We’re back with the 2nd part of my personal ballot today! Lots of more great stuff to get through, so let’s dive in. Just a quick recap of where I left off yesterday:
AJ’s Nomination Count
6 – First Man (2 Wins) & Black Panther (2 Wins)
3 – If Beale Street Could Talk (2 Wins), Roma
2 – A Quiet Place, Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, Hearts Beat Loud (1 Win), Hereditary (1 Win), Mary Queen of Scots, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
1 – A Star Is Born, Avengers: Infinity War (1 Win), American Animals, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Burning, Eighth Grade, Free Solo, Minding the Gap (1 win) Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Stan & Ollie, Suspiria, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, Uncle Drew
Best Animated Feature Film
- Isle of Dogs – Directed by Wes Anderson
- Mirai – Directed by Mamoru Hosoda
- Ruben Brandt, Collector – Directed by Milorad Krstic* RUNNER UP
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman * WINNER
- Teen Titans Go! to the Movies – Directed by Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail
There was only one true gem of the animated field this year and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was that film. It shook boundaries of animated filmmaking while telling a beautifully intricate story of inclusion. The film features one of the most meta screenplays of the decade without making a big deal of its references. Simultaneously, Miles (Shameik Moore) became an icon overnight. Miles will clearly be the future of a live-action Spider-Man franchise someday after the success here. With the foundations of an entire cinematic universe set up, all while showcasing some of the most gorgeous animation ever created.
However, there were other fun films this year. Reuben Brandt, Collector might be the most interesting exercise in animation. The noir-heist film got very weird, but it also showcases some of the most dazzling visual references to art and film. The Hungarian film stuns at every turn and is nearly as visually inventive as Spider-Verse. Ultimately, it is an extremely fun mystery about a psychologist using his criminal patients to steal some of the best pieces of pop art of the 20th century. How else can I sell it to you?
Teen Titans GO! to the Movies also fell on the meta side of the aisle this year, and it is probably the funniest movie about superhero films ever made. The inclusion of a legitimate soundtrack of original fun songs helps sell the experience. However, it is the kid-friendly jokes, combined with deep cuts of comic book knowledge that make it one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Mirai and Isle of Dogs also take us into Asian art aesthetics, and each does so in their own brilliant ways. Mirai shines as a pseudo-homage to Hayao Miyazaki, but it accomplishes its story on its own terms. It is ultimately a wonderful story about a child who’s parents second child makes him feel forgotten. At the same time, it explores the legacies our families create and how we grow as we get older.
Last but not least, Isle of Dogs features some impeccable stop-motion animation from Wes Anderson. His style has always felt like it would fit in well with animation, and Fantastic Mr. Fox proved that almost a decade ago. His latest foray into the medium told an intricate tale and featured top tier crafts once again. There were some excellent vocal performances as well, especially Jeff Goldblum. While some may have been let down, the film that exists stuns.
Best Foreign Language Film
- Burning directed by Lee Chang-dong *WINNER
- Cold War directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
- The Guilty directed by Gustav Möller
- Roma directed by Alfonso Cuarón
- Shoplifters directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda* RUNNER UP
This year was a landmark year for foreign features. However, my personal favorite was not one of the excellent black and white films that drew a lot of attention. Instead, my personal favorite was Burning, a Hitchcockian thriller featuring three splendid performances. Directed by Lee Chang-dong, the story follows a young writer struggling to make it in South Korea. After he runs into a childhood friend, the two begin a romantic relationship. However, after she goes on a trip to Africa, she returns with a privileged world traveler (played by Steven Yeun). What ensues is a cat and mouse game, emphasis on the cat, that becomes a twisted story about the global millennial generation, the haves and have nots, and breaking out of generational poverty.
Unsurprisingly, the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or winner, Shoplifters was also heartbreaking through and through. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells the story of a family of small-time criminals who find a young girl out on the streets. After they try to feed her, their attempt to return the child is halted when they hear her parents engaged in domestic violence. They choose to keep the girl, and in turn, open themselves up to discovery themselves. However, questions about love and family are quickly answered, then questioned, then answered again. To write a screenplay full of characters with ethical questions, but then shoot the family without judging them for a second, speaks the power of cinema in crafting a unique experience.
The two black and white films are miraculous as well. Roma’s strengths have been well documented, and most of that falls around Alfonso Cuarón’s strengths as a director. However, the heart of the film comes from its two ladies, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. Each of the women have drastically different roles in the film, but sell the events as something grander than a family drama. Beautifully shot, Cuarón makes the 1970s of Mexico City feel tactile.
Meanwhile, Cold War tells a sprawling love story in incredibly efficient time. For an epic tale to grow, have you buy in, and then conclude in under 90 minutes is stunning. Pawel Pawlikowski drew the inspiration from his own parent’s relationship, as well as the obvious ties to Russia and Western Europe. Perhaps the most impeccable thing about the way in which the story is told is how it uses music to shift setting, genre, and time. It begins in traditional folk, and sprints into rock, jazz, blues, and even Cubano swing. It’s pretty stunning how the film navigates each genre, but never loses its focus in the process.
