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).

tf_02908It 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.

Fave3One 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!

Fave Gif 2The 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.

giphyIn 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.

Fave Gif 4Although 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.

giphyAnother 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.

Spider Gif 4Miles 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.

tumblr_plegq4boAw1y38s31o5_500Obviously 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.

Spider Gif 6As 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.

Spider Gif 3With 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.)

Spider Gif 1I 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)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (2018)

The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Leading Role:

WINNER: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)

fave

The Favourite is a film set in England in the early 18th century that follows the 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). I previously mentioned in my Best Supporting Actress post that The Favourite is an amazing film that thrives in totality due to the award-worthy performances by each of its three central actresses – Colman, Weisz, and Stone – and Colman likely has the best chance of the three to upset the frontrunner in their respective Oscar categories. Colman bested Glenn Close for the BAFTA, and she has also won awards for Best Actress in a Comedy at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards (although Close has won the same award in the Dramatic category at both of those latter two award shows). In The Favourite, the character of Queen Anne is both tragic and hilarious at the same time – her health is in a very volatile state, she flips back and forth between needy and irritable, and she maintains 17 pet rabbits that sorrowfully represent each of her unsuccessful pregnancies. Despite the challenge of such an unstable character, Colman executes the performance masterfully. She nails the portrayal of Queen Anne’s surreal outlandishness and sublimely commands her position as the object of both Sarah’s and Abigail’s affection. Olivia Colman delivered one of my favorite acting performances of the entire year, and I am cautiously hopeful that she can eke out a surprise Oscar win this Sunday.

2. Glenn Close (The Wife)

wifeIn The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the wife of a famous novelist, Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The film begins with the news that Joseph’s prominent writing career has earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Castlemans get the distinct honor of traveling to Sweden for the ceremony. By all accounts, Joan appears to have long ago given up her own writing career to play the role of dutiful wife, a position in the marriage that is patently secondary to that of her husband. However, as the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that the power in this relationship (and the true nature of Joseph’s acclaimed career) may not be all that meets the eye. The 71-year-old Close has led a long and illustrious acting career, but her performance as Joan may just be one of her very greatest. At the start of the film, Joan’s nature seems very meek and straightforward, but it is only as the story continues to slowly unfold that we discover that she really wields an immense amount of significance in the overall success of Joseph’s writing career. Close’s portrayal of Joan is poised and dexterous, and Close carefully progresses toward the unveiling of Joan’s emotional tipping point with an unbelievably striking subtlety that is award-worthy in and of itself. Prior to this nomination, Close had been nominated six times for acting Oscars with a whopping zero wins. However, that is all (most likely) about to change – Close is the clear frontrunner for the Academy Award and has already locked in key wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and the Golden Globes. Although I loved Colman’s performance better, it will not make me upset at all to see Close finally take home the Oscar gold this Sunday.

3. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)

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In A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga portrays Ally, an aspiring singer/songwriter whose dreams of making it big in the industry start to bloom after she meets and falls in love with Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous country musician. Ever since she broke onto the music scene in 2008 with back-to-back chart-topping singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has evolved into one of the biggest and most recognizable pop stars on the planet. Recently, she started expanding her career into acting (I have heard she is very solid in American Horror Story), which never seemed like much of a stretch to me because the essence of Gaga’s strength as a musician is her proficiency as a performer. And in A Star Is Born, she has seamlessly transitioned into one of the most impressive up-and-coming actors in all of cinema – this was definitely a career-altering role. Ally is a character with a lot of vulnerabilities who, over the course of the film, achieves a greater sense of confidence in herself, and Gaga effortlessly portrays Ally’s emotional complexities to perfection. If it were not for Olivia Colman and Glenn Close delivering two career-defining performances, Gaga might have seen herself taking home the Oscar.

4. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)

Roma

Set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez, a domestic worker who lives with and works for a prominent family. Aparicio’s journey to the Oscars is unbelievable – prior to auditioning for the role of Cleo, she had planned to become a preschool teacher in Mexico. In fact, before Roma, Aparicio had never acted professionally in her life. (This harkens back memories of Barkhad Abdi, who, for his debut film role in Captain Phillips, earned a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.) The fact that Aparicio was not previously an actress makes her performance in Roma that much more outstanding and noteworthy. Throughout the film, Cleo experiences a variety of events that lead to a broad range of emotions and feelings – she oscillates between happiness, sadness, loss, helplessness, and hopefulness. Aparicio’s nuanced performance was incredibly authentic and beautiful.

5. Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Can You

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biopic starring Melissa McCarthy as the real-life, down-on-her-luck biographer Lee Israel, and it follows her attempt to revitalize her writing career by forging letters by famous celebrities and selling them for vast amounts of money. Off the top of my head, I am not confident I can think of a single time I have watched Melissa McCarthy in a sincerely dramatic role – obviously her bread and butter has always been comedies. However, if this film is any indication, McCarthy should really consider taking on more serious roles – she is absolutely spectacular here. Lee Israel is depicted as a callously cynical and insufferable woman, and McCarthy perfectly portrays these characteristics with the clever wit that she has lent to previous comedic performances. But in Israel’s darkest moments (such as when she discovers that her cat has died or as the walls come crashing down around her fraudulent scheme), McCarthy shines on an emotionally empathetic level. This was a really enjoyable film, and it was great to see McCarthy stake her claim in a new genre.

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role (2018)

The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Leading Role:

WINNER: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

malek

In Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen, Rami Malek plays lead singer Freddie Mercury. Like with the Green Book, the controversy surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody is well known and has dominated the headlines for months. However, just like with my pick of Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor in Green Book, the controversy simply cannot take away from the absolutely dazzling acting performance provided by Rami Malek as the notorious singer/songwriter. I always had other issues with the film as a whole outside of just the controversial director, namely the neutering of the true story, which I, like a lot of film fans, felt prevented a more-than-surface-level exploration of Mercury. However, in the end, none of this matters a whole lot, as Malek came to the rescue and saved the day. With every wild outfit worn and with every sexual strut on stage, Malek completely embodied Freddie Mercury’s passion and soul for his music, as well as his ostentatious personality. Malek delivered the performance of a lifetime in Bohemian Rhapsody, and not only is he my personal pick for Best Actor, I wholeheartedly expect him to take home the Oscar this Sunday, following vital victories at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and BAFTAs.

2. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)

Cooper

In his self-directed film A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper portrays Jackson Maine, a prominent country musician who discovers and falls in love with a young, aspiring singer named Ally. As I mentioned in my full review of the film, Cooper is tremendous behind the camera in his directorial debut (which he also co-wrote), but he is just as incredible in front of it, turning in one of the best acting performances of his career (second only to his role in Silver Linings Playbook). Jackson Maine is a deeply complex character, struggling in ongoing battles with pills, alcohol, and personal demons galore. Despite the invigoration that Ally brings to his life in terms of love and music, Jackson never can quite defeat those underlying issues, resorting to self-sabotage at every turn. Cooper’s portrayal is haunting and emotionally packed – he brings the heartbreak on screen to life in such an affecting manner. Cooper definitely gave an unforgettable performance.

3. Christian Bale (Vice)

Vice

In Vice, Christian Bale portrays the titular character, former Vice President Dick Cheney. The film tells the story of Cheney’s rise from White House intern during the Nixon years to White House Chief of Staff for President Ford and eventually from CEO of Halliburton to the most powerful second-in-command in United States history. Despite some great supporting performances by Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, all of the buzz has generally centered around Bale’s leading role – and rightfully so. Bale has a much-admired penchant for roles requiring immense transformations (see e.g., The Machinist, The Fighter, and American Hustle), and with the help of a 40-pound weight gain, Bale’s demeanor physically embodies Cheney superbly. However, in my opinion, here the true transformation into Cheney was more due to some amazing makeup work (a category in which the film was deservedly nominated). Bale’s voice tone and mannerisms definitely exemplified the Vice President (and Bale obviously acted his ass off, as he always does), but it was still difficult to separate Bale from the character, something with which I usually don’t struggle – that is the main reason I don’t personally have Bale competing for the Oscar in this category, although I admit he is one of the actual frontrunners to take home the award this Sunday.

4. Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)

Van Gogh

In Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe portrays the real-life painter Vincent van Gogh during the final years of his life in France. I genuinely didn’t enjoy this film (which sucks, because I really was looking forward to it), as Schnabel’s filmmaking techniques ended up being – although interesting – messy and distracting. However, I can definitely say that if there is any bright spot whatsoever, it is Dafoe’s performance. Depicting those last few years of van Gogh’s life, the movie focuses on the severe mental illness that the Dutch painter suffered from, highlighting his time in Arles, his stint in a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and his final months in Auvers-sur-Oise. Dafoe brilliantly portrayed van Gogh’s severely impaired mental state, offering up a truly emotional and empathy-evoking performance. For all the film’s flaws, Dafoe’s performance was unwavering – he definitely earned this Oscar nomination.

5. Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Green

In the film Green Book, Viggo Mortensen portrays the real-life Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from New York who takes a job as a driver for Don Shirley (the real-life African-American jazz pianist) during Shirley’s 1962 concert tour through the Deep South. I previously discussed the controversy surrounding the film in the post about my ballot for Best Supporting Actor, so I won’t rehash that here. But as good as Mahershala Ali is as Don Shirley (regardless of the potential issues with the film’s story), Mortensen just seemed average for me. He is obviously a very talented actor (this is his third nomination for Best Actor), and in the film, he is very convincing in his physical depiction of Tony Lip – he even put on 40–50 pounds for the role. However, as compelling as the real-life Tony Lip may have been, I simply found his character in the film to be lacking a whole lot of depth (which was surprising, considering his own son, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote the screenplay) – the character is too two-dimensional, simply living from worn-out trope to worn-out trope. Mortensen was good, but this spot in the nominations definitely should have gone to Ethan Hawke for First Reformed.

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.

The-Death-of-StalinOver 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. Stalin Gif 3This 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.

Death2At 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.MV5BMmEyNDYyM2ItODRmOC00M2Q4LTk3ODUtYTliMmUyMDJhNmFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_ 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.

Stalin Gif 2The 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.giphy7 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.

Star Gif 4This 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. Star Gif 1Although 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.

Star Gif 3The 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. Star Gif 5It 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.

Star Gif 2As 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. tumblr_pg469awrKr1qjde42o8_400Even 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.

dmyz3pThis 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. giphy4The 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.

tenor5Casal 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. tenorIn 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.

MV5BNDdiZDkzZmUtODVkZi00MTFiLWI0MGQtMjM3ZjA4ZDQyMmJiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTgwMjA2MDg@._V1_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

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 6 – Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds is a film, written and directed by Cory Finley in his feature debut, set in an upper-class suburban area in Connecticut. At the beginning of the film, two high-school girls who used to be friends but eventually grew apart have reconnected – Amanda (Olivia Cooke) comes over to Lily’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) house, a sprawling mansion, in order for Lily to provide tutoring lessons. It takes the girls a little while to grow accustomed to one another again, but after more and more time spent together, they begin to warm up to each other. Eventually they hatch an ominous plan to kill Lily’s controlling and domineering stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), which also includes contracting with a local drug dealer, Tim (Anton Yelchin), for help with the deed.

