It is remarkable how often movies, which can take years to make, seem to arrive at exactly the right time. This year, I was especially moved by films from black and female directors. As usual, my top ten list has a number one, and then everyone else tied for second place.
THE SECOND PLACE NINE
Superheroes are fine, but it is the supervillains who make all the difference in comic book movies, and Erik Killmonger is the best supervillain ever, making Thanos, who knocked off half of the Avengers, look dull by comparison. Of course he was played by one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood, Michael B. Jordan, who enters his first scene with such confidence, such sheer joy in his sense of who he is and where he is going, that we cannot look away. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler gave him a backstory so compelling it inspired a #killmongerwasright hashtag. And he wasn’t wrong about what was wrong; he was only wrong about what to do about it.
There was a nice parallel to that dichotomy in the scene Coogler says was his favorite, between Nakia, who is loyal to the royal family, and Okoye, who is loyal to the rules. Two of the film’s strong, brave, brilliant female characters have a loving, understanding disagreement about what to do when a tyrant takes the throne. Every element of this movie was thoughtful, nuanced, illuminating, and meaningful, words we don’t often use about comic book movies. But thanks to this one, we know we should expect that from now on.
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal had me holding my breath several times as I watched this funny, sad, scary, brave, wise, film about a man in the last days of his parole, trying desperately to stay out of trouble in a world that keeps throwing trouble in his way. It’s tough to make a movie about ideas that does justice to its characters, and it's just about impossible to do that and throw in discussions about art, gentrification, race, and parenting. Now imagine that it’s also going to have a confrontation that includes a rap monologue. That is a very high bar, and this movie clears it easily.
The title of this film is just the first lie that call center employees tell the prospects they are trying to sell. But even before he gets to that fake apology, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is lying about who he is. On the advice of his cubicle neighbor, he is using a “white voice” (provided by David Cross) to ingratiate himself with potential customers. And it works so spectacularly well that he is soon getting promoted. His activist/artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) does not approve. Writer/director Boots Riley spent time as a telemarketer, and he knows how to entice his audience to stay with him, even to “buy” something we were sure we could resist. The “white voice” switch-up is just the easy provocation that leads us to a place we never thought we would find ourselves, engaging with fundamental ideas about capitalism at the wildest party in any movie this year.
"A Star is Born"
Depending on how you count it, this is either the fourth or fifth re-telling of the real-life inspired story of the broken down star who helps, then loves, then almost destroys a talented newcomer. And yet writer/director/lead actor Bradley Cooper found a way to make it new again, with life imitating art as a movie star is born with Lady Gaga in her first dramatic role. She is compelling and utterly believable as a pop star, of course. But what we have only glimpsed before in the performer known for her brash videos and outlandish costumes (that meat dress!) is her ability to be completely natural and vulnerable. I love the way that, like in a classic Broadway musical, every song in this movie carries the story forward and tells us something about the characters.
"Mary Poppins Returns"
We took it for granted that this movie would have visual Disney magic. No one assembles a more gifted collection of production designers, costume designers, and visual effects designers than Disney, and no studio has a better, more organic sense of its own history and culture. So when Disney decided to revisit the 54-year-old classic based on P.L. Travers’s novels, after having already mined its own history with a movie about the making of that movie, it was fair to expect that it would look and feel as though we had never left.
The magic touch is there, with gentle references to the earlier film, including an animated adventure that looks like the old-fashioned hand-drawn, cel-based animation that was Disney’s specialty, and an enchanting appearance from Dick Van Dyke, who played two characters in the original. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, and “Hamilton'"s Lin-Manuel Miranda as her lamp-lighting friend, are practically perfect in every way. And, as “Saving Mr. Banks” taught us, the real magic is not just about fantasy adventures but about healing the family. The songs, the special effects, and the imagination are a lot of fun but what makes this movie top ten-worthy is the heart.
Maybe sometime in the future it will be possible to have a movie where a white person teaches a black person something important without being a white savior, or a black person teaches a white person something important without being a "Magical Negro," but it does not seem likely now. So this movie based on the real-life 1962 story of a sophisticated black musician touring the Deep South with a crude, provincial New York Italian white guy seemed like an inevitable cringefest (and, to be fair, some people do see it that way and they could be right). But for me the race/class/education/sensibility/sexuality divides are handled with nuance, sensitivity, and humor, and of course infinitely helped by Don Shirley’s music. There’s a reason the road story has been humanity’s most enduring narrative, going back to The Odyssey. Away from home, we have adventures. We find ourselves, and, if we’re lucky, we find each other.
There could not be a better match of director and story than Spike Lee and the real-life experiences of the first black cop in Colorado Springs, who went undercover over the phone to infiltrate the KKK and then, when it came time to attend meetings, sent a white colleague to impersonate him impersonating a racist white man. This film is so smart it crackles with the energy of its ideas. It is exciting, it is funny, and it evokes the style of the era perfectly with its clothes and filmmaking. "BlacKkKlansman" has a sensational brief appearance by Corey Hawkins, every bit as thrilling a speaker as the man he is portraying, Kwame Ture, and it has a tremendous breakthrough performance by John David Washington in the lead role.
I am so glad that Regina Hall is finally getting some of the attention she has long deserved for her performance in “The Hate U Give” and in this film, a day in the life of the manager of a Hooters-style “boobs, beer, and big screens” restaurant. Dealing with constant problems ranging from trouble to catastrophe—from the hapless would-be burglar stuck in the heating vent to the waitress who goes back to her abusive boyfriend to the boss who insists that no more than one black waitress can be on each shift—she shows us the thousands of calculations she makes every day. This is a sympathetic, deeply human look at low-paid service industry people with no other options. Hall’s performance is deeply lived and vibrantly alive.
When author Anne Lamott was pregnant, one thing she could not stop worrying about was the "agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades." There’s a reason that even decades later, people still have nightmares about middle school. And in “Eighth Grade,” writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher evoke the terrible defenselessness of that stage of life so powerfully I kept having the sensation I was standing in the front of the school cafeteria, tray in hand, hoping anyone would ask me to sit at some table somewhere. This astonishing first film is so meticulously observed, and Fisher’s performance is so open-hearted, that it is easy to overlook just how smart it is, how carefully written, how well structured, how cinematic. Watch it twice, and you will see that Burnham is inviting you to sit at his table.
THE BEST FILM OF 2018:
I was enthralled and completely captivated by Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about a devoted young couple caught up in an unjust justice system but still somehow able to hold on to their unbreakable connection. Jenkins honored Baldwin and his characters by bringing the full range of cinematic art to their story, impossibly beautiful actors with sizzling chemistry, performances of extraordinary sensitivity and precision, lush, beautiful cinematography and score, all of which gave the characters the dignity and understanding often denied people on the margins.
Honorable mention: "Capernaum," "The Favourite," "The Hate U Give," "Hearts Beat Loud," "Incredibles 2," "Leave No Trace," "Paddington 2," "Ralph Breaks the Internet," "Roma," "Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse," "Vice," and "What They Had"