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).

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)

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)

10

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. 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. 10 – Black Panther

Black Panther is a superhero film produced by Marvel Studios based on the Marvel Comic character of the same name. Directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he becomes the new king of Wakanda, an isolated but technologically advanced African nation that is powered by a mysterious metal called vibranium. Soon after becoming Wakanda’s king and Black Panther, T’Challa is faced with an enemy (Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan) who challenges his reign, and he must rally both friend and foe among the nation’s tribes in an effort to secure the safety and longevity of Wakanda.

BP2I must confess at the outset that I am not a big fan of the live-action Marvel movies – I have only seen roughly half of the franchise’s films. But of the ones I have seen, Black Panther reigns supreme in the Marvel universe (sorry Guardians of the Galaxy). In fact, after my initial viewing, it quickly became one of my top five favorite superhero movies of all time. My lack of passion for most superhero movies (especially in the Marvel universe) is due in significant part to what I view as cookie-cutter plots and characters – yes, most of these films are very well acted and produced, but they generally involve low stakes and follow the same tropes that are trotted out in every predecessor. With Black Panther, the story is much more intimate, and unlike its Marvel counterparts, it has a truly distinct style and personality, both in terms of the plot and the characters.

BP5What sticks out the most for me in terms of Black Panther setting itself apart from most other Marvel films is its writer/director – Ryan Coogler was the perfect choice to be the film’s creative visionary. The 32-year-old filmmaker has built his budding career on the foundation of captivating stories about African-Americans – in his debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler created a thought-provoking sense of anger and heartbreak, and in Creed, he reinvigorated the Rocky franchise with storytelling that was simultaneously nostalgic and fresh. In Black Panther, Coogler takes his creative abilities to new heights, constructing a movie that fits the mold for a superhero movie (e.g., action, suspense, and triumph), while also bringing a certain intimacy and sensitivity to its plotline that induces a beautiful connection between the audience and the characters. Black Panther is a movie about identity, and this is, at its core, a product of Coogler’s imaginative excellence.

BP4As discussed above, Black Panther features some fantastic characters, which were brought to life by wonderful performances. In supporting roles, the film had many outstanding performances, including those from Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke. However, the standout supporting performance was delivered by Letitia Wright, who was magnificent as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister – Shuri is both spunky and fierce, and Wright’s superb performance helped land her the EE Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs. Further, I enjoyed Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, but he didn’t blow me away. This is likely due to the fact that Michael B. Jordan simply stole the show – in fact, for his performance as the villain Killmonger, I believe Jordan should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Aided by a deep backstory that slowly becomes more evident and emotional as the film progresses, Killmonger became one of the greatest Marvel film characters of all time – this is due unequivocally to Jordan’s marvelous performance. Black Panther is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.

Black Panther trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjDjIWPwcPU

Academy Award nominations for Black Panther:

Best Picture (Kevin Feige, producer)

Best Original Score (Ludwig Göransson)

Best Original Song – “All the Stars” (Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyrics by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith, and Solána Rowe)

Best Sound Editing (Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker)

Best Sound Mixing (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter J. Devlin)

Best Production Design (Production Design: Hannah Beachler; Set Decoration: Jay Hart)

Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter)

The Best Films of 2018 – Honorable Mentions (11-15)

Before I start revealing my ten favorite movies of the year later this week, I want to take some time to talk briefly about five fantastic films that just missed out on making my year-end list – here are my Honorable Mentions:

No. 11 – Sorry to Bother You

STBYSorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s directorial debut, a dystopian dark comedy that follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American in Oakland working as a telemarketer at RegalView. After a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover) teaches Cash that the secret to success in this business is using your “white voice,” Cash quickly excels as he strives for the coveted promotion to “Power Caller.” All the while, Cash’s friends – and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) – plot to unionize the RegalView workplace in an effort to protest for better working conditions, which creates conflict with Cash as he continues to climb the ranks as a Power Caller. Life as a Power Caller begins to slowly unravel, and when a corporate conspiracy exposes itself, Cash is left to make a vital decision about his life.

