Eleventh Heaven: The top 11 films of 2018
Presented in alphabetical order, here are film critic and Pop Life host Richard Crouse's picks for the best films of 2018.
And if you want to see Crouse's picks for the worst movies of 2018, click here.
A STAR IS BORN
Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a rock star with magnetism to spare but carrying around a guitar case overflowing with personal problems. Drug addicted and alcoholic, he's a troubled guy who falls for Ally (Lady Gaga) after seeing her perform a tour de force version of "La Vie En Rose" in a bar. It's love at first sight. He's attracted to her talent and charisma; she is wary but interested. Soon they become involved, personally and professionally. As their romance blossoms her star rises meteorically as his fades slowly into the sunset. It's a familiar story given oxygen by rock solid direction, music with lyrics that forwards the story and two very good, authentic performances. "A Star is Born" could have been product, a glitzy film with a heartthrob and a pop star in the leads but instead resonates with real feelings and heartfelt emotion.
A QUIET PLACE
Real life couple John Krasinski (who also wrote, produced and directed) and Emily Blunt are Lee and Evelyn, a mother and father fighting for the survival of their kids Beau (Cade Woodward), Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) in a world where making a sound, any sound, can be deadly. Deadly blind aliens who hunt their prey through sound have invaded the world turning noisy people into human cold cuts. The family lives in silence, using sign language and eating off leaves to avoid the clinking of cutlery on china but what happens when a newborn baby cries? Can life go on? The silence of the first half of "A Quiet Place" is deafening. There is no spoken dialogue for forty minutes, just dead air. In the way that many filmmakers use bombast to grab your attention Krasinski uses the absence of sound to focus the audience on the situation. Very little information is passed along. We don't know where the aliens came from, why they're terrorizing earth or how many there are. Ditto the Abbotts. We know nothing about them. The connection the family feels is transmitted through looks and actions, not words. This isn't a story where character development is important, it's a tale of survival pure and simple. "A Quiet Place" is a nervy little film. Other filmmakers might have tried to find a way to wedge in more dialogue or spell things out more clearly but the beauty of Krasinski's approach is its simplicity. Uncluttered and low key, it's a unique and unsettling horror film.
When we first meet Stallworth (John David Washington) it's the mid-1970s and he is an ambitious rookie cop who wants out of the records room and into the action. The overwhelmingly white Colorado Springs police department doesn't quite know what to do with him until Civil Rights organizer Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) is booked to speak in town. "We don't want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the young people of Colorado Springs," he's told. Sent undercover to the meeting wearing a wire, he meets local college activist Patrice (Laura Harrier). She calls the police "pigs" but awakens Ron's dormant activism with her passion. Back at his desk a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan. On an impulse he dials the number, changes his voice and gets a meeting with a local, high-level Klansman. Now what to do? Stallworth continues wooing the Klan on the phone, spouting racist gobbledegook, while his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays the part in person. "BlacKkKlansman" is set forty plus years ago and comes complete with flared pants, jive talk and other indicators of the time but feels timely and alive. This is not a period piece. It's a slice of Stallworth's life that bristles with Lee's anger, social commentary and humour. Parallels to today's news are woven throughout, sometimes subtly, sometimes with the delicacy of a slap to the face. For instance, midway through Duke says he's working, "to get America back on track, to give America its greatness again." It's a barbed satire with its feet firmly rooted in the realities of American life.
The film starts with a quick origin story, detailing the introduction of vibranium to the small (fictional) African nation of Wakanda. This mysterious metal is a wonder. Near indestructible, it can absorb kinetic energy and has imbued a Wakandan flower called the Heart-Shaped Herb with a supercharge that gives superpowers when ingested. Cut to modern day. After his father's death T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned King but just as he is ordained a rare Wakandan artefact made of vibranium is lifted from a London museum by two very bad men, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). To retrieve the precious metal T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, along with spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), travel to Korea where the artefact is about to be sold to CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A wild battle ensues to a power struggle that may not only compromise the throne of Wakanda but also threaten the safety of the world. "Black Panther" takes place in a couple of time frames — NO SPOILERS HERE! — but at its heart it is a timely story about social responsibility — a wealthy nation state confronting its role in the world — that pulsates with smart commentary about race and revolution. "Black Panther" pushes the Marvel Universe past the typical Avengers style bombast fests like "Age of Ultron." This is a breath of fresh air, a warm breeze along the lines of "Ant-Man" or "Doctor Strange," films that transcend the superhero genre, pushing the form into new, unexplored territory. It may be a tad too long and slightly uneven in it's first hour but with its strong female characters — who work together rather than as opponents — an Afrocentric story and social commentary it feels like the perfect movie for right now.
