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Top Ten Films of 2018

The Ruud Top Ten

 

With the Awards Season crawling towards its culmination in the Oscar ceremony this coming Sunday, I guess it’s about time for my annual Top Ten list of the best films I saw in 2018—or, I should say, the best films made in 2018 that I’ve been able to see, since half of the best films only made it to Central Arkansas well after the first of the year, if they made it at all. Roma, for example never played here. Fortunately, it can be seen on Netflix. This is becoming a stronger and stronger trend, worsened since Riverdale has tended to go more mainstream the past couple of years, so that foreign films virtually never play here at all any more, and critically acclaimed films, especially independent ones, are lucky to be here a week on a single screen, while universally derided films take up multiple screens at every theater in the area and play forever. I don’t really know whether it’s the films’ distributors, the large cineplex corporations, the studios, or (least likely) local theaters themselves that determine this trend, but it’s certainly a disappointing one. So there are films that I never saw because they didn’t come here. There are also films that I didn’t see because I suaully go to movies with my wife and she isn’t keen on animated movies, and doesn’t care a lot for superhero films (which does speak to a serious flaw in her film taste) but as a result I chose never to see, for example, Into the Spiderverse.But what follows is my list for the year. Read ‘em and weep.

 

  1. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)

For a remake of a remake of a remake, this version of the well-worn tale of two stars—him on the way down and her on the way up—was impressive not only for Cooper’s first-time direction and Lady Gaga’s first-time acting, but for breathing new life into the old story. As I wrote in my original review, “There are two significant differences that make this version of the story more palatable for 2018: One of these is the depiction of Jackson and his addictions. There is a much more sophisticated understanding of alcoholism and drug addiction that comes through in this film, with Jackson’s demons more clearly motivated, laid out and portrayed. He is probably a more sympathetic Maine than we have seen before, because we understand him better and because his motivations are more complex…. The other major difference is Ally’s independence. As Gaga portrays the character, Ally doesn’t coddle Jackson’s bad habits…. Gaga has surprised some people with her performance in the film, which is convincing, bold, and sympathetic. But surely we should have expected this: She has always played a character as “Lady Gaga,” someone quite different from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a name she originally said she would use in the movie’s credits (but that didn’t happen). She is scarcely recognizable in the early scenes, without the usual trappings of her stage persona, though she becomes much more Gaga-like by the end. Cooper’s performance is less surprising. As a three-time Oscar nominee, he could be expected to give the kind of performance he does here—charming, self-destructive, sympathetic, enraging and engaging. Nor will it be surprising if, as in 1937 and in 1954, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born nets Oscar nominations for both its principals. Maybe one will win this time.”

 

  1. RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West)

The life of an 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court justice may not seem the stuff of which spine-tingling cinema is made, but then Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the “Notorious RBG,” is not your typical 85-year-old Supreme Court justice. A significant presence on social media and the darling of the left, Ginsberg remains the conscience of a court that has moved steadily toward the right. We are presented with her early life and her twenty years on the court. And, as I described it in my original review, “For those unfamiliar with Bader Ginsburg’s story, the film traces her highly successful career as a lawyer for the A.C.L.U. in the 1970s, when she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. All of these cases involved questions of gender equality—a concept that seemed completely foreign to the all-male court of the time. The cases involved equal pay for equal work as well as family benefits for surviving husbands that previously had only been available for wives. Full gender equality is far from having been achieved, but without Bader Ginsberg, the film makes us feel, it would barely be recognized…. The filmmakers also interview Bader Ginsberg’s children, her granddaughter (who is now herself a graduate of Harvard Law School), and her two oldest friends. Clinton is interviewed briefly, as is longtime conservative Senator Orrin Hatch, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and others…. All describe a woman who was driven from an early age, who has a brilliant legal mind, and who works tirelessly. We see Bader Ginsberg, who has twice survived bouts with cancer, working out vigorously with a trainer and telling her interviewers how determined she is to keep fighting the good fight as long as she is physically and mentally able. One leaves the theater hoping that will be for many years yet.”

 

  1. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)

I ended my original review of this film by saying that while it may not be Do the Right Thingor Malcolm X, it was Spike Lee’s best film since. Using the familiar buddy-cop format and a throwback ’70s setting, Lee explores important contemporary social and political concerns in this biting satirical drama telling the true story of how a black police officer and his Jewish sidekick infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. As I noted in my review, the plot itself follows a fairly typical Hollywood scenario. “But in addition to its frank examination (and indictment) of the media and Hollywood in particular, the film has other things to recommend it. [Adam] Driver, as a secular Jewish cop who has never given much thought to his ethnic heritage, but who is forced to confront it when faced with the vicious antisemitism of his KKK associates, has never been better. A scene in which Harry Belafonte, as the elderly Mr. Turner, describes the brutal murder of a friend in 1916 in scenes intercut with that screening of Birth of a Nation, is a masterpiece of editing. While I thought that the relationship and political differences between Ron [John David Washington] and Patrice [Laura Harrier] were underdeveloped and could have been better utilized, the film as a whole was particularly effective. In case we haven’t gotten the message, Lee’s concluding scenes return to a frame of media images, this time contemporary images of the white supremacists’ Charlottesville rally and President Trump’s defense of their actions—an indictment of an American society that, 40 years after the events of this film, has allowed those same racist attitudes to re-emerge more powerful than ever.”

 

  1. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)

I can’t say I was quite as taken with Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical neorealist paean to Mexico City in the political turmoil of the early 1970s as most of our movie critics were, and I’m not quite sure it has the inside track for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, despite its ten nominations in a year when there is no clear frontrunner among the English-speaking films in the running. But there is no denying that this is a significant film with outstanding performances by its lead actresses—Yalitza Aparicio as the maid Cleo and Marina de Tavira as her upper middle-class employer Sofia, with a timely theme of female solidarity against male neglect, and with its glorious black-and-white cinematography fixing indelible images in the viewers’ minds. As I said in my original review, “Many may find it slow moving. Many may find Cleo herself uninteresting—she says very little and is essentially stoic through most of the film, so it’s difficult to see what is happening in her head. And you may become annoyed at not knowing anything about the political situation that frames the film, especially since Cuarón does little to explain it. For these reasons the film is far more the darling of the critics than of the general movie-going populace. But as an evocation of the memory of a specific place and time, it is remarkable—and in a year when there is no great English-speaking juggernaut set to dominate the Oscars, this could be the year that a film has a shot to win both the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture Oscars.”

 

  1. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

This lavish period drama set during the reign of the last Stuart monarch of England, Queen Anne (1702-1714) is a surprisingly bitter satire involving the manipulations and conniving court intrigue of three women—the queen and her two closest ladies-in-waiting (Lady Sarah Churchill and her conniving cousin Abigail Hill) during the War of Spanish Succession—a political squabble that seems to be here only to provide a background for the more interesting squabbles in the court. As I said in my original review, “basically, it’s All About Eve but with more venom, and more lesbianism…. [T]he performances of the trio of leading women provide the truly memorable aspect of the film. Whatever else it is, The Favourite is a showcase for the remarkable talents of [Rachel] Weisz, who is chillingly cold and unflappable as Lady Churchill; of [Emma] Stone, disarmingly ‘innocent’ and maliciously calculating as Abigail; and of [Olivia] Colman, narcissistic, infantile and wallowing in self-pity as Queen Anne herself. [All three actresses have been nominated for Oscars]—Colman for lead actress and the others for supporting roles, though the distinction here is a matter of semantics, since all three roles are essentially leads. It’s definitely worth coming to see them perform.”

 

  1. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

Sure, it’s a superhero movie. But when you consider how large a percentage of films coming out of Hollywood these days are superhero movies, it just make sense that one of them, at least, might transcend the genre and be a legitimate entry in the top ten list for a lot of moviegoers. Last year’s Wonder Womancertainly fit into this category, and this year’s standout superhero flick, by a large margin, is Coogler’s Black Panther, in which Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, the king of the hidden realm of Wakanda. In this film, the superhero truly embodies the mythic aspirations of human consciousness. As I said in my original review, Black Panther “is mythic in two senses of the word: He is an exaggerated and idealized representative figure of the black people of the African continent and its diaspora, and he is a figure whose story embodies archetypal tropes, symbols, and patterns drawn from Karl Jung called the collective unconscious of the entire human race. This film appeals to viewers on their deepest level…. More importantly, Black Panthertranscends the typical genre-movie by the characterization of [its villain Erik] Killmonger. [Michael B.] Jordan’s swaggering presence nearly overshadows Boseman’s quieter, more earnest presence, and he also has legitimate grievances and understandable motivations that make him a fairly sympathetic villain—or would do so if we didn’t witness him performing a few unjustifiable acts.”

 

  1. Stan & Ollie (John S. Baird)

I’m sure there will be plenty of moviephiles eager to dispute my top four films. None of them are in the Oscar race for “Best Picture,” which is a sad comment on this year’s nominees. My number four film was pretty much ignored by the Oscars, though its two leads did get “Best Actor” nominations, one from the BAFTAs and one from the Golden Globes. This film is John S. Baird’s delightful little tribute to one of the most successful and memorable pairings in screen history—that of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In this nearly perfect little film, focused on a few weeks at the end of the great duo’s career, we get a thumbnail sketch of why they were successful, why they faded out, and what made them tick. I admit that my taste in film are colored by my literary sense, so that character, plot and theme are the things that affect me most strongly in movies, and in this film John C. Reiley’s and Steve Coogan’s deft success at bringing these two personalities to life struck me as highly memorable. As I wrote in my original review, “The performances carry this film. Both Coogan and Reilly portray the individual comic icons with a light touch, suggesting Laurel’s driven anxiety and Hardy’s relaxed ease without falling into caricature of the duo’s famous personae.…The film is ultimately a nostalgic blast for fans of Laurel and Hardy, and a loving introduction to their work for those too young to remember them.”

 

  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marcielle Heller)

This is another small film that is carried by a strong script and by the performances of its two principle actors. It’s further proof that, given noteworthy material, Melissa McCarthy is an excellent, sometimes remarkable actress. Unfortunately, she has spent a lot of her career in dreck like this year’s Life of the Party. She shines in this film, however, and her Oscar nomination for best lead actress as the literary forger Lee Israel is well deserved, though in the face of strong support for Lady Gaga and Olivia Coleman, as well as a sentimental wave for surprise Golden Globe winner Glenn Close in The Wife, McCarthy is a long shot for the award. Her co-star here, screen veteran Richard E. Grant, is nothing short of brilliant in his supporting role as homeless, barfly Jack Hock. While he will almost certainly be beaten out in the Supporting Actor category by Greenbook’s Mahershala Ali, it’s worth noting that Ali’s really was a lead role, and that Green Book really is not as good a film as awards season seems to be making it. If there were any justice in Hollywood, the statue would go to Grant but I know better than to expect that. As for this film, as I said in my original review, this little unpretentious film, the story of an unimportant character engaged in a rather petty form of crime, turns out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. McCarthy’s understated range of emotion is remarkable, and the depth of her characterization of this obnoxious, unpleasant and lonely woman may be surprising given her previous exclusive work in comedy (though you know what they say: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.). McCarthy makes it look easy here, and is able, against all odds, to make us feel sympathy for the largely unsympathetic—and unrepentant—Israel. Her last scene with Clark, in which they meet at a bar and she tells him she’s escaped her court-ordered house arrest by saying she was going to an AA meeting, is brilliantly and subtly touching, as she tells him she’s writing a book about her adventures and asks him for permission to write about him.”

 

  1. They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson)

It’s not like me to place two documentaries on my Top Ten list, and it’s even less like me to put a film this high on the list essentially for its technical achievement. But Peter Jackson and his crew have worked such a marvelous feat in restoring, re-editing, and recombining these old films from the First World War, and in weaving in the narration of the footage with recorded commentary from veterans of the Great War, that it’s not possible for me to ignore the impact of this film. True, it’s fresh on my mind since I just saw it last week, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be just as impressed when I see it again. As I said in my original review, “You have literally never seen anything like it.…. It turns out the title is not simply an allusion to the patriotic “Ode of Remembrance.” It is also a statement that has become literally true: The young men filmed in these century-old images have been restored to their youth through the magic of Jackson’s technology. This is remarkably poignant with a group of Lancashire fusiliers, grouped before moving into battle in one section of the film. Jackson tells us in the commentary following the film that this group of men was almost completely wiped out in the subsequent attack—we are seeing them in the last 30 minutes of their lives. But as the title says, they have not grown old: Jackson has succeeded, in a sense, in resurrecting them from the dead. This is a miracle that you need to see for yourself.”

 

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

The current favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar for 2018 is Green Book, which has five total nominations and a good deal of momentum. Now I will grant you that Green Book is a pretty good film and is worth seeing. But it is a bit cliché, puts forward a lesson that people should have learned 50 years ago, and deserves some of the “white savior” criticism it’s gotten. It’s just not the best picture of the year. Its biggest competition seems to be coming from Roma, which is probably a better movie but still is the kind of film that critics and filmmakers admire for its style, while audiences fidget and fall asleep. All right, I may be exaggerating a little, but neither of these films, in my opinion, deserves the most coveted prize in filmdom. My vote is going for another film, one that is not nominated for Best Picture: Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. In a year in which other films—like Green Card, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther—may touch on similar themes and may even split the vote, drawing attention away from Jenkins’ fine film, the Academy saw fit to leave this one off their “Best Picture” nominee list. It’s received three nominations—for best adapted screenplay, best musical score, and best supporting actress for Regina King. It looks like King may win this award, especially if Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone cancel each other out for The Favourite, and fans of Beale Street will have to be content with that. But this film deserves more. As I said in my original review, “It tells the story of a young black couple [KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny] in early 1970s New York, struggling to find a place for themselves in a world that seems hostile to their love, in a country designed to keep them from succeeding….The effect of the film is achieved not so much through the gentle, subdued action and soothing music in the scenes between Tish and Fonny, but particularly through the more dynamic energy of the supporting characters…Most memorable of all is probably [Tish’s mother] Sharon [King], who works tirelessly to obtain Fonny’s release [from an unsubstantiated  rape charge], even flying to Puerto Rico, where the prosecution has spirited away the rape victim Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) to keep their case from being blown. The meeting between Sharon and Victoria is devastating and crushing, the fragile Victoria’s psyche as crushed by the legal system as Tish’s promises to be, and Sharon’s disappointment as raw as Fonny’s with the stark denial of justice. This film is likely to leave a lasting effect on you, and it’s certain that the issues it raises are still with us, 45 years after the novel’s original publication.”

Honorable Mention: The Wife, A Simple Favor, Incredibles 2, First Reformed, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

NOW AVAILABLE!!!

Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, IS NOW available from the publisher AS OF OCTOBER 15. You can order your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922

LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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