Fact-based 'Vice,' 'BlacKkKlansman,' 'First Man' land spots on top 10 movies of 2018
Fact-based movies dominate my annual list of top 10 English-language, narrative films of the year.
We begin with a movie that Monty Python might describe as "something completely different."
"Vice" -- Teeming with fishing lure metaphors and Shakespearean tragedy trimmings, Adam McKay's bold and bonkers biopic of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney features another transformative performance by erstwhile Batman Christian Bale, aged and inflated to eerily suggest the mercurial White House Geppetto who pulled the strings on his favorite marionette, President George W. Bush (a hilariously subtle Sam Rockwell).
Following his 2015 fact-based financial collapse comedy "The Big Short," McKay creates a smart, strange and engaging hybrid of journalism and comic drama during which every scene crackles with experimental energy on a quest not just to entertain, but actually understand.
"BlacKkKlansman" -- Spike Lee's latest -- another fact-based political comedy -- marks his most powerful cinematic work since his seminal 1989 racial hornet's nest "Do the Right Thing." Lee's new, anger-fueled tale traces how a black cop (a curiously edgeless John David Washington) joins the KKK during the early '70s and enlists a white cop (Adam Driver) to pretend to be him when meeting with the sheeted ones. The movie may be set decades ago, but Lee makes it clear his story is all about now.
"Eighth Grade" -- Bo Burnham nails the trials, tribulations and sheer horrors of adolescence in a biting, highly empathetic look at the life of 13-year-old Kayla (a sublimely vulnerable Elsie Fisher) as she endures her final days of middle school and wraps up a year of social disasters. Burnham captures a specific snapshot of a generation that has grown up with the internet and smartphones, yet authentically preserves the universal themes of acceptance, social anxiety and encroaching teen sexuality.
"A Star is Born" -- The third remake's a charm. Bradley Cooper's fiercely confident directing debut made a movie star out of singer Lady Gaga and gave him the meatiest role of his acting career. The classic story of love-crossed stars (filmed in 1937, 1954 and 1976) resonates with relevance and R-rated romance as Cooper's singer Jackson Maine runs into Lady Gaga's shyly reluctant performer at a drag bar, and they go on to create a galvanizing drama grounded in raw honesty.
"Black Panther" -- Ryan Coogler directs this thrilling, hyperkinetic, (mostly) black superhero action film with such flair and drive that you wonder why it took so long to get it produced. (Wesley Snipes wanted to make this movie way back 1992.)
This imaginative blend of science-fiction, mythical fantasy and super hero conceits creates an African-based experience unlike any other Marvel enterprise, with Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan leading a cast dedicated to making the film's wildest reality bends in the futuristic African nation of Wakanda seem plausible.
"Isle of Dogs" -- Wes Anderson's wry, sly, stunningly stylized political parable taps the iconic works of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa as a primary inspiration to bring this magical cast of handmade puppets to life -- without the fingerprints seen on stop-motion Aardman characters.
A 12-year-old Japanese boy's journey to rescue his canine best friend (and maybe save all dogs in Japan) drives this imaginative, distinctively non-Pixar work that fulfills the promise of Anderson's auspicious 2009 stop-motion animated comedy "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Bryan Cranston and Bill Murray lead a star-heavy cast.
"First Man" -- The sounds of silence make lots of noise in Damien Chazelle's personal, yet epic, historical drama "First Man," a tightly coiled study of the first human to set foot on the lunar surface of Earth's largest satellite. Ryan Gosling's underplayed performance as stoic astronaut Neil Armstrong (could there be a more American movie hero name?) allows the tiniest cracks in his placid veneer to flood the screen with choked emotions. A pleasantly surprising change of pace for Chazelle, whose "La La Land" almost won the 2016 Best Picture Oscar.
"Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse" -- A cracked-out, crazy combination of Marvel Comics and Japanese anime mixed with the nuttiness of "The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonsai Across the 8th Dimension," only in his case, a kajillion dimensions, each with its own unique variation of Peter Parker's web-slinging super hero. I'm not even going to try to explain the plot, a comic book blowout exploding with overlapping plots and nonstop action that we can actually follow without the characters constantly explaining things. Teenager Miles Morales, son of an African-American cop and a Puerto Rican nurse, obtains Spider-Man powers. Things go psychedelically kaleidoscopic from there.
"Green Book"-- If one movie has "best chances to win the Best Picture Oscar" written all over it, make it Peter Farrelly's lump-in-your-throat, holiday feel-good, fact-based race drama "Green Book." Acutely tuned performances dominate this personal journey of Viggo Mortensen's racist Italian-American, who slowly befriends a sophisticated, highly educated black musician (Mahershala Ali) while hired to drive him on tour in a pre-integration South during 1962. It's kinda like "Driving Mr. Daisy" meets a racial mixed Odd Couple.
"The Favourite" -- In his overtly Kubrickian, blackly comic, fact-based historical drama, audacious Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos distorts wide-angle shots, hammers home belabored bunny metaphors and even makes the credits crawl difficult to read. Yet, it works splendidly for this wily tale about England's gout-stricken Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) whose working and intimate relationship with Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) becomes jeopardized by the arrival of her destitute, but politically astute cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Broken into chapters with titles such as "I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye," this political potboiler demonstrates that sex can still be the best weapon.