source3One of my favorite genres of film is “black comedy,” and Thoroughbreds epitomizes the term. After my wife and I first watched it a few months ago, I distinctly recall leaning over to her and stating, “If I could make a movie, this is exactly the kind of movie I’d make.” For me, there is something so appealing and satisfying about a humorous, yet dramatic and thought-provoking, exploration of twisted topics – and in that sense, Thoroughbreds absolutely delivered. To give you a taste: We learn early on that Amanda has recently euthanized her prize horse, which resulted in animal cruelty charges and the scorn of the community. T3The creative mind behind Thoroughbreds is writer/director Cory Finley. Although new to the feature film world, Finley’s debut is a smash and a sign of great things to come. The entire movie feels a lot like a Yorgos Lanthimos film (see The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite), but in his own way, Finley still provides something unique here. Thoroughbreds is suspenseful and profoundly unsettling, and Finley uses all aspects of filmmaking to accomplish this – with the combination of a haunting score, organic cinematography, and a script that perfectly utilizes pauses and periods of outright silence, Thoroughbreds builds tension in an exquisite way as the film grows darker every minute.

giphyMy favorite part of the movie is its exceptionally interesting characters and accompanying acting performances. For starters, the two leads are phenomenal. Amanda and Lily could not appear more opposite – Amanda is blunt and emotionless (and with respect to the latter, that is a literal personality trait, as it is revealed that Amanda actually lacks the ability to feel any emotions), and Lily is nervy but mannerly. However, as the film progresses, we start to see cracks in Lily’s façade begin to develop, as she slowly reveals a sense of narcissism and manipulation deep within. The vast differences in Amanda’s and Lily’s physical and emotional temperaments are striking, and to best depict these distinctive characteristics on the screen, Finley could not have done better than Cooke and Taylor-Joy. giphy2Anton Yelchin also gave a noteworthy performance in one of the late actor’s final film roles – the actor, who died just a couple of weeks after principal photography wrapped, skillfully portrayed Tim as a wittily arrogant drug dealer with a lot of underlying vulnerabilities. It was a wonderful performance to cap off a brilliant career that was cut too short. Thoroughbreds is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Thoroughbreds trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPcV_3D3V2A

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 7 – Upgrade

Upgrade is a film, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, that is set in the not-so-distant future where autonomous cars dominate the roadways (in a much more technologically advanced fashion than anything currently existing, like Tesla’s autopilot system) and artificial intelligence far exceeds the likes of our modern-day Alexa or Siri. The film follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who spends his days refurbishing old muscle cars for high-end clients and listening to music on vinyl (such as the classic blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf) – he is “vintage” and proud of it. When Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) get into a car accident, a group of criminals kill Asha and leave Grey paralyzed. Grey is then offered a unique opportunity by Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), one of Grey’s clients and a wealthy whiz-kid technology innovator. Eron offers to implant Grey with a biomechanical enhancement chip called STEM that will allow Grey full functionality of his body again. This quickly proves to be the miracle Grey was waiting for, but upon discovering a wealth of additional abilities that are afforded to him via STEM, Grey sets out on a revenge spree in the name of his wife to bring the men who killed her to some form of justice. Chaos ensues as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) begins taking more and more control over Grey’s actions.

Upgrade5I will point out for you now that Upgrade is not a cinematic masterpiece or a film that will go down in the history books as a “classic.” However, the movies finds itself in my personal Top 10 this year because it is visually stimulating and energetic and simply provides some of the very most fun I have had watching a movie this past year – that experience I had was worth the entry at No. 7. The movie is produced by Blumhouse Productions, a studio which has notably put out horror franchises like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge – it has also produced the likes of Whiplash, Get Out, and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman.  Additionally, the writer/director has a rich background in horror, penning the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all three Insidious films (the most recent of which he also directed). I recite the filmographies of Upgrade’s creative vessels to point out that in Upgrade, this vast horror/thriller acumen plays a central role in the film’s success.

