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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‘Man of Steel’ is Not Just a Bird or a Plane

Man of Steel movie poster

I grew up watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves playing the iconic character, and I loved how he stood still and never blinked an eye when the bad guys shot bullets at him. Then came the movies with Christopher Reeve playing the sole survivor of Krypton, and I reveled in watching him give us the definitive version of this heroic character. Since then, Superman has not been the same for me as his goody two shoes image makes him seem a little dull compared to Batman, and the character has gone through various interpretations on television and in comic books to where I’m not sure what to make of him, or his alter ego Clark Kent, anymore.

I liked “Superman Returns” more than most people because it reminded me of the effect this iconic character had on me when I was young, and Bryan Singer made it clear we needed a hero like Superman now more than ever. However, the more Singer paid homage to the first two “Superman” movies, the more it paled in comparison to them. The character is now more than 75 years old and in desperate need of a reboot to stay relevant to today’s increasingly cynical society.

Now we have “Man of Steel” which takes Superman back to his beginnings to where we have to go through all the origin stuff yet again. This threatens to make the movie a bit tedious as we all know Superman was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton and how his parents sent him to Earth before Krypton exploded. But what’s interesting is how director Zack Snyder tells Superman’s story in a non-linear fashion to where we’re never quite sure which direction the movie is going to take. Snyder also shows us how, while it may seem cool to be Superman, being him can also be quite lonely and painful.

For the filmmakers, the real challenge was making Superman more down to earth than he has been in the past and, for the most part, they succeeded. We all have experienced loneliness and alienation in our childhood and the changes our bodies go through, be it puberty or something else, which can drive us to the brink of insanity. But what’s worse for Kal-El, who is now named Clark Kent by his human parents, is he can’t really ask anyone for advice on how to deal with x-ray vision or super hearing abilities. While this kid is capable of doing great things, you can understand why he yearns for the normal life constantly denied to him.

I liked the scenes dealing with Superman’s childhood because they rang true emotionally, and the wisdom his human father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) passes on to him makes sense. Yes, this young man has super powers, but he’s got to keep them under wraps until he can learn the truth about where he came from. It’s frustrating, but it helps to keep Superman from being subjected to crazy medical experiments by the government and from growing an oversized ego which will definitely get the best of him.

Since the first half of “Man of Steel” is told in a non-linear fashion, it doesn’t take long for us to meet Henry Cavill, the latest actor to play Superman. It also doesn’t take long for him to remove his shirt and show us how much time he has spent at the gym. Cavill’s road to playing this iconic character has been a tough one as he came so close to getting cast in “Superman Returns,” and for a while he was known as the unluckiest man in Hollywood as he barely missed out on playing Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and Edward Cullen in “Twilight.” How nice it is to see Cavill finally get his moment in the spotlight.

Cavill does solid work here as Superman, and he also gives us a Clark Kent who is unlike the four-eyed wimp we all remember him being. This is a Kent who wanders from job to job, haunted by an upbringing he has yet to learn more about, and it is a journey which has toughened him up quite a bit. Cavill also benefits from getting to play a more complex Superman in “Man of Steel” whereas the one we saw in “Superman Returns” was kind of neutered (no offense Brandon Routh). While he doesn’t quite have the same charisma Reeve brought to Superman, Cavill is a terrific choice for the role and he has more than earned the right to play him in this and future movies (and you know there will be more).

But as with “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Brothers put their nerves at ease by surrounding Cavill with a cast filled with stars and Oscar winners. I very much enjoyed Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and he gives a wonderfully understated performance as Kal-El’s human father. However (SPOILER ALERT), I’m pretty certain I have not seen another actor other than him who looked so ridiculously serene as an enormous hurricane came barreling down on him (SPOLIERS END).

Diane Lane is also well cast as Kal-El’s human mother, Martha, and it’s a treat to see this actress in anything and everything she does. Plus, even as Martha heads into old age, Lane still looks irresistibly sexy as she refuses to betray her son’s whereabouts to General Zod. Some credit should go to Snyder for this as he doesn’t plaster Lane with the same hideous old-age makeup he used on Carla Gugino in “Watchmen.” I am so very glad he learned his lesson.

Speaking of General Zod, the great character actor Michael Shannon plays him in “Man of Steel.” Shannon does make him a compelling nemesis to Superman, and I liked how the actor portrays Zod as a man led by a corrupted sense of loyalty rather than just a power hungry villain. His work in “Man of Steel,” however, pales a bit in comparison to his galvanizing turn as serial killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.” Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much from Shannon this time around as I was hoping he would give us a villain for the ages. But even though he doesn’t, he is still very good here.

