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 Actor in a Supporting Role (2018)

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

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

AliIn the film Green Book, Mahershala Ali portrays Don Shirley, the real-life African-American jazz pianist. The film follows Shirley on his 1962 concert tour through the Deep South, escorted by his Italian-American driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. In light of the Jim Crow era setting, both men are thrust into a variety of racist issues throughout the tour, and the film tells the story of their personal journey and growth as they learn about life from each other. I enjoyed Green Book, but as many of you might know, it has been marred by controversy since its release – the debate revolves around Shirley’s family’s objections to the film and its screenplay, which was co-written by Tony Lip’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga. Despite the family’s issues with the depiction of Shirley and his relationship with Tony Lip, Ali admitted that in his performance, he did his best to honor the legacy of Shirley based on the information he had – and for me, that performance was impeccable. Although this controversy has dominated the headlines, it is nonetheless impossible to ignore the remarkable acting work of Ali – his mannerisms are nuanced, his emotions shrewdly portrayed, and his ability to impressively master Shirley’s fears and insecurities in light of the overt racism plaguing the nation in the early 1960s was unimpeachable. Mahershala Ali has evolved in the past few years into one of the most talented actors in the business, and if I had it my way, he’d walk away on Oscar night with his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the past three years.

2. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Richard-E-Can-You-1In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film about the real-life biographer Lee Israel and her attempt to invigorate her writing career by forging letters by famous celebrities and selling them for large amounts of money, Richard E. Grant plays the role of Jack Hock, a recent acquaintance of Israel who joins her in the exploitation of the fraudulent letters. In this film, Melissa McCarthy churned out probably the best dramatic acting performance of her career, but for me, Grant’s Hock stole the show. Despite not having a permanent home and appearing rather drifter-like, Jack Hock is flamboyantly lavish in his tastes and is as witty and charming as a character can be, making the film much more fun and entertaining. Mark Kermode, a film critic for The Guardian, summed up Hock brilliantly: “Jack seems to be in permanent performance mode, hiding his own insecurities behind a mask of bravado and bonhomie.” Despite being a recognizable face in the industry since his career-defining performance in his 1987 film debut Withnail and I, Grant has only ever been nominated for acting awards on a few occasions (and those were many years ago) – for his cleverly beautiful performance as Jack Hock, Richard E. Grant has justifiably reversed that history.

3. Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)

rev-1-ASIB-06247_High_Res_JPEGIn A Star Is Born, Sam Elliott plays Bobby Maine, the manager for and older half-brother of singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper). To put it simply – Sam Elliott was phenomenal during his limited on-screen time in A Star Is Born. Although Bobby Maine is the personification of a “supporting” character, Elliott – a legend in the industry – deftly executed every second of his performance. Two scenes stick out the most for me that made Elliott’s portrayal of Jackson’s brother so incredibly memorable – (1) the argument between Jackson and Bobby over their father’s land, and (2) the moment Bobby pulls out of Jackson’s driveway after dropping him off towards the end of the film. In that latter scene in particular, the passion Elliott put into portraying Bobby’s flash of emotion as he backs out of Jackson’s driveway is worth the price of admission. With a film career that has spanned over five decades, it is awesome and well-deserved to see Elliott celebrating his very first Oscar nomination.

4. Sam Rockwell (Vice)

RockwellThe setup for Sam Rockwell’s portrayal in Vice is simple – he portrays George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States. All the acting buzz surrounding Vice centers predominantly on Christian Bale in the lead role of Vice President Dick Cheney. But for me, one of the most underrated aspects of the movie was Rockwell’s performance. With some fantastic work from the makeup department, Rockwell did look quite a bit like Bush, way more than Josh Brolin did in Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic W. However, what is truly more impressive about his portrayal (which also bests that of Brolin’s) is Rockwell’s seamless embodiment of Bush in terms of accent, mannerisms, and speech pattern. Rockwell nailed Bush’s trademark Texas twang, and his first-rate acting abilities (which garnered him an Oscar win last year in this category for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) made this performance one to remember.

5. Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)

DriverIn Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Adam Driver portrays Det. Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, the Jewish partner of John David Washington’s lead character, Det. Ron Stallworth. As Stallworth, an African-American officer, slowly starts to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan via telephone (posing as a white man), Zimmerman is tasked with being Stallworth’s physical stand-in for in-person meetings with the KKK – as famed film critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times described it, “We’ve got a white cop impersonating a black cop impersonating a white supremacist.” Although BlacKkKlansman didn’t make it onto the list of my favorite movies from 2018, it still was an enjoyable experience with some superb acting, particularly by Washington. In terms of Driver, though, I found his performance to be simply “good” and “serviceable” – nothing extraordinary in my estimation. Truthfully, I thought his nomination should have gone to the likes of Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther), or Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) instead.

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 4 – Moonlight

Moonlight is a drama directed by Barry Jenkins, with a screenplay by Jenkins and story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid balancing his dysfunctional home life and coming of age during the “War on Drugs” era in Miami, Florida. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three distinct chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.

moon3Back in August, I revealed Moonlight as No. 6 on the list of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the fall movie season. In writing about my eagerness for the film’s release, I included the following quote from Justin Chang, a writer from the Los Angeles Times, about director Barry Jenkins’s second film: “He’s made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within . . . . [Moonlight] doesn’t say much; it says everything.” When I first came across that quote, it made me incredibly excited to see Moonlight.  After having seen this film, Chang’s quote is more than just a review—it truly embodies the emotional brilliance of one of the best films 2016 had to offer.

moon5Prior to Moonlight, I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. After seeing Moonlight, I am quite confident that this man has a long, successful future of filmmaking ahead of him. Jenkins’s storytelling in Moonlight was exceptional, and he fiercely tackled a delicate subject. Chiron (first known as “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert, then known simply as “Chiron” and played by Ashton Sanders) is an adolescent growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami with an addict mother. All the while, he is struggling with his sexual identity at a time and in a culture where being gay was not accepted. moon3Jenkins magnificently delineates Chiron’s difficult life with expressive palpability, depicting a wide variety of emotionally heart-wrenching “coming of age” moments in his life. Jenkins is clearly a natural-born storyteller, and his focus on the evolution of Chiron’s complicated relationship with his childhood friend Kevin is one of the film’s greatest assets.

moon8As far as acting, Moonlight produces many remarkable performances. From Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron (known as “Black”) to André Holland’s composed performance as the adult Kevin, the film is packed with talent. However, the two performances that stand above the rest come from Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. Harris plays Chiron’s mom Paula, a drug addict with emotionally abusive tendencies, and she brings a self-possessed intensity to the character. I hated Paula for her rejection of her son, but as the film progressed, I felt a sense of empathetic tenderness for her—this contrast is 100% due to Harris’s stunning performance.

mahershala-ali-moonlightThe single greatest highlight of the film, though, is Mahershala Ali in his role as Juan, a crack dealer in Chiron’s neighborhood. Juan is such a polarizing character because of the duality that he represents. On the one hand, Juan is sensitive and caring—he finds “Little” and makes a concerted effort to look out for him. However, Juan also slings crack on the streets, including selling directly to Paula—thus, despite Juan’s commitment to being a father figure for Chiron, he is also directly contributing to the breakdown of Chiron’s home life. These characteristics make Juan utterly complex, and Ali gives the performance of a lifetime.  It is no surprise he is considered the runaway favorite to win Best Supporting Actor—he deserves it. la-1487513359-dnnq6xcawn-snap-photoAli’s striking portrayal is on full display in one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in any film this past year—at his dinner table one day, Juan has to fight back tears as “Little” asks him questions about what “faggot” means and if Juan sells drugs to his mother. It is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever watched, and Ali is the glue that holds it together. Bravo, Mahershala! Moonlight is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

Moonlight trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NJj12tJzqc&t=4s

Academy Award nominations for Moonlight:

Best Picture (Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner)

Best Director (Barry Jenkins)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)

Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)

Best Cinematography (James Laxton)

Best Film Editing (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Lion
  2. O.J.: Made in America
  3. La La Land
  4. Fences
  5. Zootopia
  6. Nocturnal Animals