UpgradeUpgrade consists of an interesting mixture of film genres that all come together spectacularly to form an exhilarating movie – it is equal parts science-fiction, horror, action, and thriller. (It also features a dose of an appropriate amount of humor, most notably via sarcastic and witty banter between Grey and the inner voice of STEM that only Grey can hear.) Although this movie highlights these elements of various genres in a way that builds upon tropes that you will have no doubt seen many times over in previous films, I assure you that Upgrade still feels new and refreshing. AngelicOrganicCoelacanth-size_restrictedThe movie is premised on the classic theme of “humans vs. robots,” and the technological advances depicted on screen are enjoyable, which includes characters with guns built into their arms, making for some action-packed shooting scenes. Whannell’s exploration of this theme is vivid and presents a world in which the rapid advancement of technology becomes increasingly dangerous. This is where Upgrade thrives the most – the film employs high-tech weaponry and artificial intelligence to tap into rousing scenes of adventure and gore, with the help of active cinematography and visually arresting action stunts/choreography.

upgradejuliThe film’s casting is also spot-on for a movie of this nature. Logan Marshall-Green is fantastic in his role as Grey, authentically depicting the character’s immense resistance to modern technology – Marshall-Green skillfully executes Grey’s sardonic dialogue and demeanor. Although only featured in a supporting role, I was notably impressed by Harrison Gilbertson’s performance as Eron Keen – Eron is eccentric to the point that it borders on creepy, and Gilbertson neatly portrays Eron’s tendencies to appear both vainly confident and frantically vulnerable. Upgrade is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Upgrade trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9fXbkiKfmY

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 8 – American Animals

American Animals is a dramatic crime film that is written and directed by Bart Layton. Based on real-life events, the film follows two friends – Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) – who plot to commit a heist of expensively rare books (including The Birds of America by John James Audubon) maintained at the library on campus at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. What starts out more like a dare quickly turns into a dangerous reality as the boys (who eventually recruit two more guys to the team – Chas Allen, portrayed by Blake Jenner, and Eric Borsuk, portrayed by Jared Abrahamson) become increasingly fixated on the prospect of doing something daring and interesting with their lives.

AA1This movie is a thrilling experience, and the style in which it is presented is fascinating and adds significantly to its allure – the film is a hybrid that combines elements of dramatic narrative and documentary filmmaking in an exceptionally unique way. Throughout the movie, Layton skillfully mixes in interviews with the real-life characters, and these interviews aren’t in the form of archival footage – instead, Layton actually filmed new interviews with the real people behind the heist attempt and intercut those shots with the narrative being told. So essentially, the scenes starring Keoghan and Peters embody an incredibly well-crafted reenactment of the story being told through the documentary-style interviews. This technique was wildly intriguing, and it never once reached the point of being gimmicky. Layton employed this system of storytelling aptly as a way to better advance the plot and its rich themes of entitlement and delusion, and American Animals was a grittier film because of it.

AAAs far as the story itself, it is absolutely absurd. From the very start, the plan that Spencer and Warren hatch is utterly misguided and illogical. All four of the college kids involved in the scheme come from seemingly normal middle-class families, which only adds to the silliness of their heist attempt – influenced by Tarantino movies, these guys seem to just be looking for an adrenaline rush to spice up their lives with the prospect that it might provide some sense of meaning to their existence. The entire movie is a subtle referendum on entitlement, which makes the ultimate message so deep, despite the fun and entertainment that comes along with telling a heist story. As seen in the interview scenes, the real-life Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka recite the events with vast contradiction, leaving the audience to guess whether certain parts of the story ever really happened. It is an engaging tale of delusion, and Layton tells it well.

AA2The reenactment portion of the film features some impressive acting performances, particularly those of Keoghan and Peters. I have seen Keoghan in a few bit parts over the last couple of years, but he broke out in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer – although I liked Keoghan much better in that film, where he was perfectly haunting and amusingly wicked, he is still a force in American Animals. He portrays Spencer’s apathy with precision. I was also thoroughly impressed by Peters’s performance as Warren. Despite the fact that the plan is initially concocted between both Warren and Spencer, it is Warren who pushes the heist forward at every step, including organizing a buyer for the rare books that are to be sold. Peters is remarkable in his depiction of Warren’s fixation on the heist, and his portrayal of Warren’s accompanying delusions of grandeur is spot-on. American Animals is rated R for language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material.

American Animals trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAhruSwum1c&t=34s