Unlikely heroes ruled the movies in 2018

How underdogs dominated theater screens

Movie critic Peter Canavese and Tim Sika, host of the radio show "Celluloid Dreams," sat down with us to discuss the year's best films on an episode of "Behind the Headlines." Listen to the conversation on YouTube or our new podcast.


At the end of every year after the last films hit the big screen, most movie critics, including me, get asked, "So what did you think of this year?"

My response for 2018? The past 12 months weren't much different than last year or the year before that. The cinematic landscape was dominated by franchise pictures, familiar intellectual property, reboots and sequels, from superheroes "Aquaman," "Avengers ...," and "Ant-Man ..." (and that's just the "A"s) to (Han) "Solo," "Paddington 2," and "Mary Poppins Returns." But in the aftermath of the Oval Office going haywire and #MeToo reckonings, this year's movies not only became a treasured escape valve but also a place to reflect and hearten the evolutionary dawn of a hopeful new Hollywood culture.

So even as the old dead white guys made out well (with "It's All True" reviving Shakespeare and "At Eternity's Gate" returning to Van Gogh), so too did the young black folks. "Black Panther" revolutionized African-American representation by taking a seat (nay, a throne) at the blockbuster table, while "Sorry to Bother You" and "Blindspotting" told potent, black-comic tales that literally hit close to home for Bay Area audiences (both take place in Oakland). Kudos, too, to "The Hate U Give" and "BlackkKlansman" for continuing the conversation on modern civil rights.

Women also began to find themselves more often in leading roles with men as decorative support β€” "The Favourite," "Roma," and "Widows," as well as the underseen "Support the Girls" β€” while LGBTQ audiences could see themselves in films like "Love, Simon," "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," "Boy Erased," and "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," among others.

Like any year, there were only a few masterpieces but many excellent films and off-the-beaten-path treasures. Three of those dealt with another trending topic: how an increasingly challenging economy pushes Americans to the widening margins of society. "Lean on Pete" and "The Rider" gave the subject a Western-tinged spin, while "Leave No Trace" put the spotlight on a PTSD father trying to keep his daughter off the grid with him, and the sprawling "A Bread Factory" looked at shrinking funding leaving artists and educators in the lurch. No one could fail to notice "Mission Impossible: Fallout" (a terrific, old-school actioner), but how many sought out the fringe-y genre pleasures of "Annhilation" (sci-fi), "Hereditary" (horror), and the gonzo Nicolas Cage two-fer of "Mandy" and "Mom and Dad" (grindhouse)?

No matter which genres piqued your interest, this year's selection of documentaries, animated wonders, thrilling adventures, chilling tales, searing dramas and punchy comedies made the movies a consistently interesting place to be in 2018.

So get out your pencils and pads (or iPhones) and take some notes as you read about which films were this year's gems and which ones viewers should steer clear of.

And away we go...


10. 'Vice'

Adam McKay's bold take on former Vice President Dick Cheney suggests a meeting of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore. The film's success is inseparable from the masterwork of its lead performance by Christian Bale, aided by hair and makeup to play Cheney from age 22 to age 71. Filmmaker and star acknowledge Cheney's humanity while exposing the depths of his ruthlessness in doing an end run around the Constitution as the shadow President alongside Sam Rockwell's amusingly uncomplicated George W. Bush. Steve Carell is even better as a merrily amoral Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld. At a time when Washington, D.C.'s, rules seem to be looked at from the rearview mirror, "Vice" hits hard.

9. 'Eighth Grade'

In his feature-film debut, comedian Bo Burnham delves into an underrepresented population -- that of junior-high-schoolers -- and finds a lost generation threatened by hormonal turmoil and unnaturally unmoored by modern technology. It's a well-recognized irony that kids break away from confiding in their parents at the moment they need the most emotional support, and Burnham dramatizes that anxious moment with humor and heart. But "Eighth Grade" goes further by diagnosing how social media rewires social lives, and further taps the zeitgeist by honestly depicting an all-too-typical #metoo scenario. Best of all, a star is born in teen lead Elsie Fisher, whose lovably sad but spirited performance finds its complement in Josh Hamilton's take on the loving but dorky dad.

8. 'Private Life'

Welcome back, Tamara Jenkins ... it's been too long. The writer-director of 2007's "The Savages" finally returns with this heart-tugging comedy about a 40-something couple attempting to conceive a child. On the one hand, "Private Life" convincingly explores all aspects of the fertility gauntlet known to so many, but it doesn't take long to realize that Jenkins has crafted something even more impressive: one of the best-ever comedies about a marriage and the shape and meaning of parenthood. Jenkins beautifully fleshes out the characters of the wife and husband, their humanity heartbreakingly and hilariously amplified by a well-matched Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti.

7. 'The Death of Stalin'

From master of wicked political satire Armando Iannucci comes this unfortunately timely historical comedy. Set amidst the titular crisis in 1953 Soviet Russia, "Stalin" hilariously recounts the absurdity of tyrannical government and back-stabbing power politics. A crack comic ensemble, led by Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (and ranging from Monty Python's Michael Palin to stage star Simon Russell Beale), enacts this hysterical, high-stakes farce, wittily adapted from a well-researched French graphic novel. Just like a certain American presidency we could name -- with revolving-door cabinets and mercurial terrors -- the story around the death of Stalin is one you just couldn't make up.

6. 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

Marielle Heller's compellingly sweet-and-sour, based-on-a-true-story "Can You Forgive Me?" introduces us to a one-of-a-kind character that's nevertheless sympathetic and relatable. Stepping up her game with a seriocomic performance, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a struggling author who turns to white-collar crime to maintain her humble lifestyle. In skillfully adapting Israel's memoir, screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty dramatize the madness and righteous indignance that comes of dashed ego. Richard E. Grant plays off McCarthy well as her unlikely buddy and partner in crime, but it's the comic star who rewrites our expectations with a gut-punching turn.

5. 'First Reformed'

Having experienced so many himself, writer-director Paul Schrader specializes in long, dark nights of the soul. The man who dreamed up Travis Bickle now brings us Reverend Ernst Toller of the First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, New York, an earnest pastor swimming against tides of the megachurch commodification of faith and, more troublingly, impending doom for our planet. As Toller, former child star Ethan Hawke suggests a kind of disillusioned Boy Scout, ever trying to do a good turn in a bad world. With its constant tests of faith, "First Reformed" is a vital new testament that carries an Old Testament weight of signs and portents and judgments.

4. 'Roma'

Alfonso Cuaron was not kidding around when he set off to make "Roma." He writes, directs, produces, photographs and coedits this nostalgic look back at his childhood years in the titular Mexican neighborhood. Unlike so many semi-autobiographical coming-of-age pictures, "Roma" finds Cuaron neglecting his own character. Instead, Cuaron finds fascination in the story of Cleo, the family's maid and nanny (effectively played by Yalitza Aparicio, here christened as an actor), following her into her personal life, dashed yearnings and enduring spirit. The ultimate strong, silent type, Cleo anchors a swoony, sad, funny tale shot by Cuaron in gorgeous black-and-white that evokes classic neorealism.

3. 'At Eternity's Gate'

Julian Schnabel co-writes and directs this exploration of Vincent Van Gogh's later years, with an emotionally resonant Willem Dafoe as the painter. Himself a painter, Schnabel takes an expert's interest in Van Gogh's sputtering career and astonishing work (evoked here in beautiful location photography of landscapes that help us see what Van Gogh saw), but "At Eternity's Gate" turns out to be more than just another in a long line of Van Gogh dramas. Rather, we get a vivid portrait of the artistic temperament and a philosophically intriguing consideration of genius, madness, and how observers of both rush to ill-informed judgments.

2. 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

"Exquisite" is the word for Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his Oscar-winning "Moonlight." The poet of current cinema, Jenkins applies a lush aesthetic to his source material, James Baldwin's 1974 novel of a black family struggling against institutional and social injustice and, more specifically a young couple's emblematic struggle to even begin to pursue happiness. While the film's themes remain at the forefront of our national conversation, Jenkins maintains a romantic, spiritual tone that keeps the film from ever feeling didactic. Top notch performances all around, one of the year's most beautiful scores and gorgeous production design and cinematography add up to everything we want from a film drama.

And the best film of 2018 goes to:

1. 'The Other Side of the Wind'

A long-coveted Holy Grail for cineastes, Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind" finally dropped in 2018, 33 years after its maker's death. "Wind" in many ways serves as a sort of semi-autobiographical bookend to "Citizen Kane" in ruthlessly dissecting a deeply flawed but high-powered master of his domain -- in this case, Hollywood. John Huston plays film director Jake Hannaford, a Hemingway-esque macho man whose bravado barely conceals secrets and insecurities. Welles obviously intended his unfinished film to be an intellectual and emotional whirlwind; Welles edited about 40 minutes before his death, and Oscar-winner Bob Murawski creditably finished the job, granting us a gift from the movie gods.


"The Favourite," "Shoplifters," "Lean on Pete," "We the Animals," "First Man," "Support the Girls," "Black Panther," "Burning," "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," "Mission: Impossible -- Fallout," "The Rider," "Paddington 2."


5. 'Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story'

How do you make a 77-minute documentary seem endless? How do you take a worthy subject -- the need for elephant conservation -- and make it annoying? You be Ashley Bell, a documentary filmmaker who also happens to be an actress and therefore cannot resist (perhaps for commercial considerations as much as ego-driven ones) putting herself front and center. Cut half an hour and send this to Animal Planet.

4. 'Fifty Shades Freed'

While the "Fifty Shades" franchise can be trashily fun, we must never forget that it is trash. This almost indescribably stupid stew of soap opera, soft-core teases of sex and violence, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" fantasy, and romance-novel breathlessness may be perfect for a post-bar-hopping girls' night out, but don't watch it sober.

3. 'Mile 22'

All firepower and no charm makes "Mile 22" a dull actioner. Mark Wahlberg plays the least likeable action lead of his career in this botched attempt at a franchise launch about a supposedly elite CIA squad. As directed by Peter Berg, the film proves just as queasy in its action, like playing a first-person-shooter game after downing a fifth of Scotch.

2. 'The Happytime Murders'

As a die-hard Muppets fan, I take no pleasure in trashing this Jim Henson Company venture directed by Brian Henson ("The Muppet Christmas Carol"). Predicated on ye olde idea that there's nothing funnier than cussing Muppets (see "Avenue Q" and "Meet the Feebles"), this one wastes Melissa McCarthy and fabulous Muppeteers on a dingy, uninspired misfire.

And the worst film of 2018 goes to:

1. 'Skyscraper'

"Skyscraper" rehashes "Die Hard" (yeesh, again?) while swapping in the Rock for Bruce Willis and the impossible for the improbable. Dumb and dull, "Skyscraper" can't even muster so-bad-it's-good entertainment value. Its sole saving grace? A winning supporting performance by Neve Campbell that shows us who the real star should have been.


5. Paddington Bear (Ben Whishaw) in "Paddington 2"

4. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) in "Eighth Grade"

3. Mr. Rogers in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

2. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in "Black Panther"

1. Ruth Bader Ginsberg in "RBG" (as herself) and "On the Basis of Sex" (Felicity Jones)

(Honorable mention: Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse")

The best villains

5. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) in "Mandy"

4. Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) in "Crazy Rich Asians"

3. Ben (Steven Yuen) in "Burning"

2. "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan) in "Black Panther"

1. Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in "Vice"

(Honorable mention: Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in "Operation Finale")


5. "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes"

4. "Dark Money"

3. "Nossa Chape"

2. "Monrovia, Indiana"

1. "Minding the Gap"


5. "Isle of Dogs"

4. "Incredibles 2"

3. "Ralph Breaks the Internet"

2. "Mirai"

1. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Peter Canavese is a freelance movie critic for the Palo Alto Weekly and author of the website GrouchoReviews.com. You can reach him at pcanavese@bcp.org.

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Like this comment
Posted by buff
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Jan 4, 2019 at 12:08 pm

Notorius RBG, Fred Rogers, Black Panther, and a biopic on the war criminal Dick C.

A year with lasting repercussions, when many will be forgotten.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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