In addition, Amy Adams gives us a strong Lois Lane who doesn’t falter in the face of supernatural discoveries, Laurence Fishburne makes for a good Perry White, Antje Traue makes Faora into a tremendously lethal villainess, and it’s hard to think of anyone other than Russell Crowe to play Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. Crowe gives the role a gravitas not easily earned, and you will be pleased to know that he doesn’t sing in this film. I am, however, willing to defend his performance and singing in “Les Misérables.”

The one major complaint I had with “Man of Steel” was the spectacle at times overwhelmed the story and characters. This is not to say the characters are neglected, but I’m not sure I have seen as many high-rise buildings come crashing down in one movie. Just when I think I have seen the loudest action movie ever made, another one comes along to remind me of the necessity of ear plugs. In the process of giving us one tremendous action scene after another, Snyder ends up topping himself a bit too much to where I was desperate for him to tone things down. Still, he respects Superman enough to keep the character’s ideals intact even while taking some liberties.

Part of me still yearns for the “Superman” of yesterday when Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, and of how the first two movies lifted my spirits up high. I think part of how you enjoy “Man of Steel” depends on how willing you are to separate it from all the “Superman” films which preceded it, and for me this is tough. But in the end, there’s no way things can stay the same, and this iconic character was in need of a refresher. With “Man of Steel,” Snyder has given us an exciting piece of entertainment which holds our attention for over two hours, and I am eager to see where Superman will go from here.

* * * out of * * * *

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ is His Biggest and Most Flawed Film So Far

Noah movie poster

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a movie I have conflicted feelings about. On one hand it is a deeply flawed effort with moments which belong in another movie, but on the other hand it brings up questions inspired by the actions of the characters which I found endlessly fascinating, and those same questions stayed with me long after the movie ended. With “Noah,” Aronofsky has been handed the biggest budget he has ever had to make a movie with, but what amazes me is how much of his vision ended up on the silver screen. You’d think Paramount Pictures would have the last say on final cut, but Aronofsky has managed to graduate to the big leagues without losing his unique voice as a filmmaker.

The movie gets off to a shaky start as we watch a young Noah being initiated into manhood by his father with what looks like a magical snakeskin, but then his father is brutally murdered in front of him by Tubal-Cain and Noah runs like hell to get away from him and his followers. For a moment, I thought this would turn into a revenge movie with Noah going after Tubal-Cain to where the ark becomes a secondary story. Fortunately, this was not the case.

The story then leaps forward many years later when Noah (now played by Russell Crowe) is a husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a father of three boys: Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, it’s not long until Noah begins having frightening dreams about a great flood swallowing up every living and breathing thing on earth. Eventually, he comes to discover he has been giving a mission: to build an enormous ark and fill it up with animals so that when the great flood comes to wipe out the evilness of humanity, the animals will survive to restart civilization anew.

One of the big stumbling blocks of “Noah” comes when we are introduced to fallen angels known as the “Watchers.” They are these enormous stone creatures who tower over all humans, and they kept reminding me of those tree creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Furthermore, the “Watchers” almost took me out of the movie completely and had me thinking about those stone creatures William Shatner wanted to put in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” While watching “Noah,” I kept thinking about what Shatner must have been thinking when he Aronofsky’s film. Shatner was probably thinking, “Damn you Aronofsky! My film had biblical themes in it too! Why didn’t I get to put any stone creatures in my movie?”

When all those animals start making their way to the almost completed ark, you can tell they were all created using CGI effects. Then again, I can’t blame Aronofsky for going this route as directing real life animals must feel next to impossible especially in a movie like this. Plus, if he did get access to real animals, how would he have dealt with all those animal droppings the crew would have spent hours trying to clean up? Imagine the smell that would have created. Yuck!

As “Noah” continued on, the things which bothered me began to make sense, and the film really hit its stride just before the ark sets sail in the flood. I figured the movie would end there, but it goes on to look at how Noah and his family deal with issues like survivor’s guilt and questioning the motivations of “the creator” (the word God is never mentioned). Aronofsky does terrific work in giving all these characters complexities which render them far more fascinating, and the challenges they face come to define who they are. This is not a good guy vs. bad guy story as all the characters inhabit a morally grey area, and it gets to where we’re not sure who to root for.

Since his Oscar winning turn in “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s career has been all over the place as he has given terrific performances in “Cinderella Man” and “American Gangster” and suffered through cinematic misfires like “A Good Year” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” As Noah, Crowe does some of the best work he’s done in a while as he humanizes a character made famous through biblical tales. When Noah threatens a course of action which may very well to his family apart, Crowe still makes us feel for him as he struggles to remain true to what is asked of him.

Jennifer Connelly also gives one of her best performances as Noah’s wife, Naameh, and no, she does not play Joan of Arc (Keanu Reeves got that wrong in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). As Naameh, she plays a character similar to the one she played in “A Beautiful Mind;” a woman very much in love with her husband and yet deeply afraid of what he is capable of doing. Connelly is no stranger to the Aronofsky universe, having given such an earth shattering performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” and she is not afraid to go to emotional extremes. Watching her trying to reach her husband, Connelly sucks you vividly into the fearful state she has been thrust into, and she makes us share in her desperation to protect what is left of humanity.

“Noah” is also well served by a strong supporting cast which includes Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson who shows there is more to her than playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” movies. In addition, Aronofsky brings along his dedicated team of collaborators such as editor Andrew Weisblum, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Speaking of Mansell, he gives us yet another great film score with “Noah.” While it might not be on a par with his work on “Requiem for a Dream,” he gives the movie a great emotional power, and he continues to be one of the more unique film composers working i today.

So again, “Noah” has some glaring flaws I could have done without, but its strengths eventually outweigh its weaknesses to where the movie had a strong impact on me. I’m not sure I will ever forget hearing all those screams from people begging to be rescued while Noah and his family sail away in the ark, and Aronofsky is fearless in questioning the audience as to what they would have done were they in his position. This movie also shows how even biblical characters have dysfunctional families to deal with, so we have no business being surprised when we have to deal with the same thing in life.

When all is said and done, I’m glad that Aronofsky managed to get his vision of “Noah” to the big screen without too much studio interference. All the same, I hope he thinks twice about putting giant stone creatures in his next film.

* * * out of * * * *

 

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys poster 1

After exploring the superhero genre with “Iron Man 3,” writer and director Shane Black returns to the one he mastered years ago: the buddy cop movie. Black is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which he also directed. Now he gives us “The Nice Guys” which takes us back to the 1970’s and teams up Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as men involved in a murder mystery only they can solve.

“The Nice Guys” takes us back to 1977 and even features the “Big W” Warner Brothers logo Ben Affleck used to great effect in “Argo.” We even get some nice retro credits presented to the tune of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” so it doesn’t take Black long to transport us back to a time where laws against smoking were nowhere as strict as they are today. Black gives us some wonderful introductions to enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling), men who are not at their peak of their lives and are looking for reasons to justify their existence.

Like Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in “The Last Boy Scout,” Jackson and Holland do not get off to the best start, and this is especially the case after Jackson breaks Holland’s arm with what seems like little ease. But the both of them come to see they need each other to discover the whereabouts of Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), a missing girl who may be connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Actually, describing the plot of this movie is a bit complicated as it is a little hard to follow, but perhaps a second viewing will help to answer questions viewers had the first time around.

Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, still knows how to create potent dialogue with a kick to it, and it makes the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe all the more palpable. After all these years, Black can still deliver a number of zingers few other screenwriters could pull off with as much success. As a director, he captures the mood of the 1970’s with a lot of flair and panache, and he makes the audience feel all the kicks and punches which come at them with fierce brutality.

Gosling nails the vulnerabilities and complications of Holland with a fearlessness, and he renders certain moments like when he suddenly discovers a dead body with an originality which makes them all the more memorable. As for Crowe, he has never had much success with comedy judging from his failed turn as a romantic comedy leading man in “A Good Year.” But here he fares much better as Jackson as this role plays on his strengths as a tough guy while at the same time playing around with this image of his. When he stares down a suspect he’s about to give a serious beating to, it makes you wonder why he even bothers wearing brass knuckles. His demeanor should be more than enough to intimidate anybody foolish enough to cross his path.

I also have to single out Angourie Rice’s performance as Holland’s daughter, Holly, as she more than holds her own opposite Gosling and Crowe. She also reminds us of how the younger generation is quick to call out their parents on the baloney they feed them on a regular basis. Rice makes Holy into a young girl wise beyond her years as a result of watching her dad fumble about much too often in life. She also reminds us of how we eventually become too benumbed by the unfairness of life as she holds a high moral standard that we have long since given up on out of hopelessness, and it makes for some powerful scenes in which she reminds the adults of why they are flat out wrong on certain issues.

“The Nice Guys” provides audiences with the opportunity to seek out a movie not populated with superheroes, and it is unafraid to brush political correctness aside without a second look. It’s giddy fun as it doesn’t conform to the cinematic norm which is overly influenced by corporations and needless test screenings. This one is its own beast, and taming it does it no justice. Either enjoy for what it is or see something else.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *