“Why the hell do i need to read yet another year end movie list when its already a week into January?”, you’re probably thinking.
Trust me, I’m thinking the same thing as I write this, but if this is the calling then I must answer. My mission to explore and share the love of cinema has not changed. Nor have the obstacles along my path. All I know is, as long as creepers and charlatans hold clout in the realm of film criticism, I’ll be right here grinding forward, onward, upward. I cant remember a time when the world wasn’t in chaos, but that’s not going to stop me from cultivating an ideal and from having a good time in the process. Alright, enough rambling. You already know which movies are the “best” of the year or know what you wanna see, so Imma share some ill shit with you that I saw in 2018 that you might get kick out of. Excelsior!
Most Gangster Ass Movie of the Year
This year has prompted me to create a whole new award category, for we have been blessed with a multitude of Gangster Ass movies. Den of Thieves is a modern heist yarn that pulls from a great wealth of iconic films such as Heat and The Usual Suspects, but somehow becomes greater than the sum of its borrowed parts. I was intrigued by Pablo Schreiber’s Ray Merrimen, a dark mirror to Heat‘s Vincent Hanna; both decorated Marine veterans consumed by their profession. Ray is relentless, like a shark on a course towards its own demise, a testament to how the words “thank you for your service” ring hollow when our nation disregards the lost humanity of those pushed to the brink in combat. Also of note is Gerard Butler’s “Big” Nick, a mishmash of broken cop tropes who updates the template with his militaristic crude machismo that, sadly, reflects the ills of modern police militarization.
We also got a great new entry in the tried & true Japanese Yakuza genre with Blood Of Wolves. This film is another awesome gritty epic from the director of Twisted Justice, a dramatized biopic about a corrupt anti-narcotics/gun-trafficking cop who was embroiled in one of the most notorious police scandals in Japanese history. This new fictional film also deftly explores the chaos that erupts when the lines between gangsters and cops is blurred. Speaking of Yakuza films, I was surprised to find that the Taraji P. Henson vehicle Proud Mary is essentially what happens when you try to make a melodramatic Yakuza movie with an all black cast set in Maryland. However, because of the expectations and conventions of western crime dramas, those eastern Yakuza dramatic beats found in Proud Mary feels stilted and lackluster. I’d be very curious to how a Japanese remake of this would look.
As far as actual remakes go, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Superfly, a ridiculous romp that still had some serious shit on its mind. An update of the venerated Blaxploitation classic, the end result is only a marginally improved version of Belly, full of Gun-Fu and hip-hop video aesthetics, though I still reveled in the excess nonetheless. Scoff at Superfly if you must, but know this: during the big car chase, the hero Priest outmaneuvers the bad guy, causing him to crash into a Civil War Confederate monument, the ensuing explosion knocking the statue down to the ground. In other more serious gangster happenings featuring an all black cast, I highly recommend Five Fingers For Marseilles. A classically tailored western set in South Africa featuring pristine cinematography, Five Fingers tells the tragic tale of childhood friends torn asunder by tragedy, reunited by the undying specters of violent crime, colonialism, and tribal conflict. This is one for the ages, don’t miss it.
There were some very interesting additions to the cannon of Film Noir this year, adding their own unique touches to the genre. Hotel Artemis was poorly received by audiences and critics, but that may have partly been due to poor advertising which touted it as a high octane John Wick knock off. In reality, it’s an old school slow burn pulp noir wherein odd characters get to bounce off one another while the occasional skulls get bounced onto concrete. An acquired taste, but one worth sampling. One of the more fascinating creations that took even more people by surprise was Game Night. If David Fincher directed an ensemble comedy produced by Paul Feig, this would likely be the result and man, does it kill. A potent mixture of quick witted relationship comedy, hardcore murder-mystery thriller, and meta-textual love for cinematic lore, Game Night is a true crowd pleaser. Speaking of Paul Feig, perhaps the greatest surprise of all in the gangster ass movie spectrum was his new film A Simple Favor. This is a true evolution of noir that places the tropes of the genre into an entirely new and unexpected context. A Simple Favor feels like if a housewife saw/read Crazy Rich Asians and Gone Girl then decided to make a super horny character mashup fan-fiction, but that’s not an insult in the slightest to any of those elements. Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively both display career highlight masterful work. A Simple Favor is legit.
The year was ceremoniously capped off by what I felt was not only the Most Gangster Ass Movie of the year, but simply one of the best. Widows is a tour de force featuring a fantastic ensemble cast, stunning direction, and a sharp screenplay where themes of racism, class warfare, and misogyny all perfectly intertwine into a gripping heist drama. In all its seriousness and gravity, Widows is also a fist pumping pulpy melodrama when it really lets itself loose; it’s basically a more grounded remake of The A-Team when its not being an incisive social commentary. Widows is a real winner, but any of the aforementioned films will be worth your time. And if you don’t agree? Well, we can debate it in the comments like we got some class, or you can meet me on the corner of East Tremont and Southern Boulevard and we can get into some gangster shit.
Best Cinematic Ass Whooping
Ahhhhh yes, the mighty award category has returned once again, and this year has brought us a blessed bounty of beatdowns, headbussins, and phantasmagorical fisticuffs. The nominees:
Avengers: Infinity War- Golden Gloves
Mission Impossible Fallout- Pray to the Porcelain God Of War
Buy Bust- Streets of Rage
The Night Comes For Us- Let’s Hoof It
Equalizer 2- World-Star Lyft Rating
A Prayer Before Dawn- Assholes & Elbows
Deadpool 2- Hyper Combo Finish
Upgrade- Dissociative Identity Marauder
Unstoppable- Skulldrag Me To Hell
The Indonesian masters of mayhem Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim have returned in the new film The Night Comes for Us. My initial speechless reaction emphasizes the fact this is simply one of the most violent movies you will ever see in your natural life. There is simply too much ass kicking in this film to single out, but the weaponization of a cow hoof deserves special mention; you gotta see it to believe it. Buy Bust has been billed as the Filipino answer to The Raid, and that comparison is apt in the best of ways. Buy Bust is truly merciless in its brutality, which makes for an uncanny experience when the joyful blood lust of a full bore martial arts flicks gives way to the sober realization that you are watching a scathing critique on failed drug wars by a police state and the damage it incurs.
My man Uncle Denzel came back in full force with Equalizer 2, laying the smack down and imparting valuable life lessons to the youth in equal measure. You can see the details of why I enjoyed this movie so much in my review, but the biggest takeaway is that the bone-crunching ass whoopings Robert McCall dispenses wouldn’t be as impactful without the sincerity of the caring hand he extends to those in need. In other tales of older gentlemen laying the smackdown on young thugs, we have the delightful Unstoppable starring Korean superstar Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee. My man is straight up beast mode when it comes to knocking people out on screen, though he also has high level acting chops as well. This comes in handy in Unstoppable, because what I thought would be a straightforward dad-action movie like Taken actually varies much more in its tone & genre. The first act feels like a conventional domestic drama, then it becomes part gangster flick, part slapstick comedy. Its a wild ride capped off with some fantastic final act fisticuffs.
A Prayer Before Dawn is based on the true story of Billy Moore, a young English boxer incarcerated in two of Thailand’s most notorious prisons. I was skeptical about another “white man in a foreign land” story, but A Prayer Before Dawn won me over in the end. It leans pretty hard into the grimy gangster prison shit, with a high gloss Canal+/Euro-arthouse sheen that feels overly voyeuristic. However, it becomes a more “pure” boxing/fighting movie in the end, successfully conveying the chaos & clarity in the hearts and minds of those driven to fight. On the opposite end of super serious art house drama is the silly ass superhero farce Deadpool 2. The surprising charm and heart of the first movie is slightly lacking in the sequel, but everyone seemed to be putting their all into the comic book nonsense to great effect, with special honors to Zazzie Beats for her outstanding turn as the mutant assassin Domino; home girl could lead her own spinoff with ease. The final battle is a great mix of super-powered CGI madness and down and dirty fight choreography, and I appreciated every moment. That mix of Sci-Fi flourish with grounded intensity was also present in the small scale throwback thriller Upgrade. I didn’t care for the movie overall, but credit where it’s due to the craft on display in the gory fight scenes that won’t be soon forgotten.
And now for the two heavyweight contenders. In the red corner we have The Mad Titan, Thanos, administering an absolutely savage beating to The Incredible Hulk in Avengers: Infinity War. The phenomenal fight skill on display full of combos, counters, and clenches instantly announced that Thanos was on a whole other level of Super Villainy. In the blue corner, we have the absolutely sensational beatdown by “Mr. Lark” against our heroes Ethan Hunt and The Man From U.N.C.L.E in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. You may not know it, but the spectacular martial arts performer and choreographer Liang Yang has actually been part of some of your recent favorite cinematic ass whoopings, famously as FN-2199 (aka “TR-8R”) in The Force Awakens and as one of the deadly Praetorian Guards in The Last Jedi. Tom Cruise famously tortures himself in the M:I series, but this bathroom headstomping looks like it was a whole new world of pain. In the end, both fight scenes are terrific, so I’m gonna call this match a tie!! And if you don’t agree? Well, you can come meet me at the Next Level in Brooklyn and we can duel with them digital Marvel Vs. Capcom hands!
Black & Blue: Police Racial Violence on Screen
This year showcased a multitude of films that directly tackle the issue of police brutality and institutional racism in America. BlacKKKlansman was the latest burst of righteous fury form the firebrand auteur Spike Lee, the film based on the real life account of an African American police officer who went undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan with the help of a white partner as front man. Though dramatic license and embellishments abound, the overall story conveys the insanity of our reality dealing with the grass roots ignorance that plagues our society and the political leaders who legitimize hatred. John David Washington also played lead in another film about a black cop fighting institutional racism, but with a far more grounded tone. Monsters and Men contains an incredible ensemble cast dealing with the aftermath of a police shooting of an unarmed man through multiple perspectives, loosely based on the real life murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. Though its solemnity reflects its serious subject matter, I couldn’t help but feel like it was needlessly dour, compared to the fervor of Spike Lee’s aforementioned work. In truth, the most compelling fictional narrative I saw this year featuring a black cop was the experimental independent film aptly titled Black Cop. It feels less like a feature film than it does a criminal justice/sociology thesis paper made into a movie. That may sound off-putting, but its twist of having an unhinged black police officer go on a violent rampage against white people was far more provocative to me and my fellow writers than seeing yet another dead black body on screen.
The fantastic film Blindspotting comes at the problem of racism in our modern lives through multiple angles, intelligently analyzing the links between cultural appropriation, gentrification, and institutional violence. Another great film that also used Oakland as its backdrop this year was Sorry To Bother You, an absurdist fable that uses a heightened reality to discuss hard truths about the real world. Sorry To Bother You aims for a more macro-level critique on capitalism run amok, but centers it on the struggle of a young black man fighting against racist stereotypes and how systems of racial and economic exploitation all work together to maintain the status quo. There Sorry To Bother You has comparatively few moments of violence, but the visual language of protests met by police force is loud and clear. Protest against police violence is a central aspect of the film The Hate U Give, an adaptation of a best selling novel about a young black girl who becomes a central figure within a divided community in the wake of a police shooting. It is refreshing to see a young female be the lead in stories about activism and community service, and the film had several incisive points about how the discourse of police brutality is fraught with difficulty. Unfortunately, the conceit of the main villain being a black drug dealer in a story about police violence rang hollow for many viewers and critics alike.
While I was glad to have mainstream movies unafraid to address a serious social issue, the god’s honest truth is that the high volume of police brutality I saw on screen in such rapid succession began to really mess with my head. The constant deluge of black death by white hands is its own form of psychic trauma that compounds whatever experiences one has had in real life. I do not speak of such things lightly: I have not been diagnosed with PTSD, but the amount of bloodshed I’ve witnessed surviving the streets of NYC and multiple combat deployments in my 12 years of military serviced have irrevocably altered my mind. Again, it’s good to have this issue in the modern discourse of film, but I also owe myself the ability to bow out of the conversation for my own well being.
Return of the Living Dead
Having this intimately delicate relationship with death, I have found myself becoming more and more amenable to the horror genre. What I once saw as laughable and ridiculous now feels like a new tool at my disposal to help process my experiences in reality. I find myself enjoying monster movies and slasher flicks in a way I hadn’t before. I was particularity pleased by a few new zombie films that came out this year which really added some new elements to the genre. Overlord was a solid, nasty, hard hitting monster/military mashup. In one sense, the film is basically a retooled and improved iteration of the 2005 video game movie Doom…which is to say, it’s also the best unofficial Wolfenstein movie adaptation. Overlord wasn’t historically accurate (desegregated soldiers in WWII, not just zombies), but the main character’s Hatian/Creole background which allowed him to speak French to villagers was a great detail that enriched otherwise stock characters, while also being a subtle nod to the origins of zombie lore. Jumping even further back in time, we have the slasher adventure Rampant, set during the medieval Korean era in which an empire comes under siege by hordes of the undead. Rampant deftly mixes imperial political drama and martial swordplay with blood curdling zombie/vampire terror, while also serving as an allegory about corruption infecting the people of a nation and the responsibility of leaders & rulers to serve the populace. The third take on zombie lore I saw in 2018 might be my favorite. One Cut Of The Dead takes what would otherwise be a cheap gimmick and spins it into one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. It’s actually quite difficult to discuss without spoilers so I’ll say this: the single take horror feature within the first 30+ minutes of the movie is a truly impressive and adequately intense feat. What follows afterwards ends up being one of the most endearing love letters to film making in recent memory. Try to go in as cold as possible and stick with it once you do, it will be well worth the effort.
Alright, I got all the big topics I wanted to speak on out of the way so lets talk about some other shit I saw in 2018!
Best Hurricane Heist Movie
If you enjoy any of the Fast & Furious franchise entries in the slightest, you will enjoy Hurricane Heist in some form or fashion. A ridiculous action romp straight out of the 90’s that features hubcap homicide, a weatherman Batmobile, and a sentient hurricane as the manifestation of death and grieving. So stupid it’s kinda brilliant. On the other side of the world we have the bloody & grimy Hong King action flick The Brink, about a renegade cop battling a ruthless gold smuggler on the high seas. Max Zhang/Zhang Jin is one of the newer martial arts phenoms from the region and he does spectacular work. The film is a steady crime thriller that culminates in an amazing 2-on-1 Kung Fu battle in the middle of a raging tsunami. If you’re looking for some outrageous action fodder to kick back and down a few beers with friends over, either film will serve you well, so they both win!
Best Literary Heist Movie
Can You Ever Forgive Me is a misanthropic failed writer LGBTQ version of a Gangster Ass Movie featuring one of Melissa McCarthy’s best roles thus far in her career. The film is based on the true story of Lee Israel, a struggling biographer who became notorious for forging letters under the guise of famous Hollywood celebrities, eventually prompting her to steal real ones. The longing and sadness of McCarthy’s Israel is palpable, as is her frustration. Along with a standout supporting performance by Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me is a hidden gem in a mountain of big budget releases worth seeking out. Also out this year was American Animals, another film based on the true story of another famous literary crime. In this movie, we see the story of four suburban college students who stole a collection of rare books from a Kentucky university in 2007. American Animals takes a more unorthodox approach to its narrative, using interview footage of the real life culprits and their associates, then interspersing it with the fictionalized reenactment of the heist. This device might be too gimmicky for some, but the story is nonetheless a fascinating screed on a particular type of American idiocy. Whichever movie you choose, they are both interesting looks into history that you likely may not have heard of, so they both win!
Best Superhero Movie Not Full of White People
Black Panther was lit, even with a few nagging issues that seem to be a common occurrence with the MCU as a whole. The film’s status as a pop cultural benchmark is undeniable, it’s Afro-Futurist slant enrapturing audiences the world over. Even though my man T’challa is currently… indisposed after the events of Infinity War, I look forward to his further adventures in the inevitable sequels. Whereas Black Panther was a billion dollar phenomenon, one superhero movie that has gone sadly overlooked is the Japanese film Inuyashiki. The film is a live action adaptation of a popular manga about two strangers who one day receive superhuman cybernetic abilities due to a perilous alien encounter. Inuysahiki is a clever superhero origin tale that plays with the tropes of shonen manga and Western comic book fiction alike. The film brings to mind superhero films such as Chronicle and Man of Steel, where the danger involved in a theoretical clash between superhumans is made deathly real. No matter which movie you chose to see, the important thing is that they are both representations of big budget adventure which prove that the white male status quo of superhero fiction need not be the norm. They are both winners!
Best Animated Superhero Movie with the Best
Stan Lee Cameo
Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a straight up revelation. The movie played to me like a combination of Black Panther and Creed, and I was not ready for the gut punch of emotion it elicited combined with the groundbreaking visual splendor it displayed. A tribute to the iconic lore of Spider-Man that also celebrates the idea that anyone can be a hero, this is simply a monumental achievement. That all said, I think that many people may have overlooked the not so subtle brilliance of Teen Titans GO! To The Movies. No, I’m not yankin’ your crank. The Teen Titans motion picture debut shows its deep love for superhero legacy in its own way: by absolutely lambasting the conventions of comic book movies in ways that Deadpool could only dream of and on a level that even diehard fans of the venerated Watchmen ought to appreciate. Teen Titans GO! is as much a stupid kids comedy full of toilet humor as it is a razor sharp satire, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The legendary comic book creator Stan Lee sadly passed away this year, but not before leaving us with two final cinematic expressions of love and unbridled joy, and he couldn’t have attached them to better movies. They both win!
We speak of Roma in 70mm or Mission: Impossible – Fallout in IMAX, but we have all collectively failed by not seeing Alpha in theaters at all. The story of the “first” Boy & His Dog by an OG director, this movie is at times exquisitely beautiful. Alpha is surprisingly hardcore while still having a tender story of friendship and compassion at its core. Elsewhere we have SGT Stubby: An American Hero, a fun CGI tale based on the real life Army war dog Stubby, who received many honors for meritorious service on the western front of WWI. SGT Stubby is full of light-hearted adventure that will serve as a great starting point for teaching a young child about the concept of war and is suitable for all ages. And truth be told, spending time with SGT Stubby provided me with a moment of relief and catharsis that was as potent as any serious adult drama. They’re both Very Good Dogs, so they both win!
Alright so in the interest of full disclosure I haven’t seen Paddington 2 yet, and honestly I dont really feel like it. Why the fuck should I anyways when the Skull Bear of Abject Terror & Torment from Annihilation already haunts my dreams and nightmares? I know all these other critics out here on that “Paddington is the love we need in these harsh times” tip, but I really can’t relate. It’s too wild out here to be turning your cheek to enemies that want you eradicated, and my man MurderBear is the gonna be the totem of the year of “say it to my face”. You gotta protect ya kneck out here, you feel me? However… I suppose I should at least heed the words of the venerable Mr. Rogers and try and be a good neighbor. So be it; both bears win!
Best Film of the Year
So, which film takes the top prize for this year? The haunting Korean drama Burning feels like it has etched itself into my very soul, prompting a reaction that was beyond simple intelligible assessment. The same could be said for the overwhelmingly beautiful If Beale Street Could Talk that reflected my black life and black love born and raised in New York back at me, the spirit of James Baldwin transcending time for a grateful audience. The much lauded Roma is just as beautiful, a dreamlike slice of life drama by Alfonso Cuarón that resonated with my wife, who herself spent years tending to the children of affluent families during a rough period of her life.
For a bit of weighty whimsy, The Death of Stalin is one of the most hilarious and potent black comedies I’ve ever seen that really nails the gallows humor needed to fully comprehend the levels of stupidity within the highest echelons of any government. Just the same, the ribaldry of The Favourite underscores the gravity of what’s at stake in the dangerous game of politics, for never have I ever seen a film with such brilliant, erudite, domineering, formidable women in power be such Stone Cold Bitches to each other.
The underappreciated Leave No Trace shows how the weight of trauma and suffering has a gravity that pulls in the ones you love. The film explores this phenomenon remarkably, while also exploring a modern slice of Americana seldom seen. On the same token, First Reformed plumbs the depths of sadness and debilitating depression that occurs with trauma born of conflict, domestic turmoil, and the greater sense of overwhelming dread in these chaotic times. On the other end of that same spectrum, the remarkable film The Rider embraces healing, unafraid to show vulnerable masculinity. There is an unparalleled honesty to the film thanks its Lakota non-actors playing reflections of their real world selves.
So where does that leave us? They’re all great, they all win! Don’t limit yourself, see them all. See everything you can. Go out of your way to see a movie that would never normally be on your radar. Listen to trusted academics talk about the smartest movies they know but also listen to your friends talk about the dumbest movies you can think of, all with equal attention. You never know how your life will change. Love is crazy like that, so you just gotta jump in. Enjoy all these movies and many for, for 2018, 2019, and beyond!
Except for Green Book. Fuck that movie.