Written By: Daniel Kinsley
As 2018 draws to a close, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on the state of the union at The Porkchop Express. We have nearly made it through two full years (February 2019 will be the official date for our victory lap) of creating content. From personal looks at old favorites (it me!) to another bountiful Halloween (Aliens!) to an epic 62 page (!) TED Talk on 50 years of the Planet of The Apes series (Fran, take a bow) there has been plenty of work (and films) worthy of celebration. If our sophomore year was not quite as prolific as the first, it is likely because of school, work, travel, and poor Wi-Fi connections in the wilderness (ahem, Kyla). The ordinary ups and downs of another year gone by, in other words. More life is ultimately a good thing, and often serves as a reminder of why this is so much fun for us to begin with.
While this year of releases was not quite as overflowing with greatness as the last, the best films were no less impressive, or diverse. Onscreen representation made inroads with the enormous success of blockbuster films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther (both of which might be fairly credited for Marvel’s decision to green-light their first Asian-American superhero in the MCU) to well-executed adult fare like Widows, and Red Sparrow. There were an equal number of indie darlings and non-fiction documentaries (from Upgrade and Blindspotting to Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers) that were as riveting as anything from the majors. It was also another banner year for horror, with A Quiet Place breaking records, and proving that audiences will show out for original ideas to the revitalization of the Halloween franchise, a success which seems sure to kick off a new wave of slasher films; not to mention the word-of-mouth success of nightmarish films like Hereditary and Annihilation.
Overall, it was another terrific year at the movies. While this writer watched a great deal less films overall (128 [and counting] versus 202 last year) nearly 100 of those films were new releases. As is often the case, there was an awful lot to choose from when it came to crafting the final list. It is important to note that everyone has their own subjective (and admittedly arbitrary) rules in conducting a year end list, and this writer is certainly no different. Similarly, while it is tempting to go on a tear and recognize everything, this writer has always held the line at limiting the list to ten films, with a space for honorable mentions. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that this list is wholly personal, and is in no way intended to be indicative of the Best or Most Important films of the year. This “Best Of” represents one writer’s tastes and tendencies.
And now, without further ado, the top ten films of 2018.
A Star Is Born
There is a strong case for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut to be the most hyped pre-release film of 2018…and it delivers the goods. There is almost nothing about the film that does not swing for the fences, and while not every moment lands, there is enough material that does work to overcome an abundant number of cliches. From Cooper’s boozy performance (with a pretty decent singing voice, to boot!) to a small but heartbreaking turn from Sam Elliott, and a killer soundtrack made up of original songs (Count on The Shallow taking home an Oscar next year). The film’s greatest strength, however, is indisputable: much has been made of Lady Gaga’s star-making turn (sorry not sorry) and she deserves every ounce of hyperbole that has been heaped on her. As Ally, the shy singer who is catapulted to the top of the music world, the full range of her abilities are on display, and they are nothing short of dazzling. Anyone who pays attention to pop culture knew Gaga was a beautiful woman with a uniquely powerful voice, but this film proves there is nothing she cannot do. This is a near perfect example of high melodrama draped in muscular pop filmmaking, and if it does not always operate on logic, the film knows how to hit all the right notes emotionally. While some viewers have taken issue with the ending, just try not to be swept up in the final minutes by Gaga’s last onstage performance. This writer saw the film opening weekend in a packed house, and when the credits rolled, there was not a dry eye in the place.
Tony Gilroy (the writer behind the Bourne trilogy) returns with an ’80s set Middle Eastern spy thriller (brought to life by director Brad Anderson) that is less action-packed than your dad’s favorite Bond movie, but with more than enough intrigue, crackerjack writing, and tradecraft to appease anyone interested in stories made for adults. Jon Hamm has struggled to find a place as successful on the big screen as he did on the small (Mad Men being a tough act to follow) but his handsome face and charm are used to great advantage as a washed-up U.S. diplomat who is drawn back into a morally murky Casablanca-like world of intrigue to rescue an old friend who has been kidnapped. While Hamm is more than up for the challenge of playing the reluctant hero, the film is filled out by a murderer’s row of character actors including Dean Norris, and frequent MVP of anything he’s in Shea Whigham, and a reliable, but underutilized Rosamund Pike (somehow still waiting on her big break after Gone Girl ). It is a complex tale (as many of the best spy stories are) but a rewarding one, and it further cements Gilroy as a go-to guy for adult-oriented fare.
Spike Lee is often one of our most divisive filmmakers (a role he has often embraced) which is only a shame when it overshadows just how damn good he is. With his latest feature, Lee has made his most accessible mainstream joint since Inside Man (2007). Based on the true story of detective Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, oozing the kind of smooth charm one would expect from Denzel’s son) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK with help from his Jewish partner, Flip Zimmerman (a reliably great Adam Driver). It is as outrageous and hilarious as it sounds, but Lee’s real magic trick is that it manages to remain grounded; the film treats the KKK like the group of morons that they are, but points out their stupidity doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Equal parts history lesson, comedy, and love letter to 1970s black cinema, it is a film we needed in 2018 and one only Spike could have made.
The quirky little indie film that could seems to be one of the more commonplace staples of every release calendar, and on the surface, Hearts is no exception. Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) is the owner of an ailing record shop, and single father to Sam (Kiersey Clemons) a gifted musician who is soon off to college to study medicine. After an impromptu jam session leads to a viral Spotify release, the father-daughter duo must decide whether the music is worth pursuing over their regular lives. In a lot of other Sundance releases, this would be milked for maximum angst, but director and co-writer Brett Haley is after something looser, gentler, and more intimate. It is a film made with love, and flourishes as a result of the wonderful chemistry between Offerman and Clemons, and a few killer original songs. In a word, it is a melody-driven joy.
If John Hughes were still with us, Simon feels like the sort of movie he might make, and there can’t be much higher praise to award a teen movie. As it is, we can be grateful for director Greg Berlanti for carrying the torch and making a movie that will speak to an awful lot of teens (and adults) who need it. Adapted from the novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film follows the titular character (played by Nick Robinson) a closeted gay teen whose ordinary existence becomes upended when a blackmailer threatens to out him to the whole school. While the coming of age story is beyond well worn by now, the mainstream has been long overdue for a version as inclusive as this one. Warm, funny, and sweet, this is a flat-out crowd pleaser that left this writer grinning from ear to ear for much of its run-time. Thanks to sharp writing and especially charming performances (Jennifer Garner as Simon’s mom is a stand-out) this groundbreaking major studio effort deftly avoids the after-school special pitfalls that it could have fell to in lesser hands and remains one of the most positively affirming films of the year.
* The first to focus on a gay teen romance.
Mission Impossible: Fallout
With all due respect to the Fast and Furious franchise, Mission: Impossible has evolved into the premier action franchise of the aughts (and frankly, makes a strong case for an all-timer). With its sixth (!) entry, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie returns (marking the first time a director has made two films in the franchise) and arguably tops the dizzying work he and star Tom Cruise did in Rogue Nation (2015). By now, this is a film series that knows its strengths, and wisely plays to the chemistry of its ensemble, including another highlight performance from newcomer (and badass extraordinaire) Rebecca Ferguson. Not only the best action movie of the year, Fallout is one of the most exciting cinematic experiences of 2018. It would have been well worth seeing it in a theater for the instantly infamous HALO jump alone, but the unbelievable stunt that could have been the centerpiece of most films comes before the halfway mark. While Cruise rightfully deserves a ton of credit for his increasingly insane commitment to pushing the rag-doll limits of Ethan Hunt, equal weight must be given to McQuarrie (who has been helping Cruise maximize his potential for a decade now) for his jaw-dropping work behind the lens, artfully slapping an exclamation point on a story that the pair began in Rogue Nation. Nearly the entire film feels like a celebration of the series to this point, culminating with a third act that will make you cheer and cover your eyes in equal measure. This writer, for one, can’t wait to see what they do next.
