In “Grand Illusion,” the 1937 classic film about prisoners of war during WWI, there’s a moment when two escapees are seen crossing a vast field of snow. The troops chasing them stop and let them go because they have crossed the border into neutral territory. The imaginary line is akin to the tradition of picking the best of the year in December. It’s a total arbitrary demarcation that works only because we all share in the “illusion” that calendar years are distinct time periods. As in past years, this is really my ten favorite films of 2018, the ones I was most apt to recommend when asked.
STAN & OLLIE – Steve Coogan and, especially, John C. Reilly give incredible performances as the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy at the end of their careers. Long-time partners on-screen, it was while touring England and Ireland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s that the two became friends. As biography, as show business story, and – most subtly – as a look at taking stock of one’s life in later years, this is a film that has stuck with me.
BLACK PANTHER – Are you tired of superhero movies yet? They may have started to blur together, particularly as the “Marvel Universe” films all play into each other. This one was unique, with an incredible cast – headed up by Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Michael B. Jordan as a villain whose motives were pure – taking us to places we hadn’t seen. Director Ryan Coogler managed to make an Afro-centric film that spoke to everyone, even people who didn’t think they could sit through a superhero movie.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS – I came into this knowing nothing about it except its vaguely suspect title and came out utterly charmed. As a fan of romantic comedies (and the author of I’ll Have What She’s Having), it was a pleasure to come across a romantic comedy that actually worked. The first all-Asian cast Hollywood film since the early ‘90s, it managed to be both specific and universal as an American academic learns that her boyfriend is part of one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. Vivid, colorful, and a whole lot of fun.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – There were a number of good documentaries this year, but this look at the life and work of Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood,” was the film that was the perfect antidote to the ugly, divisive times we find ourselves in. Rogers was a special person, and his inherent decency is something that we could use now. A lovely tribute to a man who quietly made a difference.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – I couldn’t have told you much about the rock group Queen going in. The film hits the expected beats one expects in a Hollywood biopic. What makes this a standout, apart from the recreation of a landmark concert appearance, is Rami Malek’s star turn as the group’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. He burns up the screen in a performance that was one of the outstanding acting jobs of the year.
FIRST MAN – Ryan Gosling’s tendency to underplay his roles can sometimes be annoying as he seems to be sleepwalking through a movie. However, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was taciturn and introverted, and Gosling’s portrayal showed us a man who did the job but wasn’t interested in the grandstanding. There are moments when he lets the mask slip and lets his interior feelings out, but for the most part it’s a portrait of a public man who let his actions speak for themselves, carrying his losses without demanding anyone’s sympathy, including his own family.
GREEN BOOK – This story of working class and somewhat racist white guy (Viggo Mortensen) hired to drive a brilliant pianist (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be black, through the South in the early ‘60s is about race, class, and male bonding. Both men (who, in real life, became lifelong friends) had to overcome their prejudices to connect with the other. It’s a feelgood movie that tells us something about ourselves and why we need to face the racial divides in this country.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 85, is a rock star. This is the second film about her this year, after the documentary “RBG.” This drama focuses on her tackling her first big sex discrimination case after having faced such discrimination herself at Harvard Law School and then out in the real world. It’s a movie that helps us understand why this is an issue for men as well as women, and why Ginsburg was marked for greatness right from the start.
THE HATE U GIVE – The dystopia in this adaptation of a YA novel was not set in the far future but in the present day, where a black teenage girl sees a friend pointlessly shot down by the police and has to decide what to do about it. If the ending is a bit pat, it’s still a film that confronts a number of painful truths. Black or white, this was a movie that told you something you needed to hear and left you with the idea that while one should not give up all hope, addressing matters won’t be easy.
OPERATION FINALE – What is it like to confront absolute evil? For the Israeli agent played by Oscar Isaac, it involves figuring out how to get Adolph Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, to cooperate in his removal from Argentina to stand trial for his crimes. Ben Kingsley is chilling as Eichmann. At a time when people on the far left and far right rationalize antisemitism, this is a timely film that reminds us that those who don’t learn from history may be doomed to repeat it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.