2018 In [Re]View...

After a little bit of a break in December, it's cram-time, as I try to fit as many 2018-ish movies as possible into January, so that I can make a semi-credible evaluation of my favorites of the last year.

Complicating lists like this are the wonky release dates for festival and foreign films. Last February, the Hungarian drama On Body and Soul, one of five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign film at the time, slotted in as my second favorite movie of 2017, but technically, it's a 2018 release in the U.S., so I've placed it on this year's list as well. I'm trying to use Oscar criteria (see this Letterboxd list) and/or Box Office Mojo release dates to determine what counts as a 2018 movie. But I'm not cross-referencing everything diligently, because I'd rather be watching movies.

It's almost exactly halfway through January 2019 as I write this, and I've already watched 25 additional 2018 movies so far this month, getting my total for the year up to 101*, making this one of my best-covered years yet.

I'll continue adding to this list every eligible movie that I'm able to watch during January 2019. It's ordered from favorite to least-liked. I'll fill in with images and past reviews, as time allows.

(Reviews are also posted in my Letterboxd Diary.)

* List updated to 124 and now as complete as it will ever be.

On Body and Soul (2017)

On Body and Soul (2017)

Dir.: Ildikó Enyedi
Ranked: #321 (92.60%)

Despite its cool, quiet, "slow" contemporary European art film style, Ildikó Enyedi's drama becomes quickly and emotionally personal thanks to two perfectly intimate performances by Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély.

On Body and Soul was reviewed in Screenflowers of 2017.

The Favourite (2018)

The Favourite (2018)

Dir.: Yorgos Lanthimos
Ranked: #362 (91.65%)

I love how Yorgos Lanthimos seems to be beholden to nothing other than his peculiar dark sensibility. Surprising, chilling, hilarious, engrossing, haunting, and, best of all, distinctive.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Dir.: Barry Jenkins
Ranked: #402 (90.73%)

Rarely has any movie so quickly and smoothly consumed me into its world. Within seconds of the opening scene between KiKi Layne and Stephan James, If Beale Street Could Talk became one of my favorite movies of the year; it's a masterpiece of tone from director Barry Jenkins, composer Nicholas Britell and cinematographer James Laxton. The narrative, adapted by Jenkins from the novel by James Baldwin, is somewhat ordinary, and I have qualms with its implications, but there's real spark to the dialog, an indelible sense of place, an infectious mood, and I can't think of any other movie couple from 2018 or the few years prior who I would rather have break my heart.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Dir.: Lynne Ramsay
Ranked: #572 (86.81%)

The most worthy heir to Taxi Driver since Paul Schrader's Hardcore. Features my favorite use of music in a single scene of any movie of the year.

Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters (2018)

Dir.: Hirokazu Koreeda
Ranked: #656 (84.87%)

I've been fairly blase about 2018 as a film year, and the fact that this solid movie about which I have no strong feelings charted as my 3rd favorite of the year only bolsters that assessment. In this story about a makeshift "family" of loose ends, Hirokazu Koreeda uses his typically gentle style to hit all the expected emotional notes. There are some fine moments of deep feeling, and there's no arguing the high level of craftsmanship, but it's all very conventional and left me generally unexcited. If Shoplifters remains in my Top 10 for the year, it's been a weak year,

Damsel (2018)

Damsel (2018)

Dir.: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Ranked: #700 (83.85%)

Charming, witty and provocative with enjoyable performances, it's a surprise that Damsel didn't make a bigger imprint on the arthouse circuit during 2018. Like the also ignored The Sisters Brothers, Damsel addresses issues of masculinity within the context of the western film, but writing-directing team David and Nathan Zellner do it with a uniquely pleasing sense of quirky and trenchant humor. Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska turn in customarily terrific and thoroughly engaging performances, and David Zellner is every bit their equal.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Dir.: Boots Riley
Ranked: #747 (82.77%)

A unique new comic voice full of bold ideas. A lot of fun to watch, depending on your definition of "fun."

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Dir.: Joel & Ethan Coen
Ranked: #776 (82.10%)

Entertaining anthology of morbid Western stories from The Coen Brothers. Netflix's original movies too often feel like rushed productions of unfinished scripts; fortunately, at 60% of their best, the Coens are better than most.

Blindspotting (2018)

Blindspotting (2018)

Dir.: Carlos López Estrada
Ranked: #804 (81.42%)

While the also Oakland-centered Sorry to Bother You drew comparisons to the early work of Spike Lee despite a far weirder vision than Lee ever broached, this creative and pointed social commentary from director Carlos López Estrada and writers/stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal is a more direct heir to Lee’s mix of cultural humor and edgy needling of societal tensions. Blindspotting, in its story of an ex-convict (Diggs) trying to make it through the final few days of his probation without incident, makes a bold plea for self-awareness about the casual lifestyle choices and assumed identities that imperil at-risk communities. However, it also eloquently vents the bottled rage that builds in cities that feel like a losing hand has been forced upon them, and confronts the necessity of making grievances heard while 'retraining your own brain.' Like Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting is full of smart and poignant and funny observations about the changing nature of Oakland in the face of hipster gentrification, but its message is more direct, accessible and heartfelt.

Wildlife (2018)

Wildlife (2018)

Dir.: Paul Dano
Ranked: #819 (81.11%)

Paul Dano's directorial debut is a finely crafted family drama starring Carey Mulligan at her absolute best. Mulligan takes what could have been a loathsome character and makes her painfully human. It's a very tricky and effective performance. Ed Oxenbould is solid as a teen caught between two parents who are spiralling out-of-sync, and character actor Bill Camp does well to bring surprising added nuance to an already complicated situation. Dano — who adapted the screenplay with his wife, Zoe Kazan — shows a knack for restraint with material that could've been quite maudlin. It's mature work from everyone involved.

Mid90s (2018)

Mid90s (2018)

Dir.: Jonah Hill
Ranked: #823 (81.01%)

While there's nothing too surprising in Jonah Hill's directing debut, he displays an affecting sensitivity for the yearning of adolescent boys to be accepted by their older peers. Well-acted by an atypical cast and constantly engaging. Often unfairly compared to 1995's Kids, this is a movie with a considerably different perspective on a superficially similar group of troubled teens. Veers a little too close to Afterschool Special territory once or twice.

Cold War (2018)

Cold War (2018)

Dir.: Pawel Pawlikowski
Ranked: #824 (80.99%)

While this one didn't engross me as did Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, there's is such a strong sense of artistry to it, that I found several scenes aesthetically emotional despite my feeling detached from the characters. This 90-minute drama could've used another hour, but it's still a real beauty.

Burning (2018)

Burning (2018)

Dir.: Chang-dong Lee
Ranked: #825 (80.97%)

I was never quite sure what this enigmatic Korean drama was up to while watching it, and am still mulling it over. I have a suspicion that Lee Chang-dong's moody take on growing class dislocations is a little too mysterious for its own good, but that stubborn opaqueness is also a big part of its allure. The performances from Jun Jong-seo, Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun are effective, despite obstacles. Flirty Hae-mi is a little too much of a manic pixie dream girl, but Jong-seo anchors her with an elusive sadness. Yoo Ah-in has the toughest role, balancing a frustrating inability to react — the character admits that he finds the world confusing — with sometimes inscrutable actions; I'm not sure he and Chang-dong quite pull it off, but its nevertheless interesting to watch. Yuen's slick Ben is almost a stock character from a lesser film; however, that contrast is surely intentional. Chang-dong's unassuming lyricism works overtime to make seemingly unexplored ideas feel less important than they might have been without such a confident visual style.

Zama (2017)

Zama (2017)

Dir.: Lucrecia Martel
Ranked: #827 (80.92%)

What looks like it’s going to be a traditional costume drama is anything but. Irreverent and surreal, Lucrecia Martel’s droll take on the futility of colonialism strolls from absurdity to hopelessness with a strong flavor of queasy paranoia. Zama, a 17th century Spanish judge suffering through an extended appointment in Paraguay, is undermined, mocked, forsaken and humiliated at every turn, and slogs on through it all in a frustrated daze of unsatisfied desires. The soundtrack of jaunty guitar instrumentals perfectly complements Martel’s acidic point-of-view toward the vapid and venal aspirations of the European settlers and their indifferent cruelty. It’s a fresh and compelling vision of history presented in a savory and provocative manner.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Dir.: Sara Colangelo
Ranked: #895 (79.35% )

In this remake of an Israeli drama, Sara Colangelo directs as Maggie Gyllenhaal steadily loses it. Nice job of capturing the fine line between strident good intentions and bat-shit insanity.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (2018)

Dir.: Bo Burnham
Ranked: #959 (77.88%)

I took my oldest daughter — who is herself between 8th and 9th grade this summer — to see EIGHTH GRADE. While I liked it quite a bit, enough to put it in my Top 5 for the year so far, she was overcome by all the teenage feels. It seems to have done its job.…

Eighth Grade was reviewed in the August PopGap diary.

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Dir.: Brett Haley
Ranked: #968 (77.67%)

Infectiously feel-good light family drama with catchy pop music. A natural go-to for Sing Street fans.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)

Dir.: Mouly Surya
Ranked: #982 (77.35%)

It’s hard being a woman in Indonesia. That’s the reductive takeaway from Mouly Surya’s darkly comic, artfully shot, and sometimes quite tender antidote to I Spit on Your Grave-style revenge exploitation. In Marlina the Murderer, a struggling widow is given prior notice that she is soon to be robbed and raped by a gang of bandits, a threat which seems to be merely the worst of many indignities women suffer daily at the hands of men. Marsha Timothy is hearty but stoic in the title role, serving as a worthy anchor for Surya’s ambitious visual scale. There’s a simplicity to the narrative that is a bit underwhelming, but the overall package — including an appealing score which ranges from spaghetti western to whimsical road journey — is impressive and hopefully a sign of great movies to come from Surya.

American Animals (2018)

American Animals (2018)

Dir.: Bart Layton
Ranked: #1026 (76.33%)

It's essentially a darker, real-life BOTTLE ROCKET, adding Richard Linklater's conceit from BERNIE of including interviews with the actual people involved in this true crime story. Lightweight in terms of style and energy — with a good eclectic soundtrack mix — but doesn't shirk from a jarring heaviness when required.

While AMERICAN ANIMALS doesn't cover any new ground, it's surprisingly elegantly directed, and more emotional than I expected. It confronts what needs to be confronted, while also scoring big with a cast of actors who capture the dissonance at the core of this story.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Dir.: Jacques Audiard
Ranked: #1040 (76.01%)

It takes a while to settle — and buck off its mismarketing — but Jacques Audiard's unique western The Sisters Brothers is a lyrical and moving study of men at-odds with their environment.

Thunder Road (2018)

Thunder Road (2018)

Dir.: Jim Cummings
Ranked: #1080 (75.09%)

I happened upon Jim Cummings' short film Thunder Road a couple of years ago and was taken by his tour de force goofball performance. Now, that short has been turned into a feature length film that, while far from perfect, is an even stronger showcase for a fantastically funny and rich character which Cummings plays flawlessly. Where other actors might have played this cop who is always two steps past PTSD as a pitiful fool, Cummings carefully balances on the knife-edge between painful self-reflection and good-hearted fragility. The plot stutters a bit, and some of the police material is unconvincing, but I could watch Cummings play this character all day.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave No Trace (2018)

Dir.: Debra Granik
Ranked: #1151 (73.45%)

A speculative extension of the true story of a damaged father raising his daughter off-the-grid. Director Debra Granik finds the perfect pitch, and her lead actors, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt Mckenzie, do not fail her.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Dir.: Tim Wardle
Ranked: #1152 (73.43%)

Slick production and fascinating topic. Some of the subjects' analyses go a little overboard, and additional context would be appreciated, but that's part of the story.

Lean on Pete (2017)

Lean on Pete (2017)

Dir.: Andrew Haigh
Ranked: #1167 (73.08%)

Horses had a tough movie year in 2018.

The Rider.
Bad Samaritan.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The Sisters Brothers.

I'm probably forgetting some, but a few of our movie-loving equine friends might be contemplating an Equus-style escape after 2018's relentless string of atrocities.

November (2017)

November (2017)

Dir.: Rainer Sarnet
Ranked: #1169 (73.03%)

This Estonian folk tale will be a fun watch for those who like dreamy oddball cultural artifacts. It's got many strong moments of black and white cinematography, and an alluring, imaginative narrative. I didn't always understand what was happening, which made the story feel less tragic than intended, but it was mostly engaging, especially for something this intentionally obscure. Pretty sure this was my first-ever Estonian movie.

The House of Tomorrow (2017)

The House of Tomorrow (2017)

Dir.: Peter Livolsi
Ranked: #1197 (72.39%)

The House of Tomorrow is a standard but appealing quirky coming-of-age comedy with an appealing cast, including Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff (who is very funny), Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn and Maude Apatow.

It's nothing new — aside from the neat Buckminster Fuller dome house setting — but I think it will appeal to anyone who liked teen-oriented feel-good sleepers like Brigsby Bear and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. It doesn't necessarily hit the heights of those movies, but it's similar in tone and subject.

Summer of 84 (2018)

Summer of 84 (2018)

Dir.: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Ranked: #1199 (72.34%)

The new movement of 1980s genre throwbacks is already getting tiresome, with no shortage of aspirants hoping create the next nostalgia jackpot in the mould of STRANGER THINGS. However, when a tired trope is done well, it’s worth nothing, and SUMMER OF 84 is a more worthy warping of the antiquated boyhood adventure than some of its peers.

Summer of 84 was reviewed during Octoblur 2018.

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

Dir.: David Lowery
Ranked: #1307 (69.85%)

There's nothing new in David Lowery's gentle crime drama The Old Man & the Gun, and that's the point: it's a throwback to a different era, when a movie about a bank robber focused more on characters than action. Robert Redford stars as real-life career criminal Forrest Tucker, who, despite old age, shows little interest in retiring from a vocation that he truly loves: stealing money. Lowery does a nice job balancing a movie-ish affection for iconoclasts with the reality of armed robbery, and Redford is just as good as he's ever been. Sissy Spacek co-stars as a new love interest; Casey Affleck plays the cop on Tucker's trail; and Tom Waits and Danny Glover fill out Tucker's "Over the Hill Gang." A pleasant work to accompany the original 1979 version of Going in Style.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Dir.: Armando Iannucci
Ranked: #1312 (69.73%)

Somehow makes the horrible hilarious.

Everybody Knows (2018)

Everybody Knows (2018)

Dir.: Asghar Farhadi
AKA: Todos lo saben
Ranked: #1382 (68.12%)

When Asghar Farhadi makes a kidnapping movie, he's not concerned with the mystery as much as he is how a challenging, emotional event affects individuals psychologically and strains their relationships with the other affected parties. He took essentially the same approach in both of the other films of his that I've seen: his brilliant 2010 family drama A Separation and his less-than-satisfying movie from last year, The Salesman, both of which revolve around the repercussions of an assault. Everybody Knows sticks to the same formula: after a teen girl is abducted during a family wedding, the stresses of grief and suspicion cause old tensions to resurface between her mother (Penelope Cruz), a family friend (Javier Bardem), the extended family, and the locals. Compared to the muddled execution of The Salesman, Everybody Knows is relatively tight, incisive and suspenseful. Cruz and Bardem are both excellent. But, even though Everybody Knows follows Farhadi's preoccupation with family rifts, they're almost too easily dawn in this case, steering more toward high-class, restrained soapy melodrama than searing social observation. Everybody Knows could very well be a prestige award-season Hollywood thriller, and I won't be surprised when it's remade a few years from now.

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Dir.: Ava DuVernay
Ranked: #1383 (68.10%)

The marketing of this movie made it look overbearingly annoying, so maybe I was mentally prepped for a disaster; instead, I thought that Ava DuVernay's adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's kid lit classic was lively, great-looking and quite sweet. Even though its anodyne cheerleading for self-esteem was uninspired, young Storm Reid made me care. A pleasant surprise.

Roma (2018)

Roma (2018)

Dir.: Alfonso Cuarón
Ranked: #1377 (68.02%)

I have yet to surpass mild appreciation for any of the movies of Alfonso Cuarón, and it hurts, because he has such an obvious gift for elegant visual design. The problem is, his narrative tendencies are also obvious, and rarely elegant. In Roma, a study of class barriers in 1970 Mexico, Cuarón dogpiles on easy sentiment, almost completely at odds with the stunning and sophisticated photography. This visual approach saves Roma, adding enough distance most of the time that its story only becomes too cloying in moments, but those moments are real doozies of contrivance and overreach. While Cuarón seems to want Roma to fit in with the great humanist dramas of world cinema, he rarely lets his subjects exist without a dash too much authorial interference. All movies are manipulative, but the masters skillfully lull and distract so as to go unnoticed. Roma plays as if it has an bottom-left inset picture-in-picture of Cuarón busily entering uninspired manipulations into his emotional calculator, undercutting the inarguable majesty of his frames.

Disobedience (2017)

Dir.: Sebastián Lelio
Ranked: #1409 (67.50%)

A strong drama set within an Orthodox Jewish community settles for fumbling mismatched Hollywood tropes in its disappointing and false final act. Two great lead performances from Rachel McAdams and Rachael Weisz.

Hereditary (2018)

Dir.: Ari Aster
Ranked: #1429 (67.04%)

Ambitious and shocking horror effort undermines its creativity with dull jump scares and some dumb plotting.

Private Life (2018)

Private Life (2018)

Dir.: Tamara Jenkins
Ranked: #1443 (66.71%)

Tamara Jenkins' infertility drama mostly serves as a showcase for Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti to roll out, once again, their perfected seriocomic personas as beleaguered spouses/parents/singles, which is always welcome. Kayli Carter gives a breakthrough performance as the niece who becomes a surrogate for all of this sad sack couple's emotional needs. There's something about Jenkins too-knowing approach that kept it from being as emotionally involving as I would have liked, but the narrative is still surprising within its conventional container, and there are plenty of effective comedic moments as it delves deeply into a subject that is not often given this much exposure.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

Dir.: Christopher McQuarrie
Ranked: #1456 ( 66.41%)

I was inspired to re-watch the entire MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series in anticipation of this sixth entry, which is odd, as I've never been much of a fan of the franchise. Something about the FALLOUT trailer got me excited, however, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed most of the films, with FALLOUT slotting in just behind ROGUE NATION as my favorites. Aside from the action, which is spectacular, there's a genuine sense of care to the later films in the series, quite the opposite from how most movie brands become more cynical as they trudge along. I sense that Cruise sees this a key component of his legacy and pushes it as far as it can go.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Dir.: Wes Anderson
Ranked: #11462 (66.27%)

Marvelling at the design distracted me from how little I cared.

Unsane (2018)

Dir.: Steven Soderbergh
Ranked: #1466 (66.18%)

Steven Soderbergh's "crazy or not" thriller can't decide if it wants to be an effective social issues nightmare or a dumb thriller and succeeds as neither. Still, the first half or so is a great start to a harrowing "can this really happen so easily?" in-real-life horror.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Dir.: Morgan Neville
Ranked: #1469 (66.11%)

Was there any more frightening moment in all of 2018 than the description of a young Fred Rogers alone in his basement listening to records of people laughing?

Gemini (2017)

Gemini (2017)

Dir.: Aaron Katz
Ranked: #1477 (65.93%)

This L.A.-based neo-noir pleasingly chooses to focus less on the same plot points previously seen in every other L.A.-based neo-noir and focuses instead on style and mood. It's got a great-looking palette, and made me think of what Personal Shopper might of been like had it been directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn and stripped of all the pretentious bullshit. Lola Kirke is solid.

I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Dir.: Rungano Nyoni
Ranked: #1485 (65.74%)

If there's dry satire in Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch, it escaped me. It's carefully made, for certain (well, except for some trite music cues), but its take on the real practice of backwards superstitions in the undeveloped world — a rich vein of societal dysfunction that almost guarantees a lack of real progress — is heartbreaking. Aside from the intrinsic absurdity of I Am NOT a Witch's foundation in contemporary reality, there are some ridiculous characters who are also sadly all-too-real in these kinds of rickety crony-run attempts at government; but this is no more satire than observing a real-life bureaucrat fail at life is satire. There's nothing arch about Nyoni's direction; it's visually careful and well-executed as work of visual art. Maggie Mulubwa is genuine as Shula, the orphaned 8-year-old girl whose persecution, relocation and exploitation forms the narrative of this tour through the Central African practice of consigning undesirable or difficult women to "witch camps," but is also a bit too much of a cypher, reserving any reactions to her predicament until the simplistic, blunt, and over-extended ending. As a humanist drama, I Am Not a Witch is an interesting but modest success. As a filmmaking debut, it's extremely promising, unless its intentions were completely mis-realized. As a satire, it does too little with a subject that seems like fertile ground for an angry, searing and challenging comedy of rampant dysfunction.

Little Forest (2018)

Dir.: Soon-rye Yim
Ranked: #1486 ( 65.72%)

I saw that this was on Amazon Prime and it sounded like something I could watch with my 9-year-old daughter. It's a sweet little story and we both enjoyed watching the food, even though I don't like cabbage. Aside from the janky freeze-frame ending, this was modestly pleasing.

A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born (2018)

Dir.: Bradley Cooper
Ranked: #1488 (65.67%)

The smart thing about Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born is that it knows it's a movie that has nothing new to offer in terms of plot. Even though this same story has now been told four times on film under the exact same title (not counting foreign language versions), it's also formed the backbone of 90% of all rise-to-stardom melodramas throughout movie history: dreams, discovery, excitement, addiction issues, tough choices. Beyond just a bit of dialog here and there about how 'the song itself is not as important as the voice of the artist who sings it,' Cooper, in his version, furrows into this too-familiar story, coming out with some moving ruminations on the messy overlap between the things we want, the people we love, and and the pain of pursuing them. Cooper patiently lets the characters breathe and hits plenty of effective emotional notes, making A Star is Born considerably better than just another re-hash despite the sense that it was never a movie that needed to be made in the first place. Cooper is good within a very uninspired characterization; Gaga, on the other hand, is too inexperienced and direct in her intentions to tweak this cliche-laden story in the ways that it needs. A Star is Born is solid, but never fresh, and its foregone sentimentality sometimes threatens to sink it all together. Based on this evidence, it'll be fun to see what Cooper can do with a more vital idea unburdened by so much history, if he has it in him.

Filmworker (2017)

Dir.: Tony Zierra
Ranked: #1570 ( 63.78%)

Interesting look at Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick's right-hand man for the final 25 years of his career. This documentary lingers comfortably between two of the currently most fashionable totems of the documentary genre: giving a peek behind the curtain at an obscure figure in the arts, and fan service for a cult personality. Both are fine subjects, but neither tends to be revelatory. Vitali is charismatic, and his unusual career worth noting, but there's nothing particularly significant here outside of film nerdery. It's a high quality production that would fit right in on a cable channel that most people rarely watch.

Gringo (2018)

Dir.: Nash Edgerton
Ranked: #1582 (63.51%)

I've become something of a sucker for a great cast making a lot of out ordinary material, and Gringo is infectiously fun in that regard, while not really amounting to much more than an updated comic riff on the tropes of violent 1980s crime comedies. David Oyelowo stars as Harold, a middle manager for a pharmaceutical company with shady dealings in Mexico, whose life falls completely apart during a business trip south of the border. The simple fun of watching Oyelowo, whose movies I almost always skip because of their uniformly "important" tone, play something this raggedy, desperate and comically bright is a real treat. While Joel Edgerton (whose brother Nash directs) and Charlize Theron are too on-the-nose as Harold's sociopathic bosses, Sharlto Copley turns in a surprisingly strong and funny performance as a former mercenary struggling to rebrand himself as a humanitarian.

Gringo doesn't come close to the 1988 classic Midnight Run, but it reminded me often enough of that same style of danger-skirting, fast-paced and character-based action fun. With Game Night and Thoroughbreds also playing in theaters right now, we seem to be in a semi-rich vein of dark B-level comedies that are rough enough to not feel like just more mainstream Hollywood formula productions, but still deliver the same level of assured short-reaching pleasure.

Thoroughbreds (2017)

Thoroughbreds (2017)

Dir.: Cory Finley
Ranked: #1618 (62.68%)

The story of two estranged friends (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) and their disaffected relationships to their families and surroundings, Thoroughbreds aspires to sharp and morbidly quirky social satire, as well as the meticulous aesthetics of the best current indie art house cinema. Writer/director Cory Finley gets close enough to both targets that his distance from actually hitting them is clear; he seems to know what he wants and what he likes, but isn't fully equipped yet to achieve them. Both lead actresses are well-suited to this kind of material, and it's fun to watch them — and supporting players Paul Sparks and Anton Yelchin — squirm around in Finley's grim playground; it's just not what it wants to be and that dissatisfaction is palpable. If Finley nails his vision in future movies, it'll be something to relish.

Widows (2018)

Dir.: Steve McQueen
Ranked: #1621 (62.61%)

Although Steve McQueen’s heist drama takes off too slowly, and Davis’ character seems too one-note in her struggle for survival, when all of the disparate pieces finally slide into place, the climax is thrilling. Likewise, when the great Viola Davis finally gets the chance to change-up her determined act, you realize just how masterfully controlled she’s been all along. The final shot of Davis is not quite Guiliana-Masina-in-Nights-of-Cabiria-level-transcendent, but it’s pretty poignant.

Widows may thrive in a second viewing, as its early machinations become more resonant, but there are few greater immediate pleasures than watching Robert Duvall cuss the shit out Colin Farrell. And to have the unmistakably smooth sounds of Sade usher you out during the credits: perfect.

The Long Dumb Road (2018)

The Long Dumb Road (2018)

Dir.: Hannah Fidell
Ranked: #1622 (62.58% )

What I wanted: almost 90 minutes of Jason Mantzoukas continuing to be one of my favorite people on Earth.

What I got: what I wanted.

This is just a road movie, with two mismatched people talking and drinking, hooking up with Meryl Streep's daughter, and getting robbed by Ron Livingston. Normal stuff. Plus all the Mantzoukas. Nicely directed by Hannah Fidell.

Paddington 2 (2017)

Dir.: Paul King
Ranked: #1698 (60.83%)

Cute, and eerily similar to The Shape of Water. Contrary to popular opinion, I liked the first movie in this series a little bit more; this sequel is a little too anxious too dazzle.

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

Dir.: Shin'ichirô Ueda
Ranked: #1721 (60.30%)

The rough, low-budget appearance of Japanese zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead is deceiving: this is an ambitious, technically clever project, as becomes apparent during the 30-minute single-shot sequence that opens the film. What follows this remarkable opening act is a sort of Noises Off of J-horror, an amiable effort, only not nearly as funny. Shin'ichirô Ueda's modestly fun experiment will most appeal to ravenous horror fans, but as the horror elements such as make-up and gore effects are barely of school Halloween carnival quality, horror-phobes might find its concept enjoyable enough without feeling grossed out.

A Quiet Place (2018)

Dir.: John Krasinski
Ranked: #1736 (59.95%)

A neat idea with striking sequeneces and performances, plus an unforgivable hunger for sentiment and failure to fully explore its idea.

The Meg (2018)

Dir.: Jon Turteltaub
Ranked: #1737 (59.93%)

A lot of THE MEG, actually, plays like a quality video game cutscene: the characters are archetypes with just enough personality to be amusing but not enough to threaten a real connection; the actors are personable but their canned dialog lends them all a woodenness between between life and artifice; the situations are big and desperate but the treatment is coolly glib (this is the special purgatory inhabited by Jason Statham at all times: rough but polished; soulful but slick; wounded but indestructible).…

The Meg was reviewed in the August PopGap diary.

Tully (2018)

Dir.: Jason Reitman
Ranked: #1802 (58.43%)

A smart study of motherhood that has more going for it than the obvious and dispiriting twist that overwhelms its quality.

Shirkers (2018)

Shirkers (2018)

Dir.: Sandi Tan
Ranked: #1810 (58.25%)

This documentary is interesting for its peek at a lost Singaporean indie movie but mostly amounts to: so this girl knew a weird older guy once. Director Sandi Tan flails around trying to pull some meaning out of the experience, but never hits on the right angle. I'd like to see the original movie, however; some of the imagery was pretty neat.

Annihilation (2018)

Dir.: Alex Garland
Ranked: #1835 (57.67%)

I don't have a mind for science fiction; often I think that the movies which thrill many sci-fi enthusiasts are neat visual concepts justified by quarter-baked narrative and/or philosophical ideas. Alex Garland's Ex-Machina was an exception, delivering the neat visual imagination while also satisfying my sci-fi skeptic with its cynical antidote to the annoying 'robots with feelings' sub genre. His sophomore film, Annihilation, however, is what I typically expect from this kind of movie: 90 minutes of incoherent and meaningless but 'important'-feeling babble followed by a stunning payload of visual and aural sensory excitement during the climax. The final 20 minutes of Annihilation are as impressive and impactful as that short great part at the end of Under the Skin: unique, chilling, and awe inspiring. There just isn't any kind of substantial set-up to make it meaningful.

A Simple Favor (2018)

A Simple Favor (2018)

Dir.: Paul Feig
Ranked: #1843 (57.49% )

Delightfully oddball mystery gives Anna Kendrick a vehicle for exercising her incomporable pluckiness.

First Reformed (2017)

Dir.: Paul Schrader
Ranked: #1855 (57.21% )

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Dir.: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Ranked: #1866 (56.96% )

This sort-of-gutsy chapter in the relentless Marvel Cinematic Universe wants to be thought of as a surprising turn in the series, but its achievements shrink to near-nothing in the face of the inevitable reversals to come in future installments. What's left is the same-old quips and pop culture references, only more tired this time around, and another semi-appealing montage of meaningless heavy metal album cover art, and tepid soap opera sentimentality. Nit-pickers might also object to a worse-than-usual case of conveniently shifting power dynamics which adhere only to the momentary needs of formula rather than consistent world-and-character building. As usual, since The Avengers set the mold in 2012, even the best parts of this one feel inescapably perfunctory.

Technically, everything is of the highest quality, except for the actual quality. In a way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved, if nothing else, that technical proficiency is now ordinary and not nearly enough. If expert-level CGI can make anything possible, spectacle is no longer impressive.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Dir.: Marielle Heller
Ranked: #1868 (56.91%)As pleasant, middling awards-season comfort food goes, Can You Ever Forgive Me? goes down pretty smooth. It's a diverting true crime character study about a cynical, reclusive writer who, desperate for money, forges collectible literary letters. Melissa McCarthy is suited to the lead role, drinking, sulking and barking amusing insults; Richard E. Grant is a throwback to the Oscar-bait of the 1990s as a witty, gay homeless drunk who is inevitably wearing a bandana, walking with a cane, and talking about medication in his final scene. Director Marielle Heller made one of my favorite movies of 2015, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which was a complex look at the murky incentives of post-adolescent self-empowerment; there's nothing quite as provocative or intriguing about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which plays out exactly as you might expect, including multiple "nominate me" shots of tears welling in McCarthy's eyes. It worked!

The Seagull (2018)

The Seagull (2018)

Dir.: Michael Mayer
Ranked: #1872 (56.82%)

Kings (2017)

Dir.: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Ranked: #1890 (56.40%)

After considering Deniz Gamze Ergüven's debut film Mustang my favorite movie of 2015 — and my second favorite of the decade so far — I was excited to catch her follow-up, Kings, but it disappeared from theaters in a blink, and, following less-than-enthusiastic reviews, I began to dread it. When I finally got around to confronting it this week, I was, at first, pleasantly surprised: Halle Berry oozes infectious empathy as a harried foster mom creating an Oasis of normalcy for her stable of kids within their rough Los Angeles neighborhood roiling with racial tensions. Despite some heavy-handed visual metaphors early on, Ergüven does a skillful job portraying a community swarming with agents of chaos: for every person just trying to old it together, there seem to be 20 hotheads jonesing to break the world: jaded cops, exasperated store owners, belligerent thugs, and, maybe most destructive, the teens and young kids who've grown up in a formless atmosphere of utter distrust, disillusionment and disregard. As this environment explodes into riots following the verdict in the Rodney King assault trial, however, Kings also devolves into... I'm not even sure what. Daniel Craig, as Berry's weird next-door neighbor, steps in to help her corral her wards as their community burns around them, but nearly every scene featuring Craig feels like a complete miscue, from his initial ranting and bi-polar-level tantrums, to his 180-degree shift into a impromptu kids' dance party host, to an awkwardly conceived sub-Lynchian sex fantasy dream sequence, to the screwball-ish "cute" climax during which he and Berry are handcuffed to a lamp post in the parking lot of a looted shopping center. In its best moments, Kings is either a deeply felt haphazard family drama or a west coast Do the Right Thing reimagined as a horror movie. At its worst, it's mawkish and confused and borderline ludicrous. It's an odd and often perplexing mix, but worth it for its small wins.

The Rider (2017)

Dir.: Chloé Zhao
Ranked: #1892 (56.36%)

This true-life rodeo story is making lots of year-end lists, but for me it's maybe the tipping point of where this genre of rueful indie studies of rural cultures has become a formulaic series of tired tropes. Brady Jandreau is a compelling figure, and this fictionalized account of his real challenges as an emerging rodeo star laid-low by a horse-kick to the head is worth-watching, but director Chloé Zhao lingers too long on all of the usual shots — the windmill at a dutch angle at dusk, the barbed wire fencing stretching off at dusk, the solitary cowboy in the distance at dusk... we get it, it's always dusk when city folk visit the country — and, worse, belabors the most obvious emotional cues.

2018 has been a harsh year for horses on film — they've been tortured, murdered, hit by cars, had diseased eyeballs, and shot repeatedly by guns and arrows. I thought maybe The Rider was their opportunity for revenge, but it winds up again as yet another victory for Big Glue.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Dir.: Spike Lee
Ranked: #1920 (55.71%)

The strongest moments in BLACKKKLANSMAN are peripheral to the core of its story: Lee's surreal capturing of entranced and ennobled faces at a Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael speech; Harry Belafonte's sombre recounting of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington; and footage from the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. The resulting chills from these emotional moments are profound and lingering, but also disconnected enough from Stallworth's story as to seem like non sequiturs, or, at least, suggest that Lee is trying to force an overarching social narrative that doesn't fit as well as he thinks it does. In either event, the majority of BLACKKKLANSMAN is ultimately bland, and only made to feel important by its proximity to a few moments of Lee working at full strength.

BlacKkKlansman was reviewed in September's PopGap diary.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

Dir.: David Wain
Ranked: #1930 (55.48%)

This playful slice of pop cultural history hit some nice nostalgia buttons for me. While the story is nothing new, director David Wain pulls out some fun little narrative tricks and tucks a lot of easter eggs throughout. I like Will Forte, but he's not a compelling actor. Also, I'm beginning to really dislike the IKEA-quality look of this new generation of made-for-tv movies. It used to be that generic, low effort quickies were either visually crummy or at great pains to make the most of a necessarily lo-fi aesthetic. Now, we seem to have a generation of movie technicians who are solid at putting together a clean-looking, nicely designed, attractive picture with no element of art in it, and maybe that's worse.

Custody (2017)

Dir.: Xavier Legrand
A.K.A.: Jusqu'à la garde
Ranked: #1949 (55.04%)

I try not to blame movies for not being what I wished they had been, and maybe it was too much to hope for Custody (a.k.a. Jusqu'à la garde) to look at the murky subject of parental rights with an unflinchingly complicated appreciation for the competing interests in charged family conflicts. Early on, it seems like first-time writer/director Xavier Legrand is angling for just that, raising questions about the detached legal process and how unwilling cooperation between parents takes a toll on the very children whose interests are spoken of as if sacrosanct while being used as emotional battering rams to injure each other. Custody is about something else, actually, and whether it feinted in the other direction or I was just willing it to do so, its shift into a simpler story was disappointing. Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet star as estranged spouses; she accuses him of violence, he craves resolution after she disappeared with the children and cut-off communication. Has she unfairly poisoned the children against him? Is he justified in his anger when she lies to the court and his children lie to him? These are compelling questions, especially swirling around the bull-like Ménochet, who has a simmering energy beinhd his droopy, dead eyes.... but Legrand ultimately leans full-on into a well-trod narrative, and wrenches ample tension and horror out of it. It's fashionable in the current moment, but not completely satisfying.

Tag (2018)

Dir.: Jeff Tomsic
Ranked: #1973 (54.49%)

Support the Girls (2018)

Support the Girls (2018)

Dir.: Andrew Bujalski
Ranked: #2031 (53.15%)

I like the idea of a look at the camaraderie among young women working at Hooters-like sports bar, and there are moments of brightness from the cast — particularly Haley Lu Richardson, who gave my favorite performance of 2017 in Columbus — but mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski struggles to bring visual or narrative distinction to the mundane travails of manager Lisa (Regina King), who tries her hardest to pull off the tricky balancing act of keeping the business running while managing the needs of her challenging staff and the often undesirable clientele. Just when it seems that Bujalski's fatalistic point about the exploitation of women in the workplace is going to dissolve into muddled chaos, he rescues it just barely with a finely poignant ending scene.

Game Night (2018)

Dir.: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Ranked: #2041 (52.92%)

GAME NIGHT is a fine attempt at creating a mildly "dark" comedy that never goes so far that it loses its mainstream appeal, and displays just enough cleverness of execution to be more fun than it is forgettable. While a lot of credit goes to the cast — when are Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams ever hard to watch? — it's worth pointing out the successes of the writing/directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. In addition to their screenplays for the popular SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING and the unjustly maligned 2015 revival of National Lampoon's VACATION, GAME NIGHT further positions these two as future stars in the semi-edgy movie comedy game…

Game Night was reviewed in the August PopGap diary.

Beast (2017)

Dir.: Michael Pearce (II)
Ranked: #2044 (52.85%)

For its first hour, the psychological thriller Beast employs its unusual setting — the English isle of Jersey — and its quietly moody atmosphere in the service of cliches: a young woman (Jessi Buckley) from a repressive upper-class family has deep yearnings stirred by a mysterious young man (Johnny Flynn), who just might be a suspect in a string of murders.

Buckley is a fresh and atypical performer, which makes Beast tolerable as it meanders through too-familiar territory toward its far more provocative and distinctive final act. While Beast aims for greater impact then it achieves — both narratively and in its is weirdly ambitious-but-not-quite-there art direction — it does bring into relief the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: the Soulful Moody Danger Hunk, a sort of —soft boy— with dreamy hair and dreamy eyes at the center of a thousand sharp points that scream —run away— and —sexual discovery— simultaneously.

At Eternity's Gate (2018)

Dir.: Julian Schnabel
Ranked: #2085 (51.90% )

The second movie in as many years chronicling the final days of Vincent Van Gogh, Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate also attempts to simulate the painter's unique vision of the world around him. While the animated Loving Vincent appealingly mimicked Van Gogh's post-impressionist style, it suffered from a dull narrative hook. At Eternity's Gate, on the other hand, takes a potentially effective narrative approach and churns it through some of the most unfortunate shaky cam cinematography seen in decades. Perhaps by intention, when the nauseating turbulence settles, Schnabel wonderfully captures Van Gogh's infectious awe of nature (movingly portrayed by Dafoe).... and then it's back to the shakes. Schnabel used a somewhat similar subjective approach in his excellent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to approximate the point of view of a stroke victim; while that took some getting used to, it eventually opened up in scope as its subject adjusted to his condition. In At Eternity's Gate, Schnabel is too faithful to the personal vision of an increasingly depressive mope for comfort — away from the manic thrill of nature, At Eternity's Gate seems like an endless string of monotonous too-close-ups of Van Gogh's many skeptical inquisitors. Despite some nice arguments between Van Gogh and Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) about the nature and process of art, and some droll spiritual oppression from Mads Mikkelsen, it's just too dreary, and you can't blame Vincent for going mad if this is what it was like for him.

Mandy (2018)

Mandy (2018)

Dir.: Panos Cosmatos
Ranked: #2095 (51.67%)

Directed by Panos Cosmatos (son of COBRA and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II director George Cosmatos), MANDY promises a lot: a bleary Cage on a bloody revenge mission, tearing through a freak death cult in a manner worthy of the epic scale of early '80s heavy metal album art. It feels a bit cruel to accuse Cosmatos of failing to deliver at that level when this is only his second feature and his budget must have been limited. Even at its lowest points, MANDY is interesting and frequently visually arresting.... but it does suffer from the differential between its concept and its execution. Cosmatos' grandmother might tell him that his "eyes are bigger than his stomach," while I might say that he has big balls but a weak stream; they both amount to the same thing: MANDY is smaller than it declares itself to be, suffering from both too much and too little imagination…

Mandy was reviewed during Octoblur 2018.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Dir.: Peyton Reed
Ranked: #2097 (51.63%)

Apostle (2018)

Dir.: Gareth Evans
Ranked: #2127 (50.93%)

While APOSTLE comes nowhere near the bracing impact of his RAID movies, Evans does a more-than-decent job building the mystery and tension around this secretive island sect, and when action is required, it's swift and grisly. APOSTLE is a bit like 2017's A CURE FOR WELLNESS: handsome and serious of purpose, and yet a bit too long, with a story that expects more engagement than it elicits…

Apostle was reviewed during Octoblur 2018.

The Little Stranger (2018)

Dir.: Lenny Abrahamson
Ranked: #2143 (50.57%)

Lenny Abrahamson and Domnhall Gleeson team up again for this very English ghost story set largely within a decaying estate — kind of like Downton Abbey with only a single maid and the last few family members skulking around in the dark. In the same year that Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House nearly redefined the genre as an epic family tragedy, The Little Stranger can't help but feel slight, no matter how handsomely produced or well-acted. Now that every ghost story is obligated to introduce a twist onto old formulas, it's pretty easy to see where this one is headed, and the modest drama in the narrative — measurable by to what degree the Stone-faced Gleeson stiffens his upper lip with each scene — is too reserved to compensate for the almost embarrassed manner in which Abrahamson reveals the ultimate non-surprise.

Minding the Gap (2018)

Dir.: Bing Liu
Ranked: #2148 (50.45%)

Some movies prompt me to ask myself, "Why am I watching this?" This is isn't to question my own motivations as a filmgoer; it's to try and discern what the filmmaker intended for me to derive from their production. I asked this question repeatedly during Minding the Gap, a nicely shot and very personal documentary that, on a meta level, is about young filmmaker Bing Liu discovering the real subject of his film. Unfortunately, the meandering path that he takes to figure out what is interesting about his skateboarding friends is not all that interesting in and of itself. Lately, I've been codifying to some extent what I find valuable in documentaries, which I don't tend to treasure the way I do movies with fictional narratives; they must either: expose me to some previously unconsidered facet of life with a relentlessly probing curiosity, provide a unique and valuable perspective on any subject with a relentlessly probing and honest curiosity, or make a compelling argument with a distinctive voice and a fearlessness in confronting its own assumptions. Minding the Gap doesn't do any of these things. It does eventually focus on the pathos of domestic abuse and the limitations of anchoring one's self to past grievances, but neither of these subjects get the attention they might deserve. Apart from the impact these issues have on the lives of the individual skateboarders at the focus of Minding of the Gap, none of its revelations are actually very revelatory, and their meaningfulness as a subject of art is unexplored and negligible. Jonah Hill's feature debut Mid90s follows a strikingly similar set of at-risk youths with much greater intent and effect.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Dir.: Crystal Moselle
Ranked: #2162 (50.13%)

You can teach girls to shred, but they're still going to get into fights over boys. This generation who grew up shooting videos of their friends skating are making some nice looking movies recently. Crystal Moselle captures a resonating texture of this lifestyle, but it's sensitive star Rachelle Vinberg who saves Skate Kitchen from bland counter-culture self-worship. Good soundtrack.

First Man (2018)

Dir.: Damien Chazelle
Ranked: #2170 (49.94%)

Some strong scenes in space — Ryan Gosling sells the beatific discovery thing — but for the Earthbound scenes Damien Chazelle takes a verite style I like and makes it precious, overemphasizing obvious emotional hooks: dead daughter, Claire Foy looking nervous, dead daughter, dead daughter, Claire Foy impersonating Judy Davis, dead daughter… It probably doesn't help that many of the neater shots in First Man echo the far better 2001: A Space Odyssey, or that it mostly made me want to re-watch The Right Stuff. An unnecessary movie.

The Oath (2018)

Dir.: Ike Barinholtz
Ranked: #2215 (48.90%)

I was more than a little leery of actor Ike Barinholtz's attempt to distill Trump-era family tensions into a 90-minute comedy, as the insular nature of Hollywood mixed with the stridency of poor social satire could be disastrous. It mostly isn't. Barenholtz does a decent job of targeting that sense of stridency over any particular viewpoint, and depicting an almost credible series of escalations that turn a slightly tense Thanksgiving get-together into a situation fraught with nearly Purge-like peril. It's fairly low-hanging fruit, however, and Barinholtz might have missed an opportunity by centering the narrative around his character — an unflinching ideologue aching to goad others into confrontations — rather than his wife (Tiffany Haddish), who struggles to act as a peacemaker whose primary goal is to keep politics out of polite holiday conversation; hers is maybe the role with the most potential for farce, but it's mostly sidelined. The rest of the cast is good, and The Oath is well-paced with some OK laughs here and there, but resolved too neatly. It might make a fine double feature with the 1994 caustic holiday comedy The Ref.

Suspiria (2018)

Dir.: Luca Guadagnino
Ranked: #2231 (48.54%)

While I have problems with the original Suspiria — and the work of Dario Argento, in general — there's no denying that he is a momentary master of atmosphere, music and shocks, and his 1977 movie about a ballet school run by a coven of witches is as close as he gets to a masterpiece. Luca Guadagnino, in his 2018 remake of Argento's Suspiria, seems to be making a movie with an entirely different set of interests — but I'm not really sure what those interests are, and I'm not sure Guadagnino knows either. Guadagnino's Suspiria, for most of its excessive running time, forsakes shock value, underplays its atmosphere, and Thom Yorke's score hints only at the more subdued funk grooves of Argento's band Goblin. Guadagnino seems to want to turn Suspiria into a rumination on women, but... what exactly? It should be the easiest thing in the world to be better at coherent narrative storytelling than Argento, but I'm not sure Guadagnino passes even that bar. He seems so busy playing with the original Suspiria's many facets that he never bothers to figure out how to fit them together. There are individual scenes that carry considerable impact, and they usually incorporate dance, including a bonkers finale that would have been a massive improvement over the 1977 Suspiria's limp climax if only it meant anything. Too many of the "twists" in Guadagnino's movie are really just disconnected events that pile more data on top of other data with no tension or emotional resonance because there really isn't a story at play. It's an arthouse filmmaker's attempt at un-horror, and a clumsy one at that. Guadagnino's Suspiria is epitomized by his choice to cast Tilda Swinton in dual roles: it's obvious from nearly the first minute that Swinton has been made-up to appear as an old man, creating a sense of humdrum anticipation for when this unconvincing stunt will be revealed as significant in some way to the film's mysteries; but it isn't. It's just a lark, done for no reason, much like the entire movie. For further evidence of Guadagnino's aimlessness, take the final shots just prior to and after the end credits. Why are they there? What do they mean? Is there any purpose to anything? On the other hand, the cast does a decent job; although I have yet to be convinced that Dakota Johnson is worth noting, it's great to see Angela Winkler looking diabolical, and Jessica Harper makes a welcome appearance in the movie's most mystifying "Who cares"-level subplot.

Revenge (2017)

Revenge (2017)

Dir.: Coralie Fargeat
Ranked: #2242 (48.28%)

REVENGE director Coralie Fargeat seems to misjudge, at first, the balance of her bright and candyish visuals with her movie's disturbing violence, but by the bracing and slippery end reveals that maybe she knew what she was doing all along. REVENGE is brutal in both rough and effective ways, and while it might have been nice if Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz' character had been given a little more substance during the set-up, it delivers exactly the stylishly charged exploitation it advertised…

Revenge was reviewed in the August PopGap diary.

The Polka King (2017)

Dir.: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky
Ranked: #2253 (48.03%)

In a sharp turn from her deeply personal debut, Infinitely Polar Bear, director Maya Forbes delivers a fun if slight look at the true crime case of self-styled polka celebrity Jan Lewan (Jack Black), whose genially maniacal determination to fulfill his oddball fantasies landed him in prison. Comparisons to Black's darkly amusing performance in Richard Linklater's 2011 Bernie are apt: Jan is also a deeply likable figure despite his corrupting delusions of grandeur, and even though parts of The Polka King pass like generic conman dramady, Black's strength at putting a twinkle in the eye of the worst ideas is infectious. Jenny Slate is very good as Jan's discontented wife, but Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver are somewhat wasted in peripheral roles. At the end, The Polka King feels like more than it should have.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

Dir.: John Curran
Ranked: #2402 (44.59%)

Sober and truthful but lacking purpose or curiosity.

Satan's Slaves (2017)

Satan's Slaves (2017)

Dir.: Joko Anwar
Ranked: #2411 (44.38%)

Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar has been building a reputation in Asian horror cinema for over a decade now, and from the technical aspects of his 2017 haunted house-style thriller SATAN'S SLAVES, it's easy to see why. This is a high-class production with a strong sense of place and Anwar knows how to use quiet and pacing for chilling effect. Anwar gets strongly naturalistic performances out of his likable actors, creating a solid atmosphere of real dread much like James Wan did in THE CONJURING. Ultimately, however, Anwar seems too beholden to Blumhouse-style tropes, robbing this potentially interesting horror yarn of any specific appeal.…

Satan's Slaves was reviewed during Octoblur 2018.

Super Troopers 2 (2018)

Dir.: Jay Chandrasekhar
Ranked: #2414 (44.31%)

While I'm not sure the world needed a second Super Troopers movie (or even a first one), it's not a punishment to spend another 90 minutes watching this mostly non-descript collection of smart-asses (and one dumb-ass) horse around. Broken Lizard is a genial comedy troupe that manages to skate by on lowered expectations, and Super Troopers 2, which seems bewildered by mere fact of its own existence, barely rises to a sweat. However, joke-for-joke, and too much broad gross physical and sexual humiliation humor notwithstanding, I think I got more laughs out of this one than from the first (which I watched for the first time two weeks ago).

What you won't get from Broken Lizard is a bold new vision for comedy, or a provocatively idiosyncratic voice, or, really, anything very memorable. But it's appealing enough to not mind it.

Traffik (2018)

Traffik (2018)

Dir.: Deon Taylor
Ranked: #2418 (44.22%)

Paula Patton stars as an investigative journalist whose romantic getaway-gone-wrong pits her against a murderous gang of sex-traffickers. TRAFFIK lays on the social issues a little too thick at times — the theme seems to be that all women are always under the heel of men who want to control, own, and/or exploit them — but even so is still a slick and sturdy B-movie thriller. Patton is great and Deon Taylor's direction is economical and mostly on-point, and I might have to dig back into some of his earlier work…

Traffik was reviewed in the August PopGap diary.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018)

Dir.: Gus Van Sant
Ranked: #2433 (43.88%)

This biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan is solidly acted and produced, but I'm surprised that director Gus Van Sant didn't come up with a more interesting take on Callahan's life. Both prominent figures in the Portland arts scene during the 1990s, Van Sant surely knew Callahan personally, but this movie is nevertheless stuffed with movie-of-the-week platitudes about responsibility while Callahan's edgy sense of humor and reputation as a local curmudgeon are relegated to decorations. This uninspired core, along with a few surprisingly obtuse anachronisms. makes Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot a disappointment not worthy of the fine, committed performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

Dir.: Stefano Sollima
Ranked: #2527 (41.71%)

Upgrade (2018)

Dir.: Leigh Whannell
Ranked: #2534 (41.55%)

Bad Samaritan (2018)

Dir.: Dean Devlin
Ranked: #2545 (41.29%)

Not good, but a lot of fun by the end of it. First, it was filmed here in Portland, which I did not know beforehand. Significant portions were filmed around PSU, where I went for two years. There were also shots near where I live, out along the Clackamas River in a small town named Carver where parts of Twilight were filmed. We drove on that same road just three days ago. All of that was very exciting.

Even though the character he played was blisteringly stupid at times, I loved the main actor, Robert Sheehan. He was a refreshing presence in a genre that usually sticks to bonehead types. they had to find someone who could make an idiot thief likable, and he was perfect.

David Tennant, who most people know as a Dr. Who, seemed to be having a lot of fun playing a psycho (the second disturbed character in movies this year with a history of horse abuse). He gradually morphs into John C. McGinley, which was bizarre and hilarious.

There was a lot of bad dialog, and some terrible delivery of bad dialog, but also one fantastic punchline from Kerry Condon that made it all worthwhile. Some very big campy laughs, in addition, and I liked this much much more than it deserved.

Fans of subpar horror/thrillers might get a kick out of it. It knows what it is.

Black Panther (2018)

Dir.: Ryan Coogler
Ranked: #2557 (41.01%)

Great cast that transcends its subject matter, like every other Marvel movie; heavily processed ugly CGI visuals, like every other Marvel movie; broad unrisky emotional strokes, like every other Marvel movie. Yawn.

Flower (2017)

Dir.: Max Winkler
Ranked: #2540 (41.01%)

Breaking In (2018)

Dir.: James McTeigue
Ranked: #2252 (47.70%)

Beirut (2018)

Dir.: Brad Anderson
Ranked: #2362 (45.15%)

Hotel Artemis (2018)

Dir.: Drew Pearce
Ranked: #2116 (50.86%)

Ready Player One (2018)

Dir.: Steven Spielberg
Ranked: #2354 (45.33%)

Lacks the enthusiasm of the book. I heard another review today that said it was Spielberg criticizing pop culture fandom whereas the book celebrated it. I think that makes a big difference. Also, whenever have Spielberg movies looked as dull as this and The Post?

Blockers (2018)

Dir.: Kay Cannon
Ranked: #2516 (41.57%)

The House That Jack Built (2018)

Dir.: Lars von Trier
Ranked: #2702 (37.25%)

RBG (2018)

Dir.: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Ranked: #2807 (34.81%)

Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

Dir.: Alice Rohrwacher
Ranked: #2893 (32.81%)

Halloween (2018)

Halloween (2018)

Dir.: David Gordon Green
Ranked: #2866 (33.44%)

The Last Movie Star (2017)

Dir.: Adam Rifkin
Ranked: #2954 (31.40%)

On Chesil Beach (2017)

Dir.: Dominic Cooke
Ranked: #2858 (33.63%)

Red Sparrow (2018)

Dir.: Francis Lawrence
Ranked: #2821 (34.49%)

Red Sparrow is, for the most part, a generic spy thriller, but it's notable for a couple of reasons. First, middling director Francis Lawrence does a respectable job, keeping a steady tone and an organized narrative, not to mention including some unexpectedly dark and unflinchingly gruesome violence that effectively informs the movie's stakes with real and ghastly consequences. Second, star Jennifer Lawrence manages a performance that is not particularly good and yet is altogether watchable. Does that make the movie good, or memorable? No. But neither is it bad. It just is.

Golden Exits (2017)

Dir.: Alex Ross Perry
Ranked: #3161 (26.59%)

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

Dir.: Antoine Fuqua
Ranked: #3064 (28.84%)

When I watched the first of Denzel Washington's two Equalizer movies last week, I spent most of the movie marvelling at how consistently director Antoine Fuqua ruined what should have been a fun slice of action pulp. Narratively, there no surprises in The Equalizer (2014), which was based on a popular 1980s TV series. Washington plays Robert McCall, a widowered former CIA assassin who, years after faking his own death, performs menial jobs, gives pep talks to underprivileged youths, and delivers swift Taken-style punishment to any criminal who crosses his path. In the first movie he shepards an overweight underachiever toward a better job and acts as guardian angel to a teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) — all while taking on the Russian mob, whom he obliterates at an after-hours Home Depot. Instead of mining this convoluted swirl of cliches and preposterous outcomes for maximum over-the-top excitement, Fuqua directs like he's making Million Dollar Baby, and drowns his movie in the slowest of syrupy sentimentality, putting a dirge-like pall over everything.

I expected more of the same from the new Equalizer 2, which re-teams Washington with Fuqua for the pair's fourth movie together, but it deliver a lot more... of something. Of everything. Equalizer 2 may be one of the most ineptly concocted major Hollywood action thrillers in years, but whether it's due to ambition or disorganization, I couldn't help but admire its abject and often pointless messiness. Equalizer 2 has only one credited screenwriter, Richard Wenk, but feels like it was written by ten. It has nearly that many plots and hops from one to another without purpose or pacing. Even more than the first movie in the franchise, Equalizer 2 seems to want very badly to be an inspirational Afterschool Special full of stabbings, and never considers for a moment the absurdity of that combination. Fuqua might rival Michael Bay at making movies doomed by their own self-importance, but Bay aspires to make the biggest and most-crass live action cartoons while Fuqua is stuck in a minor key that doesn't quite lend itself to camp. Equalizer 2 sure pushes at that barrier, however, and finally had me laughing out by the end. It spends so much time drawing out, with maximum foreboding, set-ups for nonsensical or generic obligatory set-pieces that its multiple anti-climaxes almost work as unintentional slapstick comedy. Equalizer 2 is not a good movie, but it's bad enough to be kind of amazing, which is more than the first one had going for it.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Dir.: Bryan Singer
Ranked: #3189 (26.27%)

Destroyer (2018)

Dir.: Karyn Kusama
Ranked: #3239 (25.28%)

Nicole Kidman's make-up stars in this brooding drama about a cop who is still haunted decades later by an undercover gig gone wrong, and goes through a sort of "This Is Your Life" of scumbags as she hunts the gang leader she blames for her misery. The production quality and acting throughout is somewhere between a TV pilot for a tertiary cable channel and a video game (Heavy Rain, anyone?). No matter how "ugly" her make-up, Kidman is fundamentally miscast in this role and is constantly in a losing war with the physicality of it. Director Karyn Kusama, whose indie horror debut The Invitation was a minor hit, puts in a lot of uninspired work here for the sake of a pretty cool narrative trick that comes too late to make the slog of enduring Destroyer worthwhile. There are actually a couple of really strong scenes in the final 15-20 minutes, but even those are soured by a final sequence that is drawn-out to ridiculous length and populated with ponderous non-sequitur footage. Kidman must have thought she was taking a swing for an Oscar with this one, but it's a complete whiff.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir.: Ron Howard
Ranked: #3245 (25.14%)

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

Dir.: Stephen Susco
Ranked: #3259 (24.82%)

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Dir.: Jon M. Chu
Ranked: #3277 (24.41%)

The First Purge (2018)

Dir.: Gerard McMurray
Ranked: #3507 (19.10%)

Mom and Dad (2017)

Dir.: Brian Taylor
Ranked: #3540 (18.34%)

Good opening credits. The rest is a mess.

