R0BTRAIN'S Best of 2018 - Part 1: 17-11

R0BTRAIN'S Best of 2018 - Part 1: 17-11

Truth be told, I’m pretty glad to get 2018 in the books. While there were some personal highlights, such as a really terrific family vacation and getting a new puppy for my kid, there were way too many lows to list here both personally and out in the world at large. Thankfully, as life threw curveballs at my family and me, I was still able to take refuge in some of my favorite pastimes. God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 both ended up two of the best video games I’ve ever played. I found a renewed passion for reading, finally finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as well as catching up on the works of Matthew Stover. Comics-wise, I loved the ending of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, and on TV, I raved about Westworld: Season 2 and The Terror and marveled at the end of The Americans.

 

At it has in most years though, my main route of personal escape went through my year in cinema. 2018 was a terrific year for movies with strong, new voices emerging, as well as the return of some of my favorite heroes and villains of all time. This year produced a handful of the biggest films ever to be released, but 2018 was also a huge jump for streaming platforms such as a Netflix and Amazon Prime, making it easier than ever to check out awards contenders and oddities alike. Bottom line, this past year was an awesome time to be a movie fan, and I personally ate it up with aplomb. 2018 was such a good time at the cinema that I had way too difficult a time whittling my end of year list to just ten, hence me stretching this thing out to 17 picks and multiple parts. Hope you enjoy! So without further ado,

It’s Clobberin’ Time…

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17. Vice

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Tyler Perry

Directed by Adam McKay

It shouldn’t have been surprising considering the current Washington climate, but the most tumultuous political time since the 1970s has managed to produce some of the wildest political satires since that period. Fighting for this spot on my list were three incredibly sharp and hilarious films that managed to also be terrifying in their own way. I could easily see Spike Lee’s supremely engaging BlacKKKlansman or Armando Iannucci’s bracing The Death of Stalin end up here because of their dark comic wit, but for my own tastes it was Adam McKay’s Vice that hit me the hardest of the three. Using all the tools the director has cultivated over the years from his various Will Ferrell farces, McKay has emerged as a full-on 4th wall breaking, slap-you-straight-in-the-face satirist. Building on his previous success with 2015’s Oscar winner The Big Short, Vice creates an unflattering, yet fascinating portrait of one of the most powerful and power hungry men of our age.

Assisting McKay is what looks to be his new go-to onscreen cast; a band of superstars and character actors helping the director illustrate the path these real-life individuals put us on towards our current state of chaos. Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney is the type of go-for-broke performance you’d expect from the actor, and while heavy makeup and Cheney’s facial tics deserve some of the credit for this lead performance, Bale simply disappears into this role and embodies the former Vice President in a way that I believe will be the definitive portrayal of the Machiavellian power-broker. Other standouts include a fiery Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell’s buffoonish turn as President George W. Bush. My favorite of the whole bunch might be Steve Carrell though, who is simply uncanny as a completely unethical Donald Rumsfeld. With performances like these and McKay’s angry and rock solid direction, Vice ends up having to make you laugh to keep you from crying at the picture’s real-life implications.

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16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, and Tom Waits

Directed by The Coen Bros.

While you could argue that Netflix has had some legitimate film releases in the past, it has to be noted that 2018 seemed to be an incredibly monumental leap for the company when it came to their output in this category. This was the first year I think you could say that Netflix started releasing “event” films that really caught the attention of fans and critics in the same way some of their TV shows have done in the past, such as Stranger Things or this year’s The Haunting of Hill House. For me personally, the moment I started to really take notice was the release of The Coen Bros’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Although I wouldn’t categorize the picture as a top tier Coen film like No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, or Fargo, Buster Scruggs is still obviously the work of master craftsmen. Through the telling of these six western tales, this anthology film is a gorgeous example of these directors playing with various motifs of one of their favorite genres, resulting in an absorbing tapestry of horse opera dramatics. My favorite of the bunch is probably the first segment, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the aforementioned title character and which graphically displays what would happen if one of the seemingly invincible heroes from a 1940’s singing cowboy movie starred in a decidedly non-G-rated picture. Imagine if Gene Autry or Roy Rogers walked onto the set of The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven and started blowing away hombres like they typically did in one of their pictures. The results are morbidly hilarious. Quality may vary a bit through the rest of the stories, but if you love a good western there should be something over these half dozen stories that catches your fancy.

