2018 has come and gone, and we’re a bit late on getting you our favorite flicks to hit the big (and small) screen this year. That’s just the type of year it was, though. Am I right?

But this past year wasn’t all that bad. Superhero fans witnessed the Marvel Cinematic Universe grow EVEN BIGGER. Streaming services continued to produce loads of original content, ensuring that our decision-making abilities are doomed to suffer even more in 2019. And loads of new directors and writers and actors and actresses delivered fresh, awe-inspiring performances.

Enough of the pleasantries, though. You’ve waited long enough! This year, fellow Mockingbird cinephile Jason Thompson and I joined forces to share our 17 favorite films produced in 2018. We hope that you enjoy, and, as always, let us know what you think. Tell us what movies from this past year pulled on your heart strings the most in the comments section below!

Leave No Trace:

In 2010, Debra Granik shined the spotlight on a no-name, twenty-year-old Jennifer Lawrence in her gritty, sophomore feature Winter’s Bone. Lawrence would obviously go on to become a global, household name. Granik flexed her talent-scouting muscles once again when she cast Thomasin McKenzie to play Tom, the daughter of a vagrant, war veteran Will, played by the always underrated Ben Foster. Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel, Leave No Trace documents the discreet apprehension of Will’s desire to be a loving and providing father while he grapples against the societal decay that wrecked his own life. LNT’s first fifteen minutes resembles John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic film The Road, as Will seeks to pass on the military, survival tactics that have become ingrained in him onto Tom: live off the land, ration your resources, and most importantly, to remain invisible.

In order to abandon society, they’ve outcasted themselves deep into an Oregon national park. Which is ironic in that they’ve displaced themselves from organized community and government within a massive plot of government-owned land. While the father/daughter duo may not be hiding from fanged creatures or rogue militias, the restrained effects of Will’s PTSD are just as haunting as the biggest and baddest of mythical monsters.

It is clear that Granik cared deeply for her subjects in how she circumspectly projected their fears. Will has raised a teenager in the middle of the woods, away from comfort, modern medicine, and technology, but I’d hesitate to say that he ever appeared out of his mind. He’s hurt and his care for his daughter is boisterous even when he appears unable to vocalize it. Instead of saying “I love you, Tom” or “I love you, Dad” the two make clicking sounds with their mouths. It’s their own way to express their love through a language completely untainted by the throes of civilization. LNT is an eerie, memorable examination in the hope of existing, and even more so, belonging. – Joe Nooft

Leave No Trace is available to digitally rent or by on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Avengers: Infinity War

In Marvel’s latest installment of the Avengers saga, Infinity War, we see a picture of ourselves in the primary villain Thanos. He desperately seeks salvation and immortality via a quest to attain the six infinity stones emitted by the universe and dispersed across the cosmos at the dawn of time. Possessing these jewels would grant him sovereignty over the entire universe…but at the expense of half its inhabitants — a price he has already rationalized as being just and necessary in order to restore balance to all things. Thanos’ pursuit of the elemental crystals is a quest to attain the unattainable…to grasp, contain and hold in his hand the law.

We are all Thanos: from the beginning of time, we were not content to be a people ‘held’ and cared for by God, but instead, we wanted to hold, control, contain God — a desire tantamount to wanting to be and replace Him. This is what essentially constituted our reaching for the forbidden fruit. (See Genesis 3:1-5.) Our only hope is in the true ‘people of God’, Jesus, who freed us as He fulfilled the Law, uttering in his dying breath, ‘into Your hands I commit my spirit’.

Unlike Thanos, Jesus didn’t make his own self-righteous decisions about who should die in order to restore balance to the universe… He didn’t sacrifice those closest to him in order to attain godhood… He sacrificed himself to rescue those who hated and wanted to supplant God..in order to bring His enemies close to himself. Jesus did better than restore universal balance, he died to redeem all of creation, space, time, heavens, and the earth. Though he was in the form of God, he became nobody and was willing to rest in God and be loved and cared for by God…for us. – Jason Thompson

Infinity War is currently streaming on Netflix, and available to digitally rent or buy on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

The Rider:

After shooting her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in South Dakota, Chinese director Chloé Zhao returned to South Dakota to begin research on her next project. That’s when she met Brady Jandreau, a quiet but confident young cowboy who was a budding star within the rodeo circuit. Zhao’s relationship with Jandreau truly blossomed after a rodeo bull nearly killed him by stomping on his skull. As Brady attempted to push the limits of his rehabilitation, striving to ride once again, Zhao cautioned her new friend against it, for the sake of his own life. To which Jandreau replied, “Not riding, I didn’t feel alive anyway.” Thus The Rider was born.

This film is a fictionalized version of Brady’s real-life story; his identity as a cowboy and his road to recovery. Not fictionalized, however, were the actors who Zhao cast to play Brady and his support system. Nearly the entire cast was hired to play themselves, including Brady, his father Tim, and his sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s syndrome. The Rider is perhaps 2018’s most emotionally honest film. When Brady cries on camera, his tears are not conjured up by faux sadness. He’s drawing inspiration from his own story; his own struggle to declare his own identity. It’s unclear whether Jandreau has any desire to extend his acting career, or whether or not he would be any good at acting outside of his own world, but his performance in The Rider is as vivid and portentous as a South Dakotan sunset. – Joe Nooft

The Rider is streaming with a subscription on STARZ, and available to digitally rent or by on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Green Book:

There’s nothing exceptional in the narrative formula for 2018’s Green Book. We’ve seen these recycled tropes previously: the road trip, civil rights/racial reconciliation, buddy movie, etcetera in the likes of films such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, In the Heat of the Night, and Driving Miss Daisy. In this based-on-a-true-story depiction of the ironic relationship between a working-class Italian con artist and an erudite, upper-class Black jazz musician, these standard plot elements do not suffocate what turns out to produce a lighthearted comedic commentary on where the lines fall in terms of racial, class, social, and even sexual identity.

The actual Green Book for which the film is named represents a form of the codified rules and ‘law’ that perpetuated the recent era of segregation and Jim Crow. I had no idea such a publication existed that informed Black motorists and travelers where they and could and could not stop for rest on long trips. I can relate to the film’s premise in that growing up, we took a lot of trips to Mississippi and Arkansas to visit relatives. In the earlier years of these family vacations, though, my Dad would drive straight through without even one overnight motel stop. Why? Because he inherited this practice from his father — one of several Black southerners who participated in the Great Migration during the 1940s and 50s. My Papa never stopped to sleep at motels…because it was literally a life and death matter to do so.

Jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley (portrayed by Mahershala Ail) is on a musical tour and social justice mission to break these barriers, but he believes it is love, not violence that changes hearts. He wants to help Tony ‘Lip’ (Viggo Mortensen) become a better man (a better romantic to his wife, a less profane communicator, and less prone to outburst of anger). Simultaneously, Tony gives the doctor lessons on ‘how to be black’… The scenes, unfortunately, remain surface-level as all we really get are sentimental soliloquies, soapbox monologues, and cultural diatribes exchanged where the White guy has to teach the Black guy about the nuances of eating fried chicken and being hip to Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Chuck Berry.

Still, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and it ended up proving to be a heartwarming viewing experience. I think what made it work overall was the genuineness and organic spontaneity of their extremely unlikely friendship punctuated by moments of humor that undergird the film’s tone. – Jason Thompson

Green Book is currently playing in theaters.

Hereditary:

Director Ari Aster told The Ringer’s Sean Fennessy that he did not pitch Hereditary as a horror film, even though it currently ranks as Metacritic’s 12th highest rated horror film of all time. Instead, he classified it as a family drama. Aster did, however, remark that his first feature is a film that “aims to upset you” and that seeing it “should be a pummeling experience.” Ari’s aim for Hereditary was on target. Hereditary did, in fact, pummel me. I exited the theater in a proverbial cloud of dust. Aster isn’t just being snobbish about the classification of his baby. His film is, at its core, about a family running from its past, which has begun to bleed into their present to dictate their future. Toni Collette delivers a harrowing performance as Annie, a wife, and mother of two, who blindly labors to escape the consequences of sins bequeathed to her and her family.

It’s standard practice in the horror genre for a villain, be it man, monster, or demon, to inflict the lion’s share of havoc, but in Hereditary, the victims often victimize themselves. Sure, they’re influenced and at times altered by the supernatural, but their attempts to correct their own paths always lead them right into harm’s way. Hereditary’s scenes are either still or set to pan slowly; often harmoniously with Colin Stetson’s straining score. Its air is thick and humid; like a dormant volcano regaining consciousness.