Elsie Fisher is Kayla, a newly minted teen struggling through the last week of Grade eight. "The hard part of being yourself is that it's not easy," the thirteen-year-old says in one of the many inspirational YouTube videos she posts to the web in a search for friends, validation and most of all, likes. Trouble is, she's no JennaMarbles. Despite being glued to her phone and coining a perky catchphrase — "Gucci!" — she has no social media presence to speak of. "The topic of today's video is putting yourself out there," she says, "but where is there?" It's not much better in IRL. Ignored by schoolmates, she's only invited to the popular girl Kennedy's (Catherine Oliviere) pool party because her mom (Missy Yager) has a crush on Kayla's father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Speaking of her long-suffering dad, he spends his time trying to make contact only to be met with monosyllabic grunts as he desperately tries to distract her from her ever-present phone. "Eighth Grade" is an unvarnished, pimples and all, look at adolescence and the anxiety that comes with it. Kayla may not always be able to exactly articulate the way she's feeling but the movie has no such problem. It's a study in her innocence and awkwardness that uses carefully selected moments to highlight Kayla's mindset.
Set in the early 18th century, "The Favourite" begins as England, under the rule of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), is at war with France. A clueless and vain monarch stricken with gout from gorging on chocolate and cheese, the Queen is haughty in the style of, "Look at me! How dare you look at me!" The real power behind the throne ismovie notes the Queen's close friend and confidant Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). She's a stern figure equally at home pampering the Queen or ordering a maid to be whipped for any minor transgression. Life at the castle is a decadent push-and-pull for favour between those who want the Queen to end the war, like Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), and those who feel the battle must continue. The battle for power becomes more intense when Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Lady Marlborough's cousin and fallen gentry whose father gambled her away in a card game, arrives looking for a job. Put to work as a maid she quickly moves up the ranks, befriending the Queen and aggressively pushing Lady Marlborough to the fringes. "As it turns out I am capable of much unpleasantness," Abigail snorts. Broken into chapters like "What An Outfit" and "A Minor Hitch," the film is a wickedly nasty look at the inner workings of a personal coup d'etat. Smartly written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it brims with court gossip, quotable lines — "If you do not get out I will start kicking you and I will not stop," sneers Marlborough. — and machinations enough to make Machiavelli green with envy. Director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a strange and beautiful movie, one that has the twilight zone feel of his other films "The Lobster" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer." They all feel like real life, but tilted by 180 degrees. With "The Favourite" he has made a revisionist history that comments not only on personal politics but also how political power is open to the whims of who holds it.
Ethan Hawke is a Father Toller, a former military chaplain at the under attended First Reformed Church. New to the church and still stinging from a troubled past he's akin to another of Schrader's creations, "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle. He's one of God's lonely men, racked with despair, plagued by stomach problems brought on by drinking and thoughts of ecological failure. "I think we are supposed to look with the eyes of Jesus into everything," he says. While overseeing the heritage church he creates his own "form of prayer," a daily journal where he documents his crisis of faith. His personal issues are amplified when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, seeks Toller's council. Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an extreme eco activist, is having second thoughts about bringing a baby into a world he is convinced is dying. His apocalyptic view of the world unsettles Toller, feeding his inner spiritual struggle. Questions are asked; answers are left in the ether. It's a portrait of a man in progress, trying to figure out his place in the world, if there will be a world to be part of. Hawke is subdued, handing in an internal performance that creates tension as Toller waits for God to tell him what to do. It is powerful work complimented by strong performances from Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer as the condescending mega-church preacher Pastor Jeffers. Writer-director Paul Schrader makes some bold choices here — the film is unrelentingly sombre — but most notably with the sudden and ambiguous ending. Toller looks to be finally taking control of his life, although the form of his redemption is left open to interpretation. This is Schrader's ode to Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, contemplative filmmakers of the past who essayed questions of theology and spiritual growth without judging their characters. Uncluttered and edited with laser like attention to detail, "First Reformed" is a thought-provoking movie that bears repeated viewing.
ISLE OF DOGS
Once again working in stop motion, Wes Anderson creates a fictional world, the Japanese city of Megasaki, twenty years from now. An epidemic of dog flu prompts the fear mongering Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to forewarn that snout fever is about to spread to humans and order all dogs deported to a toxic wasteland called Trash Island. Dog-zero is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the beloved pet of the mayor's orphaned ward 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin). When he is deported the boy makes the dangerous journey across the river in a prop plane to look for his dog. With the help of newfound mongrel pals, including the good-natured Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Chief (Bryan Cranston) and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Atari takes on the corrupt government. "Isle of Dogs" is a fairy tale with a bite. Anderson, one of the most distinctive directors working today (or any day for that matter), brings a child-like wonder and unfettered imagination to bring this boy-and-his-dog story to vivid life. Gorgeous, soulful stop motion animation and Anderson's trademarked banter combined with a timely story of deportation and exile makes for an unforgettable film.
