Tony Farinella’s Top 10 Movies of 2018

2018 was not a great year for cinema, but the films that were good were really good.  The year started out strong, it died out in the middle, and finished good but not good enough.

Honorable Mentions for Really Good Movies:

“Game Night,” “Blockers,” “Assassination Nation,” “Paterno,” “Halloween,” “Never Goin’ Back,” “Creed 2,” “Widows,” “The Hate U Give,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “The Wife,” “What They Had,” “All the Money in the World,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Fahrenheit 11/9” and “Upgrade.”

Love Simon movie poster

10) “Love, Simon”

This flick came out in March, and it is truly a film which needed to be made.  It was directed incredibly well by Greg Berlanti.  Here is the thing about films which deal with someone being gay and not being sure how to tell their friends and family: these are stories that help others feel more comfortable about coming out. This film was funny, touching and incredibly moving.  The lead, Nick Robinson, shows the audience all of Simon’s conflicting emotions from coming out to his parents, played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner, as well as his group of friends. Katherine Langford from “13 Reasons Why” is terrific as his best friend, and Tony Hale is also great as the vice principal of the school.  The film deals with the subject in a sensitive but profound way.  At the end of the day, it is a love story filled with a big heart and a lot of humor.  If you missed it back in March 2018, now is the time to see it.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Love, Simon.”

 

A Quiet Place movie poster

9) “A Quiet Place”

As someone who tries to attend the cinema as often as possible, I know how hard it is to get an audience to keep quiet.  While watching this movie in a packed theater, it was total and complete silence.  It was a truly surreal and great moviegoing experience.   This was an April release and it did well at the box office and with critics.  It stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as a family that must survive during a time where, if there is any noise, monsters will appear and attack and kill you. Krasinski is also behind the camera on this one, and he shows some real talent as a filmmaker.  When the stakes are so high and no one can talk or make any noise, the tension is unnerving and unsettling in the best possible way.  The film also features two great performances from the two children: Millicent Simmonds (hearing impaired in real life) and Noah Jupe. It was great casting to find a young actress who was really deaf as it lends to the film’s authenticity.

Wont You Be My Neighbor poster

8) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

How in the world did this film get overlooked at the Oscars? How did it not even get a nomination?  This is something which will puzzle and bother me for quite a while.  This is a tremendous documentary and a great film.  Everyone remembers Mr. Rogers, and this film shows the impact he had on children and the world.  It also dives into other aspects of his life and leaves no stone unturned.  It is the kind of movie which makes you feel good, and we need more movies like it during these trying times.  Mr. Rogers was a special person, and this is a special film.  As the tagline on the poster says, “A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way.”  It will take you back to when you were a kid and grew up watching and responding to him.  He was never afraid to tackle tough subjects in a profound and thoughtful way, and his impact will forever be felt.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

BlackkKlansman movie poster

7) “BlacKkKlansman”

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a mind-blowing film which shows how Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to be part of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), his partner.   Stallworth does all of the voice work over the phone to convince David Duke (Topher Grace) he’s really white while Flip shows up to various meetings.  The usual Spike Lee humor is infused in the script as well, and it works because he is still taking the subject matter seriously.  Racism is still very much alive today, as they show this in the end credits, but Lee makes an entertaining true story come to life here.  Washington keeps proving he is an actor and not just Denzel’s son.  This is tough material, no question about it, but Lee has never been afraid to go there.  You have to go there in order for real change to occur.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “BlacKkKlansman.”

Eighth Grade movie poster

6) “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s directorial debut took the world by storm in the summer of 2018.  My wife and I went out of our way to see it.  We have always been big supporters of independent cinema, and we were glad to see it and more than happy to make the drive.  Burnham is very much in touch with social media, and even though he is not a girl in eighth grade, he taps into what it feels like to be in that mindset and how terrifying it can feel.  It feels like the end of the world and all of this pressure is mounting on you. Elsie Fisher is the star of the show, and she’s so likable, funny and interesting, even though she does not see it.  In interviews, Burnham talked about how she was a shy girl trying to be confident in auditions, and this is exactly what he was looking for as everyone else was a confident girl trying to act shy.  The best scenes in the film are the ones with her and her father, played by Josh Hamilton. It is a great movie which more people need to discover now that it’s out on Blu-ray.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Eighth Grade.

Boy Erased movie poster

5) “Boy Erased”

The LGBTQ community got another great film in “Boy Erased.”  This was a November release which sadly did not perform well at the box office.  It was written and directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from the novel by Garrard Conley. The film deals with something called conversation therapy.  Those who perform this therapy believe they can turn someone who is homosexual into a straight man or woman.  Edgerton also plays the leader of this program, and he has some unusual methods to say the least. Lucas Hedges tells the story of Garrard Conley, although his character’s name in the film is Jared Eamons.  His parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and this is shockingly their first time working together.  Things are complicated because Jared’s father is a pastor, and his father believes this is the best way to handle this situation. The mother is not really on board with it, but she is sticking by her husband even though you sense her regret.  It is a haunting, scary and emotional film which deserves to be seen.  People are unaware places like these still exist in so many states. The only way they will not exist is if people pay attention and do something.  It is an eye-opening film which was criminally overlooked by moviegoers. Just because a film deals with tough subject matter, it does not mean audiences should not view it.  Film can educate and inform us.

First Reformed movie poster

4) “First Reformed”

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is yet another great movie which audiences decided to turn away from at the box office.  I understand people enjoy their Marvel movies and their popcorn entertainment, but there are films which can create discussion.  That, to me, is the power of cinema.  The always terrific Ethan Hawke is a pastor named Toller at the First Reformed church.  One day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to his church and asks him to help out her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is worried about the state of the world, the planet and what we are doing to it.  Her husband wants to do something about it, has been arrested and he feels people are turning a blind eye to these major issues going on in the world.  Toller starts to believe in a lot of what he is being told by Michael and even questions his own faith and his church.  He has health problems and is not happy with how things are being run over at Abundant Life, which is part of First Reformed, by Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer ).  He is journaling everything and trying to process his feelings.  Toller also has some issues from his past which he has never gotten over as well.  This is an impactful movie which left me speechless.  It is a must-see.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “First Reformed.”

Blindspotting movie poster

3) “Blindspotting”

Another overlooked critical darling is “Blindspotting” which was written by long-time friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs plays Collin, a black man on parole trying to finish it out without any incidents.  This is incredibly difficult due to his friendship with Miles (Casal), a white-man living in Oakland who is always trying to act tough and intimidate people to get respect. Collin is just trying to keep to himself and do his job so he can be free from probation, but he’s finding this hard to do when he sees a young black man killed by a police officer.  He wants to say something, but he is worried about how it will impact his parole.  “Blindspotting” is a term where people look at something and they only see one thing and are missing another piece of the picture.  The chemistry between Diggs and Casal is totally natural, as to be expected, and they have a lot of humorous moments together.   That is the beauty of “Blindspotting,” and there are similar films talking about these things happening in the world right now. You can show the ugly side and bring it to people’s attention, but you can also have some humor in there as well.  It does not have to be all gloom and doom.  There is a lot of terrific music in the film and a lot of it is free style rapping which pertains to the plot.  As Collin says, “You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town.”

Green Book movie poster

2) “Green Book”

This is more than your average road trip buddy movie between two unlikely friends. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist who needs a driver to take him through the south. Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, needs some money and ends up taking the job as his driver.  Tony is not necessarily racist, but he does offer fried chicken to Don Shirley, as I imagine he is more ignorant than anything else.  Tony sees how white men are treating Mr. Shirley and is not happy about it.  He forms a kinship with him, especially after Shirley helps Tony write love letters to his wife, played by Linda Cardellini.  It is based on a true story, and the two leads knock it out of the park.  I have to give a slight edge to Mortensen’s performance, but that is only because he has the juicer lines and more material to work with compared to Ali.  Make no mistake about it, though, Ali is superb in this movie and he knows when to pick his scenes to knock it out of the park.  This is a moving picture which deals with race in a thoughtful and heartfelt way, and it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either.

A Star is Born movie poster

1) “A Star is Born”

If you are surprised by this selection, you have not heard me rave about this movie since I first watched it with my wife on opening night back in October. Bradley Cooper is a great director and he should have been given a nomination for Best Director.  I hope Lady Gaga wins Best Actress over Glenn Close.  This movie is about mental illness, fame, believing in yourself, putting yourself out there and so much more. Cooper is believable as a singer and Lady Gaga is believable as an actress.  The two have chemistry for days.  It’s a heartbreaking film which truly earns every tear from the audience.  The music is catchy, and it has a great soundtrack as well.  This is why I go to the movies and, as I said in my review, no film has affected me as much as since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  This is the best film of 2018, hands down.  If you don’t cry during it, you are made of stone.

Click here to check out Tony Farinella’s review of “A Star is Born.”

 

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‘A Star is Born’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

Ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce you to Tony Farinella, a fellow film buff who will now be contributing articles to The Ultimate Rabbit. This is his first review for the website, and we look forward to reading many more from him.

A Star is Born Blu ray cover

Wow.

It is very rare that a film like “A Star is Born” comes along.  When the trailer was released, I must have watched it about fifty times.  When the soundtrack came out, I listened to it every single day and still do today.  Many people are often quick to judge when it comes to remakes, especially for one like “A Star is Born,” considering it has been done multiple times in the past.  However, this one is different and far and away the best version of the film to ever come along which is truly saying something.  It all starts with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  They are the straw that stirs this drink.

The word authentic is used a lot when it comes to the filmmaking process.  It was especially true when it came to “A Star is Born.”  In order for this film to be as effective and powerful as it ultimately ended up being, two things needed to happen.  Number one: Lady Gaga had to be believable as an actress.  She has acted before, but it has never been on this level.  Number two:  Bradley Cooper needed to be believable as a singer.  It can’t look like he’s lip syncing or just trying to fit in and not look out of his element.  He IS Jackson Maine in the same way Lady Gaga is Ally.

A Star is Born photo 2

When that happens, you have movie magic.  No film has affected me as much as 2018’s “A Star is Born” since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  There is something to be said about having a dream and having someone believe in you.  The story has been done before, but it is told in a way that brings something new to the table, especially with Bradley Cooper as the director.  He is the director and he is more than up to the task.  The music is incredible, catchy, and it truly brings the viewer into this musical world.

As far as the story, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has seen better days.  He is boozing at a very dangerous level and is also really into drugs.  He props himself up on stage, but he is not the man he used to be as a performer.  This frustrates his brother, played by Sam Elliott.  There is only so much he can take of Jackson being late or not taking things seriously.  However, when Jackson has a chance encounter with Ally (Lady Gaga), he sees something special in her.

All her life, people have told Ally they like the way she sounds but not the way she looks.  They talked about her nose and have criticized her.  Legendary comedian Andrew Dice Clay plays her father in a tremendous performance.  He’s a driver, and he talks about how Paul Anka once told him he had more natural talent than Frank Sinatra.  As his daughter tells him, she doesn’t have the same disease he has where he loves to hang out with celebrities and feel important.

With Ally and Jackson, both are the missing piece in each other’s lives.  Jackson tells her she has a voice, has something to say, and is the one who needs to say it.  Ally brings out the best in Jackson musically and as a person, even though he is still struggling with his demons.  When he runs into an old musical friend, played by another legendary comedian in Dave Chappelle, the friend tells him he looked like his old self up on stage with Ally.  However, as Ally’s star is rising, Jackson is starting to hit rock bottom.

People are taking notice of her because of Jackson, but Jackson can’t be left alone with his alcohol issues and his ability to self-destruct at any moment.  She’s becoming more of a pop star, but she isn’t really sure she likes it.  She tells her manager she doesn’t want to lose the part of her that is talented.  With fame, there comes a lot of wonderful and magical things, but it is very complicated for both Ally and Jackson.  They need to figure out how to handle it to save their relationship and also their careers.

A Star is Born photo 1

As mentioned earlier in the review, “A Star is Born” has tremendous songs, and they are performed live.  Because of this and of the way they are shot, it brings an intimacy to this film.  This is a very intimate film, make no mistake about it.  The love between Jackson and Ally feels incredibly real and raw.  The music is there without any frills.  It is just great music and it is not done in a way which sounds staged or phony.  This is as real as it gets in terms of moviemaking.  It is incredible what Bradley Cooper pulled off here as a director.

The third act is a tough one, as I’m sure many people are aware of by now, but it is also a hopeful act without giving too much away. The final performance and the way Lady Gaga looks into the camera, that is golden.  It does not get any better than that.  For this and so many other reasons, “A Star is Born” is my favorite film of 2018.  After watching it twice, once in the theater and once on Blu-Ray, I don’t think I have any tears left in me to cry, quite frankly.  Those tears were earned though, and this is what makes it such a special movie.

Lady Gaga has said this a number of times, and it is true: “You can have a hundred people in a room and all it takes is one to believe in you.”  This is a film that anyone with a dream of making it in a field they are passionate about needs to see and watch over and over again.  It is possible.  It is possible because of the love and support of another person and the belief in yourself.  :A Star is Born” isn’t just the best movie of 2018, it is also one of the most important films of the year as well.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “A Star is Born” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray Combo Pack, which comes with a digital copy as well.  You can also pick it up on DVD and 4K.

Audio and Video Info: The film comes presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The film looks magnificent on Blu-Ray and really pops and stands out.  The audio is also out of this world on the following formats: Dolby Atmos- TrueHD: English, DTS-HD MA, English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Español 5.1. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:  There is a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes special feature, which includes interviews with just about every major actor in the film including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.  They talk about the process of getting this film made, how it took three years, and what it meant to all of them.  It is called “The Road to Stardom: Making A Star is Born.” Music Videos are included as well as songs and performances not seen in theaters.  All in all, there is some good stuff here, but I would have loved a commentary track and an even lengthier behind-the-scenes of the film, as I know a lot went into this. Depending on how this film does on Oscar Night, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they will be releasing it again with more special features.

Own “A Star is Born” on 4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray™ Combo Pack and DVD Special Edition on February 19

‘Risk’ Invites You into WikiLeaks’ Inner Circle… Somewhat

Risk documentary poster

Laura Poitras’ “Risk” is one of those documentaries which had me believing the scenes left on the cutting room floor were as, or perhaps even more, riveting as what ended up on the screen. It offers us a look into WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange, and it is a very intimate look which I was never sure we could ever get. What we get is a very compelling look at the inner workings of this organization which thrives on getting to the truth which is more often than not kept away from our prying eyes, and we see how this organization is constantly threatened by its infinitely powerful adversaries and perhaps by Assange himself. Yet at the same time, it feels like there is much more to the story than what we see onscreen.

Poitras filmed this documentary over the course of six years and was granted an astonishing amount of access to WikiLeaks and Assange. It starts off with Assange trying to get in touch with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the security of WikiLeaks has been breached to where Clinton’s emails are about to be revealed to a public eager to sift through them voraciously. Assange has been accused of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, but he is shown here to be very eager to inform Clinton of how her problems are going to be much bigger than his own.

The most introspective moments in “Risk” happen near its start as Assange talks about what drew him to the work he does today. In a talk with Poitras, he says he doesn’t believe in being a martyr as much as he does in those who take risks for the things they care deeply about. The way he sees it, it is far more dangerous to do nothing than it is to do something, and the inaction of many has certainly led people to go against their best interests for no intelligent reason.

As the documentary goes on, however, the focus of it becomes a bit muddled as Poitras admits she is not sure what to make of Assange after a while. We never see her onscreen, but she does provide narration at various points where she admits she can’t ignore the contradictions of Assange’s character and is convinced he doesn’t like her. There is a scene where he and a fellow lawyer retreat to the woods for a private conversation, and at times he urges Poitras to take her camera off of him as he shares something he doesn’t want her to know. Towards the end, she says her friendship with Assange deteriorated to the point where they were constantly yelling at each other. Taking this into account, it makes you wonder just how much access she really had to his world as he remains so close and yet so far away.

One thing which cannot be denied is the size of Assange’s ego as he confronts many obstacles and impediments with a strange confidence even while the odds are stacked against him. We can’t help but laugh at scenes where those who work closest to him exhibit an exasperation as they clearly more aware of the ramifications of his actions more than he ever bothers to. He also manages to keep Poitras and even Lady Gaga at a distance as he is questioned about his intents and of what might happen if WikiLeaks one day comes to a sudden halt.

Assange does address the sexual assault charges in how he feels the U.S. government will exploit them for the sake of turning the American people against them. Still, in her director’s statement, Poitras says there was legal and personal pressure and demands by him and his colleagues to remove scenes which deal with the sexual assault investigations, and this was further complicated by another member of his staff being accused of the same thing. “Risk” does not imply guilt on Assange’s part, but it also doesn’t prove he is innocent either. This, more than anything else, makes me wonder what was left out of the final cut. Assange appears assured that WikiLeaks can never be taken down, but it feels like his inner circle sees the dominoes falling down a lot quicker than he does.

Looking back, “Risk” is really more about Poitras than it is about Assange. We never see her face, but we do get narration from her throughout. On one hand, she has the kind of access so many others can only dream of having, but you feel her growing confusion as she continually wonders if she can ever figure this man out fully. At the end, it seems like she may never know as he becomes more and more remote to where she wonders if she has just been used to further his agenda.

Certainly, no one knows more about risk than Poitras as she has been constantly interrogated and detained by U.S. officials whenever she traveled internationally, but this has not deterred her from reporting on mass surveillance and getting Edward Snowden on camera to discuss what he knows about it. Her previous documentary, “Citizenfour,” quickly became one of the most politically potent films ever made about the power a government can have over its citizens and its quest to silence those who dissent. “Risk” finds her continuing her quest for the truth even as her main subject is at times elusive as the forces surrounding him become more determined to shut him down for good.

I wish the film had been more probing into Assange’s life as he still remains a bit of an enigma, and there will always be a cloud of distrust hanging over him until the day he dies. Still, “Risk” gives us the closest of looks at an organization which continues to expose the things your government doesn’t want you to know about. If you can get past its flaws, it is a compelling watch which will have you contemplating the future of the free press and the first amendment. It ends on an ominous note as the FBI is determined to prosecute anybody and everybody involved with WikiLeaks, and I left the theater wondering how much longer we will have the First Amendment to fall back on. Hopefully, it will never disappear, but with the Trump administration, many unthinkable things have suddenly become possible.

* * * out of * * * *