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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 12:11 am

Movies 2018: Indies thrive, studios stumble

Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete.


The thought has crossed my mind that perhaps my indifference to so many movies this year may be due to the fact that I’ve simply seen too many films. Could the burnout I’ve been warned about by others have finally set in?

To a small extent, I think that’s true. Studios seemed to adhere to proven formulas more so now than at any time before, producing tentpole movies set out to meet audience expectations but eschewing risk-taking narratives. One look at the films vying for awards at year end is all the proof you need. When A Star is Born – the fourth version of the same old story – is considered the frontrunner for the Oscars, you can see what a safe year it’s been. Other sure nominees for the Academy Awards – The Favourite, First Man, Green Book, Mary Poppins Returns, Vice – will never have to worry about having the word “groundbreaking” used to describe them.

This was the year in which independent fare challenged audiences and took on issues that Hollywood was afraid to touch. Lean on Pete and The Rider took an unflinching look at American poverty. American Animals, Assassination Nation, Skate Kitchen, Mid90s and Thoroughbreds examined the dangers of disenfranchised youth, while the scourge of drug abuse was front and center in Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back.

Speaking of working outside the traditional Hollywood studio system, Netflix took steps this year to declare itself a major player in feature films. In an effort to gain credibility in the movie game, they’ve taken to releasing certain productions in theaters before making them available on the streaming service in order to qualify for the Oscars. They just may take home the Academy Award for Best Picture with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a moving, gorgeous movie the company has been promoting aggressively. If they take home the big award on Feb. 24, this may prove to be a game changer that will attract other big-name filmmakers. (Martin Scorsese has already signed on to have Netflix produce and release his next production.)

It was a year of highs for documentaries and lows for animated films. RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers, Free Solo, Science Fair and Fahrenheit 9/11 were all exceptional movies that broke through and played at multiplexes rather than simply art houses. As for the long-form cartoons, standard fare was the order of the day as Ralph Breaks the Internet, Incredibles 2, Hotel Transylvania 3 and The Grinch failed to break any new ground or, for the most part, inspire. Only Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse proved to be a bright spot.

There were films I liked that you didn’t (Assassination Nation, Beirut, The House with a Clock in its Walls, Overboard, Papillon, Robin Hood, The Sisters Brothers, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Tomb Raider, Unfriended: Dark Web, Unsane), movies you liked that I didn’t (Bohemian Rhapsody, Book Club, Crazy Rich Asians, Creed II, Deadpool 2, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Grinch, Halloween, Hereditary, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Skyscraper), and those no one liked (Early Man, The Front Runner, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, The Happytime Murders, Hunter Killer, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Mile 22, Mortal Engines, Peppermint, The Predator, Red Sparrow).

Compiling this year’s Top 10 list was a rather simple task as there were very few, in my mind, that would make the cut. All in all, what with those tied in the 11th spot, there are only 18 movies I felt were head and shoulders above the others. Films that would make the grade were the ones that moved me in one way or another. Each of the movies listed below did just that to one degree or another, reminding me once more of the medium’s ability to transcend its limitations and touch those viewers open enough to receive its bounty.

First Reformed – Paul Schrader’s astounding meditation on faith in the modern world is propelled by a career-best performance by Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, a minister who’s uncertain as to his duty to his church and his place in the world. Where his path takes him is unexpected but not surprising when seen through the lens of the many conflicting social and political messages that are being pushed today. Toller’s struggle is our struggle, as he searches for meaning in a world that seems devoid of it. This is far and away the most thought-provoking, disturbing and profound film of the year.

Lean on Pete
– Writer/director Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of the novel by Wily Vlautin came out of left field and surprised many with its heartbreaking look at one teenage boy’s struggle with poverty and homelessness. Circumstances leave Charley (Charlie Plummer) at loose ends and he winds up working for a cynical horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) and falling for an old nag named Lean on Pete. The boy steals him in a misguided effort to save him and embarks on an odyssey that will change them both. This look at the many who live life on the margins is unflinching in looking at the waste and neglect that ensues in a society driven by an unfair economic engine. Poignant, but, in the end, hopeful.

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting.


Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Based on the memoir by author and confessed forger Lee Israel, this intriguing tale deals with the writer’s efforts to survive by selling forged celebrity letters and the scandal that ensues. Melissa McCarthy gives a career-best performance as the desperate Israel, who comes to blur the notion of authorship in her mind the more she assumes others’ voices. She’s matched by British actor Richard E. Grant as a bottom-dweller who willingly goes along with the scheme, selling his friend’s counterfeit wares.

– Whereas much praise was heaped on Spike Lee’s fine but overrated BlacKkKlansman as well as the dark comedy Sorry to Bother You, this debut film from director Carlos Lopez Estrada and first-time screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs shined a no-holds barred light on modern racism in a way those other films didn’t. The writers star as lifelong friends who are struggling to cope with their changing neighborhood as well as finding where they belong in a society that views them as expendable or a menace. Heartfelt and sincere, this film powerfully examined issues of race and the challenges facing young men of color in ways other 2018 movies failed to do.

Roma – Alfonso Cuaron’s gorgeous tribute to the women who guided him through his childhood – the family servant Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and his mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) – is a heartfelt movie that not only recognizes these women as strong individuals who survived in a world of impersonal men, but also a longing look back at a less complicated time. Shot in black and white, this beautiful production applies to all families and people who remember a key period in their lives not so much as it was but as they hoped it would be.

American Animals
– The most criminally underseen film of the year, Bart Layton’s examination of a heist gone wrong by four college students is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale made all the odder by the director’s approach. What begins as a standard fact-based movie combines documentary elements as the men who hatched the scheme show up to give their conflicting memories of what went wrong as their fictional counterparts recreate that deed. It’s a daring, invigorating approach that brilliantly shows how getting to the truth of the matter is nearly impossible what with conflicting memories and confusion that arises between facts and media reports.

Paddington 2.

Wildlife – Paul Dano’s impressive directorial debut is an adaptation of the Richard Ford novel of the same name. Set in the west during the early 1960s, teenager Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) helplessly watches as his parents’ marriage falls apart due to economic hardship but also a nagging feeling of restlessness in both his mother and father. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as Jeanette and Jerry, each at loose ends and willing to take desperate measures to save their respective senses of self in a marriage that was never meant to last. Oxenbould is just as good as the quiet observer who learns a great deal about himself as he witnesses the two people he loves most come apart at the seams.

Paddington 2
– This follow-up to the wonderful 2014 adaptation of the English children’s book follows the titular bear on a misadventure in which he winds up in jail after trusting the wrong person in his pursuit of a rare book for his aunt. Imaginative visual gags abound as do gently rendered jokes. But the thing that makes the film stand out is its overall pleasant and refreshing nature and message. In an age in which ignorance and cruelty from the highest levels dictate how we live, Paddington’s approach to life by following the Golden Rule was a welcome balm for our modern troubles.

Mission Impossible: Fallout
– The second sequel on the list is the sixth entry in the Tom Cruise franchise, one that inexplicably continues to get better with each chapter. Whether Ethan Hunt is riding a motorcycle at high speeds against the traffic in Paris, dangling from a helicopter in the mountains of southeast Asia or destroying a hotel bathroom in hand-to-hand combat, the stunts continue to push the limit and thrill in a way CGI-produced mayhem can’t. However, one of the things that makes this sequel stand out is the clever way writer/director Christopher McQuarrie connected this adventure to previous films in the series, providing a narrative through-line that makes this feel less like a follow-up and more of an extended character study of its main character.

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Fallout.


Ben is Back – Peter Hedges’ lacerating look at the scourge of drug abuse does a far better job than the similarly themed Beautiful Boy as it provides a much rawer look at the far-reaching effects one teen’s addiction has on his family. Hedges’ script is masterfully constructed as he slowly doles out just how Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) got hooked on opioids and the damaging effect it had on all those unfortunate to be in his orbit. Julia Roberts gives her best performance to date as the boy’s mother who desperately tries to save her son over the course of a critical 24-hour period. Frightening and unforgettable. This film opens in Springfield Jan. 11.

Tied for 11th place – The Coen Brothers’ homage/parody of the Western genre The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Cory Finley’s cutting look at pampered youth Thoroughbreds – Debra Granik’s look at the effects of PTSD and modern poverty Leave No Trace – Bo Burnam’s poignant look at the awkward teen years 8th Grade – Joel Edgerton’s sobering examination of one young man’s trials in a gar conversion camp Boy Erased – Sam Levinson’s incendiary look at modern prejudice Assassination Nation – Luga Guadagnino’s ambitous and disturbing remake Suspiria – Barry Jenkins’ heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.


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