"Paddington 2" finds the bear settled in to a comfortable life with the Browns — Mary (Sally Hawkins), Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and kids Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) — and trying to save money to buy his Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) an antique pop up book of London for her birthday. When the book is stolen from Samuel Gruber's antique shop Paddington is accused of the crime, wrongfully convicted and jailed. While the bear languishes in prison the Browns attempt to prove Paddington's innocence. "Paddington wouldn't hesitate if any of us needed help," says Henry. "He looks for the good in all of us." One jailbreak later Paddington is also on the case, convinced he knows who took the book but can he solve the case before Aunt Lucy's centenary celebration? With his red hat and blue duffle coat Paddington is almost un-bear-ably cute. Gentle and good-natured, he's at the very heart of the movie. Instead, it's a good old-fashioned romp with larger-than-life characters supplied by Hugh Grant, in a fun pantomime performance and Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty, a hardened criminal whose bluster disguises his warm heart. Mostly though, it about the bear. With soulful eyes, good manners and large doses of slapstick — he's a furry little Charlie Chaplin, excelling in physical humour with lots of heart — he's a joyful presence. Without an ounce of cynicism "Paddington 2" transmits messages of tolerance, friendship and loyalty but never at the expense of the story. Those characteristics are so central to Paddington's character that the movie positively drips with not only the sticky sweet smell of delicious marmalade (the bear's favourite snack) but emotional depth as well. "Paddington 2" isn't just a kid's flick, it's a film for the whole family; it's one of those rare movies for children it doesn't just feel like an excuse to sell toys. #paddingtonpower
Kristin Scott Thomas is Janet, the newly appointed U.K. Health Minister and host of the party. When we first see her she's holding a gun on a guest. It's that kind of party. Cue the flashback. Gathered together are Janet's nearest and dearest. There's sharp-tongued best friend April (Patricia Clarkson), her almost ex and professional life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), jumpy financial whiz Tom (Cillian Murphy), whose cocaine and aforementioned gun add some spice to an already edgy situation. On the periphery, for a time anyway, is Bill (Timothy Spall), a ticking time bomb with a glass of champagne. Director Sally Potter wastes no time in presenting her sophisticated but sour soiree. The verbal — and text — fireworks begin almost immediately. Sparkling dialogue drips from the mouths of these actors like liquid gold. When Jinny announces she's have more than baby Martha says, "Triplets. People. Small people." It doesn't sound like much on paper, but the magic is in the delivery. The best lines are reserved for Clarkson, whose blunt, plainspoken words add fuel to the already hot state of affairs. "Although it may have a deleterious effect on your career I think you could consider murder," she purrs at one point. Canapés smoulder, truths are revealed — there will be no spoilers here — and lives are shattered, all in just 71 minutes. "The Party" is a delightfully nasty piece of work, artfully realized by Potter and delivered with just the right amount of venom by a dedicated cast.
Set in the Roma section of Mexico City of Cuarón's youth, this semi-auto-biographical slice of life plays like a sense memory, a dream. Although based on his early childhood Cuarón focuses the story on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), maid to a middle-class family. She raises the kids, cooks and cleans up after the dog who cannot seem to stop pooping. Dutiful, she loves the family as if they were her own, a feeling that is mutual despite their occasional dismissiveness. The family is like many others, rambunctious kids barely kept in line by Cleo and her boss Sofia (Marina de Tavira). The father, a doctor who always seems to be away at a medical convention — a cover for his philandering — is mostly absent. Cuarón lovingly details Cleo's daily routine at the house and even spends time on her off hours as she goes to the movies with her intense boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). It's a slice of life, not plot driven. It feels like a recollection of the long-ago time brought to life. When crisis comes both for Cleo and Sofia the power of their humanity and family solidarity comes to the fore. It may put you in the mind of other movies like "Amarcord," films that could be described as intimately epic, telling stories about people set against a backdrop of wide societal change. It is picturesque but occasionally horrific, naturalistic yet heightened, a film as a snapshot of a place and time and its people. It drips with empathy and affection for its characters, particularly Cleo, played by first time actor Aparicio. She grounds the movie with a performance that is both warm and stoic, never once betraying her character's fundamental sense of decency and humanity. Movies like "Roma" don't come around often anymore. Daring in its simplicity and lack of sentimentality it has the power to devastate and uplift, sometimes in the same scene.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
Read more of Richard Crouse's recent movie reviews:
- 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse' is a wild and woolly pop art explosion
- 'The Favourite' is strange, beautiful and wickedly nasty
- 'Clara' wobbles as it reaches for the stars
- 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' is fun, games and clever messages to boot
- 'Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald' feels thin despite its grand face
- 'The Girl in the Spider's Web' is a thriller set to slow simmer
- By-the-book 'Bohemian Rhapsody' time-twister will leave you humming
- 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' the best-ever feel-good movie about loneliness
- 'Halloween' reboot a bloodly love letter to John Carpenter
- 'First Man' a small story about a giant leap
- 'A Star is Born' hits all the right notes