Did I mention this movie is also achingly beautiful? Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, very few films this year could claim to be this film’s equal in terms of their images, with shots here and there in various segments reminding me of everything from Segio Leone to Andrew Wyeth. Sometimes bleak, sometimes romantic, and sometimes uproarious in a way that only The Coen Bros’ movies can possibly be, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a trek through the minds of film makers who simply love a good cowboy tale, and I was more than happy to be along for the ride.  

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15. A Quiet Place

Starring: Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

Directed by John Krasinski

2018 was an exceptional year for horror cinema. The usual glut of remakes and sequels were often way above their usual quality level, and thankfully we were also blessed with some unique new films that managed to play with our base fears and scare the bejesus out of us. One of these was John Krasinski’s genre debut, A Quiet Place¸ a no-fat-on-it monster movie about a family trying to survive in a future where giant, blind, man-eating creatures have conquered the Earth and continue to try and hunt us by sound alone.

To say that this came out of nowhere would be an understatement.

While Krasinski’s onscreen everyman persona and terrific screen chemistry with real-life wife Emily Blunt are on full display, I don’t think anyone was ready for how assured this film’s direction was going to be. After a shocking opening displaying the creatures’ power and ferocity, the director sets up this world marvelously with minimum to no dialogue, showing this family’s life while trying to make due in this world of near complete silence. It’s impressive how Krasinski is able to communicate to the audience through pure cinema just how tough it is to cope in this world and then even more impressive just how the picture is able to go from mildly pleasant to white-knuckle in an instant. Just know going in that the high grade tension in this film doesn’t let up for what feels like A Quiet’s Place’s final two thirds of running time. As a coming out party for this director, you could hardly ask for more than what Krasinski is able to accomplish his second time behind the camera making a feature.

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14. Hereditary

Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Byrne

Directed by Ari Aster

If A Quiet Place represents the sort of big, crowd-pleasing horror that fans can easily flock to because of its entertaining set-pieces, then Hereditary is the type of horror that can destroy you with its flesh-crawling unease; a slow burn determined to make you squirm right out of your seat and out of your skin. I hesitate to say too much about Ari Aster’s own directorial debut, as I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s twists (I hesitate to say “surprises” because that might imply these shocks were fun), but suffice it to say no film this year was able to scare me on a elemental level like Hereditary was able to. Though there are supernatural elements to the movie, the horror that is presented here is what I would call “true” horror; our most fundamental, basic fears presented to us in the most terrifying way possible.

Another quick note: Hats off to Toni Collette for what may be the best performance by anyone in a film this year.

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13. Black Panther

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, and Andy Serkis

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Perhaps more than any other film to come out in 2018, Black Panther felt like a nuclear bomb going off when it hit theaters last February.  Ryan Coogler’s entry into the MCU is a ceaselessly entertaining actioner that feels like a riff on everything from James Bond to Game of Thrones, but also manages to be a monumental example of representation and inclusion in blockbuster cinema. Being Asian American myself, I know just what an incredible feeling it was for me to see awesome Asian characters show up in some of the new Star Wars entries (which is my most beloved franchise), so I can just imagine how important this was for so many African American fans.

On top of all that director Coogler spins a majestic yarn filled with court intrigue, epic fights, incredibly fun characters and one of Marvel’s best ever villains. The cast is wonderful from top to bottom but here’s hoping that Danai Gurira and Michael B. Jordan both skyrocket after their electric performances here. Also, a special shoutout to Winston Duke’s M'Baku, who’s screen-time is more limited, but makes a huge impression with his enormous personality and humor. While I don’t think the movie is completely flawless (mostly having to do with some shoddy CGI at times), there’s no denying this is one of the biggest cinematic events of the year and hopefully ends up sending a shockwave in blockbuster film making that will be felt for years to come.

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12. Creed II

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Florian Munteanu, and Dolph Lundgren

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

So I know that it’ll be seen as heresy to pick the Michael B. Jordan vehicle NOT directed by Ryan Coogler over the other, but I just can’t help but be in love with Creed II. I adore the Rocky franchise with all my heart and soul (even the bad ones) and this movie is so steeped in the series’ lore that it simply managed to hit all my emotional buttons in a way that I found undeniable and immensely satisfying. Not only did I love the journey of Jordan’s Adonis Creed as he builds his family with Tessa Thompson’ Bianca (ala Rocky II) but I also admired how the story wove in his relationship with Stallone’s Rocky and how their relationship was effected by the re-emergence of his father’s killer, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago.

I remember a line from a positive review for 2006’s Rocky Balboa from guest critic Aisha Tyler on an episode Ebert & Roeper where she stated that she liked that particular movie because it was about “men being men”, and I kept thinking about that line when I was watching Creed II. By all accounts Adonis doesn’t need anything more in his life. He has a loving family, a wise mentor, and is seemingly financially secure, but when Drago shows up and issues a challenge to fight his own son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Creed simply can’t let it go. He has nothing to prove to anyone else, but he wants to prove to himself he can stand against what looks to be an invincible fighter. Thankfully the picture sways against the idea that this is simply revenge for Apollo and ends up giving us this more poignant theme underneath.

And sure, this is a great boxing flick with fun training montages, but more importantly it’s a pretty tremendous movie about fathers and sons. Adonis has to deal with being a new father, as well as having to come to grips with the loss of his own father and the strife he feels due to the Drago situation and the friction it’s caused with his current father-figure, Rocky. Also, bless the film makers of Creed II for taking the most two-dimensional villain of the whole series and somehow turning Ivan Drago into a somewhat sympathetic and well-rounded character. Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu both shine in their scenes out of the ring, as the movie goes in-depth with their struggles post-Rocky IV, and turning the Dragos from some of the worst of the series’ villains to perhaps the best ones since Apollo himself. While I can understand why this picture didn’t get the same love of its predecessor, there’s still so much to appreciate here. It may not land as many punches as the first Creed, but as far as Rocky sequels go, it easily ends up somewhere near the top.

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11. Halloween

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, and Virginia Gardner

Directed by David Gordon Green

I’ve honestly had a love/hate relationship with a lot of David Gordon Green’s movies in the past (I HATED Snow Angels, but enjoyed some of his more mainstream efforts), but I couldn’t have predicted how much the director would floor me with the best Halloween film since the original’s inception in 1978. Picking up as a direct continuation of John Carpenter’s first entry that even manages to relinquish the big twist from 1981’s Halloween II, this 2018 version is a big mean monster of a horror film that manages to perhaps be the scariest (and funniest?) sequel of the whole series. Beautifully shot and acted, so much of the credit for this movie goes to the lovingly honed script from director Green and frequent collaborator Danny McBride, which respects the original film but doesn’t always feel a prisoner to it. This movie takes some big swings with plot and expectations, but also ends up as a cathartic exercise for both the Strode family and we as the audience who have had to most recently suffer through a slew of wrong-headed reboots and failed re-imaginings.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention just how powerful Jamie Lee Curtis’ presence is as the returning Laurie Strode. In this #metoo era, Curtis’ embattled, PTSD stricken Strode comes pre-packaged as an icon of female empowerment. This isn’t the straight-arrow good girl from the character’s origin, but instead a badass matriarch not putting up with any that would call her crazy or over-protective. She’s also definitely not going to be called a victim, instead ready and waiting for Michael Myers to rear his Shatner-mask and butcher knife in her general direction with guns drawn and traps set. A showdown 40 years in the making, the final battle between Strode and Myers here is packed with excitement, brutality and a big dose of uncertainty that I never expected.  

Ok, so that’s it for now. Tune in soon for Part 2 of our epic 2018 finale!

The Squadcast - Episode 01: 2018 Year in Review

The Squadcast - Episode 01: 2018 Year in Review

Genrenomicon #1: IT by Stephen King

Genrenomicon #1: IT by Stephen King