NELSON’S TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2018
I’ve been making a top 10 list annually for 12 years. In the past few years, I’ve attempted to see everything before compiling the list, a bit of a fallacy with the inevitable result being that no matter if I see 50 or 100, there are many great movies I will end up seeing after the year is over. This year, I’m a little more relaxed, partially due to a busy January: I did not see as many movies as in the past years, yet I still managed to see a full range of excellent movies. And the ones I missed, I’ll pick up along the way and savor when the time comes.
Nonetheless, this year’s top 10 feels especially important for me to publish considering how far away it feels from this year’s Best Picture contenders. The Golden Globes picked ‘Green Book’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as their winners, two downright offensive movies that frankly, don’t deserve critical acclaim (read my Green Book review here; this Bohemian Rhapsody review sums up my personal sentiment well). The Oscar nominations will likely follow suit.
I’d like to retort by shedding light on 10 movies that stood for me as the year’s best. Regardless of where they stand in the awards race, each of these is an experience worth your time. Without further ado, my top 10 movies of 2018:
10. Lean on Pete
There are few feelings as refreshing as: starting a movie, expecting it to go a certain way based on the many tropes seen before, and then seeing it go against that every step of the way. In the first few minutes of Lean on Pete we’re introduced to Charley (Charlie Plummer), one step above trailer trash living with his deadbeat dad (Travis Fimmel). The moviegoer in me is waiting for the dad to be abusive: it’s a low hanging trope waiting to happen. He’s not. As the plot emerges, we think the film will be about a particular story that again is expected from this type of developing drama. It’s not. These reversals of expectations take what is a fairly slow-paced drama and keep you engaged as every step unfolds. What emerges is an almost literary odyssey of adolescence, taking place across the American West and breathing new imagery into the stunning landscapes in which it’s set. To match that, the film never tries to force your emotions a certain way, events occur that are good and bad (or really bad) and it feels so matter-of-fact that you as the audience get to decide how to react. The result is something truly moving that feels like a quiet contrast to the majority of contemporary offerings.
*Lean on Pete is now streaming on Amazon Prime*
There have been many articles and commentaries praising the technical and artistic mastery that is Roma, further cementing Alfonso Cuarón as one of the greatest filmmakers of our era. I’m on board this sentiment - it’s a film for cinephiles through and through that weaves in enough detail and intentional vision to unpack for years to come (and likely dozens of video essays).
Detail is the distinguishing word here: rarely do we see films that remind us how many choices a filmmaker has, and that in the right hands, they all can matter. One of my favorites comes right at the top and is purely technical. My biggest frustration with foreign cinema coming to the US is that, when numerous languages are in play, they’re all lumped together with English subtitles. The result is massive story details are lost in translation. (Exhibit A: Embrace of the Serpent, which I found out after the fact has 4+ languages, all given the same English subtitles). Cuarón does something I’ve always wanted a movie to do, but to date never seen: he gives us 2 types of subtitles, for the indigenous language and Spanish. Right up front, we’re given reason to pay more attention and understand the complexity of the world that will unfold.
Of course, this is a micro detail, and perhaps that is the point: this is a movie for those of us who live for details. I’ll leave you to read further investigation into the numerous others at play that bring it to its whole. The details that everyone should read about, however, are the ones that Guillermo Del Toro highlighted on Twitter.
*Roma is available to stream on Netflix, but sounds & looks a whole lot better in a movie theater*
8. The King
Elvis Presley: the ultimate metaphor for America. This is director Eugene Jarecki’s thesis statement, and for the next 2 hours, he sets out to prove it. When you look at music, commercialism, politics, race, and geography (among other things), the story of Elvis is an incredible lens through which to see the United States. Make no mistake, you don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy this film. Hell, you can hate Elvis and enjoy this film. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test into what you think of “The King” and his legacy, the good parts and the bad.
With someone as famous and well-known as Elvis Presley, a traditional biography documentary frankly wouldn’t cut it. I imagine there have been countless TV specials on his life and times, but never has there been a documentary that has taken this more metaphorical approach. As someone who never put much time or thought into Elvis, in favor of the other, perhaps more sophisticated, rockers of the rock n roll era, as well as someone who has never seen one of the countless 60s movies starring Elvis, there could not have been a better way to learn the complex history of this figure.
Jarecki starts in Mississippi, the birthplace, and criss-crosses the country to every major US destination in Elvis’s life, each one in present day connecting us to that period in his life. Nowhere is this metaphor more apt than Las Vegas, which represents the unfiltered commercialism that ultimately destroyed Elvis in the form of all-you-can-eat buffets and prescription pills. This is the tip of the iceberg: the rest of the film has plenty to digest, especially in today’s political climate. While it was largely overlooked (even among the doc community), Jarecki’s film stands as one of the best documentaries of 2018.
*The King is available to rent on iTunes and most other VOD platforms*
7. The Workers Cup
One film this year manages to combine the themes of inequality, capitalism, and globalization all within a human, character driven narrative. Oh, and by the way, it’s a sports movie.
In the race to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a tiny desert country without the human resources to do so, they’ve outsourced from all across the world to find construction workers to build these stadiums. It’s a working conditions nightmare as one might imagine. As a means to boost morale for these soccer-loving workers (or football as they’d call it), an inter-company tournament is hosted. Some of them took this work largely due to their passion for the sport, and it’s perhaps a shot at escaping the poverty cycle.
Among the teammates, we get a vibrant and eclectic group of characters coming from Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, and India. Despite their cultural differences, the team is united in its pursuit of victory. When we watch professional athletes, there is sometimes a neutralization of emotions, as every one of these figures is at the peak of their game. But when we watch a team of construction workers-turned-athletes, competing for a prize that truly has the potential to be life-altering, suddenly I began to feel the enthusiasm and emotion that I would if I were to watch my favorite team play. This is the brilliance of the story portrayed: it introduces us to a team of people we easily care for and then takes us on their journey toward a major goal. It’s the ultimate underdog story, and therefore a gripping adventure towards a dream.
Director Adam Sobel’s access to the intimate lives of these figures is on clear display – the intentionality of his shooting shows that he has culled the absolute best material to tell his story. Overall, the film is a high bar for both documentary and filmmaking as a whole.
*The Workers Cup is available for free viewing on PBS in the US, here is a direct link:*
And if you’re curious, here’s my original review:
6. American Animals
It’s worth noting somewhere in this wrap-up that 2018 is the first and perhaps only full year of MoviePass following its skyrocketing user increase last fall. Based on it’s poor business model, 2018 may be the only year where it disrupts the market. I’ll still be checking into it as long as they let me. Among the good and bad that it brought to the table, in its minuscule peak we can say it was even contributing new movies to the cineplexes. Most were panned, one in particular was exceptional, and that’s American Animals.
Coming off of one of the best non-fiction films of the decade, The Imposter, director Bart Layton dips his toes into narrative film, without losing many of the signature style he created in his last film. The result is one of the best true crime films I can recall in recent years, a ferociously energetic look at four incompetent robbers trying to pull off a heist without any training other than watching bank robber movies like the rest of us. It’s a story we’d probably never know otherwise, and Layton manages to layer in complexities in asking why these blokes would ever attempt such a crazy robbery and continue to go through with it despite many red flags. With all the elements at play, from wunderkind photography, brooding soundtrack, and of course a flair for documentary crossover unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the results are enthralling as they push the bar forward for what movies (fiction and nonfiction) can pull off. Much like one of my later choices on this list, I love seeing a smart movie that thrills you every step of the way, and American Animals is such a film.
This is another beautiful example of a film that continually pushes against preconceived expectations every step of the way. More than any other film I’ve seen recently, I learned from viewing this movie how much we immediately discern about a movie based on these notions we enter the theater with. For example, if you see a family in a movie, the assumption is its nuclear; despite the complexity of modern families, we assume the woman = Mom, the man = Dad, and the rest are their children. And elderly people only exist as grandmas and grandpas.
This is just one example of where Shoplifters, a movie about a rag-tag family in Japan, exploits these types of assumptions and uses them to surprise you on frequent occasions. It challenges many of the notions we assume about various identities that have become shorthand worldwide. Matched with an artful, human centric gaze, the film is beautiful and compelling from start to finish. I’m quite glad my sister Caroline pushed me to see this one, I may not have prioritized it otherwise, and yet it’s one of the year’s finest.
4. Mountain / Free Solo
Traditionally I’m strict about keeping the top 10 a true list of 10 movies, however this is a case where I’ve found an exception worthy of breaking the rules. Two movies about mountaineering exhilarated me this year by taking polar opposite stylistic approaches, both enough to earn their place among the year’s best.
In Mountain, the lesser known documentary of the two, Jennifer Peedom takes a transcendental approach to these fantastic natural wonders and the human obsession with them. Featuring the combination of narration from Willem Dafoe and exceptional music from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the experience is pure cinema that must be seen to be believed. In a brisk 80 minutes, Dafoe monologues an entire history of humanity’s relationship with mountains and mountaineering, from the perspective of seeing mountains as either gods or monsters that illustrate how small and minute we are by comparison. These audio elements are naturally matched with an impressive collection of stunning mountain imagery, and plenty of climbing action. Stepping into this state of mind, the resulting film is a wondrous mediation on our relationship with the natural world, and a transformative experience I highly recommend. For a bite sized taste of what to expect, check out the trailer.
*Mountain is now available to stream on Netflix*
And the ying to Mountain’s yang is Free Solo. Mountain aims to look at the entire culture and community of mountaineers, and Solo by contrast takes us up close and personal with one exceptional climber and his stunning accomplishment of climbing El Capitan unassisted by ropes. The best case for seeing movies in theaters often is individual movies, and only occasionally are non-fiction films listed among the cinematic spectacles. Free Solo earns this title in droves. As I mentioned in my review earlier this year, watching this film is equivalent to if the Man on Wire stuntman happened to have a top-tier documentary crew capturing his feat. It’s a similarly powerful testament to the will of humanity to reach further and aim higher. The death-defying journey to get there is remarkable to watch, especially with a packed theater hanging on every moment, catching their breath any chance they get, and erupting with spontaneous applause at moments of triumph. Of the many great documentaries this year, Free Solo is my personal favorite and the one that brought the most excitement to me. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai brought their very best to the table and captured a feat that must be seen to believe with exceptional craftsmanship.
*Free Solo is still playing in theaters, in some places in IMAX - don’t miss it*
3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
There are tell-tale signs of amazing cinema that are widely recognized for their excellence and noticeable prowess. Yet often, what’s even more compelling is when a movie feels like a perfect match for you/me specifically after searching through a sea of options. With Marielle Heller’s second film, I found myself happily in love with what has been created, a deftly subtle true story perfectly brought to life by cast and crew. One of my favorite subgenres is the ‘unsung true story,’ a subject that may have made the headlines the day it happened but has since been forgotten. These true stories often make for the most entertaining viewings, and benefit from knowing little about the subject beforehand compared to the ones from history books. The story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and her dabble with forgery is one such great example.
I could’ve spent all day in this movie thanks to the endlessly entertaining lead characters: Lee Israel is a miserable drunk whose best friends are cats and whose biting humor hits on every occasion. Melissa McCarthy’s normal boisterous shtick is replaced with a nuanced, complex portrayal of an unsuccessful artist past an entry point for success, and a remarkably empathetic persona. Her foil is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a contrastingly charismatic and vivacious partner in crime, and their scenes together are pure magic full of subtle wit and humor. The plot, while tame compared to the surrounding world, is elevated to truly high stakes thanks to these two and their fully realized personas, which is ultimately the goal of any well executed screenplay.
On a personal note, as I write my own films, this feels like the perfect place to look for guidance thanks to its ability to take a quiet true story and find the deeper humanity in it that makes it relatable. Marielle Heller is a glowing star of a young director whose career is just taking off, and I can’t wait to see her next film (coming in 2019), and whatever greatness lies ahead.
2. Cold War
Cinema at its absolute finest. Timeless, gorgeous, both universal and specific. Cold War is a gift of a movie, earning every superlative. Months after seeing it, the stunning black and white visuals are still burned into my eyes; I still daydream of the story and photography presented here. Director Pawel Pawlikowski previously wowed me with 2014’s Ida. Upon initial comparison one might think he’s on familiar ground: both are period pieces featuring prominent attention-grabbing, square framed cinematography. These similarities do not make the individual films less incredible: like an artist with a trademark style, Pawlikowski can paint numerous triumphs in the same format.
As an added bonus, there are visible layers that will require multiple viewings to unpack - most notably, the details in choice of music are beyond my knowledge and yet their presence is a clear enhancement. What I’ve read so far is already proof of the brilliant choices made, be it traditional Polish song, or ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ Otherwise, I’ll keep it brief, it’s all worth experiencing for the first time yourself. I look forward to repeat viewings and further scrutinization of this masterstroke.
For more thoughts, you can read my original review here: http://cinemacy.com/cold-war-review/
This film is a reminder of what got me so passionate about movies. A roller coaster thrill ride, driven by a master filmmaker, with a cast up to the task. Perhaps it was too dark to be embraced by audiences or awards. Perhaps it was too pulpy to be a critical darling. I disregard all of that: this is a movie that delivers everything I’m after (and then some) when I show up to a theater. I’d like to break down the elements that cumulatively, affirmed this movie as the best of the year.
Writer Gillian Flynn, the most in-demand thriller wordsmith of the current era, continually blows me away with her ability to take suspense-driven genres that are normally cheesy and predictable and make them unforgettable in their twists and turns, and also their commentary on humanity. Every one of her screenplays I’ve seen is brimming with energy that, when matched with a master director, creates fireworks. Here, largely due to the number of pieces at play, I venture to say she delivers her best thriller to date.
Director Steve McQueen topped my 2013 list with 12 Years A Slave, which I occasionally hear people unfairly say won Best Picture primarily due to its weighty historical subject matter, forgetting how excellent it truly is. Seeing McQueen pivot to something extremely genre and pulpy is astounding to watch, certainly not something I was confident would work. Lest it not be forgotten that McQueen is a master visual artist, and does not waste a single shot in his movies. Be it a close-up, or an establishing view of a city, they all feel stunningly deliberate. Then, he occasionally pulls out all the stops with shots that are truly unforgettable and pushing boundaries of visual storytelling. Despite being more fictional and plot driven than his last outing, Widows is no exception to his canon.
There is much to be said about each of the actors, and not since The Departed have I seen such a heavyweight ensemble cast employed to their maximum. Viola Davis anchors the film and continues to prove herself as a powerhouse actress worthy of any leading role. The standout talent ranks deep: even bit part roles are excellently delivered (such as Adepero Oduye and Carrie Coon), and the truly supporting cast includes knockout performances from an entire slew of top-tier actors, new and recognizable. Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson… it goes on.
Speaking of cast, the ‘location as character’ cliche is almost laughable today thanks to nearly every filmmaker who shoots in a well-known city attempting to say that it’s one of the cast members. But when it actually rings true, the trope is phenomenal. Widows is a movie about Chicago; instead of being a mere backdrop, it’s an undulating force that drives every moment of the story. Notice how much it factors into the drama, and then see how in the span of 2 hours he manages to weave in so many locations that each contribute to the jigsaw puzzle.
I’ve seen Widows twice. I look forward to seeing it more. It’s a thriller that brought me to the edge of my seat and then matched it with elegantly layered filmmaking, a true knockout. No matter what is next for Steve McQueen, be it a monumental epic or a paperback serial, I am first in line. Widows is my #1 film of 2018.
Movies I loved that didn’t receive a full US release: A Thousand Thoughts, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Movies I’ve heard are great but haven’t seen yet: The Hate U Give, Shirkers
And that is it. Thank you for reading - if you made it this far let me know what you think (and your own favorites)!