Aster is the latest of directors throwing their hat into the increasingly popular, cerebral-horror ring (see David-Robert Mitchell (It Follows), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Robert Eggers (The Witch)). Perhaps this genus of the ever-evolving horror genre continues to gain steam because it makes you feel…something. Even if it is pure terror. – Joe Nooft

Hereditary is available to digitally rent or buy on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

The Hate U Give:

In George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, a teen girl must navigate life between two worlds: as an inner city black girl attending a suburban prep school and as Starr Carter, a hometown resident of Garden Heightsan intergenerational community unfortunately plagued by excessive gun violence, drugs, and economic blight. Starr not only has to differentiate and adapt to two worlds…she interchanges between two identities echoing the sentiment of W. E. B. Dubois’ concept of double consciousness and hearkening to the semi-autobiographical experience detailed in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

The pathos inherent in Amandla Stenberg’s performance convinces us of her character’s visceral struggle daily to figure out who she is and where she fits in. At school, she’s afraid to be too black for the white kids in the neighborhood, but her peers judge her for being too white. Intimate family moments are constantly interrupted by sporadic incidents of gunfire and harassment from law enforcement. Her white friends don’t know her beyond the stereotypes they have embraced about her culture. She’s afraid of the repercussions from her own neighbors if she’s too vocal about the criminal activity she witnesses.

I appreciated the development of her internal conflict which bears serious theological as well as social implications salient for many in Black America. Tillman excelled at capturing the tension between having to be afraid of both police and the criminal element in the neighborhoodbetween having to maintain an acceptable façade among white peers while not appearing like a sellout or alienating members of your own community.

There’s a social justice arc that, in my opinion, failed to escape the trappings of an extended PSA or a bad after-school special. Still, her most vulnerable moments occur in cars, with boyfriends. We see her world through her interactions with her white boyfriend, Chris, whom she informs with powerful emotion, “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me!” And then there’s Khalil, her childhood friend, fellow Harry Potter wizard and unofficial first love who jokingly grills her for possibly liking indie rock instead of Tupac whom he idolizes…and who indirectly supplies the film’s title acronym: The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone (THUGLIFE). The issues on the table in this film are of utmost importance in light of recent events concerning police brutality, racial profiling, and America’s apparent regression in race relations. But the personal dimension to Starr’s coming-of-age story supersedes the politics and makes for a worthwhile viewing experience. – Jason Thompson

The Hate U Give is currently playing in theaters.

Private Life:

It had been over a decade since Tamara Jenkins wrote and directed her last feature, The Savages, a family drama starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, about two siblings caring for their dying father. She kept it in the family with Private Life, a hilarious, melancholy movie about a middle-aged couple’s infertility trials. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are perfectly cast as the film’s leading couple, Rachel and Richard Grimes. Together, they are a Big Apple-creative, power couple whose youthful decision to postpone parenthood in favor of their careers is finally showing its teeth. We also had the privilege of being introduced to new-comer Kayli Carter, who plays the Grimes’ exuberant young niece (note: I may be biased towards Carter, since she is a product of my small hometown, Oviedo, FL, but look out for this one in the future).

What Jenkins does best, in The Savages and now in Private Life, is establishing tone and pace. There’s a brilliance to the way that she affords Private Life’s leads the proper time to develop their idiosyncrasies and individualities, while the couple grows more and more emotionally winded as they sprint to avoid the blast from their biological ticking time bomb. This film’s earnestness is crafted by Jenkins’ ability to balance humor and heartbreak with elegance. In doing so, the director scrubs away the years of grime compiled by complacency within Richard and Rachel’s marriage. When the muck is gone, the couple’s commitment to each other becomes more magnificent than either of their personal successes or shameful shortcomings. Private Life is heartwarming mostly because it doesn’t hide behind anything. – Joe Nooft

Private Life is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Other Side of the Wind:

Orson Welles’ final film The Other Side of the Wind narrates the story of Jack Hannaford (portrayed by Welles’ close friend and fellow filmmaker John Huston), who represents a summation of what Welles had become by the 1970san unappreciated director, rejected by Hollywood, displaced by a new generation of filmmakers, yet desperately attempting to redeem himself through making one last great motion picture. This film is filled with numerous cryptic images that you might be able to decode if you’re a film history buff. Characters meant to represent the likes of Peter Bogdanovich (Welles’ protégé) and the late film critic Pauline Kael populate the screen and interact with Hannaford in scenes where the fourth wall has dissolved and we feel like we’re drifting through a cross between cinéma vérité and postwar European art cinema. 

Wind resembles later Jean-Luc Godard films that became increasingly bizarre and abstract, moving even further beyond the director’s abandonment of straightforward narrative in favor of expounding on the meaninglessness of life, his characters’ apathy, and the frustrating mystery of romance and sexuality. Yet the male-female sexual dynamic portrayed in Wind isn’t the ultimate point. It’s metaphoric for the relationship between the director and the viewer vis-à-vis the cinema.

An accompanying documentary (also available on Netflix), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, helps us interpret Wind…somewhat. In it, we learn that in one respect, Welles himself is the wind. The film contained everything about Welles he never expressed in more well known, conventional films like Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. Here, we have the director’s exploration of sex, human depravity, his criticism and disdain of male posturing and machismo, etc. The initial inaccessibility of the film reflects the impossibility of the viewer to know Welles. The wind can’t be captured. A director’s vision can’t finally be contained or conveyed. Wind ironically utilizes the filmic medium to say that film itself is limited.

A director can’t perfectly express the invisible. A desert scene, in which wind tosses about sand and large phallic structures, communicates the impossibility of actually filming Wind. We can’t capture or film the wind. We witness Hannaford’s production fall apart. We’re perplexed when his leading man is decapitated and instantly transforms into a mannequina plastic façade commenting on the futility of life under the law. At best, all we can do in this vain life is grasp after the wind. All we can hope for is the better, unpredictable, spontaneous wind of grace and forgivenessnothing else matters (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:5). –Jason Thompson

The Other Side of the Wind is currently streaming on Netflix.

Mid90s:

Most of the negative criticism directed towards Jonah Hill’s debut feature was that he struggled to conclusively state exactly what he wanted Mid90s to be. Was it a film about a broken family? Or maybe about rebellious friends and skateboarding culture? Was it a coming-of-age movie, perhaps an abbreviated Boyhood, or a nostalgic review of a decade that millennials view with great fondness? I’ll admit that Hill’s Mid90s thesis is a bit scatterbrained, but anyone who remembers what it was like to be a teenager, no matter the decade, can recall feeling empty-headed and directionless. In this sense, the film’s haphazardness feels less like a flaw and more like an essential part of Hill’s creative process. Mid90s may not know what it wants to be, but that’s because neither do its main characters. They just want to skate and belong.

While Mid90s is not the cinematic masterpiece that Greta Gerwig’s euphoric Lady Bird was, it is the closest we got to it in 2018, at least tonally. Hill’s cast is full of inexperienced but vibrant young actors. Thirteen-year-old Sunny Suljic had quietly been collecting acting roles when Jonah Hill discovered him at a skatepark and instantly cast him as the film’s lead, Stevie. Na-kel Smith and Olan Prenatt, two young, pro skateboarders, had zero acting experience before Hill took a chance on them both, casting them as members of the unruly clique that would take Stevie in. His risks produced success. The ragtag bunch fostered a true sense of communal connectivity. Hill treats Stevie similarly to how Greta treated Lady Bird, transfusing his fictional character with the experiences of his own youth and finding unexpected acceptance within the skateboarding community as an unathletic, overweight teen.

With an 85-minute runtime, Mid90s starts and ends as quickly as our teenage years do. It’s a gritty, empathetic look at a journey, where youthful exuberance shields the innate desire to belong to something, or anything. – Joe Nooft

Mid90s is available to digitally purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Annihilation:

It’s a real shame that Paramount mishandled the distribution of Alex Garland’s sophomore feature Annihilation. An adaptation to Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy, the film was doomed to a short and underwhelming box office stay before it was even released. As Garland had proven in his directorial debut with 2014’s Ex Machina, he’s more than capable of blending sci-fi content with social and individual commentary. Think Black Mirror season 1. Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who volunteers to explore a plot of the Florida coastline which has been encapsulated by a mysterious, translucent wall referred to as the Shimmer. Lena, along with an all-female team of doctors and scientists, seeks to uncover simply what the Shimmer is and does. Only one other person who has crossed its hypnotic border has returned. That person was Lena’s husband, a special forces operative who was regurgitated by the Shimmer in not-so-great condition.

Pacing is methodical and occasionally makes nonlinear jumps through the film’s timeline, but when one of Garland’s thrilling sequences hits, it packs a punch. The viewer experiences the acute grogginess of the Shimmer, right alongside the film’s characters. Littered throughout the film are visual inferences of how both inter- and intra-personal desires infect and evolve one’s self. Annihilation is a spooky examination of the inevitable: we are all set to self-destruct, and we are all doomed to become the creature that our self-destruction molds.

After three viewings, a montage displayed early in the film stands out to me: as Lena reflects on her past life with her husband in their warmly lit home, Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” plays. The song’s lyrics may as well have been the screenplay for the sequence, as they are symbiotic with the action and foreshadow the autophagy theme, which had been mentioned just minutes earlier:

One person,
Two alone,
Three together,
Four each other.

Joe Nooft

Annihilation is streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu, with a subscription on STARZ, and available to digitally rent or by on YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Widows:

In Steve McQueen’s Widows, Viola Davis gives a solid performance as the recently widowed Veronica Rawlings whose husband’s (Liam Neeson) death leaves her in financial straits and forces her, along with two other widows, to learn to fend for herself. What follows is a well edited and cinematographically competent film that only scratches the surface of a number of relevant social topics, like race relations, interracial marriage, class dynamics, and political corruption in major metropolitan cities.

McQueen intersperses comedy sparingly enough that it doesn’t turn the movie into a goofy crime slapstick like Mad Money, a film it actually resembles. It had this Oceans Eleven meets Crash meets Set It Off feel. Some parts are predictable, but without being too cliche. The most interesting thread was the Mrs. Rawling storyline and the use of a series of flashbacks to depict her character’s blend of assertion and vulnerability as she attempts to process a family tragedy that created unresolved tension between her and her deceased husband. The past and the present switch places as McQueen walks us backward through the life of our heroine, whose grit and resiliency call to mind Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lara Croft.     

A memorable moment featuring a hip-hop freestyle cipher introduces Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya’s character as a ruthless hitman who does all the dirty work for his more straight-laced, yet duplicitous brother who wants out of the criminal underworld in exchange for a new life in politics. Jamal Manning has his headquarters for his aldermanic campaign ironically in a church. And it’s here where we see a critical scene early on that contrasts him with his opponent, Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulliganan incumbent candidate who wants out of the inherited burden of politics. I wish there had been a more subtle and involved paralleling of these two men’s lives the way we see for example in Michael Mann’s Heat, where the cops and criminals are shown as being equally human, equally professional, and equally susceptible to good and evil. Though visually I enjoyed the flashes of stylistic techniques used by directors like Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson, I felt Widows suffered from too many storylines that didn’t receive the development that could have made for a powerfully probing examination of the intersecting lines of class, race, political ambition, and human depravity. – Jason Thompson

Widows is currently playing in theaters.

Black Panther:

Marvel’s Black Panther represents the first time a predominately black cast assumed the lead in a dramatic action film without the parodic characteristics that marked previous cinematic depictions like Blankman or Meteor Man. This is the movie I wished existed when I was 10 years old and only had the likes of Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, He-Man, and other Eurocentric icons to emulate. I appreciated the Shakespearean, Old Testament themes of intrafamilial conflict, battles over inheritance and birthright, plots to usurp the throne, political intrigue. The blending of genres was well done also: this movie was every bit reminiscent of Lion King, Coming to America, Metropolis, 007, Blade Runner as director Ryan Coogler constantly takes us in and out of romance, espionage, sci-fi, and adventure.

The main thread holding it all together is the father-son dynamic, as boys develop into men. Even as adults, we are at heart helpless children desperately looking to our fathers for identity, guidance, affirmation, and approval. In a scene dripping with Spielbergian sentimentality, we journey beyond antagonist Erik Stevens’ (Michael B Jordan) hard exterior and get into his most vulnerable place where he longs to reestablish that bond with his dad severed by familial betrayal and political differences. All he wants is to see the gorgeous sunsets of Wakanda because this equals acceptance by his people, and knowledge of his homeland and identity. Stevens pursues his identity by the way of ‘law,’ as he earns the moniker “Killmonger” for the number of kills he racks up as a military black ops agent. Additionally, he’s willing to collude with mercenaries just to attempt to a coup in the land he considers his true home.

The Black Panther has likewise lost his father, yet he seeks to right the wrongs of the ancestors not by way of vengeance, but by taking their blame on himself. In an interdimensional visit to the ancestral plane, T’Challa directs a poignant jeremiad at the departed souls of the Wakandan elders for their willingness to withhold from the African diaspora their nations’ resources, and for abandoning one they deemed to be an illegitimate son.

Set in Oakland, CA, the birthplace of the political activist group, the Black Panther Party, we see allusions to this organization that began as a free breakfast program for the youth in the community, but over time gained a reputation of having militant and antigovernment aims. Though invoking these references to the actual Black Panthers, Coogler’s ultimate message champions diplomacy over force and aggression as the way forward. In other words, grace triumphs over law. – Jason Thompson

Black Panther is currently streaming on Netflix, and available to digitally rent or buy on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Eighth Grade:

Is there a better person to write and direct a film about adolescent anxiety than Bo Burnham, who found YouTube fame as an anxious adolescent? However, as Burnham told the New Yorker, he never intended to make Eighth Grade solely about the eighth grade: “I wanted to talk about anxietymy own anxietyand I was coming to grips with that.” The anxiety vessel of Burnham’s choice was Kayla Day, played by the bright Elsie Fisher, who, throughout the film, attempts to become a YouTube sensation herself. Through her channel, Kayla aims to be what she is not in real life: confident, popular, a voice that is not only heard but cherished. While her videos do not give her the notoriety that she seeks, there is one person who does consistently cherish Kayla, in the dorkiest way: her father.

Throughout much of Eight Grade, Burnham tightly pairs Anna Meredith’s chaotic, synth-pop score to accentuate Kayla’s anxiety. But in one of the film’s few quieter scenes, Kayla is asked if she believes in God. For a 14-year-old girl who is struggling to transform herself into the girl she imagines she can be, belief in God could mean a couple different things. It could mean that she relates to God mythically, as a being who’s there when you need him the most. The issue with this belief system is that it assumes we are fully aware of ourselves and our needs. Or maybe she relates to God as a contemptuous character, whose love for her, if it exists at all, must be obligatory. But Burnham avoids placing his lead in the snares of these dogmas by how he crafts the character of Kayla’s father, who is consistently there. Always, annoyingly there; always engaging, even when it’s not reciprocated. And not just when Kayla thinks she needs him to be there, but when she vigorously does not want him to be there. His love for her is not expressed out of obligation. In fact, the fruit of his love for Kayla more often seems unrequired. He unabashedly and continuously expresses his love for her.

After Kayla is asked if she believes in God, she answers with coy confidence, “Umm…ya.” – Joe Nooft

Eighth Grade is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

WYBMN got a lot of love from Mockingbird this year. Deservingly so. It’s a wonderful character study on an individual who found rare success in positively impacting American culture for half a century. Documentarian Morgan Neville sheds light on Rogers’ ability and desire to creatively care for children. WYBMN was a welcome alleviation from the many side effects of 2018’s metaphorical ailments. In the midst of a combative political climate and a steady stream of cultural commentary, both stunning and sadistic, Neville’s documentary is a breath of fresh air.

Rogers was not secretive about his aim to personify Christ through his work. In no way does WYBMN seek to hide that, and it’s pretty magical that his legacy survives this trip. I’m not a huge fan of the argument that Christians are intentionally placed at the center of society; the God’s Not Dead movie-narrative if you will. However, it would be ignorant to not recognize that the Christian message is not always welcomed in pop-culture. Perhaps the distinction has more to do with the way we convey and convolute the theology of the Cross.

In WYBMN, Neville showcases many of Fred Rogers’ simple songs that he wrote and performed to communicate with children. One stands out above the rest: “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” In it, Rodgers sings,

You always make each day such a special day. You know how? By just being you! There’s only one person in the whole world exactly like you, and that’s you yourself, and people can like you exactly as you are.

He fails to include any prerequisites. No “well, actually.” No “but first.” Just a simple, “I like you because you are you.” And when he sings it, he’s inviting you and all of your baggage and all of your shame into his arms for a warm embrace. Rogers wasn’t concerned with spending time fixing people. I think he knew that was outside of his capabilities. Instead, he listened, he loved, and he cared. Rogers’ unabashedly honest approach to tackling tough subjects with children, and his impatience for all the extra fat regurgitated by pop culture, is on full display in Neville’s film. The final product communicates Rogers’ message clearly without censorship. When the credits rolled after WYBMN I wept and thought of all the people I love and who have loved me. No other film from 2018 had this effect on me. – Joe Nooft

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Sorry to Bother You:

Boots Riley’s breakout feature Sorry to Bother You stars Get Out‘s LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius Green. And though Riley’s film bore striking similarities to Jordan Peele’s 2017 groundbreaking allegorical horror film, Sorry to Bother You maintains a more layered and nuanced approach to social commentary. I don’t necessarily subscribe to its implicit Marxist ideology, but it was an interesting critique of capitalistic greed, consumerism, and our culture’s tendency to make people into commodities. Riley’s film, which was definitely the most inventive, creative, and the quirkiest picture I saw this year, displays Kubrick’s surreal dystopian influenceparticularly calling to mind Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