Finally, The Guilty was a stunning dark and sinister story. Another film that works due to its efficiency, the short runtime is juxtaposed with extremely high levels of tension. The story follows a police officer relegated to answer emergency calls. The night before an internal investigation trial into his conduct as an officer, he receives a call from a woman who is in the trunk of her ex-husband’s car. The story unfolds entirely from our protagonist’s side, never leaving his side to show us what has occurred on the other side of the phone. It is a masterful script written by director Gustav Möller and screenwriter Emil Nygaard Albertsen that transcends its location, an impressive for a film that takes place in a singular space.
- Free Solo – Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin * WINNER
- Minding the Gap – Directed by Bing Liu * RUNNER UP
- Shirkers – Directed by Sandi Tan
- Three Identical Strangers – Directed by Tim Wardle
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Directed by Morgan Neville
In 2018, we were treated to the strongest documentary season in years. Each of the five I listed above are in my top 24 films of the year. Without much hesitation, I would put my 6 through 10 documentaries of the year and they would compete for a win. In fact, that lineup would have been Dark Money, RBG, Of Fathers and Sons, Bisbee ’17, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. That lineup was legit better than last year’s nominees. Between 2018 and 2016, we have been spoiled beyond belief.
My top documentary of the year was Free Solo, a singular achievement because of the sheer achievement of its protagonist. Alex Honnold did the impossible. It seems improbable that anyone could scale El Capitan, a 7569-foot wall of solid granite rock. For most climbers, it takes days to finish climbing the wall, which has claimed more than 25 lives. To raise the stakes, Honnold decided to free solo the wall, a climbing technique that leaves the climber without ropes. Directors Jimmy Chin and his partner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi dive into the psyche of a man who would even attempt something so dangerous. Chin’s own experience as a climber was put on display, as they shot Honnold from the side of the mountain. Between the cinematography and sound design, it feels like you are on the mountain with Honnold. No film has ever made me scared of heights like this one did.
A very close second place was Minding the Gap, a 12-year journey for one Bing Liu. The 30-year-old director pieces together years of footage from his life as a skateboarder. As he does, you see his friends grow up, become fathers, get jobs, and struggle to get out of their small town. It is a stunning portrait of poverty in a small town can create impossible boundaries to break from. Yet it is when Liu turns the camera on himself and his friend’s relationships regarding domestic abuse that the film really takes on another level.
So many have expressed love and admiration for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the portrait of the man was beautiful for so many reasons. It features some great moments, but the films goal of reminding us about the small acts of Fred Rogers that made him a hero. It was a film that reminded us that kindness is needed above all else. It was an excellent message for the moment.
Shirkers brings audiences into the world of amateur filmmaking and how the creation of art can change a person. In Shirkers, we follow Sandi Tan as she unravels the mystery of what happened to her lost film from the early 1990s. After being duped by a man, who stole her art work that was meant to be one of the first independent films in Singapore, Tan recovers the film decades later. As she pours over the footage, she examines the methods they used to create the film, and how it pushed her friends down separate paths. At the same time, you lament the loss of a film that had the opportunity to become a classic piece of cinema. It’s a brilliantly crafted film and absolutely hypnotic in its storytelling.
Last, Three Identical Strangers will make you believe the grays are controlling everything. A stunning exploration of the limits of science and study that became exposed through a very human story. There are ethical questions abound in Three Identical Strangers, and the story of these men and their lives makes for a stunning tale. With each reveal and each twist, you go deeper and deeper into conspiracies. Yet the way the film concludes, there is something remarkable and hopeful about parenthood and the ways we develop.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Black Panther – Written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Cole
Burning – Written by Lee Chang-dong & Oh Jungmi
The Death of Stalin – Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Fabien Nury & Peter Fellows
If Beale Street Could Talk – Written by Barry Jenkins * WINNER
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Written by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman* RUNNER UP
Adapting the work of James Baldwin has never been easy. You can tell because the prolific writer and philosopher has only seen two of his works adapted. Yet Barry Jenkins proved to be the perfect filmmaker to take his frustration, rage, and hope into a visual medium. Jenkins imbues the screenplay for If Beale Street Could Talk with love and optimism in ways few would realize Baldwin was capable. Yet Jenkins tells the story in such a way that you never doubt the beauty of Harlem or the hope that exists against all odds. Perhaps most important of all, he brings a stunningly real depiction of incarceration and the psychological toll it creates on the Black communities across the country.