In this film, Boots Riley takes a very simple concept (i.e., character comes from nothing, character gets success, character faces moral conundrum that pits that success against true happiness) and turns it into one of the most entertaining and unique movies I have ever seen. The dialogue pops, the characters are amusing, the acting is impeccable, and the satirical themes are absolutely spot-on. Riley’s story is one that brilliantly examines the concepts of “white privilege” and “capitalism” through its darkly comedic tone, and the satire reminded me a lot of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. However, Idiocracy made its comedy much more direct (and it really worked in that film), and after having seen both films, I much prefer Riley’s more natural comedic tendencies. This movie is a fantastic referendum on some very important social issues, and it just missed out on cracking my Top 10. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQKiRpiVRQM.

No. 12 – Roma

RomaRoma is a Spanish-language film directed, co-produced, written, co-edited, and shot by Alfonso Cuarón. Set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, the film (described as a semi-autobiographical story based on Cuarón’s childhood) follows Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic worker who lives with and works for the family of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

Roma is slow movie (like, really slow), and although this sort of movie doesn’t always work, the cinematic style of Roma undeniably impresses – this is predominantly because Cuarón is its creator. In Roma, Cuarón’s dialogue is poetically deliberate, his camerawork is stunningly cautious, and his pace is delightfully unhurried. The Oscar-winning filmmaker – who has written and directed an amazing collection of films, including Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity – has developed a film in Roma that tells a story that is deeply genuine and features plot points that are both heartwarming and heartrending. Aparicio is utterly outstanding in the lead role of Cleo – as various life events cause Cleo to endure a wide range of feelings, including happiness, sadness, loss, helplessness, and hopefulness, you feel each and every one of them right along with her throughout the entire journey. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BS27ngZtxg.

No. 13 – Isle of Dogs

Isle of DogsIsle of Dogs is a stop-motion-animated film by writer/director Wes Anderson. The film is set in a dystopian-version of Japan in the not-so-distant future where all dogs – following a canine flu outbreak – have been exiled to an unenviable island. Against that backdrop, the story follows a young boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) as he joins forces with a few dogs on the island – including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – to find his lost dog Spots.

At last, Wes Anderson is back – and by “back,” I mean “wow, Wes Anderson has finally returned to the wonderful storytelling and filmmaking that made me a fan of his in the first place.” I know Anderson’s last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of them, but I hated it – I found the story to be bland, the dialogue to be stilted, and the film as a whole to be too heavily reliant on Anderson’s signature style. But in Isle of Dogs, Anderson has won me back over – it is essentially a combination of the distinctive stop-motion-animated style that made Fantastic Mr. Fox so remarkable and the sweet, funny, and selfless depiction of childhood innocence that made Moonrise Kingdom one of my favorite movies of all time. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt__kig8PVU.

No. 14 – Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap is a documentary by filmmaker Bing Liu. Filmed over the course of more than a decade, Minding the Gap chronicles the lives of Liu and his two friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, with the common thread being their shared love of skateboarding. Although the movie starts out with this simple premise, it slowly evolves into a deep and emotional exploration of the lasting traumatic effects of issues relating to race, economic hardship, and domestic abuse.

For me, the best documentaries are those that make you think and make you feel in a unique way – Minding the Gap definitely checks those boxes with ease. One of the most intriguing parts of this film is the fact that the director is personal friends with his film’s subjects – but Liu pulls no punches. Instead, he examines the complicated lives of Keire and Zack with raw emotion and undeniable honesty, and it is this aspect of purity in Liu’s filmmaking that makes Minding the Gap so emotionally affecting. Despite the remarkable exploration of his friends’ lives, the highlight of the film was when Liu turned the camera (and the plot of the film) back onto himself and his own upbringing – what a moment! This film is currently streaming on Hulu, and I encourage everyone to go check it out – you will not be disappointed. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5Vm_Awe3bw.

No. 15 – Crazy Rich Asians

asians6.0Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic dramedy (directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese American economics professor at NYU who travels overseas with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to meet his family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick’s family turns out to be among the wealthiest in all of Singapore. Dating one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors, Rachel finds herself having to fend off envious women within Asian high society. But the more imposing task for Rachel is vying for the approval of Nick’s domineering mother (Michelle Yeoh).

I will be honest – generally speaking, romantic dramedies aren’t my cup of tea. Unless they are done exceptionally well, I just can’t get into them. With all of that said, Crazy Rich Asians is definitely one of the best I’ve seen in the genre (ranking up there near my favorites, such as Love Actually and Crazy, Stupid, Love). Although I have not read the film’s source material, director Jon Chu’s vision in bringing this unique story to the screen was magnificent – this beautiful movie was the first from a major Hollywood studio in 25 years to feature an Asian director and a mostly Asian cast, all helmed by an Asian director. The story was refreshing, the visuals were colorful and arresting, and the movie’s cast of characters was absolutely entertaining – aside from the superb performances by the film’s leads, Awkwafina nearly stole the show as the wacky sidekick Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend from college. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ-YX-5bAs0.

The Return of My Annual “Countdown to the Oscars” and Best Original Song and Score

Dolby TheatreLast year, after five consecutive Academy Awards seasons of active blogging here on The Reel Countdown, I was unable to devote any time at all to posting about the year in movies due to a very busy work schedule – in fact, my only post during the run-up to the Oscars last year was simply sharing my ballot and providing a ranked list of all the movies I had watched from 2017. However, I am thrilled to say that my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” is back (is this where I say “and better than ever”?), and I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you on the best in film from 2018 over the course of the next three weeks as we approach the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, which is set to take place on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Since it has been a couple of years since I’ve blogged through an Oscars season, here’s a recap on the structure of posts you can expect to see on The Reel Countdown: (1) my “Top 10 Films of the Year” (including an “Honorable Mentions” post within the next couple of days, which will break down the five films that just missed out on cracking my list this year), (2) my own personal Oscars ballot (i.e., not a prediction of who will win but rather how I would vote if I had one) for some of the year’s major categories, based on this year’s nominees, and (3) a recap of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, which will highlight the most noteworthy moments from the broadcast.

I am kicking off this year’s edition of The Reel Countdown with my ballot for the two musical categories at the Oscars – Song and Score!

My ballot for Best Original Song is as follows:

WINNER: “Shallow” from A Star Is Born – Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andew Wyatt

rev-1-asib-trl-9090r_high_res_jpeg-1-_wide-3afaaddfb18a9a5732dbd6843e417c693a5949fb-s800-c85In my opinion, no original song better embodied the spirit of its film’s story arc this year than “Shallow,” a beautiful ballad performed as a duet in the film by Jackson Maine (played by Bradley Cooper) and Ally (played by Lady Gaga). The lyrics and musical composition are clearly stunning, but it is the chemistry of the film’s lead characters and their undeniable harmony on the song that truly make “Shallow” one of the film’s greatest assets. Needless to say, I was very excited to see the video pop up online this week of Lady Gaga bringing Bradley Cooper on stage at a Vegas concert to perform the song with her. I cannot wait to see these two light up the stage again on Oscars night – sign me up for any chance to see Gaga belt out her now-iconic “haaa-ah-ah-ah, haaawaah, ha-ah-ah-aaah” line!

2. “All the Stars” from Black Panther – Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyrics 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

 

My ballot for Best Original Score is as follows:

WINNER: Black Panther – Ludwig Göransson

Ludwig+Goransson+Los+Angeles+World+Premiere+pQZWs79_UlAlBlack Panther is obviously one of the best superhero movies of all time – the acting is superb, the story is unique and fresh, and writer/director Ryan Coogler’s vision is magnificent. But for me, the glue that held all of Black Panther‘s many incredible pieces together was Ludwig Göransson’s thrilling musical score. Göransson’s composition offers brilliance in all of the classical aspects of film scoring, but what sets Black Panther apart is his masterful incorporation of traditional African instrumentation and booming sounds influenced by today’s hip-hop (the latter of which comes as no surprise, considering Göransson is a frequent collaborator of rap’s inimitable Childish Gambino). The Black Panther score is truly magical!

2. Mary Poppins Returns – Marc Shaiman

3. If Beale Street Could Talk – Nicholas Britell

4. BlacKkKlansman – Terence Blanchard

5. Isle of Dogs – Alexandre Desplat