For the first time since high school, I’ve made an effort to see just about every movie out there. I didn’t quite bat 1.000, but I’m comfortable with a belated review of Holmes and Watson if you are. If that movie somehow turns out to be East of Eden, well, then we’ll squeeze it on here. I tried to limit my list to 8 movies, just to be ornery, but it turns out there were more good movies than I remembered. Sometimes the bad apples, whether they be Night Schools or Robin Hoods, really try to ruin the whole barrel.
So, we’ll start with a few honorable mentions. To see a full review of any film, just click on the title. (The lone exceptions are A Quiet Place and BlacKkKlansman.) I’m a stickler, so even this group of movies ain’t nothin to sneeze at:
Not content with a victory lap, Robert Redford delivers a fun, ambling character study for his final film. His elderly bank robber experiences a twilight crisis, but finds a little sunshine in the form of Sissy Spacek’s sweet rancher. This is a brighter, better counterpart to Clint Eastwood’s dour The Mule.
A Quiet Place
A fierce, focused thriller built on a bravura idea: Aliens stalk the tattered ruins of Earth, feasting on what few humans remain. The catch? The monsters are blind, and use acute hearing to track their prey. Stay quiet and you stay alive. Credit director John Krasinski for cranking and keeping the tension steady at 11 all the way through.
How’s this for a logline? It’s 1971, and a young, black cop successfully infiltrates the Klan. Something that crazy, you’d have to know it’s based on a true story. Alternately funny and frightening, this film rides a commanding lead performance from John David Washington to make this Spike Lee’s best work in years.
Marvel’s entire Scooby Gang comes together for a big, burly shindig, and the real surprise hits when the whole circus tent doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The Brothers Russo and their writers strike oil by building their story around brooding über-villain Thanos and his quest for six shiny MacGuffins. And it may be just a temporary thing (these characters are far too lucrative to go full Michael Corleone on), but further props for ending this movie the ballsy way they did.
Debuting director Bo Burnham makes us laugh, cringe, and cry equally in this painfully frank look at life for an 8th grade girl. Elsie Fisher plays the lead role without guile, giving this film an even more real feel and deeper dramatic heft. Josh Hamilton also works wonders as Fisher’s hapless, lovable dad.
And now, on with the countdown:
The world needed another Star is Born like Steven Seagal needs an honorary Academy Award, but this remake turns out to be pretty damn good. Bradley Cooper plays a boozy roots-rocker who tumbles into a burlesque show and catches an aspiring singer (Lady Gaga) with the chops to go global. Their chemistry is real, the songs are catchy, and the story becomes surprisingly touching.
A message movie that avoids a heavy hand, Green Book tackles intolerance with humor and grace. Peter Farrelly (yeah, that’s the guy that gave us semen jokes in There’s Something About Mary) flips the Driving Miss Daisy script to great effect: A Bronx tough guy (Viggo Mortensen) ferries a mannered black pianist across the 60s Deep South. It’s a story that goes where you think it does, but still gets you there in style.
Critics pounced on this Freddie Mercury biopic for playing loose with the truth, but there’s no denying that Bohemian Rhapsody bottles the boiling energy of its subject. Rami Malek delivers the performance of a lifetime, and should win a wheelbarrow’s worth of statues. This movie may be formulaic, but damned if it’s not moving anyway. Those arena-ready Queen anthems don’t hurt, either.
If movies mirror the times in which they’re made, then The Hate U Give speaks deeply to the fear and frustration of 21st Century America. Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is the only witness to a police shooting, and soon finds herself in the path of socio-political turmoil. Few films have the strength to answer tough questions with tougher questions, but this movie does that, and depicts a girl’s coming-of-age with an unfailing sense of grace.
As a journalist, Marie Colvin spent her career running toward the smell of smoke and the sound of gunfire. Her work gave words to the voiceless and ammo against terrorists and warlords. Rosamund Pike’s lead performance embodies both the passion and deep scars that Colvin carried every step of the way. This film hasn’t gotten the awards love it should have, but it’s well worth a look.
Melissa McCarthy vanishes into the role of Lee Israel, a curmudgeonly writer who turns to literary fraud when the funds dry up. Richard E. Grant plays her hedonistic accomplice, a flamboyant lout whose cheery demeanor hides a tragic secret. What could’ve been dryer than burnt toast becomes surprisingly moving, thanks to the spot-on performances of its cast. This is one of those kooky stories that could only be based on real life.
A great film about the Great War, Peter Jackson takes living history to a whole new level. Jackson and his team at Weta infuse rickety silent footage with rich color and convincing foley that fill this film with real urgency and horror. Despite all this technical mastery, They Shall Not Grow Old‘s most arresting aspect lies in the startling testimony of the veterans themselves.
James Baldwin’s novel is lovingly brought to life by acclaimed director Barry Jenkins. Kiki Layne and Stephan James play a blossoming couple who find their world rumbled when he is wrongly accused of rape. Regina King brings fire and fury to her role as a mother dedicated to saving her children. A tragedy wrapped in the warmth of humor and romance, Beale Street seamlessly blends the beauty of the written word with the sting of real life.
The Favourite takes a brainy, bawdy look inside the wacky shenanigans in the court of Queen Anne. A histrionic dilettante, Anne (Olivia Colman) finds herself tugged between two conniving women: Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a noblewoman who coats her words with acid, and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) a grubby maid who hides her wickedness behind a convincing smile. These actors fire dialogue at each other like powdered musket volleys, and the result is a funny, bracing period piece.
Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal tour de force unveils itself slowly, like a mind coaxing a memory out of the shadows. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) maids for a well-off family in Mexico City, but things go awry when she’s faced with a pregnancy alone. Set against a backdrop of disaster and political unrest, Cuarón gives us a gorgeous story that’s both sweeping and immediate in scope. This is a deceptively complex film, one that will reward both patience and repeat viewings.
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