Also, a stunning piece of storytelling, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse succeeds because of the screenplay. Written by Phil Lord and director Rodney Rothman, the story blends in dozens of in-jokes about the Spider-Man franchise. Yet its that very turn that helps the movie succeed, as it shines a light on the absurdity of the Marvel machine. At the same time, it owns that history on its sleeve and shines a light that anyone can become a hero at any time. It is a surprisingly pressing message in today’s world, and that struggle to have the courage to rise from any circumstance is exactly what we need in this moment.
If you’re looking for a purely humorous, dark romp, look out for The Death of Stalin. It will likely remind you of Veep or In the Loop because it was written by several of the same people. In this case, Armando Iannucci takes history to shine a light on the bumbling sycophants that often inhabit politics. It’s also a stark reminder that those idiots do not often remain in power. It’s a stunning piece of humor, but its commentary is seething. The Death of Stalin might be one of the funniest screenplays written in years.
Meanwhile, Ryan Coogler and Joe Cole found a way to blend in much of that political dialogue into a deeply personal story, all while remaining an MCU film through and through. The struggle for finding self-worth should be a struggle that resonates with anyone, even the king of Wakanda. Yet the discussions about imperialism, the dangers of isolationism in a globalized world, and even questions how our actions around the globe create our own enemies and monsters are stunning brought to life. Most will only look at the monologues of Killmonger, which are riddled with dangerous ideologies of someone committed to a false world view. Yet the interpersonal discussions between Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) reveal that political stances are not limited to our villains.
Last, the deeply unsettling Burning crafts a thrilling story of danger and death. The story within the story, within a framing device, helps bring the creepy tale to life. For every person who watches Killmonger and shudders, I guarantee that Steven Yeun would chill you to the bone. His monologues and discussions are frightening to behold. The allusions to William Faulkner feel at home in the story as well. It’s an impressively dark screenplay that makes the Hitchcock and Fincher comparisons apt.
Best Original Screenplay
Blindspotting – Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs
Cold War – Written by Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, & Piotr Borkowski
Eighth Grade – Written by Bo Burnham* WINNER
The Favourite – Written by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara
Hereditary – Written by Ari Aster* RUNNER UP
When I saw the film back in April of 2018, Eighth Grade seemed better than I could have imagined. It was an emotionally sincere portrait of a young girl living in the age of social media and its face, we’ve seen several films like this is recent history. However, it is the heart and sympathy that Bo Burnham feels for his protagonist that turns Eighth Grade into a uniquely beautiful story with heart to spare. The way in which Burnham constructs a young girl, seeking acceptance at every turn, felt more real to me than any movie I’ve watched in years.
Even with that high bar, a horror film Hereditary came close to achieving the same thing. The way in which Ari Aster tells his story of grief and how grief can become resentment felt like a window into a world we should never have looked into. Yet the creepy and dark world brings out a family drama so intense, the movie bears more commonalities to Ordinary People or Manchester By the Sea than any other film. It sets up the fall for our characters, and while the last act turns into more of traditional horror, what comes before created one of the best horror films of the decade.
If you’re looking for comedy, it is tough to ignore The Favourite. The blend between Mean Girls and Amadeus might actually be one of the great acting showcases of the year. It gives everyone in its cast some standout moments but never forgets that the three ladies at the center of it all are key. The relationships never feel cartoony, but instead, build layered connections worthy of examination. It’s excellent writing, and it’s willingness to get weird only adds to the accomplishment.
One of the most creative introspections of someone’s hometown came in the form Blindspotting. The film was birthed from Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’ longtime friendship and gives each some standout moments. It gets a little uneven at times, but the heart of their issues as lifelong friends provide the foundation for some very serious introspection. The two look hard at their hometown of Oakland. They also examine a version of separation anxiety and the nature of friends who could potentially hold each other back. You can tell that only these two friends could have created this story the way they did.
Last, it was impossible to ignore Cold War and the personal story that unfolds. The story of two star-crossed lovers resembles La La Land at times, but mostly just tears your heart out time and time again. Efficiently told despite being a sprawling epic, Cold War lets its characters communicate through open and honest dialogue. That makes for heated moments, but also some wonderfully executed dramatic fights. While music represents one medium for the communication to occur, the two lovers present problems for each other time and time again. It is a heartfelt and broken story that excels in distancing itself from traditional romance storytelling.
AJ’s Nomination Count
7- Black Panther (2 Wins)
6 – First Man (2 Wins)
4- If Beale Street Could Talk (3 Wins), Roma
3 – Burning (1 Win), The Favourite, Hereditary (1 Win), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (1 Win),
2 – A Quiet Place, Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, Cold War, Eighth Grade (1 Win), Free Solo (1 Win), Hearts Beat Loud (1 Win), Mary Queen of Scots, Minding the Gap (1 win), Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies,
1 – A Star Is Born, Avengers: Infinity War (1 Win), American Animals, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blindspotting, The Death of Stalin, The Guilty, Isle of Dogs, Mirai, Ruben Brandt Collector, Shirkers, Shoplifters, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Stan & Ollie, Suspiria, Three Identical Strangers, Uncle Drew, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?