Puzzle (2018)

Dir.: Marc Turtletaub
Ranked: #3555 (17.99%)

This sadly formulaic drama about a stifled housewife who discovers a talent for jigsaw puzzling dumbs down its central character to service all the same old bland tropes: a plot based on needless lies, a one-dimensionally unsupportive spouse, the equation of self-discovery with infidelity, yawn yawn yawn. Kelly MacDonald is too bright a performer to credibly play an adult who can't think of anywhere to buy a puzzle without taking an hour-long train ride into New York City, and why is Irrfan Khan stooping to play a token soulful foreigner? Its themes are too explicitly stated, and some of the family dialog is laughable. Based on an Argentinian film I will never watch.

Slice (2018)

Dir.: Austin Vesely
Ranked: #3564 (17.79%)

7 Days in Entebbe (2018)

Dir.: José Padilha
Ranked: #3575 (17.53%)

José Padilha's docudrama about the 7-day hostage crisis at the Ugandan airport in 1976 does a passable job at fairly and unsensationally presenting prosaic explanations of the various moral dilemmas faced by the different parties involved — the hostages, the terrorists, the Israeli government, and even Uganda's eccentric leader Idi Amin. But when it starts to seem as if Padilha is content to reiterate the same remedial ideas over and over (one character even says something like, "How many times do we need to have the same argument?"), he pulls out two tricks near the end that, credit due, are certainly bold, and I kind of respect the effort of one of them, even though they both struck me as unintentionally hilarious.

Several good actors do their best with a script that seems aimed at a fifth grade social studies class, but still manages to sneak in a few nuanced ideas. One of those movies that just makes you want to watch all of the far better movies of which it reminds you (Munich, The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Last King of Scotland, Raid on Entebbe, and even Chuck Norris' The Delta Force).

Hold the Dark (2018)

Dir.: Jeremy Saulnier
Ranked: #3734 (13.86%)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Dir.: Juan Antonio Bayona
Ranked: #3745 (13.61%)

I forgot this movie existed until I began compiling this list. Now, I'd like to go back to before I started compiling this list.

Romina (2018)

Romina (2018)

Dir.: Diego Cohen
Ranked: #3754 (13.40%)

I was lured into this new Mexican slasher by its unusually low IMDb rating of 2.3/10. It's a relatively tame riff on I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as it depicts the slaying of a group of reasonably despicable young campers at the hands of a vengeful woman (or does it?)…

Romina was reviewed during Octoblur 2018.

Searching (2018)

Dir.: Aneesh Chaganty
Ranked: #3805 (12.23%)

What was billed as a less-sensational, real-ish look at the vulnerability of kids during the social media age turns out to be just another cheap twist ending-whore. Atrocious acting if verisimilitude was the goal. A real waste of indie buzz, which means almost nothing by this point. If you're looking for something like what I thought this was, David Schwimmer's surprising 2010 movie Trust is pretty chilling.

Slender Man (2018)

Dir.: Sylvain White
Ranked: #3811 (12.09%)

Not as bad as The Bye Bye Man? A bright cast including Annaliese Basso, who floored me in Oculus (and isn't in this enough), and Joey King, makes this tolerable, but there's nothing good or memorable about its lazy plundering of dismal new horror tropes.

Assassination Nation (2018)

Dir.: Sam Levinson
Ranked: #3846 (11.28%)

A new contender for my least favorite movie of 2018. It starts off too anxious to prove how cool it is. Then it starts wildly shifting in tone — from cynically glib, to gravely dramatic, to eccentric action thriller — and the signals never mix well. Then it climbs up on a high horse for some strident speechifying (if director Sam Levinson was aware of the irony of having a character look directly into the camera and decry self-righteousness, it didn't take). It's essentially an absurd battle cry for Antifa wrapped up in a half-ass Salem Witch Trial allegory, but is nowhere near as clever or smart or cogent as it wants to be. Annoying, confusing, alienating, in that order.

Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer (2018)

Dir.: Nick Searcy
Ranked: #3906 (9.90%)

While watching Gosnell: TTOABSK, I continuously drifted into a parallel universe fantasy in which this movie had been written and directed by Tom McCarthy, and starred Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. The movie in that universe was made with considerable craft and subtlety, mixing the rhythms and nuances of real life with an austere aesthetic. In this fantasy, the plot focused not on the grisly details of the Dr. Gosnell case as much as the institutional issues that allowed his crimes to go unprosecuted for decades. That was a worthwhile imagined movie experience, but that was not the version directed by Nick Searcy and starring Dean Cain and Sarah Jane Morris.

The pro-life community — of which I am not a member, but with which I share some other interests — was atwitter upon the release of Gosnell: TTOABSK for the exposure it would bring to a truly hideous true crime story that has been largely ignored for ideological reasons. With Searcy, a respected actor (I know him, fondly, as Art from the FX series Justified) behind the camera, a script from conservative novelist and radio darling Andrew Klavan, and contrarian documentarians Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer in the production team, the excitement among anti-abortionists was palpable: no one would be able to ignore this important story now.

The sad truth is that Gosnell: TTOABSK is such an amateurish, trite, heavy-handed and misconceived mess that it threatens to turn its worthy subject into a joke. If it's unfair to compare Gosnell: TTOABSK to Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture-winner which set the contemporary aesthetic and narrative standard for these kinds of issue films, then it shouldn't have been made it all. In this day overflowing with unemployed film school graduates, and in which streaming services are flooded with countless indie movies that demonstrate a high level of technical quality, there is no excuse for any professional movie project to be so thoroughly beholden to outdated production techniques and ham-handed scriptwriting crutches. By any artistic measure, it's a disaster; and, worse, no one involved seems to be aware that its utter lack of quality is what truly ghettoizes it.

However, ineptitude isn't by itself disqualifying. Plenty of badly made movies still possess the charm of a valiant effort, or an interesting idea, or a new performer peeking out from within the rough edges. Gosnell: TTOABSK not only has none of those features — though, Sarah Jane Morris gives the least offensively bad performance, and I'd like to see her again, working with talented people — it's either not honest with itself and with its audience, or it doesn't have the courage or intelligence to be the movie it claims to be. The phrase "not about abortion" must be uttered, in some form, ten times during Gosnell: TTOABSK, as police and prosecutors and bloggers and judges painstakingly attempt to focus on actual crimes without the interference of political baggage. However, Searcy's movie is so much about abortion that it chokes on its own insincerity with every protestation to the contrary. It doesn't attempt to present a clinical docudrama about a true life criminal proceeding, it attempts to use a human tragedy as a cudgel. It is, in fact, why the Dr.Gosnell case was ignored.

Some of the material in Gosnell: TTOABSK — most of which is claimed to have come from court transcripts and other official records — survives Searcy's heavy touch. The actual details of Dr. Gosnell's chronic medical malpractice are horrifying, and the most stridently anti-abortion scene, featuring Dana Delaney as a conscientious abortion provider who takes the stand in an attempt to provide an example of ethical practices in contrast to Dr.Gosnell, makes a provocative and emotional argument that should be considered. But even these relatively strong moments are draped in overemphatic acting and undermined by a relentlessly telegraphic musical score. Searcy has an uncanny talent for smushing anything good under layers of goopy and degrading manipulation. By the climax, when Searcy jaw-droppingly chooses to present a scene of Dr.Gosnell at work from the point-of-view of a soon-to-be-murdered baby, material that should have been sobering instead induces howls of laughter.

To cap it off, Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik provides an end credits song that is pure ear poison.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

Dir.: Etan Cohen
Ranked: #3907 (9.87%)

As a big fan of both Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly individually and together, I was skeptical of the low Rotten Tomatoes score for Holmes & Watson — surely these two will make me laugh no matter what. Well, no. This is extremely dull by their standards with only flashes of fun absurdism struggling to break through a haze of forgettable and obvious gags. Not that the script is anything special — it's dreadfully lazy — but director Etan Cohen also gets it all wrong, adding emphasis where distance is required.

Death Wish (2018)

Death Wish (2018)

Dir.: Eli Roth
Ranked: #3966 (8.51%)

Roth's updated take on DEATH WISH, starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey, seems to be more influenced by the current trend of dramatically ambitious comic book movies than it is by Michael Winner's original film: it wants to be an earnest drama, like Winner's efficient and internal 1974 adaptation of Brian Garfield's novel, but it not only lacks the social relevance of the original material, it clings too faithfully to the cliches of a genre picture. Roth is adept at sensational gore, and has an enthusiasm for exploitation ideas, but he doesn't integrate them here into a tonally coherent whole. A few moments of wild violence in this DEATH WISH remake — including one Deus ex Machina by bowling ball — are so over-the-top they could just as easily feature in a Looney Tunes-inspired farce, but these rare blips of creativity clash with the otherwise dutifully sombre atmosphere and soaping up of potentially intriguing ideas.

Death Wish (2018) was reviewd as part of our Death Wish franchise binge.

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