I appreciated the references to how society looks at vernacular as the defining mark of ‘race’ (and preferred the way Riley grappled with this versus Spike Lee’s approach in BlackkKlansman). Danny Glover’s character Langston, a veteran salesman and cynical office mate, urges Cassius to “use the white voice” in order to increase his success as a telemarketer, as well as to earn the trust of corporate officers. These wealthy executives eventually allow him access to the upper echelons of the professional business worlda realm in which excess, debauchery, and all forms of hedonistic indulgence run amok behind closed doors. And in the midst of cocaine snorting and the chants of privileged whites, they insist that Cassius pander to their preconceived, commercialized notions of negritude.

Riley brilliantly dubs in white actor and comedian David Cross’ voice as Cassius’ Caucasian vocal persona during the scenes where Stanfield’s character begins to experience significant social mobility. The message is clear and accurately speaks to the reality of how race, class, and diction inform societal advancement for many in Black America: Cassius has to be both white and black enough to fit in. White enough to be non-threatening; black enough to be entertaining.

Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is great as well, and I loved the sort of knockoff dark Beyoncé scene where she makes a political statement via performance art consisting of patrons throwing cell phones at her while she wears merely a bodysuit and a large glove. No character in this film insisted on taking themselves seriously, or rather they did, and the complete absurdity of their idiosyncrasies forced us, the viewers, to not take them seriously. Sorry to Bother You doesn’t offer much grace, but its hyperbolic exaggerations worked effectively to indict all of us for our natural inclinations for avarice, power, and social acceptance. – Jason Thompson

Sorry to Bother You is currently streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Roma:

Alfonso Cuarón took full control over Roma, writing, directing, shooting, and editing the film himself. It is such a substantial feat to take on when the content is so personal from start to finish. The details that he captures through the crispness of his cinematography are astounding. 

Roma possesses the visual mastery and captures the existential angst of Italian neo-realism replete with its depiction of the banality of everyday life. Cuarón employs long takes, a mostly stationary camera, and the lack of musical score to transform the ordinary into something transcendent. The line between the natural and the spiritual realm, between the mundane and the sacred, is constantly being crossed as panes of glass or a reflection in a watery surface comment on the veil separating this tedious earthly life against the longing for a life ‘beyond’ here. Cuarón’s slow-panning camerawork enhances the viewer’s ability to see the world through Cleo’s eyes, but also hints at the painful wondering of whether or not things will ever get better.

Opening with a masterful long take of a mere puddle that magically becomes a reflective palette recording the meticulous visual and aural detail of the film’s main protagonist, Roma portrays the life of Cleo, a young maid whose dark complexion disadvantages her in the racial dynamic of 1970s Mexico City. Cleo thanklessly scrubs floors and cares for children day in and day out for an ungrateful, condescending employer who refuses to allow her to feel like part of the family. Even the dog gets more consideration, though he constantly defecates on the hallway floors Cuarón intends as a metaphor for Cleo’s largely ignored life.

A particularly striking element in Roma concerns the juxtaposition between Cleo and her mistress as they struggle through similar circumstances. We get to see these characters, who couldn’t be more separated by class, essentially become two parts of a whole. There is so much symbolism and there are so many metaphors in this film, I feel like I could watch it over and over again and keep learning new things about it. – Jason Thompson

Roma is currently streaming on Netflix.

First Reformed:

First Reformed is writer and director Paul Schrader master class in how to properly execute a “slow-burning” narrative, while still providing his audience with convulsive, rousing content. Ethan Hawke plays the tormented Reverend Ernst Toller, who’s been charged with shepherding a historic but nearly obsolete church in upstate New York. Hawke’s performance, which is mature and complex, will likely net him his fifth Oscar nomination, and gives him his best shot to date to take home his first trophy.

Schrader employs the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio which gives his film a “retro” or nostalgic effect. This accentuates the state of Toller’s church, also named First Reformed Church, which is something of the past, rarely used, but still quaint and ethereal. When he frames his characters inside his boxy aspect ratio, Schrader depicts them as caged, constricted within their own moral obligations and shame. First Reformed Church was once a thriving sanctuary for slaves seeking shelter and asylum, but in its later years had transformed into a field trip destination for tourists, a souvenir shop. The church is financially maintained through the support of a contemporary megachurch, Abundant Life, pastored by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). This overwatch dynamic between the two churches delivers a harrowing commentary on the current state of the body of Christ; how, in many instances, it’s become politically managed by societal constructs and the bloodlust for power. To a Christian, it’s both convicting and insulting; it’s not comforting and I’m not sure that it should be.

After delivering a sermon to a congregation no larger than 10 people, Rev. Toller meets a young couple a: a pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger). The names, of course, allude to the mother of Jesus, and perhaps the archangel Michael, who throughout scripture is referred to as the protector of Israel, the angel who heralds the second coming of Christ. Michael, a conservation activist, believes it would be a heinous act to bring another life into this world, referencing this world’s impending environmental demise. If another life is to enter this world, then space must be cleared for that child to occupy. Mary, however, wishes to keep the child, at all costs. Toller takes it on himself to carry the weight of the couple’s quarrel, though he already carries the weight of his own physical, spiritual, and occupational burdens. Toller, however, was not created to bear the all the burdens of the world, and at its core, First Reformed is an account of a man as he wrestles with God, fully aware that the connection between prosperity and godliness is tenuous. “Will God forgive us?” Toller journals. “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to His creation?” – Joe Nooft

First Reformed is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

First Man:

In First Man’s opening scene, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), prospective astronaut, pilots an aircraft outside of Earth’s atmosphere, 120,000 feet above the earth’s surface. In theaters, the sounds of his ascent are deafening. He grimaces through heavy gravitational forces, fighting to maintain consciousness. Then he plateaus. As he lets out a deep exhale, he peers out through his tiny cockpit windows. Earth is encased in neon blue. Above him is the dark expanse of space. Neil’s world is briefly quiet and magnificent and still. Moments later, his craft bumps off the atmosphere, resulting in quite a bumpy descent. While most would swear or express their awe, Neil doesn’t speak a word. It’s a compelling introduction to the subject of Damien Chazelle’s third feature (all three of which now have occupied a spot in one these “best movies of the year” lists) that establishes the tone and sentiment for the rest of the film.

In the next scene, Neil and his wife (Claire Foy) stand in a dark room, their figures chillingly highlighted by the red glow of machines, and stare helplessly from behind a glass window at their two-year-old daughter receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumor that would take her life. This is how Chazelle paces his biopic: moving quickly through time, weaving together life and death and everything in between. It’s a simulation that mimics both the nostalgia of memory and the sensational anxiety of a future unexplored; a blending of the film’s space and time. It’s perhaps the most meaningful way to display the psyche of an extremely private man.

Gosling’s utilization of nonverbal communication to emotionally broadcast what Neil could never say mostly prevails, but if ever he floated too far away, Claire Foy’s performance as Janet Armstrong was the fastening that yanked him home. Chazelle sets side by side NASA’s early space travel procedures and Neil’s laborious sequestering. Both attempts are carefully and intelligently designed, but prove to be meager and insignificant due to the massive proportion of the tasks at hand. First Man was not made to document a national achievement. That is a part of it, sure, but it’s a much more robust film than just documentation. First Man is an eloquent portrait of an individual’s inner toil, and it’s my favorite film of 2018. – Joe Nooft

First Man is currently playing in theaters.

* * *

Creating a “top films of the year” list is an extremely subjective practice. The process in which the long list above was agreed upon was far from scientific. Personal preference, emotional connection, and critical analysis get thrown into a pot and swirled around a bit and we say, “Hey, we liked these movies a lot.” Below is a list of films we saw that, on any given day, could’ve been included above. But today, they’re our runners-up:

You Were Never Really Here
Game Night
BlacKkKlansman
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The Endless
A Quiet Place
Mandy
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Incredibles 2
Tully
Upgrade
Thoroughbreds
Paddington 2
Hold the Dark
Set It Up
The Kindergarten Teacher

It seems that the powers that be in the film industry still haven’t reached out to Jason and I about our application status to receive free screeners for every film made in 2018. So, naturally, there are quite a few films that we did not get to see last year, due to time and/or availability. Here are the films that we didn’t see, but think could’ve been top spot contenders:

If Beale Street Could Talk
Burning
Shoplifters
The Favourite
Suspiria
Wild Life
Minding the Gap
The Death of Stalin
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Support the Girls
Amazing Grace
Cold War
The Wife