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Wednesday
Jan232019

Kicking the Seat's Top 18 Films of 2018

No Particular Order. Very Particular Reasons.

Cold War is trash. Roma is a pretty waste of time. I still haven't seen Minding the Gap.

The table is set.

Let's go.

Deadpool 2 was one of the year's biggest box office successes, but I can't find anyone who, like me, thinks it's better than the original. The sequel expands on 2016's meta-comics-movie sleeper hit with a genuinely exciting and smart update on Terminator 2 and Looper (Hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best). Josh Brolin's time-traveling assassin, Cable, and Zazie Beetz's charmed mutant, Domino, provide balance to the Level 10 antics of Ryan Reynolds' titular invincible hit man, who squeezes out some tears amid the exhausting torrents of one-liners.

Speaking of movies nobody loves, the critical and financial ravaging of Solo: A Star Wars Story still baffles me seven months later. Only a trip to the alternate universe next door will reveal whether the Han Solo origin story tanked due to rotten press surrounding production troubles, anti-SJW boycotts, and/or franchise fatigue--or if the movie really was bad enough to keep everyone away. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am more than a little bummed that this iteration of the swashbuckling space serial has been jettisoned to a galaxy far, far, far, far away.

Then there's the movie everyone saw. Ryan Coogler's landmark epic Black Panther continued Marvel's tradition of building story-and-effects-driven powerhouses around obscure characters. Chadwick Boseman's performance was not as interesting as his character's ultra-nationalistic leanings--or the globalist motivations of arch-nemesis Killmonger (played with three-dimensional intensity by MVP Michael B. Jordan). Despite some detours into genre cliché, Black Panther is remarkably substantive--unlike its calorie-rich, nutritionally deficient summer follow-up, Avengers: Infinity War.

How did this happen? How can one explain explain why Upgrade flopped, when the lesser version of it (Marvel Comics-based Venom, starring an identical actor in an identical role) became one of 2018's most head-scratching successes? Logan Marshall Green plays a mechanic who receives an A.I. implant following an attack that killed his girlfriend and left him paralyzed. Imbued with a cybernetic brain-butler and an arsenal of lethal moves, he embarks on a bloody revenge mission that ends darkly and honestly. Never mind. I just answered my own questions.

Seeing A Quiet Place was the most remarkable moviegoing experience I had in 2018. The film proves to be an effective yet glaringly episodic theme park ride in the harsh light of day. But in the moment, in a packed theatre surrounded by equally entranced audience members, John Krasinski's thriller about murderous, sound-sensitive aliens terrorizing a rural family provided a real-world example of movies as a religious experience. No crinkling candy wrappers. No whispered scene summaries from one texting idiot to another. We were all engaged, silent, and open to being amazed.

Like the athletes featured in In Search of Greatness, director Gabe Polsky did the impossible: he made me care about sports. This is more than a talking-heads doc about legends like Wayne Gretzky, Pele, and Jerry Rice. It's a look at what it takes to succeed in sports and in life, and an exposé of society's role in shaping those metrics from one generation to the next (not always for the better). If you want ninety minutes of underdog stories, down-to-the-buzzer drama, and well-worn highlight reels, look elsewhere. Polsky cares more about perfecting the viewer's head-heart coordination.

If 42 Grams were about food and not sports, it might be called The Price of Greatness. Jack C. Newell's uncompromising look at chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his beleaguered wife/business partner Alexa Welsh's journey from underground chefs to feted restaurateurs is a five-star blend of food porn and cautionary tale, which will someday serve as the "Welcome to" video for a "Spouses of Artists" support group. Bickelhaupt's relentless pursuit of a restaurant, then a Michelin Star, then more Michelin Stars is the kind of real-life horror movie that necessitated nervous eating.

My kryptonite: franchise pictures, remakes, and every other attempt to push familiar product on audiences. That said, studios are getting better at making their risk-aversion tentpoles at least feel unique. A Star is Born should be awful. In this gazillion-dollar, third-iteration story, Bradley Cooper plays a country superstar who discovers a sensation-in-the-making (Lady Gaga) while on the way to flaming out. I almost believed these glamorous people were ugly, tormented, and doomed, thanks to strong performances and a soundtrack that won't make you want to hang yourself.

On the other end of the fame spectrum is King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. Steve Mitchell's documentary about the cult writer/director is a testament to art and guts. If you've never heard of Cohen, and would never deign to watch a movie called The Stuff, check out this story of a New York dreamer whose climb up the entertainment ladder resulted not only in B-grade entertainment that would inspire the likes of Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams, but also gave us TV Westerns, cop shows, and Blacksploitation. Wild, huh?

First Reformed isn't just another Mid-life Meltdown Movie. It's a prayer set to film, a desperate cry for answers from a force that writer/director Paul Schrader hopes is tending the light at the end of the tunnel (props to Hunter Thompson). Ethan Hawke transcends the Morose-Alcoholic-Man-of-Faith archetype in a career-best performance. Sure, things go haywire in Act Three--especially with that Sopranos-finale ending. But few films so boldly marry form and function, allowing the assured path of religious devotion to erode into the inscrutable chaos that attends man's twilight fears.

Speaking of Hawke, his latest directorial effort, Blaze, is a new spin on the doomed-musician biopic. Ben Dickey plays cult Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, an unhinged beast who lives in the woods with his wife (Alia Shawkat) and plays rambling sets in dive bars. Hawke and co-writer Sybil Rosen use a radio interview with Foley's contemporaries to bookend their sprawling vignettes (Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt narrowly robs the picture from Dickey). The result is a tall tale about a man born to become a myth that’s also a well-guarded secret.

There's nothing funny about urban legends, if they happen to be true. Remember those creepy-clown sightings a few years back? They started with the short-film version of Gags, Adam Krause's found-footage horror movie about Wisconsinites who encounter an other-worldly clown. An ambitious news reporter, a militant right-wing YouTuber, and an assortment of hapless youth all get face time with the silent killer and his eerie black balloons. Yeah, the genre is played out, but Krause and writer John Pata put the scares and humor first, and slam a cream pie in the face of gimmickry.

I wasn't impressed with the dreary, pretentious art film about a European dance troupe in thrall to dark spells that bring out the worst in its members. But I promised myself I'd stop ragging on Cold War. Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria is a remarkable bit of otherworldly entertainment, an update of the 1977 Dario Argento fright fest that manages to expand on familiar themes while conjuring up new avenues involving the struggle between hell's minions and their clueless pawns here on Earth. Beautiful. Gross. Indelible. Not even Dakota Johnson can knock this film out of step.

To quote those bards of late-90s pop, Hanson, "Where's the Love"? It's a cosmic injustice that Kin never found a wider audience in theatres. Maybe it was the uncertainty of an off-brand-property-in-the-making. Maybe the lousy trailers lulled potential moviegoers into thinking they'd pegged the film before having watched it. Those that gave Jonathan and Josh Baker's wild, family-bonding-and-aliens-and-drug-dealers-and-strippers road movie a chance, though, were privy to a touching and imaginative underground classic--this generation's ultimate sleepover flick. 

Here's a dirty little secret--a reward, if you will, for having read this far: This was initially going to be my final "Best of" list, ever. It's as hard writing recaps of the previous year's movies once the new year has begun as it is wading through the mixed feelings and expectations that come with dreaming up "rankings" in the first place. But if I give this up, I'm also giving up the chance to re-highlight films I hold dear. Jason Coffman's Housesitters is a singular experience, a no-budget horror comedy about porn-loving best friends who get chased by demons while chasing highs. It's funnier than anything you watched last year (and that includes Cold War).

Not all comic-book movies are blockbusters. I Kill Giants has a giant hammer, city-smashing monsters, and world-ending stakes. But the heroics are confined to the mind of a pre-teen girl. Barbara (Madison Wolfe) doesn't belong, except in a fantasy realm where she stands between brutal titans and unsuspecting mankind. Her reality is no less effective after you realize who/what she’s really trying to kill. The filmmakers strike all the right chords, turning the comic’s dour ink washes into a vivid adolescent stepping stone reminiscent of the 1980s’ best coming-of-age flicks.

Not all comic-book movies contribute to "superhero fatigue", but it's fair to say that some characters have outstayed their welcomes. I thought Spider-Man fit that bill until Into The Spider-Verse came out. Miraculously, the teen web-slinger's fourth big-screen incarnation in less than two decades is the franchise's best. The writers have fun with movie and comic-book continuity; the casting offers a bold new perspective on the teen hero in red-and-blue pajamas; and the hyper-kinetic, stop-motion-inspired visuals inject radioactive life into a film that's anything but tired.

The phrase "strong female character" has become as gimmicky and boring as its companion fads, sea salt and MAGA. Writer/director Christian Papierniak upends the trend by giving us a vulnerable, oh-so-messed-up protagonist in Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. Izzy (MacKenzie Davis) is determined to stop her ex from getting engaged, despite a series of personal, transportational, and criminal obstacles. This film is an antidote to millennial entitlement and a condemnation of the failing social fabric that created it--a rare mirror that's alternately held by, and up to, the viewer.

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