The Old Man and The Gun
If Old Man truly turns out to be Robert Redford’s final film, it will have been a bittersweet experience for this viewer. It is a simple, easygoing film that gets by on the strength of its script and the easygoing charms of a veteran cast. In other words, it is a lovely throwback that feels like a pretty damn send-off for one of the all-time rascally screen legends. Based on a true story about a man named Forrest Tucker (Redford) who went on a notorious and captivating bank-robbery spree at the age of 70, and the detective (Casey Affleck) tasked with capturing him, it would not be unfair to draw comparisons to a much lighter version of the Michael Mann classic Heat (1995). * At 82 years old, Redford has barely lost a single step, and his joy in playing the role is infectious, as is his onscreen chemistry with Affleck, and in particular Sissey Spacek (having one hell of a year). Writer-director David Lowery has quickly become a favorite of this filmmaker (landing a spot on the top ten back to back years) and here he continues to make a case for being one of the more exciting humanist filmmakers in America.
* Redford and Affleck share a similar moment as the iconic diner scene from the former that is worth the price of admission alone.
In a more just world, writer-director Shane Black’s name would be enough cache to turn a film like this into a massive hit. Alas, there are a number of factors that might have contributed to The Predator under-performing with audiences, which is a shame regardless of the culprit, because this movie is a total blast. The once wunderkind screenwriter returns to the IP he cut his teeth on back in ’87 and injects new life into the dormant mythos. While the action aficionados will come for the intergalactic splatter-fest (and be satiated ten times over) the rest of audiences will stick around for the laughs. Rather than try to emulate the hyper-masculine heroes of the past, Black (and co-writer Fred Dekker) craft a group of highly skilled misfits made up of military outcasts and headcases (lead by a positively scene-stealing Sterling K. Brown) to take on the hunter from outer-space. The result is less action slasher than shaggy hang-out comedy that happens to be punctuated by globs of gore and CGI spectacle, a la The Pineapple Express (2008) in reverse.
To say that activist-musician-cum filmmaker Boots Riley’s debut film is audacious would be to grossly undersell the goods; this movie is flat-out bonkers, and it really must be seen to be believed. Frequent Atlanta MVP Lakeith Stanfield leads a stand-out cast which also includes Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer (all of whom are given a chance to get in on the fun. Set in an alternate version of present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Stanfield) is a Kafkaesque hero in search of a meaningful life. Broke, twitchy, and living in his uncle’s garage, he soon lands a job as a telemarketer at corporate giant RegalView and begins a long descent down a satirical rabbit hole that only gets weirder as the film goes on, piquing with some eye-poppingly strange visuals and ideas that signal the revolution will be televised after all. While comparisons to Get Out (2017) were inevitable, Riley tears down any easy parallels by creating a world that is completely unique, but just as incendiary in the way it attacks its daring themes. In polarizing times, this is a film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as classics like Network (1976) and Brazil (1985). In 2018, this is what counts for essential viewing.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
When it comes to super-hero fare, this writer would probably fall right near the middle of our regular contributors when it comes to enthusiasm and knowledge; that is to say, literate and happy to show up but hardly encyclopedic or foaming at the mouth. All of which is to provide context for this statement: this might be the most fun to be had, full-stop, this year. It is a movie that is simply bursting with ideas, effortlessly introducing not just one, but several universes without losing its footing or lacking in heart, humor, and action. The animation is gorgeous and unique, allowing the filmmakers to do things we’ve never seen in a super-hero film before; it is the closest thing yet to the magic that has been dreamed up on the page. The voice cast, led by newcomer Shameik Moore, with supporting turns from Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, and Nicolas Cage is more than up to the task of breathing vivid life into these beautiful images. Moore, in particular, is a revelation as Brooklyn native Miles Morales, who begins the film as one of many and learns to become the definitive Spider-Man. The requisite Stan Lee cameo is wickedly funny and utterly heartbreaking all at once, particularly in the wake of his death earlier this year, but the film as a whole is a love letter to creators like Lee and Ditko (and Morales creators Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli) and proves why the character has endured through so many different iterations. It is not only one of the best films of the year, it is also one of the greatest superhero films of all time. While this writer does not rank year-end lists (it makes for a lot more hand-wringing and a lot less fun) Into The Spider-Verse makes a very strong case for the #1 slot.
Before wrapping up, check out the honorable mentions: films that did not quite crack the list that nonetheless merit a look, as they are all very good.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs